Posts tagged ‘Phoenix’

I Used to Respect Michael Crow. Never Mind. The NCAA Hypocrisy Never Ends

Arizona State University (ASU) has always had a certain niche in the college world, a niche best evidenced by their making both the top 10 party school and top 10 hottest women lists in the same year.  President Michael Crow has done a fair amount to, if not reverse this image, at least add some academic cred to the university.  ASU has been creeping up the USN&WR rankings, has a very serious and respected honors college (Barrett) and hosts the Origins conference each year, one of the most fun public education events I have attended.

But Michael Crow is now upset that another Phoenix area school has been given Division I status in sports, a for-profit college named Grand Canyon University.  This could really hurt both ASU's athletic recruiting in the area as well as dilute its revenues.  But in the supremely hypocritical world college athletics, he can't say that.  Instead, he says (Via Tyler Cowen)

The conference's 12 presidents signed and delivered a letter dated July 10 urging the NCAA's Executive Committee to "engage in further, careful consideration" about allowing for-profit universities to become Division I members at the committee's August meeting. In the meantime, Pac-12 presidents decided at a league meeting last month not to schedule future contests against Grand Canyon while the issue is under consideration.

"A university using intercollegiate athletics to drive up its stock value -- that's not what we're about," Arizona State president Michael Crow said in a phone interview over the weekend. "... If someone asked me, should we play the Pepsi-Cola Company in basketball? The answer is no. We shouldn't be playing for-profit corporations."...

"Our presidents have a pretty clear view that athletics works for the broader benefit of the university," said Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott. "There's a discomfort with the idea that the sole accountability around athletics would be to a company that might use athletics as a marketing tool to drive stock price. There's a sense that changes the dynamics and accountability around athletics."

It is freaking hilarious to get lectured on accountability around athletics by the NCAA.  This is an organization that has been making billions off unpaid workers for years, workers who think so much of the value of the compensation they do receive (a free education) that most of the best of them never complete it.  I wrote more about the NCAA and athletes here.  In short, though, all these schools use the athletic program to raise capital (in the form of donations), likely far more so than a private school's sports team would raise its stock value.  Unless you grew up near the school, what do you know about well-known schools like Penn State, Ohio State, University of Miami, LSU, Alabama and even Notre Dame other than their athletics program?

Michael Crow reveals himself as just another incumbent that does not want competition.

In regards to Grand Canyon specifically, though, it would certainly appear that Crow, who's been spearheading the effort, is driven in part by protecting his own turf. Arizona State has long been the only Division I university in the Phoenix market. And in the bigger picture, it seems a bit self-righteous that the same group of presidents that in 2011 signed a $3 billion contract with ESPN and FOX -- and which last year launched a profitable television network of their own -- would play the "non-profit" card in calling out someone else's motives.

"It's different in the following sense," Crow said of the comparison. "Whatever income we generate from a television network goes to support the swimming team, the rowing team at Cal. We support thousands of athletes and their scholarships, their room-and-board, as part of the intercollegiate spirit of athletics. ... In the case of a for-profit corporation, those profits go to the shareholders."

His last point is a distinction without a difference.  First, I am not sure it is true -- Grand Canyon also has other athletic programs that cost money but don't bring in revenue. They also have a women's swim team, for example.  But who cares anyway?  Why is a student interested in swimming more worthy of receiving football largess than an investor?  Maybe Crow is worried that the people of Arizona that fund so much of his operations (and bloated overpaid administrative staff) might suddenly start wondering why they don't get a return for their investment as do GCU shareholders.

Postscript:  Phil Knight at Oregon and Boone Pickens at Oklahoma State (to name just 2 examples) get an incredible amount of influence in the university due to the money they give to their football programs and the importance of the football programs to those schools.  Boone Pickens says he has given half a billion dollars to OSU, half of which went to the football program.  But it is clear he would not have given a dime if he had not been concerned with the football team's fortunes and the problem of his university's football team losing to other rich guy's teams.  Is this really somehow better and cleaner than being beholden to equity markets?

The link in the original article is broken, so here is a better link to an article and video of how "non-profits" are spending their athletic money, on things like this palatial locker room for the Alabama football team that would make Nero's gladiators blush.

Prices and Sustainability

I had a discussion with a locavore-type person in Boulder, Colorado last week at their farmers market.    He told me that while his costs to grow his produce were higher than the stuff I might find in Safeway, his products were more sustainable.

I asked him how that could be.  I observed that in a well functioning market, the costs of his inputs should reflect their relative scarcity and the scarcity of the resources that went into them.   Over time, particularly in a commodity market, prices were a sort of amazing scarcity integral.  If his costs were higher, that should mean he is using more or scarcer resources.  Isn't that the opposite of sustainability?

In fact, prices are such an amazing, almost magical, gauge of an item's resource intensity that it should tell us something that folks who purport to care about sustainability tend to have a disdain and distrust for markets and prices.   Sure, I understand certain externalities (CO2, for example, if you accept it as one) are not necessarily priced in, but the mistrust of prices seems to go beyond this.

In this particular case, his argument was the food was local and so used a lot less resources in transportation, and organic, so used less fertilizer and other chemicals.  But this is simply tipping the scales, trying to apply new weights and priorities to certain inputs that simply don't obtain in the real world.  The locavore focus on transportation costs is amazing, as it focuses on just one narrow cost and energy input for food, ignoring the energy of production and the energy to deliver other inputs to the local farm.  Take our situation in Phoenix -- sure, a local farmer used less energy to truck the finished food to market, but how much energy and other resources were used to move the water to grow it hundreds of miles to our desert here?  Or what about land use -- organic local farming may save trucking and chemicals, but what if the yields per acre are a third of what one might get on the best soils in a another part of the country?  Prices take into account the scarcity of not just tranportation fuel but land and labor as well.  Sustainability advocates often want to put their thumb on the scales and overweight just one resource.  That is why, for example, in the name of CO2 reduction we are clearing tons of virgin land, including land in the Amazon, to farm biofuel products.

Corporate Welfare and the Thin Edge of the Wedge

The other day, the City of Glendale approved a deal which has the city subsidizing (more in a second) the buyers of the Phoenix Coyotes hockey team to get them to actually stay in town rather than move to Seattle.  The deal is arguably better than deals it was offered in the past (it gets shares of parking and naming rights it did not have before) and may even be a rational deal given where it is today.

But that is the catch -- the phrase "where it is today."  At some level it is insane for a city of 250,000 people to pony up even more subsidies for a team that has the lowest attendance in the league.  The problem is that the city built the stadium in the first place -- a $300 million dollar palace for a metropolitan area that already had a major arena downtown and which was built (no disrespect to Glendale) on the ass-end of the metropolitan area, a good 90 minute round trip drive for the affluent Scottsdale and east-side corporate patrons who typically keep a sports franchise afloat.

Building this stadium was a terrible decision, and I and many others said so at the time.  But once the decision was made, it drove all the future decisions.  Because the hockey team is the only viable tenant to pay the rent in that building, the city rationally will kick back subsidies to the team to keep it in place to protect its rent payments and sales taxes from businesses supported by the team and the arena.  The original decision to build that stadium has handcuffed Glendale's fiscal situation for decades to come.  One can only hope that cities considering major stadium projects will look to Glendale's and Miami's recent experiences and think twice about building taxpayer funded facilities for billionaires.

The deal the other night to keep the team went down in the only way it could have.  As I had written, the NHL was insisting on selling the team for its costs when it took it over in bankruptcy, which were about $200 million, which was well north of the $100 million the team was worth, creating a bid-ask gap.  Several years ago, the city tried to just hand $100 million to a buyer to make up the gap, but failed when challenged by the Goldwater Institute.  The only real avenue it had left was to pass the value over to the buyers in the form of an above-market-rate stadium management contract.

And that is what happened, and I guess I will say at least it was all moderately transparent.  The NHL came down to a price of $175 million, still $75 million or so above what the team is worth.   The City had already sought arms-length bids for the stadium management contract, and knew that a fair market price for that contract would be $6 million per year.  It ended up paying the buying group $15 million per year for the 15-year contract, representing a subsidy of $9 million a year for 15 years.  By the way, the present value of $9 million over 15 years at 8% is... $75 million, exactly what was needed to make up the bid-ask gap.  Again, I think the city almost had to do it, because the revenue stream it was protecting is likely higher than $9 million.  But this is the kind of bad choices they saddled themselves with by building the stadium in the first place.

New Emergency Broadcast Texts

Don't know if you have seen these, but many cellular networks activated the capability to broadcast government "emergency" messages in the last week.  Mine has gone off twice in 3 days.  I get a tone like the old emergency broadcast network test on the radio and then a text like this one.  Not sure why dust storms that are routine features of summer here in Phoenix warrant having the NWS spam my phone, but there it is.  Tornado and tsunami warnings certainly make sense.  Wonder when the first conspiracy theory / scandal hits, such as the election day alert that warns people to avoid travel.

photo (2)

 

PS, gotta love "til" rather than "until".   Can't wait for the "Tornado Warning - FML" message.

This May Finally End NHL Hockey in Arizona

Let me bring you up to speed:  The NHL owns the Phoenix Coyotes hockey team, having taken them over in bankruptcy.  It needs to sell the team and is demanding $200 million for the team, having promised the league owners it would not accept anything less (so they will not take a loss in the investment).  The team is worth, however, something like $100 million, at least if it stays in Arizona.

The team plays in a stadium built by the relatively small city (250,000 people) of Glendale, which put something like $300 million of taxpayer money into the stadium and has provided operating subsidies to the team the last several years that probably total another $100 million, at least.  The city has a bad hand, but keeps doubling down on its bet to try to retain the team.

The problem, of course, is the $100 million difference in the bid-ask for the team.  Glendale first tried to fix this by agreeing in a previous deal couple of years ago to basically give the buyer $100 million of taxpayer money to bridge the bid-ask gap.  The Goldwater Institute sued, saying that the Arizona Constitution pretty clearly states the government can't directly subsidize commercial interests.  They prevailed (before it ever reached court) and the deal died.

The only way left for Glendale to make the deal happen was to give a buyer $100 million in taxpayer money but to do so in a more disguised manner.  The one option they had was in the stadium management contract.  If they agreed, say, to pay the buyer $10 million a year over market rates for the stadium management contract, over 15 years that has about a $100 million present value.  They can get away with this because there is no objective valuation of what a management contract would cost on the open market.

But their ability to do this is, thankfully, about to die.  Under intense pressure, and in a fit of good government that I am sure Glendale regrets, it actually went out and sought arms-length contracts for stadium management from third parties.  It is enormously unlikely the city will accept any of these bids, because it needs the stadium contract as a carrot for someone to buy the Coyotes at the NHL's inflated price.  Besides, I bid on large contracts a lot and I have often been presented with bid packages from an entity that had no intention of awarding, but wanted me to go through all the bid effort just to establish an internal price benchmark or to keep their preferred provider honest.  I can smell these from a mile away now.

The problem Glendale will have, though, is that when these 3rd party bids become public (which they inevitably will), it will then be impossible to hide the implicit subsidy in the management contract.  Presumably, taxpayers then will push back on any future deals using this dodge, though Glendale citizens seem pretty supine so one never knows.  Also, the city can also tweak the responsibilities of the stadium contract, thereby allowing them to claim that comparisons against these past bids are apples and oranges (though this will be hard as I expect arms-length bids around $5 million a year vs. $15 million they propose to pay the team buyer).

PS-  It is hilarious to see worried comments from Gary Bettman (NHL Commissioner) about how hard on Glendale it will be if the Coyotes leave town.  Merely lowering his asking price to something less than 2x the market price would solve the problem in an instant.

The Next Step in Regulation Madness

So, what is the next danger to the Republic that requires coercive government control to protect us all from disaster?  Pedicabs:

Operating a pedicab used to be cheap and easy. A person could make a buck with little or no overhead and without restrictive, burdensome regulations.

That’s no longer true in some Valley cities that have approved ordinances limiting who can operate pedicabs on their streets. Scottsdale is the latest to tighten its rules, joining Phoenix and Glendale. No other Valley municipality regulates pedicabs.

To continue doing business in Scottsdale, pedicab operators must have a valid Arizona driver’s license, maintain insurance and adhere to regulations pertaining to the safety and visibility of the pedicab. The ordinance, which became law on May 9, includes penalties for non-compliance but does not specify any inspections.

Phoenix’s ordinance, which went into effect in August 2008, was in response to concerns and complaints from downtown stakeholders and patrons regarding pedicab activity, city spokeswoman Sina Matthes said. The ordinance is stricter than Scottsdale’s, requiring Police Department inspections and inspection tags.

Glendale’s ordinance, which became law in late 2007, requires a city-issued license and limits the hours of operation and what roads can be used by operators, said Sgt. Jay O’Neill of the Glendale Police Department.

Why the regulation.  What safety disaster led to this?  Well, apparently some poor pedicab operator allowed himself to be hit by a drunk driver.

Scottsdale’s ordinance was prompted by a Jan. 4 crash involving a suspected drunken driver and a pedicab trailer on Scottsdale Road near Rose Lane. The two pedicab passengers suffered serious head and spine injuries.

Scottsdale police determined that there were no mechanical or safety violations.

Here is some government cluelessness:  it is OK if we rape you as long as we ask for your feedback first

In Scottsdale, operators must maintain at all times a commercial general-liability insurance policy of at least $1 million per occurrence and $2 million annual aggregate.

Jay Ewing Jr., owner and operator of Big Papa Human Powered Transportation, said four people have asked him if he wanted to purchase their equipment because they are going out of business in connection with the Scottsdale regulations. He says a pedicab operator can expect to pay at least $250 a month for insurance....

Scottsdale police Cmdr. Jeff Walther said the transition has gone smoothly because all operators were made aware of the proposed changes and were given the opportunity to provide input before the regulations were approved by the council.

“I was surprised, my folks were surprised, that almost immediately there seemed to be a pretty dramatic decline in operators,” Walther said.

Three Cheers For Goldwater Institute Fighting Pension Spiking

The Goldwater Institute is threatening to sue the City of Phoenix in order to stop pension spiking.  According to the Arizona Republic,

State law says “unused sick leave, payment in lieu of vacation, payment for unused compensatory time or payment for any fringe benefits” cannot be used as compensation to compute retirement benefits.

State law also says that only “base salary, overtime pay, shift differential pay, military differential wage pay, compensatory time used by an employee in lieu of overtime not otherwise paid by an employer and holiday pay” may be used to calculate pension benefits.

This seems pretty explicit.  The City admits to using sick leave, vacation pay, and fringe benefit values (e.g. cars and cell phones) in the pension calculation.  So this seems pretty cut and dried.  The city is breaking the explicit letter of the law.

That Goldwater has a good case can be judged from the fairly lame defenses of Phoenix practices by local unions.  None seem to address the basic legal issue, but instead accuse Goldwater of "wasting taxpayer funds if it forced Phoenix to defend itself in court", a fairly hilarious attempt to claim the moral high ground of fiscal responsibility.

In fact, it appears that public workers believe  (and I think this is a fairly common belief) that their collective bargaining agreements trump state law.

John Teffy, a Phoenix Fire Department captain, said Goldwater should stand down.

“It seems to me that if the Goldwater Institute took the time to understand how the city works and how contracts work, they would know there is a much simpler way to address this than with (threats of) frivolous lawsuits,” Teffy said.

I did not understand this statement at first, but what I think he is saying is that since the "Contract" in his mind supersedes all laws, then the way to deal with this is through a contract renegotiation.  I think public workers see the writing on the wall and know that pension spiking is illegal, so they are hoping to handle this through a contract negotiation that just shifts this lost spiked value to workers in some other more legal form.  A great strategy for them, but a terrible one for taxpayers, who should not have to pay for the union's past illegality.

Phoenix Spent $1.4 Billion To Cannibalize Buses

I have written many times about my problems with Phoenix light rail -- examples are here and here.  We paid $1.4 billion in initial capital costs, plus tens of millions a year in operating losses that must be subsidized by taxpayers, for a line that carries a tiny tiny percentage of Phoenix commuters.  Capital costs equate to something like $75,000 per daily round trip rider  -- If we had simply bought every daily rider a Prius, we would have save a billion dollars.

But, as with most things the government does, it is worse than I thought.  Over the last several years, I have been treating these daily light rail riders as if they are incremental users of the area's transit system.  In fact, they are not, by Valley Metro's (our regional transit authority) own numbers.  Here is the key chart, from their web site.

ridership report chart graphic

Compare 2009 to 2012.  Between those years, light rail ridership increased by just a hair under 8 million.  In the same time period, bus ridership fell by just a hair over 8 million.  So all new light rail ridership is just cannibalizing buses.  We have spent $1.4 billion dollars to shift people to a far more expensive transit platform, which does not offer any faster service along its route (the light rail has to fight through traffic lights on the surface streets same as buses).

This is a pattern seen in most cities that adopt light rail.  Over time, total ridership is flat or falls despite rising rail ridership, because rail is so expensive that it's operation forces transit authorities to cut back on bus service to balance their budgets.  Since the cost per rider is so much higher for light rail than buses, a dollar shifted from buses to light rail results in a net reduction in ridership.

Postscript:  Looking at the chart, light rail has achieved something that Valley Metro has not seen in decades -- a three year period with a decline in total ridership.  Sure, I know there was a recession, but going into the recession the Valley Metro folks were arguing that a poor economy and rising gas prices should boost their ridership.

 

 

Remember Richard Jewell

My wife and I were discussing the Atlanta bombing last night and it struck me that, with all the false reports out of Boston, it would be useful to remind folks of the fate of Richard Jewell, a man whose life was essentially destroyed by our collective need for quick answers about a tragedy.  But Patrick at Popehat has already done the heavy lifting, so I will turn it over to him.

By the way, in an odd local angle on the story, for some reason Fox decided to interview Joe Arpaio as an "expert" after the blast.  Joe is an expert -- at getting himself media attention.  But I am trying to remember the last terrorist incident we had here in Phoenix.

Ugh, Another Crony Enterprise Born

When I read this in our local paper, alarm bells immediately went off:

A friendship cemented while working together on the state’s economic development efforts has led to a new partnership linking Roy Vallee, the former Avnet Inc. chairman and chief executive officer, with private developer Don Cardon.

Great, two folks who have focused on bringing crony corporatist benefits to selected local businesses and business relocations are going into business together.  I don't know these guys, I am sure they are fine folks, but my first thought was a business that leveraged their connections with government to create private profits.

Reading further, this seems like a good guess:

The two metro Phoenix business leaders say they will collaborate on large commercial developments, including those with a special public-interest focus and those with special complexities....

Cardon spent three years at the Arizona Commerce Authority, a public-private partnership, and the predecessor Arizona Commerce Department. Aside from that, he perhaps is best-known as a driving force behind CityScape, the three-block, $1.2 billion mixed-use development in downtown Phoenix. He cites as a strength his ability to bring private and public interests together on a project.

Yep, I definitely think I am on to something:

The firm will strive to encourage a “collective vision” and “make sure projects are worthy of investment and will be successful,” Cardon said. “Everything we do will involve public value, enriching the quality of life.”

You know the type of project -- the ones where the city / state / Feds justify investing millions of taxpayer money into private projects because "they create jobs" (like those at Solyndra).  In fact, the two partners are already polishing up this mantra, which I am sure we will hear over and over:

Deals typically will exceed $100 million and will create hundreds of jobs, both in the development stage and when complete, he said. The company , however, will maintain a fairly lean staff.

“We’re not a big employer, but we’ll be a job creator,” he said.

I want to make a couple of quick points:

  • Investments whose primary return is "jobs" are not investments, because jobs are a cost, not an income stream.  Investing public money to create jobs means that one is investing money now so that it incurs costs later. 
  • All successful capitalist enterprises that make  a profit by definition create "public value" and "enrich the quality of life."  Otherwise no one would buy their product or service and they would fail.  In fact, only publicly-funded projects can evade this sort of accountability.  When it is said that these projects deliver "public value," what is meant is that they deliver benefits that a few self-selected people have defined as somehow interesting to the public, but which it turns out the public (when given a choice) is unwilling to pay for.  Which is how we get the local town of Glendale continuing to subsidize an ice hockey team for $25 million or so a year.

One Reason the Press is Always So Statist

Why is the media always so deferential to the state?  The reasons may be in part ideological, but there is a public choice explanation as well -- the state (particularly local police and crime stories) generate most of its headlines, and so they have a financial incentive to retain access to the source of so much of their content.

Perhaps even more revealing, though, was this:

To start, [San Diego County Sheriff's Office] spokeswoman Jan Caldwell explained to the room full of journalists why it is so important to be nice to her: "If you are rude, if you are obnoxious, if you are demanding, if you call me a liar, I will probably not talk to you anymore. And there's only one sheriff's department in town, and you can go talk to the deputies all you want but there's one PIO."

Here we have the heart of the matter. "Professional" journalists may, indeed, be brilliant, talented, well-trained, professional, with an abiding appetite for hard-hitting but neutral reporting. Yet professional journalists also depend on relationships. Ms. Caldwell calls that fact out, sending law enforcement's core message to the press: if you want access, play the game.

The game colors mainstream media coverage of criminal justice. Here's my overt bias: I'm a criminal defense attorney, a former prosecutor, and a critic of the criminal justice system. In my view, the press is too often deferential to police and prosecutors. They report the state's claims as fact and the defense's as nitpicking or flimflam. They accept the state's spin on police conduct uncritically. They present criminal justice issues from their favored "if it bleeds it leads" perspective rather than from a critical and questioning perspective, happily covering deliberate spectacle rather than calling it out as spectacleThey accept leaks and tips and favors from law enforcement, even when those tips and leaks and favors violate defendants' rights, and even when the act of giving the tip or leak or favor is itself a story that somebody ought to be investigating. In fact, they cheerfully facilitate obstruction of justice through leaks. They dumb down criminal justice issues to serve their narrative, or because they don't understand them.

This "professional" press approach to the criminal justice system serves police and prosecutors very well. They favor reporters who hew to it. Of course they don't want to answer questions from the 800-pound bedridden guy in fuzzy slippers in his mother's basement. But it's not because an 800-pound bedridden guy can't ask pertinent questions. It's because he's frankly more likely to ask tough questions, more likely to depart from the mutually accepted narrative about the system, less likely to be "respectful" in order to protect his access. (Of course, he might also be completely nuts, in a way that "mainstream" journalism screens out to some extent.)

Which is why, despite Joe Arpaio's frequent antics that make national news, it falls to our local alt-weekly here in Phoenix rather than our monopoly daily paper to do actual investigative reporting on the Sheriff's office.

Sequester Fear-Mongering, State Version

The extent to which the media is aiding and abetting, with absolutely no skepticism, the sky-is-falling sequester reaction of pro-big-government forces is just sickening.  I have never seen so many absurd numbers published so credulously by so much of the media.  Reporters who are often completely unwilling to accept any complaints from corporations as valid when it comes to over-taxation or over-regulation are willing to print their sequester complaints without a whiff of challenge.  Case in point, from here in AZ.  This is a "news" article in our main Phoenix paper:

Arizona stands to lose nearly 49,200 jobs and as much as $4.9 billion in gross state product this year if deep automatic spending cuts go into effect Friday, and the bulk of the jobs and lost production would be carved from the defense industry.

Virtually all programs, training and building projects at the state’s military bases would be downgraded, weakening the armed forces’ defense capabilities, according to military spokesmen.

“It’s devastating and it’s outrageous and it’s shameful,” U.S. Sen. John McCain told about 200 people during a recent town-hall meeting in Phoenix.

“It’s disgraceful, and it’s going to happen. And it’s going to harm Arizona’s economy dramatically,” McCain said.

Estimates vary on the precise number of jobs at stake in Arizona, but there’s wide agreement that more than a year of political posturing on sequestration in Washington will leave deep economic ruts in Arizona.

Not a single person who is skeptical of these estimates is quoted in the entirety of the article.  The entire incremental cut of the sequester in discretionary spending this year is, from page 11 of the most recent CBO report, about $35 billion (larger numbers you may have seen around 70-80 billion include dollars that were going away anyway, sequester or not, which just shows the corruption of this process and the reporting on it.)

Dividing this up based on GDP, about 1/18th of this cut would apply to Arizona, giving AZ a cut in Federal spending of around $2 billion.  It takes a heroic multiplier to get from that to  $4.9 billion in GDP loss.  Its amazing to me that Republicans assume multipliers less than 1 for all government spending, except for defense (and sports stadiums) which magically take on multipliers of 2+.

Update:  I wrote the following letter to the Editor today:

I was amazed that in Paul Giblin’s February 26 article on looming sequester cuts [“Arizona Defense Industry, Bases Would Bear Brunt Of Spending Cuts”], he was able to write 38 paragraphs and yet could not find space to hear from a single person exercising even a shred of skepticism about these doom and gloom forecasts.

The sequester rhetoric that Giblin credulously parrots is part of a game that has been played for decades, with government agencies and large corporations that supply them swearing that even trivial cuts will devastate the economy.  They reinforce this sky-is-falling message by threatening to cut all the most, rather than least, visible and important tasks and programs in order to scare the public into reversing the cuts.  The ugliness of this process is made worse by the hypocrisy of Republicans, who suddenly become hard core Keynesians when it comes to spending on military.

It is a corrupt, yet predictable, game, and it is disappointing to see the ArizonaRepublic playing along so eagerly.

Global Warming Hits Phoenix

phoenix-global-warming

 

Is Al Gore in town?

Life in Phoenix

The first time I ever saw one of these coming at me, my first thought was to a Steven King novel (the Mist).  I had a moment where I honestly thought to myself, "I wonder if, five minutes from now, I am going to regret not jumping in my car and driving like hell to stay ahead of this thing."  More here

Basically an enormous dirt tsunami  once inside of it things are not as bad as they look, with it being like a medium-dense brown fog.  Of course, absolutely everything one owns outside or with the smallest non-airtight seal to the outside has to be hosed off afterwards.

Teach for America

One of the charities my family supports is Teach for America.  Among other things, we sponsor a local teacher in the program.  A bunch of our friends were kind enough to chip in with gifts for the kids in her class and my wife and I delivered them last week at the Phoenix Collegiate Academy, a charter school in South Phoenix for 5-8 graders.

The fun of delivering the presents was reduced later on finding out that at almost that same moment, another group of kids was being killed in Connecticut.  But through a strange series of articles that seemed to have used the Sandy Hook massacre as an argument for teacher unionization and against charter schools (yeah, I don't get the connection either), I found out that teachers unions hate Teach for America.  Which means that I will likely double my contribution next year.

Postscript:  Teach for America began as a senior thesis at Princeton.  Its key idea is to make teaching a viable job option, as least for a few years, for top college grads.  The program is quite selective, and combines talented highly motivated young people with a proven teaching approach.  They then drop these teachers into the public school system, often in classrooms with a high percentage of kids who qualify for school lunch programs (ie low income).

It's clear from the article that teachers union and education establishment types hate these teachers.  Since they make a contrast by calling themselves "professionals", the presumed implication is that these young people are unprofessional.  Its amazing to me that anyone who has spent even ten minutes in a room with a group of TFA teachers could be so hostile to them.  I have met many of them, and they are a consistently amazing bunch who are both smart and genuinely love their kids.

I was skeptical, and still am a bit, of the notion of throwing great teachers into a failing public school system.  They clearly help individual kids, which is why I am still behind it, but they do nothing to help the overall system.  It's like sending great engineers into Solyndra  -- at some level, it seems like a waste (though I am impressed with this particular charter school, which seems to be doing a good job with the limited resources it has -- it gets far less money per pupil than the average public school in Phoenix but does a better job given the demographic of its students).

Hotels Among the Favored Few in the Corporate State (Along with Sports Teams, Taxi Owners, and Farmers)

The various cities in the Phoenix metropolitan area have spent a fortune renovating ten spring training fields for 15 major league teams.  I have seen a number like $500 million for the total, but this seems low as Scottsdale spent $100 million for just one complex and Glendale may have spent as much as $200 million for theirs.  Never-the-less, its a lot of taxpayer money.

The primary subsidy, of course, is for major league teams that get lovely facilities that they use for about one month in twelve.

But these subsidies always get sold on their community impact.  But that economic impact turns out to be really narrow.  For in-town visitors, the economic impact is typically a wash, as money spent on going to sports games just substitutes for other local spending.  But these stadiums are held up as great economic engines because they attract out of town visitors:

Cactus League baseball and year-round use of its ballparks and training facilities add an estimated $632 million to Arizona economy, according to a study released Monday by the Cactus League Baseball Association.

The study found that 56 percent of the 1.7 million fans attending games this past spring were out-of-state visitors and the median stay in metro Phoenix was 5.3 nights.

Spring training accounted for $422 million in economic impact in 2012, up 36 percent from the previous study in 2007. Both were done by FMR Associates of Tucson.

One of the flaws of such studies is they never, ever look at what the business displaces.  For example, for local visitors, they never look at local spending sports customers might have made if they had not gone to the game.  All spending on the sports-related businesses are treated as incremental.   For out-of-town visitors, no one ever considers other visitors coming for non-sports reasons who are displaced (March was already, without all the baseball, the busiest hotel month in Phoenix) or considers that some of the visitors might have come to the area anyway.

However, let's for one moment of excessive credulity accept these numbers, and look at the out of town visitors.  56 percent of 1.7 million people times 5.3 nights divided by 2 people per room is 2.52 million room nights, or at $150 each a total of $378 million.   So most of their spring training economic impact is hotel room nights.  This by the way is the same logic that supports various public subsidies of local college bowl games.

Which begs the question, why are we spending upwards of a billion dollars in taxpayer money to subsidize sports teams and hotel chains?  If the vast majority of the economic impact of these stadium investments is for hotels, why don't they pay for them, or split the cost with the teams?

PS- as an aside, it seems that to be successful in the corporate state, one needs ready access to consultants who will put absurdly high numbers on the positive impact of one's government subsidies.  It's like money laundering, but with talking points.  Take your self-serving spin, hand it with a bunch of money to a consultant, and out comes a laundered "study".  In this case, the "study" architects are FMR Associates, which bills itself as specializing "in strategic research for the communications industry."  The communications industry means "PR flacks".   So they specialize in making your talking points sound like they have real research behind them.  Probably a growing business in our corporate state.

My New Favorite Store, and I Haven't Even Been There. Plus, Christmas Game Recommendations

In my high school days, I used to play a lot of wargames from Avalon Hill and SPI.  I once spent an entire summer playing one game of War in Europe, which had a 42-square-foot map of Europe and 3500 or so pieces.     Each turn was one week, so it was literally a full time job getting through it in a couple of months.

All that is to say I spent a lot of time hanging out at game stores, particularly Nan's in Houston (a great game and comic store that still exists and I still visit every time I am in Houston).  I play fewer wargames now, but I still like strategy games that are a bit more complicated than Monopoly or Risk.  But it is hard to find a game store with a good selection (if there is one here in Phoenix, I have not found it).

But I definitely want to try this place -- the Complete Strategist in New York City.  Click through for some good game pr0n.

His list of games is good, though I have never played Gloom and I have never been a huge fan of Carcassonne.  Ticket to Ride is an awesome game and is perhaps the most accessible for kids and noobs of either his or my list.  If you recognize none of these games, it is a great place to start (there is also a great iPad app).   To his list of games I would add:

All of these games tend to present simple choices with extraordinarily complex scoring implications.  In most cases, one must build infrastructure early to score later, but the trade-off of when to switch from infrastructure building to scoring is the trick.  Five years ago Settlers of Catan would have been on any such list, but it is interesting it is on neither his nor mine.

Once you catch the bug, there are hundreds of other games out there.  My son and I last summer got caught up in a very complex Game of Thrones expandable card game.  Recommended only for those who love incredible complexity and are familiar with the books.  There are also a couple of games I have liked but only played once so far.  My son and I last summer played a fabulous though stupidly complex game of Twilight Struggle (about the Cold War, not hot vampire teens).  This is considered by many to be one of the greatest war / strategy games ever.  We also tried Eclipse (space game, again not the teen vampires) which we liked.  I have played Le Havre and Puerto Rico as iPad apps.  They were OK,  but I think the fun in them is social and the of course does not come through in the iPad app.  In the same vein, tried to play Agricola with my kids and they were bored stiff.

Update:  When in doubt, research it on Board Game Geek.  Their game ranking by user voting is here.

All These Years I Was Driving Right Past...

Apparently, the home in which L. Ron Hubbard invented Scientology is right here in Phoenix.  In fact, it is right by my kids' school and I drive past it almost every day.  In the next few days I will take a camera and snap a picture or two.

I was a fan of Hubbard's "Battlefield Earth"  (the book, not the movie) as a young adult -- it is a classic example of 1950's pulp science fiction -- though I picked it up a few years ago out of nostalgia and found that it did not wear very well.  I do not know much about Scientology, though I wonder why folks who go all-in for it aren't at least a bit suspicious of a religion involving ancient aliens that was cooked up by a science fiction writer.

The whole thing makes for a fascinating story, and I think it would be fabulous book material for someone who is not either a proselytizing Scientologist or an angry ex-Scientologist with an ax to grind.

Striking a Blow Against the State

Fortunately I am not vain, so that I can still post this terrible picture of myself.  I am proudly holding the government-mandated flow restrictor I just removed from my most recent shower head purchase.  I don't buy any shower head until I make sure it has a removable restrictor.

 

The Federal laws restricting shower head flows have got to be among the dumbest on the books.  Some thoughts:

  • Water is not equally scarce everywhere.  So why is everyone required to conserve?  Why is the ideal flow rate the same in Seattle as in Phoenix?
  • Government policy for over a century has been to promote subsidized water prices that don't reflect its true scarcity (particularly to farmers).  Then, having guaranteed overuse via its pricing actions, the government then implements silly laws like this to try to offset the harm from its meddling in prices.
  • We have a lawn in Phoenix that needs constant watering and a pool that evaporates so fast in the summer one can almost see the water level dropping.  But the state's priority is to knock of a few gallons of water use from my shower.
  • With the low flow shower heads, it takes me three times longer to get the soap and shampoo off of me than with a full-flow head.  So we cut the water rate by half, but extend shower times by three.  And this helps, how?  And don't even get me started on low-flow toilets
  • The last three hotel rooms I have stayed in have had double shower heads, to make up the lost flow from wimpy government-approved single heads.  This process of cutting back on how much a single head can flow and then adding extra heads is incredibly dumb and wasteful.
  • I suspect this is all secret revenge from some English expat that wanted US showers to be as bad as those in Britain.

Government Spending Bait and Switch

New taxes are frequently sold as protecting police, fire, and education, though these together represent barely 25% of all US government spending.  Where does the rest go?  It's a giant bait and switch, made worse by the fact that even within these categories, new headcount is more likely to be added in administrative and overhead roles rather than in promised functions such as "teachers".  This is the subject of my Forbes column this week:

There is a way to reconcile this:   While increases in education spending are sold to the public as a way to improve results in the classroom, in reality most of the new money and headcount are going to anything but increasing the number of teachers.

Let’s start with an example from the city of Phoenix, New York.  Why this town?  Am I cherry-picking?  In fact, I was looking for data on my home town of Phoenix, Arizona.  But I have come to discover that while school districts are really good at getting tomorrow’s cafeteria menu on the web, they are a little less diligent in giving equal transparency to their budget and staffing data.  But it turns out that Phoenix, New York, which I discovered when I was looking for my home town data, publishes a lovely summary of its budget data, so I will use it as an example that helps make my point.

The city’s budget summary for 2012-2013 is here.  Overall, they are proposing a 0.4% increase in spending for next year, which initially seems lean until one understands that they are projecting a 4% decline in enrollment, such that this still represents an increase in spending per pupil faster than inflation.  But the interesting part is the mix.

What are the two things politicians are always claiming they need extra money for?  Classroom instruction and infrastructure.  As you can see in this budget, only two categories of spending go down:  classroom instruction and facility maintenance and cleaning.  Administrative expenses increase 4% (effectively 8% per pupil) and employee benefits expenses increase just under 1% despite a total decline in staffing.  Though I am not very familiar with the program, one irony here is that the fastest growing category is the 8.7% growth (nearly 13% per pupil) in spending with BOCES, a New York initiative that was supposed to reduce administrative costs in public schools.  In other words, spending increases are going to everything except the areas which politicians promise.

I don’t think these trends are isolated to this one admittedly random example.  The Arizona auditor-general recently did a study on trends in education spending in the state.  They found exactly the same tendency to reduce classroom spending to pay for increases in administrative headcounts.

Read it all, as they say.

Phoenix Coyotes Sale

Well, it looks like the NHL may have a buyer for the Phoenix Coyotes.  I have not seen all the terms, but the problem in finding a buyer has been this:  based on comps from other recent sales (e.g. Atlanta) the price for sunbelt teams is something like $100 million max, but the NHL has promised its owners it would not sell it for less than $200 million.  The NHL has to find a sucker, and if billionaire buyers are not willing to be a sucker, then they have to find a third party sucker to just kick in $1oo million of present value to make the deal work.

Enter the city of Glendale.  It has tried very hard on multiple occasions to be that sucker, and only was stopped from doing so by efforts of the Goldwater Institute to enforce a state Constitutional injunction on corporate welfare.

Glendale has apparently found a new way to subsidize the transaction by promising to pay an above-market stadium management fee.  I have talked to some sports executives, including one very familiar with this stadium, and they have all said that in a free market, a third party might take the stadium management contract for free, because though it carries operational costs, it also yields offsetting revenues (like stadium rentals for concerts).

By paying an above-market rate for stadium management services, Glendale can provide a corporate subsidy but retain the fiction that this is a service contract rather than crony welfare.  Over the last two years, Glendale has paid the NHL $25 million a year in stadium management fees, a payment everyone understands to actually be a subsidy to keep the team in town.

I presume the new buyer has met the NHL's $200 million price tag.  But that is obvriously overpaying.  So Glendale is going to kick a bunch of money back to the buyer to make it work, in the form of $306 million in stadium management fees.  Via the Sporting News:

Longtime Glendale city councilor Phil Lieberman on Monday, in an interview with Sportsnet.ca, estimated that arena management fees paid by the city to Jamison under terms of the deal would total $306 million over the next 21 years, or an average of $14.6 million. A large chunk of that money, Lieberman says, is front-loaded, with Glendale on the hook for $92 million over the next five years. Nearby University of Phoenix Stadium, home to the Arizona Cardinals of the NFL, carries a $9.2-million management fee annually.

By the way, University of Phoenix Stadium is far larger and more expensive to operate, so one would expect the Coyotes arena management payment to be less than $9.2 million.   And the $9.2 million, since it comes from Glendale as well, likely has a subsidy built in.  But let's for a second assume something like $8 million a year is the high end for what a market rate for such a contract would be.  This would be $168 million over 21 years, implying $138 million minimum in subsidy built into the management contract.  There you go, there is the sucker payment to make up the difference between market value of the team and the NHL's price.

In fact, according to numbers at the WSJ, the city would have been better off leaving the stadium empty and just paying off the note  (and they certainly would have been better taking Jim Balsillie's offer to move the team but help them pay down their note).

The NHL has announced a tentative sale to a group headed by former San Jose Sharks executive Greg Jamison, under terms that would essentially institutionalize Glendale's commitments. Under the proposal that the NHL has laid out for city council members, the city would continue paying an arena-management fee that would average about $14.5 million a year.

On top of the city's average $12.6 million in debt service, that amounts to annual expenses of about $27.1 million—to be offset by anticipated Coyotes-related revenue of $14.2 million, according to projections by Glendale's city management department. That adds up to a projected annual loss for Glendale of $12.9 million.

Of course, Glendale wants to keep the team because it cut a crony deal with a few real estate developers to build a retail and condo complex around the stadium.  Of course, these ventures have also gone bankrupt.  So the city is trying to bail out and keep a bankrupt hockey team to sustain an already bankrupt retail developer.

The logic of course is that Glendale wants to attract retail businesses to Glendale from nearby Peoria and Phoenix.  But in the end, they are just messing up their own goal:

Some Glendale business owners may also oppose the deal, including David Kimmerle, owner of Sanderson Ford car dealership in Glendale. A longtime sponsor and fan of the Coyotes, Kimmerle felt betrayed when Glendale officials recently proposed raising the city's sale tax, in large part to support the cost of the team. The proposed increase would make a $30,000 car on Kimmerle's lot $330 more expensive than in the neighboring suburb of Peoria. "No one is going to pay a premium to shop in Glendale," Kimmerle said. "If it is choosing between the Coyotes or a business that is been in my family since 1955 and employs 500 people, I have to choose my business."

So, which would you bet on:  That retail buyers will choose a location based on prices and taxes, or based on its proximity to a hockey team?  Glendale is betting hundreds of millions of dollars its the latter.  Which is why they are idiots.

Oh, and those Goldwater folks.  Per the Sporting News article:

As for Goldwater Institution opposition to the deal, the league, Jamison and Glendale are aggressively striving to craft a sale that avoids Goldwater opposition and possible legal action.

And how are they doing this?

The NHL, city and Jamison are also not producing public documents on their deal so they can avoid records falling into Goldwater's hands.

Your transparent government at work.  Its not breaking the law if no one can prove it.

Celebrating Earth Day

Unfortunately, the combination of April being our busiest month every year (when all our seasonal operations start up), the addition of operations in two new states (which requires a myriad of registrations, permissions, licenses, etc), and several unusual very late bid packages for the operation of parks means that I am working on Sunday.

I spent my first hour of Earth Day, appropriately enough, fiddling with my building's computer HVAC system, trying to get the air conditioning (normally off on a Sunday) turned on.  I was finally successful, so I can now enjoy a comfortable Earth Day even in nearly 100 degree Phoenix weather, thanks to modern technology and a generous helping of fossil fuel combustion.

More Glendale Follies

I almost hate beating on the silly folks who run the City of Glendale even further, but they keep screwing up.

One of the reasons I think that city officials like those in Glendale like to dabble in real estate and sports stadiums is what I call the "bigshot effect."  They don't have any capital of their own, and they don't have the skills such that anyone else would (voluntarily) trust them to invest other people's money, but with a poll of tax money they get to play Donald Trump and act like they are big wheels.  The Glendale city council did this for years, and when their incompetence inevitably led to things starting to fall apart, they have simply thrown more money at it to try to protect their personal prestige.

But unfortunately, incompetence generally is an infinite reservoir, and apparently the City has screwed up again.  Years ago, when the City promised the rich people who owned the AZ Cardinals a new half billion dollar stadium, they put a contract to that effect on paper.  Granted, this was a sorry giveaway, spending hundreds of millions of dollars for a stadium that would be used by the Cardinals for 30 hours a year, by the Fiesta Bowl for 3 hours a year, and by the NFL for a Superbowl for 3 hours every 6-7 years.  But, never-the-less, the City made a contractual agreement.

And then, in its rush to be real estate bigshots, the city turned about 3700 parking spaces promised contractually to the Cardinals over to a developer to create an outlet mall (of the sort that has been quietly going bankrupt all over the country over the last few years).  Incredibly, the city did this without any plan for how to replace the parking it owed the Cardinals.  To this day, it has no plan.

Apparently, there were also some shenanigans with $25 million that had been escrowed to build a parking garage.

The demand letter also blames the parking problem on the city's dealings with Steve Ellman, Westgate's former developer and a one-time co-owner of the Phoenix Coyotes. The letter states that Ellman's relationship with the city has been "characterized by a lack of transparency."

The letter raises questions about a January 2011 arrangement in which the city and Ellman equally split a $25million escrow fund that had been earmarked to build a parking garage in Westgate, the team said.

Ellman put that money in escrow in 2008 after failing to keep a promise to the city to provide a set amount of permanent parking in Westgate.

By early 2011, half of that money went back to Ellman's lenders as part of a deal to try to keep the Coyotes in Glendale, while the city received the other $12.5 million in the account.

What a mess.  This is what happens when politicians try to be bigshots with our money.

 

 

The City of Glendale is Pathetic

For years now I have lampooned the crazy money Glendale, AZ has thrown at the Phoenix ice hockey team in a desperate attempt to trade taxpayer money for prestige.  Let me bring you up to date:

Years ago a town of about 250,000 people committed about $200 million in taxpayer money to build a stadium for a professional ice hockey team, to attract it away from Scottsdale or downtown Phoenix to what is frankly the ass-end of the metropolitan area  (I have no problems with the west side of town, but from a geographic, demographic, and economic logic standpoint this was roughly equivalent to moving the LA Lakers to Riverside or San Bernardino).

For some weird reason, moving an ice hockey team to the desert with no base of hockey fans and locating it a good 45 minutes from the wealthier parts of town caused the team to go bankrupt.  Lots of people were willing to pay good money to haul the team back to Canada where there are, you know, ice hockey fans, but few wanted to pay good money to keep it on the west side of Phoenix.

So enter the NHL, which took the team over.  The NHL commissioner promised the other owners that it would not lose money on the deal, so it set the price of the team not at the market price (which appears to be around $100 million based on the Atlanta sale) but based on its costs, which were about $200 million.   It has agreed to try to keep the team in Glendale, but only if the city covers its operating losses of $25 million each year, which incredibly, the city has done for two years (note this is $100 a year for every man, woman, and child in the city to subsidize a hockey team).

The team may be worth $200 million in Canada, but it is only worth $100 million in Glendale (at most) so it does not sell.  The city agreed to make up the $100 million difference  with a bond issue (and throw another $90+ million in to boot), which almost closed the deal with one buyer until the Goldwater Institute pointed out that this kind of subsidy was illegal under the AZ constitution.  And so the situation sits.  The asking price is still $200 million, which no one will pay if they have to keep the team in Glendale.  And the city keeps forking over $25 million a year to the NHL to keep the team running.

OK, so that is the background.  Here is the new news.

The league, which purchased the Phoenix Coyotes at a bankruptcy court auction in 2009, has been managing the team and city-owned arena until an owner willing to keep the team in Glendale can be found. The city paid $25 million to the NHL during the 2010-11 season and pledged another $25 million for the current season, which is expected to come due in May.

To fulfill that pledge, the city put $20 million in escrow and still needs to come up with $5 million.

The hefty payouts have nearly drained the city's reserves, leading to a recent drop in the city's bond rating.

And the city is looking at a deficit next fiscal year that one councilwoman has estimated could reach $30 million. A possible sales-tax hike, furloughs and program cuts are on the table to close the spending gap....

During Tuesday's budget talks, [Glendale Mayor] Scruggs asked council members to join her in signing a letter to NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman to "release us from that $20 million in escrow and let us pay over time."

None of the councilmembers responded to her request. Councilman Manny Martinez later told The Republic he would "have to think about it in light of what is going on."

Scruggs said if the city can get back the $20 million from escrow and pay the NHL an initial $5 million, "our problems and everything our employees are fearful of would pretty much go away."

Translation:  Dear NHL, we are idiots and committed a bunch of money to a stupid purpose that we can't really afford.  Would you pretty please let us out of our commitment?  Hilarious and pathetic.  The chickens are coming home to roost by the millions.

Even funnier, the Glendale mayor is trying to blame the NHL for bad faith

The mayor said she and four others councilmembers pledged the second payout last May because city staff and NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said a deal with a team owner was nearly complete and that "we should never have to pay that $25 million."

Scruggs said the city was told the money was just a place holder so that the NHL wouldn't move the team out of Glendale.

"Given the stress that our budget is under, there should be a payment plan developed," Scruggs said. "They have no right to that money. They held us hostage for a year."

She said the NHL never intended to do business with Chicago businessman Matt Hulsizer, who wanted to buy the team but walked away from the negotiation table in frustration just weeks after the council pledged the second payment to the NHL....

Scruggs said the NHL last spring "misled us and they can't do this to our city."

In fact, the NHL was totally serious about the Hulsizer deal.  That deal fell through not because the NHL screwed up, but because Glendale did.  The deal fell through because Glendale had committed to a subsidy of the deal which may not have been Constitutional, and even if it had proved legal, became impossible when Glendale's bond ratings started tanking and they realized they could not move the paper.  Glendale officials have been amateurish and dishonest through this entire process.

By the way, several years ago, Jim Balsillie offered a deal worth over $200 million for the team, PLUS he offered to pay off something like $150 million of Glendale's stadium debt.  Glendale opposed the deal, because they would have been left with an empty stadium and tens of millions in debt (given the crash in RIM's fortunes, the offer is unlikely to be renewed).

Glendale is likely going to wish they had taken the first offer.  There is a very good chance that Glendale will lose the team without any sort of payment on their debt and after paying $25 million a year to the NHL.  Glendale will end up with hundreds of millions in debt, an empty stadium, a junk-level bond rating and a busted budget.

There is a saying in the investment world - your first loss is your best loss.  Glendale is about to learn this very expensive lesson.

Sick

Went away for a few days with my wife and came down with some kind of flu thing everyone we know in Phoenix seems to have.  Temperature, sore throat, coughing, achy joints, headache but fortunately no barfing.  Without the vomiting, I can power through what I have to get done, its just not fun.

I am wondering if the CDC uses social media data to track disease outbreaks.  I have seem Twitter data showing dynamically when such and such event happened by geotagged Twitter traffic.  Be interesting to do that with all tweets with the word "sick".