Category Archives: Local Government

Pandemics And Parking Meters

Back in 2011,  Indianapolis (under  then-Mayor Ballard) entered into a  fifty-year agreement with  a consortium called Park Indy  to upgrade and manage the city’s parking meters. At the time, I was  among those who argued strenuously against that agreement.

I  had  two major objections  and two never-answered questions.

The first objection was to the fifty-year length of the contract. Even if the deal had been less one-sided fiscally, decisions about where to place meters, how to price them, what lengths of time to allow and so on have an enormous impact on local businesses and residential neighborhoods. As I said at  the time, these are decisions requiring flexibility in the face of changing circumstances; they are most definitely not decisions that should be held hostage to contracting provisions aimed at protecting a vendor’s profits.

My  second objection was that, under the terms of the contract, downtown developments and civic events would become more costly. More often than not, new  construction interrupts adjacent parking. If the city is managing its own meters, it can choose to ignore that loss of parking revenue, or decide to charge the developer, based upon the City’s best interests. Street festivals and other civic celebrations also require  that meters be bagged, and usually there are good reasons not to charge the not-for-profit or civic organization running the event. The ParkIndy contract required the City to pay ACS whenever  interruptions require bagging the meters and disrupting projected revenues from those meters.

No one could have foreseen a pandemic, of course. That’s the point. When you contract away your  flexibility, your authority to make decisions that are responsive  to  unforeseen events, you end up owing a lot  of money to the private  vendor. Indianapolis closed certain streets to  traffic,  in order to allow restaurants to serve customers outdoors, a move that probably kept some of them afloat during a very difficult time. That required bagging  the meters  on those streets. WISH reports that the city  has already had to pay Park Indy 450,000 under the contract–at a time when the pandemic is wreaking  havoc with city and state finances.

File that  payment under “adding insult to injury,” since, according to periodic reports, the city has never come close to receiving the income it projected when this ill-conceived privatization agreement was negotiated. In May of 2016, the Indianapolis Star reported that the city was reaping only about a quarter of the dollars ParkIndy projected when it paid $20 million for the right to operate the meters until 2061.

Then there  are  my two questions.

As I wrote at the time, why privatize at all? Parking isn’t rocket science. There was never a satisfactory response to the obvious question “why can’t we do this ourselves, and keep all the money?” Why couldn’t Indianapolis retain control of its infrastructure, and issue revenue bonds to cover the costs of the necessary improvements? Interest rates were at a historic low at the time, making it even more advantageous to do so. If the Ballard administration was too inept to manage parking, it could have created a Municipal Parking Authority, as Councilor Jackie Nytes  suggested at the time.

What was the compelling reason to enrich private contractors and reduce (desperately needed) City revenues.

And finally,  why ACS –the company that is the primary partner of ParkIndy. There had already been extensive publicity about ACS’ performance problems in Chicago; there was also troubling information about the company’s track record in Washington, D.C., where an audit documented mismanagement, overcharging, over-counting of meters, and the issuance of bogus tickets (ACS got all the revenue for tickets). The audit  found  that Washington had lost $8,823,447 in revenue and experienced a twenty-fold increase in complaints from the public.

The  only answer I  could  come up with was that the Ballard Administration got an  up-front infusion of cash which helped it hold  the line on taxes while Ballard was  in office–and who cares about the future? 

This was actually something of a modus operandi for Ballard.  An academic paper I co-authored  with a colleague  shared the results of our investigation into the convoluted structure of  the city’s sale of its water and sewer utilities. The highly sophisticated financing scheme for the sale had the effect of shifting costs to utility rate-payers that should properly have been assumed by taxpayers.

There’s a saying among politicians: to elected officials, “long-term” means  “until the next election.” 

And I  used to think that “fiscally responsible” meant “pay as you go.” I was  so naive…

It Isn’t Just A Few ‘Bad Apples’

Will cellphone cameras do what years of eyewitness testimony couldn’t? 

As protests have swelled across the country, those who the late, great Molly Ivins memorably called “the chattering classes” have been debating similarities and differences between today’s demonstrations and those of the 60s. One of the clearest differences is the ubiquity of cellphone cameras–and the number of videos that have emerged capturing police–many in riot gear– brutalizing peaceful protestors.

As an article in The Guardian noted,

The nationwide anti-police brutality protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd in the US have been marked by widespread incidents of police violence, including punching, kicking, gassing, pepper-spraying and driving vehicles at often peaceful protesters in states across the country.

Many assaults were captured on video. Had the murder of George Floyd not been similarly captured, no doubt it would have been “explained” in a way that absolved the officers involved of blame–much as the Buffalo Police Department tried to evade responsibility for shoving and injuring an elderly man by issuing a press release that said he “tripped and fell.”

For more years than I can count, Americans have given police the benefit of the doubt when the facts were even slightly at issue. When facts haven’t been malleable, when the officer’s behavior was too clearly out of line to claim otherwise, the standard line has been “every profession has some bad apples.”  (We’re supposed to ignore the fact that police unions vigorously defend those “bad apples”and deploy their considerable resources to defeat mayors and prosecutors who try to hold police accountable.)

Are there lots of “good cops”? Sure. But in far too many police departments, the organizational culture works to silence them, and to incentivize a defensive “us versus them” mentality. A vivid example: when the evidence was too graphic to ignore, and the officers who shoved the elderly protestor were charged with battery, 57 members of the police force quit the unit to protest their suspension–and actually applauded them as they left the courthouse after being charged.

A few years ago, the Harvard Business Review had an article explaining organizational culture as “consistent, observable patterns of behavior” and quoted Aristotle for the observation, “We are what we repeatedly do.”

The culture of an organization is powerfully shaped by incentives — money, of course, but to an under-appreciated extent, intangible rewards such as status, recognition and approval, and sanctions.(It is not inconsequential that officers who connect with their community are far less likely to be recognized and applauded than those who make many arrests, especially ones involving force.) 

Ultimately, organizational culture is the “sum of values and rituals which serve as ‘glue’ to integrate the members of the organization.”

People who study policing concede that the culture of many American police departments is toxic. Last November, The Brookings Institution convened a panel discussion focusing on the challenge of changing the “values and rituals” that–according to one panelist, formerly a police captain– too often pit police against the people they are supposed to be protecting.

Another panelist noted that training often encouraged a “warrior mentality” that is attractive to a subset of individuals who “may not always be the best fit” for police work. Panelists also noted a lack of transparency and accountability–and the frequent use of internal cover-ups to protect officers who habitually use excessive force.

When bad behavior isn’t punished, it breeds impunity.

Five Thirty Eight recently posted an article about that impunity, and the reasons police officers are so rarely held criminally accountable. 

Many major cities continue to pay out millions of dollars each year to settle lawsuits against police officers, too often without firing officers who have been repeatedly sued. So even though police misconduct has drawn greater national attention, it’s still really difficult to hold police officers legally accountable for any kind of misconduct — including fatal violence.

According to the article, only 110 law enforcement officers nationwide have been charged with murder or manslaughter in an on-duty shooting — despite the fact that around 1,000 people are fatally shot by police annually. Of that 110, only 42 were convicted. (Fifty were not and 18 cases are still pending.) Many of the convictions ended up being for a lesser offense. Only five were convicted of murder and failed to have that conviction overturned.

Part of the problem is understandable. Judges and juries are inclined to believe law enforcement officers.

But.

When I worked in City Hall, I became convinced that, other than the police union, the most significant barrier to accountability was prosecutors’ reliance on, and close working relationship with, local police. At the time, I lobbied–unsuccessfully–for a law requiring appointment of special prosecutors in such cases, to eliminate the unavoidable conflict of interest. 

Policing is a difficult job. It often requires split-second decision-making. We can be cognizant of that fact without giving bad cops permission to act like animals. Cellphone cameras can help.

 

 

Oh, Indiana…..

At the end of each semester, those of us who teach university courses are inundated with research papers; it’s a time I refer to as “grading hell,” because my 30+ graduate students each submit a 20 page paper, analyzing a chosen policy issue.

The grading can be tedious, and at times I’m unpleasantly surprised by a student’s inability to write clearly (or even grammatically) or by conclusions that suggest the student didn’t understand anything we discussed in class. On the other hand, I end up learning a lot from the many excellent students who have chosen to examine policies with which I am unfamiliar.

And then there’s another category: papers that address problems or issues with which I have been engaged, but only superficially, and that provide me with greater detail and background than I previously possessed. This semester, I received a couple of those; especially a paper about Indiana’s regulation of day care facilities from one of my better students.

The paper focused on the reasons that child care “ministries” are treated differently from other day care operations under Indiana law.

The analysis confirmed everything I had previously heard about the influence of Eric Miller and his organization, “Advance America” on the Indiana legislature. Advance America bills itself as Indiana’s largest “pro-family and pro-church organization.” (In Indiana, “pro-family” is code for “anti-LGBTQ, anti-reproductive choice and pro-voucher support for fundamentalist Christian religious schools.)

In 1993, when legislation was moving through the Indiana General Assembly that would have subjected child care ministries to some regulation, including hand washing procedures, Miller rallied his organization to flood legislators with phone calls. Miller explained his opposition to the legislation, as presented in the Indiana House Family and Children Committee, by noting, “this is a public policy debate. Who’s responsible for caring for the children of the state of Indiana? The parents or the state?”

As the paper pointed out,  Indiana’s child care ministries are exempted from most of the rules that apply to other child care providers in the state–there are virtually no regulations they must observe or standards they must meet. Only 11 other states exempt religious-based organizations from some or all child care regulations, mostly southern states like Alabama, Virginia, South Carolina and Florida.

In her paper, my student argued that this lack of regulation, far from being required by the Free Exercise Clause, constitutes a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. And she pointed out (and documented) that, in Indiana, this regulatory system that discriminates in favor of religious providers of child care fails to adequately protect children, serve families or prepare children for k-12 education.

While objections to regulation of these “ministries” are couched in religious freedom terms, it’s likely the real reasons are less spiritual: less regulation means lower costs. The ministries can hire fewer workers, need not offer staff training, and needn’t upgrade facilities that government inspectors would find deficient.

(Such ministries also are free of the regulations prohibiting physical punishment. If God wants “youth ministers” to beat the devil out of that three-year-old,, they can follow God’s dictates….)

In 2012, a 22-month old drowned in a baptismal font while in the care of a registered child care ministry in Indianapolis, and there were once again efforts to impose minimal regulations on these facilities.

During the 2013 legislative session, state Rep. Rebecca Kubacki authored legislation that would require day cares (including child care ministries) that accept taxpayer-funded vouchers to run background checks on employees and volunteers… Miller activated his Advance America network by telling them the legislation was “an attack on religious freedom.”  He pressured lawmakers via email, phone calls flooding statehouse offices and direct conversations from legislators’ own ministers. Kubacki didn’t back down, saying, “I’m here to protect these kids, and if I don’t get re-elected, I don’t care.”  In 2014, she lost in the May primary.

Thanks to gerrymandering, Indiana’s legislature has a Republican super-majority. Most members of that super-majority–again thanks to gerrymandering– represent rural areas of the state where Eric Miller and the fundamentalist churches that fund his organization hold considerable political sway– and Miller has a history of threatening and bullying legislators who are insufficiently subservient to his version of “religious freedom.”

“Suffer the little children” assumes a whole new meaning….

 

The City Isn’t The Problem

I was 33 when I became Corporation Counsel for the City of Indianapolis. I know “ladies” aren’t supposed to disclose their ages (I’m not very ladylike, anyway) but that was 45 years ago–and a lot has changed.

Especially downtown Indianapolis.

At the time, I lived on the city’s north side, and I would drive down Central Avenue to the City-County building. When I drove through the slum area just north of downtown (where I now live), I’d lock the car doors. I passed boarded up houses that had once been large, gracious homes.

Once at work, if I wanted to go out to lunch, I could go to any of the three–count them– center-city restaurants.

It was grim. Even when my husband and I moved downtown to the city’s first historic district, in 1980, revitalization remained on the negative side of iffy.

Fast forward to today. There are multiple desirable and well-tended historic neighborhoods. There are more restaurants, coffee shops and bars than we can patronize in a lifetime. There are both basic and trendy grocery stores.  Young people regularly jog past; men and women alike push strollers and have “baby carriers” on their bikes (which are everywhere, but especially on the Monon and Cultural trails). One of those previously dilapidated, boarded-up houses I used to pass recently sold for over a million dollars.

Downtown is a happening place–and not just here. Over the past three decades, young people and empty nesters alike have rediscovered the multiple pleasures of urban life–walkability, the human scale of neighborhoods, the mix of historic and new, and the diversity that sparks new perspectives and invites new experiences.

Jane Jacobs was right.

One of the fears I have about the aftermath of the pandemic is that people will once again fear urban density–that they’ll forget about the multiple ways cities nurture neighborliness and sharing, and pursue “social distancing” in the car-dependent suburbs from which so many of us fled. Given the very real challenges of today’s urban life–especially the enormous increase in housing costs– the path of least resistance might be retreat.

A recent article from CityLab looked at what the author termed “the long history of demonizing urban density,” and made an incredibly important point.

Moral environmentalists tended to blame urban spaces while neglecting the economic system that created these spaces. If changing the urban environment could solve urban social problems, then the economic system of industrialization could be left more or less intact. No wonder that a standard method for improving impoverished, overcrowded urban neighborhoods was simply to demolish them.

As the article pointed out, the conviction that the problems cities faced were the result of density, not poverty or unconscionably low wages, triggered a rush to provide “nature” by building urban parks. Nice as those parks are, they were created by people who put their faith in spatial rather than structural reform. But the actual ills of city life were attributable to economic conditions; what was needed was “social housing, robust regulatory protections, and the elements of a welfare state.”

The problem is too little money, not too much density.

Even the widespread belief that pandemics spread more easily in densely populated cities is not supported by the data.

Statistical analyses do not show a consistent connection between big-city density and coronavirus impacts. Some of the world’s most heavily settled spaces — Hong Kong, Seoul, Singapore — have proved to be the most formidable at containing Covid-19. In the U.S., small towns in Georgia and Louisiana suffer along with New York City.

Cities that are properly governed (and in the U.S., we have far better leadership in cities than in our less populated states) actually have considerable advantages when it comes to fighting pandemics.

The dense urban environment can also be an asset in fighting disasters like Covid-19. Density means cities can more easily concentrate resources and social services where needed. Residents… have quicker access to hospitals and health care. And when nurtured by “social infrastructure” — community centers, libraries, and yes, public parks — cities can generate lifesaving networks of social ties which combat isolation and mitigate the effects of disasters.

Remember that banner that famously hung in Bill Clinton’s campaign headquarters? “It’s the economy, stupid!”

The lesson of the pandemic isn’t “abandon the cities.”  It’s “Give cities–and the people who live in them– the resources to address their economic problems, and most of the problems attributed to urban life will prove to be very solvable.”

 

Balanced Budgets And Tax Caps

For years, it has been a GOP article of faith that the United States should pass a balanced budget amendment. Here in Indiana, Republican Governor Mitch Daniels was the driving force behind the “constitutionalization” of tax caps–adding a measure to the state’s constitution limiting state and local government’s taxing power.

Fortunately, wiser heads prevailed in Congress, and the federal government retained authority for the massive deficit spending needed to ease what will certainly be a major recession or a depression in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Here in Indiana, we weren’t so lucky; Mitch Daniels successfully curried voter favor by decimating the ability of cities to adequately fund services and hobbling the state’s ability to meet unanticipated crises.

The average voter doesn’t recognize the different functions of constitutions and statutes, or understand why specific tax provisions of this sort don’t belong in the former.  Most Hoosiers thought it was a good idea to place tax caps in the state’s charter, making it difficult–if not impossible–to change direction if the need arose. Now, the state of Georgia–which has a similar restriction–is demonstrating just how short-sighted and damaging it is to elect people who are more concerned with politics than good policy.

From Heather Cox Richardson’s daily “Letter,”(no link, but her URL is heathercoxrichardson@substack.com) we learn about an investigation by George Chidi, a Georgia journalist and former staff writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Chidi examined Georgia Governor Brian Kemp’s decision to reopen gyms, fitness centers, bowling alleys, tattoo parlors, barbers, nail salons, restaurants, theaters, and massage therapists, among other businesses, next week.

Kemp said the businesses would be required to screen workers for illness, increase sanitation rules, separate workspaces by at least six feet, telework where at all possible, and have staggered shifts. He also said that more restrictive local rules could not override his order.

Kemp told reporters that his concern was to protect small businesses, hurt by the economic shutdown, but Chidi had a different interpretation. “It’s about making sure people can’t file unemployment,” he wrote.

The state’s unemployment fund has about $2.6 billion. The shutdown has made claims skyrocket—Chidi says the fund will empty in about 28 weeks. There is no easy way to replenish the account because Georgia has recently set a limit on income taxes that cannot be overridden without a constitutional amendment. It cannot borrow enough to cover the fund either, because by law Georgia can’t borrow more than 5% of its previous year’s revenue in any year, and any borrowing must be repaid in full before the state can borrow any more.

By ending the business closures, Kemp guarantees that workers can no longer claim they are involuntarily unemployed, and so cannot claim unemployment benefits. Chidi notes that the order did not include banks, software firms, factories, or schools. It covered businesses usually staffed by poorer people that Kemp wants to keep off the unemployment rolls. (Emphasis supplied.)

We already knew that Kemp was despicable; a man for whom the word “ethics” is clearly meaningless–as Secretary of State, he refused to recuse himself and oversaw the Gubernatorial election in which he was a candidate. By throwing out some 50,000+ registrations from African-American voters, he narrowly deprived Stacy Abrams of a victory in that race.

This effort to deprive low-income workers in Georgia of the ability to claim unemployment is equally contemptible, but it is also equally attributable to the restrictive provisions in Georgia’s constitution.

Indiana’s constitution requires a balanced budget. That requirement need not be debilitating–if the state and its subdivisions can raise taxes to meet unanticipated challenges. Thanks to Mitch Daniels, his successors in the Governor’s office are unable to do that. Governor Holcomb thus far seems like a pretty solid guy–a throwback to the kind of Republicans I used to know–so I am hopeful he won’t emulate Georgia’s Kemp.

When rightwing Congress-critters bloviated about a Balanced Budget Amendment, cooler heads pointed to the perils and prevailed. When Republicans in the Indiana statehouse crowed about putting tax caps in the constitution to “protect” taxpayers, warnings by fiscal and tax policy experts were pooh-poohed.

Politics won, sane and informed policy lost.

Isn’t there a song called “Georgia on my mind”?