Category Archives: Local Government

Back Home in Whose Indiana?

Two articles have come across my laptop screen in the past week that reminded me of the old observation that what you see depends on where you sit.

Morton Marcus’ “Eye on the Pie” column stuck basically to statistics, sharing data that suggests our state is not faring well economically. Private sector jobs remain stubbornly below pre-recession levels, despite growth in population; and although wages are up, they aren’t up enough to have kept pace with inflation, so real wages (buying power) actually declined in all but five metropolitan areas.

The result is that the average Hoosier has $30 less a week than she had six years ago.

The job picture is similarly uneven.  Elkhart-Goshen has lost 8.8% or 10,600 jobs; Michigan City-LaPorte is off 4,400 jobs, or 11.2%.

In the Northwest Indiana Times, Rick James focused on the contrast between Indiana lawmakers’ solicitude for business and our abysmal social safety record.  Indiana is 45th among the states in infant mortality–more babies die here before their first birthday than in 44 other states. Public school teachers have been under relentless attack for deficiencies in our education system, despite the fact that our problems are systemic, complex and frequently exacerbated by clueless ideologues at the statehouse.

As James notes,

“Pence can boast about the business climate. He can also talk about the $2 billion the state has in the bank while babies are dying, roads are crumbling and schools are cutting staff and programs because of lack of funding. That, my friends, is Honest to Goodness Indiana.”

The evidence demonstrates rather forcefully that being a low-tax, “right to work” state has failed to create jobs or contribute to prosperity. To the contrary, our obsession with tax-cutting has degraded the quality of life that–according to research–is what actually attracts new businesses and residents.

Meanwhile, our political spin-doctors continue their “happy talk.”

I don’t know what state the administration flacks who issue those glowing media releases live in, but the rest of us would sure appreciate getting directions to that Indiana.

Don’t Say You Weren’t Warned

Yesterday’s IBJ had an article about an all-electric car sharing program being promoted by Mayor Ballard.

I like the car-sharing idea a lot. However, as the article noted, the biggest expense of launching it will be what the city will have to pay ParkIndy–the private consortium that manages the city’s parking meters.

Our “deal” with the vendor, if you will recall, requires the city to pay the contractor every time we take a parking meter out of service, either permanently or temporarily. The city has already had to fork over a considerable amount to compensate the vendor for temporary blocking of curb lanes due to construction projects.

The vehicles and charging stations for the car-sharing program will take space currently occupied by parking meters. When the car-sharing program is fully implemented, the IBJ reports that the city will have paid ParkIndy 16.9 million dollars in order to use our own curb lanes.

That hurdle may doom the project.

There were two major objections to outsourcing the city’s parking infrastructure: 1) the private operator’s profit significantly reduces the amount the city could have realized had it managed its own meters; and 2) there would be unanticipated costs and problems associated with giving up control of the city’s curb lanes.

I see chickens coming home to roost.

Been There, Done That, It’s Not Quite So Simple….

In a recent post to Inforefront.comChris Cotterill plows some well-tilled ground, essentially pooh-poohing the notion that cities and towns need more taxing authority in order to provide a decent level of municipal services.

We just need to do more with less. It’s a tired trope.

Some of his recommendations are reasonable–consolidated purchasing and maintenance operations, for example. Some aren’t: outsourcing or outright sale of city functions (the “holy grail” of those who believe that the private sector can provide services more efficiently no matter what the nature of the service–a belief not supported by the evidence); a hiring freeze (several city departments are already headed for “decimated” status), the exclusion of spouses from healthcare coverage (you think it’s hard to get good employees now?), and outsourcing operations of golf courses (because that worked so well during the Goldsmith Administration).

These recommendations have been around–and many of them implemented–since I served in the Hudnut Administration. The problem is, even if they all worked as Cotterill thinks they would, they wouldn’t begin to generate savings sufficient to address the problems we face.

Of course, there are some major improvements that might generate substantial savings–although they didn’t make Cotterill’s list. The Kernan-Shepard report identified the incredibly wasteful Trustee system; and I’ve argued before for consolidation of the eleven school districts in Marion County that collectively serve fewer students than IPS used to enroll. Unfortunately, we not only lack the political will to make those changes, our antiquated taxing system–with its dedicated funds–wouldn’t allow those savings to be used where they are most needed.

Should government services be delivered efficiently? Of course. Are some local government priorities misguided? Yep. Will addressing either of those issues solve the very real problems facing our underfunded local government units? In your dreams.

Mayor Ballard defended the recent deal with the Pacers by pointing out that the money going to the CIB can’t be used for other things, like police. That’s true–and it’s a far bigger problem than a lack of consolidated purchasing.

We need meaningful home rule, and the ability to allocate tax revenues to our most pressing problems. Giving local government actual authority over its own decisions would also improve transparency and allow citizens to hold local lawmakers accountable.

Of course, our arrogant overlords at the General Assembly are unlikely to agree.

Corruption Comes in Many Flavors

One of the elements of the recent McCutcheon decision that has had many lawyers shaking their heads is the majority’s airy dismissal of concerns about the many ways dollars corrupt the system.

The majority limited the definition of corruption to the receipt of a quid pro quo.

Now, obviously, the exchange of money for a legislator’s vote is a corrupt act. It is also illegal. The majority seems to believe that only such blatant and illegal acts–outright bribes–are unethical.

If that cramped understanding of the ethical obligations of citizens and public servants carries the day, it won’t take long until we inhabit a society that has lost whatever is left of its moral center.

Let’s look at a couple of examples that are currently playing locally.

State Representative Eric Turner is currently being investigated for working feverishly behind the scenes to derail a law that would have hurt his son’s nursing home business. (According to the Indianapolis Star last Sunday, Turner also had significant personal investments that would have been negatively affected by the legislation.) If the allegations are proven, Turner is probably guilty of breaking a law, although that isn’t entirely clear–but even if his behavior didn’t actually violate a statute, is there any doubt that such actions were unethical?

Then there’s the smoke alarm ordinance that I blogged about awhile back. Counselor Scales (who seems to be the only City-County Counselor at all concerned about the fact that it would hand one vendor a probable monopoly) asked for and received an opinion from legal counsel. She was told that an offer–a quid pro quo, actually–that didn’t enrich anyone personally isn’t a violation of the City’s ethics ordinance.

If you’ll recall, the ordinance would require property owners to purchase smoke alarms with non-removable, non-replaceable “sealed” batteries with a ten-year life.  The company that manufactures those alarms, and would benefit from the requirement, promised IFD “free smoke detectors, payment for TV and radio public-service announcements, press events and donations to IFD-favored charities” in exchange for IFD’s support for the ordinance.

No firefighter was bribed, but the department would certainly benefit from the “generosity” of the vendor–and needless to say, the vendor would benefit financially from passage of that ordinance. IFD didn’t solicit “bids” and didn’t give other smoke alarm companies an opportunity to match the “gifts.” That said, no law was broken. The Ethics ordinance wasn’t violated.

The McCutcheon majority would dismiss these–and countless similar examples–as mere persuasion. Free speech. The prerogative of those who are engaged in commerce.

The fact that such behaviors take place behind closed doors is a pretty good indication that the people involved know that such activities–legal or not–aren’t kosher. Legal doesn’t equal ethical, no matter how disconnected from reality the Court’s majority remains.

An Ethics Question

In yesterday’s Star, Matt Tully reminded readers of a longstanding problem in the Indiana General Assembly–the multiple conflicts of interest that influence lawmaking in the Hoosier state, and the disinclination to do anything about it.

In fact, if quotes from state lawmakers are any indication, we’ve elected a fair number of people who wouldn’t recognize a conflict if it bit them on the you-know-what.

City government is evidently not exempt from that problem.

City-County Councilor Christine Scales has raised an question about the ethics of a proposal that certainly deserves more consideration than it has gotten thus far: a pending ordinance would require property owners to purchase smoke alarms with non-removable, non-replaceable “sealed” batteries with a ten-year life. On the surface, this is a reasonable safety measure, since many homeowners fail to replace shorter-lived batteries, and are thus unprotected if a fire occurs.

However, according to Counselor Scales, not only are the smoke alarms in question relatively expensive, the technology that would be required by the ordinance (a) has some safety issues of its own, which have been the subject of previous televised investigative reports; and (b) is proprietary to one company, which means the ordinance would have the effect of giving that company a monopoly on sales in Indianapolis. It further appears that the company in question has promised IFD “free smoke detectors, payment for TV and radio public-service announcements, press events and donations to IFD-favored charities” in exchange for IFD’s support for the ordinance.

I know absolutely nothing about smoke alarm technology. Perhaps the Councilor’s safety concerns are unfounded. But the ethics questions she raises are troubling and entirely legitimate, and deserve airing, and they aren’t being addressed. Instead, she reports that her questions have been met with stonewalling and silence.

Is Marion County proposing to hand a manufacturer a monopoly in return for a quid pro quo?