How about a plaque for the site of Walworth County’s parkland scheme, should it be completed?
DEDICATED TO ONE PRIVATE SELLER WHO FULFILLED HIS DREAM WITH MILLIONS OF YOUR TAX DOLLARS
Last Sunday saw another public-relations exercise in selling the residents of a rural county on purchasing private land, at a cost of millions in public money (all of which – state or local – comes from taxpayers’ earnings).
See, from Walworth County Sunday, Land of Opportunity?
Candidly, the arguments for justifying the purchase are even weaker in this story than those described in an earlier newspaper story (June 9) and a subsequent Gazette editorial (June 15).
(For my earlier posts critiquing the deal, see Hey, Walworth County, How About Buying Over-Priced, Half-Unsuitable Parkland with Taxpayer Money! and Part 2: Hey, Walworth County, How About Buying Over-Priced, Half-Unsuitable Parkland with Taxpayer Money!)
On the basis of these three attempts to hawk the deal, one could almost propose a Theory of Devolution: something can get successively smaller and more primitive over time.
A few responses to the latest arguments in favor, and some suggestions, too:
1. A private seller’s dream at others’ expense.
One reads that owner-seller Duane Clark has a dream, yes a dream:
It took a journey of 3900 miles for Duane Clark to reaffirm what he knew in his heart to be true.
The problem, and his quest, was to convince others that his nearly 200 acres in the town of Lyons should be preserved for the masses to enjoy.
The ‘masses’ – too funny, really: A seller has a dream that can be fulfilled for the little people – the unwashed, undifferentiated masses – not through his philanthropy or their voluntary contributions but only through their compulsory taxation.
Amazing, isn’t it, that Walworth County now has a new definition of philanthropy: the philanthropist donates a gift that’s entirely paid with other people’s tax money.
A seller’s dream, but on your dime. He’ll receive millions, from taxes collected, so that he can be a philanthropist.
Very, very few of the people taxed to fulfill one man’s supposed dream will ever receive millions from a land sale – yet here the private seller’s happy to build his dream on their backs.
That’s not genuine philanthropy – it’s an embarrassment.
2. About those supposedly few large pieces of land left.
The seller offers 200 acres, but the Kettle Moraine State Forest, Southern Unit, is already 22,000 acres of superior land with assuredly superior care. Our area does not lack for recreational land.
Still, these gentlemen would like common people to pay for an uncommonly selfish deal that adds only 0.9% to area parkland. That’s zero-point-nine, a number even less than one.
3. The price of an option to purchase.
One reads that an extension of the option to purchase from August to January was ‘free,’ and without additional change to the county. No, not really: the original cost of the option was $5,000, for a deal that these parties – at least professedly – would be willing to make with no one else.
The seller hasn’t asked for more toward an option on this scheme, but then who else would even consider this parkland idea?
Too funny: not only does the seller reportedly want his philanthropy at others’ ($1.9 million) expense, he wouldn’t even offer the original option without getting $5,000 for it.
That’s some philanthropy, I wouldn’t wonder.
4. The Walworth County Board Chairman Salutes a Dreamer (and would enrich him, too).
Nancy Russell, County Board Chairwoman, wants everyone to know why this matters:
The thing is that this has been a dream of Mr. Clark’s for a long time…”
I’m sure it has been, but I’m equally sure that there are many people in Chairwoman Russell’s county who dream about adequate food, clothing, and shelter, too.
Not one of those impoverished residents is asking that their dreams be fulfilled at a price of $1.9 million. No one (not otherwise obtuse) who has been fortunate in his or her life believes that Clark’s dream is as meaningful as the dream of mere sustenance that some unfortunate few have each night.
No one owes a dreaming private man these millions in public money.
5. “…but there are always reasons to say no to a project like this…”
Yes there are, and they’re more compelling than enriching one seller at others’ expense.
6. About that public hearing.
Another supervisor touts a public hearing response that was favorable to this sale. These are small-scale surveys, of those attending from among those who are able to attend, and aren’t slightly representative of the county’s demographics – and everyone in Walworth County government knows as much.
More to the point, the proper comparative measure isn’t this pricey deal among other land deals, but this deal specifically against all possible county expenditures.
Similarly, the proper popular survey would be among all people, legitimately sampled, rather than limited, unrepresentative surveys.
7. “…but if we don’t take advantage of it, the money will simply go somewhere else…”
Here one sees an appeal to gluttony.
What was once a deadly sin is now a principle of public policy.
It’s a contention both wrong and inefficient. It’s wrong because in conditions of restraint, appropriated money need not be spent. It’s simply inefficient because it signals demand even when there are better uses elsewhere.
Here’s what it really means, too: let’s spend it on a bad idea before someone in the state has a better idea.
Let’s spend it needlessly in Walworth County so no one elsewhere in Wisconsin will have the chance to spend it properly in their respective counties.
8. Ask way too much, settle for merely too much.
Here’s what Central Services Director Kevin Brunner has to say about the seller’s price:
But when we got involved in discussions he was asking well in excess of $3 million.
Well, thank you, Mr. Brunner, for admitting to the community that a supposed philanthropist was looking to grab even more from the public treasury. Much appreciated (even if the revelation comes at the expense of a story line – about how generous all this is – that he can’t keep straight.)
That’s some negotiating position Mr. Brunner has there, too: someone asks him to spend $50 on a can of Coke, and he feels feel satisfied if he pays only $30.
Funny thing, though: he’s not paying with his money, is he? Every big project is the same: he’s been a wheeler-dealer with someone else’s (tax) money. They earned it; he spends it.
9. About that Appraisal Price.
Now Mr. Brunner and others have had months to think of justifications for this scheme, but watch how easily it is to refute the argument in defense of the appraised price. Here’s what Mr. Brunner said about that price:
You can argue that $1.9 (million) or $2 million was too much, but that’s what the appraisal numbers say.
Here’s a quick reply:
A single mother walks into a car dealership, to buy a used car for herself and her three children. She’d like something for transportation to work and her children’s activities. She’s thinking about a hatchback or a small SUV.
The salesman, however, insists that the car for her – the one that would be best, the one she must buy – is a 2010 Maybach Model 62 sedan in excellent condition, for just $386,295.
The woman is stunned, and she asks why he thinks she could possibly afford a $386,295 automobile.
The salesman replies that he thinks she should because that’s the Kelley Blue Book Value and he might have asked even more for it.
There we are: Mr. Brunner hits on the idea of an appraised price, but he shows no willingness or ability to place that price in a proper context.
Those who want to leave a legacy should donate it freely, not charge others for the supposed privilege.
A few helpful suggestions:
1. Walworth County officials are really at sea on even simple economic justifications for their proposals. Someone needs to find and begin a remedial course on economics, at the simplest level.
2. Walworth County needs a better point-man for these ideas. The County Administrator must be able to find someone of strong reasoning, somewhere. It’s a county of over one-hundred thousand, after all.
It’s evident he’s not yet found someone of that ability.
3. Does County Administrator Bretl understand the residents of his county? I’m not sure. Best guess is that he’s working in a county echo-chamber, and consequently he has almost no feel for how his arguments sound when examined outside this group. (Without question, Kevin Brunner had this problem in Whitewater as city manager, too.)
4. Better still, come up with better ideas.