Excerpt from City: Urbanism and It's End By Doug Rae
In January 1990, I left the chairmanship of the Yale political science department to become chief administrative officer (CAO) of the city of New Haven, Connecticut, under its first African-American mayor, John Daniels. Over the eighteen months spent in that job, I came to see the city in a more complicated way than before. I was often, in fact, puzzled by the oddness of fit between my thoughts on urban politics and power, and the things I found myself doing from day to day. Dazed by the rush of work, I had no time to theorize about the city while I was working for it. On my return to Yale in the fall of 1991, I began trying to make sense of my experience in City Hall.
The irresistible fact, which came into focus very slowly for me, was that city government is itself a weak player in a larger system of power. The problems faced by city officials have to do with making the most of the city's small (and fragile) power base in dealing with players as varied as airline schedulers, street-corner entrepreneurs, union leaders, neighborhood potentates, racial spokesmen, bond rating agencies, bankers, public housing tenant leaders, criminal gangs, real estate developers, insurance underwriters, and government agencies at state and federal levels. Even "forces" as ineffable as popular culture-from its veneration of green lawns on quiet streets to its hypnotic fascination with firearms-form part of the power environment in which city government must operate. City decisions that work effectively in any but the most trivial cases are explicitly or implicitly complemented and supported by decisions taken outside City Hall. The interesting questions in local government all therefore turn on chains of decisions outside the confines of City Hall.
If ever there was a moment to reinforce the weakness of city government, it occurred in the early months of 1990 in New Haven. The city had elected its first black mayor precisely when it was experiencing its worst fiscal crisis since the 1930s. By the time John Daniels was sworn in, something like a $20 million hole had appeared in the city budget, helping to explain the decision by incumbent Biagio DiLieto not to seek reelection the previous fall. A regional recession was also in progress, making it even more difficult to make ends meet in city government. Crime, and the fear of crime, were two problems, not just one problem-and both were out of control. By my third week as CAO it was clear that several hundred city workers would have to be laid off unless we could obtain remarkable concessions from at least four distinct unions that represented parts of our four-thousand-person workforce. Several top union spokesmen were intransigent, and many of the leaders showed considerable indifference to the fates of (very junior, often black or Hispanic) people who would lose their jobs in a layoff under the unions' seniority rules. Layoffs were no threat to senior leadership, and we thus had to carry some of them out. Meanwhile, overtime spending was running hundreds of thousands of dollars above budget. Restricting overtime spending was made difficult by an accumulation of work rules designed to protect opportunities for overtime: many workers had home mortgages based on incomes with thousands of dollars in overtime built in. My responsibilities included operations in mainline departments-police, fire, public works, parks, libraries-and budgetary control for those, plus education. With a record high rate of violent crime, and an administration committed to improved (and labor-intensive) community-based police services, it was hard to press down on that large budget. In the case of education, where enrollment-driven state mandates for spending were a fact of life, we failed at first even to cut the rate of increase in spending. When I hinted at the idea of diminished fire facilities, a former mayor called the next day at 6 A.M., quoted the local paper's account of my idea, and advised bluntly: "Don't fuck with my firehouses, Doug, my boy." For related reasons, spending on parks and public works was almost as hard to cut deeply. The work was better than any diet for my corpulent midsection: in the first six months of the job I lost forty pounds, yet the city achieved only a modest reduction in its spending.
We were in deeper trouble on the income side. The wholly inadequate cash flow that lay behind our fiscal crisis was generated in large measure by local property taxes. Those taxes were already high enough to accelerate a continued flight to the suburbs-a flight that had begun in the 1920s and generated a net decline in population after 1950. Businesspeople looked on in horror at a city government, already charging higher taxes than any of its nearby suburban rivals, announcing diminished service delivery due to layoffs. Paying more for less sounded to them like a bad idea. Vast portions of the city were tax-exempt-Yale, the hospitals, the churches, a remarkably extensive public housing stock--and the city received only partial compensation from the state government's PILOT program (payment in lieu of taxes). A majority of the city government's own workers, including several of the union leaders, were living outside the city, paying taxes to our suburban competitors with their central city salaries. Tax delinquencies were climbing beyond 6 percent, and it was easy to envision a death spiral: lower revenues forcing increased tax rates, these in turn causing still lower collection rates and forcing still higher rates, and so on. Ever-vigilant functionaries in the New York bond-rating agencies sensed our trouble and acted to protect investors by downgrading the city's credit rating, thereby increasing our borrowing costs and threatening to accelerate our death spiral.
In the middle of all that, power over the decisions of city government seemed less valuable than power over economic and social outcomes. It was one thing to control the outputs of city government (putting qualified and well-paid teachers in classrooms, for example) and a very different thing to achieve the intended result (students learning what they need to learn). Years later, back in my Yale study, I would formalize a distinction between powers of government and powers of governance, giving two very different meanings to Dahl's question "Who Governs?": "Who controls the policy decisions of city government?" or "Who governs those changes which matter most critically to the people and institutions located within that city?" Only if city government itself was a very strong power player were these two questions at all close to being one and the same. And, most emphatically, city government didn't seem to be a strong player when looked at from my City Hall desk in 1990 and 1991.
Try a real example. "How best to deploy each eight-hour police patrol shift?" is a question of government. How you make that precious shift as effective as possible as part of a process that actually protects citizens against violent crime is a governance issue. As city officials, we were driven over and over again to focus on tactical questions of government such as "Do you have cops walk beats which will maximize their visibility to citizens and potential criminals, or do you have them walk beats where they are most likely to detect and intervene in actual crimes?" On reflection, that is a harder question than it at first seems, and we often opted to maximize visibility at the expense of intervention.4 Whichever tactical choice you make, your power to achieve the best result in crime prevention depends largely on decisions taken by thousands of people not directly connected to city government. Signaling to those thousands of others, in the hope of influencing their decisions, becomes a vital objective. In 1990 and 1991, I was wholly preoccupied with practical particulars, scores of them in each working day, and far too busy to reflect on the government-governance gap.
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