WASHINGTON — More than half of U.S. cities have cut staff, canceled construction projects or raised fees this year, according to a report from the National League of Cities that catalogs the vast damage from shrunken property- and income-tax revenue.
Cities are struggling from the same problems that have left the national economy sputtering: high unemployment, a depressed housing market and weak consumer spending. Those factors have reduced the taxes that cities collect for a fifth straight year. Many have had to make up the gap by laying off employees, freezing pay, cutting services, raising fees or suspending construction projects.
Two-thirds of city finance officers said they had delayed or canceled public-works projects this year. Two in five reported raising fees for city services. One in five had cut spending on public safety. Nearly one in three had laid off staffers.
“We hoped the worst would be over at this point, but given where the economic considerations are, that seems to be very unclear here in the fall of 2011,” said Christopher Hoene, director of the league’s research arm and one of the report’s authors.
Cities typically suffer the full force of a recession later than states and the nation as a whole do. That’s because many cities rely heavily on property tax revenue, which can take several years to fully reflect falling home prices.
By comparison, states rely mostly on income and sales taxes. Income-tax revenue usually falls steeply within months after layoffs. State sales tax revenue also drops as people spend less.
As states’ tax collections fell during the recession, they responded by cutting aid to cities, school districts and localities. Those cuts are expected to peak next year, according to research by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities cited by the league’s report.
Impact on public education
Public education is especially hurt because many school districts are funded about half by states and half by property taxes, said Michael Leachman, the center’s director of state fiscal policy.
“The bursting of the housing bubble has now caught up with property tax revenues, so that’s making it harder for local governments to offset the declines in state aid that they’ve been seeing,” Leachman said.
In Cleveland, the school board was to vote Tuesday night on whether to lay off teachers for the second time this year. The school district says it would have to find more than $10 million in cuts to help balance its budget and save the jobs of more than 300 teachers.
This past summer, the city laid off more than 300 employees, including about 80 police officers. Cleveland officials blamed cuts in state aid.
The combination of state cuts and falling tax revenue amounts to a “double-whammy” for city residents that’s likely to persist for years, said Scott Pattison, executive director of the National Association of State Budget Officers.
“States really are not in a position to go back and restore those cuts,” Pattison said. “Money is so tight, they don’t have it to start giving it back.”
The hardest-hit cities have been those that depend most on income from property taxes, the report said. Many are in the Northeast, Hoene said. By contrast, Midwestern cities tend to have steeper income taxes. And cities in the West, South and Southeast typically rely more on sales-tax revenue.
All three categories of tax revenue are expected to decline in 2011, Hoene said.
The report is based on a survey taken this spring and summer, before worsening economic data and fears about Europe’s debt woes hurt consumer confidence and caused wild swings in the stock market.
“There may be a reconsideration of that as this year continues to unfold,” said another co-author, Michael Pagano, dean of the College of Urban Planning at the University of Illinois and Chicago. “We’re looking at at least another two or three years of very troubling fiscal signals for cities and municipalities.”
The report is based on an annual survey of finance officers from cities and municipalities with more than 10,000 residents.