Local government insanity, two more examples

Example the First. We have a community pool, built a couple of decades ago. Popular lore suggests that all the local governments committed to sharing its expenses equally, but there's nothing in writing. In recent years, one local entity dropped out, while the others (including the county) have contributed a fixed sum annually--a fraction of the actual net cost of the pool after user fees. One entity, the largest local city, apparently picks up the substantial tab for the entire resulting deficit, and has done so since the memory of man sayeth not to the contrary.

For about 18 months now, as the county's representative on the pool committee, I've been trying with increasing bafflement to get the pool manager and the other board members, who include a city rep, to address the deficit. Sometimes they say it's not a problem, because the city will cover it, to which I respond, cool, let's quit talking about it, then. To which they then say, but what if the city doesn't keep it up? And I say, hadn't you better take a look at your revenues, specifically your user rate structure? I've written about this here before. They struggle with the task of imagining what rate increases the market might bear, and how much each type or amount of increase might contribute to the bottom line annually, given uncertainties like volume of customers from year to year and the impact of rate hikes on same.

Last spring I tried to get them to think about this in preparation for the 2021 summer season. When they finally got it on the agenda in July, they still lacked any firm numbers to wrestle with and supposedly were going to call a special meeting in a week or so, while there might still be time to raise rates for the summer season. OK, that never happened. Fast-forward to last week, the first meeting since last July. I expected the same topic to be rehashed, with roughly the same results. When I arrived, however, I was pleased to see that the city finance manager was attending. I asked her what I used to try to ask the other folks, "What does it actually mean when we run a deficit? Is there a cushion account we're gradually depleting? We don't bounce checks, right?" She responded quite openly: the city simply pays all the bills, and runs an account receivable that the pool has never paid and evidently never will.

Okay, I thought, when I'm wearing my pool hat the status quo seems eminently satisfactory, and I don't ever wear a city hat. I do wear a county hat, but the county doesn't mind continuing to pay its annual flat contribution, so we're all good.

But if you're thinking I was then able to shut up while the room went on to continue to discuss the issue of what rates to raise and by how much, I guess I haven't painted a very clear picture of myself. Like an idiot, I eventually found myself goaded into asking clarifying questions. Someone would start talking about a tiny change in a minor category of rate, and I'd ask, now, is that one rate type out of four, or what? Hearing that it was in fact one rate out of four or so, and that they planned to move on to the other rates next, I'd say, now, how much do you suppose that first rate change would increase annual revenues? And I would get blank stares again, just as I did last year. Finally after they slowly went through all the categories, I said, OK, the total impact sounds like roughly in the neighborhood of what, about X dollars?--X dollars being maybe 20-25% of the annual deficit.

At this point, they left glum confusion behind and proceeded to the idea that really animates them: it's terrible that the county doesn't pick up a big part of the huge recurring annual deficit and help the city out. Never going to happen, I said, taking the opportunity to suggest that they might want to think about whom they'll vote for in the primary for County Judge primary in a few weeks. Now everyone's shouting about the county being mean and not living up to its ancient (unwritten, disputed, unenforceable) promises and so on.

Finally someone has the bright idea that, if the city subsidizes the losses but the county doesn't, maybe city taxpayers should pay lower pool use rates than all non-city residents, including county residents in the boonies and out-of-towners. Excellent idea, I agreed, very sensible, figure out how much you can raise that way. Well, they had no idea, and besides, what they really wanted was for me to say, "Oh, don't do that, I'll go take the other County Commissioners hostage at gunpoint and force them to increase your budget."

We left it that they still needed to gather data for a reality check and would call a special meeting "soon," so they may still be able to raise rates before summer. All I could think was, "Please wait another 11 months. I'm out of here December 31." Or, "Heaven give me the good sense to shut up next time if there really is one before I go."

Example the Second. I learned this week that the county has an ordinance dating back to 2004 requiring a $5 annual pet license, including the usual need to prove rabies vaccination. I learned this because we recently inched a small fraction of the county's IT system slightly further into the third millennium, so residents can now buy the license online instead of going bodily to the Animal Shelter with, I kid you not, a money order. I figured this would spark the same level of non-interest that most descriptions of county activity do when I post them on Facebook.

Imagine my surprise when my public absolutely erupted. Three days later we're into a practically unprecedented number of comments. It's unconstitutional. It's a tax gouge. It will make it impossible for poor people to afford having a pet. It's the government invading and ruining our lives. How will the county enforce this if no one knows about it, etc.

I've been steadily pointing out that the rule has been in force for 18 years, though apparently not a soul was aware of it. The county has no plans whatever to start enforcing it, or even to publicize it. I seem to be the only one talking about it. Absolutely nothing has changed except that, if you happen to want to buy a license, you can now do so conveniently online. It's pretty cheap, and it will put your pet into a registry so that you'll be notified faster if your pet should ever get lost and picked up.

"But I already microchip my pet, so this is tyranny/waste/mad overreach." OK, but the Animal Control folks report that it takes six hours to hear back from the national microchip registry, while this local registry is basically instant. Again, it's pretty cheap, and it's a bit of a donation to the almost-no-kill Shelter, which helps sad puppies. No, it's a tax on strays! Also, it's evil to finance government operations via user fees instead of general taxes! Or both!

I resolutely remain calm--easier to do online than sitting in a pool committee meeting--and keep repeating that nothing has changed in terms of obligations or enforcement. The only change is that it's now easier to pay.

But the public remains in a ferment. We're going to borrow $13MM to build a bigger, fancier courthouse than we need? Yawn. A $5 fee you weren't paying is now easier to pay if you feel like it? Armageddon.


Harmon Ward said...

Ouch, I don't envy you.

raven said...

#1 Contact the local Japanese American Friendship Society, and ask for volunteers to fill in the pool and turn it into a Zen rock garden. Not my idea, one of the finest Zen gardens I have seen was made this way.

#2 Any law not worth enforcing is not worth having. It diminishes the whole concept of rule of law.

Grim said...

That’s right. If a law has gone unenforced, it is unnecessary.

Texan99 said...

Agreed, it's dumb to have a law that's not enforced. But it got put there 18 years ago and realistically there's no way it's going to be dropped now, because there really isn't a "I shouldn't have to vaccinate for rabies" contingent here of any size or importance. If a change were to happen, it would be in the direction of enforcement, not repeal, which wouldn't suit the people who are complaining. I think most of us assumed we'd been buying a license all along, because the vets give us little tags when we get rabies shots, which is all I was used to getting from the City of Houston when we lived there. No, turns out that's just a vet tag, and a county tag is different. What would make the most sense to me would be to combine it with the vet procedure as they do in Houston and, I suspect, most places.

Right now I think the only enforcement happens when you try to bail an animal out of the shelter, if he gets lost and picked up, or bites someone. They'll make you prove he's vaccinated and sell you a license. It's a nice shelter. I don't want to jack with them in any way. They're spending all their effort on the animals, not on the licenses, which doesn't irritate me.

Aggie said...

Yes well it's appalling how frequently we're reminded just how irrational people can be.

J Melcher said...

Of the $13 Million to build bigger -- do county voters have to approve that borrowing, in similar fashion to school districts putting bond issues before the voters?

If so, are there Political Action Committees (PACs) opposing and supporting the ballot measure?

Texan99 said...

Long story short--there's a debt form called "certificate of obligation" that doesn't require voter approval unless 5% of registered voters sign a petition to force an election, which my county's irritated voters duly did last fall. The CO debt issue went on the Nov. 2020 ballot, and the courthouse bond was voted down. The County Judge then proceeded to borrow the money via a "tax note," which doesn't require an election. It's more limited in term, and even in use, but the courthouse qualified as a statutory use, and the county simply planned to refinance the shorter-term tax note when the time comes (not so great now that inflation is kicking in). The petition organizers sued to block the tax notes, but not very competently, and their case was thrown out early in 2021.

The Mar. 1, 2022, primary for the County Judge position probably will turn mostly on how thoroughly irritated the voters were with this tactic. Voters don't stay focused on much, but the contempt with which the County Judge treated the courthouse bond election was a straightforward, memorable, infuriating episode. So we'll see in a few weeks.