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November 2011 Featured Article

Ratables: Everyone Wants Them But What Works Best for Your Community

Triad Associates

 

Many municipal leaders approach their consultants to promote economic development strategies to generate additional tax revenue from various kinds of new ratables. However, does this “ratable chase” really pay off?  According to a recent study published by New Jersey Future, the ratable chase does not necessarily result in decreased tax bills for the average resident.  The tax savings typically generated from the additional office or retail space added rarely gets passed onto the resident.  So why are municipalities so focused on this type of development, especially when it causes additional traffic and increased congestion?  Do the benefits outweigh the costs in terms of convenience and quality of life?  The answers to these questions are complex and can only be answered by the local people affected.

Generating new commercial development in a community can significantly increase the quality of life for residents from, for example, the location of a new grocery store, convenience center or shopping plaza.  But beyond that, does commercial development benefit the residents in your community such that the increased congestion, traffic and loss of open space are worth the additional tax revenue?

A similar question can be posed about residential growth.  But residential activity typically demands even more investment in community services and facilities than commercial growth.  Residential projects usually generate school children and school costs account for much of the local service demand.

Communities all need to grow and prosper, so what is the best way to approach the issue of growth? One approach might be to define what the phrase “quality of life” means for your community.  In some municipalities this might mean focusing on new residential development that is designed with the community in mind which will improve the range and quality of housing options available to local residents.  Other communities may wish to focus on improving quality of life through services offered, such as school performance, crime reduction, parks and recreation, pedestrian friendly infrastructure, bikeways and paths and senior services.  In economically distressed municipalities, providing jobs, new businesses, redevelopment opportunities and other commercial activities might be paramount.  Still other communities may wish to take a balanced approach to mixing residential development with new commercial and industrial growth that can generate new jobs and income.

Regardless of one’s perspective, improving the quality of life and amenities for residents in ways that are affordable and sustainable are the best ways to stabilize your community.  Only your municipality can determine which approach is best.  If one looks back on the great exodus from the nation’s cities in the 1950’s and 1960’s, the cities attempted to offset this exodus by increasing the tax base on the remaining residents and businesses driving people out of the cities at an even faster rate.  Are the suburbs doing the same thing now? 

With an increase in transportation costs and the urban renaissance of the last two decades, the incentive for many people to move back into the city has been a desire to live in pedestrian friendly and economically viable retail and shopping neighborhoods. The amenities cities offer in terms of culture, art, diversity, parks and recreation far outweighed the opportunities in most suburbs.  (During this period it also important to note that major shifts in lifestyles have also attributed to the urban renaissance, such as marrying later in life and having fewer children.)  But does this offer another important point communities can learn from?

Defining your community is paramount.  Branding it through intelligent marketing, knowing who your community appeals to and marketing yourself in that way is key. Does your community offer a great place to raise a family?  To retire?  To be adventurous?  To live on a farm or in a neighborhood where people help each other out and let their kids play in the yard?  While it may seem obvious to you or your fellow residents what your community’s strengths and weaknesses might be, does the rest of the world know?  The answer might help you define the place you want to be and the quality of life you may want to develop for your residents.

In summary, the landscape is changing both literally and figuratively for local government.  To increase the quality of life in your community, you have to do more with what you have, and motivate your public employees and advocate the importance of keeping your community great.  Encourage community pride.  Utilize residents to get things done that otherwise could not have gotten done without their help.  Engage volunteers to start a community garden or clean up a park or neighborhood.  Fundraise to build new amenities, sidewalks or bike lanes on a street that is frequented by bicycles.  Share service costs, utilize staff talents in different ways and call upon your residents to help make their community a better place as well.  Hopefully the changes will make people a little happier and satisfied when paying their tax bill every year.

Often, grants or loans are the best ways to launch projects that have the potential to change your community.  Create opportunities to meet with nonprofits to determine their needs and discuss ongoing projects.  Discuss these projects with your grant consultant to determine any fits.  Having a wish list of projects on hand is the best way to apply for a grant since your community is better prepared for an opportunity, especially with a short turn around period.  Be sure to meet with a grant consultant with a list of projects on the back burner.  Discuss ongoing and new grant opportunities weekly to determine projects and pursue accordingly.  And most importantly, keep a vision in mind to ensure that your new project – whatever it is – is compatible with that vision and delivers the types of benefits to your community that residents want and deserve.

 

 

The opinions expressed in this article are that of the author.

Published October 28, 2011.

 

Triad Associates is currently the League’s Grant Consulting Firm. Their firm, which is known for its expertise in community and economic development, including strategic planning, redevelopment, acquisition, relocation and funding, has brought diverse plans and projects to life by generating more than $580,000,000 for over 120 public, private and nonprofit clients throughout the Northeast region since 1978. Every member of the Triad team is personally committed and dedicated to the success of its clients and the projects that benefit communities. 

 


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