Ep #25: Municipal borrowing – is rising debt a problem in your community?

Rethinking with Alex Torpey
Rethinking with Alex Torpey
Ep #25: Municipal borrowing - is rising debt a problem in your community?

While millions of Americans are in debt or behind on high-interest credit card payments, many trillions of dollars is owed by governments at various levels for money they have already borrowed. At the same time, we know that debt can be a way to way build wealth, or it can help more fairly finance important large-scale public investments. So…Is debt good or bad?

Like almost everything, the answer is more nuanced; it depends on a number of factors, such as whether that money is being borrowed as part of a larger strategic plan that identifies and makes available for public inspection and discussion things such as:
– The total amount that has already been borrowed and associated debt service payments, overall and per taxpayer
– The long term plan for how that government (The local taxpayers) will afford to make the payments for the life of the loan
– What other long-term financial commitments exist, and how those will be paid for (a comprehensive capital plan), and what the priority order of those projects are.

But based on my experience in local government, these kinds of details are not always part of the discussion, and with responsibility shared among several stakeholders, some towns and cities end up borrowing more than they realize, or in worse cases, the public being intentionally misled by those with differing motives. This can happen easily.

For example, this graphic below shows five years of bond ordinances in one of the towns I worked in as the administrator. There was no document that reconciled all of the spending in one place for the Governing Body or public to view. I created this in 2019. In blue is the cost of each ordinance. In red is total debt authorized, meaning, the cumulative total of each bond ordinance. Most people are surprised when they see how much the smaller seeming amounts (blue) add up to to larger amount (red). The more you know!

In this episode, I give an ultra-simple overview of how local government budgeting works, and then discuss several of the consequences of what happens when what I call “runaway ad-hoc borrowing” occurs, some reasons I’ve noticed why we might see this happen, and a few things we can each do about it to help encourage transparent, strategic borrowing. Borrowing that enables communities to harness the power of credit/debt to make responsible investments that help improve their present and futures, rather than burdening future generations with inaffordability, misleading people about the cost of government’s, or not paying for important community investments such that more money will be eventually be needed.

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Join former mayor, municipal manager, professor, consultant Alex Torpey for a new episode of Rethinking where we discuss dynamics around debt from (local) government borrowing.

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Hosted by
Alex Torpey

From serving as mayor (non party affiliated) of his hometown of South Orange at age 23, a municipal business administrator, founder of a digital consulting firm, an emergency management director and volunteer EMT, and as a graduate level adjunct professor, management consultant, mentor and speaker, Alex Torpey brings together his uniquely diverse experiences to help provide us a platform to rethink the future of our communities, our republic, and ourselves.

Instagram feed @alextorpey

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