Henrico County’s Path to Resiliency

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Long before the word “resiliency” was associated with well-managed communities, Henrico County, Virginia, began taking steps to expand the margin between the county’s needs and its available resources. Predicated on a foundation of low taxes rates, physically sound structures, and a focus on service, the county began employing strategies to move it beyond mere sustainability and on to become elastic and agile. Initially, the county’s goals were simple: Provide great services without increasing taxes. Over time, though, this push turned into a conscious effort to build a more resilient county.

In 2001, Henrico County was by many standards a sustainable community. It had created five-year plans, prepared for common threats, and had built up financial reserves comparable to those of other communities with similar demographics. Debt levels had been kept low, and revenue estimates were conservative, allowing the county to deliver priority services throughout the recession without incident.
Despite this success, however, the county saw room for improvement. Instead of just preparing itself to endure common threats, the county began taking steps to mitigate the risk of those threats materializing. Fiscal planning grew beyond developing reserves and maintaining low levels of debt, and the county started connecting financing models to the communities’ anticipated needs 20 years in the future. Where the county once stopped at merely prioritizing services, it began building capacity to deliver a continuum of services despite economic downturns.

One of the county’s building blocks of resiliency was the 10-10-10 methodology, which encourages decision makers to consider the impact of their decisions in ten days, ten months, and ten years (although more immediate increments such as ten seconds, ten minutes, and ten hours can also be used to discourage hasty decisions and snap judgments). The approach is fairly simple, but the exercise of subjecting ideas to a formal evaluation process can help decision makers look past the emotional component of decisions and provide evidence to counteract short-sighted, politically motivated decision-making. Taking time to determine the impact of a decision at different points in time can also highlight long-term implications that may come as a surprise even to experts who are well-versed on a given subject.

To help it make the best use of the 10-10-10 methodology, Henrico County developed what it calls a “playlist” of 25-30 indicators such as fund balance levels, real property values, and per capita income. Each indicator reflects to the long-term financial health of the county and can be combined with other indicators to highlight patterns. Each combination of indicators – the playlist – can be viewed in 11-year snapshots to identify trends. When potential issues are identified, a hierarchy of awareness is used to track them and assign resources. These practices, coupled with a well-trained staff and an engaged community, have made longevity, flexibility, and resiliency part of every decision in Henrico County.