The Pacific Ring Initiative uses an informal conversation forum to discuss core local strengths and challenge local leaders to develop a survival plan.
The federal government is running out of money to send down to communities and political entities like public school districts and colleges, said speakers at the April 15 Conversations at the Coffeehouse program.
In the future, the cost for maintenance and rebuilding will rest with local taxpayers and local governments will be faced with the choices of what citizens and students can do without, they said.
Using education as a microcosm for all government entities, one speaker said our country has a long history of what we expect from the government.
Former University of Missouri-St. Louis Chancellor Blanche Touhill said the future of funding for higher education rests on a fundamental question: Who benefits more from an education, the individual or the nation?
Touhill was in Pacific to discuss the role of education funding in local modeling for economic sustainability. The Pacific Ring sponsored the two-hour discussion.
Thomas Johnson, University of Missouri-Columbia agricultural and applied economics professor, was the keynote speaker.
Johnson has spent the past 35 years studying the role that transportation, health care, energy and education play in rural economics.
Touhill said public view of who should pay for education has a deep history in our country, dating back to the Revolutionary War and Civil War when a grateful nation wanted to give war veterans something for their service.
“We had a great deal of land so veterans were given land grants,” Touhill said.
But by the end of World War I, the vast expanses of land were all developed and the country had no land left to give. The veterans were promised bonus checks, which never materialized and created the march on Washington.
At the end of World War II, the government looked at what it could give the returning veterans and decided on a college education.
Thinking that the entire nation would benefit from an educated work force, the government, with wide public support, paid the tuition of veterans who would attend college or university.
By the 1980s, as the separation in pay scale from people who went to college and those who didn’t grew larger, the public began to conclude that it was the individual who benefited most from education so they should foot the bill. Government began to withdraw financial support for higher education and individuals began to borrow, leaving college with huge loans to pay off.
“If society at large benefits from college-educated citizens then government support for higher education makes sense,” Touhill concluded. “But if it is the individual who benefits from higher learning, the cost of education must be borne by him or her.”
As state and federal funds for education shrink to zero, this reduced funding is reaching into K-12 education and local school districts will have to find ways to fund their education programs, the speakers said.
“The cost of K-12 education in Missouri is $7 billion,” according to Jim McHugh, Pacific Ring founder. “That’s equal to the entire state operating budget.”
In the short term, things won’t stay the same for school district funding. The same can be said of fire and ambulance districts.
“The federal government won’t be able to send down the money for new fire trucks and ambulances,” one speaker said.
About 25 individuals attended the discussion, including higher education, regional planning and members of the local civic and business community.
Representing Pacific were Bill McLaren, Chamber president, Steve Flannery III, park board president, and Bob Masson, Clean Cities board member.
McHugh said he hoped elected officials, including school board members, would join future discussions on ways to survive as funding sources shrink.
“At the local level, we need a school district survival plan,” McHugh said. “We can’t wait until the lack of funding overtakes us.”
The same can be said of local fire and ambulance districts, he said.
Flannery asked what role funding for recreation might play in a regional economic development plan.
“Will there be funds left for recreation?” Flannery asked.
Johnson said the things that allow people to have fun, or make them feel good, are basic to local culture and have to be part of any plan that can sustain itself.
McHugh and the Pacific Ring started the Conversations at the Coffeehouse to create a discussion about local solutions to national problems.
“We have to get the community thinking about these things,” McHugh said.
For local political entities, survival rests on what to cut from the budget and those questions need to be agreed on by the widest spectrum of the community, the speakers said.
Johnson, who has worked with communities in Ireland and Canada that were trying to devise sustainable funding streams, said local communities have to play to their core strengths.
In all areas but one, Johnson said, each community is unique. The one universal economic factor around the globe is tourism. Other economic opportunities vary from place to place.
Pacific is already moving in the direction of self-analysis, said Steve Nagle, East-West Gateway Council community planning director.
“Cooperation among civic leaders is beginning to shape things here,” Nagle said. “The work of the Pacific Ring is one of the elements, but local leaders are also looking to each other for support of local programs.”
The Pacific Ring, founded to develop a model sustainable community within a seven mile radius from downtown Pacific, has brought higher education expertise to Pacific to discuss flood mitigation, alternative fuels, education and economic recovery.
For more information about future Pacific Ring meetings, contact McHugh at 314-265-9982.