As a member of the League’s staff with expertise in municipal finance, I find myself in the rather unique position of speaking to large groups of people about both the importance of place, as well as municipal finance and budgeting. Obviously these two topics have nothing in common, or do they? While it seems to some that these are divergent topics, I would suggest that they should be uncompromisingly intertwined. Preparing a budget without the proper vision is like making a sandwich without bread. It will meet the basic requirement, but it isn’t very appealing.
We all know too well that we have been dealing with some of the most challenging financial circumstances in memory. Too often the budget process becomes an agonizing contest with the singular focus of balancing revenues and expenditures without remaining grounded to a fundamental placemaking strategy. Some of the first targets of the local budget process can frequently be community assets that help define our community. Somehow these facilities and programs lose out to other more “critical” operations. We must remember however, that a community’s unique sense of place is its greatest asset. Therefore it must be the foundation of any budget, and the balancing decisions should reflect that fact. To put it another way, why do people choose to live in your community? Why did you choose to live there? If the budgets you adopt don’t reflect the answer to that question, then aren’t you destroying the “sense of place” that brought you and other residents to your community? Isn’t this further diminishing your community’s value?
Clearly you all have difficult decisions to make, but in doing so you should resist the temptation to uncouple place from budget. To do so is not in your community’s best interests, and that strategy will actually work to exacerbate an already challenging situation. Place isn’t just a buzz word that we talk about to make ourselves feel better; it is at the core of who we are and why we exist. Money spent supporting our own unique places are dollars well spent.