Building Resilient Infrastructure With a ‘Broken’ Revenue Model

View looking south of Syracuse, New York.

View looking south of Syracuse, New York. debra millet

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The mayor of Syracuse, New York offers some perspective on how preparing the city for a changing climate and extreme weather is interwoven with issues like municipal finance and poverty.

Editor’s Note: This is the third in a series of articles based on interviews with city officials at the 2017 Resilient Cities Summit. The National League of Cities, the Urban Land Institute, and the U.S. Green Building Council held the event in Stowe, Vermont, July 17 to 19.

For Syracuse, New York Mayor Stephanie Miner, building a resilient city means that basic services and infrastructure won’t fail when extreme weather or other unexpected events hit.

“No matter what comes,” she said, “you have systems that are predictable and function.”

In upstate New York, where Syracuse is located, what the mayor described can involve looking at ways to ensure that water pipes don’t freeze during winter cold snaps and that the sewer doesn’t back up and overflow when powerful storms roll through, dumping rain.

Previous standards for infrastructure might no longer be adequate in future years, noted Miner, a Democrat, who has held office since 2010.

“We have to think about 100-year storms becoming 1,000-year storms,” she said.

But developing hardened and dependable public works is about more than engineering. In Syracuse, factors like the city’s finances and poverty among residents also come into play.

Located about 200 miles northwest of New York City, along the New York State Thruway, Syracuse has about 143,000 residents, down from a peak of around 216,000 in the 1960s.

As an epicenter for salt production in the 1800s, the city earned the nickname “Salt City.” The Syracuse region would go on to become a manufacturing hub for goods like gears, typewriters, candles and tableware and, later, auto parts, air-conditioners and electronics.

But the city and the surrounding area experienced industrial declines in recent decades, similar to those seen in other upstate New York cities, and across the Midwest and Appalachia.

Hospitals, the State University of New York Upstate Medical University and Syracuse University, which has about 22,000 students, are now among the largest local employers.

This economic shift away from factories, toward “eds and meds,” has had implications for the amount of money the city has available to cover infrastructure and public service costs.

“Older cities, in the Northeast in particular, were based on models of large manufacturers,” Miner said, noting that these sorts of companies not only employed substantial numbers of people but also had facilities that occupied sizable tracts of land.

“They paid heavy duty property taxes and that funded city services,” the mayor added.

In contrast, the city's higher education and health care institutions tend to be nonprofits, exempt from property tax. “But they consume expensive city services: police, fire, public works,” Miner noted.

And what this means, she said, is that the city’s revenue model “is broken.”

Fixing it, in the mayor’s view, would require state policy changes allowing for greater revenues, in the form of taxes or other payments, to be collected from organizations now covered by exemptions.

“If they’re using police services,” Miner said, “they should pay for police services.”

“That’s just a basic sense of equity,” she added. “If you’re using it, you should help pay for it.”

It’s not only economic transformation that has affected the city’s financial position. The mayor made a case that dwindling state and federal assistance is a concern as well.

Against this fiscal backdrop, Miner said she believes the greatest risk Syracuse is currently confronting is an “unacceptable” level of income inequality and poverty. U.S. Census Bureau estimates for 2011 to 2015 indicate that just over one-third of people in the city were in poverty.

“I worry about it a great deal,” Miner said. Tight financial resources make the city even more vulnerable on this front, according to the mayor, limiting Syracuse’s options for putting infrastructure in place that, the way she sees it, can help people escape poverty.

In referring to infrastructure, the mayor takes a broad view—one that encompasses public transit systems that can help people get to jobs, parks facilities where activities can be held for children and senior citizens, and programs to clean up lead in older housing.

So given that money for even basic infrastructure and services is constrained, how can a city like Syracuse afford the kinds of resilient systems that the mayor described as necessary to meet future climate and environmental challenges?

Miner thinks that emerging technology can help.

As an example she pointed to work Syracuse did with the University of Chicago to develop a predictive analytics model to help identify city water pipes that are most likely to break. Overlaying this information with other mapping data helps the city to prioritize its upgrades.

“That’s where I think the next level’s got to be,” Miner said. “Say to the architects and the engineers and the data scientists: ‘figure out how to stretch this money.’”

PREVIOUSLY in this Route Fifty series:

Bill Lucia is a Senior Reporter for Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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