Say "Hello" to Measure 47 and Kiss Your Job Goodbye
(Oregon Planners' Journal, January 1997)
By Richard Carson
City and county agencies are starting the fiscal year 1997-98 budget process and word is spreading that planners' jobs -- especially in long-range planning -- are on the chopping block. Why? Because, unlike current planning programs which are funded through user fees, long-range planning programs are usually funded through property taxes, and the "public safety and education" priority language of ballot measure 47 does not include planners.
The first hint I received that planners may suffer from Measure 47 impacts was when I was asked to put together some information on how to pay for planning for one of Mayor Vera Katz's growth management brown bag luncheons. The next indication was when I read in Willamette Week about a recent City Of Portland poll of 405 people that put economic development and planning in second and third place, behind the arts, as most favored to get the budget ax. More than one-third of those polled felt it was time to quit planning for growth. The pollster's explanation was "they're saying we had enough growth, and maybe if we cut these services it will curtail growth." My third and final clue came from listening to the fears being expressed by planners. In job interviews I conducted, planners were concerned with whether or not the job would last. In meetings I attended, they were saying they were on cut lists.
Unfortunately, a community that gives up long range planning is literally deciding it has no future. It is analogous to a private sector company firing its strategic planning staff during downsizing, thereby deciding it has no need to position itself in the marketplace.
The sad part is that this doesn't have to happen! Times change and planners need to make some important organizational concessions to survive. A recent trend in local government has been to create Community Development Departments. Such departments are usually made by combining the planning, building and engineering functions.
However, I am proposing the ultimate Community Development Department -- the one that doesn't need property tax dollars! Does it exist? Of course, I manage it. I learned a valuable lesson during the recession of 1982. Half the planners left the state for lack of work. Since there weren't any jobs in planning, I decided to go to work for the state's Economic Development Department. I asked myself: "What kind of jobs are out there?" The answer: "creating job, of course." It was that experience that taught me how to beat Measure 47. Diversify!
Strategy #1. Diversify Your Funding
It is the oldest rule of personal finance "don't put all your eggs in one basket." You avoid the budget ax by using a variety of non-property tax revenue sources.
User Fees. Everyone charges user fees. Recently, I did an analysis of my department's land use and permit fees in order to cover 100 percent of the time, materials and overhead required. This meant calculating every person's time--including planners, building officials, engineers, city attorney and even the fire marshal. Charge for everything you do -- including pre-application conferences and information requests. Any businessperson will tell you it's simple economics. You need to cover the cost of doing business.
System Development Charges. SDCs are used to pay for new infrastructure caused by growth. However, planning for future infrastructure and administering such funds can also be charged against SDCs. You can use such funds to build a sewer line or a park, but you need to first plan for the basin and park system. SDCs can also be used to pay for the GIS and CAD services. By the way, a recent study we conducted showed that in one area we were charging only 25% of the actual cost of providing a service. Again, charge the full cost of doing business including administration.
Urban Renewal. Community Development Department's can also staff the urban renewal agency. The funding for urban renewal comes from the property tax increment collected in a designated district. The increment is the difference between the tax levied when the district was created and the current tax levied. Urban renewal can help pay for both future planning and preliminary engineering.
Parking Fines. A parking program may seem to be a strange companion to planning, but it does have some advantages. Code compliance is a required planning function which requires dealing with civil infractions. By combining code compliance and parking enforcement it is possible to centralize all civil infractions into one "code enforcement" group. The police can support such a move because they want to focus on criminal violations and not civil infractions.
Utility Rates. The Community Development Department also can oversee the traditional public work's functions. It makes sense to have the agency that plans and builds the infrastructure also to maintain it. This brings in a new revenue stream -- utility rates. The key to maintaining a viable utility is to make sure you are incrementally passing along the cost of doing business. The biggest mistake most agencies make is to put of the inevitable rate increase. When the rate is finally increased, the backlash is always compounded by the delay.
Grant Funds. The key to getting grant funds is to leverage them. If you use the variety of fund sources discussed, then you can provide matching funds to get more grants. For example, Transportation and Growth Management (TGM) grants can draw on SDCs and urban renewal fund sources. SDCs can also be used for transportation corridor studies and Transportation System Plans (TSP). You can draw on urban renewal funds for Metro designated Regional Centers or Town Centers.
Given the complexities of ballot measure 47, you are better off using no property taxes. Which brings me to the question of "back filling" lost property tax funds with increased user fees. If you were one of the unfortunate agencies that has property tax funds, then you are probably wondering about 47's prohibition on making up lost property taxes with increased fees. I suggest it will be hard for anyone to demonstrate that your fee increases are directly related to the loss of property taxes -- as opposed to just passing along the cost of doing business. I would also keep watch on how the courts and legislature treat the various sections and clauses in measure 47. They may either be struck down by the courts or completely reinterpreted by the legislature.
Strategy #2. Work Smarter as a Development Team
Combining planning, engineering and building has some functional benefits. It streamlines the development process by creating a cradle-to-grave management structure. For example, a subdivision starts as a land use planning action; then requires engineering review of road, water and sewer; then needs building inspections of the new houses; and requires the quality control of code enforcement throughout.
The same can be done for long-range planning. Combining long-range land use and infrastructure (i.e., road, water, sewer) planning into one organization makes for a stronger arrangement. Every consideration related to planning for growth proceeds in tandem. As planners, we are constantly evaluating proposed population growth with actual development, and actual development with the timing of infrastructure.
Strategy #3. Integrated Planning and Delivery
The planning needs of a local government are varied, but the plans should be completely integrated. The individual city or county Comprehensive Plan, Capital Improvement Plan, Transportation System Plan, as well as the water, sewer basin and park plans each need to be updated in the context of the policy and financial implications of all the other plans. This task is made easier if the responsibility for such planning resides in one department. Having competing agencies administer, fund and implement such plans only leads to frustration and miscommunication. Having everyone report to a single director insures working together and eliminates a lot of friction and delays.
Conclusion - On Planning versus Development
Someone is bound to ask if combining planning and development into one department creates a conflict-of-interest. The answer is yes. However, this conflict already exists in local government. Instead of a Community Development Director being the arbiter between groups, it is usually the City Manager or a County Administrator. The most important consideration for you to ponder is that planning and development are part of the same process and occur as part of the same continuum. Also, it could save your job.
Richard H. Carson is Director of Oregon City's Community Development Department.