Five Feet Under

Life is tough in city halls across the country, with tax revenues declining and expenses rising. And, as it turns out, death isn't much better. In Danville, Virginia, the city council recently was struggling with how to hold down costs at the city's cemeteries when one council member made an interesting suggestion: Why not bury people five feet deep rather than six feet?
by | June 2003

Life is tough in city halls across the country, with tax revenues declining and expenses rising. And, as it turns out, death isn't much better. In Danville, Virginia, the city council recently was struggling with how to hold down costs at the city's cemeteries when one council member made an interesting suggestion: Why not bury people five feet deep rather than six feet? He did some quick math and, based on the average cost of a burial, announced that the city could save up to $300 per grave by bringing the departed a little closer to the surface. The public works director said he'd look into the proposal, but the mayor let it be known he thought the council member's idea was, well, shallow. "We can always encourage cremation," the mayor joked. Little did he know that in Minnesota, they're considering doing exactly that. A state legislative committee recently voted to give counties the option of cremating rather than burying those whose families cannot afford to pay for their funerals, as a way of saving money. A spokesperson for the Association of Minnesota Counties explained that county governments are "between a rock and a hard place" these days.

PLENTY OF TIME TO PLAN THE INAUGURAL BALL

How dumb is this: In Baltimore, candidates running for city office will be nominated this September...then wait until November 2004 for the general election. Among other awkward consequences, defeated incumbents will remain in office nearly a year and a half. If that makes no sense to you, it makes no sense to the candidates either. "This is totally ludicrous, insane, crazy, unfortunate and embarrassing," said one council member. How did it happen? City voters decided in 1999 to move city elections to presidential election years. (2004 is the next presidential year.) But there was an oversight: City voters could choose when to hold the general elections, but only the Maryland legislature could set the dates of primaries. This is where a comedy of egos began. The Maryland Senate president wanted to force Baltimore to hold its elections in state election years, regardless of what the voters had decided. Reason: Running on the same cycle as state politicians would make city officials less likely to venture an off-year challenge to, say, the governor. The Senate president said he would move the primary to 2004 only if city officials would agree to run again in 2006. Mayor Martin O'Malley said no, and the legislature adjourned without adjusting the primary date.

PAY AS YOU THROW

Here's a little idea that's getting bigger: Charge people for each bag of garbage they set on the curb. It's called "pay as you throw," and it's catching on in New England. Actually, it has been around since the 1970s in some Midwestern cities, and it's appealingly simple. You go to city hall or to a neighborhood hardware store and buy official city garbage bags (they're usually brightly colored, with the city logo on them) for 50 cents to $3 each. Garbage collectors won't pick up anything that isn't in an official bag or, in the case of a bulky item, with a bag tied to it. Ten years ago, only 20 cities and towns in Massachusetts used a pay-as-you-throw system; today more than 100 do. What's the appeal? Cash and clutter. One Massachusetts expects to raise more than $1 million from its $1.50 bags, on top of annual trash collection fees, which will be continued. Charging by volume has another effect: It reduces the amount people throw away. Surveys show cities and towns reduce trash pickups by 14 to 27 percent once they switch, and increase recycling by a third to a half.

BRINGING DOWN THE HOUSE

Usually when a person donates $10 million to a worthy cause, he gets his name on a building. Robert Thompson will get the opposite: For his contribution, he'll get to knock down some buildings. Thompson, a 70- year-old retired business owner, has pledged $1 million a year for the next 10 years to help the city of Detroit tear down abandoned houses and buildings. Background: Detroit has a monstrous problem with abandoned structures; about 8,000 buildings sit empty or are used by drug dealers and vagrants. Not surprisingly, the effects on neighborhoods are poisonous. The legalities of condemning abandoned buildings are difficult, but the finances are worse. Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick came to office promising to knock down 5,000 a year, but the city ran out of money after leveling fewer than 2,000. Thompson's donation won't make up the difference (the average demolition costs $7,500, so he'll be paying for about 133 additional knock-downs a year), but it will gradually make an impact--1,300 fewer abandoned buildings after a decade. Why did Thompson make his pledge? He and his wife were touched by the problems of inner-city families, he said. "When we pick up a paper and we read about some little girl getting attacked because somebody came out of one of these old homes when she was on her way to school, it's just heart-rending," he said. "We think whatever we can do, however we can help, we will help tear these houses down and get rid of this blight."

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. You can enter an anonymous Display Name or connect to a social profile.

More from Urban Notebook