THE MINORITY MAYOR

As an official non-mayor of Carmel, you have no doubt learned the first rule of understanding petty politicians.

Look for what they are not saying to understanding what they are doing.

Take the mayor’s biography. Two are generally available: the city hall website is one and Wikipedia is the other.

Both do not say some interesting things. Neither indicates the mayor ever had any experience in the military, in finance and banking, in engineering or project management, or in the arts and entertainment industry.

One reference to his actually earning a living in the free enterprise system — he alleged supported himself for a time as a cab driver — has been stricken from the Wikipedia biography.

A second example:

The mayor was not swept into office in 2015 with an overwhelming mandate to build roundabouts and destroy the city’s financial solvency.

Hamilton County Election Board numbers showed 63,335 registered voters in the city — 66,211 if you included Orchard Park.

The winning mayoral candidate received 9,584 votes — 15.1 percent of the non-Orchard Park vote. Hence, 85 percent didn’t vote for him.

Now, running for re-election, a machine politician does not seek to turn out all the voters. Just those who owe the candidate a favor — contractors, lawyers, bankers, vendors of silly sculptures — need turn out.

Forget the $170,000 a year salary the highest-paid mayor in Indiana takes home to his $964,000 home (Zillow index price).

Wait a few days. The city is producing a $44,100 on-line video courtesy of Adam Grubb Productions. It predictably will extol the virtues of a mayor. At taxpayer expense,of course.

The video surely will include those elements missing elsewhere.

I, for one, am breathless with anticipation.

A DAY OF RECKONING

As a non-mayor of Carmel, I am aware of what Wikipedia describes that moment common to Christian and Islamic belief during which everyone after death is called to account for their actions committed in life.

The day of reckoning is coming to Carmel, and soon.

It will be the day when a $188,500 roundabout sculpture called “Reckon” goes up in the 4th Street and Range Line Road Roundabout sometime this year.

Brad Howe, a sculpture person in Malibu, Calif., rendered the 1,200-pound stainless steel object whose rendering resembles three Frisbees in a random array.

I’m not sure of all the symbolism other than how timely “Reckon” reckons to be in light of a recent spate of U.S. recession risk indices.

Paying for “Reckon” is part of Carmel’s $1.3 billion total debt obligation. Much of the repayment depends upon assumptions about future revenues to the city. A recession — even a minor one — could produce fiscal embarrassment.

The most recent aggregate risk assessment point to economic and interest rate variables pointing South as the economy slows in a pattern identical to their performances prior jto every recession since 1969.

Economists have a scale for such things from 0 risk to 100 percent risk. When the index reaches 60, a recession is 18 months away.

We’re at 53.1 and climbing, they reckon.

Rumor has it the Carmel Redevelopment Commission is close to formal default on bonds sold, funds secured but projects thus funded remain unfinished.

Worse, every penny of the debt was incurred without consent of the governed. Put another way, eight people — the mayor and seven council members — amount to 0.0085 percent of the population but are created 100 percent of the debt.

Worst, they consistently refuse to accept either responsibility or — worse than worst — accountability.

TIPPING POINT

As a non-mayor of Carmel, you are witnessing an interesting economic experiment.

City hall progressives are finding out how big an iceberg the Titanic can hit before it sinks.

Since taking office in 2015, the Carmal cabal has been increasing the total debt $366,960 a day. That’s principal, interest and lease rental values the city, itself, reported to the Indiana Department of Local Government Finance.

If a weekly figure is more to your liking, debt grew $2.6 million a week every week since the incumbents were sworn in as your representatives.

Total debt ncreased 46.6 percent since the mayor and current council swore their oaths of office. To an historian of ideas, the question becomes:

How long will it be before the music dies?

In “The Tipping Point,” Malcolm Gladwell described a magic moment when an idea, trend, or social behavior crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads like wildfire. Just as a single sick person can start an epidemic of the flu, so too can a small but precisely targeted push cause a fashion trend, the popularity of a new product, or a drop in the crime rate.

One fears Carmel has already borrowed that $1 which tips the balance.

Gladwell’s 2002 bestseller is still a good read and a cautionary tale. It has changed the way people throughout the world think about selling products and disseminating ideas.

And, one would hope, In Carmel it is changing the way people think about a third of a million bucks a day deeper in debt.

MOBILITY

As official non-mayors of Carmel, we crowd together of an evening along Main Street in ever-more-congested confines.

Congestion seems to be a priority for the City Hall savants building luxury apartments by the hundreds and empty retail shops by the score. To them I offer a suggestion:

Peruse for a profitable hour “The Road to Seamless Urban Mobility,” an insightful article in the current edition of McKinsey Quarterly (on-line at www.mckinsey.com ).

It describes ways for “cleaner, more convenient, and more efficient” traffic systems that handle up to 30 percent more traffic as cutting travel time 10 percent. Autonomous vehicles, smart regulation and even smarter incentives could attract robo-taxis, shuttles and autonomous buses.

Admittedly, not everything in the article would apply to a small, bedroom suburb like Carmel. But, enough does to at least prompt thoughtful leadership rather than passive repetition of 19th century roundabouts and constrained 4-lane commercial arteries into 2-lane obstacle courses.

Of course, all of this will be irrelevant if the city hall geniuses can’t pay the bills. The traditional city services paid with traditional sources of revenue buying traditional police, fire, sewer and water, parks, etc., will continue.

But, the hidden city — the appointees and hangers-on who spend and build and expand the debt — is in jeopardy. The tipping point when the amount borrowed exceeded the amount paid back occurred years ago. The only variable that has changed is the rate at which the debt increases.

We will ride to the Poor House in autonomous buses, perhaps.

CHRIST CHILD MART UPDATE

As an official non-mayor of Carmel, I was tipsy with delight upon reading City Hall’s Weapon of Mass Deception – press release – extolling the “huge second season” of Christkindlmarkt.

More people, more sales and more local businesses, the WMD gushed.

Then, I compared the numbers.

Attendance more than doubled (119 percent) but revenues rose just 61 percent ($1,389,000 to $2,233,652).

Worse yet, per-capita spending declined 26 percent ($9.26 a year ago, $6.81 this year).

While the WMD reported an 84 percent increase in hot chocolate sales (14,125 up to 26,000), it failed to report, as it did a year ago, gingerbread cookies, waffle, ornament and nutcracker sales as it did a year ago. There was a per-capita fall-off in raclette sandwich sales (0.06 sandwiches per attendee in 2017; 0.03 in 2018).

Breathless, meaningless numbers aside, the WMD omitted the emperor’s new clothes.

Nowhere was there any indication of expenses. Income without expense data is like Gluhwein without spices.

For openers, how much of the $2.2 million gross sales actually made it back to the city coffers? And, of that, how much will be used to pay down the $6 million borrowed to build Christkindlmarkt and the estimated $3.4 million in interest (using city debt/interest history)?

Or, what about the salaries and benefits of city workers who each year move the $20,500 plastic market huts from city storage to the site, set things up and later take things down and return them to storage?

We do know Christkindlmarkt couldn’t pay its utility bills to the extent that the City Council had to take money from the Fire Department budget and transfer it into another account where it could be used to pay the electric and other indebtedness run up at the market.

On a bright note, I contacted the CEO of Steinbach Volkskunst GmbH in Dresden, Germany, to see how the spiced, warm wine (gluhwein) sales went.

Rico Paul (Geshaftsfuhrer of Steinbach) wrote, “We did have a great market, big success and learned a lot during that market. It was a lot of work and its very complicated to get the german glühweins to the us, but definitely worth it.”

THE PUBLIC SERVANT

As an official non-mayor of Carmel, I occasionally wrote letters to the editor of the weekly Current in Carmel shopper. A little readership developed.

The editor and publisher told me the letters were popular enough to justify a Non-Mayor opinion column now and then. Flattered, I began researching various topics including the background of the shell corporations hiding redevelopment efforts, the amusement halls and other wasted borrowed money.

I wondered how a new Downtown City Center Development Corporation differed from the previous Carmel City Center Community Development Corporation. I asked clarification from Council Member Ron Carter, listed as secretary of the shell corporation.

He replied by saying he was under no obligation to do my research, adding: “I read a couple of your first letters to the editor. I do not consider your writing factual, well-researched or, in any way, funny. . . . only to provide yourself with a sense of somewhat perverse gratification.

“I helped with the very first step of getting the Current established. . . I introduced the future owner and editor-in-chief, worked to help them find initial funding and described what I hoped the paper would become.”

A few weeks later, the Current management axed the column, saying certain unnamed people complained about certain facts to which they objected. In several letters to the editor and columns, I urged Current readers to correct any errors they detected. No one had.

I suspect Carter complained to the “owner and editor-in-chief” who owed him one. I have no evidence to support that. Even if I am right, there is no law against pressuring those who owe you one.

Carter is running to an at-large position on the council.

On election day, I have no idea what perversion will strike me.

That’s a fact and I hope you don’t object.

CARMINGTON

As a non-mayor of Carmel, have you noticed the eerie similarities between the demise of the Barrington and the $1.3 billion debt we bear as residents of the city Native Americans called Tadpole’s Glory?

Mayflower Communities, Inc., whose sole holding is The Barrington according to the Indianapolis Business Journal, has filed for bankruptcy. Residents of the 19.5 acre campus now face a $52 million problem.

They paid six-figure fees each and could lose some or all of it. For those residents whose retirement nest-egg and much of their estate went into that six-figure entrance fee, things are uncertain.

The mayor, seeking re-election to his fifth term, visited the Barrington recently and, in his best bed-side manner, reassured the folks. He left nothing in writing, according to one source.

Nor did he mention that the Barrington’s entire 2019 payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) to the city. The city got at least a half-pound of flesh before the Barrington autopsy begins.

Crocodile tears and politician games aside, what’s the parallel with the City of Carmel — with you and me?

In a phrase, over-building and shaky financing. Commercial real estate is a chancy business, prone to exuberant building which results in cut-throat pricing to fill the space — retail, office, apartments, senior centers.

The Barrington competed with four other senior residencies within a 10-mile drive. Carmel’s hapless redevelopment commission keeps secret its operations, hiding behind non-profit shell corporations to avoid taxpayer scrutiny.

Its Merchants Square experience is illustrative, however. More than 20 years, the city came to the rescue of the shopping area when large, anchor stores moved to friendlier pastures. Today, more than 20 shops remain empty — including the large and tragic Marsh grocery store. What subsidies or rental deals the city negotiates with the remaining tenants is unclear. I do miss the Panera that once was there.

Overbuilding, competition and resulting falling revenues lead to bankruptcy. To speed that process, City Hall elites are building more and more retail space, apartments and office buildings. It remains to see at what point those markets become saturated and less than glorious for tadpoles.

Barrington residents are, technically, unsecured creditors in the Mayflower bankruptcy. You and I are unsecured debtors in the Carmel fiasco. Today, that’s the threat. Tomorrow, instead of a bankruptcy, the City has secured much of the debt with special benefit taxes and local income taxes as needed.

Fasten your seat belts. And, try to get something in writing from the mayor.

BRAVERY

As an official non-mayor of Carmel, I am not an expert at much of anything.

However, I live in a community whose official mayor is.

According to his official biography on the Wikipedia website, he is expert in climate science and finance.

“Brainard is a moderate Republican who has earned a national reputation for defending efforts to fight against the effects of climate change,” the bio says. He was co-chair co-chair of the Energy Independence and Climate Protection Task Force for the U.S. Conference of Mayors. In 2013, then-President Obama (not a moderate Republican) appointed him to the Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience.

“Because of his views, Brainard was tapped to be on President Obama’s Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience. He [also] won first place honors from the 2008 Mayor’s Climate Protection Awards Program.”

In 2013, it was announced he would be “one of 26 local government representatives who make up a new task force to help communities deal with the effects of climate change” 

His fiscal conservative expertise allowed the city to run up a $1.3 billion total outstanding debt without asking for voter approval.

Then, there’s his driving expertise. The less said about that, the better.

I’d hate to see an ad that reads:

“Give your passengers a ride they’ll never forget. Sign up today at the Mayoral School of Driving.”

MAYORAL VISION

As an official non-mayor of Carmel, you no doubt learned of the mayor’s latest futuristic delusion for the city.

In musing on the coming age of driverless cars, he told the Current, “We might not need as much garage space as we have today, so we’re designing garages with a slightly higher floor-to-ceiling (space) so they can be converted into offices or other uses later on if we don’t need that much garage capacity.”

The rambling sentence hides much.

While it is true, according to those who have studied it, the future of transportation is changing. Uber and other services gained immediate popularity — convenience, low-cost, ease of access, etc. Demand for parking space and curb demand might well decline.

But, when?

If driverless cars are adopted as rapidly as, say, electric hybrid cars, we have plenty of time to prepare. U.S. sales of hybrids (4 million in the period 1999-2016) amounted to 2.9 percent of sales (136.4 million). 

By the time the city’s over-built inventory of parking garages falls victim, won’t the demand for office space change, as well? Will Carmel remain the high-priced office market it now is? Will workers even use offices any more?

But, the mayor got his headline and avoided for another week having to answer for the runaway debt resulting from spending borrowed money on a bocce ball court on the Monon or silly sculptures in the unneeded roundabouts.

Oh. One more thing. Driverless means no more mayor crashes. You know — November 2002 T-bone collision with a school bus at 99th and Westfield Blvd., May 2017 head-on collision with pickup truck and trailer on 3rd Ave. and December 2018 sideswipe at Main and Knox Court.

Every cloud has a silver lining.

THE $1.3 BILLION GORILLA

As an official non-mayor of Carmel, I now see how incumbent politicians intend to keep their jobs.

Inattentional Blindness.

Some of the huge war chest — that incumbents have accumulated from grateful vendors, lawyers, bankers and roundabout sculptors — must have been spent on consultation fees with Daniel Simon.

His research showed we completely miss the obvious. He asked subjects to watch a short video. Three black-clad players and three white-clad passed a basketball around. Subjects were to count the number of passes made by those in white.

As the film rolls, play starts slowly and builds to a rapid pace. Then, a fake gorilla strolls into camera range, watches the players, thumps its chest and walks away. Plan continues. The film ends. Subjects record their score. (Right answer: 15)

Then, asked if they noticed anything unusual, about half saw no gorilla. Only passes. They were so distracted they missed what was clearly going on. For a better analysis, read “The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive Us.”

Incumbent municipal politicians have begun a similar game in the run-up to the May primaries. One version focus all attention on comparisons of property tax payments here and in neighboring cities; another, that only 4 percent of property taxes goes to pay down the debt. Both end with “You’ve Never Had It So Good.” Both so fill the bandwidth that we ignore the $1.3 billion debt gorilla.

Who has a chance to ask why $1.3 billion? What did it buy? When will it go away? What benefit have I derived, other an impending tax increases?

It’s one thing to keep your eye on the ball. It’s another to be purposely duped.