Ongoing Illinois debates about abolishing townships

Illinois is known as the state with the most taxing bodies and one way to reduce that figure would be to eliminate townships:

It’s prompted dueling Republican proposals for new state laws, one to make it easier to get rid of townships, the other to require a study to show financial savings before any township unit could be dissolved.

Illinois has 1,428 townships, helping to account for more units of government than any other state. It’s a layer of bureaucracy formed primarily to serve rural communities, but most states do without them…

“The real issue, and the reason property taxes are so high in Illinois, is because we have 7,000 units of government,” said state Rep. David McSweeney, a Barrington Hills Republican who’s sponsoring the bill to make it easier to mount township abolition campaigns in McHenry County. “The only way we’re going to reduce property taxes is to consolidate local governments. Townships are just a start.”…

Townships have three basic functions: maintaining roads that aren’t handled by other units of government, assessing property for real estate taxes, and helping the poor through food banks and emergency aid. Townships also often provide transportation for people with disabilities, as well as programs for senior citizens and youths….

Advocates of townships argue that they provide the most local, responsive service for the lowest price. In addition, several studies have found that expected expense reductions from government consolidation never materialized. A Rutgers University study concluded that “cost savings are not assured,” and that “most consolidations fail.”

Americans tend to prefer lower levels of government that they feel is more responsive to their daily needs. Taking the duties that townships do and pushing them up to a larger and more abstract county or state government can feel like ceding control to officials who do not know local conditions.

The article also makes it sound as if the research findings do not support claims that fewer bodies of local government would lead to cost savings. If that is not guaranteed, could a successful effort to abolish townships provide hope to some that government can be rolled back or reduced to some degree?

All said, efforts in Illinois in recent years to eliminate or consolidate units of government has been slow. The state legislature banned the formation of new government bodies and DuPage County slowly is reducing the number.

Why suburban governments should consider merging

While Lisle, Naperville, Warrenville, and Woodridge appeared to have little interest in merging, the long saga does raise a possibility: should more suburban governments consider merging?

The primary reason not to is that many suburbs and their local officials want to maintain control over what happens in their community and near their homes. Larger communities may make decisions for the good of the larger community that do not necessarily benefit certain members of the community. A smaller government provides closer oversight as the individual votes of residents count more.

A second reason for not merging is that suburbs often see themselves as distinct communities. Even though an outsider might see it all as one amorphous blob of suburbanism, many suburbs have long histories and distinct characters. In this particular case, these suburbs may define themselves partly as not Naperville: we are still a small community with a distinct feel.

On the other side, there may be multiple reasons to merge: financial economies of scale through combining particular city services (for example, having one police department rather than four), increased visibility and status with a larger size (controlling more land as well as having a larger population), broadening a tax base, and some communities may have mutual interests due to similar demographics, locations, or like-minded leaders. Imagine an even larger Naperville that controls a lot of land along major highways (I-88 and I-355), has a diverse tax base (particularly due to a lot of office jobs), thas efficient city services over a broad area, and is clearly the largest suburb of Chicago (Aurora currently holds that distinction). In the long run, is it feasible to keep so many suburban governments going when budgets are ever tighter? Is it worth protecting local control and distinct characters at a higher cost?

The only way I could see suburbs seriously consider merging would involve difficult financial times looming on the horizon. Even then, many suburbs may not want to take on the communities that have a weaker financial standing or a lower status.

Getting established suburbs to build denser housing

A new study suggests higher levels of housing density in older suburbs could provide a lot of affordable housing:

But according to a report released today by urban housing economist Issi Romem of Buildzoom, many urban cores are actually developing and densifying. And lots of housing continues to get built at the suburban periphery. Romem argues that America’s real housing problem—and a big part of the solution to it—lie in closer-in single-family-home neighborhoods that were built up during the great suburban boom of the last century, and that have seen little or no new housing construction since they were initially developed…

The reality is that most of the housing stock and most of the land area of America’s metros is made up of relatively low-density suburban homes. And a great deal of it is essentially choked off from any future growth, locked in by outmoded and exclusionary land-use regulations. The end result is that most growth today takes place through sprawl…

But if America’s dormant suburbs are a big part of its housing and growth problem, they can also be part of the solution. Relaxing zoning rules in these neighborhoods would spread population growth more equitably and sustainably across a metro, relieving the pressure of rising housing prices and gentrification around the urban core, and unsustainable growth at the periphery.

“The dormant suburban sea is so vast that if the taboo on densification there were broken,” Romem writes, “even modest gradual redevelopment—tearing down one single-family home at a time and replacing it with a duplex or a small apartment building—could grow the housing stock immensely.” Many of these suburbs are located relatively close to job centers or along major transit lines. They are the natural place to increase density.

While this may be true, I tried to think of the incentives for suburbs in between cities and the growing metropolitan edges to do this. Here is my quick pro/con list:

Pros:

  1. Population growth is often associated with progress or a higher status. More housing means more people.
  2. New residents could help provide a new energy, particularly if they are higher-income residents who can contribute monies to the community.

Cons:

  1. Changing the existing character of a suburb, particularly for denser housing, is often met with opposition by existing residents.
  2. New residents mean new demands for local services.
  3. Denser housing might mean cheaper housing and this means attracting fewer higher-income residents.
  4. Why should we build denser housing if other communities around us are not doing the same?

Based on my quick lists, I do not think too many individual established suburbs will be jumping on this bandwagon. Even higher-income suburbs that would build higher-end dense housing would face opposition from residents who prefer the exclusivity of single-family homes.

The main thing that could break this logjam would be pressure from above – think the federal or state government – or groups of suburbs making decisions together to build denser housing. Still, these efforts will have to overcome those who will want local governments to stay their own course.

Towns that restrict road access to app users only address the symptoms and not the bigger issue

The decision in a New Jersey suburb to fight back against drivers directed to their streets by apps raises all sorts of questions:

In mid-January, the borough’s police force will close 60 streets to all drivers aside from residents and people employed in the borough during the morning and afternoon rush periods, effectively taking most of the town out of circulation for the popular traffic apps — and for everyone else, for that matter…

But Leonia is not alone. From Medford, Mass. to Fremont, Calif., communities are grappling with the local gridlock caused by well-intentioned traffic apps like Waze, which was purchased by Google in 2013 for $1.15 billion.

Since Waze uses crowd sourcing to update its information, some people — frustrated at the influx of outside traffic — have taken to fabricating reports of traffic accidents in their communities to try to deter the app from sending motorists their way. One suburb of Tel Aviv has even sued Waze, which was developed by an Israeli company….

“It’s a slippery slope,” said Samuel I. Schwartz, the former traffic engineer for New York City known as Gridlock Sam, and the author of the early 1990s book “Shadow Traffic’s New York Shortcuts and Traffic Tips.” “Waze and other services are upsetting the apple cart in a lot of communities. But these are public streets, so where do you draw the line?”

See an earlier post about a Los Angeles neighborhood that raised similar objections.

I can see the reasoning by small communities: the roads are partly or mostly paid for through local tax dollars and thus they should primarily be reserved for the use of locals. These sorts of situations can become big deals in suburbs where residents are often resentful of ways that their local tax monies serve others.

At the same time, this hints at a larger issue: efforts like this by single communities could end up having deleterious effects on the region as a whole. What if every suburb or community employed such tactics? Traffic would only be worse. This then suggests a metropolitan approach is needed to tackle these congestion issues. This might be difficult to do considering how local residents like to hold onto their own monies but drivers across the region might be too mad at that point to care if there are no alternative routes. The best way to tackle this issue may be to lobby for more mass transit and decreased reliance on cars in the New Jersey suburbs.

The architecture of stars versus what emerges in cities

Ron Grossman contrasts Chicago’s architectural gems and the more organic ways that neighborhood buildings developed:

The architecture of affluence breeds anonymity.

Nearby sidewalks don’t play on my heartstrings like those in a blue-collar neighborhood. Walking a block in Pilsen is like looking at Chicago history through a kaleidoscope.

Narrow three-story structures are topped with elaborate false fronts and a bit of Baroque ornamentation reminiscent of the Czech homeland of its original owners. A side wall may be painted in the vibrant palette of Orozco or another of the celebrated muralists of the current occupants’ Mexican homeland.

In Bronzeville, construction crews can be seen pulling jury-rigged partitions out of brownstone mansions. Built in the 19th century for the city’s wealthy, they were divided into sleeping rooms for poor blacks during the Great Migration of the 20th century. Now the neighborhood is gentrifying.

In many American cities, the past – written into stone and other materials in the form of buildings – will disappear unless specific preservation efforts are made. And, if the new structure can be a showpiece, something designed by a noted architect or firm and offering an unusual take, so much the better.

Two quick responses in my own mind:

  1. What will future city residents, say a few decades or centuries down the road, think about the construction booms taking place in many wealthier neighborhoods? If those future residents continue to prize progress, perhaps the loss of more original structures won’t matter.
  2. Like many culture industries, trends come and go in architecture. Is a rejection of cold, impersonal modern architecture more about that trend or more about letting individual properties and neighborhoods develop on their own without intervention from starchitects or government leaders? These are two different issues: whether you like the latest trends and whether you think architectural decisions should be made on a small scale and under the control of local residents.

American property taxes have feudal roots

American property taxes have a long history in English law:

The origins of the property tax aren’t American at all. It, instead, has roots that date back to Europe’s feudal system. First instituted in England by William the Conqueror in 1066, the early tax system worked this way: A king (or conqueror) took over all the land in a given territory. He would then divide it among his lieutenants and supporters, who would pay him (with money or services) in order to keep that land. In return, landholders enjoyed the king’s protection and were able to rent the property out to others—who would live and work the land—for a fee. The punishment for nonpayment was forfeiture of the land, which could result in a considerable loss of money and status. At the time, this system was called “free and common socage,” according to John Joseph Wallis, an economic historian at the University of Maryland. The person who held the land was called a socman, his taxes, socage. The arrangement created a way for people to own land while still having to remain loyal to the crown, which also had rights to the land.

After expansion across the Atlantic started, King James made sure that this system traveled overseas with the first settlers at Jamestown, so that he could partake in the profits of exploration of the new land. The charter of the Virginia Company held that—as in feudal times—the king would protect the lands in Jamestown, and in return, the people living on the land would pay him a share of their profits there. All land of the colony would be held in “free and common socage,” according to the Virginia Company charter. This meant that land could be bought and sold in the colonies, as long as the new holder of land continue to pay the king.

And why did the system persist even after the American Revolution?

It’s a peculiar note of history that the founding fathers, who spoke often of abolishing the feudal system, kept this remnant of the Old World. But the rationale is very simple: They needed the money. In fact, the federal government levied a national property tax in 1798, 1814, 1815, 1816, and 1861. The tax in 1798, for example, charged households for their slaves (50 cents), houses, and land. It raised $2 million, according to Wallis. These taxes usually outraged residents, who would often revolt, but the system of collecting property tax remained. That’s because property taxes were locally spent and collected in the beginning, and often paid for things like roads and canals that property owners would be able to see, and that increased the value of their property.

If indeed property taxes are the most hated tax for Americans, I wonder if residents would prefer the alternatives. One advantage of the property tax is that the monies are often spent closer to home, usually on local school districts and municipal services. Eliminate the property tax and taxes may be collected by governmental groups further way that have fewer responsibilities to local residents. Americans may not like property taxes but they do like local control.

 

“Federal Officials Push to Urbanize Suburbia”?

Conservatives are still worried the Obama administration is against suburbs:

In its final months, the Obama administration has set up a strategy to bring inner city living to the suburbs by deploying three federal agencies to dictate to states and local communities how to set up schools, housing and mass transit…

The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) expanded the reach of its Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) rule to two other federal agencies: the Department of Transportation and the Department of Education…

State and local educational agencies, for example, are urged to develop “boundary-free open enrollment or lottery schools when drawing school attendance boundaries, and selecting sites for such a programs like charter schools or magnet school.”

The three federal agencies also want their local and state education officials to “consult with transportation and housing authorities and housing development agencies” when planning a school site.

The federal authorities want local and state transportation officials to create mass transit plans and more public transportation routes, as well as include local school districts, housing authorities, Head Start programs, community colleges and similar entities in putting together the mass transit plan.

The first two thoughts that come to mind when seeing the specifics here:

  1. It sounds like this applies to communities that receive HUD block grants for redevelopment. So, if suburbs don’t apply for this, the guidelines may not apply.
  2. At the least, the guidelines would encourage more conversations between some important actors – like developers, local officials, school districts, transportation planners, and others – that could build upon and expand existing infrastructure. Instead of doing all of their work independently, a little collaboration could go a long ways.

In other words, wealthier suburbs will still have ways to resist lower-income residents. And isn’t what this is really about? Or, more broadly, suburbs want the ability to have complete local control over land use – which is all about quality of life, property values, and attracting the right kind of people. For example, see this statement from a Westchester County official:

“This document proves what I’ve been saying for six years: The federal government is planning to take control of the American suburb and forever change it in the false name of equality. If HUD gets its way, small town America will literally disappear. It will be forcibly urbanized by Washington social engineers.”

Suburbs are unlikely to disappear anytime soon. Plus, market forces may lead to denser suburbs anyway as there is plenty of demand for new housing in attractive suburbs. But, there could be more conflict in the future as wealthier communities want to retain control and regional and federal governments try to spread opportunities around.