Housing Complex

Just How Badly Off is the District, Comparatively Speaking?

slack-federalism_lgBeing a capital city, as any long-term resident of the District knows, is both a blessing and a curse. You get the grand buildings and hoopla that accompany the seat of government, and sometimes more cheese than usual from the feds. But you also often have little say in your own governance, and herds of angry protesters.

That unique predicament is the subject of a new book, excitingly titled Finance and Governance of Capital Cities in Federal Systems. Don’t gag yet! Judging from a presentation this morning at the Washington D.C. Economic Partnership, it has some good insights on how screwed the District is, relative to other capital cities in the rest of the world.

The book originated after a conference in the supremely complicated capital of Delhi, where the elected chief minister doesn’t even have control over the things residents care about most: Policing and land use. Exasperated, the minister asked how other capitals are organized. Enid Slack of the University of Toronto and Forum of FederationsRupak Chattopadhyay decided to conduct a survey, which resulted in 11 case studies, from Bonn to Abuja (but not including Brasilia—the editors couldn’t find someone to write about it).

Their analysis identified three different ways in which capital cities are organized: Federal districts carved out of two neighboring jurisdictions (including D.C., Canberra, Mexico City, and Addis Ababa), city states (like Berlin and Brussels), and cities within a province or state (Ottawa, Bern, and Cape Town).

The chapter on the District is written by our own Chief Financial Officer Nat Gandhi—or at least his staff—who knows just how hard it is to run a city where 34 dollars out of every hundred earned disappear to surrounding jurisdictions, and much of the most valuable land contributes nothing to the city’s coffers.

“I do not see any possibility of commuter taxes in my lifetime,“ Gandhi said firmly. And then, about gazing out at the monuments from his former office at 441 4th Street: “Lovely, lovely places, but nothing I could tax.”

In those two problems, the District has compatriots. Many cities have a disconnect between their political boundaries and the “economic region” (think D.C. versus the “Greater Washington Area”)–Brussels, for example, has 160,000 residents, and a million people who work there during the day. With regards to federal investment, other municipalities are much worse off: The city of Cape Town doesn’t dare ask for anything from the federal government, since any city in South Africa would be happy to host it for free.

In one regard, however, the District is uniquely disadvantaged. At the lecture this morning, Office of Planning Director Harriet Tregoning brought up the fact that D.C.’s plight is due in part to its lack of voting rights, and wondered whether anyone else had that problem.

Answer: Nope. That burden is ours alone.

The book, from McGill-Queens University Press, is pretty much only available at the University of the District of Columbia Bookstore.

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