Campaigns for Neighborhoods is Positive

The Tribune‘s Mayoral and Common Council candidate surveys and along with ours reveal a fundamental shift in the municipal election cycle: neighborhood revitalization is on everyone’s radar. It is a refreshing change and almost seems as if everyone’s made our “2020 Visions” white paper as their platform.

It is also a major change from previous campaigns when every candidate talked about “bringing jobs to La Crosse” and “cutting property taxes” as if municipal governments have magic wands to really make these things happen.

There is no magic wand to bringing jobs anywhere. Unless a community has some untapped natural resource or a hot new technology or service that has been developed by some local entrepreneur, there are really two choices to job growth: 1. Provide subsidies to try to steal jobs from someplace else (and hope you don’t go broke doing so before some other community does the same to you), or 2. Grow jobs locally, via an educated and trained workforce in a place with a great quality of life (Slow, but steady and less susceptible to theft by subsidy).

There is also no magic wand to property taxes. Municipalities and schools in Wisconsin are locked into this regressive form of taxation that only works if a community can add tax base by expansion and/or redevelopment. A central city like La Crosse with our geography and boundary agreements is pretty much landlocked. Even if we were not, growth through annexation often adds more demand for services than the new, but spread out tax base can support. Our only real choices for both economic health and community vitality are a combination of revitalization and redevelopment, along with cooperation and collaboration with our neighboring communities.

Residential property owners pay a higher percentage (53%) of property taxes than owners of  commercial (37%), industrial (4%) and personal (6%) properties (See UW Extension report). This trend along with the fact we have more and more property that is tax exempt and surface parking lots means all property taxpayers are paying more and getting less. This combination puts even more pressure on our core neighborhoods and the schools, creating a downward spiral that is harder to reverse.

The connection of neighborhoods and schools is also fundamental. If a neighborhood is distressed so there are fewer children to go to school, the district has to reduce programs or close schools. As schools close, that neighborhood is less attractive to families with children so single family owner occupied home ownership declines. This results in a more transient and less connected population, resulting in more blight and nuisances, which on turn lowers property values and reduces the tax base.

Big redevelopment projects like the ones we’ve seen Downtown and at our major institutions are an important part of the equation, but they are not the whole solution. Unless the nearby neighborhoods also have both great schools and good quality housing to go along with these projects, too many of their people will choose to live outside of the city.

This creates more urban sprawl and people that commute via Single Occupant Vehicles (SOVs), which creates more demand for roads and parking that gobbles up more of both our resources (police, EMS, repairs and maintenance) and tax base.

Rinse and repeat every decade for and ….. well, here we are.

This paradigm is unsustainable economically, socially and environmentally. Until we get really serious and revitalize our core neighborhoods so more families with elementary school age children will choose to buy homes here, we’ll just see more “drive through” and “commuter parking lot” neighborhoods with more blight and nuisances, resulting in an ever shrinking tax base.

One of the easiest, least expensive and most beneficial things we can do as a community is also the top recommendation of the report by the Joint City-County Housing Task Force: Better Education and Enforcement of Existing Codes and Standards. Blight and nuisance abatement is not as glamorous as big redevelopment projects, but it is absolutely essential to fully implement if we are to have any chance of revitalizing our neighborhoods.

It is also essential to realize that we also must continue to revitalize our Downtown, which is a also neighborhood of its own, as well as work with business and industry in redevelopment. Neighborhood revitalization should not be in competition with businesses and institutions because we need both.

No matter the results of the election, the candidates’ discussion about neighborhood revitalization bodes well for the city as a whole.