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Thursday, November 14th, 2013

Stopping the Cycle of Decline

My latest column is in the November issue of Governing Magazine. It’s called “Stopping the Civic Decline Cycle.” In it I urge cities to get a real grip on their problems and restructure for new realities rather than simply managing an endless, painful decline cycle year after year. Sadly, facing fiscal challenges right in the face rather than kicking the can down the road and trying to survive another year has proven to be quite rare. I don’t want to claim this is some preferred solution. But cities are where they are and have to respond to reality.

Here’s an excerpt.

The cycle of municipal decline looks the same in a lot of places. People and businesses leave, which causes tax revenues and quality of place to degrade. That, in turn, leads to tax increases and service cuts, which makes more people and businesses leave. This repeats in an endless cycle as a city slowly dies.
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Rather than an endless stream of crisis management, cities should instead take a realistic forward look at their civic trajectory—medium-term revenue forecasting, demographic and economic forecasting, capital asset replacement cycles, and so on—and restructure the services delivered and revenues raised in order to create a sustainable baseline that can be defended over at least the medium term. This would enable cities to provide some degree of predictability to current and prospective residents and businesses about what their tax bills and services received will be. That right there will improve the business climate by reducing uncertainty and the, often correct, belief that most cities just don’t have a handle on their problems.

3 Comments
Topics: Public Policy, Strategic Planning, Sustainability

3 Responses to “Stopping the Cycle of Decline”

  1. Matthew Hall says:

    What if there are those who actively work against looking at city finances realistically; those who benefit from thwarting such efforts at realism, on the left and/or the right. Cities fail because its in enough people’s interests that they fail. WHAT to do has never seriously been in doubt, it’s how you work around those who are hurt by looking realistically at income, demographics, property values, and infrastructure,etc. In these hard times, there are people who will fight such efforts to the death. If they lose their position in a particular city, their assumption is that they are ruined. The bunker mentality sets in and no one on the side of “realism” is willing to engage those in the bunker who will proverbially die for their cause. Win/win is impossible under such circumstances.

  2. Paul Lambie says:

    I think it’s pretty clear that all core cities age through their life cycles and all will struggle, if not fail to the extent of Detroit. Some will fare better due to having stronger regional economies. Some will fare better due to having additional advantages over their newer suburban areas, such as interesting topography, lakes, and other natural features. And some will fare better because they have more responsible leaders that don’t waste money corruptly or through well-intentioned boondoggles. But, they all have, are, or will struggle mightily.

    I think the obvious answer is to create regional tax base sharing and/or regional government. There would need to be some mechanism to make sure that local leaders didn’t just waste the revenue that was shared with them, and to continue to create motivation to increase the local tax base, but with core city boundaries almost always being locked into place where they were 50-100 years ago, seemingly arbitrarily in many cases, it’s just unrealistic to expect that every core city can weather the storm of the tail end of the natural life cycle of its neighborhoods without going into the self reinforcing decline described in the article.

  3. Nathanael says:

    I don’t think you’ve actually described the cycle of decline correctly.

    The sort of city which is in the cycle *you* describe does better than the sort of city which does this:

    “We’re in trouble. I know what to do! Let’s spend a billion dollars attracting a stadium!”

    “That didn’t work. I know what to do! Let’s give a billion dollars in tax breaks to Boeing to relocate here / stay here!”

    “That didn’t work. I know what to do! Let’s build a gadgetbahn peoplemover!”

    “That didn’t work. I know what to do! Let’s give money away to a private developer to build a convention center!”

    “That didn’t work. Another stadium?”

    “That didn’t work. How about big money for a new prison?”

    Desperate flailing around and throwing money at anything which seems like it might be a “white knight” seems like the most catastrophic pattern of civic decline, and it’s quite common; I’m sure you can think of cities which followed the “flailing” pattern I describe.

    The common feature of the “flailing” is failure to pay attention to basic city services (sidewalks, fire protection, trash collection), and instead a focus on flashy “showpieces”. People will accept higher taxes for reliable basic services… but in the long run, people in most places really won’t accept higher taxes for flashy stadiums.

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