Monday, March 4, 2013 Rochester, NY -
A Donut May Taste Good at First, but in the End, it Leaves a Hollow Feeling Inside
Urbanologists and sociologists describe, in metaphorical terms, failing cities surrounded by prosperous suburbs as suffering from 'the donut effect'. Donuts are hollow in the center, just like dying urban areas. And that's what we have in Monroe County: Successful and semi-successful suburbs surrounding a 36 square mile city, facing a $32 million deficit.
Mayor Richards claims that without additional revenues from Albany, Rochester as a municipal entity may not survive.
The City of Rochester is home to numerous plots of real estate that are permanently off the tax rolls: Too many churches and other places of worship, too many vacant factories, and institutions of higher learning. Eastman Kodak once paid tens of millions of dollars a year in property taxes. Today, a mere fraction of that. The City is functionally built out, with little vacant real estate on which to build property tax-generating developments.
Meanwhile, a couple of miles away, are towns and villages that thrive compared to our center city. While as of late, even suburban school districts have started to feel the pinch of tighter revenue streams, by comparison, Monroe County's suburban regions are live Beverly Hills or Greenwich, Conn. compared to our Detroit-like urban center, Rochester, NY.
Like Buffalo, and now Detroit (the latter suffering under a $14 billion deficit), long term--and maybe short term--Rochester may eventually have to be administered by a Buffalo-like state control board.
But it doesn't have to be this way.
Yet, the fiscal fortunes of the City of Rochester can only change if Monroe County's towns, villages, and school districts finally do what is morally and ethically right: Begin a program of voluntary revenue sharing.
That's right: Unless the numerous municipalities that occupy Monroe County chip in, and begin to subsidize our region's center, Rochester will go the way of other bankrupt cities across the U.S.: Cities like Bridgeport, Conn., San Bernardino, CA; Detroit; Harrisburg, PA; Stockton, CA; and oh yes, Buffalo, NY. This is not a prediction, it is a guarantee.
People of means abandoned the City of Rochester decades ago, swallowed up by the mass movement of urbanites to the alleged greener pastures of new suburban communities. This began because Whites couldn't stomach living in close proximity to newly arriving Southern Blacks. What a shame.
The R&B band The Temptations wrote in their landmark song, "Run Charlie Run", about this unfortunate social phenomenon:
"I watch you go to church on Sunday. But you forget all you learned on Monday. You see your smiling face can't hide. How you hate your brother inside...
You built this great big beautiful city. But you ran away and left it to die. What a pity. You could have made friends with your neighbor. But you are much too prejudiced to try; tell me why!"
-The Temptations, 1972.
We in the suburbs can comfortably, from a safe distance, blame the victim in all this: The urban dweller, especially if that person is Black or Latino. But the City's demise is all of our business. Rochester's prosperous suburbs will--long term--not survive unless some formula can be agreed upon to have Monroe County's towns and villages (and yes, its school districts) contribute financially to the current free ride we are getting, by enjoying the City's many cultural benefits, without paying fair market rate. What do I mean?
Like many cities, the City of Rochester is home to a healthy collection of museums, pro sports stadiums and arenas, performing arts centers, fantastic cuisine, etc. Yet, suburbanites (like myself) do not pay our fair share for these metropolitan amenities because we are not levied a tax on the upkeep of Rochester's street, sewer, or lighting repairs; nor are we charged for the financial cost of our safety being maintained by the Rochester Police Department (RPD). So, as the City dies a slow, painful death, due to a severe lack of reliable revenue streams, we suburbanites continue to benefit from all the City has to offer, at quite a discount. That's unfair.
Before the City contemplates building toll booths at all major road and highway arteries that pass through the City of Rochester, how about each town and village contribute just one-half of one-percent of their annual budgets, and contribute that money to the City's coffers? The dollar amount for each suburb would be modest indeed, but with nearly two dozen suburban municipalities contributing, one-half of one-percent would add up to tens of millions of dollars for our beloved center city.
Michelangelo once said, "I have never felt salvation in nature. I love cities above all." And while I love the wilds of Mendon Ponds Park, very much, it does not approach my love for the City of Rochester.
-Christopher J. Wilmot, Pittsford, NY
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