Monday, August 22, 2011

Taxpayer-funded baseball stadium coming whether you like it or not

WECT is reporting that an email they uncovered reveals that city and county officials have been courting a minor league baseball team conglomerate, Mandalay Entertainment for at least a couple of months now.

Rumblings have abound over the last few years about the idea that something like this could eventually come to fruition, but no direct answers or evidence to anything of substance has ever been confirmed or released by the city and/or the county. In fact, when asked directly recently, several local leaders have given vague responses that merely indicate that no official proposals exist, and that there is no concrete facts to support anything like this being promoted. However, emails uncovered by WECT tell a different story.

WECT reports an email from City Councilwoman Kristi Campos to County Commissioner Jason Thompson asks how the city and county can work together to get underway with the plans to build the stadium, a requirement for Mandalay to bring a minor league team here.

The secrecy surrounding these negotiations, and the lack of media coverage on the subject exist for a very specific reason. The stadium would have to be funded with taxpayer money, in the current poor economy. As if that wasn't enough, officials are even stating at this point that the stadium would not be a financial generator, but a drain on the taxpayer.

"The economic realities are, the stadium in itself would probably not generate enough money to pay the cost of building of the stadium," O'Grady said.
And that's where taxpayers come in.
"This would be something where the public would have to reach into their wallet, someway, in order to pay for it," O'Grady said.
Early projections were that the stadium would cost somewhere in the $18 million range; Mayor Bill Saffo recently stated a sum of $30 million. Other projections fall upwards of $40 or even $50 million. In this economy, pursuing something of this magnitude without any chance of return on investment seems absolutely ludicrous at best.

Surprisingly, even though the plans do not include taxpayers recouping their investment, officials are calling Mandalay's proposal "the best baseball presentation they've seen".

The big motivator for this project is the alleged throngs of tourists, vacationers, and visitors it is promised to attract. To Council member Kevin O'Grady, this not only offsets, but outweighs the negative financial impact and outlook of the project.

When the convention center was under construction, citizens were told that the center would generate revenue, and pay for itself. It has recently been reported that the convention center would operate in the red through 2020.

Additionally, the city has promised throughout the duration of the convention center project, and even to this day, that Room Occupancy Tax funds pay for the center. However, ROT funds only generate $2.5 million a year, and this year, the convention center budget is over $7 million. The difference is absolutely being taken directly out of the general fund.

So with a convention center that can't pay its bills without heavily subsidized taxpayer support, is it logical to dive into yet another enormous capital project that will dig deep into taxpayers' pockets in order to operate it? Where will the money come from? Why has the public been completely shut out from any and all discussions on this matter, and their permission not obtained before moving forward?

The answer to the latter is that taxpayers are completely tapped out, and are having a hard time at their kitchen tables making ends meet. The last thing they want or need is government coming to their door, once again, with hat in hand asking for millions of additional dollars for yet another money-losing project, built only on the promises of multitudes of tourists visiting the stadium.

Baseball has existed in Wilmington for years, and has never produced throngs of patrons. UNCW has an exciting baseball program that draws the best of college baseball from all over the country, and yet empty seats abound at every game. The idea that "sports tourism" is an economic boon to citizens is a myth built on failed logic that big local government progressives continue to push like crack cocaine on the street corner.

City Council candidate Josh Fulton provides a multitude of research and resources demonstrating without a doubt that projects like these cost inexcusably more than any perceived benefit that they generate. The Cato Institute conducted an exhaustive study of professional sports teams and their burden on the municipalities of which they reside. The findings were staggering, including a net loss in wages for the general population; a net loss in jobs and employment opportunities; and the conclusion that in every case studied, the impacts were economically detrimental across the board - and that was a study of professional sports teams, that actually produce loyal fan bases and sold out games.

The net economic impact of these publicly subsidized projects are devastating to a struggling local economy, and yet our elected officials are beside themselves with excitement to get the project underway. Why?

The simple answer is because it is not their money. The large majority of our local elected leaders envision themselves as capital investors and developers with an endless pool of free cash courtesy of the taxpayers generous contributions. Knowing that no free market private sector interest would dare to touch any of these projects given the inevitable manner of which they will continually lose money and produce nothing of any benefit, the only approach is to pour taxpayer money into them. Going to the public and asking for their approval will not work given the outcry against such a project that would ensue, so the only available avenue is force the project on the public without much fanfare or media coverage.

The arrogance and entitlement mentality from our elected officials is quite obvious. Commissioner Jason Thompson states, "This is a 'they're already coming, so we gotta build them a place to live'," and  "That's how this deal would go down."

Elected officials who see themselves as investors of other people's money do not worry about repercussions from their actions, given notoriously low voter turnout in local elections. They will withstand the public posturing and outrage once the project gets underway, and then chuckle in delight at election time when the very citizens feigning outrage sit it out, guaranteeing them yet another term to continue the same destructive, failed, arrogant, self-serving, dishonest, and corrupt policies that our local governments have built a legacy of.

The idea of a baseball stadium in downtown Wilmington would be great if private investors wanted to pursue this vision, invest their own money, and reap the rewards. However, everybody with a elementary understanding of investment and economics knows that this would be a huge money loser. The elected leaders cheerleading this project certainly would have nothing to do with investing their own money, and all of the excitement would quickly fade if they were asked to. However, with your money, it seems to them to be a no-brainer, given that there is not a risk - financial or political to them at all. Plus, as history shows, they believe they can spend your money much better than you can anyway, so they are really doing you a favor.

Let's show our appreciation starting this November at election time.

Friday, August 12, 2011

CFPUA Analysis Benchmarks Itself Against... Itself

The CFPUA hired a contractor to measure their performance, and this week, we got the results. The biggest headline to emerge from this was that the CFPUA has been labeled as being 5th out of 80 organizations reviewed by this firm. However, candidate for Wilmington City Council Josh Fulton points out a section of the report in his blog that says:
“Benchmarking” is a term that is often used in discussions about best practices. There are a number of definitions of benchmarking. In the public sector, benchmarking may refer to metrics, or ratios of some measure. Examples include breaks/mile of pipe, #staff/1,000 customers, $/million gallons treated, and so on. Comparing benchmarks of this nature across agencies is generally non-productive due to differences in circumstances including geography, regional issues, and specific processes. A more productive approach is for a public agency to determine what practice performance benchmarks it will track, establish a current baseline performance level, and to compare its performance to itself over the course of time. This is “Practice Benchmarking” and is the basis for our evaluation of the Authority.
This is our first clue that this group is a little lost on business analysis definitions and function. Benchmarking is the comparing of business activities and performance industry best practices, or the best practices of specific entities. The entire approach is defeated, and produces nothing usable if, as the report admits, it simply compares its practices to itself. This would never work in the free market. If you had the very worst performing company in an industry, and conducted a benchmark analysis where the company is only compared to itself, then you could create a glowing report, that in no way produces any tangible data regarding the organization's performance. Fulton puts it this way:
What they're saying is that they're using no objective measurements, or at least traditional objective measurements. They're simply comparing the Utility Authority to itself. So, I guess they went from terrible to less terrible.
Complete report here:

In this document: it becomes clear that the report writer(s) have no real understanding of basic business and marketing principles. This is astounding when you realize that our biggest quasi-government agency, the CFPUA, paid a whole lot of good money to hire them. For instance, they conduct a SWOT Analysis. They correctly define SWOT - Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. However, their knowledge apparently meets its limits there.

First of all, each of their categories regularly contradicts other ones. As someone who has conducted real SWOT Analyses in the real world; where free market businesses must stay competitive, offer products consumers want, and maintain a unique presence in a cutthroat market; this is not an exercise to be taken lightly. It is a comprehensive review of not only the organization in question, but its competitors, and the market for which it operates in. Being that the CFPUA is a state-mandated monopoly, a true-to-form SWOT Analysis cannot be conducted in any real quantitative way. It's all smoke and mirrors - and bad ones at that.

Aside from the fact that each category provides no quantitative data to help pave a positive way forward, the "Threats" category is actually fundamentally wrongly defined. "Threats" within the context of a SWOT Analysis, is to examine the threats posed by outside forces of which one has no control over whatsoever. These could be competitive threats, competitor R&D threats, government regulatory threats, legal threats, and so on. The flimsy threats posed by this report simply reflect a rewording of the other categories, and are entirely within the control of the CFPUA.

An organization that provides a report like this in the free market would be out of business overnight. They would be mocked, ridiculed, and held up as a monument to failure. However, the rules are different in government. A company like this with no understanding of business analytics can actually pass itself off as an expert in business analytics, and carve out a lucrative existence.

The contradictions in this report are too many to count. For one, the CFPUA's communication with its customers is held up as excellent when it fits the template, and that it needs much improvement in other places.  It even finds that to the CFPUA, customers are regarded as a "nuisance" ( pg.13). The solution to this reality is to make customers "advocates", which is laughable given the grossly incompetent and inefficient history of the CFPUA.

The report continues to go downhill from there, as it regularly claims that the CFPUA has excellent customer service, and customer satisfaction - which, as we know as customers of the CFPUA, is absolutely ridiculous.

We are never told exactly how the CFPUA earns its place as 5th best out of 80 similar organizations; but we do get a clear picture as to what happens when a government agency pays good money for a firm to analyze its performance - benchmarks are created that simply compare its performance to itself, and the report always gives a glowing forecast. This is yet another chapter in the very long annals of the absolute failures of the CFPUA.