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News | Environment

CIVITAS: The freedom to ignore

By Gregory Travis

Since our nation's founding, Americans have held license to an aggressive concept of the oft-abused word "freedom." For us, proper freedom consists of two salient characteristics: the promotion of rugged individualism simultaneously with the understanding that people should have no (or as few as possible) compulsory obligations to society. Or, as we say in Indiana, "No government gonna tell me what to do."

It's an ideal that's served us well for centuries. But there is just a little problem with it. When "every man for himself" is a core national value, you can expect at least some men (and women) to act pretty selfishly. Freedom, at least the American kind, is its own worst enemy, and this inherent moral hazard sets up the inevitable collision between our ideal of freedom and our deeply ingrained puritan orthodoxy.

The wreckage of that collision is manifested in America's second great cultural characteristic: namely our obsession with martial solutions to social ills. I can sum it up as: "We can't bring ourselves to tell you what you can or can't do so 'Just do it.' But don't be surprised if we throw your ass in the can as a result."

This is how we got ourselves to the Great American Irony. The Great American Irony is the fact that, while we launch pre-emptive wars in the name of liberty and adorn our cars with "Freedom will be defended" bumper stickers, we also imprison more of our fellow citizens (and non-citizens) than any other nation on Earth. And that's how we get to the subject of this week's column.

A tale of two subsidies redux

CIVITAS has always had a fascination with public subsidies. We like to track and comment on how they're allocated, in what amounts, and the character and degree of dialog about them individually and collectively. That said, for anyone out there who feels as we do, circumstances this week conspired to provide a graduate-level instruction of the forces behind the politics of spending the public's money.

Two situations, playing out in two different venues, provide the backdrop for our discussion. One is the City Council's decision to delay entering into a lease agreement with Mercury Development over the new parking structure between College and Morton. The other is the County Council's issues with a new contract for the Monroe County Youth Shelter.

Umm, we need that money for a little war we're having…

Over on the county side, as a result of the federal "Kinder, Gentler" compassion initiative, the Monroe County Youth Services bureau has just lost its $127,000 annual Runaways and Homeless Children's grant. It had been receiving the grant every year for the past twenty and presently uses it to pay the salaries of four full-time counselors. For those of you who don't want to do the math, once you figure in overhead, that's an average salary, per counselor, of just $22,000 a year.

That's not at all a bad bang-for-the-buck when you consider the qualifications needed for someone whose job description requires constructive contact with troubled youths (and not limited just to runaways and the homeless), including a significant number who are inappropriate to the Youth Service's mission but are remanded there nonetheless because of a lack of a suitable juvenile capacity within our law-enforcement system.

To cover the shortfall, the Youth Services, together with the Center for Behavioral Health, came up with a creative solution--namely to use a temporary windfall that the Center should receive next year to cover the salaries of the Youth Services' counselors. Now this windfall is an artificial one, created by the county's property tax accounting errors this year. As such, not only will it not recur next year but, under the plan proposed, the Center will pay back at least half of it, $127,000, to the county once the Center is reimbursed by Medicaid for the services provided by the Youth Services counselors.

It's complicated, I know, but the bottom line is that keeping the four counselors under this plan would mean having to assess each Monroe County resident a one-time charge of one dollar (or around fifty cents if the County drops its $50,000/yr subsidy of the BEDC at the same time-it's certainly arguable that the county's ROI (return on investment) from its Youth Services dollars is higher than that of the BEDC dollars).

Why mitigate today when you can incarcerate tomorrow?

"[Monroe County Jail Chief Bill Wilson] hopes further research will back up his theory that the overcrowding is partly caused by a 23 percent increase in the Bloomington police force since 1995 - with more police making more arrests. 'You have a wider net that's being cast now,' he said." - Herald-Times, 12/8/01, on the results of our funding priorities

"For the County Council, [the loss of federal social services money] meant either taxing county property owners almost $250,000 extra or having that much less to spend elsewhere in the county budget-for needed extra jail officers or sheriff's deputies for example." - Herald Times, 12/6/03, articulating our preference for solving problems with force instead of compassion.

But even one social-services dollar is, apparently, too high a tax burden for Indiana's taxophobe politicians. County Councilwoman Marty Hawk is actively finding every way possible to avoid paying out the windfall to the Center. This would eliminate the counselor's positions, leaving the youths with far fewer options and undoubtedly priming many of them for a different kind of solution down the line in Monroe County's criminal justice system, that great behemoth whose population grows twice as fast as the general population.

Meanwhile, over at Showers

While the Youth Services story played out on the square, another story of subsidy was playing out in the Showers building. This story is about the "Regester Place" development unfolding between the Justice Building and the Bakehouse.

A refresher: the property was once home to the city-owned Regester parking garage, a shoddily built structure erected in 1982 and heavily damaged when a music concert was performed on it. A couple of years ago, the Fernandez administration decided to tear down the structure and replace it with something that was hoped would function as more than a base for Saturday-night cruising.

Subsequently there was the requisite public bidding charade after which the contract was awarded not to Indianapolis' Mansur Real Estate, a company that has extensive experience building downtown hotels and projects of this nature and was the design choice of the city's Redevelopment Commission, but to a new corporation headed by local attorney David Ferguson. Now on the one hand, Ferguson has no prior experience with the complex negotiations necessary for a project of this scope. On the other, he does employ the Mayor's wife in his law office.

Ferguson's plan was to erect a combination retail/apartment complex on the site along with a new parking garage. Additionally, Ferguson would bring in a national hotel chain to finish out the project. The city would retain ownership of the land under the apartments, parking garage, and the hotel.

Then, in an extremely complicated "leaseback" arrangement, the city would lease the parking garage back from Ferguson for a period of thirty years at a cost of about a half a million dollars a year. Finally, the city would pay the cost of demolishing the old garage (this administration has a particular fetish for using public funds to prepare land for private development), as well as the cost of relocating utility lines around the project.

In all, the city would put in over $600,000 up-front in the project and pay another $500,000 per year for thirty years for the right to use a new parking lot--a lot replacing the one that they already had for free.

Fast-forward to today and, of course, in a pattern often repeated (Thomson? Bloomington Technology Park?) the hotel hasn't materialized as was promised. Yet the city wants to go ahead nonetheless and execute on an agreement for a three-decade lease on a giant concrete eyesore that will, if energy predictions are even close to accurate, be completely obsolete in half that time (even the USGS, the most optimistic institution out there, forecasts plummeting petroleum availability by 2025).

The City Council was presented last week with a vote to enter into that lease. In a move that, frankly, stunned me, it decided to postpone the vote based on the issues revolving around the AWOL hotel. Not only that, but the decision was that of a bipartisan supermajority (both Republicans on the council voted to postpone, along with most of the Democrats). The decision to delay has no practical implications, other than delaying the opening of the parking garage, but it's still extremely rare for any elected body to do anything but greenlight any development proposal, no matter how badly it smells.

All accountability is equal, but some accountability is more equal than others

Now it's time for me to bring these two events together, under my opening premises of freedom, social welfare, taxes and incarceration. The key to that bringing together is a little something called proportionality.

In the Regester case, the city's taxpayers have already made an outlay of well over a half million dollars on a project that no one seems to really have a handle on, just like all of the other major public/private initiatives of the past (again, for emphasis, Thomson, Bloomington Technology Park, etc.) Yet, when the City Council had the temerity to ask, this time, that a lease agreement be delayed a mere week, in order to get more information, the Herald-Times immediately editorialized: "Please, City Council members, think things like this through before tinkering with the controls of a train that has left the station."

What they're saying is that in this case the money is irrelevant. Discipline and public accountability are irrelevant. Open the public checkbook and move on.

Meanwhile, there is absolutely no comment regarding the Youth Services contract other than a remarkably ill-written article showcasing Marty Hawk's objection to a possible one-time cost to county taxpayers-a cost six times smaller than that already spent on Regester. More remarkable still is the fact that the article frighteningly insinuates that continuing the counseling services provided by Youth Services will diminish law enforcement, meaning incarceration, capabilities. The subtext, and I hope that I come off as more satirical than sarcastic on this sensitive subject, is "We can't counsel them as kids because, if we did, we might not be able to afford to jail them later as adults. "

That's nuts.

There's something wrong with us, as leaders and citizens, if we find it an outrageous tax burden to spend $127,000 one year for social services for our community's most vulnerable and powerless members. But that wrong takes a tragic dimension when it happens against a background in which we are simultaneously frittering away five times that amount on just a single, out of control, real-estate project run by our community's most powerful members.

Oh, I almost forgot. There's another dimension to freedom and that's the freedom to say the Emperor has no clothes.

CIVITAS is a weekly column of civic commentary by Gregory Travis. Contact CIVITAS at

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October 25, 2006

Shine on
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A giant pussycat twosome
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