Stef Seffinger’s recent article in the Ashland Tidings, “Can we do it all in Ashland?” wisely points out that as a community we need to make choices. These choices will become more challenging with the continued devolution of federal and state policies to local areas where they will be asked to do far more with less resources. To have better public schools, less racism, or community policing will require more collective action at the local level. For this reason, it makes sense for Ashlanders to work together toward a shared vision with well-defined priorities of what they want from their government.
To make our priorities of quality of life and sustainability real requires incorporating them into our budget and planning process. But first we need to decide what those priorities are. This will mean convening citizens together in a long and laborious process to discuss a new vision of the future that works across old boundaries that deal with new problems and challenges. This process will not be easy. Most people can agree that they want more of everything good and less of everything bad. But how do you deal with different priorities? The only way this can work is when we recognize an old economic rule: There will be trade-offs. For example, more infrastructure (roads) and developed land means less open space and flood absorption capacity. A policy that is good for conserving water will make it more expensive to maintain private yards and parks. Some might want to see land-use laws that preserve single-family homes on large lots, while others welcome more density that support income diversity.
Though difficult, this is the process of good governance — where we make explicit the trade-offs that will occur in our decision-making and accept them as a community.
This will require developing community indicators that measure our progress of what we care about and incorporating them into our budget. If affordable housing and open space, for example, are important priorities this will help define our budgetary decisions and the type of long-term investments we should make. Jacksonville, Florida, did this with their quality-of-life indicators. They first started with community forums and focus groups to identify the quality of life factors that were the most important to the community. During the process, they talked about trade-offs (you can’t do everything you want) and after a period of long discussions they came up with their priorities, which they then linked to their budgetary decision-making process.
Setting priorities and the use of measured community indicators make our elected officials – and the public — more accountable in two ways. First, once goals are established and measured, then regulations, budgets and the tax structure should be consistent with those goals. This will make the budgetary process easier to carry out over time. Second, it protects elected officials from inconsistent voter demands, such as “cut my taxes” but at the same time “increase spending on the homeless.” Our stated priorities and measured community indicators can be used to explain to the public during budget hearings what our choices are and show the progress we are making to achieve them.
— Richard P. F. Holt is professor of economics at Southern Oregon University.