What I’m reading:. I am rereading Dead Souls by Nicolai Gogol. This book I discovered about a decade ago has a strange hold over me for some reason – I revisit it every three years of so.
What I’m watching: Vikings on Amazon Prime. The show has been around since 2013, but I just It’s not a show I thought I would enjoy but I’m finding it very enjoyable.
What I’m listing to: While I don’t understand a word they are singing, I really enjoy the music of a Hungarian band called Republic.
As I was thinking about what to write in my morning buzz, I continually hit a mental writing block and struggled with identifying something I felt was worthy of sharing with others. Ultimately, I’ve decided to share a few random thoughts that have been occupying my mind over the couple of weeks. Maybe by sharing with you, I can get them out of my head and move on to new thoughts.
The Inventor of LED Lighting
A few years ago, I noticed a new honorary street sign had been installed in a the neighboring town of Glen Carbon. Despite honorary street signs bringing back terrible memories of long policy discussions on the topic, I’m always intrigued by what the individual did to gain such recognition. A quick google search later and I discovered that Dr. Nick Holonyak, Jr. who invented the LED light in 1962 was a former resident of the community and was a Professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He predicted in a 1963 article that his LEDs would replace incandescent light bulbs. While it’s only taken around 50+ years for that prediction to come to fruition, he probably wasn’t thinking specifically about the impact he’d have on local government service delivery. Over the last decade, most communities have had programs to retrofit their traffic signal and street lighting infrastructure to LED to reduce maintenance costs, increase reliability, and reduce electrical consumption.
What this random occurrence prompted was a mental voyage about how significantly his invention changed the face of local government in the areas of street lighting and traffic signals. It also prompted a mind voyage regarding what other inventions or discoveries are being made (or have been made in the last decade or two) that could transform the way we provide services to the public in the coming years.
Lessons from Abroad
Most local government professionals are aware of the differences in some highly visible public services between countries. One commonly referenced example is the fact that over 90% of the police force in the United Kingdom do not carry guns. Historically, this approach is so different from our norm that many US residents would have trouble understanding how this could be an effective policing model. While the events of the last year have given rise to extended discussions about policing in the US and lessons to be learned from models used by other countries, this source of alternative approach and models is not widely used throughout local government. I firmly believe that we are overlooking a great source of best practices, innovative solutions, and new perspectives, by not looking internationally to help us overcome tunnel-vision.
That’s a little long-winded way to introduce the concept that’s been taking up space in my head for a long time – how to achieve equity when establishing fines and setting fees for services. This article discusses the approach used in some Scandinavian countries to assess certain fines based on income. This approach is based on the principle of scaling penalties based upon a person’s daily income. Each specific violation has a fine that penalized the violator some multiplier of the “day rate” – the more severe the violation the greater the multiplier. All individuals are fined proportionally to their income.
“Cannot pecuniary penalties be proportionate to fortunes?” Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws, 1748.
In comparison, the vast majority of fines impacting most residents in the US have historically been established without regard to income. For those interested in the constitutionality of this approach, the constitutionality of income-based fines is covered in this article which states:
In America, fines are typically imposed without regard to income. The result is a system that traps low-income offenders in a cycle of debt and jail while letting rich offenders break the law without meaningful financial consequence.
While there has been a lot of discussion surrounding this issue in the policing arena in recent years, my mind wandered to contemplating about other areas of local government where this approach might be suitable for consideration. Are there areas where we could create greater equity for our residents and businesses by taking a new approach to penalties – such as fines for property maintenance violations, health violations, late book fees, construction without a permit?
Even more broadly, are there fees that should be established in alignment with this principle? I hope more discussion and evaluation of this principle makes its way to local government and we continue to evaluate the appropriate equity approach for use in establishing both fees and fines at the local government level. It will require difficult policy discussions as decision-makers grapple with the appropriate definition of equity and fairness to utilize in relation to difference services and it likely will not be a single approach across all service areas.
I’d love to hear about examples if any communities have implemented this concept and the challenges you faced.