CAF: Local action is often where we have real opportunity to make a difference. This article by Pete Heckman was originally published on March 8, 2009. It is timeless, so we are republishing to inspire you to shift time to your state and local elections and find opportunities to support excellent local leadership]

By Gary L. Heckman

Growing up in a small town in Northern Michigan, my family learned to become somewhat self-sufficient and not to rely on anyone except immediate neighbors for help in their day-to-day living. My Father worked outside the home for a gasoline company and my Mother and the rest of the family developed and operated a small resort. Northern Michigan was noted for its pleasant environment, especially during the Summer Season, and attracted many tourists and visitors and much of the local economy was tourist oriented.

We didn’t live right in town but just outside and looked upon it as our town. Most people didn’t rely on the local government for much other than to keep the snow plowed in the winter and to provide police and fire protection. There was no public sewer and water systems and the electricity was operated by a private company. The other local governments provided public education, although I went to the local parochial school which was funded through donations and contributions.

The County Government plowed the other local streets and the State of Michigan maintained the state highways. My point being that we didn’t notice much impact from the government agencies during this time which was the 1950’s and 60’s. We basically took care of ourselves.

I left this small town to explore the world and to get a higher education. As with most people who leave their roots, I started to miss the things that I grew up with and the value system I developed from this environment. So I moved back.

Needless to say, the town grew bigger and more and more development occurred, especially in the tourist “industry” has it became known. I needed a job so I took one with the City Government as the City Manager. This is when reality struck me and I came to realize how much people really did depend on their local government.

During my tenure the City became the owner and operator of both a water and sewer system, a full time Department of Public Works for highway and other public works projects, a full time Police Department, a volunteer fire Department, an Ambulance Corp, a new and complete Library, two museums, a year round parks and recreation program including an indoor skating rink, an indoor swimming pool, a ski and tubing hill, a marina, several boat launching ramps, a golf course, and an airport. The town now had a Chamber of Commerce, a Tourist Association, downtown retailers group and a Downtown Development Authority. To operate all these entities and enterprises, the City had a small but an efficient administrative staff.

Yes, the citizenry became very reliant on the City for it’s every need and expectation. Because the tourist trade was still the main industry, more and more was expected from the City, not only to provide the infrastructure to meet the tourists needs, but also the stimulus to get the tourist to keep coming. Special events were planned for just about every week end during the summer and the City became a big part of that, not only in planning but also doing, including set-up, take down, refuse
removal, etc.

Most recreational activities were dependent upon the City including all the ball programs, ( softball, baseball, soccer), swimming lessons and free swim, boating, skating including hockey, golfing, skiing, and the full gamut of activities. Of course, all public works were expected of the City including water and sewer availability, streets plowed, maintained and lighted no matter the time or conditions, refuse collection and most capital improvement items along with maintenance of all the facilities.

The cultural needs of the Community were met through operations of the very well stocked Library and the operations of two museums, one dedicated to the Native American Heritage of the area and the other to the rest of the history of the community. And of course, people wanted and needed the public safety of Police, Fire and Ambulance.

This was all happening while government mandates were increasing and local budgets were leveling off and even declining. Yet with the budgets as austere as they were, more services were expected and an increase in taxes or utility fees was out of the question.

So what does this all have to do with how you can help out your local government in meeting its obligations and expectations? I gave a little history on my community because it is much like a lot of local communities throughout the country and the many challenges that they face. With a bit of cooperation, understanding and volunteers each community can meet the wants and needs of its citizens and still do so within budgetary constraints.

Some of the following examples are obvious and some are not so obvious of how you can get involved and help your local community..

Be Understanding: I have always felt that the lower you are on the echelon in the bureaucracy , the more you are subject to the scrutiny of the public. In other words, local officials are more aware of the wants and needs of the local community then the officials at the County, State or Federal level. As such, you become more subject to criticism and complaints. I know of no local official that doesn’t have the best interest of their community at heart. Local officials are usually at the bottom of the pay scale for public employees and are certainly not in the business for the money. In small towns, a few people wear many hats and,believe it or not, the stress level can become quit high.

Most small town officials are easily accessible and will listen to their constituents. But as they say, you can’t please everyone all of the time, and the majority always rules. There was a certain person in my home town that would complain just to complain. She would write to the local newspaper weekly just to complain about one thing or another. In most cases the complaints were unsubstantiated and just took up valuable time to respond to. This is what I mean by being understanding. You may not always get the answer or solution that you had hoped for but it may be the best for the community.

Volunteer: There is more to volunteering then to just making yourself available when needed. Form local organizations for city beautification projects, clean-up neighborhood projects, gardening and planting flowers, little league parent groups, friends of the Library etc. In my small town for example, a particular parent group formed a Hockey Association to help the City in running and organizing the hockey program. This can be true for all recreational programs such as ball, soccer, and swimming programs. The City can provide and maintain the facilities while the association can run the programs. This method has the benefit of both keeping the programs as well as staying within budgetary constraints. You would be surprised how much can be saved with staffing and labor costs. Another example from my town relates to the special events that occur every week. The burden of this was always left with the city even though it benefited the retail and motel business. More volunteers certainly would have relived the burden of not only labor but refuse collection and organizing.

Get along with your neighbors: This may sound elementary but you would be surprised how much time is spent by city officials and the police trying to resolve neighborhood disputes. Barking dogs, fences, property line disputes, zoning, loud noises, etc, etc. A good deal of my time was spent in being a mediator for people who didn’t get along with their neighbor over minor issues. It is very important that you communicate with you neighbors to avoid minor issues becoming major issues.

Take care of your own blight: In conjunction with getting along with your neighbors, try to take care of the things that the neighbors would complain about. Mow your lawn, clean up trash and refuse, pick up litter, not only in your yard but also in the neighborhood, including along the streets and sidewalks, get rid of unsightly messes such as junk cars and strewn about rubbish, develop compost piles for your yard wastes, etc. These are the types of things that City officials have to deal with on a daily basis which takes up valuable time and resources.

Assist the Police and Law Enforcement: Although the Police may get involved with the things mentioned above, their time would be better spent solving real crime events. Some things that people can do to assist the Police in performing their responsibilities are:

  • Organize Neighborhood Watches and Crime Stoppers
  • Be a good parent and know where and what your children are doing at all times
  • Take care of your animals especially your dogs and cats and have them in your control at all times
  • Be constantly aware of things going on in your neighborhood and especially things that are out of the norm.
  • Don’t bother the Police for petty things such as the ones mentioned in the categories above.

Local governments have many grass root responsibilities and ever decreasing dollars do them with. Most local officials and employees are spread very thin and any help that the citizens can provide will result in a better community with more or sustained services, and all at an affordable level.

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