Saturday, March 19, 2005

Breaking News, But Still to be Verified

I've learned that the county extension agent is facilitating the creation of a Saturday morning farmers market to be held in the parking lot of Sam's restaurant on Charlestown Road.

I'll be calling Roy Ballard and Develop New Albany and maybe a few others on Monday morning to find out why? One word is that the downtown farmer's market is a "flop," so there's a need for a new, competing one.

I don't know about you, but this runs counter to EVERYTHING we discussed at the symposium about reinforcing the sense of downtown as a community center. The farmers market needs reinforcement, not competition. We need to draw folks to the city center to see its beauties and benefits, not encourage even more sprawl to the exurbs.

I understand the chef at Sam's is driving this boat, saying all the fine folks out to the north need a convenient place to shop for truck goods. I wonder if Sam's is zoned for such?

This is pretty well along since reservations are being taken for vendors, but it runs counter to much we've discussed about making the city's farmers market a more vital and inclusive place.

I don't think it's a flop. In fact, I wish it were open more and with more vendors. But having the county/state creating and supporting a competing venue to divert traffic seems to me a foolish idea.

I invite knowledgeable comment or ignorant speculation, but be alerted.

Welcome New Albany's Newest Independent

What a treat it was to try out New Albany's newest independent business tonight, California's Coffee House at 1515 East Market Street.

That's the elegant building just west of Tommy Lancaster's and, coincidentally, a building Ann and I considered for our bookstore way back in 2004.

At 10:30, I had a double-shot cappucino and a chicken-pork tamale and I'm sure to be going back often. Call ahead if you're in a hurry and Rey and Valeria Espinosa will have your order waiting. They offer sweet rolls, muffins, specialty coffees and espresso, salads, cold beverages and tamales. By the way, my 12 oz. cappu and mouthwatering tamale cost $4.50.

R & V will soon be joining the growing contingent of business owners who work, but don't live, in the East Spring Street Historic District and support the ESS Neighborhood Association.

Stop by early and often and let them know how welcome they are to our community. I'm sure you'll show them the same support you currently show for New Albany's other fine independent businesses.

What's the best way to welcome them? BUY SOMETHING!

Friday, March 18, 2005

New Sheriff in Town

Let's face it. Mitch Daniels doesn't owe this area anything. Nor do the Republicans. If there's one area they can afford to write off, it's ours.

But the recent news that the GOP caucus in Indianapolis may be planning a raid on the casino taxes being spilled into Harrison County seems just too outrageous to believe. And the impact on our Floyd County and New Albany would be not inconsiderable.

Philosophically, I'm opposed to relying on casino money to fund general operations. But rely we do. Harrison County takes in something like $23 million in head taxes and wagering taxes from Caesars Indiana right now. This city and county recieve a piece of that pie. A smaller but significant sum is generated by the philanthropic arm of the casino company and distributed quarterly by the various foundations created by Caesars.

And much of the confidence that New Albany can afford even the scaled-down Scribner Place development is contingent on Caesars' pledge of $1 million a year.

But "Their Man Mitch" has his eyes on the casinos. First, the state boosted the tax assessment on all of the state's casinos. Now, the state wants to cap the Harrison County take at $2 million. According to The Courier-Journal, GOP lawmakers discussed in conference a plan to limit how much the "casino counties" can siphon off in taxes, with the remainder going to the state general fund for redistribution. Only Evansville is scheduled to escape the knife if this plan comes to fruition.

The casino tax cap would have devastating repercussions for government in this area, particularly for Harrison County and its municipalities and schools.

While New Albany and Floyd County could more easily weather the loss, it still would ratchet even tighter the financial handcuffs faced by local taxing authorities.

One knowledgeable citizen offers this unverifiable estimate of the immediate impact on the City of New Albany: 7 fewer police officers and 7 fewer firefighters. Harrison County officials see this proposal as a doomsday scenario, of course, and rightly feel that their reliance on those taxes was justified.

A curious item entered the conversation in Indy and it went something like this: "Well, those counties would still have the foundation money." But guys, that's basically a charitable contribution, not another slush pile for government projects.

Whether rightly or wrongly, the people of Harrison County approved the boat in the expectation of being reimbursed for the impact and expected to offset the negative impacts with a quantum leap forward in the quality of life and infrastructure of the county.

The emergence of this GOP plan should be a warning to all who expect golden eggs to continue to fall from the Caesars goose. In a winner-take-all environment, don't expect equitable treatment from Indianapolis, especially with so much money on the table.

It's also a warning, like the canary in the coal mine, that this area needs to make a thorough evaluation of its taxing structure. Don't reject out of hand the proposals to permit cities and counties to create new tax structures. At some point after the legislature adjourns, New Albany and Floyd County would be well served to create a citizen commission to explore just how we should fashion our tax structures to anticipate future needs.

The Skinny on New Albany's Season from Hell

What I know, or what I think I know, about the city's budgetary nightmare comes exclusively from the mayor's briefing to the City Council on Thursday night.

My numbers are rough approximations and your city council representative should be able to fill you in on the exact figures. All concerned are frustrated, including the mayor, but the council members are showing a lot of maturity now that they are no longer whining about it. Clearly, a budget workshop is a requirement sometime before summer, while CM Coffey is renewing his call for a $100,000 financial audit (my word, not his).

My impression is that an audit is not required. The numbers are readily available to the legislative body and the mayor urged council members to contact him immediately if they have any problem gaining access to the facts from the city controller's office. While no one seems to be dissatisfied with Kay Garry's work, the mayor showed admirable foresight in putting his own credibility on the line to assure council that nothing is being hidden from them. That's the proactive leader we've been looking for.

Obviously, the mayor's full-time job is to manage the city's affairs, particularly the financial management, but it's heartening to see how strong a grasp of the situation he has. No one can fault the mayor as lacking knowledge of the facts, and last night's masterful briefing should go a long way toward giving the council a "comfort level" with the budgetary constraints.

Alas, even the mayor and controller are stymied by the state's tardiness in reporting its audits for the years 2002 and 2003. Even the full-timers are seeing through a glass darkly, so it's no wonder the council members are frustrated and confused.

I want to be there when the state's agent meets with council to explain the lay of the land and the implications of the budget crisis. That workshop should be a doozy.

So, here's the skinny.

The city's annual budget hovers between $16 and $18 million per year. About one-sixth of that annual amount will, essentially, be stripped from the city during the current fiscal year. Part of the "strip" is a penalty for overspending (the money borrowed from the Sewer Board and spent) and failing to make timely repayment of the loan. Although the cash loan has been repaid, the city wound up spending in the neighborhood of $18 to $20 million in the wrong year and now must drop back to about $13 million.

None of those figures are exact, but you get the idea. The precise hit, according to the mayor, will be somewhere between $2.7 and $3.1 million and until the state reports the true approved budget, the mayor is being extremely careful with all spending and the City Council has basically frozen all appropriations.

The good news? By the end of April, the picture should clear up and the city can reveal its spending priorities.

Flying Monkeys and New Albanians

Wasn't it the flying monkeys in the 1939 classic movie version of L. Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz who began their march with the chant of "Oh-Eeh-Oh, Ohhhh-Eeh-Oh?"

Perhaps the reason neither The Tribune nor The Courier-Journal saw fit to cover last night's meeting is their foreknowledge that little traditional news was expected to result.

A nasty little contretemps threatened to make last night's meeting a rancorous one after Greg Roberts reported that the mayor had reversed his position on the hiring of an ordinance enforcement officer (OEO). I'm quite certain that Greg will be reevaluating the credibility of his source on this one as it turns out nothing of the sort was ever contemplated.

The originator of this tempest (you know who you are) did a disservice to the city, the administration, and the council. But most of all, you damaged Mr. Roberts and the East Spring Street Neighborhood Association, who have done so much to get the OEO position on the front burner. This blogger, too, contributed to the tempest, by repeating the report and even though this Web log couched the matter in proper journalistic fashion with "weasel words" like "reportedly" and "if true," the activist call for action was inappropriately provocative and we regret our part in it.

The public comment portion of the evening was led off by Valla Ann Bolovschak, about whom more later. Her performance was one every citizen should have seen and we'll be addressing the substance of her comments in a follow-on posting.

A certain Ms. Behr (sp-truly, I haven't a clue how to spell it), urged the council to explore the idea of synchronizing the city's traffic lights, particularly along Spring and State streets, saying that with gas prices so high, it would save money and make it much more convenient to move through town, much as she is able to do where she works in Louisville, Ky. Of course, readers of this blog know that the appropriate forum for such suggestions/complaints is the Board of Public Works, which meets at 10:30 every Tuesday.

Council members briefly mentioned that it should be brought to the BPW, but did not actually suggest to the concerned citizen that she address that body. More to the point, why didn't one or more members (maybe the one who serves her district), offer to forward her suggestion onward to the BPW? It may have been an inappropriate forum, but the lady clearly didn't realize that before and I'm not certain she knows that now.

Mr. Roberts then addressed the Council, admitting his confusion and frustration with the continued delay in hiring an OEO, touching off a prayer meeting, of sorts, in which various council members professed their great sympathy and recited a litany of complaints. One admitted that during this council's term, the condition of the city in terms of cleanliness and safety had indeed deteriorated and that they now saw the virtue of an OEO. Mr. Coffey confessed that things were getting so bad he was even coming around to the idea of implementing a rental inspection program, and idea that a few years ago he apparently rejected out of hand.

The mayor spoke toward the end, reporting on various intergovernmental matters, including the CDBG and other matters in Indy and D.C. He also expressed great surprise about the fast-spreading rumor that he had somehow backed away from implementing the OEO. He then defended his own integrity against the charge that he was a protector of "slumlords" in the city and that he was dragging his feet on enforcement.

Encouragingly, the mayor challenged his nameless accusers, calling such charges "horse----," stopping short of spoiling the decorum of the evening but clearly referencing the figurative impact and literal stench of the once-common road apple.

But then, at least one of his accusers isn't nameless and that will be the subject of an upcoming posting. Isn't it curious, though, that this accuser always gathers her entourage and decamps the council meetings well before the time for communications from the mayor?

The Follies, Part 1

No report of a New Albany City Council meeting is complete without a recitation of the Follies; it's truly remarkable what you can learn when the council lets down its hair and speaks extemporaneously.

Showing no ill effects from his recent spanking in the Floyd County Democratic Caucus elections, CM Dan Coffey was in fine form and provided his now ritual slap at all those troublesome folk who somehow managed to obtain more than a high school diploma. To be sure, it was a good-natured jab and in the context of the perceived shortcomings of a previous city controller, but one wonders if this obsession with the "over-educated" class is going to be a regular feature of Council meetings.

Lord knows, I never thought of an education as being a liability for a city employee. But maybe that's just me.

CM Steve Price, too, seems to have moved on from his "repudiation-by-proxy" in the recent party voting, and offered up yet another off-the-cuff gem.

Playing to the crowd (remember that about half the audience was from Mr. Price's district) and earnestly expressing his frustration with the deterioration of streets, alleys, lots, and other properties, Price pleaded with the crowd to understand that the City Council was powerless to do anything about it in the face of the power wielded by "the boss of bosses," referring to Mayor Garner.

More than a few were seen to look nervously to see if Tessio and Clemenza from the Corleone Family might be lurking in the wings.

Cities Cheer U.S. Senate

The Bush transformation of the budgets for America's cities was brought to a screeching halt last evening when the U.S. Senate approved a budget at odds with the President's.

Blocking cuts in Medicaid is drawing all the headlines, but the Senate budget resolution preserved the Community Development Block Grant program, which the Bush administration seeks to end by consolidating all such grants within the Commerce Department.

Local mayors joined their colleagues from around the country earlier this week to lobby the Senate and Mayor Garner reported that both Indiana senators continue to believe in the CDBG program.

Senate Restores CDBGs to Budget

All the headlines note that the U.S. Senate is refusing to go along with President Bush's cuts in Medicaid, but for followers of local politics, the restoration of cuts in the Community Development Block Grant program is the big magilla.

Mayor Garner just returned from Washington, D.C. and the National League of Cities meeting. Intense lobbying from that group yielded commitments from Senators Lugar and Bayh, among others, to maintain their commitment to this critical funding program for America's cities.

Covered in Glory

By all indications, there won't be coverage of Thursday's City Council meeting in either of the local newspapers Friday morning. But that doesn't mean there wasn't news.

For most of the evening, I sat with either a frown or a grin on my was that kind of night.

Once again, the East Spring Street Neighborhood Association made up about half of the public audience on a lightly attended night.

The headline? Good Government Pops Up at Council Meeting.

I know for a fact that some will disagree, but I saw a mayor and council doing their jobs capably and with good grace. The still-vacant ordinance enforcement officer position was the overwhelming topic for the night, and each public official evidenced strong support for the idea.

There were a few traces of the regular follies, and I'll fill you in on those over the coming days, but, all in all, it was a night that all could be proud of their elected officials.

The mayor stated that his commitment to the OEO position has not changed and that he was mystified that anyone would think otherwise. The only hold up at this point is the state's failure to deliver audited figures for 2002 (due by the end of the month), audited figures for 2003 (due another month later), and an approved budget for the current year, which we should see within the next few weeks. Once the approved budget is in hand, then the administration can go about filling vacancies and making hiring decisions. Anything else would be fiscally irresponsible.

One tidbit: The $2.7 million-plus belt-tightening raises this question: Will the mayor and council volunteer to forgo a month of salaries and share the pain? The possibility was at least hinted at during Thursday's gathering.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Look Away, Look Away...(revised)

First things first. The news from the City-County building is not so dire as first reported.

It seems that rumor built on rumor to become perceived fact, prompting neighborhood association leader Greg Roberts to alert the troops to the possibility that Mayor James Garner was wavering on his commitment to implementing the codes enforcement officer position that created such a stir in the first two months of 2005.

Not true, according to those in the know. Greg reports that the mayor and his administration remain committed to making the job a reality.

I have to admit that I was mystified when I opened my e-mail last evening to read the initial bulletin regarding the rumor. It seemed to be a complete reversal on the mayor's part. Well, it would have been if it had been true.

Had this new information been available earlier, I no doubt would not have posted this as originally written.

What I did write, I'll leave up without edits. The "reversal" was reported on this log as apparent, not confirmed. But few readers of this blog haven't been exposed to some of the theories, wild or otherwise, about the motivations and loyalties of politicians, particularly this mayor.

Making a call for patience and thorough examination of such innuendo would have been much more difficult had the mayor actually been prepared to pull back on his commitment to filling the codes enforcements officer position.

So...the original post stays. The danger seems to have passed. My post stands as a question: Why would the mayor do this (he isn't)? and as an outline of the consequences if he had betrayed those who invested their trust in him (a trust that seems to have been justified, after all).

Here's the original entry, as posted, without edits.

It's remarkable the things that come to pass when you look away for just a little while. Volunteer Hoosier finally joined the rest of Southeast Indiana in sharing the Flu of 2005. And while we were absent from our keyboard, much of interest has gone unremarked on.

Even the most idealistic of politicians (and James Garner has never in my hearing been accused of being that) will ultimately revert to a position he or she believes is most likely to "garner" votes. Yes, a vote or administrative decision can always be cast as doing the "right thing" or responding to the "will of the people," but few politicians have the courage to unilaterally disarm by ticking off the voters.

The more cynical among us might look at political decisions as a financial matter; that is, a politician will always serve his paymasters. Opponents of the mayor have made broad, but largely unsupported charges, that the mayor is in the pocket of special interests who contribute to his campaign or otherwise feather his nest.

Whatever his motivation, the mayor is reportedly ready to abandon his previous support for the implementation of a city codes enforcement officer. You will recall that earlier this year he took a lot of heat for his pocket veto of an ordinance authorizing the position. I believe he has adequately explained his stance on that and after a few issues of executive prerogatives were fixed in the ordinance, the mayor enthusiastically gave his approval to a new ordinance.

Now, Greg Roberts, president of the East Spring Street Neighborhood Association, tells us the mayor will not be hiring a codes enforcement officer after all. If this is true, James Garner is setting himself up to drink from a bitter cup, this time rimed with the rotten fruit of betrayal.

Is this New Albany Spring marked by a newfound patience with the mayor coming to an end? Will the city's top elected official ever be able to speak and have the citizenry believe him?

Much of the dissatisfaction with Mayor Garner's first year in office stemmed from his woeful missteps in communicating his vision for the city. We don't doubt the mayor has a vision. He has taken tentative steps to communicate that over the past few months, showing us that he does have a grasp on the issues facing this city.

But unless the mayor forcefully and repeatedly articulates his reasoning on the codes enforcement officer, counseling patience will quickly become untenable.

Which brings us back to the opening paragraph. On this single issue, the mayor stepped out in front of a constituency for progress. Whatever political capital he expended in getting this ordinance through a hostile City Council would have been well worth it in the currency most politicians value - votes.

Many who would never have identified themselves as supporters of the mayor made tentative peace with the administration and saw that, perhaps, their previously low estimates of James Garner's worthiness might just have been premature.

It is these voters (and make no mistake about it, these are active voters and campaigners) who, once burned, will never trust the mayor again if he isn't clear, compelling, and convincing in explaining his actions.

At this point, I can't see any justification for delaying the hiring of a codes enforcement officer. The mayor is walking a very fine line on this issue and if he hopes to have any credibility with those who identify themselves as the constituency for progress, he'll have to conduct a P.R. offensive the likes of which this city has never seen to recover any good will he has built up over the past several months.

But then, maybe the mayor has found his constituency, after all. Let's face it - everyone read the recent county Democratic Party caucus, in part, as a referendum on James Garner. After "his" slate thrashed the opposing slate, perhaps the mayor is feeling far less vulnerable. Perhaps he's entirely comfortable with the perception that he's beholden to the slumlords.

I still think the constituency for progress is the hidden electoral weapon in this city, but if the forces of regression squawk the loudest, the political calculus in Silver Hills may well be different.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

A Chill in the Air

I have to admit to getting a little agitated this evening, although those who were around me probably couldn't see the signs. Perhaps I'm overreacting a bit, but

Jim Keith, head honcho for the Clark-Floyd Counties Convention and Visitors Bureau, was kind enough to invite me to the Southeast Indiana Chamber of Commerce's meet-and-greet at New Albany's White House Center. Develop New Albany, its staff, board of directors, and its members went to great lengths to host the Chamber, offering food and beverages from local dining establishments and door prizes from local businesses. These opportunities ain't cheap and DNA didn't waste a bit of this opportunity to increase awareness of Downtown.

From all indications, the event was a great success and helped members of the Chamber to meet some of the local dignitaries, public officials, and business leaders. Jane Alcorn couldn't have been a more gracious hostess, by the way.

But the event was spoiled for me early on in the festivities. The president of DNA invited Mayor Garner to welcome the crowd, and he introduced his new economic development director, Paul Wheatley while sharing a little bit of the schedule for construction on Scribner Place. Hizzoner projects that building construction on the city's ambitious project will begin before the end of this calendar year. Mr. Wheatley seemed to be doing a fine job in answering questions about the city's portion of the SP development and was capably working the room. But it wasn't the city officials who stirred my passions.

Floyd County Council Chairman Ted Heavrin followed the mayor with a few apparently well-chosen words. Again, I may just be too sensitive, but I was startled and a bit offended at what he chose to tell the assembled throng.

Heavrin made allusion to the County Council's possible efforts to purchase a building to house some 20 employees now occupying the deteriorating space at the county poor farm. To say the least, the chairman cast the idea in the most negative of lights. I admit to being shocked at the dash of cold water Mr. Heavrin tossed on the proceedings when he expressed the opinion that the move just wouldn't work because of the "parking problem," which he obviously considers to be an insurmountable hurdle to using any downtown buildings to house county employees.

Fortunately, my reaction doesn't matter. I'm neither a member of the Chamber nor of Develop New Albany, at least for now, and I'm told that Mr. Heavrin's attendance was a truly positive development and that the mere fact that someone from the County Council was showing an interest in DNA and downtown businesses was some kind of watershed moment.

At the very least, Mr. H's remarks lacked grace. I would think that given the high-profile of the occasion and its relative rarity in these parts, the chairman of the County Council could have saved his disrespect for another occasion.

Now, I recognize that not everyone shares my opinions about the suitability and desirability of New Albany's core business district. Not everyone appreciates vintage houses, either. Where I may love the idea of plaster walls, Craftsman, Bungalow, or Victorian architecture, and hardwood floors in a compact urban setting, others may well prefer 4-inch carpets, sheetrock walls, and walk-in closets in the far suburbs.

Where I prefer to shop where inventories are crafted and personal service is the watchword, others may crave the anonymity of a big-box retailer that dictates what you will buy while subjecting you to 30-minute waits at the checkout counter.

I adore the idea of being able to bike to work or walk downtown for a meeting; others may prefer to commute miles in a gigantic SUV.

There's nothing wrong with a difference in tastes or of opinions.

But to dis' downtown with the canard that there is no parking reveals a deep misunderstanding of the beauties of urban living. Perhaps the most successful retail/small office/entertainment district in the region, nestled in a dense residential neighborhood, is the Bardstown Road area in Louisville. Where, may I inquire, do you park when you visit there?

Get out of your vehicle, Mr. Heavrin, and take a stroll around downtown. There is plenty of parking downtown for workers and visitors. We're well aware that you oppose the Stumler/Fendley proposal to relocate county employees to a downtown site. We know you prefer to purchase industrial property to house the 20 or so employees in need of relocation.

But, please, don't try to convince us that parking is the reason you oppose the use of a historic downtown building. And please, don't diminish the downtown in your public speeches, particularly when invited to attend a celebration with the tag line, "The Renaissance Begins."

I, myself, would prefer industry to occupy industrial space, not government. It's my thought that government offices ought to be centralized, preferably in the heart of the county seat. And the opportunity for the county to acquire a building like the Fair store building on Market Street is a winner. I hope that the county and its leaders have the vision, a few years down the road, to use the property in a targeted way and sell it to a "selected" buyer, not another absentee landlord or property speculator. We need our downtown to be utilized, not mothballed.

I don't know what the political opposition is, or its reasoning, but I hope readers will join me in endorsing the idea of the county moving some of its most stressed workers to a historic downtown site while exploring longer term solutions.

Maybe that will be the Fair store. I've toured the building and believe it's a winner for all concerned. But your council members need to know it if you support the idea. Give them a call or send them an e-mail.


I'll admit to my ignorance, by the way, but does Mr. Heavrin represent anyone within the city boundaries? Or does his constituency consist only of suburban and rural voters? And if it's the latter, I would ask, does the chairman (or any council member) have a duty to represent citizens who don't have the opportunity to vote for him/her?