Bigger is always? Bigger

The most recent solution-in-search-of-a-problem championedby the local media is regionalization of government services.  Sewers.  Fire. Police.  Schools.

Now, I am sure there are some savings that can be found whenyou have over a dozen municipalities occupying an area roughly the same squaremileage and population as Jacksonville, Florida.

But the justification for regionalization now seems to bethat this will help stem the tide of young adults leaving Cape Cod. Like maybelower taxes? Or better schools because they're bigger and cheaper? Sorry, I'mtrying to play devil's advocate here, but coming from a small town with a verylow tax rate, by this reasoning we should have tons of young families. Instead,we're the oldest town in the state. Maybe we're just not doing it BIG ENOUGH?

This is how I summed up a query on Facebook, posted tofriends who grew up on the Cape but have since moved away these twoquestions:  1) Why did you leave?and, 2) What would induce you to return?

The answers were not terribly surprising.  Not having any 4-year institution ofhigher learning in the area, many said they went away to school and then becameensconced wherever they were.  Theyliked what they found in the wider world.

It may sound heretical in this resort community, but yes,there are many, many other beautiful places in the world.  They are as much in competition with usfor tourists as for that most locally-undervalued person - the full-time,year-round, wage-earning 25-45 year-old resident.

But, greater, was a theme of opportunity.  Specifically, one respondent answeredwhy she left Cape Cod:

  • a) Nowhere towork
  • b) Nowhere towork in winter (yes, two things entirely)
  • c) No careeropportunities (see a and b)
  • d) Its oncecool austerity and grittiness has been replaced with cheesy gift shops and"quaint" cuteness imported from cities in an attempt to make itsomething it's not
  • e) Arts,shopping, etc.

She went onto explain, "I've lived in NYC for over 16 years.My living space is extremely small, my housing expenses astronomical and taxesare through the roof-BUT I have opportunity here -- to make money, work in anyindustry (almost) I choose. Almost everything is accessible. I sorely miss theocean, but the benefits outweigh the costs. Lowertaxes and better schools would never entice me to move back. Even ifhousing were free, it would still make more financial sense to pay $90 persquare foot and live some place where I could make a living. Simple as that."

As for what would get her to move back:  "Jobs, jobs and jobs."

Another friend who has worked both on and off-Cape (andlikes performing those small town self-services like bringing his own trash tothe dump), has the skills to earn much more elsewhere.  But the opportunities just aren't therefor his highly-trained spouse.

Talking directly to my concern, he observed, "Regionalizationof services is a partial solution to budget woes, but it's long-term andpainful, and it's not at all a reason someone moves to an area."

Now, certainly this is an unscientific sampling, and I donot pass this off as representative of a cross-section of the Cape CodDiaspora.  But they are for themost part well-educated, high earning, upstanding, responsible adults.  Just the sort of people you would wantliving next door, who on those rainy days when you get back from thesupermarket and are trying to get everything inside, offer to lend a hand.  Or when the power goes out.  Or to check on your house when you'reon vacation.

The media here on the Cape have failed its expatriatechildren by failing to ask them what THEY WANT.  Instead, powers-that-be have announced what they are willingto do: make local government more efficient by making it bigger.  I'm reminded of a quote from the movie"Contact" - "First rule in government spending: why build one when you can havetwo at twice the price?"

Specifically, and to its credit, The Chronicle has deflated the argument that there will be anyreduction of costs by regionalizing Chatham and Harwich schools.  That there would be a greater benefitto students by more educational programs is, however highly dubious.  Perhaps marginally, but no seriousclaims are being made that SAT scores will jump, or we'll be getting state ofthe art gymnasium or science lab.

Worse, the "big schools" idea flies in the face of reams ofstudies that suggest what parents and teachers want most, and the environmentin which students thrive best, are small, neighborhood schools with lowteacher-pupil ratios.  So even ifthe argument is that better schools will attract more families to move here,we're offering a Chevy Suburban when the customer clearly wants a ToyotaPrius.  They want smaller, notbigger.  More control, not less.

I am concerned that what really is going on is yet anotherlurch away from Town Meeting control of any budgetary issues.  When regionalized, a bill for theservice is simply rendered upon the Town. Voters on the floor of Town Meeting do not have the chance, as they dowith a purely-municipal budget item, to pick apart the budget,item-by-item.  Withregionalization, those who work for the larger bureaucracy serve a largerpopulation -- and thus, are accountable to virtually no one.

In essence, we would be going in the opposite direction ofwhat is most desired by those we so righteously protest to help.  But if we are serious about returningto a more balanced community, welcoming those of all ages, the answer bearsrepeating: "Jobs, jobs and jobs."

Read this and Andy's other columns online at The Cape Cod Chronicle.

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