Publisher's note: This post, Dr. Roy Cordato, was originally published in John Locke Foundation.
Click here to view and here to listen to Dr. Roy Cordato discussing this Spotlight report.
RALEIGH Local governments should focus on using existing revenues more efficiently, monitoring the effectiveness of school funding, and simplifying rules for land use and zoning. Those are three key recommendations in the John Locke Foundation's new City and County Issue Guide 2014
The new guide arrives before local governments begin planning for their 2014-15 budget years.
"This guide covers topics ranging from taxes to transit, from smart growth to stadiums, from education to economic development," said Dr. Roy Cordato, JLF Vice President for Research and Resident Scholar. "The common thread in each of our recommendations is freedom. By increasing individual freedom, local governments can foster the prosperity of all North Carolinians and keep open avenues to innovative solutions from enterprising citizens."
The 38-page guide addresses 15 of the most important topics local governments must address. It tackles services local governments provide, funding for those services, and government policies that restrict land use and property rights. JLF research staff members analyze key challenges linked to each topic.
Cordato authors a section in the new Issue Guide on economic development policy. It urges local officials to avoid interfering with market forces.
"Local governments should focus on making their communities conducive to economic growth and business investment by keeping property taxes, sales taxes, and business regulations and fees low," he said. "The focus of county budgets should be on essential government services, making sure that these services meet the needs of business. This focus would include providing reliable sources of water and transportation services that accommodate the desired lifestyles of the work force and the needs of industry. Beyond this, city and county government should allow business investment to take its course."
A section on "spending and taxes" calls for local government leaders to focus on core government services. "Local governments must earn the trust of taxpayers," said Sarah Curry, JLF Director of Fiscal Policy Studies. "Spending on municipal golf courses, economic incentive packages, downtown parks, privately owned athletic stadiums, convention centers, and other nonessential services has at times received higher priority in local budgets than school buildings, sewer systems, police, fire departments, and roads. For local governments that typically face funding constraints, prioritization is the key."
The Issue Guide spells out five simple principles that should guide local government decisions about public transit.
"Public transit is ultimately about people," said Jon Sanders, Director of Regulatory Studies.
"A public transit system should meet the actual transportation needs of the citizens. Its aim should be to provide mobility for citizens in the most efficient, effective ways possible. For that reason, public transit policies should: provide mobility; privatize when possible; spend on transit options proportionate to their demand; treat congestion at the source; and avoid the 'romance' of rail."
Another section explains how county governments can help promote "efficient, responsive, and high-performing" local school systems. It urges local officials to pay special attention to spending on school personnel.
"The use of local funds for the salaries and benefits of teachers, administrators, and other personnel should be closely tied to various performance measures, as well as adjusted to reflect yearly enrollment changes," said Dr. Terry Stoops, Director of Research and Education Studies. "Specifically, school systems should use outcome-based measures, including test scores and value-added analyses, to reward the efforts of successful teachers and administrators. An incentive pay program that utilizes local funds should also be adopted to attract highly qualified science, mathematics, and special-education teachers to low-performing schools."
Local governments can take steps that would help address community mental health issues, as spelled out in another section of the Issue Guide.
"Local management entity authorities, county commissioners, law enforcement, and community activists should collaborate to implement Crisis Initiative Solutions proposed by Gov. Pat McCrory and the state Department of Health and Human Services," said Katherine Restrepo, Healh and Human Services Policy Analyst. "Local governments should also study existing county programs that effectively anticipate and assess an individual's mental health needs during a crisis episode. Competition among care managers also could improve efficiencies and help spread best practices."
Governments at all levels have taken steps in recent years to make more information available online, and the Issue Guide offers even more suggestions for online transparency.
"Put contracts and detailed spending information online," said Julie Gilstrap, Research Publications Coordinator. "This state already has good examples of websites with accessible, transaction-level detail updated daily."
"Local governments also should use XML and structured formats for data transparency," Gilstrap added. "Data is only useful if it can be analyzed. Open data standards make this easier. Local officials should develop meaningful outcome measures and hold government agencies accountable for results."
The City and County Issue Guide complements JLF's annual By The Numbers
report, which ranks cities and counties based on the costs of running local government.
"Voters and taxpayers can use the Issue Guide as a resource when they question local government costs," Cordato said. "Elected leaders can use the Guide to find savings. By following the Guide's recommendations, local governments can limit the unnecessary growth that encroaches on freedom and digs deeper into taxpayers' wallets year after year."