Curbside Chat

On Monday, September 27 at 5:00 p.m., Charles Marohn, President of Strong Towns, will host a Curbside Chat at the East Grand Forks City Hall.  The public is strongly encourage to attend and to engage.  Much of the credit for organzing the event belongs to Council Member Marc DeMers, who “discovered” the Strong Towns group for us. 

One cannot do justice to the totality of the Strong Towns mission without reviewing the entire web site.  But, here are some highlights.  In essence, Marohn and his organzation posit that many (most?) cities have grown inefficiently by subsidzing development infrastructure that does not pay for itself.  He often refers to one concept as “The Growth Ponzi Scheme.”  The scheme suggests that struggling cities strongly encourage new development to increase tax base and to pay for existing services.  The fallacy of this argument, according to Marohn, is that new development requires new infrastructure that requires long-term maintenance even after the initial cost.  Therefore, cities more often than not increase their funding gaps through new development.  The Ponzi aspect, of course, is that new growth pays for old growth, but there is nothing left to pay for the new growth as it ages.  This is one of many reasons that concepts such as “Smart Growth” and “Sustainable Development” are beginning to take hold across the country.

I conducted a quick overview of Strong Towns when DeMers first approached me about the possibility of hosting a Curbside Chat in East Grand Forks.  I viewed Marohn’s bio, and I immediately recognized him as that guy who supported ending Local Government Aid (LGA) in a recent MPR online debate.  Naturally, LGA is a topic of some discussion – to say the least – in our city and many others across Minnesota.  

But, Marohn has many solid points about LGA and its relation to development.  His premise is that LGA and many other forms of government intervention have artificially subsidized infrastructure that cannot be sustained.  For example, Strong Towns created a ranked list of Minnesota’s Most Vulnerable Cities based on projected tax increases if LGA were eliminated.  East Grand Forks is number 327  in “most vulnerable” out of 855 Minnesota Cities.  Not bad, but certainly vulnerable.  In comparison our regional comparison cities of Crookston and Thief River Falls are ranked at numbers 60 and 208, respectively.  In fairness, the calculation to some degree measures not just vulnerability but also a city’s tax effort.  Nonetheless, the pont is taken that a large reliance on LGA can leave a City in great peril during period of state deficits as we now see. Marohn takes the argument once step further by suggesting the LGA encourages development that is not sustainable.

Marohn also criticizes other state programs that encourage large infrastructure projects that are not self-supporting.  He sites the Minneosta Public Finance Authority’s Project Priority List (PPL), which includes low-interest funding for the East Grand Forks Sanitary Sewer Improvements (Phase I is complete, Phase II is pending) among its long list of projects.

The intent of Strong Towns is not simply to criticize rural and suburban towns or to opine that all growth is inherently evil.  However, without very careful, compact planning, we can develop ourselves into the massive debts and unsustainable sprawl that we now see at all levels of government.  What would happen, for example, if cities actually assessed citizens for infrastructure maintenance like they do for utility connections and new roads?  For better or worse, East Grand Forks may have beaten Mr. Marohn to the punch on that one.  Many are aware that a Council-appointed task force recently completed its work regarding street maintenance and State Aid roads .  That results will be presented at an upcoming Council Work Session (and, I will blog about that one too).  But, most have already heard that a single family residence would pay $18.75 per month for ongoing maintenance.  The rate would be higher for multi-family, commercial, and industrial properties.  The proposed rate has generated significant controversy although it is not yet a formal proposal.  Nonetheless, it great describes the funding crises that cities across the state and the nation face as grossly-underfunded infrastructure continues to age.

Marohn’s reports and positions are not without controversy.  Nonetheless, Cities must address the issues that he raises, whether or not they agree with his specific conclusions.  Please find time to join the discussion on September 27 at City Hall.  Meanwhile, the Strong Towns blog typically publishes new posts every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.