Regional Coordination among Governments Can Combat Suburban Poverty

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  • August 13, 2014

Barbara Ray

When I was a kid growing up in a small town, the phone in my sister’s house would ring with a different tone to alert my brother-in-law to a fire. When the phone rang, he’d drop everything and run the three blocks to the firehouse and join a dozen or so other volunteers to put out the fire. Our town was too small to warrant a full-time fire department—or many other services for that matter. (We were, however, bigger than the nearby town of Bolan, Iowa, pop. 33—and 16 in 1989 when the entire town joined David Letterman on stage.)

Governance in towns such as Bolan or Glen Echo Park (pop. 160; 37 families) outside St. Louis, a region Elizabeth recently visited, is often a straightforward affair—until, that is, help is needed or disaster strikes.

At a recent meeting in St. Louis County, Elizabeth was discussing the importance of smart governance in combatting growing suburban poverty when a Glen Echo Park elected official raised her hand. Glen Echo Park, she said, has two streets and no retail or businesses, and about one-fourth of the homes are vacant. They needed better housing code enforcement, but where were they to turn? Glen Echo Park is just one of more than 90 municipalities in St. Louis County, which itself is just one county in the St. Louis metro area.

She’s not alone. Glen Echo’s problems are shared by many other regions, albeit on a different scale. The eight-county Chicago metro area is home to 9 million residents and 1,226 different units of government. In the Chicago metro, townships, municipalities, counties, and other levels of government overlap, create redundancies, and compete for resources, making coordination nearly impossible. The numerous small municipalities mean that many of the region’s poor live in small communities, often with tiny governments that are stretched thin. “Where are they to turn?” applies there, too.

As Jon Davis wrote in the Building Resilient Regions blog about Denver and Chicago’s different approaches to governance, “Strong suburban governments in Denver make policy implementation much easier than in Chicago, where ‘fragmented and weak local governments . . . present a major obstacle even to secure funding to address growing poverty.’”

A recent paper by Rebecca Hendrick and Karen Mossberger examined the ability of townships and municipalities in the Chicago metro region to deliver services amid growing poverty. Even before the 2008 recession and housing crisis, the authors found that 20 to 30 percent of the townships surveyed believed they could meet only a fraction of the demand for services in their community. Municipalities are even worse off. Of the 30 municipalities in the southern suburbs of Chicago, only one is designated as a Community Development Block Grant Program recipient, according to a recent report by the Urban Institute’s Rolf Pendall, University of California Berkeley’s Margaret Weir, and Urban Institute’s Chris Narducci. Most must rely on overburdened Cook County.

One option is to consolidate these many layers and levels of government. Although that’s a good option in many cases, it’s not always so. Consolidating mental health services, for example, might mean longer drives for suburban residents, and a 2003 study shows that people were substantially more likely to use mental health services if there was a provider within three miles of their home. The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP), in a recent assessment, argued that consolidation should be done on a case-by-case basis. A report by a commission, assembled to determine whether consolidating governments in Illinois was a smart move, came to a similar conclusion that cooperation between governments was as important as consolidating them.  (Ohio is an example of a state playing a helpful role in overcoming fragmentation. There, the Local Government Innovation Fund channels state funding to communities to assess when it makes sense to coordinate services or actually consolidate.)

Pendall, Weir, Narducci, and others argue that when government capacity is as low as it is in the Chicago suburbs or Glen Echo Park, regional approaches can boost local resilience. Examples of this regional approach are emerging, albeit slowly. A new brief by Robin Snyderman and Beth Dever of BRicK Partners on our website points to successes in coordination. Civic organizations in Chicago, such as the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC), Chicago Metropolis 2020, and the region’s philanthropic community have long championed the importance of regional coordination.

Elizabeth also discusses promising progress in Kansas City in her recent blog post, and as we recently wrote, the 24:1 initiative in St. Louis began as a coordinated effort to stem the foreclosure crisis and has now turned its attention to the coordination of housing, jobs, economic development, and health care.

In the San Francisco, the OneBayArea project is coordinating efforts among the Bay Area’s nine counties and 101 towns and cities to create a more sustainable future, with an initial focus on transit-oriented development. Its 2013 Plan Bay Area was a joint plan by the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC). As Commission Chair and Orinda Mayor Amy Rein Worth noted in their press release, ““For decades, MTC has been charged by state and federal law to produce a long-term regional transportation plan, while ABAG has been responsible for assessing regional housing needs. Plan Bay Area puts these elements together in a way that makes sense.” The Plan promotes compact, mixed-use commercial and residential development close to mass transit, jobs, schools, and other amenities. The focus areas include regional centers like downtown San Jose to suburban centers like Walnut Creek’s West Downtown area.

Most of us rarely think about how the lights stay on or the fires get put out, let alone who helps meet the needs of families on the brink of disaster. That’s the role of governments and smart governance. Whether fractured and parochial like Chicago or, like Glen Echo Park, a municipality too small to marshal a response, the problem of responding to growing need is similar. Increasingly, the problem calls for a regional solution.

Homepage photo credit: Flickr user Pete Zarria

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