Durable Growth

Debating the new normal in Petaluma

Downtown Petaluma

Downtown Petaluma

Like many cities across the country, Petaluma may put a proposed tax increase on the November ballot.  The great recession took a big chunk of the municipal budget and the economic recovery, although stronger than many had feared, hasn’t provided adequate revenue to address backlogged needs, some of which date from before the recession.

Following my personal policy of “We built this stuff, we really should take care of it”, I expect to support any proposal that the City Council puts on the ballot.  And I’ll likely encourage others to do the same.

But I reserve the right to dissent from how the City is framing the debate, which is based around the question, “Will today’s Petaluma become the new normal or do we want to return to the Petaluma we all enjoyed just a few years ago and improve upon that?”

Wikipedia defines “false dilemma” as an “informal fallacy that involves a situation in which limited alternatives are considered, when in fact there is at least one additional option.”  I suggest the City’s question is a textbook false dilemma.

Downtown Petaluma

Downtown Petaluma

To begin, the question draws a silky gauze of nostalgia over the Petaluma of “just a few years ago”.   To refresh our memories, concerns about potholes and other municipal deficiencies began more than a decade ago, long before the recession and far more than “just a few years ago”.

Also, levels of personal and public debt, used to finance “the Petaluma we all enjoyed”, have been increasing steadily since the 1970s and may be reaching unsustainable levels.   To think that we can return to a halcyon time and even “improve upon that” with a tax increase is a false hope.

Nor does the implicit alternative, that rejecting the tax increase will result in the current Petaluma becoming “the new normal”, stand up to scrutiny.   We’re barely treading water now.  To hope that we can keep treading indefinitely is unrealistic.  It’s more likely that the tax measure will be needed just to maintain the status quo as the new normal.

And a black cloud of further distress may be looming just over the horizon.  I recently chatted with a North Bay city manager about municipal finances throughout the North Bay.  I noted the hypothesis of many that the recovery from the recession was managed perhaps too skillfully, with the result that many of the structural deficiencies in the economy, which are often scrubbed out by a long recession, remain in place making us prone to another recession.

I asked the city manager what would happen to his city in the event of another recession.  He pondered for a moment, shuddered, and then said “I hope I’m retired by then.”

I don’t intend for this post to be a jeremiad about the inevitability of civic distress.  Indeed, I don’t believe that municipal fiscal collapse is inevitable.  But the best path is neither placidly accepting the current reality as the new normal nor trying to improve upon a past that never was.  It’s passing the tax measure and using the financial infusion to restructure the city to a more financial sustainable model.  And urbanism must be an essential element of that restructuring.

That’s the option that Petaluma omitted in the false dilemma formulation.

The City will host a Town Hall Meeting on Tuesday, May 13 to discuss the question.  The meeting will convene at 6:00pm in the Petaluma Community Center.  Unfortunately, I won’t be able to attend.  I’ll be on a long-scheduled trip to Stockton.  (I’ll be there only to watch baseball games, but will still feel like I’m sticking my head into the jaws of municipal fiscal dysfunction.)

Even though I can’t be there, I encourage everyone to attend the Town Hall Meeting.   I hope what I’ve written above provides a lens through which to view the discussion.

Schedule Notes

The next monthly Petaluma Urban Chat meeting will be on June 10.

Cape Cod League

Cape Cod League

Also, I earlier wrote of my plan to make baseball gameday visits to seven North Bay and Greater Bay Area teams.  All ballclub schedules are now published, so I can pick my visits.

San Rafael: Friday, June 13 – Pittsburg Mettle at San Rafael Pacifics, first pitch 7:05pm

Alameda: Sunday, June 15 – Sacramento Spikes at Neptune Beach Pearl, first pitch time not yet announced

Healdsburg: Monday, June 16 – Sonoma County Chili Gods at Healdsburg Prune Packers, first pitch 7:00pm

Walnut Creek (actually Orinda): Sunday, July 6, Neptune Beach Pearl at Walnut Creek Crawdads, first pitch 12:00pm

Sonoma: Sunday, July 27 – San Rafael Pacifics at Sonoma Stompers, first pitch time not yet announced

Vallejo: Saturday, August 2 – San Rafael Pacifics at Vallejo Admirals, first pitch 5:05pm

Pittsburg: Saturday, August 30 – Sonoma Stompers at Pittsburg Mettle, first pitch 7:00pm

My plan is to arrive in town a couple of hours before each gametime, giving an opportunity to look at the downtown or another interesting walkable urban district.

I’ll attend all games regardless of whether others join me, but others are certainly welcome.  If you’d like to catch a little baseball and urbanism, let me know.  We can make arrangements as the games approach.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Written by Dave Alden

Dave Alden

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com.

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