A conservative fighting sprawl argues it is a Ponzi scheme

Here is a summary of the arguments against sprawl made by conservative Chuck Marohn:

But, while my concern with sprawling growth patterns was rooted in their effect on the landscape, on the environment, and on severely compromised populations left behind, Chuck is all about the money. As Thoughts on Building Strong Towns makes quite clear, Chuck believes that sprawl is a Ponzi scheme and we the taxpayers are the ones left holding the empty bags.

In fact, the lead chapters of the book are devoted to the Ponzi thesis, whereby municipalities chase outward growth to find new tax revenue that proves insufficient when the infrastructure needs repair; so they chase even more new growth to pay for the previous round, over and over, until the pattern chokes the economic life out of the place. In Chuck’s words:

“The local unit of government benefits from the enhanced revenues associated with new growth. But it also typically assumes the long-term liability for maintaining the new infrastructure. This exchange – a near-term cash advantage for a long-term financial obligation – is one element of a Ponzi scheme.

The other is the realization that the revenue collected does not come near to covering the costs of maintaining the infrastructure.  In America, we have a ticking time bomb of unfunded liability for infrastructure maintenance . . .

We’ve done this because, as with any Ponzi scheme, new growth provides the illusion of prosperity. In the near term, revenue grows, while the corresponding maintenance obligations – which are not counted on the public balance sheet — are a generation away.”

A few thoughts about this:

1. I’ve seen this in action in suburbs and the problem becomes particularly acute when growth slows or stops or the economy runs into trouble. At these points, the revenue flow based on developer fees plus the new tax revenues from property and sales taxes slows and budgets have to be looked at more closely.

2. Infrastructure is a long-term investment, not a short-term building issue. Lots of communities face this issue: how to generate enough money to substantially fix or replace aging infrastructure? Money needs to be consistently budgeted for these issues because issuing bonds is not always a good answer.

3. I’ve wondered this before: how much of growth is driven by money versus the status that comes with being a growing community? The money from new development is clearly important but there is also prestige associated with moving forward, adding to the population, and continually adding to the tax base. Imagine this line: “a good community is a stagnant/plateaued community.” I don’t think so.

4. More broadly, this is a call for more comprehensive long-term planning in communities. This doesn’t just mean 5, 10, and 20 year projections – communities need to think how the world might change, whether they will have the resources to change course, and how open they will be to pursuing differences courses given the changing world.

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