council

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Taxation and government spending 101

Published January 19, 2020 by justicewg

 

I read a lot of rationalizations from the city council members this week for the support of a new assistant position to be created under mayor Kearns. Most of it had some fuzzy or incorrect thinking about how tax money came to be sitting in the budget of the city. They need a refresher course in taxes and spending.

Government money comes from taxes

There are some fees the government collects for the use of land, or more esoteric stuff like sale of radio frequencies. That stuff is minor – most government money comes from taxes (property and income and sales, individual and business). The voters give the government the right to tax, and increase taxes, via voting.

The Grandview Heights school board once tried to tell us all that they had negotiated the rent of space on the football field for cell towers, and that because they did all the work negotiating with the phone companies, they were the owners of that money and could use it however they wanted (which at the time was to pay for new field turf).

If the board had gone into business for themselves, and started buying up property, then selling it to cell phone tower companies, they could have honestly said they owned the money. But that would be silly – school boards are not in the business of cell towers. The land those towers were built on belonged to the public. The money they received was only a fee, same as the fee for use of the field by other school teams. Those fees went into the general funds of the school, which is owned by the residents of this city.

Our city collects some money from other parts of the government, the state (which has been decreasing mostly) and the federal government. They got that money from taxes too, so … taxes are where the money comes from.

Taxes increase because we voted for the increase

Ohio has House Bill 920, which decreases the tax valuation of property because of property value increases (and Grandview has some of the fastest increases in value). There are some other exemptions and rollbacks, but generally taxes ratchet higher every year.

Taxes go up because governments convince voters to approves increases. We all want better schools, more services, faster police response, new transportation options (monorails). Our governments are supposed to be the experts who can tell us what new expenditures will be worth higher taxes, and which will be wastes of money. Unfortunately, those office holders can fall for the same poor rationalizations that cause the normal person with a high credit card balance to get into trouble.

Spending money because we have it in our hand

This is the “burning a hole in your pocket” trap, and I think many of the city council members have fallen for it. They were quick to note that the council had not spent all the money it had budgeted for last year, and this was a rationalization for more spending this year.

If we are the kind of people who carefully budget our household spending, and we end the year with money to spare, we can feel free to go out for an expensive evening, and still not cause long term budget issues. The problem comes when people use a short term surplus to justify a big ticket item on the credit card. If that budget goes negative the next year, you are in trouble.

New employees for the city are even worse than credit card spending, because if you keep up the CC bills, eventually that new car is paid off. A new employee for the city is forever – it is nearly impossible to cut city employees, unless the economy has cratered (I can’t remember the city cutting people during the 2008 downturn, mostly there were people who didn’t get replaced when they chose to leave). The cost of new employees continues to rise with seniority.

And good luck being the council member who has to tell the mayor “we need to cut your assistant due to budget problems”. The job – and the cost – is forever.

No new taxes

Councilman Smith said he felt OK about the new assistant position because it would not require new taxes.

Every single dollar in the city coffers is there because of new taxes. The 2016 tax levy was not that long ago, if there was a large surplus in the last year’s budget, then maybe that 2016 tax was too large.

As I noted above, every dollar in the city budget is the result of new taxes – some of those increases may be longer in the past, but it all came from new taxes.

A present for the new mayor

Some of the council members said they felt the new mayor deserved the staff she wanted, as a sort of birthday present. Ms Houston said:

“… The mayor also reserves the right to reconfigure her leadership staff and their responsibilities as she sees fit …”

The mayor is charged with running the city administration as she sees fit, within the limitations of the city charter. The city council, however, holds the purse – and all authority for hiring new employees.

If we are at the point where new city positions are created just to make the new mayor happy, then the council has lost its way.

Reasons I could accept

New mayor Kearns needs to stand up before the residents of the city, and make the case for her new assistant. If she is honest, she will say “yes, this new position will cost you more of your tax dollars that you voted for in 2016. It is going to shorten the time before we ask for more money. But it is a good thing to spend your money on.” And then explain how this addition to the bureaucracy will not make the mayor’s office less responsive.

City video moves from YT to Internet Archive

Published October 1, 2019 by justicewg

IA GH searchI wrote about the closure of the city YouTube channel in a July post, the city was attempting to save the channel from a ban because of TOS violation. The appeal process has failed. YT is famous for closing channels with little explanation, and no recourse. It doesn’t matter that the content of the channel was official videos from city council meetings, there was something on those videos that caused the people at YT to decree a permanent ban on the channel.

I emailed Chief Shaner (who does the IT work for the city, along with running the fire department). He found a better place to host the city videos.

“I corresponded with Google Government and their final response was, “the site will not be re-enabled”. If we establish another YouTube channel, it can be deleted just like that one was so we will not be doing that as long as I am here. Everything we have is now on Archive.org. It seems to be a good use of taxpayer money at this point.

I think the agenda center on the website reflects the changes. If you go to the website, you can navigate to the appropriate meeting. You should not have to search for it.” – Chief Shaner

http://www.grandviewheights.org/AgendaCenter/City-Council-2

The location of the city council videos is not so intuitive, you normally don’t expect to find videos of past meetings on a page that is titled “Agendas”. The city is using a pre-packaged CMS that doesn’t give them a lot of flexibility, so that might be the best that can be done.

Click on the little TV set icons to the right of each meeting, this will take you to the video on Archive.org.

The Internet Archive is a non-profit library of millions of free books, movies, software, music, websites, and more. You can think of it like a library for the internet, although it isn’t a library like the one we have on First Ave. It is funded through donations, grants, and by providing web archiving and book digitization services for partners.

You can also find videos from the Grandview city council by doing a search for the term “Grandview Heights” in the main search bar of the IA. A warning about using the IA, the website is not a fast as YouTube, it can bog down at times (it is one of the most used sites on the internet).

Why the city YouTube channel was closed

The management of YouTube is notorious for impenetrable decision making processes and rule enforcement. Even if we had all of the documentation that was provided to the city, it may have told us nothing except “rules were broken- see the rules on this page”. That page would then contain a list of possible infractions, with no explanation of who complained, or what they didn’t like.

We don’t know what closed the channel. We can look at the issues that were being discussed in city council meetings just before the closure, and the one that stands out is the complaints that residents were making about the open drug use and disruptions that occurred around the short term rental properties. The owners could have worked together to accuse the city of TOS violations, just because the words “drugs” were mentioned (a trip wire that has closed many YT channels).

The city did the right thing in moving away from YouTube, we don’t want our video recordings of council meetings censored or limited in any way. I’m hoping the city can work out a way to host the videos on their own servers, and end all outside party enforcement of content rules in city videos.

The schools use YouTube

The Grandview schools have been posting football games and other sports on a YT channel for the last two years. For some reason, despite the pitfalls of YT that the board knew and had objected to, they decided to post the new videos of board meetings on the same YT channel. The public comment section of the video posts has not been turned off. The channel is vulnerable to being closed for TOS violations.

The school has a video section on their own website, and can host their own videos. Why would they choose YouTube?

Rebekah Hatzifotinos joins city council

Published September 25, 2019 by justicewg

HatzThe Grandview city council swore in Rebekah Hatzifotinos September 16, to finish the term of Steve Gladman, who resigned.

Hatzifotinos and Ryan Edwards will be on the ballot this Nov. with incumbent Emily Keeler. Although there was another candidate for the seat Gladman vacated, Hatzifotinos was the logical replacement, since she will step into the seat after an uncontested race this November.

There is a disconcerting habit for political races in Grandview Heights to become uncontested coronations. Most of the current council members took office without facing a challenger, the same for the school board. The two school board candidates who will run for the open seats this Nov. will also have no competition. I’m working on an article on why this happens so often in our city. Democracy is supposed to feature an election that pits candidates who are required to meet with the citizens and state their ideas for the future of the office. The qualifications of the candidates are supposed to be scrutinized (although on a national level that often only means a check for membership in the D or R group). If “it doesn’t matter who you vote for” is the result of the political process in Grandview, something is wrong.

Hatzifotinos is a lawyer/baker

Ms Hatzifotinos is listed on the city blog as “earned a juris doctorate from Capital University in May 2004 and has practiced law for more than 12 years. Her community involvement includes serving as chair of the 2017-2018 Grandview Heights Charter Review Commission; pro bono work for the Children’s Hunger Alliance; and her current service as president of the Edison Intermediate & Larson Middle School PTO.”

Basic biscuitsMs Hatzifotinos is also the owner and chief baker for “Basic Biscuits, Kindness & Coffee”. She is planning to open a retail store on Goodale sometime next year. If you are wondering how a bakery that only sells biscuits and coffee can make any money, maybe this photo of her prices that she currently charges will tell you what she thinks will be sustainable.

How to pronounce her name

I asked her what her agenda on the council would be, and how to pronounce her surname.

“I do not have any particular agenda as of this moment, although I am very interested in seeing through to completion the new Municipal/Fire/Police building as I participated in the Spaces & Places committee. Generally speaking, I am interested in Grandview’s growth, but balancing that with maintaining its established neighborhood character.

My last name actually IS phonetic, that’s the wonder of the Greek language- but I can break it down a little further for you. Hahtzee-foeteen-ohs.”

I’m still unsure of the pronunciation. Is it “Hat-zee-foeteen-ohs”, or “Hadzee-foeteen-ohs”, with flap T?

Mayor DeGraw was paid $40K a year

Published August 23, 2019 by justicewg

An ordinance passed back in 2013 set the base pay for the Mayor of Grandview Heights. At that time Ray DeGraw was earning $30K per year for a part-time position. With the knowledge that the Grandview Yard development would add to the complexity of the position, and the increasing number of constituents ringing his phone and sending him email, the council boosted the pay up to $36K, followed by annual increases to $40K as he ends his term.

Ray always joked that he was being paid peanuts compared to the workload the Mayor position demands. He must oversee the spending of the city, create new budgets, manage all the employees, respond to the many contacts with residents, and run the Mayor’s court. Add in the complex negotiations needed to oversee the Yard and the follow on SOG development – then throw in the Grandview Crossing development on 33 – and it becomes almost ridiculous the he would be paid so little, given the high stakes.

And don’t forget – a part-time Mayor must also work a regular job.

The city council voted to give some boosts to the Mayor’s salary, starting in 2020 it will be $48K, increasing to $52K by 2023.

But facts can’t be bent – Grandview is the smallest city in Franklin County. Our tax base is increasing, but still small enough that the Mayor position must be part time, given the resources of the city.

With an annual budget of only $15 Million (similar to Canal Winchester), it would be extravagant to pay for a full time Mayor.

Switch to a professional city manager appointed by city council?

Other cities in Franklin Co. (Hilliard in 2018) have been switching to a professional city manager instead of a Mayor. The idea is that unlike a Mayor who might come into the position from any background, a professional city manager would be trained (at least a Master of Public Administration degree) and experienced enough to quickly fit into the job. The manager would be updated with the educational programs specifically aimed at city managers, and be focused on doing the job the city council needed to have done, without worrying about running for office every four years.

Grandview does have a Director of Administration, but as Pat Bowman is already working in that position, and as head of development, his job is as stretched as DeGraw’s. Finding a replacement for him may only make sense with a professional manager who could wear both the hat of the Mayor and the work that Bowman currently does.

Gray heads have more time for the workload

Ray DeGraw has long experience as Mayor, but it must be noted that he has reached the age at which he is not forced to chose between kids and the work (and Ray has often said that he wishes he had more time for his wife). That long experience – and the focus he has on the work – will be nearly impossible to replace, given the wide skill set needed for his position.

Neither of the candidates for the Mayor’s office have the gray hair that would be better for the position.

I am aware that pointing out which candidate has kids makes me open for accusations of sexism – but I hold that I would be pointing out the kids of the male candidate too (if he had any). I just don’t understand why anyone would take on the workload that DeGraw strained under, for only $48K a year – and then added raising a family, and working a second job.

I think that Grandview Heights would be better served if it went with a professional manager. You might get lucky and find a person with the talent of a DeGraw, and that person might want to run for office. What happens to that person if they don’t get re-elected to the Mayor term after four years, and have to re-start a full time career?

I don’t think either of the current candidates will measure up to Ray. I think the best long term choice is to hire a person with the talent for the job.

More to come on this issue – I will contact the candidates about switching to a professional manager, or folding the Director of Administration into the Mayor’s duties and turning it into a full time position.

YouTube has closed the City channel for TOS violations

Published July 6, 2019 by justicewg

The Grandview Heights council has been posting videos of their council meetings on YouTube for more than a year. The city administration has also used the channel, posting video of planning meetings with residents, and things like the pool opening. As of July 6, 2019, the channel has been closed because of “Term of service violations”.

How to close a channel on YT

You can get a channel on YT closed with very little work. Just gather a handful of people, ask them to create their own channels, then use the YT complaint process to register a few complaints against a channel. It doesn’t need to be accurate or supportable complaints, at the start of the process you are registering with a bot, and the take down can happen with no human review.

Because it is so simple to close a channel, bad guys have been using it to extort money from some YT creators. This Verge story tells of an extortion scheme that was tried on at least two channels, money was demanded from the owners in order to keep the channel alive. Although I suspect the city was not exactly the same situation – there is no copyrightable content on the channel – the same game might have been used to threaten the city, and when they didn’t pay, another strike caused the closing.

It is also possible that there was no extortion, the people who made the strikes could be home owners who didn’t like the content of the meetings – they don’t want to hear residents speak about issues that could cost them money, so they close the channel down in some lame effort to stop the discussion from happening at all. This is not going to work, the city will not allow complaints to affect the deliberations. But because they could do it, I’m sure the people who did it feel like it was a win for them.

The city now can go through the process of appealing the strikes, and should probably win, and have all the videos returned to public viewing. The problem is that the appeals can take weeks to go through the process. And nothing will stop the people who took the channel down from trying to do it again.

YouTube has problems that are not being solved

The Verge story is from Feb. 2019, I have not heard of any action by YT to improve the process of protecting a channel from frivolous strikes. YT is harming its own property by failing to act, when enough people get tired of all the games that you run into on YT, a competitor will emerge.

The city doesn’t have to put up with YT issues, they can self host the videos. There have never been more than 30 or so downloads of each video the city has produced, they should have no problems with their own host server supplying the bandwidth.

There are also service providers who act like YT and host videos for a fee. These providers don’t make money if content has strikes, it isn’t so easy to take video content down.

I hope the city is successful in appealing the strikes against their channel and returns to posting more meeting videos. But I will understand if they say “enough of YT problems” and go somewhere else.

(Edit) The city is in the process of appealing the strikes. From what I have read, this might be resolved soon, it might take weeks. Check back for more info.

(Later) The video of the City Council Meeting July 1, 2019 has been uploaded to The Internet Archive (thanks to Chief Shaner). This was only one meeting, as of now all the rest of the city videos are unavailable as long as YouTube is reviewing the strikes. There is no way to know how long Google will take to review the city channel.

(edit) More than a month has passed since YT has closed the channel. It is impossible to know if this is because they are taking their time in the review, or if they have found a reason to affirm the closure.

(Last edit) The city YT channel has been permanently closed, no further appeals will be heard. Working on a post about the new location of all city videos on the Internet Archive.

The videos for 2019 are now posted on the IA website, read the story.

City sidewalk ordinance fails, for now

Published June 6, 2019 by justicewg

Discussion start 34:20, ends 1:20:45.

(Edit – as of 7-6-19, the City of Grandview YT account has been shut down for a terms of service violation. This might have nothing to do with the actions of the city, it may be disgruntled city residents placing strikes because they don’t like the laws the council has passed, or is considering passing. More on this soon).

Submitted for your viewing pleasure, the city council spent nearly an hour debating the ordinance brought before the council by Steve Reynolds, which would shift all responsibility for sidewalk repair and replacement to the city (as Marble Cliff has done for decades).

The simplified summary – Reynolds believes that monitoring sidewalks and shopping for companies who can do the work, then dealing with supervising the work, and possibly fighting with private companies over workmanship, is an additional headache that homeowners would be glad to turn over to the city. Homeowners have reported they can’t even get a company to do sidewalk work for small jobs.

Others on the council think the city should not take on an additional financial burden, and mentions were made to financial cost sharing which the city might offer (but are not laws enforced by ordinance).

No matter which side of the question you support, you have to give the council praise for taking the issue seriously, and exploring every nuance of the sidewalk issue. The discussion might get a little hot and over-dramatic at times (special award for Panzera), but it was a good discussion that served the citizens well.

Of special note – all of the council members who spoke were well acquainted with the issue, and did not ask questions that showed they were too lazy to read the documents presented (that’s a foreshadowing of a board article on the way soon).

Reynolds and Houston were in favor, the rest of the council voted no. I foresee this ordinance returning in the future, as long as Reynolds holds the position that the city taking responsibility is the best way to deal with sidewalks in Grandview Hts.

The TriV news story on the sidewalk ordinance.

Good government is not unanimous

Policy which will made Grandview a better city is not something that just is revealed to the council members from above. Politicians listen to their constituents, think about the plus and minus effects of rule changes, then present those ideas before the governing body. Some times that results in a majority vote to pass the new law, sometimes it fails. There is no problem with a council that disagrees – as long as the members respect each other, and understand that problems in the city, and the work needed to solve them, is a collaborative process, not a lock-step marching society.

The Grandview Heights school board has a very different philosophy. I has written many posts about the unanimous board, and the insulated process that excludes the parents from decisions. When you have to vote unanimously, the best way to prevent those pesky ideas from parents intruding into what you know will be a unanimous vote is to close yourself off from them.

As we learned from the lack of a second to a Pride month support resolution, the always unanimous board fails to allow votes that some members strongly want, because some of them might vote no, and show their bigotry to the community.

I still, after many years in this city, don’t understand how we have evolved such different types of political bodies. It is the Grandview mystery.

Are AirBnB houses bringing too much disruption to Grandview Heights?

Published May 13, 2019 by justicewg

 

(Edit – as of 7-6-19, the City of Grandview YT account has been shut down for a terms of service violation. This might have nothing to do with the actions of the city, it may be disgruntled city residents placing strikes because they don’t like the laws the council has passed, or is considering passing. More on this soon).

Five Grandview residents spoke at the May 6, 2019 city council meeting, and told about disruption, parking problems, blatant drug and alcohol use, and rude behavior from tenants at some Airbnb homes that have popped up in Grandview Heights.

22:30 Susan Kukla told about drug use (and buy transactions) happening in the street, large parties (the house is listed as allowing up to 9 renters at a time), which caused a dozen new to the area cars to use street parking, forcing homeowners to use parking in the next block. There is increased noise and garbage in the area, and incidents of items being broken that may be caused by the renters.

The problems might stem from the setup of the AirBnB on this street, it seems like the $600 a night rental would keep casual renters away, but if 9 or more people use the house, the price per person comes in lower than an average hotel room.

Craig Berlin told about party noise at 4AM, and parking issues. There may be issues with over listing a house with bedrooms in the basements that do not have egress provisions per city code.

Michael Connor talked about suspicious behavior from renters in the “party house”.

Cathy Wilson spoke about noise issues increasing. Although the house had high rental fees on weekends, the weekday rates could be as low as $45 per person for a filled house, attracting traveling utility work crews, who parked large trucks and sometimes trailers on the streets near the house.

The Mayor on Short Term rental

36:30 Mayor DeGraw gave information about a conference he had attended, at which short term rental issues, and the legislation that cities can enact to control them, was discussed. He mentioned that although AirBnB is the largest rental company, there are dozens of online companies that are similar (HomeAway, and VRBO, Booking.com). Working with one company to enforce better rental behavior will not be of much use, when there are so many companies, and house owners can freely jump between rental companies.

One solution might be to require the homes to have a host family living inside the homes that are short term rentals. Licensing all short term rental properties is another possibility.

A full ban on these type of rental homes is possible, but enforcement is a problem. Short term rental companies don’t list the exact addresses of the homes, just general areas. The quick increase in the numbers of these homes will leave the city continually chasing down the owners and using legal threats to enforce compliance.

For now, the Mayor emphasized that owners of homes near these rental properties need to keep track of incidents involving drugs, noise, and disruptive behavior, and call the police for each illegal incident.

The big picture on short term housing

Not mentioned in this meeting is the long term effects on housing prices and availability. Grandview Heights is a prime location for short term renters looking to attend events at OSU, the convention center, and downtown. If properties are snapped up by the owners of multiple AirBnB rental homes, the general availability of housing goes down, and prices go up. That might be seen as a good result by present home owners, as the price of homes continues to spike up.

The gamble that present owners risk is if a disruptive rental property moves into the house beside your own. That can bring property values down for that section of the street. The regulation of short term housing can decrease the chances that bad rental homes will pop up in any neighborhood in the city.

Read the TVN story on the council discussion May 6th.