Rhodora Annexation Approved

Lake Stevens, WA.  On Tuesday night the City Council unanimously approved Ordinance 1041 to annex approximately 100 acres into the city – an action our firm initiated and supported on behalf of landowners in the annexation area.

One of the direct mailers.
One of the door hangers used.

About Our Role
Our firm was retained by our client in September of 2017 to complete an analysis recommending if an annexation could be successful and by what method.  After studying parcel data (acreage, valuation) and voter registration data in the area, we concluded that the best approach was the Direct Petition Method.  Further, we used our research to identify an annexation area meeting the location and boundary criteria in state law.

We were subsequently retained to secure signatures for the required 10% and 60% petitions (based on % of valuation in the annexation area).  To complete this task, we developed a communications strategy to provide answers to the most common questions about annexation.  We utilized a combination of direct mail, door hangers and door belling (see examples to the left).

We successfully gathered the 10% and 60% petitions, negotiated applicable zoning and indebtedness, completed the required State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) checklist, and prepared exhibits and narratives to be included in the official “Notice of Intent” to annex filed with the Washington State Boundary Review Board for Snohomish County (BRB).

The annexation was challenged by a group of residents.  However, the annexation was unanimously approved by the BRB and an appeal of the BRB’s decision was dismissed by Snohomish County Superior Court.

For more information on the annexation, see visit our project page.

Got a project you think we can help with?  Contact us!

Understanding How City Plans Fail

In my experience a City’s successful implementation of a plan depends greatly upon a their reaction to and investment in the actual elements of the plan.  For successful implementation to occur, a city must be mindful of the tendency for its performance to ‘default’ to status quo (generalization and avoidance), substitution (solving a less complex problem) or surrogation (substituting a performance measure for goal attainment).

Status Quo

Status Quo appears most typically in the forms of generalization and avoidance:

Generalization

Generalization occurs when a plan is accepted or adopted at the Council level, but not integrated into the working operations of the city. Plan implementation may be added to council, management and department agendas, but on-going engagement in discussing both the plan and its implementation gets almost exclusively focused on existing daily operations or is skipped due to a lack of time spent on other matters. This tendency to generalize the meaning of ‘implement the plan’ leads away from the strategic discussions, decisions and actions required for real plan implementation. Drawing a comparison to small business, it’s like the owner always putting “do marketing” on their task list without a direction (e.g. promoting a special off), specific strategies (e.g. add content to social media, purchase radio spots) or a process of reviewing and measuring outcomes.

The result of this generalization is either (a) an abandonment of the plan (often arising from the feeling that the plan is too big) or (b) a sense that the plan is so comprehensive and well documented that it’s enactment is naturally occurring without an on-going focus (what we can only assume must be an evolutionary product of the common planner reference that a plan is a ‘living, breathing document’).

However, the truth is that generalization results in one outcome: inaction. The lack of on-going conversations at council, management and department levels about the specifics of how the plan and strategy are being implemented, the progress towards implementation, and the measurement of the results and adjustment of strategy leads to deprioritizing the importance of the plan and replacement by more pressing, emerging matters.

It’s a false expectation for a Council or Manager to assume that a broad directive of ‘implement the plan’ without frequent interfacing is enough for a department or individual to determine the who, what, how and why for each plan element that must be accomplished in additional to current operational responsibilities.

 TIP:  Hold regular implementation conversations and (at least) an annual workshop or retreat to make strategic decisions on assigning responsibility, monitoring progress, adjusting strategies, and evaluating success.

Avoidance

Avoidance occurs when a plan is accepted or adopted at the Council level, but due to the city’s present budget and general financial policy, Council and management avoid discussing, recommending, prioritizing and appropriating adequate resources (staff time, programmatic funding, etc.) to carry out the work.

This tendency is to avoid financial decisions (during and after budget adoption) while generally accepting that the community has the staff and financial resources to (at least) begin to implementation of the plan is a manifestation of the general notion that there are inefficiencies or underutilized city resources that will somehow adapt to carry out this responsibility.

The truth is that most cities have focused such great attention in recent years toward controlling expenses to limit property tax increases that existing resources are strained and often less efficient. From combining jobs and duties to asking departments annually to cut a % of their budget but maintain a similar level of service has made government ‘leaner’ but it’s also created an expectation that implementing new plans, strategies and services can be accomplished within existing operations and using existing resources.

It’s a false expectation to assume that successful implementation of a new strategic plan will occur without evaluating the resources (staff, money, etc.) required to succeed.

TIP:  Regularly discuss the delivery of services and allocation of resources to make more strategic decisions that support the plan’s implementation and the city’s broader priorities of government[i],[ii].

Substitution[iii]

Substitution is defined as the act of replacing a more complex element of the plan with an easier action that is rationalized as having successfully met objective.  This occurs as follows:

Cities tend to respond best to emerging issues, emergencies, questions and requests. This ‘fighting fires’ approach is justified because it feels production and it can be rationalizing (subconsciously or not) as being related to or fulfilling one or more of the elements within a work plan.  Substitution takes the place of elements within the plan and is generally (at all levels) accepted as crossing that item off the list.  In practice this may look like the following situation.

The local newspaper starts a quarterly advertorial insert called “The Progress Edition” featuring local business stories and a significant amount of advertising.  The city responds by purchasing a year’s worth of ad space.  The purchase may be good for the city, the newspaper and the community, but the decision is often made by rationalizing the outcome as promoting economic development or marketing the city.  This can become a substitution for the actual marketing elements of the plan and be wrongly counted as fulfilling all or a portion of those associated plan goals.

The truth is that not all city actions can or should be accounted for as actions related to adopted strategic plans. While these actions may benefit the city and community, their replacement (substitution) of more complex and resource intense plan elements won’t ultimately move the city closer to the achieving the established plan goals.

It’s a false expectation that every city action is an extension of the strategies within an adopted strategic plan.

TIP:  Allocate resources to carry out the plan’s implementation and determine how long-term projects will be sustained in the face of both daily operations and emerging requests for resources.

Surrogation

Surrogation happens when the measurement of a goal is interpreted (represented) as the goal.  A common example of this as applied to city operations would involve the goal of high customer satisfaction in the planning department where the speed (# of days) by which building permits are issued comes to singularly represent customer satisfaction.

In the context of implementing a strategic plan, surrogation is a method for simplifying plan implementation by reducing the scope of the strategy to either fit within a budget limitation or to avoid (revolt against) broader systemic change.

The truth is that the desire to prove progress and accomplishment drive a tendency to use performance measures (especially those that are positive) to not just represent how a goal is being achieved, but that the performance measure (if good) is the achievement of the goal. This is misleading and results in a failure to accomplish more meaningful, long term results.  Returning to the example from above, customer satisfaction with a planning department can neither be accomplished nor measured solely by the timely issuance of permits as such measurements may not reflect the difficulty in applying for the permit, the cost of the permit or the experience with permit related inspections.

Further, relying on the performance measures as the goal can lead to crazy interpretations of the performance measure, including (for example) that the timely issuance of permits should only measure how long the jurisdiction took to issue the permit, not how long the overall process took.  The city may have performed much worse when the latter was considered because the city frequently stopped the clock to seek additional information from the applicant.

It’s a false expectation to assume that a single performance measure can accurately represent achievement of a goal and the application of such is an invitation for surrogation to promote a false sense of achievement.

TIP:  Cities should adopt and evaluate performance measures, but such measures of progress and performance should not be singularly focused nor reflect the sole means of determining goal satisfaction.

Endnotes:

[i] Washington State enacted a successful and innovative priorities in government budgeting approach in 2002 under former Governor Gary Locke (background: https://www.innovations.harvard.edu/priorities-government-budgeting)

[ii] For more details, see also The Price of Government: Getting the Results We Need in an Age of Permanent Fiscal Crisis by David Osborne and Peter Hutchinson

[iii] Substitution as referred to herein is a more simplistic view of what’s known as “attribute substitution”

Toyer Strategic Leads Forum in Spencer, Iowa

Toyer Strategic Consultant was in Spencer, Iowa yesterday continuing our work with the Grow Spencer Commission to create Spencer’s new economic development strategic plan.  The day concluded with a community forum where David Toyer made a presentation on the economic development planning process, the core planning components within the strategy, some of the targeted industries and a review of the community’s goals.  There is more coverage of the forum at The Daily Reporter and KICD AM 1240.

“Spencer is one of the nation’s 550 micropolitan statistical areas,” said David Toyer.  “We’re excited to be working with them on a plan to maximize their growth potential.”

Learn more about Micropolitans.

Learn more about the Toyer Framework® and our Micgrowpolitan™ services.

The National Housing Problem

Availability, affordability, attainability . . . have a few things in common. First, they can be used to describe various elements of a supply demand model (e.g. if it is rarely available, it is rare it’s affordable).  Second, they are key discussion points in housing debates that are growing in importance nationwide. Why?

Fast growing urban markets don’t have enough supply to keep prices under control.  Hence why Seattle is the fastest growing metro (over the last two years) and the metro with the largest increase in home value during said same period. In a different, but similar situation are the rural markets where the few that are built face higher construction costs and are thus generally limited to the high end of the housing market.  Another supply side problem. In both cases regulations have an impact on the supply and thus the affordability.  This article by Dan Bertolet for the Sightline Institute does a fabulous job of explaining how regulations are further driving up housing costs in fast growing urban markets.

But what about the regulations and supply side issues in rural markets?

In many rural areas a regulation induced supply-demand disconnect is occurring because of high construction costs (not land prices), requirements for the same type of urban infrastructure as in a large metro, lower densities, and an inability to reduce other costs of developing housing.  This creates huge gaps in the type and price of housing available.

As a result, developers/builders often seek incentives like moderately higher density, tax abatement and municipal extension of some utilities – requests that are scoffed at by communities as benefiting the pockets of the developer/builder and not the end user.  This is a false assumption.  When fewer homes are built and those new homes come to the market almost exclusively at the top end of the market, this impacts first-time and new-to-market home buyers who become limited to buying homes only when existing owners move up.  This lack of variety in the housing stock and inability for first-time, move-up, move-down and new-to-market buyers to find affordable options in turn stifles rural population growth.

Why is this so important in rural areas?  Workforce.  The competition for workforce is fierce.  Traditionally, your competitive advantage as a rural (non-metro) area has been based on your quality and cost of living (generally).  If housing becomes a challenge for you, then you lose a big part of your competitive advantage.  That is to say if your area has a similar job, an overall lower cost of living and some amenities, but it lacks housing, you will lose out because you don’t have what they want at a price they can afford.  Your community becomes a market for the buyer that makes them feel like their trying to shop at Tiffany’s with a minimum wage job or searching a hardware store for bread, cereal and milk.  In both examples there is a disconnect between buyer and product.

The lack of competition from new housing has even bigger impacts as existing homeowners and landlords seek out and get higher prices and higher rents while investing less in property care and quality.  The lack of housing becomes a disincentive to investing in the existing housing stock.  This is one cause for declining neighborhoods, higher crime (reference the “broken windows theory”) and greater burdens on municipal services that must enforce nuisance codes, inspect rentals and manage buy-out/tear down programs.

As the problem grows, it gets worse.  Rural communities start to see a decline in some property values eroding any gains to their overall tax base.  And employers start to complain they can’t attract workers because the prospective workers can’t find a place to live.  Alas, at a certain threshold your community becomes incapable of attracting the new workers necessary (let alone retaining what you have) to support anything more than ‘replacement’ economic development.

If your rural community wants to grow its tax and jobs base, then you absolutely must address the housing.  While it’s not the silver bullet to future success, it’s a key ingredient.

So what can be done to encourage new housing and new housing investment?

  1. Allow moderate increases in density.  Many rural communities have ore-1980s small homes on small lots.  There were reasons for that type of development: affordability, efficiency and ‘community.’  I often hear elected officials and citizens will say they want to preserve the character of their communities, but they’ve adopted codes and policies that seek big (1/4 to 1/2 acre) lots.  Allowing more density spreads the cost of infrastructure, reduces the cost to develop and creates efficiency for future community services.  It also encourages more affordable housing options.
  2. Waive water and sewer hookup fees.  The theory is that you need to make the new home pay for the system improvements built years ago to accommodate them.  However, in many cases rural utilities have had this available capacity going on a decade or more and at the same time they need more ratepayers to fund current facility maintenance and ever changing environmental regulations that require frequent upgrades.  In the grand scheme of things, having more ratepayers is a better deal for these utilities, allowing them to fund day-to-day operations better, as well as bond for the bigger upgrades and improvements.
  3. Tax abatement (Version 1).  Forgo the first 5-7 years of property taxes on new housing and see what happens.  A buyer that barely qualifies to buy a house (and pay the mortgage, insurance and annual property taxes) will be more encouraged to purchase new housing if they know they have five years tax free to grow their earnings.  This also ensures that these new home buyers are more likely to have the resources in the early years to habitually care for their homes and still participate in retail spending in the local marketplace.  Note that the key word here is forgo, as a community is not losing anything they currently collect, but deciding for the greater good to wait a few years before they get the benefit of something new.  It should be viewed as an investment by the community and not an incentive for the builder.
  4. Tax abatement (Version 2).  Forgo property taxes on the value of any new improvements made to an existing home for 5-10 years.  This encourages the existing homeowner to not only take care of their residence, but to add that additional room, deck, etc.  While the city won’t collect the revenue for a few years, the result is higher collections when it does kick in.
  5. Tax increment financing (TIF).  Infrastructure is the biggest cost burden on new housing in rural areas.  Communities can use future property tax revenues over a period of time to reimburse the developer for a portion of the cost to build the ‘urban’ level of infrastructure that they’ve required.
  6. Municipal improvements.  In some rare and more extreme cases we’ve seen communities acquire land and install improvements to the level of a finished plat in order to entice new home building.  It sometimes can work, but it’s more risky and doesn’t yield home-building overnight.