Dumb, Dumber, Dumbest

What is the dumbest local government in America? Hard to say, but at least until recently New York's affluent suburb of Nassau County would have to be a contender. How dumb was Nassau's government? So dumb that it bought 1,200 computers a few years ago as backups for the Y2K problem, then left them in boxes for three years as employees begged for upgrades.
by | February 2003
 

What is the dumbest local government in America? Hard to say, but at least until recently New York's affluent suburb of Nassau County would have to be a contender. How dumb was Nassau's government? So dumb that it bought 1,200 computers a few years ago as backups for the Y2K problem, then left them in boxes for three years as employees begged for upgrades. So dumb that it paid for nearly 1,400 telephone lines that weren't used; most weren't even hooked up to phones. And more: Its records were in such disarray, it didn't know how many employees it had or how much property it owned. It even had its nights and days mixed up: Cops were paid a "night differential" for work after dark. Problem was, it kicked in at 11 a.m. The new county attorney was horrified by the chaos in her department. "I don't know if it's the funniest or saddest thing," she said, "but we found a local statute which had been repealed--then two years later was amended." Thankfully, there's a new administration in Nassau County (the new county executive says, "It was far worse than I ever imagined"). But it could take a while to straighten out a government this dumb. Take, for instance, the elevator at the county executive's building. When you took it to the ground floor, it told you you were at the seventh floor. Not just wrong, but dumb. The building has only five floors.

DOWN THE ROAD

Do you know how much it costs to live in your house every year? How about how much it costs to own and operate your car? If you're like most people, you know your housing costs (mortgage, taxes, electricity, water, etc.) far more precisely than your transportation costs (car payments, insurance, gasoline, maintenance, etc.). Here's the surprise: In most parts of the country, people spend as much on getting around as on living at home, about $7,115 a year, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports. And the farther out you live, the more you spend on transportation, meaning that many people spend much more each year on transportation than on shelter. Says an Atlanta economist, when it comes to figuring out the true cost of a house, "you can't just talk about where people are going to live and can they afford it, but where they're going to work and can they afford to get there." So with this sobering news, homeowners will want to flock back to the city, right? Not exactly. One commuter whose transportation costs were calculated by the newspaper said he was unmoved: "I think it's more important to have more house for the money and just bite the cost of transportation."

LITTLE DIGS

Boston's Big Dig would seem a odd model for others to follow. The Big Dig, as you probably have heard, is the mammoth public works project that is replacing an ugly elevated downtown highway with an underground one. It's an engineering marvel and a financial disaster, taking far longer and costing far more ($14 million at last count) than anyone ever anticipated. Along the way, it has cost a number of public officials their jobs. Regardless, other cities are lining up to do something similar. Latest: Miami, which wants to replace its elevated downtown freeway, Interstate 395, with a below-grade freeway covered by landscaped bridges and pedestrian concourses. (Also toying with underground freeway ideas: Dallas and Atlanta.) What's the appeal? Covering over a freeway suddenly opens large stretches of valuable land, reunites neighborhoods and generally makes your downtown more attractive. That's the thought in Miami, where city officials want to make it easier to walk from downtown to the Omni district to the north. So what would it cost to bury and cover a new freeway? Up to $500 million, according to an initial study. But there's reason to believe it could be made affordable, consultants add. About half the cost could be recouped by selling the land for development, they say. Perhaps an additional $150 million could be raised in bonds tied to the increased value of nearby property. "Is it viable?" one of the consultants mused. "I think it is."

ARMED AND SUBURBAN

In Texas, they allow just about any law-abiding person to carry a concealed weapon. So who's packing heat in the Lone Star State? An analysis by the Houston Chronicle shows it's white male suburbanites. Across the state, one in every 100 adults has a concealed-weapons license. Another finding: 74 percent of license holders are non- Hispanic white men. With non-Hispanic white women, Anglos make up 91 percent of permit holders in a state where whites are 52 percent of the population. Why are so many suburbanites carrying guns? Handgun opponents say they're mystified. "If you ask a gun owner why they carry, they will tell you it's for protection," said one. "Protection from whom? I'm not quite sure what we're afraid of in our mid- to upper-class neighborhoods." But pro-gun activists say that's the wrong question. The real mystery, they say, is why so many inner-city families aren't armed. "A great many American citizens who live in high-crime areas and may actually need to defend themselves don't carry guns, legally or otherwise," said one. "There seems to be an unreasonable fear of guns among many."

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