Cities Bring Services to Neighborhoods

By Gregory La Forge
American News Service

When her neighbor's brush pile grew into an unsightly mound, an irritated Dagni Harkema looked no farther than her son's elementary school for help.

She didn't have to call City Hall in Scottsdale, Ariz., and talk to some faceless bureaucrat. Instead, she sought a familiar face just a few minutes away at the Citizen Service Center at Sonoran Sky Elementary School.

"I'm not the kind of person to complain. I wouldn't have known who to call at City Hall and I would have been intimidated," said Harkema, a 44-year-old homemaker and school volunteer.

"I didn't know what (the center) did but I went in and said, 'Maybe you can help me.'"

The roadside eyesore in the hilly development in north Scottsdale was cleaned up within a few weeks, thanks to the efforts of a "neighborhood specialist" who, Harkema recalled, "took over the problem and followed through."

Seeking to improve city services, Scottsdale established its first neighborhood center at the Los Arcos Mall in late 1993. Since then, the city has opened three more centers, including the Sonoran Sky facility, where a specialist works out of a small office near the school secretaries.

"Almost anything you can do at City Hall you can do at these citizen service centers," said Brent DeRaad, a Scottsdale municipal spokesman. "Calling city hall can be intimidating for some people. Our service centers are user friendly."

At these centers, Scottsdale residents can pay utility bills, return library books, notarize documents, arrange for transportation for the disabled and the elderly, seek pothole repairs and ask about zoning questions.

Cities across the nation are following similar paths, opening mini city halls in neighborhood storefronts, schools and malls. The faceless, nameless bureaucrat on the telephone is being replaced by friendly, hands-on neighborhood specialists or coordinators.

For many cities, there are multiple gains -- an increase in citizen participation in government, stronger communication between neighborhoods and city hall, and, in some cases, revitalized business districts and neighborhoods.

"(They) really are the key to revitalizing or maintaining the vitality of neighborhoods," said Jim Diers, director of Seattle's Department of Neighborhoods , which pioneered the idea of "little city halls."

"They not only bring city services to neighborhoods, but they bring city departments and city officials to neighborhoods and help focus all of city hall on that neighborhood," he added.

How many cities have created neighborhood city halls is unknown, but their numbers appear to be on the rise with cities such as Scottsdale, Las Vegas, Miami, Little Rock, Ark., and others opening variations of the concept. Seattle was one of the first to open neighborhood offices 25 years ago. These days, the city has 13 little city halls, where residents can pay utility bills, apply for pet licenses and parking stickers, and register to vote, among other things.

"These neighborhood centers are a link between the city and the neighborhood," Diers said, noting that in some neighborhoods people actually call their coordinator mayor. "They really put a face on the city. People value them."

Seattle recently expanded its program to provide more services, including staffing for magistrate's court at four sites, where residents can contest parking and traffic tickets, as well as crime prevention staff and drop-in facilities for police officers.

If there is a drawback, some city officials say, it's that the mini city hall can't always solve every problem. "When you create these centers, sometimes there's an expectation that you can solve every issue," said Scottsdale's DeRaad. "Most issues can be solved. There are a few that take time."

City officials sometimes find unexpected benefits to neighborhood city halls. In Miami, neighborhood centers opened just a few months before Hurricane Andrew pummeled the area four years ago.

"The idea was to bring police officers together with the neighborhood people. The city manager said, 'Why not bring other city services there, too?'" said Frank Castaneda, Miami's community development coordinator.

Miami now has 13 neighborhood offices, where residents can apply for building and occupancy-use permits, pay inspection fees, city taxes, licenses and fines, and talk face-to-face with a police officer.

"It has created an old-town atmosphere," Castaneda said. "People get to know their neighborhood police officers. It's also an excellent tool for community organizations, civic and neighborhood groups."

Castaneda says that it was Hurricane Andrew that really put these mini city halls on the map.

In the storm's wake, city and emergency officials used the centers to distribute food, water and other supplies to residents.

"People wondered how we were able to provide emergency services so fast after Hurricane Andrew," Castaneda recalled. "We were real effective in delivering services. Everyone thought it was Hurricane Andrew that set up the centers, but it wasn't. Hurricane Andrew made people take notice." Posted Week of June 5, 1997

Copyright ©1997 American News Service

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