In a continuing series as part of the ELGL & UTA Local Government Challenge, Doug Barrick, Town of Rutherfordton, NC, reflects on funding solutions for infrastructure.
By Doug Barrick – LinkedIn and Twitter
Rarely seen or thought about until they don’t work, infrastructure is the fundamental component of successful municipalities. Infrastructure sets the stage for growth, development and basic needs of life. Water, sewer, power, roads, bridges, sidewalks and now broadband are the most common infrastructure managed by local government. Knowing the importance of infrastructure comes from the agony of living without it.
In an age when local revenue sources can be tight, grant funding is drying up like the dust bowl of the 1930’s, and pork barrel projects have gone up in smoke, local government managers must find ways to stretch the dollar. I want to share a few strategies for ensuring a project moves forward without breaking the bank. These strategies have helped me over my career to bring projects from the shelf to fruition.
Beginning of a Project
So you have a great idea, let’s extend sewer lines. That’s great the light bulb is on, but what made it go on? How did you get to this great idea, was it your brain child, a councilors pet project, or something develop over time? It can start out as any of these but ensuring that the project is truly needed is critical.
You must first truly evaluate and prioritize a project, then educate and build consensus, and finally leverage and assemble the funds to move ahead. While these steps sound easy, and sometimes they can be, larger projects often take years to bring to life. The underlying principles to any successful project is you and your team’s determination, communication and adaptability.
Make sure you take a common sense approach as you analyze the data, don’t be known for the infamous bridge to nowhere! Ensure the project fits into your communities goals or strategic plan. If you plan to expand to the west don’t go east. If your focus is more sidewalks, how does that speculative sewer line fit in? Your town has goals and vision, make sure a project fits into these. Setting a course for success starts with knowing where you are going.
Communicating the Need
Spending money on things you can’t see (such as water and sewer lines) is difficult. Like did the Jiffy Lube really put new oil in my car? Imagine the looks when you share an idea for a project that is difficult for elected officials and citizens to visualize. Our job is to find ways to communicate the project so stakeholders can visualize the project and understand the need. More capacity in sewer can lead to growth, industrial expansion, lower treatment costs etc. Identify how the project will benefit the community, align these benefits with your goals and begin educating. Show that athe new greenway has the potential to increase community wellness and serve as a driver for business and development. Turn projects into things for people to know about, understand the benefit of them and then brag about them!
Continue the Communication
Keep a positive approach and keep people informed. Similar to one of your employees giving you weekly updates about building a new addition to their house that they are proud of. You knew what happened each week – “My new countertops are in.” Same thing for your local government project, continue the momentum with good communication. Keep those supporters and citizens up to date on the progress. If you want to take this to the next level, ask the public for continuous feedback about the project outcomes and ways to improve for the next one. We also need to celebrate success – brag out a project by money saved, citizens educated, and direct benefits. We have the duty to protect the taxpayer’s dollar and tell them about it. The group that you educated about a project, also vote and work in the community.
As ICMA says “you’re the quarterback, but you have to have a great offense to move the ball.” Find partners and incorporate them into your team, take a business leader to the legislature with you, and let them tell the story about a project. Develop a one-page whitepaper with a project summary, needs analysis, benefits, and budget amount to show to potential funders. Let them know this is an opportunity for them to partner with the Town to produce a set of shared goals. The more you can show a project is is fully developed, supported, and ready to go, the better off you are. You will be surprised at the funding sources that you can muster up just by providing the right information.
Persistence is key. Be persistent, find sources, ask those around you who funded them on their projects, leverage funders, and give the funders the credit.
If you cannot find funding partners, focus on educating citizens on the need for a bond vote, or why you are shifting priorities to fund a certain project. Creating a capital reserve fund is another option, either through fund balance savings, dedicating a percent of taxes or a percent of surplus revenues. Having dedicated funds for a project shows that you have skin in the game. These funding may ultimately save or advance a project.
Finding solutions to funding infrastructure will always be a municipal issue. It’s our job to assemble the game plan for victory. Good luck, be persistent, be patient, and be positive!