D.C. has the highest long-term debt outstanding per capita and it’s the worst-run city in the nation, according to a new study by District-based personal finance website WalletHub.
The study compared America’s 150 biggest cities to determine the best- and worst-run municipalities, based upon how much each city spends per capita, and 35 criteria of the outcomes in each city, including financial stability, education, health, safety, economy, infrastructure and pollution.
The District’s “quality of city services” ranked 46th but its “total budget per capita” ranked 150th.
After D.C., the rest of the 10 worst were Gulfport, Mississippi; San Francisco; Chattanooga, Tenn.; New York City; Detroit; Oakland, Calif.; Flint, Michigan; Hartford, Conn.; and Cleveland.
The best-run cities are, in order, Nampa, Idaho; Provo, Utah; Boise, Idaho; Durham, North Carolina; and Lexington, Kentucky.
There are two primary reasons that some cities are run better than others, said WalletHub expert David N. Schleicher, a law professor at Yale.
“The first is political competition. In most big cities, there is little political competition, particularly for non-mayoral positions,” Schleicher said. “In most cities, there are no competing political parties to provide voters with easy shorthand about which politicians support what, either because elections are non-partisan or because one party dominates so completely.
“As a result, only the heavily invested and informed — lobbyists, powerful interest groups, and long-term homeowners vote and participate,” he said. “Other interests suffer when there is little political competition.”
The second, according to Schleicher, is the way government decisions are made. Many cities are fractal as they allow individual city council members to make decisions about what happens in their neighborhood, they create special purpose governments to decide on policy on one issue specifically and not others, he said.
“This means that broader interests suffer — every neighborhood says no to the new garbage dump even though the city needs it, the city’s fire budget increases even if it is not needed because it is run by a special purpose government focused on that issue alone,” Schleicher said.
“Cities with strong centralizing institutions — strong mayors, city planning requirements, smart budgeting rules — can avoid this plight,” he said.
WalletHub experts said they agree that running a city is a tall order. The larger the city, the more complex it becomes to manage.
In addition to representing the residents, local leaders must balance the public’s diverse interests with the city’s limited resources, according to the website’s experts. That often means not everyone’s needs can or will be met.
Leaders must carefully consider which services are most essential, which agencies’ budgets to cut or boost and whether and how much to raise taxes, among other decisions, they said.
When asked about the most important issues facing cities today, WalletHub expert Denise Scheberle said climate change.
“Failing to address climate change and to adapt to its consequences will touch every city in the world,” said Scheberle, a clinical teaching professor at the University of Colorado Denver’s School of Public Affairs. “Consider, for example, sea-level rise as one consequence of a warming planet. If the predicted increases hold true, rising seas will redraw boundaries of our many large cities located near oceans or the Gulf of Mexico.
“Inland cities will face challenges of more extreme weather events, including flooding, tornadoes, drought, wildfires, higher incidences of insect-borne diseases and health problems associated with high temperatures,” she said.
To view the full report, go to wallethub.com.