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Albany City Hall (copy) (copy)

Albany City Hall

The members of the Albany City Council this week heard a pitch from a city staff member who urged the councilors to take a long look at long-range planning.

It's a pitch the council needs to carefully consider, even in the midst of tight budget times. 

Jeff Blaine, who runs the city's Public Works, Engineering and Community Development operations, briefed the council at Monday's work session.

The numbers support Blaine's plea to devote additional city resources to long-range planning: The latest estimates from Portland State University's Population Research Center suggest that Albany (and the mid-valley in general) will be magnets for population growth for the next half-century.

The center's population estimate for Albany as of July 1, 2018 was 53,145. 

The center estimates that by 2035, the city's population could reach 68,000. That's barely 15 years from now.

And look down the road further: By 2067, not quite 50 years from today, the center believes Albany could have slightly more than 90,000 inhabitants.

That raises a batch of questions, Blaine told the council, and he rattled off just a few: Where are these additional people going to live? "Where are they going to work? How are we going to serve them with schools and police and fire and water and sewer and transportation facilities?"

Blaine was making the case that the city and the council need to earmark the resources to focus on long-range planning. Albany city government used to have a planner whose job it was to focus on that long-range horizon, but the position was cut during the Great Recession and hasn't returned. In fact, Blaine said, the last significant conversation in the city about long-range planning took place in 2013. And the sorts of studies that might be necessary to move forward with any plan to expand the city's urban growth boundary (an issue that could be critical in dealing with population growth) have gathered plenty of dust: They were last completed 15 years ago.

It's not hard to understand why long-range planning consistently takes a back seat in government: Even though the economy in Oregon has sputtered back to life since the recession, it's not as if local governments are flush with cash. And it's just normal for councilors and other local governments to focus on immediate needs and delay serious thought about what might be required in the future. As one local official told us: "People just don't like planning. ... The tyranny of the present takes over." (Of course, this phenomenon isn't at all limited to the private sector; look how few Americans have the savings even to cope with an unexpected expense or financial bump.)

So this reluctance to think about the future is understandable. But it's not particularly wise. 

In the case of Albany, let's say city leaders do nothing in particular to prepare for those additional 15,000 souls who might be coming here over the course of the next 15 years. That failure won't do anything to stop any of those people from putting down roots here. It just will mean that when they get here, we'll be unprepared for the influx.

Blaine told the council that he was taking advantage of vacancy savings to get some work underway, and compared that process (appropriately) to scrounging underneath the couch cushions to find spare change. He also said it was possible that grants could pay for some of the work — and noted, presumably without a trace of irony, that these grants could be available in part because the city's previous studies are gathering moss.

That might do to get the ball rolling again, but to seriously plan for the future will require a more substantial investment — and that's something councilors need to give serious thought to during this budgeting season. Councilors are within their rights to ask questions about the costs of these studies. But that price tag will pale next to the costs we'll pay if we don't start this work now. (mm)

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