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Published: 5/31/2009

Strapped cities scrimp and scratch

BY ROBERTA DE BOER
BLADE COLUMNIST
Third graders are enthralled with the dwarf goats that a Long Island, N.Y., township has tending grass in the recession. Third graders are enthralled with the dwarf goats that a Long Island, N.Y., township has tending grass in the recession.
PHOTO BY DANIELLE FINKELSTEIN / NEWSDAY Enlarge

Two town parks, each overgrown with grass.

Two local governments, both counting pennies.

Park No. 1 is mowed by goats.

Park No. 2 is mowed by a mayor.

Welcome to 2009: The year American cities face financial woes of enormous proportions.

The International City/County Management Association calls this economic meltdown "deeper and different than anything we've seen in the past 50 years."

Some regions may fare better than others, but "for the first time in the postwar era, all levels of government" are getting walloped simultaneously, the association reports.

This reality has cash-strapped cities turning to familiar solutions: layoffs, wage cuts, furloughs.

But other, eye-catching tactics are emerging.

Enter the goats.

Hempstead, N.Y., has a herd of ruminants cutting grass.

Kate Murray, the elected supervisor in charge of the 800,000-population township on Long Island, said the goats - Sleepy, Sneezy, Bashful, Happy, and Doc - not only take care of the landscape, they're celebrities. "I can't tell you how many times someone says, 'I love your goats.' It's absolutely hysterical. I'm doing an interview later with Russian media," she said last week. "Go figure. It's gone international."

At $250 each with an average 15-year lifespan, Ms. Murray said, the Nigerian dwarf goats will "literally pay for themselves." Plus, no benefits.

The goats are part of Hempstead's bid to be frugal and green. Witness the town hall's 256 solar panels and hybrid garbage trucks.

"We've been planning for this downturn for years," said Ms. Murray, in office since 2003. "The real estate was so incredibly hot - really hot. We knew the bubble was going to burst."

While the Hempstead herd attracts amused public interest, some 135 miles north along the Eastern Seaboard, one city's unprecedented revenue proposal has outraged many.

Providence, R.I., faces a $50 million shortfall. Its mayor is pushing two controversial state bills he says would add $16 million to city coffers.

The first, a so-called student-impact fee, would tax the city's four private higher education institutions (Brown University; Providence College; Johnson & Wales University, and the Rhode Island School of Design) at a semester rate of $150 per student.

Mayor David Cicilline's second proposal would hit up large nonprofits - including colleges, universities, and hospitals - for up to 25 percent of what taxes would be on exempt real estate valued at $20 million-plus.

Many Providence college students, administrators, and nonprofit officials are howling at what they see as a pickpocketing city.

But Mayor Cicilline said the city already streamlined services and slashed staff, leaving Providence "at the point where I don't think we can make any more cuts."

The mayor said his proposals are fair, especially since tax-exempt properties make up some 40 percent of the city's assessed values.

"There's no way to think about [increased revenue] without looking at the tax exemption," said Mayor Cicilline, because hospitals and universities "receive important city services subsidized by local property taxpayers."

A spokesman for the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, Tony Pals, disagrees: "Proposals like this couldn't come at a worse time for cash-strapped colleges."

Similar per-capita student fees failed in other cities, Mr. Pals said; nowhere else but Providence would a student "head tax" exist.

And while nonprofit real-estate payments in lieu of taxes aren't new (cities with such deals include Boston, Detroit, Pittsburgh, and Indianapolis), they're voluntary, he added.

Mr. Pals said private Providence colleges that negotiated payments in 2003 are now "blindsided by policymakers taking a penny-wise, pound-foolish approach."

Other cities believe every single penny counts.

As Palo Alto, Calif., stares down a $12 million deficit, the square-foot fee for a plot in one of the city's organic community gardens will rise next year from 35 cents to 36 cents.

"We've looked at every possible option," City Manager James Keene said. "We've got a whole booklet on our fee increases," including charges for what was once gratis.

Want to use the exhibit hall in the city's Junior Museum and Zoo? It's free now but will cost $300 in 2010. Want a new solar hot-water system? Do it this year for nothing; next year, permits will be $200.

Even an overdue book in the city library will cost more - up a nickel to 30 cents. "We've got a total of $400,000 in fee increases," Mr. Keene said.

Even as Toledo loses $100,000 daily while its mayor and City Council play Ping-Pong with an estimated $15 million shortfall, Toledo gained widespread media attention for one symbolic money-saving gambit.

As a headline in the May 28 edition of The Economist put it: Staring into the abyss: Lay off 4,000 workers, or let the mayor cut the grass?

The British magazine ended its story about U.S. cities' deficits by noting that some jurisdictions ask for citizen help after budget cuts, but Toledo's mayor "is going one step further. He is personally mowing a city park's grass."

Roberta de Boer is a Blade columnist.

Contact her at:

roberta@theblade.com

or 419-724-6086.



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