Local budgets have been hammered by rising costs and (in many states) caps on revenue for some years now. In the past year or two states have felt the pain of declining revenue and the snowballing of gimmicks they have used for years to get to a "balanced" budget.* This past year nearly every state (except for ND) had a budget gap. Closed in mid-year sessions, the gaps only reappeared by autumn. Going into 2010, there are at least 36 states that have budget gaps, and it is predicted that every state will face the problem before much more time passes.
Last year the federal stimulus money went a long way toward plugging the holes. Most of those funds are gone and there has not been much interest on the part of Congress or the White House in bailing out the states. Some states have raised taxes and fees, and others are considering it. (A group of Republican lawmakers in Virginia is talking of eliminating the state corporate income tax... huh?) Nearly every state has made significant budget cuts. Besides the easy steps of shifting the burden to local government, they have cut payrolls, closed state parks, released prisoners early, reduced offices, etc. Now there is talk of reducing social welfare funding, and cutting funds for schools and law enforcement - the darlings of the last decade (or more). What I think this is all getting to is a real discussion, for the first time in decades, of what is the role of government.
What do we demand from government, and what do we desire but may be willing to sacrifice?
Yes, we like that we have fancy ballparks with lighting, concessions, and stadium seating, and a district that coordinates a half-dozen baseball programs for people of all ages and physical abilities, all at a cost of several million dollars to develop and tens of thousands annually to maintain. It sure is nice to have the streets plowed in the morning, but would it be that much of an adjustment if plowing did not start until 5 or 6 AM, and local streets were not plowed if the snow totals were less than 2-3 inches? What if we did not have community fitness centers, bike trails, or a local access cable station?
How should our government be more efficiently organized?
Are we willing to eliminate the extra layers of government? Do we really need a city parks department and a regional parks authority? How about a city and county police department. Are we willing to force small school districts to combine? There is the potential for significant savings from combined administrations, centralized dispatching and fewer police stations, etc.
This is a lengthy lead-in bringing me back to my central thesis: during the next few years we are going to have to make some fundemental decisions about government at the local, state and federal level. These decisions will deal with both the role of government and how it is organized and funded. As planners we may play an important part in this debate. How do you see government reorganizing?
* As an example, states frequently incur costs in the current year while pushing the payment to the next, when "there will be more money". Except, of course, when revenues decline. More money is itself another gimmick. Make a rosy prediction of your income and then you can say the budget is balanced. Inadequate funding for state employee pensions is another financial trick they have used, among dozens of others.