Putting Laces in Regional Footballs
by Bill Dodge
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) is already having a dramatic impact across the regions of the country.
Even before the ink was dry, local governments thought they understood the impact of the legislation. If you were large, and had the capacity to pursue funding opportunities, you were potentially going to benefit from the legislation. If you were small, it would be difficult to play. But there was one critical twist, affecting both the large and small.
The ARRA legislation turned to existing grant programs to expedite the distribution of recovery funding. If you had already prepared a regional transportation plan, for example, the projects in your plan would receive priority funding, regardless of the size of your local government. If you were already cooperating in other federal programs, such as for winterization, alternative energy, broadband, and economic development, you would also enhance your chances for funding, given the desire to spread ARRA funding across communities. Large, and especially small, your odds of receiving ARRA funding improved with a robust history of regional cooperation.
At the recent National Association of Regional Councils conference, the regions that have broad regional agendas, and staff capacities to match, were the ones that were featured in the ARRA sessions. Many of them were already receiving commitments of ARRA funding for their local governments. It was all too evident to other participants that their narrow agendas or limited capacities now doomed them to playing catch up. Even worse, they feared that they would face the same fate in future rounds of federal funding.
This regional myopia is now being treated in regions across the country. New cooperative planning and program efforts are being launched by local governments to take advantage of federal funding opportunities, usually with the assistance of their regional organizations. New regional organizations are being created, where they haven't existed, such as the in the Junction City/Manhattan/Wamego region in the Flint Hills of Kansas.
Maybe, most importantly, local governments are exploring ways to strengthen their existing regional organizations. They are looking at options for expanding staff to design the cooperative projects that allow them to compete for future funding opportunities. They are even exploring ways to jointly generate the matching funds required to participate in grant programs.
They are especially interested in removing structural and legal impediments to cooperation, knowing that these types of changes cannot be made fast enough to meet even the most generous grant application deadlines. Many regional organizations were set up with serious limitations, often decades ago. Some were primarily set up as Economic Development Districts so as to receive federal Economic Development Administration largesse. Some were set up under state legislation that restricted their activities, the types of challenges they could address, or the authorities to address them.
Most of the regional organizations featured at the NARC conference, however, benefit from broadly permissive state legislation for councils of governments or were created as nonprofit, or even for benefit, corporations that can address the range of challenges and deliver the cooperative services desired by their local government members.
The regional organization serving my region, the Region 9 Economic Development District, is creating a council of governments, the Southwestern Colorado Council of Governments, to broaden its activities. My neighboring regional organization, the Region 10 League for Economic Assistance and Planning, Inc., is considering a similar change. And, comparable discussions are going on in other regions. The emerging pattern: create regional organizations that can address any common challenge as the key legal entity, and then create special planning or service delivery mechanisms, as needed, to pursue activities approved by local government members.
Regional organizations in some states have been wrestling with weak structures, also for decades. Each time a new challenge arose, and did not easily fit within their founding agreement or bylaws, scarce time and resources had to be devoted to whether the topic could be addressed. Sometimes, ad hoc committees were created to address the challenge, with the hope that outside champions would emerge to implement the recommended actions. Even worse, sometimes the topic was not addressed cooperatively, condemning local governments to addressing the topic piecemeal, jurisdiction-by-jurisdiction.
Weak regional organizations resemble "footballs without laces", lacking the tools needed by local governments to play the regional cooperation game.
ARRA might help bring these historic debates to a productive conclusion. If local governments are jeopardizing their opportunities for federal funding, because of legal impediments to think, plan, and act regionally, then it's almost a "no-brainer" to modify the structure of their regional organization. Changing structure does not guarantee funding, but it removes a major impediment to competing for federal funding.
And just in time! ARRA might be the first of many federal initiatives that rewards regional cooperation. Pending federal legislation focuses on building cooperation among health care providers, such as by creating teams for addressing patient needs, to contain costs and improve health care quality. Many of the cooperative models being touted are regional in scope, such as the one in another Colorado region, Grand Junction. Full-service regional organizations could share their cooperation skills with health care providers and help them build these "accountable care organizations".
It would not surprise me that we look back in a few years and conclude that strengthening regional cooperation might be one of the most important consequences of ARRA.
Thank you, Federal government, and may you continue to foster the cooperation to build a 21st century economy!
Bill Dodge helps community leaders and citizens to build their regional capacity to address tough challenges. He is the former Executive Director of the National Association of Regional Councils, author of Regional Excellence, and can be reached at