When people hear that local government is the place where they can have the most impact as a force in our democracy, some remain doubtful. The old refrain of not being able to fight city hall seems to resonate.
Feeling like they can’t make a difference, most citizens opt out of taking part in the very process of shaping their community in ways that determine, to a large extent, their quality of life and sense of civic pride.
That’s a shame, because it really is true that our cities become the places citizens want them to be — at least the citizens who vote, that is. Those who don’t apparently are happy letting their neighbors make the decisions for them.
The mayors and city council members we elect certainly have a large role to play in guiding the growth and development of our cities. But, over time, the decisions voters make in bond elections are perhaps the most impactful of all.
The very low voter turnout in these elections may be because we haven’t come up with a better name for these profoundly critical opportunities to shape the place we call home.
A better name than “bond” election might be something like “what do you want your city to be” election.
Everything from the streets we drive on, to the police and fire facilities and equipment that protect us and keep us safe, to the parks and recreation improvements, to our libraries, civic and convention centers, performing arts and City Hall itself would simply never happen unless we the people want them.
It’s not our elected or management officials of the city who determine whether these things get built. It’s the people who live there who do — or, more correctly, it’s the people who vote who do.
In many cities, planning for what to build next begins when the city council appoints a citizens’ committee and gives them the assignment of bringing back a plan for what they would like to see happen in the next phase of developing public facilities.
Some may think these brick, mortar and steel facilities are funded in the annual city budget. They are not. Most of the money in the budget, 75 to 80 percent of it, is for the purpose of paying the career public employees who serve us.
Local government is a service-delivery business. If we want to make the city bigger and better, we have to authorize major capital improvements separately.
Fort Worth voters did that earlier this year with an ambitious but essential bond program that will add almost $300 million in improvements to their city. Margins of victory for all the measures ranged from 68 to 83 percent of the vote.
The message was loud and clear from voters: We want to ensure a promising future by making the city better.
Now it’s Arlington’s turn. Next month, voters will decide the fate of four propositions designed to address fundamental needs to serve the 380,000 residents, businesses and visitors to the city.
Construction of streets and major roadways makes up the largest of the proposals, followed by park and recreation improvements, then fire department facilities and, in the fourth proposition, libraries.
The total package comes to $236 million.
Just as in Fort Worth, no tax rate increase will be required.
New financing will be coordinated with the repayment of debt from previous bond programs.
It’s up to the city’s residents again to decide what kind of place they’ll call home.
The way it works is that the people decide. It’s as it should be.