By Malcolm F. Baldwin
Our Board of Supervisors established the Government Reform Commission (GRC) at its first meeting last January, as promised during its election campaign. Opting against broad-ranging bi-partisan participation, the Board appointed an all-Republican commission drawn from developer and other business interests, with no apparent experience in local government to apply to the effort of reforming ours. The Commission’s work assumes the business priorities of the Board.
After considering public and Board suggestions the Commission chose its issues in negotiations with the Board. Its agenda supports two broad objectives and pillars of Republican political philosophy: (1) to reduce regulatory burdens on businesses and developers; and (2) to reduce the role of our local government’s professional staff, while enhancing the power of the Board. Enactment of such changes create other changes: (1) reduced civic engagement in government, and (2) greater risk of abuse by those benefiting from relaxed regulations.
One cluster of Commission actions would consolidate county financial functions, replace the elected and autonomous Sheriff with a Chief responsible to the Board; alter our fire and rescue system to reduce the role of volunteers; create a new structure for Loudoun Water; and stagger Supervisors’ terms.
A second and more immediately important set of initiatives popular with the Board’s business constituency would help shape Board budget actions next year. These include proposals to:
- Change County planning and zoning processes to achieve more efficient “handling of applications by citizens and entities”;
- Simplify and/or reduce special exception requirements that are now the public’s best opportunity for comment and engagement on major new development proposals;
- Reduce or eliminate archeological reviews of developments “in certain cases” (not yet determined);
- Establish a “system of metrics” to assess government programs, such as a “formulaic construct linked to economic performance, revenue collected, assessed values and/or other such measures that guide and limit” future spending;
- Contract out or privatize county and/or public school functions “to promote long term savings to County taxpayers and a greater focus on core governmental services,” (emphasis added) by reducing employee costs, dropping county landfill and affordable housing programs, and user fees for using the county’s Geographic Information System; and
- Determine the feasibility of combining county government and public school system site selection, land acquisition, building construction and certain personnel functions.
Efficiency remains essential to any “core” local government function, but neither our Board nor the Commission considers what constitutes this “core.” Does it include protection of Loudoun’s economically important land, water, cultural, historic or archeological resources? What about programs to address poverty, substance abuse, mental health and other social services? Are these “core” functions?
The Board promises that being business – and developer – friendly will increase the business tax base and relieve homeowner taxes. That will only result if we attract new businesses well beyond the community of developers whose houses don’t pay enough in taxes to cover the service needs they generate.
Will citizens also suffer from lack of transparency and fewer policy checks on abuse within a “streamlined” government? A few signs already look troublesome. Our new Board has reduced public comment time in front of the Supervisors and an audience of other interested citizens and the press. Citizen emails and Supervisor newsletters hardly offer a substitute. Our Board and the GRC strangely ignore a Reagan-Republican reform of cost-benefit analyses with long-term horizons when proposing new regulations or deregulation.
What reforms need attention? We might foster civic dialogue to identify the “core” government functions of our wealthy county. Should we help our less affluent residents optimize their economic security and educational opportunities? How should we maintain the beauty and quality of life that residents and visitors cherish? Do we need a watchdog function – a small, permanent office of accountability — to assess goals, efficiencies, and respond to citizen concerns?
We might start this broader dialogue with a reformed Government Reform Commission.