Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Fractured Fairytales

Some of you are old enough to remember Fractured Fairytales from the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. Ah, those were the days.

Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard's actions lately had me wondering what Fractured Fairytale applied the correct moral to his story.

As you know, Mayor Ballard has been reported from time to time as coming up with a plan to rescue the CIB from its own inept financial practices (along with the contributing inept practices of the two previous Mayors). The plan at any one time involves a menu of tax increases with a total price tag of an additional $48M per year on top of the $93M of tax support they already get. This new money would include a $15M gift to the Pacers to ease the burden of reduced interest in their home games and apparel sales.

Mayor Ballard has proposed a menu of tax increases to help bail the CIB out. He has even finally begun meeting with select politicos to push his plan. He has nothing of note to say to the public.

Meanwhile - back at the ranch - Greg Ballard, Mayor of Indianapolis, finds that money to run the City is very tight and will be even tighter next year. So, he is backing cuts on services to make ends meet. Ellenberger Park stands to lose its ice rink because the City took in $165,000 less than it cost to operate it last year. The City Market stands to lose it's $250,000 subsidy that keeps it afloat. Some City employees are not given business cards, even though they interact daily with the public. Is he seeking tax increases to support these ventures? Nope.

Credibility is the ultimate cost here for the two Mayor Ballards. How to reconcile cutbacks of paltry sums for services that directly affect quality of life, while he stubbornly clamors for immense influxes of cash to boost the bottom line for 3 people from filthy rich to filthier rich. How can Mayor Ballard sell the public on both at the same time? He can't. Nope. Ain't gonna happen.

Its all the public's money and spending that money should reflect healthy priorities that make Indy the best place FOR ALL ITS CITIZENS to live - not just the lucky few who can afford to attend football and basketball events.

So, back to the Fractured Fairytales. Is it the little boy with his finger in the dike - while gigantic waves crash over the top? Is it the little boy who cried wolf? Chicken Little? Got to be something where the moral of the story is : you can't take from the poor to give to the rich AND at the same time take from the poor to make ends meet AND claim you are a good steward of the public's money and interests.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Indy is Lucky to Have Him

Sometimes it seems that the right person is in the right place at the right time to make a difference. So it is, in my humble opinion, with David Reynolds, Controller of the City of Indianapolis.

Among the duties of Controller, is to craft a budget for the City-County; a nightmare for even the most geeky bean counters among us. In addition, Reynolds is a point person trying to grind out numbers and come up with a solution to meet the CIB bailout. Even if you disagree with a bailout, somebody needs to be in there coming up with possibilities that are reliable options for consideration.

What makes the CIB debacle particularly onerous to me, is the enormous challenge the City and County Government is going to have to meet in the 2010 budget -- without the huge bump in new taxes that the CIB wants for itself.

The 'perfect storm' analogy has been used considerably in the last few years - beginning with the taxpayer revolt over substantial increases in property taxes. That revolt led to the property tax caps that take full effect in 2010. I think it is appropriate to use 'perfect storm' to describe the challenge facing Indianapolis in crafting a budget for 2010.

The residential, commercial, and industrial property tax caps will be down to 1, 2, and 3% of assessed value, respectively, in 2010. I have heard that it could mean a reduction of up to $50M in the City-County budget. The full budget was $1.1B in 2009, so it might not seem like much cutting. That would be a false illusion, as the City-County operates on other income besides taxes. Activities that collect fees are the only activities which can be funded by those fees. That leaves things like Public Safety and Parks susceptible to the tax cuts, while Code Compliance, for instance, could like remain little touched.

In 2009, expected tax revenue was $640M, with property tax revenue comprising $303M of that total.

Add the economic downturn to the tax caps impact. Monthly revenues collected by the State have been down 15% year to year recently. Extrapolating that barometer, fairly or not I don't know, would suggest up to another $45M decrease in tax revenues other than property taxes. Layoffs affect income tax revenues, decreased travel affects innkeepers tax revenues, and lower new car sales affect wheel tax revenues.

Add also the decreasing value of residential property that will begin to show up in assessed value in 2010. Assessed values decline 1-2 years after the real price decline has occurred. So, 2010 is when we shall begin to see the housing market fallout in the assessed value. Combined with tax caps, this means even fewer tax revenues for the City and County.

Although the Controller does not have direct authority over the budgets of the Municipal Corporations, he will be involved in finding solutions. In addition to the CIB drama, the Public Library also has a shortfall affecting debt payments to the tune of $25M. We have no word on the effect of the failing economy on IndyGo or Health & Hospitals budgets. Certainly for all these Municipal Corporations, the lower tax revenues mentioned above should be expected, maybe to the tune of 15%.

Controller is an unenviable position to hold in our City right now. We are lucky to have David Reynolds in that post because he is quite capable, smart, and honest.

All this does not remove responsibility from the public to pay attention to the budget process this coming August. The cuts will be real and it is up to the public to weigh in on how the cuts are allocated throughout City-County government and its attendant services.

Monday, May 4, 2009

City-County Council Meets Tonight

The Indianapolis-Marion County City-County Council meets tonight. On its agenda for this evening is Proposal 62, 2009 that allows for the consolidation of the Perry Fire Department. The minutes to the April 15, 2009, Public Safety Committee, show they voted 5-2 to recommend do pass, with extensive procedural discussion on an amendment authored by Councillor Oliver. They agreed the amendment language should be worked on and introduced at the full Council debate on the proposal. It was unclear by the minutes exactly what the amendment was, but references imply it has to do with minority and women hiring and promoting practices of IFD. Also contained in those minutes was this little nugget just at the end of the Proposal 62, 2009, discussion:
Councillor Oliver asked if it is anticipated that any other IFD stations will close by 2010. Director Newman answered that there is nothing firmly in place, but they are having general discussions about possibly closing some of the stations that are on valuable commercial real estate and rebuilding them on less valuable commercial real estate in an effort to realize financial benefits for taxpayers.
Proposals to be introduced tonight include these more interesting (to my eye) Proposals:
Prop 176 -- approves the refunding of $540 million bonds for the Water Company. These would replace the variable rate bonds that will end up costing taxpayers another $80 million-ish to get out of.
Prop 177 -- creates a City Department of Code Enforcement.
Prop 178 -- pit bull and dangerous dog ordinance. It also includes a ban on tying a dog to an immovable object like a tree. This is a complex proposal. I would suggest that folks review the latest McANA meeting where there pros and cons of this approach were aired. It is after the much longer discussion of the CIB bailout - a twofer, if you will. To view the video archive, click here -- then scroll down to the "Other Meetings" section and select the April 18 Marion County Alliance of Neighborhood Associations video link. The dog ordinance didn't come up until 2 hours and 2 minutes into the meeting, so you may want to forward to that point.

All three Proposals are to be referred to the Rules Committee which next meets on Tuesday, April 12, beginning at 5:30 in room 260 of the City-County Building.

Friday, May 1, 2009

The Role of the Press

I see two opinion pieces in today's Star regarding the train wreck that is this Legislative Session. First is Matt Tully's great column that reaffirms his writing and thinking talents. In 'Our lawmakers failed us again', Matt writes:
After four months of silly games and petty politics, lawmakers ended their 2009 session without fulfilling their only constitutional duty: passage of a new state budget. Despite a winter and spring spent cashing paychecks from taxpayers and enjoying free meals from lobbyists, the General Assembly failed Indiana.

First, the General Assembly is in dire need of new leaders. The annual brawls between House Speaker Pat Bauer and Republican leader Brian Bosma have turned the House into a gridlocked embarrassment. Second, there is a stunning lack of effective rebels in either chamber willing to challenge their legislative bosses and the old way of doing things. Third, if things don't change and if the legislature doesn't start thinking less about politics and more about policy, Indiana is going to sink even further behind other states.

The Star Editorial Board also took on the pathetic Session in an editorial titled 'A sad state of legislative leadership', which started with:

Rating the Indiana General Assembly's sessions is like rating Chicago Cubs seasons. The scale typically runs from disappointing to bad, to dismal to disastrous.

The legislative session that expired Wednesday night deserves a spot on the low end of that register for several reasons, including lawmakers' failure to complete a state budget before they adjourned. Now, taxpayers must bear the cost of a special session at a time when revenues are falling and services are squeezed. That's a minor concern in the scheme of things, but it does illustrate how ineffective and even irresponsible lawmakers were over the course of the session.

These are representative cases where the role of the Press in a free society is to call out elected officials who do not do the work of the people. This is a good thing.

But come election time, lets watch closely for who the Star endorses. While it is clear that Dan Burton will definitely feel the Star's wrath, will they settle for that token gesture? Will they do their usual thing of shedding crocodile tears for the state of our city, state and nation, then endorse all but one or two incumbents?