Municipalities and Wall Street argue over using eminent domain to stop foreclosures

Some municipalities are considering using eminent domain to slow foreclosures – and Wall Street and those in real estate are not happy:

On Saturday, Mayor Wayne Smith of Irvington, N.J., will announce that his mostly working-class city is proceeding with a legal study of the plan. Irvington could try to head off legal action and repercussions through what are called “friendly condemnations,” in which incentives are used to persuade the owner to drop any objections, he said. “We figure if this program works it can help anywhere from 500 to 1,000 homes.”

This summer the similarly working-class city of Richmond, Calif., in a heavily industrial part of the San Francisco Bay Area, became the first to identify homes worth far less than their owners owe, and offer to buy not the houses themselves, but the mortgages. The city intends to reduce the debt on those mortgages, saying that will prevent foreclosure, blight and falling property values. If the owners of the mortgages — mostly banks and investors — balk, the letters said, the city could use eminent domain to condemn and buy them.

Since then, intense pressure from Wall Street and real estate interests, including warnings that mortgages will become difficult or impossible for Richmond residents to get, has whittled away support for the plan. The city has yet to actually use its power of eminent domain, but it is already fighting two lawsuits filed in federal courts…

Opponents of the strategy, including the institutional investors BlackRock and Pimco, Wells Fargo and the Mortgage Bankers Association, say that taking mortgages by eminent domain is a breach of individual rights and that investors will not receive fair market value for the mortgages. In Richmond, Mayor Gayle McLaughlin has asked investors to come to the table to work out a price, but they have so far declined to negotiate.

An interesting convergence of rights. Typically, eminent domain usage tends to raise the ire of citizens but this article makes it sound like this is something residents want. Is this the case? One argument often leveled against eminent domain is that allowing another case gives governments more opportunity to do what they want when they want. However, with this strategy, the municipalities are trying to work for the residents and against larger entities.

I wonder if the only thing that would convince banks and mortgage holders to consider this would be bad publicity, something along the lines: “Those Wall Street banks want to take advantage of distressed communities and are unwilling to work with them to improve their neighborhoods or help their residents.” This would involve less of a legal strategy and more of a public relations strategy.

 

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.

 

Claim: those new municipal fees are here to stay

More communities are charging residents more fees and they probably won’t be rescinded anytime soon:

As the nation’s cities attract an ever-growing share of the U.S. population, their capacity to honor service commitments, build and maintain necessary infrastructure, and meet their financial obligations will have a profound effect on local and regional economies, public safety, education, and overall quality of life for hundreds of millions of Americans. But U.S. cities are in a bind. Faced with a requirement that they balance their budgets every year, they have borrowed a page from the airline industry: increase fares (i.e., taxes) just a little if at all, and start charging big time for the “extras” that passengers (i.e., taxpayers) want. In the airlines’ case, it’s bag fees and the like that are going up. For cities, it’s charges for little things like, say, putting out fires…

In an annual survey [PDF] administered by the National League of Cities, more than four out of ten cities (41 percent) reported last year that they were increasing service fees in an effort to stanch the bleeding in city budgets. For the last two decades, when asked to identify a revenue action that their city had adopted in the previous year, city finance officers overwhelmingly selected “increase the level/rate of user fees or charges” and “impose new user fees or charges.”

Much like Newton’s Third Law, as cities raise fees, they decrease their reliance on taxes to support general municipal services. Back at the start of World War II, city taxes on sales, income, and property amounted to some 89 percent of all revenues cities raised (excluding aid from state and federal governments and borrowing or debt), with property tax generating 78 percent of “own-source” revenues. Fees amounted to some 11 percent. Today, nearly 40 percent of “own-source” revenues are derived from fees on services, and 60 percent from all other taxes (and less than 30 percent from the property tax). In other words, we have seen a sea shift over the last three generations from a city fiscal system that collected taxes—almost all of which were property taxes—to pay for the bulk of municipal services to one that identifies individual beneficiaries or users of services who can then be assessed a fee (e.g., fire suppression in Mondovi).

I wonder about several pieces of this:

1. What about the declining federal and state support for communities? If the federal government and individual states have less money themselves, there is less to pass along to communities as well as other taxing bodies.

2. The share of revenue from property taxes has decreased over time and I wonder how much of this is tied to an increasing number of taxpayers arguing against paying more property taxes. This has been gaining steam since the 1970s (see more about Prop 13 in California) and limits what communities can collect. It sounds like more communities see fees as a solution but is this because their other options are limited? Of course, municipalities aren’t the only ones who get money from property taxes as there are others who take more of this pie.

3. It would be interesting to see these numbers alongside figures about the size of municipal budgets and what the money is spent on. As fees increase, where is the money going and how much is it contributing to or paying for larger budgets? Some of this increase could be hard to stop; communities do age, infrastructure needs replacing, and the costs of services tend to go up.

Oddity of Illinois Home Rule allows municipalities to get into a lot of debt

The Chicago Tribune has an interesting piece of how the Illinois oddity of granting Home Rule powers to municipalities starting in 1970 can lead to overborrowing:

The state used to cap how much towns could borrow on the backs of taxpayers. Even for loans under the cap, the state forced cities and villages to put many “general obligation” borrowing deals before voters. The intent was to protect taxpayers from massive debt.

But local officials complained they needed easier ways to borrow. Chicago’s first Mayor Richard Daley led the charge for municipalities to set their own rules. The result was the 1970 Illinois Constitution and a concept that transformed how the city and suburbs are governed: home rule.

It has let towns borrow as much as they want, and raise many taxes, all without direct voter input. Any town with at least 25,000 residents gets the power. Smaller towns can vote it in via a referendum measure…

The vast majority of states — including all of the largest ones — do not offer municipalities such blank checks.

Ken Small of the Florida League of Cities said he would worry if his state had Illinois’ loose rules.

Read on for details on how several Chicago suburbs have accumulated massive amounts of debt.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen any municipal leaders denounce or reject Home Rule powers. Indeed, they tend to accentuate the positive sides of the powers as they allow municipalities more local control and the ability to finance projects on their own rather than having to rely on outside funding. And this would seem to fit with what many suburban residents tend to want as well: more local control, meaning that “big government” doesn’t control everything.

But, as this article suggests, local government officials aren’t necessarily any better at handling financing and borrowing. I was struck by reading this piece and an earlier one featuring the plight of Bridgeview, Illinois that a number of these borrowing situations arose when smaller communities wanted to jumpstart economic development. Struggling to do things on their own, they borrowed lots of money for retail, residential, and entertainment projects intended to bring in more tax dollars through property and sales taxes. A number of these projects didn’t pan out, possibly because of unrealistic hopes and also because the economic crisis made it difficult even for established and more financially stable communities to pursue larger developments. The lesson here? Perhaps slow and steady really is better here as big change for small communities is difficult to attain.

Another issue: the article suggests Chicago led the way to get the 1970 legislative act passed. Were some communities opposed to this or did they get behind Chicago as this could also benefit them?

Burr Ridge seeking donations from public to meet city’s needs

In an era of declining revenue, a few communities are trying a new tactic: ask residents to donate money for needed city purchases.

The leaders of west suburban Burr Ridge have a list of dozens of items they want for the community, including a new patrol vehicle, a portable Breathalyzer and even a cordless saw.

But because they didn’t make it into the budget, they have put them on a wish list and are asking residents for help…

Stricker said village officials came up with the idea last year after learning that west suburban Riverside has a similar program. He said the village is still establishing a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) program, but added that residents have already given funds.

In 2011, Burr Ridge resident Alan Rose, the CEO of Rose Paving Co. in Bridgeview, donated $5,800 to the Police Department for new Taser devices, according to village documents. Resident Joyce Walsh also donated $5,000 to the Police Department in 2011 for its efforts in protecting the village.

As the article notes, Burr Ridge is pretty wealthy. The village of just over 10,500 residents, the median value of owner-occupied housing units is over $706,000, the homeownership rate is just over 95%, and the household median income is over $143,000, and 2.4% of the residents live in poverty. Perhaps in this sort of setting a donation program could work.

But, I can’t picture this as a viable long-term strategy for most communities. Could a local government wait for benevolent citizens? Could residents or businesses make donations and expect something in return like policies or decisions that benefit them? Public-private partnerships and cooperation in places like Chicago are one thing but relying on the public for donated money seems bound to lead to more trouble.

I wonder if this also could raise significant questions about what local communities really do need to purchase: if an item doesn’t make it into the budget, is it really necessary in the first place? Take the Burr Ridge items mentioned above: how worse off will the community be if the government doesn’t have a cordless saw or portable Breathalyzer?

Myron Orfield on how to help keep the suburbs, like those of Chicago, diverse

Myron Orfield is known for his efforts to argue for more comprehensive metropolitan cooperation and planning. In this piece at Atlantic Cities, Orfield explains how to help the suburbs remain diverse:

Yet, while integrated suburbs represent great hope, they face serious challenges to their prosperity and stability. In America, integrated communities have a hard time staying integrated for extended periods. Neighborhoods that were more than 23 percent non-white in 1980 were more likely to become predominately non-white (more than 60 percent non-white) during the next 25 years than to remain integrated. Illegal discrimination — in the form of steering by real estate agents, mortgage lending and insurance discrimination, subsidized housing placement, and racial gerrymandering of school attendance boundaries — is causing rapid racial change and economic decline…

By 2010, 17 percent of suburbanites lived in predominantly non-white suburbs, communities that were once integrated but are now more troubled than their central cities, with fewer prospects for renewal. Tipping or resegregation (moving from a once all-white or stably integrated neighborhood to an all non-white neighborhood), while common, is not inevitable. Stable integration is possible. However, it does not happen by accident. It is the product of clear race-conscious strategies, hard work, and political collaboration among local governments.

Critical to stabilizing these suburbs are the following strategies:

  • Creation of local stable integration plans with fair housing ordinances, incentives for pro-integrative home loans, cooperative efforts with local school districts, and financial support of pro-integrative community-based organizations.
  • Greater enforcement of existing civil rights laws including the Fair Housing Act, especially the sections related to racial steering, mortgage lending discrimination and location of publicly subsidized affordable housing.
  • Adoption of regional strategies to limit exclusionary zoning and require affluent suburbs to accommodate their fair share of affordable housing.
  • Adoption of metropolitan-scale strategies to promote more integrated schools.

This tipping point phenomenon goes back to the research of Thomas Schelling who identified points where residents will start leaving a neighborhood with an influx of certain new residents. Research suggests that whites start leaving more diverse neighborhoods when the neighborhood becomes roughly 10-20% non-white.

It’s too bad Orfield doesn’t go further with this and talk about suburbs where this has successfully taken place. In his book American Metropolitics, Orfield talks primarily about inner-ring suburbs that now have more diverse populations. The Chicago metropolitan region maps included in this post are fascinating: between 2000 and 2010, a number of suburbs became more diverse. I’ve included the 2010 map from the Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity below:

Some quick observations:

1. The diverse suburbs have moved far beyond just the inner-ring suburbs.

2. The south and west suburbs are most diverse. There are a number of African-American suburbs just south of Chicago and the diverse population west of Chicago is primarily Latino with growing numbers of Asians.

3. The wealthier North Shore suburbs are the largest pocket of predominantly white suburbs though there are a number of these white suburbs sprinkled throughout the region. It is interesting to watch how these suburbs adapt to the growing diversity around them.

4. The most diverse suburbs appear to be ones with cheaper housing and more manufacturing and service jobs. There are some wealthier more diverse suburbs such as Oak Brook but I suspect the diversity in these suburbs is not also class diversity.

So Orfield’s four recommendations would help preserve this map and even increase diversity? Without much metropolitan cooperation, the Chicago suburbs have become more diverse. Perhaps Orfield might argue the suburbs would be even more diverse if metropolitan efforts had been undertaken. However, these maps obscure several important features such as social class and availability of nearby jobs.

More California communities in fiscal trouble

The Los Angeles Times suggests more California communities are going to have to go beyond contracting out services and consider more drastic financial moves:

Once rare, turning to bankruptcy has become a painful but enticing option for cities whose labor costs and municipal debt far outpace anemic tax revenues. The Bay Area city of Vallejo began the current trend in May 2008, filing for Chapter 9 bankruptcy protection because, city leaders said, salaries and benefits for its public safety workers were eating up too much of the general fund.

Last month, Stockton became the largest city in the state to seek bankruptcy protection after it was unable to come to agreement with its employee unions and creditors on a plan to close a $26-million gap in its general fund. On July 2, the tiny resort town of Mammoth Lakes filed bankruptcy papers in part because it was saddled with a $43-million court judgment it couldn’t pay.

San Bernardino couldn’t close a $45.8-million budget shortfall and would be unable make its payroll this summer. Days before Tuesday’s City Council vote, the city of 211,00 people had just $150,000 in the bank. The city barely scraped together enough money to cover its June payroll.

Rising pension costs are are a growing issue in many places but not the only concern in this situation. Both states and the federal government have less money to contribute for local services and budgets. Tax revenues, property and sales taxes, are at least not growing much if not down. Residents and employees make it difficult to reduce service levels. How many people will be willing to live in certain suburbs and cities if the service levels have to decrease?

It will be interesting to watch these communities that have declared bankruptcy. The current mayor of Vallejo, California suggests the move wasn’t necessarily good for the community:

The Bay Area city of 112,000 was forced to shut down two of its fire stations and today fixes just 10% of its crumbling roads. Its workforce, including police and firefighters, is about half its pre-bankruptcy size and those people left are “insanely” overworked.

Meanwhile, Vallejo spent $10 million on legal fees. It ended up with employee contracts that Osby thinks the city could have struck more cheaply if it had stayed out of bankruptcy court and turned to the bargaining table.

But perhaps bankruptcy is the only route that “successfully” convinces everyone that something needs to change…

Study suggests political corruption needs to be investigated in the Chicago suburbs

A new study from a political scientist argues that political corruption is a big problem in a number of Chicago suburbs:

The study by the University of Illinois at Chicago documented criminal convictions or conflicts of interest affecting more than 60 suburbs in Cook and surrounding counties and more than 100 public officials and police officers.

Former Chicago Alderman Dick Simpson, now head of UIC’s Political Science Department, led the study, and on Monday said corruption in the suburbs, in some cases, is worse than in the city.

“This isn’t a minor problem,” Simpson said. “This is a major problem.”

The IG could either be created by lawmakers and the governor, by each county, or by a consortium of suburbs. It would cost about $1 million annually, far less than the $500 million estimated cost of the problem, according to the study.

So the “Chicago way” extends past the city borders and even Cook County. I wonder if it is even easier to be corrupt in smaller communities where there is less of a media spotlight and relatively few residents are heavily involved or are knowledgeable about local government.

Even if the corruption is widespread, would officials and the public be willing to support an independent inspector general looking into these matters as it creates another layer of government?

It would be interesting to know how these numbers compare to corruption in other metropolitan regions: is Chicago that unusual in this regard?

The Chicago Fire and Bridgeview: another case when building a sports stadium is not a good investment

Residents of the southwest Chicago suburb of Bridgeview are not happy about reports that Toyota Park, built to be the home of the Chicago Fire, has created a lot of debt for the community:

The exchange came Wednesday night at Bridgeview’s first Village Board meeting since the Tribune published a report detailing the small southwest suburb’s financial woes tied to its biggest bet, the 20,000-seat Toyota Park.

The taxpayer-owned home of the Chicago Fire has come up millions of dollars short of making its debt payments since opening in 2006. Meanwhile, the town has nearly tripled property taxes in less than a decade, even as the town offset some of the financial sting by taking out more loans to help make payments.

In all, the blue-collar suburb is now more than $200 million in debt.

In comparing towns’ debt to property values, the Tribune found Bridgeview had the highest debt rate in the Chicago area. Much of the debt is tied to a stadium deal in which the newspaper found insiders landed contracts and town officials enriched their political funds with stadium vendor donations.

The stadium might have helped put Bridgeview on the map (leading to higher status/prestige) as it is the only suburban facility in the Chicago area that is home to a major sports team (despite arguments in the past from the Bears and White Sox that they might move to the suburbs). But this level of debt seems insurmountable for a village of 16,500 people who have a median household income of $42,073, below the national average.

This should be a reminder for many communities, small suburbs or big cities: sports stadiums are not the deals they may be made out to be. Yes, it could bring or keep a major sports team. But, the public debt may take decades to repay, can lead to higher tax burdens for residents who are likely not all attending the games, doesn’t necessarily mean that a host of entertainment businesses will open up nearby to serve stadium patrons, and the primary people who benefit are the sports teams (who get new stadiums for which they don’t have to pay the whole bill) and a small number of local leaders and businesses. It may be nice to mentioned on TV every once in a while (if you can find the more minor channels the Fire tend to be relegated to) and be the politician who helped bring the major team to town but it often isn’t a great deal for the whole community.

Study suggests US gov’t loses $71 billion a year because of tax exempt religious institutions

A new study suggests tax exemptions for religious institutions cost governments $71 billion a year:

How much money does the U.S. government forgo by not taxing religious institutions? According to a University of Tampa professor, perhaps as much as $71 billion a year.

Ryan Cragun, an assistant professor of sociology, and two students examined U.S. tax laws to estimate the total cost of tax exemptions for religious institutions — on property, donations, business enterprises, capital gains and “parsonage allowances,” which permit clergy to deduct housing costs…

If history is a guide, the Free Inquiry article and any call for tax reform it may engender are not likely to have much effect. Since the 1950s, there have been several attempts to quantify religious tax exemptions — all of them wildly varied in their conclusions — and only a handful of legal challenges to those exemptions. Most were unsuccessful…

States bypass an estimated $26.2 billion per year by not requiring religious institutions to pay property taxes.

This seems like a lot of money but here are a few thoughts about this:

1. You would need to put the cost of these exemptions versus other areas of the tax code in order to know how this compares. For example, would repealing the mortgage interest deduction bring in more money? The study itself makes some of these comparisons:

To put this into perspective, the combined total of government subsidies to agriculture in the United States in 2009 was estimated to be $180.8 billion.38 Religions receive at least 40 percent of the subsidy that agriculture does in the United States. Another way to illustrate the size of the subsidy may be to illustrate how much tax revenue would increase at the state level if religious institutions had to pay property taxes. In Florida, where the state government’s budget was $69.1 billion in 2011, the amount of tax revenue lost from subsidizing religious property was $2.2 billion or 3 percent of the state budget. The additional revenue would have mostly prevented the $1.1 billion cut to firefighter and police retirement plans and the $1.3 billion cut to public schools.39

So is this a battle worth fighting instead of fighting agriculture subsidies?

2. I think we may see more calls for things like this during this period of economic troubles. The federal government as well as state and local governments need money so they are looking for ways to find “easy” money.

3. It could be interesting to look at how this affects local municipalities, particularly ones with more religious congregations that consequently don’t get the tax dollars they might if that land was occupied by homeowners or businesses. For example, a community like Wheaton, Illinois has a large number of churches (including a claim that the suburb has “more churches per capita than any other town in America”) and could have more tax revenue if that land was put to other uses.