FILM FAN FLIM-FLAM

As official non-mayor of Carmel, I stand ready to help the City Council’s $125,000 decision to explore a film festival for Carmelistas. “Explore” usually means “build a phony-baloney rationale to give elected officials some visibility and keep people distracted from what’s going on.”

In case the municipal magi are seriously weighing the pro’s and con’s of a film fest, here are some facts to consider.

Movie attendance peaked back in 2002, according to the theater association’s data. And even a small spike in 2018 didn’t entirely wipe out the decline experienced in 2017. The reasons are many but some include Netflix, Hulu and other on-line services, the DVR capabilities in most homes and, alas, a lack of content other than violence, sex and endless preaching.

Within days of the city’s breathless film flim-flam, the other Carmel — Carmel by the Sea — cancelled its prestigious International Film Festival,announcing:

“After much thought and deliberation, Board of Directors have agreed that we will not continue with the Film Festival. The film business is going through dramatic changes in their model, film technology, coupled with changes in our organization. While endings are always bittersweet, we are grateful for nine fantastic years of fun, entertainment and support.”

Nationally, movie retailing has been in decline for some time. In 1930, two out of three Americans went to the movies at least once a week. By 1964, the rate fell to less than 10 percent and has remained there since.

Movies, then, are not alone. Since 2012, 18-to-24-year-old TV viewing has fallen 43.6 percent. Only people 65 and older watch as much TV as they did in 2011. Every other demographic set is in decline. Pew Research reports all the old, mass media segments are in decline with the sole exception of radio.

Here in Carmel, we are not immune to the trends. A city of more than 92,000 musters an average 467 patrons at the 1,800 Center for the Performing Arts events since it opened, according to the mayor.

Now, the municipal magi tagged former Current reporter and part owner of a Main Street pasta shop, Adam Aasen, to prepare the way. Aasen is running for City Council, by coincidence.

In his wisdom, pre-announced the decision that $125,000 will buy.

In October, 2016, the Indianapolis Star wondered “Why Are There So Many Film Festivals?” It listed 23. Now, there probably will be 24.

“Damn the iceberg, full steam ahead,” the Titanic captain was overhead saying.

DUMB AND DUMBER

“This is good news for our residents and taxpayers who will continue to enjoy the benefits of living in a safe, growing City that invests wisely and prudently without imposing higher local taxes,” said Mayor Jim Brainard. “Our fiscally conservative approach to smart public investments that serve to spur private investment has helped attract the corporate tax base that continues to benefit our local property taxpayers.”

With these words, City Hall announced the 2019 property tax decrease to 0.7886. The 0.0001 mil rate plunge amounts to 0.0013 percent of your 2018 rate of 0.7887.

The technical term for 0.0013 percent is “vanishingly small.”

Elsewhere, the municipal money changers boasted a $56.8 million year-end balance. That’s almost $57 million of other people’s money they didn’t spend.

Of course, he’ll have to come up with $68.9 million this year in principal, interest and lease payments, according to the Indiana Department of Local Government Finance. A wise and prudent man will have that under control, I’m sure.

As for the corporate tax base benefiting our local taxpayers, it and you and I stand as security for the new Hotel Carmichael bonds should revenues from the luxury venue not meet projections. That’s right. A special benefit tax and/or local income tax will fill those gaps in the future.

But, as deficit spending is translated into fiscal responsibility, anything can happen in a city owing $1.3 billion and investing wisely and prudently in 122 roundabouts that don’t lower accident rates and silly cusiosity sculptures, not to mention a 1,600-seat music hall averaging fewer than 500 patrons per event (according to the mayor, that is).

So, with property taxes 52 percent higher than in 2007 and per-household debt at $39,928 — we are ripe for wise, prudent relief.

FORECAST

“The only way you can predict the future is to look at the past,” said Carmel Mayor Jim Brainard. – Current in Carmel, Nov. 25, 2014

In citing that threadbare cliche, the mayor prompts an intelligent citizen to ask, “Okay, how have your predictions fared, Mr. Mayor?”

  1. Keystone Makeover: The mayor predicted the state’s $90 million grant would cover costs with no city money needed. That was September, 2007. Five months later, engineers told the mayor the cost would be $149 million. In 2009, the mayor confessed the project would cost $60 million more than his zero estimate.
  2. Center for the Performing arts: In 1997, the mayor said a proposed arts center and museum would cost $17 million; in 1999, $30 million; in 2004, $60 million; in 2011, when the Palladium opened, published reports said it cost $175 million to build and $2 million per year to operate. (IRS filings by the Center for the Performing Arts for 2016 indicate operating expenses totaled $8.7 million.)
  3. Hotel Carmichael: In 2017, the mayor announced plans for a $40 million luxury hotel; in 2018, the Carmel Redevelopment Commission estimate nudged that to $41 millon.

Do you see a pattern?

The data above is from published reports. One wonders what else has been predicted for what audiences with what effect. Can it be bad forecasting convinced the City Council to plunge us into $1.3 billion in debt?

AUDIT

As an official non-mayor of Carmel, you can do a quick audit of city finances using city data and a calculator.

Today’s $1.3 billion total indebtedness as reported by the Indiana Department of Local Government Finance (DLGF) is 45.5 percent greater than a comparable report in 2015 — $913,731,553 in 2015, $1,329,505,051 today.

Then, as now, more than half the indebtedness is in a category labeled “lease rental” — $556,319,500 then, $859,987,950 now. The Glossary of Municipal Securities Terms describes these instruments as secured by payments made by those leasing facilities finances by the bond. Typically, lease rental bonds finance schools, office buildings used by a government entity. In Carmel, they also are used in public-private partnerships.

DLGF reported Carmel ‘s principal and interest payments (debt service) at $59.4 million in 2018 . The mayor said in November, “In 2018, more than $24 million was paid toward principal.” How much interest and how much lease revenue payemtns were made remains unknown.

The key point is the delicate string on which the $1.3 billion hangs.

The premise is that taxpayers will pay taxes and rental properties will be rented. Tax revenues plus rents — public and private — will materialize. City Hall forecasters say they will.

How accurate have City Hall forecasts been remains unknown.

Two samples are available. In 1997, the mayor said a proposed arts center and museum would cost $17 million; in 1999, $30 million; in 2004, $60 million. When the Palladium opened in 2011, published reports said it cost $175 million to build and $2 million per year to operate. (IRS filings by the Center for the Performing Arts for 2016 indicate operating expenses totaled $8.7 million.)

In 2017, City Hall described a new luxury Hotel Carmichael as costing $40 million. At the end of 2018, the estimate was $41 million.

And, there was that unpleasantness in 2009 when it was reported the mayor had predicted he’d need $20 million for a Keystone make-over he knewit would cost $149 million and the city council balked.

Afraid the string’s frayed.

TRENDS

As official non-mayors of Carmel, we can’t help noticing how slender is the thread suspending our $1.3 billion debt.

The thread is a forecast of dubious merit.

The future is under no obligation to imitate the past. But, we Carmelistas are under a $1.3 billion total obligation in that very future. And, forecasts based on the future imitating the past are dangerous.

It is well, then, to consider four trends so enormous in their  implications that our City Counselors ought to respect:

  1. The information rampage revolutionizing the retail merchandising, entertainment and real estate industries and the workplace, itself;
  2. The nature and needs of the Millenial Generation;
  3. Populism and a lack of trust in government, and
  4. The innovations in what McKinsey & Co. calls “smart cities.”

Free, fast, complete information resources abound in every cell phone. The retail meltdown is decimating mom-and-pop stores, leaving a few giants with massive on-line revenues. The media world – news, sports, entertainment — is a new world. Audience sizes are plunging and, with them, ad revenues.

Limitless information and entertainment resources in a common cell phone free you from limited, costly alternatives as they have freed you from brick-and-mortal retailing. We n olonger invest in movie theaters, Blockbuster stock or Sears.

As the Baby Boomers transformed American society in the last half of the last century, Millenials will transform it until 2050. Far from slackers vegging out in the folks’ basement, these are well-educated, idealistic, ambitious professionals in everything from carpentry and plumbing to quantum mechanics and artificial intelligence. And, they won’t settle for yesterday’s ideas — about fashion, family or fun.

Or, work, for that matter. They don’t seek offices with cookie-cutter cubicles, same-sized desks and a coffee machine. Their offices are in their backpacks and cell phones. 

Millenial Populism, “the great revolt,” is characterized by pragmatism, patriotism and intelligence. As the conservative groundswell has 4,000 of the 7,300 state-level legislative seats and 33 governorships, liberal Progressive candidates continue to win in coastal states in the northeast and far west. Progress deficit spending and subsidies are bankrupting Blue States.  Populism is up but populism among Milennials is up even more. Top-down no longer appeals to young Americans.

As for trust in government, the Edelman Trust Barometer registered a 9-point fall last year when just 43 percent of Americans express confidence. Lack of faith in government fell 14 points to 33 percent among the general population and 30-33 percent among informed Americans.

As technology reshapes the world, Carmel builds parking ramps, retail shopping areas, office space and heightened congestion.

The Current recently cited a series of studies noting “the rise of Urber and Lyft — and the decline of both taxi revenue and airport parking — is just one example of how quickly a market could change.”

How will driverless cars navigate roundabouts? Will Carmel ban driverless cars in favor of buggy whip shops?

Want to discuss this further? Invite me to your book club or volunteer group or neighborhood get-together. A chair. A table. A cup of coffee. Carmelodians. Just jab bill@gatea.com and I’m there.

CRASH-MAN

As official non-mayors of Carmel, we were relieved to learn the official mayor was unhurt in his third crash of a city-provided vehicle since he was anointed to his position 23 years ago.

Insurance rates will go up for the city, of course, but no medical bills to speak of in the most recent Main-and-Knoll-Court sideswipe.

I inquired of His Honor as to his well-being. He reported, “Thanks.  I have had a string of bad luck with the accidents. ” It’s not a long string, as strings go.

Just three. Not enough to change materially the straight-line accident rate in the city since before the first safety-improving roundabout was built.

In the 21 years since the 131st and River Road roundy was installed, about 2-3 percent of the population experienced an accident. More than 100 roundabouts having moved the peg not a bit.

What has moved is the response time of emergency vehicles having to slow down for the roundabouts (not to mention the speed bumps on Rangeline) in answering calls for help.

As for injury accidents? Less than 1 percent. Indeed, less than half of 1 percent. Vanishingly small percentages.

If you’d like a full report of accident statistics (a sure-cure for insomnia), send you e-mail address to me at bill@gatea.com.

ERROR

As an official non-mayor of Carmel, council-person Jeff Worrell kindly pointed out an error in my ways which I wish to correct.

Elsewhere, I noted the ratio of Carmel’s debt to income — $1.3 billion to $130 million — is 10 to 1. And, the Federal ratio – $21.4 billion to $3.4 trillion — is 6.29 to 1.

Worrell noted, “The definition of the National Debt is defined (c.q.) as principle only.  When you do your calculation for Carmel, you include future interest.  Don’t you think that is unfair?”

Yes, it is. And, here is the proper ration: $298,063,913 principal to $130 million or  3 to 1, less than half the Federal ratio.

National debt does not include interest — $298 million in Carmel — or our combined $859 million Lease Rental (which I asked Worrell to define for me).

If the Federal-Carmel ratio comparison is, I admit, unfair, what is a fair comparison?

Apples to apples seems fair.

Fishers has about the same population as Carmel (91,832 and 92,198 according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates). Westfield is two-thirds the size (39,493).

Total debt (according to the Indiana Department of Local Government Finance) is $1.3 billion for Carmel; $420 million for Fishers and $144 million for Westfield.

Per household, Carmel’s debt is $38,064; Fishers, $13,367 and Westfield, $11,538. If that exposure were a lien against your property, you can see how you’d net out after selling the same $300,000 home in each town, for instance.

Principal comparisons with the Federal debt don’t add up.

Principled comparisons with Fishers and Westfield do.

So, thank you, Jeff Worrell, for setting things straight.

OF CANARIES AND COAL MINES

As an official non-mayor of Carmel, I am alert to safety measures which will serve our fellow Carmelidians well.

Such a measure is the historic success coal miners employed beginning a century ago to avoid suffocation from carbon monoxide and other toxic fumes when digging coal.

They would carry a caged canary with them. If dangerous gases were present, the gases would kill the canary before killing the miners, thus providing a warning to exit the tunnels immediately.

More than a year ago, a canary passed on at City Hall when Standard and Poor’s rating agency downgrade some proposed debt offering by the city. “The downgrade reflects our view of the city’s rapidly increasing debt burden, with mounting leverage that can pressure flexibility and budgetary performance over time,” the S&P analysis said.

What has the financial brain trust done in response? First, it stopped using S&P services. That’ll show ’em. Second, it borrowed $120 million more, bringing the total outstanding debt obligation it reports to the state Department of Local Government Finance to $1.3 billion or $40,000 per household in the city.

Another historical analogy joins the late canary — that of the lookout who yelled, “Ice berg dead ahead.”

Whereupon the captain of the Titanic ordered, “Full speed ahead.”

WILSON’S CITY HALL

As an official non-mayor of Carmel, I have been criticized for describing the City Hall elite as Liberal Progressives enthralled with central planning, deficit spending, secrecy and subsidies for pals.

This stems from the obvious. Just compare Woodrow Wilson, the father of modern Liberal Progressivism, with successor Presidents.

From the time of Woodrow Wilson’s disdain for inefficient, unscientific, un-Darwinian representative democracy through Walter Rauschenbusch’s war on free market Capitalism by means of a social gospel, up to the zany Socialist ideas of the New Left, the progressive movement has been dedicated to:

  1. Centralized decision-making by an administrative elite never accountable to the electorate;
  2. Financial gamesmanship featuring borrowing to underwrite pet projects never endorsed by the electorate and then kicking the financial can down the street for others to worry about;
  3. Rules, regulations and economic strangulation;
  4. Subsidized brainstorms;
  5. Closed doors to hide information from certain individuals or groups who do not have the “need to know”, perhaps while sharing it with other individuals — the textbook case study of Secrecy.
  6. Propaganda by paid advertising, public relations, political consultancy and polling organizations.

We have it all. And, as a result, we all have a $15,120 share of the city’s $1.4 billion total outstanding debt obligation.

Carmel’s political aristocracy seems immune to the facts that it has not worked, does not work and will never work. That Liberal Progressives were the big losers worldwide in 2018 should instruct us. 

Disagree? Write bill@gatea.com.