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The case for consolidated government

The case for consolidated government

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The Quad-City P25 Radio Project reflects the growing understanding that a prosperous future requires us to think "regionally."

In case readers are unaware, the project will build the first coordinated emergency radio system in the region. I say “coordinated,” not "consolidated," because both Rock Island and Scott counties will manage independent dispatching operations. And each county will sign separate contracts with the same vendor to provide the new radio towers, transmitters and other necessary equipment, including individual radios for use by first-responders. Nonetheless, it’s a positive development and I support the collaborative spirit behind it.

Most importantly, it will enhance public safety across the region and, in the long-run, save taxpayer dollars.

However, the project also illustrates an inherent limitation in our local tax structure. P25 Radio Project deliberations stumbled over the question: "Who pays for the individual first-responder radios required by the smaller, unincorporated town volunteer emergency services providers?"

These courageous men and women serve their communities selflessly but receive little or no tax support. And, the purchase of high-tech radios costing thousands of dollars each cannot be funded through a bake sale. Nonetheless, their participation in the regional emergency radio response system is critical. But, you see, Scott County can only tax county-wide. It cannot tax individual communities independent of others. So, some taxpayers will pay both city and county taxes to finance local public safety and participation in the regional P25 Radio Project. However, others will pay only the county tax.

The underlying issue is equity and it is not limited to the P25 Radio Project. Two pending lawsuits brought against Scott County over rural, residential road maintenance raise the same question. In those cases, the County is defending its decision not to commit taxpayers across the county to subsidize road maintenance in newly developed residential neighborhoods outside city limits. And, the issue is complicated by a decades-old precedent of doing exactly that. So, no wonder housing developers are crying "foul" at the change.

Putting these specific examples to one side, we need to recognize that all these concerns are the inevitable result of "layered" government; that is, cities, counties, school districts and other taxing authorities all operating independently. And it begs the question: Is it time for the people of Scott County to consider some form of consolidated government?

Today, there are about 35 city-county government models across the country. No two are exactly alike. Nor should they be. Local government should reflect the individuality of the community it serves. And so it is with these communities. Some are very large, like the City and County of San Francisco with a population approaching 1,000,000. But, others are quite small. The City and County of Broomfield, Colorado, is home to about 70,000 souls.

Some of these communities have chosen to integrate completely while others have elected to maintain some level of jurisdictional integrity. Among the first of these consolidated governments is the City of Jacksonville and Duval County, Florida. This union is now 50 years old and, by all accounts, successful. It was established largely, though not entirely, to reduce the duplication of municipal services. Not a bad idea.

In Scott County today, there are four independent library systems; overlapping public safety jurisdictions; and multiple fleets of public works equipment.

These are just a few areas of possible duplication. And, they may not even be the best examples. But, the question stands: Could we reduce the cost and improve the quality of municipal services through consolidation? I would have to say "yes." After all, we already have. Ten years ago, we created the Scott Emergency Communications Center for this precise reason.

In the process, we learned that the way things are is not the way they must be. We should, at least, study the opportunities of consolidated government to reduce costs overall; develop a more equitable property tax system; and free resources to focus on economic growth.

After all, expansion of the tax base through population growth and business (including agri-business) development is the surest way to reduce the individual property tax burden on everyone. It’s certainly worth a look.

Ken Croken, of Davenport, is a member of the Scott County Board of Supervisors.

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