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

Gloria Steinem

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.