« PreviousContinue »
tion of every form of infectious and contagious disease; and the extent to which modern bacteriological knowledge is utilized in practical municipal administration really, in my judgment, marks the stage of advancement to which any given municipality has attained. The State itself may make certain requirements by general statute and exact a reasonable minimum of excellence in health administration; but obviously the municipal authorities, as respects their own communities—if they serve their communities well-must go far beyond what is possible for the State to prescribe and enforce.
It is certainly an anomaly, from which we must try to deliver ourselves in this country, that a private corporation may be formed, at no expense and with very doubtful capital and financial responsibility, for the sake of invading a municipal corporation, there to perform public functions of the highest importance, such as municipal transit, for example, while the municipal corporation itself, having the highest and the most vital interest in that whole matter, is placed at a disadvantage by the laws of the State, so that it is altogether likely to be severely discriminated against if it should try, on its own behalf, with the entire approval of the great body of the citizens, to render such public services.
New York of late has afforded an interesting illustration of this disadvantage. The proposed underground rapid transit system-to have been constructed on the financial responsibility of the municipality itself—was carefully worked out on the best of plans and in a manner to bear the closest inspection. It was in every way necessary and desirable. Yet the series of artificial obstacles placed in the way of the municipality by foolish and needless constitutional and statutory provisions has for years blocked the way, and the prospect is now dark in the extreme. These needless limitations upon the freedom of action of the municipality are merely playing into the hands of selfish private interests, while the community at large suffers without hope of redress. It is precisely against such a state of affairs that your committee makes protest.
It is not that your committee advocates the municipal construction, much less the municipal operation of a transit line. It does not at this moment devolve upon us either to advocate or to condemn any particular innovation or extension of municipal
functions. What we contend for is that in all these matters, affecting in vital ways the very life of the community, such as the water supply, the lighting supply, the cleansing service, inethods of transit and others more or less analogous, the municipal corporation ought to be in as good a position under the law as any private corporation to engage directly in the business of supply. We are entirely ready to admit the desirability of general laws to guard against certain possible crudities or abuses of such functions, and certainly would not any of us object to a well-organizied administrative oversight on the part of the State, both of the financial and of the engineering or technical aspects of every kind of business enterprise that any municipality might be prepared to enter upon. Local corporations in the State of New York, for instance, may go into the business of supplying water, and may go into the business of constructing and operating a system of sewers, but the laws provide for a fairly advantageous kind of State oversight which does not hamper, but, on the contrary, helps to guarantee the effective exercise of the local function. It is the general opinion of your committee that the municipal corporation might well have the same kind of freedom with respect to public illumination, public transit and various other matters.
Your committee, while not working out the details, is of the general opinion that, while a percentage limitation upon the debtincurring power of the municipal corporation may be a convenient sort of check in a general way, such form of limitation is sometimes extremely embarrassing and not justifiable by the facts. It wculd seem, therefore, that there ought to be excepted from the indebtedness permissible under such a percentage limitation the liabilities incurred for the construction or purchase of water supplies, lighting plants, or transit lines, where in the very fact of the monopoly character of such business it is wholly obvious that the rates can always be made both to pay operating expenses and also to meet interest and sinking-fund charges. In a broad way; therefore, it would be our judgment that for the sake of the progress of our municipal life there should be recognized in municipal finance a clear distinction between indebtedness incurred in nonproductive public improvements, and the indebtedness which is, after all, no burden whatever upon the taxpaying power of the
community, because altogether protected by the productive character of lucrative municipal assets. With such a reasonable distinction maintained and enforced in New York, for instance, several recent deadlocks of a deplorable sort would have been obviated. For example, the proposed new public library, for which the city was to provide the site and building, while the amalgamation of the Astor Library, the Lenox Library and the Tilden Trust were to furnish several hundred thousand volumes and a magnificent endowment fund, seemed indefinitely hung up by the Controller's decision that we had already crossed the line of the debt limit. The payment of school teachers' salaries and necessary improvements in the department of elementary education were in like manner jeopardized. Nevertheless a large amount of money had of late been expended in the construction of new docks, which were carefully projected as a lucrative public asset, and which had already been leased in advance at a safe percentage of remuneration to responsible steamship companies. The bonds for such improvements as these new docks do not burden the taxpayers to the extent of a single penny, because the steamship companies will not only pay the interest and provide the sinking fund, but also something in addition as clear
It was absurd, therefore, that the munipical corporation should find itself, by constitutional safeguard of the debt limit, in a position where it was unable to take advantage for its people of the munificence to the extent of millions of dollars of the philanthropically provided library organizations that are extending to the inunicipality of New York the best opportunity that has ever been extended to any city in the world to have a great public library at comparatively small expense to the taxpayers. There is no reason in the nature of things why the proposed underground transit scheme, which would certainly pay its own way, and the municipal dock improvements, which are a lucrative asset from their very inception, should be considered a part of the public debt in the sense of the constitutional limitation. Where such enterprises are inspected and approved by duly qualified State authorities as being safely in the class of municipal assets to be designated as self-sustaining or productive, it would seem wise that they should be placed in a different category, so that the
municipality might have the same freedorn as private corporations to enter upon these supply services, while not embarrassing itself in the necessary work of supplying schools, cleaning the streets and maintaining a high standard of sanitary administration. The fact that the New York Controller was subsequently able to change his bookkeeping methods and alter his aggregate debt figures, in such a way as to find a margin for some of these necessary expenditures, does not lessen the force of the illustration.
In the moments remaining it will be in order to say something briefly respecting the nature and contents of Article III of the committee's draft of a constitutional amendment, and more especially of Article II of its draft of a proposed municipal corporations act. These articles on the powers of cities intend, in the frankest way, to confer a very broad and general liberty upon the municipal corporation to do things, local and municipal in their nature, which do not interfere with the general work of the State government, nor with the rights and immunities of conimodities or individuals. The power of the city to acquire property is made exceedingly broad, and the exercise of the right of eminent domain is conferred upon the city in a manner which your committee believes that the manifold work of the modern municipality really justifies and requires. For various purposes it is frequently desirable that the municipality should own land outside of its own limits—such, for example, as the protection of the sources of its water supply, the maintenance of sewage disposal farms, the establishment of public cemeteries, the creation of outlying parks and pleasure grounds and so on. Your committee is of opinion that for public purposes the municipal corporation may be safely intrusted with the power to exercise the right of eminent domain outside as well as inside the corporate limits. In the making of a public park we should think it reasonable to allow the municipal corporation at its discretion to condemn more land than it needed, in order by the subsequent sale of environing portions to defray in part the cost of the park. And we are further of the opinion that the municipality should have the power at its discretion to pay for at least some part of the cost of a park, or other comparable public improvement, by a graduated system of special assessments leyied upon benefited property.
In the articles under discussion it is the intention of the committee to give the municipal corporation the fullest possible authority over the ground plan of the town—than which nothing is more essential to the future well-being of the population; and the location and creation of the streets should be accompanied by full authority over the general construction of the town as respects street lines, the harmony of facades, the height of buildings, and, further than that, of course, on sanitary grounds, the regulation of the conditions of inhabitancy. The power to establish and maintain markets and to control all such services has everywhere been found advantageous, not merely on the ground of the economic welfare of the majority of the people, who certainly are enabled to live more cheaply where public markets prevail, but also manifestly because the system of public markets, abattoirs and the like is eminently conducive to that strict inspection of milk, meat and other food supplies, that is so important a branch of the sanitary administration of every well-regulated modern town.
The question whether or not elementary education should be vested in the hands of a distinct school government operating within the same territorial limits as the municipal corporation is one upon which it would not be wise, perhaps, to enter in this paper. If the course of our educational history had not, as a matter of fact, in most parts of the United States, as well as in England, differentiated public school administration in a more or less complete fashion, it is probable that the students of municipal and local administration would think it altogether best for symmetrical local progress if all branches of local governmental administration were reduced to a single unified and symmetrical system, and this is the opinion of the committee. In any case, within the territorial limits of the modern municipal corporation there should be lodged a very wide liberty of discretion in the matter of establishing for the community such educational opportunities and advantages as the best wisdom and enlightenment of the citizens may prescribe and as the public purse may be able to support.
The earlier part of this paper has anticipated the remarks which at this point might otherwise have been made respecting the breadth of discretion the municipal corporation ought to en