Another economic development link

One of the elephants in the room

The Strong Towns blog is one of my favorites because of its big picture/local scale approach backed up by real data.   Here’s today’s blog post Starter Strategies for a Strong Town.    I’d love to see Northfield go through these “ten things all local governments should be doing right now to start the transition into a new economic reality”

1. 5 year budget: Interim City Administrator Tim Madigan has proposed and the Council agreed to a two year budget cycle, so we’re moving in the right direction.

2. Base Line Workload Analysis – Essentially, cities need to analyze staffing and workload needs to allocate resources to the most productive way to deliver services.  The ST folks suggest:

Each task that the city and its staff perform should be listed and put into at least three different categories:

  1. Those things that are mandated by the State and Federal Gov’t
  2. Those things that are required by the Council or another public body
  3. Those things that are done exclusively for the staff

Once this task list is assembled, there can be a productive discussion about what tasks should continue, which can be cut, which can be reworked and then how the workload should be distributed. Only then can an informed decision on the needed level of staffing be made.

3. Real Capital Improvements Plan –  I agree with the ST people that “maintenance of infrastructure is the elephant in the room that cities simply can’t ignore any longer.”   They recommend:

A complete inventory of all of the infrastructure currently maintained, its condition, an estimate of its remaining life and an approximate cost for its replacement/maintenance is the first step. With modern GIS and database systems and a cadre of trained volunteers, most of this information is reasonably obtainable.

And I’d add that we should have a complete inventory of all our facilities and capital equipment, too, with the same sort of information.  Indeed, we should have had this information before we ever began our Safety Center discussions.

4. Form-based code throughout historic neighborhoods.  Sigh.  Back when the Comp Plan was being drafted (2006 and 2007), the consultants promised a “form-based code” to go with the plan (the city even sent the city planner off to learn about form-based codes at your expense), but when the draft arrived (from the same consultants, sort of), the result was not form-based, but regulations trying to micro-manage uses.  The Planning Commission has made great progress, but more could certainly be done.

5. New Road and street standards: another cost and value of infrastructure point.  Also supported by the GreenStep cities program in which we are participating.

6. Coordination of park investments with economic development: A point certain to tick off the 1st and 2nd wavers in our economic development circles.

7. Walkability Study

8. Implement an Import Replacement economic development strategy: Another point guaranteed to bother the smokestack chasers.

9. Small business subsidy plan: Or, incentivizing the businesses we are likely to attract as well as help our existing businesses grow.

10. Gov. 2.0 Public engagement platform: this one will thrill Griff Wigley over at Locally Grown who has been hocking me (for years now) about engaging citizens where they are (that is, on-line).  The Council has touched on using social media and upgrading the web-site and the IT plan we are going to discuss tomorrow (it’s in the packet for the worksession) is another nudge in this direction.

10 Replies to “Another economic development link”

  1. Good stuff… but so sensible that it should not even be an issue.

    #’s 6-9 WILL get the “smokestack chasers” riled, but keep calm and make fiscally sound responses; I do not believe they can make fiscally sound responses.

    Once again: Cost benefit analyses are a MUST.

    As to the citizen communication issue, an attitude change is needed at the ‘top’ for anything employed to be more than ‘lip-service’ (no pun intended).

  2. Betsey,

    It is probably not even worth a conversation, but …

    I just don’t see how this kind of conversation advances a discussion of economic development.

    The “new economic reality” is that cities are losing LGA (losing revenue), property tax values are falling (requiring higher levy rates to avoid loss of revenue), and the need and demand for services of all kinds has never been greater.

    Some kind of sane philosophy is needed just to balance budgets.

  3. David… what you say re: the budget realities is true, and yet I come to a different conclusion…
    And that is: when money is tight the prudent business person, or citizen, puts together all the small incremental steps they can establish to move towards their larger goal, while waiting for the dollars to come in.

    Isn’t it the same basic principle for a city? When the budget is tight , you should use all the small developmental increments which do not cost big public dollars, to move toward the economic goal.
    The added taxes for just the safety center project will be difficult for many NF businesses (see last night’s work session handout) ; additional taxes to provide infrastructure for the annexation area… in the hopes that someone will come… would be a completely unsustainable burden, would it not?

    So it seems that now is the time to do all the smaller less costly things, or free if they are ‘attitudinal’ changes; i.e. whatever can be accomplished that does not add to the burden of already struggling business and building owners.

  4. Kiffi,

    I’m not sure that it fruitful to even discuss “economic development” issues when economic development is defined so broadly as building libraries and establishing walkability.

    The more fundamental discussion is what economic development means. Is economic development about “jobs and taxes” in Northfield or some esoteric academic mumble-jumble coming out of the University of North Carolina or some blog without any apparent track record of accomplishment?

    The larger goal (for government) is to increase economic development so that it can take in more money to pay for the services that the citizens need and want. Sinking substantial amounts of money into developing a business park is unwise because it is unlikely to return the investment; letting private enterprise figure out how to pay for it is wise.

    It is not easy to take one or two steps back and announce that the days of building bike paths and expanding libraries has to take a back seat for a while. But, it is the right thing to do. This is the kind of attitudinal change that can work wonders. Talking about how we can make the town more walkable doesn’t get us anyplace.

    1. David,

      It’s clear that you don’t think trails or libraries are economic development, but something cities get to when they have more money. I’m not going to attempt to talk you out of this because your mind is closed to the role such things could play in building the long-term prosperity of a community.

      What I’d like to do is shift your attention from those items on the list from Strong Towns and ask what you think about some of the others like the workload analysis or capital improvements plan which go to core government services by almost any definition.

  5. Betsey,

    I’m not sure it is worth the conversation.

    Workload analysis and capital improvement plans are only worth doing if there is an agreed upon purpose for the study and development.

    Let me use the Streetscape Task Force as an example. We had about $1.0 million to spend. But, we had no system for rating the expenditures. So, we ended up spending money to re-do the Water Street parking lot, we built a bike path, and used the money to help fund 5th and 4th Street improvements. I listened to hours of pontificating on the “value” of these improvements. In reality, these projects will never return the dollars invested.

    I think we are seeing the same kind of arguments with the Safety Center. I would prefer no capital improvement plan to one that etches in stone a capital commitment that is not necessary, or what could be done cheaper.

  6. Betsey,

    As a follow up, here would be my suggestion:

    1. Identify the services provided by the local government,
    2. Identify the amount being spent on providing those services,
    3. Identify the cardinal order of priority of those services,
    4. Assign a relative value of those services (that is, assign a value to how much more we would pay to get those services),

    I suggested this type of approach with the Streetscape Committee. Had the Committee set up such a system, it would have permitted the Committee to do the following:

    A. Evaluate the money that we were spending on Streetscape against other governmental expenditures. (Bike paths versus fixing potholes)
    B. Rate individual Streetscape projects against each other. (Bike paths versus pedestrian benches)
    C. Rate projects against themselves. (Return on investment for a bike path)

  7. Betsey, I share many of David’s thoughts. In these difficult times it is essential to have a firm grasp on priorities for government. Almost everyone will agree that government (and many private businesses) tend to get ‘fat’ during good times. They have to go on a diet when times are lean, as they have been for the past 4 years.

    I think I can provide a concrete example of this. Many cities have HRA’s, housing coordinators, etc. to promote affordable housing. As far as I can tell, every single job associated with that type of work should have been eliminated years ago as there is such a glut of affordable housing on the market it can’t even begin to be absorbed (thanks to the economic collapse) But many cities continue to have these positions staffed, send staff to regional and statewide meetings to discuss these issues, etc. etc. This may very well be an area that local government should never have gotten involved with in the first place. But it is an area that local governments should back away from and let private enterprise do the work.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Ray. I would like the Council as a whole to develop that “firm grasp.” In addition to slimming down government for lean times, I’d like to see the Council (and the state and federal government, for that matter) begin to consider how some of our usual ways of doing business create costs that we cannot afford even in better times – infrastructure is top of the list for me.

      I’d also like to see city staff, especially in an entity the size of Northfield, be able to wear more than one hat. I do believe our HRA has done an excellent job of leveraging grant money and non-profit support to help rehab homes and buy foreclosed homes, but could that staff oversight be part of a staff position which had other responsibilities? As well, there hasn’t been any conversation about what gov’t’s role should be and what can/must/should be left to the private sector.

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