Future Tense

Crypto Town

Municipal mining rigs! Press conferences in the metaverse! Bitcoin utility bills! The cryptocurrency revolution has come to local government. But for what?

A U.S. map marking seven cities (Reno, Chandler, Fort Worth, Portsmouth, Miami, Willingston and Jackson) that are big on cryptocurrency.
Photo illustration by Slate. Images by Tevarak/iStock/Getty Images Plus, wanwi17/iStock/Getty Images Plus, and LeoTroyanski/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

If there’s a future for crypto in the governance of American cities, the most prominent example is hardly inspiring confidence.

Miami has positioned itself as the country’s (mainland) cryptocurrency paradise. Mayor Francis X. Suarez repeatedly emphasizes his crypto bona fides, from taking his salary in Bitcoin to calling for the United States to incorporate blockchain technology into every level of government at a recent Bitcoin convention in Miami. The centerpiece of this effort is MiamiCoin, a cryptocurrency that the city has described as—deep breath—“programmable city-based tokens that unlock a new community-driven revenue stream for local governments while bringing collaborative technology to its citizens and ecosystem of stakeholders.”

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MiamiCoin was issued by a company called CityCoins. Like other cryptocurrencies, it works through a process of mining—in this case, on the Stacks network, which is built on the Bitcoin blockchain. Basically, Stacks coins are funneled into the CityCoins protocol by miners, and 30 percent of those coins go to participating cities, like Miami. (In theory, you can also build apps on top of the CityCoins protocol that would also benefit cities.) In a sense, then, MiamiCoin is a huge success, because it’s netted the town millions.

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But MiamiCoin has lost nearly 90 percent of its value since launching in early August and was trading for $0.00071 as of this writing. In other words, Miami can be seen as having left crypto fans holding the bag. Damning reporting by Quartz also turned up emails that demonstrate a possible breach of federal regulations; in one missive, a CityCoins representative told Suarez’s chief of staff that the mayor might have tripped “a few regulatory wires.” Third, there are concerns over the anonymity of the users and the possibility that criminals might be laundering money while Miami profits.

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Meanwhile, Suarez has been a lot quieter about crypto and the blockchain on Twitter for the past two months, in which crypto prices have plummeted. Still, Suarez remains as much a tech evangelist as ever, and says he’s still taking his city paycheck in Bitcoin even though its value has cratered.

Was all of this wise? We’ll see. Yet Miami isn’t alone in trying to bring some laser-eyed panache to the typically vanilla work of local governance. A wave of smaller cities has begun to accept cryptocurrencies for payments, create their own NFT projects, and even install crypto mining operations. Their efforts, if anything, display an openness to technological innovation in cities of various locales and political contexts. What they don’t show is whether this particular innovation is able to accomplish much of anything at all.

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The town that calls itself the “biggest little city in the world” is trying to create the “biggest little blockchain.” Reno, Nevada, Mayor Hillary Schieve—who helps lead the Conference of Mayors along with Francis Suarez—is a longtime crypto enthusiast who sees so-called Web3 technology as a possible feather in the city’s already-ostentatious cap.

One of Schieve’s projects is in the NFT space, involving a piece of art created for Burning Man 2016: The Space Whale. “We ended up buying it” last year, Schieve told us, “and we wanted to do an NFT. It’s the first time that as a citizen you could own a piece of public art—this is a way all of us can have ownership. And that money would go back to public arts programs.” That vision to crowdfund public art has taken effect: While the city already allocates money for public art through hotel taxes, you can now buy one of 1,000 limited-edition Space Whale NFTs through City Key Art for the price of a single Benjamin.

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Reno officials also see Web3 as an opportunity to improve government operations. The city is moving its historic registry records system onto the blockchain, the permanent virtual ledger on which the crypto economy runs. In effect, this creates a public, verified record of historic property requests and allows city residents to file for Certificates of Appropriateness to modify these properties through the web. Community liaison Nic Ciccone explained to us that “Much of our historic registry files are in banker boxes or file cabinets—tucked away, not easily accessible. So we were looking at ways to make these digitally accessible, and blockchain just happened to be one of those.” The city has partnered with BlockApps, which is providing the service to Reno for free. Ciccone specifically noted that smart contracts and the immutability of the blockchain are incredibly important for improving the efficiency of historic records requests: “There are so many systems and departments that all have to work together when it comes to municipal government—approving different permits and certificates of appropriateness. So having one place where everyone is working on the same thing and can see the exact progress of the project is so valuable.” However, it remains unclear how blockchain systems improve accessibility when it comes to public service, considering the intensive process that goes into placing a record on the blockchain and the security issues that also arise when more people join the system. As for cross-department administrative efforts, there’s always cloud computing, which is still extremely popular at all levels of government.

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Plus, not all of Reno’s residents may be as familiar with the blockchain. Schieve admits that’s been “a challenge, because a lot of people are like, ‘What are you talking about, cryptocurrencies? Is that dark money?’ I don’t think people have been that receptive.” She emphasized to us, however, that she views the city’s Web3 integration as crucial for its future. “Whenever you are the first that goes out there, and you’re talking about new technology and new innovation—I remember when people were like, ‘What’s a QR code?’ You had to educate people,” Schieve said. She’s hoping to help Reno residents access blockchain processes “as easily as possible,” like by giving them the option to purchase Space Whale NFTs with a credit card, and then look ahead to more ambitious projects in the metaverse: “I want to do a press conference there.”

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Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve holding a mic in her hand.
Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve in 2021. Ty O’Neil/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
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Still, Reno is planning to take it slow. “A lot of times in the crypto world, there’s a lot of hype and a lot of promise, and that’s just not the business that we’re in,” explained Schieve. “I want to actually use the technology and show the great work and innovation Web3 and blockchain can have.” For Reno, that innovation should be nothing less than transformative: “If we raise a lot of money in this NFT, that would be great, but I think the bigger win would be to have collections of art all over from every city that’s very recognizable. Think about the longevity and education of that aspect. How cool would it be to own part of the Statue of Liberty?”

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A Lady Liberty NFT seems far away, but Schieve thinks this project will open the door for new NFT projects in other cities. And if nothing else, she hopes the project will at least shine a light on the arts scene in her city: “With an NFT, it’s a way to share this with the world that normally—like, if you’d never been to Reno, you might not even know about the Space Whale.”

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Reno’s colorful embrace of crypto may fit a town best known for tourism and gambling. Other cities mostly just want to use it to collect some bills.

Earlier this year, the city of Chandler, Arizona, announced it would allow residents to pay their utility bills using cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin or Ethereum through PayPal’s payment service. The city will actually receive such funds in the form of fiat currency—the cryptocurrency is converted to dollars by Invoice Cloud, the Phoenix suburb’s payments vendor. Dawn Lang, the city’s deputy manager and chief financial officer, has said this is meant to eliminate “any market volatility risk for Chandler.”

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Despite this new commitment to cryptocurrency, Chandler has no plans to expand further. City public information officer Stephanie Romero explains that the impetus for the utility bill decision “was really about customer service,” giving residents the flexibility to pay bills how they want. Still, Romero admitted that “We do not expect to see very many customers using this method, but it is an option for them.” Chandler bills itself as a “City and Community of Innovation.”

Other cities’ crypto initiatives are similarly restrained. Scott Conger, the mayor of Jackson, Tennessee, is working to make his city the first in the U.S. to add a cryptocurrency payroll option for employees (in a stunt in New York City, Mayor Eric Adams said he would take early paychecks in crypto, though in fact he was paid in cash and then converted the funds using Coinbase). The state comptroller of Tennessee has argued the idea may violate the Fair Labor Standards Act because the price fluctuations of crypto could run amok of the city’s fiduciary responsibilities. Still, Conger has attempted to push forward with his support for the plan through a third-party conversion service.

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More ambitiously, Fort Worth, Texas, became the first city in the U.S. to run its own Bitcoin mining operation in late April, with machines sponsored by the Texas Blockchain Council. “It communicates to people that we’re a very progressive city with a young mayor, a young council. We’re embracing technology and recruiting technology,” Fort Worth City Councilman Leonard Firestone told the Fort Worth Business Press.

“Progressive” might be a misnomer when it comes to crypto’s techno-libertarian appeal. Among politicians, at least, it’s been most readily adopted by Republicans, and the Democrats who have most eagerly embraced crypto aren’t exactly the young firebrands of the left. And while Fort Worth’s City Council races are nonpartisan, many of Firestone’s prominent supporters are conservatives, like former Texas state Rep. Charlie Geren and former Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price. Really, this sort of adoption could be seen as an attempt to lure crypto companies and traders in the interest of making cities easier to “do business in,” as Schieve put it. Certainly, crypto is now just another part of any pro-business agenda.

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To some mayors, however, that makes it all the more imperative that liberal Democrats do take steps to adopt and champion the tech. At least, that’s what the mayor of Portsmouth, New Hampshire—a small coastal town of about 22,000 residents—told us in an interview, explaining the need to counter the “libertarian” streak that runs through the state. “In New Hampshire, we have people who’ve moved here who don’t believe in government—they call themselves Free Staters—and the conversation on crypto in New Hampshire has been weighted toward, ‘How do we do away with government?’ ” says Mayor Deaglan McEachern.

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Indeed, Granite Staters who’d like their home to secede from the U.S. have been rebranding their movement with the help of crypto. In 2017 Steven Zeiler, a Bitcoin evangelist, joined forces with longtime libertarian activist Derrick J. Freeman to open up the Free State Bitcoin Shoppe in downtown Portsmouth, offering secession-themed merch you can only pay for in Bitcoin and other digital currencies. The two also printed a brochure deeming the city “Bitcoin Village,” claiming “there are more crypto accepting retail shops in Portsmouth, NH than anywhere in the world.” (Their shop is no longer open; in 2018, Freeman told a journalist that it “​​hasn’t been as successful as he’d like.”)

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McEachern, who became Portsmouth’s mayor just this year, said he hadn’t heard of the “Bitcoin Village” nickname before we asked him about it and dismissed that characterization of his city. However, he said, he is curious about the “decentralized” nature of crypto as a means by which to make government “easier and more effective,” in explicit opposition to anti-government Free Staters.

In late March, as the Portsmouth Herald reported, McEachern announced that city residents could now make payments to the government by transferring crypto through PayPal, which the city had already been employing as a revenue-collection tool. “By creating more ways to pay bills, we’re enabling greater participation,” especially from those without bank accounts, McEachern told local media. PayPal converts crypto transactions into U.S. fiat currency before delivering the money to the city, ensuring crypto-market volatility won’t dent city funds, like in Chandler. The purpose of this pilot program is to find out if crypto provides the government a means “to invite more participation with more people, in a way that we can trust they are who they say they are.”

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That purported goal—of crypto as a means to offer constituents additional, hopefully accessible ways of interacting with their government—appears to be shared by other blockchain-curious municipal officials all across the political spectrum, like the leaders of Williston, North Dakota. Finance director Hercules Cummings announced last year that the city would be partnering with crypto-payment firm BitPay to accept utility bill payments in digital currencies. The mission, Cummings told us, is to gauge this system’s workability and get constituent feedback—and then perhaps expand the tech to other municipal functions, like payment of speeding tickets, fees for business and liquor licenses, ledgers of public debts on the blockchain, and even cryptocurrency-mining units powered by landfill methane emissions. For now, he elaborated, “We’re just offering another payment corridor if the customer wants to do that.”

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The pilot has been going on for about a year, and Cummings admitted that usage is “relatively low,” in part because Williston is a rural locale with a small population. But he also notes that Williston was one of the earliest cities to incorporate crypto and notes other factors that could drive up demand: a growing population of out-of-towners who come to work in oil fields and “are already familiar with crypto technology,” proximity to an in-construction crypto factory, and a partnership with Coin Cloud to operate a crypto ATM in the city’s international airport.

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Though officials we spoke with from all these smaller cities expressed higher ambitions for crypto in city government—Cummings told us he’s been in touch with metaverse companies—none is exactly trying to establish blockchain-based autonomous regions, as one Nevada company attempted recently (with support from Gov. Steve Sisolak). At the end of the day, Reno’s Schieve told us, it’s all capitalizing on the hype that crypto has built up for itself. “I think cities need to continue to be innovative, and what I like to say is when you stop trying is when you fail,” she said. “ I think in this country we have this too big a fear of failing, and I think: Fail fast, and fail often. Because that’s how you become innovative and changemaking.”

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With numerous cities—both big and small, from Austin to Massena—integrating crypto into government, it’s important to ask: Do crypto and the blockchain actually do anything meaningful for these cities?

One thing we learned: None of the smaller cities we surveyed is actually handling cryptocurrency itself. In fact, every one ensures currency payments are converted to fiat before being received by the municipalities. Second, it’s worth interrogating the purported motivations behind crypto adoption: a way to advertise a city’s innovative spirit, a tool to improve government instead of undermining it, a means of increased “transparency”—which can either mean using crypto to improve government, like Portsmouth’s mayor says, or to take responsibilities away from central government and put them on a virtual, privatized chain. To figure out whether crypto is achieving these goals requires public feedback—but almost everyone we talked to agreed that getting people to see any sort of good-government potential for blockchain has been difficult. “Just talking to people while doing walkabouts … there are obviously people concerned about emerging asset classes that have pretty wild swings in value and stability,” said Portsmouth Mayor Deaglan McEachern. Around Williston, local media outlets have been critical of the city’s and state’s crypto efforts, highlighting the energy use of Bitcoin mining, the crypto market’s volatility, and the scams. As for NFTs? “It depends. Some people love the Space Whale, some people don’t,” Schieve told us. “I was a big believer in that sculpture, and a lot of people love it, but it also gets very controversial.”

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These city officials pointed to any number of causes for the skepticism and hesitation—negative headlines, classic doubt of anything that’s new—but what may ultimately prevent more cities from cryptofying is the fact that the blockchain economy is deliberately built to be difficult. As technologist Xiaowei Wang wrote in their 2020 survey of a rural Chinese chicken farm that had incorporated blockchain into its supply chain process, “Under governance by blockchain, records are tamperproof, but the technical systems are legible only to a select few. Even exploring transactions on a blockchain requires some amount of technical knowledge and access.” As such, demonstrating a Web3 project in your town might not be enough to fully sway a skeptic, who might just find the process forbiddingly puzzling. It may be further unattractive to longtime residents of small cities like Williston, who may be skeptical of transplants who come to cash in on speculative booms that flare out and crash hard. A new government initiative need not be megapopular to be useful and, down the line, necessary. But what then happens when you’ve tried to sell your bridge and people don’t want to buy it?

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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