For aspiring politicians, Ferguson might as well be Palookaville

Jon Dalton is not the mayor of Ferguson.

An earlier post explored the economic landscape of Ferguson, Missouri, and other cities with high poverty rates. Economics, in turn, helps to shape municipal politics in places like Ferguson.

Even some sympathizers of the protestors in Ferguson have tsk-tsked over low voting rates in that city. In 2013, for example, only 11.7 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot in municipal elections. The number suggests a lack of civic responsibility, just as high personal debt can be seen (often unfairly) as a failing of personal responsibility.


But it takes strong candidates with appealing promises to boost interest in municipal politics, and while running for office in a prosperous city or affluent suburb can be a savvy career move (even if the career is not in public service), trying to manage a high-poverty city like Ferguson is more often a dead end.

A candidate for mayor or councilor in a city with a strong tax base can choose from a variety of platforms. He or she can propose higher spending for schools or for keeping the streets clean. He can suggest hiring more police officers or firefighters as the least disruptive way to achieve racial diversity in those departments. Or he can take a different approach and promise to cut taxes and fees, knowing that such a move won’t send the city into bankruptcy. He can even adopt the ever-popular NIMBY approach, leading a fight against new housing or other development that would bring more noise and traffic. When property values are high, you can tell potential new taxpayers to take a hike.

But in addition to running a deficit for the past few years, Ferguson is unusually dependent on fines and court fees, which accounted for an estimated 13 percent of annual revenues in the 2012-13 municipal budget. (By comparison, the city of Webster Groves, cited by St. Louis magazine in 2012 as one of the area’s “Best Places to Live” for the “Married with Children” set, got only 4.4 percent of its revenue from fines.) As Slate’s Jordan Weissman puts it, “local police have a strong financial incentive to arrest, ticket, and otherwise harass the city’s black residents for minor offenses, because that’s how the department funds its budget.” Marginal Revolution’s Alex Tabarrok, citing a report from a nonprofit legal defense fund, notes that in 2013, the Ferguson Municipal Court disposed of 12,018 cases, or 1.5 per household in the city.

Anyone who runs for office in Ferguson promising a better relationship between the police and the citizenry is going to have to come up with a way to pay for it. A less aggressive war on jaywalking might, for example, decimate the parks budget.

Outside of Cory Booker—who rose from mayor of Newark to become U.S. senator from New Jersey—there are few examples of politicians who got a career boost from trying to govern a high-poverty city. Among notable African-American politicians, President Obama and Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick never held municipal office and South Carolina U.S. Sen. Tim Scott served in the government of fast-growing Charleston County. Perhaps Ferguson’s notoriety will be the ticket for someone with innovative ideas about pulling the city out of its tailspin (which will almost surely involve begging the state and federal governments for financial assistance), but it’s hard to imagine the politically red, overwhelmingly white, and not-very-urban state of Missouri rewarding him or her with higher office.

If I had to pick a rising star in politics, I’d look to a place like the preciously named Town and Country, which is 12 miles southwest of Ferguson. Last month the Missouri Times ran an interview with Town and Country Mayor Jon Dalton, and he ticked off some of the accomplishments from his decade-long tenure:

Town & Country is one of the highest per capita income cites in the state of Missouri with wonderfully diverse physical and personal attributes; hence, its name, “Town & Country.” We have invested millions of dollars in our infrastructure and are blessed with a vibrant economy. A solid comprehensive plan guides all developments, we maintain a one-acre minimum residential lot size, provide first-class city services and do not assess a residential or commercial property tax. [The city gets robust revenue from local sales and utility taxes.]

Now there’s someone to get excited about voting for!

Image from Citizens to Re-Elect Jon Dalton.

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