Fixing the problem

Here is the message from the Curbside Chat yesterday:  The current development pattern cannot be maintained without big tax increases or big cuts in service.

The dilemma of tax increases and/or service cuts should sound pretty familiar to Minnesotans.  The state legislature and Governor Mark Dayton ended the government shutdown yesterday by finally agreeing on a budget (which should have been approved in May).  The Republican legislature said “no new taxes”   (relying on cuts instead) while DFL Governor Mark Dayton advocated for (but dropped in the final budget) a tax increase on the highest paid Minnesotans.  Both sides, however, are focused on balancing the budget for the short term.  In Northfield we’ve got our own budget to balance.

Cut services: we’ve asked which services are “essential” and attempted to distinguish “needs” from “wants” (with the presumption that we can cut the mere wants while we fund the needs).  Public safety, paradigmatically, is essential.  The public library generates debate about its status as necessary or merely nice.  We admit that snowplowing is essential, but we still wonder how much plowing is necessary – all streets cleared within 12 hours?  24?  36?

Or, we could raise taxes.  Local governments get most of their revenue from transfers from the state – local government aid – and property taxes.  LGA is shrinking, so the other way to raise revenue is to raise taxes.  Raising taxes is politically difficult and more so in a bad economy.  Then, even if Northfield was willing to raise taxes enough to fund all our programs and services at current levels without LGA, the state has capped tax levies (although this has now changed).

Fortunately, there is a third variable: Development pattern.  The Strong Towns guys did not go into detail about what a new, improved development pattern would look like, but dropped a few hints.

  • Land capacity and density.  We can fit alot more people in the same space (on the same infrastructure) which provides more wallets to pay for the services and pipes.  Northfield’s residential density is very low.  The stereotypical quarter acre lot with a house yields a density of 4 units per acre and our single family neighborhoods are under 10 units per acre.  By comparison, when I lived in Cambridge, England, the city was considering proposals to redevelop an area near the train station at 40 units per acre (this obviously means apartments and other vertical development).  But you’ve heard this sort of stuff from me before regarding infrastructure and Northfield’s economic health,
  • Establish the value of multifunctional infrastructure.  Or, can streets help manage stormwater?   Can parks support agriculture?  Our Complete Streets discussion last week started what I hope is a longer conversation about planning and building our street corridors for more than just moving cars and holding pipes, but also for walking, stormwater, energy conservation, etc.  Much to think about here.
  • The ability of local leaders to transform their communities.  Certainly I believe in the ability of local leaders to transform their communities or else why would I be doing what I’m doing?  Local leaders need some help, though, to understand the issues facing them.  The cost of our development pattern, the way we use debt financing, how higher levels of government incentivize practices which may not be in our long term best interests…we’ve got a lot to learn about what we already do.  Then, of course, we need to try to find and implement solutions which requires vision, risk taking (not something elected leaders are particularly good at) and commitment beyond a few election cycles.