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 The suburb continued to change and now officials have repealed the resolution: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.)

Would new local taxes on large tech firms really cause them to leave Silicon Valley?

Several communities in Silicon Valley are considering levying special taxes on large companies, possibly affecting some of the biggest tech companies:

Cupertino, Mountain View and East Palo Alto have begun to ponder new taxes based on employer headcounts — levies that could jolt Apple and Google — and if voters endorse the plans, a fresh wave of such measures may roll toward other corporate coffers.

Alarmed by traffic and other issues brought on by massive expansion projects, the three Silicon Valley cities are pushing forward with separate plans to impose new taxes that could be used to make transit and other improvements…

A lot of factors point to this being a prime time for efforts such as these. San Francisco ranked fifth worst for traffic congestion in the world — and third worst in the U.S. — last year, according to INRIX Global Congestion Ranking. Record housing prices in 2018 boosted the median price of a single family home in the Bay Area to a record $893,000 in April, according to a CoreLogic report.

Federal tax cuts also have improved the balance sheets on an array of U.S. companies, large and small. Silicon Valley’s largest tech companies have contributed to the gridlock on freeways and soaring housing costs as they’ve grown rapidly in recent years, with brisk hiring and expansion in unexpected areas and mega-leases that gobble up huge swaths of office space.

If this works the way that some would argue it does, then the local taxes will be viewed by the tech companies as an unnecessary burden for their operations. They should then consider moving elsewhere where they are not subject to such local taxes. Indeed, if they wanted to move sizable operations, they could probably get numerous communities to offer them tax breaks.

However, this assumes that the local taxes are the primary factor that determines where companies and organizations locate. Instead, there are a variety of factors that both support and work against staying in their current location. I assume these are important reasons for why Apple, Facebook, Google, and others are in this location: the construction and maintenance of large headquarters, proximity to other like-minded organizations, an talented employee pool nearby, and the proximity to major cities like San Jose and San Francisco. Are local tax issues more important than these other concerns? Probably not. And even if they are, it would take some time before a large organization could significantly alter their operations in response.

Why I’m skeptical housing will become a national political issue

Even as affordable housing is a concern in a number of places in the United States, there is little national political discussion of the issue:

Franzini is joined in this quest by a curious cast of fellow travelers who are committed to raising the political profile of the American housing dilemma. As home prices creep up everywhere from established tech hubs to traditionally inexpensive cities like Boise and Nashville—and as homelessness reaches epidemic proportions on the West Coast—a number of organizations from a diverse array of sectors have recently formed to push for housing policy changes at the highest levels of government. They’re frustrated by the lack of engagement on housing that national political leaders are offering. And they’re finding that, at least for the moment, the first order of business is just educating people about the seriousness of the issue.

Here are four reasons why I believe it will be very tough to have a national political discussion, let alone pressure for the federal government to act, regarding housing:

  1. Housing is local. Americans would like local governments to handle the issue as they prefer, particularly those with more resources, to live in places that can limit others of lesser status from moving in. Residents and smaller governments argue that they should not be forced to build housing that current residents do not desire or give money to less deserving people for housing.
  2. Americans historically do not have much appetite for significant federal involvement in public or subsidized housing even as they like socialized mortgages for single-family homes.
  3. The housing industry has significant influence, from the National Association of Home Builders to the National Association of Realtors, due to the importance of the housing industry for the American economy and particular American ideals about what kinds of housing are preferred. Affordable or cheaper housing might generate fewer profits.
  4. Opponents to federal action will argue that Americans can have cheaper housing if they (a) are willing to move to metro areas that have cheaper housing (and plenty of them exist) and (b) truly take on the local power brokers that usually do not want the working and middle classes to access their wealthier neighborhoods. These arguments are plausible enough (though with issues) for a number of participants in the discussion.

A number of these reasons involve ideas about what should be part of the American Dream as well as perceptions about who can access it (so it involves race and social class).

Saving 40 gallons a week in water when I pay low prices per 1000 gallons every two months

I recently used a body wash that said on the back: “Did you know by reducing your shower by 2 minutes you can save an average of 40 gallons of water/week?” Water conservation is a laudable goal. Yet, the way our water bill was structured in our previous homes – the prices plus the measurement of the water use – illustrates how it can be difficult to convince Americans to use less water.

In our former home, our bill was structured this way:

  • We paid every two months.
  • The water use was measured in 1000s of gallons. For a family of three, we regularly used 9,000-10,000 gallons.
  • We paid $1.50 for 1,000 gallons of water and $2.98 for 1,000 gallons of sewer usage.

Several features of this structure would make it more difficult to care about conservation:

  • A two month time period was too long to see real changes in the bill. A significant change in water usage, say from watering plants during a hot period or the presence of visitors, would not create that much change over two months.
  • Using 40 gallons less water per week would only lead to 320 less gallons over two months. This might affect a bill but only by one 1000 unit of water, if at all. This is too large of a unit for residents to think about. Our current water usage is measured in 100 cu feet of water, a unit that is very difficult to visualize or connect to everyday usage.
  • The water price was really cheap. If we used 3,000 more gallons over two months, the cost was minimal: $4.50 in added costs for water and $8.94 in added sewer costs. The financial incentive to save water is reduced at such cheap rates.

A number of scholars have argued that Americans pay too little for water. This has negative consequences, such as wealthier residents using more water and cities losing lots of water before it gets to users. These problems could be addressed, even without immediately jumping to higher prices. Some of these techniques are already in use with utility bills:

  • Bill users more frequently (monthly).
  • Provide ways to show real-time water use.
  • Compare users to other nearby users. This can help people who use a lot of water see “more normal” use.
  • Show the bill in smaller water units that make sense to people. What is 1,000 gallons?

Raising prices could help too.

Win political office with low turnout in municipal elections

Even large cities have problems with voter turnout in municipal elections:

Voter turnout in local elections has always been low, and it’s gotten worse in recent decades, studies of voting behavior in municipal elections have shown. In most of the biggest U.S. cities, fewer than one-third of eligible voters turned out in the most recent municipal elections. And according to data culled by researchers at Portland State University, those who do cast ballots in major cities tend to be significantly older than the general population, a factor that might weigh against women and candidates from diverse backgrounds.

My impression of elected officials in suburbs is that a good number get into local elections because they care deeply about an issue. With low turnout, relatively small communities, and a lack of formal political parties (many smaller municipal elections are supposedly non-partisan), it does not take a lot of resources to run for local office.

Of course, some of these variables are different at the big city level: often dominated by partisan politics, a larger need for significant sums of money, and a need to woo tens of thousands of voters. Still, it is notable that the leaders of some of the most important cities in the world can be voted in with votes from a relatively small number of citizens. These local leaders may not be able to easily move into national positions yet their decisions affect residents on a daily basis in a way that more abstract and further removed national politics cannot.

Naperville at buildout to try to avoid complacency

What does a large wealthy suburb do with little available land to expand? The mayor of Naperville put forward some ideas:

As he gave his third State of the City address Monday before a Naperville Area Chamber of Commerce crowd of 580, Chirico talked about the decisions he thinks will create a successful future with balanced finances, a strong economy and a well-run city.

“Great communities just don’t happen by accident,” he said during a lunch at the Embassy Suites hotel. “Careful planning and thoughtful decisions made Naperville the city it is today.”…

Chirico also emphasized the idea of consistent optimization toward goals of providing financial stability, economic development, public safety and a high-performing government.

“We must fight complacency — and the status quo — all day every day,” he said. “Naperville is a leader. We always have been, and we always will be. It’s simply who we are.”

These are not necessarily easy tasks for multiple reasons:

  1. Population growth is often associated with vitality and success. With little open space, population growth will have to come through infill and higher densities. Are these desirable in a sprawling suburb?
  2. Economic activity is necessary. This requires more new businesses and jobs. Properties can be redeveloped – several are highlighted in this article – but is there net economic growth over time? Additionally, Naperville has to compete with new up-and-coming places.
  3. Infrastructure and existing services cost could increase as the community ages.
  4. Having a sense of community can be difficult in any larger community. Are there common events, experiences, and spaces that bring people together and spur acts of civic activity?
  5. Naperville is a leader in the sense that it grew quickly and developed into a wealthy community with a high quality of life. Will it always be a model because of its earlier experiences or can it be a leader as a suburban innovator as many American suburbs encounter new challenges?

I will be interested to see how this all turns out in a few decades.

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.