3 Reasons Towns Die

Consistency – Reliability – Fairness

These are the cornerstones of a three-legged stool that constituents look to government to uphold on a daily basis.  They count on fairness to every member of the community no matter their religion, age, or family connections.  They rely on their knowledge of government and how it works that it will be reliable every day.  They depend on consistency in order to establish their own lives.  In turn they agree to abide by the rules and laws of the place they live.

Government has failed to provide all three pegs of that stool and thus citizenry are reacting.

They are moving out of towns and cities that don’t balance the stool to places that do.  And if they can’t move because of age or finances, they are demanding changes be made to once again balance government and the elected officials seem to have no clue how to fix it.

In our own town of Escalante, Utah, the stool is totally out of balance and the town council and mayor, for whatever reason, haven’t righted the stool.

First, the county school district is concerned about the declining enrollment of the schools.  Long-time residents look to blame the creation of the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument for the decline in the communities.  Yes, it has impacted the cattle grazing and logging and that has resulted in several cattle raising families moving to places where they are welcome.  And yes, the sawmill has closed and all those family wage jobs have gone away, and the children they supported. But that’s just one leg of the stool.

Second, the federal agencies that promote tourism are providing some jobs that could help replace the others, but they can’t replace them all and tourism based jobs are not family wage.  The same employee that worked at the sawmill now has two jobs to replace the one at the sawmill.  In addition, Payment In Leiu of Taxes (PILT) has not been increased in many years.  The town is expected to provide emergency services, water, sewer, trash without the federal government paying their fair share of the costs.  The county Sheriff is now the only  response to 911 since the city police position was removed due to finances. The lack of reliable funding for services puts the total burden on the property owners.

Third, city and county ordinances are not enforced with any consistency leaving people to conclude they don’t wish to move here until they are.  Case in point, the City of Escalante uses the State’s abandoned road facility and the state offers little or no incentive to keep it updated and in good repair.  When the wind storms of last summer took out one of the sheds the debris from was removed and the fences repaired by the state.  However, the contents of the building remain on the ground (pipe parts, old buckets, etc) to this day. The weeds are now growing up amongst them and the highway frontage lot does not say “we care about our City”.  If you drive the streets, there is no enforcement of a number of ordinances and vacant houses “For Sale”  might sell but the neighborhood is in such disrepair it reminds a lot of them of what they’re trying to escape from not a lush, small town where everyone works together.  And the disproportionate number of absentee owners because of “Holiday Home Rentals” is removing the “home town” flavor because of City Government.

The stool needs righting and placing blame elsewhere is not the answer.  The answer is here in our National Historic District Town of 750. Demand the city, county, state and federal government agencies rebalance the stool.  How?

  1. The Federal resource management agencies need to pay their fair share for upkeep and management of facilities their visitors use without cost. Fairness.
  2. The State highway department needs to find a way to transfer management of the old highway dept. facility to the city or enter into an agreement to allow the city to make proposed improvements and help pay for them. Reliability.
  3. The City needs to place a limit on the number of Holiday Homes as a percentage of the total number of homes available in the city. And they need to enforce the building codes, and other ordinances on a regular basis with the same answers for all. Consistency.

It wouldn’t solve all the problems, but it would get this small town well (and many others of all sizes) on its way to re-balancing the three-legged stool.

Until next time – – – – –

Escalante, Utah – No Change is Change!

In the 11 years I worked for a member of Congress a majority of my tasks was to assist constituents with problems related to public agencies – city, county, state, federal and special districts.  I traveled the district meeting with folks and listening to their problems with these agencies and we tried to forge some type of resolution.  Mostly, it was educating folks on what agencies did, how they worked and what could they expect from them.  Since we don’t teach civics anymore most people have no idea how it works and the rest would just as soon not know.
But sticking your head in the sand doesn’t make a problem go away nor does it educate the populace on how things are done in one or another community (and yes, they are all different).  Take where I live today, Escalante, Utah.  About 65% of the city is LDS and descendants of the pioneer families that first moved here in the 1880’s.  They have a sense of pride in their town that dates back to those humble beginnings and highly resent new move-ins trying to change things.
On the other side of that debate are the newer move-ins that don’t have a sense of ownership (other than their land deed) and have very different life experiences and attitudes.  Neither of these two groups are right or wrong, but they do have different outlooks and expectations.  What’s missing, usually, are two things that need development in every small town on an ongoing basis.
First, is Respect for those that are heritage families and respect for those moving here to be part of that heritage over time.  The town has a fabulous heritage and the preservation of that in the view of historic buildings is one of the reasons Escalante was just named a National Historic District.  A high percentage of the homes have been preserved in their original state or only minor modifications have been made.  Truly, brick and mortar are one of its many attributes and is one of the aspects of the towns new move-ins adore.  All you have to do is look at the two most recent business move-ins to see the adoration for brick in their buildings.
Second, a little over half the town are active members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Later Day Saints (LDS) and are busy with their families, church and various callings.  They communicate with each other on all issues on a regular basis and if there’s a water crisis they know about it.  If they have a project they want they’ve talked about it and come up with what they want to do.  Unfortunately, the rest of us are not there and not in on those conversations.  Thus we hear about it at City Council meetings,  Planning and zoning meetings, or from the newspaper if it’s included in the local column.  And now you see postings from folks on Facebook about these issues.  The bottom line is the lack of communication only increases the frustration between groups and makes for hard feelings.
How to fix this?  One town uses their local newspaper to get answers through an anonymous “I Want To Know?” column.  They answer one question a week and provide “just the facts” so that folks can form their own opinions.  Another town has a Mayor that holds “office hours” once a week where citizens can walk in and chat about issues – limit 15 minutes per constituent (strictly enforced).  Another town has formed a citizens advisory committee and constituents are encouraged to meet with them monthly to bring forward their issues.  Education is a key component of every approach and has to be done on an ongoing basis as every town tends to get new folks about every two years.  So you repeat yourself constantly – but it keeps things from escalating to name calling and hurt feelings.
And the key – heritage families stop taking offense at every question from newer move-ins and new move-ins ask better questions.  It’s a partnership that grows cities, friends, and families.