Enough with the diversions

Published 10:49 am Saturday, December 17, 2011

Robert Bennett, former Republican senator from Utah, said of Congress and the president what could be said of elected leadership in Franklin and Southampton County:

We have great issues in politics, and then we have great diversions, and we spend most of our political time arguing over the great diversions and never facing the great issues.

While a fiscal storm brews, the likes of which local governments have never seen before, the Franklin City Council is expending time and energy on political gamesmanship with the city charter, using the city’s founding document to engineer short-term political outcomes.

That’s a great diversion.

Here’s a great issue: Franklin and Southampton County, joined-at-the-hip localities with a combined population of fewer than 30,000 people, will spend more than $100 million on delivery of government services to citizens in the fiscal year that ends June 30, 2012. They will do so from tax bases hit hard by declining real estate values, business closures and job losses.

Yet, in a recently completed county election cycle that was almost entirely about spending and debt, not a peep was mentioned, by incumbent or challenger, about better cooperation with Franklin and the money that can be saved from shared services, if not outright consolidation.

Rather than rewriting the city charter, the City Council needs to get busy studying the benefits of surrendering it and reuniting with Southampton County. Working together, the two communities can build a healthy tax base and efficient government. Working separately and duplicating services, they will struggle.

Historian Clyde Parker’s weekly recap on this page of the events leading up to Franklin’s becoming an independent city in 1961 has been thoroughly fascinating. It’s obvious that city fathers at the time acted in good faith. The town was home to one of America’s greatest manufacturers and corporate citizens. Franklin leaders thought they could do a better job of educating their children than Southampton was doing at the time.

It’s been a good 50-year ride for Franklin — an anniversary very deserving of all the fanfare it has received — but times change. City leaders in 1961 could not have foreseen what would transpire in the next century. The anchor employer and corporate citizen that built and sustained Franklin is gone. Technology has revolutionized society and created opportunities for efficiency across geographic boundaries that even the most radical of visionaries in the early 1960s couldn’t have conceived. Neighboring communities compete not with each other for economic development but with towns and villages on the other side of the planet.

Maintaining mammoth, side-by-side government bureaucracies at a price tag of more than $100 million per year is no longer justifiable for a community the size of Franklin-Southampton.

Yet, the Franklin City Council and Southampton County Board of Supervisors haven’t even sat down to talk in 19 months. When they did in the spring of 2010, it was narrowly focused on economic development. They haven’t met jointly about other topics, including shared services, in more than two years. No one can remember the last time the neighboring localities’ school boards got together.

Enough energy has been expended on great diversions. It’s time to get busy on the great issues facing our community.