I have been experimenting with subsidiarity lately: the devolution of organized political control to the smallest possible local level. I think I mentioned before that I joined the board of something called an "improvement district," which is a tax-funded state-sanctioned governmental entity that resembles a utility district on steroids. It covers a development, or perhaps several developments in a relatively small area, and is responsible not only for utilities but other public amenities such as (in my case) canals, piers, and bulkheads. The development that this district is currently responsible for (the others not yet having got going) has only a few homeowners so far. As soon as possible, when there are enough homeowners, they should run for spots on the board. For now, though, the developers essentially appoint board members.

On this small peninsula, there are a handful of companies supplying water--generally well water with an associated RO treatment plant, because our well water is brackish and pretty awful--but only one entity supplies the wastewater treatment, under contract with all the others. That entity is itself a government district, in this case an ordinary municipal utility district. Recently we had some heavy rains, which predictably infiltrated the MUD's leaky sewer lines. At the same time, a building contractor on my own district's property apparently used an insufficient sewer plug to protect an open sewer line at one of the building sites, and the extra pressure from the heavy rain blew it out, causing even more freshwater intrusion in the sewer lines. The wastewater plant shut down operations only for a few hours, but cut my district off from sewer services for months while we all argued about how big a check the contractor's insurance company should write for the damage that could be attributed to the sewer plug. (We paid a honey-dipper to truck out the relatively small amount of sewage from the few current residents.) Do our state utility laws and the wastewater service contract permit the MUD to cut off our sewer services for financial leverage, after it's clear there no longer is a safety/operations issue? I'd say no, but my district's counsel is not what you would call aggressive, or even energetic; they're terrific at complying with the open-meetings rules and shepherding us through bond offerings and tax issues, but not so inclined to jump into contract negotiations or litigation. All I know is, before the MUD gets another chance to deny us service for financial leverage, I'd like to have other options, especially when we have enough residents that honey-dipping is hardly practical. Our contract, however, appears to obligate us not only to stay with the MUD for our wastewater treatment, but even to finance a significant part of a scheduled upgrade and expansion of the current rather old and tattered plant. So for the next few years, we'll probably be looking for opportunities to renegotiate the contract's requirements and freedoms. It turns out not to be all that expensive or time-consuming to get an independent permit or build and operate an independent wastewater treatment plant, and it's something I'd love to learn about. It will irritate the MUD, though, and will be politically touchy. And of course it may never happen; we may mend all the fences and/or simply find the contract requires us to grin and bear it.

Sorting through all this stuff, which had a 10-year complicated history before I got involved, has proved engrossing. I attend not only my district's meetings, but increasingly the public meetings of other entities, such as the MUD, the County Commissioners Court, and a proposed new Groundwater Commission. While the infrastructure issues I have to get up to speed on are wildly interesting, I probably never will learn to like attending a lot of meetings regularly every month. I do it because I feel the only way to keep distant government at bay is to have strong local government that doesn't flub matters and leave a public mess. It turns out, though, that there are almost limitless meetings of this kind. As it is, I don't attend monthly meetings of the fire department or the Republican Party, let alone multi-county regional meetings addressing things like the groundwater situation. I've never attended a state political convention or an annual Diocesan meeting. It could eat up your whole life, going to these things: not the best choice for an introvert.


Grim said...

Good for you, though, that you're getting involved in this way.

You've hit upon an important reason why subsidiarity works best with (very) small government models: the more systems of government are at work, the less anyone has any time to attend all the meetings.

I think to some degree that's driving the current preference for Big Government. If the Feds are doing everything, in theory that's all we really need to pay attention to in order to be good citizens. If the important decisions are being made at multiple levels, self-rule requires more and more of our time.

J Melcher said...

Been there. Suffered that. The most common situation here in Texas is the "Home Owners' Association" chartered as a private corporation with a hire administrator and a supervisory board. These are usually set up by the builder/developer to maintain neighborhood "features" like the playground, pool, or rain water run-off systems. The builder pays for most of the costs until the neighborhood is some percent (say, 80%) resident-owned. At which time all the administrative costs fall on home owners, the dues (fees, membership assessments) rise, the administrators focus more on collection of back payments than on maintenance, and the amateur supervisory board gets all the blame.

The slightly better alternative is the "Public Improvement District" in which a new line item is added to the county tax record for each property. The amount formerly paid by assessment is now escrowed by the mortage company and paid yearly (like school tax, or hospital tax, etc). Board members are volunteers vetted and appointed (or turned away) by the city council. A board may choose to pay administrators, or rely on city officials for code enforcement, etc. Of course higher levels of response demand a higher line tax.

Some neighborhoods wind up with both PID and HOA. These are usually set up by the professional property management companies, so to guarentee them their annual fees. All the powers of the non-profit corporation, PLUS all the (delegated) powers of the city (or county, or whatever) sponsoring the "district". Usually not quite double the cost to the homeowner.

The success of either institution relies ENTIRELY on there being a half dozen or so competent neighbors willing to take on the duties. Otherwise, the administrators (and lawyers) run wild. Clueless homeowners can literally become FORMER owners of properties, deeds sold at sheriff's auction on a Sunday morning, for not paying attention to unpaid assessments or accumulated penalties for offenses as petty as unmowed grass.

Texan99 said...

Hate, hate, HATE HOAs. In theory they don't have to be bad, but in practice all too often the nanny-nazis gravitate to them, and then the average resident's desire not to be involved means that the pros hired by the board run wild.

A PID is what I'm on the board of now. It's not for me; I don't live in the development it covers. But it does work reasonably well for that very expensive, elaborate development with its canals and boardwalks and piers and bulkheads and utilities, though the tax burden is startlingly high. The people who buy there want something like a resort-hotel atmosphere, and that's going to cost you in terms of money and loss of control. It's been interesting watching them slowly absorb what all this stuff is costing and who's supposed to pay for building and maintaining it. Tough lesson.

Ymar Sakar said...

There's a ranch in Florida, who works with the state government. A contrast to BLM West of the Miss.

There's also someone from the Philippines who I talked to, that was talking about the corruption of the local churches there, when she wanted to donate money for an orphanage. We talked about how organizations get corrupt and how to resolve that issue.