Thursday, December 5th, 2013

Are Special Service Districts a Boon or a Bane?

Small scale special service districts in their various forms – such as conservancies, business improvement districts, and management agencies – are increasingly common in our urban landscape. This is part of a trend towards public-private partnerships, or perhaps more accurately in this case, privatized/outsourced government.

Are these a good thing or a bad thing? In my latest post at New Geography I take a look. It’s called “Are Special Service Districts a Bane or a Boon?.” Here’s an excerpt:

In fact, the move towards privatized services in wealthier areas could be a good thing for the rest of the city if it is used to free up funds for use where there isn’t as much private capital available. In this case a city could look to move parks, street cleaning, and other items “off the books” via special service districts in areas that can afford to fund such services largely by themselves. The city would then concentrate public funds in poorer or middle class areas. The tradeoff would be that the wealthier areas might be allowed to purchase higher quality services for themselves, but that would be structured in a way that let service quality be raised for others.

On the other hand, it’s not hard to see how this could evolve as a mechanism for “strategic abandonment” as well. In this case the city would cut general service levels then allowing wealthier areas to buy them back. Critics have charged that special service districts are exactly the legal mechanism that will be used to implement planned shrinkage in Detroit.

In the case of Detroit, the city has no good options and may well be forced by reality to make tough choices like this. But not everyplace has that excuse.

Topics: Public Policy

2 Responses to “Are Special Service Districts a Boon or a Bane?”

  1. Lou says:

    Center City District in Philadelphia has been a boon for the city. Cleaned the streets, put up wayfinding, comprehensive reports on downtown, remaking some of the troubled downtown plazas and parks, and advocating for better tax policies. Center City is special and deserves special attention. Growth is now spreading out from downtown and giving new live to neighborhoods that are not in the district. Philadelphia is now growing and balances its budgets in no small part to its very healthy downtown. If Detroit had Philadelphia, infrastructure, culture, eds and meds, and downtown it would be in good shape to face the future.

  2. nbluth says:

    i chortled when i saw new geography. only planning type i’ve ever met who took ng seriously was a senile libertarian british planning professor i had who was forced out for making lewd comments to female students. i’d imagine that he fits the profile of your average ng reader.

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