Bethel Church: Visions of a Frenchtown Renaissance

N’namdi Green

Since its official inception in 1870, Bethel Missionary Church has been a staple within the greater downtown area of Tallahassee. Throughout the years, Bethel Church has created and maintained a strong presence in the Frenchtown area by serving not only as a religious hub, but also as an epicenter for social engagement within the community. Recently Bethel has taken the initiative to fund and manage economic development projects to help stimulate the economy of the surrounding Frenchtown community. In these efforts, Bethel is an important part of a national movement by faith-based organizations focused on revitalizing key parts of American cities.

The origins of Bethel Church can be traced back to the early 1830’s. Prior to the opening of their first church building, very few places in the Tallahassee area allowed slaves to worship. Slaves on Leon County plantations would meet secretly to worship on a weekly basis until they were given a physical location designated for worship after the Civil War. This was the origin of Bethel church and its congregation. As the years progressed, the church relocated to different places around Tallahassee and eventually the congregation moved to the Frenchtown neighborhood.

Once settled, the church began to solidify itself as a religious mainstay for blacks in the community. But Bethel also sought to act as more than just a religious institution. In the late 19th-century, the church provided educational and social services to freedmen and freedwomen. Bethel utilized its church building as a school in order to give blacks an opportunity to obtain an education and provided a meeting place for empowering black organizations. In addition, it hosted weddings, graduations, and other social gatherings for blacks in the community that they would not otherwise have been able to celebrate due to exclusion from white-owned venues.

Today, the church continues to play a major role in the Frenchtown community, spiritually, socially, and economically. One of Bethel’s first development initiatives in recent years included the Carolina Oaks affordable housing subdivision in 1989. The church purchased the land for the subdivision and led in the oversight of construction for the project from start to finish.

Since the Carolina Oaks project, the Bethel Church has contributed to numerous other development initiatives. Some of these include the construction of Bethel Towers which is an affordable retirement home for the elderly, the opening and construction of the Frenchtown Credit Union, and the Bethel Family Life Center which serves as a recreation center. The main objective for each project is to provide the Frenchtown community with services and infrastructure to promote economic growth and stability.

The church is currently proposing to redevelop a block of land on the 400 block of West Tennessee Street. As a majority owner of this parcel,  Bethel intends to construct a mixed-use housing complex ranging from 16 to 150 units, including apartment spaces, townhomes, a local grocery store, an urgent care facility, and a community bank. In conjunction with the Frenchtown Redevelopment Partners LLC, a limited liability company consisting of Bethel and other businesses owners within Frenchtown, Bethel has lofty goals for the Frenchtown community economically.

Posted in Community redevelopment, Housing, Nonprofits and Social Entrepreneurship, Tallahassee | Leave a comment

After this Hurricane Season, We Need to Rethink Flood Insurance

Giovanna Dasilva

With the national spotlight on flooding caused by hurricanes Harvey and Irma, the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) has come under scrutiny. The federal program primarily focuses on offering flood insurance coverage and reducing the impact of flood damage.  

The NFIP was established in 1968 to counteract a market failure on the part of private companies, which failed to provide coverage because of the high costs. The program utilizes flood maps for over 20,000 communities to assess risk areas and to establish insurance rates. The NFIP provides the most amount of coverage to Florida with 1.8 million active insurance policies.

According to the Heritage Foundation, the NFIP is currently $25 billion in debt to the U.S. Treasury. The program also charges higher premiums to those in lower-risk flooding areas, leaving many questioning the efficiency of the NFIP as a whole. In the case of Hurricane Irma, the total cost of damage to Florida is expected to range from $20 to $50 billion.

Jennifer Wriggins, professor of law at the University of Maine, notes that one of the fundamental flaws in the NFIP approach to insurance coverage is that:

“In providing deeply discounted rates on the oldest and riskiest properties, Congress discouraged replacing and mitigating these properties. In fact, Congress’s policies unfortunately encouraged homeowners to retain these properties. After floods, flood insurance benefits were often used to repair existing homes rather than replace them with new, more flood-resistant homes. Thus, the number of older, risky homes remained higher than it would be if people actually had to pay the full cost of flood insurance on those homes.”

These subsidies in turn encourage further infrastructure development in high-risk areas, which increases liability. This development is a classic example of moral hazard, which describes the counter-intuitive nature of incentivizing negative behavior on the behalf of consumers via well-meaning policy.

The NFIP fails to accurately price insurance premiums for the properties they insure. Cato Institute policy analysts Ike Brannon and Ari Blask, however, argue that private flood insurers are able to price premiums in order to reflect flood risk instead of subsidizing high-risk areas. In fact, homeowners who that receive subsidies are often affluent citizens owning who own property in coastal areas. Brannon and Blask found that 12 percent of subsidized properties along the coast were worth more than $1 million and 40 percent worth over $500,000.  

Yet, according to the Federal Energy Management Agency (FEMA) one of NFIP’s goals is to provide affordable flood insurance. However, homeowners in low-risk flood areas do not receive this benefit. This is due to the fact that by artificially lowering the price of high-risk properties, low-risk property holders are left subsidizing the cost of flood insurance for higher-risk flood zones.

President Trump temporarily reauthorized the NFIP to address the massive flooding experienced after Hurricane Harvey and anticipated damage from Irma. In three months, Congress will convene to discuss the fate of the NFIP. Its decision will surely impact the everyday lives of Florida homeowners.

Posted in Government Performance, natural disasters, Regulation | Leave a comment

Government Consolidation Rarely Lives Up to Promises

By Matt Kelly

Government consolidation is an often-touted solution to economic and social problems in American cities. Several initiatives to combine local governments  have resulted in conjoined regional governments, including Indianapolis-Marion County (IN), Athens-Clarke County (GA), and Jacksonville-Duval County (FL). Tallahassee and Leon County have seen six campaigns for consolidation over 50 years, all of which failed. Despite the sustained interest , little evidence in the economic or public policy research literature suggests local government consolidation improves economic development or governance.

Tallahassee’s history of consolidation attempts is lengthy but follows a national pattern of failure at the ballot box. Initial political pressure arose in the 1950s. A 1968 proposal was defeated by voter referendum, as were others in 1973, 1976, and 1992. A more recent campaign in 2004 never got a vote. This pattern is fairly common. Since 1815, only 39 of 166 attempted consolidations in the U.S. nationwide have succeeded. However, like Indianapolis-Marion County (IN), the City of Tallahassee and Leon county have consolidated specific services such as emergency medical services and fire protection. The city and county have also established special districts like Blueprint 2000 and the Tallahassee Community Redevelopment Agency to pursue joint projects.

Proponents of consolidation contend that combining city and county governments will increase efficiency by eliminating service duplication and capturing economies of scale. Having larger tax bases and populations could allow governments to launch ambitious infrastructure projects and attract funding from federal or state programs. Larger governments might better handle regional issues, like persistent out-migration, racial inequality, growth management, and economic development.

How has consolidation worked in practice? A 2005 literature review by DeVoe Moore Center Director Sam Staley and coauthors Dagney Faulk, Suzanne Leland, and D. Eric Schansberg for the Marion County Consolidation Study Commission concluded that “significant gains in efficiency are unlikely.” Most studies estimating economies of scale in police and fire departments found that larger regional departments aren’t more cost-efficient. Complicating matters, morale problems among public employees plague the transition to consolidated governments. Outcomes also depend on political leadership and context-specific motivations for reform.

Economic development has improved modestly in some locales after consolidation, but typically no more than in comparable unconsolidated jurisdictions or statewide averages. In a 1999 analysis of nine consolidated governments, political scientists Jered Carr and Richard Feiock found no link between consolidation and economic development. More recently, economists from the University of West Virginia analyzed several city-county consolidations using a somewhat more sophisticated statistical technique called synthetic control method to determine whether areas experienced greater growth post-consolidation, but still found no link.

Proponents may be driven most by political motivations. Richard Feiock, the Augustus B. Turnbull Professor in the Askew School of Public Administration and Policy at Florida State University, has researched government consolidation for decades. A 2006 paper coauthored with Jered Carr and Linda Johnson notes that consolidation campaign efforts are “fundamentally about political losers trying to be winners.” Economic development, racial tensions, or the operational efficiency of law enforcement are all secondary to the selective gains that politicians, government officials, local business elites, and even academics hope to win from consolidation. Whatever reason is most politically palatable at the time takes center stage. These campaigns don’t always appeal to the better angels of human nature. The authors continue: “Success of consolidation efforts during the 1960s was likely the result of proponents successfully exploiting racial tensions in the community by suggesting that consolidation would be an effective mechanism to stunt growing African American political power or to prevent African Americans from ever gaining significant power. Today, proponents are more likely to suggest that economic development will be enhanced.”

Efforts to consolidate continue. In 2016, a government task force in Illinois revived interest in consolidation as a panacea for the state’s budgetary problems. As recently as May 2017, Tallahassee city officials attending a conference in Nashville discussed the prospects of consolidation. Some ideas die hard.

Posted in Fiscal Policy, Government Performance, Local Government Consolidation, Urban Development | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Property Tax Appeal Process Benefits Wealthy, Non-minority Homeowners

Property taxes in Florida are based on annual assessments of property values made by county officials.  Homeowners in Florida can challenge assessments that they believe overvalue their property and inflate their tax bill.  Informally, the homeowner may meet with the assessor to negotiate for a reduced assessment.  The homeowner may also petition for a formal hearing before a magistrate, who decides whether to grant a reduction after considering the evidence presented.  But is this system impartial and fair?

William Doerner, an economist with the Federal Housing Finance Agency (and former DMC fellowship recipient), and DeVoe Moore Eminent Scholar Keith Ihlanfeldt examined the efficiency and fairness of this system of appeals in Florida and report their findings in their article “An Empirical Analysis of the Property Tax Appeals Process” published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Property Tax Assessment and Administration (2014). Continue reading

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Some Regulations Hinder Storm Recovery

By Chad Thomas and Matt Kelly

One common policy response to hurricanes is to strengthen building codes. Former FEMA chairman Craig Fugate blames inadequate state and local building codes, rather than inept federal government disaster relief efforts, for the woeful response to Hurricane Katrina. After Hurricane Andrew in 1992, building code enforcement was enhanced in Florida and new regulations required stronger foundations, roofs, and windows to protect buildings from hurricane force winds and floods.

But do these regulations really prevent storm damage and increase recovery times from natural disasters?

Effects_of_Hurricane_Charley_from_FEMA_Photo_Library_7 Continue reading

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Economic Freedom Key to Cities’ Success

By Matt Kelly

Economic freedom is the unrestricted ability of people in a country to associate and transact with one another. Measuring economic freedom has become a growing area of academic research. Probably the best known measure is the index constructed for the “Economic Freedom of the World”  annual report on 159 countries published by the Fraser Institute and authored by Florida State University’s James Gwartney, Southern Methodist University’s Robert Lawson, and West Virginia University’s Joshua C. Hall. Other indices compare US states, like Cato’s Freedom in the Fifty States ranking. More recently, Dean Stansel of Southern Methodist University created a measure of economic freedom for US metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs). Stansel’s index ranks many Florida cities among the nation’s freest.

wofc 1 Continue reading

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Beyond Recidivism: Addressing Behavioral Change within American Prisons

By Stephany Bittar

IMG_3847

Photo courtesy of the Prison Entrepreneurship Program’s official website. http://www.pep.org/

Two-thirds of the 2.3 million Americans that are currently housed in the U.S. state and federal prison systems are expected to reoffend within three years of their release. Recidivism, or the tendency of a criminal to reoffend, is one of the most prevalent social problems facing current and former prisoners.

High recidivism rates found in the United States have a number of potential causes, but research has yet to find a specific cause, or provide definitive support for any one theory. Nevertheless, empirical evidence provides little support for incarceration as a general way to reduce recidivism. An essay written by criminologists Francis Cullen, Cheryl Johnson, and Daniel Nagin in The Prison Journal reviewed five studies and included data and statistics from over 50 others. Combined, the results showed that custodial sentencing – that is, a sentence where the offender is required to be held in custody – increased recidivism rates by seven to eleven percent. Continue reading

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