Smart growth

The way to fight sprawl is to dump Dumb Bureaucracy

Issue: "The first straw," Aug. 28, 1999

Sprawl. That's the six-letter dirty word Al Gore's campaign folks utter a lot these days. Their enemy is urban sprawl, the move to the suburbs of hundreds of thousands of former city-dwellers, many of whom-the horror!-like to eat at fast-food restaurants and shop at malls.

Sprawl is a strange enemy to choose. Last month I visited inner-city poverty-fighters in Philadelphia, Washington, Indianapolis, and St. Louis. Many of them talked about how most cities are becoming more and more home to either the very rich or the very poor. Sky-scraping city taxes, suffocating city red tape, and inadequate (often amoral) education have propelled many urbanites toward sprawl-but why don't we make those problems the enemy, instead of blaming their victims?

It's not as if premature death and high taxes are the only things certain in cities. One city I visited is working: Indianapolis. There, Mayor Steve Goldsmith has paid attention to the bureaucratic problems that drive middle-class people away. He hasn't been able to do much about the public schools-although Jewish, he now raises money for the local archdiocese's Catholic schools-but he has succeeded on the tax and red tape front.

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Mayor Goldsmith succeeded in cutting taxes by emphasizing competition in service provision. As the liberal magazine The New Democrat reported last year, contracting out microfilm services saved nearly $1 million over three years; window washing, $45,000 over the same period; printing and copying, $2.8 million over seven years. Competition to service the city's swimming pools and utilities saved nearly $500,000 over seven years. The city saved $15-20 million on trash collection over three years. So it went, area by area, with every function except police and fire put out for bid. Total savings: $400 million.

Some city functions were privatized-since when are municipal employees the best managers of golf courses?-but Mayor Goldsmith emphasized that his goal was competition, not necessarily privatization. He encouraged government employees to compete for contracts, as long as they could do a quality job for a lower cost than others.

Tax-saving stories emerged. The street-repair department had 36 middle managers supervising 90 crew members. Faced with having to put in a competitive bid, union members recommended sending out four workers and one truck to fix problems, rather than two trucks with up to eight workers, including a supervisor. Those requests were granted, and the union won the contract by cutting overall costs more than 25 percent without reducing service levels.

Mayor Goldsmith also encouraged competition in dealing with social issues by encouraging churches and other faith-based groups to help address problems such as alcohol abuse, broken families, and decaying neighborhoods. He developed a Front Porch Alliance, which helps religious groups do their jobs without having to spend half their time fending off government bureaucrats and ACLU lawyers who are more interested in fighting God than solving problems.

Last month, pointing out from his office window the middle-class and working-class neighborhoods he is trying to preserve, the mayor noted that churches are great assets to those neighborhoods, yet "Government has been hostile to these institutions-not neutral, but hostile."

He told of his initial experience in spending some federal summer job money through faith-based organizations that reached out to neighborhood kids. When a state regulator complained that he had violated the terms of the agreement, he expressed surprise, for that summer the money had actually been used for kids rather than stolen. But the regulator complained that "you allowed the young men and women in the program to participate in a voluntary prayer before lunch."

The Front Porch Alliance has worked as a civic switchboard to develop over 600 church-civic partnerships. The FPA has been most helpful in poor neighborhoods, where it has helped pastors and other community leaders close down crack houses, develop youth programs, and turn alleys used by drug dealers into parks. Mayor Goldsmith's Judaism does not keep him from applauding largely evangelical efforts. "Only hardened skeptics have trouble accepting that widespread belief in a Supreme Being improves the strength and health of our communities," he notes.

Cut taxes, reduce red tape, help churches anchor their neighborhoods: that's the way to make cities attractive to the middle class once again. Al Gore, instead of proposing restrictions on the American dream, should work to end what has become an American urban nightmare. The slogan of the anti-sprawlers is Smart Growth, which means prohibiting development in some areas (and in that way hurting the opportunity for middle-class people to buy suburban homes). The best way to help, though, is to follow the Indianapolis example and work to disassemble Dumb Bureaucracy.

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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