Sustained Outrage

Metro government: How Brooks McCabe envisions it

Sen. Brooks McCabe has been praised and pilloried on this blog, in the paper and elsewhere for pushing consideration of metro government. We asked McCabe to spell out how he envisions metro government in Kanawha County in as much detail as possible. Here’s what he came up with:

What Is Metro Government, An Example

By Brooks F. McCabe, Jr.

As we discuss the prospect of metro government with Charleston and Kanawha County, certain questions continually arise.  What is the plan?  What does it mean to me?  What are the benefits for the community?  Is it worth the cost?  Trying to answer these questions, even at this mccabe_brooks.jpgearly stage in the process, can be helpful to frame the discussion.

The plan for metro government will be finalized in a proposed charter which will be voted on by the residents of Charleston and Kanawha County.  To pass, it needs a majority vote by those voting within the Charleston city limits and by those outside of the city limits, whether as part of another municipality or from the unincorporated areas of the county.

The initial plan should be as simple as possible, and designed to garner the most support.  As an example, consolidated services could start with what is already in place.

This would include city-county emergency medical services, health department, and  housing authority.  As suggested by County Commissioner David Hardy, other logical services could be parks and recreation, planning and development, and purchasing.  More complicated services such as the Sherriff’s Office and Charleston Police Department could be included later.  This approach allows some services to be consolidated initially and others to be addressed later.  Trying to do everything at once can be difficult and is not necessary.  One can easily see that a common purchasing plan makes sense.  There is no need for two computers, two different software systems, and two separate staffs performing essentially the same function.  The services not consolidated would continue to operate as they are now until such time, as merging or consolidating the services makes sense administratively, financially, and politically.  City Hall, the Court House, and the Court House Annex would all still be serving the public, although some departments may be consolidated in one building or another.

A new governance structure could dramatically expand representation around the county.  Currently, the Charleston City Council has 27 members and the County Commission has 3.  All of the City Council Members are elected within the city boundary, either by ward or at large.  The County Commissioners are elected by district, but all three districts intersect within the City of Charleston.  As such, the majority of the County Commissioners have been historically residents of Charleston.  A Metro Government Council would be electing its members from around the county, presumably based on population.  Charleston has approximately 50,000 in population while Kanawha County is just short of 200,000. That would imply that approximately 75% of the council members elected by district would come from outside the Charleston city limits.  Presumably there would be some council members elected at large, i.e., county-wide, and the metro mayor would be the same.  The metro council size needs to be determined, but the number of 25 to 30 has been discussed, so it would be of similar size to the current city council and county commission.

This governance structure should dramatically improve the representation from around the county.  As an example, South Charleston, St. Albans, and Dunbar could elect a representative on the metro council.  Marmet-Cheasapeake-Lens Creek, Cedar Grove-Glasgow-Kelly’s Creek, and Hansford-Pratt-Paint Creek could be represented on the council.  In addition, Cross Lanes and Sissonville-Elkview could have representation.  The specific districts would need to be created from a careful analysis of where people live in the county.  The point being that places like Nitro and Chelyan-Cabin Creek could be electing someone to voice their interest and concerns.

Just as important, would be the fact the metro-mayor would be elected county-wide.  No longer would the mayor be solely focused on the affairs of Charleston proper.  With the vote comes accountability. So the Metro Mayor would need to work with everyone in the county, whether a resident of Charleston, South Charleston, or Cross Lanes.

The Metro Governing Council would be overseeing a budget for Charleston, as well as the rest of the county.  Presumably there would be three levels of service for county residents.  The highest level of services would be within Charleston city limits, because of its tax base and user fees.  The next level of service would be at the independent municipality level.  This is outside of the purview of the metro council unless the municipalities would choose to contract services. This is a real possibility for the smaller municipalities.  A city like South Charleston may continue to be completely self contained and not avail itself to metro services for which it is capable of handling itself, exceptions being EMS, Health Department, and Housing Authority services.  The lowest level of services would be found in the unincorporated areas.  This makes sense because many residents consciously choose less government and lower taxes as a trade-off for less service.

The current City of Charleston budget approaches twice that of the County Commission’s budget.  This means that the City of Charleston would raise approximately two-thirds of the metro budget, yet have only one quarter of the population.  This disparity would necessitate a separate budget for Charleston proper, and require those elected from districts within the city limits, along with perhaps at-large metro council members, to be responsible for the funds raised and expended within current municipal boundaries.  This would help keep accountability aligned with both the source of funding and its use.  At the same time, the City of Charleston’s legacy costs, whether they be police and fire pension obligations or EPA mandated storm sewer improvements, would be kept within current city boundaries.  Metro government is not about transferring unfunded liabilities to unincorporated areas, nor is it about those same areas receiving services essentially paid for by the Charleston tax base.  Rather it is about working together, sharing services where it makes sense and not where it doesn’t.

If this metro government is properly conceived and well executed, it can help the other municipalities in the county better manage the services their residents expect and do so in a cost effective manner.  Over time, more and more metro services might be available for the other municipalities.  If those services make sense to the municipalities, they can contract for them.  Likewise, if they do not, the municipalities would continue providing such services themselves to their residents.  The choice is with the municipalities.

The metro government should have no real impact on the existing municipalities unless the municipalities choose.  The municipalities continue to elect their mayors, other officials, and council members.  Their tax base is unchanged, as are their ordinances and services. The municipalities would be counted within the metro government population.  It should be a win-win relationship.  Local identity and control stay in place while the metro government assembles an array of services and programs that may be helpful to those very same municipalities.

So what is the metro government plan?  The Charter Review Committee, when established, will help finalize the plan for consolidated services and governance.  It will depend on the dictates of the City of Charleston, the County of Kanawha, the other municipalities in the county, and the unincorporated areas of the county.  It will not include new taxes, fire service districts, or public service districts as they are precluded by the enabling legislation.  It may well work as described above with appropriate additions and deletions.  Two things are for sure – it will not be a surprise, as at least three public hearings are required. It will have strong, broad-based support, or it will not to go to voters.  Neither the City of Charleston nor the County will approve a draft charter for vote unless it is well conceived with broad-based support.

What does metro government do for the residents and the community at-large?  It puts in place a unified city-county government capable of meeting the needs of the future without the competing voices of Charleston and Kanawha County.  The voice becomes one for the benefit of everyone.  For those living in the smaller municipalities, it provides an alternative source of cost effective services that may ultimately mean the very survival of some smaller municipalities.  It makes the governing body more responsive and dramatically improves the diversity of representation. It provides a larger base to pursue economic development opportunities.  By creating a “can do” attribute among the community and civic leadership, goals are elevated, and more opportunities for growth and development can aggressively be pursued.  City-county consolidated governments have consistently out performed other cities of comparable size.

Lastly, what is the cost of metro government?  The costs of the unit of service delivered should go down as metro government is implemented.  That means the cost to process a purchase order goes down.  The cost of providing planning and development services to the metro area goes down because you have a unified organization, thereby avoiding both a city and county planning commission.  The cost effectiveness of the current unified EMS is a case in point.  Each municipality and the county as a whole receives these consolidated services at less cost than if each provided it on their own.  Metro government is often called “big government” by it’s skeptics.  In reality, multiple service delivery systems by each municipality and the county are where many excess costs are located.  Metro government, properly implemented, is where real cost savings can be found.

Metro government is not a panacea.  It is not for every county and its principle city.  However, when the elected leadership is so inclined to work together to solve problems and create opportunities, metro government can be a viable alternative.  Charleston and Kanawha County, as well as the other county municipalities are extremely fortunate to have such leadership.  Looking more closely at metro government may help Charleston and Kanawha County create a future for our children in which we can be proud.