Why do we hate city government? (Part 1 of 3)
This post is first in a three-part series on the City of Richmond’s budget.
Part I: Why do we hate City Government? (today)
Budget season in Richmond has gone about as well as the Infinity War.
The Mayor introduced a budget last month that included fee increases, a cigarette tax, and a hike in the city’s property tax. The City Council, which must approve the budget, has been less than interested in these increases. At a work session this week, the city administrator stormed off after threatening to withhold funds, and the Council is considering hiring a lawyer to sue the Mayor over the lost revenue. So... yeah, that’s going great.
The discussion among Richmond’s citizens online and IRL hasn’t seemed much better. The big set of complaints I see and hear from people, both friends and strangers: Richmond government is wasteful. It’s inefficient. It’s dysfunctional. Why should we pay more in taxes when the city is just going to waste it?
As the Richmond Times-Dispatch’s Pamela Stallsmith and Robin Beres recently editorialized, “Are there financial shortages because the city doesn’t have enough operating funds or because the money on hand is being mismanaged by a dysfunctional, poorly performing city government?.... Systemic problems within both city management and RPS should be addressed before Richmond residents are asked to give up more of their hard-earned dollars.”
The City Council has obliged. While they might have succeeded in finding enough funds to meet the request for Richmond Public Schools, they have otherwise suggested an across-the-board cut to city government.
Is City Council right to do this? Are these complaints about waste and inefficiency accurate? I see two big points that might help with context here. Let’s call them lessons learned from decades of studying bureaucracy and urban politics.
The first point is about what policy scholars sometimes call “bureaucratic myths.” Americans often believe that government is always wasteful, driven largely by inefficient, lazy employees. The classic image of the government bureaucrat is the glassy-eyed functionary at the DMV who tells you you’re in the wrong line after asking for six forms of ID. (This stereotype was memorably captured by the DMV sloths in the movie Zootopia.)
In reality, there is little evidence for this view. Multiple studies have shown that “government bureaucrats” tend to be competent, dedicated employees just like any others. As for inefficiency, there is little evidence to show that private sector companies are any more efficient than the public sector. How often have you praised the prompt and efficient service provided to you by Comcast? Or the fantastic and efficient array of services provided to you by beloved airlines like Southwest and Delta?
And when private companies are efficient, they often can get there by being ruthless. Saying "government should be more like business" often means that government also should not pay a living wage or cost of living increases, should cut benefits to employees or engage in wage theft, and cut corners on their product or service. (If you think government is bad, you should check out how private prisons are doing, and what little regard they have for actual human beings.)
In general, large bureaucratic organizations are going to have some amount of waste and inefficiency; it’s unavoidable. This is true of government, but also private companies. But it is typically only when they are asked to pay higher taxes that people think inefficiency is an unforgivable offense.
Since the mayor proposed his budget, I have seen complaints online about money going to schools, with critical taxpayers demanding cuts from the school budget first. Guess what? Superintendent Jason Kamras HAS cut the schools’ budget - drastically, maybe even recklessly, with the funding cuts targeting the central office. We can debate the wisdom of these cuts — the RTD’s Michael Paul Williams points out that desperately needed truant officers, not just highly paid “suits,” are part of them — but Richmond Public Schools is certainly trying to be more efficient. So why can’t taxpayers agree to sacrifice as well?
Well, just like everything else in urban politics, there’s a racial element to this dynamic. A big part of the civil rights movement involved local battles for equal access to city services. (The old Public Enemy song “911 is a Joke” encapsulates how blacks were largely ignored by city governments for decades.) Minorities won this fight by gaining representation and patronage; basically, they got elected and got hired. Segregationists found it much harder to maintain the informal hiring discrimination in the public sector that kept minorities out of other professions, so blacks flocked to public sector jobs.
The result? Many urban areas have bureaucracies filled with a black middle class, but who are also especially prone to being characterized by those myths I talked about earlier. So many white Richmonders often ignore how taxes go to pay for necessary services like parks, law enforcement, and health clinics. Instead, they see taxes as payments to “lazy, corrupt bureaucrats,” who just happen to be the same “lazy, shiftless” people white Americans have always scapegoated, especially here in the South.
And that brings us to the second big lesson from urban politics: you cannot cut your way to a successful local government.
Not everyone is as mobile as economists often assume. But people who can choose where to live generally do not pick a city based on the tax rate. Instead, they want to live where there are job and educational opportunities, but also where there are amenities and services: parks and libraries, arts and culture, and successful public schools. People, even rich people, want to live in a place that is a good place to live. I don’t know anyone who left the city of Richmond because of taxes; I know more than a few who left because of they wanted better schools.
But you cannot have nice things without paying for them.
The administration argues they are understaffed, with hundreds of jobs needing to be filled. The public schools have been starved of money for decades. The city suffers from years of kicking the infrastructure can down the road; this is definitely true for city schools, but also the rest of our government as well. As former head of a city agency and Stoney advisor Thad Williamson argued in a recent op-ed, “the road to genuine organizational improvement will require more resources, intelligently applied, rather than indiscriminate cuts.”
Thanks to complaints about government waste, urban bureaucracies are forced into an impossible dilemma. Citizens refuse to pay for infrastructure and staffing, and then they complain when government does a bad job.
Look, getting rid of waste is good! Efficiency is good! We can and should demand accountability and improvement from our officials. As I will argue later in this series, the city is making some headway on this issue, even if they don’t promote it as much as they should.
But if your stance on the budget is “not one penny for tax increases until government eliminates every last dollar of waste and inefficiency," then you are saying you will NEVER agree to properly fund anything. You will never be willing to pay more for better schools, or public transit, or more efficient utilities. And you should consider whether that opposition comes from the actual performance of city government, or the same old stories about city bureaucrats that often miss the reality of the hard work of city governance.
Even with a little waste, you get what you pay for.
Next: How Mayor Stoney’s political choices affect his budget proposal.