By EMERSON LYNN
A year ago, TDI New England lost in its bid to lay a high-voltage cable under Lake Champlain, a $1.2 billion project to bring clean energy from Quebec to Massachusetts utilities. When the bid was turned down Vermont lost $720 million to be paid out over 40 years, money that could have been used for a variety of purposes including the state’s clean water efforts, recreation potentials, and on and on.
For a split second we began to dream a little, we began to think on a larger scale, we began to imagine our “if only” potential. It was nice.
That opportunity is behind us, but it is worth asking whether the way we govern ourselves is the best way to develop our potentials. It’s worth asking if there aren’t some variances we could explore that would bring additional benefits to the state, and to each of our 14 counties.
As a small example consider a hypothetical proposal for a large indoor sports arena, something that included soccer fields, swimming pools, running tracks, exercise facilities, etc., all the sorts of things that would attract traffic from other regions and other states, traffic that would fill our hotels, restaurants, etc.
In Vermont, that’s not possible to build because we organize our local governments into the smallest units possible, and limit their authority to that which is explicitly conferred by the State, a legal principle out of the middle 1800s referred to as the Dillon’s Rule. As individual units our municipalities have very limited authority. That limitation includes being able to explore the advantages of county, or regional government. It mitigates against efforts to collaborate.
Back to the sports center hypothetical, which, for illustration purposes, would largely be a Chittenden County project: Not one of the 19 municipalities has a large enough population, or the resources to build and to maintain the project as described. As a result, each town competes against one another for this same target market and each town has a very limited version[s] of the hypothetical project.
If, however, these 19 municipalities were able to act as one, they would be able to build and to operate a facility that would be the envy of the region and, arguably, a facility that would generate the sort of broad prosperity to the region that would not exist otherwise.
There isn’t anything easy about the suggestion. It represents a massive change in the way we think. It means thinking collectively and not individually.
The idea has other applications. For example, are we really operating as efficiently as we might be by having each of our municipalities responsible for their own police and fire departments? Or would it cost taxpayers less, and would they get better coverage if the duplication was eliminated and communities actually had more officers and firefighters?
This collaborative potential could represent the survival/prosperity for Vermont’s most rural environs. Out of the state’s 14 counties, more than half are losing population. How are they to reverse course, how are they to lay the groundwork to step ahead if they are not allowed [or encouraged] to collaborate with their neighboring municipalities in a way that considers, shared resources?
This potential is an off-shoot of the same discussions being forced upon us by our demographic challenges. It’s part of the school consolidation effort. It involves college campuses being closed and the decline of our town centers. It involves an aging state with an increasingly expensive overhead; an overhead that requires some creative thinking if it’s to be managed.
There is a Brigham-type decision in opposition, which is that regional or county “governance” has winners and losers. Which, back to the sports center hypothetical, means one town gets the center and the others don’t, yet the others pick up a small share of the costs.
True, it’s not a “spreading of the wealth equally” proposition. But here’s the take-away: If that is the way we continue to think, and to govern, then, yes, there will be no “winners.” Instead, we all lose. Equally.
Is that the best we can do?
It’s time to rekindle the “if only” dreams to include how we can best govern ourselves and what that might produce.