Wednesday, August 10, 2011

There you go again

[Note: This article originally appeared in the August 2011 edition of Ferndale Friends] 
Before becoming too big an advocate for everything the DDA does, some might reconsider their thoughts about trickle-down economics.

Whatever else President Ronald Reagan may be famous for, no other president has inspired as many synonyms for horse-feed economics as The Gipper.

Also known as horse-and-sparrow theory, the idea is that if you feed enough oats to the horse there will surely be something left (behind) for the birds to eat.

It gained national attention recently in 1980 (well, that’s recent for some of us) when Ronald Reagan’s primary opponent, George (the elder) Bush, described Reagan’s supply-side theory as voodoo economics. Voodoo economics became Reaganomics, also known as trickle-down economics.

Traditional trickle-down polices favor tax breaks and subsidies for banks, manufacturers, big oil companies, and the nebulously-defined but much reviled “rich,” with the expectation that those tax dollars will seep through jobs and yacht club memberships to the rest of us so we may afford Netflix’s price increases.

The idea is regularly pummeled wherever Liberals gather in large numbers. But here in Ferndale, and in many cities across the state, that is precisely what Downtown Development Authorities are, if only on a smaller scale.

The Ferndale DDA doesn’t provide tax breaks for downtown businesses (that I know of), but it does subsidize and promote them at taxpayer expense, relieving business owners of having to pay for, or pick out colors, themselves. The intention being, that government can improve the economy for all of us by focusing much of its attention businesses.

Ferndale DDA Director, Cristina Sheppard-Decius was wearing her best Reagan swag when she told the Ferndale Patch,
“This isn't just about businesses and downtown,” she said. “Downtown is the heart of the community, and if the heart stops … You know what happens when the heart stops."
The DDA director knows what her job is and what’s at stake. Our community reflects the health of its downtown.

This actually explains a lot. That noise keeping residents up at night on Troy wasn’t revelers and loud music—it was prosperity leaking into their bedrooms.

So to be consistent with our derision of government subsidies for dairy producers and chicken farmers, or tax breaks for manufacturers and green companies, we risk becoming hypocrites if we don’t also scrutinize our DDA, its revenue, expenses, and its impact on the city’s revenue and expenses.

And conversely, if you think the DDA’s work is important and your life or property values improved by their efforts, then you might consider that similar programs at the state and national level have merit as well.

Whichever path of reason you take, all uses of tax-payer money should be critically examined.

The Business of Government

Another threat to the city’s budget is our own school board.

Until very recently, the district planned to extract $50,000 annually from the city, and still hopes for more from district residents through a possible February millage increase (FF, June 2011).

It is said by many that government should be run like a business. Though many people say that, most aren’t clear what that would mean.

Few have as good a grasp of running government like a business as do Michigan’s Governor, Rick Snyder, and Ferndale School’s Superintendent Gary Meier.

While other school districts have teetering budgets, Gary Meier is running the school district like a business—looking to increase income and not just reduce expenses, and is safely in the black.

But Gary’s business is a hybrid. He can collect tuition from out-of-district students AND ask for a 7-mill tax increase from in-district residents.

It’s good business if you can get it.

The Ferndale Patch (my next favorite read after FF) quoted Mr. Meier saying,
"In order to move forward with a stable district as a whole, we have to look at revenue. We have to look at the revenue side of the ledger, not just the expenses.
"Every year, a percentage of the surpluses is saved for this project, for this work. Sometimes you have to invest a few dollars to make a few dollars."
Meier and the school board are broadening the district’s revenue by providing services to out-of-district and non-traditional students—which is another way of saying school-age kids and non-school-age adults that don’t live in Ferndale. The district may abandon their plan to purchase the Hayes Lemmerz site, but their desire to consolidate adult education, alternative education, and a possible charter school onto a single campus to make them easier for non-district residents to attend and our district to collect tuition makes too much business sense.

The residents living near the existing adult education center at Taft won’t be sorry to see it go—if it goes.

While campaigning around the school a couple years back, residents were ready with multiple stories about vandalism and drug abuse—anxious to tell them to anyone that would listen. But such sacrifices, perhaps, are necessary when government is run like a business and increasing revenue is as important as increasing test scores.

Except that according to the state’s 2005-2010 progress report, our district’s students aren’t performing as well as our district’s balance sheet.

There isn’t anything necessarily wrong with running a school district like a business as long as the quality of its product remains high and the impact on the environment is low.

Is the purpose of public schools to educate or turn a profit? As shareholders in the Ferndale School district, are residents more interested in its alternative revenue sources or the quality of its product?

Rain Barrel Math

There are 231 cubic inches in a gallon. Ferndale is 3.9 square miles, but if we annex a little bit of Pleasant Ridge we can make it four square miles to make math easier and the TIF district larger.

Four square miles is over 111 million square feet, and over 16 billion square inches.

When one inch of rain falls on Ferndale (and a little bit of Pleasant Ridge) it drops 69.5 million gallons of water, or 1.26 million barrels on our lawns, gardens, rooftops, roads, and parking lots.

One inch of water over 1000 square feet of roof will fill over 11 barrels with water. I’m catching only one of them.

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