Thursday, December 31, 2009
The results show a particularly poor record of decisions by the BZAs this past year. Of the 144 requests for variances for which they held a hearing, they denied only 20 (a denial rate of 14%). Compare this with the recommendation of the Current Planning Staff, which serve as the urban planning professional support staff for the Metropolitan Development Commission and the BZAs, who recommended the Boards vote to deny 99 of the requests (a recommended denial rate of 69%). The paucity of denials was so bad that none of the three Boards denied a single variance request until April 14 this year ! The individual denial rates of sitting members of the Boards (5 members per Board or 15 total members) ranged from a low of 5% to a high of 68%. Board I denied 15% of the variance requests it heard compared to staff recommendation of 75% denial. Board II denied 18% compared with a recommendation of 67% denial. And, Board III denied just 7% of the variances it heard compared with a recommendation of 68% denial.
So, why should you care? If you are a property owner, the impact of these variances can be felt directly upon your property value and your quality of life.
A variance gives a property owner the right not to obey a law that all others in Marion County must obey. State law set up two types of variances, both of which require proof that some aspect of the property itself dictates that an exception be made. Among other things, for a variance of use a petitioner is supposed to prove that "The strict application of the terms of the zoning ordinance constitutes an unusual and unnecessary hardship if applied to the property for which the variance is sought." And, among other things, the petitioner who requests a variance of development standards is supposed to prove that "The strict application of the terms of the zoning ordinance will result in practical difficulties in the use of the property." But, state law is routinely ignored by the BZAs and the so-called 'proof' offered is often circular and irrelevant logic. For instance, a popular recital of proof of the 'practical difficulty' is that it is not legal.
I believe that it would be in the public interest if, at the beginning of each hearing, someone read out loud the "Findings of Fact" form filled out as the proof of a need for a variance. This would put the State law requiring proof front and center in the hearing and it would expose to the viewing public the ridiculous nature of the proof often offered.
Would you want your neighbor to be able to park a semi at their house? The Boards granted at least two such requests this year. There can be no aspect of the property, however, that dictates that a semi must be parked at a house or else the property could not be used as a residence. That is exactly what State Law requires be proven.
Laws impacting real estate have a long history of a push and pull between the right of a property owner to do as they please on their property, and the right of a community to protect its interests in a well planned, well executed and well maintained urban layout. The courts have held that in order to compromise the unfettered rights of a property owner, a city must demonstrate a broader community interest by first creating a comprehensive plan that includes the recommended areas for the different types of uses. Once that has been established, the city may require zoning of all parcels for a single type of use (industrial, commercial or residential as examples). But, wait, there's more ! Once a comprehensive plan has been created, but not before, a city may also establish building codes requiring anything from indoor plumbing, running water, and safety features for electric and structural plans to setbacks and building sizes. But, because there is that tension between property rights and the community interest, any local laws that involve real estate property must offer the property owners the opportunity to prove that they deserve an exception to any one of those laws. These are the variances that the BZAs rule on.
In Indianapolis, the zoning and variance aspects of real estate law are embodied in the Metropolitan Development Commission, the Boards of Zoning Appeals, (the members of both bodies are appointed), and the Department of Metropolitan Development (which reports to the Mayor and is staffed with paid positions). The new Office of Code Compliance (OCE; which also reports to the Mayor and is staffed with paid positions) is the agency that oversees the enforcement of the City's real estate codes and laws. So, as a new house is being built, a permit is required and various inspections are made throughout the building process to ensure that the City's building standards are being met. Code Compliance relies heavily, and in some places exclusively, on citizen complaints about neighbors who are not obeying a real estate property ordinance. OCE then sends out an inspector who either cites the owner for a violation or who determines that no violation exists.
Those of us who have dealt with neighborhood issues for even a couple of years see this as one ecosystem - with each part dependent upon the other parts. Unfortunately in Indianapolis, the the various City departments and Boards are not coordinating their efforts and are often at odds. For instance, zoning inspectors and neighborhood groups might have been working for years to rid residential areas of commercial vehicles. But, once cited, these property owners have the right to apply for a variance (they have the right to apply before being cited, but most folks seem to live by the motto - it is easier to ask for forgiveness than ask for permission). The BZAs are supposed to ask for proof that the property cannot be used as zoned, in this case as a residence, unless the commercial vehicle can be parked there. Of course, no such proof exists. But, the BZAs operate not as State Law dictates, but by the seat of their pants, each member making up in their own head what compels their approval vote versus their denial vote.
This analysis of the voting record of the BZAs in 2009 demonstrates a clear disconnect with State Law. If they followed that Law and required proof in each case, variances would be rare, not usual. Remember, a variance is the exception to the law that all others in Marion County must obey. It should be hard to get a variance. Worse than that is the disconnect the BZAs have with the whole system of code compliance and how that disconnect is harming the big picture in Indianapolis; where neighborhoods have a chance to protect their quality of life and their property values by insisting that the laws of Indianapolis be uniformly applied.
Monday, December 28, 2009
I do have a couple of comments on items that caught my attention in the paper and elsewhere this past month. No links to IndyStar will be possible, as those articles are now in the archives.
First and foremost, I sit in admiration of Paul Ogden and his efforts to see that folks accused of a crime are treated properly in our jails and also the latest lawsuit he filed to challenge the traffic court's practice of threatening higher traffic ticket penalties if you want your case heard by the judge. Both of Paul's efforts have seen others, Democratic Party blog "Indianapolis Times" and the Indianapolis Star's editorial board, respectively, try to diminish him with snipes. Their pettiness has only diminished themselves, in my eyes.
The traffic court judge is acting like a Boss Hog - and he needs to either clean up his act or be gone. Traffic fines are already too high - approximating a week's worth of groceries. For the judge to threaten to up the already too high fine just because an American wants his or her due process is an abuse of his authority. I'm not a lawyer, and I hope the judge's actions are not in accordance with legal tenets. But, I am a citizen and when anyone diminishes the rights of others, they diminish my rights as well. Good luck Paul Ogden !!! Keep fighting the good fight.
Prop 418 went down along party lines in committee. 418 was the Council Resolution asking the State Legislature to give Indianapolis-Marion County City-County Council the authority to review abatement decisions. Ours is the only County in Indiana where that authority does not reside with the Council. Mayor Ballard must have been throwing his weight around behind closed doors again. The Republican Councillors abandoned any commitment they have to being actual members of the Council and voted against strengthening the Council's position. Even Councillor Plowman - who championed the issue at the Legislature just last year - and Councillor Smith - who co-sponsored the Council Resolution - voted against the Proposal. Its a shame. I hope it is brought up again and again until the authority to review is granted our Council. Councillor Brian Mahern has shown himself to be an outstanding Councillor this year. We are all better off because he at least tried to make a real difference on the Council. My hat is off to him.
A huge victory was won, at least temporarily, by Charlie Goodman and Jerry Baker and others at the Indiana Tree Alliance. The Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission has set aside a key operational rule regarding the authority IPL has to trim trees on private property. The final decision on the permanence of this rule awaits a final decision on IPL's tree trimming practices, due sometime in late spring, if I understand the timing correctly. Goodman and Baker are hoping that the State Legislature takes up the issue and returns property rights to property owners this session. For more information about the issues, to find out how you can help, and to get the Alliance's newsletter, visit their new website : www.indianatreealliance.com
Mayor Ballard's new Chief of Staff, Chris Cotterill, continues to impress me. After the new head of the Animal Care and Control Board pulled another Boss Hog move, barring Channel 16 from covering his Board meetings, Cotterill stated on behalf of the Mayor, that he'd bring a video camera to the meetings himself, if that is what it took to re-open them to the viewing public. I don't know who the new AC&C Board Chairman is, but his appointment should be reviewed. How out of touch can you be? To pull the Channel 16 access when AC&C has seen one upheaval after another? That agency needs to prove itself and the more citizens who can see for themselves, the better. Cotterill is making the 25th floor a much more interesting place.
And bringing things closer to up to date - let me just say that the Colts organization should refund the ticket price to everyone who paid their hard earned money for a seat to yesterday's game - with the exception of season ticket holders. Those tickets are not cheap and those folks deserved a real attempt to win. They got bupkiss.
Hope your family is healthy and close as we finish up the holiday season. 2010 is just around the corner now. Wow ! 2010 ! Just think, ten years ago we were worried about the end of civilization as we know it because computers only had two digits to denote the year ! Now we have YouTube and Twitter !!!! And I-phones !!!! Wow ! What an incredible time to be alive !
Monday, November 30, 2009
According to today's Star article by Francesca Jarosz, the current thought is to send the smoking ban back to committee to buy more time to get the votes needed for passage. This is a very difficult Proposal (#371) to get passed given, especially, the role that Mayor Ballard has chosen to play in the debate - a closed door pronouncement against the Proposal meant to shield him from actually having to take a public stand. So much for leadership. I have heard a book on the subject touted by some business people. Perhaps someone should give it to the Mayor as a holiday gift?
But, other interesting Proposals are also on tonight's agenda - which can be found on the Council website. Prop 303, introduced a couple of months back by Councillor Ed Coleman, which would require the internet posting of all contracts with the City or County government, passed out of the Rules Committee this month with a 8-0 'do pass' recommendation. (It should be noted that no Municipal Corporation would be required to do the same through this Proposal; presumably because the Council does not have legal power to require it.) Testimony at the committee was that it will cost $34,000 for 2010 for initial implementation and posting of the backlog of contracts and $7,000 each year thereafter. In the plus column for this one, the Ballard administration is on board with the Proposal. Chris Cotterill, Corporate Counsel and soon to be Chief of Staff to Mayor Ballard, testified that, although the language of the Proposal does not strictly require it, they intend to post all contracts that are still active, even if the contract was signed prior to January 1, 2008. Councillors on the Committee include Republicans Lutz, Cockrum, Malone, Pfisterer, and Plowman, and, Democrats Sanders, Grey, and Mansfield.
Also passing out of that committee the same night with 'do pass' recommendations was Prop 256, introduced by Councillor Sanders, Plowman, and both Maherns, which is a Special Resolution that "calls upon the hospitality industry to reduce the negative impact of outsourcing jobs on the community". This proposal was first introduced back when the hospitality industry was hiding behind the skirts of the same workers in order to beg for more public money to subsidize their room rates to conventioneers. The Proposal passed out of committee with Councillor Cockrum abstaining, since his son works for White Lodging, which is building the new Marriott hotel downtown. Cockrum seems to be splitting hairs - abstaining on a Special Resolution that only seeks to influence, but not abstaining on raising taxes to increase funding to the CIB and ICVA, the latter of which uses tax dollars to subsidize the room rates of downtown hotels, thus enriching folks like Councillor Cockrum's son.
And for a trifecta of interesting Proposals passing out of the Rules Committee in one night, was Prop 417, which is another Special Resolution, introduced by Councillors Malone, Pfisterer, B. Mahern, Lutz, Smith, and McHenry. Prop 417 requests that the General Assembly enable the Council to have a binding review of all Township budgets. With the tax caps coming in, the taxing authority of the individual entities in Marion County must begin to be coordinated, in my view. Even if this exact corrective action is not the final mechanism, it does lead us down the path of discussing exactly how to coordinate the property tax levies of all these taxing entities. This passed out of committee with a unanimous 'do pass' recommendation.
Other interesting Proposals up for a final vote of the full Council tonight, I'll just cut and paste from the agenda:
PROPOSAL NO. 413, 2009 (General Ordinance)
BY: Councillors Brown, Scales and Speedy
REFERRED TO: Public Safety and Criminal Justice Committee
DIGEST: amends the Code to clarify the definition and violation of animal at large, to expand the definition of serious injury, to specifically provide for court-ordered forfeiture and/or destruction of an animal if serious injury to a person results from the animal chasing or approaching a person in an aggressive manner while at large, and to change the reference to serious bodily injury to serious injury in the section on owner responsibility for animal attacks
COMMITTEE ACTION: 11/11/2009 Do Pass 6-0
PROPOSAL NO. 419, 2009 (General Resolution)
BY: Councillors McQuillen and Nytes
REFERRED TO: Municipal Corporations Committee
DIGEST: approves the purchase, construction or acquisition by the Indianapolis-Marion County Building Authority of all or any portion of the Wishard Hospital project and a proposed lease or leases between the Building Authority and the Health and Hospital Corporation to finance all or any portion of the Wishard Hospital project
COMMITTEE ACTION: 11/23/2009 Do Pass As Amended 6-1
Interesting Proposals to be introduced tonight - again by my eye - include:
PROPOSAL NO. 427, 2009 (Fiscal Ordinance)Included, among other things, is the 2009 Parks budget transfer of $200,000 from 'personal services' (wages) and $150,000 from 'internal charges' to 'other services and charges', which includes outsourcing contracts. This one deserves scrutiny.
BY: Councillor Pfisterer
REFERRED TO: Administration and Finance Committee
DIGEST: provides for additional appropriations and transfers in the 2009 Budget for various city and county agencies affecting various city and county funds to provide for continued operations and services of agencies
PROPOSAL NO. 428, 2009 (Fiscal Ordinance)Over $5 million reduction total. Cuts throughout the City and County agencies.
BY: Councillor Pfisterer
REFERRED TO: Administration and Finance Committee
DIGEST: reduces 2009 appropriations for various city and county agencies
PROPOSAL NO. 457, 2009 (General Resolution)"For the next seven calendar years immediately following the holding of the referendum, shall the Metropolitan School District of Washington Township impose a property tax rate that does not exceed eight cents ($0.08) on each one hundred dollars ($100) of assessed valuation and that is in addition to the school corporation's normal tuition support tax rate?"
BY: Councillor Mansfield
REFERRED TO: Rules and Public Policy Committee
DIGEST: approves a request of the Metropolitan School District of Washington Township to certify its public question referendum to the County Election Board for the May 2010 election
PROPOSAL NO. 458, 2009 (General Ordinance)This one you should read for yourself to see all the manner of compensation the Councillors get. Not saying its not deserved pay, but it is very detailed in its construction. The change from the status quo appears to be an increase in the maximum number of committee meetings for which a Councillor can be compensated - increasing from the current 40 to a new maximum of 50 committee meetings.
BY: Councillor McQuillen
REFERRED TO: Rules and Public Policy Committee
DIGEST: amends the Code with respect to the number of committee meetings for which a councillor may be compensated in any calendar year
The Council is not slowing down just because of the Holidays. That is for sure.
Sunday, November 15, 2009
Prop 418 is the Council Resolution calling on the State Legislature to empower the Council to review abatement decisions made by the MDC.
Thursday, November 12, 2009
Jon has the cut 'for broadcast' video clip on his blog as well as the one below:
Tuesday, November 10, 2009
Across Indiana, in more than a dozen different school districts over the past year, taxpayers have sent a message to administrators: We are no longer giving you a blank check.
That's how it begins. A couple of paragraphs down it puts everything in proper perspective:
There’s no doubt such rejections have created difficult decisions for many school districts, but that is exactly what the new law was supposed to do—force administrators to examine their budgets and start making smarter decisions about spending.
I'll leave it to you if you are intrigued enough to finish it. But, it was brilliant.
Here are the originating IBJ article links:
And the great blog entries by Paul Ogden and Gary Welsh:
Let me just add, all the seats for the Capital Improvement Board of Managers are ended January 15, 2010 -- this by the same legislation that allowed the City Council to increase the Hotel Tax by 1% to capture another $4 million a year and expand the Professional Sports Development Area to capture another $8 million a year, and offer the $9 million a year loan for three years from the state to the CIB. The same old people can be reappointed, but hopefully the appointing bodies will not be so lame in their decisions. Top of my list to be gone are Bob Grand, who represents the Pacers and has always had a clear conflict of interest, and Pat Early who has served on the CIB for nearly a generation and helped negotiate the original Conseco Fieldhouse contract and who has been the prime cheerleader for giving the ENTIRE store away to the Pacers, just like he voted for the ENTIRE store be given to the Colts.
All of this sudden burst of energy directed to the benefit of the Simons and the Pacers may be so that their work is done before a responsible Board takes their place. Well, I would hope a responsible Board takes their place. That awaits the list of appointees and some time for their ambitions to be assessed.
Sunday, November 8, 2009
Indiana has taken the approach that it wants to gain as much revenue as possible from a sinful practice that it somehow wants to discourage. So, instead of designing gaming laws to create tourist attractions and thereby maximize revenues, they have designed laws that create distal gaming locations to maximize attendance by sinners from abutting states.
Indiana initially located the casinos in the far edges of the state so as to attract the maximum number of sinners from Ohio, Illinois and Kentucky while minimizing the lure to sinners within our state. To make matters less unwholesome yet, they positioned it on boats that originally had to ship off the dock, if only to linger within spitting distance anyway. They then altered the rules to allow dockside gambling, but the boats still needed to have a seaworthy crew. Then came the French Lick casino legislation where they were able to build the tiniest of ponds around what was really a land casino. Come on, if you've visited French Lick you know how much that casino looks like a 400 pound adult sitting in a kiddie pool. But, the spirit of the law was followed. Then they allowed two Central Indiana racinos to operate, but without live table games. The overall aim would appear to be : minimize the Indiana sinning while maximizing the sinning by residents of other mid-west states.
So, little wonder that with the movement of Ohio into the casino business and the threat of Kentucky to get into the business, Indiana is becoming worried about how much revenue it can still get from its gaming licensees.
I would suggest, not that anyone listens to me on these matters, that the Governor and Legislature talk with experts in other states on issues like - clustering casinos to create tourist destinations, how tax rates affect revenues generated, and to what extent gaming taxes are a dependable source of revenue that could conceivably be used for operating expenses.
It might surprise you to know that Indiana ranked 2nd of all States just behind Nevada in total tax revenues from casino operations in 2008, pulling in a total of $838 million. State gaming revenues for fiscal year 2009 (which ended on June 30) were $621 million. In contrast, the state of Nevada pulled in $841 million in gaming and casino taxes for its fiscal year 2009. Our gaming revenue accounted for only 5% of all State revenue in fiscal year 2009, so we are not in a situation where we really need to worry about gambing taxes being necessary for ongoing operational expenses.
I have to admit that Indiana has done surprisingly well in securing these kinds of revenues with the approach it has taken. But, I do think it is time to abandon some of the more silly constraints on gaming and to move to land based casinos. Multiple licenses in a single municipality so as to create tourist destinations near airports would be my choice as well. Perhaps the best way would be to allow these decisions to be made by referenda in each County. Then it would be the wishes of all the voters of a locale and not just those who have a bully pulpit. I could live with that.
Friday, November 6, 2009
Prop 404 and 405 would allow the County Assessor to rent space at 7363 E. 21st Street for an Eastside Satellite Office, and 5526 Elmwood Avenue for a Southside Satellite office. My first blush question is, why can't we rent space from the Township Trustees - you know, keep the money moving government to government to help with tax rates? We'll see what develops as far as information is concerned. Money is not mentioned, but the length of the leases is for 7 and 5 years respectively. Both were initiated by the County Assessor and sponsored by Councillor Moriarty Adams, and will be assigned to the Administration & Finance committee which next meets on Tuesday, November 10, beginning at 5:30 in room 260 of the City-County Building.
Prop 413 sponsored by Councillor Scales and drafted by the interim Director of Animal Care and Control, Teri Kendrick:
DIGEST: amends the Code to clarify the definition and violation of animal at large, to expand the definition of serious injury, to specifically provide for court-ordered forfeiture and/or destruction of an animal if serious injury to a person results from the animal chasing or approaching a person in an aggressive manner while at large, and to change the reference to serious bodily injury to serious injury in the section on owner responsibility for animal attacksLooking at the proposed changes to the existing ordinance, the most significant changes would appear to be changing the definition of 'at large' to (red text added by proposal; green text in parentheses deleted by proposal):
At large means not confined without means of escape of any portion of the animal’s body in a pen, corral, yard, cage, house, vehicle or other secure enclosure, unless on a leash and under the control of a competent human being.
Serious injury, (for purposes of this chapter) means any injury (which results in a broken bone, lacerations severe enough to require multiple sutures, or to render cosmetic surgery necessary, or appropriate or death) that results in permanent disfigurement, unconsciousness, extreme pain, or permanent or protracted loss or impairment of the function of a bodily member or organ.
Added, also, is that if an at-large dog seriously injures someone, then "the court upon request shall order the animal forfeited and/or destroyed".
Prop 413 will be assigned to the Public Safety and Criminal Justice committee that next meets on Wednesday, November 11, at 5:30 pm in room 260 of the City-County Building.
Prop 416, sponsored by Councillors Hunter and Moriarty-Adams, simply gives the right of way to bicycles when motor vehicles cross over a sidewalk. This goes to the Public Works committee that next meets on Thursday, November 19, at 5:30 pm in room 260 of the City-County Building.
Prop 417, "requests the General Assembly to amend existing statutes to provide that the Council has binding authority on reviews of township budgets in Marion County". This one was initiated by Councilor Malone and is co-sponsored by Councillors B. Mahern, Lutz, Smith and McHenry. The current law mandates that the Council undertake a non-binding review of the township and excluded cities budgets, which really looked like a huge waste of time this year. Although I did get some really good information that I would not otherwise have obtained, keeping the review non-binding does not make any sense. Prop 417 will be assigned to the Rules & Public Policy committee which next meets at 5:30 pm, November 17, in room 260.
Prop 418 is the most important Proposal being introduced Monday night, in my view. Initiated by Councillor Brian Mahern and co-sponsored by Councillors Lewis, Sanders, D. Mahern, Hunter, Smith, Mansfield and Malone, the Proposal is described as:
DIGEST: urges the General Assembly and Governor to grant additional authority to the Council to review and approve all tax abatements, postpone consideration of tax abatements and zoning changes, and review and approve any real estate acquisition by the Metropolitan Development Commission in excess of $25,000
A lengthy list of whereas clauses lay out the case for Council review of all abatements pretty clearly. This proposal would result in a Council Resolution, rather than an ordinance, because the State Legislature is the only body that can empower the Council with this authority. The truly bad deal that was proposed between the City and TM Miller Enterprises for a parking garage and a city block at 450 E. Market Street that was subject of zoning review by the Council this fall, is the poster child for why the fiscal body of this City should be able to review abatements granted by the MDC - much like they now have the authority to review zoning decisions of the MDC. More on this one in a later entry. Prop 418 will be assigned to the Metropolitan Development committee which next meets at 5:30 pm in room 260, Monday, November 16.
And rounding out list is Prop 419, initiated by Health & Hospitals Corporation and sponsored by Councillors McQuillen and Nytes.
DIGEST: approves the purchase, construction or acquisition by the Indianapolis-Marion County Building Authority of all or any portion of the Wishard Hospital project and a proposed lease or leases between the Building Authority and The Health and Hospital Corporation to finance all or any portion of the Wishard Hospital project
While the Wishard project was approved by the recent Referendum, the Council must still provide authorization for the IMCBA to participate in the overall bonding and leasing of the buildings. Still we have no breakdown of the fraction of general obligation bonds to be issued by H&H and the fraction of revenue bonds to be issued by the IMCBA. Perhaps someone at the hearing will pause and request this important information. Prop 419 will be assigned to the Admin & Finance committee which next meets at 5:30 pm, Tuesday, November 10, in room 260 of the City-County Building.
[edited on Nov 7 to mention that a public notice appeared in today's paper regarding public hearings on the proposed leases by the Marion County Assessor - 10:00 am, Nov. 17, room 260 of the City-County Building. The first lease agreement is for 2525 square feet of commercial office space at 7363 E. 21st Street. It is for 7 years at $39,137.52 per year plus utilities. The second lease agreement is for 3373 square feet at 5226 Elmwood Avenue. It is for 5 years at $30,342.50 per year plus utilities.]
Thursday, November 5, 2009
Prop 303 is Councillor Coleman's Proposal that would require the internet posting of all contracts involving the City or County government. This proposal was amended such that contracts must be posted within 14 days of being approved, there must be a search function for the postings, corporate counsel must review all contracts before posting and redact any information not considered public record by state law, all existing contracts going back to January 1, 2008 must be posted within 180 of the effective date of the ordinance, and the effective date of the ordinance will be January 1, 2010. The search feature should include searching by city department or agency, vendor name, and the like. Redactible information would include personal information such as social security numbers and is an action anticipated to be necessary very infrequently, given that contracts rarely contain non-public record information. It was made clear that this Proposal would not include contracts of the various Municipal Corporations. So the CIB, Airport, Library, and Health & Hospitals are not affected by Prop 303. The reason why escaped me, but I did gather that it was based on state law.
Public testimony included a comment by a fellow named Steven Hoback (as I heard his name) who suggested that interlocal agreements, which are not legally considered contracts, also be included in the ordinance. I presented McANA position of support. And last but not least, Keith Robinson of the Indiana Coalition for Open Government presented that organizations position of support. He also suggested that the Council take the ordinance one step further and post proposed contracts online so that the public can review them before the final decision is made to sign off on them. Councillor Coleman indicated he would be working on pulling both suggestions into the framework of Prop 303.
At the end of the discussion, Prop 303 was not voted on, but rather, postponed until the Rules Committee's November 17 meeting. This will give the Office of Finance and Management and the Office of Corporate Counsel time to finish their fiscal impact analysis.
Prop 378 was tabled. This Proposal for a Council Resolution asking Senators Lugar and Bayh to push for the removal of language in HR 915 (FAA Reauthorization Act of 2009) that would pull FedEx from unionizing rules under the Railway Labor Act and put them under the National Labor Relations Act. As discussed earlier, the inclusion of FedEx under RLA was a sweetheart deal to begin with and treated FedEx differently than UPS is treated. Council President Bob Cockrum stated that after the Committee acted on Prop 378 last time, he received phone calls from UPS representatives suggesting there was another side to the story. Cockrum then called for the Council to return the Proposal to the Committee for further consideration. He also invited representatives of FedEx and UPS to come present their viewpoint last night. Even though all had arrived, there were no statements made and the Proposal was tabled. Councillor Cockrum noted that HR 915 had moved out of the House and into two committees of the Senate - one of which had stripped the language in question and the other of which was not expected to consider it for a little while. So, saying it might end up being a moot point, the Committee voted to table the issue until such time as it seems warranted to raise it again. Good move to bring this one back to Committee and great move to table it.
Wednesday, November 4, 2009
For how long will Matt Gutwein and the Marion County Health & Hospitals Corporation be able to pay off the general obligation bonds with profits? When will they turn to property taxes, which, had they been totally honest about things, more folks would have known about when they voted. Will they just try to hide it in the budget and let taxpayers read it in their property tax bills?
Will the Legislature again pick and choose favored projects that they feel should escape the minimal requirements set for public questions?
Will the Star repair its reputation after flaunting itself so wantonly for Wishard?
Will any legal authority look into the use of public facilities, like the Mayor's office, the distribution of pro-literature to school children to take home, the decisions on where to locate satellite voting centers, etc., that were an assist to the landslide?
Will the feds decide the nursing home 'business' of H&H is too much like a scam to continue to qualify for higher fee payments than other nursing home businesses?
As the flashbulbs illuminate the raised champagne glass and the scene fades, remember to tune in next time as we resume the story.
Monday, November 2, 2009
Remember, if the referendum is denied, they can still float revenue bonds for their new campus. Hell, a NO vote might even prod Health & Hospitals to ask IU to help financially support their new teaching hospital ! But, if they say they can finance the project with ongoing revenues, make them prove it.
Vote NO on the Wishard Referendum.
The Rules committee will meet this Wednesday evening at 5:30 pm in room 260 of the City-County Building. Two items are on the agenda. Finally coming to a hearing is Prop 303, authored by Councillor Ed Coleman. As mention in an earlier entry, this proposal would require all contracts with the City-County government be posted online within 7 days of being signed. This is a good step forward in convenient public access to information. I know I will be watching this vote very closely.
Also on this agenda is Prop 378 - the FedEx resolution - which was returned to committee at the last full Council meeting. This proposal, too, was discussed earlier. In short, the union trade rules that FedEx has been living under because of a special inclusion in the law, is now being taken from them under the current language of the "FAA Reauthorization Act of 2009". FedEx would like the Council to back its efforts to have that language removed. The nut of the issue is that FedEx employees must now unionize as a single, national union and act only if all agree. If FedEx were stripped of its special protection by the Railway Labor Act, and placed under the National Labor Relations Act like its competitor UPS is, then the employees could unionize by trade and by location, giving them more flexibility in organizing and negotiations. Whatever your view of unions, the rules for unionizing should be uniform and this resolution strays mightily in suggesting that making FedEx play by the same rules as UPS will cause layoffs here in Indy. In any case, the Rules committee has it back for renewed consideration.
The last full Council meeting did have a vote on the smoking ban. For full disclosure, I don't honestly know how I would have voted were I in the Councillors' seats. I find I fall into an internal debate between the rights of individuals to conduct a legal activity that has been the social norm for generations, the rights of individuals to find employment in smoke-free environments, and the acknowledgement that this is the path that freeing citizens from the toxins in cigarettes is and will be taking - one community at a time opting to narrow the places one can legally smoke. As a scientist I am very concerned about promoting data that any non-smoker who comes down with lung cancer must have been victim of second hand smoke and not IPL's downtown high-sulfur coal plant, or smog, or particulate release from urban mining operations. I don't want a spot on that bandwagon. But, nonetheless, smoking cigarettes will not be made illegal. Thus efforts to minimize smoking and its health risks to smokers will follow this now well worn path. For me the final question is not how Indy will reduce smoking, but when is the right time?
Enough about me. We all know, thanks to Matt Tully's column, that Mayor Ballard ducked that leadership thing once again and chose to do his best Boss Hog impersonation by appearing at the Republican caucus meeting prior to the Council meeting and let them know he did not want this ordinance to appear on his desk. No ordinance - no disclosure of a position - no harm to a reelection effort. No leadership. (I'd provide a link to Tully's column but its not available at IndyStar.com for some reason. Instead here's a link to Gary Welsh's Advance Indiana piece with an embedded link that may get reactivated some day.) Francesca Jarosz' Star piece, published 2 days prior to Tully's piece, which describes the Council's debate is still available on their website.
Here's how the Councillors voted on the smoking ban, Prop 371 : Yes (12) Republicans Hunter, Malone, Smith, and Vaughn, joined Democrats Bateman, Evans, Lewis , B. Mahern, Mansfield, Moriarty, Nytes, and Sanders. No (13) Libertarian Coleman and Democrats Brown and Oliver, joined Republicans Cain, Cardwell, Cockrum, Day, Lutz, McHenry, McQuillen, Plowman, Scales, and Speedy. Democrats D. Mahern and Gray abstained from the vote and Councillors Minton-McNeill and Pfisterer were absent all night. The vote failed.
While one cannot know how the Republicans would have voted had Mayor Ballard not instructed them not to let it get to his desk, one does have to wonder. And, one has to wonder whether any of the Councillors believe they have a duty as separately elected officials to act separately from their party and separately from the reelection efforts of the Mayor of the same party.
I do want to thank Councillors Hunter and Mansfield for authoring Prop 371 and Councillors Evans and Malone for signing on to it. A smoking ban is a discussion this community needs to have. And we will have it again because this is the path down which smoking in Indy will be curtailed. The only question is when.
For those who like to follow these things, BartLies.com devotes at least 95% of its efforts to real time tracking of murders in our community.
Community policing gets the nod as to what is having an impact. Of course, trends up in violent crime are usually credited to increased percentages of teenage youth in a community or something equally outside of public safety control, while dropping rates are credited to some police action. That aside, Scott Newman's analytical approach to proving that something works, then repeating those proven activities, was a real advantage in our City. Hopefully that emphasis is not gone with his departure.
Let's keep our fingers crossed that there indeed are fewer than 100 homicides in Indianapolis in 2009. Then lets keep our fingers crossed that IMPD can pinpoint how to keep that number dropping.
Saturday, October 31, 2009
Gary Welsh over at Advance Indiana has already noted the Star article in today's edition, byline by Tom Spalding. At least Tom read the Forbes list before just publishing the Mayor's press release which the Star has posted on its website.
I went to the Forbes list and broke it down by 2008 violent crime rate alone, where Indianapolis metropolitan area comes in 30th of the 40 largest. Here is the ranking for that category:
|Metro Area||MSA Population|
|2||San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA||1,819,198|
|4||Austin-Round Rock, TX||1,652,602|
|6||Providence-New Bedford-Fall River, RI-MA||1,596,611|
|9||Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington, MN-WI||3,229,878|
|11||New York-Northern New Jersey-Long Island, NY-NJ-PA||19,006,798|
|13||Virginia Beach-Norfolk-Newport News, VA-NC||1,658,292|
|14||San Diego-Carlsbad-San Marcos, CA||3,001,072|
|18||Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario, CA||4,115,871|
|19||Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington, TX||6,300,006|
|20||Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Marietta, GA||5,376,285|
|21||Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana, CA||12,872,808|
|23||St. Louis, MO-IL||2,816,710|
|24||Milwaukee-Waukesha-West Allis, WI||1,549,308|
|25||San Antonio, TX||2,031,445|
|27||Kansas City, MO-KS||2,002,047|
|29||San Francisco-Oakland-Fremont, CA||4,274,531|
|32||Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater, FL||2,733,761|
|33||Houston-Sugar Land-Baytown, TX||5,728,143|
|35||Miami-Fort Lauderdale-Pompano Beach, FL||5,414,772|
|39||Las Vegas-Paradise, NV||1,865,746|
I pulled down the 2008 FBI report on the number of violent crimes for a few rather random Cities across the US. Note the Forbes ranking is for Metropolitan areas, not just the major City in that area. Using the population data and the number of violent crimes, I calculated the number of violent crimes per 1000 people. All other numbers are from the FBI report. The cities are arranged alphabetically in the next table. If you'd like to peruse the entire list yourself it is found at : 2008 FBI Crime Statistics data set
per 1000 people
|City||Murder and |
The FBI Uniform Crime Report does caution about comparing different cities crime rates as these are self-reported numbers. But, they are also the best information we have. In the Star article Robert Vane, spokesman for Mayor Ballard, reiterated the claim that the Indianapolis crime rate has dropped 6% since Ballard took over in January of 2008; but no details have been forthcoming. The FBI has not yet released its report for 2009, so we also have no benchmarks for comparisons.
At the end of the day, the Ballard administration's over eagerness to bathe itself in self-congratulations is an excuse for us to look at the success or failure of our City's crime prevention efforts through a broader lens than we normally do. It is of concern that we rank worst of the 40 largest metropolitan areas for deaths on the job. That should be a wake-up call. It is of concern that New York, San Francisco, Chicago, and Washington DC (of all places) metro areas are all 'safer' than the Indy area when it comes to violent crime. I guess the question is, does the Mayor look at crime the same way? Or is his administration cherry picking the statistics that show his efforts in their best light? Just like they were trying to do by celebrating our ranking on the Forbes list.
A little noticed aspect of the property tax formula turns the egalitarian-sounding tax caps upside down. That is the "Supplemental Deduction" - line 2b for those following along at home. Line 2a is the old "Homestead Deduction" that every owner occupied residential property receives - total of $45,000 or 60% of the gross AV, whichever is less. The supplemental deduction is 35% of the next $600,000 of AV, followed by 25% of any AV over $645,000. You can find that information and more on the County Treasurer's FAQ page.
I backward engineered the tax bills to see the effect of these deductions on the tax rate required to make homeowners hit the property tax caps. This ignores other deductions that can be applied to a property tax bill due to some aspect of the homeowner or their finances. Your final bill will also be affected by the credits for property tax relief that are being phased out.
A million dollar home would get $45,000 + $210,000 + $88,750 = $343,750 total deductions (homestead plus 35% supplemental plus 25% supplemental). So, by my calculations, the tax rate would have to hit 1.5% before the million dollar home hit the 1% cap.
A $600,000 home would get $45,000 + $194,250 = $239,250 total deductions and the tax rate would have to hit 1.7% before this home hits the 1% cap.
Whereas a $100,000 home would get $45,000 + $19,250 = $64,250 total deductions and the tax rate would have to hit 2.8% before that home hits the 1% cap.
And lastly, a lowly $50,000 home would get only $30,000 deduction (can only deduct up to 60% the AV of the home with the homestead deduction) and the tax rate need only be 2.5% before that home hits the 1% cap.
So, the million dollar mansion hits the protection of the caps before lower priced homes. The protection of the caps is further away as your property's assessed value fades from the mansion level until about $75,000 in assessed value, where the situation slowly begins to reverse.
For the 1.5% property tax caps -- the million dollar mansion hits that cap when the tax rate is 2.3%, the $600,000 home hits when the rate is 3.8%, the $100,000 home hits when the rate is 4.2%, and the $50,000 home hits when the rate is 3.5%. So, those who hit the caps this time are more likely to be your very expensive homes or your extremely inexpensive homes.
It sure would be nice if all were treated equally or, gasp, if those more able to pay were charged a higher rate.
Friday, October 30, 2009
Saturday, October 24, 2009
Hold them to their promise not to raise your property taxes. Vote "NO" on the Wishard question. You will not be forcing them to live with burst pipes. You will not be forcing them to live without a new campus. You will only be forcing them to be true to their word - that they will not use property taxes to repay the bonds they use to finance the project.
The smoking ban, Proposal 371, introduced by Councillors Hunter and Mansfield, now has Councillors Evans and Malone signed on as sponsors. Prop 371 passed out of the Community Affairs Committee on October 14 with a do pass recommendation by a vote of 4-2. The minutes of that meeting are not yet posted, so I do not know which Councillors voted which way on the very tough issue. Those on the Committee include Councillors Speedy (chair), Bateman, Day, Hunter, Lewis, Minton-McNeil (likely absent), and Smith.
A not-hot and mildly worded proposal will also be voted on Monday night - Prop 378, which is a Special Resolution that "supports FedEx Express operations and the City of Indianapolis", introduced by Council President Bob Cockrum. I looked it up because FedEx is an operation situated mostly in Decatur Township, where it is shielded from paying its full due of property taxes because of sweetheart deals with the Airport Authority. The language of the Resolution is really vaguely worded, and as it turns out, deliberately so. Here is the key whereas clause:
WHEREAS, Congress is currently reviewing a 230-word provision in the FAA
Reauthorization Act of 2009 (H.R. 915) which unfairly targets FedEx Express and
could lead to disruption and job loss at the FedEx Express Hub;
Nowhere does the Resolution get any more clear than that. So, I Googled "Fed Ex Express HR 915". Turns out the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2009 would change the sweetheart deal Fed Ex has gotten for decades to be under the Railway Labor Act and not the National Labor Relations Act for the purposes of union organizing. See here for more detail. And the Fed Ex union view here. UPS is governed by the NLRA, by the way. Seems to me that any loss of jobs would be Fed Ex's doing. This is a wayward proposal that is deliberately weasel-worded to cover up its anti-organizing position. Prop 378 passed the Rules & Public Policy Committee on October 13 with a do-pass recommendation vote of 5-1. Those members present were Councillors Lutz (chair), Cockrum, Gray, Malone, Pfisterer, and Plowman. I can guess how they voted, but I do not know for sure. During the Committee meeting, Councillor Cockrum mentioned that he and Councillor Vaughn were approached by the head of the Indianapolis operations of Fed Ex to put forth this resolution that urges Senators Bayh and Lugar to vote against this provision of HR 915.
Surprisingly enough, there appears to my eye to be no thrilling Proposals in the batch to be introduced on Monday night.
Tuesday, October 20, 2009
Looks to me like the folks at the Frontier Foundation wanted the IRS to think they had an active scholarship program.
Monday, October 19, 2009
What if they included in the referendum the very information they were required to publish in the public notice? Required to publish because it is pertinent information for the voters?.... What if they included that information in the actual referendum question?
the cost of the project (maximum of $703,040,000),
the term of the bonds (maximum of 30 years),
revealed that the bonds would be secured with property taxes,
the lease arrangement with the Indianapolis-Marion County Building Authority,
that there would be two or more buildings whose function related to medical care,
that there would be one or more garage and/or parking lot,
that there would be a power plant built,
that the maximum annual payment would be $54,807,604,
which could end up with a maximum increase in the property tax rate of $0.1474 per $100 of assessed value,
and that the tax increase would be outside the property tax caps (so homesteads would pay up to 1% of gross assessed value PLUS up to $0.1474 per $100 of net assessed value)
that the total debt owed by all taxing units in Marion County secured by property taxes is $2,160,112,176,
that the maximum interest rate for the bonds would be 6.1.%,
that the maximum interest to be paid over the life of the bonds would be $830,478,858,
and that none of the preceding included the $120 million to be obtained through the Build America bonds (which is used to pay down interest) or the $150 million that Health & Hospitals has stashed away already for the project ???
At the end of the day I must assume that the reason they chose to be relieved of the onus of full disclosure in the referendum question, is that they were worried the public would reject their project due to the property tax guarantee for the repayment of the bonds.
Matt Gutwein, CEO of Marion County Health and Hospitals, Corp., says that they fully intend to repay with ongoing revenues, but are proposing bonds secured with property taxes because the interest on that type of bond is lower. That would be true if the bond buyers are reluctant to believe that the ongoing revenues are a sure thing for the next 30 years. Which of course begs the question, if savvy investors would reject the notion of an ongoing profit for Wishard, why should a savvy voter believe it?
But, anyway, what if full disclosure was the approach the Wishard folks had taken. What would the discussion then be? Well, I think it would be a closer scrutiny by the public of the cost figures, the proposed assortment of buildings, the amount of financial support Wishard should be getting from the IU School of Medicine, and how costs could be trimmed to simultaneously accommodate the needs of our County Hospital and be frugal with taxpayer dollars. Important points when you are the one who must repay the bonds with taxes you pay on your property. Not so important if you consider it all 'free'.
Here are the questions I would raise if the property tax issue were either fully disclosed or taken off the table:
What is the expected cost of each building?
Given the per square foot cost of the power plant is $1335.55, how much do you need that building? Will it generate efficiencies? If so, how long before the cost to build is recouped through the efficiencies? Would IUPUI or IU Medical School share in the utilities produced by the plant? If so, why are they not helping to pay for it? Would the plant generate energy through a green technology?
The 'faculty office building' -- who is it for? IU School of Medicine faculty? If so, why isn't IU helping to build that building?
In any case, why doesn't IU School of Medicine chip in for the cost of the new hospital or even pay an ongoing access fee for using it as a teaching hospital? They certainly gain from having new facilities to teach in and the faculty certain pull down added income by using the hospital and offices for a private practice on top of their teaching and/or research duties. IU School of Medicine charges tuition - why should they get the use of a teaching hospital for free?
Would you disclose the latest cost per square foot of comparable hospitals that were used for your projected costs?
How many beds would the new facility have and how many does the current facility?
Will the parking garage be just for patients and doctors, or would parking by University and/or School of Medicine personnel also be allowed. If the latter, why aren't those institutions chipping in for the cost of increased parking on their campus?
How does the Wishard role as the County Hospital include an outpatient facility? Perhaps I need an explanation of what indigent care is required and what care is provided for profit by Wishard. How much of the outpatient facility is for profit, and how much to fill a need that the other medical enterprises in town cannot fill.
Will the furniture and equipment in the current facility be moved to the new facility? Or, will it all be junked and all brand new equipment and furniture provided by the project? How much of the total cost is represented by new furniture and equipment?
And last but not least, the project you are proposing would increase the total Marion County debt secured by property taxes, by a whopping 33%. Is it wise to have so much debt or for so much of it to be encumbered by just one project?
Those are the questions that would come to me about this project if Gutwein and Co., weren't out there selling a referendum legally required because of bonds secured with property taxes, all the while saying they will not raise property taxes to repay the bonds. I think we deserve honesty from our government, even if it means they won't get their pet project built. At the end of the day, it isn't their government or their project, it is ours.
The referendum law for large capital projects requires the following wording:
"Shall ________ (insert the name of the political subdivision) issue bonds or enter into a lease to finance ___________ (insert a brief description of the controlled project), which is estimated to cost not more than _______ (insert the total cost of the project) and is estimated to increase the property tax rate for debt service by ___________ (insert increase in tax rate as determined by the department of local government finance)?".
The midnight insertion for Wishard provides that they can use the following wording:
"Shall the Health and Hospital Corporation of Marion County, Indiana, issue bonds or enter into a lease to finance (insert the description of the project)?".
The additional specifics must be provided in a legal notice that links the project information to the referendum. Of course, few people will see or read the legal notice. It has been provided at HadEnoughIndy previously. Unlike with other referenda, nowhere is the total cost of the project required, just the amount of the bonds that will finance the deal. So, as Matt Gutwein, CEO of the Marion County Health & Hospitals Corp., likes to brag about, there is a savings account with $150 million that H&H has managed to squirrel away. According to the Wishard project website, that $150 million will also be spent on this project and add to the bonded amounts that require disclosure and which were disclosed not to exceed $703 million. That website, by the way does not describe the project at all - no number or uses of the buildings - nothing - not even the artist renderings Gutwein has been hauling around the County. http://www.wishardfacts.org/ check it out, its just a PR piece.
Required of all referendum questions, is specific details, including per square foot charges, that are to be posted on the State Department of Local Government Finance website. The per square foot charges listed there for the Wishard project are:
Hospital building and ambulatory clinic - $635.96 (estimated).
Administrative office building - $286.43 (estimated).
Parking garage - $56.69 (estimated).
Central utility plant - $1,335.55 (estimated).
The per square foot information would be far more valuable if there were also an estimate of the total square footage of each structure. But, even the above information has value.
The 'central utility plant' has received very little attention. The only question I have heard posed, but not answered, was if it was going to be based on 'green' energy. Given the cost per square foot, renewed efforts to gain clarification of its purpose and usefulness, especially since there is access to electricity from more conventional sources, should be undertaken.
The Administrative office building is listed on the artist rendering, available through the IBJ, as 'Faculty Office', as in an office building for IU Medical Instructors. So, a good question is, why should Marion County taxpayers be on the hook, either through proceeds of its Health & Hospital Corp. or through increased property taxes, for a building to benefit the IU Medical School? Which, by the way, is contributing nothing to the project, either for construction or for ongoing operations, even though it is a vital asset as a teaching hospital for IU and provides its faculty with the opportunity to also have a private practice.
More questions to come in a future entry entitled "What If..." But, for this moment, lets not forget that the Legislature allowed our first public referendum to be watered down to essentially say "We do good works. Shall we continue?" Hopefully the democratic process promised by referenda will not be gutted for any future project and the rights of the voters will be held in higher esteem than shown for the Wishard project referendum.
Thursday, October 15, 2009
Cuts at the financially-strapped Capital Improvement Board may have come to an end for now.
The head of the group that oversees the Indiana Convention Center and Lucas Oil Stadium said major cost-cutting has put their budget back in the black.
"We got the emergency loan from the state to take care of our potential one time deficit which would've essentially put us under," said CIB President Bob Grand.
That loan is for $27 million over three years. But, Grand said the CIB may not take this year's scheduled $9 million payment.
"Which we're not sure quite frankly that we're going to need at this point given the reduction in costs and all the things that we've achieved in operational savings," Grand said.
Grand said about a dozen layoffs and other reductions have saved about $12 million. The CIB's operating budget is now $62 million.
The logical question I would have to ask Grand is, "So, you don't need the loan, but you said the CIB would have gone under without it. How does that make sense?" But, of course, Don Welsh of the ICVA is still on the hunt for his $3 - $5 million increase over the roughly $9 million they already get from he CIB. Corbin's report continues:
But, the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association, which itself cut eight jobs, said it desperately needs at least 5 million dollars of that budget to keep other cities from stealing away two key conventions.
"We're in ongoing negotiations with Fire Department Instructors Conference and Dealer Expo, two of our largest, top five conventions that we bring into Indianapolis annually," said Bill Benner of the ICVA.
With both contracts up by 2012, the city is speeding up work on the new Convention Center.
Then Corbin pulls out the old malarkey numbers that really should be vetted by somebody besides Welsh, whose $400,000 salary plus benefits does not qualify him as an independent expert on the subject. Here's what Corbin reports:
So why should you care whether or not the city is able to lure conventions?
Well, leaders say tourism accounts for $800 million a year and if the city didn't have that money property taxes would go up $100 a year per household.
Leaders say it's the age old issue: cut costs or raise taxes.
"I'd be willing to pay more if it's for incentives for conventions because that'll help overall I think," said Indianapolis resident Michael Warshauer.
"A lot of my friends are out of work. So, I don't think that would be an alternative. I think there are other places the city can look to cut," said Carol French.
I'd like to know what cuts Ms. French would have made to keep Mr. Welsh in high cotton. But back to Corbin's report:
Grand said the CIB is deferring decision on the loan until December 31.
They're now working with the city-county council on a long range financial plan that would include other localities. A new committee will be looking into that option within the next few weeks.
So, while the taxpayers get a small boost in that the CIB may actually say "thanks but no thanks" to at least the first $9 million loan from the State, the push for more and more money continues.
Tuesday, October 13, 2009
Thanks to Jon Easter over at IndyDemocrat for bringing forward today, an expose' from the Journal & Courier of Lafayette, Indiana, by reporter David Smith - Rep. Buyer-linked foundation draws attention. This report evolved out of a report by USA Today (an IndyStar sister paper) titled Lobbyists unlimited in honoring lawmakers, which reported on the largess bestowed on charities with ties to Congressmen, and which exposed the Buyer / Frontier Foundation / lobbyist largess link. Sandra Chapman at Channel 13 (an IndyStar local sister media outlet) reported on Buyer's Foundation just last night, and other blogs have picked this story up, including MassonsBlog entries going back to June, 2009 (here, here, and here), TalkingPointsMemo, and now BlueIndiana, which links to Chapman's report. Will the Star be next?
Starting it all, USA Today reported:
Under ethics rules passed in 2007, lobbyists for the first time last year had to report any payment made for an event or to a group connected to a lawmaker and other top federal officials.
USA TODAY undertook the first comprehensive analysis of the lobbying reports and found 2,759 payments, totaling $35.8 million, were made in 2008. The money went to honor 534 current and former lawmakers, almost 250 other federal officials and more than 100 groups, many of which count lawmakers among their members.
The total cost is roughly equivalent to what the U.S. government spends to operate Yellowstone National Park each year.
Most of the money — about $28 million — went to non-profit groups, some with direct ties to members of Congress. In two cases, USA TODAY found, the donations to non-profits associated with a member of Congress came in response to a personal appeal for funds from the lawmaker.
Of Buyer's Frontier Foundation, Inc., in particular they reported:
Amgen also donated to the Frontier Foundation in honor of Rep. Steve Buyer, R-Ind., who is on the House panel that regulates the drug industry. The foundation, which provides college scholarships and once was headed by Buyer's daughter, received $385,000 in donations from pharmaceutical companies from 2005 through 2007, according to its IRS filings.
Buyer, who has worked on health policy in Congress for years, helped kill a provision in 2007 opposed by drug companies and broadcasters that would have imposed a three-year ban on advertising new drugs, congressional records show. Consumer advocates, including the Consumers Union, pushed the measure, arguing that aggressive drug pitches unduly sway patients to seek treatment from drugs before their safety records have been established.
During debate by a Commerce subcommittee, Buyer co-sponsored an amendment that stripped the advertising ban from a larger bill overhauling the Food and Drug Administration.
In an interview, Buyer said "there is no connection" between his legislative actions and donations to the foundation. "I'm not an officer. I'm not a board director," he said of his role in the non-profit. "Do I help the foundation? Yes, I do. Do I help other charity groups? Yes, I do." He referred other questions to foundation officials.
The charity's IRS filing covering the year 2007, the most recent available, listed Buyer's daughter, Colleen, as its unpaid president. Stephanie Mattix, listed as the group's paid secretary/treasurer, is executive director of Buyer's political action committee, Storm Chasers, according to Federal Election Commission filings.
Mattix and Buyer told USA TODAY that Colleen Buyer had left the group and referred questions to its president, Brenda Olthoff. Olthoff did not respond to e-mails and calls. Colleen Buyer did not return telephone calls.
The National Association of Broadcasters contributed $25,000 in honor of Buyer to the foundation last year. Amgen donated $15,000. "I don't think there is a link between a specific vote on drug legislation and contributing to kids going to college in Indiana," says Dennis Wharton, the broadcasters' executive vice president. "We look at where we think it's a worthy cause." Davenport, Amgen's spokeswoman, says the gift matched the company's "philanthropic mission to improve education."
David Smith, Journal & Courier, brought out the twist that Frontier Foundation hasn't actually spent any of its money on the scholarships that are purported to be at the heart of their mission:
A nonprofit foundation associated with Rep. Steve Buyer, R-Monticello, has been
quietly collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations for the primary purpose of helping students pay for college.
But the foundation, which enjoys tax-exempt status, has yet to award its first scholarship after six years in existence.
Until this year, the operations of the Frontier Foundation operated under the public radar. People in Monticello's Twin Lakes High School, which keeps a file of scholarship resources from 55 local organizations, had not heard of it.
Information about Frontier Foundation emerged in the limelight earlier this year, triggered by a 2007 federal law that required companies to report, for the first time, contributions made in honor of members of Congress.
USA Today went through the documents and compiled a list of who received the most in honorary donations in 2008.
Buyer was 13th on the list with $192,225. Two of those donations, totaling $35,000, went to the Frontier Foundation.
Frontier Foundation's donations over the years have come primarily from organizations with stakes in legislation moving through committees on which Buyer sits.
Those include the pharmaceutical, health insurance and tobacco industries -- which have a stake in bills that go through the House Subcommittee on Health -- and the telecommunications industry. Bills affecting the latter go through the House Subcommittee on Communications, telecommunications and the Internet.
Attempts to reach Buyer for comment were unsuccessful. His press secretary referred questions to Frontier Foundation and said there was no connection between Buyer and the foundation.
"It's not Congressman Buyer's foundation," press secretary Anjulen Anderson said.
Buyer has several indirect connections, however. The foundation shares an office with his district office in Monticello, or at least did as of June 8, 2009, when it filed its most recent IRS Form 990 tax report. The Form 990 is an annual report certain federally tax-exempt organizations must file.
That report listed Buyer's daughter, Colleen Buyer, as president, and his finance director, Stephanie Mattix, as secretary-treasurer.
I took a look at the IRS Form 990s available at GuideStar.org, and found some more interesting information. In 2008, the Frontier Foundation, Inc., took in $117,633 and spent $63,711. Of the money spent, $55,827 is listed as 'Disbursement's for charitable purposes'. Of that, $16,411 went for salaries (not bad), $7,114 for fundraising expense, $52 for postage, $3,822 for meals, and a whopping $22,002 for travel for fundraising. Now $600 was spent on some awards, but no scholarships.
Back to David Smith's report:
In July 2004, Frontier Foundation Inc. sent out a letter, from Buyer's office, soliciting donations of $25,000 for each foursome at an Aug. 31, 2004, outing at Fenway Golf Club in Scarsdale, N.Y. Buyer's name was listed at the top as "honorary chairman." His daughter, Colleen, was listed as a board member.
So, who knows if the 2008 expenses were for a golf outing. But, it is outrageous that a slush fund for travel and food expenses can continue to masquerade as a charity to support Indiana scholars. We need to overhaul our campaign finance laws and plug the loopholes that allow these obvious frauds from being perpetrated to buy votes in Congress.