Local government and the path of least resistance


Those of us with libertarian instincts who want less from government – less spending, less growth, less meddling with the private sector – are frustrated at every level. We’ve all but given up on Washington, and even state capitals seem more interested in directing their citizens than in serving them.

That leaves the local level, where residents most directly feel the effects of government actions, and where officials have the best chance to lead by bold example.

But officeholders desiring re-election — and that is almost always almost all of them — seldom fail to find the path of least resistance. A couple of examples cropped up in Fort Wayne recently, both in the same news cycle.

In the first example, the bold option was proposed by three brave but foolish City Council members, and immediately rejected out of hand.

The city had awarded garbage-removal service to a company clearly not up to the task. After more than a year and a half of continued missed pickups, angrier and angrier feedback from residents and thousands of dollars in fines by the city, it seemed clear that the company might never get its act together.

Look, said the three councilmen, why should the city be involved in the first place? Let’s just get out of the business and let residents make their own best deals with trash-removal companies that will compete with each other to offer the best price.

No, no, no, said the upholders of the status quo, there are too many uncertainties about such a drastic course. The uncertainties were never specified, but it’s easy to imagine visions of a beleaguered homeowner trying to negotiate with a rogue hauler while garbage piled up in the alley, or of that rogue company bypassing a landfill to dump his load in the Maumee River.

A less fretful imagination might have anticipated the possibility of neighborhood associations, strong in Fort Wayne, negotiating contracts for their residents that were both economical and workable.

But the city prefers known mistakes to potential ones, so it is left with three unappealing options: Make the fines much steeper, declare the contract in breach and start over, or limp along with a company that was, incredibly, given a seven-year deal.

So, limp along it will be.

In the second example, the bold solution was never even mentioned.

A local entrepreneur got approval to begin adding a 9,000-square-foot garage to a residential building. That was just a tad big for most residents’ automotive-parking needs, but perfectly acceptable under the city’s zoning ordinance.

But it soon became obvious that the work being done was more suited for a commercial enterprise. At first, the builder said, it would be a restaurant. Then, perhaps, a shopping plaza with four units. In the end, who knows? But lots of money had been spent and the City Council was asked to please rezone the site from single-family dwelling to limited commercial, which, come on now, was the kind of zone already right next door.

Oh dear, oh dear.

Granting the rezoning, some said, would set the precedent of being able to ask the city for forgiveness rather than permission, mocking the whole zoning process. No, the man’s supporters said, he has made all kinds of concessions to nearby residents, so the real precedent would be to tell developers to do things the right way or face restrictions that could cripple chances to make a profit.

Of course, the rezoning was granted, with no one quite realizing that no precedent at all had been set. The council was merely drifting along, as always, taking the easiest course in the least reflective way.

A more reflective response would have been to ask why the city was even involved. If the two zones are adjacent, as many competing interests are, why not let the private enterprise system sort it out? In fact, why have zones at all? Houston seems to have created a dynamic, thriving city without city planners fussing over where people can or cannot put their businesses.

But people capable of imagining rouge trash haulers despoiling our rivers can also easily envision someone throwing up a chicken coop or pig farm right next door to the city’s fanciest restaurant. Got to keep the riffraff at bay, this ain’t the Beverly Hillbillies here.

It is true, unfortunately, that local governments are taking a less active role in how we live these days, but not in a good way. According to Governing magazine and the Tax Policy Center, federal funds now provide about a third of state budgets and about a quarter of city and county budgets. And that money comes with incentives and conditions — lots and lots of strings.

Have you noticed a certain sameness about the direction of Indiana’s urban areas — not just big ones like Indiana and Fort Wayne, but smaller ones as well? Lots going on in downtowns — new amenities such as baseball stadiums, trendy shops in old industrial buildings, riverfront work, bicycle paths and on and on.

That’s where the money is. The Planners — and they deserve the capitalization — don’t like the way they have spread ourselves out, so they’ve decided to herd us back into downtown clusters. And our local elected officials — well, the money is there for the taking. The path of least resistance wins again.

Not exactly a libertarian’s dream.

Leo Morris, columnist for The Indiana Policy Review, is winner of the Hoosier Press Association’s award for Best Editorial Writer. Morris, as opinion editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, was named a finalist in editorial writing by the Pulitzer Prize committee. Contact him at [email protected].

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