Dissolving governments in DuPage County proceeding at a slow pace

Reducing the number of governments and taxing bodies in Illinois can take a bit of time:

County board members on Tuesday approved a plan to dissolve the Highland Hills Sanitary District and provide Lake Michigan water to customers served by the Lombard-area agency…

The agreement paves the way for Highland Hills to be disbanded within 18 months, officials said…

Cronin said Highland Hills will be the fifth unit of local government dissolved in DuPage. He said it’s more proof that the county’s “accountability, consolidation and transparency model for local government is working.”

In 2013, state lawmakers gave DuPage the power to eliminate Highland Hills and a dozen other local government entities.

If consolidation is working, it is working slowly. A reminder: Illinois leads the way among states with nearly 7,000 local governments. Even when it may look like there are obvious ways to combine government units or get rid of other units, it often requires the approval of residents. Although many would like their taxes to stabilize or go down, giving up local control is also difficult as many then fear a decline in services or that they will have less input to processes that can affect daily life.

CT suburb considering fines for “distracted walking”

The suburb of Stamford, Connecticut is considering penalizing those walking under the influence of phones:

Texting or even talking on an electronic device may soon be illegal in Stamford if a proposal to outlaw ‘distracted walking’ is approved…

“They’re oblivious to cars,” Stamford City representative, John Zelinsky said.

Zelinsky said the Pedestrian Safety Ordinance is modeled after one approved in Honolulu late last month, and would carry a $30 fine if police catch you in the act.

Such behavior can be dangerous for both users and others on the sidewalks and streets. Yet, legislating distractedness out of walking, bicycling, and driving is a tricky business. Does walking and talking with someone count as distracted walking? Is it okay to suddenly stop right in the middle of a busy sidewalk to take a phone call?

I have long wondered about implementing traffic regulations on busy sidewalks (see a story from England about this). Sidewalks are public spaces but also important conduits for foot traffic and some kinds of vehicles. Overcrowding can occur; see the recent example of Manhattan. And how people use the sidewalks can vary dramatically with use ranging from running and powerwalking to strolling to standing or sitting for conversation.

What it would take to approve Musk’s Northeast Corridor hyperloop

Elon Musk may have verbal approval for his underground hyperloop but there is much more work to be done to get the project underway:

“It means effectively nothing,” says Adie Tomer, who studies metropolitan infrastructure at the Brookings Institution. “The federal government owns some land, but they don’t own the Northeast corridor land, and they don’t own the right-of-way.” Sure, having presidential backing isn’t bad—but it is far, far from the ballgame…

First, you have to get the OK from all the states and cities and municipalities involved. This is essential because Musk promises this Northeast hyperloop will pass through city centers, so he’s counting on tunneling under places where lots of people live and work and play. Judging by the the official responses from local agencies and politicians along the proposed route, this process is not quite underway. “This is news to City Hall,” the press secretary for New York Mayor Bill de Blasio tweeted. Looks like the Boring Company has a lot of boring meetings with public officials ahead of it…

And then there’s the little problem of moolah. Just updating the current Northeast corridor railroad—you know, the one run by Amtrak—to high-speed rail standards would cost an estimated $123 billion. Tunneling will be even more expensive. Musk has promised his boring technology will speed up the construction and bring down costs. But boring will never be cheap, especially in populated areas. Carving less than two miles of tunnel under New York for the Second Avenue Subway took $4.5 billion. Even if this hyperloop were entirely privately financed, it would take lots of zeroes…

By law, projects need to be evaluated for the potential environmental consequences of their construction and operations, to create what’s called an Environmental Impact Statement. Federal agencies generally take a while to prepare these documents: One 2008 study found the average writeup took three and a half years, and some have taken as many as 18. They also cost a lot to prepare—millions and millions in government funds.

That is a lot to take on. I’ve seen suggestions in recent years that the United States is no longer able to tackle needed large infrastructure projects. In the past, large projects could be accomplished such as the intercontinental railroad or Hoover Dam. Today, American projects lean more toward interminable delays and huge cost overruns. In contrast, some other countries do not get bogged down in the same ways. Sure, some of that might require more authoritarian regimes – such as the new Silk Road railroad in China or the growth in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates – but things get done!

Moving forward, is there a way for a country like the United States to undertake large innovative projects without all the bureaucracy that slows it down? Can we still take risks? Musk’s hyperloop might be a perfect test case: the technology barely exists so it might be an incredible risk. But, the payoff could be tremendous (and not just necessarily for the intended purpose of a new transportation technology but the other helpful pieces that come along the way – including a way forward across multiple governments and requirements).

More findings on poverty in the suburbs

Following Confronting Suburban Poverty in America published in 2014 comes a new book – titled Places in Need and also published by Brookings – with additional findings regarding suburban poverty:

Allard spent years studying Census data and speaking with social service providers across the country, and discovered that while concentrated poverty is still a stubborn issue in cities, it’s also becoming a much larger issue in suburbs. In 1990, there were 8.6 million poor people in the suburbs and 9.5 million in the city. In 2014, the numbers had shifted; 17 million poor Americans living in the suburbs, while 13 million poor were in cities. And it’s not just in the inner-ring suburbs; roughly two-thirds of poor suburbanites live in communities built after 1970, and poverty is growing fastest in suburbs built after 1990…

Allard also found that concentrated poverty was on the rise in the suburbs. He looked at areas with a 20 percent poverty rate, lower than the traditional 30 to 40 percent poverty rate used in many studies, and found many more people in traditional suburban areas falling into this threshold. At that point, there are serious problems, such as discrimination from labor market opportunities, public safety issues, and access to quality housing…

Allard says that sometimes, people mistakenly assume that the poor in suburbs have come from elsewhere and are new arrivals to the neighborhood, a preconception that has made it harder for suburban regions to find the political support to tackle poverty issues.

His research shows the opposite, especially since the Great Recession, which he says hit the suburbs much harder than the rest of the country. The housing crisis hit the mortgage and real estate industry as well as the home improvement business, and the changes in poverty actually became more severe in the suburbs after the larger national recovery started. Grocery markets and retail shops were having a harder time staying afloat in hard-hit suburban regions. The impact inspired the book’s cover image: a strip mall filled with closed or vacated commercial space.

If the poor do become more visible in suburban communities – either because of their numbers or because of increased attention from academics, local officials, and nearby residents – it will be interesting to see how suburban communities and residents respond. Given the exclusionary nature of American suburbs, there could be several possible responses:

  1. Ignore this as long as possible. Suburbanites are not exactly known for their social interactions with a broad range of people so if those living in poverty are outside their immediate social circles, perhaps it can simply be ignored.
  2. Not provide many social services to the suburban poor. This might be with the goal of ignoring the nearby poverty or hoping that the residents go away. Or, communities might refuse to do much on the local government level and wait for non-profits and state agencies to respond.
  3. Move away from communities where there are visible numbers of suburban poor to wealthier suburbs. If this happens, the process of white flight continues as the wealthy just keep moving away from poorer residents.

It will be worth checking in a decade or so down the road to see how exactly suburban poverty has been addressed.

Claim: “Local politics is always…about housing”

In a detailed overview of the policy debates over housing between YIMBY and the Democratic Socialist of America groups in San Francisco, Henry Grabar leads with an interesting argument:

Local politics is always, in one way or another, about housing. In San Francisco, a deep blue city whose fault lines long ago ceased to resemble America’s, that politics is a vitriolic civic scrimmage, where people who agree about almost every national issue make sworn enemies over zoning, demolition, and development. It’s like a circular firing squad at a co-op meeting.

This seems similar to Sonia Hirt’s contention that zoning in America is all about protecting the single-family home.

Ultimately, do local politics always come down to housing? In many ways, housing is the bedrock of a community: it is where residents experience home, it provides numerous signals about the status of the residents and the community (through property values, architecture, the quality of life associated with the dwellings), and it generates property tax revenue (more important in some places than others). If the housing is bad shape or there are major issues, it is a major concern for residents and, by extension, their elected (and unelected) officials.

Perhaps we could even get more specific about which aspects of housing drives local politics. Which issue is most important may differ based on the (1) class status of the community and (2) its stage of development. How about property values? Or decisions about large-scale developments (particularly if they present some differences from already-existing housing)?

Can a suburb enact a higher minimum wage if others nearby do not?

Suburbs in Cook County have the ability to opt out of a county ordinance raising the minimum wage but they have to weigh how their decision compares to communities near them:

Home-rule municipalities can opt out of the ordinance that boosts the minimum wage from $8.25 to $10 an hour starting July 1, and dozens of them have done just that since the Cook County Board passed the ordinance in October. That has left neighboring towns in a precarious state, worrying that their businesses will suffer under higher payrolls.

Evanston appeared ready to address those concerns at an emergency meeting Friday morning, after nearby Wilmette decided to opt out of the minimum wage increase…

Skokie Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Howard Meyer said the group at first had no issue with the measure. Because Skokie borders Chicago, where a heightened minimum wage is already in effect, the chamber believed its members wouldn’t be at a competitive disadvantage.

But after more municipalities opted out and Skokie businesses expressed worries about the impact, the chamber spoke out against the minimum wage plan, as well as another county ordinance to mandate paid sick leave.

Suburbs often face this pressure: if we enact a new measure, will residents and businesses respond by leaving for other suburbs? This happens with tax breaks for businesses (I’ve argued this leads to a race to the bottom) as well as tax rates, city services, and other quality of life factors. Economists and others would suggest that residents and businesses vote with their feet: if this doesn’t happen immediately, the long-term effect could be bad for a suburb if the inflow stops.

The best solution to all of this is not to allow suburbs to have separate policies on something like this. Based on the article, it sounds like numerous suburbs are fearful. But, if they all had no choice, they wouldn’t have to compete with each other (though they then would have to compete with communities in other counties). I’m guessing the ability to opt out was important to getting this passed at the county level but it could be highly negative in the long run.

Perhaps then it would be best to enact a region-wide initiative where every community is affected. Of course, this goes against many of the principles of local control and government – we should be able to decide fiscal policies within our borders – and there is not a binding governmental body that oversees the hundreds of local governments in the Chicago region. This could only happen at the state level but then there are other actors beyond the Chicago region.

In the mean time, it will be difficult to put into practice a higher minimum wage within the region if each community can opt out and act upon their fears.

Losing sales and property tax revenue as stores close

The difficulties facing retail stores also have an effect on local governments who rely on sales tax and property tax revenue:

Nationwide, sales taxes comprise nearly one-third of the taxes that state governments collect and about 12 percent of what local governments collect, according to Lucy Dadayan, a senior researcher at the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government, a New York-based research group. “The epic closures of the brick-and-mortar stores is troubling news for state and local government sales-tax collections,” she said. They’re already feeling the hit: States’ tax revenues grew just 1.9 percent between 2014 and 2015, after growing 5.8 percent in the previous four quarters, according to the Rockefeller Institute. Local-government sales-tax collections grew just 1.7 percent, after growing 7.5 percent in the previous four quarters. In Ohio, state tax revenues grew just 0.1 percent, when adjusted for inflation, between 2015 and 2016, according to Dadayan. When revenues don’t continue to grow, governments have to slow down spending and can’t readily invest in long-term projects…

Clark County is not alone. In the southeastern part of Ohio, near the border with West Virginia, Belmont County gets $17 million of its $22 million budget from sales-tax revenues, Mark Thomas, a county supervisor, told me. The county has lost a bevy of retailers of late, including Elder-Beerman, Hhgregg, MC Sports, and Radio Shack. A Kmart in St. Clairsville is expected to close soon, according to the company. The decline in sales tax isn’t the only thing that hurts revenues—abandoned malls mean less revenue from commercial property taxes too. Local governments also see lower income taxes and, when retail workers are unemployed, they spend less, creating a vicious cycle of less and less revenue. “That trickle-down effect is huge,” Thomas said…

States that have seen manufacturing companies depart are bearing much of the brunt of the retail closures, according to Dadayan’s research. She tabulated where Macys, Kmart, and Sears have announced in the past year that they are planning to close stores, and found that Pennsylvania will have the most of those total store closings, at 16. Ohio and Michigan have the second-highest number, at 15 each, alongside Florida. Other states that have bigger populations have much lower combined closings. California, for example, only has eight.

The closures raise the question of what state and local governments will do if retail continues to evaporate. Already, many local governments are attempting to raise taxes to make up for budget shortfalls. Springfield asked voters to approve an income tax in November; the measure failed. The sales-tax rate at both the local and state levels has been creeping up in Ohio as governments try to raise taxes to make up for declines, according to Jon Honeck, the acting director of the Greater Ohio Policy Center, a local think tank. Ohio has also cut back on revenue-sharing between states and local governments since the election of Governor John Kasich in 2010, making it more difficult for local governments to make ends meet. “Some have just cut services, since the state is not going to help them out,” Honeck said.

Two quick thoughts:

  1. Communities have competed for decades over shopping malls and retail establishments. This competition could only increase though it may be less about the opening of new stories (everyone wants replacements for old establishments – for example, see the fate of Dominick’s grocery stores in the Chicago region) and more about retaining existing stores and asking companies to close stores elsewhere.
  2. It is interesting to see which areas are experiencing closures. Not all malls or stores are doing poorly but the successful ones are likely in wealthier areas that will do even better comparatively with the ongoing tax revenues. It is very difficult to convince businesses to locate in communities with less income.