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2010: Crash or Comeback for American Cities?

With worsening local government budget woes, we must rally to preserve public services.

The year 2010 may be remembered as a turning point in many American cities, towns and suburbs.

It could be the moment when citizens say “enough is enough” and rally to save essential public services from the chopping block, even if it means paying higher local taxes.

Or it could be time when deep gashes in funding for parks, libraries, education, public safety, transit, health and other cornerstones of the commons good bring many communities to their knees, ushering in age of reckless privatization and steep decline in quality of life as local governments are unable to provide for the basic needs of their citizens.

John Gurda, a history columnist for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, paints a frightening picture of where continuing cuts in public services will lead us “The day may come when librarians have to leave a key under the doormat at each neighborhood branch, when homicides are reported to a call center in Bangalore, when every household is expected to bury its own garbage and to keep its own fire bucket at the front door.”

He sees his hometown heading “down the road to municipal suicide” as it staggers under huge budget deficits. This fate shared by many, if not most, American communities right now?“suburbs and small towns as well as inner cities. Indeed, Gurda notes the budget crisis of Milwaukee County, which delivers essential services to the suburbs as well, is equal to that of the city.

Why is this happening now, months after the stock market hit rock bottom? Because local governments are funded in large part by property taxes, and the rampant devaluation of real estate coming out of the burst bubble of 2008 is now hitting home at city halls. Local officials are dealing with dramatically reduced tax revenues. And they can’t look to state government for help, because the states have budget crises of their own due to sharp drops in sales tax and income tax revenues.

Reflexive anti-tax sentiments, compounded by many people’s shrinking incomes, means that politicians feel little choice but to whack away at crucial public services at precisely the time when citizens’ need for help is spiraling upward. (For more about this, see The economic crisis through the looking glass)

Gurda, author of the definitive history The Making of Milwaukee, notes that while this heavily blue-collar city has never been rich, its citizens did enjoy excellent public services through most of the 20th Century. That was largely the legacy of progressive Socialist Party mayors, who held office for 38 years from 1910 to 1960. Mayor Dan Hoan?“whose political vision was “a better, bigger, and brighter Milwaukee” fostered by “the best government possible, and, though not necessarily at a low tax rate, at the lowest cost that can be paid”?” understood that taxes could be a burden on working-class citizens, and therefore saw it as his mission to make sure taxpayers got first-rate parks, schools, public services and other healthy returns on their investments.

Unfortunately taxes are rarely discussed today as part of the common good. Right-wingers scream bloody murder any time a tax increase is even mentioned, stirring up talk radio mobs that equate any form of government action as folly or tyranny, while liberals largely duck the issue out of fear.

It’s high time to reframe the debate about taxes, before the infrastructure and social fabric of our communities starts to deteriorate right before our eyes. Taxes should be viewed as a commons?“a cooperative effort to take care and improve the things that belong to all of us. If you add up the huge contribution that good schools, police protection, parks, public health measures, libraries etc. make in our lives, it’s easy to see that the money we pay in taxes is the best bargain in town.

I hope many more people come to realize this wisdom over the next year, and take action to preserve public services and protect the future of their communities. If not, they may learn this lesson the hard way, as they scramble to find the money for private schools, private security guards, private recreational facilities, doctors’ fees, and private information sources to replace all the services once paid for by their tax dollars.

As John Gurda puts it, “Until ordinary citizens wake up to the reality of their own interests, until public officials find the courage to stop committing civic suicide, we’ll get precisely the government we pay for.”

Postscript: John Gurda reports that, “I’m told by friends on the Common [City] Council that the column was instrumental in rolling back some of the most severe cuts to the library system.”