Thursday, February 20, 2014

"The Need Doesn't Go Away..." and That's Exactly What They Were Counting On

by Rodman Reynolds

I've never found law enforcement particularly interesting; I've never considered a career in it, I rarely read in the true crime genre, I don't watch detective shows and I find the FOX show COPS downright repulsive.

For some strange reason, however, I make an exception with the Secret Service. That agency's unique function, methods, and training have fascinated me for decades. Out of the excellent books published about the Service in recent years, one of my favorites is
Standing Next to History, by former Presidential Protective Detail agent Joseph Petro. While I read it, this anecdote of the author's first impressions of air force bases fixed itself in my memory:
“Anderson AFB was a treat, a far cry from the naval stations I'd known during the Vietnam war. The navy doesn't live as well as the air force, and a four-star general there once told me why. 'When we get an appropriation from Congress to build an air force base,' he said, 'we build the Officers' Club, the Enlisted Men's Club, the NCO Club, the commissary, the movie theater, and all the other creature comforts. Then we go back to Congress for a supplemental to build the runway. What can they say?' He was probably being facetious, although I've never been sure, because from what I know about how the government pays for things, it might well have worked like that.”

We need look no further than our own back yards to see how government spending practices work just like that. After it became clear that the Everett school district's 2014 bond proposal measure was going to fail, school board president and retired Navy captain Pam LeSesne told the Daily Herald, “The need doesn't go away.”

Indeed, the need does not go away, and that was exactly what the school board and superintendent were counting on when they made the conscious decision to revise their statement of intent for how state matching funds were to be used from the original 2006 bond proposal. There were certainly plenty of capital project needs around the district at the time of their decision to re-purpose the state matching funds in 2011, but they chose instead to make those needs wait while they took care of the creature comforts for the superintendent and central administration.

Those needs didn't go away, and while we heard nary a whisper of them in 2011, they re-emerged all drawn up in an impressive list once the new administration building was built and it was time to ask district taxpayers for more money – an unprecedented quarter billion dollars more money. What they weren't counting on was that a lot more of us have been paying attention than they had estimated. They also didn't count on our memories being longer than they had estimated, either. And they sure didn't count on us not falling for the bond/levy PAC's $34K campaign to push the measure through.

What to do now? This voter will probably vote “no” on every district request for more money so long as the funds have to first pass through Supt. Gary Cohn's hands before they “benefit the kids.” But, not every “no” voter feels the same way, and there are a few steps the current board could take as it begins to build back some public trust:

  • The proposed projects can stay on the list. The list itself, however, should be broken down into smaller chunks. Rather than voting to approve ten years' worth of money for projects that may or may not happen, let's just stick to a smaller, specific list of projects where the need is the most urgent and which can be addressed and completed within the next four or five years. Costs can be estimated more accurately for projects in the near future than farther-off. Once we see the district is staying true to its word, they can come to us again with the next installment.

  • If the board truly wishes to build confidence and trust from the taxpayers, it needs to use the capital bond and state assistance funds for exactly what it states up front. If the needs truly “don't go away,” the board should have no trouble doing exactly that.

  • To this end, the board needs to change the language of the escape clause written into the bond resolutions that essentially reduces the contract between the district and taxpayers to handing the district a blank check. A simple change could be as follows:

    If, in the opinion of the Board, the needs of the District change in a manner that results in a circumstance wherein any portion of the above-referenced capital improvements is not required or in the best interests of the District, the Board retains the right not to acquire, construct and install such capital improvements and to reallocate the money originally contemplated therefor to other capital improvements to the Districts facilities deemed more necessary by the Board, or to deposit such money into the District’s Debt Service Fund to make debt service payments on the Bonds outstanding or to call and redeem a portion of the Bonds prior to maturity; provided, any change in use of Bond proceeds shall be in the form and manner required by law.

    While we're at it, cross out any instance of “administrative support.” If they identify a true need for a central administration capital project, let them put it on the proposal list and include it on a future bond request for all to see.
  • Rather than just rely on information provided by the superintendent and district staff (or consultants hired by the superintendent), the board should retain independent consultants and auditors who report only to the board to verify and corroborate what the staff reports.

Anyone who's tried to rebuild bad credit knows that it's a laborious process that requires not only trustworthy behavior, but also a lot of time. The same goes for restoring credibility.