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The Death of Independent Cities: The Loss of Local Control

posted 5, 27,2005

“Today, California’s city budgets face greater risk and less stability, both economically and politically, than in the past. City revenues often don’t grow commensurately with service needs, which forces increases in taxes or fees, or cuts in services. Moreover, unfunded mandates from state and federal governments and new judicial interpretations of existing statutes diminish local control over expenditures as well.”

Michael Coleman, Michael G. Colantuono, published by the League of California Cities, June 2003

By L.K. Samuels

The idea that a community has local control over its destiny is a myth. Michael Coleman and Michael G. Colantuono in The Origin and Devolution of Local Revenue Authority argue that local governments, mainly cities, "do not have adequate control of their finances and local affairs." This decline of control "impairs good governance, reduces efficiency, inhibits local government’s ability to respond to local needs and priorities, and fosters a defensive, short-term approach among local officials."

Higher levels of government are dictating how to spend local resources, but are leaving the responsibility to manage city budgets/affairs to local municipalities. In other words, the state and federal governments are pulling the strings and making major decisions on local issues. This top-down centralization is usurping the ability of citizens to control their own lives. Cities were once considered to be democratic and free of higher-level government interference. But that has changed. Cities are neither in control of their affairs, nor the citizens who voted to incorporate them. Local municipalities are often forced (including judicial rulings) to follow the funded and unfunded mandates from federal and state governments.

The top-to-bottom control is historically the norm worldwide. Local governments have always been at the bottom of the totem pole. The main exception was during the early days of the United States. Before the 20th century, the federal government had little power to tax or control local governments. Historically, Congress and state legislators refused to interfere or control cities, medicine, housing, education or almost anything else. Power was so abhorred that for almost 80 years the federal government did not even tax U.S. citizens – and for almost 20 years, the federal government was actually prohibited from taxing its citizens. Cities enjoyed tremendous self-governing autonomy. But with the onslaught of the 20th century, federal and state governments expanded their power to do almost anything imaginable. There seemed to be no limit. And with this immense authority, federal and state governments found it expedient to force financial burdens on local governments. Unfunded mandates became the norm. It did not matter if the mandates were irresponsible, impractical or just plain wrong; the local municipalities were often forced to follow these legislative and bureaucratic laws.

What does this mean to the taxpayer? Considered to be on the bottom of the power chain, taxpayers have suffered the most. Without much discretionary control over budgets, many local governments are constantly on the brink of bankruptcy. This situation gives city governments three choices to stay solvent. Encourage the construction of resorts, strip malls, and big developments to increase revenues. Second, raise revenues through taxes and bond measures, if developing more retail space and homes is limited by environmental concerns. Third, cut city spending, which would be political suicide for local politicians since government employee unions and big special interests would oppose a reduction in the size of government.

What is the upshot? Cities will continue to decline along with the quality of life. Local governments will scream for more money and use scare tactics to get more revenue streams. Threats of closing down vital public services -- police stations, fire departments, libraries, and medical services -- will make major headlines. Taxpayers will be made to feel like cheapskates when local governments demand more money from an already overtaxed citizenry.

Many residents will want to escape to unincorporated suburbs where taxes are lower and politics less intense. Who could blame them?

Last Updated: Dec 07, 08

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