Saturday, May 10, 2008

PAVLOVIAN PANDERING

PAVLOVIAN PANDERING: There’s so much contained between the lines of the article in the local paper today about a supposed “2.2M surplus” the headline touts it’s hard to know where to focus.

But the theme of the yearly ritualistic conspiracy of misdirection by the Council and the Mayor is the same- shove the costs of neglecting what we already own down the road and spread around enough cash to corporate and special interest to open the spigot to fill your campaign coffers.

Yes it’s an election year and according to the article:

“The mayor proposes using this increased funding (the $2.2M) in part for an $850,000 Lihu`e Development Plan, $150,000 for community gardens, $350,000 for veterans cemetery upgrades and $100,000 in host community benefits for Kekaha (and) $14,000 in additional support for the Civil Air Patrol”

But what most don’t understand is that in addition to the $158 million in the operating budget, we are about to be again indebted- for future Councils to pay back - another $65.2 million in the Capital Improvement Budget (CIP) which we are going to “borrow” through yet another “bond issue” in 2009.

For those who don’t get it, this is money to buy new stuff that will become a fixed pay-back amount in the budget every year- the part that causes us to wonder if we can afford a third of a million dollars for cemetery upkeep and development plans that have been done twice and are collecting shelf dust.

And while we’re buying all this new crap we don’t have money to take care of our old crap because we’re paying off the money we borrowed years ago to buy it.

It’s like borrowing money for a car and then neglecting to change the oil and keep it tuned up because you don’t have the money for maintenance because you’re paying off the loan. Then you have to buy a new car before you’re done paying for the old car because you didn’t maintain it and so it blew up.

Take for example our roads as Glenn Mickens and others have been for years- literally “taking” pieces of them to the Council Chambers- to show how the lack of a program of consistent and cyclical maintenance is costing us many times what it would cost us to maintain them when they get in such bad shape we have to rebuild the road instead of just repaving it.

Despite recognition of this problem from every single councilmember over the past 15 years and promises to fix the system, catch up with standard best practices for maintenance and then institute a program that will repave each mile of county road when it’s appropriate (instead of doing the road the Mayor lives on every year during this and the last administration) we are even farther behind than we were a few years back.

Our parks are a mess- the bathrooms are filthy and broken, the ball fields ill-designed and barely maintained and there’s no or very little money to take care of what we have now. But the upcoming CIP-project-related bond-issue according to the article, calls for more “playground equipment, roller hockey rink covering, skateboard parks and soccer fields” among other things.

This was one of Mickens and the “nit-pickers” main argument against the “bike-path” purchase as well as other nice-to-have-but-are-they-a-need-or-a-want projects- where is the money to maintain them coming from?

We now have wound up with, not just a ribbon of concrete where it’s likely the ocean will be in a decade or two at present erosion rates, but things like new supposed “parks” complete with “comfort stations and pavilions... all of which lack the additional appropriations for even cleaning much less preventive maintenance.

Yet every year we hear from well meaning citizens complaining about the amount we’re spending not considering what we’re wasting by not spending now, much less how we are accomplishing that spending.

Take citizen advocate Fred Well’s letter to the editor this week. He complains about spending in general and wants the budget cut, just as he did last year and the year before . But Fred is a smart-growth advocate and a smart knowledgeable guy who used to be a city manager on the mainland. Proposals he has made and backs will cost money in terms of more personnel in the Planning Department if we are to use smart-growth principles instead of the developer-initiated dumb-growth we use now. It takes money to properly gauge and analyze and accommodate the community’s pulse on both general and specific development projects. Is that the area Fred wants cut?

This is not to pick on Fred, a person that is more community minded than most of us. But the mindless “cut the budget” cries that we hear every May aren’t the mindful type of criticisms that need to be expressed to our lawmakers and administrators, no matter how the system is set up.

It’s doubtful this kind of “inside baseball” will be on the agenda when the elections approach this fall. Instead the newspaper will ask the candidates bland open ended fluff questions that leave all the wiggle room in the world on questions that will make no difference.

With an election approaching, in his blog today Mel Rapozo seems to jump on the mindless “cut the budget” pandering bandwagon with some comments that show how little he really understands what he is doing- or is ignoring it.

He says:

  • I feel that we have over budgeted again. I believe that this proposed budget, which simply adds on to the current budget, will generate another huge surplus next year, which is not fiscally responsible.

    We did have some things to say in his comments section which we’ll get to in a minute.

    Mel doesn’t get into any of the issues we presented here but does bring up things regarding some intricacies such as unfilled personnel positions and their effect on the “surplus”. He suggests “dollar-funding” unfilled positions and apparently using that to “cut taxes”. He doesn’t say where the money could come from when and if those positions are filled if he returned the “surplus” created and doesn’t deny those positions need to be filled to provide essential services.

    Unfilled positions is a problem but his solution just plain doesn’t make sense. It reeks of election year pandering.

    He also shows his apparent ignorance of the process- or again his turning a blind eye- with a few comments such as these two bullet points.

    Require the Administration to obtain Council approval if approved funding is used for purposes other than what was justified in the budget process.

    Require the Administration to obtain Council approval whenever positions are reallocated or transferred between departments.

We urge you to read what he says, noting his misperceptions about many things and his conclusion that his fixes would provide “tax relief”

To be fair, it’s certainly a positive trait that Mel has set up a place for exposition of his ideas, leaving himself open to our tirades in opposition or corrections. The tendency of more pols to hide their hands is despicable and telling in identifying why most of us see most of them as crooks and crocks.

But that said, here’s what we said addressing Mel’s post:

Your third and fourth bullet points are already the case Mel as I understand the line item budget process. I’m assuming Ricky W(antenabe) can fill you in on why- he did for me when the Council pulled the plug on program based budgeting during the Kusaka administration. If Department heads are not doing this then their financial shenanigans should be subject to discipline from the Finance Director and it should be apparent in the fiscal audit.

The problem is that I have rarely if ever seen debate, just reading and approval, on most of these communications for approval to shift funds unless on of the councilmembers flags it or more often a member of the public brings it up. Perhaps they are coming before you but you don’t realize what you are approving.

As to filling positions, this needs to be a subject of a performance audit under Charter 3.17. Every Department says there are “no qualified applicants” and blames Human Resources but within each department are dozens of serial “89-day contract” non-civil service employees who are dong the jobs already and would love to go “on the books” and get a civil service position. Is it cronyism? Is it some kind of financial kickback scheme? Is it racism, as some have claimed? Is it simply incompetence of department heads?

I don’t know but until we get to the bottom of why these vacancies persist we will never get the bang for our buck in providing essential services. Perhaps taking out many of the discretionary provisions in the budget ordnance are in order, changing those “mays” to shalls” would help.

All in all I think you’re making the same mistake all pols make- looking at the pot of money as this year’s pot, getting stingy and penny-wise-pound foolish (in an election year of course) and passing that off as frugality, pushing expenses down the road for someone else- maybe a council and mayor in 10 years- to deal with.

If there really is more than is “needed” in the budget we could start with programs that all council members have seen and stated will save money in the long run and catch up on all the deferred maintenance- a promise you made when you first ran for council- such as road paving that is STILL costing us exponentially more in future maintenance than it would cost to catch up and keep the roads maintained in a regular cycle. That was caused by deferring maintenance the same way you are proposing to do again by not funding the full catch up and then saying there is a “surplus”.

Or expanding the bus to keep road costs down- or installing more solar on county facilities. Or fixing some of the waste-treatment facilities before they break down and cause double to cost to fix or replace as has happened twice now.

And for that matter what ever happened to the performance auditor in council services that was appropriated twice but never filled? Rumor had it that there was no one to hire but I don’t remember seeing a solicitation to fill the position. Again we’re back to filling positions but this one you can’t blame on the administration.

I hope you’ll respond in detail to these points Mel.

It’s all a little esoteric to many but if you want to complain about the umpire’s call, you have to know the rules of the game... and watch for that brush-back pitch since it is an election year.

5 comments:

Joan said...

"We now have wound up with, not just a ribbon of concrete where it’s likely the ocean will be in a decade or two at present erosion rates, but things like new supposed “parks” complete with “comfort stations and pavilions... all of which lack the additional appropriations for even cleaning much less preventive maintenance."

You made some excellent points in today's post, Andy. Thanks for keeping us aware of the true long-term costs of today's purchases.

Anonymous said...

what better reason to have a county/city manger type of structure like fred wells and glenn m advocate? does the idea of swelling budgets during shrinking economies make sense? but the hanging curve ball is always the apathetic and amnesiatic voters who return in droves every other november. we never take the first pitch, we swing wildly at it.then we chase the low and away for strike two. caught looking for the K and we argue the call only to be tossed. some pastime! thanx for keeping it high and tight.

Andy Parx said...

Well actually the county manager could compound the problem of councilmembers who abuse the process. Would a county manager who is hired by the council say anything about this to the council? or act in opposition to the council? Not if they want to keep their job for long. We have to assume the county manager will do the bidding of the council, whether good bad or indifferent- there’s no possibility for opposition. This is the main problem with a CM system.

Maybe it’s because I’m a Giant fan that I always think that no matter how good a system the manager has, the players can always blow it in the end.

I’ve seen a draft of a specific proposal for a county manager- something that I’ve been asking for for almost four years. It has some problems and I’m still not sure it doesn’t violate state law. But finally at least there’s something to work with. As I understand it it will be presented for discussion at the charter Commission meeting next Monday.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Andy Parx said...

FYI- The last comment- the one that was deleted- was another of those zillion word irrelevant rants someone posts occuasionally on various blogs.