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?

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.