Carmel, IN Named Best Small City in America to Live In But Can Others Follow?

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Money Magazine just named the Indianapolis suburb of Carmel as the top small city in America to live in. Fishers, another Indianapolis suburb, ranked #12.

Any ranking survey, and particularly one done by a magazine, needs to be taken with a grain of salt. However, Carmel and Fishers (along with occasionally Noblesville), frequently show up high in various national rankings. For those interested in suburban living, these places offer a pretty strong combination of good schools, low real estate prices (Indianapolis is basically the cheapest big city housing market in America), low taxes, and fairly high quality of life. With populations of over 75,000 each, these communities also have the scale to efficiently provide quality public services.

I personally think Fishers has long term sustainability issues. It has kept up with very rapid growth admirably, but it has really not done much to secure its long term future, and when it reaches buildout, I expect problems to set in.

Carmel by contrast has invested heavily in building towards a future where greenfield growth is no longer the driver. It has invested in high quality public facilities, some of the best suburban transportation infrastructure in the nation, building new urbanist neighborhoods from scratch, upgrading utilities, improving the environment, etc. Dan McFeely of the Indianapolis Star covers Carmel and wrote a bit about this.

I’ve covered Carmel extensively for years here on the blog, calling it the “next American suburb” and writing about its civic strategy, new urbanist approach, and various criticisms of its leadership.

I think the Carmel story is an interesting one because it shows how a city, albeit an affluent one, in a very conservative state can fundamentally transform itself in a way that that demonstrates results. This includes urbanism standards and infrastructure standards that exceed those of the urban core of Indianapolis, with many of its public services being better as well.

The results most notably show up in incomes. While incomes cratered relative to the US in both Indiana and metro Indianapolis, Carmel’s median household income actually inched up versus the US average despite starting from a higher base.

In short, the strategy has been working, though obviously the national economy has had an effect. And I don’t necessarily support everything they have done. Their $150 million performing arts center, for example, all paid for with public funds, seems expensive for a city of this size, and has saddled the city’s redevelopment commission with debt. But on the whole, things seem to be paying dividends.

This is part of the explanation for why Indianapolis as a region has done well while its urban core lags many other cities. The majority of people prefer suburbs, and Indy’s newer suburbs provide an exceptional value proposition.

Ultimately to be successful, the region will have to fire on all cylinders. This means both urban and suburban, with each neighborhood and town bringing a unique approach and its A game to the table. It’s not an either/or situation. I want to build urban cores up, not tear suburbs down. (Downtown Indianapolis has its own game going. Despite some recent criticisms that I stand behind, downtown Indy has positive momentum in a lot of areas. For example, another 300 tech jobs were just announced yesterday).

I previously highlighted Columbus, Indiana, which has accomplished something similar in a more blue collar environment. So positive stories based on different variations of the same playbook aren’t limited merely to upscale suburbs.

In a state that has long lagged the nation in job and output growth, and where the very large decline in relative incomes has been a huge issue at all levels, you would think that leaders would be streaming in to study these successful models.

Alas, that is not the case. Not only is there little interest in learning from models that are actually working (save perhaps for other Indy suburbs looking to Carmel), there’s actual hostility. It’s as I said in some recent posts: Indiana actively discourages the pursuit of excellence. They’d rather cut down the successful than bring up the failing. State level policy choices are trying to do just that.

Start with school funding. As part of a property tax reform process, the state of Indiana took over 100% of all local school operating funding. However, they also changed the funding formula in a way that stuck well performing metro Indy districts at the bottom of the pile. Out of about 360 school districts statewide, Carmel is fourth from the bottom in per pupil funding from the state. Other regional districts like Fishers and Zionsville are also at the bottom. In effect, the state decided to starve fast growing and well performing suburban districts. Somehow this didn’t make the list of education reforms in that recent Economist article. For a state that claims to want to base its economic future on things like life sciences, this sure seems puzzling.

The state has also sought to impose a one size fits all, least common denominator approach to services. While it didn’t affect Carmel directly since they already built their first class library, the state’s Department of Local Government Finance vetoed plans by the suburbs of Westfield and Greenwood to build new libraries (partially inspired by Carmel), even though the bonding plans survived a petition challenge. The state’s rationale was that the cost per resident was higher than the state average. It’s easy to see that a policy like this acts as a one way downward ratchet.

The state also passed a law that not only capped property taxes as a percentage of assessed value – a measure I support – but also put in place a de facto spending freeze for all cities at current levels through a levy cap.* (This levy cap ignores growth in commercial tax base, so if a town built a 50 million square foot industrial park, it wouldn’t even be able to raise the revenues to provide services to it).

This has left cities increasingly depending on gimmicks to finance anything. And every time a city figures something like that out, the state makes noises about shutting it down. The state has also refused to allow communities to even let their own citizens vote in favor of spending money on things like transit. Indiana has never particularly empowered municipalities, but recent years have seen a strong turn towards disempowerment, with the state’s General Assembly serving as a sort of uber-city council (and now uber-school board too).

I’d be willing to venture that neither Carmel nor Columbus would be able to accomplish what they have if they were starting out on the journey today under the current state legal and political climate.

This is not to say that spending money is a solution to problems. Actually, by national standards, places like Carmel and Columbus don’t spend very much money at all. With some exceptions like that performing arts center, they are actually quite frugal. They understood the concept of long term total cost of ownership, and as a result have kept taxes low by not being penny wise, pound foolish in the short term, while so many other places that thought only about the now have descended into a near death spiral of service cuts, tax increases, and abandonment. That’s the tragedy.

In a rational world, one would think that we’d look at models that are producing population growth, job growth, corporate (including foreign) investment, high quality of services and quality of life, keeping incomes at or above US levels – and mostly importantly all while keeping taxes well below normal (at the bottom of the state in Carmel’s case) even by the standards of Indiana – and say to ourselves: how can we get more of that? Unfortunately, that’s not the case here. (Again, some other Indy suburbs excepted).

Before proposing solutions to Indiana’s long term under-performing economy, I would suggest that the candidates for governor first take a look around the state to examine at the places that are already doing well and have been doing well over the last decade or more. Then ask the question: what are they doing different and right and what do we need to do to get other places doing those things? First among the places to visit would be suburbs like Carmel and industrial cities like Columbus. If you’re ranked #1 in America, you must be doing something right.

* This is complicated, but my understanding is that the total property tax levy cannot grow faster than inflation + population growth. This has had many perverse incentives, including keeping entities like townships from lowering their tax levy even when possible because they’re afraid they’ll never be able to raise it again if needed.

Aaron M. Renn is an independent writer on urban affairs and the creator of Telestrian, a data analysis and mapping tool. He writes at The Urbanophile, where this piece originally appeared.

Carmel City Hall photo by Bigstock.



















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Nice post with usefull

Nice post with usefull information! I hope you write more on this subject! Cheese! This is complicated, but my understanding is that the total property tax levy cannot grow faster than inflation + population growth.

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where's the political economy?

Maybe public services are cheap in Carmel because it consists of a homogeneous, wealthy population that doesn't need much maintenance. When you don't have any crime, fire traps, drug addicts, homeless, etc. public services tend to be pretty cheap.

And is it really any wonder that the infrastructure of a wealthy community like Carmel is superior to that of Indianapolis's urban core?

It seems like Carmel has a wealthy tax base, and thus was able to pursue these new urbanist policies successfully. You seem to suggest the causation is the other way around, and that Carmel's success can be replicated by other municipalities in Indiana. I doubt that.