SANDPOINT — It’s time to rethink the way we develop small towns, according to self-described “recovering engineer” Charles Marohn.
The founder of nonprofit Strong Towns, Marohn and some of his colleagues visited the region last week to host a series of presentations about changing the philosophy behind town planning. The events culminated in a Sandpoint presentation Friday at the invitation of local city planners like Jeremy Grimm and Erik Brubaker as well as former city councilman John Reuter.
Marohn’s message is a sobering one: engineers have been taught the same model of planning since World War II, and while the approach has generated tremendous infrastructure expansion, the costs could be catching up to us.
“We saw all this robust growth, but now all our cities are broke,” he said. “In some cases, we can’t even fix the potholes in the street.”
According to the message laid out by Marohn, that will add up to trouble down the road. The current financial structure used by most modern engineers in small towns essentially involves seeking out grants from federal and state governments or organizations to finance projects, and then using those projects to court major manufacturers. This is an appealing approach to many because of the very low entry-level costs.
However, it’s the long-term that should cause concern, Marohn said. After the new infrastructure is established, it’s the local municipality’s responsibility to finance maintenance. By attaching revenue mechanisms to assets like roads and bridges, the city can maintain good revenue flow until that road or bridge reaches the end of its life, at which point, its solvency plummets dramatically, according to Marohn’s data. When that happens, the city must borrow from revenue generated by other infrastructure to make up the loss. This results in a push for more growth — and by extension, more revenue — in a way that ultimately becomes self-destructive. According to Marohn’s data, the total tax base for most small towns can only cover pennies of each dollar in infrastructure.
“This kind of debt-fueled growth became so important to propping the system up that it ultimately became a predatory mechanism,” Marohn said.
That’s why the people behind Strong Towns are currently advocating their More George campaign. Its distinctive title is named after an individual who attended a Strong Towns presentation and was inspired to get involved in his own place of residence. Despite not having any civil engineering background, he ended up becoming an authority on the subject. Marohn said he hopes the campaign will motivate similar individuals in small towns all across America.
“We want to start to change the culture in the country so Georges can function and make a difference,” Marohn said.