Faculty Profile

Jack R. Huddleston
July 1, 2005

Jack Huddleston is professor of urban and regional planning and is affiliated with the Gaylord Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He received his Ph.D. in economics from Oklahoma State University and worked as chief economic development planner and chief of local fiscal policy analysis for the State of Wisconsin prior to joining the university. He teaches planning methods and financial planning in the graduate planning program at Madison and is a faculty member in the land resources, water resources management, and energy analysis and policy programs within the Gaylord Nelson Institute. His recent research has focused on applied local government finance issues in the U.S. and the former Soviet Union; energy subsidy schemes in the Dominican Republic and Indonesia; and watershed management and sustainable development in western Mexico.

Land Lines: What do planners need to know about local budgeting, and why?

Jack Huddleston: Planners tend to think narrowly within the boundaries of the functional or physical areas for which they plan. For example, planners charged with preparing and implementing land use plans often are mainly concerned with forecasting land use needs, reconciling land use conflicts, and developing and administering implementation tools such as zoning ordinances. They are not overly concerned with such facts as over the last decade the city’s tax base has been growing at only one percent per year, city spending has been growing by three percent per year, and the city’s bond rating has slipped from Aa to B. The thinking is, “planners plan; others budget.”

Arguably, planners have more impact on the fiscal health of cities and regions than any other civil servant or elected official. They set the path for tax base growth and local government spending patterns far into the future. The things planners do on a daily basis—land use planning, transportation planning, environmental planning, social services planning and so forth—directly affect local government budgets.

When planners approve development on the urban fringe, for example, they have just affected economic conditions throughout the region. Decisions to approve commercial rather than industrial development have similar impacts. The final development project will determine the specific impact on local government revenues and spending, but the decisions made by planners set the direction and relative dimensions of the tax base and local government spending impacts that will occur later. Thus, it is important that planners understand what the local government budget represents, how it is composed, and how it changes over time if they are to understand how their activities affect local budgets.

LL: What kinds of direct impacts can planners have on the community budgeting process?

JH: The local budget serves both existing development, such as current residents, businesses, churches, commuters and visitors, and new development. Public revenues from property, sales and income taxes and user charges from existing activities are relatively stable over time, after adjusting for the impacts of inflation. Similar stability exists for local government spending to support existing activities.

Planners have their greatest impact on local government budgets when they adopt or approve plans for new development. It is here that the dimensions of new tax base growth are determined. It is also here that local government spending patterns are established. Residential development will require new streets and schools; commercial development will require streets, storm water management, and transportation system improvements; and industrial development will require special kinds of fire protection, major shipping services, and so forth. All types of development will involve the exhaustion of excess capacity in existing public infrastructure and require investment in new infrastructure.

LL: How do you get planning board members and planning practitioners to become concerned about and interested in these issues?

JH: There is actually very little need to get planning board members more interested in the fiscal side of planning than they already are. They feel the political pressure to keep taxes low on almost every decision they make. Their concern is largely how to measure the fiscal impacts of their decisions, in terms of both revenues and spending. In addition, they want to know how to evaluate the fiscal impact of their decisions against other goals and constraints, such as economic growth, social justice and fairness, environmental sensitivity, and so forth.

The knowledge/motivation gap for practicing planners is more significant and probably started during their graduate studies and training. Courses dealing with the fiscal side of planning, if available, are often the course taken after all the “useful and fun” courses are completed. After all, planning job listings often announce positions for “land use planners” or “transportation planners,” but few advertise for “financial planners.”

The key to getting practicing planners more interested in the fiscal side of planning is to establish the view that good planning without good finance is largely nonsustainable planning. At the University of Wisconsin-Madison we have included financial planning in the basic toolbox of skills and knowledge we think all planners should command. These skills, which we call intrinsic planning skills, include other tools such as map making, public participation, public speaking and effective communications.

LL: What current trends in local budgeting are relevant to planning goals?

JH: Most of the trends in local budgeting that directly affect attainment of planning goals come from external sources. For example, federal and state governments increasingly are getting out of urban development and redevelopment efforts. The need for such efforts has not diminished and, if anything, has increased, but higher levels of government have decided that such efforts are primarily of local interest. At the same time local governments are being required to fund new programs for efforts such as homeland security and environmental remediation. In general, pressures have been building for ever-increasing spending on the part of local governments.

On the revenue side of the local budget, state statutes limit the amount of revenues that local governments can raise. State governments have preferred reserving the high-yield income tax to fund state government, leaving the property tax as the primary source of funds for local governments. This reliance on the property tax has led to the property tax “revolts” and “restraint movements” that we read about across the country. In general, the sentiment to reduce property tax burdens has led local governments to find alternatives to the property tax, placing more importance on user charges and other locally based financial tools such as tax increment financing.

LL: How can planners address public resistance to property tax increases?

JH: Planners will need to become part planner and part public educator. Citizens value the public goods and services provided by local governments, but they also perceive that the costs of government are getting too high. To some extent there is a disconnect between the value of public goods and services received by local residents and businesses and the need to fund these services. Most of us appreciate the fact that citizenship has a price, but we are more willing to pay when we understand the uses to which public resources are being put and the benefits that will be generated.

This is where the planner as educator comes in. As planners, we often think of our activities as acres of land, dwelling units per acre, traffic flow per hour, or biological oxygen demand of the river [BOD is a measure of water pollution]. These same concepts can be translated into fiscal terms. We need to be able to talk about how various planning activities will affect the local budget, both in the short run and in the long term.

Comprehensive plans, for example, will affect the property tax base of a community for years into the future. Development patterns will affect how cities and regions spend their limited resources over time. Public infrastructure projects not only affect how and when development will take place, but they also place financial commitments on current and future residents. Sustainable development requires that planners be able to anticipate physical, social and financial needs and constraints, and that they are able to communicate these factors convincingly to interested citizens and decision makers.

LL: How is your work with the Lincoln Institute helping to broaden awareness about fiscal planning?

JH: I am working with Roz Greenstein, co-chair of the Institute’s Department of Planning and Development, on an effort to “train the trainers” in the fiscal dimensions of planning. The concept is to assemble leading scholars and practitioners in the fields of public finance and planning in order to develop educational materials that can be used initially in graduate planning programs and subsequently in professional continuing education programs. The materials will cover the basics of municipal budgeting and finance for planners and will stress both how the activities of planners affect local budgets and how local fiscal conditions affect the activities of planners.

The first year of this effort is producing educational materials on the legal and institutional context for local budgets, the intersection between planning and local budgets, the content and process for developing local government operating and capital budgets, property tax administration and policy, fiscal impact analysis and fiscal impacts of development. This material will be presented and discussed in a workshop at the Lincoln Institute in July 2005. Invited participants include senior and junior faculty and professionals from across the U.S. and Canada. This group will not only test the first phase of these materials, but also will develop the agenda for topics to be covered in future sets of materials.

The goal of the overall effort is to increase planners’ understanding of the fiscal dimensions of planning. In concept, participants in the July workshop will be better able to incorporate fiscal thinking into courses at their respective institutions. Educational materials will also be made available to the broader academic community for the same purposes. The Institute’s investment in this important initiative has the potential to enhance planning education in the near term, but more importantly to change the way planning practitioners think about the work they do on an everyday basis.

Related Publication

Venkatesh, Harini. 2004. Local public finance: A glossary. Working paper. Cambridge, MA: Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. http://www.lincolninst.edu/pubs/Pub-Detail.asp?id=982