The Nonsensical Math Behind Municipal Budgets

Earlier this month, we saw some familiar news out of Georgia. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC) reports:

The Cobb County parks department has prepared a plan to close several parks and recreational facilities as the county faces a minimum $30 million hole in its budget. [...] 

In addition to the $30 million budget gap this year, the county has identified another $25 million in needs to be addressed within the next three to five years. 

Unfortunately, these sorts of budget setbacks and corresponding cuts to services are nothing new for the many American municipalities that have bought into the Growth Ponzi Scheme — a risky development pattern that has become the norm in the US over the last seventy years.

But what was particularly troubling about this report from Cobb County is the next sentence in the AJC article:

This comes after commissioners voted to issue $27.4 million in bonds to buy more parkland.

I wish I could say that this shocked me, but it didn't. This sort of backwards logic is exactly why our cities are facing increasing financial struggles, and many are on the path to economic ruin.

Just last week, I was at a campaign kick off for a friend who is running for state assembly and one of the issues he announced he'd campaign on was transportation. "Why is it that our local leaders are spending millions to build new highway interchanges and widen roads," he asked, "when our neighborhood streets are filled with potholes?" This question could be asked in nearly every American city and town.

Our local leaders keep expanding roads, annexing subdivisions, and adding new projects to their to-do lists, while leaving the most basic needs of neighborhoods unfulfilled. Our local governments will chase after a new big box store or company headquarters until they've been bled dry, but they refuse to pave the sidewalk outside a neighborhood shop or get updated textbooks for elementary schoolers.

In Cobb County, Georgia, the situation is even more absurd than what I've described above, because, in addition to spending more than $27 million they didn't have on new parkland while simultaneously closing existing parks as a result of a budget shortfall, Cobb County also committed to paying ten times this amount to build a new stadium. As the AJC reported in 2013:

Cobb County government will spend $300 million on a new Atlanta Braves stadium and mixed use development near the interstates 75 and 285.

To summarize:

  • In 2013, Cobb County offered up $300 million toward a new stadium in the form of 30-year bonds.
  • In 2018, Cobb County plans to spend nearly $30 million on new parkland.
  • Also in 2018, Cobb County announces a $30 - $55 million budget shortfall, which necessitates the closing of several parks and other services.

Disappointingly, the response to this nonsensical math isn't to look at the process with open eyes and change the way we finance our cities from the ground up. Instead, it's merely the usual shrug of the shoulders and a statement about the trade-off of "raise taxes or cut services."

If we keep responding in this manner, we'll just remain on this downward spiral of temporary gains and long-term losses until we run our cities into the ground. We need a Strong Towns approach now.