Cost Accounting in Local Government

Where is the General Plan Financial Element?

  • 1927 – State creates (requires) authority for cities/counties to prepare a General Plan.
  • 1955 – Circulation and Land Use Elements required.
  • 1967 – Housing Element required.
  • 1970 – Conservation/Open Space Element required.
  • 1971 – Safety, Seismic Safety, Noise, and Scenic Highway elements required.
  • 1984 – Seismic Safety Element is merged with Safety Element and Scenic Highway element is no longer required.

By adopting the requirements above, California entered the 20th century and set new planning standards for the many needs of both its citizens and business community.   Zoning maps were drawn, circulation plans derived, safety needs including police, fire, storm drainage, flooding and earthquake preparedness were determined, and disaster plans of all kinds were written based upon the unique issues facing each city.  Park standards and protection of open space were implemented.

Life became wonderful. As a citizen all you had to do was consult your City’s General Plan or one of its many specific elements to see how great your services were, or actually, what they were going to be.  If your General Plan were to hold a press conference, it would probably sound like this:

“Life is going to be great in our community.  We’re planning for fire responses of no more than five minutes.  Not to be outdone, the Public Safety Element says we’re planning for police responses of less than three minutes.   With our adopted “standard” of five acres of parkland per 1,000 residents in the Conservation/Open Space element, there will be a park on just about every corner.  Traffic jams?  That will never be a problem here, because our Circulation Element says we are going to have a Level of Service “C” circulation standard, and you will never have to sit at traffic light for more than a minute or two.  Heavy rain storms?  Not to worry, we are never going to have a flooding problem because our storm drainage collection system has been designed for a twenty-year storm.”

“Yes, it’s going to be a great community!”

But wait a minute you might ask, who is going to pay for all this? How close are we to attaining these service levels and how are we going to afford to maintain it? Won’t all of this add a great deal to the City’s already underfunded infrastructure replacement program?

“Pay for it? Oh, we’re not required to have a Financial Element.”

Okay, maybe it’s time to ask that “why not?” question.  In my alter ego status (calculating Development Impact Fees that require a level of proportionality), many times I have to deal with lofty but often unrealistic element goals and standards.  They are unrealistic simply because the General Plan does not require identification of a substantive financial process or method for financially attaining those goals or standards. So there is little recognition of how close the City is to meeting those goals or standards.  Not to be misunderstood, I know that the engineers could design a LOS “C” circulation system and twenty-year flood protection system.  Police Chiefs and Fire Chiefs could equip and staff for the three and five minute responses.  The recreation people could program five acres per 1,000 residents.

“Could” is the operative word, except for the annual revenues necessary to finance these lofty but unrealistic goals and service levels.  In defense of staff, these Plan and Element references have become nothing more than “targets” and are not to be taken too seriously. They simply keep their eyes on the ball and try to provide the best service level that the limited annual revenues can offer.  It would be very frustrating to have an element plan you are responsible for and also know you will never see it fully executed.  We can all admit that it is far easier to identify a lofty target that we would all like to have than to admit that what we have now is the best we can do.  It’s like promising your kids a month-long trip to Disneyworld when you only have a couple of Cleveland bus tokens in your pocket.  At some point someone is going to be disappointed. On the other hand, there is a level of equanimity in the General Plan process as every city, either well-off or closer to Chapter 11, can each claim the same very high standard, regardless of the likelihood of ever achieving it.

Regardless, it’s time to consider requiring a General Plan Financial Element that would support the attainment of the defined levels of service in the other required elements, or in the alternative would make them more realistic.  In short, I am suggesting putting a price tag on the attainment of each element’s goals and standards.  It could start with a progress analysis which shows how close the City is to meeting the many standards, perhaps as a percentage of completion.  As an example, if a City General Plan is 58% built-out in storm drainage demand generation, is the storm drainage collection system at or near a proportional 58% completion?   Or is it greater or lesser than that 58% of demand rate?

The financial and progress analysis would require a level of realistic pragmatism.  An open and frank discussion with the community about what service level can be attained through infrastructure investment (and then maintained) is very important.  I am not at all suggesting that anyone is misleading the community, but they certainly are not getting the full story.   Most cities provide a very credible and balanced level of service spread over the agency’s many services at the amount the citizenry is willing to pay for, and frankly, staff should be proud of that.   It would be nice for staff to have goals that are actually attainable and know if they are in step with them.

 

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