Local governments respond to resiliency challenges

State and local government leaders are coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic and looking at their investments in infrastructure in ways that not only satisfy their bottom line today, but set them up for the future.

That’s according to panelists at the 2023 National Federation of Municipal Analysts Annual Conference Wednesday, where panelists took the time to detail their experiences ensuring their counties and towns remain resilient in the face of an uncertain future.

“We’ve passed legislation that helps with recurring revenue for some of our work quality issues, for example, for summer infrastructure issues,” said Lisa Black, chief deputy county executive for Suffolk County, New York, which encompasses much of Long Island. “One of the things we leveraged this year is the occupancy tax.”

Suffolk County’s occupancy tax sits at 12%, which is typically split between the county and towns in various ways. But how exactly that tax is spent is what matters, Black said.

“We took the step to say, we will take a percentage and dedicate it to infrastructure and we’re going to build our infrastructure that is recurring because we know people actually want to come visit,” Black said. “We want visitors, we want more than just seasonality of visitors, we want them all year round.”

“If you have your master planning document — your 10 year plans, your 20 year plans — you just need to make sure that you’re adjusting as necessary and if you can improve upon that certainly do so,” Black said.

But increasingly, responding to the needs of the moment also means responding effectively to environmental concerns, which in the example of Jacksonville, Florida, could mean buying out properties most affected by its tributary systems and relocating residents to higher ground.

“In the next five years, keep an eye on Jacksonville, where I think we could be in a real leadership role nationally is in a conversation about voluntary buyouts and how do you do that relocation work,” said Anne Coglianese, chief resiliency officer for Jacksonville. “Unlike a lot of major cities that are vulnerable like Miami or Charleston, we do not have static risk across the entire city.”

Some 40% of the city of Jacksonville is currently developed, and despite the city’s large areas of marsh, it has many options for moving some of those residents who may be forced to relocate for the city to respond effectively.

“If we can identify the places in our county that are ripe for new development, if we can increase density there, what we can sidestep is the one-two punch of if you’re doing a voluntary buyout, you’re losing that taxpayer permanently and that is the case for a Miami or a New York,” Coglianese said. “I’m optimistic that we’ll be able to design some solutions and some financial options for people who are in those high risk areas and that will pair well with the new standards that we’re developing.”

But even responding to some of these problems presents their own challenges. 

University of Michigan Assistant Professor of organizational studies Devon Norris said that one of his students conducted analysis on the Proposal N in Detroit, the program that would sell $250 million in Neighborhood Improvement Bonds that will be used to save 8,000 vacant homes and demolish 8,000 others. The measure would lead to a large increase in lead exposure, he said.

“When we have a sense of what’s going on and how something can be used, we can ask more sophisticated questions in holding governments and issuers accountable for the populations and try to think about ways to align the bond holders and municipal market interest with that of the issuers as well as the residents,” Norris said.