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Dunedin "strategic plan' could be key to success

Dunedin Commissioner Tom Anderson didn't exactly receive a ringing endorsement a couple of weeks ago when he asked his fellow commissioners to support creation of a strategic plan for Dunedin.

While a couple of commissioners seemed open to the idea, a couple of others thought strategic planning wasn't necessary or might cost too much.

The label "strategic plan" has turned off many a politician, and it also elicits yawns from the public. Both groups want to see things happening now, and the prospect of planning for the future is less than appealing.

But local officials who want to do more than just put out fires should consider strategic planning, a fancy name for a formal method of long-range planning.

According to one expert, strategic planning probably was employed first by the military. In the last couple of decades it has become increasingly popular in U.S. businesses. Many large corporations came to regard it as essential to success, and even small businesses use it. Now a limited number of cities and counties, struggling with changing financial and political circumstances, have adopted it.

Tarpon Springs is among them. That city is developing a plan to create a local economy where businesses thrive, growth occurs and residents enjoy a higher quality of life. Tarpon Springs' approach has been particularly ambitious. It has involved people throughout the community, not just the officials in City Hall, in figuring out what the Tarpon Springs of the future should look like. Through committees, focus groups, surveys and expert help from the University of South Florida, that city actually is trying to carve out a different economic future for itself.

Anderson doesn't want to remake Dunedin's local economy. He just wants to make city government work better. Under his proposal, city officials would decide what local residents want from their government and what major problems face the city, and then develop strategies for dealing with those problems.

Anderson says strategic planning would help focus city commissioners and the city staff on what's really important. The City Commission spends too much time dealing with minutia, he says, and not nearly enough on planning ahead. For example, at a recent meeting the commission spent more than an hour debating whether people should be able to wash their cars on Saturdays, but less than 30 minutes giving direction to the city manager on development of next year's budget, Anderson says.

There are so many important questions that need answers, he says. Among them are how to provide for an increasingly younger city population; which services to cut when the city's income won't pay all the bills anymore; what, if anything, can be done about the declining revenue base; whether to privatize or consolidate some city services; and how to cope with the city's debt service, especially after the city loses the right to concession income at Dunedin Stadium.

Anderson doesn't envision hiring experts to guide the strategic planning process in Dunedin, though he believes the city should at least consult with a few in the early stages. Yet even with such a narrow scope, Anderson's idea didn't win raves from his colleagues. Mayor Manuel Koutsourais and Commissioner Mary Bonner were particularly reluctant to proceed, but Anderson intends to try to convince them again at an upcoming meeting.

If anything, Anderson's proposal is too modest. He suggested involving people outside City Hall in the process only as an afterthought, and still proposes to contact only members of the Chamber of Commerce and city advisory boards.

If the goal of the strategic plan is to figure out what Dunedin city government will be like in the future and how it will serve its customers, then many residents ought to be involved. The plan also needs a schedule for meeting goals and an oversight group to make sure the goals are met on time. That's what sets a strategic plan apart from simple brainstorming.

Just as the wise family plans for a foreseen change in its lifestyle, cities need to plan. America's cities are facing increasing problems. Nothing happening on the national scene today portends any relief. For the sake of its residents, Dunedin needs to be ready.