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Turning Around Struggling U.S. Cities

+ Brandon Fuller


Josh Barro sees a few options for turning around American cities—such Sunland Park, New Mexico or Maywood, California—where local governance has gone horribly awry: dissolution, outsourcing/merger, or state takeover. Under dissolution, residences might simply become part of an unincorporated area in which the county government provides local services—a fairly common arrangement. In Maywood, a place where the police were so corrupt that the city could not obtain liability insurance, key elements of city governance, including policing, were contracted out to credible neighboring jurisdictions. In Sunland Park, a community suffering from official corruption and low levels of civic engagement, the state of New Mexico took over the city’s finances.

As Barro points out, small communities like Sunland Park and Maywood are not the only American cities that end up leveraging the credibility of external governance. Financial control boards helped to prevent fiscal collapse in 1970s New York City and 1990s Washington, D.C. More recently, community groups joined together with Mayor Landrieu to request federal intervention in the desperately needed overhaul of the New Orleans Police Department. In American cities where local elections aren’t enough to correct for corrupted elements of governance, the bottom-up demand may be for the sorts of top-down approaches that Barro describes—approaches that ultimately give residents a more robust menu of options for escaping bad local governance.

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