Austerity in the suburbs: turning off and ripping out the lights in Highland Park, Michigan

As many suburbs face budget shortfalls, some have instituted new measures. While California communities drew attention last year for contracting out services previously provided by the city, the Detroit suburb of Highland Park is trying another option: turning off and ripping out the street lights.

But when the debt-ridden community could no longer afford its monthly electric bill, elected officials not only turned off 1,000 streetlights. They had them ripped out — bulbs, poles and all. Now nightfall cloaks most neighborhoods in inky darkness…

Highland Park’s decision is one of the nation’s most extreme austerity measures, even among the scores of communities that can no longer afford to provide basic services.

Other towns have postponed roadwork, cut back on trash collection and closed libraries, for example. But to people left in the dark night after night, removing streetlights seems more drastic. And unlike many other cutbacks that can easily be reversed, this one appears to be permanent…

The city’s monthly electric bill has been cut by 80 percent. The amount owed DTE Energy goes back about a decade, but utility executives hesitated to turn off the juice…

Most of the 500 streetlights still shining in Highland Park are along major streets and on corners in residential areas. DTE Energy has listed the city’s overdue bill as an uncollectable expense.

It would be interesting to hear what else the community has had to do or has considered in order to lessen the $58 million budget deficit.

While it is certainly a shock to have street lights torn out, I wonder how much of an effect this will actually have. It sounds like lights have been retained at certain places for traffic safety. I vaguely recall reading a piece at The Infrastructurist that suggested street lights on residential streets are there more for nervous residents than actually for reducing crime or improving traffic safety.

The description of Highland Park, losing more than half of its population between 1980 and 2010 plus a 42% poverty rate, suggests that this is an inner-ring suburb. While Detroit is notorious for struggling, many inner-ring suburbs are facing similar issues: once prosperous, the issues facing big cities have moved beyond their boundaries. These suburbs often have limited tax revenues and increasingly poor residents. How can they compete with the big city (if it happens to be at least somewhat thriving) or suburbs further out that have more modern amenities and wealthier populations? This is why people like Myron Orfield suggest that we need more metropolitan revenue sharing in order to help these communities survive and have hope for turning their fortunes around.

Of the suburbs that have had to turn to more drastic measures to close budget shortfalls, how many of them are inner-ring suburbs? Do these places share other characteristics? I would assume many wealthier suburban communities haven’t had to consider such options yet.

Suburbs not prepared to provide for growing poor population

With more suburban residents seeking assistance, many suburban communities aren’t prepared:

Suburban-based social service agencies have been swamped. A survey of non-profit social service providers in suburban communities in the Washington, Chicago and Los Angeles metropolitan areas, conducted in 2009 and 2010 by researchers at Brookings, found that roughly nine in ten were seeing increased numbers of people seeking help compared to the previous year. Many had suffered cuts in financial support, prompting them to lay off staff and place needy people on wait-lists.

“In many communities, there just aren’t the organizations needed to provide job training, counseling or emergency assistance,” said Scott Allard, a political scientist at the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration and the lead author of the survey. “Poverty is a recent phenomenon.”

One key piece of data from the survey underscores the corrosive effects of suburban poverty on the American identity: Nearly three-fourths of the suburban non-profits were seeing significant numbers of people turning up who had never previously sought help.

Several thoughts:

1. The problem is perhaps even worse than just growing numbers as more budgets of suburban communities have tightened. Where in municipal budgets is there money for this?

2. This reminds of a talk I heard from a homelessness researcher some years ago who suggested that a good number of the homeless who go to shelters are people who are temporarily homeless. On one hand, there is a persistent minority of the homeless who are always homeless but most are there because of temporary circumstances like a job loss, eviction, or medical costs. Will this be the case for the suburban poor – are these long-term poor residents or would these numbers shrink considerably if the economy picked up?

3. How dispersed is the poor population in the suburbs? I have not seen any maps or measures where exactly the suburban poor live. Knowing American residential patterns, we might suspect that the suburban poor tend to cluster in less wealthy/more affordable suburbs while wealthier suburbs have barely seen an increase in the number of poor residents, particularly since wealthier suburbs would not want such residents.

Are the suburbs a Ponzi scheme?

While Republican presidential contender Rick Perry drew a lot of attention by saying Social Security is a Ponzi scheme, how about viewing suburbs as a Ponzi scheme?

Indeed, my friend Charles Marohn and his colleagues at the Minnesota-based nonprofit Strong Towns have made a very compelling case that suburban sprawl is basically a Ponzi scheme, in which municipalities expand infrastructure hoping to attract new taxpayers that can pay off the mounting costs associated with the last infrastructure expansion, over and over. Especially as maintenance costs increase, there is never enough to pay the bill, because we are building in such expensive, inefficient ways.

This week, Strong Towns has released a substantial new report analyzing data and arguing that we must change our development approach if we wish to end the current economic crisis. In particular, we must emphasize obtaining a higher rate of financial return from existing infrastructure investments, focusing on traditional neighborhoods where large public investments in infrastructure are currently being underutilized…

In particular, in the report and an accompanying press release, Strong Towns calls on local officials to change course and shed the “dead ideas” of the suburban era, including these:

That local governments can grow without considering the public’s return on investment. Being blind to the financial productivity of our places has led to inefficient use of public infrastructure investments and allowed local governments to assume overwhelming, long-term financial obligations for maintaining infrastructure.
That local budget problems can be solved by creating more growth. More growth in the same unproductive pattern will only increase our economic problems. What is needed is an approach that improves our use of existing infrastructure investments.
That attracting a large employer is the key to local economic prosperity. In an age of globalization, this strategy may provide short-term gains for some local governments, but it is ultimately a race to the financial bottom.
That property owners can develop their property as they see fit while at the same time obligating the public to maintain the new infrastructure. This type of indirect subsidy creates enormous long-term financial obligations for taxpayers, increasing local taxes and reducing local competitiveness.

This is not an unusual argument made by those opposed to sprawl: sprawl is paid for by continuous growth. For example, a growing suburb can finance the services needed for new developments in part by the fees paid by developers constructing new developments. When that new development stops, either because of an economic crisis or because the community has run out of land (reaching build-out) or the community is not attracting development, the cash flow associated with new development stops. Then, local communities are confronted with static or shrinking budgets and the rising costs associated with aging infrastructure. In the end, someone is going to have to pay for this relatively cheap living.

By calling the suburbs a Ponzi scheme, the implication is that it will all implode at some point. I’m not sure about that; people have been arguing this for years (gas will become too expensive, there won’t be enough land, home prices will get out of reach, etc.) and it hasn’t happened yet. Since the suburbs have been partly subsidized by the federal government from the start, there are other sources of money beyond local municipalities (though an economic crisis shrinks everyone’s ability to pay). It would be interesting to see what happens if all state and federal money dries up for suburban interests – then what happens to the necessary infrastructure such as Federal interstates? We haven’t seen true contraction of cities or metropolitan regions just yet though it may be coming in harder hit areas like Detroit, Cleveland, and Youngstown.

However, the need for better longer-term planning is needed in many suburbs. If the era of growth is over or at least has slowed, then suburbs need to look at how this will affect development within their boundaries and their budgets. Assuming that there will always be positive growth is foolish even though there is not much room in the American cultural ideal of the suburbs to admit that they won’t simply keep growing and growing as more and more Americans express their innate desires for the suburban single-family home. Planning for a different, more limited suburban future is not exactly the same as planning for a doomed suburban future.

Except more communities to challenge 2010 Census counts

Amidst an economic crisis that has also affected many municipal budgets, expect more communities to appeal the 2010 Census counts:

Cities have two years to contest their counts under the Census Bureau’s appeals process, which began this month…

In recent decades, the peak for challenges was 6,600, or 17 percent of all U.S. jurisdictions, in 1990, when the census missed four million people, including five percent of all blacks and Hispanics.

In 2000, roughly 1,200 jurisdictions, or 3 percent, contested the count. The net change due to census challenges that year was just 2,700 people.

Apart from the challenges, analysts later determined the 2000 census had an overcount of 1.3 million people, due mostly to duplicate counts of more affluent whites with multiple residences. About 4.5 million people were ultimately missed, mostly blacks and Hispanics.

Interestingly, the article suggests that while government dollars are behind these challenges, it is also about the “psychological impact” on civic pride. I wonder who exactly will appeal: St. Louis, Chicago, and a host of other Rust Belt cities lost population and New York City didn’t have the population increase that was expected. Since budgets are tight everywhere, could we even get appeals from places like Houston which experienced sizable growth?

It would also be interesting to hear how exactly the Census Bureau adjusts these figures based on subsequent analyses of overcounts and undercounts. This is a reminder that Census figures are not perfect even as many things, including many social science studies based on population proportions calculated in the Census, are based on these figures. I am not suggesting that the Census figures are wrong but rather that it is a very complicated process that is bound to be tweaked some after the first figures are released.

Altoona, PA to become “POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold”

It is not just businesses that don’t mind being part of a film that negatively portrays product placement. Tomorrow, the city of Altoona, Pennsylvania will get a new name: POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold. Why Altoona? Sheetz is a key sponsor of the film (paying at least $100,000 to Spurlock) and the company is based in Altoona:

Sheetz said it was Spurlock’s idea to have a secondary premiere, hopefully in a town that would name itself after the movie. Sheetz helped sell the idea in Altoona, and the locals seem enthused by the concept…The locals needn’t worry too much. The name change is ceremonial — meaning people won’t have to address mail using the movie’s title. The film was in the can before the naming rights deal was approved earlier this month by city council, on which Bruce Kelley serves as vice mayor. The money is going to the police department.

[Vice mayor Bruce] Kelley said he’ll leave it to marketing experts to debate how much advertising is too much, but said the city is solvent and doesn’t sell the naming rights to anything other than trees people can pay to have planted in someone’s honor.

“So we’re all going along with the gag. We’ve become part of the shtick,” Kelley said.

“But you’re not going to see ‘POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold’ on the side of our fire trucks.”

So, at least there are some boundaries! Seriously though, the city is getting $25,000 to be renamed for a short period of time and the money seems to be going to a good place.

But there are some larger issues that this article could or should address:

1. Aren’t there other communities that have done similar things in the past? Truth or Consequences, New Mexico (Wikipedia explanation) is a classic example.

2. The vice mayor says Altoona is solvent but I wonder what their budget status really is. Many communities are experiencing budget issues and I wonder how many might go through with something like this to get some quick cash. The CTA seemed to indicate that it is interested in such efforts.

3. This vice mayor suggests “marketing experts” should figure out how far is too far in the selling of commercial advertising. Perhaps we need a national survey on this: when Americans are presented options about how the Federal government or more local governments should raise money (or cut spending), why not include a questions regarding the option of selling advertising rights? While we have some commentators who seem up in arms about this practice (including Spurlock), what is public opinion on this issue? For example, Apple sponsoring a Chicago El stop drew some initial attention but I haven’t heard anything since.

How to offset the lower gas tax revenues from electric car drivers

With more electric cars coming to market, more state governments are discussing how to offset the loss of gas tax revenues from electric car drivers:

After years of urging residents to buy fuel-efficient cars and giving them tax breaks to do it, Washington state lawmakers are considering a measure to charge them a $100 annual fee — what would be the nation’s first electric car fee.

State lawmakers grappling with a $5 billion deficit are facing declining gas tax revenue, which means less money to maintain or improve roads.

“Electric vehicles put just as much wear and tear on our roads as gas vehicles,” said Democratic state Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, the bill’s lead sponsor. “This simply ensures that they contribute their fair share to the upkeep of our roads.”

Other states are trying to find solutions to the same problem, as cars become more fuel-efficient and, now, don’t use any gas at all.

The two main options for this are either to impose an annual fee or to base payment on how far the car travels. But the cost-per-mile approach seems to have several disadvantages (including a good amount of opposition) even though it seems like it would be the closest to the gas tax (the more you drive, the more you pay).

The last paragraphs in the article seem to hold the key: this is another instance when government is trying to catch up to the newest technology. On one hand, governments don’t want to discourage the purchase and use of electric vehicles. On the other hand, roads still need to be built and maintained. Additionally, most states are facing large deficits and can’t be going about taking in less revenue.

Regardless of what route is taken, it seems like it would be better to make decisions like these sooner rather than later so that future electric car drivers know what they are getting into.

More minorities in the Chicago suburbs leads to new issues

The Chicago Tribune discusses some of the growth in minority population in the Chicago suburbs as well as the challenges this poses to these communities:

“Immigration is coming right to the suburbs because of jobs and because there are networks that have been established in the suburbs,” said Chicago-based demographer Rob Paral.

The greatest number of new suburbanites were Hispanics. More than 62,000 Latino residents settled in Will County, many in Aurora, Joliet and Bolingbrook.

Bolingbrook also saw its Asian population more than double, with a surge of Indian, Pakistani, Filipino and Chinese residents, village officials said. In Naperville, the black, Hispanic and Asian populations were each up by 70 percent or more, while the still much larger non-Hispanic white population dipped slightly…

“When you talk about the challenges of integration, part of the problem is that some of these communities were not built to sustain or increase by 150 percent, let alone by people whose language is from a different country,” said Sylvia Zaldivar-Sykes, executive director of the Lake County Community Foundation.

This will pose some interesting challenges to many suburban communities. Having new residents in the community might lead to reconsidering the characters of these suburbs: how will residents and other communities view themselves and other suburbs? New programs or services will require more money, something in short supply in our current era of suburban budget shortfalls. And in the long run, what will the white residents in these communities do – move to other suburbs, as many whites have done in the past, or stay within their changing communities?

Zoning, churches, and tax bases

Zoning of land can become a contentious issue, particularly when a community sets limits that some community members find restrictive. An article quickly mentions one of these points of contention: when communities make it difficult for churches to be built.

“Churches do not realize the fight they’re in,” Baker said. “If you go into a commercial district, they say you’re wrecking their tax base. If you go into residential, they say you’re disturbing their peace.”

While the issue is not new, Baker said, “The objections to churches obtaining zoning do seem to be heating up under the [economy].”…

In Houston, churches recently raised objections over a proposed drainage fee by city officials. In Mission, Kansas, churches filed a lawsuit after being charged a “transportation utility fee” to help fix roads.

In the case of Burbank, Mayor Harry Klein told the Chicago Tribune, “It’s obvious—every city likes to see their tax base grow, that’s a given.”

An alderman in Evanston, Indiana, raised concerns last year about the impact of “storefront churches” on the tax base and proposed an ordinance requiring special-use permits for houses of worship to operate in all business or commercial districts.

While this article doesn’t give any insights into how common this is, it does suggest that these cases might be more common now in a time of economic crisis. This may be the case as many communities look to close budget shortfalls and churches also have some more purchasing power with reduced real estate prices. Is there any data to suggest these sorts of incidents are now more common?

This article does highlight the goals of local municipalities: generating tax revenue and expanding the tax base. To require fees to pay for roads or sewers are not unusual when commercial or residential property is involved as these fees help offset the infrastructure costs for local communities. Churches do not generate property or sales taxes for a community so they might be considered dead weight. And if a church wants a potentially lucrative property, then the aims of the church and the community are at odds. Zoning is a means by which local communities have some control over land use and therefore can attempt to use zoning rules to regulate everything from the placement of banks to churches to tattoo parlors.

It would also be interesting to compare these sorts of cases with churches to those of mosques (one example here).

Suburban budget cuts lead to volunteer opportunities

Many suburban communities have had budget difficulties in the last few years, leading to staffing cuts and other measures.

Naperville, Illinois, a prosperous Chicago suburb, had some similar issues. Because of some of the staffing cuts, the city is now looking for volunteers to help out at City Hall:

The pilot Municipal Volunteer Program is still accepting applications, said Community Relations Manager Nadja Lalvani, and has already drawn the interest of about a dozen people. Currently, the city is looking to fill a vacant front desk at city hall that used to be occupied by a greeter, but due to budget cuts, the position was eliminated…

The front-desk position at city hall will be the first volunteer opportunity opened to the public, Lalvani said. The greeter will be responsible for directing people to various parts of city hall, and could be trained to operate the phone switchboard in the future.

After the pilot period ends in six months, the city will evaluate the program. If all goes well, there could be more opportunities for volunteers.

Is a program like this only possible in generally well-off and well-run places like Naperville? How many citizens today would be willing to volunteer to help the local city government (as opposed to other volunteer opportunities or not volunteering at all)? Naperville does talk up its volunteer spirit so perhaps this ethos will come through and help the city fill a few positions.