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A look at two mid-size governments

Visualize, if you will, a mid-size governmental entity supporting (or demanding the support of you decide) some 650,000 residents/taxpayers, in a region which years ago waxed prosperous with a growing economy based on a mix of industry and agriculture, but which in recent years has shifted its focus more to the attraction objectives of tourism, medical care, and of course the so-called creative economy. This is based on the not-too-over-simplified concept that a governance which seeks, as its prime priority puppet shows and deconstructionist theatre will soon, as its subordinate priority, attract commerce, jobs and wealth. With this redirection of economic strategy has come sweeping demographic change, based primarily on middle-class out-migration and industrial and commercial disappearance, even city population shrinkage, while the price tag for ever-more far-reaching governmental services has grown faster than all but the wealthier citizens can cope with, even as the pool of subsidized low- or no-income citizens is the major population growth sector. If you conclude that the above thumbnail sketch describes Vermont, youd be correct. It also describes Jefferson County, Alabama, perhaps better known for county seat Birmingham, and nowenjoying its 15 minutes of fame as the subject of the biggest U.S. municipal bankruptcy in history, to quote from a recent Associated Press headline. Like Vermont, Jefferson Countys governance has watched with little concern the shrinkage of major employers (the US Steel plant there is a shadow of its former self) and the departure of others, but unlike Vermont the proximate cause of its financial distress isnt a long-term unsustainable growth in government activities and costs versus a (to phrase it charitably) sustainable, meaning stagnating, tax base. Its plain old-fashioned waste, fraud, and abuse stemming from a $3.2 billion mess a colossal, corruption-riddled sewer project, as the AP describes it. Unlike Vermont, Jefferson County has problems not of its own policy creation, ranging from global steel competition (US Steels plant in Kosice, Slovakia, produces and sells at a fraction of its Birmingham plants costs) to flight-to-the-suburbs, the latter caused by both former urbanite housing preferences and Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 SCOTUS public-school desegregation decision, the combined forces resulting in a city population shrinkage from 340,000 in 1960 to 229,000 today, with a center-city population now 74 percent black and low-income. Most of that podiatric balloting has resulted in metro area or county growth, so its reasonable to conclude that the areas fiscal crisis is more profound than an infra-structure finance scandal ; after all, Boston is in one, based on underground tunneling for cars, not sewage, and isnt collapsing financially. Id guess that it stems more from (as in Vermont) a change in governance attitude from pro- to anti- in terms of private sector commerce and industry; what a recent survey called a hostile-to-business governance climate. The Birmingham metro region isnt poor since Salary.com rates it a second in the nation for a place to build personal net worth but Jefferson County (Shelby County makes up the metro area) illustrates where its economic base preferences and interests lie by proudly billing itself as the cultural and entertainment capital of Alabama. The parallels to Vermont policy, as illustrated by legislative actions, are noticeable even if Golden Dome politicians want to be seen as concerned by some sort of affordability issue and Jefferson County politicos dont. Can a state with a near 650-K head-count find economic and esthetic happiness with a fast-growing trust-funder economy as a cultural and entertainment destination, just like a near-650-K head-count metro area? Yes, if its done with unusual-in-politics skillfulness, an attribute which Vermonts Golden Dome folk claim and maybe Jefferson Countys commissioners lack. It helps not to get into court over slope-the-wrong-way sewer construction. Former Vermonter Martin Harris lives in Tennessee.

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