It comes down to welcome

I was in Hurley recently, participating in a conversation about community inclusivity. As the talk unfolded in this Northern city of 1,300, it became clear that there are a variety of definitions of inclusivity. It’s a diamond with many facets. It seems to me, however, that they all relate to the same thing: making “those people” feel welcome. It really doesn’t matter whether “those people” are oldtimers, newcomers, millennials, immigrants, natives, Hispanics, African Americans or Viking fans. Inclusivity is an attitude that this place is a place for everyone. Specifically, it is a place for you. C’mon in; sit down. Have some coffee.

The conversation was led by Eric Giordano and Dave Anderson of the Wisconsin Institute for Public Policy and Service (WIPPS). WIPPS is in the initial stages of a new project on this topic. The League and the Wisconsin Counties Association are helping to support their work, which will culminate next April in a conference on inclusivity. Think of the Hurley meeting as a “warm-up exercise.”

One thing I noticed right away is that people often tune out of conversations on inclusivity. Sometimes this is because they don’t understand the labels. That’s a fair criticism; the word “inclusivity” sounds like one of those terms you hear tossed around in a UW class on sociology, but never at an American Legion hall in Hurley. What does it mean? Who are we talking about? Why should I care?

The other reason people, particularly current residents of a place, will go blank when this conversation comes up is because it feels like they’re being blamed for something. If you’re asking how my city can be more inclusive, you’re implying that we’re not already inclusive, which, in turn, suggests that I am a bigot of some sort. Most of us, me included, are a mixed bag of goodness and badness. We like being recognized for our goodness and hope that our badness doesn’t show in polite company. It’s embarrassing.

We naturally feel more comfortable among people we know and less so among strangers. Put me in a room full of Packer fans from the Green Bay area and I’m happy as a clam. But put me into a room full of Minnesota Viking fans from St. Paul and I’ll disappear into my clam shell. When I’m called out for not talking to Viking fans, rather than defend myself, I will just move away from the conversation.

Using a football analogy is, I will grant you, a cheap and easy way to skirt very sobering issues of race, poverty, immigration, religion and age. I’m not doing it to trivialize the need for an honest discussion about these topics; I’m doing it to make the point that there is a simple human concept that applies to all of them. That concept is welcome. People can sense when they’re welcome. They can sense when they’re not. It doesn’t take long for a stranger to pick up the signals. What signal is your community sending?

I first heard this discussed in my church. My wife and I volunteered to serve on one of those committees, and the topic of gaining and keeping more members came up. After talking about it for weeks, reviewing the literature and searching high and low on the internet, we kept coming back to a single topic: welcome. Did the people who walked into our particular church feel welcome? Were they greeted? Were they asked to participate in this or that committee; maybe bake a pie or judge a talent contest? Did they sense that the people around them were glad they showed up?

If they got the sense of welcome, they were more inclined to come back the next Sunday. If the vibe they picked up was indifferent, maybe they were a little less inclined. If it was hostile or cold, well, you get the picture.

As we move into this new era of minimum population increases, Wisconsin’s communities need to do everything we can to seek out people. As we age, the temptation among many of our retirees will be to move to a warmer (in all senses of the word) climate. Every employer is facing a worker shortage; we need to bring every able-bodied soul into the workforce, regardless of the blemishes that may appear on their rap sheet. We need to open our doors to people who may not look or talk exactly like us. And yes, we need to have an honest discussion about immigration reform. The need to be welcoming is not a “warm fuzzy.” It’s an economic imperative. The community that welcomes will be the community that succeeds.

It’s time for the New Localism

I just finished reading Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak’s book, “The New Localism, How Cities can Thrive in the Age of Populism.” Perhaps not surprisingly, my friends and family members gave me plenty of privacy when they saw what I was reading (they usually nodded politely and then scurried away), but it was worth the few hours of isolation. Katz and Nowak are calling on local leaders to step up and lead in a whole new way. True students of local government should read the book.

The authors argue cities and villages have more power than they think and more problem-solving capacity than they know, but they need to organize differently. “Conventional wisdom holds that cities are powerless, mere creatures of the state, subordinate political units of nations. But conventional wisdom is wrong. It mistakenly treats cities as just another layer of government rather than as what they truly are: powerful networks of institutions and ecosystems of actors that coproduce the economy and co-solve problems.”

Katz and Nowak affirmed something that I often notice about Wisconsin’s best municipal leaders: they seem to make things happen without doing anything at all. “Conventional leadership norms do not quite fit the configuration of localities. The path to collective problem solving relies on leaders who can navigate and leverage the networked reality of urban power. Cities are neither vertically integrated companies nor governments that have a set command-and-control structure. Rather, they are networks of public, private and civic institutions that coproduce the economy and cogovern critical aspects of city life. The essence of a successful local leader, therefore, is the ability to bring groups of people together to solve problems and do grand things that they cannot do as individuals. To reflect the distributed genius of the city, leaders must be adept at creating and stewarding horizontal relationships rather than issuing and executing hierarchical mandates.”

While I tend to get a little cross-eyed when people start talking about infrastructure and municipal finance, the book proposes an intriguing new twist on the national infrastructure debate. Rather than ask the President and Congress to design a new program of roads and bridges, complete with new forms and regulations, why not turn the process around? “Infrastructure is a complex business, comprised of multiple investment sectors as diverse as a water treatment plant, a river or lake reclamation, an airport or port expansion, a road, rail, or transit hub retrofit, a rail station redevelopment. Each is different in terms of project design, revenue streams, and market impacts, and in how they are governed, regulated, owned and operated. As such federal plans for infrastructure often are not responsive enough to local needs and concerns. What if we reversed the process to flow from the local level to the federal? What if several governors, mayors and county executives, from across both parties, nominated a group of emblematic projects? A trusted intermediary could use a uniform template that made the business case for each project and then sorted out options for federal financing. In this way, Congress could ultimately enact legislation and provide tools fit to purpose and designed to succeed.”

Leading thru networks? Congress in reactive funding mode, listening to local practitioners, as opposed to command-and-control mode, dictating to them? Sounds revolutionary. On the other hand, maybe that’s just enough revolution to help move us all forward.

Cast a vote for Old Abe

In a week you’ll be voting for local government offices in Wisconsin. If history’s any indication, you won’t have to wait in line very long. Spring elections in Wisconsin historically have the lowest voter turnout among the regular ballot opportunities. I alternate between seeing that as an endorsement of the quality of your work (of the federal, state and local layers of government, the public trusts local government the most) and worrying that low turnout is a sickly canary warning us that the air’s getting foul in the coal mine of democracy.

I don’t like what I hear lately when people talk about the government. Too many citizens look upon government, even local government, as “them.” The people who operate government are “someone else,” not the citizens themselves. Never mind that the village president is their brother and the Public Works Director lives on the same block. This problem of perception is bad enough at the local level, but it’s worse at the state level, and it’s downright alarming at the federal level. Even elected officials use terms like “the deep state” in a disparaging reference to a far off and untouchable, immovable government.

I had this in mind as I was driving through South Central Pennsylvania recently. A certain freeway exit caught my eye and kicked loose my memory of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. At the tail end of that short speech, the President was trying to remind his fellow Americans what we’re doing here. Standing in a cemetery, surrounded by the graves of thousands of young men, Abraham Lincoln wrapped up one of the world’s most beloved speeches by calling on the crowd to resolve themselves to remember that the whole purpose is to ensure:

“That government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Have we forgotten the meaning of those words? One-hundred and fifty-five years later is “the government” now a far-away land controlled by invisible forces, or is this still the place where we choose our government from amongst ourselves? A government “of the people and by the people,” means that our government is nobody but us.

Because “us” tends to be—well–us, it’s going to be messy sometimes. You and I will agree on which streets to pave, but we may disagree on whether a particular zoning change is good for our community. We’ll smile and laugh when we cut the ribbon for the new roundabout (okay, bad example), but then we’ll get all red-faced and loud when someone brings up that riverfront redevelopment project.

Government of the people, by the people and for the people recognizes that people are basically good, but with occasional bad moments. It’s a government that reflects our shared morality, gladly spending millions to educate someone else’s children and giving a hand to a neighbor who’s lost his job or her home. At the same time, we’ll rail against the foolishness of those new planter boxes downtown. The magic of a government selected from amongst the people themselves is that the government looks like them and acts like them, because it is them, good and bad.

Thankfully, we do not have to take up arms against one another again in order to fulfill President Lincoln’s wishes. There’s another way. We can simply vote. We can stay involved. After the election, win or lose, we can congratulate the winners, and pledge to work with them.

It’s what Abe asked us to do.

It’s not a divide, it’s an opportunity

I’m in Washington this week for the National League of Cities Congressional Cities Conference. NLC’s research department just released a report that should turn the “rural-urban divide” debate on its ear. “Bridging the Urban-Rural Economic Divide” suggests that rural and urban areas will succeed to the extent they recognize that they need each other.

We’ve all seen plenty of data that shows rural areas have not seen the same level of economic recovery as urban areas. But NLC shows that the same data reveal some surprises, including the fact that rural areas of Wisconsin have seen much higher rates of growth in the formation of high-value businesses (businesses that export a high percentage of their products). The report makes a strong argument for looking at economic activity in clusters, recognizing that there are both rural and urban elements to most forms of product development.  

The Report was written by Christiana K. McFarland, a research director at NLC. Here’s a link to her short blog post on Bridging the Urban-Rural Economic Divide. The blog includes a link to the report itself.

 

Dark Store is dead. Long live Dark Store.

I’ve never been a fan of zombie movies, but the Dark Store saga is beginning to look like one. For a significant number of property taxpayers: Beware, Dark Store zombies continue to walk the state. The solution to the problem will (almost-but-not-quite) certainly not be resolved by the Legislature this year.

For those of you who aren’t political junkies, Thursday, February 22nd was the last scheduled day for the State Assembly to be in session. Our two legislative proposals to close the Dark Store property tax loophole and its sister the Walgreens loophole were not on the list of bills to see resolution. We had been told the week prior that they would not be taken up.

But a day or two beforehand, we started getting phone calls from Representative Brooks, the bills’ author. He still had hope that at least part of one of the bills could be amended onto another piece of legislation. A large number of Republican State Representatives did not want to go home for re-election without solving the Dark Store problem, which will start to show up on property tax bills this year, and they were encouraging Brooks to find a solution.

In addition, Representative Kevin Peterson had seen the damage caused by a large property tax shift in the village of Manawa and he was determined to get something passed to pull back the 14-percent tax increase imposed on residents and small business by a reassessment of a single large manufacturer in that community.

Despite Brooks’ and Peterson’s best efforts, opponents of the bill dug in. The manufacturers’ lobby, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce (WMC) refused to accept any compromise. At the urging of Brooks and Peterson we agreed to change after change, narrowing after narrowing and WMC continued to say, “Nope.” Finally, at 11:00 p.m., we were presented with a solution that didn’t fix the Dark Store problem (it didn’t even mention it) and made permanent the sister loophole, Walgreens. We finally said enough and said no. (Ironically, the legislative leadership then promptly went to reporters to tell them that WE were unwilling to compromise. Sigh; politics is such fun.) The Assembly wrapped up its business and, barring another unexpected zombie uprising, there will be no Dark Store solution this session.

What’s next? For communities with a large amount of national-chain retailers, you can expect to see a steady or even increasing stream of property tax appeals. The Legislature’s lack of action, coupled with the significant financial incentives that big box retailers and others have to chase a tax cut/tax shift make that outcome inevitable. Attorneys who specialize in this area of tax law often work on a percentage of recovery, which makes the appeal a freebie for the property owner.

One more thing. Every other property owner will pay more. There will be another Manawa or two, as tax attorneys learn how to adapt the Dark Store strategy to Dark Manufacturers, Dark Banks, and so on. An enterprising attorney will attempt to expand the Walgreens loophole to other commercial properties.

The only ones who won’t be able to at least make a run at this loophole are home owners, apartment owners and small businesses. They will be left holding the bag while their big box neighbors happily fill it up for them. Dark Store is Dead. Long live Dark Store.

Tea leaves and local control

The outcome of Tuesday’s special election in Wisconsin’s 10th State Senate District sent ripples, if not shock waves, through the political waters. Democrats are thrilled and point to the unexpected win of their candidate, Patty Schachtner in a Republican-leaning seat as one more sign of a national pro-left wave that has been building since the Presidential election. Republicans are publicly-voicing concern that the electorate’s not hearing their message. As a card-carrying member of the political chatterers, I’ll admit it’s been a couple days of fascinating tea-leaf-parsing. And one of those leaves seems to be pointing at local control.

For the first time in a long time, I heard the words “local control” in the post-election analysis. Both Republican and Democratic commentators say that local issues, including control over local zoning, played a prominent role in the election. Republican Candidate Adam Jarchow, as a member of the State Assembly, was an outspoken opponent of local governments on land use. Jarchow was well-known, well-funded, and according to all reports, ran a very credible campaign. And then he lost. And land use played a big role.

“We absolutely believe local issues motivated people in this race,” said Democratic opinionizer Stan Gruszynski in today’s Wisconsin State Journal.

“Local issues matter and Republicans have to re-evaluate how they’re talking about them,” said Republican pundit Jim Villa.

Both men were alluding to Jarchow’s support for limits on local zoning regulations.

One election does not a wave make. Two comments in the newspaper do not signal legislative intent to restore the full spirit and meaning of the Home Rule Amendment to the Wisconsin Constitution. A huge anti-city, anti-village bill, AB 770, continues to move through the Legislature. But just maybe Tuesday’s election will freeze bills like this in their tracks. Or at least it may cause Legislators to think about how they will explain votes for such bills to the village board members back home. That’s a pretty good tea leaf.

For profit government

Local governments should earn a profit. It’s not a profit measured in dollars and cents, the profit of local governing is goodwill that can be spent when it’s time for a difficult decision.

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In his 2016 State of the City address, the Mayor of Anaheim, California called for a social capital campaign. He said, “Our goal was to change the culture of our widely diverse city through simple, powerful and unsolicited acts of kindness. This will create what academics refer to as social capital, or another way to refer to it is building social muscle so that when inevitable challenges arise, we as a city have the strength and resiliency to respond effectively.”

It’s time for us to shift our mind-set. Local governments in Wisconsin need to make a profit. But I’m not talking about a financial profit. The profit of well-run local government is social capital. A local government that has no social capital is as vulnerable to an unexpected crisis as the shoe shop that has no cash in its bank account. Without social capital, that government will one day face a crisis and the operators of the local government will be out on their ears. The profit motive needs a place in city and village government.

Profit in the business world is result of doing a good job at the manufacturing, marketing and distributing aspects of company operations. It’s the result of taking care of customers and taking care of business. In many ways profit is the most honest measure of the degree to which a business is run properly.

Social capital serves the same purpose in government. You earn social capital the same way a business earns economic capital; by doing the basic things right and by being trustworthy. And you lose it the same way; by messing up the basics and doing business in an un-transparent way.

A business owner stockpiles economic capital so he or she can use it as needed or as desired when a new challenge or a new opportunity comes along. A company that has been run profitably has money in the bank to invest in new equipment, expansions or acquisitions. But if the company is operated on a shoestring basis, or is just “getting by,” the company is at serious risk of failure when a key piece of machinery breaks. There are parallels in the local government world.

A well-run city stockpiles good will and social capital by plowing the snow quickly and efficiently; by picking up the garbage at a predictable time week after week, and by making land use, and fiscal decisions that are fair, logical, and best for the community at large. City hall is open, the lights are on and the citizens can see what’s going on, and what’s going on makes sense to them.

Like a business tycoon who uses some of his stockpiled wealth to grow, a city may dip into its store of profit for new projects or initiatives. There’s a major employer considering relocating to your city, but it will require infrastructure. Your citizens’ longstanding wish for a recreation center, community center, band shell or central park may finally have reached maturity. Now it’s up to you to make it happen. And that takes social capital. Because, in a democracy, no decision comes without a cost. Even “obvious” decisions will have detractors; citizens who have a different perspective and a different vision. Just because a community center makes perfect sense at that intersection, the people who live on the other side of town may feel neglected.

In addition to diversity of viewpoints, there’s the skepticism factor. The public has been conditioned to question everything their government does. Only a community that has a good supply of social capital will have enough citizens’ trust to be able to form a consensus and move forward.

Profit and social capital are even more indispensable during times of crisis. A business that loses its biggest customer had better have money in the bank to see it through the “lean” times until it can identify or grow new customers. If a product suddenly exhibits a defect, the company will have to invest in recalls, repairs, and rehabilitating its tarnished image. All of these things require investment.

Municipal crises come in just as many shapes and sizes. Chronic potholes, unexpected crime sprees, fiscal mismanagement and more are the unexpected calamities that challenge city and village governments every day. Those are the times when it’s not “nice to have” social capital; it’s essential. Like your business cousin, you will need to tap your social capital to recall the product, repair the damage and rehabilitate your city’s tarnished image. If you don’t have that capital, you can count on being available for other employment immediately following the next election. And even worse, your community will miss a new economic opportunity, lose faith with its citizens, and see its image in the region tarnished.

You can’t borrow or deficit-spend your way to social capital prosperity. There’s only one way to earn social capital. That’s by attending to the basics and doing things by the rules. It requires making tough decisions the way democracy intended them to be made: by listening to both sides, analyzing the data fairly and reaching a compromise that benefits the most people. And by doing it day after day after day.

Running a city is hard. Leading and operating a village always has been and always will be challenging. The problems can be older than anyone currently-working for the municipality, or they can be as sudden and new as a phone call on a Friday afternoon. It can’t be done for free. And it can’t be done without social capital.

That’s the Local Perspective. What do you think?