Think Locally, Act Regionally

Regional Government's All the Rage - Are We Ready?

illustration by Doug Potter

So where is Central Texas, anyway? It used to be a place known only to travel writers, TV weathercasters, and the friends and relations of Lyndon Johnson. Nobody actually lived there. Instead, they lived in Austin, or in towns Outside Austin (as opposed to "suburbs"), or in a place, now nearly vanished, called Out-in-the-County (and its neighbor Way-Out-in-the-Next-County), where there were no chain-builder subdivisions or highway strips, and where the farm-to-market roads really connected farms to markets. In as little as 10 years, growth has wiped this all away. Now city, towns, and counties have all but merged into a single entity, dubbed "Central Texas" for lack of a better name. (If we're Central Texas, then where is Waco?) On the ground, this took about a generation. In our minds, where it matters, it's only taken about two years. And it still hasn't happened at the political level, where our newly conceived metropolis comprises hundreds of jurisdictions, great and small, whose goals and actions are often, shall we say, disharmonious.

That's why "regionalism" is bound to join "boondoggle," "social fabric," and (paradoxically) "compact city" as a watchword of our times, sure to bring back misty memories of fin-de-siècle Austin when we're all in our dotage. But what does "regionalism" mean? Does it just mean playing nice with our neighbors, or does it mean setting up new frameworks, perhaps even new governments, to solve problems that transcend our obsolete political turf system? These are big questions with many answers, which is why, so far, regionalism has been merely a talking point. According to the leaders on the front lines, though, we're about to see that talk translated into action.

Mayor May Not

One point on which everyone agrees: The climate for regional cooperation, in whatever form, is much more hospitable now than it was 20, or 10, or even five years ago. "The fact that I can pick up the phone and call Kirk Watson or Haywood Ware or David Duckett, and they can call me, is important in itself," says Round Rock Mayor Charlie Culpepper, referring to his counterparts in Austin, Pflugerville, and Cedar Park. "We can cut through a lot of bureaucracy. That's a new concept to us, so I'm pleased that it's an available option."

That's about as far, though, as Culpepper wants to go down the road toward regional unification. "If we're talking about a regional government, I'd be totally against it," he says. "I live in Round Rock, as opposed to somewhere else, for a reason, and that's the same with folks in Pflugerville or Georgetown or Austin. We can work to plan the growth of the region together - so we can benefit from not having duplicate infrastructure - and still maintain our independence."

Culpepper's view represents, if not exactly the status quo - since entities like the Lower Colorado River Authority are de facto, if limited-purpose, regional governments - then at least the mainstream wisdom, held by leaders of diverse ideological stripes. For example, outgoing Travis County Judge Bill Aleshire notes that "creating one government isn't consistent with the people's desire to have the maximum control over their government. We need better attitudes among local officials more than we need the elixir of metropolitan government. It wouldn't be any more successful in Texas than it was in the U.S.S.R."

A simple upswing in civility and sensitivity between the city, towns, and counties would likely avert some of the lawsuits, public firestorms, and craven (and illegal) special-interest legislation that typify our dysfunctional regional family. But in an epoch where nearly every important issue cuts across jurisdictional boundaries - transportation, annexation, environmental protection, economic development, social service delivery, even simple land-use regulation - it'll probably take something more formal and weighty than a handshake to come up with effective solutions.

Moving up one tick on the Unification Scale, we find San Marcos Mayor Billy Moore, who envisions "the region organizing itself into sub-regional partnerships of interest." He cites as examples his city's collaboration with the Guadalupe/Blanco River Authority, and with local water providers throughout the Guadalupe River basin, to build a regional water treatment plant and pipeline. By giving all participants equity in the project, and by setting rates based on each player's actual cost of service, "there's no master-slave relationship with either GBRA or San Marcos."

Likewise, says Moore, when San Marcos petitioned the Texas Department of Transportation for changes and additions to TxDOT's I-35 improvement plans, "because we all share I-35, we went with 40 jurisdictions backing us up. And those same 40 jurisdictions are supporting the regional transportation plan from the [Greater Austin-San Antonio] Corridor Council, including SH130, commuter rail, and relocating Union Pacific facilities."

Moore points to numerous other examples, both on the government-to-government level and through larger frameworks like the Corridor Council and the area's two state-chartered councils of government, the Capital Area Planning Council (CAPCO) and the Alamo Area Council of Governments (AACOG). (More on them later.) "Instead of having a single regional government, we have an ever-changing mix of affiliations based on specific interests," he says. "Entities that are all stakeholders have seen the wisdom of joining hands and forming full partnerships, and when those have done their job, they leave their benefits" - whether it be common infrastructure or ongoing contracts for services - "behind."

Hog Farms and School Sites

This sort of ad hoc regionalism works well under two conditions - when there's a tangible end result, like a water system or a binding development plan or a long-term service contract, and when the jurisdictions have shared goals to which they can each contribute. Without the former, regional partnerships can end up like a lot of Austin neighborhood associations, vigorous in the heat of a political moment and desiccated when that moment passes. (Witness the Corridor Council itself - the "Austintonio" concept was hot in 1983 when it was created, cooled off substantially, and now is hot again, fueled by interest in actual projects like SH130.)

As for shared goals, their absence sows the seeds for the donnybrooks that erupt between jurisdictions and spark calls for regionalism. Witness the heat over AISD site selection in Southwest Travis County, generated by conflicting visions of school district, city, county, aquifer district, and diverse community groups. Or, even more pungently, the proposed Hog Farm development at Austin's far northwestern edge - set to gum up the planning works of four cities, two counties, various MUDs, three school districts, ACC, Capital Metro, and more than one state agency.

"The area of northern Travis and southern Williamson County," says Moore from his San Marcos remove, "is, right now, the poster child for what happens when overlapping jurisdictions don't, or can't, work together. Most of the structure within which they could work together is already there, and has always been there, but hasn't worked effectively because of trust and territory issues." Of course, Moore's own county, and the neighboring reaches of southern Travis, is still a lingering battleground for the regional cataclysm known by shorthand as "S.O.S."

In such situations, what's needed is not a joint venture but a referee - a regional framework with the authority, or at least the commanding presence, to knock heads together. Which is when the fact that we live in Texas, where "local control" is the Eleventh Commandment, becomes painfully relevant. Every metro area on the globe confronts these same regional issues, and many - though not without much labor - end up with some sort of regional government, with a full set of teeth, that can chew on them.

Sticking just to our own continent: The Elysian Fields of progressive politics, Oregon, has America's only elected, multi-purpose regional government (Portland Metro), but binding regional political power takes many other forms. There's California's air quality management districts, and Minnesota's regional tax-base redistribution (the "fiscal disparities system"). There's New Jersey, with its statewide comprehensive land-use plan, and Maryland, where the state manages all transportation planning, including running the public-transit system. There's the recent consolidation of Toronto and its suburban townships into a "megacity," and city-county mergers in many states where - unlike in Texas - the counties have municipal (i.e., ordinance) powers, and are large enough to encompass whole regional economies. The most vivid example may be Miami, where wholesale consolidation with Dade County has led to attempts to de-incorporate the city entirely.

Three sub-regional partnerships with overlapping interests: the Capitol Area Planning Council, the Austin Transportation Study, and the Greater Austin-San Antonio Corridor Council.

Duplication Frustration

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the elected leader most willing to countenance such big-deal, brand-new-thing moves toward a regional framework is Kirk Watson. "I think for us - any of us - to just try to form partnerships is ultimately working within an antiquated system," says Austin's mayor. "If I could just snap my fingers and do it, and didn't have to worry about the political realities or how to make it happen, you'd have an elected regional governing board and it would have a sole source of funding" - that is, taxing authority, which Portland Metro does not have, or some sort of tax-base sharing à la Minnesota. "But it wouldn't be so large that you couldn't meet specialized needs; for example, if it's too large, the outlying population could outvote the urban core, which has unique areas of need. That, in my thinking, would represent a real community of interest."

Watson, of course, knows that - barring a direct act of God upon the Texas Legislature - this will not happen any day soon. What could happen, however, and has been talked about for years, is some meaningful consolidation of Austin and Travis County government. Again, though, we're not talking about shared goals here. Listen to the rhetoric greasing the current commissioners court races - with all the talk of expanding services to, and defending the interests of, the lands beyond the city limits - and the promise of merger seems remote. This despite the fact that, if you take away Austin, and then take away the MUDs whose annexation into Austin is an eventual certainty, what's left of Travis County is about five ZIP codes, almost no tax base, and only the most skeletal public services.

That last point, true of many urban Texas counties (though, significantly, not Harris, Dallas, or Tarrant), is what makes the quest for city-county merger into a fiscal issue for Austin leaders. Austin residents pay, through their county taxes, for roads and parks and public safety outside the city limits - the same services the commissioner candidates want to see broadened and widened. Yet the city budget receives little support from the Travis County coffers, even though the rest of the county drives our roads, uses our parks, and on occasion commits crimes in our streets. The lack of equity is especially piquant in the currently much-discussed case of EMS, which is run by the city - with a contribution from the county - but serves the entire county and beyond.

As a result, Austinites are taxed twice to pay for EMS, even though the cost of service to non-city residents is far higher. "We could fix EMS just by adjusting the respective tax rates," says Watson, "where county taxes would go up and city taxes down and the EMS service structure remains the same. But the best of all worlds would be an entity, larger than the city and perhaps larger than the county, that could provide these services and raise its own revenue. Then we wouldn't need to worry about the inequity to Austinites, and the county - or other cities - wouldn't have to worry about raising their own taxes." This is the rationale behind Portland Metro, which in addition to regional planning provides solid-waste services and manages the bulk of the park system for the six counties within its boundaries, and subsists largely on the resulting revenues.

A simpler solution, at least in cases like EMS, might be to turn services directly over to the county - the solution implied in County Commissioner Karen Sonleitner's recent comment that, "We already have a regional government, and it's called the Travis County Commissioners Court." (Of course, the reason the city manages things like EMS is that the county doesn't have the expertise or the infrastructure, but that, presumably, could also be fixed.) At least in the EMS case we don't see the duplication of services that's endemic elsewhere in city and county government, which to Aleshire is the real problem. "What we need is city-county clarification, rather than consolidation," he says.

"Right now, a subdivision plat in the Austin ETJ needs to be approved by both city and county, and both are allowed to have completely different rules," Aleshire continues. "It's a mandated duplication of government and creates chaos where we need reason. I don't have a strong feeling over whether it should be only the city's responsibility or only the county's, but it needs to be only one or the other. If we could make decisions about who does what, based on both logic and tax equity, and have a better organized system, the elected officials would be much better able to cooperate and be flexible."

COGs in the Regional Wheel

The duplication of which Aleshire speaks is mandated by the legislature, which is ultimately the main target of the county judge's arrows. "We need to get their attention, since they're the ones who write laws that create inefficiency and confusion," he says. "It's the responsibility of the legislature and the governor to fix this mess, not the job of the mayor and the county judge. We're sworn to uphold the laws we have, so it doesn't matter what we'd do. They're the ones who sit mum session after session as chaos breaks out all around."

Despite his differing vision of the ideal regional government, Watson's desires of the legislature are similar to Aleshire's. "There's an implicit agreement between the state and the localities," the mayor says, "that - since the state does nothing in the way of economic development or helping cities - it will stay out of our business, allow us annexation powers, or the freedom to create our own environmental policy. Taking that to the next step, regions should be free to likewise create their own policy. If the legislature can create the tools for regions who want to work together, then they should."

But wait, you can almost hear the legislature saying, we did create regional governments and frameworks for cooperation. There are the obvious entities like the river authorities (such as the LCRA, whom Aleshire says "should be responsible for all our water issues, since their jurisdiction matches the actual environment"). And there's the Austin Transportation Study, which is actually federally mandated under ISTEA as a "metropolitan planning organization" or MPO, but which mostly plays with money controlled by TxDOT. (An aside: San Marcos mayor Moore sits on a National League of Cities task force that's urging the Feds to route their block-granted money, including the pot of gold that is ISTEA, directly to regional entities like MPOs instead of via the states. If heeded, such a change would quickly reconfigure the regional playing field.)

And then there are the state's 20-odd councils of government (COGs), based in each of the state's official (i.e., Census Bureau-defined) metro areas, including the aforementioned CAPCO, whose boundaries basically track the river from Llano to La Grange, and AACOG, which stretches well beyond Bexar County and adjoins CAPCO. (Every county in the state lies within one or another COG, though the councils vary greatly in size.) The fact that many Austinites, including the highly politically literate, have never heard of CAPCO tells you about all you need to know about the power of the COGs, although some of the state's other councils have started to take teeny-weeny baby steps toward providing region-wide single-source public services.

For the most part, CAPCO - which in the two-year tenure of current executive director Betty Voights has awoken from a decades-long snooze - is torn by the dual mandate of all the COGs: They're chartered to do regional planning across a gamut of cross-jurisdictional issues (like transportation, economic development, and social services), ostensibly to avoid the wholesale duplication of these functions. At the same time, they provide "technical assistance" to cities and counties who can't afford, say, to hire their own planner or maintain their own geographic information system (GIS, an indispensable tool for local government). Given that their funding is at best sparse, and that the have-not communities generally dominate the COGs' governing boards, it's small wonder which of these aims gets higher priority. (Right now, Austin doesn't have a rep on the CAPCO board, Councilmember Daryl Slusher having resigned upon being appointed to the Capital Metro board.)

As Voights sees it, though, the inability of CAPCO to lead the regional planning and cooperation we all say we want, and which it was in theory created to do, is only partly due to its lack of resources and competing mandates. "Even though you hear about regionalism a lot," she says, "my own experience has been that, while people do a good job of coming together to solve specific regional problems, when it comes to long-range planning, people are more hesitant because they feel turf is involved. In our region, it's going to take working together, little by little, rural and urban, on small things first, for everyone to like and trust one another.

"Right now, we're concentrating on niche services, things that we can do because nobody else is," continues Voights. "We don't want to duplicate services or step on anyone's toes, but fill in the gaps." For example, CAPCO is doing the GIS that backs up 911 service throughout its 10-county region; this, in turn, supports its regional planning work, such as current efforts to identify affordable-housing infill possibilities outside Travis County. "Our role is to pick a few things that we can do well for the region and start doing them; as we gain credibility, folks will get more comfortable relying on us for other things." Other things could include the kind of regional land-use plan that would place the Hog Farm, to pick out the latest example, within its proper context, a project that, right now, only CAPCO has anything resembling statutory authority to undertake.

Insulated Power

Well, actually, ATS could do such planning, if its scope were broadened to include more than just transportation - as Aleshire puts it, "They're called an MPO for a reason; they really ought to be able to plan for all infrastructure and consider all its implications." Other MPOs across the country have such a broadened role; indeed, many communities simply affixed the MPO label onto already existing regional entities. But this would require an explicit change of course by all the jurisdictions represented in ATS, whereas CAPCO already, at least in theory, has the mandate. "We're willing to be a regional player in whatever way we can fit in, and I don't know if, as a COG, there's a role that we can perform better than anyone else," says Voights, who signed the 26-year-old CAPCO's first cooperation agreement with the 11-year-old ATS. "But it would be silly to create a new organization when you already have one."

Actually, we have two, which returns us to the Corridor Council, which though not really in competition with CAPCO (in fact, it serves as a sort of bridge between CAPCO and AACOG) offers both a different model - public/private partnership, with most of the operating money coming from the business community - and a different definition of the region, running north-south along the highway instead of east-west along the river. "The Corridor Council operates on whatever degree of consensus it can accumulate on an issue," says executive director Ross Milloy. "We have no statutory authority at all; our only tool is the amount of intergovernmental cooperation and popular support we can build for an idea or project or outcome."

Ironically, the Corridor Council's lack of prescribed political power, which insulates it nicely from almost all turf battles, vastly improves its real power to lobby jurisdictions within its terrain, and lobby on their behalf to the state and federal big boys, and get public acceptance of a regional vision and agenda that, from Milloy's description, is at least as vast as Watson's. "I'd like to see a vision that combines a regional park system, a regional transportation plan, and some form of regional environmental and quality-of-life protection. They're trans-jurisdictional issues, and there's an enormous waste when governments duplicate their efforts.

"And there's obvious economies of scale when you cooperate on things like workforce development and distribution, or - something that's never talked about in this area - on education and the arts," Milloy continues. "San Antonio and Austin are both looking at building Hispanic arts and cultural centers (here, the 16-year old Mexican-American Cultural Center project). Maybe it would make more sense to build just one, and invest the rest of our money in a transit system allowing you to get from one to the other in less than an hour."

Whether it's a few small successes or a great many big ideas, whether it's along the Colorado or up and down I-35, and whether it's a network of handshake relationships or a new super-government, the new regionalism seems ripe to produce some sort of near-term legacy. And as Austin - sorry, Central Texas - continues to grow and transform its surroundings, a broader number of players and interests will conspire to make regionalism both inevitable and desirable. "Growth has driven people together," says Voights. "The communities have figured out that they can no longer choose to be part of the region; all they can do is decide how they'll fit in when the region comes to them."

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