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Commentary: Small town, or ‘another tacky suburb’?

Commentary: Small town, or ‘another tacky suburb’?
Posted in the Prior Lake American: Friday, October 2, 2015 10:45 am

By John Diers

Charles Marohn grew up Brainerd. He was trained and worked as a municipal engineer in nearby small cities and towns until one day he concluded that his profession and our expansionary approach to suburban development were ruining communities. This epiphany caused Marohn to form Strong Towns (www.strongtowns.org), a nonprofit committed to changing how cities like Prior Lake plan and grow.

Marohn has taken his message across the country, propelling him into a national, albeit controversial, conversation about how we build suburban communities. He argues that sprawled development patterns, nurtured by flawed policies promoting road and infrastructure expansion are financially unsustainable because life cycle maintenance costs far exceed the revenues the infrastructure can produce. Add to that the cost of providing municipal services and schools and you’ve created a Ponzi scheme that demands more and more development just to pay off the debt.

Marohn is a fiscal conservative, but his arguments reach beyond dollars and cents. Prioritizing people, neighborhoods, the environment and quality of life over cars, developers and economic growth sends a strong message. It’s the message Lake Elmo sent to the Met Council.

Unfortunately, some Prior Lake elected officials and city management would prefer to follow the money and turn Prior Lake into another version of Maplewood, Bloomington or Edina. They say it’s what the unelected Met Council wants, but is it what the people who live in Prior Lake want?

This year’s city budget is a perfect example. It calls for total revenue of $ 26 million, but spends $31.6 million by burning $3.3 million of the city’s reserves and adding 12 percent more to its debt service. The capital improvement program the council just approved on a 3 to 2 vote calls for spending more on new road projects for economic development much to the delight of developers, but at a cost of closing Main Avenue at County Road 21, cutting off downtown businesses and building a new road through the Pleasant Street neighborhood, effectively destroying the oldest residential neighborhood in Prior Lake.

Proponents like to talk about deferred needs and refer to “kicking the can down the road,” claiming the city’s infrastructure is crumbling. But what about spending more on new roads and infrastructure for growth and development, and ignoring current needs, while increasing taxes and mortgaging the city’s future with ever increasing debt service? That’s more than “kicking the can down the road.”

Taxes are needed to build and maintain a community, but there’s something called accountability and competent management that has to come along with them.

Where is the accountability when the city spends hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy the most expensive custom designed street lights that money can buy, or pays 30 percent over market value for dilapidated houses that the city doesn’t have a use for, or spends $100,000 to $200,000 for roadside digital displays, or pays consultants thousands and thousands to study and restudy the same old issues?

Where is competent management when city staff takes on the Highway 13-150th Street intersection project, sets a budget and tells the council and the public it would cost Prior Lake $1.7 million, but the cost skyrockets to $3.8 million once it’s underway?

Whatever the final outcome on this year’s budget and levy increase, Council Member Annette Thompson called it right in a recent letter to this paper when she recommended the city revise its development plans, raising question and joining with another letter from resident Kevin Busse, who offered similar thoughts.

Maybe it’s time for the community to step back and reassess its development options and scale back on ambitions that demand more infrastructure, four-lane roadways, more debt and higher taxes — ambitions that degrade the environment, destroy neighborhoods and turn Prior Lake from a community with a small-town feel into another tacky suburb overrun with gas stations and convenience stores.

There’s an election next year and an opportunity to have a discussion and make changes at the ballot box. Lake Elmo had that discussion and said “no more” to the unelected Met Council. Perhaps Prior Lake should have that discussion, make new plans and do the same.

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.)