The way we fund and build city infrastructure is outdated and unsustainable, and officials need to reexamine the proposed path forward before we spend ourselves into a fiscal abyss, according to the head of a Minnesota-based nonprofit who's given presentations across the country.
Next week, Charles Marohn will bring his message to York.
"We're basically looking to start a local conversation," Marohn said, "one we hope will continue long after we're gone."
Marohn is the executive director of Strong Towns, which will host a "Curbside Chat" from 7 to 9 p.m. on Wednesday. The event will be held at the York County Heritage Trust, 250 E. Market St.
Marohn said cities frequently spend too much for too little return in funding infrastructure and other capital projects. The current system, which he traces back to the post-World War II era, relies too heavily on government taking on debt, he said.
In most cases, it's no longer practical to exchange long-term financial obligations for short-term project cash, said Marohn, who on his website likens the practice to a Ponzi scheme.
Curbside chats aim to educate people, Marohn said, through examples and case studies.
"We end up showing people that what they believe is happening is actually not," he said. "They (officials and planners) are just digging the hole deeper and making things worse for cities financially."
Marohn said the upcoming York visit, part of a 12-stop series of chats in Pennsylvania, came after a previous presentation in Chester, Pa. There, Marohn dissected a $77 million project for interstate access ramps, showing it was money spent inefficiently, he said.
Strong Towns was subsequently contacted by Pennsylvanians who wanted to hear more, he said, adding the trip will be funded by donations.
Kevin Schreiber, the city's director of economic development, said Strong Towns seems to represent "a sympathetic ear," preaching some of the same themes coming out of his department.
A dwindling tax base and the struggle to fund projects through property tax revenue continue to be significant hurdles, Schreiber said, and state-level incentives to build are also drying up.
"If these guys have new concepts or best practices, we're all ears," he said.
Several city council members said they were invited to the event. Councilman Michael Helfrich said he will attend, and added the issue is an important one.
"I'm always interested in finding out what has worked in other places," he said via email.
Marohn, a Minnesota native and a civil engineer by trade, started Strong Towns several years ago and has since traveled all over the country. He said Pennsylvania appears to have an excess of "bureaucratic inertia," making it hard to bring change in the Commonwealth.
"The tail has wagged the dog for a long time, I think," he said.
Marohn said new development must center on projects with a higher return on investment.
The way forward, he said, is through education and open discussion.
"We're not coming to sell or ask for anything and we don't have a political agenda," he said. "We just want to share this message."
If you go
What: Strong Towns "Curbside Chat" in York
When: 7-9 p.m. on Wednesday
Where: York County Heritage Trust, 250 E. Market St.
Info: For more, visit www.strongtowns.org