An IPO for Cities

An IPO for Cities

With Facebook valued at $83 billion and cities struggling to finance public services, it’s clear that cities need to get more creative about the way they generate revenue.

Could cities learn from Facebook’s IPO?

The Facebook IPO is one of the most anticipated public offerings of a private company. With shares expected to trade at above $25 apiece, Facebook’s valuation will soar beyond $80 billion. If this sounds insane, it is. But it also demonstrates just how successful Wall Street has been at monetizing its assets.

Contrast the way that Facebook has monetized people’s virtual experiences with the way that cities are struggling to raise cash. Facebook may have 850 million users, but cities have 3 billion and counting. People may use Facebook for half an hour a day, but people actually live in cities. And on top of that, cities actually give something back to people — they pick up our trash, run our schools, build infrastructure. Facebook mostly hosts Scrabble and pictures of people on vacation.

But most cities aren’t worth $80 billion — they’re actually in debt.

Should cities monetize personal data the way Facebook has to raise cash? No, but perhaps they need to be more creative about how they collect money from people. Instead of paying taxes that get divvied up for a variety of services, what about allowing people to buy into various systems? Could cities essentially have an IPO? I don’t mean privatization of public services, but rather allowing citizens to have a greater financial, and therefore personal, stake in the city.

For example, what about opening the pension fund to local investment. Your money would be used to help pay off pensions now and would earn the return or dividends that the current pension fund earns. Or what about a CD for the school system — you could pay some amount when your kid starts in the school system and, if your kid graduates, you’d get the amount back with interest. As increasing demand for schools grows, this might help pay for schools. With interest rates incredibly low and the stock market increasingly erratic, middle-of-the-road options have greater appeal.

Most of the anger over the 1 percent and Wall Street is completely justified, but some of it is plain frustration that we don’t have the creative financial tools that have enabled Wall Street workers to become millionaires and billionaires. Cities need to take calculated risks and to experiment with new financial strategies that will help them get ahead. Chicago is one city that is rethinking how to finance its infrastructure by developing an infrastructure bank. It’s a great idea and similar strategies should be deployed to solve the financial crisis of schools and other municipal services.

I’m no finance expert, but anyone else out there have ideas of how to generate revenue for a city and citizens at the same time?

Diana Lind is the former executive director and editor in chief of Next City.

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Tags: infrastructurechicagopensions

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