Excuse the title of this post, but I just read the lead story in the Indianapolis Star about Litebox–the company that was showered with praise and promises of tax breaks just yesterday by both Mayor Ballard and Governor Daniels.

In my post yesterday, I questioned whether the obviously strange owner had been adequately vetted. Today’s news makes it abundantly clear that the answer is no. In fact, today’s story makes it clear that the company and its proprietor had not been vetted at all.

What sort of process awards tax incentives to a man who not only has no history of entrepreneurial or business success, but who also has multiple unpaid tax liens and judgements against him in his home state? As a policy matter, I have qualms about the practice of “helping” businesses financially in order to lure them to one’s city. But if we are going to play that game–and it is a game–the least we can do is insure that the businesses favored by state and local government are real, and that they pay their bills. If the rationale for these programs is job creation, the least we can do is ensure that the companies that benefit are capable of producing jobs.

This fiasco is a good example of why I keep harping on the issue of competence.

Didn’t anyone bother to check on this charlatan? Or were they so anxious to announce “jobs” that they didn’t bother?


Driving Us Nuts

We are hearing a lot about the need to elect a Mayor with a big vision for the city. I agree, but we ought not forget that management skills are also very important. It’s great to have leadership that knows where it wants to go-but it doesn’t do much good to know you want to go to San Francisco if you think you need to drive to the East Coast to get there.

We can argue about the financing of all the road work being done in our fair city–this administration’s willingness to sell off capital assets to fund operating costs, its willingness to shift costs from taxpayers to ratepayers, and the other games it has played, but done is done. What has me frustrated is the lack of management, co-ordination and plain common sense I see daily as I try to navigate the relatively short distance from my home to IUPUI.

I served in City Hall “back in the day” and I know it’s never easy to avoid traffic tie ups when you are fixing streets. Some inconvenience is unavoidable. But I remember the efforts made to minimize those problems, the planning that went into the process. There is no evidence of such planning in the current frenzy to pave every possible street before the Super Bowl (or perhaps before the election.) Work interrupts rush hour on our busiests streets. Equipment needed in Fountain Square to remove buried rail tracks is being used somewhere else, so traffic to stores in Fountain Square remains blocked for weeks more than necessary (with the result that some of those businesses didn’t survive). Streets are torn up, base pavement put down, then ignored for long periods until suddenly the paving crews are back to finish the top coat. If there is any method to any of this, it isn’t apparent.

I’m glad our streets are being paved, even if I worry about paying for it with fiscal smoke and mirrors. I just wish there were someone in City Hall with the ability to recognize the challenge of doing so much work with so many different contractors in so abbreviated a time frame–someone with the skill to manage the process.

Instead, the simplest trip is driving us nuts.


TIFS as Crony Capitalism?

I’m on the mailing list of the libertarian Cato Institute (and the Republican and Democratic parties, among other strange bedfellows). I am fond of Cato–not because I agree with them on very many issues, but because–unlike the Republican Party–they are intellectually consistent. So I was very interested to receive a (snail mail–no link) report titled “Crony Capitalism and Social Engineering: the Case against Tax-Increment Financing.”

For those of you unfamiliar with TIFs, the concept is fairly simple. In order to induce development of projects that would not otherwise be economically viable (sometimes called the “but for” test, as in “but for the economic assistance, the project wouldn’t be built), the municipality caps the property taxes at the rate being paid prior to the new development, and plows the added taxes into the development for a period of time, in order to bridge the gap.

The Executive Summary makes several points:

1) By diverting the “extra” tax dollars generated to the project, those dollars are lost to the schools, libraries, fire departments and other urban services. In a sense, those services are also subsidizing the development. (To which proponents of TIF financing would respond, yes, but if the project would not otherwise get built, and if the abatement ends after a reasonable period of time–after which those urban services do receive the extra income–everyone benefits.)

2) Studies have shown that cities are not really applying the “but for” test. Many of these projects would have been built without the extra help. (Whoops!)

3) The new developments impose added costs on schools, fire departments, etc., so other taxpayers are either subsidizing the added burden imposed by the development until such time as the abatement ends, or getting reduced services during that time.

4) No matter how well-intended these programs, officials will often give in to the temptation to use TIFs as a vehicle for crony capitalism, providing subsidies for developers who in turn provide campaign funds to those same officials.

The Cato report has other problems with TIF financing, primarily because it is often used to support denser in-city developments over suburban low-density ones. In my opinion, that’s an argument FOR rather than an argument AGAINST–as the techies might say, that’s a feature, not a bug. But it is hard to argue with their other criticisms.

This is what makes policymaking so difficult. If  TIFs are used as originally intended–and used selectively–they can be a very useful tool.  When I was in city hall, in the early days of their use, I was a proponent. But at that time, TIFs were being used by urban governments to level the playing field–to compete with the lower costs of suburban development. Over the years, the tool has been adopted by smaller bedroom communities like Carmel and Greenwood–and developers have learned to play “let’s make a deal,” in essence turning TIFs into bargaining chips. One result has been that the “but for” test is history. And when the “but for” test was gone, so was the original justification for the program.

Unfortunately, selective use of TIFs has gone the way of the “but for” test. Here in Indianapolis, if news stories are to be believed, the Ballard Administration is proposing to turn the whole urban core into TIFs. (Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating a bit. But not much.)

It’s just further evidence that the Cato report is correct when it notes that TIFs have “become a way for city governments to capture taxes that would otherwise go to rival tax entities such as school or library districts.”