Sunday, April 23, 2006

Local Government--It's Not What Jefferson Imagined

The reason I haven't posted in the last two days is that I have been immersed in the real estate swap meet that seems to have taken over the world. We are selling two places and buying another, driven primarily by the desire to downsize: Now that the other World Wide Webers have grown up and moved to their own websites--sorry, I mean homes--Mary-Jo and I don't need four bedrooms any more.

Nor do we need to keep paying the high taxes that support one of the western world's best school systems here in Chappaqua. We have Nobel Prize winners in physics and chemistry teaching in the local elementary schools. Well, that's a slight exaggeration. But the schools are really good, and really expensive--which is why people with money and small kids compete for houses here. (When their own kids are involved, people disregard the conservative theory that education is all about discipline and moral values, and that "throwing money at schools" is pointless. For some reason, that concept gets trotted out only when the conversation turns to providing better funding for schools in poor neighborhoods.)

One of the most time-consuming aspects of our in-the-works home sale is a series of renovations we must to do get a certificate of occupancy for our basement from the town building department. Seems that the people from whom we bought the house seventeen years ago never bothered to get a C of O when they finished the space, and the issue never arose when we bought the house. It's odd and illogical, but local real estate people and attorneys tell us that the rules haven't changed, but that enforcement has become much more strict in recent years.

So now we are scrambling to make a bunch of changes that range from the seemingly arbitrary to the patently absurd, including reconstructing a soffit that carries some wires and a pipe alongside one wall so that the ceiling clearance is the full, required 80 inches rather than the current 78 1/2 inches; installing a large casement window in my office to serve as a required "second means of egress" from the basement (the exit through the garage doesn't count because it's considered a "dangerous space"--what, you didn't realize your garage was a death trap?); and expanding the doorway from the office into the main basement room from 30 to 48 inches so that this second means of egress is more readily accessible. All this work is generating lots of noise and dust and costing us a pretty penny.

I'm a believer in safety regulations, and I understand that one-size-fits-all rules will sometimes, inevitably, produce individual outcomes that seem unfair. That's life. But it would have been nice if our town had promulgated the rules more clearly and enforced them consistently, so that these items would have been taken care of years ago--preferably by the people who actually finished the basement in the first place, when they would have been easy and inexpensive to do.

I had a problem that was similar and even more painful many years ago when Mary-Jo and I lived in New York City. After I had been doing freelance work from our apartment in the Bronx for several years, we were suddenly notified that I owed the city payments for something called unincorporated business tax. The rate wasn't very high, but the interest and penalties made the total bill many thousands of dollars--quite a shock to a couple of young people living month-to-month and just managing to keep up with our bills.

At the time, I was calculating our own taxes and filing the forms myself, and I swear to God that the incorporated business tax was not mentioned anywhere in the official instructions provided by the city. Apparently I was supposed to just know that it existed. This sounds incredible, but shortly after my rude awakening, financial guru Andrew Tobias wrote a column about his own similar expdrience with the unincorporated business tax. His anger and frustration helped drive him out of the city soon thereafter. (Mary-Jo and I also moved out of town, of course, but not for that reason--see comments above about the schools in Chappaqua.)

We all grow up with quasi-Jeffersonian propaganda about how local governments are "closer to the people" and therefore much more responsive than the big, bad federal bureaucracy. So powerful is this propaganda and so common-sensical is its logic that it took me a long time to realize that it's totally false. Nearly all of the really bad experiences I've had with governments have involved town, county, or state offices, while federal agencies--though sometimes no picnic--are usually reasonably well run.

Of course, this is a generalization, which means there are significant exceptions. But I think the rule is basically valid. Just consider--the infamous motor vehicle bureaus are not run by the federal government. By contrast, the most effective and widely appreciated government programs--things like Social Security, Medicare, the federal highway system, and the National Parks--are administered at the national level.

This may change if the Republicans control the federal government for a few more terms. Bush has been running agencies like FEMA the way county commissioners run sewer and highway maintenance departments--as dumping grounds for politically-connected cronies, family members, and campaign donors. And letting lobbyists write legislation to establish new programs, as with the absurd Medicare drug benefit, is another way of guaranteeing that the federal government will eventually become as confused and ineffectual as state and local governments. Think of it as yet another proud accomplishment of the Bush administration--dragging Washington down to the level of the local town hall.

Tags: , , , ,
AddThis Social Bookmark Button

"Infused with entrepreneurial spirit and the excitement of a worthy challenge."--Publishers Weekly

Read more . . .


What do GE, Pepsi, and Toyota know that Exxon, Wal-Mart, and Hershey don't?  It's sustainability . . . the business secret of the twenty-first century.

Read more . . .