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Edge County Syndrome

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By David Hamilton
December 23, 2016

All counties share similarities but vary in their services, cultures and settings. Edge counties are differentiated by the impact of forces that rapid growth unleashes within their microenvironment and the macro dynamics of their region. This article addresses a vital question from the public administration perspective: Does growth amplify conflict, creating a unique set of challenges for public administration, edge county syndrome? 

To understand the full dimension of growth related conflict, a study was conducted that dug deeply into the opaque realities of selected edge counties. Sixteen areas of tension with significant implications for public administration were identified. This article presents a summary of the initial eight findings. 

1. Competing Communities: Administrators in edge counties are often caught between the conflicting and escalating demands and expectations of its citizens compounded by a vague and complex understanding of what sense of community really means. As a retired county administrator stated, “The county is not a community.” Community is defined as a body of people having common organization or interest or living in the same place under the same laws. But this tidy definition does not apply to the vicarious realities prevalent in growing edge counties.

2. Program Purgatory: Growth burdens edge counties with extensive demands for added urban services. The National Association of Counties produces an annual “Model County Programs” booklet detailing a vast expanse of county programs. But as Benton stated in 2003, “County governments were never intended to be or equipped with sufficient authority to serve as full-service local governments as are municipalities” Their institutional incompatibility places public administrators squarely in the middle of the relentless and growing urban demands of its increasing population.

3. Budget Bedlam: Edge counties are heavily dependent on property taxation for their general revenues. According to Kraybill, “County governments are the fastest growing all-purpose governments in terms of employment size, with growth rates exceeding those of the federal, state, municipal, and township units since the 1980s.” However, America’s notorious aversion to taxation when applied to home and property acts as a fiscal constraint as demand increases for new and expanded services.

4. Sheriff Supremacy: Appointed public administrators work directly for the elected county board. But elected officials that run various county operations are autonomous to the appointed department heads reporting to the administrator. This presents a unique but troublesome blend of political authorities during budget decisions. The dynamic is heightened with county sheriffs who know how important their role is perceived and are acutely conscious of voter sentiments related to public safety.

5. Disorganized Unorganized: Counties are not cities. Rather, they are regional administrative arms of their host state government that are thrust into the realm of providing city-type services to accommodate growth. Yet much of the growth within edge counties occurs outside of organized cities and townships within their unorganized territories. They have become so prevalent that the U.S. census has recognized them as census designated areas. The approach encourages homeowners associations (HOA) and special districts as surrogate entities to satisfy the urban demands of the newcomers. In the absence of organized local governments, developers establish private HOAs while the county creates multiple Special Districts to handle the functions ‘on the cheap’ that organized cities and townships would have otherwise provided. How they adapt to this role can create a nightmare of competing jurisdictions and multiple programs driven by the politically volatile question of who pays for what? 

6. Balkanized Bastions: The logical outcome of urbanized development within edge counties is a conflict between competing political authorities. One person summarized city and counties as predisposed adversaries. “There is a traditional dichotomy between the county that has regulatory authority from the state that is so often the source of antipathy with cities and counties and it cuts across political turf…who has the authority.” This is a very sensitive area that can ignite simmering sensitivities into open hostilities. Strong language related to conflict emerged from the study embellished by references to wars, fights, and even rape.

7. Regional Resistance: When metropolitan growth pushes development into its edges, demands for regional issues arise including land-use planning and regulation, transportation including roads and transit, along with water, wastewater and solid waste programs. Most of these services require expansive and expensive infrastructure along with broad allocation of resources across established boundaries. No matter how necessary, regional issues within edge counties are resisted by the lingering political desire to maintain local control of the county and its growth. This line of thinking is backed by the long-standing American preference for small, local governments and a dislike of large distant formations that include metropolitan models.

8. Culture Cacophonies: Edge counties are evolving social settings. Along with their possessions, newcomers bring their beliefs and values to build a new future fueled by hopes and dreams. Migration patterns tear into the existing social fabric of edge counties, creating a unique blend of newcomers and longtime residents compacting vicarious beliefs and values into the county’s social DNA. Edge counties are places with muddled identities and a weak sense of community-based on the accumulated consequences of random migration.

Author: David Hamilton is a public administrator and change leader with experience managing county and city governments. He recently completed his DPA at Hamline University focused on the administrative impact and challenges of rapid-growth on regional governments. Hamilton heads his own consulting firm guiding local governments with visioning, planning and organizational alignment. He is the current president of the Suncoast Chapter of ASPA.

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