What is it about counties, anyway?
The latest incident to trigger this question happened recently in Maricopa County and was duly related in The Arizona Republic by reporter Dennis Godfrey. It seems a county road crew laid recycled asphalt on 239th avenue, previously a dusty dirt road. People who live in the area rejoiced mightily.
"When the crew started ripping up their work (a few days later), those people looked on in disbelief," Godfrey wrote.
A resident who apparently did not know how counties work decided to find out why. Here's what he learned.
1. The road is an "orphan" belonging to no one neither the county nor the people who live there.
2. Because it wants to be a good neighbor, the county has long graded the road anyway.
3. State law limits how much a county can do to an "orphan road." While milled asphalt recycled from old roads is acceptable, the chemical stabilizer that was added to keep the dust down is not.
4. Some county bureaucrat concluded that the road, therefore, must be ripped up.
Finally, saner heads prevailed and the county stopped tearing up the road and replaced what had already been ripped up.
"Common sense told us ... it was not in anybody's interest to rip up the road," Roberta Crow, a county spokeswoman, said.
I know a little about the internal workings of counties, having been employed several summers while I was in college by the sign department of the Genesee County Road Commission in Michigan.
As I recall, we had our share of bureaucrats in Genesee County too people whose lack of real world common sense stifled the motivation any of us regular workers had.
Realizing that the above might not be a fair representation of the way all counties operate, I decided to conduct some scholarly research on the subject which isn't as easy as you might think. My college government text doesn't even mention the beast, and here's what little I learned from other sources:
Counties have their origins in Great Britain, where they were originally tribal settlements and were sometimes known as shires.
Counties are the largest governmental entity in all states, except for Connecticut and Rhode Island where towns prevail; Louisiana, where it is the parish; and Alaska, which has boroughs.
Far from becoming obsolete, as you might logically expect of such lumbering behemoths, the traditional functions performed by counties, basically tax assessment and collection, election and judicial administration, record keeping, and maintenance of roads and highways are being expanded in many cases to include social services, health care, and parks and recreation facilities.
While I hesitate to bring all of this home to Gila County, there is a dirt road in Pine on the shoulder of which is a sign that reads, "Warning. Road not county maintained." Right after the sign, you turn onto a county-maintained road in worse shape than the one the county warns you about.
Considering all of the above, I would like to suggest a few new departments that might help counties improve the morale of their citizens:
Department of Chemical Stabilizers
If Maricopa County had such a department, you have to think the 239th Avenue incident would never have happened. Besides, chemical stabilizers could also apply to medications prescribed for depression and similar mental conditions. Maybe the Department of Chemical Stabilizers could issue all of us Gila County residents the modern-day equivalent of Soma in "Brave New World" and then we wouldn't care about high taxes and bad roads.
Department of Wayward Orphan Streets
If part of the problem is orphan streets that belong to no one, then let's create a department that will find good homes for them.
Department of Common Sense and Saner Heads
Here in Gila County I can think of multiple applications for such a department.
Department of Marketing and Public Relations
Such a department would never allow the above-mentioned warning sign to be placed just before a county-maintained road in worse shape than the non-maintained road it is warning us about. It's called really bad PR.
Department of Attitude Adjustment
This department could be redundant (see Department of Chemical Stabilizers above), but that's OK. It has been my experience that there is no shortage of attitudes in need of adjustment. Some would say even my own.
Besides, any county that has a Rural Addressing Analyst on the payroll (as our beloved Gila County does) can certainly afford a little redundancy.