May 28, 2012 2:51 AM GMT
Of course there are extremists here who claim austerity can't be done and that the unions are underpaid. The reality is a bit different.
The first couple of years were ugly. After this working-class port city became the largest in America to declare bankruptcy in 2008, crime and prostitution surged as the police force was thinned by 40 percent. Firehouses were shuttered, and funding for libraries and senior centers was slashed. Foreclosures multiplied and home prices plummeted.
But then this city of 116,000 began to reinvent itself. It started using technology to fill personnel gaps, rallying residents to volunteer to provide public services and offering local voters the chance to decide how money would be spent — in return for an increase in the sales tax. For the first time in five years, the city expects to have enough money to do such things as fill potholes, clear weeds, trim trees and repair tennis courts. [...]
During happier times, Vallejo’s salaries for city employees had ballooned, with a number of top officials making $200,000 or $300,000. More than 80 percent of the municipal budget went toward compensation.
The city’s credit rating dropped to junk status, and as part of its bankruptcy settlement, Vallejo paid only five cents for every dollar it owed to bondholders. On the labor side, officials cut workers’ pay, health care and other benefits but left pensions intact. [...]
The police went high-tech, investing $500,000 in cameras across the city that allow officers to monitor a larger area than they could before. The department deputized citizens to participate in law enforcement by sharing tips on Facebook and Twitter.
Gomes, whose husband is a retired police officer, focused on public safety. The couple went neighborhood to neighborhood setting up e-mail groups and social media accounts so people can, for instance, share pictures of suspicious vehicles and other information. “There have been countless cases where ordinary people have stopped crimes this way,” Gomes said.
The number of neighborhood watch groups jumped from 15 to 350. Citizen volunteers came together monthly to paint over graffiti and do other cleanup work.
And the city council struck an unusual deal with residents — if they agreed to a one-penny sales tax increase, projected to generate an additional $9.5 million in revenue, they could vote on how the money would be used. The experiment in participatory budgeting, which began in April, is the first in a North American city.
The approach was pioneered in Port Alegre, Brazil, as a way to get citizens involved in bridging the large gap between the city’s middle-class residents and those living in slums on the outskirts. Individual districts in New York and Chicago are also experimenting with the process, and residents there have expressed interest in spending money on things such as more security cameras and lighting, public murals, and Meals on Wheels for seniors.