January 31, 2015

Union Cronyism and the Board of Aldermen

108696481_construction_worker_holding_hard_hat_articleI was driving home from work the other day and listening to “Back Stabbers” by the O’Jays on 88.1. At the end of the song, the DJ gave some commentary, “The back stabbers. They smile in your face. It could be the milk man, it could be one of your friends, or it could be the St. Louis Board of Aldermen.”

I didn’t catch why my DJ was upset with the Board of Aldermen, but one reason Saint Louisans are upset with the board right now is their decision to consider a bill that purportedly limits minority businesses from bidding on county government contracts.

The bill mimics regrettable legislation passed by the county in 2012 that requires bidders on construction contracts of $25,000 or more to maintain their own Department of Labor-approved apprentice program. The catch is that union contractors are often the only bidders who can meet this requirement.

When the county council adopted its bill in 2012, my colleague David Stokes wrote,

While some non-union companies do participate in apprentice programs through industry organizations, union-affiliated companies still have a decided advantage in meeting the requirements of this new bill. This is a blatant ploy to guarantee that union companies will win all county bids. . . .

Using the council’s authority to prevent non-union contractors from even attempting to participate in county projects is an egregious misuse of power. It is bad enough that this will increase costs to taxpayers, but the use of government for political favoritism is simply indefensible and immoral.

Just as it was two years ago, this type of legislation still appears to be a naked attempt by elected officials to please a powerful special interest.

Law should facilitate open access, such that access to public institutions is not contingent on personal relationships and political connections. Law should be structured to apply to everyone equally. By favoring unionized contractors over non-unionized contractors, this bill fails in providing a neutral rule. It reeks of cronyism, and it is the sort of thing Saint Louisans are right to be upset about.

January 29, 2015

It’s Groundhog Day for Saint Louis and NFL Stadiums

The story is everywhere: Saint Louis is in danger of losing its NFL team because the city’s current stadium is outdated. With the team on the verge of moving, state officials have developed a plan for a new publicly financed state-of-the-art stadium, but it may be too late. The owner sees greener pastures out west, and, after year upon year of subpar play on the field, fan support is tepid. They may not support using public dollars to finance a new domed stadium.

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That’s right, this story is not about the Rams; it’s about the St. Louis Football Cardinals circa 1988. But the stories are so similar that, if the Post-Dispatch were to change the date, a few proper nouns, and replace “dome” with “open-air stadium,” they could easily republish articles written decades ago.

If Saint Louis’ position is analogous to the one it experienced in 1988, there is much reason for caution. Back then the conventional wisdom was that domed stadiums were the future and open-air venues were a thing of the past. As one Post-Dispatch writer put it, “A domed multi-purpose building, involving an enlarged convention center, would not be the white elephant of an isolated, open-air athletic stadium.”* Despite the last-ditch stadium proposal, the Cardinals moved anyway.

But that did not stop plans for a dome. Then, as today, regional leaders claimed that having an NFL team was a boon for the local economy and city pride. Thus, building a new stadium was the “progressive” action, and it was needed to “compete for sports, convention and political bucks.”* In the area of urban development, the Post-Dispatch published articles about how the RCA Dome transformed downtown Indianapolis, hinting at similar results for Saint Louis. In a demonstration of an uncritical, keeping up with the Joneses mindset that too often guides municipal governance, one prominent stadium plan supporter commented, “You know, the other cities that have built domes are not totally stupid.”* When state and local residents voted to go forward with a publically financed dome, one Post-Dispatch columnist claimed that it “all sounds like a dream.”*

Now the dream is over. While Saint Louis eventually lured the Rams in 1995, it did so with a sweetheart deal that has been described as the “worst lease ever,” part of which frees the Rams to leave the city after only 20 years. The dome, which was described as “cutting-edge” and even “intimate”* in 1995, is regularly maligned. In fact, talk of the dome being out of date began as early as 2007, just 12 years after it was completed. As for urban regeneration, other than the heavily subsidized developments on Washington Avenue, progress has been limited and certainly not centered on the dome.

The history of the Edward Jones Dome demonstrates the pitfalls of using public dollars to chase the NFL. Perhaps that will cause Missourians and public officials to be more skeptical of the new stadium proposal. But then again, you know, the other cities that have built open-air stadiums are not totally stupid.

January 28, 2015

The Wonderful Evergreen Clause

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Imagine you had a contract with your employer that could never be altered unless both you and your employer agreed to the changes. Imagine this contract was a windfall for you, giving you a four-day weekend, up to three months paid vacation each year, and the ability to retire early with a great pension. That might be great for you, but would it be fair?

If you live in the Saint Louis Metropolitan Area, as a taxpayer you might be the employer bound to such an agreement. The beneficiary of this arrangement? Your local firefighters union.

Nicknamed “evergreen clauses” because they make a contract last forever, these contract provisions are popping up in government collective bargaining agreements across the country. And they create a situation where elected officials cannot alter the pay, benefits, or work rules captured in a union contract unless the union agrees to this change. In practice, this means that pay and benefits can be ratcheted up in years when public finances are good and the union controls public officials, but pay and benefits cannot be brought back down when the union loses its influence or public coffers are tapped.

In West County, the Monarch Fire Protection District has tried to change the terms of its contract with International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) Local 2665, but it is limited by an evergreen clause. At issue in the contract are provisions that state:

  • There will be no duties (other than an alarm) assigned to safety staff after noon of each working day. Each working day is a 24-hour shift.
  • A firefighter/paramedic works three days in each nine-day period (two-to-three days each week).
  • A firefighter/paramedic with 15 years of service (most of the shift staff) is entitled to 27 days of paid vacation each year. Working nine days a month, this comes to about three months of vacation a year.
  • In addition to vacation days, a firefighter/paramedic also receives paid days off in the form of sick days and “Kelly” days.
  • Sick leave accrues over time and can be “cashed out” for pay.

Perhaps these provisions made sense when they were adopted several years ago, but now the fire district, and by extension the taxpayers, are powerless to change them.

Contracts like this shift the power of government away from the democratic process to the government union benefiting from the contract. Missouri citizens should consider whether they really want their government to have the power to bind itself to a contract indefinitely.

At the time this story went to print, the firefighters union had not responded to our request for comments.

January 26, 2015

Kansas City Embraces Baristanomics

Streetcars, entertainment districts, new airport terminals, Republican confabs, Super Bowls, creative-class millennials, and convention hotels all have grabbed headlines in recent months in Kansas City. Certainly they are evidence that city leaders think they can spend, spend, spend their way into wealth. But they are also evidence that Kansas City has embraced something my colleague at the Show-Me Institute dubbed “Baristanomics.” Baristanomics is the theory that lifestyle spending can revitalize an urban economy.

It doesn’t work.

Richard Florida first proposed the idea that cities need to attract the so-called creative class in order to survive. His prediction was not borne out by time. But like all good economic theories, zealous adherents aren’t swayed by plain evidence. Here in Kansas City, leaders still talk about attracting this creative class with streetcars despite the fact that the evidence tells us that even the millennial-age cohort is no less likely to own cars than their peers in past generations. They act the same way any group does: They move to regions that offer jobs.

A study of successful innovation hubs even demonstrated that among those that have been successful there is no winning government strategy—success does not lend itself to a simple formula.

Boosters of Baristanomics point to the slight growth of downtown residents to show the success of the city’s profligate spending. As another high rise is proposed for downtown—and subsidized with taxpayer dollars—the high availability no doubt will drive prices into the basement. Laying aside the question of whether such modest growth is worth the huge cost to taxpayers, it is clear that Baristanomics has not produced the jobs necessary to keep people downtown. Downtown residents commute out of the core for work—something that writers elsewheredubbed Urban Inversion. Basically, Kansas City is turning itself inside out.

Without jobs—baristas, hotel concierges, and restaurant staff notwithstanding—any measure of success will be short lived if Kansas City isn’t attracting jobs. In fact, the growth of residential development is coming at the cost of commercial and industrial growth potential as one-time office buildings and warehouses are converted into trendy lofts. Furthermore, many of those living spaces were built or renovated with tax abatements or subsidies that will make them much less attractive in 25 years when they end.

Cities do not form around coffeeshops and large entertainment venues. (If they did, where is the development around the Truman Sports Complex? There are barely hotels over there.) People generally live where they work, and if Kansas City continues to be an unattractive place to build a business, all the hip speakeasies and entertainment subsidies will amount to nothing more than curious finds for future archeologists.

January 24, 2015

Poorly Done EDC Survey Does Not Justify Massive Streetcar Expenditure

With the 2.2-mile, $100 million-plus Kansas City streetcar line now under construction, city planners and officials are busy attempting to justify this massive expenditure and a future expansion. There is no way to make the case for streetcars in terms of transportation. They are slower than walking in many traffic conditions and an order of magnitude more costly than ordinary buses.

But streetcar proponents rarely make the argument that streetcars improve mobility. Instead, they argue that streetcars, somehow, create “livable communities” and boost economic development. As what constitutes a “livable community” is unclear, streetcar proponents rest their arguments on streetcars enticing developers to Kansas City.

So the residents of Kansas City are subjected to report after report of just how much money the unfinished streetcar line is bringing the city. The only problem: Even the most rudimentary investigation of the “evidence” for streetcar development reveals serious flaws. In their zeal to prove the impact of the streetcar renaissance, city planners have included plans that predated the streetcar, businesses that are just relocating within the Transportation Development District (TDD), and even an unfunded Broadway Bridge rebuild. They’ve even dropped the ball on the basic arithmetic.

But for all the flaws in these reports, none has been as methodologically flawed as the most recent effort put forth by the Economic Development Corporation of Kansas City (EDC), the lobbying arm of six statutory KCMO redevelopment agencies. Its report claims that the streetcar has generated more than $600 million in economic development and created more than 1,000 jobs.

The EDC came to this conclusion based on the results of a voluntary survey (with less-than-objective response recovery tactics, as KCBJ reports) sent to downtown developers. While that survey had six questions, only one actually asked about the streetcar’s impact on development. It is as follows:

2. To what degree was your location decision influenced by the planned streetcar line?

5 – Major positive influence – The planned streetcar line was a primary factor.

4 – Positive influence – The planned streetcar line was one of the major factors.

3 – Somewhat positive – The streetcar was thought of as a positive amenity but not a major influence on your decision.

2 – Neutral – The streetcar was taken into consideration, but played no major role.

1 – Negative – The planned streetcar was seen as a negative factor.

Notice that the language of “Major positive influence” allows for the streetcar to be just one of multiple primary factors, so that we do not know if the streetcar was actually the deciding factor. What is really relevant, but left unasked, is whether these developments would have located downtown, or better yet, anywhere in the Kansas City metropolitan area without the streetcar. If the answer to that question is “yes,” the streetcar has not created anything but higher taxes and a traffic impediment.

January 22, 2015

Open Collective Bargaining at Monarch

Firefighter Turnouts-Gear Rack
In October 2013, the Monarch Fire Protection District implemented a new approach to collective bargaining with the union representing rank-and-file firefighters. Rather than hold meetings on pay, benefits, time off, and work rules behind closed doors, the board of the fire district decided to make these meetings open to the public.

With open collective bargaining, any citizen, journalist, or Monarch employee interested in the process could show up to a meeting and see the demands made by the union and the board. In theory, this process would keep demands in check, tactics civil, and allow the public to see how government decisions are made.

One might think that a more transparent process for determining how a government entity delivers services and spends taxpayer money would be welcomed by all; however, it appears that the union did not like the arrangement.

“The union lawyer tried stunts to close the meetings to the public,” says Jane Cunningham, one of three members of the fire district board.

According to Cunningham, when collective bargaining was held behind closed doors, it was easy for the union to get whatever terms they wanted in the contract. In essence, the union was able to exert complete control over the fire district because it had majority control of the board and could collectively bargain without public scrutiny.

No one would suggest that private-sector collective bargaining should occur in public forums. That’s because the terms and conditions of private employment are, well, private. But the public has an interest in what public employees are paid, both because taxpayers are picking up the tab and because the right balance of compensation is important to getting good service without being overcharged.

Now that open collective bargaining is in place at Monarch, it appears that the union is no longer getting exactly what it wants in collective negotiations, and community interests are being better served.

Will other government entities open their collective bargaining negotiations? Only time will tell. For now it appears that Monarch is taking a step in the right direction with this innovative approach to government transparency.

At the time this story went to print, the firefighters union had not responded to our request for comments.

January 9, 2015

Thoughts on the Latest Rams Press Conference

With the recent news that Rams owner Stan Kroenke is planning to build a new football stadium, the chances of the Rams leaving Saint Louis have increased substantially. Late last year, Gov. Nixon appointed a two-person team whose mission was to investigate options for keeping the NFL in Saint Louis. The team, which consists of former Anheuser-Busch executive Dave Peacock and Clayton area attorney Bob Blitz, presented their report on Friday. Below are key points raised in that report:

  • Plans are for a new stadium located on the riverfront, north of Lumiere Casino and northeast of the Edward Jones Dome.

Stadium2.0

  • The stadium also would be available for professional soccer.
  • It would be a public asset owned by a public entity and leased to the team. Also, the new stadium would come with a new lease, 30 years or more.
  • Cost estimate: $860-$985 million, at least half of which would be privately financed (minimum $200 million from Stan Kroenke and another $200 million from the NFL).
  • No new tax burden, although there would be public money involved.
  • Estimated completion date: 2020.

After listening to the press conference and going over some of the points raised here, I have my misgivings about this project. First, I would like to know specifically where the money is coming from to pay for this new stadium. During the press conference, Peacock said that the sources of public financing would not be ascertained until there was a commitment from the NFL and from the Rams on moving forward with this project. Second, the $860-$985 million price tag would only be for the new stadium. Additional money (it wasn’t said how much) would be needed to upgrade the current Dome so it will be a full-time convention center. How are we going to pay for that as well?

My biggest misgiving is the fact that we will be publicly subsidizing this thing at all. Kroenke’s proposal in Los Angeles would be completely privately financed. Why should the public put up money when Kroenke can afford to pay for the costs himself? The most recent trend in stadium construction is toward private investment. That’s what happened in San Francisco and New York, so why should Saint Louis be different?

I know it is easy to be wowed by beautiful pictures of sparkling developments like the one above. Yet, nice pictures aside, these kinds of plans do not produce the economic benefits that would make these developments worthwhile. I want Saint Louis to remain an NFL town, but I don’t want to spend taxpayer dollars to do it.

January 8, 2015

Streetcars Continue to Fail

In September we highlighted the problems with streetcar cost overruns in Charlotte, North Carolina. Now it appears streetcar efforts are collapsing everywhere. According to POLITICO:

From D.C. to Atlanta, from San Antonio to Salt Lake City, streetcar projects have run into delays, cutbacks and other snags, and some have been scrapped altogether. The most dramatic recent example was November’s demise of a $550 million, state-aided streetcar project in the liberal, traditionally pro-transit D.C. suburb of Arlington County, Va., which had turned politically toxic as its price tag more than doubled. (DOT rejected an application for federal funds for that project, but supporters believed a second attempt would succeed.)

The project in Arlington, Virginia, has come to a complete stop because of problems. This is noteworthy because the region was held up as a positive example by streetcar booster Councilman Russ Johnson at the two-mile starter line’s groundbreaking. According to POLITICO:

In D.C., the H Street line is three years late in opening, marred by missteps like a test run in which the streetcar had to stand still for 15 minutes while an ambulance blocked its path. This fall, the District cut the size of its planned streetcar network from 20 miles to eight miles.

Kansas City voters wisely rejected a streetcar expansion effort in November, but city leaders seem intent on putting it on the ballot again. If city leadership won’t listen to voters, perhaps they will heed their peers around the country who are rethinking their positions.

January 7, 2015

Fuel Prices Falling, Along With Planners’ Expectations

gas station-300x192At the time this was written, the average price for a regular gallon of gas in Missouri was $1.859. The price at the same time last year was $3.018. Fuel prices falling nearly 40 percent over 12 months is an unexpected windfall for Missouri families, with a hypothetical household getting an extra 2.75 percent raise off of savings at the pump. It is also likely to mean lower prices for nearly all goods and services, as lower fuel prices mean items can be produced and delivered for less.

While low fuel prices may give an unexpected boost to the economy at-large, they confound the expectations of city and state planners. Whether the source is the Mid-America Regional Council (MARC) (the Kansas City area planning agency), the Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT), or East-West Gateway (the Saint Louis regional planning agency), they all expected rising fuel prices to continue into the future. For example, in MoDOT’s October 2014 Financial Snapshot, they figured gas would average $3.26 in the upcoming year.

None of this is to blame these agencies for failing to predict future gas prices. The price of oil is historically volatile, and few predicted prices to fall as they have. What these government bodies should be faulted for is using what was at best an educated guess about the direction of gas prices as a standard plank in their arguments for billions of dollars of state and local investment in alternative transportation and restrictive land-use policies. For example, MoDOT used the trend in fuel prices as part of its argument that they needed the ability to fund billion-dollar passenger rail lines as well as support urban transit. MARC predicted that rising gas prices, along with other trends, would “demand for more walkable, transit-friendly development closer in.” This is part of their reasoning for recommending regional densification and urban refill.

Regional planners have consistently made the argument that citizens will increasingly use public transportation and live in denser environments, due in part to more expensive fuel. But instead of waiting for these markets to materialize and responding to steadily rising needs, residents are asked to spend billions today to meet uncertain demand down the road. What the precipitous fall in oil prices should remind us is that long-term predictions can be mistaken. While the estimates themselves may be prudent, using them to speculate with public dollars is not.

January 6, 2015

Enforcing Macks Creek Law: Progress in Saint Louis County

Last month, Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster sued 13 cities in Saint Louis County for violating Macks Creek Law, which caps the portion of a city’s general revenue that can be derived from traffic fines to 30 percent. This action, along with a separate state audit of the municipal courts in Bella Villa, Saint Ann, Pine Lawn, and Ferguson, is a positive step toward more active enforcement of state law in Missouri.

Of the cities named in the lawsuit, only four (Bellerive Acres, Moline Acres, Normandy, and Vinita Terrace) were sued for actually exceeding the 30 percent cap. The other cities have been cited for failing to meet reporting requirements or using improper methods of recording fees as a percentage of revenue. For example, one city divided the fines it received in six months by total revenue for the entire year, in what appears a very ham-fisted attempt to show compliance with the law. The chart below, with data from Better Together, shows the portion of revenue from fines that each city named in the lawsuit collects.

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This lawsuit may be a step in the right direction, but it is only one step. As we pointed out in a previous blog post, there are at least five other cities not listed in this lawsuit that have more than 30 percent of their revenue coming from fines and fees. Among these are Calverton Park and Bella Villa, which collect more than 50 percent of their revenue from fines. These municipalities may be within the law, but state confirmation of this seems prudent.

munilaw

Furthermore, many cities in Saint Louis County, while perhaps not in violation of the law, are still collecting very large portions of their revenue through fines. Twelve municipalities, mostly in North Saint Louis County, collect between 20 and 30 percent of their revenue from fines. In most municipalities, this percentage is less than 15 percent. The state could lower the cap on fines in the Macks Creek Law to further protect state residents from law enforcement acting as tax collectors.

But as the current situation demonstrates, it matters little if fines are capped at 30 percent, 25 percent, or 15 percent of general revenue if the state does not enforce existing law. The state clearly has not done this in the past, and without the tragic events in North Saint Louis County and subsequent scrutiny of city policing tactics, who knows how long it would have taken for Macks Creek Law to be enforced? The state could benefit from a more systematic, not crisis driven, approach to statutory oversight.

December 22, 2014

Urban Neglect: Kansas City and TIF

My colleague Michael Rathbone and I authored an essay titled “Urban Neglect, Kansas City’s Misuse of Tax Increment Financing.”

In the essay we examined Tax Increment Financing (TIF) project data provided by Jackson County and census data on household income. We found that in Kansas City the majority of taxpayer subsidies go to parts of town that are relatively wealthy and economically vibrant, rather than to the poor and economically depressed areas for which TIF was ostensibly designed.

Mike Mahoney of KMBC filed a story on our report. In it he interviewed Councilwoman Cindy Circo, who offered:

But it is the private development that drives the actual project itself. The city doesn’t go through the TIF process itself and be the developer.

This is an odd statement because Burns & McDonnell, and every other company that seeks a TIF subsidy, argues that the project could not go forward without public investment. So while Circo may be correct that the city does not choose the individual projects that apply for TIF, the TIF Commission and the city have demonstrated time and again that they aren’t really vetting applications, which has created an “anything goes” environment. One need only study the Citadel project to know that this is true.

If the city’s appointees on the TIF Commission were better at approving only legitimately blighted properties—those that truly require public investment—public subsidies might more often be used in the parts of town that really needed it. Instead, the subsidies flow to well-connected business leaders and their development lawyers, and public dollars unnecessarily go to projects such as Country Club Plaza and River Market.

December 19, 2014

Map Series: III. Proposed MetroLink and Bus Rapid Transit Routes

Metrolink_BRT routes

The map above shows the proposed MetroLink expansion, along with the prime candidates for the first Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) lines in Saint Louis. One of those routes runs through North Saint Louis along West Florissant and Natural Bridge Road (West Fl-NB), while the other BRT route runs along I-64/40. The proposed MetroLink expansion would mostly mimic the route of the West Fl-NB BRT, but it also would serve South Saint Louis City. None of these proposals run cheap. The proposed BRT routes would cost around $40 million to implement per line, but they have funds from Proposition M, passed in 2010. The proposed MetroLink expansion would be much more expensive, between $1 billion and $1.6 billion, and would almost certainly require additional tax revenue from Saint Louis City and County. Read more from the Show-Me Institute on the MetroLink plan here.

 

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