How the region can–and should–get smart

"Saturday Night Live" recently opened with a skit in which a fake John Boehner proclaimed, “The American people spoke loudly and clearly: Stop the tax hikes and stop the spending.” Asked what programs to cut, he said, “The American people were not clear on that.”

Our own region faces the same challenge. We need to significantly reduce spending, but how do we do it without abandoning core responsibilities? Consider this: A big reason taxes aren’t lower in Northeast Ohio is that we have an oversupply of housing and commercial development. This depresses the value of all properties, and means we need higher tax rates to fund services.

Why the oversupply? Because our region has the same population as in 1950, but since then we’ve built out over twice as much land area. Increased costs divided by the same number of taxpayers equals higher taxes.

Many problems trace back to this.

Crumbling infrastructure? We spend foolish amounts on new roads and utilities that are desired, but not needed.

Urban school struggles? When a new school is built on the outskirts and draws families outward, urban districts are saddled with the cost of redundant buildings and tougher-to-educate students. Plus, the regional oversupply of housing and retail disproportionately depresses the value of urban properties, undercutting the funding base of those school systemss.

Sluggish growth? We move people and goods over needlessly long distances and spend too much on the enabling infrastructure.

Much of the outward spread has been subsidized one way or another in the name of growth. But growth that gives a great bargain of low taxes/high service to some people at the ongoing expense of everyone else is not progress; it’s slow regional suicide. We can’t blame people for taking the discount, but we also can’t afford to keep giving away the store.

Where to start? First, Northeast Ohio has amazing assets: great location for intracontinental transportation; bounteous agriculture; world-class cultural, educational, and medical institutions and the commensurate brain trust; manufacturing expertise; natural beauty and recreation amenities; abundant fresh water; affordable cost of living; and a wealth of livable neighborhoods.

Our public policy should leverage those assets.

Second, assume that every dollar we don’t spend subsidizing outer suburbia is like putting two to four dollars in the regional bank. Think about all the ways that savings could be used to put Northeast Ohio in a stronger competetive position. 

So how about a few simple reforms:

  • Make it illegal for utilities to fold the cost of new infrastructure for outer-ring development into all their customers’ bills.
  • End public funding for new highway interchanges designed to spur development. Developers should pay for that speculative asphalt.
  • Home mortgage interest deductions? Not if you’re moving into a new outer-ring development.
  • State funds to build new schools? Take care of existing schools first.
  • Want more highways? Make them toll roads and charge enough to pay for maintenance and policing, too. 

Smart design makes a difference. Wise spending aims for the highest output for a given input. That means investing primarily in compact, efficient systems. The minimum “efficient” population density (just dense enough that people don’t have to drive everywhere, allowing infrastructure to be reduced to more human scale) is exemplified by the 1920s streetcar suburb–that’s Cleveland Heights or Lakewood. These places are our best model for a prosperous future.

Greg Donley, a Cleveland Heights resident since 1987, is a founding member of FutureHeights.

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Volume 4, Issue 1, Posted 3:40 PM, 12.13.2010