Anyone who takes even a cursory, but honest, look at the overall efficiency and effectiveness of Cumberland County government and the municipalities in the county will certainly conclude we must do better.
The County Commissioners recently passed a budget that included spending reductions and a sizable property tax increase to offset a $27 million shortfall. Economic development throughout the county, including municipalities, is nowhere near what is needed nor is it reasonable to expect. In spite of an overall decline in property values, Fayetteville did not increase the property tax rate, but did increase some fees. There has been a battle underway between Fayetteville and the county over which of them should manage a proposed consolidated 911 call center. Then there is the controversy of several years regarding division of sales tax revenue among the county, Fayetteville and several other municipalities. Add annexation squabbles to this mix.
This listing is by no means all-inclusive, but is more than sufficient to indicate the need for a course correction in how governing happens in the municipalities and at the county level. I am convinced it is time for a move to unified government in Cumberland County. That is, one government, one governing body. This possibility was raised several years ago by a few visionaries in our area, but went nowhere. That is the case just about every time the idea is raised in America. How can this be? Mike Maciag answers in an article titled “Governments Resisting the Urge to Merge.” He writes: “Government fragmentation has long been tugged at by two competing interests. On the one hand, many argue consolidation cuts costs and allows officials to better coordinate efforts. Citizens, though, are often emotionally attached to their local governments.”
The remainder of the answer is that people in power are very seldom willing to give up that power even in the interest of what is good for citizens. This seems especially true of politicians who will defy common sense for the sake of holding onto power.
The track record of unified governments is impressive. Look to Athens-Clarke County, Georgia; Nashville, Tennessee, with Davidson County; or Kansas City, Kansas, with Wyandotte County. In a 2012 article titled “Cities, Counties and the Urge to Merge,” Mark Funkhouser wrote:
“Things have worked out better for Kansas City, Kansas, and Wyandotte County, according to Dennis Hays, who has been administrator of that unified government since it was created 17 years ago (and who before that was the city’s administrator for three years). Before the consolidation, he says, ‘we were slipping into the deep abyss, and if we hadn’t done consolidation when we did, who knows where we’d be?’ Since then, he says, the quality of services has improved, thanks to economies achieved by combining duplicative departments. Taxes have been cut by 15 percent, and the combined workforce has been reduced by 20 percent. But in Hays’ view, having a single policy-making body willing to take on the tough decisions has made the biggest difference, resulting in real improvements to the local quality of life. ‘We are an older blue-collar community, and now we are seeing young people wanting to move into Wyandotte for the first time in decades.’” When introduced to the “unified government” concept during those discussions several years ago, it made sense to me. When the effort went nowhere in our county, I gave it very little additional thought until a recent experience. During a meeting of Cumberland County United, Shivani Kohut mentioned concern among residents of her neighborhood regarding a conditional rezoning application pending in the Jack Britt High School area of Cumberland County. The request was to rezone parcels at the intersection of Lakewood Drive and Rockfish Road. A yet unidentified grocery store would be built. There is also the possibility of other businesses being established in the location.
Listening to Kohut’s comments and the response of Arnold Roberts Jr., who spoke on behalf of the developer, I wanted to know more about this situation. I attended a neighborhood meeting on May 22 where residents of the area surrounding the parcels subject to the rezoning application were in attendance. Two representatives of the developer attended and spoke. At the time of this meeting, the application had been reviewed by city staff with a recommendation to the Zoning Commission that it be denied. In spite of the staff’s recommendation, the Zoning Commission recommended that Fayetteville City Council approve the rezoning application. A public hearing before City Council was scheduled but later canceled because the rezoning application was withdrawn. Applicants indicated it would be resubmitted at some future time. Even though the application was withdrawn, watching this process was eye-opening for me.
City staff was clear in presenting reasons for recommending, to the Zoning Commission, denial of the application. Here are the key points recorded in that recommendation:
1. The property is surrounded mostly by a mix of low-density residential, institutional (schools) and commercial.
2. The City’s land use plan and the County’s Southwest Cumberland plans call for residential development on this property.
3. Traffic is a major concern with a shopping center and two schools adjacent to these properties.
4. The overabundance of properties throughout the city that are vacant and already zoned for commercial use.
Against this backdrop of detailed reasons for staff recommending denial and meeting attendees reporting no reasons were given for the Zoning Commission recommending approval of the application, the neighborhood meeting was held. In that meeting, Shivani Kohut used a PowerPoint presentation to detail several community objections to the project. Among these were the following:
1. Parking lot = additional light pollution into residential area, trash, incoming/outgoing traffic, hazards for walking children
2. No conditional specs over retail use and out parcel use = future protests over unsavory retail choices?
3. Clearing/development = loss of natural habitat and existing tree canopy, displacement of birds and others
4. People will be hesitant to buy into area — excessive development occurring simultaneously has unpredictable impact on community
5. Proposed traffic revision will not address congestion toward schools and city — wider roads needed.
6. Increase in crime and traffic accidents in surrounding areas
7. Flooding is a major concern — flooding with every storm as drains back up will worsen with more paving over of land
8. No environmental impact studies, traffic impact studies, only claims of preliminary assessments (claims made by attorney/developers)
During the neighborhood meeting, one lady told of having standing water in her yard after a heavy rain. Whatever drainage was in place was not working properly. She called several governmental entities, but all of them said they were not responsible for her area. Similarly, a gentleman who lives in the neighborhood talked of finding, at the entrance to his development, a bag that turned out to contain an illegal substance. Law enforcement personnel from at least three agencies came out, but none of them acknowledged responsibility in this situation. In neither of these cases did anybody ever acknowledge responsibility.
Given that the area in question is not in Fayetteville, why is the city involved in this process? For a business or development that is outside the city limits to get sewer service, it must be annexed. With annexing comes zoning enforcement. Further, since the citizens affected by this project live in the county and are not eligible to vote in Fayetteville, they are at the mercy of a city council over which they have no political influence.
From the troubling indicators in the opening paragraph of this column to the, at best, blatantly questionable treatment of the Jack Britt area in general and the course of this rezoning application in particular, something is wrong.
I would argue we have too many governmental entities in this county, and consolidation is the answer. Will it happen? I doubt it. Doing so would require vision, selflessness, courage and common sense. These have become rare traits in America.