Causes of Fiscal Stress

Introduction

We spent the last several weeks outlining a framework to improve municipal financial sustainability including goals, indicators, community engagement and long-range planning. Today we introduce potential sources of fiscal stress for America’s cities and towns. Every community is unique, but many of these factors are impacting most places.

Two Centuries of Change

There was no golden age of sustainable urbanism in the U.S. Urban America has grown and changed continuously for two hundred years. (Before that there was no significant urbanism, only a handful of small towns.) Towns grew into cities and conditions and concepts of fiscal health changed with them. These changes altered what was economically viable for businesses, households and city governments. Population growth, new techniques and modes of organizing were reinforced by new energy sources like coal and oil. Growing wealth, knowledge about public health and sanitation and political and cultural changes increased demand for more services and influenced the way cities were built and the way municipalities operated. As cities aged and economic competition increased among them winners and losers emerged and economic health varied across the country. Always, these shifts influenced new rounds of public and private cost-benefit calculations.

The simplest definition of municipal financial health is that municipal operations are not so large or complex to be sustained through its existing revenue system. The local private economy that is the source of wealth for government operations may or may not be capable of supporting higher revenues. That circumstance will vary from place to place. When a city’s circumstances change from fiscal health to fiscal stress it may be because of internal or external changes or both. Solutions will also vary depending on local circumstances. Changing service levels, trying to enhance the local economy or both may make sense. Making the right choice as a community depends on what specific factors contributed to the fiscal stress. There are several candidates to consider. Some of these changes have been happening throughout U.S. urban history, others have been more important at certain times. Some are a bigger factor in some parts of the country that others. We present these in no particular order, though evidence exists for all these in at least some cities today.

  1. Landuse that no longer takes advantage of traditional urban form (positive spillovers from proximity and agglomeration.) Spatial segregation of uses, too much private land in unproductive uses like parking and setbacks are examples. This requires more infrastructure per acre and more municipal fleet and staff requirements to serve the private sector.
  2. Economic changes in the location, size and mix of industries and businesses. Technology change and continuing competition shift the fortune of local industries. In some communities, the tax base declines. There are also fewer self-employment opportunities nationally as industries become dominated by larger firms.
  3. Shrinking tax base from a shift in tax types. Over the 20th Century, taxation generally became more regressive. Property taxes and sales taxes tend don’t generally increase proportionately to higher household incomes.
  4. Changes in fiscal federalism. Federal government aid to cities grew over the last century, but began declining in the last 40 years. Many states have not increased local aid, resulting in a net decrease in this revenue source to cities.
  5. Post WWII pension and retirement benefits have become a growing burden for local governments as their workforces matured. The dependency ratio increased as even the Sunbelt boom towns built out. Health costs have recently grown much faster than than any revenue source or other spending categories.
  6. Higher debt service. This may be a symptom of stress when it results from using debt for operations. It can be a contributor to stress when the underlying economic base weakens and what looked like prudent investments in years past become stranded sunk costs.
  7. National and regional population migration that weakens the markets of origin and increases service demand in the destination markets. Origin cities see a decreasing private sector trying to support the operating and infrastructure of a formerly larger city.
  8. City growth. As cities grow in population, their spending per capita increases faster than population growth. This has been the case since industrialization in the mid 19th century. Americans continue a long-term trend of crowding into larger cities and suburbs where demand and provision of services is at a much higher level than in small cities and towns.
  9. New awareness of public health and environmental risks promoted greater demand for infrastructure upgrades especially in water and sewer systems. Citizens have also generally demanded high levels of public safety protection.
  10. Technology innovation has also added to the service burden of cities. For example, development of steam-powered fire engines allowed a smaller crew, and lower brigade costs. However, formerly volunteer or privately funded services moved onto municipal books.

This is a long list and we will spend much of the new year taking a closer look at some of these. Finding answers for financially strapped communities means not making reactionary decisions. Solutions based on fads or what another community tried can squander scarce resources. Cities did not become fiscally stressed overnight. Some of these trends have been in place for well over a century. Change for the better will probably need to be gradual and thoughtful as well. There is no golden age of American urbanism to return to, but most every community has the capacity to make positive changes. We will need to work out the answers that make sense in each place.

Next Week

Next week, we will present a few predictions for economic development and municipal finances for 2017. If you would like to know more about how Axianomics can help you put your community on a more sustainable path let us know.

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