Wednesday, December 26, 2012

It may take a village, but what if the village is the taker?

Virtually every metropolitan area in America, both large and small, consists of more than one incorporated municipality, usually with a shared boundary.  Typically the “core” city after which the Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) is named is the oldest, most industrialized, and the most populous city.  The surrounding, contiguous cities—the suburbs—are the inverse: newer, lower population, less of an industrial heritage. Beyond this dichotomy, the relationship between the core city and its suburbs will probably vary greatly from metro to metro.
Lest I insult the intelligence of my readers, I won’t belabor the obvious any further.  The municipalities in an MSA will differ greatly, like the variegated colors in a mosaic, and not just because they comprise discrete planes.  Ideally, they offer varying approaches to self-governance that directly reflect the wills of their electorates.  No two municipalities in a metro area are likely to adopt quite the same approach to the financing of various core services—police, fire, public works, and so forth.  It is for this reason that we might witness core differences between in infrastructure between two adjacent municipalities: they choose different street signs, lighting, or even paving surfaces, let alone the tax structures used to finance them.  I observed an example of this in a recent blog post in which a road that formed the boundary between two Cleveland suburbs.  Meanwhile, most constituents will assess the aptitude of their executives through two basic means: the election process at a microcosmic level, and maintaining a residence in the municipality over the years, at the macrocosmic level.  This duality provides the chief incentive for a mayor and his staff to perform their duties capably: if they want to keep their jobs, they will strive to perform well enough to get elected, and a well-managed city is far more likely remain desirable enough to keep its tax base than one that is not.

But what happens when a town’s leadership chooses an ethically or legally dubious management practice?  One Cleveland suburb in particular has acquired a certain reputation over the years:
East Cleveland abuts the core city to the west and the north, and parts of this suburb are older than certain neighborhoods in Cleveland proper.  In terms of the built environment, the boundary between the core city and its suburb is indistinct: the historic “millionaire’s row” stretched along Euclid Avenue in both municipalities, with little regard for where one began and the other ended.  A century ago, the City of Cleveland unsuccessfully attempted to annex East Cleveland on two occasions; these days, Cleveland is not likely to perceive its eastern neighbor as much of a prize.  East Cleveland fell on hard times during the widespread deindustrialization that took place throughout the Cuyahoga Valley in the second half of the twentieth century: since 1970, it has lost more than half of its population.  What was once a predominantly white suburb is now almost exclusively black, with only about 6% claiming any other race in the 2010 Census and nearly 40% of the population falling below the poverty level.

Not surprisingly, East Cleveland’s impecunious population does not offer the sort of taxable income with which the City can provide fundamental services.  So what does the City do?
It shifts the burden to motorists passing through by tackling them with hefty speeding tickets.  While visiting Cleveland, friends had warned me that the 2.5 mile stretch of Euclid Avenue that passes through East Cleveland was a fierce speed trap—even a few miles per hour over the limit will result in a ticket.  Now this sign on the sidewalk confirms it.  The City no doubt decided to deploy cameras in order to preclude law enforcement officers from squandering time on petty moving violations, especially considering East Cleveland’s traditionally high rate of violent crime.  A few blocks away, an unusually large sign announces the approaching school zone, which no doubt has even more onerous speeding restrictions—and steeper fines.

At least the City of East Cleveland is candid about its method of generating revenue.  The same can’t be said about another Ohio municipality: New Rome, a suburb of Columbus.  This tiny village comprises only about nine city blocks (approximately twelve acres), and even at its peak, no more than 150 people called it home; the 2000 Census estimated its population at 60.  It would probably occupy little more than a footnote in Columbus’ cultural history if it weren’t for a 4-block stretch of U.S. Route 40 (West Broad Street in Columbus city limits) that falls within the corporate limits.  I don’t have any firsthand photographs, but this Google Streetview captures the essence of New Rome well enough.  This 1000-foot segment of one of America’s oldest highways is a notorious trap, where the speed limits drop from 45 miles per hour to 35.

The New Rome Police Department unapologetically issues $90 to motorists going 42 mph within this speed zone; since this is a clear violation, it is entirely within the department’s right to do so.  But, according to an April 2003 issue of Car and Driver magazine, speeding tickets only account for about 12% of New Rome’s citations on U.S. 40.  The citations for the remaining tickets explain why the village has achieved such notoriety: fines for cracked or excessively tinted windshields, dirt on the license plate, chipped taillights, faulty mufflers, no front license plates, tailgating, and driving too slowly, among others.  Officers routinely ask stopped motorists where they work, and failure to pay in time may result in an arrest at the workplace.  This village of approximately a dozen ramshackle houses, three apartment buildings, and a handful of small businesses earns nearly all its revenue (nearly $400,000 in those last few years) from traffic citations.  Since the town has no other real amenities (a fire department, library, or parks) all of this money pays for the police force—an operation that exists to fund itself and the village council.  The municipal building is a double-wide trailer.

New Rome’s command over its speed trap helped it achieve a reputation far more insidious than anything the much larger East Cleveland could muster.  Motorists had started using alternate routes in order to avoid the gauntlet, often traveling through residential neighborhoods unequipped to handle the traffic in terms of road width.  Businesses in the area actively voiced concern that their enterprises were suffering as motorists consciously circumvented New Rome.  A few neighbors eventually grew so frustrated about the situation that they launched the website New Rome Sucks in order to let more people voice their Tales of Woe.  Further research on the village’s internal operations revealed that the speed trap was just the tip of a relentlessly corrupt iceberg.  City leaders inappropriately used a federal grant from 1996 intended to fight burglaries and vandalism to fund yet more traffic enforcement.  This police force has at times employed as many as 14 people (almost one quarter of the 2000 population), all for the sole purpose of citing motorists and collecting the fees.  Furthermore, the village didn’t even abide by its own standards for its executive and legislative branch: it had not held elections for the village council since 1979, and it went seven years without mayoral elections.  Past audits revealed multiple instances of embezzlement by various council members, virtually all of whom are related to one another.  The State Highway Department claimed that the Village’s sudden speed limit drop on U.S. 40 from 45 to 35 is unjustified.

At last, in 2002, a neighboring business owner, angered by New Rome’s influence on the driving culture of Columbus’ west side, moved to an apartment building in New Rome and successfully ran for mayor, winning with 6 votes against zero.  However, the town council refused to recognize his victory, with one member calling him a carpetbagger.  This controversy, well chronicled like so many others on the New Rome Sucks website, eventually attracted the attention of the Franklin County Prosecutor and Ohio Attorney General Jim Petro, who determined that, after decades of corruption and incompetent management, New Rome should be abolished.  Not surprisingly, the village’s constituents voted against dissolution.  By the end of the year, Petro convinced the Ohio General Assembly to pass a law that allowed the state to seek dissolution of a village under 150 people if the State Auditor found that it provided fewer public services and demonstrated a pattern of wrongdoing.  When village officials challenged the dissolution statute as contrary to the home rule provisions of the Ohio Constitution, a judge ruled in favor of the State in July of 2004 that the New Rome electorate had allowed key offices to remain vacant for such long periods of time that the village had effectively dissolved itself.  By September of that year, the Village of New Rome had ceased to exist, irrevocably absorbed into Prairie Township of Franklin County, Ohio.

[While the New Rome incident originally earned national media attention, the majority of coverage today comes from the Columbus Dispatch newspaper and has reverted to archives, so the Wikipedia article (never a preferred source of mine) offers the most detailed chronology of events.] 

New Rome provides an interesting contrast to most other representatives of the multifaceted suburban mosaic referenced at the beginning of this essay.  In most municipalities, good governance is a selling point, and the election process allows constituents to transmit their will onto their representatives by either voting the preferred candidate or voting with their feet.  However, New Rome’s incompetence and malfeasance was equally a reflection of the will of its constituents: they got exactly the sort of racket that an ostensible majority of them wanted.  And eventually the village forfeited its very existence.

If the story of New Rome sounds just a few tweaks away from an episode of The Twilight Zone, the sad reality is that similar communities sit scattered across the country.  New Rome may be extreme, but the New Rome Sucks website allows commenters to recognize other tiny municipalities with similar reputations for speed traps.  Most of the listed towns are nothing more than hearsay, but the American Automobile Association does designate the title “Traffic Traps” to two other communities (both in Florida) that it believes specifically employ enforcement measures with the purpose of raising revenue rather than promoting road safety.  And the USA Today article recognized that a number of states have defined speed traps as towns that generate more than 30% of revenue from traffic fines.

The suburb of East Cleveland is a struggling “Community of Strict Enforcement” that may not have quantitatively high road fatalities, but the existing conditions of the city give it few other options to generate the revenue it needs.  I am by no means claiming that it approaches anything near the corruption of New Rome, but I have no doubt that the placard on the sidewalk owes its existence to the debacle that brought about the demise to that inconsequential suburb of Columbus.  The Ohio Attorney General no doubt eyes the practices of communities like East Cleveland with suspicion, in light of what happened with New Rome.  A brighter future for East Cleveland could involve a certain rediscovery of its walkable streets and venerable historic housing stock (at least what survives of it), but the crime rate and conditions of its public schools do not augur well for this happening soon.  In the meantime, the struggling municipality needs to fund its very busy police department.   The combination of school zones and cameras are a good start, and candor about this questionable process may be the most satisfactory conclusion.