The dilemma local officials face this time of year is usually portrayed as a struggle between cutting services and raising taxes, a choice that gets harder each year as budgets get made and taxes get levied.
As these choices play out, you can see how Minnesota residents define themselves and the places they live in. Budgets reflect community personalities; some even talk about them as moral documents that lay out what a community ought to do with its common resources.
But precious few are coming to grips with the real challenge, says Chuck Marohn.
“We seem to be operating under the guise that there’s going to be a recovery,” he says.
Marohn is a Brainerd area engineer, planner, writer and voice in the wilderness crying for local governments to adapt to a new world. He is president of Strong Towns, a non-profit organization that advocates for changes in development patterns, and has compiled a booklet from the Curbside Chats he’s been delivering to community leaders, a 57-page guide to why he thinks the local world will never be the same.
Chuck Marohn at a Ground Level panel discussion in Princeton last year.
Put simply, his message is that the growth communities have built on and counted on is not sustainable and, in fact, has generated a set of road, sewer and other built-in infrastructure costs that will become increasingly difficult to pay.
“We’ve just built more than we can maintain,” he said Tuesday.
Marohn was part of a panel discussion Ground Level hosted last year in Princeton, focusing on the costs of growth in nearby Baldwin Township north of the Twin Cities.
His new report cites a number of examples showing long-term maintenance costs of housing development roads, industrial parks and sewer systems outweighing the ability of the beneficiaries to pay for them. He points to the small city of Backus, which needs to replace its 1960s era sewer system. The cost is $3.3 million, or $27,000 per household. The median income is the same $27,000.
The proposed Stillwater bridge (rendering above courtesy of MnDOT) is likewise designed to generate a poor return, he argues. If the planned bridge over the St. Croix River were considered a local improvement and served 16,000 vehicles a day, its $668 million cost would translate into a $6 toll for each trip, Marohn figures.
Faced with tighter budgets, cities all over Minnesota are deciding to delay street repairs and maintenance to save money, for example. That’s not cutting; it’s simply putting off expenses, in Marohn’s mind.
What they should be doing, he thinks, is making choices about what local investments truly will pay an acceptable return in terms of tax revenue or benefits and sacrificing the rest. He says he doesn’t see many communities making choices like returning roads to two-track paths.
A few nuggets from his new booklet:
The benefits of growth are immediate: additional tax base and tax revenue. The costs come after one life cycle, when infrastructure needs to be maintained.
Once a problem is identified, it is natural to want a clear solution. We are often asked what can be done to solve this problem? When people ask this question, they often mean: What is the solution that will allow me to continue to live essentially the way I do now without undergoing too much turmoil? The answer is: no such solution exists.
The standard economic development model at the local level in the United States relies on convincing an employer from outside the community to relocate to the community. We have established an immense system of subsidies, supports and programs to facilitate these transactions. Not only is this vastly inefficient, it almost never works as planned.
Marohn doesn’t minimize the difficulty. He sympathizes with city managers who see a problem — traffic congestion or crumbling sewers, say — and don’t like the expensive fix that consultants may suggest. But they see no alternative.
So what’s his advice?
–First, stop building infrastructure projects that add to a community’s long-term maintenance obligations.
–Add up the true long-term obligations a community has taken on to maintain its infrastructure.
–Then divide communities into high-amenity and low-amenity areas. Put the public investment into the former and cut investment in the latter. Maybe not every place needs a wide street.
–Shift emphasis from cars to pedestrians.
And if that leaves some communities or parts of communities withering, there might be no way to avoid it, Marohn thinks. “A lot of these areas will be used for salvage. Send a machine out and grind up the asphalt.”
When it comes to economic development, Marohn likes two approaches.
One, pioneered after tough times in Littleton, Colo., is known as “economic gardening,” helping existing small companies (10 to 100 employees) become growth engines.
A second calls for relying less and less on bringing products and services from elsewhere, finding ways as energy prices rise, to make things locally. Food is a prime example, he said.
“We’re not going back to 2005.”