I thought growth was good

Here’s some musings about the state of our city, circa 2011:

  • Fayette County’s population  grew by 11.6 percent, which means the city added 30,802 people from 2000 to 2010. Lexington’s population is 295,803.
  • In 2011, Lexington faces a $25 million budget shortfall to provide the services we’d like to have for a city this size.
  • In 2000, the annual metro unemployment rate was 3.0%.
  • In January 2011, the metro unemployment rate was 9.4%.  Over 22,800 people in the region are unemployed, or approximately the size of Woodford County’s entire population.

From 1999-2009 (the latest year available) things weren’t so rosy for many Lexingtonians:

  • In that time, the overall poverty rate jumped from 11.1% to 17.4% – an increase of 56.8%.
  • In that time, the poverty rate for children under the age of 17 jumped from 15.7% to 19.9% – an increase of 26.8%.
  • In that time, median household income increased from $39,388 to $46,386 – an increase of 17.8%.
  • YET, during that time, the consumer price index rose 28.3%.  Thus, household incomes did not keep pace with inflation – effectively meaning that Lexingtonians were poorer in real terms at the end of the decade than we were at the beginning.

It’s not just here:

  • The story is the same in high growth places elsewhere.  Georgetown/Scott County is home to  Toyota and the huge payroll taxes it generates. Yet, times there are very difficult for local governments.
  • From the Herald Leader:  Scott County saw its head count grow by 43.6%. Trouble is, the soured economy means Scott County revenues have declined during the last three years by 28 percent, Judge-Executive George Lusby said. “That creates major issues because you’ve still got to provide the services,” Lusby said.
  • Georgetown Mayor Varney recently said the same thing in the Courier Journal:  Georgetown’s fortunes have fallen along with sales losses at Toyota, with a municipal budget that includes $8 million less in payroll and corporate net profit tax contributions than in 2005, Varney said.

So here we have what should be the most successful regional governments struggling greatly.

I thought growth was good.

We have decades of data now to show us that exponential population growth is not beneficial to a community government or a majority of its residents.

But we are on the treadmill, so what are we going to do? Chase more growth, of course.  We hear it all the time:  “we need more growth so that we can fix our problems.”

Still, it appears that no one in responsible positions has yet had the epiphany that it was growth that caused the problems in the first place.

Locally, we can’t grow our way out of economic troubles any more than we can borrow our way of debt troubles.

One of Lexington’s city planning leaders recently said about the way they think about the future of our city:  “we will continue to experience growth in population.” The implication was that we thus should always be planning for an increase in population.

Here’s a radical idea, just for fun:  what if we started on a 25 year plan to stabilize our population at today’s level?  What if we even set a lower target?   The goal would be to balance our ability to provide services to an optimum population.  We would get off the boom and bust cycles and have stability, which would perhaps be the best possible condition.

The counter arguments are those that say, “this is a free country, who are we to tell people where they can’t live”…or “if we did that, Lexington would become nothing but an enclave for the richest among us, and the rest would spread across the region”….or “do we really want to get into the business of peaking into homes to see who is living there?”….or “a stable population would mean that we will not add new jobs, thus keeping down wages…”

It also may be that the coming crash of the global economy will be the reset we need to get off the treadmill.

There are no easy answers to the paradox and dilemma of growth.

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