4 Tips working with local government

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Knowing how to 'work' muni government reaps rewards

It has always puzzled me that when we are sitting at the barber shopor standing in line at the supermarket, we so often discuss and complainabout what the president and Congress are doing.

We strike up conversations about how we plan to spend our new $600 taxrebate. There's plenty of grousing about federal employees getting undulyhigh pay raises. What nobody seems to spend much time talking about is thepolitics that really matter in our lives, the politicians who have the powerto really cost us money. Very few people seem to recognize that, in termsof our day-to-day lives, the real power resides in the local government.

Not really a rebate

George Bush is about to send me my $600. Know what, though? My town justreassessed my local real estate and all that rebate and more will be paidright back out as a result. Of course, the tax rebate is a one-time thing.The increased tax levy will be there every year until I move away or die.

My community will get about 50 cents per person from the multi-billionfederal tobacco settlement. If my town board won't let me put up a biggersign at my business, they stand to cost me thousands.

Real power

That's the bad news about local government. The good news is that whileyou have one vote among millions in the national arena, local governmentcan be dealt with in a much more potent way. Local contacts matter. Whoyou know matters. Petitions matter and when push comes to shove, many localgovernments actually are concerned when you sue them.

Let's address some guidelines about how we, as veterinarians, can handlelocal and state governments when we are treated in a way that we considerto be unfair or unreasonable. This treatment, can and does occur occasionally.Most commonly, problems arise in the areas of zoning, tax assessments, waterand sewer problems, noise and nuisance ordinances and sign disputes.

Understanding relationships

Initially, it is important to understand the relationship which you,as a citizen, have with the local government. Local governments are ordinarilycreatures of state law. The existence and power of cities, towns, counties,school and special (water, sewer, transportation) districts are usuallyestablished in your state constitution, legislation and regulations.

The state government also exerts a great deal of power over municipalitiesthrough the power of the purse string. While you may feel your local taxesare too high, keep in mind that those taxes are only a part of the budgetof local communities and schools. Most of the balance of their budget comesfrom your state income, sales, transfer, road use and other taxes. So whenyou get irritated with a local government employee and curse that you shouldbe treated better since you are his boss, remember that really your statelegislature is that person's boss.

Don't forget roots

There is one more important concept to keep in mind when developing astrategy for dealing with the locals. Every first year law student is remindedthat America based its legal system in great part on British law. The firstrule of law in England is that the "king can do no wrong." Whatthis means is that government intends to be accountable to the people, butthe government will decide on what terms. Can you sue the government? Yes,you can because it has decided that you may. However, the government willdecide all the rules for doing so: what court to use, what judge will hearthe case, what evidence is allowed, what your burden of proof is and howlong you have to do so.

The details of legal action against municipalities will be dealt within more detail in the second of this two-part article. For now, the take-homepoint in dealing with municipalities is that it is really best to try toresolve your problems out of court, on a negotiation basis. When you suea government, they always have the "home court advantage."

Fortunately, the nice thing about disputes with localities is that theyare of course, "local." The town hall is only a few miles away,so it is not unreasonable to expect the highway superintendent to come andactually look at the damage his snowplows did to your fence last winter.The county legislature is constantly up for re-election and as a veterinarian,you see an awfully large volume of people every day. Does your county legislatorreally want you telling all your clients woeful tales about how the countyhas treated you in your request for a permit to expand your parking?

Heart of resolution

Let's go over some basic concepts, which are at the heart of resolvingissues that involve municipal governments and districts:

1. Meet the people before there is a problem. If you own or recentlyacquired a practice, drop by the local town or village hall and introduceyourself. Show up at meetings periodically and participate in public hearings.It is very helpful to stand up and speak in favor of proposals you knowthat the town wants. It doesn't have to involve an issue you care one wayor the other about. Just stand up, clearly identify who you are and say,"I'm Dr. Noble, the new vet here in Hicksville, and heck, I think therepaving of the town garage is going to really improve next year's snowremoval. I support the town in spending the money." You know they willvote unanimously for the foolish thing anyway, so why not help them out?Public hearings are required by state law, but the town is usually freeto do as it pleases regardless of what the sentiment of the hearing attendeesis. If you can make the hearing experience more pleasant for the board,they will remember.

2. Recognize bureaucratic power. Public servants have an unenviablereputation as being unresponsive because of their lack of accountabilitydirectly to the public. What that means is that they have the power to hurtyou with little or no negative impact to them.

What people don't realize is that they also have a broad range of powerswhich can help you; frequently without having to answer to supervisors ortaxpayers. This is a power you want to have on your side and there is noreason to antagonize those who wield such power. If you must disagree withyour local government, do so with due deference and respect. Also, be sureto pick your battles with great care.

3. Ask questions. Public servants are no different from the restof us. They want to feel that what they do is important and they want tobe treated with at least a reasonable amount of deference by the publicthey serve. When dealing with the town clerk, the town assessor, the highwaysuperintendent or the lady who takes your water and sewer payment, be sureto acknowledge their authority and access to information. Don't just goto them when you need something. Stop by from time to time and ask somedetail of how your assessment is calculated.

Quiz the sewer lady on where your water comes from and where new projectsare anticipated. Get these folks talking with you before you have a complaintor request. Later, when such people are placed in a position to use theirbroad discretion in your favor or against you, they are far more likelyto come through on your side.

4. Understand your government. Do some civics research beforeyou go to ask for favors or to be excepted from some local regulation. Whenyou are considering converting an existing building into your latest satelliteclinic, you should find out what you need and from whom before you beginthe process.

Who controls your zoning? Is it the county, the town, the village ormust you get approval from all three? If you suspect that your anticipateduse is inconsistent with current zoning, do you need a variance or a rezoning?Believe it or not, those two requests may have to be addressed to two completelydifferent boards at your town. You may have to get the approval of one boardand then have its approval and recommendation placed on the agenda of anotherboard.

If you don't understand who does what and who answers to whom, you willlikely waste your time (and worse, some bureaucrat's time). Meanwhile, youlook like a minor-leaguer to the people making the decisions that affectyou.

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