"The truth will set you free. But first it will piss you off."

Gloria Steinem

Friday, November 13, 2015

Make It Safe, Clean It Up And They Will Come

Part IV:  Put People First; Business Will Follow

I’m not going to suggest a third priority for municipal governments.  The first two stand far above the other (very worthy, mind you) contenders for prioritization.  They deserve the spotlight.  No third priority is close enough to warrant being placed beside them.  They are basic needs, the foundation. 

Unfortunately, amid the press of business within municipal governments, that truth is often overlooked; they become just two of many things to do, and are given solely to a particular department to accomplish.  That’s wrong, particularly in regard to Cleaning It Up. 

Having made such a sweeping declaration, I must simultaneously acknowledge (again) how difficult it is to give the necessary focus, and attention, to the two top priorities.  I’ve mentioned a few reasons already, but a fundamental one is so obvious that it is too often overlooked: even the most important priorities tend to be obscured by the very volume of things a municipal government must do. 

In order to keep it simple, let’s divide those many things into two groups, things that MUST be done, and those that don’t but offer compelling arguments to do anyway.  The first category is larger than you might think, and it deserves being capitalized.  One of the discoveries every new member of a municipal council (or any other division of representative government, for that matter) quickly makes is how much time is taken up by things that not only must be done, they must be done in a rigidly determined manner.  A municipal government not only must do them, it must do them according to a schedule and standards that are entirely out of its control.  These required actions not only take up a great deal of time, but also represent a significant, and repetitive, drain on the energy of municipal government personnel. 

Let’s also keep in mind that municipal council members are decidedly part time; each must continue to retain an income source from outside.  This requirement imposes strict—if variable—limits on the amount of time a council member can actually allocate to the job.  Sadly, Norristown Pa., the specific subject of these quite general posts, recently experienced the consequences when a respected, hard-working council member lost that reliable income.  It is sad, and Norristown is the less for it, but the rules are the rules. 

The legal requirements of the job are rigid, and these days there is little room (and, with social media, even less cover) for the unfortunate situations, let alone the kind of shenanigans that used to be common in “the good old days.”*  Government is all about the handling of the people’s money by a selected few, who are accountable periodically to the people for how they performed that job.  That means following a carefully laid out, not to mention repetitive, series of actions at specified times; the laws are many but clear.  This all takes time and attention, because after all, we are talking about the people’s money here.

Despite the inevitability of their actions being subject to questions of motive, from different sides at different times, municipal council members tend to get sucked into their part-time job, giving little thought to how much they are making by the hour.  I have previously argued that people who run for an office such as municipal representative are givers, not takers.  Some have disagreed, and sharply.  That’s because the exception always stands out in one’s memory.  They certainly exist (I am personally aware of a few) but they are exceptions, and constitute a small minority of the total number who voluntarily seek out these kind of part time jobs.  I would also argue that overall, greater damage is done by the honest but misguided members of a municipal council pursuing what they thought was a good idea.  Any nominations for that category come to mind?  If you can’t think of any, you haven’t been paying attention; they just keeping happening, as the individual council members come and go.

That’s why it is so important to draw up a plan—a simple one, based on the two priorities—and then stick to it (I am not, obviously, referring to The Comprehensive Plan; that is an entirely different subject for another day).  Once a municipal council has set aside time—and money—to do those things that must be done when and how it must do them, then it’s time for the two-priority focus.  Adopt a security strategy of cooperation with the community, not confrontation.  Enforce your codes; be particularly harsh on yourself.  Spend what is necessary to achieve these two priorities (exercising financial responsibility of course, which in this discussion I take as assumed).  Then, with what time and energy you have left, consider those options that just seem to keep coming down the pike, from all directions.  But look upon them as gravy, not meat and potatoes.

When considering each and every optional activity and expenditure that appears, first subject it to a simple, two question test.  One, will it make the community more secure? Two, will it help to clean things up?  If the answer to either question is yes, then proceed, despite the priority you have already put on both, because what you are already doing can always be improved upon by new ideas, if they are the right ones.

If the answer to both questions is no, then subject each project in turn to this question:  Will this project require cutting back on anything—including time—we spend on achieving the two basic priorities?  If the answer is yes, then just say no to the project, regardless of how attractive it may seem (those projects that come attached to grants, and thus appear to be “free money” are particularly sexy, and hard to resist).

You do this until the first two priorities are largely achieved (again, you can’t please everyone), then watch what happens.  When word spreads of the clean, safe neighborhoods your town offers, at discount prices compared to those anywhere near around it, the rush will be on.  You won’t have to spend money to lure businesses to Main Street; like all businesses, they will follow the people, the market, and plans/good intention be damned.  Attempts to jumpstart or shortcut that process by government fiat do not have a high success rate.  Go back to the basics and put people first.  Much will then follow.

*If you want a sustained record of collective fiscal irresponsibility, I refer you to Norristown, Pa., in the early 1970s, as briefly described in my book What Killed Downtown? Norristown, Pennsylvania, From Main Street to the Malls.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Make It Safe, Clean It Up and They Will Come

Part III:  A Municipality’s SECOND Highest Priority

Designating “security” as a municipal government’s highest priority was not exactly a difficult call.  My final sentence in the previous post makes the point clearly: “If people feel secure in their homes and out in the community, then all else can follow.  If they don’t, then nothing positive can follow.  I stand by that quote and my designation of “security” as the number one priority.  But what, then is the number two priority?  It’s not nearly as easy a call.

My vote is for “Code Enforcement” (the title of this blog series may have given that away).  I use the term to encompass ALL activities that help to keep a community clean and cared-for.  When I first read of Norristown’s decision to spend money to bring a restaurant to downtown, what distressed me was that funds were taken from other projects to amass the necessary amount; specifically that money was taken from the code enforcement budget.  This might seem strange, on two related counts.  The money taken from code enforcement wasn’t very much, and it was by far the least among the funding sources.  So what’s the big deal?

It’s the principle of the thing.  Not only should NO amount of money be taken from code enforcement, but MORE money should be added to that budget, and spent.  Everybody complains about conditions in their neighborhoods.  Social media magnifies the negative effect of this traditional activity, and that’s not a good thing.

Yes, we can all lament that in “the good old days” people took responsibility for cleaning their stoops and sidewalks, but that was then.  This is now, and few people do.  Complaining and lamenting do not get things done.  Communities do have volunteer groups dedicated to cleaning up their neighborhoods (Norristown has The Norristown Project, which I have complemented before and continue to commend), and you shouldn’t just praise them, but join them.  That being said, however, it is still up to the municipal government these days to keep its town clean.

Clean It Up is not exactly a complex concept, and ordinances and codes spell out the specific tasks quite clearly.  It’s the implementation that can be difficult.  There are several reasons for this, but at the root is that performing janitorial work outside never comes across as a priority compared to the more glamorous activities that get people’s attention.  But it should.  It’s about image, but in this case the image actually reflects the reality of life within a municipality, or at least the people’s perception of that reality, which is actually more important.

The historical double whammy that confronts municipalities today is that its residents take much less care of their own neighborhoods, but social media allows their complaints to reach the whole world, and they take full advantage of that.  Who hasn’t seen a multitude of postings on Facebook with photos of trash at the side of the roads or streets?  How much of the bad image held by people who don’t live in places like Norristown, Pottstown or Bridgeport of those towns is derived through social media?  The cumulative effect of these postings can be very corrosive, and contribute to a “what’s the use?” mentality.  Facebook certainly reflects the reality of that claim.

Clean It Up begins at home.  A municipal government should make doubly certain that its properties are kept in good condition all the time before it even thinks about fining a residence for not obeying ordinances.  People notice these things, and now they comment on Facebook.  But once it has cleaned its own house, a municipality should be relentless in enforcing ordinances to make—and keep—the community clean.  That’s why more money (and thus more personnel) should be dedicated to Keeping It Clean. 

We call municipal governments to account for their efforts—or lack of them—in this, but we should also recognize just how difficult different aspects of keeping it clean can be.  If your average homeowner receives a citation to correct a potentially dangerous condition, they are not likely to fight it, because it’s just not worth it.  But if the property is owned by an investment firm, an experienced slumlord or someone else who knows how to game the system from the top, then our property-friendly legal codes can frustrate even an activist government.  The result is that blighted properties remain so far too long, and a perception grows in the public's mind that their government shows favoritism, takes sides, or some other depressing conclusion.  If the government makes sure that ALL ordinances and codes are enforced—and publicizes the efforts it must make to ensure compliance from the legally skilled—then the public perception can be managed, because the evidence will be there.

I want to make a distinction between “cleaning it up” and “prettying it up.”   The first is the enforcement of existing codes and central to the cause; the second involves seductive proposals to “beautify” a community and constitutes a distraction from the more important tasks at hand.  Those colorfully-bricked intersections are the most prominent examples.  You can’t necessarily fault the reasoning behind these, but sometimes you can fault the execution.  What genius decided that the benches on DeKalb Street in Norristown should face the street?

There is one such proposal pending in Bridgeport.  It is an excellent example of “prettying it up.”  Does anyone really think that spending money—regardless of how much—installing banners on poles downtown will do ANYTHING for the community?  Seriously? 

This is the type of project (but not one of the better ones) that is so seductive, because it will be visible to all, and politicians can point to these things and say, “See that?  It didn’t exist before, now it does and I helped make it happen.”  Banners shouldn’t be too hard to resist, but beautiful brick sidewalks might.  Sometimes such projects even appear to be basically “free money,” and that makes them doubly hard to resist.

But we should.  Once the first two priorities are being accomplished to the general satisfaction (you will NEVER make everybody happy), then these kinds of projects can receive attention.  If not, they are just distractions from  the more important work at hand.  Spasmodic, ad-hoc projects only complicate things that need to be simplified.  As I noted in my first post in this series, 

“Decisions to spend tax monies should follow commitment to a simple, fundamental and broadly accepted plan, and should each advance that plan, even in the face of the many tempting opportunities to tack on what appears to be other good ideas that do not advance the plan.

Sounds not just logical, but simple, right?  Well, it isn't and we need to understand that.  I'll discuss this unfortunate difference between opining from a distance and implementing on the ground in my next post.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Make It Safe, Clean It Up And They Will Come

Part II:  People and Security

I confess.  My previous post was a hook, using a controversial decision in Norristown, Pa., to introduce a series on priorities in municipal government.  It served primarily as a lesson on how low priority actions can suck up much more energy, effort and money than they are worth.  I see why many would consider bringing a restaurant to downtown a priority, but in a world of limited energy, time and money, it doesn’t rank very high, and it certainly didn’t help in trying to keep things simple.

A municipality has two—and just two—real priorities, that are head, shoulders and torso above everything else.  This week I write about the first, the most important one of all, and I will continue to use Norristown as my example.

Let’s call that most important priority “security.”  Far and away a municipal government’s most important task is to ensure that its citizens feel secure in their homes and out in public.  Thus, there is no more important relationship within a municipality than that between the people and those who provide their security, the police department.  In case you haven’t noticed, that relationship has been the subject of much disagreement (although little true discussion) after some horrific events nationwide.  I’m going to add a historical perspective (surprise!) to the issue, because there is nothing new about it.

A long time ago, in a country far away, I was a participant—at a very minor level—in an intense disagreement about the relationship between people and security.  This was actually the biggest issue of the several extant in that place at that time, although this was not fully appreciated.  Simply put, the question was this: must you bring security to the people, or do the people themselves bring security?  We ended up trying the latter because we could not accomplish the former.  At the very local—hamlet and village—level, the people were organized into part-time soldiers and assigned to guard their own villages.  Sounds logical, right?  It didn’t work.  They remained inside their vehicles during the day and their compounds during the night, looking to themselves and pretty much ignoring what was happening in the nearby villages they were supposed to be guarding.  An additional issue was that they looked on the people as a source of revenue and extorted whatever they could.  So the people, left on their own, cooperated with them during the day, but with the insurgents during the night.  Getting information was hard, and that information was unreliable.  “Don’t snitch” is not an American invention.

There is a parallel to the situation in our nation’s urban areas today, and it is not terribly far-fetched.  Many residents dwell in what we used to term “contested” areas.  That meant that the other side’s influence was.  Now, residents fear the gangs and the bad individuals, not guerrillas, but as it was then, have no particular love for the legal authorities either.  So, because the bad guys live nearby, and can get to them—and their families—people keep their mouths shut, the police grow more frustrated and the downward spiral continues.  The more things change…

Today, we sort of encourage people to protect themselves—through Town Watch, for example—but arming them is a very different matter on this side of the Pacific.  We thus depend on the professionals, the full-timers.  That’s a huge difference, but here’s where the parallel comes in: our professionals tend to do the same thing here today as our armed private citizens did over there back then.  They live largely in their vehicles and their stations, both day and night, which makes them strangers.

We all lament the demise of the “cop on the beat,” and for good reason.  I had the privilege of touring Main Street, Norristown, Pa. with Hank Cisco, a former police officer and current town “ambassador.”  He brought home to me just much interaction took place between the beat cop and those on his beat, and how daily familiarity made cops much more observant and aware of their surroundings.  He—and they—exemplified the opposite approach to what we see today.  That daily, casual, friendly contact bred an understanding and a trust, and that paid off in information offered by a grateful citizenry.

Today, by contrast, the average resident in a “contested” area mostly sees the police just cruising by, looking at him.  They interact personally with a police officer only when he (or she, now) gets out of their car and approaches them.  They are automatically suspicious (“It increases my paranoia, like looking in the mirror and seeing a police car”) and their attitude will depend largely on what the cop then pulls out, from citation book to club to gun, but to them each represents only varying degrees of bad.  This is an unhealthy relationship, and the tragic results of such unhealthy relationships have played themselves out in many cities in recent months.

That’s why I am pleased to commend Norristown Police Chief Mark Talbot for taking major steps to increase friendly contact between his department and the local residents.  His campaign has several facets.  The Norristown Police Department now has a presence on social media, and it goes far beyond a Facebook page.  The Department actively utilizes such popular sites such as Facebook and Twitter, along with focused and relevant sites, primarily  Nextdoor.com (which I have previously praised).  Cooperation between the residents and the police using this secure site has enormous potential to improve the community.  That’s a huge step forward, but social media cannot replace face-to-face contact, and Chief Talbot emphasizes that also.  It can be an event, such as “Coffee With A Cop,” held last June, but I particularly like the full time policy he initiated of offering the police station and its parking lot as safe zones to undertake transactions such as those on Craigslist.  The list goes on, and Chief Talbot is only just beginning.

Let’s hope more such innovative ideas to improve police/community relations make their appearance in Norristown.  They will go a long way to building that trust that true revival depends on.  Let’s also hope other local police jurisdictions—urban ones in particular—also take steps to reverse the decades-long decline in the relationship between people and security.  If people feel secure in their homes and out in the community, then all else can follow.  If they don’t, then nothing positive can follow.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Make It Safe, Clean It Up And They Will Come

Part I:  Try To Keep It Simple

I have been following with great interest the dispute in my favorite town, Norristown, Pa.,  over financial grants allocated by Municipal Council to bring a restaurant from the town’s periphery to its downtown core.  This dispute greatly interests me, but I have refrained from joining in the chorus of comment because I did not like the focus of the discourse.  That focus has been on the business in question, with its history and finances questioned publicly, trying to make the issue whether this particular business “deserved” the grant.  That’s wrong, on more than one level.

I’m not going to come down on one side or the other about the restaurant.  Norristown Municipal Council clearly (if not unanimously) wants to see the restaurant on Main Street.  It weathered the initial wave of disapproval, and then, when the bids to accomplish the first plan of work came in much too high, added more monies to the grant and restructured the work to be done.  That is a sign of commitment if there ever was one.

I comprehend several of the reasons why such a commitment might be made, and I know and respect the people who made it.  Yet I believe the decision is an example of “failing to keep it simple,” a very important commandment for municipal councils.  Once again, I am going to make the case for a simple guiding generality instead of a series of ad-hoc decisions, regardless of how well intentioned.

The dispute I utilize to launch my “Keep It Simple” series is not a simple story, but that’s part of the problem; it ought to be.  Decisions to spend tax monies should follow commitment to a simple, fundamental and broadly accepted plan, and should each advance that plan, even in the face of the many tempting opportunities to tack on what appears to be other good ideas that do not advance the plan.  That’s a lot harder to do than anyone who has never been in—or near to—municipal public office can imagine.  I use the issue of grant money to introduce both the needed philosophy and the equally needed sense of perspective.

First, why should a municipality offer financial grants to lure a business in the first place?  There are several reasons that can be offered for such an action, but there is really only one REAL reason…wait for it…MONEY.  That’s net money, by the way, which is how municipalities calculate it.  Here’s the axiom: residential developments cost more in services than they pay in taxes; businesses cost less.  Stripped of all the (perhaps relevant) details, that’s the point.  A municipality that is purely a “bedroom community” is caught within an inescapable financial vise.  Hence all municipalities seek to have businesses locate within their boundaries, to make up the deficit that residences create (the Pennsylvania tax code lies at the bottom of this, but that is an issue unto itself).  Norristown is hardly alone in such a search.

The point is not whether or not a municipality should try to attract businesses, but rather what kind of businesses it should try to attract.  Before anyone gets the wrong idea, let me make it clear that I am not referring to how a municipality should handle a potential business, but whether it should consider giving that business financial incentives.  ALL those inquiring about opening a business in your town should receive quick, positive and informative service, regardless of their proposal.  Whatever is required to expedite the application/approval process—and is in accordance with all relevant laws and ordinances—should be done.  You want to make it as easy as possible for a business to negotiate the approval maze, effectively taking each by the hand and seeing them through it (or as far as they get, alas).  By the way, “easy as possible” refers to the application/approval process, not to their life in town thereafter.  Along the way you introduce the relevant laws and ordinances, and make it clear they will be enforced.

But I digress.  In the interest of keeping it simple, I am going to suggest that when it comes to businesses a small municipality is likely to attract, there are really only two types:  Production and Service.  You want both types to set up shop locally, but you offer financial incentives to only one type.

Both terms have a multitude of definitions, so here’s mine, solely for the purpose of this analysis.  Both types produce (or process) things; the significant distinction is the location of their primary market, whether outside the community or within it.  If it is outside, let’s call it a production business; if local, then it is a service business.

The river towns were built on Production businesses, and what they produced tended to be both physically noticeable and rather heavy.  Today, a “product” could be paper, or just something added to paper.  They may even produce software, i.e., something with no tangible existence at all.  It doesn’t matter.  If all—or at least the vast majority—of whatever is produced is marketed outside the local community, it’s a “Production” business.

“Service” businesses may produce or process things just as much as any “Production” business, but they do so to supply a local clientele (whether full-time residents or day workers) with items for their consumption, adornment or use.  Thus retail is added to the “Service” category.  Restaurants clearly fall into the Service category.  They want a widespread clientele, of course, but depend on local patronage to survive.

The applications of both types of businesses should be treated as described above, but there is one significant difference between how the applications of Production businesses and those of Service businesses should be handled.  Production businesses can be considered for “financial incentives,” but not Service businesses.  Period.

The reasoning behind this admittedly harsh approach is a dispassionate understanding of what brings businesses into a community, not one crafted for the widest possible approval.  It’s all about the Benjamins, or rather the odds.

A production business establishes—or relocates—itself for purely economic motives.  It looks for a site of sufficient size and close to the form of transportation both its employees and its product requires.  It then tries to obtain that site—and the necessary approvals—for as little expense as possible; hence negotiations, and the possible need for incentives, etc., etc.  The arrival of such a business provides tax benefits, and perhaps much more, to a municipality.  It’s a competitive world out there, and the unpleasant reality is that concessions, even those that will limit future revenue, are often necessary to attract any business of any size.  This reintroduces the element of personal decision into the equation, but if your decision is going to cause controversy anyway, at least make it about a Production business.

And what about Service businesses?  Why shouldn’t they get incentives?  They are also established for economic motives, and may themselves represent quite a substantial investment.  Starting a business is a much bigger deal today; you can’t begin with a cart and a horse, as did several of the Schuylkill Valley’s commercial legends.  Even a “mom and pop” business requires risking substantial capital (at least substantial to those attempting to establish a “mom and pop” business).  Sources of such capital are always welcome, but the public coffers should not be among them.

The reason is, alas, statistical, which means it is cold, analytical and lacking the human component.  The data is, however, quite clear: businesses that open depending on a local market (and thus “service” by my definition) have an obscenely high failure rate.  They are recurrent testimony for both human optimism and the attraction of a market economy, but they are not the type of investment worthy of tax monies.  There are higher priorities.

In future posts I will discuss those priorities, why they deserve special status, and why focusing on them to the exclusion of attractive side projects keeps it simple, or at least as simple as such a thing can be.  In so doing, I will also point out some reasons why keeping it simple is so very difficult and why we shouldn't judge too harshly those who fail our ephemeral purity test.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Why Phoenixville? Some Suggestions From Readers

I began 2015 with the first post in my “Why Phoenixville?” series.  I phrased it as a question—in fact THE question for historians—because I do not know the answer, nor do I know anybody who does.  That answer (or, more likely, answers) would be of great value to the other towns along the lower Schuylkill at the very least, and probably many more than that.  It’s a subject well worth pursuing, and I shall continue.

I put the question out for discussion and contributions among my readers, and have been continuously pleased with the results.  I printed a full post by a guest a few weeks ago, and this week I want to take up some of the subjects offered by others in their responses.  Several actually compiled lists, with points that deserve to be made.  This week I touch on just a few.

One topic that has been the subject of several different responses is the avowedly religious nature of Phoenixville.  Some claimed, in the words of one, “We seem more religious than the average community.”  Another writer put it more precisely:

This is also a very religiously diverse town. There are 33 different churches in this town of varying beliefs. This can allow people to find the church that best speaks to their personal beliefs and find the sense of community they have been looking for. This is almost unheard of in small towns.”

This statement is manifestly true, and several people commented about how active their churches are in the community.  Yet I have some questions about determining how religious a community is, even using the obvious data.  Take the situation in Bridgeport, for example.  The borough possesses about one quarter of the population of Phoenixville, and their economic conditions can scarcely be compared.  The final two Catholic churches within the borough’s boundaries have just shut down, leaving Bridgeport without a Catholic place of worship for the first time since 1892.  Does that make Bridgeport any less religious that Phoenixville?  I seriously doubt that.  These closures are about people and money, or rather the declining number of both, not the religious nature of those that remain.  Perhaps the point raised by another writer applies here: “The Borough's size seems just right; not so big that doing things is like trying to turn the Titanic, but big enough to actually have some resources.”  I’m not so sure that any size is “just right,” but smallness is usually more of an impediment that largeness.  I think Bridgeport falls into that category.

My second question about the place of religion in the revival of Phoenixville is one of the favorites of historians, referred to generically as the  “chicken-or-the-egg question.”  Is Phoenixville’’s religious/community orientation a cause of the borough’s revival, or a result?  In other words, did Phoenixville’s already religious nature attract people who wanted to live in a close-knit community, thus spearheading its revival, or did its revival, locally-generated as it has been, attract this kind of people?  The answer to such a question is usually “both,” because any individual component in so complex an equation can be both a stimulant to and a result of a town’s revival, particularly when it involves judging the nature of a substantial portion of the population.  Because we must employ those arbitrary and imaginary categories that I have written about previously, the question becomes at which end of the spectrum does this particular component, on balance, deserve to be placed, as cause or result?  I’d like to hear more about this aspect of the subject from you, my readers.  It’s important.

Other readers have made individual points that must remain classified as claims rather than facts, because they are not manifestly obvious. Two of these are subjects so vitally important to a town’s revival that—and with all due respect to their author(s)—they must remain as theses, not conclusions.  Each might be correct or it might not, which is just the kind of search in which I love to participate.  These two date back to my first post, and I regret having to wait this long to air their heartening opinions.  

One writer put the spotlight on the borough’s administrative staff.  This is a hugely important aspect of a community's revival, and the claim made is that the staff of Phoenixville Borough has been quite supportive of private efforts in recent years.   The writer specifically praised the (now-defunct) Community Development Corporation for its efforts.  This opens an interesting issue (why is it defunct?  Was it no longer needed?), about which I look forward to reading opinions.

Speaking of staff, the same writer—joined by a couple of others, but I’m using his words—also made the claim that

the leadership of the county government has always been supportive of Phoenixville’s revitalization and the voters of surrounding areas have not born any resentment towards the Borough if it sucks in a few more tax dollars than it generates on paper. 

The first, if true, is laudatory.  The second, if true, would be a miracle.  I hope that the historical record demonstrates that both are, but that would make them exceptions to the norm.

I very much want to hear other opinions on the subjects of borough administration, its relationship with the county, and the attitude of surrounding residents toward what has happened to Phoenixville.  These are crucial subjects, and because they involve several sub-topics and even more people, the answers are likely to be complex.  Let me hear from you.