David Rodeback's Blog
Local Politics and Culture, National Politics,
Thursday, November 2, 2006
A Primer on the American Fork Water Bond, Part III
Here I address political questions related to the water bond issue proposition: What question is really on the ballot? Why are some leaders acting as if the question is something else? What happens if the proposition fails? And I offer a list of good and bad reasons to vote against the bond issue, even though I intend to vote for it. A word of warning: I have trouble being perfectly serious even when addressing serious matters, so brace yourself for a cameo post-Halloween appearance by . . . ahem . . . Satan.
Part I surveyed the problem, possible approaches, and the solution the City Council unanimously judged best for American Fork. Part II discussed the future of water rates, with or without a pressurized irrigation system. This part looks at assorted political aspects of the situation, including reasons to vote against the proposed bond issue (which is not how I intend to vote).
Here are the facts as I understand them.
After seeking the advice of some very able engineers and other experts, and after educating themselves diligently in the intricacies of the city's water situation and the costs, merits, and limitations of about eleven different variations on the possible solutions, the American Fork City Council officially and unanimously decided that the best decision for the city is a city-wide pressurized irrigation system. Bear in mind that this is after water was the major topic of discussion in last year's mayoral and city council campaigns, with the mayoral candidate who favored a treatment plant being soundly defeated in the primary.
THE REAL QUESTION
Small cities don't have $46.95 million lying around -- in fact, if they did they would be violating state law. So the preferred approach to funding is a bond issue, a very common type of borrowing. General obligation bonds offer a more favorable interest rate than revenue bonds. These two bond types differ in the types of revenue which can be applied to repayment (specific revenues vs. any of the general funds of the city, respectively). More importantly, a general obligation bond requires a public vote, while revenue bonds require a vote only of the City Council. Hence next Tuesday's ballot in American Fork includes a proposition to authorize the City Council to issue general obligation bonds.
So in fact the question before the voters is not what the best solution would be for the city's water muddle, but whether to approve or disapprove the cheapest way to fund the solution the City Council has already selected.
This technically -- if the actual text is a technicality -- will not stop some voters from voting against the bond because they don't like the solution, or because they don't trust their elected officials' judgment or motives, or because they're opposed to everything that costs money, no matter serious and legitimate the problem. But the real question on the ballot remains, Shall the City issue bonds? It's not, What do you think would be the best approach to water?
BLURRING THE REAL QUESTION
Unfortunately, the simplicity and narrowness of the real ballot question have been obscured in the public discussion. Some well-meaning elected officials speak of the coming vote as if the decision before the public were, "What's the best solution?" Despite a bit of (inaccurate) spin in that direction by the dead tree media (DTM), this is not official indecision or a plea for the people's guidance. These officials are motivated by a sense that the voters should have their say directly in such a large and significant matter.
We voters have had ample further opportunities to provide input as this issue has developed, but I think we sufficiently had our say in November 2005. After much discussion of water and other matters, we elected these very officials by substantial margins -- in part to figure out what is the best solution to the water problem. I don't feel the need for them to ask me now if they got it right. They need to explain their decision sufficiently that we see its wisdom and see that they really did their homework. Then, legally, they need to ask us to vote on whether we are willing to authorize paying for their choice in the most economical way, with a general obligation bond, or whether they will have to fund it in some more expensive way.
Even if the motives behind this fondness for direct democracy are laudable, trying to frame the ballot question as if it were larger than it is risks creating the impression that elected officials think this decision is bigger than they are. This risks jeopardizing the credibility they are banking on to get the bond passed in a year which already includes a substantial (and necessary) property tax increase, as well as some other large financial decisions on the November ballot itself. Maybe this fuzzy populism really is good politics, but I read it as an unnecessary risk.
INFORMING THE PUBLIC
That said, I applaud City staff and elected officials for going the extra mile or more in informing the public about the water situation itself, the solution the City Council has selected (and now wants the voters to ratify, unofficially), and the bond issue which actually appears on the November 7 ballot. Two mailings and two town meetings have been unusually clear and substantive, and also constitute an earnest effort to be neutral and objective (neither of which is humanly possible, in truth). I have had some glimpses behind the scenes and can attest that the desire to inform the public (not to deceive or brainwash it) is genuine. I can also attest from long experience that a five-page official mailer, for example, is a great deal more work than it appears to be.
Yet some have quibbled, and will yet quibble, over the five-page mailer in particular, claiming that it does not explain all sides of the question. Here is an instance where blurring the question, as I described above, only complicates matters. If the question is merely a bond issue, then the voters are sufficiently informed if they are told how and why the City intends to spend the money and how it will affect their wallets if it passes. If the question is what approach to the water situation is best -- which officially is not the question -- then nothing short of a long treatise, evaluating the pros and cons of the eleven options studied, will suffice. Who wants every voter to get something like that in the mail, especially when it is printed and sent at taxpayer expense? Why, for example, should the City's mailer give the reasons for preferring a treatment plant? The ballot does not ask for a choice between pressurized irrigation and a treatment plant.
Those who find the City's attempts at informing the voters insufficiently objective should (a) try writing such things themselves someday, and (b) should worry a lot more about the full-color propaganda the Alpine School District recently mailed to promote its much larger bond issue. At least American Fork City tried to inform the public -- it hasn't always -- and tried to be objective, as Alpine School District conspicuously did not.
THE ENDORSEMENT AND THE ALWAYS-POSSIBLE OCTOBER SURPRISE
Today's American Fork Citizen will feature an advertisement funded by private citizens, endorsing the water bond issue. Numerous supporters' names are on it, including mine, used by permission. I do endorse the bond issue, but I did not write or design the ad. When I open the newspaper later today, I hope to see that it looks and sounds professional. (Remember my unofficial motto: I expect too much.)
This ad is just an endorsement, not an "October surprise," because it doesn't make new claims or introduce new accusations just at the end of the campaign. That's the most effective time to introduce claims which are not strictly true, or which you intend to distort or to spin out of all proportion, because it's too late for an effective response before Election Day. We tend to see our October surprises in American Fork in the Thursday newspaper five days before the election. (That's often November, not October, but who's counting?)
I'm expecting opponents of the bond issue (and the pressurized system) to have a full page in today's paper. Maybe it will simply extol the virtues of a treatment plant or advocate the bond issue's defeat for legitimate reasons based on actual facts. Or maybe it will prove to be an October surprise. I hope not, but we often see them in American Fork, and they're usually anonymous. I suppose we'll know soon enough.
In my recent observations of actual American Fork voters in their natural habitat, I have observed that careful consideration of the situation and the options, informed by actual facts, has proved very persuasive for those who have bothered to engage in it. Nearly all come to the same conclusion: a citywide pressurized irrigation system is the best option. However, I'm not saying it's inexpensive, and I'm certainly not saying that well-intentioned, thinking people couldn't be opposed to the measure.
GOOD AND BAD REASONS TO VOTE AGAINST THE BOND
For perspective, remember that I favor the bond issue and recommend its passage, as I offer some good and bad reasons for opposing it (which -- have you noticed? -- I do not).
Good Reason: You think that a property tax increase and a large bond issue for a water system together are too much too fast, especially with the Alpine School District trying to suck up about half a billion new dollars at the same time. City leaders should slow down a little and not try to solve every major problem in the first year.
I disagree, but I'll admit my wallet is wincing a bit.
Bad Reason: You suspect that the water bond proposal is just another way to get current residents to subsidize developers, especially on the south side of the city, or for City officials who own land there to line their own pockets.
Much of the future development will be infill in the currently developed areas of the city, so it is not just the south side that will benefit. In any case, the impact fees developers pay are tied to the actual costs of the City extending its infrastructure to new development. So they're really not getting much of a break, except in the sense that a solution will allow development to continue. But state law doesn't allow it to be stopped anyway.
One more thing: In the long term, apparently, we all end up paying less for our water than we otherwise would.
Good Reason: After examining the options, available data, and other municipalities' experience with pressurized irrigation, you honestly believe that pressurized irrigation would be bad for the city.
To each his or her own. But the facts are winning more converts than they are losing.
Bad Reason: You're on a fixed income, or your mother is, and you're afraid this will cause you or her to lose the house.
I am somewhat sympathetic, so long as grandma isn't hooked to premium cable or driving an expensive car. Note that there are provisions for adjustment or waiver of fees in cases of genuine hardship. And if that doesn't work out in her case, if she's your mother or even your neighbor, I assume you will find a way to help her not to lose her home over a $15 increase in her monthly water bill.
Good Reason: When you rearrange some of the letters in the proposition's text on the ballot, you get "Satan prefers pressurized irrigation."
Oh, oops, that is actually a bad reason. But, all else being equal, I suppose a healthy imagination is a good thing. Speaking of which . . .
(Another) Bad Reason: You are persuaded that American Forkers really strongly prefer a treatment plant.
Recent anecdotal evidence suggests the opposite, as did the 2005 mayoral primary results. So if you want me to call this a good reason, you're going to have to show me your data on public opinion, especially, and the instrument(s) you used to collect it.
Yet Another Bad Reason: You have never trusted politicians, and you're not about to start now.
I don't trust them either, so I study the issues as carefully as I can. On second thought, I do trust this batch. I know them personally and politically. I think as a group they're smart and honorable. Believe me, it's an unfamiliar, disquieting sensation.
IF THE BOND DOESN'T PASS . . .
At the first of the town meetings, Mayor Thompson said that, if the bond issue proposition doesn't pass, the "City Council will take action in another direction." I asked him what that meant. I listened to his response, but I still don't know the answer. (I'm leaning toward this interpretation: "I don't know or I don't want to speculate publicly or I don't want to pin them down yet, or all of the above.")
Will they find another way to fund the pressurized system? The words "revenue bond" come to mind; I'm told the City has sufficient bonding capacity to do it. Or will they look to the second-best solution? Will they go back to the drawing board, still in earnest? Or will they, somewhat tragically, slip back into the dithering which characterized City Hall for so long, and turn their attention to other solemn questions, such as the possible renaming of Steel Days?
By spinning the proposition as a referendum on the solution, not the mere approval or disapproval of a funding mechanism, City officials have surrendered some of their wiggle room in the event of a defeat. With this populist spin, I suppose victory will come, if it comes at all, with warm thoughts in the public mind about leaders who go above and beyond the call of democratic duty. But if the proposition fails, City leaders will find it just that much harder to turn around and fund the same solution in another way. Officials and some voters will be tempted to treat the proposed solution as untouchable, once it has failed its unofficial referendum. Oddly enough, if they yield to this temptation, it will most likely be out of an exaggerated regard for the people's wisdom, or at least their authority, not out of political self-interest.
Here's a question which will interest me if the proposition fails: If, on the merits, a citywide pressurized irrigation system is the best decision for the city on November 6, won't it still be the best decision on November 8? Admittedly, funding it another way, if the voters reject a general obligation bond, would slightly increase the costs, but not enough to make a treatment plant financially competitive.
Assuming you are a legal, registered American Fork voter, I hope you will go to the polls on Tuesday. I recommend you vote for the water bond issue proposition, but vote as you think best.
Copyright 2006 by David Rodeback.