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Thread: What does a city do when it is broke?

  1. #26
    Cyburbian
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    Sep 2003
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    near Baltimore, Maryland
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    In response to the Benton Harbor article:
    Wow.
    There is a whole world of issues this touches on, but I’ll just stick to this one local case.

    There are four things that will save a community in deep trouble like this:
    1. Jobs—a steady base of jobs across the full range of skill levels, pay scales, and economic functions, and enough of them that most adult residents have a chance to get one.
    2. Adequate skills training/education of the residents so that most, at least, are qualified for at least some of those jobs, and that for any given job there are at least one or two people in town or nearby who are capable and qualified.
    3. Sound economic reasons for the businesses creating the above jobs to either sprout up locally or move in/branch out from elsewhere, and stay. It won’t work if there aren’t customers to buy the product, the infrastructure (social/institutional as well as physical) needed to support the business, and access to the necessary resources and markets, both locally and out-of-town.
    4. Social turnaround: Basically, the people—and institutions—who are screwed up (addictions, criminal activity, ignorance, etc. at an individual level; corruption and incompetence in institutions) need to make the effort to get their acts together, and the people and institutions who already have it together need to pitch in and help effectively. Many in both categories are trying already, but not enough are succeeding.
    Government alone—even the best government—cannot achieve number four; that requires effort and coordination from individuals, families, neighborhoods, congregations, businesses, and governments: individuals taking steps to fix whatever their problems are, the next three groups backing them up and occasionally keeping them in line, and the last two mainly as resources for things like an honest job, or drug treatment, or whatever else no one else can provide. Since we’re dealing with human beings, different cases will require different types and degrees of involvement from different groups: one guy may only need a little help from his family and AA to kick the booze; another may need public assistance like food stamps and somebody like police-chief Lange checking in on them to keep them in line. Anyone who has ever known and had to deal with an addict or screwup will know that there will be bumps and backsliding, and that while many can and will straighten out, some can’t or won’t. Making all of this better will take time, years really, and even if you/they/we manage to clean up corruption and change toxic attitudes and help dysfunctional people straighten out and get the kids in the schools actually learning, none of it will stick if there aren’t enough jobs that pay for an honest living for the whole community. You’ll just have more people get frustrated and leave, and more misery for the dwindling few left behind. That’s where 1-3 come in.

  2. #27
    Cyburbian
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    near Baltimore, Maryland
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    A luxury golf-resort development and Arts District will not achieve those first three solutions—they don’t, and never will, produce enough jobs for the residents already there, and too few of those residents are not prepared for the jobs these efforts will bring. Most of those jobs are going to, and will go to, outsiders. A fraction, of the most resilient, luckiest, or best prepared, will be able to claw their way up even if they start at the bottom, catch hold of some of those well-paying jobs, and succeed. Quite a few more, but still not a majority, will get the crap service jobs waiting tables and mowing lawns, and advance no farther. The rest will disperse or self-destruct. The reporter’s quote that the town is “fracturing into two distinct communities” is dead on, and not unique to Benton Harbor. I don’t think Harbor Shores and redevelopment are part of a targeted conspiracy to “take over” or screw the locals, just a combination of pursuing self-interest (Whirlpool wants a good image and safety) and misguided do-gooding that’s focused on making the numbers better—lower crime stats, higher household income—but doesn’t really help the people on the ground. I don’t have the answers to achieving solutions 1-3, and since fundamental issues at local, state, regional, national and global levels are involved and would require whole books’ worth of debate to sort out viable solutions, I’m not going to even try to wade any deeper there.

    On a more nuts and bolts level, some of what the emergency manager, Mr. Harris, is doing is a good idea. Consolidating some departments is probably necessary, especially if most of the cuts and savings come out of administration and procedural streamlining instead of the actual service. Since the whole point of building inspections is to prevent and correct the kind of structural, fire, and other safety hazards that lead to firefighters getting called out, it makes sense for at least smaller towns to combine them under one boss who makes sure they work together to get better results. And I like the way Mr. Lange actually goes out and talks to people and tries to head off trouble before people need to be arrested, but that can be achieved anywhere that has people like him and gives them a chance to do their thing. But no matter how good Mr. Harris is at running the town government, he’s still basically a temporary dictator and will not be able to fix the city long-term. The position can’t last forever—that would basically disenfranchise the residents, because they can’t hold him accountable by elections or any other means, and the people they can elect to represent them have no power to govern, undermining democracy and probably violating both state and federal Constitutions. And this article, at least, mentions no sign of Mr. Harris making any effort to get the residents participating in managing their town—witness the low election turnouts, a chronic problem in local governments nationwide, and no mention of any attempt in Benton Harbor to change that—when he inevitably leaves and elected government is restored then a new small network of self-interested parties will sooner or later end up in control and the corruption and mismanagement will return. (And using City Hall cameras to monitor a gadfly city commissioner, to the point were “we can tell the times of day when he goes out to use the restroom”? Really? You have better things to do, Mr. Harris.)

    I don’t have the answers to what will fix this town, but quick fixes like Harbor Shores and emergency management won’t be enough. Whatever does end up working will take a lot more time and effort, and in the meantime basic public services and infrastructure need to be maintained. Even with help from nonprofits and local business and higher-level governments, many small and/or struggling towns like Benton Harbor just don’t have the tax base to do so effectively anymore and won’t for some years to come. Some sort of fiscal consolidation, merger of services (like water/sewer or police), or full governmental merger with neighboring municipalities and/or the surrounding township, is probably the only way Benton Harbor will survive, and that goes for a lot of other struggling smaller towns, both rural and suburban.

  3. #28
    Cyburbian Mud Princess's avatar
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    This seems to be as good a place as any to post this article about the dire straits in which many Pennsylvania cities are now finding themselves. According to the article, 4 in 10 Pennsylvanians now live in a financially distressed city.

  4. #29
    Cyburbian mgk920's avatar
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    Appleton, Wisconsin
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    Like with Michigan, Pennsylvania has waaaaay too many tiny munis (all of those little 'boroughs') and no easy way for them to combine, etc, as well as oodles of severely underbound central cities all over the state that are legally prohibited from annexing. Just look at the map of the urbanized State College area. The metro area has well over 100K residents in a fairly cohesive and well-defined urbaized community, but the 'State College' Borough itself is very tiny and much of the Penn State Campus is not in it. Johnstown is an even smaller part of its metro. And then there are all of those tiny, and many failed, borough suburbs of Pittsburgh.

    State College:
    https://maps.google.com/maps?q=state...vania&t=m&z=13

    Johnstown:
    https://maps.google.com/maps?q=johns...vania&t=m&z=12

    Also
    York:
    https://maps.google.com/maps?q=York,...vania&t=m&z=12

    --------

    Benton Harbor, MI:
    https://maps.google.com/maps?q=bento...higan&t=m&z=12

    Saint Joseph, MI:
    https://maps.google.com/maps?q=st+jo...higan&t=m&z=12

    To me they all look ripe for a major dose of metro-wide amalgamation.

    Mike

  5. #30
    Cyburbian jsk1983's avatar
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    Feb 2004
    Location
    Chicago, IL
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    Quote Originally posted by mgk920 View post
    Like with Michigan, Pennsylvania has waaaaay too many tiny munis (all of those little 'boroughs') and no easy way for them to combine, etc, as well as oodles of severely underbound central cities all over the state that are legally prohibited from annexing. Just look at the map of the urbanized State College area. The metro area has well over 100K residents in a fairly cohesive and well-defined urbaized community, but the 'State College' Borough itself is very tiny and much of the Penn State Campus is not in it. Johnstown is an even smaller part of its metro. And then there are all of those tiny, and many failed, borough suburbs of Pittsburgh.

    State College:
    https://maps.google.com/maps?q=state...vania&t=m&z=13

    Johnstown:
    https://maps.google.com/maps?q=johns...vania&t=m&z=12

    Also
    York:
    https://maps.google.com/maps?q=York,...vania&t=m&z=12

    --------

    Benton Harbor, MI:
    https://maps.google.com/maps?q=bento...higan&t=m&z=12

    Saint Joseph, MI:
    https://maps.google.com/maps?q=st+jo...higan&t=m&z=12

    To me they all look ripe for a major dose of metro-wide amalgamation.

    Mike
    But why would St. Joseph want to take on the problems of Benton Harbor?

  6. #31
    Cyburbian mgk920's avatar
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    Appleton, Wisconsin
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    Quote Originally posted by jsk1983 View post
    But why would St. Joseph want to take on the problems of Benton Harbor?
    Thus my above-posted 'strangler fig' situation.

    What would happen if the City of Benton Harbor decided to dis-incorporate?

    Mike

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