It goes to show that planning is hard, and selling a plan to the public is even harder. The Village of Lansing is facing a similar dilemma today. The bids for their new Village Hall were much higher than they expected so they rejected them all and are currently struggling with how to handle it. Scaling down the already modest building is an option, but wouldn't that land them in the same predicament the Town finds itself in?
Thinking about this I started thinking about the current sewer and town center proposals. Sitting in on the sewer meetings every week I can't help but be overwhelmed by the enormous number of variables that impact a project like this. Change one and all the others shift. It astounds me that the sewer committee members can wrap their heads around all of them and still see the bigger picture.
I am also impressed by the scope of experience on that committee, which includes, among others, an accountant/developer, a former Town of Ithaca Supervisor, a Realtor, a former Lansing Schools Business Administrator... the kind of people you would want to plan something like a sewer. Even they struggle every week to keep all the details corralled and come up with a combination of factors that will result in the best, fairest, sustainable sewer system possible.
These folks (volunteers except for Town employees that serve on the committee) had a reasonable expectation that their work was largely done less than a month ago, but the project cost was high. They were willing to go back to the drawing board to explore other options that will make the project affordable and provide benefits to the sewered and unsewerd portions of the town alike.
Naturally a large part of their discussion revolves around selling the project to the public. One or the other plays Devil's advocate while the rest decide on whether this issue or that benefit is justifiable or even desirable. That approach changes the project parameters every week and this group does more research or crunches more numbers to see if the changes will make the project better.
Many of the committee members say from experience that some people will not want sewer until it is here, and then they will want to hook up as economically as possible. So it seems to me that the selling job has to focus on long term benefits as well as short term -- but also has to explain simply and in no uncertain terms what the benefits are, and what they are worth to residents in and out of the service area.
I favor a simple chart of benefits, both tangible and philosophical with the dollar value (per $1,000 of assessed property value) of the tangible benefits laid out. How much less will taxes be because the town buildings and school buildings are hooked up to municipal sewer? How much will the tax rate go down with increased base sewer and denser cluster development will attract? How much gas will the average Lansingite save because he or she can shop or visit a doctor in the center of the town?
The intangibles are also valuable. If I had to pay $75 a year I would certainly want to see benefits I can count in dollars, but I could live with half of that being repaid in tangible benefits if I could have a nice town center to walk around and shop in, maybe another small town park, a larger community center, or a town green.
One of the reasons we decided to publish the Lansing Star was that there was no town center. We fondly remembered how the Lansing Community News made us feel connected to our community, and felt the Star could be an online Main Street for the town. We would happily cede that place for a real Main Street.
This week the notion was discussed of building a bigger capacity system and telling people outside the initial service area that is a benefit of paying for sewer now. That certainly is a benefit to people who will, indeed, eventually get sewer, though I think it is a hard thing to sell. Will that person still live there when sewer eventually gets to them? Will it ever get to them? Still, when a sewer district comes to a referendum, I hope voters will consider all the possible benefits and make an informed decision based on both the long and short terms. And I hope those issues will be plainly spelled out to help them make their decision.
We didn't do that when we voted on the Town Hall. It was certainly bigger and better than the ramshackle building it replaced (which has since been renovated into a beautiful library). Meeting space is overbooked, and the building does not have enough storage space. You should see the room where the Rec Department equipment is stored! Did we look far enough into the future when we voted down the roomier version?