EYE ON THE PIE: Time to make government accountable

September 17, 2007

The biggest change the Kernan-Shepard commission could recommend for improving local government would be to focus responsibility.

Some folks want to consolidate government horizontally; that means combining units of the same type. It might take the form of consolidating school corporations or bringing the number of library districts down from 238 to some smaller number. (It could mean reducing the number of counties from 92 to a more realistic number, but I should not try to make you laugh.)

Many people think that putting all the township assessors under the county assessor would be a good idea. Others want to combine fire departments. Merging the police department with the sheriff's office is often cited as an attractive change.

Behind each of these recommendations is our belief in two specific conditions:

First, most of us believe there are economies of scale in the production of government services. This means we think we can reduce costs as we expand the universe of services. For example, one garbage department would cut some "unnecessary" overhead if it served the large number of homes currently covered by two departments. "Trim the administrative fat" is another popular cry from those who see no reason for 11 cities and towns in Lake County or for South Bend and Mishawaka to have separate local governments.

Second, we believe that many functions are best handled by "trained professionals" rather than by political appointees. Would we get better snow-removal service from a department headed by an expert in the allocation of resources or from someone who seeks to please the voters?

While efficiency is always desirable, satisfying popular demand has its claim on good government as well. Vertical reorganization is a different story from horizontal consolidation. Right now, we have overlapping units of government. You and I may live in the same city of the same county, but we could live in different school districts. We may live in the same school district, but in different counties.

Vertical realignment would result in a single executive and a single legislative unit responsible for all government services applicable to a defined geographic area. The mayor becomes responsible for all government activities in his/her city. One county commissioner becomes the person who takes the heat for government safety and schools as well as libraries in unincorporated portions of the county.

This means reconstructing the basic forms of our local governments. It means that, when the council meets to consider the budget, it must weigh dollars for education versus dollars for firefighting or recreation.

Today, important budgetary decisions are made in isolation. The school board doesn't bother to ask what is happening with the sewers. The county or the city has no input into the schools' decision-making.

It means we stop electing county clerks, auditors, recorders, treasurers and sheriffs. They would be appointed by the elected chief county administrator. No more three county commissioners; just one. School districts would report either to mayors or to the county administrator. They need not be consolidated, but that is a tangled issue for some other time.

Of course, machine politics controlling a city or county is a strong possibility. Yet, this model is also the best hope for clean competitive government with a vigorous electorate.

Today, voters have no idea who is responsible for their services. Who is at the top when each government official can hide behind the many masks of government layering? It is time to strip off those disguises and let us focus on where responsibility lies.

Marcus taught economics for more than 30 years at Indiana University and is the former director of IU's Business Research Center. His column appears weekly. To comment on this column, send e-mail to mortonjmarcus@yahoo.com.
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