When urban non-profits represent residents better than local government

A sociologist suggests the role of non-profit organizations has changed in urban areas:

To Levine, the incident illustrates something he’s been tracking over four years of monitoring the interactions between neighborhood nonprofits, city leaders, and private organizations in Boston. Based on his observations, he argues in the journal American Sociological Review, the role of nonprofits in disadvantaged city neighborhood has been changing. They’re no longer just extensions of the state or representatives of a few interest groups. They’re “legitimate representatives of poor urban neighborhoods,” and in many cases, “supersede” elected officials…

What’s happening now is that these organizations are directly negotiating for resources from public and private sector entities that hold the proverbial purse strings. Community organizations are now authoritative voices at the table, and often regarded by both private companies and bureaucrats as more invested and deeply knowledgable representatives of the neighborhoods. In Boston, “district-based elected officials, by contrast, attended ribbon cuttings and groundbreakings but were largely absent from substantive discussions of redevelopment planning,” Levine writes.

The phenomenon is particular to low-income communities for a reason: These communities have very specific needs for services. But also, these are the places where voices of residents can be easily unheard by politicians. Think about neighborhoods in Detroit left to fend for themselves for basic needs in the city’s worst days. It’s community organizations that are transforming them into livable spaces. In Flint, where residents’ concerns about poisonous water were essentially ignored for the longest time, it’s nonprofits that are stepping in to address the damage done. “There’s a political vacancy in these poor neighborhoods that these organizations can fill.”…

Obviously, this phenomenon has a lot of positives. For one, it’s a “victory for the motivation of the war on poverty,” Levine says. Empowered community organizations present a stronger front against displacement, environmental racism, and transit inequity. They can be more consistent than elected officials, because they don’t suffer from political turnover. But the good stuff only happens if these organizations know what the entire neighborhood actually needs. Sometimes they don’t. And in those cases, it’s not possible to vote them out or hold them accountable. If a nonprofit dissolves, it’s hard to pick up the pieces quickly, because the infrastructure for a new organization has to be rebuilt from scratch.

I’ve recently heard or read several critiques of national and local urban policy in the United States that suggest much of what has been tried has been ineffective. At the same time, this doesn’t necessarily mean that government needs to be completely eliminated from the equation. At times, only a larger government body can access certain resources or leverage certain opportunities. But, this new analysis suggests perhaps the best conduit between government (with the resources) and the people is a non-profit. Perhaps government can’t do everything, particularly in responding to local needs when politicians need to answer both to local voters as well as politicians and leaders above them.

Of course, we want to know whether the role of non-profits leads to better outcomes. National and local governments have been fighting a war on poverty and/or trying to address the issues present in poor urban decades for roughly half a century now.

Local fire department plans for a potential fire at a 30,000 square foot home

How exactly does a fire department plan for a new 30,000 square foot home in the community?

A planned 30,000-square-foot home off Lake Norman would take an estimated 10,000 gallons of water per minute and dozens of firefighters on the scene if it were to go up in flames…

Modern homes of all sizes offer new threats now that open floor plans are more desirable to compartmentalized rooms, which would keep the fire more contained in years past, said Charlotte Fire Department Deputy Fire Marshal Jonathan Leonard of Davidson. What once could have stayed in the kitchen, now quickly passes through much of the first floor before moving upstairs if there is nothing to stop it.

Furniture, once only constructed of cotton, wood and metal, is now plastic, vinyl and foam that is more flammable, burning hotter and faster. Those two elements cut the estimated time for a home’s flashover point to occur from the 18 minutes firefighters had 20 years ago, to just over four, Leonard said.

That’s four minutes for families to have a smoke detector go off, call 911 and get out…

A simple solution that would be a safety net for both residents and firefighters is a sprinkler system.

I wonder if some communities would tell owners of extra-large homes that they would do all that they could to put out a fire but the municipality wouldn’t incur extra costs to adjust just for these extra-large houses. How much should a fire department adjust for a few homes? While this article suggests McMansions have these fire problems, a 30,000 square foot home is way out of McMansion league and probably does require its own planning. At 30,000 square feet, sprinklers sound like a good option.

Now that I’ve seen a few articles about this issue, I wonder if this comes up in the planning and zoning process in communities. While building homes may seem like a source of revenue for communities, they also require services including water, sewer, roads, fire and police, and schools. Could you add a special fire tax that only hits huge homes?

Northern Virginia residents unhappy about paying higher taxes and getting fewer local services

Echoing residents of many American communities, Northern Virginia residents don’t like the idea of paying increasing local taxes and not getting higher levels of local services:

At packed public meetings and in angry phone calls, local officials say, the same message is echoing from all sides: We’re fed up.

“It’s very frustrating, right now, to try to manage expectations,” said Sharon Bulova, chairman of the Board of Supervisors in Fairfax County, which, like neighboring Loudoun County, is locked in a battle over school funding that could lead to a higher tax rate — and even larger monthly payments…

Cuts to libraries, parks, schools and bus routes since the 2008 recession have negatively affected the quality of life of some residents in this part of Virginia, where top schools and amenities have long been a magnet for families. When much-needed infrastructure projects were launched, officials often paid for them by creating special tax districts and other charges that they passed on to increasingly resentful residents and businesses.

In Fairfax, sewer rates have nearly doubled since 2008, to $6.62 per 1,000 gallons of water, while real estate property taxes have climbed nearly 20 cents during the same period to a current level of $1.085 per $100 of assessed value. That means a house worth $500,000 in 2008 would have had a property tax bill of $4,450, and a house of the same value today would have a bill of $5,425.

Fairfax officials recently advertised a new residential property tax rate cap of $1.105 per $100 of assessed value, which will allow the county to raise the rate by up to two cents to fill a $64?million funding gap projected by school district officials. There is also a push to raise the tax rate in Loudoun, to bridge a $40?million school funding shortfall.

When there is plenty of suburban growth, new money is rolling in from developer fees and new taxpayers. But, in prolonged economic downturns, it is difficult to generate the same levels of money.

I wonder if either of these arguments would work with suburban taxpayers:

1. The reduction in service levels is probably quite limited.

2. These are still some of the wealthiest counties in the United States.

It is not as if these relatively wealthy counties will suddenly become like Third World countries. However, neither of these might matter as residents moved there in part to benefit from these local services.

Note: this is not just a problem in northern Virginia. For example, New Jersey leads the country in property taxes and the bill keeps growing in a number of New Jersey communities.

Illinois property taxes second-highest in the nation

A new report shows at the end of 2012 Illinois had the second-highest property taxes, just behind New Jersey:

Property taxes in Illinois average 2.28 percent of a home’s value, according to the Urban Institute. In New Jersey, they’re 2.32 percent, and in lowest-taxing Hawaii, they’re 0.27 percent. (The lowest among mainland states is Alabama, at 0.46 percent.)All the states that ranked ahead of Illinois in the 2007–11 chart saw their tax rates go up in 2012. But the rate in Illinois went up more…

What’s moving us up the list? Home values are down but taxing bodies’ appetites are up, as Costin sees it. Illinois home values fell farther and are improving more slowly than those in many other states. The latest Case-Shiller index data, which came out on New Year’s Eve, showed that while home values in the nation’s ten major cities have recovered, on average, to June 2004 levels, they’re only back to February 2003 levels in Chicago. At the same time, Costin says, “most local taxing bodies do the maximum increase they can do under the law each year.” Lombard and Lake County are notable exceptions, he says; both have reduced their rates.

When they’re asking for more total dollars in taxation on a smaller pot of aggregate home values, the tax rate is what goes up. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the amount of tax you have to pay goes up, as Cook County pointed out earlier this year.

While there are concerns about the federal budget as well as the monetary issues of the state of Illinois, these rising property taxes hint at another concern: the need for tax revenues for lower levels of government. These property taxes primarily go for local schools, cities, and other local services. See where property taxes go in one town in DuPage County. Or how one Chicago suburb is thinking about privatizing more of its roads to pay for their maintenance.

It is interesting to note that property taxes are higher in specific states but not others. For example, much of the Northeast and upper Midwest has higher property taxes but while Kansas and Texas do, Oklahoma does not. And, California does not. In a state where one city went bankrupt are others have looked to outsource municipal services, the property tax revolts of the 1970s (see Prop 13) have successfully kept property tax rates down (though home values are still high). Yet, if the money doesn’t come through property taxes, it likely comes from other sources.

The best civic apps for Chicago

Finding people to test civic apps is no easy task but here are some of the best civic apps in Chicago, according to the Chicago Tribune:

Foodborne Chicago Many people don’t report food poisoning to the health department, slowing responses to outbreaks of food-borne illnesses. This service scans Twitter looking for anyone complaining of food poisoning and flags anything that appears to be legitimate and local. A real person reviews the flagged tweet and, if it checks out, sends a reply via Twitter asking them to report the poisoning to the health department via an online form. (Developers: Joe Olson, Cory Nissen, Scott Robbin, Raed Mansour, Daniel O’Neil)…

Spothole Do you see a pothole? If so, click “Spot a Pothole” and easily file a complaint from your mobile phone. The app then uses an algorithm to rank the potholes, allowing city crews to address the most critical ones in a given area. (Stefan Draht, Brett Schnacky)

Can I Bring My Bike on the Metra Right Now? Simple question. Simple answer. Plus additional information on bike parking around Metra stations. (Steven Vance, Francesco Villa)

Clear Streets A more muscular version of the city’s Plow Tracker. This site reports which streets have been cleared of snow and includes a “plow leader board” of most active trucks. (Forest Gregg, Derek Eder and Juan-Pablo Velez)…

Sweeparound.us Type in your address and find out when your street will be swept. Register for an email, text message or calendar alert — or all of the above — to remind yourself to move your car to avoid a ticket or tow. (Scott Robbin)

Was My Car Towed? Supply your license plate number and find out whether the city towed your car. (Scott Robbin)

These could be very useful in a pinch. I get the idea that these apps are intended to help residents improve and understand the services in their city. At the same time, the apps listed by the Tribune seem fairly negative (potholes, avoiding tickets, making sure restaurants are clean, etc.) and giving citizens tools by which to complain about or track what the city is doing with their tax dollars. What about civic apps that help residents enjoy the city more? Perhaps this has already been taken by apps like Yelp. Plus, do apps like these take out the randomness of urban life or simply free people up to enjoy the city even more?

Unpopular revenue stream for Ohio inner-ring suburb: speed cameras

The AP has an interesting profile of how Elmwood Place, a small suburb adjacent to Cincinnati, became quite unpopular for its speed cameras.

Settled by German farmers and laborers who came up from Appalachian Kentucky, Elmwood Place was incorporated in 1890. Like many “inner-ring” American suburbs, it hit its peak many decades ago. Older residents recall bucolic times of moonlit concerts and tire swings hanging from backyard trees.

But outsourcing of blue-collar work made life tougher for many residents, and the village’s incomes and housing values fell well below statewide averages. Housing stock deteriorated to the point where you can buy a two-bedroom fixer-upper for less than $60,000.

When William Peskin joined the police force in 1998, there were nine officers. Now the police chief is the only full-time law enforcement officer left. He said concerns grew after accidents around the elementary school; village officials looked into traffic cameras and became convinced that they were the most practical way to make the village safer.

Cameras at the village limits and in the school zone dramatically curtailed speeding once citations started going out, Peskin said. From 20,000 speeders clocked in a two-week trial period last summer, the number soon dropped to a quarter of that.

Former county prosecutor Mike Allen filed a lawsuit against the town. Among the plaintiffs: the Rev. Chau Pham, who said church attendance dropped by a third after that Sunday when so many congregants — including him — were ticketed; David Downs, owner of St. Bernard Polishing for 25 years, who said long-time customers had vowed to shop elsewhere because they had been ticketed; and a Habitat for Humanity worker who was cited four times.

“Elmwood Place is engaging in nothing more than a high-tech game of three-card monte,” Judge Robert P. Ruehlman wrote March 7 in a colorful opinion that has heartened camera foes across the country. “It is a scam that the motorists can’t win.”

The judge said the village was on pace to assess $2 million in six months (the village’s annual budget is $1.3 million). Maryland-based Optotraffic, owner and operator of the photo enforcement system in return for 40 percent of revenue, had already reaped $500,000 in about four months.

While the larger article is more about the legality and popularity of speed cameras (and they seem to be quite reviled, even in light of arguments about safety), it hints at a larger issue: how can inner-ring suburbs raise enough revenue to keep their communities and local services going? We have hints elsewhere in the article that Elmwood Place is struggling. It has a limited population, the tickets stretch the budgets of residents who already don’t have much money, and the police force has dwindled. So, if we take safety and irritation over getting tickets out of the equation, what realistically can be done in this community? Outside of some unlikely large developer suddenly taking an interest, here are a few possible options: annexation into Cincinnati (which is rare these days – suburbs started resisting big city annexation starting in the late 1800s in the Northeast and Midwest) or outsourcing a number of key services (a few California communities have pursued this – see here and here – while some Chicago suburbs have turned over policing to county sheriffs).

More broadly, a number of American inner-ring suburbs face the issue of how to raise revenues in declining or struggling communities to provide basic services. This has led some to argue that we need more metropolitan revenue sharing so struggling suburbs or neighborhoods could benefit from wealthier regional municipalities.

New York governor says local governments, schools should save money by merging

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo suggested one way local government can save money in this economic crisis: merge or consolidate.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo had tough words Friday for local officials facing fiscal crises and seeking more help from Albany, telling them they should consolidate services or whole governments and school districts rather than looking for relief from Albany.

“If it was really, really tough, you’d see that happen,” Cuomo said in his strongest comments yet on the local fiscal crises. “If you are a school district, or a city, or a town or a county, and you are looking for a fundamental financial reform, consolidation is one of the obvious ones.”

Cuomo said he believes local politics is standing in the way of mergers and consolidations that would save taxpayers money and improve efficiency of services. He said deciding to consolidate should be easy, yet “politically, it’s difficult … I get the politics.”

Despite years of hard times, Cuomo said you can count “on one hand” the number of consolidations among 50,000 local governments, school districts, fire and library taxing districts and more.

School districts and local governments say they are already consolidating and merging, but that’s not enough. They are asking for more laws than Cuomo has offered in his state budget proposal to cut labor costs, pension costs and more funding.

Advocates like Myron Orfield and David Rusk have been pushing for metropolitanization for decades – and if Cuomo is right, it might happen now because local governments will have little choice when faced with tough economic issues. However, there are three major issues standing in the way of government consolidation even when times are tough:

1. Local control and interests. This is part of the foundation of the American governmental system: residents should have some say in local government. Thus, local governments and residents will fight hard before they have to hand off decision-making to outsiders.

2. We could end up with situations where communities and governments that are harder off are pushed to consolidate while wealthier areas can hold out longer. This is then a different kind of inequality: wealthier residents would have more local control while poorer residents would have less control.

3. Consolidation might save money but what happens to the quality of the local services? Merging might lead to a reduction of services and some residents will not be happy about this. This is more of a quality of life issue that could influence crime rates, school performance, garbage pickup, and more.

More California communities looking to outsource certain municipal services

Here is an update on a developing story: more California communities are considering outsourcing municipal services.

The San Bernardino City Council on Monday will consider a recommendation to seek a proposal from the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department on what it might cost for a contract. San Bernardino filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy protection on Aug. 1.

Maywood in 2010 disbanded its police department, which had faced a myriad of lawsuits and reports of excessive force, and enlisted the county to patrol its streets. In an effort to close a $450,000 budget deficit, the city also laid off all its employees and contracted with the neighboring city of Bell to provide public services such as finance, records management and parks and recreation…

The central California cities of San Carlos, Half Moon Bay and Millbrae have also disbanded their police departments and contracted with their county sheriff over the past two years.

Fullerton debated the decision in August, but ultimately decided to stick with its own police officers.

Baldwin Park officials are waiting for the extensive second phase of its study, which could take up to six months, before making their decision on the controversial proposal. Among other things, it will look at the qualifications of Baldwin Park’s police employees and determine whether they would be able to transfer to the Sheriff’s department.

Two responses come to mind:

1. Outsourcing certain services may relieve local budgets but wouldn’t this eventually strain county-level budgets? And if so, won’t there be some way that counties then start asking for more money back from municipalities or individual taxpayers? This would seem to best work with smaller communities, say under 10-20,000 residents, who have to pay a lot just for start-up costs for services like police and whose addition to county rolls wouldn’t be too burdensome.

2. One question residents could ask about outsourcing is whether the level of municipal services will remain the same. Say a community outsources their police services to the county sheriffs; would the county have the same response time and be able to devote the same amount of energy to local issues? I wonder if the real issue in these communities as well as in many American communities is whether local residents will agree to service reductions in order to save money.


The three issues behind an incorporation vote in a Utah suburb

After writing earlier this week about the decisions of The Woodlands, Texas to not incorporate, here is the story of the Salt Lake City suburb of Millcreek that is considering incorporation on election day:

To supporters, a city would cobble together a few suburban neighborhoods into a more perfect union. After years of living at the whims of county codes and tax rates, residents of Millcreek said they would, for the first time, be able to keep their tax dollars inside their own borders and write their own future…

Opponents say the status quo works fine. Forming a city would heap municipal rules and expenses atop existing layers of county, state and federal bureaucracy. They say a new city would need money for lawyers, accountants, city buildings and other services now provided by the county, and ultimately be forced to raise taxes.

In 2011, an independent study said that Millcreek’s economics, population and geography would make it a “viable and sustainable” new city. But it also said the area was mostly built-out and had few new opportunities for development, raising the prospect that its expenses would outstrip the money it takes in. If Millcreek goes its own way, the surrounding county would also stand to lose $30 million in annual revenues from one of its wealthiest areas, and be forced to cut services or raise taxes on other residents.
If the measure fails, some residents say they are worried the community will be torn apart. At a time when city budgets are strained, they say that Millcreek’s Home Depot, its for-profit hospital and supermarkets would make ripe targets for annexation by nearby cities.

It sounds like there are a few issues present. First is the issue of revenues. Could an incorporated community afford the services it would be expected to provide? Would it increase the local tax burden, something many suburbanites abhor. Second is the issue of annexation. Incorporation typically provides a community more protection against adjacent communities annexing land. this article suggests what is most at stake are revenue sources such as retail and commercial establishments and perhaps job providers as well.

Though not stated here, I imagine there is also a third issue: the tension between individualism and communitarianism that is often present in American suburbs. On one hand, the suburbs offer homeownership, small parcels of land, the idea that individuals have a little space in which to live their own lives. On the other hand, suburbs, even unincorporated ones, require services such as roads, sewers, schools, police and fire protection, and more that is more easily realized when people pool their resources (tax dollars). Can you have a fully developed community life if individualism wins out? Is community, not just services but also strong and weak ties to neighbors and others in the community, desired by a majority of American suburban residents?

Quickly, some Census statistics about Millcreek: it has just over 62,000 residents; the median household income is $57,385 (about $1,000 above the median for Utah), is 87.2% white and 8.4% Latino, and 41.9% of adults have a bachelor’s degree.

One other note: the article suggests “the election here next Tuesday is a fight about what happens as America’s suburbs grow up.” This is a typical phase that many suburbs go through though it is a bit unusual, as it is for The Woodlands, for a community to grow so large and still not be incorporated.

Turning half the streetlights out in Detroit

The fate of Detroit has been in the news in recent years and here is another symbol of the city’s troubles: it is considering taking out a number of its streetlights.

Detroit, whose 139 square miles contain 60 percent fewer residents than in 1950, will try to nudge them into a smaller living space by eliminating almost half its streetlights.

As it is, 40 percent of the 88,000 streetlights are broken and the city, whose finances are to be overseen by an appointed board, can’t afford to fix them. Mayor Dave Bing’s plan would create an authority to borrow $160 million to upgrade and reduce the number of streetlights to 46,000. Maintenance would be contracted out, saving the city $10 million a year.

Other U.S. cities have gone partially dark to save money, among them Colorado Springs; Santa Rosa, California; and Rockford, Illinois. Detroit’s plan goes further: It would leave sparsely populated swaths unlit in a community of 713,000 that covers more area than Boston, Buffalo and San Francisco combined. Vacant property and parks account for 37 square miles (96 square kilometers), according to city planners…

Delivering services to a thinly spread population is expensive. Some 20 neighborhoods, each a square mile or more, are only 10 to 15 percent occupied, said John Mogk, a law professor at Wayne State University who specializes in urban law and policy. He said the city can’t force residents to move, and it’s almost impossible under Michigan law for the city to seize properties for development.

This sounds similar to the story from late last year where Detroit suburb Highland Park also decided to reduce its number of streetlights to save money.

Here is my question: does the story stop with streetlights or is the turning off of streetlights just the first step in much bigger efforts to contract Detroit? If you were a politician, perhaps dealing first with streetlights eases people into larger steps of consolidating and/or reducing services. Turning off streetlights is not a small thing; people tend to equate them with safety. Once streetlights are reduced, what comes next?

This story reminds me of an argument in Barrington Hills in late 2010 about reducing the number of lights to preserve the community’s rural, wealthy character. So wealthier, higher-class areas want fewer lights while cities and denser areas see street lights as a basic building block of city services?