Challenging Times Require Citizens To Go Back To Basics
By Mayor Gary D. Leitzell
Back around 2002, the City of Dayton administration began focusing its attention on developing the downtown area. Back then, it made a lot of sense — let people invest in the neighborhoods while government focused on the core. However, the reality was that very little investment was going to be made towards redeveloping the outlying neighborhoods. I was a member of the Southeast Dayton Priority Board back then, and I realized that it was going to be proud citizens from the community and private investment that would take care of Dayton’s neighborhoods, not local government. I also remember being told by a former president of my neighborhood association that more could be achieved through the neighborhood association than could ever be achieved through the Priority Board system. Why? The Priority Boards were an extension of the City, and if resources were not going to be directed towards the neighborhoods then they were not going to be directed towards the Priority Boards. A neighborhood association is independent of the City and has the freedom to do its own will.
I learned a few other things during those years. One, it doesn’t take a lot of money to make a big difference. Two, you don’t need city permission to do good things in the community, you just needed support from your neighbors and three, if it is legal, moral, ethical and doesn’t cost the tax payer money, government can’t stop you from doing good things.
So, in post housing crisis times, how do we save our neighborhoods? For those who were not aware, there are 65 neighborhoods in Dayton encompassing 55 square miles of area. Thirteen are designated as Historic Districts and have strong community groups that do an excellent job of taking care of their neighborhoods, then there are a handful of excellent neighborhoods that are not designated historic districts that also have strong community support. About one third of the neighborhoods in Dayton could actually be classified as excellent, about one third could be classified as fair to good and a third could be considered poor to fair. The neighborhoods that can be ranked as poor have fewer owner-occupied structures and they generally have no active neighborhood association. So neighborhood associations and home ownership are two ingredients necessary for good neighborhoods. Pride is another. When a community has pride, they can achieve great things.
In 2007 I proposed the concept of residential “Special Improvement Districts” or SIDs to my neighborhood. Usually an SID is created around a business district and in Dayton, downtown has an SID serviced by the Downtown Dayton Partnership. A SID is financed by an elective assessment on real estate and has to follow a formula that is fair to all properties in the district, and the money has to be used to benefit all of the property owners in the district. My neighborhood, Walnut Hills, was willing to be a testing ground. We looked at an assessment of $50 per year per structure, which would have generated $125,000 per year that could only be used for improvements that would benefit my neighborhood – and a neighborhood could certainly do a lot with $125,000 a year.
The negative part of this story is that we needed 60% of the property owners to sign a petition supporting the self-imposed tax, meaning 1500 signatures were needed. Getting that many signatures from a neighborhood would require a small group of about 10 dedicated citizens willing to commit about 50 hours each to go door-to-door collecting signatures, and another group mailing petitions and explanations to hundreds of absentee landlords. I didn’t have such a group, but there was significant interest in the community. Such a plan would enable neighborhoods to raise money for streetlights, snow removal, extra security, park maintenance or even demolition, if it benefited the entire neighborhood.
The SID concept isn’t dead here in Dayton. In fact, a much smaller neighborhood is now willing to test the waters on this and if successful we may see several more follow. This type of tool allows neighborhoods to take care of their own needs.
Some neighborhoods are organizing clean up days and coordinating their efforts with the Montgomery County Solid Waste District, which loans out a trailer loaded with tools and equipment for clean ups at no charge to organized groups of five or more people. Often these get coordinated with the City waste collection, and this year the City and County have worked out an agreement with Waste Management that will provide roll-out dumpsters to assist with clean ups in areas that need them – yet another tool to empower neighborhood groups.
These challenging times require us to go back to basics. Before the 1960s, communities came together and pitched in to solve problems. They didn’t expect government to cut grass, demolish buildings or pick litter up off the streets. They expected government to provide safety services, street repair and functioning sewer systems. If neighbors didn’t like the way something was, they banded together to fix the problem. Of course, there was no air conditioning or cable TV to entice people to remain indoors and sit around either. So if something bothers you about where you live and you have the ability to solve a problem, take responsibility for your community and fix the problem. Government is here to facilitate solving problems, but it definitely requires a partnering with its citizens to make it a success.
Reach Dayton Mayor Gary D. Leitzell at (937) 333-3653 or GaryLeitzell@DaytonCityPaper.com.