Big issues are best digested in small bites. So if you want to understand why the national debt clock is spinning faster than Linda Blair's head in "The Exorcist," don't look to Washington, D.C.
Look instead to a tiny project in a sleepy village in southeastern Allen County that once symbolized the problem but today epitomizes the solution.
When County Council voted 6-1 to seek a $96,000 federal “Safe Routes to Schools” grant in 2008, Hoagland residents intended to use the money to improve and widen a half-mile sidewalk along Hoagland Road leading to the local elementary school. Today the project is nearly complete – without Uncle Sam's help.
Why did Hoagland ultimately reject nearly $100,000 in “free” money? How did roughly 800 residents and 66 businesses make up the difference? The answer illustrates not only the stifling inefficiency of the federal but the resiliency and generosity of a people who despite government's best efforts still possess the desire and willingness to take care of themselves.
“When we applied (for the grant) we were na´ve. We thought they would just give us a check. As time went on, we found out there was so much bureaucracy we could have completed about 200 feet with the money,” said Jon Niemeyer, a former Hoagland Chamber of Commerce president who has spearheaded the project.
In fact, by the time the project is completed next year, the village will have installed more than a mile of sidewalks along Hoagland and Minnich roads for considerably less than the $100,000 it expected to receive from the feds.
“Hoagland had hoped to use volunteer labor . . . this approach could not be used
under the federal aid process. In fact, those requirements would have necessitated four to five times the amount awarded in order to complete the project as proposed,” explained County Highway Department Director Bill Hartman. In addition to requiring the use of contractors paid union-level wages under the federal Davis-Bacon Act, strings attached to the grant would have also dramatically increased the cost of engineering, right-of-way acquisition and other items.
So last year Hartman told the Indiana Department of Transportation thanks for the grant – but no thanks.
And the people of Hoagland got to work.
As an unincorporated village, Hoagland has no government of its own – and as a result no way to raise taxes for sidewalks or anything else. So, led by the Chamber of Commerce, Hoagland paid for the sidewalks it wanted by holding scrap drives, auctions and parties such as Octoberfest. Companies donated materials and people contributed their labor, sweat and cash. “People will write checks if they believe in the project,” Niemeyer said.
And because they did, the last 350 feet of the old, narrow sidewalk leading to Hoagland Elementary School – with dips so deep they collect water and pose hazards for walkers and bicyclists alike – will soon be replaced with a 5-foot-wide path that complies with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“It makes us feel a lot better (to have completed the project without federal help),” said Chamber President Mike Sorg, who noted that Hoagland's sidewalk project began after a boy was hit and killed by a motorist on Minnich Road a few years ago. Even though the school is slated for closure, the sidewalk will continue to keep people safe, he added.
That kind of old-fashioned self-reliant pride is exactly what former County Council member Cal Miller hoped to foster when he cast the sole vote against the grant five years ago.
“This is not going to be a popular position,” he acknowledged at the time. “But as much as I think Hoagland should have sidewalks to be pleasant and safe, if we don't police spending at the local level, who will?” At the time, less than 4 percent of the school's students – just 16 or so - lived within walking distance.
“I applaud Hoagland for pulling together for a project that is obviously very important to them,” Miller said this week. “It's a shining example of what folks around the country should be doing.”
When I wrote about Miller's dissent in 2008, the federal debt was $9.5 trillion. Today it is fast approaching $17 trillion, in part because otherwise fiscally conservative politicians know that if they reject federal money, somebody else will be eager to take it. No doubt somebody else spent Hoagland's grant.
But in the process Hoagland gained far more than it lost: more sidewalk for the money, more pride of ownership, a greater sense of accomplishment – and the knowledge that, in a small but significant way, its people are wiser than the Ivy League suits who run Washington.