Saturday, July 23, 2005

Tough Questions

This is a very healthy thread, so I won't break it yet.

I took the last version of the main post and slotted it into the comments below - it's archived at comment number 43 or so.

We've got pros and cons on the mayor's fix of the money-bleeding sanitation operation, a discussion of the pending appointment of Jack Messer as the ordinance enforcement officer, and the suggestion that the city begin to bring back the idea of a municipal court.

Please continue to discuss, debate, offer links or alternative solutions.

Some folks felt my "bulletin" about the Messer appointment was misleading. As I understand it, funds from the OEO authorization will be allocated toward police operations, and for the next five months, that's acceptable to Chief Harl. Messer will remain in uniform, remain a sworn officer, and begin to demonstrate how the enforcement operation will work. Personally, I think Jack Messer as OEO is almost too good to be true. I hope we not only appoint him, but keep him on the job permanently.

There's some good stuff in the comments below - reasonable debate and disagreements included - that bode well for the level of discourse about public affairs.

Edited and posted at 10 p.m., Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Friday, July 22, 2005

A Solutions-Oriented Administration

OK. Who replaced James Garner with a doppelganger?

Although his first year in office was filled with missteps, awkward and even embarrassing statements, and missed opportunities, the mayor has turned things around, as Dick Cheney would say, "Big Time."

No one ever said the mayor was dumb. But more than a few were heard to say he was already a lame duck just six months into his first term.

Funny how you don't hear that talk anymore.

Like him or not, you have to admit the mayor is governing with boldness and vision.

He has, to date, been responsive to pleas for a more aggressive codes enforcement regime. He's begun to root out the dead wood, particularly in the building inspection operation and has been unafraid to confront the problems facing the city.

Garner's Democratic Party allies forged a bond with the progressives and helped to bring new blood to that party's county operation.

He and his staff found a way to keep the city running despite a draconian budget hit from the state owing to previous mismanagement of the city's finances.

Garner's team, political and administrative, succeeded in securing the continuation of the Scribner Place redevelopment project in the face of fanatic opposition. In doing so, Garner gained new allies and admirers.

And now, today, the mayor made a dramatic and potentially risky move to get a handle on runaway financial disaster in city operations.

For several years now, the city's sanitation operations have required large subsidies from the city's quasi-independent sewer utility. While there's nothing particularly wrong with one city revenue stream helping to pay for the expenses of other city services, the losses had become too large to ignore.

One solution was to continue to operate at a loss while draining funds from the sewer operation.

Another would be to raise the monthly collection fee by about 50%.

How bad was the situation? The sanitation operation spent $900,000 more last year than it collected. With substandard equipment that the city is locked into being an exacerbating factor, the future looked bleak.

Raise rates, but continue to operate inefficiently? No, says James Garner.

In a press conference today, the mayor announced that the city's household garbage and refuse collections, including recycling, will now be contracted out to a private firm.

Once the contract is executed, the losses come to a screeching halt. Debilitating lease payments for defective trucks come to a screeching halt. The new contract promises a rapid response without raising collection rates by even one dime. Where once the Sewer Board was handcuffed by the demand to subsidize sanitation operations, they now can begin to address serious infrastructure weaknesses and rehabilitate the sewer fund reserves.

Residents are expected to see only positive changes. The mayor believes that a private firm that lives and dies on its ability to keep the city and its residents happy will improve services. He believes that a firm whose sole focus is on waste collection can operate this essential city service with greater efficiency.

Our rates stay the same. For now, our collection bins will remain the same. The city immediately stops hemorrhaging nearly $1 million a year.

Necessarily, this is going to be a jolt to the city's sanitation workers. A significant number will be transferred to the city's streets department where they will take on the task of cleaning up the city's alleys, streets, and one hopes (someday) its blighted properties.

The remainder of those workers will be offered employment with the city's contractor. So long as they can pass the pre-employment qualification screening, every current worker will have a job.

This is not the James Garner of one year ago.

He's applying his business acumen to solving the city's problems. He's unafraid to spend his political capital. And he's offering a progressive vision for New Albany's future.

What's the most remarkable thing about today's announcement?

Think about it. For politicians of the past, jobs meant power. The patronage privilege, particularly in New Albany, has always been the key to a mayor's power.

But this mayor is surrendering city jobs. Rather than being power-hungry, he is, arguably, surrendering power in a manner that seems to be an unalloyed benefit to the city.

Politically, it's a risky move, but one we think is worth it. A year ago, few would have expected Garner to take any political risks. His election day popularity began to wane about one hour after his inauguration, if not sooner. Some local reporters were making Garner, and by extension, New Albany, their whipping boy. Even loyal Democrats were questioning Garner's ability to govern.

It ought to be interesting to see how the city's sanitation workers react. By all accounts, they were strong supporters of Garner in the last election. CM Donnie Blevins, a city worker and a member of council elected in the city at large, is a senior employee in what will now be a department in name only.

If things work out the way the mayor expects, most of the ill will generated by his announcement will come from just this one nervous late-July weekend. By next week, when all the facts are laid on the table, perhaps the city's sanitation workers and their other city worker colleagues will see this as it really is.

For if the city manages its money wisely, and this seems to be the case here, those who stay on the city's payroll should have enhanced job security and greater resources available to do their jobs.

On a personal note: My knee-jerk reaction when I hear about governments contracting out essential services is that it is almost always a bad thing. I'm suspicious that a service that need not earn a profit is being turned over to a private entity that must earn a profit. I worry that a private firm, unconcerned with being re-elected, will be less responsive to citizen concerns. In short, I hate privatization.

But on reflection, I'm persuaded that this is not "privatization." The city is not going out of the sanitation business. It is contracting out a service that it has proven it is unable to run on a cost-effective basis. The city will retain the power to transfer or revoke the private contract. For all we know, the city may reclaim direct control of this city service somewhere down the road.

For now, the power of the city checkbook and the potential competition for future contracts will ensure that the private firm providing this service will be accountable to the city. And I'm convinced the city will demand a top-flight performance.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Time to Give Back to the People

Sorry, I should have put that headline in quotation marks. Who said it? Your Mayor, that's who.

Steve Price, who clearly has abandoned any dreams of serving a second term as the council member representing the 3rd district, invited Mayor James Garner to join him in doubting whether Scribner Place could ever be a success.

Garner stepped to the podium and pronounced thusly:

This thing (the Scribner Place redevelopment project) has been going on for three years. It's time to give back to the people.

We've been taking their taxes and now it's time to give something back to the people of New Albany.

Hear, hear for Hizzoner.

In all fairness, Steve Price has been nothing but consistent in his opposition to the project. Although his objections stem mainly from fear of the unknown and a mindset that leads him to speculate about nefarious conspiracies, he can honestly say he did everything in his power to stop it. And clearly he is willing for that to be his legacy. He fairly voted no Thursday evening when the ultimate resolution to begin the bonding process came up for authorization.

Thursday night's meeting could have been contentious, and there were undercurrents of disgust, if not hostility. As it turned out, the meeting was, in fact, rather a noble one.

Mr. Dan Coffey offered up a resolution that, in essence, would have thanked the Caesars Foundation for its generous gift, but then would have had the city decline the $20 million grant. Before offering the resolution, he pleaded with his fellow council members to delay, saying that rushing into the unknown was a hazard the city didn't need to endure. He reported to us that the YMCA was perfectly willing to take over the entire project without any involvement by the city, but that fear of political ramifications was compelling them to speak openly only with Mr. Coffey himself.

He entreated his colleagues to table both the resolution he was about to offer and the one that followed before entering his version into the record.

Only a little craziness erupted during the debate, highlighted by CM Jack Messer's call for a show of hands from the audience. Even with a much-depleted pro-Scribner Place contingent on hand, it was clear that 3/4 of the room supported the city's redevelopment project. Messer scolded Coffey for consistently opposing every progressive idea presented to council over the past year and a half. Price and Coffey countered with a recounting of a post-election social gathering where Mr. Messer purportedly said he couldn't see how the city could afford it. Of course, that was right after the election.

Messer's confident defense of the Scribner Place investment is just one indicator of how much he has grown in the job. If you don't yet know Jack, you owe it to yourself to meet him.

In any event, Mr. Coffey's resolution failed to pass on a 3-4-1 vote. Voting in favor of giving back the $20 million were Coffey, Price, and Bill Schmidt (2nd district veteran). Voting to reject the resolution were Mrs. Beverly Crump, Messer, Mark Seabrook, and council president Jeff Gahan. It was reported to me that at-large CM Donnie Blevins abstained on this vote.

Observers remarked that it was a signal to anyone who might think Mr. Blevins was anything but his own man, and a further signal that Donnie intends to press hard in the coming months for his emerging constituency.

And then came the main event. In rapid order, Mr. Messer introduced a resolution that removed CM Larry Kochert's "poison pill" that so annoyed the council's counterparts on the county council, but otherwise reaffirmed the city's total commitment to the project.

It passed 5-3. Scribner Place is a go!

I should note that, as expected, Mr. Kochert was unable to attend due to a previously scheduled vacation. The July 7 majority held with Messer, Crump, Blevins, Seabrook, and Gahan again voting to support the resolution, but this time without the affront to the county.

In all likelihood, the Floyd County Council will be looking at a proposal to fund one-half of the government component of the bond payments. The bond consultant again indicated that the likely amount will be $270,000. That offers the county a chance to put all county residents pulling the oars on the Scribner Place vote by authorizing an annual payment, presumably from economic development taxes, in the amount of $135,000.

My guess is they'll find that doable. As Mr. Price is wont to say, "Everybody wins."

Let me also take this opportunity to apologize, at least half-seriously, for having doubted Messrs. Coffey and Schmidt. Despite all evidence to the contrary over the past several months, both council members informed us before voting that they were FOR city investment in Scribner Place. Mr. Coffey said he would vote "Aye" but for the promise to pledge the city's full faith and credit (property taxing authority) to the bonds. Mr. Schmidt forcefully dittoed that, declaring that he had always been for the city redevelopment project (what about that abstention from two weeks ago?) but he too, could not in good conscience promise to pay the city's indebtedness in the event of fiscal disaster.

Dan and Bill, we've been misunderstanding you all along.

Now, for a little straight news and then a little flavor.

It turns out the city will not have to repay the sewer fund for repairs made at Clark Street after the deluge of June. The city's drainage fund paid the whole $17,000 ticket.

The council approved the 1- and 5-year plans submitted by the redevelopment commission.

The labor contract with unionized city streets and sanitation workers was approved.

The labor contract with the firefighters union was approved.

At the request of city controller Kay Garry, September's council sessions were rescheduled to one week later in the month, from Sept. 1 to Sept. 8 and from Sept. 15 to Sept. 22.

The public comment period included endorsements of Scribner Place from Donald Sloan (sp?), chairman of the Southern Indiana Chamber of Commerce and Greg Phipps, resident of the East Spring Street Historic District.

Susan Johnson, who lives and breathes sewer issues, questioned the viability of the city's sewers, particularly the newly completed McDonald Lane upgrade. Sewer Board member and CM Mark Seabrook assured her that the symptoms she cited were not, in fact, escaping sewage, but an eminently fixable gas release that will cost the city nothing to repair. Johnson then recited a doom-filled litany of (sewer-related) reasons why there were "too many unanswered questions" to proceed with the Scribner Place redevelopment project.

Yvonne Kersey showed her interest in parliamentary procedure, then seconded Mrs. Johnson's "sky-is-falling" routine. It's almost endearing the way Yvonne works each day to hold back the sunrise, only to fail and then repeat her futile efforts the next morning.

County resident and pledge-mocking news crier Dave "Brambleberry" Huckleberry put on the record that he had been misquoted in a previous newspaper account regarding his support for Scribner Place. He too, is FOR the Scribner Place city redevelopment project, just not if the city or redevelopment are involved.


I used the word "noble" to describe the meeting, and for the most part it was. I must admit to being filled with such disgust by the McCarthyite tactics of Mr. Coffey that I had to leave the room and lurk in the hallway. But after calming down a bit, I decided to find a better vantage point from which to observe the proceedings.

I paid particularly close attention to Mr. Coffey and I have to report that his heart really wasn't in his opposition to the key decision of the night. Usually angry, Mr. Coffey was more sad than mad. In defeat, and make no mistake about it, he was a defeated man, he was not petulant. To have held sway over this council for most of 18 months, Mr. Coffey seemed resigned to the fact that he was now serving on a council of equals.

Who knows? Maybe all the bluster and demagoguery was just Dan's way of making the council stronger.

And where once Mr. Coffey felt it his duty to assert his own power, he is now a Cassandra of the first stripe in declaring that James Garner is a power to be feared.

What a year it has been. Where once the old bulls ran roughshod over the new council members, the progressives have now taken over the council. Jack Messer is exhibiting a previously unsuspected leadership ability that bodes well for the future. Beverly Crump seems free to take the initiative and takes no guff from anyone. Donnie Blevins is showing he has a keen grasp on the issues facing the city. And council president Jeff Gahan grows ever more confident in keeping the council on track and doing business with dispatch and efficiency.

Mark it down, folks. July 21, 2005. Tomorrow, as Develop New Albany crows, is when "The Renaissance Begins."

Open Forum - An Experiment

OK, my old pal Roger at NA Confidential is taking something called a "vacation," which apparently has something to do with leaving town. Being more of a policy wonk than a polemicist, I tend to post with a degree of seriousness and with less humor and bite than RAB, but for the next week, it will have to do.

Back to politics, of the municipal sort.

Tonight's city council meeting promises to be a dilly, with any number of difficult topics likely to be addressed. For now, we'll just list them in no particular order, but don't be surprised if something else winds up stealing the headlines.

Mayor Garner has boldly declared that the city intends to proceed with authorizing a bond issue for the Scribner Place redevelopment project. You remember that one, don't you. A few dozen folks have rallied around the banner of "no progress," but they are vastly outnumbered by the thousands of New Albanians who are expecting their city to act with vision and make the YMCA, the aquatic center, and the infrastructure for private investment a reality.

Presumably, Larry Kochert's poison pill will be removed from the resolution passed just two short weeks ago, and the 5 council members who voted to support Scribner Place will get this thing rolling.

Interestingly, CM Kochert won't even be in the same time zone when the meeting starts - he may well be sipping mai tais in the noonday sun at 7:30 EDT. It's a coincidence, I'm sure, but this will allow the retired Kochert to enjoy his retirement without ever having to explain either a yes or no vote on Scribner Place.

CM Dan Coffey, the 1st District's resident wizard, will try to cast his spell again. We hear he is introducing a resolution that would simply give the $20 million grant from the Caesars Foundation the proverbial back of the hand. He will ask his fellow council members to kill the idea of a city redevelopment project in the 1st District.

Hey, Dan? We'd love to publicize your "wacky resolution of the month" on all of our Web sites. How about retiring all of the police patrol vehicles and replacing them with saddlebreds?

The building commission and the potential for a new inspector hire are likely to pop up, even if unofficially. Mr. House, who once served as building commissioner, has publicly stated he's coming back, but not everyone is thrilled to hear about it. We hear that Mr. Kochert is sponsoring the idea, but then, he won't be here to defend it.

Continuing woes with sanitation operations may well be part of the non-agenda part of the meeting tonight, too. I hear that some misinformed folks are spreading the word that the city no longer recycles. I checked that rumor out and can tell you - nothing has changed. Equipment breakdowns sometimes dictate that recyclables be mixed with other refuse, but official policy and practice are the same as ever.

I also hear a solution to the equipment problems is being addressed and will be implemented soon. Curious, though, that an appropriation for sanitation equipment has been lying on the council's table since January. What's up with that, Dan?

And be sure to be there sometime around 8 p.m. when CM Bill Schmidt will give us a reading from some arcane letter apropos of nothing on the council agenda. It's always a highlight to hear Mr. Schmidt's disconnected monotone break into the proceedings upon receiving a secret signal from somewhere in the room.

Third Floor Assembly Room, 7:30 p.m., Thursday, July 21.

Here's the agenda for tonight:

(as provided by City Clerk Marcey Wisman at


PUBLIC HEARING at 7:15 p.m. to discuss the following:

A-05-24 Additional Appropriation Ordinance
A-05-25 Additional Appropriation Ordinance


Common Council Minutes of July 7, 2005 regular meeting and Public Hearing.


Kempco Food (tenant) Accent Marketing (tenant) and Koetter Development (landlord),Compliance with Statement of Benefits, Referencing R-03-16

R-05-16 Resolution To Repay Sewer Fund for Payment to Team Contracting Regarding Clark Street (Seabrook)
R-05-19 Resolution of the Common Council of the City Of New Albany (Messer)
R-05-20 City of New Albany, Indiana Resolution (Coffey)
R-05-21 City of New Albany, Indiana Resolution (Messer)
A-05-24 Additional Appropriation Ordinance (Schmidt 1)
A-05-25 Additional Appropriation Ordinance (Kochert 1)
A-05-20 Additional Appropriation Ordinance (Schmidt 2&3)
A-05-21 Additional Appropriation Ordinance (Seabrook 2&3)
A-05-22 An Ordinance Setting Salaries for ASCME Employees, A.F.L.-C.I.O, Indiana Council 62, Local 1861
(Price 2&3)
A-05-23 An Ordinance Amending Ordinance No. A-04-52 Setting Salaries for the Year 2005 for Sworn Members of the New Albany Fire Department (Blevins 2&3)
Z-05-15 Ordinance Amending the Code of Ordinances of New Albany, Indiana, Title XV, Chapter 156 (DocketP-12-05: J & S Builders) (Crump 2&3)

A-05-07 An Ordinance to Amend Ordinance No. A-04-56 Setting Salaries for Non-Union Employees for 2005 (H.R. & Benefits) (Kochert)
G-04-17 An Ordinance Amending Ordinance No. A-04-07 (Messer)
G-04-21 An Ordinance Amending Ordinance Chapter 150: Building Regulations (Messer)
A-05-09 Additional Appropriation (police cars) (Price)
A-05-10 Additional Appropriation (garbage packers) (Messer)


You'll notice I've opened the comments section again, this time with no restrictions on who can post. Feel free to report your impressions or predictions for tonight's meeting, but please try to confine your remarks to those issues likely to emerge at the city council meeting.