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Podcast: Fiscally Sustainable Planning with Kevin Shepherd and AJ Fawver

Posted on March 13, 2020


Verdunity GovLove
Kevin ShepherdAJ Fawver
Kevin Shepherd
Founder & CEO
Verdunity
LinkedIn | Twitter
AJ Fawver
Program Leader
Verdunity
LinkedIn | Twitter

Changing how communities are built. Two people joined the podcast from Verdunity, a planning, engineering, and engagement firm focused on fiscal sustainability. Kevin Shepherd, the Founder and CEO, and AJ Fawver, Program Leader, talked about the mission of Verdunity, how cities can build better places, and the cost of maintaining infrastructure.

Host: Kirsten Wyatt

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Episode Transcript

Kirsten Wyatt

Coming to you from Portland, Oregon. This is GovLove, a podcast about local government. GovLove is produced by ELGL, the Engaging Local Government Leaders network. We engage the brightest minds in local government. I’m Kirsten Wyatt, the ELGL co-founder and executive director. And today it’s a swap cast with the Verdunity team. Joining me are Kevin Shepherd and AJ Fawver. Welcome to GovLove.

 

AJ Fawver

Hey

 

Kevin Shepherd

Good morning.

 

Kirsten Wyatt

Today we’re recording this episode of GovLove and also an episode of Go Cultivate, a blog and podcast dedicated to helping community builders make improvements in themselves, their neighborhoods and their cities. But first let’s get started with a GovLove lightning round. AJ, you are up first. What is your most controversial non political opinion.

 

AJ Fawver

Leggings are not pants.

 

Kirsten Wyatt

Oh wow! [Laughter]

 

AJ Fawver

It is the first thing that came to mind.

 

Kevin Shepherd

Wow.

 

AJ Fawver

It may or may not have been influenced by my trip to the grocery store last night. I’ll just leave it at that.

 

Kirsten Wyatt

[Laughter] All right, Kevin, can you top it?

 

Kevin Shepherd

Oh my goodness! Non political opinion… it’s sort of kind of political, but political stuff doesn’t belong in LinkedIn.

 

Kirsten Wyatt

Oh, that’s no, that’s good. That’s good. I appreciate that. All right, next question. What is your favorite font?

 

Kevin Shepherd

I’m gonna go first on this I’m gonna I’m gonna deflect and I’m not gonna call it a favorite font, because I have a number of them. But I’m gonna I’m gonna just say that we’re having a debate right now in in inside our company about the Oxford comma. And our entire company is is for the Oxford comma and I’m I half the time I use it and half time, half the time I don’t. So so there you go.

 

Kirsten Wyatt

Do you do it just to irk your co workers and employees?

 

Kevin Shepherd

No, no I just….

 

Kirsten Wyatt

But it does. {Laughter]

 

Kevin Shepherd

Yeah, it totally, it totally drives him bonkers. Jordan is not in here right now, but he is all over me every time I, I use it or when I don’t use it. So I’m trying to get better. I I joke that that’s one of my my key metrics that I’m tracking is just the percentage of my Oxford comma use. So I’m a it’s a work in progress.

 

Kirsten Wyatt

Got it. AJ, what about you? Do you have a favorite font?

 

AJ Fawver

I do. My favorite font is minion. It’s a serif font that I feel like has a lot of personality. And the numbers look really cool.

 

Kirsten Wyatt

See, and this is why we’re friends because the ease at which you are able to describe why you love a font is is wonderful. I appreciate that. [Laughter]

 

Kevin Shepherd

You know what, can I add to that? I will say I don’t necessarily have a favorite font, but I do like the open four. I don’t like the closed fours.

 

Kirsten Wyatt

Oh, again, that’s a bold statement. I feel like [laughter] we’re using a closed four in the script documents. So I hope that you’re not judging me. [Laughter]

 

Kevin Shepherd

Well, just because we know each other a little bit, I’ll give you a pass. [Laughter]

 

Kirsten Wyatt

All right. So my next question, because you both are planning gurus, if you could meet Jane Jacobs in real life, what would you most want to talk to her about?

 

AJ Fawver

Ohhh.

 

Kevin Shepherd

I know. Man, I could talk to her for hours. I would. I would just ask her about how to handle elected officials that don’t agree with you.

 

Kirsten Wyatt

Mm hmm.

 

AJ Fawver

Yeah, I think I would want to ask her what she thinks about this, you know, this movement that’s been created around her and, you know, we have miniature versions of her and doll formats. And I have thank you cards that have Jane Jacobs pictures on them and I just wonder what she would think about, you know, the way that we’ve run with her image and her thoughts and her words.

 

Kirsten Wyatt

I love that. Those are, those are very thoughtful answers. All right, so last question in the lightning round, what is your favorite Go Cultivate episode so far?

 

AJ Fawver

I think the one that I enjoyed the most is the one that we did where we talked about single family residential zoning. And if, and cities were really using that correctly.

 

Kevin Shepherd

Yeah, that was one of my, that was one of my favorites, too. I will, I really like the all of the ones that we’ve had with with Bastrop. We’ve had a couple of different ones with the city leadership team there talking about how they’ve really embraced fiscal sustainability and woven that through their policymaking, from and really what it led to a complete zoning rewrite that’s based around helping them close their their infrastructure funding gap. So those, I think it was two it’s two or three that I think we’ve done with Mayor Connie and Lynda, Lynda Humble. And Sarah Brian was on the first one too. So those were the, those were some of my favorites and some that a group that we’ve gotten good feedback on too.

 

Kirsten Wyatt

Well, and sneak peek, AJ is participating at ELGL 20, our annual conference in a session about single family zoning and so we’ll make sure that we provide a link to your podcast as a resource for attendees who will also attend that session at our conference. I’m so I’d like us to talk and get some more information about your work and your career history. I know many of our listeners are familiar with the blog series that AJ writes for us. Kevin’s contributed content over the years as well. But if you could each give us a quick background of how you got to where you are today and your career path thus far.

 

Kevin Shepherd

I’ll go first. My backgrounds a little unique. I started out, I graduated with a civil engineering degree from Texas A&M back in ’94. And for the first 15 years or so of my career, I did classic civil engineering, work working for municipalities, so paving drainage, water, sewer, kind of work, a little bit of highway work and a little bit of site development, but mostly municipal engineering, and then around, I want to say it was right around the recession. So 2008 – 2009 I was in more of a leadership role, and I got offered the opportunity to shift over to leading my former firms community planning, urban design practice. And so long story short there I was a civil engineer thrown in the world of urban designers, economists, landscape architects and right around the time of the of the recession, I got to travel around the country and work with a lot of different cities on a lot of different projects from everything from a comprehensive plan to a sustainability plan to economic development kind of work. And the real aha for me that led to starting Verdunity back in 2011, was seeing that no matter where I went around the country, every city of every shape and size and location was struggling to pay for basic infrastructure maintenance and services. And so I started to ask the question of well, you know, why are we short? Why don’t we have enough money to pay for these basic things and you know, when we continue to fund more of the amenities and the growth, the growth kind of, you know, amenities, desires, those kind of things, and that ultimately led me to leaving my former firm starting Verdunity in 2011 to focus on this idea of fiscal sustainability and taking the lessons learned and and ideas that that I was seeing in other parts of the country and bring them back here to Texas to to hopefully try to shift the development pattern here to one that is more fiscally and environmentally sustainable long term.

 

Kirsten Wyatt

It’s great, thank you.

 

AJ Fawver

So for me, umm I worked in municipal government for just under 16 years. And I found my way to planning in a fairly indirect sort of manner. I originally was planning on doing law and practicing law in municipalities. So I kind of veered off a little bit in my undergrad and graduate years, I found myself doing a lot of projects that had to do with the way that cities function and the way they’re laid out. And growing up in small rural areas around Texas, I was really frustrated with watching the communities that I I’ve lived in, kind of go through the cycle of decline, and wanted to understand why that happens and how to help, maybe steer that in a different direction. So that’s where I ended up in planning. And I love different Planning and Development Services departments in cities from 100,000 to about 300,000. So, San Angelo, Amarillo and Lubbock primarily, and, you know, felt frustrations at that level too, wanting to be kind of a maverick and do things a little differently than what is the status quo. And that can be a challenging environment, if you’re that kind of person. And I really continue to see cities make decisions that didn’t align with their long term goals and I couldn’t really wrap my head around why that continues to happen. But I had met Kevin through a conference and came and talked to him afterwards and then kind of stalked him for a little bit. [Laughter]

 

Kevin Shepherd

I remember that. Yeah, you made a beeline like right down the middle aisle.

 

AJ Fawver

I did, I had a plan because I’m a planner. [Laughter] And I wanted to, you know, out here in the region that I’ve worked, I thought, you know, planning for the sake of quality of life and those sorts of things. That message doesn’t resonate the same way. Umm, but I thought if one message could resonate, it would be this idea of fiscal sustainability. So I brought Kevin and the team out to Lubbock to do a session for our APA section, and we continue to stay in touch and talk and, you know, the rest is history. Here I am.

 

Kevin Shepherd

Eventually we got her. [Laughter]

 

AJ Fawver

Yeah, so I joined Verdunity last year, and it’s been a blast.

 

Kirsten Wyatt

All right, so before we continue talking with AJ and Kevin, ELGL is conducting its first ever listener survey for GovLove. The podcast has grown so much over the years, and we want to get listener feedback about everything from sound quality, to hosts, to topics, and more. We’ll use the information from this survey to inform our decision making about the podcast and ways that we can improve. Please head over to GovLovesurvey.com and take this very brief survey. Again, that’s GovLovesurvey.com. So Kevin, I jotted down this quote from what you just shared, no matter where I went, cities, cities everywhere, were having a problem funding infrastructure. Talk to us more about this finding and how this is woven into your current work now with Verdunity.

 

Kevin Shepherd

Yeah, it’s you know, the the engineer in me coming out of school, I was you know, I was taught to solve problems. I was taught to design streets and roads and utility systems for growth primarily. And when I flipped over to the planning side, I started to learn about placemaking and value capture and and seeing community through a much broader perspective I guess, and you know, when you go from places like a Detroit you know, Detroit’s the one everybody knows about but Ferguson, Missouri or Memphis, Tennessee or Shreveport, Louisiana, which is where one of our team members is located now. And even, even in California, I like to talk about stock, we have a Fort Stockton in Texas but Stockton in San Bernardino. I lived in San Bernardino growing up and I asked my dad this a lot when when we were growing up there and living there in the late 70s. You know, what was it like? And he said, you know, it’s it was very similar to a lot of the high growth municipalities in Texas today where it was like best place to live work play and and, you know, high growth and new schools and new facilities, new infrastructure, but then you know, back in, I think it was 2010 or 2011, they filed for bankruptcy.  And you, you see kind of this cycle where when a cities when a city’s in growth mode, they’re they’re adding, they’re adding homes, they’re adding commercial development that’s bumping their tax base up. But they’re getting all of this infrastructure that the developers are putting in the roads, the water, the sewer, the buildings, you know, everything. And it’s what Chuck Marone from Strong Towns is a good friend of ours and somebody that was really inspirational to me in the early years of Verdunity, still is. But he calls it the illusion of wealth, where you’re, you’re in this kind of a, it’s typically a 20 to 30 year range where you’re in growth mode, and you’re just you’re growing like crazy. But But if you fast forward that to 20 or 30 or 40 years later, that infrastructure that was put in by the developers and by infrastructure, I mean, the streets and the water, storm, sewer, sanitary sewer, all of that, it needs to be replaced and we as cities did not save the money over that, you know, 30 or 40 years. We just didn’t save the money to, that it takes to rebuild that infrastructure. And so what you see is, as a city pushes, it pushes towards build out or a more mature city where they have less room for for Greenfield new development. They get in this they get in this place where the revenue from the new growth slows down or stops altogether. And those infrastructure costs hit him like a you know, hit them like a tidal wave. And so in addition to the pensions, there’s been a lot of talk about pension funding and things like that, but there’s this infrastructure funding gap. And just to make it more specific, we like to focus just on streets. If if you if you just take, anywhere we work, any any city I’ve ever been to, if you take just the the miles of streets in that city, and assume it’s going to cost you a million dollars a lane mile to fix, which is a conservative number. You know, you get you get in the multiple multi millions or billions of dollars to reconstruct those streets. And it’s and when I say reconstruct that’s a different than maintenance, you know, that’s different than just filling potholes. But but everywhere, every city that we work with, and that we talk with is this idea of, you know, we’re doing capital improvement programs or projects to fix a few of our streets. But what about what about the rest and you know, we kick the can a little bit, kick the can a little bit and then at some point, you just get to triage where as a city, you can’t fix everything and you have to pick. We’re just going to fix a few and the rest of those neighborhoods, those residential streets start to decline. And when, when the streets, you know, when the public infrastructure declines, the rest of the neighborhood tends to go with it. And unfortunately, as you look around the country right now, we have a lot of communities that are that are in that place and trying to figure out how to, you know how to preserve what they have, and you know, and then in Texas where we’re at the other end of the spectrum, we’re just still grow, grow, grow, building new stuff everywhere. And it’s so there’s kind of, I find myself like two conversations of in Dallas where I’m based, it’s talking with growth communities about how can you grow differently to manage that that infrastructure funding later. And then I’ll drive three hours to the east over to Shreveport, and go over there, and it’s a completely different world where it’s all about just maintaining what they have and trying to make things a little bit better for, for the people living there.

 

Kirsten Wyatt

Right. Well, and I, you know, in your mission statement for your company, you know, saying your your mission statement is fiscally informed planning, engineering and community engagement services that helps city leaders align their vision, policies and investments with what citizens are willing and able to pay for. Talk to us about that intersection between planning, engineering and that and then this is critical piece of community engagement, which obviously is key when you’re trying to convince a community that, that, yes, investing in our streets or other infrastructure is the right priority at this time or, you know, holding back this money or planning ahead. How does that all intersect with one another? And how do you approach that, that kind of three legged stool of your ….?

 

Kevin Shepherd

Yeah. Well, you know, it’s, it’s kind of, it’s been an evolution for us. We’ve been in business for eight, eight and a half years now, I guess. And initially, it was how can we go design better you know, how can we go design these right projects of road diets and bike lanes and green infrastructure and then then you realize, well, the the, the budget and the political will to do these things just isn’t quite there yet. And so to do what as planners and what I’ll say, just progressive, more sustainability minded engineers, to do those projects, you’ve got to convince the elected officials and you’ve got to convince the general public that those, you got to talk to him about why. You know, why are those things needed? And the environmental argument will work with some people, the social justice argument will work with some people. But the fiscal argument works with everybody. And everybody cares about what they’re paying in property tax or sales tax and what they’re getting, you know, as a return on that investment. And so we’ve kind of unlocked this idea of, of using fiscal sustainability as a common language. I’ve talked on the kind of on the private side a little bit when we’re going through this right now as a company to just kind of refresh what we’re doing. You need a, you need a like a, you need a common goal, kind of a thematic goal or a rallying cry of like, what’s the one thing that we’re about? And then you need a language that you can connect everything that your city is doing, or everything that your organization is doing back to that. And I think for cities that is and can be fiscal sustainability. And, but but we found it it’s just been interesting to kind of explore how different cities want to use that. We’ve had some that want to use it for strategic planning. We’ve had some that want to use it as part of a comprehensive plan. And that’s a really powerful way to use some of the fiscal analysis that we do is to inform land use and zoning decisions. But but I think this community engagement is so key of, you know, the, as an engineer, we would do public meetings for we would get to like preliminary design and say, here’s a, you know, here’s the design of a road, come out and come to the public meeting at your elementary school or at City Hall and tell us what you like about this road. And it was it was lip service, it was never really meaningful community engagement about what they wanted. It was it was us saying, here’s the design speed, and we know exactly how this road needs to go. And we’re just going to kind of do it that way. On the planning side, you know, I got frustrated early on, I would be I was part of teams to do comp plans and we would do these big picture visions of you know, what do you want to be when you grow up and tell us all these great things that you you want for your community, but it was never constrained with resources of like, what do we really have the money to do? And what do we have the political will to do? And so, when when we’ve kind of worked through that of how do you how do you get this place of really putting cities back on a path of fiscal sustainability? It’s, it’s this intersection of it’s getting these different disciplines out of their silos and to think back about the big picture of, of you know, if we don’t have, if our community if our development pattern is not generating enough revenue, to pay for the cost to service, you know, what are we what are we doing? And when you when you think about it in that way, your your priorities, change, the way you communicate with residents, and you make choices in budgeting it all, it all changes. So it’s, I think, the power of our team, what I call us a group of unicorns honestly. When we do interview and you know, I look for, AJ is not your typical planner. And you know, I’m not your typical engineer, and Jordan who helps us with a lot of our community engagement and our graphics and stuff. We look for different ways to connect with people, both through the math and the money, first and foremost, but also with graphics, you know, boots on the ground, you know, engagement, walk, walk, shops, things like that. There’s a lot of different things that we do. But it’s, it’s, it’s, I guess, really focused on this idea of, if your community, and AJ touched on it earlier of our cities say that they want to be fiscally sustainable. We say we want to be environmentally resilient, we say we want to be socially inclusive. But the daily decisions we are making, the policies that we are making, the investments where we choose to spend our budgets, don’t they don’t align with those things. And so when you can get the city leadership in a city to say we really care about fiscal sustainability, there’s just a whole there’s there’s a ton of different ways that can be applied through a city. And we’re, we’re just, Verdunity as a team, we’re I mean, we’re just scratching the surface with, with ways to explore that.

 

Kirsten Wyatt

Well, I definitely want to talk about these the alignment concept. But before we get to that, do you think that as a society, we’re not doing enough to talk about infrastructure? I mean, have we become so interested in almost like immediate gratification, so we want to see the park or the extra police officer, and we’re forgetting that a huge part of a budget needs to be you know, your your street maintenance or street repavement, you know, rebuilding account or something like that. I mean, have we have we lost sight of the fact that many of the things that we do at the local level are very long term, you know, it’s a marathon, not a sprint type of investment, or is it a Is it that we’re just chasing after that next squirrel that pops up and we are not funding the money correctly?

 

Kevin Shepherd

All of the above. I mean, I think I was interviewed a few weeks ago by Streets blog. They were doing an article on Michael Bloomberg’s infrastructure proposal. And they called and asked me what I what I thought about it and I basically said, if it were up to me, I think cities, our state DOT’s, we should be putting 100% of our money into maintenance. You know, there’s a hashtag going around called hashtag no new roads, or hashtag fix it first. When when you look at these cities, I’ll give you examples, a couple, one city that we did some work with Brownsville, Texas down on the border, just to replace all of the streets that they have right now, $1.3 billion.

 

Kirsten Wyatt

Wow.

 

Kevin Shepherd

Other cities 500 million, 600 million, 400 million, and that that’s and then you compare that to their annual budget of its, you know, 2 million a year, 3 million a year for streets. So there’s just a huge, huge gap that that I do. It’s, it’s it’s frustrating honestly to go into a lot of cities and see where even after we’ve done some analysis and shown them the numbers, where they still say, you know, we’re going to go, we’re going to go do the kind of the shiny new thing we’re going to go do that that new park or that new rec center, when we’re not, we’re not taking care of the, of the basics. And at the same time you go ask a citizen, you go into any city and ask any citizen say, you know, when your, when your street is ready to be fixed, does your city have money, have the money to pay for it? And almost every single one of them will say, of course they do. I pay property taxes, right, or I pay taxes, and the reality is most cities, the overwhelming majority of cities don’t. They have money to fix some, and and when you when you open up that dialogue, it’s, it’s been really fun to see, you know, people lean into that conversation and say, Okay, well, you know, maybe maybe I will support a little bit of a tax, you know, tax increase if I know it’s going to go for streets or a street tax or something like that. At the same time, there’s, we do some work on the development side, or on the planning and coding side of, there’s certain development patterns that that generate much more revenue for for the investment than than others and you could go you go into a community and there’s a group that’s, they are anti density, they’re anti apartments, they’re anti mixed use, saying you know, the usual stuff. We don’t want traffic, we don’t want that’s gonna ruin my property values, etc, etc. But when you can show them the fiscal return of it and how just building a little bit of these more productive development patterns can keep their property tax rate down. You’ll get more of them to lean into the conversation and then it’s a meaningful discussion about not, is it right or wrong, but where do we do it? And how do we design it? And what does it look like? And that’s where AJ comes in on the policy side of zoning. And she mentioned the podcast on single family, single family zoning. That’s a fast, that’s been a fascinating one for us to explore of, you know, this, just this idea of what’s the, you know, what’s the typical average home value that will make everything pay for itself? And that’s just a loaded question. But, but when you can put math to it, a lot of these policy questions and infrastructure prioritization questions. They get a lot they get, they get much more clear if you have the elected officials if you have the leadership at the top that really wants to say, we want to build a community that’s that’s not just going to be here short term, but that’s that’s truly sustainable from a resource perspective and not overly dependent on debt to dig us out of the hole.

 

Kirsten Wyatt

All right. Well and AJ, or as I want to start calling you now, Maverick [laughter] you made the comment that cities make decisions that don’t align with long term goals. And obviously a part of your mission statement is to help leaders become better at that alignment. What’s you know, some of your initial takeaways from your first year with Verdunity and the work that you’ve had a chance to do on the consulting side to make that possible?

 

AJ Fawver

Umm, there’s a lot of therapy involved. [laughter] Sometimes I feel when we’re talking with communities, it is a sort of therapy in a sense, because I mean, really what it all comes down to is, is the way that cities communicate internally and with their constituents. So you know, we hear all the time and we all talk on the the city official side of course, about the silos that exist in organizations. We’ve all experienced this. This is not a new phenomenon. And of course, there are difficulties depending on the size of the organization and the size of the community. But what it all really comes down to is understanding that the pieces that people are working on throughout the year, whether that’s the budget, or the capital improvement plan, or the comprehensive plan, or their strategic planning, there’s all of these different documents and tools. But there’s not a lot of discussion of how they fit together. Kevin used the example of comprehensive planning earlier, and I’ve been through that process in several iterations in different cities. And you always end up with this document that looks great. People are excited and there’s kind of this rallying cry of okay, let’s go make this thing happen. And then you watch it kind of die down very quickly, as the bucks start coming into play, but we can’t do this, but we don’t have this but we don’t have the resources, but we don’t have the people. And so, you know, I think a lot of what we do is getting people in cities to understand what they already have in terms of resources, and how to maximize the way they’re using those instead of dreaming super big, and lots of pretty pictures and graphics and things. And we’ll figure out how to pay for that later. I mean, that’s very tempting, because sometimes as consultants, you go into communities, and you’ve consultants asking you, you know, where do you want to be in 50 years? What kind of newspaper headlines would you want people to see about your community? You’re they’re asking all these questions that are prompting people to think big. And there’s not necessarily anything wrong with that, but you have to then also tie it back to what is within your reach. And I think a lot of communities have much within their reach, much more than they even know. And once you start sitting down and facilitating the communication, and help them start uncovering, the people in their community the talents they have, the insights that people have, the the ways of doing things that are more a little more common sense and straightforward. Cities have much more power than they even know, to make these things a reality. But you have to be brave enough to ask, you know, the questions of why, why not? Is this the best way to do this? And, you know, so often when you work for a city, you’re asked to do things and you’re asked to always bring comparisons of how other communities are doing it. And I understand that there’s a purpose there of trying to kind of get the lay of the land and, and get some takeaways from people that have already been there and done that. But sometimes that paints us into a corner. And I wish we could get away from that a little bit. Instead of just saying what what can we do? We understand what other people are doing and other communities that what can we do here and let’s take stock of what we have and Let’s start having an integrated conversation. I can’t tell you how many people, and I’m one of these and I could I could tell you many people, I’ve talked to that work on the city side of things, and you’ll ask them questions about, you know, are you involved as a planner? Are you involved in the Capital Planning process? And they’ll say, no.  It’s a finance issue. Okay. As a, you know, as a fire marshal or a city engineer, are you involved in the comprehensive planning process? No, that’s a planning issue. And so just integrating people and getting them to sit down and have a conversation with all of the people there, even if initially, it may seem that they are not part of the conversation, they start to find as the conversation continues that everybody at the table has something in terms of insight or contributions to give.

 

Kevin Shepherd

Yeah, and I’d build on that a little bit. There’s a couple of phrases, one of them is cultivate. The reason we picked that word is it has to do with, you know, growing things locally. And whether that’s economic development, we talked about local, cultivating a local economy and workforce. We talk about cultivating neighborhoods, so whether that’s, you know, upzoning to the next, you know, to the next increment by right, if that’s, you know, small improvements in the neighborhood that can cultivate it and make it you know, make it a little bit stronger over time. So cultivating is, you know, being the best, being the best community being the best you that you can be, is one thing that we really, that we really work on with with cities. Another thing that we’ll say a lot is, invest in what you’ve got. To AJ’s point there, you know, we see so many cities that from an economic development standpoint, especially they want to go out and spend money to chase and try to recruit, you know, that that big company or that next big thing to town instead of focusing on retention, of how can we keep the people in the businesses that we have. And so you know, invest in what you got. That’s, that’s invest in your people, invest in your local businesses, invest in your local places. And what’s, what’s really cool is, is when you look at these goals of, you know, fiscal sustainability and building places for multiple generations to where they want to be and stay and thrive, you can, you can do those same things. You can add jobs, you can add tax base, you can accomplish those same goals that all of our elected officials and city leaders want to do, incrementally with the people and the resources that you have there in your town. And it’s just, it’s a big philosophical shift that that has to happen. But once once you kind of put that stake in the ground and say, we’re gonna, you know, we’re gonna do this with the resources that we have, it’s really fun to see. And then the last thing I wanted to mention is, one of the things we say with community engagement whether it’s part of our comp plan that we’re doing or a workshop or anything is that every citizen has time, talent or treasure that they want to contribute to their community. They just don’t know how or where, have the confidence that it’s going to be appreciated or reciprocated. And so when you, when you go in and say implementation of a comp plan, for example, say we’re going to come at this instead of laying out a bunch of these big projects that you may never have money to do, or that might take five or 10 years to happen. We’re going to we’re going to go bottom up on those we’re going to try to take you know 80% of these things and make them all little you know, little projects that can happen quickly with the resources we have right now. And then tap into our community for for implementation and you know, find these find these ideas and it’s a lot of times, it’s little stuff. It’s plant a tree, stripe a sidewalk, fix a light, put a trash can at a park. It’s little bitty things that when you know, when you ask a citizen what’s what’s something little that we could do to improve your daily quality of life? The answers you get are amazing. And they’re little things that cities just miss. And so our kind of our whole approach is this idea of, you know, the way we’re building our places is broken right now. It’s not fiscally sustainable. We need a reset that we’re doing planning policy and you know, investment through resource constraints. Work with how do we make meaningful progress with the resources that we have. And then that all funnels down to working inside your community to find those resources, find those ideas, and connect them together to make incremental progress and, and you string that stuff together, you you you stair step those together over time and you find that you actually do build a more resilient neighborhoods for you know, for more people, you build a more diverse and resilient economy. And oh, by the way, you close that resource gap that that allows you to to fund more of the basic infrastructure and start to invest in some of those, some of those amenities as well.

 

Kirsten Wyatt

You know, I think many of our listeners have potentially had the experience where an elected official runs for office with a bone to pick. You know, they don’t like the way that a new recent development looks, or they’re upset that the next project in the CIP, you know, isn’t in their neighborhood. And so they want to come in and kind of blow all of these plans and systems up. And that’s, you know, what they run on and maybe get elected to do. What, what is your advice for maintaining a vision that has been, you know, crafted over time with a lot of community input, when it’s kind of, you know, given a shake by some new elected officials that maybe don’t have that perspective? I mean, is that just inevitable in this line of work or is there, is there something that you do with that vision and alignment piece of your work that that could help in those situations?

 

Kevin Shepherd

I hope. I’ll offer one thought and then I want to hear AJ’s answer on this too. But mine would be the fiscal sustainability piece. I will challenge an existing vision and, and to what AJ said earlier, why and how of, you know, why are you doing these things? And how are you going to pay for him? And a lot of, you know, where you just you can kind of vet a lot of things there. And, you know, we talk about aligning it with what citizens are willing and able to pay for. That’s a really key phrase, because even in kind of affluent places, there’s a certain cap on what your residents are willing and able to pay for. And sometimes as elected officials, we get in there and and yeah, they’ll they’ll run on a specific issue and they just don’t, they don’t see the bigger picture of how or don’t understand how things get funded. But I just think it’s it is critical for umm, it’s critical for communities to have that one thing, that one that one goal that one language that can transcend any individual council member or staff person. And it’s it’s very similar, I make a lot of comparisons and a lot of analogies to the to the private side. But when you when you see a strong culture, on a on the private side in a company, it’s, you know, there there’s alignment there between what’s the big goal and how does that translate to everybody’s responsibilities in the different departments and the individuals in their role and what they do. And even in cities and local government, you see that inside city hall to an extent, but they’re, they’re not aligned around the right thing. I guess I would I would challenge and this. I have yet, fiscal sustainability is the best one I’ve come across that tends to kind of unite the broadest group of people. And you know, and I do like it because  other things like environmental and social and some of the other things that we talked about can funnel up through that. But cities, you know, to pretend that there’s ones but you know, one specific thing that’s going to bring everybody together in a city is crazy, too. But you have to have something to shoot for. And I think the fiscal sustainability and challenging every decision that you make is through the lens of is this, is this closing our funding gap or is it making it bigger? And if it’s making it bigger, just know why and have a conscious plan on the back end to do something to close it later on. And we found in our work, that’s that really, you know, that that aligns not every elected official, but it brings more of them together it you tend to see kind of the staff lean into it a little bit because then it’s, you know, it’s not just about budgeting where everybody goes in and asks for what they need. And then it’s told, okay, you get half of that or a third of that. It’s, it’s, you know, it’s a more aligned, you know, meaningful conversation about where we’re going to invest the resources. And you know, so AJ, I don’t know if you have anything to add to that?

 

AJ Fawver

Oh, well, I have a lot to add. But I’ll I’ll kind of simmer it down to a couple of things. I mean, I, I think one thing to remember is that every person that’s in one of those elected positions, they are a person too. There’s, there’s a reason and it may be a bone to pick that ultimately made them fill out that application. But at the end of the day, they’re a resident of that community. And I think it’s really important for city management staff and communities to have an early dialogue with the different council members or commission members, whoever your elected officials may be that are coming on board and really kind of get to understand what their, what their perceived issues are, because I will tell you once you start drilling down into those and conversations with them, umm it’s often not the issue that they may be thought it was, or there’s an underlying, there’s an underlying problem or kind of issue that is not necessarily a direct connection, but will help them get to where they want to see the community go. So I think it’s really important in the beginning, especially when they’re feeling very vocal to not, not try to square off with that, and not to dismiss that, but to really listen to that. And then try to think about that. I know, as a staff person working on that side, I always thought it was really important for us to try when we were taking something to an elected group of officials, to know enough about each of their philosophies about them as people, about what motivated them and be able to frame it for all of them because you can’t expect a group of people to all hear the same thing and to take the same thing away from it. And to hear the same way. You’ve just got to know that we’re people. And that doesn’t happen that way. So I think you have to really be a little more strategic about the communication. It’s not always just about getting things approved, or checking the boxes. It’s also about making sure that the messaging is done correctly, there’s a lot of cross disciplinary relationships that should exist in communities that don’t, that can really help make that message formulation, umm much more strategic. So that’s, that’s one suggestion I would have. I think another thing to keep in mind is, you know, our responsibility. When you’re a staff person, and you’re preparing things to go forward to that group, umm, sure we have the responsibility of the tedious things like the background reports, and the slides and all of those things and sometimes you get caught up in the fast pace and you’re just working on trying to get those things out and stay afloat really. But every one of those opportunities, whether you’re at the podium, or whether you’re transmitting something in writing, that’s an opportunity. And it’s an opportunity to ask questions like, how does this decision fit into where you all have told us that we’re going and give them some feedback on that. They don’t have to take it. But they should come to expect that you’re going to prompt to those questions, and they will start to think about it, maybe not every time. But I think that’s a good decision to make. I think when we spend so much money on comprehensive plans for communities, and then we’re making policy decisions and ordinance changes and budgetary decisions, and we’re not having that conversation of how does this fit into the vision that we just adopted, we are not doing our job. And that may be a maverick sort of thing to say. [Laughter] And sometimes department heads may say, you need to calm down and quit asking questions. But I think that’s why most of us choose that line of work. And I think it does resonate with every elected official to some degree because they’re all people at the end of the day that made that community their home. And people don’t choose to do that generally without some part of them wanting to improve upon it.

 

Kevin Shepherd

I was that, AJ that that made me think of something. I was just, I was having a little brainstorming session with with Monty Anderson the other day, who is a good friend of ours, and he’s been featured on our podcast a couple of times. Some of the the ELGL audience may know his name from the Incremental Development Alliance. But he’s a he’s a small, small real estate developer that specializes in some of the small incremental development that I mentioned earlier. But he’s also a council member for his hometown of Duncanville, Texas and I pulled him in the other day and asked him some questions about some of what we’re working on, of this framework in a way to kind of communicate and teach some of these these things that we’re learning. And one of the things that he he really liked was, what AJ just said is he’s like, what if, you know what if our council he said, one of the things as a council is we’re not able to get together very often to talk about planning. He’s like, on the company side, you know, you’ve got your board meetings, and you’ve got regular intention meetings, where you talk about your vision and your metrics and where you’re trying to go. And he’s like, as a city, those elected officials because of quorum rules and everything else, it’s just very hard to get together and intentionally talk about that stuff very often. And so he loved that I asked him this question. I said, well, what if you were to have your agendas for every council meeting and it had your big thing at the top of your, your resource gap, whatever that’s quantified as, and then every agenda item on there has something that ties back to that and, you know, you see this in some cities where they, they’ve got a balanced scorecard and they they tie you know, most if not all of their agenda items to something but it’s still three or four or five or six different things. And you know, he just he latched on to that and just went off for a good probably 30 minutes of like if that would just really make a council members time so much more efficient of, of being able to say, you know, we’re looking at this development, it’s going to add, you know, it’s going to add this tax base or cost this and just framing every decision through kind of the same the same lens. So that was that’s something that that I’m thinking about and that we’re working to, to define a little bit better. The other example that I want to mention, I forgot to mention earlier is the guys from Fate, Texas who Justin Weiss and Michael Kovacs I think have been featured on ELGL stuff before. They’re really good friends of ours there. They are somebody we’ve been, they are one of our first clients, actually, that we’ve been working with for a while on this idea and one of the things that they do, that I thought was just was brilliant was there there’s a series of four or five little three to five minute videos that strong pounds puts out on this idea of fiscal sustainability and building financially resilient places. And they constantly for council meetings and planning and zoning meetings, they will rotate those videos through every you know, usually you know, one a month or every other month and so and especially when a new member comes on and they they constantly have those videos at the forefront and and so now you you hear the council members, the planning zoning commission, and even even staff and even some residents are using some of these common, these these phrases that it’s starting to filter through and they just been there they’re really they’re really awesome guys and if you want to if you want to know how to like get this language in front of your council and commission they’re they’re a great resource to talk to.

 

Kirsten Wyatt

Well, that’s a great note to end our discussion on. But I do have one last question. And luckily, the two of you work in remote offices. So you can’t turn this into too much of a cage match. [Laughter] But we’re going to see, you’re both gonna answer this question and then we’ll let our producer Ben Kittelson decide which song gets featured. So here’s the question. If you could be the GovLove DJ, what song would you pick as our exit music for this episode?

 

Kevin Shepherd

I would say Bob Marley’s “Everything’s gonna be alright”. [Laughter]

 

Kirsten Wyatt

All right.

 

Kevin Shepherd

Come on AJ, what do you got?

 

AJ Fawver

Umm, I’m gonna say, “The Distance” by Cake because it’s all about like, the marathon, not the sprint, the stick to itiveness, the resilience and I think that’s the kind of thing that we’re encouraging cities to think more about.

 

Kirsten Wyatt

All right, well, thank you. You’ll have to wait and see until this episode airs on what Ben picks. But this does end our episode for today. So thank you for coming on to GovLove and talking with me.

 

Kevin Shepherd and AJ Fawver

Thank you.

 

Kirsten Wyatt

GovLove is produced by a rotating cast of awesome ELGL volunteers. ELGL is the Engaging Local Government Leaders network. We’re a social startup with the mission of engaging the brightest minds in local government. For for our listeners, you can reach us at elgl.org\GovLove or on Twitter @GovLovepodcast and if you have a story idea for GovLove, we want to hear it. Send us a message on Twitter or email [email protected] Thank you for listening. This has been GovLove, a podcast about local government.

 

[Song plays].

 

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