Source: Lake Geneva Regional News

Are you ready to take over the county?

by Dave Bretl - Walworth County Administrator

August 18, 2011

For years, critics have told me that they could do a better job managing the county. Now, thanks to the National Association of Counties (NACo), they finally have their chance. NACo recently posted a game on its website called “Counties Work.” In the game, a player takes on the role of a county executive, responsible for providing services, dealing with citizenry requests, raising revenues and working within a budget. The goal of the game is to “keep your citizens happy by making sure they want to live and work in your county.” Throughout the game, constituents ask for your assistance to address a variety of concerns. Your first task is to “triage” the problem and escort them to the county office responsible for the issue that they are raising. As county executive, you then must decide whether to implement the idea being proposed. Your popularity rating rises or declines on the basis of how you respond to constituent concerns, handle an occasional crisis and manage taxes. A fifty percent approval rating, or better, allows you to serve another four-year term.

It took me a while to get the hang of the game. At first, I couldn’t figure out which button to click in order to hear the constituent complaint. As in real life, ignoring constituents leads to a lower approval rating. Once I cleared that hurdle and directed the constituent to the appropriate county department, I assumed that I was supposed to implement all of the requests. I found out the hard way, after having all pet owners arrested, that, like in real life, I needed to exercise some quality control over the requests. Ignoring the most harebrained ideas angered a single constituent, but kept the majority of citizens happy. It took several game “years” to recover from the pet fiasco to regain a fifty percent popularity rating.

Like any simulation the game wasn’t a perfect replica of life. A few misses from my point of view included the following:

• Where’s the board? I’m not sure how the game developers could have incorporated an elected county board into this simulation, but I wish they would have. A constituent proposal to build a new park, for example, involved a stop at the Parks and Recreation building and a decision by the county executive to proceed with the project. Understanding that some short cuts are necessary in order to create a playable game, omitting a complete branch of government is problematic. This is particularly true given that a major goal of the simulation is to teach young people about government. While staff and a county executive can propose plans, in real life it is the county board that holds the “purse strings.” The board has the final say when a project requires money and most usually do.

• Taxes. In my simulated county, I was allowed to set the level of sales and property taxes. Property taxes could be set once a year while sales taxes could be raised or lowered at any time during the course of the year. Given that NACo needed to design a game that could be played in all 50 states, I can’t blame them for incorporating these features of taxation in “Counties Work.” Many states afford their counties flexibility in terms of generating tax revenue. Wisconsin counties, however, enjoy far less discretion. While counties here have the ability to impose a sales tax, it is an all or nothing proposition; one half of a percent or zero. Various tax caps, imposed by the state of Wisconsin over the years, have placed limits on how high property taxes can be raised. Here, again, the game departed significantly from real life. In my “pretend” county, my popularity decreased as taxes rose. My approval rating, likewise, slipped, when I was unable to provide the desired service because I didn’t have enough money in the treasury. In this respect, I liked the game better than real life. My fictional local official needed to balance the need for moderate taxes against his constituents’ desire for services. Wisconsin has largely abandoned this model at the local level. With increasing frequency taxation, decisions are being handled by the state.

• The more the merrier. One principle underlying the game is that growth leads to success. The game advises the player that the more people that move into your county means more tax income. While this is often a true statement, the game doesn’t warn players that more people require more services. When growth is purely residential the cost of adding new schools, snowplows and police officers often exceeds the additional tax revenue that is generated.

For all of its all shortcomings, the video game has a lot more to offer than most of the ones I see my son playing on his Xbox. “Counties Work” is a lot slower paced than, say, the game of “Grand Theft Auto.” The top speed of the County Executive character is about 4 mph. As a result, I’m not sure that young people are apt to log into the game without a little encouragement. I hope that a few teachers might consider incorporating the game into a unit on local government in the upcoming school year. It may not be as exciting as Xbox, but most students will probably prefer it to a book. Teachers and armchair county executives can find the game on the NACo website at www.naco.org.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Walworth County Board of Supervisors.