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Thread: What happens when a city dies?

  1. #1
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    What happens when a city dies?

    Camden NJ is hemorrhaging @ $50M/year. NJ State picks up the slack in return for Camden's valuable real assets, like the Delaware River water front. A couple months ago a Republican NJ gubernatorial candidate (from North Jersey, not from South Jersey) called for bulldozing Camden neighborhoods. It's not clear that there is a will to keep Camden afloat.

    But what are the alternatives? Surrounding municipalities do not appear anxious to annex the territory of a dissolved Camden. Does anyone have any knowledge of what has happened in the past when the political authority in an urban area has whimpered and died? It's hard not to imagine the kinds of things that could happen, so I'd love to know if there are any examples of what actually has happened.

    I'm a concerned South Jerseyite. I can see Camden from my living room window. And I'm pursuing an idea to open a coop there.

  2. #2
    Cyburbian JimPlans's avatar
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    First, I wouldn't call $50 million a year "hemorrhaging," though the special state aid that the City gets is a large proportion of its budget.

    According to this PDF report, in 2007 the total taxable value of Camden's property was $1.1 billion, while neighboring township Cherry Hill's total property value was $9.2 billion (with a smaller population). As New Jersey's municipalities are highly dependent on property taxes, this one factor explains just about all of the City's revenue woes.

    But there is also the issue of tax-exempt property. According to this article, more than 40% of the property in Camden is tax-exempt. While it may pay some PILOT fees, these are not close to the actual revenue losses. Who benefits from these tax-exempt properties? City residents, of course, but also everyone who lives in surrounding townships and gets these services without paying the burden of supporting them.

    So, is this republican gubernatorial candidate going to use $1.1 billion in public funds to buy out and "bulldoze" all of the property in Camden to save $0.05 billion in special state aid? Is he going to increase PILOT, decrease local reliance on property tax funding, or require that surrounding towns share in the lost revenues from tax-exempt properties. I seriously doubt he/she will do any of these things.

    Camden does its job, which is to warehouse poor minorities so they won't try to move into the neighboring "good people's" townships. It also serves as a repository for tax-exempt properties so its neighbors will have lower taxes and free services. $50 million in state funds is a bargain.

    As for the question of a "dying" city, there are many cities that go bankrupt. The ones I know about were usually put into receivership by the state (though (though Vallejo, CA went into Chapter 9), which then makes huge investments of time and money to fix their problems (Chelsea and Springfield, MA come to mind). But, putting a city into receivership is more about clearing out the current political leadership than it is about the money.

    In short, Camden isn't going anywhere.

  3. #3
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    Quote Originally posted by JimPlans View post
    First, I wouldn't call $50 million a year "hemorrhaging,". . .
    Ah, but isnít it a cool word? Not its meaning, just its shape and spelling. Okay, so we wonít call it hemorrhaging. Call it a minor, arterial spurt. Whatever itís called, Camden doesnít know where $50-80M annually is going to come from. It has been exchanging whatever it has of value in return for this assistance from the State. What happens when it runs out of things to trade?

    Quote Originally posted by JimPlans View post
    . . . in 2007 the total taxable value of Camden's property was $1.1 billion, while neighboring township Cherry Hill's total property value was $9.2 billion. . . this one factor explains just about all of the City's revenue woes. . .
    Which has, at least in part, been the result of Camdenís past minor arterial spurts. I do not believe development along the Delaware River waterfront, for example, is directly benefiting the municipality. I could be wrong.

    Quote Originally posted by JimPlans View post
    . . . But there is also the issue of tax-exempt property. According to this article, . . .
    Thanks for pointing the article out. It makes an interesting point about regional revenue sharing. But Iím not quite sure I follow the logic of the Camden hospital example. Citing how the City of Camden is exploited by tax-exemptions, the article says:

    Take for example a hospital located in Camden which is exempt from city taxes, but most of whose patients live in other municipalities. They are essentially getting medical services and all the other services offered by a city (like police and fire protection) at the expense of Camden residents.


    That sounds like it ought to outrage us, but what about the residents of Camden who go to Philadelphia or Voorhees for hospitalization? Isnít the same true of them? And then again, itís not as if the patients fro Cherry Hill in the Camden hospital are being reimbursed by Camden for the municipal services theyíve already paid for at home. From their point of view theyíre not getting free anything. Theyíre paying for medical insurance plus co-pay plus incidental hospital costs like phone/tv and have already paid for municipal services elsewhere. Whatís the bargain?


    Quote Originally posted by JimPlans View post
    . . .So, is this republican gubernatorial candidate going to use $1.1 billion in public funds to buy out and "bulldoze" all of the property in Camden. . .
    Heís out of the race.

    Quote Originally posted by JimPlans View post
    . . .Camden does its job, which is to warehouse poor minorities. . .
    Iíve also heard that from a priest in Camden. He calls Camden the end of the funnel and says every area needs one. So maybe youíre right. Maybe $50-80M is a bargain from the Stateís point of view for the dumping service Camden provides.

    Quote Originally posted by JimPlans View post
    . . .As for the question of a "dying" city, there are many cities that go bankrupt. The ones I know about were usually put into receivership by the state . . .
    And did municipal services continue uninterrupted? I think I remember reading somewhere that cities die when the people in them fade away to elsewhere. So I suppose as long as there are people in Camden there is a City of Camden, no matter how itís governed.

    Quote Originally posted by JimPlans View post
    . . .In short, Camden isn't going anywhere. . ..
    I admire a conclusion that can be so completely optimistic and completely cynical at the same time. I think I agree with you, but Iím not sure if Iím happy with our conclusion.

    Iíve been looking for someone making the argument that the long-term propping of a structure other than its own is not the province of government. So the State should stop. If the political structure of Camden canít support itself it should go under and allow something more self-sustaining to grow. Aid the citizens, not the structure. Let the structure fall. Help folks keep from getting crushed while it does.

  4. #4
    Cyburbian mgk920's avatar
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    $50M-80M? A city the size of Camden (VERY SMALL - my hometown City of Appleton, WI covers nearly twice the land area of Camden, with about the same population) would normally expect that to be 2-3 months of spending during a normal one-year budget cycle. That is unsustainable and tells me that the State of New Jersey must start seriously rethinking its entire municipal government system.

    An area with little tax base but heavy service needs will go bankrupt, but the service needs will continue, requiring those who fled the costs of that central city by moving to the suburbs to cover those costs anyways via their state taxes when the state's government ultimately has to step in. For a severely 'underbound' city like Camden, I like using the analogy of the 'strangler fig' http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Strangler_fig - with active suburbs surrounding and eventually 'strangling' the unique old central city, leaving a rotted, hollowed-out core in the urbanized metro area.

    Mike

  5. #5
    Cyburbian
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    There was an excellent story on NPR's Morning Edition Monday morning about Flint, Michigan which is trying to manage its city budget by reducing the size of their city boundaries and purchasing neighborhoods that have been abandoned and turning them into open space.

    The story is called "Flint, Mich.: Growing Stronger By Growing Smaller?" and the link to the story is:

    http://www.npr.org/templates/story/s...ryId=106492824

  6. #6
    Cyburbian mgk920's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by smccutchan1 View post
    There was an excellent story on NPR's Morning Edition Monday morning about Flint, Michigan which is trying to manage its city budget by reducing the size of their city boundaries and purchasing neighborhoods that have been abandoned and turning them into open space.

    The story is called "Flint, Mich.: Growing Stronger By Growing Smaller?" and the link to the story is:

    http://www.npr.org/templates/story/s...ryId=106492824
    I don't think that Flint is trying to cede land area to its suburbs (mostly charter townships and incorporated former townships), only progressively pull back from parts of the city that no longer make sense to maintain, while retaining them within the city limits.

    It's the same strategy that is being practiced by the City of Youngstown, OH, for example.

    Mike

  7. #7
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    Quote Originally posted by mgk920 View post
    $50M-80M? A city the size of Camden (VERY SMALL - my hometown City of Appleton, WI covers nearly twice the land area of Camden, with about the same population) would normally expect that to be 2-3 months of spending during a normal one-year budget cycle. . .
    Figures being cited in South Jersey church networking set Camden's population at @80K, its annual budget at $120M and its tax revenues at $40M. Other sources report Camden's annual budget at $80 and tax revenue at $30M. One way or the other, the shortfall comprises more than half the annual budget.

    sjf

  8. #8
    Cyburbian Rygor's avatar
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    For a good example of what happens when a city dies, just look to East Saint Louis. It's probably the best example out there. The population has decreased from a high of about 82,000 in 1960 to an estimated 29,000 today.

    From the wikipedia article (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/East_St._Louis,_Illinois):

    East St. Louis was named an All-America City in 1959, having retained prosperity through the decade as its population reached a peak of 82,295 residents. Through the 1950s and later, the city's musicians were an integral creative force in blues, rock and roll and jazz. Some left and achieved national recognition, like Ike and Tina Turner, and jazz great Miles Davis, who was born in nearby Alton and grew up in East St. Louis. Many were featured on the PBS series River of Song in 1999, covering music of cities along the Mississippi River.

    The city was dramatically affected by mid-century deindustrialization and restructuring. As a number of local factories began to close because of changes in industry, the railroad and meatpacking industries also were cutting back and moving jobs out of the region. This led to a precipitous loss of working and middle-class jobs. The city's financial conditions deteriorated. Elected in 1951, Mayor Alvin Fields resorted to ill-judged funding procedures to try to buy the city out of its financial morass. The scheme increased the city's bonded indebtedness and the property tax rate. More businesses closed as workers left the area to seek jobs in other regions. Crime increased as a result of poverty and lack of opportunities. The city is also left with expensive clean-up of brownfields, areas with environmental contamination by heavy industry that makes redevelopment more difficult.

    Street gangs such as the War Lords, Black Egyptians, 29th Street Stompers and Hustlers appeared in city neighborhoods. Like other cities with endemic problems by the 1960s, East St. Louis suffered riots in the latter part of the decade. In September 1967, rioting occurred in the city's South End. Also, in the summer of 1968, a still-unsolved series of sniping attacks took place. These events contributed to residential mistrust and adversely affected the downtown retail base and the city's income.

    Construction of freeways and urban sprawl contributed to East St. Louis' decline as well. The freeways cut through and broke up existing neighborhoods and community networks. The freeways also made it easier for residents to commute back and forth from suburban homes, so more were inclined to move to newer housing. East St. Louis adopted a number of programs to try to reverse decline — the Model Cities program, the Concentrated Employment Program and Operation Breakthrough. The programs were not enough to offset the industrial restructuring.

    In 1971, James Williams was elected as the city's first black mayor. Faced with overwhelming economic problems, he was unable to stop the city's decline and depopulation.[citation needed] By the election of Carl Officer as mayor (the youngest in the country at that time at age 25) in 1979, many said the city had nowhere to go but up, yet things grew worse. Middle-class whites and African Americans left the city. People who could get jobs simply went to where there was work and decent quality of life. Because the city had to cut back on maintenance, sewers failed and garbage pickup ceased. Police cars often did not work, and neither did their radios. The East St. Louis Fire Department went on strike in the 1970s.

    Before Gordon Bush was elected mayor in 1991, the state imposed a financial advisory board to manage the city in exchange for a financial bailout. State legislative approval in 1990 of riverboat gambling and the installation of the Casino Queen riverboat casino provided the first new source of income for the city in nearly 30 years.

    The past decade can be characterized as one of redevelopment and renewal.[citation needed] In 2001 the city completed a new library. It also built a new city hall. Public-private partnerships have resulted in a variety of new retail developments, housing initiatives, and the St. Louis Metrolink light rail, which have sparked renewal. Access to the Metrolink from the East Side has become a controversy in the Saint Louis Metro Area, as a 2008 article in the Riverfront Times stated that it has resulted in skyrocketing crime rates on the west side of the River in affluent suburbs. [5]

    The city, now small in terms of population, is still one of the prime examples of drastic urban blight in the country. Sections of "urban prairie" can be found where vacant buildings were torn down and whole blocks became overgrown with vegetation. As East St. Louis has suffered from white flight and disinvestment for many years already, much of the territory surrounding the city remains undeveloped to this day, bypassed for growth in more affluent suburban areas. Thus, many old, "inner city" neighborhoods abut large swaths of corn and soybean fields or otherwise vacant land. In addition to agricultural uses, a number of truck stops, strip clubs, and other semi-rural businesses surround blighted areas in the city as well.
    "When life gives you lemons, just say 'No thanks'." - Henry Rollins

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