Community

The Great CentrePointe Parking Garage Mystery

IMPORTANT: Following my initial post yesterday, I found new and different information on parking costs for underground garages. Please see important updates at the end of this post.

Why does it cost twice as much as normal underground garages?

Over the past 7 years, I have publicly challenged many aspects of the CentrePointe project in downtown Lexington, with a particular focus on how the 700-space CentrePointe parking garage would be financed:

  • I used a fable to illustrate the absurdity of funding the parking garage with tax-increment financing (TIF), and showed how the public financing scheme could be the biggest windfall for CentrePointe's developers;
  • I looked at how the shrinking size of the CentrePointe project endangered the TIF funding for the garage;
  • I chronicled how the our council approved a scheme designed to defraud garage bond investors;
  • Last week, I contended that the trouble that developers were having in issuing the garage bonds portended bigger problems for the CentrePointe project as a whole (regardless of whether the new mystery partner works out). 

But despite all of my criticism of the financing for the garage and the viability of the entire project, I never thought to look at the cost of the CentrePointe garage itself.

I apologize.

::

CentrePointe Nothing
CentrePointe: Nothing Happening, 5/12/15

A couple of weeks ago, CentrePointe developer Dudley Webb addressed the Urban County Council [video link] to argue that the developers should not be forced to fill in the pit at CentrePointe. (His commentary begins at 26m:49s in the video. If you want to have a little fun before reading on, my response to Mr. Webb begins at 2h:12m:00s.)

In the course of his comments, Webb shared intriguing details about the finances and the challenges for CentrePointe.

In justifying the pursuit of TIF funding for the parking garage, for example, Webb casually dropped that the CentrePointe garage would cost $50,000 per space (largely driven by the requirement for underground parking). He claimed that "those numbers don't work".

At 700 spaces, that adds up to about $35 million for the entire parking garage.  

CentrePointe Garage Cost
CentrePointe Garage Cost, AECOM Report, June 2013

That figure seems roughly consistent with other estimates on CentrePointe: The most recent publicly-available figures [PDF link] put the parking garage at $31.9 million, which worked out to about $45,500 per space.

The $50,000-per-space figure fits with the developer's propensity to throw out big, round numbers, but it isn't that far from what they've previously claimed.

So I didn't pay that much attention to it.

::

Yesterday, I was engaged in an online discussion about CentrePointe, and one participant asked me a number of pointed questions about how the parking garage worked. 

That was when I realized that, while I knew quite a bit about the scheme to pay for the garage, I knew very little about the business model of the garage itself.

As I began to dig, I started to see that CentrePointe's parking garage is wildly overpriced.

As I looked at parking garage studies and parking garage construction from around the country over the past 5 years, one particular figure popped up again and again for the cost of an underground garage: $20,000 per space.

From Boston to New Jersey to San Diego [PDF Link - Outdated 2002 Study], local reports put the cost-per-space of underground parking garages at about $20,000. (One went as high as $21,000 per space.) [Please see updates to these figures at the bottom of this post.]

These garages had about the same depth as CentrePointe. They had about the same capacity as CentrePointe. Nothing in the way that CentrePointe's garage has been described makes it sound especially unusual compared to other underground parking garages around the country.

And yet, the CentrePointe garage appears to cost over twice as much as standard underground parking garages.

How can that be? 

It can't.

::

If CentrePointe used a more realistic $21,000 per space, then its 700-space garage should cost only $14.7 million. 

But the CentrePointe documents show the parking garage costing $31.9 million....

Where did that extra $17.2 million come from? Welcome to the Great CentrePointe Parking Garage Mystery.

As far as I can tell, there's never been a detailed public accounting of the costs of the garage, so I can't tell you where these phantom 'costs' came from.

But I can speculate. There are a couple of likely candidates:

  1. The garage costs were simply inflated. A lot. And the developer hoped that no one would notice.
  2. The property costs (or some other non-public-infrastructure cost) were rolled into the garage costs. And the developer hoped that no one would notice.

And for over seven years, it seemed that no one noticed.

In either case, however, the result would be the same: The developer would get to pocket an extra $17.2 million funded with our tax dollars. 

But why does that really matter?

Two reasons.

  • First, the developer would get an unearned windfall skimmed out of public taxes. (He doesn't need the welfare. We do need the tax dollars.)
  • Second, overpaying for the garage crowds out funding for truly public infrastructure. Renovating the old Fayette County Courthouse, in particular, was supposed to be part of the CentrePointe TIF, but seems to have dropped out of the most recent TIF funding efforts. We should put it back in.

It is time to ask the developer sharper questions about the cost of his parking garage.

IMPORTANT UPDATE: The $20,000 per-space amount is not as universal as I initially found. Other studies show per-space costs for underground parking ranging from $25,000 to $35,000 per space [Both PDF Links]. (It is worth noting that the author of the latter study has made developer-friendly arguments campaigning against off-street parking requirements - i.e., parking structures like CentrePointe's garage.)

I apologize for not finding these sources before the original post. I don't want to mislead anyone. I do want to understand these costs better.

While these amounts would change the magnitude of the amounts I calculated above, they don't change the core critique of the parking garage for CentrePointe.

Factoring in these new amounts, it seems that CentrePointe's parking garage is still overpriced by between $10,000 and $20,000 per space, which amounts to extra costs of between $7 million and $14 million across the whole project.

Asking the developer sharper questions is still warranted.


A Simple Guide to Defending CentrePointe

With my post on the Urban County Council's questionable-but-unanimous decision to support a fraudulent new financing scheme for CentrePointe, I hoped to raise important questions about the wisdom of proceeding with public funding for the long-stalled project in downtown Lexington.

To some degree, that effort succeeded. That long article is now the most-read post in the short history of CivilMechanics. (Thank you!)

A Webb Companies DevelopmentWhat remains is to get answers for the questions raised there. I expect that council members, developers, Tax Increment Financing proponents, and their allies will face much more challenging questions as citizens and the local press begin to look for those answers.

I have attempted to explain why I think CentrePointe is a bad deal for the public and for investors. But I don't have a monopoly on information about CentrePointe and its most recent developments. Despite my best efforts, I may have made mistakes or missed important details. So I welcome information which helps clarify matters. But 'clarifying information' hasn't always been easy to get with CentrePointe.

Given past interactions with CentrePointe defenders, and in the spirit of fostering fair and healthy debate, I offer this helpful guide to defending CentrePointe.

Hopefully, these useful suggestions will help anyone sympathetic to CentrePointe formulate better, more thorough, and more effective answers than they have contrived in the past.

For all of you CentrePointe defenders out there, enjoy!*

:: 

A Simple Guide to Defending CentrePointe

1. Refuse to attack your critics.

Although those rascally critics might infuriate you, try not to attack their character, their motives, their style, or their knowledge. Some examples:

  • "Mr. Morris has been against this project from the very beginning..."
  • "What Mr. Morris fails to understand is..."
  • "Mr. Morris feels that he is entitled..."
  • "Mr. Morris may be a competent businessman in his field, but obviously he knows little..."
  • "Mr. Morris said mean | slanderous | libelous things about us..."
  • "Mr. Morris is a crazy, no-good, rotten, dirty scoundrel obstructionist, who..."

If you find ourself beginning to respond with any variant of the above, stop immediately. 

While all the above assertions may be true, attacking your critics in this manner (or assuming that you know what they think, feel, or understand) sounds condescending.

It also betrays your lack of more substantive responses to legitimate questions.

2. Avoid resorting to 'privileged information'.

Secrets fail to bolster your case.

Referring to privileged information - secret plans, documents, financiers, underwriters, bond offerings, etc. - reinforces the impression that you are hiding something, and undermines the notion that you have a viable and legitimate plan. 

After last week's vote, we're all in this mess together now. So you might as well share all of that special, super-secret stuff that only you know.

Don't try to win the argument by referring to McCarthy-esque secret documents. In the end, everyone will know that you're bluffing.

3. At all costs, refrain from bullying and intimidation.

Don't pull $20,000 in advertising from publications which ask legitimate questions about your project. Don't berate critics in the newspaper. No. Really. Don't berate critics in the newspaper. And try not to imply that you may resort to legal action against your critics. 

Such desperate attempts only reveal how tenuous your position really is. (Besides, the discovery process of an actual legal case could get really messy. Lawsuits don't help you preserve secrets.)

People in true positions of strength don't issue such weak threats.

4. Try not to say 'private property' or 'private development'.

While these phrases have been quite effective for you in the past, they have worn whisper-thin.

By now, everyone understands that you are using public financing to help fund your development. Everyone knows that you are requesting that public agencies issue bonds to be paid back with public tax revenues.

So don't try to maintain the elaborate charade of privacy. Everyone knows it is a charade.

5. Suppress any impulse to play the victim.

You are powerful people who make big, important decisions. Most of you get paid very well (I'm excluding council members here). Pretending you are some sort of victim - especially a victim of bloggers and other commentators - is unbecoming of someone of your stature.

Besides, everyone now knows that you plan to be the recipient of a huge taxpayer-funded payday | bailout | bonanza. So lose the 'poor me' act.

If you are losing the war of words and ideas, try using better ones. 

6. Use facts and logic to support your case.

Believe it or not, this might be the most effective tool you have in your arsenal!

If your critics are wrong, use detailed facts and impeccable logic to spell out why. If you've got secret information which proves your critics wrong, start sharing it now.

Your critics have spelled out their cases. Now be detailed, thorough, and crystal clear in yours.

::

Hope this helps!

Love,

Rob

* The rest of us can use this as a simple guide to separate the CentrePointe nonsense from the CentrePointe substance - our very own B.S. detector!

How Council Voted to Defraud Investors to Benefit the Webbs

Call it "CentrePointe Fatigue".

After six-and-a-half years of bulldozing, promises, broken promises, half-truths, and outright lies on the CentrePointe project, folks are just plain tired of talking and thinking about CentrePointe. They're tired of waiting. They just want something, anything to be built on the long-empty block in the center of our city.

And I get it. After writing over twenty posts examining the business model, architecture, and politics of CentrePointe (see here and here for a sampling), I got tired of talking and thinking about it, too. The interest and outrage was hard to sustain (even if thoroughly justified). 

You can see it in online conversations. You can see it in the newspaper1. You can see it in Urban County Council meetings. The coverage and the questions got lazier. At some point, the fatigue just took over. People lost the will to keep investigating and to keep fighting, especially as the project stalled repeatedly.

And that's precisely what the developers have counted on all along.

If they just waited us out and wore us down, they could walk off with their bonanza payout financed with our tax dollars, and we'd all be too tired, too exasperated, or too relieved to notice.

Against this backdrop of CentrePointe Fatigue, Lexington's Urban County Council voted 15-0 last Tuesday to approve a new scheme to finance a $32 million parking garage for CentrePointe.

But what really happened was deeply disturbing: The Council unanimously approved a scheme which is designed to defraud investors for the benefit of the developers.

Is 'fraud' too strong a term? 

Let's dig in and find out.

::

With any economic development initiative, governments hope to foster increased economic activity in a particular place. The increase in activity is sometimes called an 'increment'. Tax Increment Financing (TIF) is an economic development scheme where the projected future taxes generated by the new economic activity - the increment - are used to pay for 'public' infrastructure improvements.

In CentrePointe's case, these 'public' improvements included a $31.9 million underground parking garage, as well as improvements to sidewalks, sewers, streets, and the rapidly-deteriorating Old Courthouse. In all, CentrePointe includes about $45.5 million in so-called2 public infrastructure.

The CentrePointe TIF proposed financing the infrastructure by issuing bonds to investors, and paying those investors back - plus interest - over the next 30 years with the 'tax increment' generated from the project. 

Would CentrePointe be able to generate enough in new taxes to pay bond investors?

That was the central question of a 2013 report [PDF download] commissioned by the Cabinet for Economic Development and written by AECOM Economics, a Los Angeles based consultancy. 

The AECOM report stands as the only comprehensive evaluation of the economic impacts of CentrePointe in its current incarnation. 

AECOM's report is deeply flawed3. It uses non-standard valuation techniques which tend to dramatically overstate how much CentrePointe is worth to the community.

Despite its flaws, AECOM's evaluation is still instructive: it raises significant doubts about the viability of the CentrePointe TIF. It also contains what state and local officials knew (or should have known) about whether the TIF could be successful.

There are two key tables in the 52-page report which should have set off alarm bells for the Cabinet for Economic Development and for the Urban County Council.

In the opening pages of the report, AECOM sizes CentrePointe's tax increment: $48.8 million. Compared to what was there before, AECOM claimed that CentrePointe would be expected to generate nearly $49 million in new taxes over the next 30 years.

CentrePointe Tax Increment
CentrePointe Tax Increment: $48.8 million (AECOM Report, June 2013, p.3)

 

So, would that be enough to pay back bond investors?

No.

A little deeper in the report, AECOM summarizes the public costs of the CentrePointe infrastructure bonds. While the 'public' infrastructure would cost $45.5 million, the interest payments (called 'financing costs' in AECOM's report) on the infrastructure bonds would pile up another $47.7 million. Over the next 30 years, then, the infrastructure bonds would cost a little more than $93 million.

CentrePointe Bond Cost
CentrePointe Bond Cost: $93.2 million (AECOM Report, June 2013, p.10)

 

How can $49 million in new taxes from CentrePointe pay off $93 million in debt and interest for the infrastructure bonds?

It can't.

And therein lies the central fraud of the CentrePointe TIF. There will never be enough economic activity on the CentrePointe site to pay off the debt and interest on the infrastructure. That's what the only credible, comprehensive analysis of CentrePointe says.

The Cabinet for Economic Development should have known this. (It was their report.) The Urban County Council should have known this. (They were provided the AECOM report before approving the CentrePointe TIF).

Despite knowing that the CentrePointe TIF could never pay for itself, in July 2013 both the city and state approved this audacious scheme to offer fraudulent bonds to investors which they knew could never pay what was promised.

And they approved this scheme all for the benefit of the developers, who get a 'free', taxpayer-financed parking garage.

Pretty bad, huh?

Wait, it gets worse.

::

For the CentrePointe TIF, the state will set aside the new, incremental taxes generated by CentrePointe, in order to repay the public infrastructure bonds. The state will hold on to those taxes until at least $150 million in capital is spent on the CentrePointe site. (This is a requirement of Kentucky's 'Signature TIF' law.)

Once the state and city approved the CentrePointe TIF scheme, the developers began to dig and blast for the development's $31.9 million underground parking garage.

After the developers completed most of the digging last month, they returned to the city and the state with an even more audacious scheme. They asked the city and the state to issue bonds for the parking garage now - before they had spent anywhere close to the $150 million required to release the incremental taxes for repaying the bonds.

The state Cabinet for Economic Development refused the request, and claimed that it was more appropriate for the city to issue the parking garage bonds.

The Urban County Council debated the request, with many council members (appropriately) expressing reservations about the liability for the city in issuing bonds before anything was built which would generate the funds to repay them.

Last Tuesday, the Council heard - and approved - an even more convoluted proposal. (This GTV3 video captures the entire 40-minute meeting.)

The Kentucky League of Cities (KLC) - a non-profit association of Kentucky's cities - offered to act as a conduit to issue the parking garage bonds under its authority. In order to do so, Lexington would need to enter into an interlocal agreement with another Kentucky city (in this case, Midway) to form a new non-profit corporation which would issue the new bonds. Lexington would pledge its portion of the TIF revenues to KLC for the repayment of the bonds.

While there were a few pointed questions from council members about the project, the overall mood in the room seemed to be a palpable sense of relief - something, anything was finally happening. There was also palpable relief that this whole issue would soon be someone else's liability.

The council voted 15-0 to pursue using KLC to issue the parking garage bonds. Most of the participants congratulated one another on the ingenuity of this new scheme.

They shouldn't have. Their hands are far from clean.

By inserting additional layers into the already-labyrinthine CentrePointe TIF scheme, the Urban County Council unanimously voted to make it nearly impossible for bond investors to understand that they will never get their money back.

During last Tuesday's Council meeting, Roger Peterman - a partner at Dinsmore and Shohl who consults with the city on bond issues - claimed that the potential bond investors "are sophisticated investors [who are] willing to analyze more difficult credits like these."

Let's parse that a little. As a so-called 'sophisticated investor' myself4, I wondered about how other sophisticated investors would get access to information on the CentrePointe TIF.

When I contacted the Cabinet for Economic Development to obtain a copy of the AECOM report, for instance, I was told "The consultant’s study is protected from public disclosure by state law." Remember, this is the only credible report on the CentrePointe TIF, and the public agency which commissioned the report was refusing to release it to the public.

I managed to obtain the report through other channels, but I wonder whether the average bond investor would have had the ability and the network to discover it.

Most of these bond investors would deal directly with KLC's proposed "Lexington-Midway interlocal non-profit bond-issuing shell corporation"5. Very few would have visibility into the convoluted TIF program, much less the precise financial details of the CentrePointe TIF. Even if they knew to look for the AECOM report, how many would press further after being stonewalled by the Cabinet for Economic Development?

'Sophisticated investors' also bought the AAA-rated bundles of mortgage-backed securities and collateralized debt obligations which supercharged the subprime mortgage crisis in 2008. Calling them 'sophisticated' doesn't mean that they have a clue about what they are investing in.

But the Urban County Council does know what they are doing: They are using KLC to issue bonds which they know can never be paid back. They are assisting in perpetuating the CentrePointe TIF fraud6.

Wait, it gets even worse.

::

Because the state will hold the incremental taxes from CentrePointe until $150 million is invested in the site, that means that there will be no funds available to pay back bond investors until the project reaches that $150 million threshhold.

But if KLC issues the parking garage bonds through their shell corporation today - when only $5 million of capital has been invested - how will bond investors be paid?

What assurances do bond investors have that anything else will be spent, and that the parking garage bonds will ever begin to be paid back? Only the blithe assurances of the developers. And six-and-a-half years later, those assurances carry very, very little weight.

If the project stalls after the parking garage is built, then what?

Wait, it gets even worse still.

::

There's one more aspect of what the Urban County Council did last Tuesday which should alarm us: They prioritized the CentrePointe parking garage over the stuff that's truly public: sidewalks, streets, sewers, and the Old Courthouse.

Remember how the CentrePointe TIF application filed by the developers called for $45.5 million in 'public infrastructure', including the $31.9 parking garage?

What was approved on Tuesday was a scheme to fund the parking garage alone.

What happened to the other $13.6 million of infrastructure? When and how will bonds be issued for that? Will those bonds be prioritized behind (i.e., paid after) the parking garage bonds? 

It was disturbing to see how eager the Urban County Council was to set up financing for the stuff which benefits the developers (the parking garage) without advancing the stuff which is truly public in nature.

:: 

If the KLC scheme for the CentrePointe TIF proceeds, the net effect of all of these maneuvers is that only one party involved with the CentrePointe TIF comes out ahead: The Webb Companies.

Bond investors are likely to lose about half of their investment - and that's if the project is ever completed as planned.

Lexington and Kentucky taxpayers will have earned the right to have their future taxes skimmed for the next 30 years to pay back part of the obligations to those duped bond investors, while incurring the additional legal liability for our city officials and KLC having set up a fraudulent bond offering.

The Webb Companies, however, come out way ahead.

By waiting until the public no longer noticed, The Webb Companies get a 'free' parking garage financed with our future tax dollars, while incurring none of its associated costs or risks.

If the rest of the project can never be built - and bondholders can never be paid - The Webb Companies still got a brand new underground parking garage (which they never paid for) on their land.

If they do happen to complete the project, their development will be much more attractive to tenants because of the taxpayer-financed parking garage.

The Webb Companies come out ahead whether the development gets built or not.

In the process of using this taxpayer-funded scheme, the Webb's have likely more than doubled their profits at our expense7

::

By taking advantage of CentrePointe Fatigue, the developers have once again privatized gains while socializing their risks to the rest of us - as they have done repeatedly over the past 40 years.

Along the way, they have convinced city and state leaders to use our good names (and credit ratings) to defraud bond investors in order to benefit The Webb Companies.

After six-and-a-half years, I know that it is hard to sustain outrage and interest in CentrePointe. But it has never been more critical to be outraged at shameless hucksters who line their pockets with our money.

 

 :: NOTES ::

Continue reading "How Council Voted to Defraud Investors to Benefit the Webbs" »


Moving the Goalposts on CentrePointe

In 2009, an analyst hired by Kentucky's Cabinet for Economic Development evaluated the CentrePointe development project in downtown Lexington.

The analyst looked at whether the Tax Increment Financing (TIF) that the developers proposed using made any sense. At the time, CentrePointe was slated to be a $298 million project, and the developers wanted to use Kentucky's new TIF law to help subsidize the project.

Under TIF, the state and city would issue bonds to investors, and pay those investors back (with interest) by using the incremental taxes generated by the new development over the next 30 years. The TIF law stated that projects like CentrePointe needed to invest a minimum of $200 million in capital to qualify.

The analyst expressed skepticism about projects like CentrePointe - the real estate market was imploding in 2009. CentrePointe's developers assured the analyst that the project was a sure bet: there was a mystery overseas financier willing to front all of the cash needed to build the project; there were top-notch tenants lined up ("Hard Rock Cafe", "J.W. Marriott"); 65 of the 91 million-dollar condos had already been sold in handshake deals; the office and hotel spaces would have exceptionally high occupancy rates (even though they would also have exceptionally high prices).

Taking all of the developers' assurances into account, the analyst thought the project would generate about $93 million in new taxes for the public. Sounds great, right?

Except that the same analyst found that CentrePointe's bonds would also cost the public about $96 million to finance.

Even with all of the developers' optimistic "best case" assurances - all of which eventually proved to be false - the Centrepointe bonds would still lose $3 million. [Updated*]

::

 

CentrePointe, Version 12
Visions of CentrePointe, 6 1/2 years later...

As CentrePointe repeatedly evolved over the ensuing years, it also repeatedly shrank. From the nearly $300 million sizing used for the 2009 assessment, the project shrank to $250 million, then $200 million. CentrePointe was shrinking to the point where its TIF funding was at risk.

Then, early last year, CentrePointe's developers successfully lobbied the state legislature to lower the minimum capital investment needed to qualify for TIF to $150 million. In June 2013, the developers re-applied for TIF subsidies with a new, scaled-down CentrePointe.

The state hired the same analyst to evaluate CentrePointe, which was then estimated at $193 million (over $100 million less than in 2009). In their estimates, the analyst now estimated that the new Centrepointe Jr. would generate about $49 million in incremental taxes - about $23 million less than in the 2009 estimates.

This makes sense. As the size of the project shrinks, the incremental benefit also shrinks.

The problem? The new proposal still required an investment of $93 million to finance the CentrePointe bonds.

According to the state's own analyst, the CentrePointe TIF bonds would be an extraordinarily bad investment in which bond investors would hand over $93 million, only to lose $44 million in the process.

Despite this extraordinarily negative analysis, the state and city decided to approve the TIF application for CentrePointe anyway.

::

Earlier this year, the developers began digging and blasting for a proposed $32 million parking garage on the site.

With the huge hole nearly complete, the developers have returned to the state and city to request that the TIF bonds for the garage be issued now - before the developer has spent anything close to the $150 million capital investment that is required to qualify for TIF.

In essence, the developer is requesting that the city and state take on a $32 million bond commitment (with an additional $33.5 million in financing obligations - $65.5 million total) on the dubious promise that the yet-to-be-built CentrePointe will someday generate enough new taxes to pay off bond investors.

This simply isn't how TIF works. You don't get the tax-funded financing before you build the thing which generates the taxes.

::

The state's economic development analyst says that CentrePointe bond investors will never get paid back. And the analyst is undoubtedly correct.

The developers and their representatives repeatedly contend that TIF financing holds no risk for the city, the state, or taxpayers. (I don't believe this assertion, but let's run with it...)

If there really is no risk to taxpayers, then why do the developers need the city's help in issuing TIF bonds? Why involve the city at all? After all, the developers could always pursue financing through normal real estate investment markets.

The reason is that they need the city's help in creating the impression that the bonds are a safer investment than they really are.

But CentrePointe bonds aren't a safe investment at all. In fact, they are likely to lose money for bond investors, because the project will never produce enough new taxes to pay investors back.

But the developers can't let investors know that. Savvy investors would look at the risky business model of CentrePointe and refuse to fund it.

So the developers want to use our good name and credit ratings to help them deceive and defraud those investors, to assure them that the public stands behind those bonds and that the bonds are safe.

Today, the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council will consider whether to ask the Kentucky League of Cities to issue TIF bonds for CentrePointe. While this move ostensibly shields LFUCG from liability when bond investors aren't paid back, it is really a shell game. The League of Cities is a non-profit which consists of Lexington and other Kentucky cities, and lobbies on their behalf. Whether the League or the city issues CentrePointe TIF bonds, the reality is that taxpayers are still ultimately liable when the bonds fail. (And they will fail.)

The developers have attempted to maintain a veneer of respectability in our community - frequently pointing to their many, many development projects around Lexington as proof of their virtue. And CentrePointe fits the developers' well-worn modus operandi of privatizing gains while socializing risks throughout those projects.

CentrePointe represents the very worst of corporate cronyism. By using an obscure and ever-shifting financing scheme, the Webb Companies are attempting to commit state-assisted fraud, while lining their own pockets and hoping that no one notices.

They've hoodwinked the Cabinet for Economic Development. Twice. They've hoodwinked the Urban County Council. At least two times. Now they want to hoodwink the Kentucky League of Cities.

These aren't the actions of upstanding citizens. These are the actions of con artists and swindlers. They should be treated as such.

* An earlier version of this post included a smaller, state-only estimate of the impacts of CentrePointe from the analyst's 2009 report. I've updated the post to reflect the full impacts to both the state and city. (This correction resulted in an even bigger shortfall for the TIF funding.)


Kentucky's Regressive Tax Reform

I was pleased to be asked to comment for today's story by Jack Brammer and Janet Patton for the Herald-Leader on the Governor's tax proposals. They did a great job accurately representing my views. This post helps elaborate on my perspective.

Dubbed "Kentucky Competes", Governor Steve Beshear's tax proposal consists of more than 20 changes to our state's tax code. The proposal contains a number of troubling components which place a disproportionate burden on Kentucky's poor, while providing large annual tax breaks which are skewed toward businesses and the wealthy.

I have three major objections to Governor Beshear's tax reform plan:

  1. It is a taxpayer-financed corporate tax giveaway.
  2. By relying on sales taxes, the plan hits the poor and middle class harder than wealthier citizens and businesses.
  3. By choosing which kinds of labor to include (and exempt) from the sales tax, the plan hits the poor and middle class even harder.

Let me step through each one in turn.

1) Corporate Tax Giveaway

Overview
Click to enlarge

Governor Beshear's proposals would generate an additional $210 million for the state. But like many tax reform initiatives, Beshear's plan contains a mixture of new taxes and new tax breaks.

The Governor's plan contains approximately $487 million in new annual tax breaks, more than offset with about $697 million per year in new taxes.

That's nothing especially disturbing, given that the reform plan is supposed to put the state on sounder financial footing, and raising taxes is one way to do that.

What is disturbing is how the mix of breaks and taxes are allocated. Nearly half of the Governor's tax breaks go to businesses (amounting to $234 million per year). So what's their share of the new taxes that Beshear proposes? Nearly zero:

 

Who benefits and who pays?
Click to enlarge

 

Businesses pay a lot less...

I say 'nearly' zero because there will be some businesses which pay the new sales taxes for covered categories like auto service or computer repair. But given the exemptions and restrictions on these new sales taxes, the business share of the almost $700 million in new annual taxes will likely be very, very small. 

So businesses (some of them, at least) will get a collective windfall of more than $234 million per year under Beshear's plan, while simultaneously contributing no new taxes to the state.

Throughout the documents Beshear's office released yesterday, there is the notion that this corporate giveaway will help Kentucky "compete for quality jobs." The underlying assumption is that if "job creators" are given enough tax cuts, that they'll hire our way to prosperity. This notion is, at best, misguided; at worst, it is an outright lie.

As I have written before (more than once, in fact), business owners do not hire because they have extra tax-cut money lying around. We hire because we have work to do, and we need someone to get it done. We hire when there's more demand.

...while Kentucky families pay a lot more.

Meanwhile, because businesses wouldn't pay these new taxes, the burden is placed squarely on Kentucky's families. When paired with the tax breaks for individuals, Kentucky households would pay about $444 million more in new taxes each year (or approximately $260 per household.)

While the Governor trumpeted the 'relief to every working Kentuckian' yesterday, the hard truth is that his scheme raises taxes on nearly every working Kentuckian in order to fund an enormous tax giveaway to select (usually large) businesses. This plan is a stunning, brazen, and inexcusable attempt to redistribute wealth from those who can least afford it to the already-wealthy.

2) Sales Taxes

Sales taxes are an incredibly regressive tool for raising money for Kentucky. They are regressive in the sense that sales taxes hit poorer people harder than wealthier ones.

Why are sales taxes especially burdensome for the poor? Because the extra tax takes up a greater portion of their income for the same product or service. The extra tax just hurts more.

Even though the Governor's proposal includes some $72 million in Earned Income Tax Credits (credits for the working poor - generally a good contributor to the economy and job production), he bleeds those benefits away with new sales taxes.

And the proposed sales taxes are almost exclusively in consumer services, while sales taxes for business services are largely exempt.

Ordinary Kentuckians would not benefit under Beshear's regressive plan.

3) Different Kinds of Labor

The Governor's plan also targets only certain kinds of labor for sales tax expansion. In particular, it chooses to apply sales taxes to labor involved in the "installation, maintenance and repair of taxable personal property." In other words, the repair and service of personal items (like cars or computers) would be taxed under Beshear's plan.

But not all service labor is equal, under the Governor's scheme. Other kinds of labor - say, accounting or legal services - would be exempt from the new taxes. And who disproportionately uses a lot of those exempted services? Businesses and the wealthy, of course.

Even within the "installation, repair, and maintenance category", there are exclusions. Because these new taxes apply to 'personal property', they exclude repair and maintenance services for machinery, farms, and real estate properties -- the kinds of services consumed in greater amounts, once again, by businesses and the wealthy.

By steering the new taxes away from services which impact the wealthy, Beshear hits ordinary Kentuckians especially hard.

::

Governor Beshear's new tax proposal is an audacious attempt to take wealth from Kentuckians who are hardest hurt by our economy, and attempts to transfer that wealth to the already-well-off.

It is a colossally bad idea which will leave millions of Kentuckians worse off. And we shouldn't let him get away with it. 

After the jump: Backstory

Continue reading "Kentucky's Regressive Tax Reform" »


Anatomy of a Con

Imagine, for a moment, that you build houses.  

You're a competent - and pretty crafty - builder, so you earn a profit of 10% of the sales price on each house you build.

You've found a cheap lot on the edge of town which is a decent prospect for a $125,000 home design. At your 10% margins, you'd usually stand to make $12,500 on this house.

Trouble is, your land is in the middle of nowhere: the nearest street dead-ends before it even reaches your lot.  You know that paying to extend the street will cut into your profits by $5,000, and you definitely don't like that.

As you're thinking really hard about how to avoid having to pay for the street extension, you hit upon a really crazy scheme: What if, you think to yourself, I could not only get our town to pay for the street extention, but I also got them to finance the house's two-car garage!

But how could you possibly convince the townsfolk to fork over the $25,000 needed for the street extension and the garage? The town is already struggling with its finances, and you know your proposal won't go over well. Why should the town pay for a private garage?

And here is where you get your craftiest.

You decide to focus more on what the town gets than on what they spend. So you play up 'benefits' the town stands to gain from your 'economic development initiative'. Here's your basic approach:

  • Building the house will generate higher property taxes for the town over the next few decades, where today there is just a vacant lot.
  • The construction will increase economic activity for the town as you pay for supplies and labor on the site.
  • The house will bring in working residents, who will generate new payroll taxes for the town.
  • The garage and street extension - 'public infrastructure', as you now call the garage and road that you need more than anyone - are essential to this future tax revenue.  You'll point out that no one will buy a new house without a garage; and without the garage, the town won't get the benefits of this project.
  • Yes, the town would have to borrow the $25,000 (and, over the years, pay another $25,000 in interest) to help fund the 'infrastructure', but you'll point out that the new property and payroll taxes will offset those costs.
  • Finally, to sweeten the pot, you artificially inflate the price of your house by 20% to $150,000.  You know the project is really only worth $125,000, but boosting the price by 20% has the nifty effect of inflating the estimated 'benefits' by 20%, which makes the whole scheme easier to sell.

You know you are way out on a limb with this scheme, but - who knows - maybe the town will go for it. 

And why would they? Because you've done the math, and you're betting that they haven't.  

If you had paid for the street extension on your $125,000 house, you would have spent $117,500 and pocketed $7,500 - a tidy 6% profit. Not what you usually make, but a profit nonetheless.

But if you can get the town to finance the street and the garage, that removes $25,000 from your cost. Now, you can build the $125,000 house for just $92,500 out of your pocket (and another $25,000 out of the public purse), and you make a cool $32,500 profit for a 26% margin.

If you can get the town to go for your scheme, you've 'magically' quadrupled your profits.

::

So you package up your scheme and present it to the town's economic development manager.  You brace for her to laugh you out of her office, but have decided that you can live with a little ridicule in exchange for the chance - however remote - to quadruple your income.

Instead, she just smirks.

She knows that you need the garage and the street extension more than anyone, and isn't sure what valid public interest the town has in helping with the house you want to build. She know that you need to build something on the lot anyway even if you don't get the town's financial support. She's not sure she believes that your project is really worth the $150,000 you are claiming.  Even if it is worth $150,000, she thinks your estimates on how much the town stands to benefit are extremely exaggerated.

She appreciates the ingenuity of your argument, but the whole scheme strikes her as farcical and not really worthy of being called an 'economic development initiative'.  

And yet, she also knows that you are close to several members of the town council. She seems to recall a picture of you with your arm around the mayor in the local paper. She suspects that you have contributed to several local political campaigns.

These connections intimidate her. So she decides to pass the whole suspect bundle (and the decisionmaking) along to the town council.

And to your delight, the council routinely passes your scheme with only modest resistance. They simply require that you spend at least $100,000 on your project to qualify for these incentives.  

::

Just as you rub your hands in glee at the prospect of making so much money, the economy takes a nosedive. Banks aren't willing to lend for housing construction, even for a 'sure thing' like your project.  

After a long delay in lining up financing, you return to the town council with a proposed amendment to your initiative. You ask for a 'hardship exemption' to lower the total amount which needs to be spent on the project to just $75,000, even though you initially justified the town's financial involvement based on the inflated $150,000 amount.  

You hope that no one notices that a half-sized project would only generate half-sized benefits.

And, sure enough, the town council unanimously approves your amendment without debate. No one noticed. Or, more accurately, no one publicly objected.

At this point, another important revelation strikes you: The smaller your project gets, the more you come out ahead.

You now figure that you can finance and build an $80,000 house on your lot.

If you had built on your own, the house would have cost you $72,000 to build, plus $5,000 for the street improvments, which would have left you with about $3,000 in profit. At just under 4%, the margins are substantially less than you usually make, but the project is still profitable.  

But the town is still on the hook for the same garage and street extension - even though the overall house has shrunk.  So you'll really spend $52,000 to build your $80,000 house (while the town still pays $25,000), and you'll clear a neat $28,000, or over 9 times as much as if you built the project on your own

The town's 'public infrastructure' commitment lets you multiply your profit as the overall project shrinks. You put in less money and get higher return on investment.

You are quite crafty, indeed. 

::

Yes, this thought experiment is ludicrous, if intriguing. And no town would ever support such a ludicrous scheme.

Right?

Except that they already have.

The above fable is true. Mostly.

It's just 2,000 times too small.  

Multiply all of the dollar amounts by 2,000, and you have the fiscal outlines of the CentrePointe project in Lexington.  

Just substitute 'town' with 'The Commonwealth of Kentucky' and 'Lexington'. Then substitute 'you' with 'The Webb Companies'. Substitute 'house' with 'CentrePointe'. And substitute 'incentive' with 'Tax Increment Financing' or 'TIF'. 

CentrePointe started as a $250 million project in 2008. As it sought state and local support for $50 million in 'public infrastructure' (including a $30 million parking garage), CentrePointe's cost ballooned to $300 million. After getting approval for Tax Increment Financing incentives from the state - based on that $300 million price tag - CentrePointe still couldn't get financing, and stagnated.

CentrePointe, Version 5.0
After continual financing troubles and multiple revisions, last week CentrePointe's developers got unanimous approval from both houses of the state legislature to drop the overall project size to just $160 million - while still receiving the full TIF incentives of the inflated $300 million version of the project.  

In other words, no one noticed that a half-sized project only generates half-sized benefits to the state and city. No one recalibrated the incentives when CentrePointe shrank.

In the process, The Webb Companies multiply CentrePointe's profitability with no additional risk to themselves.

::

We've often called Tax Increment Financing (or TIF) a scam or a con. While this sounds like hyperbolic exaggeration, we think what's actually happening is sleazy enough to merit these labels.  

TIF's scamminess stems from several interrelated components:

First and foremost, the developers shouldn't need public help. They benefit from this 'public infrastructure' more than anyone else, but have no financial stake in it. The theory of TIF is that the taxes stemming from new economic activity will pay for the infrastructure.  In return, the city gets the benefits of increased economic activity. That's the theory.

But the reality is quite different.  The most aggressive, best-case scenario from the state's economic development consultant showed the city and state tax increments not quite breaking even after 30 years. 

All of the incremental benefits that the project is supposed to bring are plowed right back into debt and interest payments which benefit the developers.

So in return for taking on $50 million in debt and $50 million in interest on behalf of the developers, the public gets nothing after 30 years. Nothing.

And that was the best case? 

Wait. It gets worse.  The consultant's 'not quite breaking even' case was based on CentrePointe at its bloated $300 million apex.  Now, CentrePointe is a half-sized $160 million project. At this reduced size, CentrePointe can never pay the city and state back for the infrastructure investment.

The developers need the parking garage. The developers would benefit most from the parking garage. Even so, the developers have managed to offload their parking garage costs onto others, using public taxes to do so.

Second, this means that TIF allows The Webb Companies to socialize the many risks of CentrePointe while privatizing the gains. Bondholders and the public take on the risks that CentrePointe might fail to live up to the promised (and unlikely) stream of tax revenues, while the developers avoid (and pocket) the costs of a $30 million parking garage.  The developers get the benefits of a parking garage to serve CentrePointe, while someone else gets stuck with the tab.

Will bondholders or the public ever get paid back? Maybe. Maybe not. We're pretty sure that they won't. In any case, none of this is the developers' concern. They get a big parking garage - essentially for free.

From a developer's point of view, TIF offers all upside with no downside.

Third, this asymmetry in risk rewards the developer for, in essence, making stuff up. In order to win the profit-multiplying $30 million upside of TIF approval, the developers can (and did) say anything. "We're building the state's tallest building!" "We've got all-cash financing!" "We're building a $300 million development!" "We've got handshake deals for 65 condominiums!" "Construction starts in 60 to 90 days!"

The fact that all of those statements were false is beside the point. There was little downside to lying or being profoundly wrong. And the developers were repeatedly, incredibly, and thoroughly wrong.

With no downside, their multi-dimensional wrongness helped the developers secure a $30 million windfall at public expense.

Fourth, as the nature of CentrePointe shrank and changed, the TIF funding stayed the same

CentrePointe's TIF was approved when the developers were proposing a $300 million project.  At that time, the developers also promised that they had financing in-hand. They promised 91 residential condominiums at a $1 million average price. They promised to begin construction in March 2009.

None of these overly optimistic assertions turned out to be remotely true. The project shrank to half its approved size. The size and mix of residential, retail, hotel, and office activity changed dramatically. The project slipped 4 years (and counting) past its promised construction start date. But none of these facts changed the city's or state's TIF obligations.

CentrePointe is a fundamentally smaller and different project than when it was proposed. Yet the developers' rewards remain the same: The developers still get a $30 million parking garage, at public expense.

There appear to be no mechanisms at the state or local level to revisit the TIF commitments when a project fails to live up to its rosy projections. And CentrePointe certainly failed to meet those projections.

Worse, TIF actually rewards the developers for shrinking the size of the project: The smaller the project gets, the greater the developers' return on investment.

The Webb Companies appear to be able to alter the project on every whim of the developers. They can and have overpromised and underdelivered. And the city and state appear to have no recourse - or desire - to reevaluate their support of the project.

Fifth, state law is maddeningly unclear about what happens if a TIF project fails to deliver on its promises. The law goes into great detail about how to subsidize the developers, but it does not make clear who pays when the project falls short of projections. 

When a TIF project is approved, it allows the city and state to take on debt by issuing special TIF bonds. In return for $50 million from bond investors, the city and state promise to use a steady stream of taxes coming out of the new economic activity at CentrePointe to pay back the $50 million (with another $50 million in interest) over the next 30 years. 

Under the original best-case assumptions from the state's economic development consultant in 2009, taxes from CentrePointe just missed fully paying for the bond payments.  

Since 2009, however, everything changed. The project got much, much smaller. Key assumptions justifying TIF for CentrePointe have crumbled. 

In other words, it is not remotely possible for CentrePointe to generate enough taxes to pay back the bond investors.

Three years ago, we re-ran the consultant's analysis for CentrePointe using (in our judgment) generous-but-realistic assumptions.  The result: Taxes from CentrePointe only generated 20% of what was needed to pay bond investors. 

And that was before the project shrank another $40 million - rendering even our dreary projections too optimistic.

So the state and city issue TIF bonds. And the CentrePointe TIF can never pay the bond investors. Then what?

If the city and state default (i.e., fail to pay) on the bonds, whose credit rating takes a hit? Who is responsible for the shortfall? 

Some analysts assert that bondholders would be on the hook for any shortfall. But then, any bond analyst looking at CentrePointe would recognize that they'd never get paid, and investors would flee. Then where do the TIF funds come from?

It is hard to look at the CentrePointe TIF without realizing that there is great risk of loss to state and local taxpayers, as well as bond investors.

It is also hard to look at the CentrePointe TIF without realizing that The Webb Companies incur no risk at all.

Finally, the fact that the city and state sanction TIF for CentrePointe doesn't make TIF more legitimate; It makes TIF more despicable.

TIF is the worst kind of reverse-Robin-Hood welfare scheme for developers. At a time when the state and city are starving for money, TIF uses public tax dollars to help reduce the developers' expenses and helps line their pockets. It transfers risk away from the developers and to the public and to investors. It literally takes from the poor and gives to the rich.

The CentrePointe TIF is a con.  The fact that the city and state assist in the con doesn't make it any less of one.

::

We've often had fun at the developer's expense with CentrePointe, pointing out their serial incompetence and their tendency to lie and exaggerate.

But the truth is that their 'incompetence' and mendacity have served them quite well. It has helped them dramatically compound their profitability and reduce their risk. All at public expense.

Quite crafty, indeed.


Five Years of Failure: Lessons from CentrePointe

Five years ago today, the Webb Companies announced CentrePointe, a then-$250 million downtown Lexington development effort which planned to produce 900 jobs and the city's tallest building on one block in the center of the city. Citing the urgency of the project, the developers moved quickly to demolish several neglected-but-historic buildings on the block.

Then, CentrePointe stalled.

The developers made some cosmetic efforts to clean up the site, ultimately transforming the pit of demolition rubble into a tiny pasture, complete with horse farm fencing.  But actual construction never began.  

Today, CentrePointe is still stalled.

Centrepointe, Version 4.0Over the past five years, the developers have repeatedly revised their plans and their explanations for delay.  At every revision, construction was imminent, slated to begin "60 to 90 days from now".  

The financial and physical ambitions of the project have shrunk somewhat: the plans now call for a $200 million development which no longer includes the city's tallest building.  Instead of the hulking monolith of the first three designs, the developers are now pursuing a less-imposing design which promises to blend with the surrounding city much more effectively.

But approval for the developers' fifth major design iteration expires next week, and we've seen little progress on CentrePointe over the past year.  

After five years, we have no economic activity on the site. No construction. No jobs. No building. No progress.

Over the years, we've been frequent critics of the CentrePointe project.  Those critiques have stood up well to history.

The fifth anniversary of the announcement of CentrePointe, as well as the expiration of the project's fifth design, seem like a good time for us to take stock of what Lexington should learn from the five years of failure with CentrePointe.

Hopefully, we can apply some of these lessons to CentrePointe (and to other major development initiatives in the city).

::

The developers lied.
They lied repeatedly. And with no trace of shame. It isn't a pleasant or polite thing to say, but Lexington needs to stop being polite to hucksters and charlatans.

They lied about their secret mystery financier. They lied about his death. They lied about his heirs and 'numbered Swiss bank accounts'. They lied about backup financing. They lied about backup financing for the backup financing. They lied about the urgency of demolishing historic buildings. They lied about their schedule. They lied about tenant commitments. They lied about 61 (or 64! or 65!) 'handshake' deals for their condominiums. They lied with pretty pictures of ugly buildings. They lied with pretty pictures of pretty buildings. And they lied with overly optimistic financial projections.

They lied to the press. They lied to the public. They lied to the Urban County Council. They might have even lied to themselves. 

And when their thick layers of lies wore thin, they resorted to insulting and bullying their critics instead of offering substantive rebuttals.

TIF is a scam.
CentrePointe has always depended upon tax-increment financing, or TIF, to support approximately $50 million of the project. TIF allows cities and states to allocate future incremental tax revenues to finance today's public improvements related to new economic development initiatives.  

The logic behind TIF is that the increase in economic activity which stems from a new project will generate taxes that will - eventually - pay back the state and city for improving roads, sidewalks, utilities, parking, or other infrastructure around the project.

Sounds reasonable, right? Build CentrePointe; generate new economic activity; generate new taxes from that activity; use future taxes to help pay for the "public" parking garage which CentrePointe needs to be viable.  The city issues CentrePointe TIF bonds to investors, uses the investors' money to build the CentrePointe parking garage, and pays back investors (with interest) out of the tax revenues from all of the economic activity CentrePointe creates.

But here's the core problem: CentrePointe never generates enough economic activity to pay back bondholders.  

How'd this happen? CentrePointe's developers used wildly inflated projections to qualify for TIF, and few city or state mechanisms were in place to effectively challenge the developers' assertions.

And therein lies the problem with TIF more broadly.  Developers have every incentive to exaggerate their estimates of a project's value to the community. If the project comes up short of their rosy projections, developers still reap the benefits of TIF ("Free parking garage!"), while taxpayers and bondholders assume all of the risks.

Those supporting TIF programs often assert that only bond investors bear the risk of project failure.  But that rarely happens. As LEO's Joe Sonka meticulously chronicles with Louisville's Yum! Center (another state-sanctioned TIF program), the reality is that taxpayers are the true backstop when a project fails to live up to its projections.

TIF amounts to little more than an elaborate corporate-welfare scam. 

With no downside risk, developers have no motivation to be realistic in their projections in their pursuit of state and local support, while state and local governments provide few checks on that runaway optimism. 

Further, TIF provides developers with their infrastructure goodies now, and in exchange taxpayers and bondholders get a trickle of unreliable and unpredictable tax revenues over the next 30 years.  

So far, the saving grace for the CentrePointe TIF has been that the developers have been unable to secure financing for the rest of the project, and haven't yet been able to invoke the state and city support needed to build the parking garage.  

Financials trump design.
Perhaps because the design has changed so often, many CentrePointe critics - including us - spent much of their time obsessing on the project's design.  This was especially true when the design got good following Jeanne Gang's involvement in June 2011. Because the Studio Gang process was so inclusive, many in the community felt a sense of ownership of the resulting design.

But the reality is that the design of CentrePointe matters very, very little in comparison to the finances of CentrePointe.  

Pretty pictures are nice, but pretty pictures crumble without viable financing.  (And they have crumbled several times without viable financing.) Pretty pictures don't matter as much as pretty business plans.

And CentrePointe has never had a pretty business plan, even when it had pretty designs. 

Big is fragile.
The state's agreement with the city specifies that at least $200 million be spent on CentrePointe by 2016 in order to qualify for TIF.

And the project's price tag has dutifully maintained that $200 million threshold over the past 5 years.  

As a result, CentrePointe has always been big and complex; it contains residential, retail, hotel, and office components.  The viability of the project requires the success of all of these components - if any one fails, the whole project fails.

This is why the developers have had five years of trouble securing financing.  A project of this size and complexity is inherently fragile.

A smaller project (or collection of smaller projects) would likely be much more robust, but then it wouldn't qualify for TIF funding.

When projects get bigger and more complex, there's greater risk for something to go wrong. CentrePointe's size is a liability, not an asset.

Speculation is just gambling.
Speculation is not economic development. Speculation is gambling.

The developers gambled. They gambled with historic buildings. They gambled that they could get financing before the economy crumbled. They gambled that they could get they city to help finance part of their project. They gambled with the center of our city.  

And they lost.

And we lost, too. We lost a little of our city's history. We lost economic activity. We might lose even more if the project goes forward.

::

These are just a few of CentrePointe's lessons for Lexington. There are undoubtedly many more (for instance, I haven't delved into the project's many historic preservation failures here).  

Feel free to add what you've learned over the past five years in the comments below.


2012 and the Local Economy

I was privileged to be surveyed late last week by the Herald-Leader's Tom Eblen for today's column on the state of Lexington's economy for 2012.

I don't envy Tom: distilling the often-disparate views of eight different business owners into 800 words or less must be tough.  (As regular readers might imagine, my views didn't exactly align with many of my peers.)

My response alone was over 1000 words, so the understandable - and necessary - result was that some context was stripped from my comments.  

Still, Tom asked very thoughtful questions, and I liked some of my answers.  So I thought it might be worthwhile to share them here on CivilMechanics.

And if you haven't read Tom's column, go check it out here.

(Note: I wrote these answers early Friday morning.  Some local events have already outdated at least one answer...)

1. Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the economy this year. Why?

I'm kind of bipolar on the economy.  For the first time in 4 years, I'm seeing signs of strength in our business, in our customers and their ability to buy our services, and in the national economy.  

At the same time, I see two major "storms" on the horizon: the apparent willingness of Republicans in Congress to scuttle the economy for political advantage (and I don't think this is a "both sides" thing - see this, for example), and the apparent unwillingness (or inability) of Europe to deal effectively with their debt crisis.

In my view, both storms are fueled by wrong-headed drives for austerity - forcing governments to spend less when no one else is spending, and further drying up demand.

2. How is your business doing?  How are business conditions better or worse for you than they were a year ago?

Our business is still weaker than I'd like in the wake of the recession, but it is growing.  Sales are up about 3% over last year, but some of the underlying fundamentals still aren't where they need to be. While we've seen some improvement, many of our customers are still delaying basic maintenance on their cars because they can't afford it.

3. What’s your biggest business concern for the coming year?

I've hired two new technicians in the last 9 months, including one last week, bringing us to six mechanics in total.  Having more technicians will help us enormously in the busy spring and summer months.  But the winter is typically our slowest time of the year, so bringing on an additional employee now is a bit of a risk: Will there be enough work to keep everyone busy and happy? Will there be enough business for me to make a profit while paying them?  

Getting through the next few months with a bigger staff is my biggest current concern.  Keeping them busy throughout the year by bringing customers through the door is my biggest concern for 2012.

4. What do you see as your biggest opportunity for the year?

Having a larger staff will allow us to serve more customers more quickly.  Toward the end of 2011, we were frequently scheduling appointments up to a week in advance because we were too busy to get customers into the shop sooner, and we lost some business because we couldn't get them in right away.  We want to improve our service and accommodate our customers more quickly in 2012, and the additional employees will help us with that.

5. What would you like to see the president and/or Congress do to improve the economy?

I'd like to see another massive stimulus package.  

120106_privatejobs

While it may not be popular with your readers, there is no doubt that the early 2009 stimulus worked.  (See chart of private-sector job losses and gains at right, stolen from the estimable Steve Benen.)  We were losing hundreds of thousands of jobs every month and the economy was imploding.  Immediately after the stimulus, the economy stabilized and the jobs losses dropped dramatically, and jobs have been growing slowly and steadily since early 2010.  But a stable and slow-growing economy isn't enough.  I'd like to see another stimulus to help jump-start a more dynamic, fast-growing economy.

A lot of folks will say that we need to cut taxes and regulation in order to get the economy growing again.  That's a head-scratcher for me.  Lowering my taxes and putting a little extra money in my pocket won't help me create a job.  Neither would letting me pollute more.  

I've hired two new employees in the last year (growing 25% from 8 employees to 10), and the decision to hire them was driven by customer demand for faster and better service - which had nothing to do with my taxes or regulations.  Customer demand drives hiring; giving business owners extra money or convenience really doesn't.

I like President Obama's American Jobs Act as a starting point for a stimulus - investment in infrastructure, schools, and public safety is a sound way to grow economic demand.  But I'd like to see even more investment in other areas, such as energy research and American manufacturing, and I'd like to see a stimulus closer to $1 trillion to really get the economy growing again.  

That's what I'd like to see.  I see zero chance of this actually happening with this Congress.

6. Will this year’s presidential election make the economy better or worse? Why?

I fear that it will make things worse, at least for the short term.  It is hard to imagine how our political system could be more gridlocked than it was in 2011.  Still, as congressional Republicans obstruct any initiative which might make the President look good, I worry that they'll sacrifice the economy on the altar of politics.

As for the race itself, I see a worrying thread of extremism from the GOP candidates.  Even the supposedly-moderate Mitt Romney is proposing extreme policies which benefit the wealthy even more and skewer the middle class and poor even more (thereby skewering most of my customers).  I worry that the austere policies a Republican President might attempt to implement would decimate my customer base and my business.  

7. What is Lexington’s biggest asset during these economic times? It’s biggest problem?

I think our schools - particularly UK - are our biggest asset.  They provide our city with well-educated people, great research to improve our lives and build businesses upon, and a vibrant "student economy" which spills over into the rest of our city. 

I see two big problems for Lexington.  First, if the proposed redistricting is approved by Governor Beshear, a huge chunk of our city will not be represented in the Kentucky State Senate for two years.  Proper representation in Frankfort is vital to protecting Lexington's interests and to protecting UK, and these undemocratic redistricting plans would deprive one-third of our city of its vote.  I worry about the impacts of Lexington not being represented in Frankfort.

Second, I think our city, our state, and our schools are under-funded.  I appreciate all of the efforts Mayor Gray has made to trim Lexington's budget, but at some point, we citizens need to fund all of the services and infrastructure and improvements we've come to expect.  

I want nice roads for me, my customers, and my employees.  I want them to be plowed and salted when nasty weather strikes this winter.  I want the best schools for my son and for my employees' families.  I want the best fire and police protection.  I want a beautiful and safe city to live and work in.  But those benefits come at a price.  And we're responsible for funding all of those "nice things".

It won't be popular, but I think we need to start a frank conversation about raising taxes to fund our city's (and state's and schools') obligations.  We need to pay for the great things we want to do together.

8. What else should readers know that I haven’t asked about?

I hope they'll go out of their way to buy local goods and services when possible.  That will keep more of Lexington's money in Lexington, which helps foster a more vibrant local economy.


On Compromise

Last night, Congress passed the $900 billion tax compromise reached between President Obama and Republican leaders.  

In the end, progressives and conservatives alike lambasted the deal.  And that might be a very good thing.

I'm no fan of the bonus tax cuts for the wealthy that Obama conceded to congressional Republicans; Despite Republican claims, those cuts fail to create significant job growth.

Lost in much of the analysis over what Obama conceded, however, is just how many bigger concessions he won back from Republican leaders, as Ezra Klein points out with this chart:

Tax Cut Compromise Proportions

Unproductive and unneeded tax cuts for the wealthy make up only one-eighth of the compromise. The other seven-eighths of the deal are much more stimulative to our economy and to job production.  

In essence, this tax deal is a second "stimulus" which is much-needed at this stage of our fragile economic recovery.

::

During the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787, representatives of each state teetered on the knife's edge between walking away from the proposed Constitution for what they might have to give up, and giving up important principles (and power) in order to gain something better, stronger, and more resilient.

While the present compromise is not nearly as momentous, it does remind me of what Benjamin Franklin - then 82 years old - said when addressing that convention in September, which galvanized the representatives into agreement:

I confess that there are several parts of this constitution which I do not at present approve, but I am not sure I shall never approve them: For having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged by better information, or fuller consideration, to change opinions even on important subjects, which I once thought right, but found to be otherwise. It is therefore that the older I grow, the more apt I am to doubt my own judgment, and to pay more respect to the judgment of others. Most men indeed as well as most sects in Religion, think themselves in possession of all truth, and that wherever others differ from them it is so far error. Steele a Protestant in a Dedication tells the Pope, that the only difference between our Churches in their opinions of the certainty of their doctrines is, the Church of Rome is infallible and the Church of England is never in the wrong. But though many private persons think almost as highly of their own infallibility as of that of their sect, few express it so naturally as a certain french lady, who in a dispute with her sister, said "I don't know how it happens, Sister but I meet with no body but myself, that's always in the right - Il n'y a que moi qui a toujours raison."

In these sentiments, Sir, I agree to this Constitution with all its faults, if they are such; because I think a general Government necessary for us, and there is no form of Government but what may be a blessing to the people if well administered, and believe farther that this is likely to be well administered for a course of years, and can only end in Despotism, as other forms have done before it, when the people shall become so corrupted as to need despotic Government, being incapable of any other. I doubt too whether any other Convention we can obtain, may be able to make a better Constitution. For when you assemble a number of men to have the advantage of their joint wisdom, you inevitably assemble with those men, all their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests, and their selfish views. From such an assembly can a perfect production be expected? It therefore astonishes me, Sir, to find this system approaching so near to perfection as it does; and I think it will astonish our enemies, who are waiting with confidence to hear that our councils are confounded like those of the Builders of Babel; and that our States are on the point of separation, only to meet hereafter for the purpose of cutting one another's throats. Thus I consent, Sir, to this Constitution because I expect no better, and because I am not sure, that it is not the best. The opinions I have had of its errors, I sacrifice to the public good. I have never whispered a syllable of them abroad. Within these walls they were born, and here they shall die. (...) I hope therefore that for our own sakes as a part of the people, and for the sake of posterity, we shall act heartily and unanimously in recommending this Constitution (if approved by Congress & confirmed by the Conventions) wherever our influence may extend, and turn our future thoughts & endeavors to the means of having it well administered.

On the whole, Sir, I can not help expressing a wish that every member of the Convention who may still have objections to it, would with me, on this occasion doubt a little of his own infallibility, and to make manifest our unanimity, put his name to this instrument.

::

Progressives hate what was conceded in this deal.  So do conservatives.  And everyone should be concerned over how much this deal grows our national debt.

Both sides wanted their leaders to stick to core principles - no matter the cost.  But that's demogoguery, not democracy.  It isn't how our country works.  It isn't how our country was formed.

"Compromise" has become a foul word in this political season.  

But it is the very heart of a functioning democracy.


A Small Business Perspective on Jobs and Tax Cuts

Lowell's

In late July, one of our technicians left our award-winning auto repair shop to return to his hometown.  He has been our only employee to leave since I bought the business over two years ago.  

His departure raised a question for us that a lot of small businesses have faced in this economy: Do we accept the risks of hiring a new employee to replace him?

The answer, I think, is instructive for many of the economic and political issues facing our country.

::

Impatient voters punished Democrats two weeks ago for not giving enough focus to our nation's sputtering economy after the near-implosion of 2008.

With our nation's unemployment rate hovering just under 10% (and 'real' unemployment much higher), voters sent a clear signal that they want government to focus on creating jobs and growth.

According to the Small Business Administration [PDF Link], small businesses like ours make up 99.7% of employer firms, and account for two-thirds of new job creation.

Both Republicans and Democrats have reiterated the importance of getting small businesses hiring to get our country's economy moving again.  

::

This week, congress reassembles in the wake of the elections to consider extending temporary tax cuts  implemented under the Bush administration in 2001 and 2003.

Republicans want to extend the entirety of the Bush tax cuts, which would add $5 trillion to the national deficit over the next ten years, and vastly expanded the national debt over the past decade.

Democrats want to extend the tax cuts as well, but would let them expire for the highest-income households which make over $250,000 per year.  The Democratic plan would cost almost $700 billion less than the Republican plan over the next ten years.

Republican leaders claim that giving tax breaks to top earners is critical to generating the new jobs that the economy needs to recover.

Unfortunately, they're wrong.

::

Just how would the Republican proposal affect small business jobs? A hypothetical example from my industry might help us get to an answer.

A very healthy auto shop might have annual sales of $1,000,000 - an amount which would put it well into the top 5% of shops nationwide.  If that shop is exceptionally well-run, it might see net profits of 30%, or $300,000.

For those few shop owners in such a fortunate situation, what are the implications of extending the Bush tax cuts for those making more than $250,000?  Under the Republican plan, that shop owner would save an incremental $1,500 in taxes over the Democratic tax cut plan.  

As a small business owner, I'd happily take the $1,500.  But such a small amount would give me zero incentive to undertake the much greater expense - and risk - of hiring a new employee.  

So while extending the Bush tax cuts would certainly line my pockets, they would do little to encourage me to create jobs in my small business.    

::

Some observers might contend, as incoming House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan did on CNBC yesterday, that most job growth comes from larger "small" businesses and that my example above isn't really that relevant to job creation.

So let's pretend, for a moment, that our hypothetical business is actually 10 times as large as the example above: It has annual sales of $10,000,000, and its owners see profits of $3,000,000 per year.  

Under the Republican plan, that business owner would save an additional $125,000 in taxes over the Democratic tax cut plan.  Now, this seems like an amount which might let a business hire a couple of additional employees.

But while the tax savings might be enough to hire additional employees, it provides little actual incentive to use that newfound money to hire in an uncertain economic environment.  

A tax windfall fails to meet a prudent business owner's criteria for making a hiring decision. Business owners don't hire because we have extra money laying around. We don't hire out of charity. We hire when there is more work to do.  

Again, I'd happily take the $125,000.  But I'd also know that a drop of just 1% in my sales - a fairly likely risk in our current economy - would wipe out my tax savings.  If I were that business owner, I'd stash my cash as a hedge against an uncertain economy.  Net effect: no new jobs created.

The criteria for hiring is scalable: Whether a business has $1 million, $10 million, or $100 million in sales, the decision to hire is based on needing employees to meet demand - not on having spare cash supplied by tax cuts.

::

In my shop, the economic slowdown - coupled with a nearby street closing for almost a year - contributed to a sales decline of over fifteen percent from our record 2008 levels.  The declines would have been worse if not for our solid reputation, our increased community involvement, and our vigorous marketing.

In fact, our business has more customers than ever before; It's just that each one is investing far less in their cars.  We see a lot more folks putting off needed maintenance and hoping that their cars won't break down.

And as I look at replacing the technician who left in July, this drop in sales has been my primary consideration.

An extra $1,500 from tax cuts wouldn't induce me to hire a new technician.  Neither, frankly, would an extra $125,000.  

I'll hire when our core business is better - when there is more work to do - and not just when I have a convenient pile of cash.

And to make our business better, we need more customers with more money - and more willingness to spend. 

::

To encourage small business hiring, policymakers need to encourage spending.  In particular, they need to encourage the kind of spending which reverberates through the economy as that money is spent and respent in the form of wages, further buying, more wages, and - ultimately - hiring.  

This respending feedback loop is key to creating enough demand that businesses like mine will start to hire again.  It is key to driving our nation's self-sustained economic growth.

The fatal flaw of tax cuts for the wealthy is that the cuts don't foster respending at a scale which drives significant hiring.  As seen in my examples above, a large chunk of each dollar given out in tax cuts to the wealthy is stowed away in savings - thereby stunting the benefits to the economy.

Mark Zandi, Moody's Chief Economist, has found the same phenomenon in his research (Full PDF Here).  

Tax cuts to the rich don't yield as much overall economic benefit because the wealthy don't need to (and won't) spend that money, thus diminishing the virtuous feedback loop.

Zandi

Government spending which goes to those in need - the poor, the unemployed, state governments - does get respent (often out of necessity) and the feedback loop is much, much stronger than with tax cuts.

::

If I'm looking at my bank account, the tax cuts seem like a fantastic idea. More money for me!

But if I'm looking at my business, my employees, their families, and my community - I want the government to focus on assisting those in need.  I want the government to encourage buying (especially from small, local businesses).  That's what will help my business for the long term. That's what will - ultimately - encourage me to hire. 

Lose the tax cuts.  Give me customers instead.


The Limits of Local

I am a strong proponent of 'buying local' - purchasing goods and services from local businesses to boost the local economy.  I made a case for Local First in our recent To-Do List for Lexington series late last year.

PB080070But I'm not a local 'purist'.  There are times when buying local is just not practical.  And there are times when non-local competition creates a healthy diversity for local consumers (and providers).

So a recent Twitter discussion and this blog post got me thinking about the limits of 'local'.  The tenor of these conversations was that a candidate for Lexington mayor [one that I personally support, by the way] was 'disloyal' to Lexington for using a Washington, D.C. firm to design the campaign's temporary website.

These discussions echoed several earlier ones about the purchase of non-local services by our city's government.

For me, the discussions raised an important question about buying local, especially with regard to public dollars and public figures:

Should buying local goods and services be a requirement or an aspiration for a political candidate?  For a local government?

The indignation of the writers seemed to imply that buying local goods was some sort of requirement - some sort of 'litmus test' for determining whether a candidate was good enough to run.

From my perspective, this line of thought leads to unreasonable conclusions about what disqualifies candidates (or what constitutes good governance).  For instance:

  • They can't shop at Walmart.  Or Kroger.  Or Best Buy.  Or Home Depot.
  • They can't eat at Chick-Fil-A.  Or Qdoba.  Or Five Guys.  Or Bonefish.
  • They can't drive a Toyota.  Or a Ford.
  • They can't drink Coca-Cola.  Especially the imported Mexican Coke with real cane sugar.
  • They must only drink Bourbon produced in Fayette County.  (And wait a few years until it is actually available.)
  • They can't update their blog with an HP or Dell laptop.
  • They can't tweet with their iPhone.  Or BlackBerry.  Or Droid.
  • They can't watch TV produced in Hollywood.  Or New York.
  • They can't use Microsoft Office.  Or Adobe Acrobat.
  • They can't use Facebook.
In short: They can't use any product or service which contains any non-local content.

Is such a list of prohibitions ridiculous?   Of course.  

And that's precisely the point: Requiring some sort of 'purity' in local purchasing creates an excessive, unreachable, and unproductive standard.

Buying local should be an aspiration - something we strive for, something we measure and attempt to improve, something we do more of.

Do we need our city, our political candidates, and our citizens to buy more local goods and services?  Should we actively encourage more purchasing at great local spots like Fáilte (profiled by Tom Eblen in yesterday's Herald-Leader)?  Absolutely, on both counts.  That was why I wrote my original Local First post.

We should spend more of our money here in Lexington.  But forcing our city to spend all of our money here would stifle Lexington's economy, and restrict us from being truly productive.

So let's adopt a reasonable posture aimed at encouraging our leaders to buy local.


Health care reform: A small business perspective

This week, we're finalizing our shop's health insurance requirements for the next year.  Our policy will be 25% more this year for the same coverage.  Last year, it grew by 16%.  Compounded, that's 45% in two short years.  No other cost increases on that scale for us.

As a small business, the spiraling costs of health care hit us particularly hard each year.  And the need for a new approach to health care is particularly acute, for us and for our employees.

I've been puzzling over health care for a long while - and I won't claim to have the answers here.  But I thought it could be helpful to step away from the town hall and cable channel histrionics and fear-mongering to share some observations on health care from a small business perspective.

Insurance companies are like casinos: The house always wins.
Insurance companies have received a lot of criticism during the health care reform debate.  But they are doing precisely what they are designed to do.  They make money for investors by taking bets on the health requirements of their customers. 

Insurance companies operate like casinos or racetracks: the table is always tilted in favor of the house.  They may lose big on a single 'jackpot', but across the full array of customers they nearly always win.  And when they don't win 'enough', they'll raise the cost of making bets with them. 

When we enter into agreements with insurance companies, we're always taking a sucker's bet that we're very likely to lose.  The only reason an insurance company takes our money is because they 'bet' that we won't need that amount of medical care.

Ultimately, as with the casino, the house wins.

The oddity of employer-provided health insurance.
We don't really question it much today, but it is just plain strange that something as personal and as private as health care is mediated by employers at all.  We don't usually involve our employers in house payments or banking or appliance purchases or car insurance.  But, somehow, we've come to expect them to provide health care insurance.

Employer-provided insurance is an historical artifact from negotiations between General Motors and labor unions in the late 1940's and early 1950's.  Charles Wilson, GM's CEO, saw it as a last-ditch concession to help prevent the 'nationalized healthcare' system that Harry Truman was championing - which Wilson saw as a threat to the integrity of the free enterprise system.  (Funny how many things just don't change.)  Soon, other employers adopted health care coverage as a standard part of their benefits packages, and employer-provided insurance became the norm.

But, really, why are we employers involved at all?

Leverage
One reason that employers remain involved is that they often have more buying power than individuals.  Over the past 60 years, we've been able to provide leverage which lets us negotiate somewhat better plans with insurers and medical providers. 

But small businesses have scant more negotiating leverage than an individual.  Often, our employees choose to get independent coverage rather than participate in our group plan. 

When Lowell's bid out to three other health insurance companies, the results were disheartening.  The other three companies offered rates that were 200% to 300% higher than our current rates with Anthem.  So we're 'trapped' with Anthem.

Expanding waistlines, increasing costs.
As a nation, we're getting a lot unhealthier.  We eat more.  We exercise less.  We sleep less.  We're in worse health.  We're living longer.  And we need more care.

We don't spend much time, effort, or money on the preventative health care and self-care which would help eliminate the much more expensive catastrophic care.  We're too busy to exercise.  We don't want to pay for the mammogram.  We don't like waiting in the doctor's office. 

And we require more medical care as a result.  Often, we get that care after a catastrophe built upon years of self-abuse: We have a heart attack.  Our knees fail.  The cancer spreads.  (We see the same phenomenon with routine maintenance in the car business - put it off, put it off, put it off, then replace an engine.)

Health care is getting more expensive, in part, because we are getting unhealthier.

Rising expectations, increasing costs.
We've come to expect more from our medical system.  We expect our doctors, staff, drugs, equipment, and facilities all to improve.  And we should expect improvement as medical science advances.

But those advances are costly.  The astronomical research and development costs for the medical 'miracles' of MRIs and cholesterol-fighting drugs and 'little blue pills' have to be paid for in some fashion.

And doctors, hospitals, and insurance companies won't simply absorb those costs.  They will pass them on to patients.

Health care is getting more expensive, in part, because health care is getting better.

There are no painless solutions.
We've seen politicians, lobbyists, pundits, and fellow citizens all offer various versions of 'painless' solutions to the healthcare problem.

They promise that government should bear more of the burden. Or that government shouldn't bear any of the burden.  Or that we just need full, universal insurance.  Or that insurance companies should pay.  Or drug companies.  Or hospitals.  Or doctors.  Or that we shouldn't have to pay for the chronically uninsured.  Or that we should just collar all the lawyers and their malpractice suits.  Or we should just have more competition.

Nobody says that we must bear the responsibility.  But we must.

If we refuse to provide insurance or government coverage for the roughly 45 million uninsured Americans, what happens to those who can't pay?  Hospitals and emergency rooms will still provide care.  Their costs will go up.  And they will pass those costs to other patients in the form of, say, an $8 dose of ibuprofen.  We pay.

If we provide government-paid health care to them (or to ourselves), what happens?  Our national deficit will rise.  This week's projection of a $9 trillion deficit over 10 years amounts to about $30,000 per man, woman, and child.  Which will have to be funded through taxes.  We pay.

If we have full universal coverage in a government program, what happens?  Because they don't bear the initial brunt of the costs, patients get more health care than they really need.  And doctors and medical institutions will happily provide (or suggest) that profitable care.  More deficit.   More taxes.  We pay.

If we squeeze insurance company profit (or put greater requirements on them), what happens?  They will likely refuse coverage for the riskiest, least profitable customers.  Unable to find private coverage, those customers will opt to go without coverage or to go with a public plan.  More $8 (or, now, $10) ibuprofen.  More taxes.  We pay.  

If we squeeze drug or equipment company profits, what happens?  They have less to invest in research and development.  They take fewer risks, and release fewer blockbuster drugs or fewer equipment breakthroughs.  Improvements in our medical care falter.  We pay.

If we collar lawyers and malpractice suits, what happens?  Doctors' malpractice insurance costs will likely go down.  But a few careless doctors who commit malpractice may inflict injury or death without significant penalty.  And who ultimately bears the cost of that irresponsibility and that injury or death?  We do.  We pay.

If we allow more competition between insurance companies, what happens?  The insurance companies look at the same basic actuarial tables.  They evaluate risks in the same way.  They put a price on the 'bets' they are willing to take in the same way.  And their prices remain about the same as without as much competition.  We pay.

We want ever-better medical care.  We are getting unhealthier.  We want someone else to pay for it.  But they won't.  We must bear the responsibility.  We must pay.

Can government, insurance companies, hospitals, and doctors get more efficient?  Sure.  Are there opportunities to eliminate waste?  You bet.  Can we patients get healthier and do more preventative care?  Absolutely.  But it will cost us in some way.

There are no painless solutions.  In the end, we all pay.

The moral obligation
"Is health care a right or a privilege?"

It is a question that we don't talk about enough, and which underlies much of the national divide about health care today.  Is health care a right to which all people are entitled?  Or, is it a privilege bestowed only upon those who have earned it?  

It is an interesting question, and the health care debate has hinged upon how people answer it.

Except that I think that it is the wrong question.

The "right or privilege" question presupposes that rights and privileges are somehow separable. I don't think that they are.

I think of health care in many of the same ways as I think of citizenship or, even, to being a human being.  As citizens and as humans, we have certain 'inalienable' rights.  Heck, our country was built upon them - "Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness".  

But those citizen's (and human) rights come with deep responsibilities.  We must participate.  We must act in certain ways.  We must work together to improve our nation and our well-being.  We can't abuse the fundamental rights we have been given.

For me, health care comes down to a moral issue.  I can't tolerate 45 million fellow citizens living without a safety net.  I can't tolerate wasteful spending on needless tests and procedures on the public dime.  I can't tolerate 45% increases in insurance costs over 2 years.  I can't tolerate 'competition' which triples my existing rates.  I can't tolerate people (including me, unfortunately) who don't take good enough care of themselves.

I can't tolerate the status quo.  Can you?

For me, health care is a citizen's right.  And an earned privilege.  We must strive to provide health care for fundamental human needs whenever possible, while simultaneously striving to ensure we grapple with the responsibilities that come along with that privilege.

So to the politicians, lobbyists, pundits, and citizens engaged in the public debate, I say: Grow up.  Step up to the plate.  Quit attacking.  Get realistic.  Have adult discussions.  Lose the scare tactics.  Work together.  Compromise.  Take responsibility.  Live up to your moral obligations.

Then, maybe, just maybe, we can build a better health care system.  For our nation.  And for one another.

LowellsSquare

Taxes, Taxes, Taxes

I'm quite a bit different than my business-owning peers -- I actually don't mind paying taxes. I get a lot of benefit from those taxes: providing for our common defense, local police and fire protection, and a pretty great infrastructure (by world standards), among many other services that our governments provide.  It is my duty as a citizen to financially support the governments that protect and enable our freedoms.

I feel this way even though those services and those governments should be much more efficient and much less bureaucratic than they are.  So I'm not a typical all-taxes-are-evil type of business owner...

But I hate dealing with taxes.Tax-burden

When I bought this business, I knew that I was going to have to deal more with taxes and payroll issues than when I was an individual employee of a corporation. (Unlike many businesses, we don't send our payroll or most of our taxes out to other professionals. Yet.)

But I totally underestimated the crushing administrative burden of the variety, frequency, and complexity of tax payments.  Besides dealing with federal, state, and local governments (which I expected), I quickly learned that each entity had many different types of taxes, each with different weekly, monthly, and quarterly schedules, and each out-of-sync with the others.  There were many taxes which we paid and documented on a regular basis which had to be re-documented periodically.  Then, in January, the schedule gets jumbled from every other tax period.  It is needlessly complicated and time-consuming. 

Again, I'm a willing taxpayer (although I'd always welcome paying less).  But I don't want to be a tax expert.  And I don't want to be forced to hire one.  And I don't want to spend so much time managing our taxes when it should be spent managing our business... 

There must be a simpler way for businesses to contribute to their governments.