By Tom Carroll
We often refer to “the suburbs” as if there were one type, but suburbs today are quite varied and diverse, and far too many face serious challenges of the sort more often associated with urban communities. In huge parts of metropolitan areas outside the central city but inside the beltway, many of America’s older, “first suburbs” face daunting problems, but not all civic leaders in these communities fully appreciate the economic landscape they are governing in.
As the U.S. experienced the worst economic crash since the Great Depression in 2008, families in Silverton and Deer Park, two suburbs of Cincinnati, Ohio, experienced job loss, income reductions, foreclosures, and financial hardship. Investments in homes and commercial buildings were deferred. A few of the local family businesses shuttered, and the rest struggled more than usual.
Silverton directly borders a struggling Cincinnati neighborhood known in the 2000s for open drug dealing and had many residents living in poverty. Silverton’s proximity to this central city neighborhood, as well as its own economic limitations, made it seem less stable. Silverton’s median household income was below the county average, while Deer Park’s was just above the county mean. Some white families in Silverton sold homes below market value to get away from integration, and this flight lowered housing values.
Silverton has struggled in other ways that made its decline more obvious than Deer Park’s. When an Ohio city’s population falls below 5,000, by law it reverts to the status of a village. Silverton reverted from city to village status in 2011, after the 2010 census showed the population had again fallen below 5,000 for the first time since 1961.
No longer being classified a city meant that Silverton’s local government officials could not enter into collective bargaining negotiations with the police union. Consequently, members of the local police department feared a loss of benefits and job protections. Between 2011 and 2013, six of the villages ten police officers took jobs or retired, and new officers could not be hired or trained quickly enough to replace them.
The fiscal challenges facing the City of Deer Park and the Village of Silverton became worse in the 2010s as the State of Ohio reduced local government revenue sharing to balance its own budget and eliminated estate and tangible personal property taxes. Because Silverton started from a worse economic position than Deer Park, its decline was a little steeper and it lasted longer.
In August of 2014, Silverton contracted with Hamilton County for all law enforcement functions and eliminated its police department. This move created economies of scale, reduced law enforcement expenditures, and restored a structural balance to Silverton’s budget after state budget cuts.
The 2008 financial crisis and the fact that Silverton had crossed the Rubicon to become a village forced a transformative change to the community’s governance approach for policing.
The Silverton Flip
Resident engagement has been a central component to the Village of Silverton’s revitalization efforts. Engagement is not something Silverton does as an extra task or a component of our planning. Rather, civic engagement is braided into how we do our day-to-day business, but civic engagement is not easy in Silverton.
Our residents are hard-working people who have little time to spare. Almost one in six Silverton residents fall below the federal poverty line, making their day-to-day a real challenge. A high percentage of our residents are seniors who rely on printed material to find out what is happening in the community—these long-time residents do not get social media boosts, electronic newsletters, or visit our website. And as is the case in so many other communities, many residents don’t seem to care or don’t see much point in involvement. But we persist.
After just six weeks on the job as village manager, I prepared a policy paper laying out three options for the community to consider for law enforcement going forward. These options included:
- Reconstituting the Silverton Police Department (SPD),
- Continuing a hybrid model with a reduced SPD supplemented by sheriff patrols, as was occurring in 2014 out of necessity,
- Eliminate the SPD and contract for all law enforcement functions with the county sheriff.
The paper was first presented to the Silverton Village Council. At council’s direction, the village engaged a facilitator to assist with resident input. Two facilitated sessions were held in March of 2014, each with over 70 residents attending. The evening meetings one week apart were held in the lunchroom at Silverton Paideia Academy in order to accommodate the expected crowds. All members of council attended, as did the remaining officers of the SPD. The Hamilton County Sheriff and several of his command staff attended. Copies of the village manager’s white paper were made available on the village website, at City Hall, and at the meetings.
After a short presentation of the three policy options, residents were invited to ask any questions or make any comments. The facilitator I hired was a woman of color whose business is to gather customer input on products and services from diverse and underrepresented communities. She did a great job and made sure everyone had a chance to share. The facilitated portions of both meetings, which lasted for more than 90 minutes, were both free-form and far-ranging. At the end of both meetings, residents themselves were welcoming the county sheriff to the community and expressing support for his willingness to assume law enforcement functions in Silverton.
Importantly, every employee with the SPD was offered a comparable position, so nobody lost a job. And the sheriff agreed to let the remaining SPD officers patrol in Silverton for at least a year after they became deputies, but also pointed out that some of them may want to transfer to other locations afterwards. The commitment that nobody would lose a job and that SPD officers could remain in Silverton went a long way towards boosting confidence in the process.
Through civic engagement, the village and sheriff learned critically important requirements from the residents that had to do with making sure the SPD employees who had protected and served were not cast aside in the conversion process. Once this was understood and commitments had been made that were included into the contract between Silverton and Hamilton County, the residents were eager for the conversion to take place.
Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Neil, with his back to the camera,
administers the oath of office to three former Silverton employees
who became county sheriff employees on August 1, 2014.
The conversion to the county for law enforcement has been instrumental in helping Silverton achieve its revitalization. The move was supported by residents, has saved over $300,000 per year in expenses, and has led to a reduction in UCR Part I crime in Silverton. It was the first major policy move that freed up Silverton’s operating resources to invest in revitalization in the community, and it was made on the firm foundation of civic engagements in March of 2014.
With a new law enforcement solution and a structurally balanced budget, Silverton then took bold steps to invest in infrastructure and revitalization.
The success of the public meetings in 2014 led Silverton Mayor John A. Smith to launch a new effort for resident engagement. In 2014, Silverton hosted four “curbside chats” which involved village council and senior staff going to geographically diverse streets in the community. At these summer events held in the evening starting at seven pm, the village would physically close the roadway, pitch a small canopy, offer free bottled water, and invite residents to come off their porches and engage. Some meetings have had fewer than ten residents come out, while others have had over 30. This was so successful it has become an annual practice to host at least three “curbside chats” per year in June through August.
The first “curbside chat” in 2015 was the most memorable. The skies opened up with a torrential rainstorm at about 6:50 pm that evening. The village had selected South Broadlawn Circle as the site for this “curbside chat” because the village knew the roadway was in truly deplorable condition. (The roadway was later rated as “failing” by the county taskforce that reviewed Silverton’s application for highly competitive grant dollars to fix residential streets. In some parts, the base course had so worn away that clay was visible.) Water was coursing through the gutters, hitting broken sections of curb, and developing actual whitecaps as the water raced towards the only two catch basins in the low spot at the center of the roadway.
Despite the rainstorm, many residents came out to the street to demand Silverton fix South Broadlawn. All had umbrellas, and the circle had to keep expanding outward as new residents kept coming to have their voices heard. One gentleman, over 80 years old and having lived on the street for over 40 years, came out in fishing waders, a yellow raincoat, and a yellow rubber rain cap. He looked like an old sea captain from a 1950s movie set in Gloucester, Mass. The rain did not let up, nor did the residents stop coming to join the curbside chat in the middle of a wet, failing road that was South Broadlawn Circle.
The noise of the rain hitting the umbrellas made it hard for everyone to hear, especially as the circle expanded outward to let in 22 residents with big umbrellas. Conditions were, suffice it to say, suboptimal for civic engagement and dialogue. But it was an impactful message for residents to come out even in those stormy conditions to make their voices heard over the rain. The message was quite clear: they were shouting at officials that they wanted their roadway rebuilt. The shouting was necessary in order to simply hear what they were saying. But they really did not have to shout. Simply showing up in that storm conveyed everything the village council and administration needed to know about their feelings and expectations.
Three months after this curbside chat, the village applied for a 50 percent grant from the Ohio Public Works Commission (OPWC), and a zero percent loan for the remaining half of the project. This was the village’s first ever grant-loan combo application to the OPWC, and the village used this approach because it did not have its own funding to match the 50 percent grant. (By using a loan to match the grant, the loan portion of the project is treated as local dollars for grant scoring purposes because the loan will be repaid by the local government.) This approach maximized the village’s score. The project was awarded funding in December, six months after the meeting, and the road was reconstructed the year after the infamous curbside chat.
This “curbside chat” taught us several things. Residents will engage when they care. Residents inspire each other to put on their waders and come out in the middle of a storm to be heard. Village officials need to have the courage to go onto streets that have real issues and confront the reality that the residents experience daily. And when the residents do engage, the municipality has to come up with a plan to respond. And when this plan worked so well for South Broadlawn, we learned it could be repeated again and again. This allowed the village to catchup on long-overdue road work. And these repairs came just in time as millennials have entered the housing market en masse. With some of the worst roads repaired, prices have been rising at the fastest rate in the region.
Since 2014, Silverton has rebuilt and resurfaced 37 percent of its roadways.
More work remains to be done, but resident engagement forced a change in
approach which is paying dividends.
The greatest part of the Silverton “flip” as it emerged from the Great Recession was its bold plan to assemble land. Quietly and strategically, Silverton spent $3.25 million to assemble a ten-acre site through 22 separate purchases. Silverton used complex bond financing to acquire the land. This site—assembled, zoned, and virtually shovel ready with proximity to Cincinnati—drew interest from first-class developers. Silverton not only fully recovered its assemblage costs, but it made a profit to reinvest in roadways. Silverton saw that it had to undertake what the free market would not, so the village spearheaded its own revitalization effort.
Deer Park did not change much as a result of the 2008 Recession and the languid economic recovery. Deer Park had struggled with the shrinking tax base too. Deer Park, like so many local governments, deferred road projects out of financial necessity in the years following the Great Recession. Deer Park had some tough negotiations with its police and other labor unions to balance its budget, but it avoided an exodus from its ranks. Home values in Deer Park sank a bit more, and too many families lost their homes through foreclosure. The years after the Great Recession were hard in Deer Park, but things were hard in other nearby communities too.
While it had been hard to perceive the gradual decline, Silverton’s bold steps and the resulting “flip” was obvious to all by 2017. At the annual joint Memorial Day parade that year, Silverton council members were more than a little surprised to hear their counterparts from Deer Park Council suggest the two communities should merge as they walked the parade route from Silverton’s new war memorial to Deer Park’s 1980s park.
Silverton Village Council members had always felt that Deer Park leaders and residents alike looked down on their community. They were surprised to learn that for the first time in fifty years, Deer Park recognized it was still declining but Silverton had started to reverse its own decline. The mayor of Deer Park told the mayor of Silverton, “You guys are clobbering us.” Silverton still has many challenges, but it had taken steps to revitalize while Deer Park had not. How had this reversal of fortunes, this flip of roles, occurred?
Silverton hit first suburban rock bottom in 2013 and 2014. It was unable to retain its police officers. With a recovery from the Great Recession still elusive, the Silverton finance director openly stated he thought Silverton would run out of financial reserves in a couple of years. This “sky-is-falling” financial forecast further fueled anxiety just as the state government was slashing local government funding in general.
Falling below 5,000 residents and reverting to village status after 50 years of being a city was a real wake up call for residents in Silverton. The loss of experienced police officers forced the residents to engage with council to determine a sustainable policing model. Given Silverton’s proximity to a troubled Cincinnati neighborhood, residents were focused by genuine concern that crime and drug dealing could spill over into the community if something was not done quickly to shore up safety services.
Silverton’s council considered placing a tax levy on the ballot to provide financial stability and to quickly hire police officers to replace those who had retired or left for other agencies. Resident reaction to a tax increase was understandably cool, and council never really gave it serious consideration. The mayor and council gave passing consideration to asking Cincinnati to absorb the community through a merger.
Residents of the community became engaged and let it be known clearly that this was not an acceptable option. After all, it was crime from the adjacent neighborhood inside Cincinnati that had provided residents’ focus in the first place. Why would Silverton want to merge with Cincinnati when Cincinnati was not able to stop crime in the neighborhood right next door? Silverton’s residents made it clear that they neither wanted a major tax increase nor did they want to become the 53rd neighborhood within the City of Cincinnati. Through civic engagement, residents helped the village rule out options the community would not accept.
With a few bad options ruled out, Silverton decided to take a major policy step and eliminated its own police department altogether. The remaining police employees were absorbed into the sheriff’s office as part of the conversion, so nobody lost a job. It was because Silverton finally felt like it was facing an existential threat that it was spurred on to embrace wholesale revision to its governing approach.
And the major governance change restored structural balance to the budget, which freed up resources for major investments in roads, parks, and economic development. Silverton realized that neither the state nor federal levels of government were going to fix these challenges. Hitting the end of the road for can kicking enabled Silverton to make more dramatic transformations to governance models and actively reshape its economic future
In contrast, Deer Park could not fully appreciate that even though its decline was further behind Silverton’s, Deer Park was on the same trajectory. Deer Park did not have that existential moment that Silverton had between 2013 and 2014. Deer Park, like so many struggling first suburbs, has been rather like the proverbial frog in the pot of water. It knows the temperature is going up. It knows that things are not as comfortable as they used to be. But it cannot bring itself to make the jump even as the water starts to simmer and the first bubbles from the boil are starting to come up. Deer Park was never forced to ask itself what needed to change for the situation to get better. It stayed the course, even as the course was clearly downward.
Many first suburbs across the nation are experiencing a story similar to the one described in this article. So many post-World War II suburbs are losing people, losing commerce, experiencing the suburbanization of poverty, deferring infrastructure investments, and seeing its older housing stock age in place. Pulitzer-prize winning author David Halberstam wrote in The Best and the Brightest, “In government it is always easier to go forward with a program that does not work than to stop it altogether and admit failure.” Halberstam was talking about how the United States escalated the war in Vietnam even though there were plenty of clear signs that a change in strategy was warranted. The context Halberstam was describing was very different. Yet, Halberstam points to the fundamental first suburban challenge: How can an inner-ring suburb reverse decline with the same governing approaches that failed to prevent it in the first place? The answer is we cannot.
Civic leaders in America’s first suburbs need to involve the public in clear-eyed, future-looking visioning. We need governance business models that reflect today’s economic reality rather than that of the 1950s or 1960s. We need to boldly raze obsolete commercial buildings and dilapidated homes that are irrecoverable. We cannot be blinded to our own first suburban decline just because we are faring a bit better than another community that is struggling more. First suburban civic leaders must recognize that suburban poverty is clear and present and is not simply going to go away. It must be confronted as a community, with a helping hand instead of a blind eye.
There is so much work to do in America’s first suburbs. We must avoid Halberstam’s trap of going forward with strategies that are not working. And we should not wait to act until the water boils.
Silverton Village Manager Tom Carroll is a Richard S. Childs Fellow.