Funding package ignores adopted plans.

It is clear many Tulsans look at the Vision 2 proposal with a good deal of skepticism, mostly because of the way it was developed. Let’s consider what a truly responsible CIP planning process might look like for Tulsa in today’s challenging monetary environment.

First, we can consider the benefits of a well-conceived Capital Improvements Program or Plan. The CIP allows for the systematic evaluation of a broad range of capital needs and expenditures at once. It can help stabilize debt and reduce borrowing costs. It can help preserve infrastructure and ensure the efficient use of public funds. And perhaps most importantly, some say that the capital budget can actually be more influential than zoning in implementing or not implementing a community’s comprehensive plan and land use policies.

Establishing priorities needs to be an inclusive process.

A good capital plan assists municipalities in making choices about which projects should be built and or implemented, how they should be financed and when. Unfortunately, capital investment decisions are at times based on technical or sometimes even emotional assumptions that are inconsistent with community values and local land use plans.

Part of the problem lies with the fact that in the post WWII years, the capital budgeting process has been dominated by engineers and finance department managers, to the exclusion of members of municipal planning departments and planning commissions, adversely affecting community and economic development, environmental planning and effective urban design of the built environment.

In some cities, the comprehensive plan is not up to date or the goals are too general to guide the construction of capital facilities. Or, as in Tulsa’s case, we have an updated plan but have not yet updated our zoning code to effectively implement that plan.

In fact, many jurisdictions have viewed their own long range comprehensive plan as suggestive rather than prescriptive resulting in CIP planning that is detached procedurally, politically, and practically from the overall goals, objectives and values established by the community. Responsible capital planning supports a jurisdiction’s comprehensive plan and spells out formal criteria to assess how projects conform to that plan.

Plan the work, work the plan.

Some local governments, including Tulsa, have adopted policies that require the capital improvement plan to be consistent with the comp plan, including a review by the local planning commission. In our case however, that does not usually translate into a thorough vetting or analysis of how well projects conform to the plan. The contracting out of planning commission staffing support services to INCOG has resulted in a fairly routine “rubber stamping” of the CIP list by the TMAPC, with little or no discussion by planning commissioners.

Ideally, the capital improvement plan and its projects should correspond to the key elements of the comprehensive plan: land use, transportation, economic development and housing with additional considerations for water and waste, community facilities, energy and telecommunications, and equipment and vehicles to support public safety. To a large degree, the sophistication of the methods used to evaluate projects, both quantitatively and qualitatively determine how well the CIP actually performs.

A periodic needs assessment should include citizens, not just engineers.

In a paper titled Capital Improvement Plans and Budgets published by Vicki Elmer, Ph.D., during her time at the University of California at Berkeley, she suggests that a CIP be based on a much longer term Capital Needs Study that would funnel into the annual Capital Budget. “The ideal capital needs study is a long term assessment of the capital needs for all areas based on the vision embodied in the long term comprehensive land use plan, tempered by fiscal realities into a strategic approach. It includes a comprehensive inventory of existing facilities, an assessment of their condition, a schedule for repair and replacement, and identification of new facilities.”

This five step process can serve as a guide.

She goes on to outline a five step process for developing the CIP and Capital Budget that seems to make perfect sense. 1) organizing the process; 2) identifying the projects; 3) selecting the projects; 4) formatting and presentation of the material; 5) Adoption and Implementation. She goes on to offer considerable detail for the various steps.

First, a lead department sets up a committee and establishes responsibilities from among the major departments. If a major policy change is in order to implement a new comprehensive plan for instance, the planning department needs to have a significant role. If the emphasis is on maintenance issues, and replacing existing capital facilities, then more involvement from the public works department is appropriate. At this point, the desired level of citizen and stakeholder involvement in the process is determined. Obviously, the more citizens are involved the more likely the CIP will be used to further the strategic goals and objectives of the city.

Second, projects are identified from the capital needs studies, reflecting the community’s strategic and geographic priorities. Individual project request forms are designed depending on the level of experience and financial sophistication of the agency or department making the request.

In prosperous times it is tempting to evaluate projects without regard to the availability of funds, but that is seldom the case. So, determinations must be made as to what are the most appropriate funding sources, depending upon the availability of enterprise funds where there is the possibility of raising fees, the use of general operating funds or leveraging through bonded indebtedness.

Making sense of the data. 

Once all of the proposals are submitted, they are evaluated and prioritized. This is where the process can become complicated because not only do projects need to be rated by their perceived level of urgency, they also should withstand a rigorous economic and sustainable return on investment analysis that is beyond the scope of most city staffing capabilities. After a short list has been developed it might also make good sense for the community to conduct detailed polling to gage public interest in the competing projects.

Once the program is compiled it is presented for approval to elected officials who are the ultimate decision makers. At that point public hearings, workshops and other outreach efforts are organized to make certain that all interested parties have opportunities to provide feedback on the plan.

Policy makers are responsible to citizens.

The public should be provided with a broad overview of all potential CIP projects, funded, unfunded and those awaiting approval to be put on the list. That way they can fully understand the universe of needs before recommending individual projects which affect budget decisions and their associated tax consequences.

The development of a sound capital improvement plan insures that policy makers are responsible to citizens, neighborhoods and businesses in the community, relative to the expenditure of public funds. A careful analysis of various projects needs and their urgencies determine the most appropriate options for funding whether pay-as-you-go, privatizing or bonds.

Every jurisdiction should have policies in place that require the Capital Improvement Plan and the capital budget to be directly and inseparably related to the comprehensive land use plan and that is where the Vision 2 proposal is lacking. The entire process is an overreaction to a potential problem whose best solution is unclear at this point.

Too many key steps of a traditional CIP planning and evaluation effort have been overlooked in Vision 2, particularly in the Economic Development component. While there is no denying an impressive list of worthy quality of life improvements competing for funding, citizens have not been given enough information to determine which ones should have the highest priority.

Here is the good news. If Vision 2 fails, which seems likely at this point, we can begin a more purposeful planning process that clarifies the big picture for Tulsans so that we can get this right the next time around.

Published in Urban Tulsa Weekly September 26, 2012

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