Saturday, April 20, 2024

114 West Elm Street
Graham, NC 27253
Ph: 336.228.7851

What’s the purpose of county government?


We’ve become convinced that many of the people attending the semi-monthly county commissioners’ meetings of late – especially those with their hands out to seek taxpayer funding of one noble cause after another – aren’t really very familiar with the commissioners’ ongoing, month-to-month duties and responsibilities.

Nor with the fundamental answer to the question: what are the fundamental purposes of county government?

Two items stand out from recent meetings.

We’re sure it’s a lovely organization, and the adult daycare program known as Friendship Adult Day Services, provides an important service in offering alternatives for residents with special needs – and a break for families who otherwise care for their relatives throughout the rest of the week.

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But the organization’s sudden urgent plea for the commissioners to fork over $40,000, $50,000, or $60,000 (the amount varies by meeting date) is, quite frankly, unreasonable.

County government is not in – or at least not supposed to be in  – the business of financing private, non-profit organizations, no matter how worthy they may be.

And while we sympathize and empathize with the challenges and difficulties that have contributed to the daycare program being in its current financial straits, that fact still does not mean the local government should step up to provide a tax-funded bailout.

Our understanding has been that county government exists to provide vital, essential services, most notably in the form of funding adequate resources for law enforcement (in the form of the sheriff’s department) and local education (i.e., the Alamance-Burlington school system).

More recent expansions have added certain health services (via the county’s health department); the administration of (not the actual benefits) certain welfare-related programs (generally under the umbrella of the department of social services); overseeing trash and recycling for rural residents; financial support for the county’s courts; providing for an efficient voting apparatus; and a few other programs and agencies.

There have already been too many extraneous “services” which the county has undertaken over many years, most notable being the steady increase in funding for programs under the broad heading of “recreation and parks.”

But at least these are all at least labeled as government departments or programs.

Indeed, we have long questioned why the county’s budget traditionally includes funding for about a half-dozen non-profit organizations.

And the fact that it has traditionally provided such funding to this limited group of organizations still does not explain, or legitimize, doing so year after year.

But the idea of adding yet another organization to the list seems to us a very dangerous precedent.

Where will the hands out for a bailout end?

We find it especially odd that while the request is deemed to be “urgent” for “temporary” assistance, there doesn’t appear to have been any offer from the organization to pay anything back to the county government.

If it were a “loan” of some sort, that would be a bit more defensible, in our judgment, although loaning money – to anyone or any organization for any purpose, again no matter how worthwhile – is still not a proper function for county government.

But at least this item is “only” for tens of thousands of dollars as opposed to millions.

Out of almost nowhere has come the idea that the county’s taxpayers should finance up to $6.5 million for some sort of “tiny houses” community for veterans.

Now, please don’t misinterpret our frugal fiscal perspective as any lack of appreciation for veterans and the incredible service they have rendered on behalf of all Americans.

The question, however, is whether local government – in this case, county government – is the appropriate source for funding millions of dollars for housing veterans.

Historically, the federal government has been at the forefront of both veterans services (i.e., an entire government agency, the Veterans Administration, dedicated to veterans, particularly their long-term medical needs) and housing for the poor or homeless (through a myriad of programs through the Department of Housing and Urban Development).

If those federal agencies are not doing their jobs – or not providing enough support for veterans – then the proper route is to discuss with our representatives in Washington about making some changes in these agencies and/or the programs they administer.

But the idea that Alamance County taxpayers should start providing a multi-million housing project for veterans seems to us far beyond the traditional, or appropriate, reach of county government.

We’re also concerned about the unintended consequences that could result from such a foray into veterans housing.

We have not observed a crisis in housing for veterans in Alamance County.  But if the county were to suddenly make available millions of dollars to build or finance dozens of “tiny houses” for them, we’re quite sure that homeless veterans would show up.

Indeed, we’re concerned that even some advocates suggest that an Alamance County-financed “veterans village” or some such housing option could be a “regional” program.

We don’t think Alamance County taxpayers should be financing a regional program, especially not for something we’re not convinced they should be required to pay for at all.

Which brings us to yet another questionable expenditure that the commissioners keep tossing around.

We appreciate all the good reasons that people want some sort of a “diversion center,” in hopes of keeping mentally-ill people (or those with various addictions) out of the county’s jail – inasmuch they are a frequent presence, according to the sheriff and others.

Our concern continues to be this: if the federal and state governments have been unable to adequately address – much less solve – the mental health system over the past several decades, how in the world does Alamance County believe it can now handle such a difficult and complex situation?

Very, very unfortunately, an awfully high proportion of the problem is that these people do not want to take their medications.  They won’t cooperate with their family members who press them to do so; they rebel against various institutional or medical settings where that same, fundamental  action is urged; and we’re not at all convinced that the outcome will be any different in a county-financed “diversion center.”

We feel that taxpayers would actually be financing another jail – an auxiliary one serving predominantly the mentally ill – while calling it a “diversion center.”

All in all, it seems to us that for both county government and the commissioners who lead it, the focus needs to be on strengthening and improving those services that the county actually should be providing – rather than branching off into areas where it shouldn’t be involved.

And if the commissioners have a hole burning in their pockets because of having too much tax revenue, how about giving some of it back to the taxpayers instead of funding inappropriate expenses?

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