How city governments can do more to serve people than they are today.
Solutions for the Underaffiliated spoke with David Morris Executive Director of the Institute of Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) to explore the ways local governments can more effectively serve the public good instead of corporate interests.
The Institute of Local_Self-Relaiance (ILSR)
ILSR aims to disperse economic and political power away from corporate interests and toward people and local governments.
It focuses on five, local-focused initiatives to give citizens the authority, capacity, and responsibility to exercise power:
Energy initiatives empower households and communities to produce their own local, clean, and renewable energy and oppose the power of monopoly utilities.
Community Broadband programs help provide fast, affordable and reliable Internet access to all Americans.
Its Independent Business Initiative leads efforts to fight giants like Walmart and Amazon, and seeks to reverse government policies that work against small, independent businesses.
The Waste to Wealth Program aims to move toward a zero-waste economy, expose corporate control of the waste sector, and support community efforts to shut down garbage incinerators.
ILSRs Composting Community Initiative advances local composting to create jobs, enhance soils, protect the climate, and reduce waste.
The Power of City Governments
City governments have more power than many people understand to make rules to improve the quality of life for its citizens and future generations and take on corporate power.
For example, they can make rules related to how roads and land are used, the types of residential and commercial businesses that can open in the area, and they can impact broadband capacity, sustainable energy, housing, healthcare, and how energy companies operate.
A Similar Historical Moment: Private Interests Undermining the Public Good
The United States faces a similar situation as existed in the late 1900s when private interests paid government officials, leading to corrupt and inefficient city governments that lacked authority.
Anything from street cars to electric utilities to water departments were controlled by private companies.
While the issue today is with corporations influencing state and national politicians, the concept of private interest undermining the public good is the same.
In response, conservatives and progressives, populists and socialists, joined together and took control of state legislatures.
They established home rule laws that gave cities more authority to make decisions, especially over city ownership of utilities.
Today, to varying degrees, municipalities have the ability to choose the form of government and to exercise local self-government, determine revenue sources, set tax rates, borrow funds and other related financial activities, and to set employment rules, remuneration rates, employment conditions and collective bargaining.
Energy — ILSR on ENERGY
Many energy companies control both power generation — energy sources and storage — and distribution — how it gets from the source to our homes and businesses.
In California, and many states, people can put solar panels on their roofs, but can’t sell the resulting power without permission from the power company.
Cities can establish a Local Municipal Electric Utility, to make the rules, so the city can be in charge of distribution and let others do generation and storage, or vice versa.
At the same time, some might argue that the energy distribution system created by power companies are a marvel in their effectiveness and efficiency, so the issue isn’t with generation, it is getting and storing solar and wind power, it is getting it on the existing distribution system.
People in cities and rural areas can vote out leaders who support power company monopolies — they just need alternatives to both.
In the 1980s, St. Paul, Minnesota evaluated how it could get the most from local resources and set up a district energy system to replace corporate power companies.
At first it put in heating powered by local businesses and then cooling.
In 2003, District Energy was a partner in a combined heat and power (CHP) plant fueled by urban wood residuals, which reduced sulfur dioxide and particulate emissions, carbon dioxide emissions, and the use of oil, natural gas and coal.
In 2011, the system added the Midwest’s largest solar installation.
It is the country’s second largest hot water solar project and the first in the United States to be integrated into a district heating system.
The District is governed by a board of directors appointed by the mayor and those elected by individual categories of building owners.
The District Energy System now provides assistance to other cities around the world
Broadband: Example (ILSR Report) of a city working and succeeding to set up broadband service for its citizens despite corporate and political pushback.
Wilson, North Carolina, population about 50,000, set up broadband for its citizens.
The telecommunications companies went to state legislatures which told the cities to stop. Republican senators and representatives argued that the federal government is too far away from the people, and that the states were closest to them.
The federal government argued that city and county governments are closest to the people and that the states cannot pre-empt cities from limiting them from building broadband networks.
Many cities that built their own broadband capabilities leveraged a municipally owned utility company to do so. In rural governments used rural electric or rural telephone cooperatives.
Still, 19 states have set up barriers to cities establishing broadband.
Utility companies say that cities don’t know how to do it. If that is true, why do the utilities care if they try?
The Canadian health system was born in 1944, when voters in the rural province of Saskatchewan elected a democratic socialist government after politicians had campaigned for a basic right to health care.
Three years later, the same politicians replaced the privately insured and funded health care system with one that used taxes to cover all hospital care province-wide.
In response, doctors staged a 23-day strike to protest universal health coverage.
But the program had become popular, so it was too politically damaging to take it away.
Other provinces took notice, and the system spread nationwide and eventually established what would become the Canadian health care system, known as Medicare.
Under the law, Canada’s 13 provinces and territories decide how to design and deliver their health care system — not unlike Medicaid in the U.S, which is managed by the states.
To receive federal dollars, provinces and territories must provide public administration and be comprehensive, universal, portable and accessible.
If someone moves between provinces, their insurance travels with them.
Everyone (except undocumented immigrants) carries a health insurance card that covers them.
These plans cover medically necessary hospital care and essential physician services, but do not include dental, out-of-hospital medications, long-term care, ambulance services or vision care.
To pay for uncovered care, two-thirds of Canadians rely on supplemental insurance plans typically paid by employers (as is the case in much of the U.S.).
City governments and their citizens could focus on four approaches to applying their power against corporate interests.
Ensure the master plan represents the best interests of the community and apply its rules.
A master plan typically includes analysis, recommendations, and proposals for a city’s economy, housing, transportation, community facilities, and land use, including zoning regulations and development standards.
The plan show include an exhaustive analysis of the costs and benefits of those elements to the public good, not just private business.
The plan represents the rules that give cities authority that they then have the responsibility and financial capacity to act on to for the public good.
For example, housing developers often make special requests of city planning commissions regarding easements and heights of new buildings.
These “variances” are essentially outside the rules.
Cities do not have to accommodate developers, but they often do, allowing a few extra floors to be built, for example.
Set up a local municipal authority
It can provide services like electricity, water, gas, internet, telephone services, and garbage removal.
Top priorities are health, safety, and quality of life because they are owned by the public and workers.
They allow for new funding models that can accelerate our transition to a safe and renewable grid, while reducing the burden on people who are already paying too much.”
Take the risk of thinking and acting like the private sector. Cities are not going anywhere, so they can afford to take a little risk and ask for as much as they can until the other party walks away.
Figure out how to leverage all their assets to make municipalities better for the people by taking an inventory of their resources.
Many cities have buildings which can generate electricity, land for affordable housing, and debt capacity to fund development for its citizens.
Cities use financing capacity to generate capital for conventions centers, sports facilities that cost tens of millions of dollars.
If cities want to build affordable housing, for example, they can argue that all they want is the same funding that financed a stadium or convention center AND it’s good for citizens.