8 Ways to Keep Local Budget Cuts From Hurting Your House
The current economy means towns are tightening their belts, and your home could suffer. Here's how to avoid being a casualty of municipal spending cuts
Even before gridlock in Washington sent the global economy into yet another tailspin, towns and cities across the country were facing grim budget cuts. Everything from tree trimming to firefighting has been affected, and homeowners are the ones who lose out in the end.
But don't worry. At This Old House, we know how to keep your home working just fine, even if your hometown isn't. Here's a look at nine ways local budget cuts may affect your house—and what you can do about it.
If layoffs hit the sanitation crew in your town and bag or weight limits are implemented, you're going to need to throw out less trash. You can cut down on the four pounds of household waste that one person generates each day if you buy in bulk or opt for refillable shampoo and soaps. Those are just some of the tips offered in 57 Ways to Protect Your Home Environment (and Yourself), a publication of the University of Illinois Extension.
Also mentioned: Food and yard waste make up nearly 25 percent of household solid waste. The publication's authors suggest leaving grass clippings in the yard. Sandy Mason, a horticulture expert for the University of Illinois Extension, says composting organic matter is another way to reduce the waste stream. "It's much easier than you might think. Use a small, step-on garbage can for kitchen waste. It has a center piece that's easily removed when it's time to carry the contents out to the compost pile."
Mason also reminds gardeners that growing your own vegetables means fewer vegetables from the store and less of the packaging that comes with them. "Not to mention the environmental benefits of not eating food trucked in from far away," says Mason.
According to The National League of Cities, municipalities have cut their public safety budgets by 63 percent on average. That means there aren't as many law-enforcement pros around to patrol the streets and keep an eye on your home.
Security expert Chris McGoey advises homeowners and corporations on crime prevention. He says most home burglaries happen in the afternoon, so, while nighttime lighting is a good idea, you should focus first and last on making sure you have secure doors and ground-floor windows. "Burglars prefer the front door. They try the handle first; if that doesn't work, they try to kick in the door," says McGoey. "Many doors will fly open because dead bolts are often held in place by a few half-inch wood screws and the door jamb isn't solid. Beef up the locks and door jambs to every entrance."
McGoey dismisses the popular advice to stop your mail and newspaper deliveries when you're away. "Why trust the newspaper delivery people? You don't want them to know you're not home." Rely on your neighbors instead. "It's a lost art, but I make it my business to know my neighbors," says McGoey. "I always let two of them know if I'm going away. They park their cars in my drive and pick up fliers and newspapers that pile up."
Finally, says McGoey, take a picture of everything of value at home. That way, if you are robbed, you have some hope of making an insurance claim that sticks.
In some places the city water bill can take a bite out of your monthly expenses, and it won't get any cheaper as city leaders desperately slash budgets and look for revenue to keep from drowning in red ink.
Leigh Jerrard, owner of Los Angeles–based Greywater Corps, says conserving water can translate to big savings, and there are a lot of ways to cut back in the home. Low-flow showerheads can pay for themselves in a matter of months and can save hundreds over their lifetime. Dual-flush toilets, which use different amounts of water depending on what sort of waste you are flushing, and low-flow models, which save over 2 gallons per flush, can help, too. Modern front-loading washing machines use only 10 to 25 gallons of water, compared with water-hogging 50-gallon top-loaders. But for most homeowners, the biggest consumer of water is the yard. So consider getting rid of your lawn and replacing it with hardscaping, wildflowers, or native plantings.
Many states are now encouraging the use of graywater systems, which recapture lightly used water from bathing or laundry and use it a second time for landscape irrigation. The plants don't mind, and these systems can save a single-family home a whopping 40,000 gallons per year! Jerrard's company installed a graywater system for a woman who ran a dog-sitting business. After installing a graywater irrigation system to maintain her dog-friendly lawn, her yearly water bills have gone from $800 to $400.
To give you an idea of how deep cuts to fire departments can go: Last year, Flint, Michigan, had to lay off 23 of 88 firefighters and close two fire stations. New York City is proposing to shutter 20 fire stations next year. So fire prevention in the home is more important than ever. Lorraine Carli of the National Fire Protection Association says smoke alarms and sprinkler systems remain the number-one best way to avoid a fire-related tragedy. "You could have as little as three minutes to a escape your home before a fire becomes deadly," she says. And while Carli acknowledges that retrofitting a sprinkler system into an older home is expensive compared with new construction, she says the technology can't be beat for "containing fires, keeping them small, or extinguishing them altogether."
At the very least, she says, make sure smoke alarms are inside each bedroom, and put one outside sleeping areas in the hallway. Keep fire extinguishers handy, especially in the kitchen, and always near an exit door so you can get out if you can't control the fire. To lower the risk of outdoor wildfires, maintain 30 feet of clearance from brush and trees around your house, and keep your gutters clear of dead leaves and sticks. Homes are often ignited when embers from fires fly through the air and land on a nearby roof.
Heavy rain can overwhelm aging sewer systems, forcing tens of thousands of extra gallons of water through treatment plants—and in the worst-case scenario, causing untreated sewage to escape into the environment.
Graywater engineer Leigh Jerrard says, "Try to keep surface runoff and rainwater on your land and productively going into the water table." Use creative landscaping, such as rain gardens, berms, permeable pavement (i.e., no large concrete areas), and native plants instead of imported varieties. Here again, Jerrard says a graywater system offers benefits because it diverts thousands of gallons of water to plants instead of into the septic system.
Sandy Mason at The Illinois extension office recommends installing rain barrels to keep water from running off. "I am always amazed at how quickly a rain barrel fills after even a small storm." Mason says this water can be used on ornamental plants soon after it has been collected, but not on edibles, as harmful bacteria can multiply if the water sits in the barrel too long.
Sixty percent of U.S. cities reported cuts to public works last year, at the same time that snowfall hit record highs in many areas. Keeping the streets clear for emergency vehicles will always be a top priority for city administrators, but making your driveway accessible will not be.
Lois Eberhart is the water resources administrator for the city of Minneapolis, where snow removal is serious business. "The most important thing is to shovel as the storm is going," she says. "Don't wait until the storm passes, or else you are more likely to have ice build-up." Too much snow or ice could mean an increased risk of injury as you shovel. And avoid using salt as your go-to ice-melt system; after the snow melts, the salt in the runoff ends up in local waterways and can affect drinking water and harm wildlife.
If you find that your street is taking longer and longer to get plowed at all, organize a plowing pool with neighbors. Invest in a neighborhood snow blower that the block can take turns using to keep the street clear for emergencies.
From North Carolina to Oregon, schools are adapting to shrinking budgets. After-school programs are often the first to go, which means the kids are headed home sooner. If your house is the kind of place where the neighborhood gathers, you'll want to find a room that you can make comfortable for kids so that the rest of the house isn't overrun. Outfit it with lots of seating—even pillows will do—and make sure you can keep an eye on the goings-on. At the same time, create a special space for doing homework, so that the structure of the classroom can continue at home.
Of course, you'll need some activities to keep the little ones occupied. Consider some TOH Family Projects, like building a mini-golf course, constructing a lemonade stand, or putting together a house to attract mosquito-eating bats.
When times are tough, administrators shift priorities, focusing on eliminating tree hazards rather than the long-term health of city trees. Removing them is often the cheapest solution, says Tchukki Andersen, staff arborist at the Tree Care Industry Association.
Andersen says there are things a homeowner can do on his or her own. "With a small, young tree, you can use hand pruners or a good handsaw to trim branches that are overhanging the sidewalk or obscuring a street sign." But, Andersen warns, once a ladder is involved, it's time for a professional. "We see way too many homeowner accidents and even fatalities. This year alone I've heard a few cases of someone holding a ladder and dying when a falling limb strikes them."
Even more effective, Andersen encourages residents to make themselves a squeaky wheel if they see trees in need of better care. "Form a tree committee, present ideas to town council or city hall. If your city has a tree plan and you see decline, it's time to pressure your public servants." Signs a tree may need professional help include browning, dying, or curling leaves in the canopy. A bedraggled-looking tree may have a root problem or be suffering from damage. A hanging branch is dangerous and warrants a call to city hall.