Mayor Sylvester Turner loves to strike a compromise. Not everybody is happy about it.
On weekday mornings, enticing whiffs of bacon and fried potatoes waft from Wanda J’s Next Generation restaurant in Tulsa’s Greenwood neighborhood. The smell of breakfast on the griddle offers a comforting contrast to the sound of big rigs and commuter traffic roaring by on the Interstate 244 overpass that cleaves the neighborhood in two.
At first glance, the Greenwood section of Tulsa doesn’t look much different from places in other cities where, in the name of urban renewal, new highways were erected in the 1960s, obliterating or dividing minority neighborhoods. Around the corner from Wanda J’s, there are signs of a revitalization effort -- or of gentrification, depending on whom you ask. A sign on an empty lot promises a future mixed-use development; a two-story historic building nearby has already been renovated with retail on the ground floor that includes a combo coffee shop and yoga studio, a bookstore, and a Vietnamese sandwich shop.
But the sidewalks that line the streets of this neighborhood offer a grim reminder of Greenwood’s darker past. Every 20 or 30 feet, a plaque lists the name of a business -- a restaurant, grocer, lawyer, doctor, clothing store -- and below it, the words, “Destroyed in 1921.”
The picture spoke a thousand words: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and his family were frolicking and sunning themselves on an otherwise empty beach at Island Beach State Park. The sandy shore was closed to the public because a budget impasse in 2017 had shut down the government. The stalemate threatened thousands of state residents’ July 4th plans that year.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, legislators in Washington state were embroiled in a charged political budget battle over rural water rights. The lawmakers couldn’t agree on how to fix the problem of who had the right to dig new wells. The impasse lasted a nasty six months, but few people outside the state even heard about the freeze on spending it caused.
That’s because while New Jersey’s budget standoff was immediately felt by all state residents, Washington’s battle merely held up the state’s capital budget. While capital budgets are incredibly important for job growth and a state’s economy, in most places holding one hostage doesn’t cause a government shutdown. Hitting the pause button on spending to build roadways and school buildings doesn’t have the same impact as closing a public beach on a hot summer day.
Berkeley, Calif., has always had an independent streak. It was named after Irish philosopher George Berkeley, who advanced the theory of immaterialism or the belief that material things have no objective existence. Located across the bay from San Francisco, Berkeley has long attracted people and ideas outside of the mainstream. In the 1960s, it was the birthplace of the free speech movement and hippie counterculture. In the 1990s, an advocacy group tried to bring back the bartering system in protest of economic globalization. And in the 2000s, voters overwhelmingly approved the nation’s first-ever soda tax to counteract the damage done by high-sugar drinks.
But now this city known for its out-there policies is taking perhaps its biggest risk yet: Later this year, it plans on becoming the first municipality in the country to issue municipal bonds using the blockchain technology that underpins cryptocurrency. The project is the brainchild of Mayor Jesse Arreguín and Vice Mayor Ben Bartlett and is being billed as a way to make investing in municipal bonds more accessible than ever. That’s because, unlike the minimum $5,000 bond denomination common today, “cryptobonds” can be issued in denominations as low as $5 or $10. The bonds also have the potential to open up a whole new way for the city to raise money for housing. This is an acute issue since the Trump administration has slashed the budget for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, cut funding for Section 8 housing credits and targeted sanctuary cities such as Berkeley for federal funding cuts.
Hanging on the wall just outside Bryan Kidney’s office in Lawrence, Kan., is the framed first page of a bond offering statement. Unlike most -- or really, any -- bond statements, this one required a color printer. It could even be described as cheeky: It’s for the sale of the city’s first green bond, and every reference to “green bond” or “green project” is printed in green ink.
Kidney, the city’s finance director who shepherded the $11.3 million sale last year, says the green ink originally started out as a joke.
But then, he thought, why not? When the projects are fully implemented, Lawrence is projected to save 3,201 tons of carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2e) annually, which is equal to burning 3.5 million fewer pounds of coal. “I get really passionate about this stuff,” Kidney says. “I was just so excited that Lawrence stepped up to be a leader in sustainability.”
Other legislators aren't so sure.
To California Sen. Scott Wiener, nothing epitomizes his state’s housing failures more than the seemingly endless fight over a five-story condo building at the corner of Valencia and Hill streets in San Francisco’s Mission District. The area is in the Eastern Neighborhoods Plan, which rezoned a third of San Francisco in 2008 to increase density near transit and to make housing more affordable. The lot was formerly home to a fast-food restaurant whose neighbors included several three-story apartment buildings and the historic Marsh theater.
Shortly after the Neighborhoods Plan took effect, a developer proposed a 16-unit building with two affordable housing units on the site of the restaurant. Although it adhered to the new zoning plan, the 1050 Valencia project was to be the tallest building for many blocks, and Mission District residents moved to stop it. In addition to complaining about the project’s height, they insisted the modern building would damage the historic character of the neighborhood. This was despite the fact that the stucco and wood-shingled restaurant there at the time was neither historic nor aesthetically appealing. In addition, the Marsh theater owner was concerned that construction noise and a proposed first-floor bar would disrupt theater business. It took years for the condos to be approved. The developer agreed to mitigate the noise impact and reduce the number of units from 16 to 12.
Not satisfied, the opponents turned to the Board of Permit Appeals, which sympathized with them and lopped off the top story of the building. That reduced the number of units from 12 to nine—and eliminated the two affordable units. “Welcome to housing policy in San Francisco,” wrote Wiener, who was then a member of the city’s board of supervisors. “A policy based not so much on our city’s dire housing needs but on who can turn out the most people at a public hearing.”
Major league teams used to get everything they wanted from sports-mad cities. Now they have to fight for it -- and increasingly, they’re losing.
St. Louis is used to getting stood up by football teams. The city has been home to four different franchises, and all of them have left town. But the last two departures -- and especially the loss of the Rams to Los Angeles in 2016 -- have been gut-wrenching experiences that seem to have broken much of the city’s storied enthusiasm for sports.
In 1987, St. Louis’ NFL team, the Cardinals, skipped town abruptly. Tired of the old Busch Memorial Stadium and increasingly indifferent fans, the team packed up after 27 years and headed for Arizona. The loss was a bitter one for St. Louis. But the city went after another NFL team with zeal. In the early 1990s, local officials had little trouble winning approval of a new downtown stadium funded entirely with taxpayer dollars. The city failed to win one of two NFL expansion teams awarded in 1993, but eventually it lured the Los Angeles Rams, who had their own problems with an ancient facility and a waning fan base. By 1995, the Rams were kicking off in downtown St. Louis.
It was a time when other cities were making similar choices. The Maryland Stadium Authority built a new publicly funded football stadium in 1998 as a prize for the NFL team it had stolen away from Cleveland two years earlier. Cleveland, in response, built a taxpayer-funded stadium and won back an NFL franchise in 1999.
Water utilities are struggling to lower their operation costs and simultaneously meet stricter environmental rules. Blue Drop, the brainchild of DC Water’s former leader, wants to help.
Most startups fail. Within the first four years, anywhere from 50 to 90 percent of firms go belly up. Investing in them is risky. It’s easy for things to go wrong.
But Blue Drop LLC isn’t a typical startup. To begin with, there isn’t a hoodie or open-loft office to be found in its modest headquarters in downtown Washington, D.C. And the company’s lone investor, the public utility DC Water, hails from an extremely risk-averse sector.
There’s something else unique about Blue Drop: A healthy portion of its revenue plan relies on selling truckloads of what used to be human poop.
The unique anti-tax tool has defined spending in the state, and it may spread to more states.
The blue tag on the streetlight outside Robert Loevy’s Colorado Springs home in 2010 didn’t signal an upcoming utility project. It was a receipt to show he had paid the $100 to keep his light on for the year. The city was facing a decimating $40 million budget gap and, among many other cuts, it was turning off one-third of its streetlights. That is, unless residents could come up with the money themselves. “I could afford to pay it,” Loevy says today, “but I have to think that would have been a stretch for many lower-income people.”
Loevy, a retired Colorado College professor, says the lights-out incident -- which earned Colorado Springs international infamy that year -- is just one of the many instances in which Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR) has only benefited those taxpayers who can afford to pay for services out of their own pocket. Loevy has been a vocal critic of the law. As he sees it, “TABOR has had its worst effects on poor people.”
TABOR was approved by Colorado voters 25 years ago next month. The constitutional amendment limits the state’s year-to-year revenue growth to a formula based on inflation plus the growth in population. If revenues exceed TABOR limits, the money has to be rebated to voters, unless they approve an increase in spending.
Halfway across town, the author of TABOR holds a more cynical view of Colorado Springs’ recession-era cuts, which also included shuttering pools, terminating bus service on evenings and weekends and eliminating 550 municipal jobs. The deeply conservative Colorado Springs has its own TABOR that puts even more limitations on the city’s property tax rate. To Douglas Bruce, an anti-tax advocate who spearheaded the bill of rights effort in 1992 at the state level, the cuts were nothing more than a “publicity stunt” designed to fuel resentment against TABOR. “It confirmed my belief,” Bruce says, “that the people running city government are sadistic bastards.”