Live blogging a “Curbside Chat”

I’m in Richfield at the Woodlake Lanture Center (there are a couple of stuffed ducks on the wall in front of me) listening to Chuck Marohn and Jon Commers of Strong Towns starting their Curbside Chat

A rapid fire-presentation about why cities are in financial trouble and not likely to get out of trouble without some substantial change – here’s the brief sketch

Mechanisms of Growth (sin

ce WWII) or how did we get to where we are today with collapsing real estate markets, too much commercial space, failing infrastructure and no money in the city budget?

  • Intergovernment transfer payments: cities have become dependent on higher levels of government funneling dollars down to the city.  Think “local government aid” from the state of Minnesota.  As we have learned, the state is not a very reliable source of income as the legislature has cut LGA steadily and the former governor unallotted funds at the 11th hour.  The Northfield has stated its goal to balance its budget without LGA and working to take the $2 million from the state out of our planning.
  • federal/state transportation spending: the needs over the next 20 years are projected to cost $65 billion but only $15 billion in revenue in Minnesota.  So, to bridge that $50 billion shortfall, Strong Towns estimates an $.83 per gallon gas tax would be needed.
  • Debt (public and private indebtedness): another mismatch of increasing debt out of proportion to any growth in GDP.  We built the first wave of suburban development (1950 to 1975) on the “layaway economy” (or paid for with cash on hand) to a leverage economy (1975 to present) where we borrow the money.  In governmental terms, we need new growth, new tax base, new borrowing to pay for our existing liabilities.

Growth ponzi schemes: Need a new overpass, new highway, new subdivision?  Find federal funding, MNDoT dollars, or private developers to put up the capital so it looks like a great deal up front.  Unfortunately, now the local government is on the hook to maintain it forever.  Or not – take a look at Detroit.


Paying for streets – two examples to ponder

On Tuesday, the Council passed a resolution calling for the assessment hearing for the reclamation project on Jefferson Road (here’s the packet and the Patch story).  The assessment is lower than the street reconstruction rate – 75% of the special benefit analysis amount with a 100′ cap on the number of feet of frontage to compensate for the wider than usual lots on this stretch of roadway.  I voted against it because the assessment on a collector street – a vital link to our southern shopping area plus access to several clinics and other residential streets – seems unfair.  Rather, Jefferson Road is part of the city wide transportation network of collector streets and, as such, should be financed by the city as a whole.

I was still pondering my vote tonight when driving back from Target on Jefferson Road.  I didn’t like my vote because it was counter to adopted policy and, as readers should know by now, I like to see good policies adopted and then followed rather than attempting to legislate on a decision by decision basis.

But then I reached the intersection of Woodley and Division where “Road closed ahead” signs are accumulating in advance of MNDoT‘s mill and overlay of TH (that’s trunk highway) 246 which is Woodley Street from TH3 to Division Street, then Division Street south out of Northfield to Nerstrand.   TH246 is classified as a minor arterial – a step up in volume/speed from a collector like Jefferson Road – another major link in the Northfield street network.  However, as a state highway, the residents along this route will not be assessed for the project, but their tax dollars will (indirectly, to be sure) pay for the project through state government funding.

My difficulty with assessments is something like this:  Infrastructure (streets, water, wastewater, streetlights, green infrastructure like parks) benefits the entire community and the entire community should finance the repair and replacement of these important parts of our city.  In addition, adjusting tax rates and capital planning to account for not using special assessments would eliminate the surprise of getting a letter saying you owe the city thousands of dollars and, I’d think, make taxes more predictable, transparent, and fair.

Community survey

Nothin' up my sleeve...PRESTO!

The results are in from the community survey (report in Council Packet, Patch, Northfield News) and, unlike Bullwinkle, I don’t think we found many surprises.   Results were generally positive to positively general questions – at best we can discern general tendencies, but the survey will not help us make any more subtle policy distinctions.

Some questions you should ask about the results:

1. Was this a good use of taxpayer dollars (I voted against the $12,500 community survey)?  Was it needed?  Are there better uses for this money?  Were there other ways to get information?  Will it help us do what we need to do?

2. Why weren’t college students surveyed?  Unfortunately, the Council did not have the opportunity to make a policy choice about surveying college students, they were excluded by the Decision Resources, Ltd.  This is unfortunate because college students make up about a quarter of our population, because we continually talk about how we can retain or recapture alumni for economic development, and because college students have a significant impact on our economy, the character of the town, and sense of place.

3. What good does it do the Council to know, for example, that 55% of those surveyed rated snowplowing essential, but only 23% rated elections essential?  This type of comparison is unlikely to assist is making reasonable choices about how much money to spend on snowplowing (where we have to make our best estimate about budget and then wait to see how much it snows) and elections (clearly identifiable costs and utterly essential to government).

4. How does this survey help us make good policy which reduces the overall cost of government?  Take roads.  Our streets are not in good shape, as anyone who drives or bicycles in Northfield can tell.   Survey suggests we should generally improve street condition and spend more money to do it.  What it will not help the Council do is find the best policy for street designs which reduce costs (think skinny streets), optimally schedule maintenance, repair and reconstruction, and certainly won’t help us build in public policy objectives like pedestrian safety, stormwater management (stormwater had its own survey questions), or green infrastructure.

5. Perception vs. reality: The survey measures residents’ perception of government cost and services.  Some services are accessible and obvious (street condition, library services), others are less so (stormwater, animal control).  Some are used by all (streets), others by few (transit).  How do residents form their opinions and where do they get their information?  How should the Council use these perceptions to form policy?  How can the City help educate Northfield about what we do, how much it costs, and what the options might be?  The survey reported (and Councilor Gainey noted in his comments in the News) that residents rely more heavily on the local newspaper for their news about government.  How should this affect what we do?

6. How reliable and valid is the survey?  Others who are more expert than I have questioned the methodology of the survey.  It would be great to have some expert and impartial analysis of the survey itself to unravel the “lies, damned lies, and statistics” issue, but not at your expense.


What happens next?

Recent news suggests we have about as much chance of keeping up with infrastructure repair and replacement as George Jetson had with walking Astro:

Star Tribune: Front page, above the fold on February 17.   MnDOT tells legislature roads are deteriorating; give us more more money.  Minneapolis city staff say cutbacks in local government aid mean cities don’t have the funds to keep up with road maintenance and repair.

Faribault Daily News: Rice County tries to save money by doing seal-coating in-house.

“This isn’t a cure-all,” said [County Engineer Dennis] Luebbe. “But we have to attempt to save what we’ve got.”

American Society of Civil Engineers: The ASCE has graded the nation’s infrastructure for quite a few years; roads are currently getting a D-. (The aging infrastructure for drinking water gets a D-, wastewater does too). In addition to the road surfaces failing:

Congestion continues to worsen to the point at which Americans spend 4.2 billion hours a year stuck in traffic at a cost of $78.2 billion a year in wasted time and fuel costs—$710 per motorist

And it’s not just individual motorists – think of businesses which rely on highway transportation which face delivery delays, uncertain supply issues, etc.

I blame Henry Ford. We’ve spent almost a century building for cheap and convenient transportation by automobile which has helped push cities and towns out into suburbs and exurbs (Full disclosure: my Great-Uncle Allan was one of Henry Ford’s inventors, so I guess my family is somewhat culpable – how embarrassing).  We can’t keep up with what we’ve built, so thanks Henry Ford for giving us mass production and cheap cars, but now we have to take a hard look at how much this development pattern costs in dollars for roads and pipes, productivity lost to congestion or just commuting time, energy costs, environmental damage, and limits to economic growth.

This is where I see the opportunity for a policy shift. Much as I’d like to see real policy innovation at the federal and state level, I get a bit pessimistic about institutions that large and that partisan changing quickly.  But here in Northfield, we’re small enough (only 7 non-partisan councilmembers!) to be able to rethink our policy and start to implement it. (For one overview of the current situation and some policy options, see the ULI  Infrastructure 2010 report).

First, land use planning (or, why the Comp Plan is right) as I’ve been saying with the business park, we should not extend infrastructure without a good idea how we will fund its installation plus maintenance and eventual replacement.  We really shouldn’t subsidize the kind of development which requires large extensions of infrastructure.  Future residential development should also seek to limit new infrastructure.  Increased tax base is good, but consider how much better increased tax base is on existing infrastructure.

Second, capital planning.  When I took my seat on the Council, staff talked about developing a 20 or 30 year infrastructure CIP, but I haven’t heard anything about this lately.  It’s a good idea, though.  I’d certainly like to discuss the overall condition of Northfield’s infrastructure and then look out 10, 20 and 30 years (using both pessimistic and optimistic projections of growth) to try to better plan and budget for Northfield’s needs, set some benchmarks and be able to track our progress.

Third, reducing vehicle miles traveled.  Part of this is land use – denser development means destinations within Northfield are closer together and easier to reach by foot or bicycle.  Part is improving non-motorized facilities – sidewalks and bike lanes.  Part is transit; transit works better with higher density, too (the transit hub is on the worksession agenda for Tuesday, 2/22)

Fourth, integration. By this, I just mean that land use decisions have financial implications, housing decisions affect transit, school placement affects the transportation system, infrastructure supports economic development, Northfield’s decisons impact the surrounding townships, and so on.   A sustainable Northfield will pay attention to the interdependence of our actions and attempt to spend its money in ways which help the city as a whole thrive.

Fifth, more money. And we’ll still have to look for more or new revenue to be able to catch up on maintenance.


The Council talks business park

If looks could kill, I wouldn’t be blogging today.

Tuesday’s worksession was devoted to economic development.  First, we reviewed the Business Park Master Plan (Part 1, Part 2, Executive Summary) followed by a discussion of Northfield’s core policy documents the Comprehensive Plan, Economic Development Comprehensive Plan, Arts Plan, etc.  It should have happened in the opposite order, but much of the business park discussion hints at the themes of our planning documents, so let’s just talk business park.

Rick Estenson and Jody Gunderson were staring daggers at me, but still failed to address my fundamental concerns about how the short and long-term costs of such a project will reduce or eliminate the stated benefit.  Simply repeating “we need to increase our tax base and create jobs” in the face of opposition is not an answer, it’s a dodge.

My position remains the same – until the EDA can answer questions about who will pay for the initial infrastructure improvements and how the maintenance of that much additional infrastructure will cost the city, and how much of those costs is projected to be offset by increased property taxes (including when the city will break even on its expenditure), there is no “tweak” possible which will get me to consider giving my support to this plan.

Infrastructure costs are a Really Big Problem. Reading MN Dot’s 20 year highway investment plan:

With a total estimated investment need exceeding $65 billion during the next 20 years, and projected revenues of about $15 billion, this analysis indicates that almost $50 billion remains in “unmet needs.” To place this level of funding in perspective, every 5 cents on the motor vehicle fuel tax in Minnesota provides just under $100 million per year to the State Road Construction fund. To meet five percent of the $50 billion gap, or $2.5 billion, over the next 10 years would require the equivalent of a 12.5-cent increase in the motor vehicle fuel tax.

Northfield’s pavement quality is also deteriorating (see Pavement Management info).  The City bonds annually for street reconstruction projects.  In 2011, reconstructing parts of Linden, Plum and W. 2nd Streets will cost about $2 million (reconstruction means replacing water and sewer services as well as the street itself), plus more projects to maintain pavement quality (but I think local drivers will agree that we’re not really keeping up with this).  We are planning to bond for about $10 million for a new Safety Center and watch our revenue drop with cutbacks in local government aid, so I don’t anticipate that our spending on infrastructure will increase any time soon and I wouldn’t be surprised if it decreases (and I’ll bet state spending will decrease, too).

Northfield needs to think long-term about infrastructure. Water, wastewater, and streets are core services which impact the city’s ability to attract business, are fundamental to public health and safety, and affect our quality of life.  How are we going to fund these bedrock services?  It would have been great if the EDA had made minimizing infrastructure extension one of the priorities for additional land for commercial industrial development to help keep the city’s costs lower.  I see the business park as part of a vicious circle – we need growth to expand the tax base to pay for city services.  By growing in such an infrastructure intensive way, the cost of providing city services is higher, so we need to grow the tax base even more.

The Comprehensive Plan’s emphasis on compact development is not about how Northfield looks, it is also about what development costs. Development on existing infrastructure, or as close to it as possible costs less and provides a higher return on investment.

The other issue which bothers me here is how little control the City of Northfield really has in terms of development of a business park.  No matter how wonderful the Master Plan is, it is only a plan.  Plans “guide” future development, but they do not have the force of ordinances.  Both plans and ordinances can be amended to meet current needs.  Northfield owns none of the land for the proposed business park.  The land is not yet subdivided (that would trigger higher tax rates) into the nice grid street plan in the plan.  Road improvements are dependent on multiple jurisdictions (state, two counties, townships, and city).  Oh, and then there’s the problem that we have master planned two sites – one in Greenvale Township and one in Bridgewater.  Attracting the “right” businesses will require luck, marketing, and favorable economic winds over many years.  When we’re thinking about allocating scarce dollars, is this a good bet?  I say no.

Placing my bets: The Comprehensive Economic Development Plan emphasizes providing additional land for development.  The plan says 120 acres and more would have adverse impacts on downtown on the community and downtown.  Former Community Development Director Brian O’Connell announced at the worksession that this number was more or less random – see the News.   Dodging the dodgy numbers problem, I’ll assume we need considerably less than the almost 1000 acres involved in the North and South sites of the business park plan.  What’s the lowest cost location(s)?  Does it have to be a pre-planned “park”?  Have we asked our current businesses?

The other parts of the economic development plan really look at (1) working with existing businesses and trying to meet their needs (did you know Malt-O-Meal is the largest taxpayer in Rice County?  I learned this at the worksession), (2) building on the assets two colleges bring to town (alumni and other creative class assets), (3) connecting with the workforce we already have (including our Latino population) and (4) enhancing Northfield’s sense of place especially the Cannon River.  Once again, when we are allocating limited dollars for economic development, I think directing resources toward known assets like colleges, current businesses, local entrepreneurs, and the downtown, allows us to direct dollars toward development which could provide a better return on a lower cost investment, rather than planning a speculative business park.

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.

Economically healthy Northfield – Current plans

Smart growth or sprawl?

My previous post on this topic imagined the qualities an economically healthy Northfield would possess.

Fortunately, it’s not just my imagination.

My vision started from the Smart Growth philosophy which is supported (to varying degrees) by Northfield’s planning documents.  Here’s a list of Smart Growth principles: (See also the  EPA‘s extensive resources or the NRDC)

  • Create a range of housing choices
  • Create walkable neighborhoods
  • Encourage community and stakeholder collaboration
  • Foster distinctive, attractive communities with a strong sense of place
  • Make development decisions predictable, fair and cost effective
  • Mix land uses
  • Preserve open space, farmland, natural beauty and critical environmental areas
  • Provide a variety of transportation choices
  • Strengthen development towards existing communities
  • Take advantage of compact building design

Consider, then, Northfield’s 2008 Comprehensive Plan‘s land use principles:

  1. The small town character will be enhanced (strong sense of place).
  2. The natural environment will be protected, enhanced and better integrated in the community (preserve open space, etc.)
  3. The preference for accommodating future growth is in infill locations, then redevelopment opportunities, and then on the edge of existing developed areas (strengthen development towards existing communities).
  4. New and redeveloped residential communities (areas) will have strong neighborhood qualities.
  5. Environmentally-sensitive and sustainable practices will be integrated into new developments and redeveloped areas (Preserve open space, etc.).
  6. Places with a mix of uses that are distinctive and contribute to increasing the city’s overall vitality are preferred (Mix land uses).
  7. Neighborhood serving commercial will be small scale and integrated with the residential context (mix land uses).
  8. A wider range of housing choices will be encouraged – in the community as well as in neighborhoods (create a wider range of housing choices).
  9. Rural character of certain areas of the community will be protected.
  10. Streets will create an attractive public realm and be exceptional places for people (sense of place, walkable neighborhoods).
  11. Places will be better connected, in part to improve the function of the street network and also to better serve neighborhoods (walkable neighborhoods, variety of transportation choices).
  12. Opportunities will be created to walk and bike throughout the community (walkable neighborhoods, variety of transportation choices).

These land use principles are further articulated in the Comp Plan goals, objectives, and strategies (see the implementation matrix) and there are also objectives to “improve the development process” (Land Use objective 10) as well as several which point toward collaboration with stakeholders and neighboring jurisdictions.  The Comp Plan goals for economic development (Chapter 10) include revitalizing the Cannon River corridor to maintain Northfield’s historic character and incentivizing infill/redevelopment.  It’s a Smart Comp Plan.

But what about smart economic development in addition to smart land and community development?  Consider some of the ideas from the Local Government Commission’s Ahwahnee Principles for Smart Economic Development.

  1. Integrated approach: Government, business, education, and community members collaborate to create a healthy local economy
  2. Local focus: Existing businesses should be given top priority as the best source of business expansion, job creation and increasing the tax base
  3. Industry clusters: Capitalizing on clusters of related businesses which draw on local competitive advantages
  4. Wired communities: investing in technology that helps business succeed and improves access to information and resources.
  5. Long-term investment in community development: Economic development should be evaluated for its long-term impacts on a community, not short-term job or revenue gains.
  6. Making investments in social capital: For increasingly knowledge-based jobs, communities should invest in schools, libraries, life-long learning and training opportunities.
  7. Regional collaboration: industries, workforce, transportation networks, and natural resources are not contained by political boundaries; communities should cooperate regionally for shared success
  8. Restoring community centers: Maintaining urban centers – downtowns – by ensuring they provide local business serving local needs.
  9. Environmental quality: on the smart growth list
  10. Livable communities: Smart growth, see above
  11. Compact development: Another one from the smart growth list – guiding growth to existing communities already served by infrastructure minimizes economic, environmental and social costs and more efficiently uses resources and infrastructure.
  12. Sense of place: seen this already

Turning to the 2006 Comprehensive Economic Development Plan:

Opportunity 2 Maintaining Northfield’s quality of place.  This includes strategies such as maintaining and enhancing downtown, redeveloping the river corridor, mix uses, encouraging housing and increasing density downtown.   This Opportunity also includes forming (1) a retail working group with partners such as the Chamber, NDDC, colleges, local developers, and (2) a Rice County working group.  Clearly the Smart Growth ideas are embedded here, as well as policy direction toward collaboration among stakeholders, building on our existing assets, and moving toward a more integrated approach with local focus.  I’d put our recent discussions of community events funding here, too.

Opportunity 3 Attracting and retaining talent includes working with the colleges to recapture alumni and work with current students.  Housing – increasing the range of housing options – is also part of this opportunity partnering with employers and HRA.  Other collaborative strategies like working with the Latino community to foster small business development (think of the Council’s recent approval of participation in the LINK center) also fall under this opportunity, as would ensuring the success of our public library.  This is the opportunity for investing in human capital and our existing businesses.

Opportunity 1 Diversifying the economic base. Strategy 1A directs “make land available for business expansion” – that’s the “business park strategy” although the business park is far in excess of the recommended amount of land needed.  Although making land available is the highest priority of the plan, this recommendation is tempered by the recommendation of “no more than 120 acres” (the business park site is over 500 acres) to maintain Northfield’s character (see page 13 of the plan).  But this opportunity is also not limited to the business park – it also directs us to work on retaining/expanding existing business, investing in technology like broadband, and working to market Northfield regionally.

Other actions and policies: In June, the Council passed a resolution approving participation in the MN GreenStep Cities program (see the 28 Best Practices) which is a voluntary program where a city takes specific steps to carry out the best practices such as increasing density, mixing uses, multi-modal transportation, etc.

Bottom line: Northfield’s adopted policies support the Smart Growth vision of an economically healthy community which goes beyond jobs & tax base.  The Council must own these policies and use our 2011 work plan to take incremental steps toward making the policy reality.  Of course we’ll need help, since many of the smart ideas require meaningful collaboration and cooperation between the public and private sector, as well as neighboring jurisdictions.

Financial policies

I have been more than a wee bit frustrated by the way the budget and financial decision-making has happened thus far.   I want to make – want the Council to make – decisions which are principled, defensible (rationally, not just legally), and support citizen priorities.  One tool we could/should use to help us here would be a set of well-thought out, formally adopted, and completely public budget policies.  Like these:

What’s so great about Policy?  If the Council could, perhaps with some expert guidance from our new Ad Hoc Financial Workgroup, develop financial policies, we would not have to make each decision starting from zero.

For example, if we had a policy on the use of fund balance, the staff and the Council would have guidelines for when and how the City could use fund balance for operating expenses.  Then, when it is time to balance the budget, Council and staff would know if the pool of available dollars included using fund balance, how much, and for what purposes.  For those of us who are not finance wizards (that would be the entire Council), we would have some frame of reference for assessing the numbers brought forward by staff.

Policy is really not such a difficult idea – it’s developing strategies to guide the City’s typical actions.  There will always be particular situations which challenge the policy because they don’t quite fit, but for our routine decision-making we could use some help.

Public Forum on the Budget – August 23

The City is holding a public forum on the budget at 7 pm on Monday, August 23 in the City Council chambers.  From the announcement for the forum:

The City has experienced significant reductions in state aid and the Mayor and Council have set a goal of achieving a balanced budget without any state aid by the year 2015. This represents a decrease of just over $2 million dollars over the next four years or 20% of the General Fund budget, $500,000 in 2011…Given the size of the reduction, all services will be affected to some extent. The Mayor and Council want to know not only what services are important to you, but also what level of service is acceptable. Would you be willing to pay higher taxes to maintain service levels? Would you be willing to pay additional fees and charges? Are you willing to accept reductions in hours of service at City facilities or longer response times?

True enough, but there are a few more questions you might consider: Continue reading “Public Forum on the Budget – August 23”

Budget big picture

My high school Latin teacher, Mr League, used to ask “Do you get the BIG picture…or just the pretty picture?”  where only getting the pretty picture meant you were failing to place an answer in its appropriate context and, consequently, missing the point.  The picture of the budget we have been receiving has certainly not been the big picture, so it meets Mr League’s definition of a pretty picture, but the budget outlook is not pretty at all. Continue reading “Budget big picture”