The high cost of cities 

Learning to love public investment 

I don’t know why somebody got mad at the tennis court in the park near my house, but apparently that’s what happened. On a Monday morning a couple of weeks ago, we discovered that someone had crashed their gas guzzler into the high, black fence that’s meant to keep errant tennis balls from sailing into the street. You could see from the tire tracks how the vehicle jumped the curb, went over a sidewalk and plowed into the fence, twisting and tearing steel struts and a large swatch of chain-link backstop. What once was an orderly set of tall right angles was turned into punk sculpture. Or, as my son from Chicago put it: “It looks like the projects have come to Broad Ripple.”

I’m happy to report that destruction on this scale is an unusual occurrence in my neighborhood. But let’s face it: When you put large numbers of people into a limited space, something wild is liable to happen from time to time. That’s part of city living.

But there’s another side to city living that is supposed to help compensate for this. If the very size of cities makes for the occasional outbreak of antisocial behavior, their collective volume is also supposed to mean that cities have greater resources to repair whatever damage is done. Some people call this a tax base. In any event, there is an urban expectation that when a drunken knucklehead wrecks a popular piece of public property, the city will be able to act promptly to fix it.

I expected the Parks Department to fix the tennis courts before the week was over. The weather was getting warmer and afternoon youth lessons had begun.

No such luck.

This is Indianapolis. If you look in an almanac, it’ll tell you that we live in one of America’s largest cities. But the fact is, Indianapolis itself isn’t so sure about this. Indianapolis may call itself a city, but it acts like a suburb. That used to be kind of sweet. We bragged about our hospitality and our volunteerism. About what a great place this was to raise kids. Most of all, we bragged about our low cost of living.

The trouble is, living like a suburb doesn’t pay the bills. At about the same time that my neighborhood tennis court was being trashed, all the water was draining out of Lilly Lake in Eagle Creek Park. The lake’s earthen dam had been a problem for years — but that problem was put off because, according to Indy Parks Director Joe Wynns, the Parks Department hasn’t had the budget to repair it.

The same thing might be said about our public transportation system. IndyGo has about 120 buses in its fleet, making us one of the most poorly equipped public transit systems in the country. Louisville, Cincinnati and Columbus, Ohio, all have more buses on the street than we do. This, in spite of the growing number of business and civic leaders who say that if Indianapolis is to compete for business and jobs with other cities, effective public transportation is a must. But IndyGo is so poorly funded its budget doesn’t even rise to the level necessary to enable it to apply for federal funding.

Why, though, should we expect to see a great public transit system when Indianapolis is unable to adequately pave its streets? I know, I know, it’s springtime and that’s pothole season. But the streets were terrible last fall. If not for a pre-election orgy of resurfacing in certain parts of town, a bad situation would be even worse. As it is, many major streets drive more like alleys than thoroughfares. As for last year’s resurfacing, it’s already breaking down in places.

Where’s the money? We learned last summer that people aren’t prepared to pay higher property taxes. At the time, some scoffed at this rebellion, claiming homeowners’ griping was unjustified. In some cases that was true; property taxes here had been ridiculously low for years. The increases, while shocking, simply reflected urban reality.

But while the cost of maintaining a city — any city — keeps rising, incomes in Indianapolis have not. We get paid less here than in most other cities our size. While we might like to say this makes Indy good for business, the fact is that business really hasn’t boomed here relative to other cities our size. That makes taxing a hard issue to sell.

Unfortunately, we may not have a choice. If Indianapolis is going to succeed — for business, for families, for everyone — we’re going to have to learn to stop hating taxes and start loving public investment. That may sound like a word game, but nothing will get fixed around here unless we learn how to play it.

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David Hoppe

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