County government: new bellwether of change and innovation?

Ken Schriner's 30-year career in the Iowa heartland has been a varied one - hog butcher, cement mason, politician. On leave from a Cedar Rapids meat-packing plant, Mr. Schriner is a Linn County supervisor. He helps preside over a multimillion-dollar budget and is cultivating expertise in issues like road maintenance, health care, criminal justice, and nuclear power.

In a time when even city mayors are considered vice-presidential material, county officials largely remain like Mr. Schriner, concerned citizens participating in government rather than professional politicians.

Indeed, many of the 4,500 elected county officials who met under the Seattle Space Needle this week for the National Association of Counties (NACo) convention were much like Mr. Schriner.

Their basic approach to governing is intact not because of a lack of sophistication but because they remain closer to their electorates than any federal official - they still live next door to constituents and still list their home phone numbers.

The role of these officials and their county governments is evolving with national trends and has taken on greater significance, public administration experts told conventioneers.

The national perspective given these local politicians on the state of the county suggests:

* County government will be the new bellwether of change and innovation. Urban pressures have scattered to the county level as people seek the higher quality of life perceived in a rural setting. Counties thus become heir to the revenue, vitality, and challenges formerly focused in urban centers.

* The atmosphere of the tax revolt and the New Federalism emphasizing decentralization of government tends to push responsibility to a more local level.

* While county government has long been taken for granted, a new awareness of environmental and economic problems prompts more involvement in county government. Citizens often feel their participation counts for more locally than at a state or federal level.

''County elected officials have thought of themselves as representatives of rural areas. But they're finding that 150,000 to 200,000 people in a rural area are demanding urban services,'' explains Dr. Conrad Joyner, a political science professor at the University of Arizona in Tuscon.

He says counties were created by states as a matter of efficiency to conduct the business geographically unfeasible by a state government.

Today the efficiency of the regional type of goverment is also shifting responsibility away from cities toward the counties.

''The balance of political power is out of the city now,'' and city officials are sharing power with county officials, explained Matthew Coffey, executive director of NACo.

The shift is occurring faster than citizens, the press, or even elected officials themselves realize, he says.

''Where growth happens is where we'll see innovation,'' says John Elkins, vice-president of the Naisbitt Group, a consulting firm founded by ''Megatrends'' author John Naisbitt.

Counties, Mr. Elkins says, ''will be the bellwether of change because the population is shifting out of the cities to the 50/50'' areas - 50 miles from a metropolitan center, with populations of 50,000 - which are within the jurisdiction of counties but outside cities.

The appeal of these areas, he says, is the sense of a rural setting and high quality of life. They attract upwardly mobile and educated families who will demand the services of an urban setting, but who will have ''activist'' sensibilities that will lead to new ways of solving problems.

Mr. Elkins says statistics already show participation in local government is higher than in state or national politics.

''People feel like their vote and participation really goes toward a decision locally,'' he says.

But Dr. Joyner says Americans don't yet fully embrace county government, that traditionally its services - road repair, welfare, hospitals, fire and jail services - are taken for granted.

''There are 600,000 people in Pima County but only 225,000 in Tuscon. And yet if you ask someone where they're from they'll say 'Tuscon.' And less than 1 percent of Pima County can name more than one constable,'' offers Dr. Joyner. Further he says he knows of no more than one textbook on county government in the US, a country with 3,106 counties.

''It's nice to say that the county is the government of the future, but a multifaceted county will be the focal point. The genius of Americans in politics is that new forms (of government) are always evolving,'' says Dr. Joyner.

Partnership is a solution many counties are finding for regional problems.

Services ranging from jails to garbage collection and parks and recreation are contracted out to individual firms by counties. Dr. Joyner says the public-private partnership is often extended to multi-agencies contracting.

In Pima County, for example, he says the library is funded jointly by the city and county, and the metropolitan narcotics squad is a partnership funded by four local agencies.

Mr. Elkins says that though counties traditionally have been slow to adopt state-of-the-arts equipment - or even management techniques - they are likely to be the new catalysts for technological innovation simply by pursuing the needs of their growing responsbilities. For example, he cites the county need to cut back on jail costs.

It costs $75 a day to house a prisoner in jail, but only $10 a day to confine them to house arrest, monitored through an electronic bracelet. The incentive to create that technology would be created if counties had a demand for such equipment.

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