By KAREN LA PIERRE

klapierre@dailynews.net

With wages flat, Internet-led economic changes and a decline of heavy manufacturing jobs, the country is facing a future with many uncertainties, and Hays City Manager Toby Dougherty is taking a look at the new normal at the local level.

Approximately a year ago, Dougherty became aware of an organization called Strong Towns that takes a proactive look at the future of infrastructure development and lets go of the illusion that tomorrow will be like yesterday.

"I had a lot of these floating around in my head for a lot of years," Dougherty said. "From where I sit, from what I see when I look at budgets and long-term liability, I had ideas for a lot of years that weren't as well formulated," as something like Strong Towns.

"What we have found is that the underlying financing mechanisms of the suburban era ... with ever-increasing rates of growth required to sustain long-term liabilities," according to strongtowns.org. "We often forget that the post World War II American pattern of development is an experiment. We assume it is the natural order because it is what we see all around us."

The more Dougherty read about Strong Towns, the more he liked it.

Dougherty is keeping this model in mind as he considers the growth of Hays from the standpoint of what creates funds for the city and what costs the city with no return on investment and limited liability.

"This is the type of stuff that worries me," he said.

At this time, no solid plans are in place for the city, but Dougherty wants to begin conversations and move to a framework.

"I don't want anybody to get the impression myself or anybody as the city is saying you should be building this or you shouldn't be building this," Dougherty said.

"What I want us to do is look at what our true costs are, where our revenue comes from, and what adds value and what doesn't. We need to look at our growth as an investment, and if it doesn't have some sort of return, then we need to second guess it. We haven't hit the iceberg and we're not sinking. We see a way out."

Traditionally, plains communities have expanded outward, 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 home owners 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 shifted to the city.

The specials pay the original cost, but the cost to taxpayers becomes far more than the initial cost. Asphalt streets need maintenance every five years.

"When you look at 1991, we've grown 19 percent in population but 42 percent in employees," Dougherty said. "There's are reason for that. It's because of our geographic area.

"If the people that are driving that type of growth aren't paying for the growth, then we have a problem here. If we want to keep going like this, fine. As long as we tell them what the costs are. That's a perfectly acceptable outcome.

"But that's where we haven't always done a good job. We need to tell them what the costs are. We, the taxpayers, get hung with long-term liabilities, and someone gets the short term benefit."

When a new housing development opens, the city can't add a single firefighter, but have to add a shift, then two more trucks, then a fire station, which all needs to be maintained, according to Dougherty. The police have to grow to cover the volume as well.

Construction projects are paid for through excess sales tax.

"Our sales tax the past few years has been flat," possibly because of Internet sales, Dougherty said. Yet, "the cost to maintain the same infrastructure's going up. Our local government is growing into those sales tax because the more police and parks we have due to growth, that's less we can spend on those types of street projects.

"There is a disconnect. We have a duty to look out in the future."

For instance, Commerce Parkway installed in the mid-'90s, is a perfect example of unneeded infrastructure.

"We spent millions putting that in," Dougherty said. "It's mostly vacant. It's not generating any revenue."

That type of project is exactly what Dougherty would like to examine.