Fighting for Federal Support: Planners Speak Out

Planners Demand Emergency Funding for State, Local Governments

The past several months of the COVID-19 pandemic have pulled financial limitations into sharp focus for many state and local governments. While communities are forced to weigh budget-saving measures for the new fiscal year, planners are fighting to keep their jobs.

As forward-thinking experts with comprehensive knowledge and best practices for creating equitable communities, planners have an essential role to play in the recovery and resilience of communities — especially in times of crisis.

Yet planners and planning-supported services are increasingly being terminated due to lack of funding. This leaves communities without the expertise and resources to continue long-awaited community projects, to plan for the present and future of residents in an equitable way, or even to maintain the struggling local economies during this pandemic.

Now more than ever, state and local governments need flexible federal emergency funding.

APA spoke with planners across the country who are seeing the initial impact of COVID-19 from the front lines. These are their perspectives as told to Emily Pasi and Brenna Donegan of APA's policy staff.

Susan Trevarthen, FAICP

Ft. Lauderdale, Florida

As an attorney-planner at a boutique law firm and AICP Fellow, Susan Trevarthen recognizes the role smart planning must play in the lasting recovery of her community. She writes to Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida about the critical need for flexible resources:

"I am concerned that the combination of skyrocketing costs for local services and plummeting revenues will soon hinder local leaders' ability to protect and maintain important government services and to move toward a recovery that begins with planning.

"It's for these reasons that I urge your support for prioritizing more funding and flexibility for localities of all sizes and states in the next wave of coronavirus relief aid. I also urge you to make sure that such funding can be used for the salaries of community planners and other expenses of planning functions."

Michelle Haynes

Mountain Village, Colorado

Communities with a tourism-based economy have been hit especially hard by the pandemic. By March, the seasonal tourist-driven revenue that Mountain Village, Colorado, depends upon had all but vanished completely due to the state and local shelter-in-place requirements.

Nearly four months later, planner Michelle Haynes paints a picture of how the small resort community has struggled without dependable revenue or federal emergency relief:

"Our county has suffered immensely with unexpected COVID crisis and emergency management. We have little to no revenues to support even the typical budget, much less the pandemic.

"We are particularly concerned about two things: retaining our workforce, and not losing our businesses due to the ongoing financial hardship associated with the COVID pandemic.

"Emergency funding will be paramount to simply maintain our workforce and maintain our businesses because our primary tourist-based revenues are significantly impacted along with additional significant costs to keep our community sanitary and clean."

Eva Vargas, AICP

Shaker Heights, Ohio

"The pandemic has identified weaknesses and opportunities, but without emergency federal funding, the weaknesses will grow and the opportunities will be lost. Local governments were struggling to keep up before the pandemic and are in critical need of immediate federal support to not fall behind."

What planning supported services will be lost without federal funding? Planner Eva Vargas says the ability to prepare for the future of transportation by integrating autonomous vehicles with transit, freight, electric scooters and bikes, traditional bikes, and pedestrians will be severely impacted:

"Many COVID-19 related restrictions have been lifted over the past couple of weeks, and my community is trying to discover what the 'new normal' will be, and what services it can afford within this new normal.

"Without emergency funding for essential planning services, communities may not be able to afford planning or engineering staff and will lose the experience, knowledge, and support that are needed to keep our country productive and prosperous."

Mark Evans, AICP

Glenside, Pennsylvania

"As a consultant planner for downtowns and municipalities all across the Commonwealth, I have seen firsthand how devasted our main streets and their businesses are amidst this pandemic and the economic devastation it has caused," writes Mark Evans, AICP.

"Now, more than ever, we need ... to give funding flexibility to allow Boroughs, Townships, Business Improvement Districts, and Main Street Organizations the funding they need to support small businesses and the critical source of tax revenue they provide to their community."

Evans also writes to Sen. Pat Toomey emphasizing the immediate need for federal relief in counties across the state, and the importance of a relief package that is flexible with how communities can use the resources provided:

"We are currently working in 20 Pennsylvania counties and we have witnessed the need for this funding in rural McKean, Wayne and Schuylkill Counties as well as Central PA and Southeastern PA. Please give these Counties and Municipalities the resources they need to support Main Streets and small businesses under 100 employees."

Krista Lois Colson, aicp

New Orleans

Like many other planners working through the COVID-19 pandemic, Krista Lois Colson, AICP needed to quickly adapt and find new ways to continue serving her community:

"Thankfully, I've been able to continue my valuable work in New Orleans through the pandemic, but I'm not sure how long that will last. I work directly with affordable housing developers to make more units available to our residents. ...

"Since teleworking I've pivoted my primary duties to help disseminate accurate and timely information to our residents about their housing options. I've also kept in touch with developers that are currently under construction to make sure they have what they need to safely continue working."

Though Colson's job looks a little different than it did before the pandemic, she is grateful to have work and proud of all other essential workers who have managed to keep her city and state running during these unprecedented times:

"I'm grateful that I'm still able to continue this work and I think the City and State would be worse off without people like me staying in their current job to provide the same pre-pandemic assistance as well as adopting new methods to help in the pandemic environment."

Tony Palermo, AICP

Ft. Myers, Florida

Tony Palermo remembers how the Fort Myers planning department was drastically cut after the 2008 financial crisis and fears the same will happen again without emergency federal funding now:

"The Planning Division is six persons today — up from three after the great recession. Six persons is a thin enough staff for a growing city — 100,000 potentially. The City took seven years to get to this point. The City also did a lot of retirements, pay and benefit cuts during the last recession just to keep from laying off even more. I don't want to go through that again."

Palermo also recalls working in Lee County during the recession and watching the Community Development staff fall from about 300 to about 130 people.

"The point is, City staff is bare bones now, and if we lost any of these positions, those employees let go, customers and remaining staff would suffer greatly, as would the City. If local governments like ours get left out again for federal relief — we will have to make budget decisions that will impact planning, fire, police, public works, and ALL public services. I pray that does not happen."

Top image: Getty Images photo.

July 8, 2020