Worst City Policies of 2010
John Petro contributed to this post.
Corruption Takes a Toll in Bell
Progressives know government can be a powerful force for good in people's lives. So it's particularly devastating when the people charged with upholding the public trust -- local officials with the potential to improve the lives of their constituents -- instead betray the public. The year's most notorious case of municipal corruption occurred in the town of Bell, California, a working-class community outside of Los Angeles. The city's highest ranking officials secretly paid themselves exorbitant salaries and benefits, misappropriated city funds, and gave themselves illicit low-interest loans, according to criminal allegations and reports by the Los Angeles Times. To add insult to injury, the Bell case provided the Right with a pretext to attack the wages and benefits of rank-and-file public workers, suggesting that teachers and sanitation workers (who wouldn't see Bell-style compensation if they worked for a century) were similarly compromised. For destroying public trust and providing yet another revolting example of people at the top abusing their power, the corrupt practices of Bell officials rings out as one of the worst policies of 2010.
Blood from a Stone in New York
It might be enough make Ebenezer Scrooge squirm. In New York City the homeless population has grown to 36,600, up from 33,600 five years ago. At the same time the, city has cut services for the homeless and plans to further reduce funding for the Department of Homeless Services by $19 million over the next 18 months. But when the city announced its plan to charge working homeless families rent for sleeping in city shelters the public outcry was instantaneous. City officials insisted the program was an effort to instill greater responsibility in homeless families. But as one homeless advocate pointed out, "They are taking money... that could otherwise be used to help themselves get out of the shelter system. We're dealing with the poorest people, the people who are the most in need, and we're asking them to pay for a shelter of last resort." Under intense pressure, the city has since changed its stance. Working homeless families are now encouraged to put part of their income into savings. But for attempting to place an even more onerous burden on the poorest of the working poor, New York City's plan to charge homeless families rent finds a home among the worst policies of 2010.
Who Turned Out the Lights in Colorado Springs?
Smacked by the recession, many cities faced revenue shortfalls and tough budget choices in 2010. But few towns resorted the type of draconian service cutbacks seen in Colorado Springs, where residents voted against a property tax increase and the town instead opted to turn off streetlights (although residents who can afford to could choose to reactive their lights); shrink the police department any rely on private taxicabs to help with law enforcement; and leave neighborhood parks to wither (people with time and resources can volunteer to maintain their own local green spaces). "We did have a transit system," the Vice-Mayor told NPR. "That's gone almost completely now." Many commentators denounced Colorado Springs as an object lesson in the consequences of anti-tax extremism, but the city's small-government stance hides an inconvenient truth: a major source of Colorado Springs' economic strength is its reliance on the military and other state and federal public employment to anchor the local labor market. For gutting public services in accordance with a narrow, me-first ideology, Colorado Springs' cuts join our list of the worst policies of 2010.
Anti-Immigrant Fever in Fremont
In January, Kris Kobach will become Kansas' new Secretary of State, but his destructive influence already extends far beyond the borders of the Sunflower State. For the last several years, Kobach has made a cottage industry of advancing harsh city and state anti-immigrant statutes characterized by high municipal costs, significant damage to the local economy, and tremendous potential for discrimination against anyone who "looks" like they might be an unauthorized immigrant. This year, a Kobach-written ordinance was enacted in the town of Fremont, Nebraska, which banned hiring or renting to unauthorized immigrants. Although implementation has been blocked by a lawsuit, the ordinance's divisive impact is already being felt. Many of the city's long-time officials are resigning or retiring, noting that the immigration fight "wears you down." Taxpayers also feel the bite: the town raised property taxes in anticipation of an expensive legal battle. For exemplifying what one local attorney called "the power of fear" as it faced an increase in (predominantly legal) Latino residents, Fremont's anti-immigrant ordinance is one of the worst of 2010.
Wal-Mart's Broken Promises in Chicago
It's no secret that mega-retailer Wal-Mart desperately wants to get a foothold in urban markets. Similarly well-known is Wal-Mart's dismal record on workers' rights and its devastating impact on small businesses. New Wal-Mart stores have been shown to destroy nearly as many jobs as they create, push other stores out of business, and to drive down wages for workers throughout the entire community. In Chicago, where the retail chain has ambitions to open "several dozen" stores, Wal-Mart's strategy included buying off community leaders with charitable donations and splitting union solidarity by pitting construction unions versus retail unions. But most shamefully, Wal-Mart reneged on an agreement it had made with the unions and city leaders that helped secure City Council approval of its second Chicago store. City Aldermen and labor leaders thought they had an unwritten agreement with Wal-Mart to pay workers 50 cents above minimum wage and to give workers a minimum 40 cent raise after the first year. They thought wrong. The same day that the store was approved, Wal-Mart announced that there was, in fact, no wage deal. To Wal-Mart, for breaking a promise, and to the political leaders who failed to get a binding deal, the approval of Wal-Mart in Chicago is one of this year's worst city policies.