Budget Cuts Take Their Toll on Essential City Services
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The Fiscal Times
July 19, 2010

For firefighter Mark Kovach, the reality of municipal budget cuts hit home when he was tumbling down the staircase of a burning building in Flint, Mich., after failing to rescue a man trapped on the second floor.

After cutbacks last year, Kovach's crew had only a small vehicle with basic equipment to respond to fires, not the usual ladder and pumping trucks. Absent water to beat back the flames, the blaze at a single-family home in late April of last year turned into an inferno that left Kovach with severe burns.

A pumping truck from another station arrived about five minutes after Kovach’s team. When firefighters reached 47-year-old Adan Recendiz-Trejo, he was dead. Kovach cannot say for sure the man would have survived, but he is certain of one thing. "If we had had a hose line in the first line of attack, we would have been able to get to him then," Kovach said.

Events are not always so dramatic as that night in Flint, but the most searing economic downturn since the Great Depression is relentlessly transforming the type and quantity of municipal services that citizens can expect from their local governments. Fire stations may be in short supply in some places, and so are community centers, libraries and other municipal organizations. Some cutbacks in public safety may be reversed, but other reductions are probably here to stay.

State of the City
Municipal finances are heavily intertwined with the states, which face their own challenges. With a $200 billion budget gap heading into fiscal year 2011, states cranked back revenue sharing with cities and towns, which were also seeing a decline in revenues from income and sales taxes. In May, the National League of Cities found that despite upticks in some measures of national economic recovery, “declining fiscal and economic conditions persist in America’s cities.”

Various studies, including one by the San Francisco Federal Reserve Bank, have suggested the fiscal distress could last beyond 2012, as revenues only slowly reach their pre-recession peak. "Cuts to public services, public safety and education are severe and could potentially have lasting long-term consequences," the Fed wrote.

Darker Cities and Barbecues on the Beach
One popular money-saving measure has been to remove some streetlights, as Santa Rosa, Calif. did, or slap an extra charge on residents’ water and sewer bills, as happened in a small Minnesota town. Los Angeles is aiming for shorter hours in city offices to cut power bills as they consider legalizing marijuana as a source of tax revenue. In Daytona Beach, Fla., the local newspaper held a contest to find money-saving or revenue-generating ideas. Among the suggestions: a barbecue contest on the beach and fewer trash pickup days.