Exciting New Database
The Lincoln Institute of Land Policy just came out with a fun new database of fiscal information about cities. A few of the things I learned after playing around in the database for an hour:
*Highways and transit are really a pretty minor part of most cities' budgets. In the average city, highway and transit spending combined were $212 per capita, only about 7 percent of all local expenditures (just over $3,100 per capita). By contrast, education gobbled up about 12 percent of municipal spending, and public safety about 18 percent. So I'm not sure we need worry about either highways or transit bankrupting cities. The most sprawl-happy cities don't seem to spend more than more compact cities; for example, 800-square mile Jacksonville spent only about 5 percent of its budget on roads and transit (although electric utility spending, which I suppose might be greater in more sprawling areas, were a significant part of the Jacksonville budget).
*Despite media commentary blaming Detroit's bankruptcy on overspending, Detroit spending actually went down in the 2000s ,from $7789 per capita in 2003 to $4852 in 2010 (adjusting for inflation). (On the other hand, I note that the city's budget increased during the 1990s). Detroit does spend more money than the average city, but by no means has the largest government. Detroit spends about $4800 per capita, less than such relatively conservative cities as Knoxville and Chattanooga.
*The most tax-happy cities were Washington, New York, Boston and San Francisco. However, this does not mean that older, more compact cities always have higher taxes: Chicago and Portland actually had below-average tax levels per capita, while Richmond and Virginia Beach were in the national "top 10" of taxation. Only six cities (not counting large suburbs such as Garland, Texas) had tax levels below $500 per capita: Bakersfield, Las Vegas, Flint, Jackson, Wichita and Tuscon. Flint has been economically depressed for a long time, and Las Vegas has suffered horribly from the recession - a fact suggesting that low taxes indicate poverty more than lean government. On the other hand, the high-tax cities, though not rapidly growing, are not losing population either; dying Rust Belt cities such as Detroit and Cleveland tend to have fairly average tax levels.
*The Lincoln Institute also has a "fiscally standardized cities" variable, to account for local spending by counties, school districts, and special districts. The top taxers were still New York, Washington, and San Francisco (although Atlanta of all places was fourth). The lowest tax burden was in Flint, with a variety of small and mid-sized cities close behind (including Grand Rapids and Modesto).
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