Guest opinion: A strategy for Glenwood to address its needs
October 6, 2017
If you have not read the guest opinion by Scott Key published in this newspaper last month, you should. It was a thought-provoking column about a topic that is very important to us residents of Glenwood Springs.
The purpose of my column is to advance Scott's discussion further, because it is one thing to call on the city to make investments and another thing entirely to delve thoughtfully into what investments should be made, how those investments can be responsibly funded and how our citizens really benefit from the expenditure of scarce financial resources.
I don't know Mr. Key. Friends have told me that he is an investor or property owner in downtown Glenwood Springs. If that is so, then I suppose that he stands to benefit from investments the city might make in that part of town. This is not a bad thing. If anything, this would qualify him to be a valuable participant in the discussion our city needs to have about its investments. There is nothing wrong about representing your self-interest when petitioning your elected officials or appealing to your fellow citizens.
The role of our elected officials, however, is to consider the interests of all of its citizens and then make prudent financial decisions about how to address them. We need to help our elected officials do that, and we need to do it in a thoughtful and informed way.
Let's start with getting informed. Here are some things that need to be done:
• Finish whatever needs to be done to beautify the downtown area, in a responsible way.
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• Do something about Midland Avenue south of 27th Street.
• Repair the town's deteriorated streets..
• Repair the seriously degraded 27th Street bridge.
• Build the new South Bridge.
• Facilitate the development of the confluence area (which, if it ever happens, could transform our city).
If we are going to decide as a community how we should invest, we need to talk about the choices we have, what and why things need to be done, and just how badly they need to be done right now. Our City Council, with input from the community, should develop a strategic plan, which would provide a framework for making the most prudent decisions about potential investments.
Let's shift gears now from what the investment projects should be and talk about how to pay for them. I have heard rough estimates of what these projects would cost in total, and all of those estimates are more than $100 million. The city does not have a spare $100 million right now. So how are we going to pay for these investments? And since they are unlikely to get done all at once, which ones should be done and in what order?
There are some who believe that the city should simply borrow the money. But unlike the federal government, the city cannot simply borrow all of this money. What our federal government does with impunity is actually illegal to do as a responsible local government.
Our city does have some ability to borrow some of the money, probably about half of what it would need to accomplish the projects I mentioned. But it would be financially reckless to do so. The city has utilized and spent down significant reserves in the past couple of years related to the new bridge.
There is nothing wrong with that; this is what reserves are for. But having adequate financial reserves is an essential part of any responsible investment strategy, and right now the city needs to replenish its reserves. To do otherwise would be akin to getting a bunch of credit cards and charging them to the max with no money in the bank for those emergencies that are part of life.
The bottom line is that the city does not currently have the ability to make these all of these investments at the same time.
So should we just throw up our hands and walk away, and live with inadequate and is some cases decaying infrastructure? I don't think so. Here is what I recommend to our City Council and to my fellow citizens:
1. Establish a special commission consisting of its existing Financial Advisory Board and augmented by residents who possess some expertise or interest in the potential projects, and who possess financial literacy. (Perhaps Mr. Key would agree to participate.) The purpose of this commission would not be to make any decisions or even to form a recommendation; rather, this commission's charter would be to gather the relevant facts and to frame the issues, so that City Council members and its constituents can engage in meaningful, well-informed discussion.
2. Ask the special commission to include in its deliberations the following: (i) potential increases in certain taxes, especially in light of the significant loss of local sales tax revenues resulting from online shopping; (ii) establishment of special assessment districts, particularly where projects disproportionately benefit certain geographic locations; (iii) a thorough examination of claims that certain investments will pay for themselves through increased tax revenues; and (iv) the role of county government, and whether the financial support of the county is adequate. This latter point is crucial, because without a greater level of support and commitment from the county commissioners, these projects will not get done.
Jim Ingraham is a former member of the Glenwood Springs Financial Advisory Board.
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