by Bruce Fisher
Withering Rust Belt cities wait for action
Yet another grant-funded think-tank analysis of Rust Belt cities has been published, with findings that are eerie echoes of studies read, written, and cited for decades. The new study, written for the Center for Community Progress by Brookings Institution scholar Allan Mallach and Michigan State economist Eric Scorsone, finds that old, sprawled-out, depopulated former industrial cities can’t make it on their own. State-appointed control boards that seek to impose inside-the-enterprise accounting solutions have no answer to the question of declining tax base, high unit-costs of service delivery, and concentrated poverty. The study’s title frames the problem: “Long-term stress and systemic failure: taking seriously the crisis of America’s older cities.”In a tentative sort of way, Mallach and Scorsone endorse regionalizing, i.e., combining the property-tax bases of cities and their surrounding suburbs. There are precisely three ways to accomplish that objective: incrementally, through a tax-base sharing plan like that devised 20 years ago in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro by Gary Orfield and laid out in his book Metropolitics; through annexation, which is what Omaha, Nebraska and most Southern and Western cities do because that’s how the law works there; or through state-sanctioned consolidation.
The real contribution that this new report makes is to remind policy-makers that state governments are the key issue, because local municipal governments are creations of, and fiscally integrated with, the state governments that created them.
One expects that this latest restatement of findings known since the 1950s won’t get much attention from urban-policy veterans from Toronto, Indianapolis, Nashville, Louisville and Hamilton—places which, between 1953, 1976, 1977, 2000, and 2004, all answered the question of whether their once-marooned central cities should be governed in unified regional structures. But for the rest of America’s older cities, especially those in areas of stagnant or declining population (i.e., the Rust Belt), the critical question that hasn’t been answered is not whether governance needs to change, but rather this: when will state governments start getting engaged?
A long process
Starting in the 1950s, when the great post-war expansion of North America’s metros began, service after service and function after function, from libraries to hospitals to social-service offices, shifted from being the sole domain of the anchor municipality of Rust Belt regions to being regional responsibilities. Here in the Buffalo area in the late 1950s, the daily newspaper the Courier-Express explained the rationale for regional governance with a year-long series of articles, which were credited with the change of Erie County government from one governed by a board of supervisors to one led by an elected executive and an elected legislature. The express hope, in 1960, was that the next increment of change would be toward a true metropolitan-wide government that would at least unify urban and suburban tax bases and unify land-use planning. Industrialists loved this idea: In 1973, the chairman of Bethlehem Steel Corporation came to Buffalo to ask for unified regional planning, not only because he was tired of footing the lion’s share of the tax bills in Lackawanna but because his executives complained of having to deal with too many jurisdictions and authorities. Regional governance had legs as a political movement in that era, especially in the Rust Belt.
But as Gerald Grant pointed out in his book on the defeat of regionalized school districts in the Rust Belt, Republican President Richard Nixon didn’t want cities and suburbs to be unified, and he appointed his William Rehnquist to the Supreme Court expressly to ensure that keeping black kids out of suburban schools would remain the Rust Belt norm. The 1976 Milliken decision, in which the Rehnquist court found that school-desegregation need only happen within already established district lines, and not across regional or metropolitan areas, made sure that racial segregation and go-it-alone city governance has been the deal wherever the streets are paved with rust.
Study authors Mallach and Scorsone never get to that history, though they do recite the well known roster of facts about what used to be called, in refreshingly plain English, “shrinking cities,” but which now, in the aftermath of a consultant-dominated conference in Detroit earlier this year are more politely called “legacy cities.” In the current discourse of the American urban policy establishment, reference to racial polarization is not just downplayed, but made to disappear. We are reminded that poverty is concentrated in old cities, like Camden, New Jersey, across the Delaware from Philadelphia, where 38 percent of the households are under the poverty level, compared to the very pretty little town of Haddonfield just down the road a bit, where the property tax base is worth 10 times Camden’s. The median household income in Camden is $26,752; the median household income in Haddonfield is $110,316.
And unless the governor of New Jersey dictates that the tax bases of Camden and Haddonfield are combined into a regional tax-base sharing arrangement, or unless the governor of New Jersey makes Camden and Haddonfield unify governance in a structure that will pick up the garbage, fix the streets, put out the fires and pay the public workforce, 45 percent black, 44 percent Hispanic and 5 percent white Camden’s services, infrastructure, and tax base will continue to erode just down the road from where 94.2 percent white Haddonfield’s do just fine, thank you.
“Unless fundamental changes take place to the way in which regional resources are allocated and service delivery boundaries defined, the vision of a stronger, healthier Flint, Youngstown or Rochester may remain unreachable,” Mallach and Scorsone helpfully conclude.
Crossing the great divide
The populations of counties where visible minorities and poverty is concentrated, and where cities are governed alone and their school districts not regionalized, are dropping. More simply: regions with self-governing poor cities lose. Camden County, where prosperous Haddonfield sits near shrinking Camden, is losing population. Buffalo’s Erie County is losing population, 3.3 percent since 2000. Genesee County, home of Flint, Michigan, saw its population shrunk over 2.4 percent since 2000. Mahoning County, Ohio, home of Youngstown, shrunk 7.3 percent since 2000. Monroe County, home of Rochester, actually had a 1.2 percent increase since 2000. But Cuyahoga County, home of Cleveland, shrunk 8.2 percent. Michigan’s Wayne County, home of Detroit, shrunk 11.7 percent. Pittsburgh’s Allegheny County shrunk 4.6 percent. Whether one uses the “legacy cities” moniker or plain English, Rust Belt regions with Rust Belt cities in them are shrinking.
It’s in the political self-interest of ambitious governors to jump into this quagmire because economic outcomes are better when costs are contained and service-delivery mechanisms are consolidated, with one caveat—land-use planning has to be a part of the deal. (The main agenda of the outfit that hired Mallach and Scorsone to write this report is to help communities set up land banks, i.e., inventories of vacant and abandoned parcels in shrinking cities.) But no governors have jumped in—except Andrew Cuomo, whose state is home to America’s most successful example of consolidated, regionalized governance, namely, 300-square-mile New York City. Cuomo carefully assembled opt-in consolidation legislation while he was Attorney General. Communities that want to merge their governance structures can do so. He said, essentially: Here, here’s the tool; use it if you choose.
But of course, local politicians and their financial backers in shrinking communities tend to accept the state-appointed control boards that Mallach and Scorsone scoff at, because control boards don’t disturb the power of the financial and real-estate sectors that thrive from the cities-alone status quo. Control boards also arrive with bags of State cash for strapped municipal governments. Governors in New York State have tended to focus their energies on New York’s growing New York metro area, not on the weak, small, faraway shrinking cities of the north. Prospective presidential candidate Chris Christie of New Jersey isn’t going to tell the rich lions of Haddonfield to lie down with the poor lambs of Camden any time soon. Better to have a control board in Camden, as there was for a decade.
But these broken cities get more and more expensive the more they shrink. And as their regions shrink, the politics of race and sprawl don’t go toward regional solutions unless there’s a political leader with the energy, and the cover, to move things that way.
The most relevant success story in recent times is that of Terry Cooke in Hamilton, Ontario. Cooke campaigned on city-county merger and won both a mandate from his county-wide electorate in 1999 to merge the city and the county, thereafter the suburban townships, too. The critical difference for Cooke: He had the support of his provincial premiere (Ontario’s version of governor) to back the deal. Cooke also moved on this initiative before Hamilton, which was two-thirds of the county’s population, went the way of Buffalo, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Youngstown, and other Rust Belt towns that shrunk to less than half the population of their metro regions.
Regionalization in the 1950s happened when expanding regional populations, and smart local elites, recognized that library systems, hospitals, public safety and other services could meet new demands if and only if they had new support. Regionalization in the 1970s happened in the state capitols of Indianapolis and Tennessee when bold state politicians convinced capitol-district business barons to create great regional cities out of backwaters. Pittsburgh, with its very rich foundations, its recent downtown-centered mega-developments and its centrally-located universities plural, may be a candidate for revitalization via refocusing. Even Rochester, whose hugely successful three-term mayor Bill Johnson got clobbered running for county executive on a merger platform, could be a candidate for a new regionalization movement based on the resilient strength of its urban core. But absent gubernatorial engagement, regionalization as a solution to Rust Belt decline cannot happen. Witness what happened in Erie County, New York, where in 1999 and again in 2003 a county-wide candidate was elected on an explicit platform of regionalization, and specifically, of Hamilton-style city-county consolidation. Joel Giambra’s administration put together a specific plan, with legislation and a service-by-service implementation program, and a county-wide land-use plan, too, all of which was endorsed by a blue-ribbon commission headed by the late UB President William Greiner and that included Buffalo State College President Muriel Howard, the president of the largest suburban chamber of commerce, the heads of major churches, businesses and philanthropies. They delivered their proposal, and the then-governor shrugged. Everybody in Buffalo looked to the second floor of the State capitol, but the white smoke never issued. No governor, no change. Not in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, or New York, either.
Bruce Fisher is former deputy executive for Erie County and visiting professor of economics and finance at Buffalo State College, where he directs the Center for Economic and Policy Studies.