September 6, 2014

St. Louis County: Does It Have Too Many Municipalities

Many municipalities in Saint Louis County, large and small, rely on fines that harm their populations to fund local government. This week, the Washington Post published a story illuminating how clusters of small municipalities, each attempting to fund their governments through citations, turn parts of the county into a minefield for cash-strapped residents.

Saint Louis County contains 90 municipalities, some with less than 1,000 residents. Many of the smaller municipalities are in North Saint Louis County and rely heavily on traffic tickets and court fees. For example, Beverly Hills (population of 571) issued more than 3,000 tickets and collect more than $200,000 in court fees last year. Charlack, a small city in North Saint Louis County (population 1,362), derives 29 percent of its revenue through traffic fines alone. By contrast, most cities in Missouri receive less than 5 percent of their revenue from fines and fees.

speedtrap

But size is not everything. As the Post article points out, even the larger municipalities in North Saint Louis County are guilty of issuing numerous citations. Florissant (population 52,000) issued almost 30,000 traffic tickets for more than $3 million in fines last year, accounting for 13 percent of its revenue. Saint Ann, notorious for its I-70 speed trap, expects that 36 percent of its revenue ($3.3 million) will come from fines and court fees in 2014.

Furthermore, small Saint Louis County municipalities do not all rely so heavily on fines. For instance, Grantwood Village (population 863) only issues around 120 traffic tickets a year. In 2012, it collected only $34,000 in fines and fees. Black Jack, a small municipality in North Saint Louis County (population 6,920), receives less than 5 percent of its revenue from fines. What do Grantwood Village and Black Jack have in common? They both contract out police from Saint Louis County and do not operate their own police departments.

A combination of necessity and opportunity likely drives cities, large and small, to pursue aggressive citation policies: the necessity arising from a dearth of other funding sources, the opportunity from having a piece of Missouri’s highway system.

Fining residents to generate revenue, instead of promoting public order, is not the way to achieve good governance in Saint Louis County. In future blog posts, we will discuss these problems further and explore ways residents and policymakers can reform local governments.

September 4, 2014

Is the Super Bowl a Super Boost for Local Economies?

The Kansas City Star published an article reporting on the creation of a task force whose goal is to bring the Super Bowl into Kansas City. My colleague Patrick Tuohey did a great job explaining how claims of large economic impacts to Super Bowl host cities have been overstated. However, there is more to the story than just saying the economic impact of a Super Bowl is overstated.

Does the Super Bowl have any positive net economic impact on a host city?

The answer is it can, but it probably won’t. In a 2009 study, Michael C. Davis and Christian M. End found that hosting a Super Bowl has no economic impact on a city’s real per capita income, and in some cases it can have a negative effect. Robert A. Baade, Robert Baumann, and Victor Matheson examined the economic impact of mega-events (including the Super Bowl) in Southern Florida from 1980 to 2005. During that period, three cities (Tampa Bay, Miami, and Jacksonville) hosted the Super Bowl a total of seven times. The Super Bowl had a statistically significant positive impact on the city’s economy in only one instance (Tampa in 2001). Dennis Coates found that Houston saw increased sales tax revenue because of the Super Bowl in 2004. But the next year in Jacksonville, the Super Bowl was found not to have had an economic impact.

This takes us back to the Kansas City Super Bowl task force. Why is the state in the business of trying to lure the Super Bowl to Kansas City? Couldn’t a private group of interested residents and businesses sell the city as a Super Bowl destination just as well? Possibly, but the state can offer the NFL subsidies. However, just because the state can do something, doesn’t mean it should. Economists in general oppose sports subsidies because, “The large and growing peer-reviewed economics literature on the economic impacts of stadiums, arenas, sports franchises, and sport mega-events has consistently found no substantial evidence of increased jobs, incomes, or tax revenues for a community associated with any of these things.”

It’s true that there could be intangible benefits to hosting a Super Bowl, like increased exposure to the outside world. Yet, is there any concrete measure on what kind of return the city would see from such exposure? Will businesses or residents move to Kansas City because it hosted the Super Bowl? I don’t know, and the burden of proof should be on those arguing for government subsidies.

Kansas City is a great football town, and I agree with Joe Clifford when he says, “The Super Bowl’s tremendous.” However, I don’t think the residents of Kansas City nor the rest of Missouri should pay for the privilege.

 

 

August 27, 2014

Of Super Bowls and Economics

Following the passage of a resolution in the state legislature, the Missouri Department of Economic Development has convened a Super Bowl Task Force to consider what Kansas City needs to do to attract the annual event. According to The Kansas City Star,

“‘I can think of no better place to host the Super Bowl than Kansas City, the best football town in America,’ [State Senator Paul] LeVota said in a statement. ‘We’ve got incredible fans and a city more than capable of handling such a huge event.’

“Not only would the fans love it, but the economic impact would be enormous, he said.”

Ah, there is that elusive term, “economic impact.” It is thrown about to justify all sorts of government spending, but it is little examined by media and little understood by the taxpayers whose money will be used. We recently reviewed similar claims about Kansas City’s effort to attract the GOP convention. In that piece, we cited a Daily Beast story about the recent Super Bowl in New Jersey:

“So, there’s no economically sound way to predict a Super Bowl’s impact before the event and those that try have been proven wrong again and again. But don’t expect that to stop the cheering from the few with the most to gain. When asked for a more detailed analysis of Super Bowl XLVIII, the host committee demurred, but assured in a statement, ‘Super Bowl XLVIII is expected to be an economic boom [sic] for the region.’”

A 2006 study conducted by the College of the Holy Cross, “Mega-Events: The effect of the world’s biggest sporting events on local, regional, and national economies,” analyzes past Super Bowl impacts. The report concludes with a sobering warning to those who would embark on such expenses:

“The most important piece of advice that a local government can take regarding mega-events, however, is simply to view with caution any economic impact estimates provided by entities with an incentive to provide inflated benefit figures. While most sports boosters claim that mega-events provide host cities with large economic returns, these same boosters present these figures as justification for receiving substantial public subsidies for hosting the games. The vast majority of independent academic studies of mega-events show the benefits to be a fraction of those claimed by event organizers.”

Hosting a Super Bowl in Kansas City would be a great opportunity to show off our city to the rest of the world. Afterall, the term “Super Bowl” was coined by Chiefs owner and American Football League founder Lamar Hunt. But regional boosters need not wear blinders. At what cost does such an event cease to be worthwhile, especially when so many basic services in Kansas City already seem to be falling by the wayside? If we’re going to bring people to the City of Fountains, let’s at least make sure we can afford to operate the fountains.

August 26, 2014

How to Attract Jobs, or at Least Not Repel Them

Public officials in Kansas City and elsewhere are eager to be seen as job creators. Almost every taxpayer-subsidized development project, every act of crony capitalism, every public project like a new $1.2 billion airport terminal, $62 million-per-mile streetcar, or convention hotel is discussed in terms of the jobs it will create. Politicians tells us, as they did in the TIF Commission hearing for the Burns & Mac handout, that the city cannot “wait for the free market,” that government must act.

But is government’s use of taxpayer dollars more successful than people making their own decisions?

Economist Enrico Moretti was interviewed on NPR’s Here and Now about his book, The New Geography of Jobs. He was asked about how successfully innovative regions are created and replicated [segment begins at 8:27]:

“[Interviewer] This is the unsettling part of your book: How do cities replicate these innovative job clusters?

“[Moretti] It’s very tough, because if you look historically where the innovation clusters are located, almost none of them [were] created by some deliberate, explicit policy. It’s really hard to engineer an innovation cluster. We talk about Seattle, but if you look at a lot of the clusters, they were all born in very random, often serendipitous, ways. So it’s really hard for policy makers to engineer from scratch.”

There is no magic formula known to bureaucrats or politicians about which companies and industries will be successful in the future. But they use public resources time and again chasing that white rabbit of jobs and growth. And unfortunately, the impact of taxing many businesses to subsidize a few is more often than not a recipe for destroying jobs, or at least keeping them away.

A better investment, as Show-Me has argued for years, is for government’s action to be broad and neutral: keep taxes low for everyone, maintain infrastructure, deliver necessary city services, and ensure quality education. Maybe those aren’t as appealing as large edifices named after politicians, but they are more successful.

August 12, 2014

That Burns & McDonnell TIF And Vandalism

Earlier this year, the Kansas City Council voted to use tax dollars to subsidize a project for Burns & McDonnell, one of the nation’s largest engineering firms. The Tax Increment Financing (TIF) site — a property featuring a former synagogue and school but otherwise dominated by a large parking lot — is literally next to the company’s world headquarters. We wrote at the time the TIF was being considered that the subsidy would be a poor use of limited public resources, especially for a successful firm that could certainly afford to expand and build upon a vacant property adjacent to its own.

Of course, Burns & Mac got its taxpayer subsidy, in part because of the “vandalism” that had occurred inside the empty buildings. In a hearing before the Kansas City TIF Commission, Scott Belke, the consultant who prepared the blight study, said, “This is one of the most vandalized buildings I’ve seen in my 29 years of work.” Thus, TIF supporters argued, the site and buildings needed to be remediated … with taxpayer support.

Belke admitted in questioning that he has never failed to find a site blighted, and that’s no surprise; we at the Show-Me Institute have been unable to find any case in the entire state of Missouri where a consultant has not considered a proposed TIF site blighted.

So, how were the buildings remediated? They … were bulldozed.

B&Mdemolition

Why was vandalism even considered a reason for blight if the entire structure was going to be razed anyway? Burns & Mac was never going to inhabit the synagogue; the building’s condition was, in practice, irrelevant to what Burns and Mac’s plans were for it: destruction. The only reason the building’s condition was an issue was because it was a foothold for the company to steer taxpayer dollars to its project, through TIF. That’s a cynical and objectionable path to getting city taxpayer money, but that’s business as usual in Kansas City.

Some people believe in the power of TIF, and perhaps it has a role to play in some development projects. But in Kansas City and elsewhere in Missouri, TIF is so frequently used and abused — and not even in legitimately blighted urban areas for which TIF was intended — that the whole enterprise has become a farce: a farce, as in this case, that enriches wealthy developers at the cost of city taxpayers.

New Tech To Improve Parking In St. Louis City

Last week, officials with the City of Saint Louis announced their decision to install a new type of parking meter. This is the result of months of a competitive process and trials at specific locations in the city. The winners of the $5 million contract were Xerox and Parkmobile. The city’s plan to update street parking is a win-win situation, with opportunities to implement demand-based pricing as well as maximize the performance of the city’s meter system.

meter11

Above is one of the pilot units of Xerox’s solar-powered IPS single-space meters. The meters accept both coins and credit cards (although the minimum time for a credit card purchase is 1 hour). The Parkmobile app allows people to pay over their phone by space number. The app can warn costumers when only 15 minutes remain, and if the overall time limit is not expiring, users can renew their spot over the phone.

Upgrading the city meters can aid both the city’s bottom line and those people looking for parking. For the city, it reduces the cost of enforcement, as officers can know where expired meters are and focus their ticketing efforts. Moreover, the city can use the data from both the meters and the Parkmobile app to measure the performance of certain parking areas, allowing variable pricing to maximize city revenue.

From the perspective of those looking for parking, the city’s effort to properly price and enforce meter limits can mean more available parking. The new meters and Parkmobile app will make payment convenient and mark the end of having to feed the meter. Additionally, the mobile apps and parking meters may allow people to find available parking by providing information on available spaces, eliminating the hassle of cruising for parking, and decreasing urban congestion. Finally, the city is also conducting a study that might result in the removal of parking meters that do not generate enough revenue for their upkeep. That type of optimization, which saves the city and drivers, is long overdue.

For the City of Saint Louis to realize these benefits, officials must be prepared to coordinate data collection to create a more market-oriented street parking environment. If the city can manage that, and take advantage of rapidly improving software capability, these updates will improve the lives of city residents and the city’s bottom line.

July 16, 2014

The Report The Airport Advisory Group Doesn’t Want You To See

Granted, that is a cliché title, but we can defend it. Twice, Show-Me Institute staff reached out to the Kansas City Airport Terminal Advisory Group (ATAG) about incorrect claims they were making in their presentations. We know from an open records request that they received our offer, considered it, and then ignored it while trying not to seem like they were ignoring it.

Dave Fowler, co-chairman of ATAG and a former managing partner at KPMG in Kansas City — one of the world’s largest auditing firms, — shockingly wasn’t ever concerned with the cost details. And whenever people provided financial information that did not align with the city’s talking points, it was dismissed. The affordability of the whole scheme was never seriously considered.

Until now.

Joe Miller, a policy researcher at the Show-Me Institute, has compiled all the cost data and concluded that over 30 years, it would be cheaper to renovate the Kansas City International Airport (MCI) twice than to build a new $1.2 billion terminal. Add this analysis to the many other points we’ve raised about the environmental or competitive need for a new terminal and it becomes impossible to find any worthwhile reason to tear down one of the country’s finest airports.

July 8, 2014

The Math Does Not Add Up For Murky Kansas City Streetcar Deal

In a previous post, we commented on how officials from Kansas City and the Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT) are hammering out a deal to divert $144 million of the proceeds from the proposed statewide sales tax to the Kansas City streetcar. According to the Kansas City Business Journal and the Kansas City Star, the plan will cap the sales tax increase in downtown Kansas City at 1 percent (0.25 percent for the streetcar Transportation Development District, or TDD, and 0.75 percent for the proposed statewide sales tax).

Source: Kansas City Business Journal

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Speaking of bad math, the cost of the projects in MARC’s chart (above) adds up to $800.4 million, not $775.7 million. So what’s getting cut? Does anyone check these things? 

On the surface, that sounds great for residents of downtown Kansas City (if not elsewhere). Previously, they were asked to pay a 1 percent higher sales tax to get the streetcar expansion. Now, they still pay 1 percent more, but they get other road and transit projects that state taxpayers fund, in addition to the streetcar expansion.

Haven’t seen a deal like that since Billy Mays died. But wait, there’s more!

Actually, the math for that “swap” does not work. The TDD’s 1 percent sales tax was supposed to bring in approximately $30 million a year. If the city reduces that rate to 0.25 percent, it will create a funding gap of almost exactly $210 million. That’s the reason the city was originally asking for $210 million; it was not some random number (although the city is not beyond doing that).

Drop the amount that streetcar gets from the state to $144 million, and a $65 million funding gap opens up. And remember that the original plan already had a $31 million unresolved budget gap. That leaves almost $100 million up in the air, ready to come crashing down on Kansas City taxpayers. Unless there is some other very large source of funding for the streetcar, the TDD sales tax cannot be held to 0.25 percent. It would need to rise to about 0.50 percent to maintain adequate funding (but still not addressing the initial $31 million shortfall).

The underlying problem is the incredible expense of building a streetcar system. Even if the federal government and Missouri taxpayers cover massive portions of the streetcar’s cost, there’s still a significant burden for residents in downtown Kansas City. Residents in the proposed TDD, Kansas City, and state will have to decide whether the streetcar is worth it.

July 7, 2014

Kansas City’s Murky Streetcar Deal Goes Public

During the last couple of weeks, we have commented about the developing story of the closed-door dealings between Kansas City officials and the Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT) regarding the future of the streetcar and the proposed 0.75 percent statewide transportation sales tax. We also have pointed out how this process arbitrarily discards the regional priorities that a transparent public process created. Both of these terrible transportation policies are on the Aug. 5 ballot, so naturally Kansas City officials were worried that a whopping 1.75 percent increase in the sales tax for downtown Kansas City might end in mutual defeat.

Kansas City officials cooked up a plan that would make the tax increase a more palatable 1 percent in downtown Kansas City. They proposed a “swap” that would cap the streetcar’s Transportation Development District (TDD) sales tax at 0.25 percent on condition that the 0.75 percent sales tax passed (a total tax increase of 1 percent). In return, they called for $210 million to be diverted to the streetcar to make up for lost revenue. As we noted, that incredible amount of money could only result in virtually no money for other transit improvements or cuts to road funding. The media in Kansas City, despite ample evidence of a burgeoning deal, did not report on the story until the day before the long Fourth of July weekend.

The Kansas City Business Journal finally reported on July 3 that a deal was in the works, with $144 million going to the Kansas City streetcar, accompanied with sharp cuts to other transit and pedestrian improvement projects. That means about 18 percent of all regional transportation funds will be diverted to a questionable development scheme in downtown Kansas City, should the transportation sales tax pass.

FundsMARC2

Both the Business Journal and the Star reported that the plan to cap the downtown tax increase at 1 percent is part of the deal, even though simply arithmetic makes this simple “swap” impossible (as a future post will detail).

This murky deal is the worst type of policy making. The “swap” essentially makes the streetcar policy and the transportation sales tax more politically palatable to those living in downtown Kansas City by making state taxpayers unwittingly pay for a massive share of the streetcar. This is the type of bargain that is only necessary because the state and Kansas City plan to spend huge sums on wasteful “transportation” projects, and only possible because a sales tax means that who pays has nothing to do with who benefits.

June 30, 2014

Blame Canada Washington!

Austin Alonzo, of the Kansas City Business Journal, recently reported that Kansas City Mayor Sly James argued that a door-to-door public outreach effort that Burns & McDonnell will conduct is necessary to meet federal guidelines:

On Monday, Mayor Sly James said the work being performed by Kansas City’s Parson & Associates LLC and Scott Hall & Associates will help the city fulfill a federal requirement to incorporate an environmental assessment into the expansion routes so the city is eligible to receive federal funding.

“If this assessment is not completed, then the city will have no opportunity to receive federal funding,” James said in the statement.

The effort is the subject of an ethics complaint that opponents to the streetcar sales and property taxes have filed, claiming it is electioneering. Alonzo followed up with the federal agency awarding the grants and found there is no such requirement.

No federal mandate requires Kansas City or its contractors to hold door-to-door meetings before part of the city votes on a proposed extension of the streetcar project, according to the Federal Transit Administration.

This is not the first time the mayor and Kansas City officials have been caught trying to blame federal regulators for forcing the city to adopt questionable policies. Steve Vockrodt, at The Pitch, just penned a piece pointing out that the EPA has never cited the Kansas City airport for environmental shortcomings:

City officials distributed a fact sheet in April 2013 that said KCI couldn’t meet U.S. Environmental Protection Agency guidelines for capturing de-icing runoff.

“The current terminal infrastructure does not allow the airport to meet the EPA’s new standards for capturing deicing fluids, which require capturing about 30 percent of the run-off,” the fact sheet reads. “The new single terminal will capture nearly 100 percent of the runoff and resolve Environmental Protection Agency issues the airport is currently facing.”

But there is no such EPA guideline.

Two EPA officials contacted by The Pitch could not identify any published guidelines that call for the capture of 30 percent of de-icing fluids.

And let us not forget the recently ended bid for the GOP convention, in which Mayor James argued that it was necessary to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars, in secret, just to keep up.

The Show-Me State’s Harry Truman once famously quipped, “The buck stops here.” But in Kansas City, Mayor James and Kansas City government officials point the finger elsewhere and the bucks don’t stop at all.

June 27, 2014

Kansas City To Spend 27 Percent Of All Regional Transportation Funds On Streetcar

In a recent article, the Midtown KC Post reported that Kansas City officials reached an agreement with the Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT) to fund the proposed streetcar expansion with proceeds from a proposed 0.75-cent statewide sales tax. Under the agreement, the streetcar’s Transportation Development District (TDD) sales tax would be reduced to 0.25 percent. In return, MoDOT would provide $3 million a year in funding for the streetcar.

But anyone who has read the streetcar’s financial plan knows the math for that “swap” does not add up. The streetcar TDD’s sales tax is supposed to bring in almost $30 million a year. If it is reduced to 0.25 percent, the TDD would only raise $7.5 million per year. With an extra $3 million a year from the state, that leaves almost $20 million per year in lost revenue unaccounted for, or $200 million over 10 years. Because the streetcar needs every dime (and then some) of that sales tax money, where is the extra $200 million going to come from?

The answer to this conundrum lies in Resolution 140500, which Kansas City Mayor Sly James introduced on June 19. It proposes spending an incredible $210 million of the 0.75-cent statewide sales tax revenue to fund the streetcar expansion. To get just how incredible of a request that is, consider that the Kansas City region is only supposed to receive a total of $776 million for all of its road, bridge, transit, rail, port, aviation, and greenway projects. In the plan that the regional planning agency (MARC) released, that is almost every dollar the region planned to spend on transit. That original plan had $32 million for the streetcar, but millions more for improvements throughout the entire region.

MARCplanbargain

 

This money grab for what is essentially a development scheme for downtown Kansas City should enrage not only residents in the Kansas City region, but taxpayers throughout the state. For parts of the Kansas City region not called downtown Kansas City, it essentially means no new funds for more cost-effective transit solutions or other more pressing projects. For the state as a whole, it underlines the incredible waste of a transportation sales tax supposedly needed to fix MoDOT’s highway funding problems. That 4 percent of all sales tax revenue raised over 10 years would go to support an incredibly expensive want with dubious development potential makes the proponents of the sales tax, who constantly argue that our infrastructure is crumbling, look like chicken littles.

If reports are accurate, MoDOT may already have made an agreement with Kansas City to divert this vast sum of statewide sales tax revenue, completely upending the open process through which MARC developed its regional plan and entirely contradicting MoDOT’s preliminary list of projects (which Kansas Citians have been asked to fruitlessly comment on) for the Kansas City region. That should indicate to Missourians just what kind of policy the transportation sales tax would create: wasteful, opaque, and catered to special interests.

Lovely Rita’s New Meters

Yesterday, I attended a town hall meeting that the Saint Louis Treasurer’s office hosted regarding citizen feedback on the parking technology field tests in downtown Saint Louis and the Central West End. The city is running these tests in order to modernize parking operations in the city. The vendors included T2 Systems, Aparc Systems, Xerox, and Duncan Solutions. All of the vendors gave impressive demonstrations.

The city should go state-of-the-art with its technological upgrades, no half measures. People have told me, and I agree, that it is annoying to have to go to a centralized meter, pay, wait for a printout, and then go all the way back to the car to place the printout. It is an added pain to go refill the meter when there is heavy rain or snow outside. If the city upgrades its meters, it should either have a meter at each individual space and/or allow people to pay through a smartphone app. At the town hall, all of the vendors stated that they will allow people to pay through a smartphone.

There also should be some flexibility in regards to charging different prices based on the time of day. During busier times, the prices for parking should increase. During quieter times, prices should be lower. This would allow the city to properly react to the demand for parking and hopefully reduce congestion.

However, no matter the appeal of state-of-the-art technology, the city needs to balance that against the costs of the upgrades. Added parking convenience is one thing, but the city should not break the bank for it.

Overall, it is good to see the city looking to upgrade its parking systems. With all that we can do with digital technology, it is about time parking meters join the 21st century.

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