Category Archives: Local Government

File Under “It’s Who You Know”…

Oligarchies work really well if you are one of the oligarchs. The Indianapolis Star recently re-engaged in something that used to be called “journalism,” and reported that the State of Indiana had intentionally misused federal funds during the Daniels Administration.

Federal auditors say Indiana intentionally misused federal funds when one of its contractors, operating with little state oversight, funneled nearly a half million dollars to a start-up business run by the nonprofit’s chairman.

Elevate Ventures, which was the subject of an Indianapolis Star investigation last year, was hired by the state to manage millions of dollars in state and federal investment funds. The federal audit concluded that the nonprofit should not have awarded $499,986 in federal cash to a start-up business called Smarter Remarketer managed by the firm’s chairman, Howard Bates.

The article was thorough, and drew a pretty damaging picture of the games being played with our tax dollars. State officials, of course, denied any intentional wrongdoing and attributed the “problem” to inadequate oversight.

Spoiler alert: I will now go into “broken record” mode. For the past quarter-century, citizens have been told that government can’t do anything by itself, and that privatizing–”contracting out”–is the way to deliver government services. Sometimes contracting makes good sense. Often, it doesn’t. See here and here.

 

When contracting is appropriate, government remains responsible for oversight and management. Even if the scam detailed by the Star wasn’t a case of cronyism (and if you believe that, I have a great bridge to sell you…), it points to one of the dangers of  contracting: government officials who lack either the will or the expertise to manage those contracts adequately.

 

Of course, the article suggests that the folks responsible for overseeing Elevate Ventures weren’t inept. They were cozy.

 

 

Ah, oligarchy….

Mortgaging Our Civic Future

You’d think Indianapolis lawmakers might have learned something from the Goldsmith Administration. (For those of you new to Indy or too young to recall, Goldsmith was blessed with a growing national economy and low interest rates, and he was able to avoid raising taxes by using the municipal credit card–refinancing everything in sight, and incurring lots of additional debt, all of which  we’re still paying off. )

The lesson isn’t that cities should never incur debt. There are all sorts of reasons–good reasons–to bond for civic improvements. Think bridges, sewer systems, public buildings. As with so many issues in public administration, the issue isn’t whether to do something, it is under what circumstances and how.

Right now, the Mayor and Council are arguing about the Mayor’s proposal to issue thirty-year bonds for “Rebuild Indy II.”  The City–that’s us, the taxpayers–would essentially be taking out a 30-year mortgage on an asset with at most a 10 year life.

That is profoundly stupid.

Think about your house. You may have a loan with a twenty or thirty year term, but at the end of that period, the house will be yours and it will still be standing. If historical trends persist, and you’ve taken care of it, the house will be worth more than you paid for it. That mortgage was for an investment, and it made sense.

Would you take out a 30-year loan to purchase a tent? How about a car? Why not? Because the tent and the car depreciate. Those aren’t investments, they are consumer goods.

Paving city streets is maintenance.

Do our streets need paving? Are you kidding? Of course. Should tax dollars pay for that maintenance? Absolutely.

But a 30-year loan for maintenance that has to be redone every few years?

That’s like taking out a mortgage to pay the plumber for fixing your toilet.

City Housework is Dull, But Really Important

No one likes housework. I grumble when I change sheets ; sweeping is a chore. But like all–okay, most–humans who inhabit a built environment (aka a “house”), I know that failure to tend to these mundane tasks will eventually make my home unlivable or dangerous or both.

What is true for houses is true for cities. I realize that the everyday tasks of running a city–cleaning and paving streets, tending to parks, dealing with budgets and myriad other necessary chores–aren’t the fun parts of being a Mayor. But that doesn’t make them less important.

One of my persistent gripes with the Ballard Administration is its neglect of the essential housekeeping tasks that keep a city livable. To be fair, some of those tasks are assigned to municipal corporations like the Health and Hospital Corporation, but those corporations are part of city government, and citizens have a legitimate right to expect the city administration to monitor their performance and ensure that they are doing their job–especially  when public safety is at risk.

That isn’t getting done.

Case in point: We own a property–a double–across from Brookside park. Several weeks ago, a really bad fire destroyed the house immediately east of that double.  You can see through what is still standing.   The remaining roof and sidewalls are clearly dangerous, and burned timbers lie haphazardly on what was the front porch.

It’s very dangerous. And it is still unsecured, weeks after the fire, and despite repeated calls to Health and Hospital. If neighborhood children decided to play in it–or if a homeless person tried to squat there– the likely consequences would be serious.

When I was in City Hall, promptly securing such properties was a high priority. (So was Code Enforcement, which by the looks of several neighborhoods is currently nonexistent.) Money isn’t a problem–a lien against the property secures repayment of amounts spent to make the premises safe.

I understand that things like weed control, securing abandoned properties, and managing city services is anything but glamorous. I’m sure it’s much more fun to bid for a Super Bowl or build a cricket stadium. But there is no excuse for ignoring the boring, necessary work of managing the various agencies that are needed to run a city.

I know that when Mayor Ballard announced that his administration would make “public safety number one” he was thinking of crime. But securing dangerous structures is also a public safety issue.

He’s batting zero on that one, too.

 

 

Is That a Cricket Chirping?

It appears that Indianapolis won’t be hosting the World Cricket Championships. Try not to look too shocked.

The announcement certainly didn’t come as a surprise to anyone even remotely aware of the history of and controversies surrounding the sponsoring organization.  (City-County Counselor Zach Adams noted that he had predicted problems “because I can google.”)

The real problem, however, is not that a city with severe budgetary problems spent six million dollars on a cricket field (not to mention staff time and resources plugging and planning a pie-in-the-sky event), unwise as many of us found that to be. The problem is that this Administration routinely elevates hype over substance. The cricket field is simply a handy example of misplaced priorities and poor management.

Should the Mayor’s office have done due diligence before trumpeting this event? Sure. But the lack of competent management that this episode highlights goes far beyond one embarrassingly public screw-up.

Indianapolis used to be a safe city; we are now on track to be a Midwest murder capital.

We used to sweep the streets in the Mile Square every day; now we not only don’t sweep them, we can only keep them paved by selling off city assets and turning utility ratepayers into property taxpayers.

We can’t even manage our own parking meters, so well-connected vendors get to pocket money that  would otherwise be available for public services.

Our parks are poorly maintained, despite periodic infusions of cash from Lilly Endowment. From the looks of abandoned houses and overgrown lots, code enforcement is nonexistent.

The lack of transparency in the Mayor’s office is so pronounced, the City-County Council has had to sue the Mayor to get access to contracts to which the city they govern is party.

When the legislature debates bills affecting Indianapolis, the Mayor is absent from the Statehouse– perhaps on one of his  frequent “economic development” trips.

I could go on but you all know the drill.

Leadership in Indianapolis is anything but “cricket.”

 

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.