October 8, 2009

The Problem Is Big Government, Not Dispersed Government

Justin Katz

Roger Williams University Political Science Professor Matthew Ulricksen provides an impressive list of public-sector functionaries in Rhode Island:

Rhode Island claims a population of slightly more than one million people in a territory of about 2,000 square miles. Yet, it is feudalized into 39 municipalities, governed by nine elected municipal chief executives, 25 appointed chief executives, 237 council members, 209 school committee members, 38 tax assessors, 14 deputy tax assessors, 38 building-code officials, 39 town or city clerks, 37 deputy town or city clerks, 16 town or city engineers, 31 finance directors, 23 fire chiefs (not including the chiefs of incorporated fire districts), 24 highway supervisors, 14 minimum housing officers, 18 management information system directors or coordinators, 15 personnel directors, 35 planning directors, 38 police chiefs, 34 probate judges, 11 purchasing agents, 29 recreation directors, 34 superintendents of schools, 15 sewer officials, 21 tax collectors, 14 town or city treasurers, and 16 water officials, not to mention legions of rank-and-file government workers from clerks and maintenance workers, to teachers, police officers and firefighters.

The first question that comes to mind is what these people do all day. It's not an idle thing to wonder, because if each town generates enough work to keep a planning director busy (for example), then economies of scale won't save all that much by pushing them under the aegis of the state government. The people who actually do the work might make a little less money each, but somebody above them would have to coordinate. And if "centralizing" them — as Ulricksen advocates — will save money mainly by eliminating payment for work that municipal employees aren't doing, then we ought to squeeze that waste out on a town-by-town basis.

Having spent an enjoyable few minutes on the radio with the University of Rhode Island's Maureen Moakley, who shares Ulricksen's vocation of political science professor, I'd suggest that the state of Rhode Island has more such instructors than an outsider might believe to be necessary. Putting aside public/private -university distinctions, the point is that centralizing the oversight of Rhode Island's political science education would not save all that much money, but would affect the function.

The lure toward a big, centralized government is attractive and many colored, but looking behind the curtain, one sees only intellectuals and power seekers who believe that they could conduct the world better than it conducts itself... or at least wish to be paid for trying.

Consider: Do we really want the General Assembly controlling more of our state's civic sphere?

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It's very tempting to say that all of that local government is wasteful and that we would be much better served by more centralized control, either at the state or county level.

If you were designing a new form of government I'd probably recommend going toward strong county government, which is the norm in most parts of the country.

But we're not starting from scratch; any change in Rhode Island is far more likely to insert new levels of bureaucracy on top of -- or in between -- existing ones.

Let's try to get our municipalities to centralize or co-op on some operations or services, while maintaining a measure of local control.

And let's also remember that all of those city or town council members, school committee members, probate judges, etc., are part timers who generally serve for two or three terms before moving on, receive little or no compensation or benefits and therefore don't really cost as much as one might think.

Do we really want to replace such persons with full time "professionals?"

Let's also remember that while government at all levels has flaws, the more local it is the more responsive it is likely to be to the needs of the public.

Subsidiarity is the way to go.

Posted by: brassband at October 8, 2009 2:08 PM

I guarantee that you could fire at least half of those people, assign to the remaining half the work they previously performed, and nobody would ever notice a difference in terms of services.

Of course to do so would be asking the corrupt machine to fix itself, which would be unprecedented in our history and counter to all common sense and predictability.

It just underscores that Rhode Island is a lost cause and the Free State Project is the only viable option left for those of us who realize the evils of big-government and don't simply have our hand out at the expense of the faceless many.

Posted by: Dan at October 8, 2009 3:22 PM

Brassband writes:

"If you were designing a new form of government I'd probably recommend going toward strong county government, which is the norm in most parts of the country."

While county government is "the norm" in many psrts of the country, many parts of the country are different from Rhode Island. Rhode Island has contiguous cities and towns.

I have a place in North Carolina which is simply "in the county", and not part of any city or town. While it is a "township", the term is loosely used. It mainly means that it has a zip code. This is "the norm" in many parts of the country. Remember those old movies with the signs that read "City Limits". In those places county government has far more utility than it does here.

Posted by: Warrington Faust at October 8, 2009 4:58 PM

Roger Williams University Political Science Professor Matthew Ulricksen contention that Rhode Island is a territory of about 2,000 square miles is way off the mark.

As a matter of fact, nobody is publishing a consistent square mile size of the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations nor is the news media when referencing disasters to the size of Rhode Island.

The federal government and even State of Rhode Island agencies can’t agree on the exact square miles of size and now we have Roger Williams University Political Science Professor Matthew Ulricksen adding 2,000 square miles!

The state’s land area is 1,045 square miles, and its water area is 500 square miles, according to the Census Bureau. Yet the Rhode Island government web site lists an area of 1,214 square miles, including 165 or 169 square miles of water, depending on where on this Secretary of State web site you look. Encyclopedia Britannica apparently splits the difference, listing a total area of 1,212 square miles which would imply 167 square miles of water.

John Stachelhaus, coordinator of the Rhode Island Geographic Information System indicated inland water totals about 50 square miles, and Narragansett Bay could make up the other 115 or 120 square miles, depending on how you define the start and end of the bay. Playing around with lines and shapes on Google Maps, suggests that’s about right. Save the Bay, a preservation group, measures the bay at 147 square miles.

The Census Bureau, meanwhile, measures 178 square miles of inland water for Rhode Island, which includes lakes and rivers as well as most of the bay. It’s treated as inland water from the point at which it’s less than one nautical mile across. Nearly all of the other 322 square miles of liquid assigned by Census to Rhode Island comes from its so-called territorial waters, which include three miles of sea water from the coast or coastal waters.

The inconsistency between Rhode Island’s measurement of Rhode Island and Census’s measurement of Rhode Island played out on a national scale in the 1990 Census. Between 1900 and 1980, with no major acquisitions, the area of the U.S. held steady at 3,618,770 square miles. In 1990, though, Census began including territorial waters, the Great Lakes and coastal waters. As a result, the total area reported for coastal States has increased correspondingly, the Census report observed. Nationally, total area shot up to 3,787,319 square miles a jump of 168,549 square miles.

One potential solution to this confusion is to use only the actual land area of Rhode Island.

In Hawaii (47 largest state in nation) it’s comprised of 137 islands and atolls, with a total land area of 6,423.4 square miles stretching near 1,600 miles long with a population of about 1,288,198 people. The Big Island of Hawaii adds about 75 yards of land a year due to lava flow from erupting Kilauea volcano.

Government is county seat (4 counties; City and County of Honolulu, Kauai County, Maui County and Hawaii County with 4 mayors and 4 city councils); 1 state government and 1 school district with 1 superintendent for all 137 islands and atolls.

Posted by: Ken at October 8, 2009 5:46 PM


The potential savings from running different organizations on a statewide basis would likely differ across functions. However, this is not to say there would not likely be savings. Consider fire protection, where RI pays more per capita that any other state in the nation. A single state wide fire department could rationally locate stations (e.g., eliminating either EG or NK Station 4 on Post Road), and perhaps cut manning and equipment costs in the process. As others have pointed out over the years, there would inevitably be transition costs -- rewiring alarm systems, termination costs, and perhaps the cost of building new stations or obtaining a more rational equipment mix. But it seems very likely that there would be long term operating cost savings, as well as an improvement in the value that taxpayers receive.

The larger point is that in any analysis of consolidation options, it seems that the default option should be a statewide organization, with the burden of proof on those who prefer to organize on the basis of smaller units. While I expect that in some cases taxpayers might be willing to pay more to obtain non-economic benefits (e.g., the much beloved "greater local accountability"), it would be very helpful if everybody could confront these decisions with their eyes wide open with respect to the incremental tax costs.

Finally, centralization might also help promote a closer linkage between budgeting and the achievement of actual performance targets. The larger issue here is akin to the approach taken in the state of Washington a few years back -- under a Democratic governor, as I recall. Start with the functions you want government to perform, translate these into performance metrics and objectives, decide how much you want to tax the citizenry to achieve these objectives, then take a clean sheet of paper and reinvent the processes, systems, staffing and organizational forms that are used to translate resources into results. Of course, the unions will scream and probably block this in RI. Arguably, this is why the Gov shied away from something this radical, and instead settled for the "Big Audit." But this approach has the advantage of being transparent and getting all the key issues on the table at once in an integrate fashion.

Fat chance, of course, that it will happen in RI, where the only real question seems to be whether we will win, place or show in the race to be the first state to default on our General Obligation bonds.

Posted by: John at October 8, 2009 6:40 PM

"Start with the functions you want government to perform,"

Courts, roads, and police enforcement of violent crimes, with opt-out plans available for those who choose to do so.

"decide how much you want to tax the citizenry to achieve these objectives"

Nothing. Taxation is theft. Let the market decide their worth.

Posted by: Dan at October 8, 2009 7:04 PM

Dan wrote:

"Start with the functions you want government to perform,"
Courts, roads, and police enforcement of violent crimes, with opt-out plans available for those who choose to do so.

"decide how much you want to tax the citizenry to achieve these objectives"

Nothing. Taxation is theft. Let the market decide their worth.

In the City and County of Honolulu there is no property tax on boats motor vehicles or motorcycles. General excise Tax (sales tax) 4.5% is applied to all transactions for profit and non-profit with only medical prescriptions exempted from the tax. The tax is applied to businesses making sure state collects its tax (it’s up to business to pass on tax to purchaser or absorb cost) not to citizens doing the purchasing as is the case in RI.

There is a new bill advancing through city council to bring City and County of Honolulu in line with the other three Hawaii state counties creating a new property tax category of “owner occupied” helping those of us who live in Hawaii verses investment property non-occupied renter landlords.

The new “owner occupied” category will allow a discount of $80,000.00 off the value of property assessment before other discounts and exemptions are applied to assessed property value. Current property tax rate is $3.49 per $1,000.00 of assessed value. On top of owner occupied discount is a senior citizen $40,000.00 exemption which in the City and County of Honolulu, the exemptions are: 55-59 years, 1.5 times the exemption amount; 60-64 years, 2.0 times; 65-69, 2.5 times, and 70 and older, 3.0 times. Homeowners 55 and older are exempt from property taxes on $60,000 to $120,000 (amount depends on owner's age) of the assessed value of their residence, regardless of income. The minimum property tax all property owners of the City and County of Honolulu must pay regardless of exemptions and discounts is $100 in taxes per year.

The City and County of Honolulu set $100 a year as the price for providing goods and services to its residents. This does not include State of Hawaii government goods and services which is paid via state income tax.

The State of Hawaii in appreciation of services rendered has exempted the following categories of retirement income from local state income taxes: Social Security, military, federal, state/local, and some private contributory type pensions. All out-of-state government pensions are exempt which is not the case in RI.

With the average 365 daily temperature of 77 degrees fall, winter and spring heating bill are non-existent.

Dan, I don’t see anywhere the State of Hawaii taxes are or near theft.

Hawaii; streamlined state and local government plus taxes pretty much in check. Super strong applied ethics laws and a very forward looking government. State of Hawaii will be first state in nation to reduce total state-wide imported oil consumption 70% saving state $7 billion dollars a year by year 2030. Hawaii is the only state in nation closest to providing universal health care to total state population about 98% total population covered by health insurance.

Posted by: Ken at October 8, 2009 8:38 PM

Another note on the "norm" of county government. In Virginia, incorporated cities are not part of the county in which they lie. Not sure how this works in detail. For instance, some cities are the "county seat". In some places the cities have grown so large that they incorporate the county and the county becomes extinct. I think this is a hodge podge of "political" solutions resulting from "reform". As the cities and towns become contiguous, the counties are being eliminated. This is done in fits and starts.

Posted by: Warrington Faust at October 8, 2009 11:24 PM

Warrington Faust,

From east to west State of Hawaii is the widest state in the United States and City of Honolulu is the largest city in the world, at least it has the longest borders. According to the state constitution any island (or islet) not named as belonging to a county belongs to Honolulu. This makes all islands within the Hawaiian Archipelago, that stretch to Midway Island (about 1,600 miles northwest of Hawaii) part of Honolulu. City and County of Honolulu is about 1,600 miles long or more distance than halfway across the 48 contiguous states.

For its size, Honolulu is ranked the 2nd cleanest city in the world, the safest city of its size in the nation by the FBI, the best city to raise a family, City with the best wellness ranking, city with longest living and oldest population and State of Hawaii was just edged out after holding the number 1 spot in nation for many years by New England’s Vermont for healthcare (Vermont made some adjustments. Hawaii will get title back next year).

County government can be very effective and cost effective. It depends how the state constitution is written. There has to be definitive separation of powers between state and county government. Most important there must be restricted accounts of tax funds designated to provide services unlike RI where most tax income is dumped into the general fund and then raided by GA and Governor.

Gambling is not allowed in Hawaii Islands, Honolulu or its territorial waters. RI is ranked #1 per capita in the nation for gambling and lottery at $1,712.82 per person per year (that’s $1,712.82 in food on the family table or clothing for the little ones or a private school voucher)

PS: State of Hawaii has DOT snow plow driver jobs on the books for Nov. to Mar. every year. After plowing the roads (3 blizzards declared by NWS in 2008 last year) you can swim in 80 degree beach water!

Posted by: Ken at October 9, 2009 12:41 AM

Nothing. Taxation is theft. Let the market decide their worth.

So you're going to pay a fee every time you want police services? A toll on every road?

Posted by: EMT at October 11, 2009 1:36 PM
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