NYT: Municipal Services and Low Density

The New York Times ran another article detailing the difficulties involved with the provision of services in low density areas. It is certainly worth a read in light of our own ongoing municipal discussion over how to provide services to our residents. Olympia is not seriously suffering from these kinds of issues, at least to the degree that some of the examples are, but avoiding problems like these is one of the primary purposes behind comprehensive planning. The article is generally depressing (what isn’t these days?), but there are some hopeful remarks at its conclusion:

Other suburbs are adapting. In Maple Heights, Mayor Jeffrey Lansky embraced the idea of a food bank, setting aside a space for it in 2008 and having the Fire Department help renovate it. The Cuyahoga County Public Library now runs after-school homework centers with snacks from the food bank, aimed at the growing population of poor children.

Edward FitzGerald, the executive of Cuyahoga County, argued that the increase in the suburban poor population could help lead to a fundamental change in local government. For years Cleveland had most of the population — and resources — but policy should reflect the flip in favor of the county, he said.

And with the state slashing funds, counties and the suburbs they contain will have to ramp up social services and economic development on their own, many for the first time.

I am always interested in innovate solutions (i.e. solutions that are not generally recognized as the common response to crisis conditions). As we continue to slog through economic conditions that appear all too tragically normal, it would be well for us to keep such examples in mind as potentially useful arrows in our own quivers.

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8 Responses to NYT: Municipal Services and Low Density

  1. Rob Richards says:

    I’ve been thinking about the idea of Sprawl As Ponzi Scheme ever since I read this:

    I think about Detroit, and the unsustainable sprawl that has lead to them now bulldozing entire neighborhoods because they can’t provide services to them. Then I think about Lacey and how much land they’ve annexed, I believe they’re now physically bigger than Olympia. Ten years ago they were buying water from Olympia because they had capacity issues. What’s going to happen in the coming years? Will Lacey become ‘Little Detroit’? Will they contract their services and leave entire neighborhoods behind? What will the effect be on Olympia if this causes a Lacey Diaspora?

    It could be that we’re going to have to create more regional authorities to deal with these issues. A P.U.D. system perhaps, regionally (the Olympia Metro Area is basically the County), that handles water and electricity. I can’t presently conceive a solution where all of the Thurston County Municipalities continue to go it alone.

    South County is an oft forgotten dilemma. There is abject poverty there, people living in the woods, failing local economies, great need. Without a regional approach to our Food Security (something I never hear mentioned but I think is paramount), water, and electricity, I’m not sure how we’re going to ride this out. Dealing with emergencies – emergency homelessness, hunger, illness, etc – is vastly more expensive than it would be to create a regional system.

    • Mark Derricott says:

      I take it you have not been keeping up on your Notes reading, Rob: this is a theme not neglected here: https://olynotes.wordpress.com/2011/10/12/is-olympia%E2%80%99s-capital-facilities-plan-unsustainable/

      The Curbside Chat paper is definitely worth a read–though I guess the Atlantic clip does a reasonable job summarizing it–as it discusses the infrastructure finance which is not going to work much longer if indeed it ever really has at all. Lacey appears to be in huge trouble: too many roads for too few people to pay for them. Olympia has the benefit of being sandwiched between geography and other municipalities so except for the westside between Cooper Point and 101, it is forced to grow a little more smartly. Of course, where those sprawling opportunities exist, they are naturally exploited and the widening of roads and clamor for another 101 interchange attests thereto.

      This is a sour subject for me because it’s logical that we are facing these problems. We are aware of them, yet we do nothing about them. Why don’t we have tea partiers complaining about municipal finance ponzi schemes instead of social security ponzi schemes? Why don’t the 99ers complain about the transaction fees banks get for junk bonds to fund these unsustainable and financially crippling infrastructure projects? They all force cities (i.e. the people who live in them) to sell out, and then sell out again to the big boxes of the world (where the cities pay to maintain roads to those destinations) simply so they can be forced to sell out again. Indeed Ponzi scheme is putting it innocuously.

  2. Mark Derricott says:

    South county–you are right about its dilemma status. Too little infrastructure, no money to pay for more, and little hope for either point changing. Without more people, they are not attractive development markets, and without more infrastructure there is little reason to stick around for the younger folks.

    Something of major concern is the criminal violation Driving with a Suspended License. You see people getting charged and convicted of this who live in places like Tenino, Rochester, even Bucoda constantly. Generally, licenses are suspended for unpaid parking or speeding tickets. Once suspended, the charges pile up because the fines cascade and soon it’s simply impossible for someone of limited means to overcome a $1000 in late fees, court fees, fines etc. And people still have to drive to get to work or even get to the interview. I am not arguing that the law should be revoked, but we live in a society now where intercity transportation is necessary and at some point we have to come terms a little more sensibly with how we are organizing ourselves.

    • Rob Richards says:

      It’s my understanding that the “debtor’s prison” caused by DWSL was eliminated about 7 years ago. I believe they can no longer withhold your license for unpaid fines/fees. Has that changed again?

      Still doesn’t take away the fact that it’s an untenable debt to throw on someone. Not too mention that these go hand in hand with No Insurance violations. If you can’t afford fees, you probably can’t afford insurance, so you get hit with a double whammy. The no insurance ticket comes out to about $450 including fees, if I remember correctly. To somebody scraping by, that may as well be a million.

      This isn’t even addressing the fact that some cops will impound your car immediately. Impound yards charge exorbitant daily fees, if you need a couple of days to get money together, you’ll be $300 in the hole. Like you said, vehicles are the lifeline for getting to work, and without it, coming into town and living rough is just about the only option available.

  3. Mark Derricott says:

    DWLS3/2/1 are alive and well. Unpaid parking tickets will definitely get your license suspended or revoked and if you’re pulled over with a license in a state other than current, you’ll likely be charged.

    I certainly recognize the interest that the state has in providing licenses and ensuring people follow the rules when they are granted that license. Likewise, it’s fair for cities to want only licensed drivers using cars in their jurisdiction. It’s not a police officer or a prosecutor, or the legislature at whom I am pointing a finger. It’s more remorse and depression that we have followed so religiously one means of transportation.

    Call me an anti-car reductionist and you probably won’t be too far off. Cars have their upside, but like anything I suppose, too much of them can cause problems. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m feeling a little unpatriotic. I need a fix: http://tinyurl.com/3jv6swo

    • Rob Richards says:

      You and I are on the same page regarding cars and car infrastructure, for sure.

      I will never, however, tell someone not to drive when it’s the only way they can survive. The fact that they’re in that position is a by-product of car-centric culture. For the middle class and up, cars are great, and the system “works” well – if you forget all the externalities.

      That poor person driving to work 6 times a week doesn’t have an option. They’re the exhaust of the capitalist engine.

  4. Mark Derricott says:

    Rob, you phrased this as though I told people not to drive.

    “I will never, however, tell someone not to drive when it’s the only way they can survive.”

    On the contrary, but I did acknowledge the interests involved that led us to where we are. Tsk tsk tsk. We don’t accept strawpeople on this blog.

    The capitalist engine is a two way street: it can only burn the fuel that people like you and I provide it. Nothing happens independently of our consumer behavior in that engine. (E.g. do Apple and Nike purchases proliferate child labor in Asia?) This isn’t a Saints or Sinners paradigm in this game. All of us share blame but some of us lose more than others. I think the situation is at an impasse until most of us begin to acknowledge that.

  5. Rob Richards says:

    Well, I would never purposefully straw man or slippery slope on your blog! I wasn’t trying to infer that you had told anybody anything.

    The challenge I was illustrating, poorly I guess, was that our deep investments in infrastructure have led to a dependence on the car that is hard (impossible?) for some to shake. Even if we regulate the hell out cars, there’s collateral damage for them, right?

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