Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Storm after the storm: public and private property

What happens when government makes you care for "public property" as if it were "private," yet you cannot enjoy it as you would your own private property?

After the recent big blizzard (nine days ago), the New York City Sanitation Department got to work starting the very next morning. That is, they got to work issuing $100 tickets to property owners who didn't clear the sidewalks in front of their buildings.

As Becky Akers noted, it's even worse. New York City's laws make the property owners responsible for maintenance and repair beyond just shoveling snow:
You might think said department would be too busy plowing the city's 19,000 miles of paved streets to tackle anything else. But the peculiar combination of ennui and energy characterizing all bureaucracies damns this one, too: it barely bothers with the job assigned it while minding everybody else's business. Even as the snow deepened in the streets, the Sanitation Department worried about my sidewalk.

It isn't really my sidewalk, of course. I don't own it, and I can't prohibit anyone from doing as he pleases on it. Dog-walkers consider it their pets' bathroom; kids treat it as their roller-skating rink or baseball field; revelers raucously congregate on it, smack-dab below my bedroom window, at 2 a.m.. I am powerless to prohibit any of this, regardless of how it disturbs me, because the sidewalk is public property.

Let that sidewalk buckle, crack, or shed a chunk of concrete, however, and it suddenly belongs to me.

Section 2904 of the City Charter states: "The owner of any property, at his or her own cost, shall install, reconstruct, repave and repair the sidewalk flags [sections] abutting such property, whenever the Commissioner of the Department shall so order or direct."

Thus does the city government tax property owners, already paying exorbitant extortion, yet again....
As the saying goes, "read the whole thing." There are some things people need to read and become aware of, even if they make our blood boil.

When I was little, I once had a little tiff with other boys who lived on the opposite end of our cul-de-sac. One day they declared that I could no longer ride on "their" half. After informing my father, he explained to me that the street belongs to everyone. It seemed a reasonable explanation to young Perry. That strange adjective "public" meant that we didn't pay for its upkeep, at least not directly, I'd learn in later years. I didn't understand the concept of taxation, let alone how it went to the overpaid union workers who patched up and occasionally repaved the street. Whenever they came, those people seemed to outnumber, and move more slowly than, the myriad gastropods that resided on the sidewalks and our lawns.

It was odd indeed that the work didn't seem to warrant so many people, like if my parents told my sister and me to peel a single carrot together. They never did, because my sister and I would just get in each other's way, of course. If my parents paid each of us a dollar a week for doing chores together, but many chores could be done just as quickly (if not faster) by just one, why, then we'd have to compete with each other. But if we wanted the ease of not having to compete, and if our parents didn't know or were willing to part with $2 when $1 could have bought the same end result, why would my sister and I have minded any inefficiency? Such thoughts were beyond that of a little boy, but I did understand that my father wasn't the one who hired those laborers. I couldn't quite conceptualize, though, that he regularly gave money (let alone how he did it) to this entity called "South San Francisco," which then hired crews to do various things for and on "public" property.

What I understood above all was that our house belonged to us. People could walk on the sidewalk if they chose, but they couldn't come into our house unless we first gave permission. If we didn't like them standing in our driveway or on our front step, we could tell them to leave. "Our," "belong" and their variants were very powerful words. My bicycle was "mine," though it was solely my problem (well, my parents') if it got dirty or one of the tires went flat. At least no other children could ride it unless I permitted it: it was an acceptable trade-off. Besides, if others shared ownership and could ride it as they pleased, then in fairness they should share in my bike's maintenance...but how well could I trust them in that?

Well, New York City has taken the definition of "public property" beyond Orwellian Doublethink's ability to rationalize. The sidewalk is public property, but like private property in that building owners have the responsibility to maintain the stretch in front of their properties. Yet it's not "private" enough to forbid pedestrian traffic upon it: you as the owner must maintain it, but you have no right to tell someone to walk his dog elsewhere. It seems "private" is only in the fascist, aka tyrannical sense that the owner must obey the government's decree to repair it. No Indian maharajah or Siamese king could have bestowed a worse white elephant!

It's one thing to encourage city residents to be good neighbors and shovel the sidewalks in front of their buildings. It's another thing to require them by law to do it by a certain time. As Becky quoted the Sanitation Department Commissioner:
"Whether you're the owner, tenant, occupant or the person in charge of any lot or building, you must clear the snow and/or ice from your sidewalk within four (4) hours after the snow has stopped falling, or by 11 a.m. if the snow stopped falling after 9 p.m. the night before."
So if the snowfall ceases at 8:45 p.m., there are no allowances for bitterly cold weather like we've been having recently: you must get out there and finish by a quarter to one o'clock the next morning. If it ceases past 9 p.m., you must get up early to take care of your government-mandated "responsibility."

The commissioner rationalized it for those unable, for whatever reason, to clear the sidewalks themselves: "Your next-door teenage neighbor can surely use the money." Did he ever once consider that the property owners could have surely used the money more than the "next-door teenage neighbor," assuming there's such an individual? If the property owners did not need the money as much, they'd have already hired that person without government's coercive influence.

Why is the city so adamant about speedy shoveling? I suspect there's a very simple reason: so it cannot be sued by pedestrians who slip and fall on snow and/or ice. By shifting the responsibility to the property owners, the city effectively pre-absolves itself should someone be injured as a result of an uncleared sidewalk.

Every time I think about moving to the city, something reminds me of the benefits of living in Westchester, and specifically in my neighborhood (so close to the Metro-North train station) and on my street. It's a private lane, which by itself is a great benefit, as I'll soon explain. There aren't many of us here, so it's never been a problem that the road is just one lane wide, or that we have no sidewalk to worry about.

My landlord and the other property owners share equally in the costs of hiring private contractors to plow, patch up and repave the road. The property owners own the road collectively, but it is still private property, and it is almost always maintained better than the public roads just beyond. And they also do it for less money than the government-hired crews (I think that's done at the county level). Why shouldn't we get a better value? It's our money and our property, so those who get the contract do the best possible work for the least possible cost.

On the other hand, government needs not concern itself with obtaining the best value. To paraphrase Milton Friedman, because the money comes from someone else and is being spent on other people, it's like a parent who doesn't care about spending $2 when $1 would do.

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