Municipal Finance and the Emerging History of the Millennial City

Maybe the interest rate swap will become the 21st Century equivalent of the waterworks–an institutional marriage of private interests and municipal authority around a (political) understanding of a public interest that fundamentally shapes the social and physical infrastructure of cities through its terms. But probably not for the better, and probably even in the direction of speeding the destruction of the public infrastructure of prior periods of city building. A report just out from the Saqib Bhatti at the Roosevelt Institute looks at municipal finance and suggests deep problems with the way that banks structure municipal credit. He discusses it at Salon here touching on some issues I’ve written about:

For example, the Detroit Water Department in 2012 had to pay $547 million in penalties to terminate interest rate swaps. Now more than 40 percent of the water bill that people pay in Detroit actually goes towards paying off that termination fee, and it’s hit the Water Department hard so now the Water Department is actually shutting off the water of Detroiters who have missed just a couple of payments on their bill. In the meantime, they’re actually paying out $547 million in fees to banks on these deals.

There is strong reason to believe that if the Detroit Water Department pursued legal claims against the deals that they could have recovered some of that money, but instead of trying to recover the $547 million they’re turning off the water on low-income, working-class people of color who are already struggling to get by.

The Vote Fraud Fraud

There’s not much “history” in this post aside from the history of vote suppression via nominally color-blind means that disenfranchised Black Americans from the end of Reconstruction to the present, with a brief respite during the years between the Voting Rights Act and Shelby County (J. Morgan Kousser’s got that covered). As Greg Palast makes clear in an extensively researched and outrage-inducing report for Al-Jazeera America, the use of the proprietary Interstate Crosscheck program, a creation of Kansas Tea Party Secretary of State Kris Kobach, may become the cornerstone of a multi-state purge of voters whose only offense is having a name similar to someone else living across state lines. Kobach’s track record of vote suppression has been well documented, along with his hostility toward minority voters and his willingness to to to extravagant lengths to prevent the largely non-existent problem of in-person voter fraud. That combating this pseudoproblem carries the inevitable consequence of disenfranchising many times more legitimate voters is a feature, not a bug, of the system.

Palast’s report ought to generate outrage. The system purports to identify voters suspected of maintaining registration and voting in multiple states. There is no evidence that this happens frequently enough to have the slightest impact on an election, but, of course, that isn’t the point. Crosscheck has a systematic bias against minority group members because the system keys on voting list matches across state lines where a voter in one state in a given year has a first and last name in common with a voter in another state. Minority group members in the United States have significantly less diversity in family names, either because their enslaved ancestors were assigned the names of their masters, or because their ancestry is from a place where a small number of family names are common.

Mark Swedlund is a specialist in list analytics whose clients have included eBay, AT&T and Nike. At Al Jazeera America’s request, he conducted a statistical review of Crosscheck’s three lists of suspected double voters.

According to Swedlund, “It appears that Crosscheck does have inherent bias to over-selecting for potential scrutiny and purging voters from Asian, Hispanic and Black ethnic groups. In fact, the matching methodology, which presumes people in other states with the same name are matches, will always over-select from groups of people with common surnames.” Swedlund sums up the method for finding two-state voters — simply matching first and last name — as “ludicrous, just crazy.”

It also shows that the system as used to detect possible two-state voters ignores safeguards to prevent false matches:

But the actual lists show that not only are middle names commonly mismatched and suffix discrepancies ignored, even birthdates don’t seem to have been taken into account. Moreover, Crosscheck deliberately ignores Social Security mismatches, in the few instances when the numbers are even collected. The Crosscheck instructions for county election officers state, “Social Security numbers are included for verification; the numbers might or might not match.”

In practice, all it takes to become a suspect is sharing a first and last name with a voter in another state. Typical “matches” identifying those who may have voted in both Georgia and Virginia include:

  • Kevin Antonio Hayes of Durham, North Carolina, is a match for a man who voted in Alexandria, Virginia, as Kevin Thomas Hayes.
  • John Paul Williams of Alexandria is supposedly the same man as John R. Williams of Atlanta, Georgia.
  • Robert Dewey Cox of Marietta, Georgia is matched with Robert Glen Cox of Springfield, Virginia.

The use of Crosscheck will probably have its most profound effects in statewide races for Governor and U.S. Senator. Congressional districts are sufficiently gerrymandered that the insurance provided by suppressing potentially unfriendly voters is probably not needed, while turnout in metro areas and rural areas where minorities live in large numbers can determine whether conservative-leaning and largely white voters carry an election.

But its effects on local politics and metropolitics at the county level shouldn’t be underestimated. I’ve written before about the way that voting rights are tied to metropolitics in Fulton County, and particularly the way that controlling the composition of the electorate is key to the balance of power between north Fulton on the Republican side and Democratic Atlanta and south Fulton. It’s not a coincidence, in my view, that metro Atlanta has been a breeding ground for vote suppression tactics, since the Republican Party has had a strong stake in limiting the voting power of Black Atlantans to win control of the county and state governments. One former chair of the Fulton County Republican Party, Hans von Spakovsky, influenced Georgia’s pioneering voter ID legislation, and, as a member of George W. Bush’s Justice Department sought to shift enforcement priorities to voting in ways that career Justice lawyers found objectionable. Today he’s ensconced at the Heritage Foundation where he has been riding two hobby horses: Eric Holder is a thug politicizing the Justice Department and the Democrats are conspiring to steal elections (I have the Google News Alert set up so you don’t have to. You’re welcome). As Jane Mayer ably notes, he’s Kris Kobach’s godfather in vote suppression.

And today, Atlanta metropolitics are lurking in the background of the battle over voter fraud (excuse me, “voter fraud”). State Representative Stacy Abrams, the House Minority Leader and the founder of New Georgia Project, has just lost a case in Fulton County Superior Court over Secretary of State Brian Kemp’s evident refusal to process 40,000 voter registration applications collected by the group. But Abrams is also concerned about the fact that Kemp has enthusiastically added Georgia to the list of states using Crosscheck to monitor, and potentially purge, their voting rolls.

It’s biased, I think, both in form and intent,” says Rep. Stacey Abrams, leader of the Democrats in the Georgia state legislature. “But more concerning to me is the fact this is being done stealthfully. … We have never had this information presented to us.”

Abrams is especially concerned that the Crosscheck list was crafted by GOP official Kobach. “I believe that Kris Kobach has demonstrated a very aggressive animus towards people of color … in voter registration,” she says. Abrams is now threatening legislative and legal action against Kemp.

In the meantime, local Republican officials are hewing closely to the party line:

Though Kobach declined to be interviewed, Roger Bonds, the chairman of the Republican Party in Georgia’s Fulton County, responds, “This is how we have successfully prevented voter fraud.”

Indeed. Here’s Brian Kemp, the official in charge of voter registration and vote counting in Georgia, where Democrats are in range of knocking off an incumbent Republican governor and claiming an open U.S. Senate seat.

UHA Meeting 2014

I’ve gotten settled back in after returning from the Urban History Association meeting in Philadelphia. The theme for this year’s meeting was Metropolitics, a matter near and dear to me, and a theme that I’m excited to see becoming central to the craft of what urban historians Building on early urban histories of political development and infrastructure, a second wave of urban social history, a new wave of urban histories exploring the “urban crisis,” and the explosion of suburban history, many of the talks I saw (and, arguably, one that I gave!) represented efforts at thinking through the connections between cities, suburbs, and hinterlands at multiple spatial scales and in the registers of migration, electoral politics, the environment, and social activism. It was a great meeting all around, and definitely the most blogged and tweeted UHA yet.

One other exciting thing about this meeting? The number of papers on Atlanta. As the Tropics of Meta crew notes here, tax revolts, public housing, and transportation in the ATL came in for analysis, in ways that linked institutional changes and political activism in interesting ways. I might smell an Atlanta panel for the 2016 Organization of American Historians meeting on “Leadership”–let’s put that topic in its (urban and metropolitan) place!

I’d recommend the rest of the writeups on Tropics of Meta’s Academics In the Wild for anyone interested in a serious (but witty) recap. If you’re not down with UHA, maybe the academic TMZ will be stalking your next meeting to observe what happens when they let us out of our offices, classrooms, and archives. And the UHA’s The City in History blog has come on strong to consistently deliver some great writing from urban and metro historians connecting historical processes to current urban problems (in ways that the professional field sometimes fails to encourage) and pulling back the curtain on the craft of research. Their coverage of the meeting is here.

The next UHA is in Chicago in 2016.

Legislative Delegation Gerrymandering: UPDATE, UPDATE 2, UPDATE 3

I’ve written before about the redrawing of Georgia’s legislative district boundaries as a means by which north Fulton County Republicans have tried to overcome the Democratic leaning of the county, which went 2-1 for Obama over Romney in 2012. In Georgia, which has relatively weak home rule, a great many matters of consequence to local governments, both municipal and county, are decided in the legislature. The compromise to preserve some measure of home rule has been to allow each county’s legislative delegation to essentially act as gatekeepers for legislation of local interest. It clears the deck for statewide business and allows local communities, in principle, to decide local affairs even in a state that nominally follows Dillon’s Rule and treats local governments as “creatures of the state.”

However, this breaks down in dramatic fashion in cases where a county like Fulton is strongly internally polarized. It breaks down still further when a county like Fulton is surrounded by some strongly Republican-leaning suburban areas and when a Republican legislative supermajority is able to draw district boundaries to help augment the power of a core constituency like north Atlanta suburbanites. By redrawing legislative boundaries to connect parts of Fulton with parts of surrounding counties, the legislature’s Republican supermajority changed the majority of Fulton’s legislative delegation to Republican.

One of the first results of that was that the Fulton delegation approved a raft of Republican-sponsored legislation that has favored affluent north Fulton residents by restricting the county’s taxing powers, by converting an at-large Board of Commissioners seat to a district-based and Republican-dominated one, and by vesting control over the county elections board with the legislature instead of the Board of Commissioners. The full impact of the voting change has yet to be determined, but it’s not a big stretch to assume that the legislature will favor any and all changes that limit the ability of Black and Democratic party voters in Fulton to cast ballots. North Fulton Republicans like Hans von Spakovsky and Karen Handel have long been advocates for restrictive voter ID laws, with the former building on his experience as the chair of the Fulton County GOP to become a prominent advocate of voting restrictions, first in the George W. Bush Justice Department, and today in the pages of the National Review.

Then there’s this news item. State Senator Fran Millar, a Republican, represents Dunwoody, a recently-incorporated affluent enclave in northern DeKalb County as well as a narrow band of Sandy Springs in north Fulton County. For good measure, his 40th Senatorial District includes part of Gwinnett County, too. So Millar sits on three legislative delegations and in each case, he represents a constituency of mostly white and affluent Republicans in counties that are either majority-minority and tilt Democratic (Fulton and DeKalb) or have growing minority populations (Gwinnett) and are economically diverse. Although his district is split by the counties, his vote in each’s delegation is the same as a legislator whose district sits entirely within the county. This is a major loophole in American voting rights law that gives small numbers of county residents disproportionate influence over legislation affecting the county.

Here’s what he had to say about DeKalb County’s decision to designate a Sunday in October for early voting in the November elections, which will elect Georgia’s governor and a U.S. Senator:

Now we are to have Sunday voting at South DeKalb Mall just prior to the election. Per Jim Galloway of the AJC, this location is dominated by African American shoppers and it is near several large African American mega churches such as New Birth Missionary Baptist. Galloway also points out the Democratic Party thinks this is a wonderful idea – what a surprise. I’m sure Michelle Nunn and Jason Carter are delighted with this blatantly partisan move in DeKalb.

Is it possible church buses will be used to transport people directly to the mall since the poll will open when the mall opens? If this happens, so much for the accepted principle of separation of church and state.

It’s possible that Millar genuinely does care about the separation of church and state, since the American Conservative Union most recently gave him a squishy, RINO-ish 88% rating. Presumably he was too busy earning a 100% rating from the Chamber of Commerce and attending American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) conferences to much bother with the social issues. At any rate, his church-state concerns seem to have a more instrumental purpose. The AJC’s political blogger Jim Galloway didn’t include this nugget that Think Progress picked up from Millar’s Facebook page:

On his Facebook page Tuesday, Millar stood by his comments, writing: “I would prefer more educated voters than a greater increase in the number of voters. If you don’t believe this is an efort [SIC] to maximize Democratic votes pure and simple, then you are not a realist. This is a partisan stunt and I hope it can be stopped.”

So, to recap: Fran Millar gets to vote as a member of three county legislative delegations as a Georgia senator, but thinks the republic will collapse if Black voters take a church van to the mall to vote on a Sunday.

UPDATE:

Fulton County has approved Sunday early voting in October.

In entirely unrelated news, Georgia Attorney General Brian Kemp has issued a subpoena in a registration fraud investigation of the New Georgia Project’s efforts to register new voters. The group was founded by Rep. Stacey Abrams, an Atlanta Democrat. New Georgia Project claims that the investigation into their group is a naked attempt at vote suppression. The enthusiasm of Governor Nathan Deal for the investigation tends to support that argument.

Kristina Torres (or her editor) at the AJC buries the lede here, as the last paragraphs of the post make clear that this use of state resources is much more about intimidating potential voters and groups registering them than about preventing improper voting:

Fewer than 25 forms out of the 85,000 submitted are involved in the investigation, Abrams said: “What we are being accused of is turning in the information we are required by law to turn in.”

Michael McDonald, an elections expert at the University of Florida and director of the United States Elections Project, said it was not unusual to have some forms flagged among tens of thousands turned in. He likened it to millions of metro Atlantans driving to work at the same time on the same roads every morning: “There are going to be accidents.”

In cases involving voter registration drives, McDonald said, “if there’s fraud, typically it’s fraud against the organization that’s coordinating the drive, not the state.” It was not unusual, he said, to flag such forms given the legal requirement to turn everything in.

“The question is, will this fraud somehow translate into fraudulent votes, and the history of this is no, it does not,” McDonald said. “There are enough checks and balances in place that the vote fraud does not occur,” including a requirement in Georgia to show identification when voting.

So, too, does a recording of Kemp speaking about the potential impact of newly registered minority voters on the November election (transcript from AJC):

“In closing I just wanted to tell you, real quick, after we get through this runoff, you know the Democrats are working hard, and all these stories about them, you know, registering all these minority voters that are out there and others that are sitting on the sidelines, if they can do that, they can win these elections in November.”

 

UPDATE 2:

Yes, the AJC reports, in the lede this time, we are talking about 25 out of 85,000 voter registration applications. Just like in the ACORN fiasco, New Georgia Project has inadvertently enabled its adversaries by following the law and turning problematic applications in to the county registrar, which is the only entity with the authority to disqualify a registration application. This investigation stinks.

UPDATE 3: 

As David Wickert has been reporting, the members of the Republican-dominated Fulton County legislative delegation have been meeting to discuss the coming year’s agenda. When the Assembly convenes in January 2015, expect another round of legislation aimed at shrinking Fulton government and bringing the public sector in line with the wishes of tax-averse north Fulton Republicans. As Wickert reports:

Republicans on the County Commission and in the General Assembly have long complained Fulton spends too much for a county where most residents get police, fire and other basic services from cities. They think the county should downsize, and they’re willing to use state laws that target a specific jurisdiction — known as “local legislation” — to make it happen.

“We took action,” said Rep. Fran Millar, R-Atlanta. “People thought that Fulton had not really adjusted its costs based on all the new cities.”

The fact that Millar is even part of the Fulton legislative delegation, as well as the agenda that he supports, reflects a long and successful attempt by north Fulton Republicans to use the state legislature to make an end run around the continuing power of Democrats in Fulton County. These are the rules of the game, and the north Fulton GOP understands how to make those rules work in their own interests. So this is not a matter of ethics but of politics. Still, the willingness to jump scale to the state level does undermine any principled claim to local control:

They want to be the Fulton County Commission,” Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta. “Why should the 236 members of the General Assembly and the governor in effect become the Fulton County Commission?”

Balko on Municipal Predation on the Poor

This is a compelling analysis by Radley Balko  of something that’s gotten a surprising and welcome boost of attention as a structural part of the hostility between residents and the criminal justice apparatus in places like Ferguson.

It’s by no means unique, however. Read this by Sarah Stillman in the New Yorker to grasp the way that a cottage industry of entrepreneurial police officers has spread aggressive civil forfeiture across the United States.

There’s deservedly a lot of attention focused on the the predatory nature of the processes in both of these articles–that poor residents, likely to be inadequately represented in the legal system, become cash cows. Stillman also focuses on the historical role of the War on Drugs in boosting asset forfeiture as a law enforcement tool and then as a revenue stream. It’s worth noting, though, that local governments jumped on forfeiture at a point in time when Federal aid to lower levels of government retrenched. Shortfalls had to be made up, and in the structure of interlocal competition that exists in the US, making them up by taxing the wealthy, businesses, or commercial or industrial property carries the risk of capital flight. The poor, in a bitter irony, have become important to strapped local governments because, although they don’t have many assets, they are fairly immobile.

Detroit Water

Apparently, activists in Detroit have convinced the city’s Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr to halt plans to shut off water to customers delinquent on bills, return the management of the Detroit Water and Sewer Department to the city’s elected government, and implement caps on billing linked to household income. The decision apparently comes as a bankruptcy judge was preparing to issue a decision on a restraining order preventing DWSD from shutting off water for unpaid bills. If this is a signal that Orr expected the ruling to favor water users, it’s a bit of good news.

The group Detroit Water Brigade has a statement here, which includes this key point:

We commend the move by Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr, Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, City Council and U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Stephen Rhodes to return control of Detroit’s water to the democratically elected leadership of the city of Detroit. This is a positive step in the direction of popular control of Detroit’s water and other common resources by the people of Detroit.

Indeed, this is bigger than Detroiters’ access to water as a right of habitation (n.b.: if you inhabit Detroit, it’s hard to imagine what could be more important) and speaks to a more general way of thinking about the way that cities have historically developed to provide for common need, as well as the ways that a privatized political economy has grown out of suburbanization to become a dominant model for urban governance as well. Because the relationship between cities and suburbs is one of dense but non-reciprocal interactions, the governance models of privatization and minimal local states that have arisen in suburbia are not just ill-suited to urban communities, they essentially depend, in the favored places where they do work, on those places’ relative advantage over other nearby places.

As I wrote in summary of Carl Smith’s excellent City Water, City Life, urban water systems provided a material basis around which cultural and political debates about common provision could cohere, and gave thousands and then millions of people a material stake in a common environment and social system. We risk more than public ownership by privatizing resources like water; we risk the idea of a public itself.

More Ferguson (Update)

There has been a lot of good writing and a lot of bad writing to come out about Ferguson. I’ll try and compile some of it here soon. In the meantime, this piece by Peter Coy in Bloomberg BusinessWeek is neither good nor bad writing, I guess, but it does point to the relationship of metropolitan fragmentation and the political disempowerment of African Americans in St. Louis County as well as suggest that the proliferation of jurisdictions makes goals like economic coordination for development quite a bit more difficult.

Coy tends to overstate the case a bit; the dynamics of the real estate market, employment, and educational inequality can operate to disadvantage minority group members within the borders of large jurisdictions just as much as in small fragmented ones. And no one who has been paying attention to the LAPD or the NYPD, for example, would suggest that things automatically improve for minorities when control of policing is carried out at a large scale.

But, there are important dynamics that do unfold in a metropolitan context, in the relationship among jurisdictions. And the more jurisdictions there are, the greater the force of those dynamics. One of these is the cutthroat competition for revenue-producing businesses. Coy writes:

Businesses choosing where to locate can play the tiny municipalities off against one another for tax incentives, prompting a race to the bottom that robs them all of desperately needed revenue. “There’s a tremendous opportunity and incentive to just poach from one municipality to another,” says University of Iowa historian Colin Gordon, author of Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the Fate of the American City.

Coy makes a couple of contradictory points: that the race-to-the bottom effect of competitive localism disadvantages some jurisdictions, and he implies that this is the case with Ferguson. Yet, Ferguson is not exceptionally impoverished nor is it distant from many centers of economic activity. Its residents may have to cross municipal borders to go to work, but that’s not illegal (at least not yet).

There’s another piece of the puzzle that links competitive localism to the situation in Ferguson, and specifically to the mutual hostility between the city’s Black residents and the police. Local public defender Thomas Harvey (with ArchCity Defenders) has written a paper addressing this specific linkage (h/t Vox and Sarah Kliff).

In Ferguson, court fees and fines are the second largest source of funds for the city; $2.6 million was collected in 2013 alone. That’s become a key source of tension. There is a perception in the area, Harvey says, that the black population is targeted to pay those fines. Eighty-six percent of the traffic stops, for example, happen to black residents — even though the city is 67 percent black.

The key that ArchCity Defenders report is that

the amount collected through the municipal courts seems to be inversely proportional to the wealth of the municipality.

Put simply, when cities lose in the race to the bottom, many turn to fining their own citizens as a revenue measure. And paradoxically, those with the least means to pay traffic tickets and fines will find themselves targeted for this kind of enforcement because they are also the people with the least means to leave a city that’s oppressively policing them.

Update: See Peter Dreier and Todd Swanstrom, two of the authors of the updated classic Place Matterscomment on this issue in the Washington Post. By publishing this sort of analysis on its Post Everything online venue, Kaplan Test Prep partly makes up for publishing last week’s truly execrable “Do what the cops tell you or it’s your fault if you get shot” post. Read it if you think I’m being ungenerous in my summary.