Tear down those walls, Charlie

Published: Sunday, January 4, 2009 at 9:42 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 4, 2009 at 9:42 a.m.

Happy New Year, Charlie. Can we talk?

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Special to The Sun

About the legacy thing.

You're half-way through your term. And there's no sign of it yet.

The legacy thing, I mean.

The thing you'll be remembered for. The thing that will distinguish you from your average Joe Governor.

Guys like David Scholtz and Thomas Brown and all the others that nobody remembers anymore.

Let's face it. You didn't make our property taxes or our insurance premiums drop like a rock. You're facing the worst fiscal crisis in modern Florida history, and all you've been doing is dipping into trust funds, cutting budgets and making gambling pacts that don't pass legal muster.

No legacy there.

But fear not. I've got your legacy Charlie.

The thing future generations of Floridians will thank you for.

You can be the guy who made wasteful, redundant government go away.

Listen, you were on the right track when you were stumping to pass Amendment 1. And you kept telling voters that cities and counties were wasting their tax dollars. And that cutting property taxes would force local governments to adapt.

That was fine as far as it went. But you didn't go nearly far enough.

You snatched up Amendment 1 like it was a bowling trophy and stuck it on a shelf to gather dust.

What you didn't tell Floridians, but should have, is that they are still paying too much money to support too many rival local governments.

Sixty-seven county governments and 412 municipalities. And don't even get me started on all the special taxing districts.

All of them feeding off our property tax dollars. Each with its own bureaucracy and political hierarchy. And many with overlapping jurisdictions that seem designed to squander resources, confound accountability and divide communities that ought to be united.

Take Alachua County, please.

We're a relatively small county of only about 230,000 people. But we have 10 local governments offering various levels of municipal services.

Where is it etched in stone that we need that much government?

Listen, we've been arguing here for more than 30 years over a simple thing like how to pay for fire service. And I have no doubt we'll be arguing about it 30 years from now. Because each government has to have its hand in the process.

And when you consider the bewildering maze of local governments that feed off the taxpayers in larger counties like Broward and Pinellas, Alachua County looks good.

Ever wonder why growth management hasn't worked in Florida? Just try wading through the mass of city and county comprehensive plans and wonder no more. Too many local cooks, each stirring their own growth broth with little regard to what's brewing outside their little jurisdictional kitchens.

Exactly how many law enforcement agencies does a metro area need to be "safe?"

And do elected officials come really cheaper by the dozen?

Or do they cost us more by the gross?

And here's the thing, Charlie. This is the perfect time to initiate a discussion about reinventing local government.

Because things are tough all over.

Talk to Lance DeHaven Smith, the political science professor at FSU. He'll tell you that during the Great Depression, lots of little governments in Florida dried up and blew away.

And guess what? Florida survived their passing.

We may not be in another depression yet. But look around. Businesses across the state are consolidating operations and streamlining work forces. They can't afford not to.

Why is government immune from the new imperative to stop doing "business as usual?"

And we're ready for change. The latest Sunshine State Survey tells us that Floridians have little confidence in their local governments to spend their tax dollars wisely.

And that's where your legacy comes in, Charlie.

Establish a blue ribbon Commission to Reinvent Local Government. Stock it with the best minds and most creative people you can find.

Tell them to examine unification movements around the nation; Athens, Ga., Nashville, Tenn., Lexington, Ky., Florida's own Jacksonville.

Ask them to look at local governments abroad in Canada, New Zealand, Europe. Maybe even examine emerging corporate organizational structures for new ideas.

And above all, ask them to initiate a conversation with Floridians about what they think their local governments ought to look like and do in this new century.

The commission's charge should be two-fold.

One: To produce a "how to" manual for local government reform, a citizens' guide to taking apart insulated bureaucacies.

Two, and more importantly, to draft a proposed state constitutional amendment for unification that you can present to the voters in 2010.

That amendment shouldn't by itself unify anything. Rather, it should lay out a mechanism by which citizens, if they choose to do so, can redesign their own local governments via an initiative and referendum process.

The state of Tennessee has done something along these lines. And although its constitutional process has not been widely used, the day may be fast approaching when unification will appeal to tax-weary Tennesseeans. Floridians too.

You can be remembered as the Father of Florida Unification.

The governor who did what Jeb Bush only dreamed of; made wasteful government disappear.

It's the next logical evolutionary step: Flattening local government structures. Making them leaner, meaner and more responsive.

Seriously, Charlie. This is a good year to start building that legacy.

Governor, tear down those city and county walls!

Ron Cunningham is editorial page editor for The Sun. He can be reached at voice@gvillesun.com or at 352-374-5075. Read his blog, Under The Sun, at www.gainesville.com/opinion.

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