Thursday, October 27, 2011

SPIN CITY: Coasting in Noblesville Part IV

In recent mailers funded by the Republican Party, Mayor John Ditslear crows about having brought 53 new businesses to Noblesville last year. Like so many of the fluffy, feel-good numbers that accompany City Hall press releases, the numbers just don’t add up.

What’s more, the numbers are presented, in this time of concern about unemployment, as if they’re proof of somebody really taking care of business – though many of the line-items on the list represent no new jobs and many of the jobs that are real are something no town would brag about. And the numbers are so blatantly spun, you’d think Distlear’s City Hall believes they could say just about anything and get away with it.

The list of 53 new businesses starts out shaky when you notice the 4 seasonal businesses – Halloween City and 3 locations of USA Fireworks. If you count new businesses like I do, 3 locations of one business, and 1 Halloween shop, all of which were only open approximately a month doesn’t strike me as solid, new job-creating businesses.

Ditslear’s nose starts to grow when he lists businesses already out of business. So he’s taking credit for bringing businesses to town that were history by the time he was bragging about it. That would include places like Burrito Joe’s and Martin Jay’s Butcher Shop.

And the Mayor outright fibs when he lists businesses that were already here. PNC Bank is listed as a new business, but they simply bought out National City. Take down the old sign, put up a new sign, and like magic - a new business located in Noblesville. And Aspire Indiana just moved from Cumberland Road to 150th Street, both in Noblesville, but they too magically count as a new business. I found another on the list, actually a client of mine who’s been doing business in town for years. They changed locations last year, and they also make the list as a new business.

And Mayor Ditslear’s pants catch on fire when he names Donato’s Pizza as a new operation. Donato’s is a minimum wage employer who has been here for years but was struggling in their stand-alone restaurant location in front of Wal-Mart, so they downsized to a much smaller, primarily delivery/pickup location. Still, in the City Hall spin-zone, they get counted as a new business.

That’s how bad news gets spun as good news by the Ditslear campaign. When you’re coasting downhill, hands laced behind your head – feet crossed on the handlebars, you’ve gotta spin pretty hard to create the impression of actually accomplishing something.

Did any of our local newspaper outlets like The Times point this out to their readers? Nope. They just keep dutifully printing city hall press releases.

Then there are the out of town employers who truly did establish new businesses, but only brought minimum-wage jobs to town. In fact, a majority of the list are retail or medical service providers who are primarily minimum wage or low wage job creators.

And an even deeper look reveals yet more to be disappointed with. Fuzziwig’s Candy Factory makes the list, but they’re no factory. They’re a retail candy store at Hamilton Town Center – and a minimum wage employer. That mall is in a Tax Increment Financing district (TIF), which means any new property taxes paid for that location don’t help fund schools, police, libraries, etc. for years into the future. Instead the new tax base gets skimmed off by the city to pay for the infrastructure we taxpayers built out there to lure these minimum wage employers to town. So we get a new candy store, minimum wage jobs, and no tax-base help in paying for city services.

Impressed by Mayor Ditslear’s phony list?

Me neither.

Hey, times are tough. Lots of cities all over the state are struggling. So why would you fabricate fantasy lists and peddle ho-hum accomplishments as a gold medal performance? You do it because you think nobody will notice. You think that you can say what works, cut the ribbon at the opening, smile for the cameras, and nobody will know the truth.

But sadly, even that isn’t where the Mayor’s bogus job creation numbers end. Lately he’s been bragging about the City’s Economic Development Department generating 2,200 new jobs in the past 10 years. Problem is, I can’t find proof of how many jobs were actually created.

As best I can figure the Mayor gets that 2,200 number from the City’s Tax Abatement Ledger – a list of the businesses he gave tax breaks to for agreeing to come here or stay here or just buy new equipment. The ledger is a projected tally of jobs the businesses originally claimed they would bring to town. It appears there is no follow-up done to verify those jobs actually were created.

That’s a little odd, because we can verify without a shadow of a doubt that the businesses got the tax break. When was the last time you paid for a product but never looked to see if you actually received it? Well, it appears that’s exactly what Ditslear’s City Hall has been doing. And then bragging about it.

I don’t know about the rest of you, but my patience with Washington politicians who peddle false numbers is wearing pretty thin. And when it’s done by a politician in my own town with a smile and a handshake, I will not forgive it when I vote.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Claremont via Ashville

Look for the next edition of the "Coasting in Noblesville" series on Thursday. Taking a brief detour.

Monday the 24th:
When a Realtor goes on vacation, it’s never entirely a vacation. In the first two hours out of Noblesville this morning, the phone rang often enough that I found myself at a grocery store Starbucks in Cincinnati doing a little house research and sending a quick flurry of emails.

Back on the road, between the white lines.

In northern Kentucky, trees in dull, muted colors stand atop the sharp edges of gray limestone cliffs that rise up at either side of the road. But between Lexington and Knoxville the trees explode in a firestorm of reds, oranges and yellows. The boulders amid the rock walls here are rounded and yellow. A natural spring trickles out of a hundred foot tall stone wall, splattering onto the right lane. A truck mists it across my windshield.

Soon the road falls back into lowlands along a lake and then a river. I do not know their names.

My iPhone, in a can koozy on the dash bleeps a calendar alert. I peek and notice it’s reminding me today is someone’s birthday. I recall typing that into my phone earlier in the year, even then with a clear idea of the gift I would give. But the calendar alert might as well be a phantom limb. The gift was not given. Was this friend an emotional bulimic – someone who binges upon, then purges intimate relationships?

I notice David Bowie’s Heroes is alight on the Sirius Radio readout. I punch the On button and flip the volume to max, letting Bowie blast the dark vibe out the window.

But I quickly switch back to Ryan Adams’ new album of stripped down guitars and piano. It’s turned out to be the perfect soundtrack for this trip among the turning leaves and winding highways. I’m coincidentally heading toward Ryan Adams territory – North Carolina. I won’t go as far as his hometown, the melancholy subject of his song Jacksonville Skyline. I’ll stop just past Hickory.

Mid-afternoon I am in that picturesque, snaking, seemingly endless gorge that connects Gatlinburg to Ashville. At times the slate walls, dotted with pine stubble, rise so high they nearly block out the perfect blue sky. Clouds of leaves fall from trees along the ridges and swirl in mini-tornados just above the asphalt. The silver Mercedes ahead pierces the vortex and leaves the scatter across my windshield.

I’ve never made this drive down 40 alone. I stop for gas at a small cluster of buildings in the darkest, most wooded depths of the gorge and realize I’ve stopped at this very gas station before, perhaps a dozen years ago with my wife and kids when we were headed for Blowing Rock. I recall being in the parking lot with them, hustling the kids out of and back into the car.

They are not kids anymore; one is in Japan, another is at college, and the youngest is a high school junior. And their mother and I are separated.

Late afternoon I stop at a coffee shop in Ashville just down the street from the Biltmore. I sit outdoors, drinking tea with honey on this priceless autumn day among college kids and aging hippies. This beautiful town is in its evening rush hour. A train passes beyond a line of trees. At the table next to mine a pretty young girl and an elderly woman sip at bottles of blackberry Izze soda and dote over a German shepherd drowsing on the bricks between them.

I text Shari my location so she’ll know I’m getting near, “Sipping tea in Ashville.”

She responds, “Lucky Duck.”

For months Shari noticed my melancholy postings on Facebook and finally offered, “Why don’t you come down here and stay with us for a week? You can have a room upstairs and just spend your time writing.”

I’ve never taken that luxury in all my years of writing. Men who golf or fish gladly go off for a week to enjoy it. But most of my writing has been done in stolen moments. Ideas frantically jotted down on the back of a muffler shop receipt while at a stop light get typed up before bed that night. For an hour at lunch or a couple hours after dinner in the evening I’ll sit with my laptop and organize my thoughts. Not sure if I can do it a whole week. But I’m willing to try.

I arrive at Shari’s little farm at the edge of this tiny town. We eat gumbo and talk until late, catching up.

Tuesday the 25th:
This morning I sat with her at the “back table” at the local cafĂ© with an assortment of old men. The place has a low ceiling and wood-grained paneling. With a plate of eggs and grits before me, Sam, a round-faced man in overalls says, “You know, Shari’s the prettiest smart girl in town.” I’m tempted to take the bait and ask where she fits in among women of a broader range of I.Q., but Shari beats me to it. Sam smiles but does not respond.

He tells me that though he quit drinking 15 years ago, he’s going to drink some peach-brandy next year on his 85th birthday. Shari pats the table in front of me, “Ya know he’s talkin’ ‘bout moonshine.” Sam is defensive, “But it’s made with real peaches!”

I’m desperately seeking a wifi signal. Eventually we’re sitting at the only coffee shop in town. I crack open my laptop, deal with a property inspection at home and respond to a short list of business emails. Shari gives me a get a quick tour of town.

By afternoon I find myself on her back deck with my laptop computer and finally, here, I am writing. Shari is upstairs writing, too. She actually earns a living at it. She reappears occasionally to tell me a story or listen to one of mine, or just sit in the metal swing rocker and talk to her boyfriend on her blackberry.

She and I were teenagers once. We looked out for each other.

It’s another perfect autumn day. The leaves are just now starting to fall here. They land on my keyboard. The wooded lawn falls away from the deck toward a red barn, perhaps 40 yards away. Shari’s horse appears and then disappears from behind the barn, grazing in the brilliant sunlight. I write a little, then stop to read from among Shari’s stories published in the stack of magazines beside me, then write a little more.

And so here I have written 1,100 words and it is 5:00. Have I earned the right to run to the grocery store and buy a lemon for my gin and tonic?

I think so. It’s vacation after al

Monday, October 10, 2011

Coasting in Noblesville III: Ditslear's Corporate Welfare

This past July Noblesville Mayor John Ditslear and his handpicked city council members approved a $7 million corporate welfare package for a company called Positron. It’s possible this may turn out to be the most foolhardy waste of taxpayer dollars in Noblesville history.

It’s what happens when you’re coasting, not paying attention to details, enjoying calling the shots and living the VIP treatment, rather than doing the hard work of actually managing a city like Noblesville.

Note: The Positron deal is not a tax abatement. It’s a $7 million handout.

Positron is an often troubled, Fishers, Indiana company that specializes in nuclear-related medical products. They asked Fishers for the same sweet deal to simply stay put, but Fishers wisely refused. Ditslear said yes, so Positron will move across 146th St and into our corporate campus. Considering we start out $7 million in the hole, it’s hard to figure out what the value is for Noblesville.

Positron’s employees already live in the area, so it’s unlikely they’ll sell their homes and move a few miles to Noblesville. So this isn’t likely to have much impact on Noblesville’s employment rate. And Positron will be locating in the new Corporate Campus, where the city will create a special TIF district just for them. A TIF district is an area where, for a decade or more into the future, property taxes from new development DON’T help pay for schools, roads, libraries, police or the fire department. Those new tax dollars are skimmed off to help pay for the infrastructure in the district. In this case it will be skimmed off to pay the debt on the bond being floated to create the handout to Positron in the first place. So any taxing benefit for Noblesville won’t be realized for many, many years. In the meantime the rest of us will subsidize the cost of the city services Positron uses.

But there are even more reasons to wonder what Mayor Ditslear was thinking when he put Noblesville taxpayers on the hook for $7 million on behalf of Positron.

I’ve been corresponding with a former Positron stockholder from Michigan. He asked that I not use his name, so I’ll call him Jeff. In May of 2010 Jeff says he lost $22,000 of his retirement fund in what he says may have been stock value manipulation of Positron stock. He’s asked the Securities and Exchange Commission to investigate.

Jeff says there was more stock value shenanigans this past May in what appeared to be a “pump-and-dump” operation involving Positron stock. Pump-and-dump is a scheme in which a company’s stock is artificially inflated through false or misleading statements by company leaders or others in related positions of influence, and then when the value goes up, those with large stock holdings sell their stock at great profit. This causes the stock to fall dramatically, usually destroying value for innocent investors not aware of the scheme. That’s why it’s illegal.

Jeff told me, “I wasn't able to turn up any proof that Patrick Rooney (Positron’s Chairman) or anyone with Positron was directly involved with a pump-and-dump. Yet, he (Rooney) was front-and-center during all these events. His words and actions caused the stock to crash.”

The result of the “crash” in stock value: Mayor Ditslear is giving a $7 million handout to a company with a stock value of just pennies - literally, pennies.

And stockholders like Jeff have good circumstantial reasons to worry who might have been involved in the stock value games. According to research by Wall Street guru and blogger Timothy Sykes, Positron’s Chairman, Patrick G. Rooney has faced accusations of securities fraud and insider trading. Rooney’s father was convicted of an income tax charge and paid a $1 million fine to settle an insider trading charge. What’s more, according to Sykes, Rooney’s brother, John was, “an investor in Positron and until they were accused of securities fraud, their hedge fund was a 10%+ owner of Positron.”

Timothy Sykes wrote this about Positron on his blog in April of last year, “The Company’s current financial condition raises doubt as to its ability to continue as a going concern.” That’s because Positron doesn’t have a very good track record of earning a profit or staying out of debt.

Positron’s trading abbreviation is POSC. Some stock traders who follow Positron have mocked its abbreviation as meaning, “Piece of Shit Company.”

But thanks to Mayor John Ditslear, Noblesville will borrow money on behalf of taxpayers like you and me and give it – not loan – but GIVE IT! to Positron.

This is the sort of thing that makes more sense to Mayor Ditslear than investing in a meaningful way in redevelopment in downtown Noblesville. He’s not floating a bond issue to build a theater or a desperately needed parking garage, seed redevelopment just west of the river, or execute the Downtown Strategic Development Plan (that currently sits on a shelf gathering dust), all things that would nurture small business owners who live right here and keep their profits right here.

What’s more, it sets a precedent. Every company planning to locate in central Indiana no doubt now has hopes of strong-arming Noblesville into a corporate welfare package of their own.

This raises other questions about how Noblesville’s Economic Development Departments operates. In August 2008 Ditslear hired Judi Johnson to be Assistant Economic Development Director. She is, coincidentally, the Mayor’s wife’s good friend, and the wife of City Councilman (and Ditslear’s close friend) Roy Johnson. Just a year later, Ditslear fired Kevin Kelly, the department’s director and Judi Johnson’s boss. Since that time, the Mayor has never filled the director’s position, leaving Johnson the de-facto leader.

Who knows if this “nepotism-lite” and/or the empty director position is responsible for the bad Positron deal, but both are certainly signs of hubris on the Mayor’s part, giving the impression that he feels he can do pretty much whatever he wants to do. And in truth is, he can. Voters have rewarded him by allowing him to pack the City Council with his friends and favored candidates. The 4 yes votes for Positron were Ditslear’s handpicked candidates. Next January, 2 more Ditslear-favored candidates will take office, giving him a vise-grip lock on power.

Noblesville can’t even claim to have a good ‘ol boys network running the town anymore. Instead we’ve got a private, exclusive men’s club running things and the Mayor is their BMOC.

But there is another candidate for Mayor of Noblesville. His name is Mike Corbett and I believe he has the energy and intellectual curiosity required to see past the foolishness of schemes like the Positron handout and instead focus Noblesville’s dollars and energy behind efforts that will actually improve our quality of life.