Tuesday, January 30, 2007

tim wise

Picture057

Today I picked up five of the Central High debaters and we went to KCK to see Tim Wise give a talk. We were blown away. Absolutely blown away.

If any of you have a chance to see him speak, don't miss it. He's amazing.

(The picture above was taken a few weeks ago in Nashville, at a debate tournament.)

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

luxury

So Allie and I are reading this menu of spa goodies at the insanely luxurious resort where we'll be staying for our honeymoon (in the honeymoon suite, no less). And we're hemming and hawing over which package we should choose. And I'm like, "Duh! We've got to do the Love package!"

But Allie isn't too sure. And she mutters comething about chocalate and too much money, I'm not sure exactly.

At any rate, I leap to my feet, incredulous:

"How can we go to Costa Rica, stay in a hoity-toity resort at the foot of a volcano, and not get totally covered in chocolate?!?! It's our honeymoon, for God's sake!!!"

imitatings

Monday, January 22, 2007

barnes badgered

This is hilarious.

The shouting match part, I mean.

Regarding the actual news in the story: Are we expected to believe that Barnes had already decided to budget for the maintenance of roads before the Chamber of Commerce released a damning report which revealed we have a $3.2 billion backlog of unfinished capital improvement work? A report that the Chamber had to essentially leak to the press because they knew she and her lackey Steve Glorioso would work to kill or bury it?

Please.

So what I want to know is, why is she doing it now? If it's so important to fund maintenance, why hasn't she been doing it all along? Why did she and her rubber-stamp City Council repeatedly cut funding for maintenance of streets, sidewalks, sewers, etc year after year?

To me, the answer is obvious. She and her Yes Men/Women on the Council have been shoveling our tax dollars into the fat, rich mouths of greedy developers and their attorneys.

But what I really want to know is why the Star continues to print her boilerplate comment:
“Neighborhood concerns and economic development are bonded together,” she said. “You don’t have to pit one against the other.

“To address neighborhood and social concerns, you need to generate economic development to do it. The other option is raising taxes.

“Be alert to anyone sending a message: ‘We’ve done enough economic development and we need to focus on neighborhoods.’ We can do both.”

I mean, I understand why they print her quote. But why don't they contextualize it with some facts? Like, why don't they point out that tax revenues are flat, and that we're losing population? Both of these are pretty strong indications that the so-called economic development strategy ain't working.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Saturday, January 20, 2007

taxing situation

This is absolutely ridiculous.

Friday, January 19, 2007

more tif

I might have over-simplified my explanation of TIF yesterday. Using an analogy of fixing up a falling down house, I explained that TIF is based on the estimate of how much tax revenue a fixed-up house would generate. And then the so-called "new revenue" -- the difference between the lower taxes for a run-down shack and the higher taxes for a remodeled palace -- is funneled into the development. That's before the so-called new taxes come in.

This explanation gives the impression that all of the imaginary money goes into the actual development. Like, if you're gonna deck the sheck out in Itallian marble, the taxes pay for the marble. That's not entirely true. In theory, the money goes toward stuff one would ordinarily expect a city to pay for, like new roads and sidewalks around the project, and sewer lines and such. And some of the money does. (more on that later.)

But some of the money actually does goes to the Italian marble, so to speak. For instance, with this TIF for a luxury hotel in Kansas City's richest neighborhood that the council hurriedly approved last week, some of the predicted tax money is going toward meeting spaces in the luxury hotel.

(Not exactly what I like to see my hard-earned money spent on. But who am I but an honest taxpayer, and therefore worthless in the eyes of those who approve such deals.)

But here's something you never read about in the newspaper: A lot of this TIF money goes to lawyers.

Like, MILLIONS.

And that's a BIG reason why TIF is used so much. It's a guaranteed revenue stream for a handful of politically connected law firms in town.

Here's something I wrote in the aforementioned PItch article on Wesley Fields:
Bryan Cave has earned more than $800,000 from the TIF Commission over the past three years. Fields alone has billed more than $400,000. And he continues to work for the TIF Commission even as he runs for office.

Fields is quick to point out that this isn't taxpayer money his firm is earning. He says that "approximately 90 percent" of the firm's bills have been paid by developers involved with TIF projects.

But Fields' legal bills show that's not true.

The Pitch compiled a database from 373 Bryan Cave invoices and found that half of the firm's bills were paid out of the TIF Commission's general fund, an observation confirmed by Laura Whitener, the TIF Commission's top administrator. That fund is made up of 5 percent of the taxes created by new TIF developments -- in other words, it's public money.

The TIF Commission's public meetings, at which developers pitch schemes to build parking garages, luxury hotels and, in one instance, a McDonald's, have been particularly profitable for Bryan Cave. During the first two years of its contract, the firm sent two lawyers -- Fields and Stephen Sparks -- to prepare for and sit through the meetings. "There are some times when you need to have an attorney at the table," Whitener says. "You're never going to be able to predict those times."

From March 2000 through January 2001, the two lawyers' administrative activities earned their firm more than $50,000. Since then, the TIF Commission has cut back to having just one lawyer -- Fields -- present at its meetings.

But even the other half of Bryan Cave's bills, the ones supposedly paid by developers, are eventually reimbursed with public money as well. That's because current TIF policy allows developers to include legal expenses in their TIF financing agreements, labeling them "soft costs." Moreover, developers may also be reimbursed for hours billed by their personal lawyers.

"It's a sleight of hand," Nace says. "The developer doesn't own the taxes his project will generate. It's not his money. It's taxpayer money. On the Finance and Audit Committee, we're working right now to limit the amount they can be reimbursed for soft-money expenses. And we're getting a lot of resistance."

As early as 1982, city leaders knew that the legal expenses of the Economic Development Corporation, which provides staff for the TIF Commission, were straining the city's budget. A report issued that year by the Cleaver-appointed Citizens Budget Review Committee recommended reducing those expenses by $100,000, even though back then they were a mere $155,000 a year. Instead, the council voted to increase payments to lawyers. Now attorneys are making millions from the EDC.

A 1999 Star article cautiously suggested that these contracts are doled out as part of a patronage system. With minimal notice to the public, the EDC board met off-site to retain the services of Bryan Cave and the King Hershey law firm. Lawyers at both firms contributed heavily to Mayor Kay Barnes' campaign. Bryan Cave senior partner Herb Kohn, for example, is one of the mayor's chief allies. Kohn has billed the TIF Commission for more than 200 hours -- more than $35,000.

Although this money creates potential conflicts of interest, Fields promises that as a City Council rep, he will shape TIF policy based on the community's "collective vision." It's uncertain how he would accomplish that given that he would have to step aside from many of the TIF debates at City Hall.

"If we still have the contract at the time, he would be, directly or indirectly, a beneficiary," Kohn admits. "He'll probably want to recuse himself, but that's a decision he'll want to make at the time."

In other words, TIF creates a new trough along the City's revenue stream for lawyers to feed on. They don't even have to work for it, because there's no bidding process. And the only incentive is for them to push more TIF projects, because that makes the trough bigger. (BTW, that story won honorable mention in the 2003 Missouri Press Association Excellence in Journalism contest for "Best Coverage of Government," a category in which I also took first place for a package of three stories.)

And please note that the TIF money pays for not only the TIF Comminssion's lawyers, it also pays for the developers' lawyers. Such a sweet deal, huh? Make's you think twice about law school, don't it?

So there's really NOBODY representing the public good (more on this later, too). There's no incentive to. Bryan Cave represents the TIF Commission, which gets all of its money on a 5 percent commission of all TIF projects. So, more TIF projects, more money.

It's just that simple.

And that, folks, is why the city has no TIF policy. Because if there were a TIF policy, the folks on the City Council's Finance Committee -- three of whom are running for mayor -- would have to decide when and where TIF projects will happen. And that could cut off the money trough for the developers and lawyers, all of whom make healthy campaign contributions to the committee's three mayoral candidates -- Al Brooks, Chuck Eddy and John Fairfield.

It's weird that reporters think this stuff is boring. It's straight-up graft. It's the rape of the common good for the sake of the few and the rich. What could be more interesting than that?

(Other than puppies and Britney Spears's sex life. And maybe the untimely murder of Lil Jakes.)

Thursday, January 18, 2007

in a tif

A few years back, I wrote a major take-out piece on Wesley Fields, who was running for City Council. In many ways, I'm ashamed of the piece. At the urging of Steve Glorioso (who was working for Fields's opponent, Becky Nace), I really went all out and dug up every scrap of dirt I could and I put it all out there. Some of the stuff -- the stuff Glorioso tipped me off on -- was really insignificant, and probably wouldn't have amounted to much if Fields were white, or if his opponent weren't a white woman.

On the other hand, the meatiest stuff in my exposé, the stuff that got me interested in him to begin with, was that as an attorney at Bryan Cave he was one of the main lawyers representing the TIF Commission. And, it wasn't long after I moved to Kansas City that I learned that TIF (short for Tax-Increment Financing), is one of the biggest scams in the city, so it raised a red flag.

A lot of people think TIF is boring and confusing, but it really isn't. Anyone who cares enough to vote understands it in principle. Basically, it's an incentive to develop areas that are difficult to develop. That's the theory, anyway.

It's like this. Imagine you buy a falling-down shack. Taxes on it are low because it ain't worth squat. Well, as an incentive to get you to fix it up, the City offers to freeze the taxes at the worthless level. Then they figure out how much your property will be worth after it's fixed up, and they give that money to you ahead of time so you can fix your place up.

Sound like a good deal?

It's a hella good deal!

The problem I saw with this, though, was that it looked like most of these TIF deals were going to folks who weren't fixing up shacks. They were going to people who were developing farmland in the suburban Northland. People who wanted parking garages on the Plaza, which is the primo shopping district in the region. They were going to, in one instance, a gated community directly adjacent to the Plaza.

So, in my young and radical alt-weekly mind, it looked to me like institutional racism. More accurately, it seemed a social and economic justice issue, which, in an old Jim Crow town like KC, disproportionately impacts blacks. I didn't say that in the article, but I said it to folks behind the scene, in particular those who accused me of embarking on a racist attack on a promising young black candidate. (To which I now say, guilty -- at least on the Glorioso-inspired parts.)

But with regards to the real substance of the story, I was on point. When it comes to a lot of his work at Bryan Cave, Fields was (is?) a tool for what might well be Kansas City's most egregious injustice.

Because now there's proof!

There's no other way to say it: This report is a damning indictment of Kansas City.

We all ought to be ashamed of ourselves for letting this kind of enrich-the-rich graft take place on our behalf.

Check this out:
88% of TIF plans are in four Council Districts (1, 2, 4, and 6) which contain the two-thirds of the city’s population who are the most affluent, best educated and least likely to be members of a minority group.

The two Council Districts (3 and 5) with one-third of the population who have the lowest income and the highest rates of poverty and unemployment receive only 12% of TIFs.

Do you need further explanation?

It says: A program for poor neighborhoods is being used for rich ones.

Now, I remember Fields's argument in defense of TIF being used this way. It's the same as Mayor Barnes's, which was dutifully transcribed this week by her stenographer:
“Neighborhood concerns and economic development are bonded together,” she said. “You don’t have to pit one against the other.

“To address neighborhood and social concerns, you need to generate economic development to do it. The other option is raising taxes.

“Be alert to anyone sending a message: ‘We’ve done enough economic development and we need to focus on neighborhoods.’ We can do both.”

Here "economic development" is code, in part, for TIF. And "neighborhood concerns" is code, in very small part (at least, I think, in her elitist mind), to the needs of poor people.

Yet, as Reclaim Democracy's report reveals:
The use of TIF and particularly the inclusion of (predictions of how much tax new developments bring in) has grown rapidly in Kansas City over the past few years. The amount of redirected tax revenues transferred to the TIF Commission has surged by 208% between fiscal 2000 and 2004. EATS grew by an equivalent 204%. That growth coupled with findings that actual revenues of TIF plans accounted for only 23% of projected revenues should create serious concerns among the citizens and elected officials.

In other words -- going back to the fixed-up-shack analogy here -- the predictions for how much money these new projects will bring in have been way, way off the mark. But developers still get the predicted windfall up front. And that money has to come from somwhere.

So where does it come from?

You guessed it!

Poor people.

Actually, it comes from all of us.

But, as you can plainly see when you drive across the districts where the fewest TIF projects are underway, it's the poor who can least afford it.

Monday, January 15, 2007

christian science monitor

Got a nice review in the Christian Science Monitor.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

sparse

Sorry I haven't been updating much. Most of the stuff that would make good blog fodder is stuff I can't really write about. I'm working on this mayoral campaign, and the candidate debates and forums have been great on the comedy end of the blog spectrum. But I can't really do that to the opponents, even if it is just straight reporting of absurd things they say in public.

It kind of felt like our candidate took the lead last week (knock wood) -- especially with this kind of attention.

Anyhoo...

I checked into the old Motel 6 this week. Didn't spend any nights there, just used it as an office of sorts to force my way through a draft of my proposal for my second book. This would be my third go at a proposal. Proposals are by far the hardest things I have to write.

I'm falling into a pattern. When the writing gets tough, I check into the Motel 6 on 87th and I-435. And I write and anguish on the frumpy little bed and I pace the tiny room and I write again. And then I always go for lunch at least once at Peachtree Buffet. And I take short walks in the tiny neighborhood behind the motel and listen to the same three Mariah Carey songs over and over again on my iPod. And then I write a little more. Dang but that Mariah sure does sing pretty.

Three days of that and I got a draft together, and Allie read it today and said a lot of it is really, really good, but that it has some structural issues. (the worst kind, of course!)

And then, perfect timing, The New York Times starts a three-part series about Pentecostalism today, which, of course, had some points I'd forgotten to mention in this proposal.

We finally have winter around here. I'm not enraged about it.

Wedding's fast approaching. Costa Rica, too.

(kind of a dump-file post. sorry.)

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Saturday, January 06, 2007

spin

I'm a little pissed off this morning.

Yesterday I planned my first ever press conference. Mark Funkhouser was scheduled to file his petitions to be candidate for mayor, so I worked with him and his staff to put together an event. Before filing, Mark read and signed a giant copy of a Commitment Letter to the people of Kansas City, which laid out a number of priorities that would guide his tenure as mayor.

It all came together just as planned, and I walked away a little high, because we'd managed to attract the daly paper and a number of TV crews.

I should've paid a little closer attention to the newspaper that morning. Of course I noticed the headlines. Even in Kansas City it's not often that you have two elected officials indicted for mortgage fraud in as many days. But I was so caught up in planning the event, it adn't occured to me that our nice little press conference about good, honest leadership might be buried under the slime of business as usual.

So what happens?

The alleged criminal fiiles for office and steals all the spotlights as reporters record her insane comments.

And I do mean insane.
Shields claims the Bush administration is almost exclusively targeting Democratic officeholders, such as herself, which the U.S. attorney denies. The mayoral race is nonpartisan.

“I am not going to give in to political terrorism,” Shields said.

I'm sorry, but that is positively deranged. DERANGED!

There's no other word for it.

Anyhoo, it's funny to be on the other side of things. All those years I was a reporter, duutifully hustling the bad story. Now I'm the flak whining, Why can't they write about the positive?

(Which isn't really true. It's more like I'm growsing, Why can't people who are so drunk on their own tinhorn power as to be certifiably insane just go away so we can have a city that works for once?)

Thursday, January 04, 2007

american way

Got a mention in American Airline's magazine.