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Commentary: Much work needed on city’s ‘Vision’

Commentary: Much work needed on city’s ‘Vision’

Posted in the Prior Lake American: Thursday, November 12, 2015 8:15 am

By John Diers

What’s the difference between ”planning” and “visioning?” I put the question to Google, and 0.34 seconds later I had more than 1.2 million hits. The consensus seemed to be that planning goes to measured outcomes. One consultant, on the other hand, described visioning as “a lighthouse that illuminates, rather than limits, giving direction, rather than destination.”

That’s pretty fuzzy stuff, but it’s a way of bringing people together. The hard work comes later, “putting meat on the bones.”

Planning has been around since the pyramids. Visioning and visioning workshops proliferated in the ‘60s. I first encountered them in the ‘70s when they emerged as part of the “quality circle” movement, amid efforts to foster and encourage employee participation. Bringing people and ideas together and encouraging participation is a good thing. A vision is a “lighthouse,” but there had better be solid planning and a safe course charted to deflect the headwinds and thread the shoals.

Why? Because history teaches us the future is fickle and that outcomes are as different in number and as varied as there are people. Would a visioning workshop in 1915 that looked ahead to 1940 foresee the effects and the outcome of World War I, the Roaring ‘20s, the Great Depression and the coming of World War II – events with worldwide effects – as different, and as many and varied, as there were people on the planet?

About a year ago, Prior Lake officials invited residents to a visioning workshop to look ahead to 2040. I came to that meeting and went away with more questions than answers. There was a lot of cheerleading and feel-good rhetoric and many people left the meeting with warm and fuzzy feelings about the city and its future –which is all good. But where was the substance?

If the substance is in the city’s 2016 budget, then the 2040 vision is a lighthouse that beckons the city toward the proverbial poorhouse. Next month the city council will vote on a budget that calls for a maximum 11.5-percent increase in the property tax levy. It follows a 10-percent levy increase last year that accompanied a 64-percent increase in city spending between 2010 and 2015. Total inflation in those five years was just 7.8 percent. Worse, city management wants to pile on still more debt, increasing it by 80 percent over the coming five years, effectively mortgaging the city’s future all the way to 2040 and, perhaps, beyond.

Who benefits is unclear. Past spending has gone to dubious ephemera – electronic signage and expensive, custom-designed streetlights. But there have also been costly cost overruns that go to the credibility of city management. If you’re out for a drive, take a good, long look at the road construction at the intersection of Highway 13 and 150th Street. The council approved $1.7 million to install traffic signals. It’s now at a $3.8 million rebuilding of the roadway that’s taken homes and trees, leaving residents with piles of dirt and a denuded landscape. Some argue for park and recreation improvements and additional staff. That $2 million cost overrun would have paid for them.

And what about the next four years? About $24 million in capital money goes to road improvements; one in particular could disrupt Prior Lake’s current downtown and replace homes with asphalt and piles of dirt. There’s also funding to complete the Stemmer Ridge Road project, which is all about future development and enriching developers and property owners on land outside the current city boundaries. A total of $4.5 million has already been spent on sewer and water capacity that sits unused because there’s a simmering dispute between the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community, which bought and owns the property, and the city, which needs the right of way to complete the project.

On Nov. 2, the Prior Lake-Savage Area School Board voted to make plans for a referendum next May to add classroom capacity for increasing enrollment. This, in addition to the current school levy, the increase in the county levy and whatever the city determines, will add significantly to the overall tax burden of Prior Lake residents. Perhaps it’s time for the council to step back, call on city management to live within its means for the coming year, then freeze the levy and direct staff to develop a zero-based budget plan that reflects the current needs of the community and prioritizes spending based on those needs, not the whimsy of future development and a 2040 “vision.”

There’s much more work to be done.


Please read more at the Prior Lake American:  http://www.swnewsmedia.com/prior_lake_american/news/opinion/columnists/commentary-much-work-needed-on-city-s-vision/article_4547e3cd-305c-535f-a7d2-2c7c2f93ebfa.html

John Diers is a Prior Lake resident who spent 40 years working in the transit industry and author of “Twin Cities by Trolley: The Streetcar Era in Minneapolis and St. Paul” and “St. Paul Union Depot.” To submit questions or topics for community columnists, email editor@plamerican.com. (Editor’s note: Diers is a community columnist and not employed by, or paid by, the newspaper.)