A Tale of Two Counties

Garry Gamble

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” Charles Dickens writes in the opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities as he composes a picture of life in England and France set in the 18th century.

Described as the least “Dickensian” of Dickens’ novels, it remains one of Dickens’ most widely read books.

Dickens took a decidedly different approach when writing A Tale of Two Cities, compared to his previous novels. Utilizing a storyteller, who has access to the thoughts and feelings of all the characters, the quintessential Victorian author chooses to characterize the men and women who populate the tale, less by what the book’s narrator or the characters themselves “say,” and more by what they “do.” They become the political commentary; defined by their actions and by their role within the progression of the overall story.

As a result, the novel seems somewhat modern, despite being set in the 18th century and written in the 19th century.

Always interested in the interaction between individuals and society, Dickens was particularly intrigued by the rulers and ruling classes of both England and France who, while relishing their higher station in life, were out of touch with the common people… oblivious to their own self-absorbed dismissive posture.

The book’s well-conceived structure neatly blends all of the storylines and characters, so that by the end of the book, no question remains as to how each element impacts all the others.

Borrowing Dickens’ theme of duality, let’s chronicle our own classic tale… A Tale of Two Counties.

To do this, we will need to employ the essential elements of a good story.

We will need characters who define themselves. Characters who stay true to our perceptions throughout the story. Characters who the reader can perhaps even predict which personality may do what next.

And, lest we forget, every good story demands conflict. A dilemma to be solved. The plot will be centered on this dilemma and the ways in which our characters attempt to resolve the problem.

Let’s depict leadership in the two counties: One county believes local government should live within its means (“the best of times”). The other county doggedly cultivates the concept that government means you spend whatever it takes . . . “takes” being the operative word here (“the worst of times”).

Chapter One: The Analogy

Let the opening lines in our political short story begin with Cook County Administrator Jeff Cadwell expressing his views on the county’s expanding budget dilemma during a June 20, 2017 Committee of the Whole Commissioner meeting…

“I get the analogy that the coordinator up at Koochiching County, at the last meeting that we went to down in Silver Bay, she said, ‘You know several . . . twenty years ago, we made this decision about what is going to be in our budget, how much staff we’re gonna have, what services we’re gonna provide, and then every year since then it’s been a very simple process. We have an incremental expense that’s just about to cover the cost of living and it takes care of this and it takes care of that’ …and they’ve had a very easy process.”

Cadwell expands, “But twenty five years ago, they were sitting where we’re sitting now. We’re sitting with the fact that we haven’t balanced the budget. We haven’t addressed our resources versus our expenditures.” …(an ominous dark cloud upstages the sun and we hear the foreboding rumble of thunder). The conflict has just entered our story; this, following the administrator’s disclosure that Koochiching County is the other county in this tale.

A bit about Koochiching County for those who may not know where it is located: Its county seat is International Falls and a portion of Voyageurs National Park extends into its boundary with Lake of the Woods County to its northwest. Also, a segment of the Bois Forte Indian Reservation is located within Koochiching County.

But, don’ t let me interrupt Mr. Cadwell …as it is important to our story that we allow character development, an area in which Dickens certainly excelled.

Let’s once again listen in as the county administrator lays out his plan for resolving “conflict” (Cook County’s budget problem):

“When I was budgeting for cities, I simply laid out the revenues, the expenditures, our debt service, our enterprise funds and I took out the levy number completely and I got down to the bottom and basically, [when] you got down to the bottom …you had a negative number, and that’s the number you had to turnaround and put up here in your levy to solve for zero (holds up a budget document and points to a numerical figure). And that’s how you solve for zero.” (fade sound of thunder as it growls off into the distance; once again, a full sun takes center stage).

Chapter Two:
We’ll call it: The Trilogy

Chapter two begins with an August 29, 2017 conversation I had with Wade Pavleck, respected long-time Koochiching County commissioner… coincidently, 25 years (the plot thickens).

Wade recounts a bit of history. “Before I became a commissioner – some 25 years ago – our property taxes had gone up 7 percent three years in a row and we were feeling it! (oozing empathy). Three of our five commissioners were voted out of office and the other two chose not to run. So the county started with five new commissioners who sat down together and agreed to take more of a business approach to county finances.”

Here’s the trilogy part (how they resolved “conflict” …7 percent levies three years in a row): “1. We would often freeze the levy. 2. We lowered our workforce through attrition and 3. We didn’t fund organizations that were non-essential to government. We would, once in a while, provide a one-time grant to an organization but we never got into perpetual funding.

“We would look at our annual tax revenue and budget accordingly. If we didn’t have the money, we didn’t spend it. (break out the sunglasses as the sun is brilliant–as is the concept! I think I can even hear birds singing!)

“We found that it was always best to withhold money, because the more money you got the more you would find ways to spend it. (birds belt out louder and are once again able to consider adding to their “nest egg.”)

“As commissioners, we would watch where we ranked in the state when it came to the cost of local government per capita. We noticed, over the years, that we started at the middle of the pack and moved to one of the lowest in the state–third lowest, I believe (the state auditor tracks these figures).

“Interestingly, all the time we were lowering our cost of government to local citizens, we noticed Cook County was increasing its costs and subsequently ranks among the top among Minnesota’s 87 counties.”

Referencing Minnesota counties, I think it appropriate to introduce an ancillary–but powerfully telling–piece of information at this point in our tale.

According to the Minnesota state auditor, in the last 17 years (2000 to 2017) Carver County (Chaska area) experienced a levy increase of 112.41 percent. They also collect the highest property tax in the state–one of the highest in the nation.

Koochiching County’s levy, on the other hand, during this same 17-year period, increased 46.57 percent.

Care to guess what the percentage is for Cook County?

From 2000 to 2017 Cook County’s levy increased 131.06 percent!

We conclude with Chapter Three: The Phraseology

During our annual budget wranglings, as a commissioner, I suggested to Mr. Cadwell that we should endeavor . . . strive . . . work toward . . . at least attempt to reach a zero percent levy. I was informed that “a zero percent levy is totally irresponsible.” (I, obviously, have a different opinion on what constitutes “irresponsibility.”)

I happened to mention this zero percent levy phraseology to fellow commissioner Pavleck during one of the multiple board meetings on which we had the privilege of serving together.

Commissioner Pavleck’s response, “Well, then our board of commissioners have been ‘totally irresponsible’ for a number of years.” (broad smile . . . and I even think, as I recall, Mr. Blue Bird landed on his shoulder.)

“Any government big enough to give you everything you want is big enough to take away everything you have.”

Former Cook County Commissioner Garry Gamble is writing this ongoing column about the various ways government works.

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