Thursday, February 28, 2008

It takes a village to spoil a politician

Americans are too distracted by the shenanigans of federal and state officials. If the congresspersons and senators of today were the commissioners, trustees and council persons of yesterday then we should pay closer attention to our local government. It is in our own backyard where poor decisions are tolerated, conflicts of interest overlooked, and politicians discover there's rarely a spanking for poor behavior.

Council's decision Monday night to approve the Downtown Development Authority's (DDA) request to extend a 1.3794 millage to businesses in the recently expanded Principal Shopping District (PSD) is a textbook example of bad governance and inadequate due diligence. Unfortunately, council's collaboration (councilwomen Baker served on the PSD committee) with the DDA to expand its powers, boundary, and tax burden on local businesses regardless the DDA's misrepresentations (read: lies) doesn't attract the negative press and attention it deserves.

How can a council approve a request from the DDA when that request is based on misleading numbers, misleading statements, failure to notify the public, and without substantive and challenging questions to verify the DDA's claims? How can a council constituted to represent the public tolerate the actions of an agency whose board doesn't represent its public? How can the council indulge the DDA's expansion in both size and taxes without proof of need or an invitation from businesses?

They can because promises to not raise taxes are more like "guidelines" than actual "promises." They can because monuments to council's self-importance are worth $30,000 and equipment for the axillary police is not. They can ignore evidence and refuse investigating complaints because their political philosophy values good intentions over full disclosure and accountability.

They can because the village they came from and are accountable to doesn't hold them accountable and rarely discusses their behavior. We've become enablers.

And some of these spoiled children will become tomorrow's candidates for county, state, and national office. Is it any wonder the state can't balance its budget, control spending, or attract businesses and investment? Is it any wonder congressmen and senators pack bills with earmarks and pork? Are they making policy or sausage?

Perhaps this is an unintended consequence of term-limits. As representatives are term-limited out of Lansing lessor politicians are socially promoted to take their place.

Perhaps we'd better keep a closer eye on the kindergartens. They're tomorrow's bus drivers in Washington, Lansing, and everywhere in-between.

All of this is an introduction to the original text of my comments to city council on Monday, February 25. Because of time limitations I edited it on-the-fly (and my diction was poor and I read too fast) so there are some items below that didn't make it to video.
A misleading effort
  • The presentation the DDA made to council in 2007 contained misleading information and omissions designed to make our DDA appear sympathetic and under-funded.

  • They under-reported their income on charts by $150,000.

  • They made false comparisons to Birmingham, RO, and Rochester

  • They misrepresented opposition to the district's expansion-stating in memoranda to council there was no opposition. In fact, multiple business owners both within the original and expanded boundaries approached both the DDA and city council, formally and informally, stating their opposition to the expansion and are willing to testify about those emails, phone calls, and meetings.

  • The already too-cozy relationship between the DDA, city employees, and city council resulted in a lack of due diligence, interrogatory, or even general discussion about the merits of the expansion.

  • Today the millage is requested on the Proposal-A limited taxable value of properties, but already the DDA is scheming to assess the tax on the state equalized value, which will cost all businesses roughly twice as much.

  • They have already approved a BUILD grant application without the money to fund it--then have used that application as justification for higher taxes

    • It's odd the BUILD grant application came from the president of Ferndale's Chamber of Commerce. The Chambers was conspicuously quiet regarding the $0.35/sqft. PSD tax. Earlier statements indicated the membership couldn't reach a consensus, but the prematurely-approved BUILD application suggests a conflict of interests. If the applicant had hoped for the BUILD request to be approved and new it depended on the PSD tax--it would be to the applicant's advantage to sit on the sidelines and neither support or oppose the tax.

    • Communications between the DDA, city, and council members FOIAed by Tiffani Gagne on behalf of substantiate the DDA, city, city council, and the applicant were aware of the BUILD request, the DDA's exploitation of it, and advice from elected officials on how to get around funding limitations as well as offers to pay for it from city funds.

  • In memoranda to the city requesting this most recent tax increase, the DDA claimed the city council put them in a bad position by approving the expansion request without an onerous tax--forgetting it was themselves, the DDA, that asked for the expansion in the first place.
A bad-faith effort
  • Even after admitting now is bad time to raise taxes the DDA is requesting additional taxes.
    • DDA, council members, and even the the mayor have described this as a drop in the bucket.
    • No rain-drop blamed itself for floods in New Orleans

  • Even though they expanded the district to include 187 new businesses they've made no effort to include those businesses on the DDA's board, and no board member has thought this lack of representation was important enough to sacrifice their own seat.

  • They've not included new businesses in the DDA's directory--even though that expense is minimal.

  • They've not patronized Ferndale businesses for their own expenses--specifically printing expenses.

  • They've not organized the Focus Groups they promised to "educate" and "involve" businesses in the expanded area, but they've wasted no time trying to tax them.

  • They've not mailed businesses any information warning them this request would be before council tonight or explaining specifically what services they can expect in return for the tax.

  • They've not spent any effort trying to trim their own expenses, as many businesses and even government agencies are forced to do in tough economic times. If they had they could easily have found $18,000 in lease expenses alone--with money left over.
A misguided-effort
  • In candidate Craig Covey's own words, "... our downtown is sparkling."

  • Our businesses and local charity groups have already proved they can simultaneously promote downtown Ferndale and raise money for charity or profit on their own--without the DDA's assistance.

  • Our DDA, which was intended to be a business accelerator, has become a business breaker--through its own policies, rules, permits, fees--many of them duplicating city hall requirements--it has made opening businesses in Ferndale more difficult, not less difficult.

  • Meanwhile, the Hilton Road corridor is in desperate need of attention. Economic development programs are available for it as well, but our city seems preoccupied with its downtown.

  • perhaps it's too comfortable with its downtown and prefers to rest on its laurels than attack the challenge of Hilton Road, whose revitalization over the next 5-to-10 years would mean more to our entire city's economic health, including our downtown's, than any incremental improvements in our downtown alone.
I could have gone on, but council passed a new rule in January limiting public comments on agenda items to three-minutes, similar to the three-minute call-to-audience limitation. More time would have allowed more specifics, more congruity, and perhaps a more persuasive argument.

If that wasn't the intent of the egg timer, it's at least a fringe-benefit to council.


  1. Tom, I am very disappointed that you link blogs like SAYET RIGHT on your page. Have you read the rhetoric and lies that permeate those "articles"? Such lines as "Democrats hate America and believe the people are bad." is the norm, and that is not even taken out of context. I would expect better from you! By linking to sites such as these you are spreading the divisions in this country. This is not useful dialog, it is name calling and hate instigating. By linking to it you are at least giving your tacit apporval of it. Shame on you and your right wing extremist views.

  2. Dear Anonymous,

    I agree that some of what Evan Sayet writes is over-the-top for many people. But the trick to reading anyone's writing is to, I think, be able to ignore the hyperbole and decide if there's an interesting message inside it.

    I certainly don't believe Democrats hate America, but I am disappointed whenever anyone disparages capitalism, stokes them flames of class warfare, and promotes the notion that governments can be charitable, or suggests we deserved 9/11.

    It doesn't make logical sense that all Democrats hate America. But I do agree that many people seem embarrassed by America's success and seem to believe its easier to bring America down than lift other countries and people up. Labeling such people as Democrats or ascribing them to the Democratic Party is misleading.

    When I read Evan's or other better-written-and-read authors' articles I try to give more notice to the descriptions of what is said and done than the labels that become their shorthand.

    As a side note, I deliberately avoided labeling any of our councilpersons as Liberal or Democrat, or imply that what they did was stereotypically Liberal or Democrat. Instead I decided to describe what I think they did and draw attention to their actions (or inactions) and let the reader decide if what they did was right or wrong. The fact that all in favor of raising the tax and expanding the role of government in Ferndale's downtown lean to the left could be coincidence.

    Personally, I think its behavior such as we witnessed Monday that gives "The Left" a bad name. I'm confident it's possible to be "left" and at still think it worthwhile to make sure what people are telling you is accurate before voting. I think you can be left or right and still find it worthwhile to heartily debate an issue and give an issue its deserved hearing before voting on it.

    Thoroughness and deliberation and not the franchise of the right.

  3. Could you provide some more information on this "BUILD grant". Was this a grant for the C of C? What is it's purpose? How much funding will it receive from the DDA?

  4. The BUILD request, as I understand it, is for Blumz, and the grant is for up to $15,000. It's owner, Jerome Raska, is also the Ferndale Chamber's chairman. To qualify the improvement is supposed to be for the building's facade.

    Blumz is not within the DDA's original boundaries and so wouldn't have qualified for the grant unless the expansion was approved. It certainly calls into question why the chamber didn't take a position for or against the DDA/PSD's expansion or the tax assessment. If they think the expansion and its attendent tax is a good thing for business then they should have promoted it. If they think the expansion and tax was unnecessary then they should have opposed it.

    Without taking a position on an ordinance that affects businesses so directly their motives have become suspicious and the chamber's purpose and credibility seems diluted.

  5. How can we fight this government central planning stuff? Now the state is planning to give away actual tax dollars - not just tax breaks - to film producers and certain high tech companies. The Mackinac Center has proven empirically that none of this stuff works; Adam Smith proved it historically and theoretically. We all know that pols do it only to look like they're "doing something" and thereby avoid the heavy lifting that genuinely improving the business climate requires. (Plus to enrich friendly rent-seekers.) Yet it is extremely difficult to get the public to care enough to raise a stink. Yes, I'm frustrated, and I know you are too. Sorry to vent on your blog. :embarrassed grin:

  6. Don't worry about venting on the blog. It's why it's here!

    What we're doing is gathering petition signatures to repeal the entire PSD. No PSD, no PSD taxes.

    Regarding the checks, there was an interesting article in the Detroit News this week, Better to earn rebate than receive 'payment'. Well written.

    Of course, the problem with editorials is, of course, not enough people read them. Regrettably, too few people are even reading newspapers--which accounts for their diminishing profits...