Saturday, January 28, 2012

A Park or Economic Freedom?

Well, the city continues in its never-ending blood-lust for a park downtown.

Don't get me wrong. It'd be nice to have a park downtown. But that doesn't mean you can trample property rights. It also doesn't mean that what would go up wouldn't be better and more beneficial for the community than a park.

Think of the potential negatives of a park:
  1. What can you do on a piece of grass that you can't already do downtown? Does the city actually think there's going to be Ultimate Frisbee competitions on this small patch of land?

  2. There's a possibility it becomes a haven for homeless people, or who knows what (possibly even "Occupiers." *shiver*)
  3. When its city property it no longer pays property tax.
Again, this doesn't even mention that the new development could be much better than a park, or the potential chilling effect this could have on downtown development, or even development in Greater Wilmington.

The city held up a development called "The View" with these same principals for years and now we have a "wall of keys" on Front St. downtown, which Bill Saffo called "art," instead of a building with apartments and shops.

Does anyone remember the Gateway project? The city did the same thing to those developers and nearly bankrupted them in the process.

Oh well. Who's going to want to build here after a while? Who's going to want to come here? I can tell you that many in the development community are already fed up with the city government and have been for a long time. Is it any surprise that 9 out of 10 downtown business owners say that it's easier to do business with other city governments that it is with Wilmington?

The city of Wilmington has considered shelling out more than $2 million to buy the half of the Water Street deck as the decades-old structure that was planned for redevelopment sits unchanged.

For about a year, the city and PB&G Partners LLC have locked horns over what to do with the deck that both entities co-own. The original plan was for PB&G to demolish the deck and transform it into condos and shops. But the contract between the city and PB&G, which gave the company three years to start development, ended in 2010. Now the city has an option to buy back the company's half at $3 million or market value, whichever is less.

In February, City Manager Sterling Cheatham, on direction from city council, sent a letter to PB&G Partners LLC stating the city would like to enter into discussions about buying the deck for its appraised value, $2.4 million, minus the approximately $350,000 the city claims the developers still owe for parking receipts. [This is another whole issue that I'm surprised the developers don't slam the city on.]

[...]PB&G balked at the city's offer to buy the deck and presented its plans for a new development to council in April.

[...]"The city has fundamentally ignored all of our development plans," [developer Bud Dealey] said.

Dealey said the group has since lost its U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development funding to transform the property into upscale apartments for people over 55 years old with shops below as well as space for parking and a city park. [No doubt because they were held up for so long]

"I doubt that we're ever going to be permitted to build anything," he said.

[...]The city's goal with Water Street deck was to turn part of it into a city park.

Note to anyone else who may have land that the city wants for a park: you have no rights.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

What Really Happened in the County Commission Meeting?

I typically don't read the supplemental material for the County Commission meetings. I just rely on the "news" to give me the bullet points of what happened. Of course, I regularly find things that interest me in the City Council supplemental material that aren't reported in the news, so with the primaries coming up, I took a look to get a better idea of what's going on in the County.

It should be pointed out that all these items passed unanimously, so if you have a favorite County Commissioner ("I like the shy one!"), you're plum out of luck.

The first thing that interested me was submittal of a grant application to the Institute for Museum and Library Services, a public agency, for a 2012 "National Leadership Planning Grant."

This grant was for $50k and requires at least a 1/3 match. New Hanover County, however, went above and beyond and volunteered to pay $59k they got the grant.

What will the grant help us do?

It will help "encourage development of collaborative models and projects that can strengthen the position of museums and libraries as community anchors."

Get that? It's about strengthening the position of museums and libraries.

Now, I consider myself a free-marketer. I'm familiar with the history of private museums and private libraries before the government-forced take-over. In today's environment, however, which is extremely far from a free market, I'm ok with some public money going to things like libraries. A competitive private market for libraries has been destroyed and I don't see one cropping up at this point.

That said, what will this money be going toward?
The planning project defines three outcomes:
Did everyone get that? This is a "planning project." Yet again, they're simply planning for things. They're not putting anything into action.

For $109k, this better be a pretty good plan.

It continues:
1) Completion of a needs assessment regarding the availability, distribution, and nature of
STEM learning opportunities available in the community that will permit identification of
strengths, gaps, opportunities, and priorities for development;
2) Development and implementation of manageable assessment tools that can be used to
establish standards for quality STEM learning experiences and contribute to continued
improvement; and
3) Establishing a framework and understanding for a community -wide collaborative to
coordinate, develop, and expand high quality informal and formal STEM learning.
Ok, so for $109k they'll be "assessing needs"; they'll be developing "assessment tools"; and ...I don't even know how to translate that last piece of gibberish into English.

Anyway, that's what the money is going to. The overwhelming majority goes to personnel, including $24k to hire a graduate assistant, and $11k in benefits.

Nice, huh?

Next item

Civil process fees went up in August. That means people will have to pay more to get served papers and that the government will take in more.

Is this new revenue used to lessen the tax burden on everyone else? Of course not. It's used for more spending.

The new revenue is about $289k and it's going to be used on a bunch of things. $43k on two new cars; $15k on radios; and $150k is going to be used to move the Civil Division, apparently into a new building or something.

Thank goodness we got that $289k in new revenue because it turned out we needed every bit of it!!


We submitted a request for a $400k/per year "Community Transformation Grant" to the NC Division of Public Health. The grant would last for a total of 5 years, so the total would be $2M.

Now, I don't have a problem with us making a grant request if it's for something that we actually do ourselves. If it's simply superfluous, some additional thing we don't need and shouldn't be doing, I don't want it.

Plus, this is state money and not federal money, so it's even closer to home.

What would this $400k per year be going toward? It's primarily to fund the salaries and benefits of four full-time "Health Educators," one "Administrative Support Technician," and a half-time "Policy Intervention Specialist."

What are the goals of this group?

Basically eliminate smoking wherever they can. For those of you familiar with Wilmington's history, this can include private establishments like bars. 7 of the group's 11 goals mention tobacco or smoking. So, if we get this grant, it looks like we'll have five years of a couple of busy bodies bothering us to stop smoking.

I might take up smoking just so I can blow some in their faces.

Other goals include: "increase the number of convenience stores that increase the availability of fresh produce and decrease the availability of sugar-sweetened beverages"; and "increase the number of communities that implement comprehensive plans for land use and transportation." Yup, more zoning and public transportation. That's what's good for you.

Make no mistake, this is all fueled by Obamacare. It even mentions that it should try to achieve goals as laid out in the Affordable Care Act.


Apparently, NHC's code violations are too expensive to go before a Small Claims judge. So what did NHC do this week? Made it easier to take violators to court.

We changed the fines from $200 to a $100/day fine for a first offenses. For a third offense, it's now $300/day down from $500.

Again, it's explicitly mentioned that this isn't to go easier on people; it's to be able to take them to court more easily.

We also added the section: "The zoning official may withhold or deny any permit, certificate, occupancy, or other form of authorization on any land, building sign, structure, or use in which there is an uncorrected violation."

Yup, a zoning official can now kick you out of ...wherever if there's some code violation, including if there's something wrong with your building sign.

Welcome to the Fascist States of United America.


Apparently, the county licenses electricians, plumbers and mechanics. They probably license more occupations, but those were the only ones mentioned.

Here is a description of the general powers of these licensing boards:
Brief on Functions: To issue certificates to all persons who (1) provide satisfactory evidence to the Board regarding their training and education; (2) pass an examination administered by the Board, and (3) provide evidence of two years of experience in their perspective fields. To administer written or oral examination quarterly on the first Tuesday in January, April, July and October. The Board may revoke certificates and reinstate certificates in accordance with the County Code.
In case you don't know, licensing is a joke.

Why should the government be able to tell me who can work on my toilet? Frankly, I think I can make that decision myself.

The licensing board is also comprised of people who have an interest in the industry, so they're not exactly neutral. Not to impugn the integrity of the county's boards, but it's very possible a board could use its power to revoke a competitor's license.

I'm not sure if this licensing board was set up on the initiative of the state or county. My guess would be the state. But I certainly hope we use our authority to effectively deregulate these professions.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Wilmington Baseball Stadium: THE FACTS

In response to the local media scrambling to give wall-to-wall above-the-fold coverage to the creation of the website; a mediocre little short stop (pun?) on the web openly and shamelessly begging for our local governments to pour out taxpayer dollars for the benefit of a few folks in the baseball biz. Local government doesn't spend a dime without such propaganda mills as the Star News cheer leading the effort, and doing what they can to handle the PR and advertising of such ventures for the benefit of the city council.

With that said, consider some truth and research from a website with probably over a thousand times the popularity and return visits than the aforementioned one, but as usual, sure to be ignored by the press - even though we know they read the Wilmington Watcher on a regular basis.

Taxpayer-funded stadiums are nothing new. They have been done over and over again; every new guy to come on the scene with a new plan thinks he is going to build the better mousetrap, and inevitably failing in the end; the taxpayers left holding the bag, as usual.

Here is some data for those interested in holding an educated debate and position on the subject. For those who simply keep muttering the mantra about baseball on the river, and constantly closing their eyes dreaming of the publicly-funded smell of roasted peanuts, carry on.

Thanks to Tom Looney for sharing:

"Taxpayer-subsidized Sports Facilities: Who Pays, Who Wins?" While the beginning of this article provides an argument against sports stadiums, the bulk of this document consists of an extensive bibliography of articles and books that deal with this issue.

• Joanna Cagan and Neil Demause, "Field of Schemes" This web site contains information on the current status of sports stadiums that are being built or rebuilt using public subsidies. As the title of this website suggests, the authors are opposed to the use of public subsidies for these projects. Of particular interest is their page entitled: "The Sports Swindle Ticker."

• Daniel Sutter, "Public Subsidies for Sports Stadiums Don't Spur Economic Growth" In this Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs article, Daniel Sutter provides a critical examination of the use of subsidies for the construction of new stadiums. He argues that the construction of new stadiums diverts consumer spending from other forms of entertainment without increasing the total level of consumer spending.

• Ronald D. Utt, "Cities in Denial: The False Promise of Subsidized Tourist and Entertainment Complexes" In this October 2, 1998 Heritage Foundation Backgrounder, Ronald Utt argues that subsidized public investment in stadiums and similar tourist and entertainment facilities has not been a profitable strategy

• Heartland Institute, "Sports Stadium Madness" This website contains links to an extensive collection of studies that indicate that public investment in sports stadiums provide few benefits for municipalities.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Plans for a Baseball Stadium Move Forward

With the taxpayer stuck in the gears.

Construction work is beginning on the site that could be the home of a baseball stadium in downtown Wilmington.

Crews are tearing down an abandoned building at the corner of Front and Brunswick streets.

The developer, Chuck Schoninger, who owns the property, is paying for the demolition.

Hotels and restaurants are to be built at the location, even if plans for a baseball stadium don't move forward.

Even if they don't move forward? How long has Schoninger had this property? Why is he moving forward with it now? Are we really supposed to believe it has nothing to do with the baseball stadium?

Thursday, January 5, 2012

An Open Letter to the Wilmington City Council

Dear Members of the Wilmington City Council:

Your continued pursuit of objectives detrimental to our city's financial health; as well as your unyielding efforts to indebt taxpayers beyond solvency are duly noted. Your message of indifference to those whom you fear no reprisal that live only a doorstep away from the new city limits, and your sheer contempt for their rational concerns is understood as well. Your stubborn quest to engage in a massive spending plan in order to benefit a few who share baseball as a personal hobby is registered. And your collective failures to consider the best interest of the citizens who fund your self-absorbed gravy train is completely recognized.

Now, a response from one of the 15% who vote in the city; and one of the 5% of that, who are not already loyally tied to one or more of your campaigns at election time.

You are not leaders. You are not visionaries. You are not statesmen. You are puppets and hacks who use your office for personal gain. You embarrassingly whore yourselves out to special interest, and to any entrepreneur or investor that catches your eye with a flash of quick cash. You are easily bought and swayed by the allure of money and power. You have absolutely no integrity, and no honorable intentions. Our city hangs its head in shame that we have such simple children empowered to take and spend our money at will. The common thread across everything that you stand for and commit to, is that it must be a great opportunity, simply because it isn't your money.

True leaders would tell anyone interested in building a baseball stadium here in Wilmington that we have a great city we are proud of, and to feel free to come here and spend 100% of your own money to purchase the land, and build and operate the park. But instead, you drool and roll over, anxiously willing to shovel mountains of other people's money to anyone who charms you with simple, empty rhetoric. Like handing a child's kaleidoscope to a tribe of island natives who have never been exposed to any element of modern civilization, your eyes gleam in wide-eyed fascination.

True leaders would tell a developer asking to be annexed in order to fulfill his plans of development that it could be considered, but the best interest of the citizens in the affected area is the foremost priority. But instead, you drool and roll over, only thinking of more revenue to hurry up and waste on the next fruitless endeavor.

True leaders would never willingly and arrogantly suffer the citizens animosity between their local governments who they need working together for their best interest. But instead, you drool and roll over, selling our city piecemeal to an out of state developer charming your simple minds with a small amount of cash, in spite of the damaging implications to local government diplomacy.

Your convention center is a laughable insolvent failure that will forever mark your legacy. Our downtown area does not have the infrastructure to support more of this nonsense. We are in debt to the tune of tens of millions of dollars, and cannot afford more. But you will doggedly and capriciously pursue your selfish wishes with sheer antipathy toward reality and restraint.

You have no clue how an economy works. None of your spending of our money creates economic opportunity. Your arrogance precedes your every intention by believing that you can spend my money better than I can. Your spending first requires the confiscation of money out of citizens' pockets - money otherwise used to stimulate the local economy in an organic manner. Taxpayer money that you spend is absorbed - it doesn't multiply; and worse, it has to be paid back with interest, further creating an economic vacuum. I am amazed at your lack of intelligence and understanding of this matter. If government spending creates prosperity, then why not confiscate 100% of citizens' wealth; build 100 baseball stadiums, 100 extra parks, 100 extra bike paths, and 100 new convention centers? Think of all the wonderful prosperity then!

Mr. Anderson, a few short weeks ago, you didn't support taxpayer dollars going to a baseball stadium. You are obviously a quick study in the ways of the collective mentality of the city council, and have no doubt made your comrades proud. Please change your party affiliation immediately, and make it official that you are a defiant and progressive statist like your counterparts. Your personal legacy is shaping up to be one who is an utterly disingenuous hack.

Ms. Haynes, for someone who constantly believes that she is the most educated and intellectual person in any room she walks into, you seriously lack an understanding of basic economics and representative government. You arrogantly refer to those such as myself, who prefer government to be run like a business when you distort such an idea when it matches your wishes; yet you would never opt for running our government like a true business, which would entail constantly thinking of fiscal efficiencies, cuts in spending, and true innovation. A well-run business would never make the failed investments that this council is known for, that accomplish nothing except magically make mountains of "free" money disappear forever.

Mr. O'Grady, you feign offense at anything that implicates you in any behavior or thinking less than stellar excellency, yet you lead the pack in promoting the message that our city is, in fact, for sale. You have stated that the baseball stadium can only work with taxpayer dollars being sunk into it - I would challenge that in saying why don't you invest your money into it instead, since it is such a winning proposition? I won't wait for that to happen however.

Mr. Rivenbark, Ms. Padgett, and Mr. Saffo, if the baseball stadium, or any other big ticket hobby item is such a wonderful investment, why aren't you the first one in line to pony up your own cash? Every one of the "great opportunities" that you support find you mysteriously missing from putting up your own money to cash in on the great investment you promise they will bring. Why is that? Because I know it's not because you are full of it. You have told us that the convention center was one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities and investments that will reap dividends for generations to come - and yet, only in its infancy, it stands as an utter failure of government, rife with debt, seeded with malfeasance, and completely insolvent for decades to come. Simple math indicates that the ROT funds do not come anywhere close to paying the total annual costs associated with it operation, and that general fund dollars are quietly filtered into it - but you evade and conceal this fact from the public, one of the few things that you do well.

Mr. Sheridan, before you is always the opportunity to stand out from the go-along crowd and speak up for the best interest of those you are supposed to serve. Time and time again, you fail that challenge, opting instead to appease those you serve with, rather than think outside of the prevailing mentality.

As a council, your collective legacy is nothing more than an abject dereliction of duty. As usual, I expect no response, and nothing to change. Citizens expressing disdain for your decisions has never had an impact on you, and that surely isn't going to change anytime soon. But know that not all of us are simply hypnotized, and thereby disengaged, by celebrities on TV pretending to dance, or morons trying to sing, or next month's issue of US Weekly. Some of us are paying attention to true matters of importance, and will do all we can to remove you from office for your contemptible failure to truly represent the citizen, and be humble stewards of their money.

We have a wonderful city in spite of you - not because of you. As a proud Wilmingtonian, I will do all I can to restore honor, dignity, and restraint to our local government, before you run it into the ground, and completely bankrupt us all.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Neil Anderson Breaks Campaign Promise

Yes, folks, it took Neil Anderson all of ...a day? Two days? To go back on a campaign promise.

If you'll remember, Neil presented himself as firmly in opposition to a publicly-funded baseball stadium. What is revealed an email? Neal's support for a publicly-funded baseball stadium.

You can't get much better than that.

In an email to some members of the commission today, Wilmington City Council Member Neil Anderson noted council members, commissioners and the prospective owners of the interested minor league baseball team are set to meet today. Anderson encouraged members of the commission to "be the better man in this relationship and make a gesture of greater/stronger support in their partnership on this once in a lifetime opportunity for our city, county, and region."
Sounds like pretty strong support to me! Maybe Neil will be able to give us a great park downtown too to complete our economic development. That's what leads to flourishing cities, right? Parks and baseball stadiums?

The entire reason for Neil's email was apparently because some on the County Commission are cooling their support for the baseball stadium due to the satellite annexation the city performed last night. Aren't you glad that our local government is run like a high school?

In any case, this is the first in a long list of disappointments. As in any City Council meeting, there are a number of terrible things on the docket, and Neil voted for all of them.
  • C3. The allocation of $25k for unspecified improvements to the Portia Mill Hines Park. Maybe Council got a description of the improvements to be done, but they're not in the supplemental material.
  • C8. The awarding of a $200k contract to Alta/Greenways to develop our Greenway Plan. What is a "Greenway Plan?" Well, it's basically a document telling us where to put our bike paths and parks (can't have enough parks, can we?) Why can't city or county staff figure this stuff out? Beats me, but now we have Alta/Greenway making $200k to figure it out for us. Nevermind that $200k would pay the annual salary and benefits for about three members of the planning department.
What is this money being used for?

The breakdown of the expenses is truly hilarious.
Task 1: Project Kick Off Meeting $5,560.00
Task 2: Identify Opportunities and Constraints $46,000.00
Task 3: Public Involvement and Presentations $48,320.00
Task 4: Prepare the Draft Comprehensive Greenway Plan $50,760.00
Task 5: Develop and Present Final Plan $24,805.00
Task 6: Provide Final Report and Brochure $12,060.00
Subtotal Fees $187,505.00
Budget for Reimbursable Expenses $12,495.00
Total Fee and Expenses $200,000.00
Yes, folks, it will cost them $5,560 to have a "Project Kick Off Meeting." These Alta people sure know how to party, but I suppose I would too, if I could do it on other people's money.

Task 2 is a legitimate thing they have to do. In the description of Task 2, they say they'll have to review all of the local Land Use and Transportation plans, but if we had used City or County staff, presumably they'd be much more familiar with all of these documents! That's a big chunk of the $46k for Task 2.

To me, it seems like we just spent $200k to have a consultant tell us something we could easily figure out ourselves (that is, if you even think the project is necessary, which is in and of itself doubtful.)
  • C18. We paid $23k to a contractor to "review and assess the development review process." Again, is this something we should be paying a contractor for? 9 out of 10 downtown business owners say doing business with Wilmington is more difficult than doing business with other cities, so we clearly do have a problem with the development process, but another contractor? This is something that City Council should get off their rump and do themselves.
  • O4.a. We pushed back the completion date on the Bradley Creek Sidewalk Project from August 21, 2010 to October 21, 2012. That's over two years, folks. It's also going to cost more than $152k than anticipated because of "unanticipated drainage issues," blah, blah, blah.
Folks, there are these kind of things in every single City Council meeting. There are wasteful things that nickel and dime us to death, or sometimes thousands of dollars us to death. There are also major white elephants like the convention center and potential baseball stadium that seriously threaten the fiscal health of the city. Seeing as he was against the baseball stadium, I never would have guessed Neil would roll over for the good 'ole boys, and gals, and Margaret Haynes, so quickly.

Neil, you need principles. Remember what Thoreau said: "The best government is that which governs least." We're at such a precarious point in our economy we can't stand to have it crushed under more wasteful government spending.

Cantankerous Council Commands Crooked Contract, Crosses Commission

In a unanimous vote on Tuesday night, the Wilmington City Council voted to go forward with a satellite annexation of a developer's property located in the Marsh Oaks area of North Market Street, some two miles from the city boundary.

What makes this especially interesting, is that the reason this issue even came up, is because the New Hanover County Commission denied the developer's zoning request to build a 282-unit apartment complex in an area that simply cannot handle anymore traffic load. The developer simply went to the city to ask to be annexed in exchange for favorable zoning to build his project, despite NC case law specifically addressing this type of bilateral agreement between city and developer, and citing it as illegal in two cases specifically, Chrismon v. Guilford County; and especially in Good Neighbors of South Davidson v. Town of Denton. The issue is also discussed at length in a very insightful article by Robert Ducker for the UNC School of Government.

Despite hearing from dozens of concerned citizens from the affected area, as well as other citizens concerned with the unnecessary excesses of government, the city council proceeded without hesitation. Many excellent arguments were made against this as being a completely raw deal for the upper middle class neighborhood of Marsh Oaks, who will now have to welcome Section 8 voucher receivers - and the statistical crime that accompanies them - as their neighbors, despite their personal decisions to purchase their properties in an affluent part of the county.

Council's only concerns were whether or not they had to provide any services to the developer's property. The answer was largely no, so it appeared as a win/win to a council completely indifferent to a community's plight. Furthermore, two of the New Hanover County Commissioners addressed the council, warning them that going through with this as presented would severely hinder the previously good working relationship between the city and county. Since the ignoring of this warning, the fallout has already started to transpire.

Councilwoman Margaret Haynes, in her typical smug disposition, stated that she often hears how government should be run like a business, and in doing so, she would apply a cost-benefit analysis to this issue. According to her, the decision is all benefit and minimal cost. However, she has never shown any propensity to conduct the affairs of government in any other way like a business, such as cutting taxes and implementing cost-saving measures to run more efficiently.

Several citizens alluded to the obvious quid pro quo that seemed evident between the developer and the city. One glaring testament to this was that the developer's own PowerPoint presentation was entitled, "Voluntary Annexation & Zoning Request". This truly speaks to the nature of the issue, that the developer is only asking to be annexed if in fact he can be granted the proper zoning to go forward with his project. The NC Supreme Court has defined this practice as "illegal contract zoning"; and it is, in fact, illegal.

Councilman Kevin O'Grady, also smug in his tenor, feigned outrage at several citizens alleging a "deal" between the developer and the city, stating that he never made any such deal. However, although a true deal may in fact be in the works, even without a solid "deal"  being struck, it is obvious to anyone with any intelligence that there is a definite understanding between the two entities about what needs to take place for both to benefit.

County Commission Chairman Ted Davis stated that this is a slippery slope, since the precedent is set that anyone who has a project denied by the county, can simply approach the city for what they want, and the city will most likely oblige. This current council has made it clear that Wilmington is, in fact, for sale.