The following article is an opinion piece and reflects the views of only the author and not those of AllOnGeorgia.
It’s that time of the year again. In most rural areas of the state, cities and counties are evaluating their budget proposals for the next year as citizens brace themselves for the possibility of yet another property tax increase.
In this area of the state – southeast Georgia – it isn’t uncommon to have half the county on the wagon for handouts. A number of counties use tax dollars to prop up their struggling hospital. Commissioners have tacked on mills in the property tax bill to dedicate funding to hospital bailouts, while directing money to various authorities charged with improving downtowns and spurring economic development. They’re the co-signer on the multi-million dollar, multi-year bond for the local Board of Education and must plan increase taxes on their end should the Board default. Cash donations are made to the local Chamber of Commerce, they sponsor the annual parade, the Easter Egg Hunt, and the Christmas with Santa event.
For all intents and purposes, the county coffer is the community coin purse as everyone grabs a corner of the life raft that has steadily been deflating for decades.
All of this while counties struggle to pay competitive wages for their own employees, plead and pray to retain seasoned staff, and barely fund state mandates as costs for insurance, retirement, and life in general only inch up every year. And don’t forget that most of the tax bases are shrinking and SPLOST funds can only pay for so much.
It’s been a slow bleed that has sparked conversation each election cycle but has yet to make a treatment plan a reality. Rural counties instead use whatever crutch is within arm’s reach that year, carrying only hope and hard work into the next fiscal year. Proverbs 31:25 could be inscribed on the annex doors (if that was allowed, of course) in honor of the faithful county employees who use creativity and Jesus to make expenditures equal to revenues. Many counties are one unforeseen crisis from dissolution.
The “simple” and “quick” proposal has always been the idea of consolidation of small counties. After all, Georgia has the second highest number of counties in the nation and we are Constitutionally-limited on having MORE than 159, not fewer. Proponents say it would mean ‘less’ government and a more efficient government, though I have yet to see proof that such would be the case. Sheer size of counties across our state has not equated to better governance and quality representation. (See also: Fulton, Gwinnett, and Cobb counties) But there’s another element.
The number of counties in Georgia was used to the advantage of the outlying areas in 1917 – and informally long before – based on the concept similar to that of the electoral college, so as to ensure that population-dense areas didn’t rule the roost. All 159 counties were classified according to population into categories: urban, town, and rural. Urban counties were the 8 most populous; town counties were the next 30 in population size; and rural counties constituted the remaining 121. Based upon this classification, each county received unit votes in statewide primaries. The urban counties received six unit votes each, the town counties received four unit votes each, and the rural counties received two unit votes each.
The system was ultimately struck down by the Supreme Court for violating the “one man, one vote” premise and has since evolved, but sheer numbers still tilt in favor of rural counties, not metro ones, when it comes to lawmakers, legislative proposals, and implementation of policy. In my personal opinion, consolidation of counties would only accelerate the demise of rural Georgia.
We also can’t continue to rely on state lawmakers. They’re the Hillary to our Benghazi. They’re not coming — at least not in a time frame soon enough that will adequately impact rural counties in the next several fiscal years.
It’s not without a thoughtful effort. The initiatives and ideas are there, but struggle to transition from concept to reality. Just this year, legislators failed to pass meaningful Certificate of Need overhauls and the extent of the broadband initiatives was limited to pole attachments, access for EMCs to enter the market, and right of way usage in some underserved areas. Any good idea they may muster that isn’t plagued with unintended consequences is otherwise bogged down in the slowness of ‘that’s how pork is made’ and simply won’t be trickling down fast enough. Rural counties are on their own.
So, what is there to do instead?
Rural counties need to be selfish. They have to start knocking things (and people) off the boat. They have to have difficult conversations that prioritize their preservation over the preservations of others.
First and foremost, the handouts have to stop. Commissioners and administrators should stop appropriating funds to programs that aren’t imperative to the survival of the county and appropriate only the minimum for those that are required. Is it a constitutional obligation? Fund it. Is it a duty outline by a state statute, the county charter, or local ordinance? Fund it. Do you have the people in place to carry out the duties of the previous question? Super. If there is money left over after that, then a conversation can be had about additional services that could be offered or that can’t – wait for it – bring in revenue.
If it isn’t a governmental duty, if it isn’t required by law, or if it isn’t at least self-sustaining, stop doing it.
It usually isn’t ill-intentioned for a county government to over-appropriate, or to donate, or to help for a cause the county has identified as valuable, but the taxpayers shouldn’t suffer on the services side simply so other entities can be better off. The county is charged with funding county expenditures. Full stop. Moreover, what is often forgotten in the arguments over funding for the rec department, the health department, the Chamber, the airport authority, the hospital, the cancer awareness organization, and the development authority is that funding is contingent upon the survival of the county. Would each entity constantly asking for more money be better off with less…or with none?
Second, counties have know their limits. A life in rural Georgia comes with fewer government services. There is always room for growth, but that growth must come as finances allow, not merely because there is a desire to be competitive with another county or area of the state. Perhaps a new building isn’t necessary. Maybe your authorities just need volunteer workers instead of 40-hours/week + benefits. It’s possible that it’s cheaper to house jail inmates elsewhere instead of at home. And no, it may not be a good time to build that amphitheatre.
But elected officials have a responsibility to keep their own expectations –and those of their constituents — in check while being honest about the cost of providing services. In a lot of these areas, the revenue streams match that of the early 2000s. A greater legacy than new buildings and a vibrant technology corridor is an adequate reserve fund and a five-year plan. Of course, neither of those come with a plaque enshrined on the wall.
It’s admirable that there’s a community belief that we’re all on these proverbial ships together and everything should be for the greater good. But the only way that works is if everyone is paying their own way. If the goal is preservation of community, there has to be an element of preservation of self. The idea that “If you succeed, I succeed” can only take a county so far when the success depends on the bank account of someone else — especially when that bank account belongs to the taxpayers.
Rural counties at the crossroads can choose dissolution or selfishness. There is simply no other way.