Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Can Local Governments Spend Funds Wisely?

On the heels of this weekend's call by Governor Deval Patrick and Boston Mayor Tom Menino to pass a set of reforms to give local communities more flexibility in raising revenue, the Globe has an op-ed on the subject by David Luberoff of Harvard's Rappaport Institute. The piece has some suggestions for passing and tweaking the governor's proposals. What struck me was this paragraph:

Governor Patrick, with enthusiastic support from many local officials, has proposed legislation that would give local government more money in several ways, including the power to impose local hotel and restaurant taxes. However, the governor's plan is floundering because many people do not believe that local governments have the ability or will to spend new funds wisely.
Leaving aside for the moment that "many people" includes state legislators who just don't want to lose the control of state taxes, I found that last statement troubling. Our local governments are the places where one person can make the most difference. After all, the smaller the voting population, the more difference your one vote can make.

Unfortunately, local governments are often the places with the least amount of scrutiny. That, in my opinion, is why "many people" don't trust localities to use money wisely. Luberoff suggests that the way to get people to trust municipalities is to threaten them with state intervention and oversight. That might make state legislators more willing to give up some of their authority, but I don't know how much that speaks to the trust issue. I can think of few communities that would trust Beacon Hill to manage their affairs better than the locals. Even Springfield right now is bristling under their state-appointed control board. Luberoff's ideas may make the municipal reforms more palatable to state legislators, but by doing so, he may make them difficult to pass on the community level. It seems to me that the way to make towns more accountable would be to perhaps force them to submit to state audits, but perhaps the consequences of those should be left to town officials to decide in all but the most serious situations.