We want to start the new year suggesting some important themes and issues local leaders will face in 2017.
Both presidential candidates promised big infrastructure initiatives. From all indications, the Trump administration will take a different approach than past presidents. In keeping with his campaign themes, the objective appears to be promoting economically viable upgrades in key systems. The method will rely more on incentivizing public-private partnerships than by providing direct funding to states and localities. This may take the form of localities partnering with business to finance projects with the private sector paid back through operating revenue. One consequence may be that communities with weak economies will have fewer infrastructure opportunities. Healthy communities will be in a position to further their advantage by attracting more private investment capital.
This may be a window for localities to implement pilot smart cities initiatives. Broadband should be their priority given its potential to support business and workforce development. Success there will mean finding ways to make it sustainable to serve low-income communities.
Migration and Jobs
Interstate migration rates are returning to pre-Great Recession levels. There has been a long-term decline in migration in recent decades, but the Great Recession caused a dramatic reduction. Lack of new job opportunities outside tech hubs and energy producing regions kept people in place. We should see even more migration to western and southern states in the new year. Growing areas will face new service and infrastructure demands. Communities losing population will be trying to manage their public sector with a smaller economic base.
Migration in 2017 will reflect low oil prices. Energy producing regions will generally not be such strong draws. Though, Texas should continue to see migration to cities in the I-35 Corridor: Dallas-Fort Worth, Austin and San Antonio which have more diverse or tech-focused economies than Houston. Florida, Georgia and North Carolina will continue to grow in the South. The Rocky Mountain West will keep attracting California migrants.
Nationally, we can expect to see continued weak labor markets. 2017 will bring more headlines of workers being replaced by software and machines, the continued growth in the gig / freelance economy. Recent research shows that most new jobs created during the recovery were non-traditional contractor or part time. This trend will continue. Automation will continue reducing the need for corporate-based manufacturing, administrative, retail and even white collar jobs. Local leaders will face fewer more difficult challenges. They will need to adapt their economic development strategy. The objective will be to craft cost-effective ways to make their communities easier places to start businesses and train for a constantly changing and narrowing labor market.
Watch out for the States
As always, one of the biggest factors in local finance and development are policies by state legislatures. With legislative sessions starting soon, local governments can expect more efforts to limit their flexibility and potentially change economic development policies. State budgets are relatively stable, except with lower revenue in energy producing regions. Local leaders who want to preserve their freedom of movement need to pay close attention to these bills and rally their representatives and senators to their position. Restrictions on economic development incentives may emerge in several states, including Texas.
Not So Purple
The presidential election once again highlighted the biggest divide in America – that between urban and rural areas. The fault lines fall somewhere in the suburbs. Older suburbs share many policy and cultural similarities to central cities. Newer suburbs, exurban and rural areas similarly have some political affiliation. Economically, however the nation’s MSAs have little in common with rural America and small towns. Federalism once permitted states to set their own policies in key areas. Today, the individual states are often divided. Solutions will not be easy when it comes to key community building strategies like business and workforce development. Employment and income is increasingly concentrated in a few dozen MSAs. Most other regions need to learn to manage with stable or declining economies.
Holding the Line on Expenses
With housing prices continuing to increase this year, property tax revenues will improve in many communities, especially in the large metro areas. Local leaders will face pressure to restore services cut in recent years. As the largest budget categories, police and fire funding can easily consume all new revenue. Infrastructure backlogs also demand attention. At the same time, cities need to begin thinking of ways to shore up pension and retirement benefit systems. Current asset price highs have papered over structural problems in many public pension programs, but a market correction would reveal many unsustainable systems. Prudence recommends that citizens and local leaders pay close attention to the upcoming budget. These relatively good budget times are opportunities to replenish rainy day funds and have serious conversations on building a more sustainable public finance. These conversations should address the appropriate role of local government, sustainable service levels and innovative ways to achieve acceptable results for less money.
We hope you have a safe and prosperous 2017!