This is a continuation of my commentary based on the Monthly Monday Morning Meeting with the Mayor on WHKY's First Talk show on June 7, 2010. This isn't about critiquing Hal, but as I stated I have some thoughts about what I heard on Monday morning and since I do have this forum, I am going to espouse them.
I think about what Mayor Wright said to Ray Hunt about a month ago during the second time that he approached the Council. Mr. Hunt initially addressed Council as a property owner in Southeast Downtown (across from Clark Tire). Initially, when Mr. Hunt addressed Council it was to address a grievance in which his tenant went to the city to report Mr. Hunt's building as untenable. The City sent officials to the building and issued code violations, but they never contacted Mr. Hunt, who is the owner of the building. Mr. Hunt was upset about the city never contacting him about the violations and how they could be remedied.
After I inquired, he told me about his tenant, who has not paid rent in a substantial period of time. Mr. Hunt had previously told this tenant that he was going to have to get his stuff off of the property, because he needed to have work done on the building so that he could find a new tenant, one that would pay their rent. Basically, the tenant used the city's processes as a vendetta against the property owner Mr. Hunt.
Mr. Hunt didn't feel that the situation had been remedied when he addressed the Council for a second time. When he went before Council, he asked if there were any thoughts about what he had addressed the Council about. Mayor Wright summarily cut him off and stated that he would be heard, but this wasn't going to be a debate. Mr. Hunt then looked frustrated and stated that he guessed he didn't have anything else to say and went and sat down.
To me, it was an embarassing moment. Several times I have seen people not have their concerns addressed by the council. Yes, the public is allowed to speak before the council, but one gets the sense that many times they are not listening or lending any credence to the addressor. If the addressor is being respectful to the council, then they should show respect to their issue or grievance. That is the bond that we should expect between the people and their representatives. Instead, a mentality of "us versus them" has been fostered by the system that has been created and I don't believe that chasm was the intent of our forefathers.
That is the reason why I created a blog. With it, we have another way to bind the government of, by, and for the people together. This is our playground and we encourage debate, thought, and openness. It is our desire.
I have heard people say that you have to take whatever you see on the internet with a grain of salt. I agree and that goes doubly for any other media outlet, because they censor a lot more relevant information and choose to dissemenate what they want their audience to know. The Hound is a Battle Royal of information, in which we respect our audience's intelligence and choose not to dictate the conditioning of their mind, but instead program their brain with thought provoking correspondence. Our goal is to seek the truth, not dictate it.
The reason why I have established the pieces of the puzzle above is because of what Hal stated at the end of his show. He talked about it always being nice to hear about the good things that are happening in the City of Hickory. And how lots of times we focus on the negative and negative things that are happening. Then he went into his diatribe about people being employed, garbage being picked up, water is coming to our homes, the tax rate is staying the same... And how it is good to be reminded of that.
Let's be honest, what the Mayor said during this interview would not be considered positive by many folks. Have some of us reduced our expectations to such an extent that the basic services paid for by the people are supposed to be awe inspiring. It is as bad as when our mothers would chastise us about cleaning our plate, because their are starving children over in some Third World Country. For God sakes, we pay for that water, sewer, garbage, police protection, and other basic services. Are these people appreciative of the service at restaurants because the server brings them their water or the kitchen staff gets their food cooked and the server can bring that to their table? Do they show appreciation that the oil company can deliver the gas to the service station? Or the purveyors, truckers, and grocery store employees can follow the processes to get the store shelves stocked?
Let's look at Hickory's proposed budget for 2010-2011. Hal initiated the conversation by talking about the budget being award winning and we weren't in dire straits like other cities he has seen. The Mayor addressed the budget by talking about City of Hickory staff and lauding them about how efficient they are with the budget and they don't spend money unnecessarily and they don't have a bureaucratic mindset. He said that it was very much like they were running a business.
Secondly, he stated that the good tax payers, in spite of the bad economy were paying their taxes. The collection rate is very good. He stated that the Council sets realistic policies with the staff and the staff is in charge of execution. Council doesn't tell staff where and when to cut. He stated that you don't see a lot of politics involved in the budget, like in some nearby large cities.
What Choice do taxpayers have? They aren't turning over tax dollars out of the goodness of their heart. If they don't pay the taxes, then the city will put a lien on their property. This was silly rhetotic.
Politics are rife throughout the City of Hickory decision making process. It is all about connections. Just because their isn't an elephant or donkey involved doesn't mean that politics play no role in decision making. Look at the interests of downtown and Northwest Hickory as prime examples of special interests.
Mayor Wright stated that people know that we aren't going to get hit with any shock or huge tax bills at a time when people can least afford them. He then talked about the things that they would like to do that they can't do. Examples were Cloninger Mill Park and Splash Parks instead of Pools. The Mayor talked about how there hasn't been good attendance at the city pools and that pools are passe.
Could that be because the pools have not been kept up to standards? Could that be because the City did the bare minimum in running the pools and maintaining them? First the cost was initially stated in the $45,000 range to fix the pools, then the price drastically rose to $800,000, then $850,000, and now the Mayor is stating that the costs would be $865,000. Yet, no one has shown anything close to an itemized list of the exorbitant costs associated with these mid sized pools.
When I was a kid, I used to attend First Baptist daycare in the Summer (from 1974 to 1976). We went to the pool twice a week and I would estimate there were well over 100 people at the pool each time we were there. In this economic downturn, what makes you think that more people might not attend the pool. I can tell you that the people that Harry and I spoke with last year surely had issues with what was happening.
I think it is more than obvious that the city wants those pools closed and they are unwilling to even discuss the idea of them being open. My questions regarding these pools are two-fold. Would the city be willing to donate the pools to a non-profit or church to run? Is the city going to sell these properties and if so and a for-profit enterprise wanted to run the pools would the city move forward expeditiously with such a transaction?
Another thought on City Sponsored water activities, I would like you to know that I don't expect any "Splash Parks" any time soon and if they are established, I believe that they will be located in an area North of the Tracks. The Splash Parks were addressed by Derek Williams of Site Solutions at the City Council Meeting of May 4, 2010 and the Mayor's comments are a verbatim reflection on Mr. Williams statements.
The Mayor stated that we aren't going to lose libraries or parks. City Staff has been patient and they understand the economy and they have had to forgo pay raises. He thinks the day will come when this thing will turn around. He stated that there are increases in fees and that seems fairer to us (city officials), because there is an element of control by the property owner.
What they don't seem to understand is that fees are regressive, especially with flat fees (garbage) and minimum payment fees (water). There is alot less control afforded to residents than the Mayor admits to when there is a minimum fee or there are exceptions, such as filling your swimming pool. Wealthier residents generally create more garbage and utilize more water resources than poorer residents. These costs hit the poorest harder. Whereas, increases in property taxes are progressive, because the wealthy pay higher tax based on their house, car, etc., which is usually more valuable than poorer resident's possessions.
The next thing that was mentioned was that the tax rate had not increased. The Mayor then went into his spiel about the comparison and improvement of tax ranks of Hickory versus other city's in North Carolina (John Locke numbers - 2nd to 11th over the last 10 years). He stated that 98% of the world is imperfect and Hickory is in the 2% that are about as close to perfect as you can get.
That's all great rhetoric, but let's get real. If we were in the top 2% of communities in this country, would businesses and people not be knocking down our doors to get in here. The Milken Institute and Forbes numbers have ranked us in the bottom 10% over the last several years. Whose rankings and criteria do you trust?
I think that tax burden wise, Hickory isn't too bad, but as far as jobs and income levels there isn't much to offer. The real (U-6) unemployment rate here is over 20%. We have a terrible underemployment problem and much of this is attributable to the mindset of local leadership, who have set us up to take few losses in local government projections, but they have also limited our potential to grow.
Government officials want to obsess about the property tax rate and the fact that it hasn't been raised, because they worry about electability and job security (politics). The bottom line is that based on assessments, Hickory residents are overpaying taxes, because they could not currently sell their houses for the assessed value. If the houses are revalued to their proper, realistic values, then the local government is going to have to raise the tax rate. They will do this under the guise of being revenue neutral. You see, it is all semantics about the revenues they need and they don't want to upset the simple folks who can't comprehend the sliding scale. If your house is presently valued at $100,000 and they revalue it at $80,000, then they will raise the tax rate by 20% from 50-cents to 60-cents per thousand dollar valuation and next year Hal and the Mayor can sell you the fact that it is revenue neutral.
Hal and the Mayor kept inferring about Charlotte's troubles. Well, Charlotte hasn't limited its growth prospects the way I believe we have. Charlotte is a larger city with more public amenities. That is the reason why they are having to cut back on some services, but they are by no means worse off than we are. And anyway, Great leaders don't point to the inadequacies of others to tout their own accomplishments, but that seems to be commonplace for the mentality of this city.
Charlotte is adjusting to the transforming economy. Sure, they have difficulties, but their unemployment rate is still better than ours and their population is 10-times larger than ours. We have had the worst unemployment rate in the state for years and indications are that we are in the beginning of a process of losing population, especially if we discount the illegal immigrants that are living in the area.
And neither side of these discussions should be deemed as positive or negative. They should be deemed as different points of view. Those of us that choose to look at the glass half empty should not be forced to drink the Kool-Aid of those that swear the only way to look at the glass is half full -- because those little children in the Third World don't get to drink Kool-Aid.
We can do some really positive things around here. I sincerely believe that City Staff should be commended for the budget, because they have made it work. It isn't sort of like a business. It is a business. It is the business of the people of Hickory who are the shareholders. City staff are not employees of Mayor Wright, City Council, and/or Mick Berry. They work for the interests of the people of Hickory. And I believe that they have carried that task forward well.
But, I do believe that we are going to have to see investment dollars utilized more creatively to get more of a bang for the buck and return of capital, if we are to start growing this city again, especially in these trying times. I am going to address that in an article in the next couple of days.