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Monday, May 28, 2012

America's broke cities 

The Great Recession is raising a generation on austerity. While there are no breadlines, the cost of gasoline alone has made young people more fiscally aware. There has also been great hue and cry about the decrease in state and local services as budgets are pinched. Schools from elementaries to universities have suffered the impact of these cuts. Budgets have been pared and pared again as the nation grapples with choice to buy missiles and bombs, instead of books and computers, to build Iraqis and Afghanis schools and roads before we build our own.1

Amidst this slump, cities and municipalities have been forced to get extremely creative about how they can save money. We read this weekend about two new outside the box maneuvers. The city of Detroit is going to eliminate about half of its streetlights. The city admits that 40% of its 88,000 streetlights are broken and it can't afford to fix them.2 To reduce the number of streetlights to 46,000 and contract out maintenance would save Detroit about $10 million a year by its own estimates. Of course, it would mean the city would discontinue fixing lights along with services such as street and sidewalk repairs in “distressed” areas, defined as those neighborhoods with a high degree of blight and little or no commercial activity.

Sorry, your neighborhood. We don't work there any more. What, you are a taxpayer? Well, you had better move along.

The reality is Detroit's 139 square miles contain 60% fewer residents than in 1950. Bloomberg news notes, street lighting is an important civic issue, quoting the experts, "It touches kids going to school in the dark. It touches midnight Mass at a church. It touches businesses that want to stay open past 9 pm... Delivering services to a thinly spread population is expensive. Some 20 neighborhoods, each a square mile or more, are only 10 to 15% occupied... the city can’t force residents to move, and it’s almost impossible under Michigan law for the city to seize properties for development... there are tremendous political, administrative, financial and, to some degree, legal obstacles. Unless you phase out a neighborhood altogether, you still need lighting, and waste pickup and police and fire protection."

Meanwhile halfway across the country in Vallejo, California, it is the cops instead of the lights who are being replaced. First the city declared bankruptcy, disposing with massive salary and benefits guarantees in the process. Then under fiscal pressure, the police went high-tech and invested $500,000 in cameras, allowing cops to be stationary and monitor a larger area than they could before rolling around on patrol. Their department deputized citizens to participate in law enforcement by sharing tips on Facebook and Twitter. The number of neighborhood watch groups jumped from 15 to 350.

We would like to be happy for the civic engagement, especially the fellow citizenry replacing the cops, but when the technological Big Brother is so intimately intertwined, our libertarian nerves twitch.3

The real fascination to the Clarion Content is simply that so many innovative measures are being thrust upon America. These are tough financial times. Can America come out the other side leaner without being meaner?

The jury is still out.

1Brought to you by King George the II and his loyal vassal, the Dick Cheney.
2Wait this is an American city, right? Not the third world??
3Also snitching culture always feels awfully Soviet to us.

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