Sustainability Questions for Communitywide Engagement

Every city can improve its fiscal sustainability. Fiscal sustainability means the providing the services that meet the needs of households and businesses without taxes and fees that harm competitiveness relative to other cities. A core practice to improving sustainability is building a culture that uses the fiscal impact approach through its decision-making processes. This includes its budgeting, planning, capital programs, operations and economic development. Improving sustainability, however may not mean any given city can still maintain the level of services it offers today over the long run. Local leaders need to start a deliberate process where they engage city government and the private sector. That process will help the community come to terms with the capacity of its economy to support its needs. It will also result in types and levels of public services that strengthen and complement the efforts of households and businesses to create value.

High levels of comprehensive municipal services are a relatively recent development. Before WWII, most smaller cities and towns provided very modest services. Fire departments in most communities were volunteer. Police departments were small. Infrastructure was crude. Post war suburbanization, expanded retail sales and federal grant programs for water infrastructure gave most cities the resources to provide a high and consistent level of services to most Americans living in metro Politian areas. That type of easy economic prosperity is available to fewer cities today.

Economic prosperity is the foundation of sustainable city finances. Economic change in recent decades has separated communities into a small number of big winners and a larger number of losers and also-rans. While most U.S. cities have not experienced the absolute economic decline seen in older industrial cities, most have underperformed compared to the small pack of very high growth metro areas. Most communities are facing an ongoing struggle to maintain roads and other infrastructure, pay staff and cover retirement benefits. There are a few options cities try to address this challenge. They raise taxes and fees. They cut services. They make often wasteful bets on economic development subsidies. Eventually service levels will adjust to the ability of the local economy to support them. The challenge and opportunity for cities is to get to that point as quickly as possible. This frees more resources for private initiative. It also improves the effectiveness of the services government continues to offer. The best way to make this transition is to do so deliberately and before a crisis forces a city to make foolish and damaging fiscal choices.

Rationalizing public services with the capacity of the local economy can happen through a thoughtful and inclusive process. This is more likely to happen when cities are proactive and begin before economic circumstances force them. This does not mean a painless process. It is likely, however, that starting this process now will build a stronger community that is more heavily engaged in local government decisions. This type of community building will help implement the policies that result from the deliberate process to become a fiscal impact culture. To start, local leaders can begin a citywide dialogue around collectively answering three questions.

How do we want to define sustainability as a community? The concept of sustainability needs to be defined in ways that all stakeholders can understand. There is no absolute right answer since sustainability is a relative term. Time frame is one variable. A community can set goals that strive for shorter or longer-term sustainability. Effectively answering this question also means refining the community’s vision of itself and its role in the regional, national and perhaps even international economies. Every community aspires for more and better. That was relatively easy during America’s long history of rapid economic growth. Today, in a mature national economy, and one with opportunities for local growth more limited, communities need to take a realistic look at what they can be. This does not mean there is no hope or role for aspiration. It does mean that successfully reaching a vision will require one that is more imaginative than just more of what they already are.

What is the community will to rationally examine service levels, economic capacity and pick an appropriate balance? Once a community has established a creative, realistic vision, it is in the position to explore the role of its services in achieving that vision. Though most Americans are accustomed to the full set of municipal services, not every city will be able to maintain all these services at the level they currently provide. Communities will need to be much more creative is thinking about how they want to achieve the functions of traditional services. For instance, reduced risk from fire is an important goal. Achieving that goal can be helped by changing the building code to increase the fire resistance of buildings and mandating sprinkler systems. These regulations lower the need for firefighting capacity in the long-run. This does not mean eliminating the fire department, but it does mean rethinking how this and every other major municipal service is delivered and funded.

What is the community’s capacity to carry out this process? This is actually the most important question for local leaders to ask and it should come first in their process. We introduced it last since answering it requires a little understanding of the other two questions. This question requires local leaders to evaluate their own motives. It means assessing the culture of their municipal government and the availability of the right skill sets, time and other resources. If motives, culture and resources are up to the task then a city will be able to start the process of building a fiscal impact culture that enables sustainability.

A community that goes through an inclusive discussion of these three questions will gain many benefits. The most important and enduring benefits of this process include shaping a realistic, creative and shared vision for what the community wants to be, rationally rethinking the purpose of local government and identifying the benefits the community wants. This experience will help local leaders build the administrative infrastructure and city culture that makes sustainability the centerpiece of all its major decisions. Then when it comes time to take up a specific tool like fiscal impact analysis or cost-benefit analysis to inform local decision making, it will be in the best position to put those tools to proper use.

Taking these steps may be a frightening prospect for city leaders, but the potential benefits outweigh the risks. It may be far easier than the alternative where economic crisis, either local or national forces changes in even more painful ways. With growing service costs, taxpayer unrest and an uncertain economy, taking these steps may be the only way for local leaders to effectively accomplish the goals they have set for their community in the long run.

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