The Challenges of Fiscal Disparities

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eBlog, 12/29/16

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider Detroit’s ongoing challenges to recovery from the nation’s largest ever municipal bankruptcy—a city unbailed out by the federal government, but which, as we noted earlier this week, Detroit News editorial writer Daniel Howes described as “perceptively changing,” especially as we write this rainy morning with regard to its thousands of abandoned homes and buildings. Then we turn to Virginia’s Petersburg, the historic city which danced on the edge of municipal bankruptcy—threatening the solvency of regional public utilities—as it faces challenges to its future. Finally, we look at the newly released census figures to better grasp the scope of fiscal disparities in the State of Ohio—especially with regard to the fiscally depleted municipality of East Cleveland.

Unbuilding & Rebuilding a City’s Future. In the final week of the year, Detroit neared the razing of an industrial building which once covered an entire city block—marking the razing of some 3,130 structures razed this year, bringing the total razed since the city emerged from chapter 9 bankruptcy to around 10,700 over the last three years—with the vast bulk of those owned by Detroit’s Land Bank Authority. Nevertheless, giving some idea of the vast scope of the city’s challenge, its blight task force in 2014 had projected that the city would need to tear down 40,000—and that some 38,000 others were at risk of collapse. Indeed, still today, many blocks in the city have more abandoned houses and empty lots than lived-in homes, a scar reminding us of the exodus of whites and much of the black middle class from the city: an exodus of more than half the city’s population since the 1950’s. In 1950, there were 1,849,568 people in Detroit, but, by 2010, there were 713,777. The city today is home to an estimated 40,000 abandoned lots and structures. Between 1978 and 2007, Detroit lost 67 percent of its business establishments and 80 percent of its manufacturing base. Thus, as Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan has stated, he believes the mass demolitions are necessary for Detroit if it is to attract families to city neighborhoods and staunch the decades of population loss.

Detroit Fire Investigations Division Capt. Winston Farrow adds that the removal of dangerous buildings and empty houses is vital to public safety and the quality of life in Detroit: “It eliminates the opportunities for criminals to set fires in vacant houses…The problem was more just the sheer numbers of dwellings that we had.” In another sign that the strategy is working, the average sale prices of over 100 houses sold in Detroit has increased over the past three years, according to the Land Bank.

Nevertheless, the challenge to the city’s future remains: the Detroit News quoted the owner of 3D Wrecking, Sheila Davenport: “You can tear down a house on one block and go back several months later and where houses were occupied (they) are now abandoned and need to be demolished…It just seems like it never ends.” And, of course, it is a costly process; on average, the city expends $12,616 to knock down a house—a process made fiscally easier through the receipt of more than $128 million in federal funds over the past three years—with another $130 million in the pipeline—along with $40 million from the city’s general fund set aside for further demolitions. (Federal funding had been temporarily halted earlier this year, but resumed after an audit determined demolition costs above a federal cap of $25,000 per house were redistributed to 350 other properties to have those houses appear to meet the cap.)

Syncopating Time. Notwithstanding the cold rain falling in Petersburg this morning, work has finally commenced to restore one of the city’s highest-profile landmarks after months of delay caused by the city’s budget crisis—with the construction to repair a nearly 180-year-old clock tower and roof, a $1.2 million project financed by the Virginia Resource Authority—financed, according to a city spokesperson who stated the VRA municipal bond was “approved prior to the financial crisis.” The work—to properly coordinate the clocks on the clock tower, had been deferred last year when the city discovered its fiscal cupboards were bare—even as city officials had been ordered to close the building two years because of structural problems with the historic edifice—during which time Circuit Court jury trials were temporarily moved to the Dinwiddie County Circuit Courthouse. But it is now in a different courthouse where the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals is weighing a lawsuit over a Petersburg Bureau of Police policy concerning social media which could result in a finding that would cost the fiscally challenged municipality millions of dollars after a federal court ruled that a lower court must decide whether the city government can be held liable for damages in the case. In its ruling, the court determined that the police department’s social media policy, put in place in 2013, violated employees’ First Amendment free speech rights. Moreover, the federal judges ordered the case be sent back to U.S. District Court in Richmond to determine whether “the city may also be held liable for the injuries that were caused by the applications of that policy.” The case arose two years ago last March, when two former Petersburg police officers claimed they were unjustly punished for posting comments on Facebook which criticized the department for promoting officers they considered too inexperienced. Their comments were reported to former Police Chief John I. Dixon III. The two officers were found to have violated a policy that Chief Dixon had instituted in April of 2013—a policy which prohibited department employees from giving out information “that would tend to discredit or reflect unfavorably upon the [department] or any other City of Petersburg department or its employees,” according to the appeals court opinion. The two officers were reprimanded and placed on probation—ergo, because they were on probation, they were barred from taking a test to qualify for promotion to sergeant. In addition, the officers had also been investigated over allegations of misconduct, which they claimed were filed in retaliation after the police department learned of their intent to file suit. The appeals court, however, has upheld the district court’s ruling that those investigations were not retaliatory, because “each arose from discrete allegations of misconduct” not related to the Facebook postings or the social media policy. For a municipality on the edge of chapter 9, the stakes on this appeal are high: the two officers are seeking compensatory damages of $2 million, plus punitive damages amounting to $350,000, plus attorney fees.

Ohio Fiscal Disparities. It was a generation ago that Congress eliminated the General Revenue Sharing program signed into law by former President Richard Nixon to address signal fiscal disparities. Today, it is possible to see how significant those disparities are becoming. According to the latest estimates available from the U.S. Census Bureau, median family incomes in Ohio cities range from $221,148 in the Columbus suburb of New Albany to $30,411 in East Cleveland, the city unbalanced between its waiting for Godot efforts to file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy or a response to its efforts to become part of the City of Cleveland. The new Census figures make clear the extraordinary fiscal disparities in the state: after New Albany, the rest of the top five in Ohio are: Indian Hill near Cincinnati ($208,158), the Cleveland suburb of Pepper Pike ($162,292), and two Columbus suburbs: Powell at ($147,344) and Dublin ($139,860). The statistics are from surveys conducted from 2011 through 2015 and released this month—the latest estimates available from the U.S. Census Bureau for smaller areas.

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