Editorial: Regionalism out of whack

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Before Rowan County severs its ties with the Centralina Council of Governments, we hope some serious soul-searching and frank discussions take place among all parties to this frayed relationship. If COG is to continue as a viable entity working to improve the quality of life in our region, it needs Rowan and Cabarrus among its nine-county fold. By the same token, Rowan and Cabarrus counties have much at stake in COG’s work on regional issues such as water and air quality, job creation and economic development and providing services for a growing elderly population.
Rowan County commissioners have given COG six months’ notice of their intent to withdraw from the planning group. Rowan isn’t alone in its disenchantment. Cabarrus County also plans to pull out, as do the municipalities of Spencer, Norwood and Concord. Defections on that scale suggest COG’s leadership needs to listen to the complaints driving this exodus and look at ways it can better serve these member agencies that don’t feel they’re getting their money’s worth ó $34,000 a year in Rowan’s case and almost $40,000 a year for Cabarrus.
Officials here and in Cabarrus have ticked off some specific issues driving the disaffection. One is the sense that COG has worked at cross-purposes to Rowan and Cabarrus on devising a federally required plan to bring the area into compliance with air-quality standards. That, in turn, could jeopardize millions of federal dollars in highway improvement funds, including possible replacement of the Yadkin River bridge. Some are also upset over COG’s effort to revise the multi-county road-planning agencies known as Metropolitan Planning Organizations, or MPOS, which officials believe have functioned well in their current form. Yet another issue is whether some of the planning services offered by COG duplicate those already available through local government staffs. There’s also an underlying apprehension that Centralina is promoting the interests of Charlotte-Mecklenburg at the expense of outlying counties and municipalities.
Along with those issues, throw in some festering resentment about COG’s role in preparing an annexation study for the city of Salisbury prior to its attempt to bring the N.C. 150 corridor into the city limits. Although COG has supplied annexation studies to other entities (including Rockwell), its Salisbury annexation work was what drove the initial calls for Rowan’s withdrawal from the group last year. It’s easy to see how the widespread annexation anger could inflame sentiment that COG has an inherent big-city bias, but that isn’t reason to burn the entire regional bridge.
Regional strategies are even more essential today than 40 years ago, when the state’s COGs were born. Yet regionalism has to be a two-way street. If COG is to remain vital and relevant in the 21st century, all of its stakeholders ó rural and urban, big city or small town ó have to believe that their viewpoints and interests are just as important as their yearly dues. They need to see tangible evidence that membership in COG yields benefits that accrue equally to smaller municipalities and more rural counties, as well as the Charlotte-Meck metropolis. COG was initially envisioned as a regional partnership, but it only works if it’s truly a partnership of equals.