How much would you pay to keep your street light on? Or to have trash cans in your neighborhood park? In the wake of recession, local governments across the country struggled to find ways to balance budgets by cutting services. In Colorado Springs they tried something rather radical. When property values tanked, the local government took the issue to the voters and offered them a choice: raise property taxes to cover the short fall, or cut services—they provided a very specific list. Not surprisingly, voters resoundingly chose to cut services rather than raise taxes. So, in early 2010 one third of the street lights were turned off. Bus services were slashed. Park maintenance stopped entirely—the trash cans were removed, the grass died. The city eliminated police and fire positions, stopped repaving its streets, and closed its public recreation centers.
What happened next is reported by Robert Smith of NPR’s This American Life. At first, people were outraged. One homeowner called the city to report his street light outage, and listened incredulously when the city employee explained “you voted for this” and then offered to turn the light back on for him—at a cost of $125. Bringing trash cans back to the park cost closer to $3,000, not including trash pickup.
The journalist reporting this story expected that the locals might cave to the inconvenience and campaign to get their services back, even by an additional tax. But so far, that hasn’t happened. The community members interviewed said that they would rather pay for the services piecemeal, even if it means paying more total than the additional property tax would be. According to Smith, most residents would have paid about $200 in additional taxes per year—just a bit more than the cost of that street light, to get back their street lights, parks, garbage services, and other little things like a full complement of police and firefighters.
To me, this story reveals the significance of Americans’ reverence for freedom and choice. In Colorado Springs, people would rather pay more for worse services as long as they are choosing whether or not they’d like to pay.
This value system creates two significant challenges for building smart and whole communities. First: it leads to inefficiencies. Providing services piecemeal will inevitably cost more than running a larger system with economies of scale. No matter how small local government gets it will still be funded by taxpayers—taxpayers who want and deserve to get the best possible service that their dollars can buy.
Second, this kind of system leads to inequalities. In a system where location-based services are available for an extra fee, wealthier neighborhoods will get to keep their parks and streetlights. Struggling neighborhoods will not. When it comes to public safety, this is a pretty dangerous game. Neighborhoods are not islands. When crime rises and public trust falls, the whole community suffers. Who pays then?
Guest Contributor: Megan Liddle Gude