This past week, we learned first hand just how desperate, inefficient, and back wooded our local government is. While we have much to celebrate in our Evansville City Council passing a smoking ban that has only 1 exemption, we also have many reasons to feel disappointed.
This disappointment stems from the fact that Casino Aztar was granted an exemption not because they proved that cigarette smoke wasn't dangerous in their facility, rather because they convinced our government that they cannot afford to treat Aztar like everyone else.
- "Evansville City Council members said Tuesday a new ordinance banning smoking in bars was a step in the right direction, but city finances were too shaky to not exempt Casino Aztar from the ban."
- "Adams said the city should see its adoption as a step in the right direction and realize the city has grown dependent on casino dollars."
- "Third Ward Councilwoman Stephanie Brinkerhoff-Riley said the casino exemption was purely financial."
In earlier articles, city leaders said that the city would struggle to finance police and fire services without Aztar funds. So how did we get in this position? How did we go from welcoming Aztar to town as a luxury to needing them to stay just to remain financially solvent? Why and how have we mismanaged our funds so bad that we now are being held hostage by our own finances?
One of the main reasons that I decided to write this post, aside from the fact that the smoking ban is one of my 6 goals for getting Evansville Moving Forward, is because this week has summed up what I've been saying since the first day I began this blog. Who and what can we point the finger at for our financial woes?
- Those who support government services without looking at their financial impact. Our town loves to spend money on public schools. It seems that every time the EVSC comes to the city they get their way. A few years ago, voters even approved of a $149 million bond for the EVSC to build new schools such as New North High School. Now, property taxes have been capped and there is no money leftover from the bond initiative.
- Those who support or contribute to urban sprawl. Earlier, I talked about the fact that urban sprawl is killing Evansville...
Indeed, this is the main reason for our dependency on Aztar. In 2001, Mayor Russ Lloyd Jr. unveiled a master plan for Downtown Evansville. Quickly, city leaders struck in down citing financial costs as the main reason. Yet, the ballpark was $22.5 million while the Green River Road widening was $25 million. The team we were suppose to get to play in our ballpark, the South Georgia Waves, now account for over 1,500 hotel nights a year in Bowling Green, Kentucky.
While projects such as the canal, the marina, and government services/central park have fallen under $100 million combined in other cities, our Evansville MPO has spent over this amount on frivolous road projects like the Green River Road widening, like the road work done on Millersburg Road, like the road works done on Oak Hill Road, and like the road work done on several other projects that keep on expanding Evansville's infrastructure into Vanderburgh County. Even worse is the fact that our Evansville MPO is planning on doing this until at least 2035 (click on transportation plan)...
The following article sums it up best...
"Frankly, any major American city that solely relies on streets and highways for its transportation network will fail to remain competitive and will falter economically over time. That includes cities with bus transit systems that rely on the same streets and highways.
- The group I blame the most is those who look at taxes as being equal and then reject them all no matter what each tax funds. While our city leaders have given our local residents every reason under the sun to not trust them with their money, the truth is, we must come together as one to build our city correctly if we have any desire to get off of the Aztar money. How do I know this?
Remember when I talked about a program called MAPS that is now on its third round in Oklahoma City?...
I'm not going to go over how MAPS works as I've talked about it a thousand times, but I will give you some of the results.
- OKC invested over $1 billion in their downtown with MAPS temporary 1% sales tax and have received over $5 billion back from private investors.
- OKC was named the "most recession proof city" by Forbes Magazine.
- OKC did not go into debt with any of their MAPS projects. In fact, the interest drawn off of the tax revenue was over $50 million (basically a free ballpark and part of a canal).
- OKC is now a hotbed for young professionals in their 20s who want to create start-up businesses.
The amazing thing about OKC and their MAPS program is that they did it with a Republican mayor (Mick Cornett) in a conservative state. Yet, MAPS is widely popular in OKC and the surrounding suburbs who have approved MAPS, MAPS II, and MAPS III by referendum.
Last month, NPR caught up with Mayor Cornett and gave us the following quotes...
"INSKEEP: Why is it that you think that Oklahoma City is doing so much better than many other places?
CORNETT: Well, we've invested conservatively. We, for the last 20 years, have additional penny sales tax that we've invested in a lot of capital projects and we've improved the quality of life. And so with that increase of quality of life comes this incredible human capital. Highly educated 20-somethings are moving to Oklahoma City in large numbers. The Kauffman Foundation recently disclosed that we were the most entrepreneurial city in the country, most start-ups per capita. And so if you have the bright and the young and the talented moving to your city, that's a great labor pool that your entrepreneurs and job creators are going to be able to tap into.
INSKEEP: You're talking about attracting the so-called creative class, as the writer Richard Florida would call them, right?
CORNETT: Yeah. That's a good part of it, absolutely.
INSKEEP: And you say that you did that in part by raising taxes to make sure that services were adequate.
CORNETT: Well, it's not just services. It's amenities. You know, it's sports arenas, it's performing arts centers. You know, we put a canal through our entertainment district. We've built dams and built waterfronts, you know, for our river. There's a lot to the quality of life that a person is looking for. And we've been able to convince the people that live in the suburbs that the vibrancy of the core is directly proportionate to the quality of life in the suburbs. And so the people in the suburbs are willing to invest in downtown. And it's all paid for. You know, there's no debt on any of these items. So it's just a different culture. It's hard to necessarily explain unless you're in Oklahoma City and can see it. But you can feel it when you're here."
So while OKC enjoys a rejuvenated downtown, a downtown that is not in debt, and a city with a population that is on the rise with highly educated young professionals who are rapidly creating start-up companies, Evansville is going the other way. We are seeing a decline in population each time the Census comes out, our city is deeply in debt, and the main people we are trying to recruit are smokers who just want to have a good time.
If we have any true ambitions of turning Evansville around, we must develop practical, sensible, and innovative programs like OKC's MAPS. We must...
1. Install a green belt around the city which will prevent urban sprawl. Preventing urban sprawl will result in less infrastructure being needed, less government services being needed, and less environmental damage taking place.
2. Invest in our downtown. Until we give our residents and visitors a reason to go downtown they won't. If you think one arena and a casino is good enough, you are wrong. When you go to cities like Omaha, Indianapolis, Louisville, and OKC you will see that their entire downtown areas are vibrant and lively. We can do this with our own downtown and we can do it CHEAPER THAN INVESTING IN URBAN SPRAWL.
3. Approve a comprehensive smoking ban with NO exemptions. This will send a strong signal to young professionals that Evansville has finally arrived in the 21st century. It will also send a strong signal that Evansville is bigger than one person, group, or business.
4. Market Evansville to young professionals in their 20s. Some have suggested that we establish a fund that invests in start-up companies. But if you look at OKC, you will see that if we invest in Evansville itself by improving our amenities, these start-up companies will bring themselves to town. By building amenities similar to the ones in OKC, we will be marketing to young professionals in their 20s.
5. Invest in rail transportation. To learn more about this please visit my other blog EvansvilleRail.blogspot.com.
There's no doubt that this week's smoking ban is a drastic improvement in the right direction. However, in the process we have exposed just how flawed our way of life is financially. We must reform. We must be like OKC!