PHILADELPHIA - Flanked by two silver balloons bearing the words "I love you‚" and a
forlorn blue cuddly toy, the face of 12-year-old Frank Marasco smiles
out from a collage of pictures assembled by shocked neighbours on the
veranda of his burned-out home. The young autistic boy died in a fire last week thought to have been sparked by a discarded cigarette.
inferno should have been a routine job for Philadelphia's 1,900-strong
fire brigade, the fifth biggest force in the US which handles four major
incidents daily. But the nearest fire station to Frank's house, just
two blocks away, was unavailable after a so-called "brown out".
Firemen at the station, barely 90 seconds' walk from the site of the
fire, were on a maintenance run after a 12-hour shutdown, part of a rota
of rolling daily closures imposed by city authorities grappling with a
wrenching deficit of $2.4bn (£1.5bn) over five years.
was running around trying to get the little boy out – he was stuck on
the second floor," said a distraught neighbour, Virginia DeShields,
whose house was damaged by smoke. She believes the boy might have been
saved if the local firehouse had been open: "It's all right if you want
to cut. But you shouldn't cut where lives are concerned. You can cut the
prison system, cut the libraries, anywhere. But don't cut people who
Philadelphia's city authorities contend that first
responders reached the scene within three minutes – a timeline disputed
by Philadelphia's fire union, Local 22, which says it was closer to six
minutes before an engine with hoses and water arrived. But irrespective
of whether he could have been saved, Frank Marasco's fate is a rallying
point in a titanic struggle over cuts engulfing cities and states across
the US which are taking desperate budgetary measures, ranging from
shutting schools to switching off streetlights and replacing tarmac
roads with dirt tracks.
Local government in the US has
traditionally been leaner than its British equivalent, with minimal
public healthcare, patchy public transport and an ingrained culture of
contracting out to private operators. The worst recession since the war
has caused a triple-pronged slump: unemployment has eroded income tax
takings, a dive in house prices has hurt property tax and weak consumer
spending has reduced sales tax. Funding is stretched to breaking point.
National League of Cities estimates that US municipalities, which had
revenue of $398bn last year, face a fiscal hole of between $56bn and
$83bn over the two years to 2012. States, which fund broader services
such as schools, prisons and highway patrols, are in a worse jam — they
grappled with a $192bn shortfall in 2010, equivalent to 29% of their
budgets, according to the Washington-based Centre on Budget and Policy
"We're seeing drop-offs in revenue that are breaking
all records," said John Shure, deputy director of the CBPP's state
fiscal project. "The irony is that people's needs are going up but the
resources to meet them are going down."
Putting up taxes in a
recession is politically unpopular and risks hampering a recovery. And
borrowing money is not an option as most US local authorities are
prohibited from going into debt. Shure says: "They're required by their
own constitutions to have a balanced budget. There's no good answer."
draconian nature of some cuts would cause even Britain's austere
chancellor, George Osborne, to blanch. In Georgia, the county of
Clayton, which encompasses down-at-heel suburbs south of Atlanta, axed its entire public bus service to save $8m,
leaving 8,400 daily riders high and dry. Faced with a hole in its
education budget, Hawaii's Republican governor simply shut down the
state's schools on Fridays, moving teachers and pupils onto a four-day
Struggling to pay for upkeep of asphalt roads, counties in
Michigan and South Dakota have been converting paved country roads to
gravel, turning back the clock of modernisation. Then there are trivial,
yet eye-catching examples — Miami has dispensed with the services of
its chicken catcher. The California city of San Diego disbanded its
27-year-old mounted police force. The state of Washington scrapped its
board on geographic names, deciding it could do without a body
overseeing the historical and cultural consistency.
Springs, a city of 360,000 people on the edge of the Rocky Mountains
asked voters to approve a tripling of property tax in November. They
voted no. So the city switched off a third of its streetlights,
removed litter bins from parks, put its police helicopters up for
auction online and halted many bus services at 6.15pm. City employees
have been asked to stump up more for their own healthcare, while
community centres and pools are looking for private money to stay open.
Residents of Colorado Springs are being encouraged to bring their own lawn mowers to trim the grass in public spaces.
And anybody who strongly wants lighting can "adopt a streetlight‚" for $75 a year.
Barack Obama this week signed a federal aid package of $26bn for cash-strapped states, some of which will filter through to cities. But many argue this is not enough.
McFarland, an expert at the National League of Cities, says: "Local
authorities are in a serious situation at this point. In years past,
we've been down to the bare bones in terms of budget. They're now
cutting critical services such as public safety."
Philadelphia, deputy mayor Everett Gillison says it is a "lie" that fire
station "brown outs" compromise safety, blaming unions for a cynical
campaign to protect overtime. But in a nation where firefighters are
held in the top echelon of public esteem, the spectre of darkened
firehouses is prompting anger. "That's right – you take pictures of it!"
yelled resident Darren Braxton, pulling up in his car as the Guardian
visited a shuttered fire station.
Braxton, a maintenance
contractor, had some advice for the city authorities: "If you're trying
to save money, do something else. You don't mess with the trash men
because we'll become Filthadelphia. You don't mess with the police
because young people round here don't value life and they be shooting
people left, right and centre. And you don't mess with the firefighters
because they put out fires."