News: Sharing the Wealth

Study shows Cincinnati dramatically divided between haves and have-nots

 
Myron Orfield found glaring inequalities in Greater Cincinnati.



Like an out-of-step marching band, Tristate communities are too often moving to the beat of their own drummers — and it's costing all of us.

Although parts of the eight-county Tristate region are doing well, its core and inner suburbs are falling victim to a quadruple whammy of outdated tax systems, a large gap between the rich and poor, sprawling development and inter-regional competition. That's the picture painted by Myron Orfield, an urban consultant and Minnesota state senator studying the Tristate on a contract with Citizens for Civic Renewal (CCR), a progressive group founded in 1996.

Greater Cincinnati has more going for it than some other large urban regions, including a civic-minded business community and a center city with higher tax revenue than other regions, Orfield says.

But most local Tristate governments are too focused on their own well-being instead of the overall health of the region.

"It's a community that's really been hurt by a lack of cooperation," Orfield says.

Orfield, president of the Metropolitan Research Corporation (MARC), a Minneapolis non-profit, is using a couple of basic numbers to compare Greater Cincinnati to the rest of the top 25 U.S. metropolitan regions. A draft of his report, "Cincinnati Metropatterns," paints a picture of a simultaneously very rich and poor region that is more racially segregated than most cities.

Orfield measures inequality by comparing how much wealthier a region's top five percent is compared to its bottom five percent. But instead of residents' income, he uses the local governments' per capita tax revenues; Orfield says it's a better measure of what a community offers its residents.

The region around Minneapolis and St. Paul has a 4-to-1 rich-to-poor ratio. The national average is 11-to-1. Greater Cincinnati's ratio is 32-to-1, second only to the Tampa Bay region. That degree of inequality encourages people near poor communities to move away, according to Orfield.

A second related yardstick for a region is poverty in the school districts, which Orfield tracks by comparing the number of students eligible for federally subsidized lunches.

"Schools are powerful indicators about a community's present and future," Orfield says.

When schools get too poor or are perceived as declining, middle class people leave.

More than 89 percent of the region's poorest schools — those with more than half their students eligible for free lunches — were located in or next to Cincinnati. These factors, combined with a lack of regional planning, fueled suburban sprawl. From 1970 to 1990, Greater Cincinnati's population density shrank by 28 percent, but its urbanized land grew by 53 percent.

Unofficial segregation is also a byproduct. Nearly two-thirds of all black students in the Tristate go to high-poverty schools — the ones with more than half of their students eligible for free lunches.

Although parts of Cincinnati are being redeveloped, the region's fragmentation isn't stopping. So what happens if nothing changes? Some school districts will get a lot poorer, Orfield says, further fueling sprawl and stripping older cities of population.

"So you'll get more disparity," he says.

Orfield is picking up where consultant Michael Gallis of Charlotte, N.C., left off nearly two years ago. Gallis' study, sponsored by the Metropolitan Growth Alliance, concluded that the Tristate's terribly fragmented collection of cities, townships, villages, school districts and other subdivisions were keeping the area from prospering.

"We see it in part as putting a human component to the Gallis study," says Ed Burdell of Applied Information Resources, a non-profit public policy institute associated with CCR, which contracted Orfield for the $82,000 study nearly a year ago. A grant from the Greater Cincinnati Foundation is covering most of the cost.

While Gallis projected job growth, Orfield projects the ability of a region to fill those jobs. While Gallis offered no specific solutions, Orfield is advocating regional tax sharing as one way to encourage cooperation.

The Minneapolis/St. Paul region began sharing 40 percent of its commercial and industrial tax growth in 1971. That measure encouraged the region to work together on a development package that lured the Mall Of America. Several other cities around the nation wanted the mall, but acted too slowly, according to Orfield.

At the end of his report, Orfield proposes a similar but less ambitious measure for the Tristate. If Greater Cincinnati's 148 local governments pooled and redistributed 15 percent of their tax revenue by per capita income, 110 would have bigger bank accounts. If the same 15 percent plan was based on per capita tax revenues, 104 local governments would benefit. Of course, this might prove to be complicated, because the region crosses three state lines, so it might be more practical to start with one state.

A few local city leaders familiar with Orfield's work reacted positively.

"The general thrust of his arguments make sense to me," says Fairfield City Councilman Sterling Uhler.

Tax-sharing makes sense when properly targeted, Uhler says.

David Moore, city manager for Greenhills for 27 years, says there should be much more cooperation on fire and paramedic services, to start. Even with it's high property tax rate, Greenhills could never afford to pay salaries to its volunteer fire department.

"There does not appear to be any cooperation between the various jurisdictions," Moore says.

Neither is there much suburban trust in centralized regional planning, he says.

Blue Ash resists demon socialism
Marvin Thompson, Blue Ash's city manager for 20 years, doesn't agree with Orfield's analysis. Why should a city such as Blue Ash, which has been planning for commercial and industrial growth for decades, support cities that never tried to be anything but bedroom communities? Thompson calls Orfield's proposal ia "socialist approach."

"That's not the way to do it," Thompson says.

Of course, this comes from a city manager of one of the "haves" — a city with a 2001 budget of $44 million for about 13,000 permanent residents and 70,000 daytime workers. In comparison, nearby Silverton has about 5,500 residents and a budget of $3 million, and had to close its community pool last year.

Instead, Thompson says the Tristate should try to link all of its resources. Light rail, for example, would promote equality by connecting people to jobs. The first planned route would connect Blue Ash to Covington.

"We need an improved mass-transit system," Thompson says. "To me, that's at the top of the list."

But what about inter-region competition that Orfield criticizes heavily in his report? How much of a problem is it here?

"That's not our agenda," Thompson says. "Most economic development agencies are just trying to save the jobs in the region."

Thompson estimates only about 10 percent of the 2,200 businesses moved to Blue Ash from other parts of the region. The rest, he says, were new businesses or relocated from outside the Tristate, forming a commercial district second only to downtown Cincinnati in the number of jobs.

"Sometimes they just run out of space," Thompson says.

"He's right, to an extent," said Silverton City Manager David Waltz.

It's true Blue Ash is a magnet for development, but that doesn't mean Blue Ash stole it from Silverton, Waltz says.

"I'm not sure how much we could have attracted," he says.

Other communities' success has more to do with today's outward development patterns and a lack of space. Silverton is built out and can't afford to tear down its vacant buildings. Maybe some sort of tax-sharing is a way to deal with this, says Waltz, who wasn't familiar with the details of Orfield's proposal.

Many locals believe the Tristate won't embrace regionalist reforms, but Orfield is not so sure. Tennessee leaders didn't think they could plan regionally, but the state adopted an urban growth boundary. In 1993, Michigan leaders were less than supportive of reforming the school funding system, but it passed as well a year later.

"Everybody is against all these things until they see the details," Orfield says. ©

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