Saturday, January 23, 2010

A Simple Story of Numbers and Commuters

Here is a simple story, excerpted from a draft document found at the Capital District Regional Planning Commission website. It's meant to complement an excellent argument made by a fellow Buffalonian who is passionate about the fate of our nation's rustbelt cities.

We seem to have a death wish in Buffalo. At least we don't have the governator coming to get us from the future. Our own both blind and black governor - which ought to get us points - is doing a much better job at giving us some straight talk. He was up against the wall of poll numbers recently, and maybe feels new courage in the face of adversity. But he'll need the help of we the people to change some of the (home) rules of the game.

The story here requires little commentary, except to point out that the disparity between household numbers and building permits issued makes Buffalo stand out nationwide as the region most actively working to abandon and destroy its urban housing stock. New housing permit numbers which lead household growth works to evacuate a city. The Buffalo metro region issued about 300% more building permits than there were new households during the period from 1980 to 2000.  This compares to the nationwide high of 30-35% more in the Northeast and Midwest, and the general trend toward sprawl indicated by a national average of 19%.

In the Buffalo region, this is the direct result of multiple layers of "home rule" government being predatory against each other. Sprawl on steroids, you might call it. And at its root is the way the schools are districted. Small competing districts which form the basis for housing prices. Taxation rates are perversely related to housing affordability as you can see from the narrative below the chart.  And there remains (therefore?) a shocking disparity in school funding in favor of suburbanites who can afford the more expensive homes. The net effects work directly against the good of society at large.

This has to change.

(metro population)

City-proper Population

Metro Population

Percent Change

Household Change

Building Permits issued






City limits

Metro Region

































Living and Working on an Uneven Field
(from the Commission report)

Sam attends the same church as his friend, Charlie. They generally shop at the same Walmart in Glenville and use the same dentist in Niskayuna. They attend Broadway touring company productions at Proctor’s Theatre in Schenectady and in the summer go to the track once or twice together with their families. They are truly “regional residents”, enjoying all that the Capital Region has to offer.

As it happens, Sam and his family live in the Rosa Road area of northeast Schenectady and he works at a firm in the 21st century office park in Clifton Park. Charlie lives in the western part of Clifton Park and works at Ellis Hospital in Schenectady. They frequently pass each other on the Rexford Bridge as they reverse each other’s modest-distance commutes.

This is where the parallel nature of their lives ends. The heavy dependence in New York on local governments for the cost of public services creates an uneven playing field that affects residents and workers of differing communities in vastly different ways. Because Sam’s house happens to be in the city of Schenectady and Charlie’s house just three miles away is in the town of Clifton Park, their fiscal circumstances contrast significantly:

• When the Capital Region witnesses an increase in immigration of lower income residents from downstate New York, Sam’s Schenectady County property taxes rise. Charlie’s Saratoga County taxes do not.

• When the two families attend an event at Proctor’s, Sam has paid taxes to provide (city) police and fire protection, Charlie has not.

• When there is a traffic accident outside Charlie’s work place in Schenectady, Sam has paid taxes to provide a (city) police response; neither Charlie nor his employer have.

• When there is a traffic accident outside Sam’s place of work in Clifton Park, Sam, Charlie and their employers have all shared in the (state) taxes to provide a State Police response.

• As Charlie drives down Union Street to his work place, he can thank Sam for paying to maintain the condition of the street and operate the signal system on the city-owned arterial.

• As Sam drives along NY 146 to his work place, he knows he has shared the cost of maintaining the condition of the street and signals on the state-owned arterial.

• On top of all this, Sam and his wife Sarah debate educational plans for their young children. They wonder whether they should spring for the funds for private school tuition because of the low rating of the city’ s public schools – schools that are challenged in meeting educational achievement goals with a student body heavily populated with disadvantaged children.

• Charlie and his wife Cathy face no similar dilemma – their house is located in the highly-rated Niskayuna School District which serves children predominantly from households with incomes far above the regional average.

In short, Sam is required to contribute tax dollars to provide social services and public infrastructure for the general benefit of the entire region (service to poor residents and to non-profit institutions) to a far greater degree than does Charley. As a result, Sam’s personal finances suffer. His property tax annually totals $5,400 on his three-bedroom $100,000 house (whose value has only recently begun to recover from a ten-year decline.) Charley can work and recreate in Schenectady while enjoying steady increases in property values (his similar, three-bedroom house is now appraised at over $175,000) and pay $2,000 less in property taxes than does Sam.

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