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Sell land to save teachers — and cops, firefighters and nurses

Sell land to save teachers — and cops, firefighters and nurses
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Local and state governments are reeling as tax revenues plummet and the costs of COVID-19 skyrocket.

Washington is gridlocked over the question of whether the federal government will give billions of dollars to lower levels of government. Even if a big new bailout emerges, the needs of many governments will never be fully met. And many states that were in a relatively strong fiscal position before COVID-19 have already exhausted their rainy day funds or soon will. 

And the reason they are looking to Washington is that only Washington can easily borrow the kind of money that states and municipalities need.

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They’re desperate now, and will be much more desperate before our economy recovers.

Desperate times call for…new thinking, at least.

Every one of these governments has assets that in normal times they would never touch. Some they can’t without declaring bankruptcy, such as pension funds. And no government wants to declare bankruptcy.

Others are unthinkable — until they aren’t.

When Detroit financially collapsed almost a decade ago, it came close to selling masterpieces of art in its municipal gallery. The argument was “before we ask an impoverished pensioner to take a 20 percent hit in benefits, shouldn’t we at least try to sell a Titian painting?”

But private donors, the state and others rallied, and a fire sale of the arts was avoided. Art lovers breathed a sigh of relief. Some things are too sacred to sell. 

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But in the face of COVID-19, museums have now gotten the greenlight to finally put a price on their priceless works of art. Because this crisis is so bad, they can sell their Picassos. 

Today, every level of government is tightening its belt and looking everywhere for money. And they are going to ask themselves: How can we contemplate firing 15 percent of our teachers, or closing a clinic or firehouse, and not at least consider selling half of a park to a developer? 

There are 16,000 state parks sites in the United States with approximately 14 million acres of land. While there is no database on how much parkland is owned by municipal governments, one study of 75 cities shows they average 18,000 acres each, or just under 10 percent of their total land.

In my own lovely, wealthy community of Arlington, Virginia, one of our points of pride is our many magnificent parks. But another thing about Arlington has been our skyrocketing real estate values. If Arlington were to part with just a half acre of the 19 acres of Ft. CF Smith Park in one of its wealthiest neighborhoods, it could raise around $2million-$5 million, while selling less than 0.025 percent of Arlington’s 1,800 acres of parkland.

Many Arlington liberals would say that this is short sighted, anti-environmental madness. Maybe. But, facing the worst economic crisis in almost a century, less-wealthy communities may make different choices. And states, facing the crushing obligations of salaries, pensions, prisons and health care, may also decide to part with cherished land.

If the wolf of budgetary crisis is not at the door, politicians can hear him growling. And when he begins to bite into the real meat of government, the question will arise: Sell a few acres, or close a clinic? Fire teachers? Cut pensions? Or part with a park or some old school land? 

Don’t be surprised when these tough choices begin to arise across the nation in this terrible time.

Jeremy D. Mayer is an associate professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.