What’s next for small town America?

It’s lovely out today. The sun is shining. We are having one of the warm weeks we sometimes get in November. These end abruptly when the jet stream drops down from the arctic. Until then, it’s delightful, springlike with a few puffy white clouds in a bright blue sky. I can look out my window and see trees and the few leaves that still cling to them.

Despite Conservative insistence that less government is better, living without enough government  is no blessing.

What it really means is that we don’t have quite enough schools or anything else. It’s difficult keeping taxes low so people won’t lose their homes while supporting schools, a few police and firefighters and some part-time clerks at town hall. It’s a bare-bones budget and no-frills government, with a very fine line between no frills and just plain inadequate.

Making ends meet means we have no public transportation. Our roads get sort of repaired. The bridges are always a bit in danger of washing away if the river floods. There’s no city water or sewers. Trash collection is private. Unless you live in the middle of town, there are no sidewalks or streetlights. We have no town planning because there’s only so much planning you can do with no money. Kind of like us, but on a larger scale.

Being on your own makes great rhetoric, but it loses it’s charm when you realize your community has no resources to deal with its own future. With all the complicated explanations I’ve read about why small American towns are not thriving, it isn’t complicated. Our towns are not doing well because we have poor government and no money. I don’t know if these two things are causally related, but they seem to go hand in hand.

Small towns don’t have lots of qualified people who can or will serve. Even with the best of intentions, there’s only so much you can do when you have nothing much to work with. Rumors to the contrary notwithstanding, it’s a thankless job. The romanticization of small towns in movies and television might have been true of small towns 60 years ago, but Andy Griffith would have a rough time today.

Meanwhile, whatever else we lack, we sure do have a lot of cars.

Lack of public transportation guarantees lots of cars. Everyone has a car and the roads get more crowded every day. Everyone over 17 drives. Most of us don’t worry about traffic because we don’t have too much yet. A traffic jam is a tractor and two cars at an intersection. But that’s changing. The parking lot at the grocery store used to be mostly empty; now it’s usually full. We have our own version of rush hour. It’s not an hour, barely half an hour …  but a year ago we didn’t any rush hour at all.

Local road … also an interstate route, so it is in better repair than many similar roads that don’t cross a state line.

There are many more cars than there were even though the population is slightly lower. Lacking public transportation, you need wheels. If the populations starts to rise, what will we do with the cars? it doesn’t take much to produce gridlock. An accident, a slow driver, road work … anything can bring it all to a complete stop. No one has any idea what to do about it … and that’s just traffic.

When people say we should have less government, they don’t really understand what it means. When you live in a well-populated area, you get infrastructure and services. You don’t think about them: you expect them. If you live in a sleepy town that has no plans to wake up anytime soon, nothing comes with the territory.

Our town is managed, more or less, via Town Hall meetings. We have a town council made up of the friends, relatives and descendents of the families who have always run the town. They are slow to implement change, even when change is urgently needed, typical of all small towns here and everywhere.

What’s going to happen when we are hit by rapid population growth unaccompanied by additional revenue? When the economy comes back, towns like this become an endangered species, ripe for exploitation by anyone who waves money at us.

To say our officials are not forward-thinking  is a massive understatement. By the time town councils in towns and villages acknowledge a crisis, it’s too late to do much about it. Things that suburban areas take for granted are unavailable. From road repair to trash disposal, from schools to sewers, to trained personnel … we don’t have it.

Maybe we can start by figuring out how to deal with the cars. As it stands, we have enough traffic so that almost anything can turn it into a rural version of gridlock. It doesn’t take much: a very slow driver, a minor accident, a road crew … and everything stops. We don’t have another route, so if one is blocked, you can’t get there from here.

Grabbing a piece of the metro pie is tempting. Job opportunities, more and better services — it sounds pretty good until you realize the cost. It will likely bankrupt the towns, make taxes skyrocket and ruin of a lot of beautiful places. What sounds like a boon — the rapid infusion of  upwardly mobile young families with school age children — has devastating economic ramifications on a fragile local economy. Newcomers arrive with expectations of services comparable to those they have known in other places. They expect modern schools, roads, and shops. They assume amenities like trash collection, sewers, water from reservoirs. They don’t realize the attractively low taxes that drew them to the area can’t support the services they expect.

Small town life in the 21st century is a precarious balancing act, life on a fiscal tightrope. There are no big treasuries to raid, no heavy industry to offset costs. All you have to work with are small businesses, many of which are struggling, and property taxes that a lot of people are already finding hard to pay.

So far, the best solution the towns have come up with is to build condos, preferably senior housing. If you bring in lots of seniors, you don’t get lots of kids, You get taxes, but not a hugely increased demand for services. Condos don’t take up as much space as sub-divisions, but pay the same taxes as private homes. McMansions eat land and don’t pay their way. Unfortunately, most of our towns are run by people who have trouble saying no to a developer waving money. Even when they know it’s not a great idea, the need for an infusion of cash can make people ignore the obvious.

Which brings me back where I began. You can say all you want about how more government is bad, but we need government. More to the point, we need good government, smart government. We need people who have vision and can see past a wad of cash to long-term effects. We need planners, not pirates.

Good government protects us in myriad ways. Without the protection of government, small towns are easy prey. We do fine if things don’t change much, or change is incremental, gradual. I suspect the long years of the leisurely change are ending.

Everything is changing. Can America’s small towns survive without surrendering their identity? I guess I’m going to find out soon enough.