Government Reform

My City Was Gone

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Some town governments are pondering a drastic way of dealing with financial crisis: blowing themselves up. The Wall Street Journal reports:

In Mesa, Wash., a town of 500 residents about 250 miles east of Portland, Ore., city leaders have initiated talks with county officials about the potential regional impact of disincorporating. Mesa has been hit by a combination of the recession and lawsuits that threaten its depleted coffers, leaving few choices other than disincorporation, said Robert Koch, commissioner of Franklin County, where Mesa is located.

Two California towns, Rio Vista and Vallejo, have said they may need to disincorporate to address financial difficulties; Vallejo filed for bankruptcy protection last year. Civic leaders in Mountain View, Colo., have alerted residents that they are left with few options but to disincorporate because the town can't afford to pay salaries and services….

Rio Vista says disincorporating would eliminate 38 jobs and shift its sewer services to the county. Vallejo says disincorporating would end public-safety-employee contracts, which city leaders blame for pushing the city into bankruptcy.

It's not certain that all these municipal seppukus will actually take place. Vallejo's finance director insists to Public CEO that the government isn't likely to disband anytime soon, and the Journal espies a potential legal problem:

[S]ome public-finance experts say towns may not have that option if it is being used to unload financial obligations. "This is somewhat of a legal gray area, because disincorporation was not designed to allow cities to escape financial hardship," said John Knox, a public-finance consultant with the San Francisco office of law firm Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe.

Mr. Knox, a bankruptcy consultant to Vallejo, said shifting oversight of a city's services to a county or state during the current economic environment would be a tall order. In California and many other states, the county or state must approve such a move, he said. Most counties are ailing as badly as cities, and are unlikely to readily approve a disincorporation, he said.

Elsewhere in Reason: Back in the booming '90s, a loophole in the law prompted a horde of Tennessee micro-communities to try to incorporate themselves. And in 2006, writing in our pages, Robert Nelson proposed a system in which local governments are "more private than public, facilitating a routine flow of mergers, breakups, divestitures, and other organizational rearrangements."

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  1. My small town, which has almost complete redundancy of services with its county, just got through building an enormous city government complex (directly abutting the enormous county government complex) and is now in the process of jacking up property taxes by 30% to pay for it. So fuck that.

    But at the same time, incorporation and annexation by redundant little micro-communities allows some jurisdictional competition that decentralizes land use regulation decisions.

    Don’t like your zoning? Perhaps there’s a cash-strapped nearby mini-municipality that might be more accommodating. So at least there’s that.

  2. Let me know if any of these follow through. Every time a local government folds, I’ll have a beer to celebrate. Now, if I can find a way to get rid of my homeowner’s association…

  3. Does anybody care to defend zoning? I’m in Houston, don’t have work to do this morning, and itching to laugh at people who like zoning.

  4. Hey! Somebody was just talking about Walnut Grove in the thread below.

  5. As someone who has to work with zoning all the fucking time, I’ve always been curious about what it’s like in Houston (never been)… Planning type people always talk about it like it’s development hell or something. Do you notice that a lack of zoning has a negative impact on historic preservation or visually appealing neighborhoods or any of that? Even if you don’t think those are compelling state interests (and I would agree), does not having zoning even end up mattering…?

  6. I live in two cities. I win for fuckupedness.

  7. There are historic districts which have restrictions (though the city has really only been important since the 50s, so they’re not very historic), and a lot of deed-restricted neighborhoods. The only other city I’ve lived in is Dallas, and the chief difference I notice is convenience – anywhere there are neighborhoods, there are offices, stores, and things to do. Any standard city item – office buildings, stores of every variety, parks, etc – is about 15 minutes from anywhere in the city. Imagine a lot of towns of 200,000 next to each other. Houston is far more visually appealing than any other big city I’ve been to from a city perspective (its being entirely flat removes any possibility of natural beauty).

  8. Of course, the climate is miserable, and many people hate Houston for that and bizarrely conflate it with its lack of zoning.

  9. Housing is also far cheaper here than in most other places in the country.

  10. Spoonman,

    I have long argued against zoning on the basis that I want a pub on my street. The house next door to me is for sale, maybe someone will buy it and install a pub!!!

    Oh wait, they cant.

    Im not in an HOA, so it is totally zoning preventing it.

  11. robc, the usual structure here seems to be low-density commercial areas along major streets, with neighborhoods a block in on side streets. You might not have one next door, but within walking distance is more plausible.

  12. See Westheimer Road for an idea of Houston. Westheimer is more emblematic than anything else.

  13. My parents used to live one block off Dairy Ashford, three blocks north of Westheimer.

    My grandfather lives a block off Dairy Ashford, a few blocks up from Memorial.

    My late grandmother used to live off Kirkwood and Westheimer.

    After a few years absence, when I returned to Houston I was blown away by the development on the south side of Westheimer, and how much had filled in East (and West, holy crap!) of West Oaks Mall.

    We lived “out” in Katy when I was but a wee thing… there’s nothing “out” about Katy anymore.

    I suppose had I been there for the filling in, it wouldn’t have bothered me as much, but as it is, it just doesn’t feel like home anymore.

    So I’m working on making Prospect my home, and waiting for Louisville to engulf it.

    It’s going through the process, I’d say it’s just about 15 years behind Houston and Katy.

  14. Bronwyn,

    From a purely legal POV, Louisville has engulfed it.

    But I know what you mean. Not that long to wait though, I remember when there was nothing on Hurstbourne south of Taylorsville Rd. or north of Shelbyville Rd. Including Hurstbourne itself. 🙂

  15. Back in the 80s I got to report on the disincorporation effort in my hometown (home village, actually), where residents revolted after the village council imposed a income tax.
    Wonder of wonders, the vote to disincorporate passed. That was one of the proudest days of my life.
    (Life seems to go on much as it did before in the now unincorporated village.)

  16. I used to live in an unincoporated area, and I think I might live in one now.

    All that means is that your lowest level government is the county, not a municipality. Practically speaking, that means you get coverage by volunteer fire departments and county sheriffs.

    When one of my neighbor’s houses caught fire, we had four volunteer fire departments show up. I took ’em a case of bottled water and grilled some hot dogs.

  17. Much later I also reported on the implosion of another tiny village, for much different reasons.
    And, except for no longer being one of the most infamous traffic-ticket traps in the world, (unincorporated) life goes on there, as well.

  18. RC,

    Grilling in your neighbor’s house fire is taunting. That is over the line. 🙂

  19. In Southeast Virginia we’ve got this thing where the Cities of Norfolk and Portsmouth spent the ’60s annexing parts of the surrounding counties, so the counties incorporated in retaliation and now it’s just a bunch of giant cities glommed up against each other. Of course, some of these “cities” are basically just big swamps dotted with housing developments (i’m looking at you, Chesapeake).

    The county map of Virginia looks really weird.

  20. … except for no longer being one of the most infamous traffic-ticket traps in the world, (unincorporated) life goes on there, as well.

    *cough* New Rome *cough*

  21. robc,

    My husband was born and raised here, and has family roots going back forever. Harmony Landing used to be owned by the family.

    Every time we go out, he tells me what used to be nothing but open fields.

    I’ve been here long enough to wonder at Norton Commons and The Summit.

    We really do need to have a Louisville meetup sometime.

  22. Correct, Grummun. 47 residents, 18 cops, about 15 acres. New Rome wasn’t built in a day, but it could have been.

  23. 47 residents, 18 cops, about 15 acres.

    Cripes, man, that’s more than a cop an acre!

  24. All in search of loud mufflers and dim license-plate bulbs.

  25. Bronwyn, were you in Stratford’s or Lee’s area?

  26. Several years ago in the next town down the road, Center Point, Texas, a bunch of progressive thinkers got together and decided to incorporate. While researching the process they discovered the town was already incorporated, unbeknownst to the residents.

    The activists rejoiced that their preliminary work had been accomplished. They proceeded to the next step, getting the town classified as a colonia to qualify for state and federal funding for several improvement projects, which also required raising local matching funds.

    This ticked off most of the other residents, who rammed through an initiative to unincorporate.

    Small-town political theater at its finest.

  27. (i’m looking at you, Chesapeake)

    Whew! For a second there I thought you were looking at me!

  28. In Southeast Virginia we’ve got this thing where the Cities of Norfolk and Portsmouth spent the ’60s annexing parts of the surrounding counties, so the counties incorporated in retaliation and now it’s just a bunch of giant cities glommed up against each other. Of course, some of these “cities” are basically just big swamps dotted with housing developments (i’m looking at you, Chesapeake).

    The county map of Virginia looks really weird.

    Blame Virginia’s system of independent cities. Maryland and Virginia both have major urban areas that are not incorporated at all, although maybe for different legal reasons. (In the case of Maryland, most parts of Montgomery and Anne Arundel counties are unincorporated, as is much of Prince George’s, and all of Howard and Baltimore [County; the city is a separate jurisdiction].)

  29. We lived “out” in Katy when I was but a wee thing… there’s nothing “out” about Katy anymore.

    Except the traffic.

  30. Thanks, EJM. I now know more about Virginia government than I did when I was living there. Funny, that.

  31. So perhaps CA can give up statehood and revert to a territory.

  32. We lived “out” in Katy when I was but a wee thing… there’s nothing “out” about Katy anymore.

    I beg to differ.

  33. jsh:

    Who? Oh, the schools?

    I’m not sure – I think Stratford, but I never went to school in Houston or Katy, except for a brief Kindergarten stint at (I think) Stratford, before we moved to KSA, and an 8-week 8th grade stint at Duchesne during the beginning of Gulf War I.

    I attended pre-school at New Hope in Katy. I still remember running outside to see the hot air balloons touching down in the field across the way.

    /nostalgia

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