Township argument: don’t disband us because we only take a little of your money

Continuing with local governments making interesting appeals to suburbanites, I received a newsletter from our township earlier this week. Illinois and DuPage County have had discussions about limiting taxing bodies and dissolving townships because of the state’s large number of taxing bodies. In response, the township put this graphic on the first page of the newsletter:

TownshipGraphic

While other parts of the newsletter described what the township does and how residents benefit, this graphic makes one argument: the township does not really ask for much so leave us alone.

In relative terms, this is a good argument: townships ask for the least amount of money. Even the Forest Preserve, a rather large one, asks for more money. On the other hand, given property values in the township, even 1.69% can add up to some decent money over the years. Plus, how does the money for townships compare to what residents get from the other taxing bodies?

On the whole, the quick appeal to property taxes hints at how suburbanites think: they do not want to pay more in taxes and want to be able to see how the money is being spent. I’m guessing relatively few DuPage County residents could detail what the townships do (compared to other taxing bodies) or connect the township activities to their property values.

The possible problems when governments buy dying or dead shopping malls

According to the Wall Street Journal, some local governments are purchasing shopping malls. With plenty of malls in trouble across the United States, this could be an opportunity for many municipalities. Yet, some problems could lie ahead:

  1. Some of this depends on the resources of the municipality. How many resources do they have to purchase the land and develop it? Does it require taking on debt? Would this debt outweigh the negative consequences of leaving the property vacant or leaving it in private hands? Communities with more resources to draw on have a leg-up in this process.
  2. Finding an acceptable use of the land can be a tricky process since the surrounding properties likely were developed under the assumption that the land would be a shopping center for a long time. Working out the zoning issues, particularly if residences are nearby, could prove tricky.
  3. Developing a plan for these sites is not necessarily easy and part of the reasons the malls are dying or dead is because of the attractiveness of the surrounding area to developers. Swapping out a mall for another thriving commercial use – such as entertainment – may be hard to do.
  4. Could this put communities on the hook for properties that are very hard to develop? It could be useful for local leaders to push the blame on developers or outsiders but it may not be so pleasant if the government is viewed as the reason the property is not improved. Such large properties could become albatrosses for local governments.
  5. Perhaps the simplest route for local governments would be to use the buildings or land for government purposes: park districts, schools, and other taxing bodies that do not always have easy access to large parcels. There might still be zoning issues to deal with and the loss of revenue could be tough. However, repurposing the retail space into space that the broader community could utilize could be a winner.

On the whole, there is a lot of potential for innovation when it comes to local governments and shopping malls. Yet, there are numerous ways this could go poorly for local governments, particularly those with limited resources.

Would limiting big money in city mayoral races help address low turnout?

An article at Citylab details efforts by some large American cities to limit big money in local mayoral races:

Several localities—including Portland, Denver, and Baltimore—have initiatives in motion to overhaul the system either by driving down the dollar amounts each person can give or solicit, piloting public financing projects that make each donated dollar go further, or both. The overarching goal is to keep big money and its influence out of local politics, and to give all candidates a fair shot.

In Denver, voters will decide on an expansive reform package, including a contribution cap and a generous matching fund. Baltimore’s city council has unanimously passed a charter amendment that would create a similar small-dollar matching system, if Mayor Catherine Pugh approves it and passes it along to the fall ballot. And before Portland, Oregon, phases in its own public financing measure in 2020, voters will decide on a strict local contribution cap this November…

Large political donors recognize that local races have national implications, and are willing to fund mayoral or city council candidates to build party power strategically. “At the state and local level, races historically have been far less expensive than federal races,” said Joanna Zdanys, counsel for the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program. But that also means, she says, “given the low cost of state and local races, a big expenditure by a deep-pocketed, special-interest spender has the potential to really overwhelm a candidate.”

And potential city leaders, in turn, are hiring national media consultants who recommend large budgets and high spending. Local campaigns have become more professional, with sleek campaign mailers and digital or TV ad spots.

I wonder how this goal of making mayoral races more open fits with limited turnout for local elections in many American communities.

The 2015 mayoral election in Denver had a total of 94,525 votes cast. The total population is near 700,000.

The 2016 mayoral election in Portland had a total of 193,083 votes cast. The total population is over 600,000.

The 2016 mayoral election in Baltimore had a total of 222,593 votes cast. In contrast, the 2011 mayoral election had a total of 46,223 votes cast. The total population is over 610,000.

Does big money suppress voter turnout? I could see how a case would be made for this: the introduction of big money behind one candidate makes it appear as if the outcome is a slam dunk.

Or, is the issue of voter turnout one that will continue to linger even if money is more evenly distributed across candidates? For a variety of reasons, many municipal officials are elected to office with a relatively low level of support from all of the voter-eligible citizens. Considering the influence big-city mayors can have, this seems strange, particularly since Americans tend to favor local government.

Living in, working in, and guiding Naperville for over 70 years

Long-time Naperville mayor George Pradel’s work in the suburb spanned tremendous change in the suburb:

When Naperville was a mid-sized suburb, beginning to outgrow its small-town roots but maintaining a family-friendly feel, Pradel was a police officer. He joined the force in 1966 and made his top priority children, teaching them to stay safe and letting them know someone was watching out for them. His actions made him Officer Friendly before he even took on the title as his nickname.

When Naperville was a growing city, expanding as developers turned farm fields into sprawling subdivisions, Pradel was a mayor. An unlikely mayor at that — the faithful, cheerful cop never intended to take on the role…

He became mayor because a handful of residents asked him to seek the seat, and Pradel never did master the art of tactfully saying “no.” With only a concession speech prepared, he won his first election in 1995, defeating a two-term city council member who worked in human resources for DuPage County. The newly minted mayor took office that spring. His hometown pride never ceased.

Born in Hyde Park on Sept. 5, 1937, as one of six children, Pradel was 2 when his family moved to a small house on Van Buren Avenue in Naperville. He always called it home.

When Pradel’s family first moved to Naperville in 1939, the community had just over 5,000 residents. When he joined the police force in 1966, the population was still short of 20,000. As a new mayor, the population was around 100,000. When his mayoral tenure ended, the city had over 142,000 residents. This is tremendous population change over one lifetime.

I wonder if a vocal and enthusiastic figure like Pradel helped ease the transition from small town to large suburb. Significant growth can change how residents feel about the community and their neighbors. Who are these newcomers? Do we have to build so many new schools? Where are all the locally-owned businesses? Why is the traffic so bad as I try to get across town? Naperville still tries to claim to be a small-town at heart and having a central popular figure to focus on could help.

How much influence mayors have in sizable communities is difficult to pin down exactly. Pradel will certainly be remembered for the length of his service as well as his efforts to boost the community. Might someone of a different temperament accomplished other things? Was Naperville already well on its way to what it is today when Pradel took office? How much did spending his formative years in the small town affect his later efforts? Regardless of the answers, it is hard to imagine there are many small children in Naperville today who will stay in the community for just as long or many who will see such change as Pradel witnessed.

Why Americans love suburbs #6: local government, local control

One of the unique features of the government of the United States is a federal system that distributes power between the federal government and more local bodies. Even if the federal government has grown dramatically in the last century, the suburbs offer residents a relatively small and responsive local government. Americans claim to prefer small town life and in such communities the distance between average resident and local leaders is reduced.

If the suburbs at their heart are about single-family homes and family life, a small local government can help protect the quality of life in the community. Local governments can exclude certain kinds of development. This then affects what kinds of residents can live in suburbs. See exclusionary zoning cases in DuPage County and Westchester County, two notoriously wealthy suburban counties, or more recent cases of religious groups facing opposition such as Muslims and Orthodox Jews in New Jersey. Homeowners can directly see and respond to how their tax dollars are spent. They may not like high property taxes (whether in the 1970s in southern California or more recently in northern Virginia) or decisions about TIF funds or but at least that money is spent in the community rather than shipped off to other centers of power. They may fight with each other about whether to raise local taxes for schools or fund regional transit initiatives or support affordable housing but at least they may know those they are arguing with and everyone does want their community to be attractive. Suburbanites are resistant to outsiders telling them what they should be doing, whether they are concerned about the federal government pushing denser housing (and perhaps even the UN) or state or court mandates about affordable housing (such as requirements passed in 2004 in Illinois or requirements in New Jersey due to the Mt. Laurel decisions).

While suburbanites may believe they have more access to suburban governments, these elected and appointed officials can have a significant impact on suburban development. The growth machine theory suggests local officials and business people push and pursue development because there is money to be made. Suburban growth is good because it can generate profits and it adds prestige. The growth has to end at some point (see cases like Naperville and Aurora) but officials, with some input from residents, can push suburbs in certain directions. Not all suburbs will make the same decisions about what to do with open land or with their downtowns but local leaders get to make these decisions that then influence residents decades later.

Local control then means that suburban communities can have distinct characters. While critics may suggest suburbia is an endless sprawling mass with very porous boundaries, local governments and development decisions alongside public involvement and civic projects can lead to long-standing and fiercely defended local understandings. The most typical image of an American suburb – bedroom community with postwar subdivisions filled with similar-looking homes – may not actually fit many suburbs in terms of appearance or perceived experience.

How exactly local decision-makers and suburban officials come into office can differ across locales. Voter turnout is low in many local elections so it may not take much effort to become a local official. On the other hand, local politics can sometimes turn very contentious because of particular significant issues or long-standing political factions. Americans tend to be more optimistic about their local conditions than about the country as a whole so suburban officials who do a decent job can retain their positions for a long time. Furthermore, suburbanites may be less interested in efficiencies across local governments, such as combining small police departments, compared to having their own local bodies.

Another aspect of this local control involves less democracy: the rise of homeowner’s associations. A good number of suburbanites are willing to turn over some decisions about their property and neighborhood to a board or management company that will ensure certain standards are upheld. Again, the distance between the average HOA homeowner and board is small; boards often need more people to volunteer to serve and neighborhood meetings allow homeowners to express concerns.

Of course, there are problems among suburban local government. They may not have the resources or expertise to deal with complicated issues (such as providing social services to address suburban poverty). There can be too many smaller units that have their own bureaucracies and abilities to tax residents (see Illinois as an example with numerous taxing bodies and debates about eliminating townships). Local officials can be corrupt (Cicero), incompetent (Harvey), or follow their own paths while remaining impervious to other opinions (Rosemont). Yet, many Americans might argue that even these problematic aspects of suburban governments are relatively easy to deal with compared to the behemoth in Washington.

Why suburbanites want to have their own police departments and local governments

Writing about a recent incident of police violence in a Pittsburgh suburb, one writer looking at all of the small police forces in suburbia asks:

It’s not often clear what the rationale is for these small municipalities to have their own city administrations and law enforcement agencies.

And he later says:

If having multiple police departments makes for inefficient and unprofessional work across St. Louis County, imagine what it means for Allegheny County, which has almost twice as many police departments. Micro-department intrusions add up to macro-resentment of police in general.

The argument for efficiency in consolidating local government and police forces may make sense in this particular context. Perhaps a larger-scale police force could better avoid such incidents through training and more familiarity with a broader area.

But, there are two related and powerful reasons that the American urban landscape is broken into so many local governments: Americans like the idea of local control and they like the idea of living in a small town. In a smaller community and with their own officials, Americans think they can exert more influence on local processes and the size of each local agency does not become too large. It is theoretically much easier to meet an official or register a complaint or run for local office if there is a major precipitating issue. This can especially be the case with wealthier suburbs that want to maintain their exclusivity by remaining small.

The only factor that may push suburbs and smaller communities to give up this dream of local control and small town life is difficult financial positions or seeking certain efficiencies. See an example of Maine communities that have dissolved due to a lack of local revenue. Illinois has tried banning the formation of new local taxing bodies while DuPage County has moved to reduce the number of local governments. But, if the resources are there, Americans might prefer these small units of government. (Another argument that could be leveled at all these small governments is that they may be corrupt or inept. Small suburbs can become little fiefdoms with weird rules, as illustrated by Ferguson and other communities in St. Louis County. But, even in those cases it is less clear that the residents of these small suburbs do not like their local governments where it may seem obvious to outsiders that there are problems.)

Also, it is important to note for this story that Pennsylvania is a leader among states regarding the number of local governments. Not every state does it the same way. Similarly, many metropolitan regions in the South and West are much larger in terms of square miles compared to Rust Belt cities that had difficulties annexing any suburbs into city limits after 1900.

Repealing a suburb’s English language resolution amid demographic change

The Chicago suburb of Carpentersville passed a resolution in 2007 saying English was the official language. The suburb continued to change and now officials have repealed the resolution:

Local officials say the English resolution caused nothing but controversy, and that progress came instead from targeting troublemakers, not Spanish speakers. Now, as one of the most diverse communities in the Chicago area, leaders hope to put the controversy behind them.

There’s also the demographic and political reality that Hispanics now account for slightly more than 50 percent of Carpentersville’s population of about 38,000, up from about 40 percent when the language measure was passed. Whites now make up about a third of the local populace, with most of the rest African- or Asian-American…

Still, it’s a touchy subject. When asked about the change in local law, Village President John Skillman, a lifelong resident, downplayed it. He said village documents and meetings will continue to be in English, and emphasized that the resolution made no concrete changes in the first place…

At the same time, efforts have been made to reach across ethnic boundaries. Last year, in addition to its Fourth of July fireworks, the village held a Mexican Independence Day celebration, and this year, its first Cinco de Mayo festival.

It is a relatively quick turnaround from a set of white candidates running for office and getting enough votes to join the Village Board and passing this resolution (and other measures aimed at undocumented immigrants) to repealing that same resolution eleven years later. At the least, it could suggest there is power of being part of local government: in a suburb of roughly 38,000 people, it may not take much to run for local office and campaign for particular issues. Regardless of what side of a political issue a resident is on, running for local office can make a difference.

The rest of the article hints at ways the suburb has come to terms with an increasing Latino population: Latino businesses in town, addressing gang activity, local festivals, and whether residents experienced discrimination. But, there is a lot more that could be addressed here. Did such a resolution significantly change day to day life? (The article suggests no.) How much do white, Latino, and black residents interact and participate in each other’s social networks? How does this play out in certain civic institutions like schools, religious groups, and community organizations? Resolutions or ordinances can certainly have a symbolic effect but there are a number of layers to community life and interactions in a suburb like Carpentersville.

(Side note: this is an apropos follow-up to yesterday’s post about how many Americans speak a language other than English at home. This affects more than just home life.)