Why local elections matter more to your personal finance

A woman holds her six-week-old daughter as they wait in line to vote at the Boulder County Clerk and Recorder's Office on November 6, 2012 in Boulder, Colo.

 

Last Tuesday, I stood outside Lincoln Elementary school in Lakewood, Ohio and asked voters a simple question -- who do they think has more power over their financial bottom line, the president, or locally elected officials?

Answered varied: Some said the president lately, others said it's a trickle-down effect, and some said it's voting local.

Things like tax cuts and government spending were big presidential campaign issues, so it's no surprise that most people I talked to saw presidential policy as the key to restoring a healthy balance in their bank accounts. But for many of the things that really impact our day-to-day lives, it turns out that it's the candidates on the local ballot that really count.

"Local government has an enormous impact on people's everyday lives, and on the services that people have the most contact with," says Sarah Elkind, a professor of political history at San Diego State University and the author of the book "How Local Politics Shape Federal Policy."

"If you think about what government provides on a day-to-day basis -- schools, transit, water supply, waste and sewage disposal, public health surveys of restaurants, fire, police -- those things are mostly provided by local government. And if those services are not adequate people have to supplement out of their own pocket."

Dale Miller, a 20-year veteran of local politics, was one of the candidates on the Lakewood ballot this year. He was re-elected to the Cuyahoga County Council Seat. Miller cites a laundry list of services county government runs and helps pay for.

"We provide a broad array of human services from adoption services to early childhood education.  We help subsidize the county hospital and senior and adult services, plus the public works -- the roads and bridges and other infrastructure," says Miller.

Also on Miller's to-do list: restore the $15 million budget shortfall, make county government more efficient, revitalize decaying urban neighborhoods, attract new business to the region implement scholarship and job training programs, oh, and grow the population by 100,000 people in the next 10 years.

"I would be very surprised if we accomplished that, but anything in that direction would be a help," he says.

By Miller's own admission these are very ambitious goals -- Cleveland and Cuyahoga County has a lot of serious economic problems. But then again, so does the country. So how does he think he'll do compared to the president?

"The president and the Congress and their policies have the potential to affect the macro direction of the economy and that affects people's lives in a big way," he says. "I think local and county government is more likely to impact the quality of life -- what the neighborhood looks like and things of that nature."

Will those things impact your personal finances? That depends. It might not give you a bigger tax refund, but social programs and improvements to neighborhoods and roads could increase your property value, decrease crime, or save you money fixing your car.  

Elkind says, more importantly, people need to realize that federal spending is shaped by an intimate relationship with local governments and the people who influence them.

"Most of the government that matters in our daily lives -- and an awful lot of the federal spending and federal programs -- are happening because local communities want them," she says.

And that's why voting for your city or county councilperson -- someone like Dale Miller -- is so important. Because those officials have the power to shape the federal tax dollars that ultimately come back to you. 

About the author

Gretchen Cuda Kroen is a reporter/producer based in Ohio.

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