Paying the cost for paying the costs

Original Reporting | By Diana Jean Schemo |

November 9, 2010 — In Miami-Dade County, a property tax increase, coupled with raises for civil servants, lit the fuse of voter ire, sparking two recall efforts this year to oust Mayor Carlos Alvarez. In Chattanooga, a hike in the storm water fee, to comply with a federal order to remedy pollution, triggered a recall petition drive against Mayor Ron Littlefield. In Livingston, California, where the water flowed brown from taps and poured toxins into the Merced River, residents forced out their mayor for raising fees to clean the water. It was the first increase in 15 years.

In an era of high unemployment and rising discontent, attempts to oust elected officials mid-term no longer represent a last resort for voters fed up with egregious acts of corruption, but an increasingly common response to elected officials who make unpopular decisions. Often those decisions involve raising taxes and fees that pay for public services like police, fire fighters, and clean water.

“Local officials, because we’re the ones who have to deliver the services, are finding it very difficult to do our job without running into these recalls,” said Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Alvarez.

The recall fever poses a new set of challenges for elected officials, some of whom swept into office on pledges never to raise taxes. How to make the case that tax or fee hikes are needed now, especially when many voters are themselves struggling to make ends meet? What is involved in the effort to convince a skeptical public that the costs of not having public services are higher than the costs of maintaining those services?

Some cities aren’t trying, and have taken a distinctly different route.  Last year in Colorado Springs, for example, voters turned down, by a margin of two to one, a referendum to increase property taxes. Now, the city does not turn on its streetlights after dark. The police force sold off two helicopters. Swimming pools and parks closed, and in those that remained open, restrooms were shut to save on maintenance.

But some mayors under siege have argued that dissatisfied voters lash out at them as simply the closest targets at hand, divorcing expectations of city services from the need to pay for them, and crowding out the space for reasoned debate of policy choices.

“Local officials, because we’re the ones who have to deliver the services, are finding it very difficult to do our job without running into these recalls,” Miami-Dade Mayor Alvarez said in an interview.


Chattanooga: mayor obeys pollution abatement mandate, stirs recall attempt

In Chattanooga, Ron Littlefield became mayor in 2005, campaigning on a platform of honest, efficient government after 40 years as a city planner. He managed to avoid raising property taxes through his first term, but was contending with the need for increased services. “We’re a growing community,” Littlefield said. “We had to hire more police and firefighters.”

On July 1, Littlefield’s administration raised property taxes 19 percent. He also raised storm water fees to pay for pollution abatement that had been ordered by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.  Residential homeowners saw their storm water fees more than quadruple to an average of $150.

These decisions set Littlefield at odds with the local supporters of the Tea Party movement. They accused the mayor, barred by law from running for a third term, of shedding his past restraint in not raising taxes. They organized a recall petition in June, aimed at gathering thousands of signatures by late August. (There was some dispute about just how many signatures were needed.) Littlefield had been elected to serve through April 2013; if the recall drive succeeded, he would have had to run for re-election this November.

Littlefield said he found the atmosphere poisoned when he tried to justify his choices. Opponents, he said, went door-to-door making “outrageous claims” of mismanagement and implying corruption.

Image of Cattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield
Mayor Ron Littlefield of Chattanooga, Tennessee

In connection with the increase in storm water fees, Littlefield’s opponents accused the mayor of imposing a gratuitously steep fee hike without considering alternative plans. In fact, Littlefield claimed, the decision was reached “after weeks, if not months” of discussion, and the repair schedule was ultimately modified to contain costs by phasing in fixes over several years.

“It’s a campaign you cannot respond to,” Littlefield said, one aimed largely at intimidating elected officials and disrupting government. “It’s so diffuse. It’s like a whisper campaign. You don’t really know what even to respond to,” the mayor said. Most importantly, he added, responding publicly would only magnify the allegations, spreading them and giving them more credibility. 

The mayor’s son, Zack Littlefield, wrote an essay in support of his father in the Chattanoogan, an online newspaper. In an interview with Remapping Debate, he said his father had approached the Tea Party supporters, inviting them to “bring your accountant and we could go through the budget line by line [but t]hey just wouldn’t do it.”

When Remapping Debate asked Mayor Littlefield how he tries to convey the choices the city faces, he seemed perplexed and frustrated at once. “I don’t know of any way. Anytime you have to step up and do necessary things, raising taxes or fees to clean water, it is never appreciated by the people who have to pay the bills. In the current Tea Party environment, it makes you a convenient target.”

He also said that cuts in the staffs of traditional newsrooms, and the death of one of Chattanooga’s two newspapers, had lowered the level of political debate in the city, and frayed the civic fabric. 

Until a few years ago, city officials could call a press conference, and gather reporters from three or four local news stations and two newspapers. “It was a relatively focused news environment,” the mayor said. Now, he continued, there is only one newspaper, and it has a threadbare staff. The television stations might or might not have a reporter available for a press conference.

“The whole process of communication has become so shattered,” Littlefield said. “Now, people pick up their news from just about anywhere.” The void is filled with bloggers, who mix opinion with fact, and seldom check the latter, he continued.

Jim Folkner, a local Tea Party supporter who led the recall effort against Littlefield, defended the use of recall petitions generally, and his in particular. “In this day and age, every penny that government spends has to be explained, and allocated in a transparent fashion,” he said.

Folkner went so far as to liken the tax increases to stealing, and said he did not believe holding taxes steady would have eroded the quality of life in Chattanooga. “When your family doesn’t have the money, what do you do? Do you go and steal it? No,” Folkner said. “We want the government to do a better job, with less money. It has nothing to do with essential city services.”

Ultimately, the recall effort against Littlefield failed. Littlefield sued the Election Commission over the petition, which had gathered 9,300 signatures. The court sided with the mayor and halted the recall in early September, saying that the language on some of the petitions had not been approved by the Election Commission, and many of the signatures, in violation of election rules, were undated.

Send a letter to the editor