City/Town Government RSS feed for this section
justin-katz-avatar-smiling

The Mixed Up Economics of Government Economic Development

Not to overuse the word, but let’s just say that I’m cynical about the newly proclaimed interest in development around the proposed PawSox stadium in Pawtucket:

Pawtucket leaders Wednesday used the interest in developing Tidewater and inquiries from an unnamed hotel developer to build near a new stadium in support of their push for a state-backed financing deal for the proposed $83-million downtown ballpark.

But cynicism aside, Rhode Islanders should take Mayor Donald Grebien’s explanation of the economics as a warning sign about government officials’ understanding:

“The Ballpark at Slater Mill is the catalyst that Pawtucket, the Blackstone Valley and Rhode Island need to continue to move forward,” said Mayor Donald R. Grebien. “Pawtucket is a business-friendly city and investors and developers are already expressing support for the ballpark project. However, the private sector cannot wait forever. They will look elsewhere to invest. That is why it is so critical that the General Assembly act prudently and expeditiously to enact the enabling legislation and move our great state forward.”

Anybody who’s ever negotiated the price of a car should know that you never buy under time pressure.  In this case, Grebien’s attempt at pressure undermines his larger argument.

If the stadium really generates economic value then the private sector really will wait or come back.  On the other hand, if these two particular prospects (one anonymous) are critical to the venture, then taxpayers should take that as a warning.  After all, the whole deal relies on ancillary development to pay the debt.  If the “private sector” isn’t clamoring for spots, the deal is too risky.

monique-chartier-avatar

Wheee! Warwick Fire Chief Puts Taxpayers On Hook for Cool $2.8 Million Fine

From the front page of yesterday’s Warwick Beacon.

[Taxpayer activist Rob] Cote claims that in the past four years the fire department has averaged about 1,400 shift changes a year, totaling about 5,600 Form 109s that are supposedly missing or have been purposefully disposed of. This could incur a maximum fine of $2.8 million, which the city would be on the hook for, according to Cote.

Cote filed an Access to Public Records Act request (APRA) in May and December of 2016 to get any documents pertaining to changes of shift within the Warwick Fire Department.

Fourteen hundred shift changes per year times four years requires 5,600 forms, each of which must be signed by four people in authority. What happened to those 5,600 forms? Where they destroyed? That is what Warwick Fire Chief James McLaughlin claims. Or did they never exist? If the latter, those 5,600 shift changes were never authorized and, therefore … what? The firefighters must pay back that money? (Asking honestly. Legal-types are encouraged to chime in on this point.)

Terrific work by Rob Cote, who worked for over a year rounding up all of this information and (lack of) documents to expose what is a scam, one way or the other — and could well turn out to be a costly one to taxpayers.

One other item from the article. This is called foreshadowing. (Emphasis added).

In response to allegations from Cote that fire department personnel had used the change of shift system to subvert using vacation or sick time in order to go work other jobs or even attend a softball tournament in Maine, McLaughlin said that he had seen no evidence of such activity, and if anybody has proof of such accusations to please bring it forward.

As they teach first year law students, never ask a question you don’t know the answer to … and government officials should never ask for proof of shenanigans unless they are 100% certain it does not exist.

justin-katz-avatar-smiling

The Fruitlessness of Plastic Bag Bans

As we hear rumors that the municipal fad of plastic bag bans may move up to the state level, Glenn Reynolds points toDaily Mail article reporting that up to 95% of all plastic waste in the world’s oceans comes from eight rivers in Asia and two in Africa:

Up to 95 per cent of plastic polluting the world’s oceans pours in from just ten rivers, according to new research.

The top 10 rivers – eight of which are in Asia – accounted for so much plastic because of the mismanagement of waste.

About five trillion pounds is floating in the sea, and targeting the major sources – such as the Yangtze and the Ganges – could almost halve it, scientists claim.

When your neighbors attempt to impose these sorts of environmentalist restrictions on you, what they’re really doing is imposing useless drags on our lives and economy in order to feel good about themselves.  Naturally, the most vulnerable in our community will ultimately feel the effects most acutely, but that’s of little concern when you’re saving the world from a phantom non-Asian bag menace.

That statement may seem a little harsh, but in all the articles I’ve read about these bans, I don’t think I’ve ever seen mention of the actual source of plastic in the oceans or a discussion of the economics.  I have, however, seen stories about people getting sick from reusable grocery bags.

justin-katz-avatar-smiling

Fancy Funding Deals That Skirt the Law Should Be Avoided

On Tiverton Fact Check, I’ve detailed an example of how the town government appropriates money in a way that (let’s say) conflicts with the clear language of the town’s Home Rule Charter:

The complicating factor is that the vote [to create a restricted revenue source for pay-as-you-throw trash bag revenue] was taken as a resolution in the FTM docket, which should have made it valid for the duration of that year’s budget only. Resolutions have to be renewed each year, and the PAYT restricted account has not been renewed. In other words, the town has been putting that money into a restricted account illegally for six years. To avoid an annual vote, the council would have to present voters with an opportunity to write the account into the charter or provide some other vote akin to a bond approval, making clear to voters that the restricted account will go on forever, or end at some future date.

To some extent, these sorts of things should be expected.  Local government generally consists of people who aren’t government experts and who often see themselves as engaged in a sort of volunteer service; process rules can therefore seem frustrating and unreasonable.  Additionally, in a council-based system, they’re often overseeing a rolling series of town managers and solicitors who lack a long-term institutional knowledge (which is just objective fact) and have financial incentive to tell the council that it can do what its members want to do (which can be corrupt).

In my view, that’s a reason to keep government limited.  If a transaction is too technically or politically complex for a council and well-paid staff to make it under the clear rules of the law, then it shouldn’t be done.  In this case, the council created a new rubbish fee without taking additional steps that would have required additional votes of the public, which sounds quite a bit like the proposed PawSox stadium deal, specifically, and moral obligation bonds, in general.

I often wonder how many similar examples could be found throughout Rhode Island if residents were to make a dedicated practice of combing through their municipal governments’ audits.

princeedwardsV-featured

The Danger to the Status Quo of Thwarting Democracy

I have no doubt this dynamic plays itself out across Rhode Island, but as another instance, it seems the Tiverton Town Council thinks democracy is mostly legitimate to the extent that it empowers them to make decisions for everybody else, with minimal accountability:

Beware this trio’s “looking.” Take away the political spin, and the objection of [Town Council Member John Edwards, the Fifith,] and his posse is clearly to limit the ability of voters to have control over town government more often than every two years at a heated election with state and national races on the ballot. Because their political friends have an advantage during regular November elections, that’s when they want the key decisions made.

Every budget for the past six years of the [financial town referendum] has received a majority vote, and usually, it isn’t even close. Members of the Budget Committee who put forward last year’s low, 0.5%-increase budget were all elected. Members of the Charter Review Commission were also all elected. Edwards just doesn’t like that his friends didn’t win.

The responsibility for the rest of us is to make sure that the insiders learn one lesson good and hard:  At some point, we’re going to stop dabbling around the edges and take over the governing bodies, and when we do so, we’re going to change a whole lot more than the year-to-year tax increases.

Grover Norquist put his finger on something true when he said, at the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity’s banquette on Friday, that progressives are motivated by the possibility of taking things from other people and making them do things, while conservatives are motivated by the desire to be left alone.

Too often, being left alone includes being able to avoid getting involved in the day to day operation of government, but there’s bound to be a breaking point.  People will put up with quite a bit of abuse if it means they get to keep their Monday nights more or less to themselves, but if the abuse becomes too substantial, they’ll give up those Monday nights to meetings… and then work to reduce the amount of time they have to spend telling other people what to do.

justin-katz-avatar-smiling

Why Everybody Wants a Government Job

Howie Carr recently detailed some results from a Massachusetts inspector general report looking into the goldmine of unused sick time in the public sector, including some of the arguments for lavish pay and benefits.  Here’s a particularly trenchant juxtaposition:

On page 8: “(We must) pay a reasonable salary to the staff we have so that we could retain them.”

On page 13: Inability to promote younger hacks because “the only opportunities for advancement come about when someone leaves, which is an extremely rare event.”

Both of the above can’t be true. Either they’re leaving because they’re not getting paid enough or the jobs are so great that vacancies are “extremely rare.” Lack of turnover — it’s not a terribly pressing problem most places in the DPS like, say, the food court at your local mall.

When the Tiverton School Committee appeared before the Budget Committee last year and complained that its teachers are among the lowest-paid in the state, I asked how difficult the district finds it to be to fill positions.  Frankly, I don’t think most people involved with state or local government understand why those two points should even be connected.

As with other negotiations in which local government engages, people in office tend to negotiate against some abstract vision rather than with a focus on their constituents’ interests.  Without a profit motive, as private entities and businesses have, and with an apathetic electorate, they have no incentive to pull very hard in the tug of war.

justin-katz-avatar-smiling

Negotiations in Municipal Government

On Tiverton Fact Check, the town’s negotiations with Twin River lead me to wonder about elected officials’ sense of negotiation:

Wait, hold on. Construction is already underway, and as Newport showed when it rejected a similar proposal, the process for Twin River to set up its government-run casino in a particular municipality is complicated, expensive, time consuming, and risky. So… what’s Twin River’s leverage in this negotiation for tax deals?

One gets the sense — at least at the local level — that elected officials aren’t negotiating so much in the bare-knuckle interests of their constituents as against some abstract and relative idea about what a “fair” result would look like.  In this case, construction is under way.  How is it that the negotiations are now moving toward giving Twin River a better deal, rather than getting more relief for taxpayers?

justin-katz-avatar-smiling

The No-Brainer of Tiverton Casino Revenue Usage

I’ve got a post up on the redesigned and content-increased Tiverton Fact Check reviewing some of the scenarios that the Tiverton government is considering as it discusses what should be done with the pending windfall from state gambling revenue.  At this point, I’m leaning toward an “every penny” approach to tax reductions.  As I write in the post:

While the budget was exploding in the years before the financial town referendum (FTR) put an end to the abuse, spending advocates measured the taxes by how many cups of coffee Tiverton residents would have to give up each year — as in, “This is the equivalent of just one cup of coffee per day.”  Now that we’ve all adjusted our caffeine habits accordingly, revenue from the casino presents an opportunity for the people of Tiverton to keep enough of their earnings for things they shouldn’t have had to give up in the first place, like home repairs, vacations, and retirement savings.

Elected and appointed officials are convincing themselves that they have a higher perspective and a responsibility to figure out how to keep control of the money away from taxpayers, but in Tiverton, as everywhere, we really do have the authority and the right to tell local government to get off our backs.

It’s high time Rhode Islanders remembered their autonomy.  Do we really need any more evidence that people in government have no reasonable claim to competence?

justin-katz-avatar-smiling

Electoral Politics and the Lament of the Well-Informed Observer

Although his focus is Fall River, Marc Monroe Dion’s lament of the well-informed observer in the Fall River Herald rings true much more broadly, certainly throughout this one-party region of festering apathy:

And Wednesday morning, when another dud of a Fall River election was over, there wasn’t anything left to do but pick up the crumpled napkins.

I say “dud” because hardly anyone votes, and I say “hardly anyone” because I write the history blog for this paper, and am often immersed in old newspaper stories from the days when a 60 or 70 percent turnout was the norm.

People who work in newsrooms live very close to the political process, so we overestimate the public’s level of interest, and we do that no matter how many 30 percent turnouts crop up in our stories. Politics in Fall River is like soccer in the rest the country. It’s going to get popular NEXT year.

As I’ve written again and again, what people seem most to want from government is the ability not to pay attention.  Back when those old newspaper articles that Dion references were written, life was more difficult and entertainment more scarce.  Moreover, government did less and was therefore easier to get one’s head around.

What the busy schedules of modern life haven’t pushed aside, the progressive big-government mudslide of the last century has swept away.  Not only has government been made to seem like the existential battle of partisan tribes, but it’s so pervasive and intricate that the average person feels unqualified to assert his or her own interests, at least in contravention of insiders’ priorities.  Add to those dynamics the promise that central planning can relieve us of the need to pay attention.

We’ve gotten to the point, however, that people just want to be left out of the pressure and vitriol, free to live their lives.  The way back from that feeling isn’t obvious, unless we can promote the principle that government has no right to do things beyond the ken of the people.

justin-katz-avatar-smiling

Selling Assets as a “Once and for All” Pension Fix Is a Bad Idea

Reporting on WPRI, Dan McGowan and Walt Buteau explain that Democrat Mayor of Providence Jorge Elorza is looking to sale of the city’s water supply as a means of filling the giant chasm of Providence employees’ pension fund:

Elorza, who is planning to run for re-election next year, said he’s seeking a “once and for all” solution to the city’s pension challenges.

 

As a general proposition, selling the water supply might or might not be a good idea, but this reason is horrible.  Just look to Woonsocket, which sold pension obligation bonds to fill its fund to 100% in 2003, but by 2011 was down to 57.7% funded.  The latest numbers on the Web site of the state Division of Municipal Finance put Woonsocket’s funding at 49.1%.

Unless a municipality fixes its underlying problems — such as overly generous employee packages and a more-realistic estimate for investment returns — every scheme will be a temporary fix.  In this case, Providence will have one fewer asset to help with unforeseen challenges in the future.

Even more, Elorza explicitly claims that another entity could run the system better because Providence is “so heavily regulated by the Public Utilities Commission.”  If that’s the problem, fix the PUC, and if Elorza thinks the PUC is little more than an expensive restriction, he should advocate for its abolishment. Otherwise, he’s just condemning those who drink and pay for Providence water to unnecessary expense (if the PUC is an excess) or unhealthy drinking water (if its regulations are actually needed).

By all means, if the city is having trouble running its water system, sell it off, but only if the new system is a better system of itself.  If a private company is willing to buy the water, it’s because there’s profit to be made (at least for employees), which indicates a problem with city management.  And if the money for the assets ultimately comes from the state, the whole thing will have been a one-time scam whose benefits for the city will rapidly disappear.

justin-katz-avatar-smiling

Power Outages as Another Warning Sign

Rhode Islanders should take stories like Mark Reynolds’s in The Providence Journal as yet another warning sign that what can’t go on forever won’t:

As of 6:45 a.m. Tuesday, 83,227 homes and businesses were without power, according to National Grid’s website. Late Tuesday night, 102,432 had been without power.

The effort to restore power will be a “multiday effort,” a spokesman for National Grid said Monday.

The central purpose of government is to ensure baseline security and resilience, and infrastructure is near the top of that list.  When government becomes too big, insiders find it much more profitable to themselves to pursue other things first and to let their boring responsibilities suffer.

We appear to have reached the point, in Rhode Island, that government’s apparent first priority is to promise things, but not necessarily to manage to deliver them well.  Combine all of these power outages from a wind storm with the UHIP debacle and ask yourself:  Do you think the resources we allocate for government will have us properly prepared when something really terrible happens?

justin-katz-avatar-smiling

Wariness of Helpful Government in Case the Picture Flips

Many college graduates over the past few decades will have come across live painting performances, in which the artist makes a performance out of the craft.  My recollection is that the guy I saw back in 1993 was a bit of a pioneer (Denny Dent, I think), and part of his set involved pretending to mess up a painting of Jimi Hendrix only to flip it over and reveal the work as a success.  The image of him flipping that painting over comes to mind when I read news like this, in the Providence Journal:

The Cranston Police Department and Cranston Public Schools are working together to implement a program that will help identify homes of children with autism spectrum disorders and intellectual disabilities.

The goal is to improve safety for children, and parents have the option to include their children in the registry, according to a news release from the chief of the Cranston Police Department, Col. Michael J. Winquist. Parents who wish to participate may fill out a form on the department’s website. Forms are also being distributed through the city’s public schools.

Yes, it’s well intentioned and voluntary.  But… but… I can’t help but think of CBS’s proclaiming Iceland’s supposed progress in “eliminating Down syndrome” by aborting unborn children who have it and the constant push to implement and expand legalization of euthanasia around the world.

While I wouldn’t criticize the city for implementing the program, or residents for utilizing it, I think it’s important to pause and recognize that the picture being painted in our culture has all the features of a truly terrifying portrait and may only require a flip to reveal where it was going all along.

Quantcast