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.

YOU AIN’T NEVER HAD IT SO GOOD

As an official non-mayor of Carmel, you will be bombarded in coming weeks with messages from incumbent office-holders seeking re-election.

This is to be expected. And, also to be expected, is the cliché of the incumbent:

“You ain’t never had it so good.”

Well, let’s see.

The last time the U.S. Census Bureau performed an American Community Survey for Carmel was the 2005-2009 survey. At that time, it listed the median household income as $96,692.

The current Carmel Snapshot by the Bureau lists that income as $109,201. That’s $12,509 better, right?

Wrong. The Bureau doesn’t apply inflation adjustments to its numbers. However, I do.

That $96,692 income – in constant dollars – would be $124,332 in today’s dollars.

That puts us $15,131 less well-off – 12.2 percent.

Decline is easily seen. Men wear gym shoes to work and cannot afford neckties. Women wear sweaters and blouses with holes in the sleeves and back. Children are forced to go to school in gym clothes – “logo-wear” it’s called.

Seriously, when politicians come knocking at your door, ask them about the decline – not unique to Carmel, to be sure – and how borrowing hundreds of millions of dollars to build luxuries is helping you.

STORM WARNING

As an official non-mayor of Carmel, I find Kiplinger.com to be an invaluable storehouse of common sense and solid research.

Recently reading its assessment of the 50 states’ potential for weathering the inevitable downs in the economy, I was happy to see Indiana is not at risk.

However, the logic can be extended down the political food-chain to cities. And, this worried me.

Kiplinger’s warns that “many states will struggle when things go south for the economy, even in a moderate recession which will surely happen eventually.” Most vulnerable will be those with little savings or potential short-falls on tax revenue projections.

The bulk of Carmel’s $1.3 billion total outstanding debt falls into that “watch out” category. Lease rental income from properties built with borrowed funds to be repaid by renters “bye and bye” are vulnerable to recessions. Commercial real estate is a perpetual roller-coaster ride; luxury apartment rentals aren’t far behind.

Since 2014, total debt grew 45.5 percent. In 2017, Standard & Poor’s downgraded municiipal debt saying:

“(T)he downgrade reflects our view of the city’s rapidly increasing debt burden, with mounting leverage that can pressure flexibility and budgetary performance over time.”

Now, the Brookings Institution points to an alarming spike in the privatization of municipal debt. Since 2000, it has risen from $30 billion to $300 billion, much of it heavily collateralized and giving banks first-lien priority on the assets secured that way.

Increasingly, economists are pointing to leading predictors that show the country verging on recession. Economists rarely agree but the statistics seem to.

You don’t need a PhD in economics to see what’s ahead. Even small recessions could put Carmel’s municipal finances in hot water. And, a tech-bubble or mortgage-bubble look-alike could see taxes soar.

RECITE FROM MEMORY

“By now,” the mayor recently proclaimed, “many of you can recite along with me the benefits of roundabouts — the main benefit being their safety.

“When roundabouts replace traditional signalized intersections, there is a reduction of fatalities by 90 percent, a reduction of injury accidents by 80 percent, and a reduction of accidents overall by 40 percent.”

One might assume the figures apply to Carmel. They don’t.

I respectfully asked the mayor where he got his figures. He sent me links to a dozen different studies. Turns out his numbers were compiled in Georgia, Maryland, Colorado, Florida, Maine, South Carolina, Vermont, Kansas, California, Australia and the United Kingdom. (He omitted an Arizona State University study that showed two-lane roundabouts increased accident rates 62 percent.)

Police records here show fatalities didn’t drop 90 percent. Since 1996, one or two persons die in traffic accidents each year — three in 2003 and five in 2007. No 90 percent reduction there.

Injury accidents involved 0.63 percent of Carmel residents in the three years prior to the first roundabout, 0.36 percent per year the following decade and 0.24 percent since, reductions of 42 percent and 33 percent. No 80 percent there.

Total accident rates averaged 2.25 percent before roundabouts, 2.0 percent after the first 47 roundabouts or 11 percent, and 2.23 percent since for an 11 percent drop, also. No 40 percent there.

Lost in the vanishingly small percentages are two larger questions.

What’s the big crisis that hundreds of millions of dollars in deficit spending addressed? Moving the dial from 0.6 percent to 0.2 percent; 2.25 percent to 2.23 percent?

And, all the while more than 3 percent of the populace has lived below the poverty line. Imagine what those dollars could have done for those neighbors.

So, my fellow-non-mayors of Carmel, by now you can recite along with me the main benefits of roundabouts — not safety, as the data suggest; not fuel or time savings, as none have been documented for the public, and not money savings as we’ve racked up $1.3 billion indebtedness doing roundabout and other pointless, purposeless, expensive projects.

And, not a thought to those suffering unseen and out of City Hall’s spotlight.

SOCIALISM CARMEL STYLE

As an official non-mayor of Carmel, you no doubt have noticed that the municipal government is the city’s largest debtor ($1.3 billion), major landlord ($175 million, a seven-fold in four years) and chief entertainment impresario (averaging 467 patrons in the pricey Center for the Performing Arts).

Less obvious is an obscure definition in your dictionary that reads: “A political and economic theory of social organization which advocates that the means of production, distribution, and exchange should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole.:

Socialism of the far left is Communism, we are told, and of its right wing, Fascism. In all cases, government controls the economic valves. The purpose is to make a Garden of Eden on earth for all persons. Free. No strings. Trust us

Dictionaries and Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortz don’t mention the embarrassing results of 200 years of socialistic experiments which uniformly became shipwrecks and, in the process, shipwrecked tens of millions of lives.

Fortunately, that same 200 years saw the steady improvement of an antidote. Not yet in pill form, the cure is a set of guidelines for the construction of a highly workable, profitable, individual-fulfilling remedy: free markets, freedom from government meddling.

Contrast that with this published pronouncement:

“People say why would build something that loses money? I say, it’s the same reason we have a police department. That’s why government exists: to provide things that the private sector doesn’t want to do.” (IndyStar, April 7, 2014)

One could excuse the naivete as political gibberish if it weren’t for the pernicious ideas behind it. Carmel doesn’t have a police department because the private sector doesn’t provide security services, home security systems and, for some, individual weapons and ammunition.

It has one because people demand police protection and the government-based system has proven most efficient. “Demand” and “efficient” may be foreign words to a local politician, but they operate well in the real world.

Carmel has wonderful police, fire, water-and-sewer, streets and park systems precisely for the same supply-demand equation. We could all dig wells and have privies out back, but it’s cheaper, safer and more certain to do it through our elected officialdom.

The icing on the Socialist cake has always been something for nothing in the sweet bye-and-bye. It’s never delivered. The Palladium, Tarkington Theatre, ice rink, Farmer’s Market, CarmelFest and all the rest aren’t economic successes but rather curiosities which, once or twice experienced, lose relevance. Throw in purposeless street sculptures, and 122, $2-3 million roundabouts which don’t reduce accident rates and you know all you need to about the $1.3 billion Carmel debt load.

WARNING

As an official non-mayor of Carmel, I collect quotes from various sources. The John Adams Heritage in Boston cited this from Adams’ first address to Congress, Nov. 23, 1797:

“There are two ways to conquer and enslave a country. One is by the sword. The other is by debt.”

John might well tailor the remarks to include municipal governments’ enslaving its residents.

And, if he were told Carmel’s $1.3 billion debt was incurred virtually 100 percent without consent of the governed, he might start the revolution all over again. And, imagine what would he make of a Standard & Poor’s credit warning that said, “the downgrade reflects our view of the city’s rapidlyincreasing debt burden, with mounting leverage that can pressure flexibility and budgetary performance over time.”

The root question for Carmel voters this election year is not the size of the debt or even the manner in which it was accumulated, shady as that might seem.

The root question is: Why?

To what purposes have the monies been used? Is there evidence the monies have produced benefits for all the people all of the time or just some of the people all of the time?

For starters, examine the outdoor sculptures that festoon roundabouts. After the initial novelty wears off, what value is there? Curiosity, novelty, strangeness? Or, does the brain filter out all sense impressions and ignore the vulgarities?

Trendy Carmel is part of what the Brookings Institution highlighted as the dangers of municipal debt: $2 trillion in bank loans as of 2017 from less than $200 million in 2000; a rapid increase in the use of large, unused revolving credit capacity, and vast amounts of borrowed funds uninsured. (“The Privatization of municipal debt,” brookings.edu)

Time for a review of the books?