Strong Towns is based on a philosophy that the continual outward expansion of communities is not sustainable and for a prosperous future, communities must change the way they grow. Cities across the nation have more sewer lines, water lines and streets than they have money to take care of them.
To further educate the community, the city of Hays will host Chuck Marohn, founder of Strong Towns, as he gives a Curbside Chat to discuss the issues. The event will be at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Robbins Center at Fort Hays State University. The public is invited to attend.
Patterns of development based on cars are different from the old ways of building, following a trend that began in the 1950s.
As communities have expanded outward, they have added housing developments, abandoning downtown to some extent, and building businesses on the edge of town. Cities have supported this through zoning, agreeing to build new streets, water lines and sewer, all infrastructure that will need to be maintained after it is built.
While homeowners in a new suburban housing development might pay for the initial street or to bring water out with special assessments, the costs of maintaining those structures is eventually shifted to the city.
The specials pay the original cost, but the cost to taxpayers becomes far more than the initial cost.
Marohn spreads the message that cities across the nation need to be more realistic and more pragmatic about how they account for revenue and expenditures, and assess their liabilities, said City Manager Toby Dougherty.
At the Curbside Chat, Marohn will explore the path cities are pursuing, showing it is not financially stable and the future of most cities will not resemble the recent past. He will also discuss the main determinant of future prosperity for cities will be local leaders’ ability to transform their community.
“Cities are following paths that lead to higher taxes and lower services all because of sustainability issues,” is Marohn’s message, Dougherty said.
He said cities are not truly calculating the cost-benefit and can be overly optimistic.
“The (Curbside Chat) itself won’t be tailored to Hays, Kan., because every community is a little different,” Dougherty said. “Chuck is sending the message that he sees this across the U.S.”
He and city staff have been working for three to four months to develop the true cost of added infrastructure in Hays based on the philosophy.
“We have street maintenance obligations of $3 million a year, but we don’t have near that much money coming in to take care of it,” Dougherty said. “City staff has been trying to grapple with this for a few years.”
The Strong Town philosophy pulls this together into a coherent message, he said.
The city commission and the planning commission will host a joint meeting in mid-June to discuss the city’s findings.
“We will roll out the Strong Towns fiscal evaluation of Hays, Kan.,” the city manager said. “The intent of this meeting is to start the discussion.
“The problems identified by the Strong Towns organization and the unsustainable trends is for the most part replicated in Hays,” Dougherty said. “I can tell you that right now.”
There are no easy solutions, and developing a plan will take a series of steps and many conversations with the city and the community.
The good news is while Hays does have sustainability issues, Dougherty believes the city is having the conversation early enough that the city can change course.
“We’re not letting the situation get out-of-control before we do something,” he said. “We’ve had a history of trying to be proactive, and I think it shows.”