Monday, March 2, 2009

Thinking Globally, Acting Locally: Part I

Our last Presidential election was largely won in a battle of ideas, literally about war & peace and prosperity & poverty.
Those subjects are old as history itself and important as ever, interrelated as they inevitably are.

These days, at the local level, civil discourse remains essential to achieving worthwhile ends to benefit our entire community, like the waterfront redevelopment, preservation of our drinking water reservoir, responsible growth management and the maintenance of our wonderful public amenities that so enhance the quality of life here.
But, you know, these thing haven't just happened by chance!
Neither have they come about without tremendous effort and expense.

While our national economy -and the world economy- are hurting big time, our local economy hasn't suffered quite as much, at least so far.
But the signs are ominous as municipal revenues have plummeted and have already necessitated drastic budget reductions that may well continue to be required.
That is actually quite worrisome, because soon some public amenities may have to be reduced in favor of maintaining more essential services, like police, fire and EMS.

I hope this does not happen, but we have to be aware of these possibilities.
While there are always some who prefer a bare bones city, most people prefer a good suite of amenities, like libraries, museums, theaters and a functional parks & trails system.
The problem is being able to continue paying for these things.

What can the city do to stabilize its revenues so that services do not have to be severely cut?
That seems a question that ought to be an active community discussion.
So, here goes my attempt at starting such a discussion:

Economics has been called 'the dismal science', because -well it can be pretty dismal, both to learn and to use in real time.
Many factors are unknown, hard to discern and difficult to use in any analysis that is intended to convince others of projections and conclusions.
I suspect our local economists can verify that from their own experience, especially when economic studies are used to influence public policy.
Sometimes, facts and ingrained beliefs and habits just don't mix very well.
And so it will probably be with the specific example I will use a little later, maybe in Part II.

During a prior election, the Chamber of Commerce asked candidates a few questions about what they thought the role of local government was, or should be, in stimulating the local economy.
I remember that group of questions because it was so out of the ordinary that it really forced to think hard about the answers I submitted.
I still have that questionnaire somewhere, but won't attempt at finding it because I think I remember the basic answers, which were these:

• The primary role of municipal government's support of its businesses is to provide a stable, fair and predictable set of rules and regulations that can be relied upon.

• Another role is to provide those essential services, and amenities that residents and businesses alike can count on to provide for their needs and basic enjoyment.

• Overarching the above, the local government need to consistently subscribe to the idea of fiscal responsibility and reasonable restraint, so that in good times and bad, services are reliably maintained.

That's about it, but think about what this really means.
Folks, these things aren't that easy, especially when bad times hit suddenly!

But, Bellingham has some characteristics that seem to insulate it somewhat from the radical fluctuations seen some other places, many of which have attained a reputation for being 'business friendly'.

For one thing, something like 5 or 6 of the top 10 employers here are institutions, like WWU, the school districts, St Joseph's Hospital and the 2 biggest local governments.
That alone provides a measure of stability for employment that private enterprises sometimes have difficulty approaching.

Also, there are many smaller businesses that have loyal customers, especially since our 'Buy Local' campaign has galvanized such interest.
And, as a regional center, the mall and surrounding Big Box stores provide a steady influx of customers that greatly add to government revenues.
That is a fact whether one prefers malls and Big Boxes or not!
Just look at the revenue figures available from the City Finance Director if you don't believe me.

Anyway, the point is our local economy is what it is and apart from another building boom -not likely - it is not likely to change dramatically anytime soon.
At least let's hope it doesn't, because a big shift could easily be a negative one.
That would not be helpful to anyone.

So, what do we do to help the situation, besides hoping and praying?
I think getting a little more serious about the three essential functions of local government, listed above, can help.
That is because businesses are no different from any resident in their desire to have stability, fairness and predictability to rely upon.

Folks, business -or 'bidness'- is not inherently bad!
It has been and continues to be the engine that fuels our entire economy, especially including jobs that provide income for families.
Local government and institutions do pay relatively good wages and benefits, but they get most of their revenues from businesses, property owners and consumers.
Only the Federal government can legally print money, and they haven't always used that privilege very well either!

So, this will serve as an introduction to a new topic, and one I will spend some time in researching more.
I hope readers find this discussion timely, interesting and maybe even a little entertaining.
So, please stay tuned for the next episode -exciting or not.