Matt Ryan, the mayor of Binghamton, New York, is sick and tired of watching people in local communities "squabble over crumbs," as he puts it, while so much local money pours into the Pentagon’s coffers and into America’s wars. He’s so sick and tired of it, in fact, that, urged on by local residents, he’s decided to do something about it. He’s planning to be the first mayor in the United States to decorate the facade of City Hall with a large, digital "cost of war" counter, funded entirely by private contributions.
That counter will offer a constantly changing estimate of the total price Binghamton’s taxpayers have been paying for our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan since October 2001. By September 30, 2010, the city’s "war tax" will reach $138.6 million–or even more if, as expected, Congress passes an Obama administration request for supplemental funds to cover the president’s "surge" in Afghanistan. Mayor Ryan wants, he says, to put the counter "where everyone can see it, so that my constituents are urged to have a much-needed conversation."
In doing so, he’s joining a growing chorus of mayors, including Chicago’s Richard Daley and Boston’s Thomas Menino, who are ever more insistently drawing attention to what Ryan calls the country’s "skewed national priorities," especially the local impact of military and war spending. With more than three years left in his current term, Ryan has decided to pull out all the stops to reach his neighbors and constituents, all 47,000 of them, especially the near quarter of the city’s inhabitants who currently live below the poverty line and the 9 percent who are officially unemployed.
A Hard-Hit Rust Belt City
Like so many post-industrial Rust Belt communities, Binghamton was hard hit by the financial meltdown of 2008 and the Great Recession that followed, though it fared better than a number of similar cities, in part because Ryan, his administration and the Binghamton City Council are a smart and scrappy crew. No doubt that’s why he earned the New York State Conference of Mayors Public Administration and Management award two years running.
These days, however, even the smartest and scrappiest of mayors still has to face grim reality. In July 2009, as the city began developing the 2010 budget, Ryan projected a $7 million shortfall. Contributing factors included a likely $700,000 decline in sales tax revenue, ever rising healthcare costs, increased pension contributions to replace funds lost in the market during the collapse of 2008-09 and a $500,000 drop in the return on the city’s investment portfolio.
With worse times ahead, thanks in part to the projected end of federal stimulus money and a city drained dry of reserves, Ryan has had to face a classically unpalatable choice: raise city sales taxes from 7 percent to an unheard of 24 percent or cut city jobs. He chose jobs, as have the vast majority of mayors and governors across the country, eliminating thirty-nine of them. In the process, he sought greater program efficiencies and wrestled with ways to increase city revenues while cutting ever closer to Binghamton’s proverbial bone.
It was in the context of this kind of local pain that Ryan was stunned to discover just how much of Binghamton’s taxes were going to the military and to our distant wars, and how little was coming back to Binghamton in the form of aid and services. "When I first saw the cost-of-war numbers and made the connections," Ryan remarks, "I had to wonder if we’re ever going to get our priorities straight as a nation. It’s like we’re facing an attack on government. As a mayor, I can see so clearly what increased federal spending could do for the people of my city."