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Archive for the ‘Local government’ Category

I often write about the failure of government.

In other words, there’s lots of evidence that government spending makes things worse.

Needless to say, this puts a lot of pressure on folks who favor bigger government. They desperately want to find any type of success story so they can argue that increasing the size and scope of the public sector generates some sort of payoff.

And they got their wish. Check out the ostensibly good news in a story from the San Fransisco Chronicle.

Investing billions of dollars in affordable housing and homeless programs in recent years has apparently put the brakes on what had been a surge in California’s homeless population, causing it to dip by 1 percent this year, a federal report released Monday showed. …The report put California’s homeless population this year at 129,972, a drop of 1,560 in the number of people on the streets in 2017. …“I think San Francisco has shown that when targeted investments are made, we see reductions in homelessness here,” Kositsky said. He pointed out that family, youth and chronic veterans homelessness dropped in the city’s last full count — although the number of chronically homeless people went up.

Maybe I’m not in the Christmas spirit, but I don’t see this as a feel-good story.

Are we really supposed to celebrate the fact that the government spent “billions of dollars” and the net effect is that the homeless population dropped just 1 percent?

The story doesn’t contain enough details for precise measurements, but even if we assume “billions” is merely $2 billion, then it cost taxpayers close to $1.3 million to get one person off the street. For that amount of money, taxpayers could have bought each of them a mansion!

In other words, the program has been a rotten investment. Heck, it makes Social Security seem like a good deal by comparison.

To be sure, maybe the number isn’t quite so bad because we’re comparing multi-year outlays with a one-year change in the homeless population. Though maybe the number is even worse because taxpayers actually coughed up far more than $2 billion.

The bottom line is that if my friends on the left see this as an example of success, I’d hate to see their definition of failure.

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I wrote back in 2011 about a bizarre plan in California to regulate babysitting.

You may be thinking that’s no big deal because California is…wellCalifornia.

But other governments also want to control private child care decisions. The latest example is from the District of Columbia, which is going after children’s play groups.

Lenore Skenazy explains the craziness in a column for Reason.

For 45 years, parents have brought their two-year-olds to the Lutheran Church of the Reformation as part of a cooperative play school endeavor. It’s a chance to socialize with other haggard moms and (presumably some) dads dealing with the terrible twos, and it’s volunteer run. …The problem—which isn’t actually a problem, unless you define it as such—is that because the play group has some rules and requirements, including the fact that parents must submit emergency contact forms, as well as tell the group when their kid is sick, the play group is not a play group but a “child development facility.” And child development facilities are subject to regulation and licensing by the government. As Lips points out, this actually creates an incentive for parent-run play groups to be less safe, because if they don’t have rules about emergency contact info, and how to evacuate and such, they are considered officially “informal” and can go on their merry, possibly slipshod, way… Take a step back and you see a group of people—toddlers and parents—enjoying themselves. They’re meeting, playing, and perfectly content. But another group is trying to butt in and end the fun—and the convenience.

And what is that “annoying group”? It’s the bureaucrats who issued the play group a “statement of deficiencies.”

The Wall Street Journal also opined on the issue.

The District of Columbia is literally targeting preschool play dates, claiming that parents need city approval before they can baby-sit their friends’ toddlers. Since the 1970s, parents have organized play dates at the Lutheran Church of the Reformation on East Capitol Street. They formed a nonprofit to pay for the rent, insurance, snacks and Play-Doh, and each family chips in about $200 a year to cover expenses. …The fun and games ended Sept. 7 when gumshoes from the D.C. Office of the State Superintendent of Education showed up. They claimed the Capitol Hill Cooperative Play School counts as a day care center and is operating unlawfully. If the bureaucrats get their way, the co-op would have to hire a director with a background in childhood education or development, apply and pay for a license, obtain permits and abide by all other day-care regulations.

And you won’t be surprised to learn that day-care regulations in DC are ridiculously expensive and misguided.

Anyhow, the WSJ also observes that the play school could evade red tape by being less-well organized. Heckuva set of incentives!

…the day-care police claim the Capitol Hill Cooperative Play School is “formal” because it has a website, draws participants from a hat to limit play-date sizes, and hosts scheduled get-togethers. In other words, the parents aren’t organized enough for the government’s satisfaction but are too organized to escape its harassment. …State Superintendent of Education Hanseul Kang is pushing for more government control over the play dates. She wants mandatory emergency drills, sign-out sheets, CPR and first-aid certification for parent volunteers, limits on the frequency and number of hours co-ops can meet, among other requirements. Nannying the nannies will make life tougher on parents—who have a greater interest than the D.C. government does in ensuring their kids are in good hands.

The final sentence of that excerpt is key.

Parents aren’t perfect, but they have a far greater stake in making right decisions than a bunch of busy-body bureaucrats looking to expand their power.

P.S. This is one of the reasons I support school choice (and also object to throwing more money into government schools). Parents are far more likely to do right for their kids than faraway self-interested bureaucrats.

P.P.S. The bureaucratic version of the keystone cops would include the play-group police in addition to the milk police and the bagpipe police.

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Back in 2012, I was both amused and horrified to learn that the Greek government actually required entrepreneurs to submit…um…stool samples if they wanted to set up online companies.

Well, there’s apparently a surplus of that…er…material on the streets of San Francisco. A local radio station even shared a map of places to avoid (or to seek out, who am I to judge?).

It’s become such a big problem that the city’s government decided to act. But instead of enforcing rules against public defecation, they’ve created a new bureaucracy. I’m not joking.

Some people are questioning the city’s priorities, as reported by the Sacramento Bee.

San Francisco’s…flush with potty problems — the city has received 14,597 complaints about feces on its sidewalks since January… Now city leaders have unveiled plans for a six-person poop patrol to try to address the issue… But the very concept of a poop patrol inspired skepticism, mockery and, yes, poop emojis… “Instead of telling people to USE A BATHROOM!! San Francisco is going to send out a pooper scooper Patrol to pick it up,” wrote one person. “Lord help us all.” …Others posting to Twitter had questions. “Will the poop patrol get hazardous duty pay?” asked one person, while another wanted to know.

Business Insider has details about this new “poop patrol.”

In San Francisco, you can earn more than $184,000 a year in salary and benefits for cleaning up feces. As members of the city’s “Poop Patrol,” workers are entitled to $71,760 a year, plus an additional $112,918 in benefits… The staffers will begin their efforts each afternoon equipped with a steam cleaner for sanitizing the streets. The full budget for the initiative, $830,977, signifies a concerted effort to address the city’s mounting feces problem, which has resulted in more than 14,500 calls to 311.

That’s a lot of money, though this is a rare instance of where I won’t make my usual argument about bureaucrats being overpaid.

In any event (as is so often the case), bad government policy is the root cause of the problem.

While the high salaries of sanitation workers may incentivize further cleanup, the city will ultimately have to contend with its affordability crisis if it hopes to eliminate the problem. That would mean addressing restrictive zoning laws that make it both difficult and expensive to add affordable developments.

Yes, there’s this simple concept called supply and demand. And when San Francisco politicians don’t let people use their property to create more housing, then ever-higher prices are an inevitable result. But I guess they are too busy dealing with real problems…such as toys in Happy Meals.

To be sure, I’m not under any illusion that abolition of zoning laws and creation of a laissez-faire housing market would completely solve the poop problem. Much of that anti-social behavior is probably linked to mental illness and/or drug abuse.

But less zoning would mean less s**t. Seems like a compelling bumper sticker to me.

P.S. I don’t know if this story belong in my series on “Great Moments in Local Government” or if the poop patrol belongs in the “Bureaucrat Hall of Fame.”

P.P.S. Things can always get worse. Senator Kamala Harris has a hare-brained proposal that would trigger even higher prices for rental housing.

P.P.P.S. San Francisco also has a poop problem even when people use toilets instead of sidewalks.

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When I first created the Bureaucrat Hall of Fame, I confess that my standards were a bit slack. I awarded membership to government workers that are grossly overpaid (see here and here, for instance), but otherwise didn’t really do anything special to merit awards.

In recent years, I’ve been more judicious. I only give the “honor” to bureaucrats who go above and beyond the call of duty.

  • A new Jersey bureaucrat got almost $250,000 per year for simultaneously holding six different government jobs.
  • Figuratively screwing taxpayers wasn’t good enough for a welfare bureaucrat in Pennsylvania.
  • The civil servant at the Veterans Administration who overlooked deadly waiting lists but had…um…time on his hands for other things.

There’s even a foreign wing in the BHoF

We’re going to expand our list today, but by using a different approach. We’re going to have a poll so you can decide which bureaucrat is most worthy.

Is Darryl De Sousa the most deserving?

Federal prosecutors have charged Baltimore Police Commissioner Darryl De Sousa with three misdemeanor counts of failing to file federal taxes… De Sousa, 53, willfully failed to file federal tax returns for 2013, 2014 and 2015 despite having been a salaried employee of the Police Department in those years, prosecutors said Thursday. …“There is no excuse for my failure to fulfill my obligations as a citizen and public official,” he said in a statement. “My only explanation is that I failed to sufficiently prioritize my personal affairs.” …Mayor Catherine Pugh expressed “full confidence” in De Sousa. …De Sousa earned $93,104 in 2013, when he is first accused of failing to file taxes. He earned $101,985 in 2014 and $127,089 in 2015. …The Police Department routinely suspends with pay officers accused of a misdemeanors pending the outcome of the case. De Sousa remained on the job Thursday. He currently earns a salary of $210,000 a year.

Does Thomas Tramaglini merit this award?

The Kenilworth school superintendent charged Monday with defecating in public was caught in the act at the Holmdel High School football field and track after surveillance was set up due to human feces being found “on a daily basis,” police said. Thomas Tramaglini, 42, …was running at the track on the athletic fields at 5:50 a.m. before he was arrested. Track coaches and staff at Holmdel High School told the district’s resource officer that they found human feces on or near the football field and track daily… Tramaglini is also charged with lewdness and littering.

Should Donn Thompson win the prize?

Los Angeles firefighter Donn Thompson had a busy year in 2017. If his pay stubs are to be believed, he literally never stopped working. Data obtained by Transparent California…show that Thompson pulled down $300,000 in overtime pay during 2017, on top of his $92,000 salary. Over the past four years, Thompson has earned more than $1 million in overtime… To earn that much in overtime pay, Thompson would have had to work more hours than actually exist in a single year. Either the highly paid firefighter found a way to stretch the space-time continuum or something fishy is going on. …earning $302,000 at a rate of $47.40 per hour would require working more than 6,370 hours. Add that to the 2,912 hours he worked as a salaried employee, and you get more than 9,280 hours worked, despite the fact that there are only 8,760 hours in a year. …Thompson…might very well be the highest paid firefighter in American history. …During 2017, the Los Angeles Fire Department had 512 employees who cashed in with at least $100,000 in overtime pay… Thompson was one of 26 employees to get at least $200,000 in overtime pay.

This is a tough contest.

In Baltimore, I suspect ordinary people don’t get a mulligan when they commit a crime, so Mr. De Sousa’s kid-glove treatment stands out. I’m also impressed (in a bad way) that his salary soared from $93K to $210K in just five years. Nice work if you can get it.

On the other hand, Mr. Tramaglini has…um…layed down a special type of marker. Was he inspired by fellow bureaucrats from the Postal Service and Environmental Protection Agency?

But let’s not forget Mr. Thompson. Claiming to have worked more hours than actually exist is rather extraordinary. Though ripping off taxpayers apparently is a tradition for firefighters, particularly in California.

As they say in Chicago, vote early and vote often.

If you like making your opinion heard, my most recent poll was about which state will be the first to suffer political collapse. And my favorite poll was to pick the best political cartoonist.

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I wrote last July about how greedy politicians in Seattle, Washington, were trying to impose a local income tax.

That effort has been stymied since there’s anti-income-tax language in the state constitution (Washington is one of nine states without that punitive levy), but that doesn’t mean the city’s tax-and-spend crowd has given up.

There’s a proposal for a new scheme to impose a “head tax” on successful companies.

The top three percent of the high grossing businesses in Seattle will carry the load of Seattle’s proposed employee head tax. Backers are calling it the “Progressive Tax on Business.” The tax will apply only to those companies with $20 million or more annually in taxable gross receipts as measured under the City’s Business and Occupation tax. The city estimates that will be 500 businesses. …the tax is based on total revenues and not net-income. …Councilmember Mike Obrien has been pushing to a head tax for two years and doesn’t believe businesses will leave Seattle because of it.

I suppose this might be a good opportunity to point out that this tax is bad for growth and that it will encourage out-migration from the city.

Or perhaps I could make a wonky point about how this tax is related to the income tax in the same way a gross receipts tax is related to a sales tax.

But I’m motivated instead to focus on the very heartening response to this tax grab by both business and labor.

Here’s how the city’s leading employer is responding.

Amazon is…making its opposition known to a proposed Seattle tax by bringing a halt to all planning on a massive project scheduled for construction in Downtown Seattle, and may tweak its plans to occupy a new downtown skyscraper. “I can confirm that pending the outcome of the head tax vote by City Council, Amazon has paused all construction planning on our Block 18 project in downtown Seattle and is evaluating options to sub-lease all space in our recently leased Rainier Square building,” says Amazon Vice President Drew Herdener. …Jon Scholes, president of the Downtown Seattle Association, said the City Council should take heed of Amazon’s decision.

But some of the class-warfare politicians are oblivious to real-world concerns.

Two supporters of the tax, City Council members Kshama Sawant and Mike O’Brien, seemed unmoved by Amazon’s decision. “I understand Amazon doesn’t like it. I’m sure they would love to go to a city that has no taxes. And maybe they will find that place,” O’Brien said. …Added Sawant, “Amazon is perfectly capable of paying that, double, even four times that.” She also called Amazon’s tactic “extortion.”

I don’t know if Sawant is an idiot or a demagogue. What’s she’s basically arguing is that if a victim runs away from a mugger, the victim is an extortionist.

Wow, that’s a novel (and French) way of looking at the world.

That being said, there’s probably nothing surprising about the business community resisting a tax on business. So here’s the part of the story that really warms my heart.

Private-sector workers also are protesting.

Construction workers shouted down Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant on Thursday as she attempted to speak in favor of Seattle ‘s proposed new “head tax” at an open-air news conference. The construction workers shouted “No head tax!” each time Sawant tried to speak in favor of the measure… The conference, held outside Amazon’s Spheres, was intended to show support for the head tax and opposition to Amazon’s announcement of a construction pause on a massive downtown construction project. But the group of about 20 construction workers showed up and drowned out Sawant’s message. …construction workers…praised Amazon for providing well-paying jobs to thousands of Seattle-area residents.

Unsurprisingly, Ms. Sawant doesn’t care about workers. She simply wants the money so she can buy votes.

Amazon would pay more than $20 million of that total under the proposal. …Sawant maintains that Amazon could easily afford to pay that amount.

Let’s close with some good news. Seattle isn’t normally considered a hotbed of free market thinking (though a disproportionate share of my readers are in the state of Washington).

So I’m guessing Ms. Sawant and her greedy colleagues probably are not very happy about this (admittedly unscientific) polling data.

This is very encouraging. Hopefully it’s a sign of the good things that can happen with private workers (unionized or not) and private employers join forces to protect themselves from politicians.

It will be interesting to see how the City Council responds. If they move forward with this tax grab, Seattle truly will be in the running to the Greece of America.

And if that trend continues, don’t be surprised if Amazon’s soon-to-be-announced second headquarters eventually morphs into its primary headquarters (hopefully without any cronyism).

P.S. It goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyhow) that the state of Washington should never, ever, allow a state income tax.

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Back in 2013, I shared a poll to see who people would pick as their “favorite political cartoonist.” Michael Ramirez currently has the lead, which doesn’t surprise me when you look at options (here, here, here, and here) I provided.

But if there was a prize for the most depressingly accurate political cartoon, he also would win the prize for his depiction of what happens when state and local politicians “negotiate” compensation packages for bureaucrats.

Simply stated, politicians have a giant incentive to provide lavish benefits to interest groups that then recycle some of the loot back to elected officials in the form of campaign contributions.

But the real key to the scam is that the bill gets imposed on future generations.

The American Legislative Exchange Council has a must-read report on the giant funding gaps that this has produced in the pension plans for state and local government bureaucrats.

If net pension assets are determined using more realistic investment return assumptions, pension funding gaps are much wider than even the large sums reported in state financial documents. Unfunded liabilities (using a risk-free rate of return assumption) of state-administered pension plans now exceed $6 trillion—an increase of $433 billion since our 2016 report. The national average funding ratio is a mere 33.7 percent, amounting to $18,676 dollars of unfunded liabilities for every resident of the United States. …the personal share of liability for every resident in each state, an indicator of the severity of the taxes to be borne now or in the future by each taxpayer for promises made but not funded. In Alaska, each resident is on the hook for a staggering $45,689, the highest in the nation. Connecticut, Ohio, Illinois, and New Mexico follow for the five highest per person unfunded pension liabilities.

This map is the most important takeaway from the report. It shows which states have the highest per-capita unfunded liabilities.

I’m not surprised to see Alaska, Illinois, Connecticut, and New Jersey near the bottom of the rankings. All of them were choices in my poll on which state was “most likely to collapse.”

But perhaps New Mexico, Hawaii, and Ohio should have been on that list as well.

For further background on the issue, here are some passages from a pension primer published by Forbes.

Years ago, as an actuarial student, …I remember…first, the eye-popping idea that state constitutions promised state and local employees that they could keep their existing benefits, not just for past service accruals, but for all future years of employment; and, second, the notion that it was generally accepted for public plans to be un- or underfunded… this is the story that’s repeated over and over again.  Pensions are made more generous — with high accrual rates, low retirement eligibility ages, generous cost of living provisions — as a means of providing more generous compensation to state and local employees, without actually needing to pay anything from the current year’s budget.  Costs are deferred until well after current legislators have themselves retired. …pension debt is even worse than ordinary state debts, for instance, bond issues for building up infrastructure.  Pension debt is nothing other than borrowing to pay for present-day employee salaries.

In other words, bureaucrat pensions are a scam, an opportunity for politicians to buy off a powerful voting bloc today while imposing the bill on the future.

Bureaucrats are making out like bandits, as the New York Times recently reported.

A public university president in Oregon gives new meaning to the idea of a pensioner. Joseph Robertson, …who retired as head of the Oregon Health & Science University last fall, receives the state’s largest government pension. It is $76,111. Per month. That is considerably more than the average Oregon family earns in a year. Oregon — like many other states and cities, including New Jersey, Kentucky and Connecticut — is caught in a fiscal squeeze of its own making. Its economy is growing, but the cost of its state-run pension system is growing faster. More government workers are retiring, including more than 2,000, like Dr. Robertson, who get pensions exceeding $100,000 a year. The state is not the most profligate pension payer in America… “It’s an affront to everybody who pays taxes,” said Bruce Dennis, a retired carpenter from outside Portland who earned a $54,000-a-year pension by swinging a hammer for 45 years. No one gives him extra money.

But there’s a problem with this scam.

As Margaret Thatcher famously noted, sooner or later you run out of other people’s money.

And we’re getting to that point, as illustrated by this article for the Wall Street Journal. It cites what’s happening on the state level in Connecticut.

Connecticut has just 31.7% of what it needs to pay its employees’ future retirement benefits, according to state financial reports. A fund for teachers has 52.3%. Together, that adds up to more than $37 billion in unfunded pension liabilities, or about $10,300 per Connecticut resident. Connecticut’s unfunded pension liabilities resulted from nearly 40 years of politicians making promises about benefits without adequately funding them, according to a 2015 study by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College.

And it gives an example of trouble at the local level from a city in Michigan.

East Lansing, home of Michigan State University…is struggling with almost $125 million in unfunded pension and retiree health-care liabilities, has been cutting services… East Lansing asked MSU to pony up $100 million over 20 years to help shore up the city’s underfunded pension plan. The alternative, the city said, was asking voters to approve a 1% income tax that would hit university employees and working students. After negotiations went nowhere, the city brought the income-tax proposal before voters in a referendum last November. …On Nov. 7, East Lansing residents shot down the income-tax referendum, forcing the city to debate what services to cut to save money for the pension obligations. …The city hopes to shed another 17 police and fire positions over the next two years… Altmann suggested a long list of potential cuts to make more room in the budget for increased pension payments: closing the fire station on MSU’s campus, shuttering the city’s pool, aquatic center, dog park and soccer complex, suspending bulk leaf pickup and plowing of public sidewalks and ending annual jazz, folk, film and art festivals.

This is not going to end well.

And the problem seems to get worse every year.

Doesn’t matter who is slicing and dicing the data. The numbers always look grim.

When the next recession hits, many of these simmering problems are going to explode.

P.S. In addition to extravagant and unfunded pensions, don’t forget that state and local bureaucrats (and their federal cousins) are overpaid.

P.P.S. And if you don’t believe that they’re overpaid, then please explain why they don’t voluntarily leave their jobs for positions in the economy’s productive sector?

P.P.P.S. Also keep in mind that there are negative macroeconomic repercussions when bureaucrats are overpaid.

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I periodically fret that individualism is dying in the United States and that Americans are morphing into handout-loving Europeans.

Well, the spirit of 1776 is not completely dead. There are still some Americans who stand up against the greedy, grasping, and oppressive state. I heartily applaud the guy in this video (and not just for personal reasons) for doing what I have thought about many times.

Sonny Bunch, writing for the Washington Free-Beacon, applauds pro-liberty vandalism.

Obviously we shouldn’t cheer all those who destroy the state’s property or all those who circumvent efforts to enforce the law. But some laws are unjust. Some of the state’s property serves to oppress. Sometimes you need a hero. …some laws are good and just. Prohibitions against rape and murder, for instance. We need them. Without laws we are savages. But speed cameras are not included in the “good and just” category. They are revenue-producing monstrosities designed to suck people of their money in order to fill the coffers of bureaucrats… If the corruptocrats in D.C. try to imprison this hero, I promise to lead the resistance in an effort to spirit him southward. We shall protect you, brother. You are one of us now.

I fully concur.

Moreover, this apparently wasn’t a one-off gesture. Washingtonian reports that numerous cameras were knocked out of action.

An unidentified man suspected of smashing 11 of the District’s traffic cameras that produce tickets for drivers who speed or run red lights is being celebrated by some as a hero after DC Police released footage of one camera’s violent demise. Police say that the cameras, located mostly around Northeast DC, were reported to be malfunctioning last Tuesday. When officers checked out the locations, they found the cameras damaged as a result of vandalism.

By the way, I have no objection to cameras that nail jerks who blow through an intersection 3 seconds after a light has turned red. Those are people who risk innocent lives.

But the cameras I’ve noticed are set in spots where the speed limit is set absurdly low. In other words, they are the modern-day version of the speed traps that used to characterize corrupt small towns.

Some people object to speed cameras but think red-light cameras are okay. As already noted, I agree with their safety concerns, but that’s not how government operates.

They’ve turned red-light cameras into a scam, as explained in this Reason video. Greedy politicians actually do dangerous things like shortening the yellow light simply because they want to produce more cash. No wonder they actually cause accidents!

Moreover, Holman Jenkins of the Wall Street Journal explained several years ago how cameras are first and foremost set up to generate money, not to promote safety.

And here’s something else that irritates me. I’m guessing that the cops will put a lot of time and energy into tracking down the guy who knocked the cameras out of commission. Why? Because this is an issue that generates revenue for politicians.

Which raises the bigger issue of whether law enforcement resources are wisely allocated. We saw in Florida that local cops ignored dozens of calls and warnings about the nutjob loser who killed the students in Parkland, Florida (the FBI also dropped the ball as well since they were tipped off). I wonder how often those same cops were busy operating speed traps, engaging in asset forfeiture, and otherwise shaking down residents for cash?

The good news is that the heroic vandal who has gone after D.C.’s cameras is just the tip of the iceberg. Arizona residents basically killed a revenue-camera scam with civil disobedience. And Houston voters voted to shut down the shakedown being operated by their city government.

This spirit of resistance should be nationwide.

Here are three closing observations.

  1. Let’s hope this guy doesn’t get caught.
  2. Let’s also hope that other motorists follow his example and destroy other speed-trap cameras.
  3. Finally, let’s hope that a jury will engage in nullification if the guy is caught.

P.S. There’s also a group of people in England who are acting to thwart greedy, grasping government, albeit in a less revolutionary way.

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