City of Fees and Services

[Image: A parking meter photographed by shooting brooklyn, via a Creative Commons license].

A story I missed earlier this summer reports that Oakland, California, is making up for falling tax revenue by “aggressively enforcing traffic violations.”

The decision is driven by the city’s budget woes, which deep cuts to city services alone did not solve. Falling sales and property, property transfer and hotel taxes have contributed to a $51 million decline in revenues.

It’s worth asking, though, whether paying “aggressively” increased fees and fines for our everyday use of the city – whether this means road tolls and garbage collection fees or suddenly unaffordable parking meters – is the best financial model for a post-taxation metropolis.

Put another way, if the ongoing recession has revealed, amongst other things, that a new type of city, run along very different financial lines, looms just weeks away – a kind of make-your-own-omelette city of fines, fees, and services, where every ingredient is individually priced – then perhaps the recession might also stimulate a wider debate about what could be called method of payment.

That is, what method of payment do we wish to use when it comes to living in a functioning metropolis? If we find ourselves paying no tax at all, for instance – no income tax, no sales tax, no property tax – would we be happy to pay parking tickets that hit upper limits of, say, $2000 or more each time, if this is what it takes to keep the city running? Conversely, would we be happy to pay more sales tax in order to avoid things like road tolls altogether? How exactly do we mix and match these urban outlays and receipts?

This would seem to cut to some of the most basic questions of what services constitute a city in the first place: what a government might provide and how it is that we will pay for what it offers.

In a distant way, and by means of a long digression, I’m reminded of the oft-repeated idea that nationalized health care would be a mere “hand-out,” not a central platform of what any government might do to protect its citizenry.

For instance, one man at a recent but quite bizarre anti-health care rally – during which a U.S. senator apparently praised this very man for his publicly announced support of terrorism – said that “he could trace his ancestors back to the Mayflower and said ‘they did not arrive holding their hands out for help.'” Ergo, this man should not “hold out his hands for help” and ask the government for a doctor’s visit. Of course, this same argument would surely never be advanced against, say, calling the police, calling the fire department, or accepting the defense of the U.S. military. Yet these are all tax-funded government services.

The bizarre irony for me throughout all of this has been that police officers, fire crews, and members of the military are all, to use this language very deliberately, the most socialized subsector of the U.S. economy. That is, they are paid through what many people would call “government hand-outs.” On the other hand, it is these very social positions that are often held up – by these same critics – as triumphant examples of national service and personal heroism. Indeed, it is not entirely inaccurate to say that The Greatest Generation was a generation of near-total tax-funded employment.

If the recent health care debates are to be believed, doctors are not subject to this same sense of national appreciation; they are mysteriously yet fundamentally unlike the police, we are meant to believe, offering services that only private money can afford. But where is the line between private health (diabetes) and public safety (tuberculosis) – and when might this solidify into actual government infrastructure?

Doctors are not like the tax-funded fire departments who we freely call to save us from wildfires, this logic goes, and they are quite unlike the government-supported soldiers who we have stationed in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. Surely, then, anyone who relies on the U.S. military to protect them is “holding their hands out for help”?

In this context, it’s worth speculating what might happen today if fire departments had, until now, been entirely privatized, motivated to protect you only if your insurance policy was up to date (as, indeed, was the case with the first urban fire departments, and as is now re-emerging in places like California). What would be the reaction, then, if someone proposed that these services be folded into a more general package of government services?

If fire crews, in this model, suddenly became tax-funded and available to all citizens – indeed socialized as part of a shared, city infrastructure – would there be the same level of outrage? One wonders if fire crews might ever attain the entirely deserved levels of public adulation they now receive, if their tax-funded nature was, once and for all, revealed. Protesting citizens, like the gentleman cited above, might never have the stomach to “ask for help” from the government, even if their houses are burning down around them.

In any case, I mention all this because of the urgency with which we need to rethink the world of urban services and the economic basis through which we pay for them. If the tax system, as it is currently operated, cannot pay for the very activities that we once thought synonymous with urbanity, are radical increases in one-off fees a permanent, economically viable solution to this problem or simply an irritating and only mildly effective band-aid? Is it better to pay more, once a year, in order to avoid such fees altogether?

Further, how are we best to judge the effectiveness of increased fines and pay-as-you-go services: by the psychological sense of irritation that a penalty-based system might cause – I’m reminded of parking attendants required to wear bulletproof vests during streetwork – or by the comfort that a lack of taxes might provide?

Or, more measurably, do we judge them by their physical effect on the city?

(Original article spotted via the denialism blog).

12 thoughts on “City of Fees and Services”

  1. The current health care reform proposal amounts to little more than injecting money into the system and does nothing to address the nightmarish complexity of figuring out what is and is not covered under insurance, that paying cash for a procedure costs far more than what an insurance company would pay. The reform plans as they stand now would do little to advance the state of health care in this country and amount to little more than a handout for the insurance companies. More people would have insurance, but fundamental problems would remain. Reform needs to come, but the currents plans (all five of them) are not the answer.

    And I don't come to this blog to read political diatribes. I get that enough from other sources. And aren't you English? I'm sure you would have no problems with me writing long-winded diatribes against the NHS, a service I used and loathed when I was a student in the U.K.

  2. As a fellow Mayflower descendant (there are over 26 million of us now) I'd like to ask this historically ignorant cousin what he thinks the Indians did? Without their aid, there might have been no Plymouth Plantation.

    As for taxation and public services, the right wing in this country has managed to persuade a substantial portion of the US population that they can have their cake and eat it too. None of these folks really want to get rid of the myriad of public services they use, but they reject paying taxes as a means of payment. Just like we can fight a war and not pay for it.

    Prop 13 in California started this idiocy and is principally responsible for the utter collapse of the government, school system and public protection in that state.

    So, every level of government is forced to nickel and dime its citizens instead of using the pre-Prop 13 tax system.

  3. I live in one of the more unsocialized parts of the U.S., where we have the largest volunteer fire department in the country, serving over 350,000 people and responding to more than 19,000 incidents each year.

    Here, firefighters are "members" and are asked to donate 4 hours a week of their time. Most of the fire stations were funded by gifts from individuals and built on donated land.

    Support of the VFD by taxes from a specialized Emergency Services District didn't begin until 1985. And I don't get city water or sewer either; my neighborhood association voted not to join the adjoining MUD district some years ago.

    This is a pretty extreme form of Tip O'Neil's "all politics is local", but it's been observed of Americans for well over a hundred years. We don't like people from far away meddling in our affairs 'round here.

  4. The crux of the matter is that there are two issues that are shaping the landscape: what is infrastructure and what is government? If, as been the trend over the last 25 years, infrastructure can been seen as an asset, to be traded or sold then the city structure is in trouble. Short term gains will be used to offset long term problems and ultimately fail.
    With government, at what point will the "services" section be subsumed by the overhead? Where it's just too damn expensive to allow the government to continue? I will wager we're getting damn close to that point, especially in places like California. If you privatize everything what is the point of municipal gov't? And can there be future planning if there is no one in charge? The present systems are creaking under the strain.
    Any thoughts?


  5. I'm not sure I understand how enforcing *existing* fine/fee policies already in place in Oakland constitutes an *increase* or some "looming change" in how the urban experience or place is being paid for.

    Enforcement of violations in the existing traffic laws does not change "what constitutes a city" or how it is paid for.

    In fact, we've already decided that's how we want the city to operate – that's why those violations are codified in law. We should expect ALL laws to be strongly enforced, regardless of fee/fine implications.

    I live just outside NYC in NY State, and we always know when their are government budget shortfalls because suddenly the police are out ticketing for speeding, movement violations, parking violations, etc.

    When that happens, that's not some big change in how services are paid for.

    We've simply been LUCKY those times that the police weren't ticketing 100% of violators.

    I would argue that NOT aggressively enforcing such violations is actually unequal and unfair. It would be akin to randomly selecting SOME bridge users to pay a toll, or randomly selecting SOME people buying a good to pay a sales or use tax.

    Separately, not all fire crews in this country are tax-funded. Some are volunteer. Some are private. The model varies by location within the US.

  6. US courts have repeatedly found that the police have no responsibility to protect any individual.
    It would be unfortunate if doctors also had no responsibility to any individual.

  7. I agree 100% with your argument. I am surprised by everyone who has commented that raising parking fees and ticketing more is the right thing to do and that we have been "lucky" in more prosperous times to avoid these fines. Am I the only one who has recieved a parking ticket that was unwarranted? This has happened to me at least 3 times. For example on a broken meter or when I purchased a parking ticket, displayed it in my windshield and still got a ticket. The city is so nice to take my complaint and let the fines double and triple before losing my complaint and charging me $94 for a parking ticket that I paid $15 the first time around. I would rather pay higher taxes than be charged fraudulent fees by the government just because they can..

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