The New Minimal Cities

By Anderson, Michelle Wilde | The Yale Law Journal, March 2014 | Go to article overview

The New Minimal Cities


Anderson, Michelle Wilde, The Yale Law Journal


ARTICLE CONTENTS INTRODUCTION I. CITIES IN DISTRESS      A. In Fact      B. In Law II. SHRINKING GOVERNMENT      A. Cutting      B. Selling      C. (De) regulating III. THE NEW MINIMAL CITIES      A. A Local Nightwatchman State      B. Doctrinal Boundaries of Residents' Interests      C. Minimum Standards for Urban Life CONCLUSION: SHRINKING GOVERNANCE RESPONSIBLY APPENDIX: CITIES IN BANKRUPTCY AND RECEIVERSHIPS 

INTRODUCTION

Unable to meet obligations to creditors while also keeping government services in operation, the City of Detroit entered a state receivership on March 14, 2013 and filed for bankruptcy on July 18. That makes Detroit the twenty-eighth city to declare municipal bankruptcy or to enter a receivership for fiscal crisis since late 2008, a window of time that has seen five of the six largest municipal bankruptcies in American history. (1) In a long-term transformation of local finance that has accelerated in the recent recession, these cities and others are engaging in slash-and-burn budgeting to address falling revenues, rising expenses, and mounting debt. In San Bernardino, the third California city to declare bankruptcy in the recent recession, (2) the City Attorney followed another round of deep cuts to the police department with solemn advice to residents: "Lock your doors and load your guns." (3) Such an announcement would be unsurprising to the residents of Cleveland and East Cleveland in Ohio, Flint and Inkster in Michigan, and other cities beset by rising crime and police layoffs, where 911 can rarely dispatch an officer for a call reporting a nonviolent crime, such as car theft, drug dealing, or prostitution. Camden, New Jersey had over 2,100 incidents of homicide, forcible rape, robbery, or aggravated assault in 2011--an average of roughly one violent crime every four hours in a city of approximately 77,000 people, only slightly larger than suburban Palo Alto, California. (4) Yet in January 2011, Camden cut its police force in half and eliminated its homicide and narcotics units. (5)

Where police departments are understaffed, other public services are unstaffed. Cities in California, Pennsylvania, New York, Michigan, Ohio, and elsewhere have terminated thirty to fifty percent of their employees. Following Vallejo, California's bankruptcy, the city's 2011-2012 budget explained that in addition to cutting forty-five percent of all public safety staff, "[a]ll funding for youth, library, arts, elderly, needy, education, and recreation programs, projects and positions previously provided by the General Fund were completely eliminated." (6) Decisions to scale government back in this way are distinct from contracting out for services; these cities are not purchasing private substitutes for public services. This is privatization in its purest form--government service shedding, on the unfunded hope that private or charitable alternatives will arise. Yet such cuts amplify the longstanding trend of outsourcing service provision to other public agencies (like counties) and private contractors, because the city government itself has fewer responsibilities, less authority, and a smaller staff.

Cities undertaking austerity measures also shed their property--public assets like parks, pools, and government office buildings. In Benton Harbor, Michigan, a city commission and a state receiver transferred possession of twenty-two acres of the city's pristine lakeshore and dunes to a private golf course in exchange for critically needed annual income, even though the scattered, inland replacement parcels given to the city as substitute open space required industrial decontamination and the installation of exposure barriers prior to public use. (7) In Newark, New Jersey, Mayor Cory Booker sold sixteen city buildings in active public use, including the city's historic police and fire headquarters and Newark Symphony Hall, in a deal that plugged most of an $80 million deficit in the 2010 budget but will ultimately cost the city $125 million to lease back the buildings over the next twenty years. …

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