Saturday, October 30, 2010

Noem vs. Herseth Sandlin

Herseth Sandlin is in the fight of her political career. You have to ask why a Democrat such as herself could have won three terms in the House when she won those elections in such a "red" state.  When she was re-elected to her third full term in the U.S. House of Representatives, she received more than 250,000 votes, more than 67% of votes cast. Republicans outnumber Democrats in this state so there had to be alot of Republicans who voted for her in past elections.

There are probably many reasons she got the votes. She comes from a prominent political family in this State. She is also a moderate Democrat and has proven time and again that she votes for what is good for South Dakota, not along party lines. She is the Co-Chair for the Administration of the Blue Dog Coalition, which is a group of moderate Democrats committed to fiscal discipline and strong national security. 

What has happened since her last election, you might ask?  Well, for one thing, the country has its first African American President and he happens to be a Democrat. The whispers are that he is a Muslim too and wasn't even born in the United States. Add to that the Palin factor and those paranoid Tea Partiers and you have the recipe for what is happening to incumbent Democrats in this election cycle.Based on Noem and her political ads, Herseth Sandlin is this liberal Democrat that is in the pocket of House Speaker Pelosi.

It pains me to think that people are so blind to just plain old common sense.  Throw out the incumbents, no matter what they stand for seems to be the mantra for this election.  Well, why not just put plugs in your ears and throw a bag over your head and throw a dart at a big board and take your chances. That is the same as just blindly throwing out the incumbents because they are incumbents.

The debate between Noem and Herseth Sandlin and that other guy was painful to watch. As one of my friends said, no matter how hard Herseth Sandlin tried to brush off the rantings and accusations of Noem, she just couldn't get it off her person. 

It is going to be a sad day for South Dakota if Noem wins election. She is going to cut the deficit and repeal the Health Bill.  I doubt it.  What she will do is continue to feed the partisan politics in Washington that has basically crippled the ability to get anything done. At least Herseth Sandlin has a mind of her own and has consistently voted for what is good for South Dakota.  Noem does not have a mind of her own.  She is just a republican robot who will do as she is told by the Republican party leadership.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Mayor’s Support of Downtown????

Oh my, think what would happen if the Mayor didn’t support the Downtown?  After all, he has done so much for Downtown since he took office.  His plan to build the Event Center out at the Arena/Convention Center is a sure sign that he supports Downtown, right? He met with the board of directors of Downtown Sioux Falls and told them how they should work together and pay more attention to downtown Sioux Falls. As quoted in the ARGUS LEADER, he said, “We all want it to occur, but there is no one doing it. If no one is going to drive it, then the city will.” Are you kidding me? When I think I have heard everything, something more outrageous comes from the mayor. If he really understood the mission of the Chamber, Sioux Falls Development Foundation and Downtown Sioux Falls he would not recommend they be consolidated under one roof.  I can’t wait to hear from Economic Development Czar Smith on what his labors in working for downtown will be in the future.  Of course, he can’t go into specifics but announcements will be forthcoming in the weeks and months ahead.   The style coming out of the Mayor’s office is to tell people what they haven’t been doing right and how he is going to fix it. Good grief. A one man band does not a team make.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Proposed City Pension Changes

Well, it’s finally out in the open.  The Board of Trustees for the two city pension systems are looking at changes to the benefit structure of the pensions offered city employees. Why? Because the city's contribution is getting extremely high.

A lot of things impact pension assets and liabilities and the city's contribution to the pension funds, but two biggies affecting these two pension systems are the investment returns and retiree health insurance. OPEB changed everything for public pensions when it became effective. Valuing retiree health care benefits and actuarially funding them has caused the cost of the retiree health benefit to climb to astronomical proportions affecting the employer contribution.

The employer contribution is a % of payroll which comes out of the General Fund. Guess who wants money out of the General Fund to pay for the Event Center? The Mayor has to do something to build up that reserve fund. 

Where I once administered the two pension systems as the City’s HR Director, I am now simply a retiree who depends on my pension to live and my retiree health benefit to keep me from bankruptcy. Retiree health benefits are an important, but costly benefit. They are especially costly for police and fire employees who can and do retire at 50 or 55 years of age. That’s a long time to fund retiree health benefits for the retired employee, his/her spouse and in some cases dependents. For retirees like me who come from the general employee group, the cost exposure is only 5 years because general employees can’t retire before age 60 unless the general employee has 30 years of service at age 55 where combined age and service gives them the ability to retire early. 

As a retiree, I am on the city’s retiree health plan and will be until I turn 65 and become Medicare eligible whereby my city coverage will terminate. Make no mistake about it, it is a valuable benefit to retirees. What are the implications to me if I were to lose my benefit and get a $500 stipend from the pension system? Right now I pay $374.04 for single coverage which is 50% of the total premium. On the face of it, I could get more money in my pocket with this deal, right? I don’t think so. 

First, buying single insurance coverage on the open market is a very dicey thing. Second, my age is going to work against me. People my age begin to have health issues and insurance companies hate people my age and older because we cost too much.  We have health issues and use our health benefit. Private insurers have the same cost issues the City has with us older folks. Sure, I am probably going to be able to buy some sort of coverage out on the open market, but I am going to pay more in monthly premium, deductible, and out of pocket expenses. Is it going to be a good deal for retirees? No, I don’t think so.

Retirees are powerless, though, because as retirees, we no longer have a voice.  We can’t vote.  City ordinance requires any change to the pension benefit must be voted on by the membership.  A change to the retiree health benefit must be voted on by the membership. The membership is all active employees. Active employees will have to decide if this benefit is important to them and if they are willing to increase their contribution to help pay for it.  

I don’t know what is going to happen. When I retired, I made my decision based on certain facts at that time. Taking away a promised benefit after the fact seems unfair to the retirees. I do know pension changes take time.  I hope I turn 65 before this goes into effect.  I know a $500 stipend will not pay for the kind of insurance coverage I now have as a City Retiree. If it happens, it is surely a broken promise.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Robbing Peter to Pay Paul

I think there are two essential flaws in the Mayor’s vision to build the Event Center.  I know I have blogged about this before, but, honestly, his financial plan is bothering me. 

The two flaws as I see it are the use of the general reserve fund and the private naming rights to build the Event Center.  Both of these funding sources should be earmarked for the operation of an Event Center once it is built.  To use these two funding sources as construction money is essentially robbing Peter to pay Paul in order to get the dang thing built. The second penny sales tax in the CIP and bonding should be the funding sources for construction of the EC.

The Mayor likes to use the last Taskforce Study as his basis for his vision, but the reality is the Arena site is the only thing he has used from the Study.  The Taskforce Study recommends that the naming rights should be used for operations. According to projections from the consulting firm Conventions, Sports & Leisure naming rights could generate $250,000 a year which would amount to $5 million in revenue if a company buys naming rights for 20 years plus another $161,000 to $375,000 per year from premium seating. The study says by including that money in the operational costs, the new event center and Arena could make a $185,000 profit annually under one scenario or lose $198,000 under a less optimistic scenario. Removing naming rights and premium seating from the same analysis results in an annual loss of $440,000 to $609,00 as reported by the ARGUS LEADER.  

The Mayor doesn’t have a plan yet to pay for the event center’s operating budget, but he said he intends to have one before the public vote. I think he is a day late and a dollar short. He needs to have a financial plan now so the public can read about it, digest it and come to grips with it.  I hope he has someone working on those private donors right now instead waiting and giving the public some pie in the sky, wishful thinking instead of the real thing.

It is not enough to come up with the money to build it.  The Mayor needs to convince all those skeptics and naysayers out there who vote no on everything that he also has concrete money sources for not only construction but also operations.  This is not something he should be doing later.  He needs to be doing it now. 

I worry that this whole design RFP business is going to be wasted money because of the Mayor’s views that the city is energized about the event center and getting it built. He is backwards on his thinking this process through.  Let’s all sit around the campfire and sing kumbayah and it will happen. Yea, right.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Where are all the progressive voters.

This community can't seem to get the big projects done. I just don't get it. The naysayers seem to be the majority or at least they are the ones who come out to vote so they become the majority by default. Voter apathy is strong and alive when it comes to local issues in this city. I don't think it's fair to say that the Build the New Event Center Downtown group is detrimental to getting the Event Center passed though. That group supports the Event Center. All they want is for both locations to get the same economic analysis. If that analysis says the arena location is the best, then they will get behind the Mayor's pet location. The bottom line is, this city needs an Events Center, period. It amazes me to hear from all those people who still complain about the Washington Pavilion. It's because these are the people who don't see the big picture. Venues like the Washington Pavilion, the Event Center, a community center, sports complexes, etc. bring revenue to the city. If we don't have visitors come to our city, eat in our restaurants, shop, buy gas, etc., we will die as a city and we will all end up paying more taxes. Have you been to Fargo, ND or Rochester, MN lately? Both cities are smaller than Sioux Falls but both cities have a much more progressive feel to them than Sioux Falls. There are a lot of small minds in this town. I suppose as long as they have their pool parlors, Bingo centers, dart tournaments,smoke filled bars they will be happy campers. They don't think we need anything else and they seem to be the ones who vote. I am tired of the naysayers driving the progressive issues for this city.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

City's Sales Tax revenue grows by 3.1%

I am encouraged after reading the paper this morning. The Mayor stated he didn't know if it was a trend yet, but it was certainly going in a positive direction.  I hope it continues as we go into the shopping season. The Mayor said if there were surpluses, he would look at those holdbacks as well as other city priorities.  Good for him.  $8.3 million spending freeze in the general fund and $5.3 million spending freeze in the capital fund is significant.  I am not saying all of it should be unfrozen but like he said, he will prioritize and reallocate appropriately.  Thumbs up, Mayor!

Monday, October 18, 2010

The Cookie Jar (alias for the General Reserve Fund)

I hear sales tax is up. The previous Administration projected 4% growth for 2010 and it is running at or a little above 3%.  That's good news for the City.  The Mayor says the surplus will go into the cookie jar for the Event Center.  Well, there is no surplus yet, is there?  What about fixing all those streets he said need fixing?  What about all those budget cuts the departments made this year and next year in order to be fiscally prudent with taxpayer dollars? No cost of living adjustments for city employees, again. I seem to recall the Mayor saying he would revisit those budget cuts made to city departments and non-profits. I think it is a little early to be announcing there is surplus money for his cookie jar.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

When the Mayor Speaks

At the October 12th Information Meeting of the City Council, the Mayor said everyone should stay constructive, stay professional and work as a team.  He was talking about the Event Center project and his vision for the project.

He then went on to remind us that he told everyone in the first meeting, told everyone in the second meeting and then told everyone again last week that he was going to do an economic analysis of both sites in the days to come.  He said that there was a difference between economic impact and commercial impact. I think those comments are probably directed at that pesky Downtown Group and those irritating Council members who ask him questions.  He went on to say that there was incredible economic development from the convention center and arena as if to cement his position for the Event Center site at the Arena location.

I have been trying to put my finger on what is so irritating about the way the Mayor communicates with the Council and the good folks of Sioux Falls.  Maybe it's his seemingly self-absorption/self-preoccupation with his own words.  His presentations are filled with quotes from other people and sometimes even his own previous quotes, they are. (Sorry, I couldn't help myself, I couldn't :-) ) There isn't usually any information given, just his pontification of his own self-centered demonstration of importance.  It's as if his words come from some higher power.

I actually think he is a smart man.  He obviously is action oriented. I like action oriented people, I do.  I just wish he could tone down his feelings of grandeur about himself and quit the niceties with his subtle lectures in his passive-aggressive style of communication.  It is quite annoying, at least to me. It is.

Friday, October 15, 2010

October 12th Event Center Update

Oh my, I listened to the first Event Center Update to the City Council on October 12th.  Whenever I was involved with or ran a large project for the City, the first thing I did was set out a master timeline. A master timeline for a large project  illustrates the big picture, a roadmap, on where you start, where you are going and your final end result. The project master timeline drove my discussions and information updates with the Mayor/Council. The end result  for the Event Center project is the public vote.  The RFP presentation is the beginning of the project  timeline.  Actually, the beginning action item on the Master Timeline was the approval of the first $500,000 in the CIP. All the questions from the Council at this first update session were in direct relation to the fact that they cannot get their arms around this entire project.  Cotter did a nice job outlining the RFP. A little too engineering speak, but that is the world he lives in.  All this talk about the RFP is a waste of time.  Cotter is the professional engineer for the City.  This RFP process is right in his area of expertise.  The Council does not need to be involved in designing or commenting on the RFP.  It is one action item in the big picture. The Council is losing sight of the big picture and why is that?  Why do they have these questions? Because the Mayor and his team have not set out the master time line for this project.  The Master Timeline sets out the major action items/activities of the project and the expected date to complete each one.  The master timeline may be adjusted dependent upon certain action items/activities but the master timeline should drive the big picture monthly discussion.  The discussion on October 12th was the minutiae and they got bogged down in the minutiae instead of the big picture.  Why?  Because the mayor has not presented the big picture.  He even said he hasn’t thought that far ahead yet. The frustration exhibited at this information meeting was of his own creation because he hasn’t thought that far ahead yet. This is going to be painful if this is how each information monthly update is going to run.  

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Thune for President

He's a member of the GOP Senate Leadership Team. He's been stumping for Republican candidates across the country. He lacks an opponent for re-election. He has raised millions from out of state donors. He exudes a midwestern modesty.  Change Republican to Democrat and it sounds like Daschle to me.  How is running for President serving the people of South Dakota? I seem to recall that when John Thune was running his campaign against then Senator Tom Daschle he made the point over and over again that Daschle had become a Washington figure and was no longer in touch with the people of South Dakota.  How ironic.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Funding the Event Center with General Reserve Fund Money

The Mayor has identified his funding sources for the new event center. I give him credit for at least identifying his funding sources. It goes a long way in communicating with the public on how he intends to get this accomplished. Let me be clear, I support an Events Center and I appreciate the Mayor pushing this issue forward finally. 

What I find troublesome is that one leg of his funding sources is the General Reserve Fund. That is money that funds the operating budgets of departments like Libraries, Park and Recreation, Health, Police, Fire, Human Resources, Finance, Central Services, Planning and Building Services, Street Division of Public Works, Engineering Division of Public Works. Over 66% of the general fund is used for salary and benefits of these departments/divisions.

Just how is the Mayor going to accumulate $15 million in reserves over the target reserve funding level in the general fund as established by the City Council? Let me throw out some predictions. Since 66% of general fund money is earmarked for salaries and benefits, I would venture that some of it will have to be funded on the backs of city employees. He is already talking about changing pension benefits and withholding any pay increases. He will stop employee growth by establishing a hiring freeze. The public will cry foul if he doesn't fund employee growth in Public Safety which, by the way, has the largest salary and benefit packages compared to general employees. So those non-uniform general fund departments will be sacrificed more intensely. He will do away with all professional and technical training because this expense is usually viewed as discretionary spending in the public sector.  Then he will have to cut program services. The public is already seeing those kinds of cuts in Parks and Recreation.

What is the impact of those measures? Well, just a drop in employee morale for starters. But who cares about employee morale in the public sector? What really bothers me as a former HR Director is that the city's compensation system is going to be destroyed and any gains over the past 20+ years to bring city compensation out of the basement into the competitive arena with the private sector will be lost. I am so tired of people who think civil servants should work for bargain basement wages.

It is unprecedented that general fund money is used for construction projects.  The CIP is funded with the 2nd penny sales tax and programmed for construction expenses. The general fund is make up of property taxes and first penny sales tax and is for operating expenses. Funding of this project should be programmed in the CIP, using sales tax revenue bonds and private sources, not on the back of the general fund.

If he takes $15 million out of the general fund reserve what is he going to use for operating expenses once it is built?  Where does that place the reserve fund for normal cash flow to operate city government? What about the possible impact of lesser property taxes collected due to this economy and mortgage foreclosures? Is the Council going to let him deplete the cash reserve? Has Finance done a trend forecast on the deletion of $15 million? Time will tell.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Grandma of a Rock Star, Football Player, or Fireman

Who would think there was a reward for getting older. There is and it is called grandchildren. I can't begin to express the joy my Grandson Finn brings to my aging life. Today he took up the guitar.  When he was three years old, he was pretty darn sure he wanted to be fireman. Depending on when you talk to him, he also says he is going to be a football player. 

His cousin Hannah was celebrating her eighth birthday today and she got a guitar from her Aunt Shelby. Finn waited patiently for Hannah to put it down and then asked if he could play it.  He sat in a chair on the lower deck of his Uncle Todd and Aunt Jen's lake home and strummed that guitar in a very intense manner. Then he got up and started tapping his foot and moving his hips while he strummed on the strings of that guitar. It was something special to watch.

A fireman, a football player, a guitar player.  Honestly I think he could be anyone of those things. But what do I know, I am just his Grandma and get joy out of listening to him tell me what he wants to be when he grows up.  I know I will love him no matter what he decides to do with his life.  In the meantime, he looks good in all three of his hopes and dreams.

November Election

I am going to be very sad if Noem beats Herseth Sandlin in November.  This state is small and as such, has little clout in Washington.  When we have congressional leaders who become leaders in their own right, it benefits this State.  South Dakota, time and again, likes to throw out those congressional leaders who they think become too big for their britches.  The defeat of Senator Tom Daschle had everyone outside of this state scratching their heads at what kind of numbskulls lived in South Dakota.  Well, we got John Thune and now he wants to be President.  I just can't help laughing at the irony of it all. Why can't he be satisfied to just serving us South Dakotans? We now are faced with the possibility of a neophyte running against a seasoned, competent and highly successful congresswoman.  Noem has nothing to offer.  Her campaign ads are devoid of substance and instead use the platitudes expressed by everyother Tea Partier or right wing member Republican. Let's just cut off our nose to spite our face, shall we? Another opportunity for this State in November is to make a change in the state leadership.  After 8 years of Rounds and Daugaard, how much more deficit and big government can we stand? Heideprim is an honorable man who has much to offer this state. I hope the people of this state give him a chance. I still have hope.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Demeaning Council Opposition

I was wondering when the friendly demeanor between the Mayor and some members of the City Council would cease to exist. I have seen glimmers of the Mayor's irritation with Councilors Jamison, Brown, and Erpenbach but Monday, October 4th, took the cake.  First came the information meeting where Mayor Huether responded to Councilor Erpenbach's questions in a very condescending manner.  At Monday night's meeting, Council Jamison threw out a question to the Mayor about the $500,000. First Rolfing did the Mayor's bidding for him and gave Jamison a lecture on his question as if the Mayor couldn't speak for himself. Mayor Huether then chimed in with his lecture to Jamison regarding his question.  What is it with this attitude towards council members who don't agree with the Mayor or the majority? It is sad when these three councilors have to preface a question to the Mayor with a disclaimer that they are not being argumentative or that they do not wish to offend the Mayor.  The Mayor doesn't need to be a bully or demean anyone. The Mayor drives the agenda.  That is what this form of government is all about - a strong Mayor, a part-time council. I just wish the Mayor would not disenfranchise those people who question his agenda. The Mayor said the following at one of his presentations to the City Council: "Tough questioning by the City Council doesn't automatically mean conflict and doesn't mean it is running rampant. It is part of the process.  It makes government stronger, maximizes taxpayer dollars. It ensures good balance between different levels of government." Good comment, Mayor. Everyone deserves to be treated with respect, even those who disagree or question you.  Now, just put it into practice when dealing with those three on the City Council.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Event Center Presentation

The Mayor presented his vision to the City Council Monday night. I think it is fair to say that; overall, the public seems to support the building of an event center. Huether stated the people of Sioux Falls will ultimately decide. What is it the public is going to ultimately decide?  I guess we get to vote on his plan only. So be it, but it should only happen after both sites have been properly and equally vetted and one of them proven to be lacking economically. He is recommending the event center be built at the Arena/Convention Center site because, as he stated in his presentation, that location is the most popular, the most palatable to the public, and the hotel and restaurants are already there. Huether says it will spur economic development in that area. Really? The Arena/Convention Center has not brought any economic growth to that area of the City. If they build it, they will come, I guess? Economic growth along that corridor is sure taking its sweet old time coming to the city. A new hotel attached to the Arena and a new convention center sure didn’t spur economic growth in this last decade. He says he is going to do a comparison and his puppet councilors say they believe he will do that. What comparison exactly? The only way a legitimate comparison can be made of both the Arena site and the downtown area is to spend like dollars on both locations and then lay them side by side.  Cooper’s fact sheet on why the downtown area is not workable is not a satisfactory comparison.  The downtown group is getting kicked around for organizing and bringing their opinions to the Mayor.  They clearly stated they support the building of an event center. All they are asking is for a fair and balanced analysis of both sites. That has not been done and no dollars are allocated for it. I don’t care what the Council says about the trust level that the comparison will be done.  It won’t be a legitimate comparison if both sites don’t get the same analysis and attention from Cotter’s process. Prove to the “good folks of Sioux Falls” that the downtown site won’t work and why. Mayor Huether doesn’t like to be questioned on his vision. He states he has started this process and already people are whipping it.  Well, as the leader of the city, it is the Mayor’s job to listen and present a fair and balanced report to the citizens, not just cram your big idea down everybody’s throat and demean people who legitimately question your vision and want a seat at the planning table.

Commercial Vehicles in Residential Areas

Councilor Entenmen was on TV the other night saying he supports removing ordinance language banning the parking of commerical vehicles in residential areas. WHAT? The City has such ordinances in place to keep residential areas nice, quiet and peaceful areas.  There is no place for commercial vehicles in a residential zone.  Just what we need, look out our homes and see semi-truck cabs, potato chip trucks, tow trucks, buses and limosines and what all parked in front of houses or across the street. The residential streets are just that - residential.  There is a clear distinction between commercial and residential. This is no different than the issue regarding recreational vehicles in a residential area.  I just don't get why these councilors are so bent on junking up our neighborhoods because a couple constituants complain they can't park or store these vehicles by their homes.  When did the few get the voice over the majority?  If I wanted to look out my front door and see a commerical vehicle parked on the street, I would build my house in a commerically zoned area.  A little common sense from the City Council on these issues would be appreciated.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Mayor's Event Center Advisory Team

It is well and good to have an advisory team to help the Mayor travel through the mindfield of public opinion, but when the advisory team is only made up of people who have the same mindset as the Mayor then it becomes kind of joke, doesn't it? Why weren't  Council Chair Jamison and/or Councilors Brown and Erpenbach  included in those advisory meetings? Because they have challenged him on this issue. Councilors Entenman and Aguilar are already supporters of his vision.   Same goes for those influential community leaders. I was always of the belief that the best way to a sound decision was to include people with opinions on both sides of the coin. You can't make a good decision when all you hear is exactly what you want to hear, that which supports your agenda. Too many talking heads bobbing yes and no talking heads offering other opinions.