DMI Blog

John Petro

Cities in Crisis Mode

Voters in an exurban community 25 miles outside of Cincinnati must decide between higher property taxes or a state takeover of its school district. According to the Wall Street Journal, the community has already closed two elementary schools, eliminated 82 staff, and "slashed art, music and physical-education classes for kindergarten through fourth grade."

Voters have rejected three proposals in the past 15 months to raise taxes in order to prevent these cuts. An algebra teacher discusses how he has had to cope with the cuts:

Math teacher Roger Levo's algebra class, with 38 students, is more crowded than ever. "I didn't think it was going to work," he said of the biggest class he has taught in his 27 years in the district. He pointed to five chairs he brought in to supplement the 33 desks. "They rotate," he said.

Beyond issues like overcrowding and reduced class choices, what are the consequences for communities like this one that fail to raise revenues to support education, or more generally, basic city services? Will residents begin to move away, frustrated with a lack of services and resulting in plummeting property values?

Cities big and small across the country are facing the most sever fiscal crisis in recent history. San Francisco's budget deficit for next year is half a billion dollars, or nearly half of the city's discretionary spending! Cities can't expect any help from state governments--the states are broke too. And as my colleague Harry points out, federal assistance from AARA largely bypassed cities and went to fill state budget gaps.

It is interesting that these issues are playing out not just in the nation's urban cores, but in suburban and exurban districts as well. A similar cycle of an eroding tax base followed by a collapse of city services led the flight of families from inner cities to the suburbs following World War II. But given that these crises are so widespread, there is nowhere to flee to.

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Posted at 5:24 PM, Feb 03, 2010 in Urban Affairs
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