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Nov. 4, 2014

Glitz May Sell, but It Doesn’t Pick Up the Garbage


Glitz might not be the best thing to look for in a candidate.

            We now have a runoff between two able candidates for Mayor.  The tendency for all of us is to look for some grand solution and giant ideas that make us excited. 

            The truth is, municipal government isn’t glitzy.  It is intimate.  It is daily.

            Shreveport city government delivers water to the house and carries away waste.  It keeps streets and drains in good repair (or doesn’t).  It picks up and disposes of (or doesn’t) garbage and trash. It enforces (or doesn’t) ordinances that prevent blight and restore neighborhoods.  It arrests criminals, prevents fires and helps those caught in fires and medical emergencies. 

            I say all this as a prelude to my criteria for my vote for Mayor of Shreveport. I believe we need to look beyond glitzy ideas (often with glitzy price tags that haven’t been explored or are beyond the City’s current financial abilities) to, in the words of the famous Firestone ads, where the rubber meets the road.

            Ideas do not lead, people do.  The first thing I am looking for is a person with deep and broad relationships in the community.  One does not lead with speeches and ideas.  Without relationships and people who can influence other leaders, ideas fall flat and disappoint the citizenry. Relationships build ownership. Ownership gets results.

            A mayor also needs to be able to build support within the City Council. I had the privilege to serve on the Council while John Hussey was Mayor. Mayor Hussey was not glitzy, but he was amazing at garnering Council support for his initiatives. He always controlled the agenda, and he constantly kept the Council informed and sought its input in formative stages of ideas. That way he could build a coalition for his ideas. We need a mayor who can do that.

            A city can have all the tax and other incentives for job creation, but if its streets are not well maintained, if it is throttled by traffic, if its water and sewer and drainage infrastructure is in ill repair, if its trash stays on the streets, if its neighborhoods are deteriorating, the citizens of the city do not become its advocates. Visitors and potential employers can sense feel the pessimism of the crapehangers. 

            The ability to assemble a competent staff, starting with a chief administrative officer that meets the requirements of the City Charter, is important to me. What are the two remaining candidates looking for in a CAO? If they are not looking for someone like former CAO Tom Dark, that should raise questions.

            Does the candidate have significant public body experience? Sometimes it is easy to say that government should be run like a business only to find that many statutes prohibit running government like a business. Is a candidate quick or contemplative with answers? If all the answers were easy or clear, the City would have acted on them long ago.

            No candidate, no mayor has all the answers.  Every mayor has both formal and informal advisors.  Who is in the inner circle of the remaining mayoral candidates?  When there are really tough questions, to whom will the mayor turn for advice?  Do I trust the trusted?  Do I believe that the candidate’s inner circle has the experience and judgment to render solid advice? Do I believe that the candidate’s inner circle has personal or other agendas that might interfere with the advice the mayor would receive?

            Frequently, trusted advisors are also financial supporters.  Some financial supporters expect nothing but good government and a particular political philosophy. Others, however, have an agenda and expect patronage or support as a result of their contributions.  Who are the financial backers of the candidates, and are they the kind of people who give money with strings attached or not? Do they have a large personal stake in public policy decisions?

            We face an important decision for the City’s future.   Look past the glitz to substance, relationships and executive skills.  Those, more than anything else, will determine how well Shreveport does in the next four years.

Nov. 30, 2016

It Can Be Done

Setting public priorities has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried or abandoned. 

The late Judge Tom Stagg had a quote posted above his chair. The quote, from G.K. Chesterton, said, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.”

In the 40 years since I first saw that quote, I have found that it applies to many different circumstances.  Setting priorities for a government’s limited resources is one of them. 

Setting priorities for a city government is difficult because almost nothing that the city does is bad in itself.  Most government programs and projects are well-intended and, at least in part, carry out their intended purposes.  Moreover, there are always projects and programs that seem worthy of public investment, so that the appetite for public expenditures is insatiable. 

However, when faced with limited resources, citizens, and even office holders, can agree on priorities by comparing one project or program to another to determine which has the greater public purpose or priority.  In fact, the Shreveport City Council tried this very approach for a short time in the late 1980s.

Between 1982 and 1986, the City of Shreveport enjoyed prosperity.  Oil prices were up, and the City benefited from millions of dollars in federal revenue sharing funds.  It seemed that the City never had to say no.

Beginning in the mid-1980s, the federal government ceased federal revenue sharing ($4 million a year), and in the early part of 1986, the price of oil dropped from $40 dollars a barrel to $10 dollars a barrel within about 90 days.  The impact on the local economy was devastating. On top of that, the city lost about $2.5 million a year in state tobacco tax revenues.

Faced with a fixed tax regime that limited revenues, the City Council looked for a rational means of making priority decisions on a fixed income. 

Zero-based budgeting was one possible approach.  In ZBB, all expenses must be justified for each new period.  However, in any given year, a city will pick up the garbage on some schedule, will provide some measure of police and fire protection, and will perform some level of street and park maintenance.  Any zero start is a myth.

Instead, the Council adopted a process of modified ZBB.  The budgeting body assumes that the city will provide a certain base level of services.  Change will be on the margins. 

The City Council adopted policies that required the budget to be presented with certain “decision packages” that involved cuts that could be made in each department if the department had 10% less funding and additions that could be made if the department had 5% more funding.

For the 1989 budget, then Mayor John Hussey submitted a “Citizens Response Form” that allowed citizens to rate and rank specific service levels to help the Council set priorities and adopt a balanced budget. For example, the first “decision package” would reduce garbage pickup from twice weekly at the back door to twice weekly at the curb. Implementation would have eliminated 115 city jobs at an annual savings of $1,450,000. 

There were 16 other service level priorities, with a total possible reduction of $4,393,200. The target reduction was $1.4 million, but the city anticipated that an additional $2 million in cuts might be needed in 1990.

Once citizens are educated about real choices, they either will be satisfied with the level of service that the current revenues can provide, or they can be motivated to vote for increased revenues. 

Only the executive branch has the leverage and information to develop possible service change alternatives. The Council can ask for, but cannot compel, compliance. A 1990 Charter amendment prohibited the Council from instructing the Mayor how to present the budget. The Council does not have the information or resources to develop the choices independently.

Setting priorities is hard work. However, individuals, businesses, and families face those hard decisions every day. It is not unreasonable to expect government to make the same tough choices 

Only when there is a commitment from the executive branch to facilitate transparency in options and the discipline to lay them out can government educate its citizens about the real choices they face. 

Let us again try the difficult.

Jan. 5, 2020

Questioning Conventional Wisdom

A new year and a new decade give us the opportunity to look toward the future and to

question whether we are headed in the right direction. I have been partial to the

conventional wisdom since I served on the Shreveport City Council from 1982-1990.

I had questions about tax breaks for “home run” economic development, but the “powers

that be” convinced me that “everybody did it” and the breaks were what it took to attract

large industrial and other projects to the area. I accepted as true that expanding Shreveport’s city limits through annexation was the way to grow the City’s tax base, and that just about any development was a good development.

Today, I am not so certain that I was right. I’m also not so certain I was wrong. It is time to ask hard questions and seek hard, objective data to find answers.

We all have “confirmation bias.” That is, when we believe what the facts are, we find it easy to interpret new information in a way that confirms our existing beliefs or theories. Just check your social media outlets for hundreds of examples each day. Unfortunately, if we are wrong, we are doubling down on our mistakes.

In 1996, I was a part-time Assistant City Attorney for Shreveport. A group of sports enthusiasts, who had significant experience in that area, primarily the late Orvis Sigler, the late Carl Pierson, and Mike McCarthy, proposed a Shreveport Bossier Regional Sports Authority. When Bossier City was reluctant to contribute to the authority, the proposal transitioned to the Shreveport Regional Sports Authority.

Then Shreveport Mayor Bo Williams asked then City Attorney Jerry Jones to put together the economic development plan and City Council approval required under state law and the City charter. Jones asked me to prepare the plan, assisted by City staff.

In September, 1995, a study by ZHA, Inc., and MRA International,  Inc. commissioned by the Shreveport-Bossier Convention and Tourist Bureau had identified youth and amateur sports event promotion (as opposed to professional athletic teams) as a tourism marketing niche for the region that could enhance economic development and put “heads on beds.” The proposal backers believed this was a good step for the community, and I believed the backers.

The plan used the data from the ZHA/MRA report and other information from the Tourist Bureau to project economic impact. The budget anticipated contributions by the City of $185,000 in 1996, $270,000 for each of 1997 and 1998, and $85,000 for 1999. After that, the proposers anticipated the Authority would be self-sustaining based on event fees, ticket sales, and related income, as well as an endowment fund created by part of the first three years of City contributions.

At the time the matter went before the City Council, I believed the projections were good, and that the anticipated results justified the public investment. As it turned out, the SRSA never became self-sustaining. The Shreveport-Bossier Sports Commission, an arm of the Tourist Bureau, now performs the function of SRSA. The Sports Commission budget for 2019 included $677,405 in hotel-motel occupancy tax receipts from the hotel-motel occupancy tax increase approved by Caddo and Bossier voters in 2015.

This example is not to suggest that either SRSA or the Sports Commission, or the public funding of either of them, is a bad idea. It is to suggest that in times of increasing public liabilities and diminishing public assets, sometimes the best thing to do is to step back and attempt to evaluate past predictions in light of present realities when considering new proposals.

Some of the questions we should ask about any proposed project that claims “economic development” as its justification include:

  • What is the public investment?

  • What is the real cash return to the public investor in terms of tax revenues and direct cash benefits to the public investor (as opposed to the “general public”)? What is the return on the public investment?

  • What are the future liabilities assumed by the public in connection with the project?

  • Are the “jobs” or housing units included in the project completely new jobs or population, or do they merely move people from one part of the community to the other?

  • What are the negative collateral impacts, if any, and what is the strategy to deal with those?

One lesson we should learn from the EPA consent decree is that additional infrastructure requires extensive future maintenance that the original projections rarely account for. We must act like we are on the tight budgets we face.

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