More 'Broken Windows' When Cities Are Broke

Things To Come
Things to Come | Photo: Steve Snodgrass | Flickr: Creative Commons License

"Broken windows theory" makes the connection - often disputed - between small acts of disorder (unmowed lawns, stranded shopping carts, windows broken) and graver instances of neighborhood decline. Whether they believe in the "broken windows theory" or not, city officials in tract house suburbs like mine act as if they do.

In Westminster, another mid-1950s town, city officials are testing the theory. They're letting the windows stay broken.

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I imagine Westminster city council members would prefer not to, but hammered by twenty years of state takeaways from local revenue, five years of recession, and this year's end of redevelopment, the only surplus Westminster has is an excess of impossible choices.

Westminster chose one of them last week, and it's the one that picks away at the surface of not-quite-middle-class life in Westminster, the one that undermines predictability (which is the necessary illusion needed to live in that sort of place).

By the end of the month, the city council will have laid off 67 employees (not counting those who may be lost to attrition in the future). Those layoffs represent 26 percent of Westminster's part-time staff and 12 percent of its current full-time staff. (Since 2007, the city has lost 27 percent of its full-time workforce.)

By July, Westminster will have just two property code enforcement officers. The others will be laid off. The department director who oversees code enforcement - and community planning, housing, and construction safety inspection - will be laid off. The code enforcement officers left will report to the police department's traffic sergeant.

The Westminster Police Department, which had a force of 105 sworn and civilian employees in 2006, will shrink to 88. When officers retire, become disabled, or leave, they won't be replaced. Police officers won't write up petty crimes. Only major crimes will be investigated, although not all of them will be investigated, according to the Westminster chief of police, "in a timely manner and some cases possibly expiring under the statute of limitations."

Customer service staff members - the people who take and process complaints - will be laid off, and the walk-in service center at Westminster Mall will close. Violations of property ordinances and business codes will take longer to correct. Homeowners and contractors will have long waits for building inspections.

Inevitably, Westminster will become indifferent to the all the "broken window" abuses of predictability.

Of course, Westminster is not alone. Every city in California (excepting the enclave cities of the very rich) confronts the same inevitability, hears the same bankruptcy stories and rumors (Vallejo, Hercules, San Jose, Mammoth Lakes, Stockton), and willfully ignores the trail of chaotic state budgeting that leads, also inevitably, back to 1978, Proposition 13, and a much younger Governor Brown.

I find it hard to blame Westminster. The city saved up reserves to cover unexpected needs. It delivered services, occasionally improving them. It satisfied its residents' desires, even when those desires were in conflict. Westminster is not a poorly managed city, although it's a forgetful one, and its city council members in recent weeks sounded like hedge fund managers discussing the breakup of an unprofitable acquisition.

But that's the way we talk about California today, where civic life has been rescripted into the language of fund managers, because we can't talk about how we got here, because how we got here would frighten and sadden us, because it's easier to believe that we didn't choose the inevitable.

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