Today's news digest is going to be a hurried affair. After being gone from home for a week in California -- a week preceded by back to back nights with meetings and then followed by the same -- I am badly in need of what my daughters call "daddy time". In fact, as I write this, my youngest is going to fetch a game -- not sure which one yet -- for the two of us to play. I'll be back to normal blogging again next week when I'll be in Memphis for three days.

While the California trip was fantastic, it was also exhausting. Despite my best intentions, I was not able to blog about every day. I apologize if you have been logging on waiting for the update on your community -- I'm going to try and do a summary here soon. I also have so many people that I need to thank for making it happen. Will try to do that soon as well.

I did read a little bit of news, however, the most important of which I will pass on to you now.


  • For those of you near Memphis, there will be a public Curbside Chat this coming Wednesday. Details are here.
  • While in California, I was able to share some amazing statistics on the financial state of their DOT. According to a report they have issued, they don't even have half of the income needed to maintain their state highway system. To make up the gap, they need an additional $37 billion per year which, to give some perspective, is 4.5 times their (enormous) projected state budget deficit. I just read this report on an initiative in the San Francisco area where they are not even going to bother asking for a 10-cent per gallon gas tax increase -- which would raise just $280 million per year -- because there is not enough support. Whoever said democracy was coherent. Good luck with all that, California.

The poll, commissioned by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, concluded that just 43 percent of the 3,600 likely voters surveyed said they would vote for the tax, which would raise as much as $280 million a year to spend on transportation improvements throughout the region.

"Support for a 10-cent-a-gallon tax falls far short of two-thirds," the supermajority required for the measure to pass, said Ruth Bernstein, who works for EMC Research of Oakland, which conducted the poll in February. "Even in San Francisco (where it won 50 percent support), it was short of a majority."

Check back in a bit. When I'm done playing checkers I will attempt to continue....

....continuing Friday evening after the kids are in bed and while watching the Twins on TIVO delay.

  • One of the highlights of our California trip was seeing the reaction among APA members to Mike Lydon and Tactical Urbanism. I have recently read a couple of negative critiques of TU, essentially arguments that the outcomes are trivial and insignificant. I'm sure these are the same people arguing for hundreds of billions of dollars for high speed rail, the last delusional gasp of the top down mega-economy. With the release of Tactical Urbanism II, Lydon is showing up in more and more places, like this article in Atlantic Cities, giving wise advice on how to act strategically at the local level.

“Most of the things that we include in the guide generally are aiming at doing something larger. They’re not just for the sake of doing it. And of course in a lot of ways, to make that work, you need to have whatever you’re doing to become sanctioned or supported, either with funding or with being allowed by the municipality.”

And this is a key element of the guidebook: making things work. The goal is not to simply do a cool project that will get cleaned up by the city or thrown away, but to make something – even something temporary – that will change how a place works and is perceived. And once that change has been made, to figure out how it can be made again or made permanent.

  • According to both major political parties, the United States is on its way to energy self-sufficiency. If you are prone to latching on to this narrative, I'd recommend this recent article on the much-more-informed blog The Oil Drum. I'm not bad with charts and graphs, but I don't think you need an engineering degree to interpret the general direction suggested in this one. Note that we use roughly 17 million barrels per day. North Dakota won't save us.

From The Oil Drum. US crude oil production by area, based on EIA data.

  • My "friends" in the Agenda 21 movement that I got a chance to talk to in Redding. Seems my emphasis on sound economics, markets and supply/demand felt a little too much like communism to them. That they are the pawns of a corporate/government machine -- as explained recently in the New Republic -- has not occurred to them.

It’s ironic that the most aggressive defenders of the regulatory enshrinement of the large-lot single-family home claim that any changes to this status-quo are an assault on markets and consumer preferences. In fact, anti-density zoning laws represent the triumph of heavy-handed government over private property rights, as the first major Supreme Court case on zoning demonstrated. These laws prevent private home owners from selling their property to the highest bidder and block housing developers from putting up their preferred housing structures--imposing massive costs on the metropolitan area in terms of traffic, pollution, housing costs, [and] economic segregation.

  • It has been a while since the muni bond guys have sent me hate mail for suggesting that nearly all municipalities were functionally insolvent and that this would cause an alarmingly high percentage of them to ultimately default on their financial debts (and really, based on the perceived risk level, anything higher than zero would be "alarmingly high", although I'm suggesting well over that mark). Maybe they have turned their ire on bigger targets, like Reuters, which reported this week that more cities are set to enter the default danger zone.

The new tide of defaults may worry some investors in the $3.7 trillion municipal bond market who have so far shrugged off the fiscal crises of local governments and yield cuts in local government services.

"This is a lagging process," said Richard Ciccarone, managing director at McDonnell Investment Management. "Capitulation may not come for years. In the crash of 1929, the defaults did not come until 1934 or 1935. The marginals hang on as they can."

  • Thank you to Mark Baker for making me aware of the legislation on Tax Increment Financing now being considered by our neighbor state to the south. Among the potential reforms would be limits on using TIF for public buildings (I'm not sure how that even works as public buildings don't pay taxes and thus create no "increment") and for stealing businesses from neighboring communities (economic hunting). As this quote alludes to, without TIF, how will we afford to extend that infrastructure further out into the Iowa cornfields?

“There have been some abuses of TIF across the state and there have also been some great uses that have allowed cities and counties to grow their economies and build infrastructure.”

  • Now three local news stories, the first of which is the most bizarre. One of my twin hometowns -- this time Baxter, MN -- has decided that a garage is an absolute necessity and that, at least for the time being, no new houses (including even apartments) are allowed to be constructed without a garage. I have no clue what could have prompted such a bizarre and, quite frankly, heavy-handed and elitist approach. Are people who can't afford garages not wanted in Baxter? Is the city going to go out and make all those people who have filled their garages with junk clean them out so their cars can stay warm? Are they worried people won't buy enough from the big box stores in town if they lack sufficient storage space? Those that have heard the Curbside Chat have seen the slide on the "illusion of prosperity". This illusion causes otherwise intelligent people to act delusional. Witness Exhibit A. 

Gordon Heitke, city administrator, said placing a moratorium on applications by using the interim ordinance requiring a garage for residential building allows the city to prepare an ordinance amendment and serves as notice to potential applicants the city is requiring garages.

The interim ordinance would only have to last until the council’s next meeting when a public hearing could be held, Heitke said.

Brad Person, city attorney, said the city could legally make the rule change and include applications in the hopper as it makes a change in the ordinance before acting on zoning applications. Whether people feel that is unfair, Person said, is a different question. The city’s planning and zoning commission unanimously recommended garages should be required with all residences.

  • And lest you think these public officials are failing to represent their constituents, here is the reaction on Facebook to the announcement that Costco will be opening up soon near the WalMart, Home Depot, Target, Menards and Fleet Farm in Baxter. Oh yes, those jobs that have disappeared are now coming back, boys.

  • In my other home town -- Brainerd, MN -- the local housing authority has "settled" on their first project. Are they taking the advice I outlined in Part 2 of the From the Mayor's Office series and focusing on projects that significantly change the redevelopment ratio of under performing neighborhoods? Of course not. They are going to tear down a little brick house they bought for $5,000 so they can sell the empty lot back into the market (or donate it to an organization like Habitat for Humanity), as if all that is needed for an area with 20+ years supply of developed, vacant lots on the market is just one more. If the goal is to reduce the number of blighted homes, this approach won't even allow the city to keep up with the current rate of decay.

The purpose of the program is to identify substandard housing, purchase the property, demolish or rehabilitate the home, then either donate the property to Habitat for Humanity or sell it to a buyer interested in providing an affordable single family home.

The goal is to reduce the number of blighted homes in Brainerd.

  • I will be filling out the community survey (What do you like about Brainerd?) when it is made available. I'm sure it will be discounted because, even though I would like to, I don't live there (a self-reinforcing, negative feedback loop).
  • Finally, I've spent years cringing every time a baseball was hit to former Twins outfielder Delmon Young. Since he now plays for our division rival, the Detroit Tigers, plays like this one from last week mean it is now my turn to laugh.

Thanks everyone for your patience with getting this done today. Needed some time to catch up. I plan to be back to our regular schedule next week. See you then.


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