Sorry, but a $10 Million Sewer System Won’t Fix Your Economy

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Small businesses and a revitalized Main Street? That sounds great! It’s a worthy goal and a potential path toward economic prosperity for this community. But why on earth is a new sewer the chosen method with which to accomplish this goal? At Strong Towns, we can provide about 1,000 other ideas for small, affordable steps a community might take if they want to help encourage small business activity and build up their downtown, and all of them would make a lot more sense before a $10 million sewer system.

This quote from the Bangor Daily News article from Tony Binotto, a member of the town’s board of selectmen, is most telling: “Eventually, this [infrastructure bill] is going to come, it has to. But if it doesn’t pass, in this window of opportunity where we have a chance to get a lot of government funding, we may lose it, and the town will then have to pay for a larger share of it than we would today.” At least he’s being honest. Let me paraphrase: We don’t think it’s worth spending much of our scarce local money on this, but we’re hoping the federal government might fall for it.

Chuck Marohn has dubbed communities like this one “wards of the state.” (And by the way, he uses that label for his own small city of Brainerd, too.)

So what happened when Island Falls put this $10 million sewer investment to a vote with their 781 residents? After a secret ballot referendum, the idea to pursue this sewer project was voted down and the reason why tells us a lot. As The County newspaper reports, “the town would have also had to raise tax rates at least $2 per $1000 valuation, which selectman say contributed to the town voting down the proposed system by a vote of 38 ‘yes’ to 204 ‘no.’” The fact that residents are not willing to add even a few dollars to their own tax bills, while local leaders simultaneously push for millions from the federal budget, shows us this city is not willing to put its money where its mouth is.

How often have you heard someone lament a societal challenge—whether it’s the cost of childcare or the potholes in our streets—and say “the federal government should just pay for it!” At some point, we’re going to need to realize that the federal government is: 1) not coming to save us, and 2) not usually the right mechanism for handling local problems like these.

If this city wants a new sewer system and truly believes that is of vital importance, then it should find a way to pay for it. But I’m guessing the reality is that this sewer system is not their highest priority and there are many other things deserving of local funding and local time. I would point them to our Strong Towns Approach to Public Investment:

  1. Humbly observe where people in your community are struggling.

  2. Ask the question: What is the next smallest thing we can do right now to address that struggle?

  3. Do that thing. Do it right now.

  4. Repeat.

Hint: A $10 million sewer system ain’t it.

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