If You Want to Know the Future

If You Want to Know the Future
Magic 8 Ball on a yellow background

If you want to really wow folks at parties, tell them you can predict the future...of your town!

This doesn't require a Magic 8 Ball, though that's quite wonderful to have. All it requires is getting familiar with an easy-to-miss local government document called the Comprehensive Plan. It's a town's roadmap straight into the next few years or decades, and a good number of municipalities have one.

If you find yourself at the rare party where folks aren't awed to be in the presence of The Amazing Predictor of Our Town's Future, what an opportune moment to bring them up to speed on all the things a municipality does!

Policymakers have to put out a lot of fires, often related to money and not having enough of it. Maybe they're scrambling to make up for an unexpected budget shortfall (an accounting error led my town to a $4 million one) or combing couch cushions to fill the hole that federal COVID relief money patched. There could be major flooding that washed out roads or spiraling overdoses and homelessness. (Champing to know where towns spend most of their money? Look no further!)

A comp plan – which may have poetry (Asheville, NC), a 12-step program for downtown revitalization (Birmingham, AL) and, music to my ears, a definition of public policy (Sioux Falls, SD) – sets out a long-range, guiding vision to help legislators and city staff know where to point their bow so the town isn't lurching from one crisis to the next.

Perhaps the plan includes intentions to invest in aging bridges or aging in place, creating more commuter parking or community gardens, modernizing the sewer system, expanding historic preservation, revisiting zoning ordinances. But it's helpful to keep in mind that this is a plan, not a budget. It should guide spending, but doesn't guarantee it. That all shakes out in the municipal budget process.

So if it's not a budget, how can the comp plan be useful to we humble residents?

Accountability. We can use the comp plan to help the town stay true to what it said it would do.

Say we want to beef up the affordable housing stock or get more public art in abandoned lots (good inspiration out of Detroit here). An excellent way to make our case is to see if the comp plan has language that supports our cause.

The comp plan language can be specific: "We will double the number of affordable housing units by such-and-such a date." Or it could be general, "We are a community that celebrates the arts and culture."

Maybe there isn't language we can use. Or maybe after reading the comp plan, we find it to be pretty weak sauce. Good news: these are living documents that get makeovers every so often.

The cadence will vary from town to town. Check when yours was last updated, see if it references when it'll be revisited again (some towns may be statutorily required to update their plans on a regular basis), or if there's a rhythm to how often it gets a facelift. If that's murky, you could always ask the town clerk when it's up for review.

Perhaps your town - like mine - is knee-deep in updating the comp plan. Or just about to start. Sign up for notifications and check out a meeting or two to see what the buzz is. (For musical lovers, we know that this is always the buzz.) Encourage some friends to do the same. Or take it to the 201 level and see if you can get on the Comp Plan Committee.

When I first signed up for local government notifications, I overshot and put my name on alerts about Everything, meaning I read Nothing. I've since done a deep unsubscribe and now just get my town and the next town over's weekly news roundups, which I read pretty closely.

Typically, the folks driving the comp plan process want resident voices at the table so there's some community buy-in. If there's a cause you really care about, see if you can build a small constituency (a handful of neighbors, say) to champion its inclusion and prioritization in the plan. One voter's voice is good, more voter voices is even better.

If your cause is included in the comp plan, you've got the town on record saying this issue matters. And you can reference it during the budget process, since most projects need Benjamins to get real.

If our voices aren't at the comp plan table, we can be sure others' will be: developers, lobbyists, special interest. Those aren't innately bad; some of them represent causes I can get on board with. But booming industries don't need more tax breaks, preferential zoning, or special treatment, often while vulnerable populations have the slimmest - or no - safety net.

Your voice is to democracy what veggies are to a diet: essential for health. Drag a friend or two along to the next comp plan meeting and you've got a daily serving of leafy greens right there for democracy.

One final note: comp plans can be a useful counterbalance to political terms undermining good policy. Let's say a councilor serves a two-year term and is termed out after three terms (also known as term limits). They're incentivized to support policy that will bear fruit within at least four years. Why four? Four years takes them to their last re-election.

Speaking of which, why not pop over to your town council's website and see if your councilors have term limits. Mine don't.

But plenty of smart policy requires investments that won't blossom until after that political lifespan has sunset. A comprehensive plan can be both a safeguard against near-sighted policy that supports a few politicians' re-elect and a promoter of holistic, long-term policy that elevates the whole town's vitality.

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