Most of Tuesday’s 11.20.12 Common Council session concerned the 2013 municipal budget, and of that, a half hour’s discussion addressed whether to give Generac Power Systems, a thriving corporation, ten-thousand dollars to bus its workers to and from other cities. That’s not all, of course: one heard the company-specific program touted as the hope for ‘regionalization,’ with a new and ‘expanded’ schedule.
There were two questions about the bus last night: how Council would decide on the question of 2013 bus funding, and just as importantly what reasoned, sound basis would proponents of funding offer for their request?
In this matter, the vote went 3-2 in favor of Whitewater’s 2013 taxpayer funding of $10,000 for the bus. A close vote, but in favor: votes may go one way or another, for any number of reasons. That’s hardly surprising. Although I’ve argued against funding, there was another aspect of the meeting even more important than the outcome.
Just as important as advancing a proposal is the offering of sound arguments on its behalf.
It’s an understatement to say that the proponents of this proposal, including City Manager Clapper, and those from Generac, from public positions in Janesville, from the university administration, or from the Innovation Center produced only speculative, wishful arguments on behalf of using public money for the bus proposal.
I’ll review those light arguments, listing questions about them, under the name of the proponent who offered them.
NOTE: I had promised that I’d post remarks from Generac’s CEO, Aaron Jagdfeld, if he spoke in favor. Of course, he didn’t attend, but sent along a mid-level representative. So, we’ve not had the pleasure of his presentation. I do have a question about Jagdfeld and Whitewater, however, that I’ll post below.
Cameron Clapper, Whitewater City Manager
1. What’s the expiration date on a pilot program? By the city manager’s account, this program was a ‘pilot’ effort. Now we have had a request for more time, another year, to expand the program, to give it another chance, etc. 2012 was supposed to be the test year; now it’s 2012 and 2013. Eight months, now twenty months – will be it thirty-two months’ time requested at next year’s budget?
2. Why didn’t the city manager post supporting ridership information on the program within the Common Council packet for this meeting? By his own account, he worked with city staff and Janesville’s transportation director on these figures. If they’ve been thoroughly reviewed at public expense, why should the public not see them?
Whitewater has a Municipal Transparency Ordinance at Chapter 2.62 of her Municipal Code. Consider 2.62.020(c):
All council, committee, commission and board packet materials, that can be reasonably scanned, shall be posted online twenty-four hours in advance of the meeting. The city shall provide an electronic notification feed alert, indicating that new information is available regarding an upcoming council, committee, commission or board meeting, to any party that has subscribed to the feed (requested notice from the city of the updated information).
There are three possibilities: (1) no one in the municipal administration thought to do what our ordinance requires, (2) no one in the municipal administration cared what our ordinance requires, or (3) this was all done at the last minute (and so the city manager’s claim of careful public-officials’ review is unpersuasive).
Keeping this information out of the packet keeps it from public review.
3. Why were all the proponents speaking for this plan from big institutions? There was not a single ordinary resident among them. Could the city manager not find time to talk to ordinary people, and persuade at least one to attend? It’s the Municipal Building, not the Pentagon; there would have been time.
4. When the city manager mentioned that staff is recommending this project, how much time did they spend on a bus that almost exclusively benefits $2.3 billion-dollar Generac? Wouldn’t that time have been better spent on local merchants?
5. Where was Aaron Jagdfeld, CEO of cash-rich Generac Power Systems on Thursday, 11.15.12? Whitewater’s city manager certainly knows that although Jagdfeld wouldn’t attend any of our council meetings, he did speak on Thursday to the Walworth County Economic Development Alliance on – wait for it — the need for the federal government to “just decide what the rules are…”
So Generac’s mid-level representative can’t deliver a certain dollar commitment at the meeting, Janesville’s transit director can’t conclusively offer how many are now riding the bus, can’t say how many might really want the bus, isn’t sure of the schedule for expanded routes, doesn’t know where the bus would stop, but knows just how much Whitewater should ‘donate.’
That company’s CEO’s plea for specificity doesn’t extend to the details of the public program from which his private company disproportionately benefits.
6. If Generac’s expanding, why can’t it hire more in Whitewater?
7. If Generac’s not in the bus business — as its representative says — why should the public be in the generator business? Most people are not in that line of work, but maybe Generac could send some products their way at its expense.
This is a company that wants others to pay its way.
8. What’s Generac’s commitment? For 2012, it was only about a fifth of the total cost of the program. For 2013, we heard that Generac was in the middle of its budget process right now and so not finished with 2013 figures. They expect taxpayers to budget now, but they’re not ready.
Later in the session, a council member said that this was the way all budget processes work, by way of exonerating Generac.
Does anyone think Generac can’t make a commitment now? Each day, of each week, of each month, Generac pays employees, pays vendors, makes deals, signs contracts, and purchases goods and services.
On Tuesday, 11.20.12, though, we were supposed to believe that they can’t yet offer a definite contribution to their own project.
It’s not a persuasive claim.
Janesville’s City Manager, Eric Levitt
9. These are tight times, as Janesville City Manger Levitt notes. Of all the projects that Whitewater might fund, why would he think this one matters more than public safety, libraries, food pantries, small businesses, or repairs to dilapidated structures? He wants this, of course: but why does it matter more than these other needs? He’s not said, and probably can’t say.
10. Does Levitt really think the Generac’s bus is called an ‘Innovation Express’ because this project is an innovation? I doubt he’s the first public official who’s angled for taxpayer money to push bus transit regionally. By his own director of transportation’s admission, public transit doesn’t make money, and this scheme won’t make money. How’s that innovation? Seems more like yesterday’s failed plan.
11. After months and over a hundred-thousand dollars, why should anyone be convinced that more money is needed for something that is – in his own words only “somewhat successful?”
12. What’s it mean when City Manager Levitt said he wanted to leverage Whitewater’s public money, and others’ public money, so that his city can benefit from $245,000 in state money? It says that he thinks that it’s fine for one city to spend public money that benefits a private company so that other taxpayers will spend more money for his city.
This isn’t public money to create private development – it’s really taxpayers’ money to get more taxpayers’ money.
This isn’t giving or getting, but officials taking. They’re so in the habit of taking for their purposes that they don’t think of it as taking anymore – it’s ‘leveraging.’
13. Isn’t most job growth small business growth? It’s a rhetorical question. No matter how important Levitt insists Generac is, most job growth comes from much smaller companies. They’ll struggle on Small Business Saturday (11.24.12) under taxes to pay for a bus that won’t come to their doors.
Janesville’s Transportation Director, Dave Mumma.
14. Where’s the survey study that Mumma gave to City Manager Clapper? As with the ridership numbers (See Question 2, above), it’s not online in the city packet.
It’s a 2009 study of students at the university, but one can’t see it. If proponents believe in the strength of their case, why won’t they show their work and underlying reports?
15. If one has had over a hundred thousand in 2012 funding, and eight months, why no new surveys of needs? Why stick with a 2009 student-only survey?
16. Of those students surveyed in the 2009, how many would actually pay for the service? Didn’t students in a campus referendum actually reject paying for it through their fees? (They did reject that approach.)
17. By Mumma’s own admission, neither the 2009 survey nor others have non-campus respondents. Why is that? Isn’t it just because it’s easier to survey people on a campus, and the survey took the easy way out by assessing needs for only a part of our whole community?
18. When one says that it’s students who are the most “homogeneous group who might use public transit,” why would anyone think this is a job-creating program?
19. Mumma declared that this is an opportunity to ask, “Does this concept work?” Wasn’t that opportunity present during the last eight months?
20. If there’s not a percentage ‘per se’ for matching the state’s strap [Supplemental Transit Rural Assistance Program] grant, why did Mumma say that the state’s taxpayers’ fund 80% of the operating deficit of the program? It patently is a percentage.
Mumma himself admits that a reduction in non-state funding would mean that “so yeah, the amount that we would get from strap would be proportionately less.” Oh, brother.
21. Why doesn’t Janesville Transportation Director Mumma know information on “the difference between Whitewater and Milton people and there’s different fares depending on how far you ride,” etc.? Unprepared, ill-informed shouldn’t be the result of decades on the public payroll.
22. Why does Mumma calculate 2013 ridership projections by a dollar amount of the estimated farebox receipts? It’s an absurdity: to estimate how many riders he’ll have, Mumma takes estimated farebox contributions, and divides it by an estimated fare.
But how much does he think those farebox contributions will be? Presumably he’s had to estimate – ready? – how many people will be riding. So he gets ridership from farebox estimates, but he gets farebox estimates from…well, from what he knows farebox contributions have to be after all other money is received from state, local sources, etc.
He doesn’t have an independent, credible ridership estimate for 2013.
Mumma actually say that, “I’m guessing that in order to generate the $54,000 in revenue we’re going to have somewhere in the neighborhood of twenty to twenty-five thousand passengers.”
It’s as though one said: “I want to make a thousand dollars on cupcakes, at $2.00 each, so I just positively, absolutely know that I will sell 500 of them.” Customers and actual sales be damned: the figures themselves prove you’ll make those sales.
There’s you’re innovative thinking behind the Innovation Express.
23. If Mumma was unprepared last week – and he was – why couldn’t he give more informed answers this week? It’s also a rhetorical question.
24. How many new bus stops might there be? Where might these new stops be situated? No idea.
There were additional remarks from proponents Jeff Arnold, Vice Chancellor for Administrative Affairs at the university and Robert Young, Director of the Innovation Center.
Young praised this as a successful collaborative venture, along the lines of the Innovation Center. This bus project benefits one big company, has no sound estimates for future ridership, absurdly estimates ridership based on fare estimates after a state grant, with no idea where new stops will be, no idea when new times will be, has had no 2012 contributions from the City of Milton despite Milton’s heavier 2012 use of the bus, all without giving the community a change to look at supposedly supporting documents in the 11.20.12 council packet, and is about ‘taking a chance’ despite greater needs elsewhere.
25. If Young considers this project a successful collaboration, for goodness’ sake what does he think an unsuccessful collaboration looks like?