David Rodeback's Blog

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Saturday, October 19, 2013
Meet the American Fork Candidates, Round One: Analysis and Commentary, continued

The last post dealt mostly in generalities. This one focuses on details. It's Part 2 of 2, of my commentary.

Attention, Homework, Dots

This is the continuation of the previous post. If you haven't read that one, you should read it first. There I said some good things about all the candidates, and I meant them. I outlined some particular strengths of the incumbents, Mayor J. H. Hadfield and Councilman Craig Nielsen, based on their performances at Thursday evening's meet-the-candidates event. I also explained my general dissatisfaction with the three challengers in those races. This post is devoted to the challengers.

The general outlines are as follows. At Thursday evening's event challengers Bill Thresher (for mayor), Jeff Shorter (for council), and Carlton Bowen (for council) demonstrated that they haven't been paying close attention to the City during the last few years; haven't done their homework before offering their wisdom and judgment, even on their own major issues; and aren't connecting the dots.

The causes may be quite honorable; they've been too busy with other very good things, like family, church, and work. But treating these high offices as entry-level positions disrespects the voters, the current elected officials and their work, their predecessors, and the process.

As I said last time, this is not just a matter of the incumbent's usual advantage over the challenger in facts and operational details. We've seen fine challengers in the past who have come to us well prepared, both in the sense of having served elsewhere in the City for a while and in terms of reading the right things and talking to the right people, so their understanding of major issues and processes is broad and deep before they present themselves as candidates. With the exception of Mr. Nielsen, who brings other compensating gifts, every member of the current city council spent years on the planning commission or working on city committees before seeking elected office. Besides such service, two of them, MFCC and Councilman Rob Shelton (like the late and former Mayor Heber Thompson), set a standard of pre-campaign "homework" that most local candidates will never approach.

As I explained before, I'm not saying that the challengers are bad men. They're making good men's mistakes. I'm not saying they're liars; I'm saying they're mistaken. I'm not saying they cannot learn -- and at least one of them will have to learn very soon. I am saying that the most credible candidates figure out what's going on and why, before they presume to sweep in and fix everything that's wrong with what's going on.

I'm also concerned that this trio of challengers is handicapped by ideology, which they have not tested against actual reality in American Fork in 2013: debt is always wrong, taxes are always and automatically too high, and we can maintain services while eliminating one and cutting the other. I also worry at some nagging symptoms of the most impenetrable intellectual barrier of all: thinking you already know. However, I think it likely that most or all of the three challengers are intelligent and decent enough that these obstacles will eventually give way to the realities of governing. I hope so, and that it will not be too painful for themselves or too costly for us in the meantime.

Roads and Debt

We can disagree on what degree of borrowing is prudent for a given city in a given circumstance. I think it's unreasonable to insist that there should be no borrowing at all, and I find myself wondering if the three candidates who say this have ever used debt to purchase a home, a car, or an education, or to start or expand a business. It's likely but not certain that the current road bond proposal will actually save the taxpayers money over their preferred alternative, which they call "pay as you go." But let's allow for some differences on this point and turn to some of the evidence the three challengers offered Thursday evening that they haven't paid attention, haven't done their homework, and aren't connecting the dots.

Roads and debt are their big issue -- or issues -- but not one challenger has the numbers right, or even close to right, where the City's expenditures on road repairs are concerned. The mayor corrected some of them at the event Thursday night. You'd think they'd have wanted to firm those up before they started talking about them. But it gets worse. Historically, so far, they are myopic. As any number of people could have told them, if they had asked, they need to look back almost two decades to understand the road maintenance funding mistakes earlier councils made. For now, at least, these challengers are pulling up more than a decade short and dumping the blame for the problem on the leaders who discovered the problem and have been working to fix it. (I'll write of this in more detail soon.)

If they'd look far enough back and connect the dots intelligently, they might begin to appreciate that the attitudes -- "principles," if you prefer -- which got us into the present mess were very much like their own. No borrowing, no tax increases, just kick the can down the road until it gets so big that we can't kick it any more. That approach cost us about an extra $40 million, once it was no longer possible to procrastinate the water problem. It will cost us plenty more, where roads are concerned. Not coincidentally, looking back that far would also enlighten our challengers as to the reasons for our high water bills.

Had these challengers been paying attention to things at the City several years ago, or had they done their homework more recently, one of them would not now be wondering why we didn't install meters on every irrigation hook-up, and another wouldn't be complaining that he expected his water bill to go down, not up. (The short explanations are, respectively, that the meters were prohibitively expensive and technologically inadequate then, and the savings with pressurized irrigation were in comparison to the other alternatives, not in comparison to current water rates, which had been allowed for years to slip far below cost.) They also wouldn't be wondering aloud if anyone at the City realized what digging up every street in the city to install irrigation pipes would do to the streets themselves. That was a major subject of concern and discussion then.

If they were connecting the dots, they would at least have some doubt that we'll be just fine preserving essential functions and quality of life programs and steadily making progress on our crumbling streets, but with lower taxes and no borrowing. One of them wouldn't be talking about freezing utility bills for two years, when the City cannot freeze the costs those bills must defray. And one of them wouldn't be insisting that there's at least six percent slack in the City budget to apply to roads. They would also understand that we don't buy less irrigation water if we use less, so conservation doesn't help much with costs, as long as we don't run out in a given summer.

If they had been paying attention or doing their homework conscientiously, they'd be inclined to acknowledge that, in recent years, the City has done an heroic job cutting costs without gutting essential services and desirable programs. They might even be grateful to the current and previous administrations (under Mayors Hadfield and Thompson), which, though imperfect, have cleaned up quite a few inherited messes, some of them large and difficult. They would be campaigning to join this work, not to correct its fundamentally wrong direction. If they didn't actually support the road bond, they'd at least show some reluctance to assume that there's plenty of waste in the budget, that it will be easy to find and fix, and that fixing it will provide plenty of funds for the things they value, like roads.

Everything Else

If these challengers were doing their homework, they would avoid a sweeping declaration that great art abounded before there was public support for the arts. Most of the great art of the Western world has been created either through modern government subsidies or through the patronage of monarchs and nobility or a state church, all of which are essentially government entities, at least in some functions.

If they were doing their homework, we wouldn't have heard a candidate reduce police work merely to arresting people and putting them in jail.

If they were connecting the dots, they wouldn't be talking about broadly applying the notion that people who aren't interested in something the City does shouldn't have to pay for it. Follow that last one a few steps into the future, and it produces unmanageable chaos.

If these gentlemen were doing their homework and the connecting the dots, we wouldn't have been told airily that the City should sell some of its land to make money, before the speaker of those words had audited all of the City's property and studied the General Plan to determine if there is any land it would be prudent to sell. Instead, we'd have heard of a specific plot or two that we don't need -- if there are any -- and I wouldn't have to worry that these candidates may not know why it's shortsighted to eat your seed corn.

If these aspiring leaders were connecting the dots, especially the economic dots, they'd be eager to hire a full-time economic development director, whose professional expertise would bring the city more revenue than the position would cost. (It would make sense to hire as many such as would have a positive ROI, if we were running the city like a business, as Mr. Thresher advocates.) Instead, one challenger told us that economic development is the mayor's and city council's job. That's easy to say, until you realize that these are part-timers with very small honoraria, who may or may not have any professional expertise in economic development, and who in any case have other pressing work to do. It's good if they are involved sometimes, but even then they need a professional to direct and advise them.

The challengers showed some interest in comparing American Fork with other nearby cities, when the comparisons reflected negatively on American Fork. I wonder, have they ever checked to see whether these cities they admire have full-time economic development specialists? More dots to connect.

If they were connecting the dots, or if they were doing the math instead of pronouncing that debt is simply wrong, they'd likely see the urgency of a faster approach to road repairs than "pay as you go." Not only might it save money (of which more in a subsequent post), there are also significant externalities. For example, businesses are unimpressed when they see a city with shabby neighborhoods or shabby streets. Otherwise, we'd probably have had a Red Lobster for several years now.

Finally, I would have hoped that a challenger would check his facts before declaring that the City should stop taking land for parks without compensation. After hearing that Thursday night, I asked for some clarification from the City about how those things work. Short answer: The City doesn't take property for parks. If the City does not buy property outright, it provides fair compensation through impact fee waivers or density credits. And if the City did use eminent domain to take property -- which it tries to avoid, due to the high risk of expensive lawsuits -- it would have to pay fair market value.

In General

Consider these two disconnects.

First, judging by what they say (and what else is there?), these challengers seem to think that the City budget, utility rates, and other numbers are arbitrary, not tied firmly to anything particular in reality, such as actual costs. That's how one of them can say it should be easy to find 6 percent of the existing budget which can be moved to roads. That's why one of them can advocate freezing water rates for two years. That's why they're undaunted on the subject of arbitrarily lowering impact fees -- which legally cannot exceed the costs imposed on the City by development anyway, and which, if lowered below the actual costs, as in some neighboring cities, require that taxpayers subsidize developers.

Second, at work I look at more numbers in a day than most people want to see in a month. I'm continually watching for trends and trying to tell the difference between trends and normal day-to-day variations in our numbers. If all I see is today's numbers, I can't tell whether there's a trend or not. I can't tell whether the numbers are meaningfully good or bad or up or down, or just having a weird day, until I have seen quite a bit of history.

Paying attention over a period of years matters. Doing the proper candidate homework matters. Connecting the dots matters, but you can't even see all the relevant dots, until you've paid attention and done your homework. I strongly suspect that the challengers have learned to do these things in their professional lives, but as of Thursday evening, due to political inexperience or ideological poisoning or something else, they are not analyzing the City in the same way. These inadequacies are surmountable over time, but I have yet to see them successfully wished away in the last few weeks of a local campaign.

My Vote

I'll say more of my votes later, but, if you've read this long post and the last, you know where two of my votes are going. The third vote (my second council vote), is more interesting. In the primary it went to no one. For the general election I will choose between Mr. Shorter, Mr. Bowen, and leaving the vote uncast again. Right now, I can make a shaky case for each of the three alternatives.

I don't know which one I will choose, but I can tell you how I'll choose. I'll be watching for a challenger who shows -- belatedly -- more respect for the learning curve and the people who are far ahead of him on it; who shows -- belatedly -- some inclination to do his homework; and who shows (you know the adverb) some promise of being able to subject his ideology to reality, rather than massaging the facts to fit his ideology. I see enough potential for this that I'm not committing in advance to leave my last vote uncast.

If I were a betting man, I'd bet you five bucks that the entire current city council is watching for the same signs.

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