NEIGHBORHOOD POWER

BIG GOVERNMENT is inherently cumbersome, inefficient, alienating and unresponsive

Filtering our tax money through the bureaucracy makes everything more expensive and adds a thick layer of rules and regulations that slow civic processes, hamper justice, put roadblocks to efficiency, and prevent the will of the people from manifesting.

Even those of us who understand and appreciate the necessity for government can still feel frustrated and angered by big governmentís inanities. A recent personal bout I had with the Oregon Department of Motor Vehicles was one of those quintessential bureaucratic nightmare experiences and provides an excellent example of why so many people love to hate the government.

I had just returned from an extended sojourn abroad and, considering the importance of driving a car in America, went first thing to renew my license which had expired during my absence. I was stunned to discover that, in spite of possessing an Oregon license for 22 years with a nearly perfect record, I had to take both the knowledge and driving test again! I can see the value in requiring an eye test because that might have changed or the retesting of the elderly, but there is no meaningful, logical, reasonable or even imaginable rationale for the waste of either my or the DMVís time in such a worthless exercise of ham handed bureaucratic rule making.

Alas, that wasn't the end of it. Even though they gave me back my same old number the information that I had reposed the test never made it as far as their computer and every time my insurance company checked, the DMV said I didn't have a valid license. Which resulted in regular cancellation notices and special trips to my insurance agent to prove I was a valid driver. Neither was that the end of it. Six months later I filled out a voter registration form at the DMV which never made it to the elections department and a subsequent change of address also was lost in the DMV data labyrinth.

Nevertheless, in the end result there are things that only big government can do and we are left with no alternative but to work within its unwieldy constraints. The DMV is an essential part of government. All we can do is to suffer with, try to make some sense of, and wrestle it into some kind of functionality.

Even more important in the role of government is environmental protection. The health of our environment is not an option for devolution. When one personís effluent causes anotherís disease then local control can not be the deciding factor. Local government should always have a vocal part to play and the option of instituting more stringent environmental regulations but the larger government has to have the ultimate responsibility. Fundamental civil and human rights are also of an importance that overrules local purview.

But concurrently, at the opposite end of the spectrum, anytime it makes logistical sense to break up and parcel out the responsibilities of the bureaucracy and devolve power to smaller local units, our civic life will be enhanced. Devolution holds the potential to transform our government and move it towards the ideals of personal and responsive, and provide the services we require at a much lower cost than our present overweighted bureaucracy.

Empower neighborhoods.

Whenever possible, political devolution in the form of elected neighborhood governments and the corollary allocation of financial resources thereto will make it possible for the concerns of ordinary citizens to have a real impact on the mundane functioning of government.

Decentralization does not imply balkanization, the breaking up of a large entity into many small, bickering, sovereign units, but rather the logical placement of the various governmental functions at levels which are designed to minimize bureaucracy and encourage citizen participation.

Letís take roads and streets, for instance. A neighborhood government is not going to have jurisdiction over a freeway that happened to run through it, though it might have some small input into itís design and function. Neither would it have any control over a state highway or major traffic street, though obviously it would have more input than in the case of the freeway. But it could easily have control, almost complete control, over local streets, those intended only for use by residents.

The City of Portland has a traffic mitigation program to reduce superfluous neighborhood traffic. Traffic circles, speed bumps, etc. are used to slow traffic. Getting one of those street adaptations placed in oneís neighborhood involves negotiating a lengthy bureaucratic process and a long wait for priority funding. Moreover the cityís high standards make each one relatively expensive. A pair of curb extenders might cost as much as $30,000.

In stark contrast, in Lake Oswego, which is Oregonís richest city, you can find temporary, very inexpensive traffic control devices; the equivalent purpose achieved at one thirtieth the cost. Of course, itís hard to imagine anyone actually preferring the cheaper devices aesthetically but if the primary goal is safety and each individual neighborhood had the option then some might well choose safety before aesthetics. For the cost of a few of Portlandís high cost devices a whole neighborhood could be made safe.

The actual cost of the devices is only part of the burden of doing business in todayís scenario. In contrast to a lengthy bureaucratic process orchestrated by well paid staff, the neighborhood process could easily be done by volunteers and decided, with direct citizen input, in a relatively short time. I donít mean to imply that all neighborhoods would opt for the low cost devices or that neighborhood consensus would always be that easy to reach, only that the process would be far simpler and more responsive to citizens concerns. If you don't like a neighborhood council decision those responsible are at most a short distance away and extremely accessible compared to big city government.

In place of every area in the city having to do things exactly the same way, each neighborhood would have differing responses with differing concepts of how they wanted their community to function. I imagine, with jurisdiction and power to tax, our wealthier neighborhoods might want to do some very beautiful and creative things with their public spaces, whereas low income neighborhoods would be able to stretch their resources and accomplish a lot more than they are being dependent on the bureaucracy for their infrastructure and services.

Needless to say, considering that urban neighborhoods have no history of self-government, combined with the certain and implacable opposition this proposal will engender, especially on the part of entrenched bureaucrats and politicians, any substantive changes are going to take some time. In addition, the pervasive alienation rife in American political life is going to mitigate against this action and raise additional strong objections; to wit: ĎWe already have too many governmental bodies and fewer and fewer people votingí. But consider; Wheeler county, Oregonís smallest, has only 1600 people and itís county seat, Fossil, has only 450 people - compared to the average city neighborhood of 5 to 10,000 people - yet they have no problem governing themselves. In contrast look at Portland with half a million people; it has only five commissioners elected at large. How is it possible for the average citizen to have an impact in that situation?

Once again, Iím under no illusion that devolution of power to elected neighborhood governments is going to be a simple, quick or easy process, but at the same time I have no doubt that itís one answer to the general populationís distrust, dislike and alienation from their government.

The major points to creating neighborhood government are;
 

  1. 1. Boundaries must be delineated.
  2. 2. A process needs to be established for the formation of neighborhood governments.
  3. 3. Funding needs to be determined.
  4. 4. Parameters need to be set for potential neighborhood jurisdiction.
1. Boundaries
Establishing boundaries will be different for urban and rural situations. Urban boundaries will most often be based on existing accepted boundaries although several inconsistencies and anomalies will have to be reconciled. Since neighborhoods have no real power, it has not been important that some territory is claimed by more than one neighborhood. A single line will have to be chosen. Some neighborhood boundaries nominally include large industrial areas which are really regional in character. Since neighborhoods will eventually have some taxing powers those industrial areas can't really belong to a single neighborhood. Portland's Downtown has many residents and it's own neghborhood association.

In the rural part of the state, boundary lines shall as far as possible coincide with natural watershed or bioregional lines. Rural communities will obviously take up a lot more space than urban neighborhoods but they are still quite limited as to how big they can get. When watersheds are divided it must be done on natural boundaries except where massive man made features such as freeways can be used.

Legal formation of a rural community requires at least 100 people. Partial watersheds at the borders of the state can be added to adjacent communities. Watersheds can be combined. No formal upper limit needs to be placed on size since the very concept is based on smallness.

 2. Process

Not all urban neighborhoods or rural communities are ready for or desire self-government. Therefore the devolution process needs to be gradual and based on the proactive efforts of each community. To that end a two stage initiative process is established. In the first or formation stage petitions are circulated for the official recognition of boundaries and election of 3 Community Advocates.

Advocates are unpaid. They are charged with representing the interests of the community but have no stated powers. Funding is provided through an income tax check off of $20.  This does not cost the taxpayer anything. Expenditures are totally at the discretion of the elected Advocates.

In areas where boundaries are already established and no conflicts exist communities can immediately begin to circulate formation petitions. Where areas are claimed by more than one neighborhood the affected communities will have to meet and agree amongst themselves on a boundary. This happens before petitions can be circulated; it is then approved by the local governing body. Where no boundaries preexist, or where the community wishes to incorporate with boundaries that are different than exist, or where boundaries of residential neighborhoods overlap those of industrial associations, proposed boundaries will have to be approved by the local governing body.

In industrial or commercial areas of regional character which also contain residences only the first or Advocate stage of neighborhood government is formed and it's role is limited to spheres of government that solely impact residents. For instance, a downtown neighborhood association would not have any control over its physical environment in contrast to a residential neighborhood which eventually has control over local streets, playgrounds, etc.,

The second stage of neighborhood government begins with the drawing up of a charter which then must be approved in a referendum. Whereas every community has three Advocates in the formative stage, in the second stage of devolution they become Councilors and their number can vary. In the second stage the details of organization -  length of terms, etc. - of the government is left to the people. Councilors can be paid but I would suggest that it be equal to a maximum equal of 1/2 current state legislative pay - in Oregon, legislator's pay is about $14,000 annually. The minimum regulations of communities shall apply - relating to fundamental ethics, accurate bookkeeping, notification, open meetings, etc.. Charters can be changed by simple majority vote at a general election.

3. Funding

Three basic sources of revenue are available to the neighborhoods - income tax checkoff, minimal property tax and revenue sharing. Using Portland as an example (and using round numbers) there are 100 neighborhoods in a total population of 500,000 giving each one an average of 5000 people. Current annual city budget is $1.5 billion.

In the formative stage, neighborhood funding is limited to a $20 income tax checkoff. Assuming about 2500 income taxpayers in the average urban community the net to the neighborhood would be $50,000.  If all taxpayers did the checkoff the total citywide expenditure would be $5 million. In the second stage neighborhoods could levy an income tax surcharge on approval of a supermajority of 60% of voters.

In the second stage the other potential sources of funding become available. A property tax could be levied on voter approval. This would be limited to 1/20th of 1%. Assuming 2500 dwelling units at an average assessment of $100,000 this would net the average neighborhood about $125,000 annually. The value of commercial property in each neighborhood would vary widely but should approximate $50,000. If all 100 neighborhoods in the City of Portland approved then the total property tax going to them would be about $22.5 million. Neighborhoods could levy additional property taxes on a supermajority vote of 60%.

At $22.5 million, equal to the basic income tax checkoff combined with limited property tax revenues, neighborhoods would be receiving about 1.6% of current city expenditures.

The third source of income for neighborhoods is revenue sharing. This is a bit more complicated. First we separate functions. For instance, we divide the amount that is now being spent on streets as a whole into that spent on local streets compared to those that have a citywide function.  Let's say the city is now spending $40 million per year on local streets (current Portland transportation budget is $90 million.)

Allocation of funds is based on two factors; population and per capita income. For instance, $40 million (total local street expenditure) divided by 500,000 (Portland population) equals $80 per person. Allocation is then weighted on per capita income. For this purpose the city's neighborhoods are divided into quintiles. The bottom 20% in income receives a full share, the top 20% receives nothing. The middle quintile receives a half share, the second receives a quarter, the fourth, three quarters.

The average Portland neighborhood has 5000 people. If that neighborhood were in the lowest quintile it would receive $400,000 for it's local street share. (5000 people x $80 per person x  full share.) If it were in the middle income quintile it would receive $200,000 (5000 x $80 x half share), etc..

4. Paramenters

The purpose of this legislation is to decrease overall taxes and move towards the greatest possible local responsibility. To that end larger government taxes for local street needs have now been cut in half. We are assuming that the wealthier the neighborhood the more capable it is of taking care of itself. The overall savings  generated by not running everything through the bureaucracy combined with freedom of choice should compensate the wealthier neighborhoods somewhat for the additional taxes they may have to pay for the same level of service.

My expectation is that the middle quintile communities will accomplish at least as much as the city does now with half the money. The lower quintile communities will get the extra resources they need and a bonus from their ability to use volunteers and other cost savings. The highest get less money or no money but they do get the privilege of creating unique, beautiful, higher quality public spaces in their communities. Each community now has the option of taxing or not taxing, or of using innovative ways to save money. They can tax themselves back to the level they were paying previously or make do with less or spend more to create excellence.

Most importantly each now can be different, look different and reflect the different ideas and values of their residents. They are integral, inseparable parts of the whole, but each is able to reflect it's own unique view of community.

With the city no longer responsible for local streets and especially with the wealthier communities no longer receiving tax money for that purpose there will be a tendency for the city to cut back on all revenue sharing. To prevent that from happening the preexisting percentage of city expenditures for local streets is locked into the budget. If 3% of the overall budget before revenue sharing was being spent on local streets, then 1 1/2% of the total city budget is permanently allocated to the neighborhoods.

Each function that is capable of being devolved to the community level is handled the same way. All physical improvements are bundled together; streets, neighborhood parks and gardens -- essentially all local public spaces. Other physical improvements such as public squares and community transit, which the city bureaucracy neither has the will nor the ability to provide for, will appear after neighborhood control is established. Only neighborhood governments can provide for the individual needs of 100 different neighborhoods. All current local level physical functions are added together and that percentage of the budget is permanently sent directly to the neighborhoods.

Community policing and all other legitimate social needs may have to be thought of differently. Especially in the beginning, many people will be wary of giving too much power to neighborhoods in these areas for fear of racism or unfairness. In my mind active communities with money to spend will eventually obviate much of the need for bureaucratically administered social services and that devolution of those parts of government can proceed gradually as neighborhoods prove themselves and demand more power.

They will naturally tend to devote resources to social needs of their own accord out of their discretionary funds. A Public square or community center; volunteer events to make community improvements; bringing people together by itself will reduce the need for remedial social efforts. It also must be noted that devolution has the potential to come down from all levels - city, county, state and federal.

During a transitional period, possibly a long period, the larger government will continue to provide services to unincorporated communities. Once the percentage of local needs is set, that amount, equal to 1/2 of current expenditures, becomes the total allocation. For example, lets say the total amount of money the city now spends on local needs is equal to $200 million and 25% of the population is in organized communities. Now we take half that amount - $100 million- and divvy up 25% to the various organized communities and the rest, 75%, is spent by the city to provide services for unorganized areas.

The city will have only half as much per capita to spend on unorganized areas than it currently does. This will encourage communities to organize and also slow down expenditures by the city so that changes are not made that the communities might later wish to reverse. Minimum city expenditures allow basic maintenance until communities are organized.

Elementary School Decentralization

School decentralization is a radical shift from current practice, but minor compared to what's likely to happen to the public school system should the backers of charter schools and vouchers hold sway. Many voices are raised today towards policies that would decimate  public school systems. Meanwhile it must be admitted that most of the children involved in the charter and voucher alternatives will receive an improved education. Therefore it is incumbent upon those people who believe in the public schools to embrace strategies capable of making public schools competitive with private schools.

School decentralization has the ability to provide the innovation, personal contact and community involvement necessary for quality education and do it a much lower cost than the present bureaucratic way. Here is an example from my personal experience. I recently talked to a parent who's children were attending an innovative open school with 125 students that is part of the Portland public school system and uses a public school for it's classrooms. They have $25,000 of discretionary funds but were told that every school had to spend $6,000 on a new copy machine. The typical high school has 1000 plus students and $150,000 in discretionary money so $6,000 for a new copy machine is not totally out of line.

For the open school of little kids the school board's dictum is a costly, absurd and unnecessary intrusion into a local school's prerogatives. This may be an extreme example, but more likely similar situations pervade the entire overweighted bureaucratic system.

School decentralization follows in tandem with devolution to neighborhood government. It is a gradual process both from the standpoint of starting with elementary schools and then working up to middle and high schools in stages, but also, similarly to neighborhood devolution, it is a proactive process that requires each community to make an positive effort before control is devolved. In other words we can't simply divide up the school system, toss it into the neighborhoods hands and say, "run with it".

First the essential parameters need to be understood. One is statewide open enrollment. This guarantees the greatest possible choice for parents. Of course, one's neighborhood school will be always be preferable but there will sometimes be compelling reasons for taking a kid crosstown to school.

Next funding tied very closely to attendance; each school receives the same amount per pupil both from the state and larger district from which it's created. Neighborhoods can tax themselves to increase funding but must share one to one with all the schools in the district or county - special districts cannot be formed in such a way as to avoid sharing.

Schools that are failing to provide quality education will be abandoned by their students. Remedial actions to improve education in those schools will come quickly. No year after year of poor results from the same schools will be tolerated.

Community school boards will have complete control over operations subject only to overview responsibilities on the part of the larger district for remedial assistance, to prevent discrimination, to devise standards, etc.. They are subject to all of the same standards that other schools follow.

Transition will be necessary relating to staff; for the first three years after autonomy local districts will honor all union contracts. Subsequently neighborhood school boards negotiate their own contracts; they are completely autonomous. Local school boards have to have the same prerogatives in regards to staff and all other facets of education as do charter schools or private schools if the movement towards the latter isn't to decimate the public school system. Local school boards will provide the best education when unfettered by unnecessary bureaucratic baggage.

The process begins with an election held in each school that desires autonomy. Approval requires a majority vote of all parents. Local school boards consist of two members elected by the parents of the children attending the school, one member elected by the teachers and principals and two elected by the neighborhood at large. All are elected to rotating four year terms at the same time as other school board elections are held.

Before neighborhood boundaries are set through the neighborhood devolution process, the two neighborhood members are appointed by the three member parent and teacher board. After neighborhood boundaries have been set, the local school community has the option of taxing itself to increase funding. Subject to a vote of the people it can use property or income taxes, but as stated previously it must share the additional taxes one to one with the school district it was created from. Small wealthy independent districts can not be created to avoid sharing.
 
 
 
 

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