Your County Lawmakers Can Enrich Communities — Especially Your Rural Ones. Ensure they are heroes, not hydras.
“HEROES VS HYDRAS” SERIES
This fifteen-part series introduces you to the heroic partners you and your community will require to survive and thrive during pandemics and economic disruptions. The articles also provide tips on avoiding the three-headed hydras of apathy, envy and fear, those people in positions of power who are fighting to keep a broken status quo.
Just one county commissioner or county manager can mean the difference between a “go” or a “no” to your initiative’s funding.
Your County Commissioner
County governments in the US range from vital and powerful entities to barely functioning bodies. While some have a tax base of many millions, others have far less. Yet for our rural residents, county government can be a lifeline to healing and empowerment. In this chapter, we illustrate why it matters who is elected county commissioner.
What county government leaders have in common, for the most part, is that it is not seen as their job to ensure that ten vital family and student services exist to promote family and student success. To be fair, not unlike their counterparts in city government, county lawmakers did not run on a platform to address opportunity disparities, nor is there a mandate in their county statutes that references any commitment to fund the services that are required for children and parents to survive the week: food, housing, transport to services, medical care and behavioral health care.
Of course, the role of county commissioners and the staff they oversee is in a state of wild flux. Depending on public activism, county governments can remain distanced from the issue of public health or become an active and vital participant in preventing and healing health challenges.
Heroic collaborators needed. Now.
A consultant once told me, when reviewing a bold visionary concept for a countywide system of care, “Let me get this straight. The model you are presenting essentially asks the residents to consider themselves a self-sustaining entity, in charge of their own local systems of public health, education and economic development?”
“Yes, that’s the key point, that county residents look to all the elected leaders in a county to ensure the safety and success of 100% of their community members. They should not be waiting for the US President to save them in a pandemic or economic free fall.”
“But things don’t work that way.” said the consultant. “These elected lawmakers in city and county government, along with the school board, rarely, if ever, are in the same room.”
“Right.” I said. “And, that’s the big problem — silos. Video conferencing can change all that, if we have a collective spirit. We must support our county leaders in taking a leadership role in collaborating with city leaders. It is truly the only way through the post-pandemic world with limited resources.”
Is your county a problem-solving machine?
Depending on which state you reside in, the county government could be a multimillion dollar problem-solving machine or barely able to collect taxes from Walmart and create a website with county commissioners’ names and emails.
We chose counties as our geographic and political boundaries for our 100% Community initiative for a very good reason. Imagine the city of Santa Fe, where 70,000 people reside, with varying degrees of access to city services. Now imagine a ring around the city that represents those living outside city borders in Santa Fe County, serving a larger geographic spread with 80,000 people living a more rural life — which makes a total county population of 150,000. If we are to create a seamless system of care, safety and education for all county residents, we will need a solution that addresses the needs of all county residents. Lots of folks outside city limits depend on cities for vital services. By engaging all county commissioners and all the mayors and city council members within the county’s borders, we have an opportunity for unprecedented alignment of services.
And it’s not about more money; it’s about using current funds wisely
I live in a city that spends many millions of dollars a year on keeping public parks maintained. I live across from a park and think that’s great. Except in a pandemic and economic free fall, there may need to be other priorities. Can we talk about less spent on parks and more on creating The Office of Surviving and Thriving, where the city and county collaborate to ensure vital services?
How about a big emergency convening of all the leaders of four major entities: city government, county government, the school district(s) and the colleges within the county borders. The topic is: How do we align and prioritize services so 100% of county residents survive the pandemic and economic free fall?
That would make for great streaming entertainment, with far more drama than the final episode of Game of Thrones. And seriously, can county government leadership send out the invitations to the Zoom or Google Hangout meeting? And soon.
If we add up the budgets of the four entities, we have millions and millions. You will be shocked when you add up your county’s yearly operating budget, add in all the city’s budgets, along with the school districts and institutions of higher learning. All this information is public and the budgets can be found with a few google searches.
Add to that hundreds of other county-based government agencies and non-governmental organizations and one can see that there’s lots of cash earmarked for services. As localities consider furloughing workers and stopping services, we can ask questions (and some thoughtful county and city leaders are already sending out surveys to ask residents about funding priorities). How is money spent? What results do we get? Can we spend differently? Can we work differently? Would investment in technology save money? Can robots do some jobs? How much money does alignment of services produce? Are kids the priority?
Lastly, will three-headed hydras with power over county government try to obstruct any attempt to change the status quo? (That would be a big yes.)
I am not suggesting all this questioning of local spending is easy, it’s just vital.
How do I meet a county commissioner and what is my “ask”?
Your county commissioners are, for the most part, very accessible. Like state lawmakers and city councilors, they are public servants who understand the importance of connecting with constituents. They are your neighbors and most likely have local businesses or connections with various public sectors organizations. Once you find the contact information, share your ideas about ensuring all county residents have access to the services for surviving and thriving. From there, see if your issues align with the lawmaker’s issues. You will have tons of topics to explore, focused on the public good, the odds are in your favor that you may find common ground. (Full disclosure: my personal hero works for county government and it was she who taught me, years ago, very valuable lessons about strategic planning, cross-sector thinking, collaboration and getting everyone in the same room for brainstorming on big sheets of paper.)
County lawmakers, working in cooperation with their counterparts in city government, can vastly improve the lives of our most vulnerable families — especially those outside city borders in rural or under-resourced urban areas.
The future is what we make it. Join the evolution.
Please excuse any typos as I construct an article at 3am on only one cup of Joe. These stories are mine and mine alone. I do not represent any organization here. If one of my illustrations looks like a real human or three-headed hydra, that’s total coincidence. Words and images ©Dominic Cappello but share with everyone you know. Any questions? The future awaits: www.tenvitalservices.org