Category Archives: Finance

Arlington Scraps Streetcar Projects

Rendering of a Columbia Pike streetcar.

Rendering of a Columbia Pike streetcar.

by James A. Bacon

Arlington County’s surprise decision yesterday to cancel proposed streetcar projects for Columbia Pike and Crystal City should not be seen as a rejection of the concept of streetcars but a rejection of the funding mechanism chosen by the board that asked taxpayers to bear the fiscal risks while property owners enjoyed the benefits.

Arlingtonians, who voted John Vihstadt to the County Board earlier this month in an election that had become a referendum on the streetcar projects, questioned whether the $550 million price tag justified the purported economic development benefits. Board Chair Jay Fisette cited the decisive election results in canceling the project for which he and other board members had spent 15 years shepherding through the planning and fund-raising process.

One big problem for streetcar backers was defending the Columbia Pike project in the face of escalating cost estimates. The $358 million price tag was up $48 million from a federal cost estimate last year and up $100 million from a previous county estimate. County officials, with years of planning invested in the project, maintained that the benefits still outweighed the costs. A substantial majority of citizens were skeptical, and they said the county’s transportation needs could be met more cost-effectively with improved bus service.

Streetcar advocates said that the investment in fixed streetcar assets would encourage property owners along Columbia Pike to invest in upgrades and infill along the route. In theory, rising property tax revenues would more than offset the county’s $170 million share of the capital costs as well as ongoing operating costs. Moreover, the county’s share of the funds would come from a special commercial real estate tax dedicated to transportation projects.

That is not an unreasonable argument to make, although the forecast of rising property values does require a leap of faith. In effect, county officials were willing to to invest local funds for both streetcar lines in the belief that the revenue from increased property values ultimately would exceed the costs. In effect, they were saying, “Trust us. Build it and the development will come.” It became harder to maintain that the project would be a net fiscal benefit when the estimated cost jumped $100 million.

County officials could have changed the political dynamic if they’d embraced the logic espoused here on Bacon’s Rebellion – moving to a system in which users and beneficiaries pay for the project. In previous columns, I advocated funding the project through a special tax district on property owners along Columbia and a separate district in Crystal City.

If the Columbia Pike streetcar will do as much to stimulate increased property values as claimed, the property owners along the route will be the main beneficiaries. Why should property owners enjoy a massive windfall without contributing anything directly toward the project? (The special commercial tax that would pay for the project comes from all over Arlington, not just the area affected.) If property owners believe that the value created would exceed the projected cost, they should be willing to bear that cost themselves. The county could add sweeteners in the form of increased density allowances, as needed. Using special tax districts to finance the streetcar projects would place the burden and the risk where it belongs: on the property owners who collectively stand to gain hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars in economic value, not the general taxpayers.

If the County Board had structured the deal this way, taxpayers would have had no cause to bellyache. The projects never would have been politicized in the way they were.

Of course, structuring the projects around special tax districts would create a political risk that property owners would not support them. But if the chief beneficiaries refused to support the project, what signal would that send? It would send the signal that the projects won’t have the wealth-creating effects claimed for it, that the projects cannot be economically justified, and that the projects shouldn’t be built.

Instead of giving up,  the Arlington Board should restructure the deal as a special tax district in which the local funding share is paid for by property owners affected by the project (rather than commercial property owners throughout the county). If the property owners bite, they’ll have a project. If the property owners balk, then it’s time to acknowledge that the putative benefits aren’t there.

Former Massey Coal Chief Indicted

DonBlankenshipBy Peter Galuszka

The indictment today in Charleston, W.Va. of coal baron Donald L. Blankenship, the former head of the notorious Massey Energy Company, for violating federal mine safety and securities laws, has been long awaited, especially by the families of the 29 miners who died on April 5, 2010 in a huge explosion at Massey’s Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, W.Va.

It was the worst coal mine disaster in this country in 40 years. It topped off a wild run by Blankenship, who thought he had political potential and spoke for the Appalachian coalfields while dodging safety violations and blowing away mountains in horrific surface mining practices.

He was a poster man for the view, popular among this country’s business elite, that cost cutting and productivity are sacrosanct, human lives are cheap and environmental concerns such as climate change are mere diversions from the country’s true goals. At one point he literally wrapped himself up in the American flag to push his ideas.

A federal grand jury today turned those arguments on their heads. The four charges accuse Blankenship of conspiracy in blunting the numerous federal safety violations that lead to the catastrophic disaster at the Upper Big Branch mine.

For several years leading up to that fateful day, Blankenship allegedly connived to ignore concerns that the mine had broken equipment and excessively high levels of highly inflammable coal dust. He also is accused of keeping federal mine inspectors from doing their jobs.

The grand jury also claims that Blankenship violated federal securities laws by giving investors misleading information about Massey stock.

Blankenship was a huge celebrity in the Appalachian coalfields. Tying himself to a reactionary ideal of doing what he thought was best for America, he spent a million dollars at what was an anti-Labor Day celebration in West Virginia in 2009. He wore a costume formed from an American flag and hired testosterone-infused country music stars Hank Williams Jr. and Ted Nugent to entertain his crowd.

The irony was that it was a holiday to celebrate labor unions while Blankenship and his firm were notorious for union-busting. He also had a habit of taking the chief justice of the West Virginia supreme court on vacation on the French Riviera.

Another irony is that Blankenship, like much of the U.S. coal industry, promotes the propaganda that there is a “War on Coal” and that coal is essential to “keeping our lights on.” Never mind that the free market and the flow of natural gas from hydraulic fracturing drilling from the very same area, not the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, are what is really hurting the Appalachian steam coal market.

The coal mined at Upper Big Branch, however, had nothing to do with power generation. It was metallurgical coal that was exported to make steel in markets such as China. At the time of Upper Big Branch, China’s steel market was hot and met coal prices were going through the roof.

The indictment reads that the group of mines associated with Upper Big Branch “generated revenues of approximately $331 million, which represented 14 percent of Massey’s approximately $2.3 billion in in revenue.” Obviously, it was in Blankenship’s interest to keep the steel-making coal flowing.

In that process, according to the indictments, Blankenship oversaw efforts to cut corners, dodge safety issues and keep miners on edge. They are rich in detail about poor ventilation; flawed water sprays to keep explosive coal dust down and warning when federal coal inspectors were on the prowl.

After he was forced to resign from Massey Energy with an over-sized golden parachute, Blankenship kept quiet for a couple for of years. Recently he came back on the scene with a self-made documentary just on the eve of the fourth anniversary of the Upper Big Branch disaster. The movie was so tasteless that even Joe Manchin, a U.S. Senator from West Virginia who was quoted in the film, disassociated himself from it. Families of the dead mines were appalled.

The long-in-coming indictments illustrate the problems of coal as an energy and steel source and just how its issues have been ignored in the Appalachians for about 150 years. In the past, huge mine disasters, such as the 1968 blast at Farmington W.Va. that killed 78, sparked real safety reform.

Not so after Upper Big Branch. Pro-coal Republicans in Congress have blocked bills to toughen rules. This is a reason why the federal indictments are so important. They show that leading a culture of safety laxity will no longer be tolerated.

It may be curious that Blankenship’s indictments come just after President Barack Obama has just agreed to a turning point treaty with heavy polluter China to cut carbon emissions. But they should give some closure to long-festering problems in a part of the United States where industrial death and destruction are considered business as usual.

Debt and Deferred Maintenance at Virginia Colleges

debt-revenue

by James A. Bacon

Above, readers will find the chart I called for in yesterdays blog post: the debt burden of Virginia colleges and universities as a percentage of their budgeted revenues. The higher the debt-to-revenue ratio, the more leveraged the institution and, hence, the greater the risk of financial difficulties if and when student enrollments decline. This chart is useful because it suggests that we should start paying closer attention to Christopher Newport University and the University of Mary Washington, both of which have borrowed heavily to fund their building expansions.

Having a high debt/revenue ratio is not necessarily a worrisome sign. The University of Virginia also appears to have borrowed heavily, but (a) it has a multi-billion dollar endowment and a wealthy alumni base to fall back upon in times of trouble, and (b) there is such a high demand to attend the university that there is a negligible chance that it will see an involuntary decline in enrollment. By contrast, Norfolk State University, in the news recently for its eroding financial condition, has a modest debt load. Still, all other things being equal, a high debt-to-revenue ratio puts an institution at greater financial risk.

The debt figures, by the way, I took from the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission’s latest report on higher education. The figure denotes the outstanding principal and interest payments due over the next thirty years (FY 2014 to FY 2043). The revenue numbers come from the Virginia state budget “operating budget summary” combining both General Fund and Nongeneral Fund revenues.

Virginia State University and Norfolk State University are widely reported to be experiencing major financial difficulties, in large part reflecting their status as Historically Black Colleges and Universities fifty years after the formal end of racial segregation in America and the lower incomes of their student populations.

But, as Bacon’s Rebellion has been warning and the JLARC report confirms, rising tuition, fees and other expenses are outpacing the ability of students and their families to pay for colleges across the board, with the result that enrollment in Virginia colleges and universities declined last year. Declining enrollment translates into falling revenue, which can be especially devastating to institutions with high debt burdens.

My analysis suggests that Christopher Newport and Mary Washington, the two most highly leveraged public higher ed institutions in the state, could be among the most vulnerable. Neither is a prestige institution with strong pricing power and a large backlog of students clamoring to get in. In a positive sign, however, Christopher Newport’s enrollment did increase by 75 FTE students in 2013-2014 compared to the year before, according to State Council for Higher Education in Virginia data. On the other hand, Mary Washington’s enrollment declined by 138. I don’t want to make too much of one year’s enrollment data but if I were a board trustee at Mary Washington, I’d set a very high hurdle for any additional borrowing.

By contrast, Radford University serves a similar market niche, as a small/medium-sized liberal arts university appealing mainly to in-state students. Radford’s board has kept a very tight lid on debt, and the institution has the lowest debt/revenue ratio of all the colleges.

One more factor should should be considered in our analysis — deferred maintenance. Christopher Newport’s campus is so new that it has a negligible deferred maintenance backlog — about $0.5 million, according to JLARC. That contrasts to Virginia Tech’s $274.5 million backlog, the largest of any higher ed institution in Virginia. In theory, Christopher Newport won’t have major maintenance issues until it has paid off most of its 30-year debt. Mary Washington, by contrast, has racked up $42.5 million in deferred maintenance.

Deferred maintenance, Virginia public four-year institutions. Table credit: JLARC

Deferred maintenance, Virginia public four-year institutions. Table credit: JLARC

Takeaways From the GOP’s Big Win

gillespie warnerBy Peter Galuszka

The night of Tuesday, Nov. 4 was an ugly one for the Democrats and a big win for Republicans. Here are my takeaways from it:

  • U.S. Sen.Mark Warner clings to a tiny lead that seems to grow slightly, still making it uncertain if opponent Ed Gillespie will ask for a recount. The surprisingly tight race is an embarrassment for Warner. It likely takes him out of consideration to be Hillary Clinton’s running mate in 2016 although Democrats Tim Kaine and Jim Webb are still possibilities.
  • Ed Gillespie ran a smart campaign and came off as a solid candidate. Of course, we are comparing him against Kenneth Cuccinelli and that’s a very low bar but Gillespie’s projection of being relaxed and confident helped him. Gillespie did very well despite being dissed by the national Republican money machine. Look for him in the gubernatorial race of 2017.
  • Barack Obama takes his lumps — again. The country’s on the mend and things are going fairly well (despite what you may watch on Fox), but Obama is incapable of cashing in on that. His cool, detached style is a big minus and makes him seem careless and incompetent, especially when crisis like ebola come up that are not of his making.
  • The Republican wins on Capitol Hill are more significant than the Tea Party inspired once during the 2010 midterms.But the earlier races brought in a kind of mindless negativity and gridlock by both parties that truly hurt the country. Will that happen again? Or will older, wise heads prevail?
  • Increase in coverage my Obamacare The New York Times

    Increase in coverage by Obamacare
    The New York Times

    You might get some bipartisan action on taxes and the budget, but deadlock remains for Affordable Care and immigration. The fact is that Obamacare is too far along to change much and people actually like it, despite what you hear in the right-wing echo chamber. This chart from the New York Times shows that the ACA has boosted health coverage in some of the poorest parts of the country, such as the Appalachian coal country, the African-American belts of the Deep South; and poor parts of the Southwest like New Mexico and parts of Arizona. This alone is a big success.

  • Immigration. Look for Obama to use executive authority to come up with an immigration plan. It is an emotional, hot button issue that reveals lots of ugly attitudes. But something needs to be done fast. The GOP has no plan, except for George W. Bush who actually pushed a workable solution that was compassionate. That got soaked by the Tea Party, but then Republican Mitt Romney came up with a health care plan for Massachusetts that looks remarkable like Obamacare and was a precursor. If the GOP can get back to those helpful ideals, there may be hope.
  • Warner lots big swaths of voters who had been with him, like Loudoun County and parts of rural Virginia. This is alarming for the Dems and shows they need to project their messages a lot better. Warner’s poor performance in debates didn’t help either.

It is a big win for the GOP, but somehow I don’t feel as bitter as I was in 2010.

Why We’re Being Railroaded On “STEM”

 csx engineBy Peter Galuszka

When it comes to education, a constant mantra chanted by the Virginia chattering class is “STEM.”

How many times have you heard that our students are far behind in “STEM” (Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics)? We have to drain funding from more traditional areas of study (that actually might make them better human beings like literature, art or history) and give it to STEM. The two types of popular STEM are, of course, computer science (we’re all “illiterate” claims one journalist-turned computer science advocate) and biotechnology.

But how important is STEM, really? And if Virginia joins the STEM parade and puts all of its eggs in that basket, will the jobs actually be there?

The fact of the matter is that we don’t know what jobs will be around in the future and like the famous generals planning for the last war, we may be stuck planning for the digital explosion of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs that is like, so, 25 years ago.

To get an idea where markets may be, look at today’s news. Canadian Pacific is making a play for CSX railroad (headquartered in Richmond not that long ago) because of the unexpected explosion in fracked oil.

CP handles a lot of freight in the western part of Canada and U.S. where some of the most impressive new fracked shale oil are, namely the Bakken fields of North Dakota and Alberta. CP wants access to eastern U.S. refineries and transshipping points, such as a transloading spot at the mouth of the York River. CSX is stuck with dirty old coal where production and exports are down, although it has an extensive rail network in the Old Dominion.

The combined market value of the two firms is $62 billion — a far bigger potential deal than the $26 billion Warren Buffett paid for Burlington Northern Sante Fe in 2010. There are problems, to be sure. CSX isn’t interested and the Surface Transportation Board, a federal entity, nixed a matchup of Canadian National and Burlington a little while back.

But this isn’t really the point. The point is that the Old Steel Rail pushed by new sources of oil and to some extent natural gas has surprisingly turned domestic economics upside down. Many of the new oil fields are in places where there are not pipelines, so rail is the only answer. In 2008, according to the Wall Street Journal, six or so American railroads generated $25.8 million in hauling crude oil. Last year that shot up to $2.15 billion.

So, what does that mean for students? A lot actually, especially when we blather on about old-style STEM that might have them inventing yet another cell-phone app that has a half-life of maybe a few months. Doesn’t matter, every Virginia legislator, economic development official and education advocate seems to be hypnotized by the STEM genie.

A piece I just did for the up-and-coming Chesterfield Observer on vocation education in that county:

“The recent push to educate students in so-called STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) may be case in point. The goal is to churn out bright, highly trained young people able to compete in the global economy with their counterparts from foreign lands.

“A subset of this area of concentration is computer science, which goes beyond knowing the basics and gets into the nitty-gritty of learning code and writing computer languages. By some accounts, such skills will be necessary to fill more than 2 million jobs expected to become open in the state by 2020.

“Critics question, however, if overspecialization in technology at earlier ages prevents students from exploring studies such as art and literature that might make them better rounded adults. And, specialization often assumes that jobs will be waiting after high school and college when they might not be.

“Peter Cappelli, a professor of management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, has written about such problems of academic overspecialization in national publications such as The Wall Street Journal. He recently responded to questions from the Chesterfield Observer via email.”

“Not many science grads are getting jobs in their field,” Cappelli says. “The evidence suggests that about two thirds of the IT (information technology) grads got jobs in their fields, about the same for engineering. There is no guarantee in those fields. It’s all about hitting the appropriate subspecialty that happens to be hot. There are still lots of unemployed engineers and IT people.”

So there you have it. In my opinion, the over-emphasis on STEM training has the unfortunate effect of producing young adults who have one goal in mind – getting a job and making money, not helping humankind. And, if you insist on STEM, why not branch into something where there are actually jobs namely petroleum engineering, geology and transportation engineering.

I’ll leave the dangers of added petroleum cargoes in trains to another post.

Petersburg’s Renaissance

PetersburgBy Peter Galuszka

Petersburg has been a special place for me.

Years ago, when I’d pass through, I always felt I were driving onto the set of a 1950s or 1960s movie set in the South such as “Cape Fear” starring Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum. A somnambulant ease pervades the place as does the down-home friendliness you don’t get in pretentious Richmond 30 miles to the north up Interstate 95.

I got to know Petersburg a lot better when my two daughters went going to high school there at the Appomattox Regional Governors School for the Arts and Technology. Drawing from localities from Richmond to Isle of Wight and Franklin, the school body was bright, diverse and creative.

Driving my children if they missed the bus from Chesterfield was a pain but the effort was worth it since they had some fine teachers and avoided the White Toast trap of entitlement one gets into in more affluent suburban schools.

That’s when I was introduced to Petersburg’s nascent arts community. I went to plenty of “Fridays for the Arts” celebration and hung out at Sycamore Street with the kids.

Returning again recently, I found that the arts scene is really taking off. They  seem to be at a sustainable critical mass.

It is due primarily to the city’s policy of remaking itself by setting up an arts district that is nationally recognized as historic and offering tax credits and abatements for newcomers to renovate properties they buy from the city. The big expansion at the Fort Lee military base in 2005 really helped (although it’s due for a cut).

I wrote about it in a cover story in Style Weekly. The heroes and heroines are far-sighted city officials, arts willing to risk a lot remaking some truly historic buildings and the next wave, restaurants that aren’t owned by franchises, coming in.

Not everything is wonderful. Petersburg still has a weak public school system and a poverty rate of 28 percent, a point higher than Richmond’s. But it also doesn’t have the in-fighting among powerful interest groups that far bigger Richmond does. There’s no endless debate over building a baseball stadium in Shockoe Bottom (to line pockets of developers) or keeping it at the Boulevard.

There’s no high level brinksmanship about where to put a Children’s Hospital.

In Richmond, you see, ball fans and sick children are the last ones to be worried about. What matters is Mayor Dwight Jones, Bill Goodwin, Michael Rao, the Timmons Group and the editors of the Richmond Times Dispatch. They are important and you are not.

You don’t get that in Petersburg. The little city (population 32,000) that has a historical richness than rivals Richmond’s doesn’t think it is better than anyone else.

It’s Oh, So Richmond!

By Peter Galuszka

cantorWhen I looked at my Richmond Times Dispatch, I was stunned. I couldn’t find a story that their wunderkind Congressman, Eric Cantor, the kind of Republican they love, had gotten a big deal job with Moelis & Co., a New York boutique investment bank.

There was the story in the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post. Finally, the RTD straggled  on with brief piece at 6:22 a.m. on its Website.

Maybe it’s embarrassment. Cantor, the former House Majority Leader, could do no wrong with his Main Street Republican friends or the editors of the local newspaper. His wife, Diana, was on the board when the newspaper was owned by Media General. Then came his stunning defeat in a June primary to unknown David Brat, who ran a mash-up of a Tea Party and Libertarian insurgency.

Moelis says it is hiring Cantor “for his judgment and experience” and ability to open doors, says the Journal. He’ll live in Virginia and have offices in Washington and New York.

Well, that was quick! Or maybe not. Cantor has raised $1.4 million from the financial services sector, as well as lots from managed care. His sense of entitlement is astounding. First, he thought he didn’t have to bother with the home folks in the Seventh District any more, costing him the election. They he arranged (with Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s help) a special election.

Doing so would get his replacement in office faster and thus Virginia can keep its seats on some important committees. But it also frees Cantor to take his plum job.

You didn’t read it in the RTD first! Somethings will never change.

One Very Sad Day In Court

maureen_and_bob(1)By Peter Galuszka

One literally could have heard a pin drop in U.S. District Court in Richmond today.

William Burck, lawyer for  Maureen McDonnell, said in his opening argument in a trial that Virginia’s Former First Lady who has been indicted no 14 corruption charges along with her former governor husband was “collateral damage” in a deeply troubled marriage. She had developed a “crush” on the businessman who had given her and her husband more than $150,000 in loans, gifts and cash.

“Their marriage had broken down,” Burck said. “They were barely on speaking terms,” Burck said. Ms. McDonnell was angry and frustrated that her husband had been working 16-hour days in public service for 20 plus years and had little to show for it. They had five children. Big debt. Bob wasn’t paying attention to her.

As John L. Brownlee, McDonnell’s lawyer, said, McDonnell’s hard public service work “took a toll on his family and a terrible toll on his wife. He was not nearly as successful as a husband. He tried to keep from the public the most painful aspects of his marriage. He never humiliated her. He never scorned her.”

In pops Jonnie R. Williams Sr., a smooth-talking entrepreneur pushing a new anti-aging cream made in part from tobacco plants (although his firm, Star Scientific, had lost a couple hundred million over the previous decade.) Brownlee described the star witness for the prosecution as a “master manipulator.”

“This marriage broke apart and an outsider, another man, would invade and poison their marriage,” Brownlee said.

At one point, Maureen was said to have “hated” Bob who wrote a lengthy email to her trying to reconcile. In fact, Brownlee said, the Governor will read the email when he goes on the jury stand during the trial that is expected to last at least five weeks. When McDonnell sent the email, however, “that evening, Maureen was distracted by other interests.”

One could get snarky about this seemingly over-the-top soap opera. But no one in the courtroom seemed to be smirking. It is strange enough to be at a trial like this in a place like Virginia that considers itself above the petty corruption that plagues other states. It is even stranger to hear such excruciatingly personal and painful things about the state’s top former executive and his wife.

It could be that a “throw Maureen under the bus” strategy may work to get both of them off. After all, she wasn’t a public official and could do what she wanted as far as gifts. The prosecution’s opening statement drew a rather detailed and concise outline of just what and when the McDonnells solicited Williams’ largesse, right down to the “thank you” emails when money arrived in the bank to Maureen’s cell phone snap shot of Bob wearing slick, wraparound sunglasses while driving Williams’ Ferrari.

Giving the McDonnell’s the benefit of the doubt, I have to say I’ve heard this kind of story before among long-married couples suffering through middle age as their children are ready to fly away. Their stories may not be dramatic but I’ve got to admit that Bob McDonnell never seemed to exhibit such grabby behavior before.

This raises another tough question. What should “public service” be and how much should it take from one’s private life. More importantly, why can’t it support men and women who pursue it? Should it be only for the rich?

McDonnell slogged through relatively low-paying jobs like the General Assembly, Attorney General and Governor. He had five kids and a wife who seemed very freaked out by being First Lady – a role she apparently never wanted. She came from a Northern Virginia civil service family that didn’t exactly have a grand disposable income.

Consider two other Virginia governors –former and current. Mark Warner, now U.S. Senator, is rich from his telecommunications investments made years ago. At one point he was said to be worth a couple hundred million dollars. Gov. Terry McAuliffe, another former businessman, is likewise wealthy but probably not as rich as Warner.

Should these people be in office because they are rich? Should public service be available only to those with great portfolios? What would Thomas Jefferson say?

The McDonnell Trial Gets Underway

mcdonnells arraignedBy Peter Galuszka

This morning marks the start of the long-awaited corruption trial for Robert F. McDonnell and his wife Maureen, the first ever involving the governor of a state that fancies itself above petty corruption.

McDonnell, a Republican, faces 14 felony counts in federal court including wire fraud and lying on a federal loan application. This morning’s session at U.D. District Court before Judge James Spencer will involve jury selection. The trial is expected to last six weeks.

It promises to be a cross between a soap opera and a reality show with overtones of a Greek tragedy. Involved are strong personalities, a classic triangle (the governor, his wife and Jonnie Williams, a businessman who is the feds star witness) and lots of big, big Virginia names. The lawyers’ list reads like the wine list at a five-star restaurant.

There will be lots of politics and lots of venality, such as why Ms. McDonnell insisted on Williams supplying luxury trinkets and money, whether the First Family, regarded as a fine example of Virginia public service, was living far beyond their means and why the state’s squeaky-clean image is a myth.

A few more takeaways:

  • This is a federal case, not a state one. There is no way the case could ever have gone anywhere in state court – the laws are nonexistent. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a federal case and, traditionally, federal courts are used to go after local politicians and business people. Remember that it was the feds who nailed Al Capone in federal court, not Chicago or Illinois state courts. Just arguing that state law doesn’t go that far is irrelevant.
  • It’s going to get very ugly. Much of the melodrama takes place in the governors’ Capitol Hill house ruled by Ms. McDonnell and from which the case originally stemmed. It had to do with an executive chef who was accused of theft and was tried. He blew the whistle on the relationship between McDonnells, the gifts and Williams. Now, we find that the defense may subpoena the housekeeper for previous Democratic Govs. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, both now U.S. Senators. It could be an episode of “Housewives of the Executive Mansion.” Stay tuned.
  • There’s no getting around the politics. I have to admit that it seemed very curious last year that the McDonnell case seemed to spring up from nowhere in the governor’s last year in office (he can’t succeed himself). It happened during a bitter gubernatorial race between hard-right Republican Kenneth Cuccinelli and Democratic fundraiser Terry McAuliffe. There were media leaks galore last summer which made for great, gossipy reading but one did wonder about the propriety of it all.
  • Suppose the McDonnells are acquitted? If so, what was all the Sound and Fury about? Blogger Paul Goldman, former head of the state Democratic Party, believes an acquittal could bring calls for the resignation of U.S. Atty. Gen Eric Holder. Sounds extreme.

All in all, the trial represents a transitional phase for Virginia. Its old ways, conceited and quaint they may have been, have faded. Welcome to the 21st Century, y’all!

How Planners Can Rescue Virginia from the Fiscal Abyss

This is a copy of a speech that I presented to the Virginia Chapter of the American Planners Association Monday, with extemporaneous amendments and digressions deleted. — JAB

Thank you very much, it’s a pleasure to be here. Urban planning is a fascinating discipline. As my old friend Ed Risse likes to say, urban planning isn’t rocket science – it’s much more complex. Planners synthesize a wide variety of variables that interact in unpredictable, even chaotic, ways. In my estimation, you don’t get nearly enough respect and appreciation for what you do

OK, enough with the flattery. Let’s get down to business.

toastThis is you. You’re toast. Unless you change the way you do things, you and the local governments across Virginia you represent are totally cooked. … Here’s what I’m going to do today. I’m going to tell you why you’re toast. And then I’m going to tell you how to dig your government out of the fiscal abyss, earning you the love and admiration of your fellow citizens.

Why You’re Toast

old_people2Here’s the first reason you’re in trouble — old people. Or, more precisely, retired government old people. Virginia can’t seem to catch up to its pension obligations. The state says the Virginia Retirement System is on schedule to be fully funded by 2018-2020. But the state’s defines 80% funded as “fully funded,” which leaves a lot of wiggle room. The VRS also assumes that it can generate 7%-per-year annual returns on its $66 billion portfolio. For each 1% it falls short of that assumption, state and local government must make up the difference with $660 million. As long as the Federal Reserve Board pursues a near-zero interest rate policy, depressing investment returns everywhere, that will be exceedingly difficult. A lot of very smart people think 5% or 6% returns are more realistic. In all probability, pension obligations will continue to be a long-term burden on localities.

potholesSecond, the infrastructure Ponzi scheme — that’s Chuck Marohn’s coinage, not mine — is catching up with us. For decades, state and local government built roads and infrastructure, typically with federal assistance, proffers or impact fees with no thought to full life-cycle costs. State and local governments have assumed responsibility for maintaining and replacing this infrastructure. Well, the life cycle done cycled, and the bill is coming due. We’re finding that we built more infrastructure than we can afford to maintain at current tax rates, leaving very little for new construction.

accotinkThird, after years of delay, serious storm water regulations are kicking in. Local governments bear responsibility for fixing broken rivers and streams like Accotink Creek, showed here. (Yeah, that’s a creek. It’s having a bad day.) Best guess: These regs will cost Virginia another $15 billion. But no one really knows. And it may just be the tip of the iceberg. I recently talked to Ellen Dunham-Jones, author of “Retrofitting Suburbia,” and she noted that a lot of the storm water infrastructure that developers built in the ‘50s and ‘60s is crumbling. The developers are long gone. Someone’s going to have to fix that, too. Guess who?

property_taxMeanwhile, the largest source of discretionary local tax dollars – real estate property tax revenues – is stagnating. According to the Demand Institute, residential real estate prices in Virginia will increase only 7% through 2018 – the third worst performance of any state in the nation. Don’t count on magically rising property tax revenues to bail you out.

In fact, the tax situation is worse than it looks. Demand for commercial real estate is dismal, too. Consider what’s happening to the retail sector. We’re going from this…

shopping_centerTo this..

amazon_warehouse

Every Amazon.com distribution center represents dozens if not hundreds of chain stores closing. It means more vacant store fronts, more deserted malls, less new retail development. Continue reading