Council and the East Gateway Project

Earlier this week, among other topics, Common Council considered additional spending, amounting to hundreds of thousands, for burial of lines underground as part of the two-million-dollar East Gateway project.

City Manager Clapper presented his summary of the benefits of the underground installation, of the alternatives, and his recommendation to spend additionally for the installation. There’s no dispute that there would be benefits; the real question is whether those benefits would be firm and measurable.

I’d say that Council wisely rejected the additional spending. (But then, I opposed any initial spending on the project; Council’s unwillingness to commit another fifteen-percent beyond the more than two million already authorized seems to me both welcome and prudent.)

The discussion about additional spending took place, by my count, for about seventeen minutes, beginning at twenty minutes into the meeting.

Now a few remarks about a principal question that the city faces. Mr. Clapper is intelligent and educated. (If I understand his schooling correctly, he has both an undergraduate and graduate degree from a competitive environment.)

Yet we face a question that pertains, regardless of schooling or intellect: can the advocates of additional spending show reasonably and dependably that there will be a sufficient economic benefit from those incremental expenditures?

It’s true that underground wiring would make the surface look nicer, and that might spur development, might attract businesses, might boost the economy in the years ahead.

What might be, however, is a justification too slender for hundreds of thousands (let alone millions) of spending (of taxes or public debt).

You and I and Mr. Clapper, the community together, would face this question even if there were no universities, no classes, no degrees: Is incremental spending reasonably justified?

All too often, I’d contend, we have pushed ahead without knowing, pushed ahead simply by pretending, hoping against reason, only to find disappointment after the grand headlines turn yellow: failed tax incremental districts and pricey public buildings that struggle even to make their legally-required payments in lieu of taxes.

City Manager Clapper has a decades-long career ahead of him, as do the members of Council, of public committees, and so many others in our city (including even a blogger here or there). We’ll be able to look back a generation from now and see how all this transpires.

It will develop best (as I am sure it will) if we undertake planning and expenditure only after reasonable and thorough estimation of the economic benefit.

I simply don’t think that there was a sufficient justification for additional spending in this case. Better still, as was true here (made possible in part by the city manager’s welcome, matter-of-fact presentation): one can have discussions like this without the sky falling in.

That’s progress.