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"The Future Isn't a Gift. It is To Be Achieved."

This Advisor column was originally published in March 2011.

This quote, allegedly from Robert Kennedy, really rings true today given the daunting challenges facing our nation's federal, state and local governments – almost all of which are the inevitable consequences of failure by the elected officials preceding us, and in some cases still incumbent, to anticipate or even concern themselves with the long-term consequences of their short-term politically popular decisions.

The result, runaway deficits, financial bubbles, totally unsustainable public pension plans, "cities that had bright futures – now $ millions in the hole" (See page A15 of the January 29-30, 2011 edition of the Wall Street Journal) and threats of federal, state, city and private bankruptcies.

Another quote: "The future ain't what it used to be". (Yogi Berra) AMEN!

The day of reckoning is now – and those in elected positions in our nation's cities and towns are at the bottom of the fiscal food chain as the federal and state governments tax, cut, and claw back funds from local governments. Example: California now is seeking to raise taxes at the state level while redirecting funds from cities, counties and schools to "plug a budget hole" and seizing money that used to go to local governments to "spend the funds on other state priorities".

The simple truths facing us at the local government level are two fold:

  1. the federal and statement governments will seek to rescue themselves at our expense putting us in financial peril, and
  2. there is no way we can - nationally and locally - spend, tax, print, inflate, wish, or pray our way out of the unsustainable debts and unfunded obligations we face. The numbers are just too big – approximately $88+ trillion when one honestly adds up current and projected deficits and unfunded government entitlement obligations. The per capita burden is $270,000 and growing.

The answer lies in Robert Kennedy's quote – we must achieve a new future. We have to face facts, reality and seize the remaining moments, political and fiscal, to focus on what is both important and imperative if we are to define and achieve a future that is truly and realistically achievable and sustainable for our cities and all levels of government, for that matter. This demands an honest assessment and discussion about the challenges we are facing and the will and courage to reset, reshape and renegotiate the public's expectations about what government can honestly deliver. This includes re-proportioning unsustainable debts and obligations to manageable levels either through serious bargaining, bankruptcy or both.

Go to the League of Minnesota Cities' Web site and read The Projected Future of City Budgets through 2025. The key findings in the report are three-fold:

  • "Cities of every size, in every region, will be broke by 2015 if no policy changes are made.
  • "By the year 2025, cities overall would see a deficit of 3.5 percent of city revenues.
  • "Fundamental changes are needed in city services and funding in order for those projections to be avoided."

This is a gigantic wake-up call, one of many resounding throughout the nation. We can act now to "achieve a [sustainable] future: or we can rely on a quote from Adlai Stevenson, "Have you noticed that everyone sees the handwriting on the wall when you ram their face into it?"

I suggest four basic actions:

  1. Discuss openly, candidly and aggressively with all residents, as the League of Minnesota Cities and its members are, the future of city services and how these are to be paid for and delivered. Go to and see a remarkable video about how to initiate these discussions at the community level.
  2. Engage in critical internal assessments about how to reduce costs, increase productivity and prioritize realistically what you can provide and fund in ways of programs and services and then reshape the city organization and budgets accordingly. In short, you may need to reinvent the organization into a streamlined highly productive entity.
  3. Strenuously reject policies and efforts by state governments that imperil your revenues, burden you with unfunded mandates and restrict your authority to negotiate with your residents what they want, and are willing to pay for, from your city government.
  4. Reset, starting now, through redesign, renegotiation, and even more assertive means if necessary, those policies, contracts, etc. that just plain throw you into the jaws of unfunded and unsustainable obligations. You need to stop being the children who are now expected to bear the consequences of the sins of their predecessors.

Unserious responses to the challenges facing our cities, while politically palliating, are faint hearted. We owe those we serve much more. We have an obligation, implied in the oath of office we took, to realize the future to be achieved by the actions we take, the resolve we project and the leadership and stewardship we provide. Think of the "gift" we received from our nation's founders – a gift, to paraphrase Ben Franklin, that was given to us, but only "if we can keep it".

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

About Carl H. Neu

Carl H. Neu writes for MRSC as a Council Commission Advisor.

The views expressed in Advisor columns represent the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of MRSC.