“Comprehensive Planning” that ignores taxing and public spending is neither comprehensive nor planning


The words we use to talk about something shape how we think about it. Sometimes what we call things has more to do with aspirations and public relations than observation and description. Such as with our local “comprehensive plans,” which are now being updated across Thurston County as part of the “Thurston 2045” update cycle.

Just as Voltaire famously wrote that “The Holy Roman Empire was neither Holy nor Roman, nor an Empire,” it is fair to say that the comprehensive planning process in Thurston County is neither comprehensive nor does it result in plans.

At most, the plan (the current version of which is available here) is little more than a kind of nerdy, technocratic political party platform, where each competing local interest group applies political pressure to get its desired buzzwords and phrases used in the “planks” that make up the final “party platform.”

Nobody ever tries to total up the costs of the plan or the so-called goals and compare them to the resources we’re likely to have. Even less does anyone ever add up the demands on county residents holistically, to see if all the plans and budgets from all the various special and local districts can be funded with the resources available. There’s no plan in our plans, in other words. 

What’s missing from our plans are both dollars and sense. Dollars because our so-called plans (which are really just wordy lists of notions) are castles in the air, with no recognition of the estimated dollar costs needed to pay for the services implied by each growth and development option.

Nor do our plans show any sense, as in a sense of limits or a sense of contradictions across the chapters (such as always having ample buildable commercial land, while preserving natural resource lands). Our current plan has chapters that seem to be in blissful ignorance of every other chapter, little more than wish lists by category, with obvious nods to the various pressure groups (such as developers and speculators, current residents eager to limit housing supply, commercial real estate interests, etc.) who lobby the planners and consultants during the process. Bundling these little disconnected wish lists together and calling it a comp plan doesn’t make it so.

Essentially, what we call “comp plans” today – lengthy visions totally unconstrained by taxing and spending limitations -- qualify as planning about as well as my announced plans to be an oceanographer qualified as career planning – when I was a wee lad in Dallas, Texas, who had never seen an ocean or a boat.

We need and should have a real comp plan to guide us. A real comp plan starts by carefully assessing our current fiscal position – our income and outgo – and would tell us what we are spending to serve each parcel today, along with how much we would have to spend for each proposed land use change, and the benefits for each. Not every parcel in the county has to be net tax revenue positive – but when the county as a whole is not, we have a problem.

We need a plan to become more and more fiscally healthy as we move towards our goals; without dollars and sense in our plans, we’re just playing “pin the tail on the donkey” and hoping for the best.

Accomplishing any of our non-financial hopes for this place requires that we have a solid financial foundation. And having a solid financial foundation means knowing, for each county parcel, how much we spend to serve that parcel now, what alternative uses would cost and would generate in tax revenue, and what liabilities each proposed use will impose on us for generations to come. There are many projects that are cash flow positive in the short term, but that ultimately make us poorer and poorer, consuming revenue we need for the services we all demand – the schools, the parks, the roadways, the water treatment services, and so on and on and on.

Ultimately, as members of a joint venture (our county), we live on a budget. The land in Thurston County is the source of all our shared wealth – we depend on property taxes, and so we have to incorporate property tax revenues into all our plans or else they are simply idle wish lists. We need to ensure that every new land use and every new development proposal is vetted carefully to identify how much future liability is being put onto the public purse by the development and ensure that we avoid development that ends up making us fiscally weaker instead of stronger.

All signs point to a sharp increase in population in Thurston County between now and 2045. That’s pretty much a given – so the question is whether we are going to continue turning the crank on a paper exercise to produce another edition of a “plan” that has supposedly been guiding us to date, but which has actually helped propel us to a Dickensian “tale of two counties” situation:  a smaller and smaller populace of well-to-do folks enjoying life amidst a growing cohort of people suffering from a crippling housing shortage, skyrocketing rents, food insecurity, and deaths of despair.

If we want a better future than that, it starts with actual planning, and planning starts with scrupulously honest and frank accounting and serious work of seeing where the money goes. Any “comp plan” that doesn’t show the annual costs of the public services to support the maps and a comparison to expected public revenue fails to provide that honest accounting.

Get involved. Contact the County Commissioners and demand that the county – our shared corporation – produce a real business plan for the 2045 update, with dollars, and with the sense of limits. If enough of us say we want a real plan rather than an expensive paper exercise that doesn’t actually guide anything, we can make a significant difference.

          ~ John Gear, Olympia

The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not necessarily those of  The JOLT's staff or board of directors.  Got something to say about a topic of interest to Thurston County residents? Send it to us and we’ll most likely publish it. See the Contribute your news button at the top of every page.