Including master plans in the budget process

A community’s master plan is a good document to identify community priorities. Well-written plans have strong public participation components and a longer term perspective.

Master plans are long range planning documents (generally 20 years) that are designed to help communities define their community vision. It is an opportunity for cities, villages, and townships to think about the type of community they would like to become and to take strategic actions and efforts to realize that vision. These plans are reviewed every five years per state enabling legislation to ensure that they remain relevant and to make adjustments when conditions in the community change in a manner not consistent with the plan. For instance, the plan may call for low commercial development in a district that is rapidly developing multi-family housing instead.

Master plans analyze a tremendous amount of data related to population, recreation, open space, land use, transportation and public utilities. The 2006 Planning Enabling Act states that plans should be “coordinated, adjusted, harmonious, efficient and economical”. Their overall purpose is grounded in the promotion of public health, safety and welfare. However, too many communities see their master plan as primarily a planning document, separate from their annual budgeting processes.

In communities where I have worked as a professional planner from Michigan State University Extension, I have never participated in a budget discussion that discussed the master plan as a part of the budget approval process. Master plans seem to be included in such discussions when there is a need to update the plan and funds are allocated for such an effort. However, these plans review a great deal of community data and involve public participation from the community to identify key priorities.

When communities fail to connect their plans to their budget processes, they miss a golden opportunity to move their respective local units of government closer to a desired community vision. One particular example comes to mind. I worked in a community that wanted to create a more vibrant downtown. Their master plan called for any new municipal buildings to be constructed in the downtown area in order to create a more vibrant district. When this particular city had an opportunity to establish a new city hall, they selected a building outside of the downtown area. Their action actually weakened their efforts to create a more vibrant downtown.

These are the types of disconnects that can occur when master plan priorities are not included in the budgetary actions. Funds used to help establish the new city hall could have been used to support development within the downtown district. Scare local resources require local communities to be very frugal with their limited funds. Master plans can play a critical role in helping to identify community priorities. 

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