Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Housing Disaster in New Albany Indiana

HARBESON: The sad tale of Linden Meadows

> SOUTHERN INDIANA — Linden Meadows. Just the mention of this failed attempt to provide low-to-moderate-income housing in New Albany is enough to make people scream and pull at their hair.

The project is now a complicated, tangled mess of private and government entities, and what may be most troubling is the part the federal government has played in the fiasco.

Let’s begin with the soon-to-be-defunct New Albany-Floyd County Community Housing Development Organization. Although set up as private nonprofits, Community Housing Development Organizations (CHDOs) exist to take advantage of special federal funds (HOME Investment Partnership Program) offered through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The government, perhaps learning from past mismanagement, did create various restrictions on HOME funds such as requiring a 25 cent nonfederal donation for every federal dollar received.

It’s clear that this setup is part of the reason people in New Albany thought it would be a good idea to donate an entire neighborhood of old homes that were displaced due to hospital expansion to CHDO. We don’t know what decisions may have been made concerning these houses otherwise, but we do know now that — although this setup was meant to provide more taxpayer fund accountability — what this federal program did for New Albany was provide an incentive that created a perfect storm which has been nothing but disaster for the city.

Once CHDO had the houses, they needed somewhere new to locate them. The land they ended up acquiring from the city for $1, a park area, set the scene for more trouble.

After CHDO bulldozed the area, a suit was filed because this property was originally donated to the city in 1935, specifically to be used as a park. (Not sure what government tax policy was at that time, but could this decision also have been guided by government incentives?) The owner, Catherine Fawcett added a clause that said the title would revert to her heirs if the land use changed.

If the situation remained as it was in 1935, a settlement of the issue would have likely been fairly easy, but that’s not what happened. Ms. Fawcett correctly suspected government mischief might occur, but I bet she had no idea that it would be the federal government who would literally drive right over her deed by way of the interstate highway system.

When the state came to build Interstate 64, they decided they needed to take the park land and one of Fawcett’s heirs was paid $1,600, apparently as compensation for her reversionary interest in the land. I think. More on that in a minute.

To complicate the matter even further, the highway didn’t use much of this land at all. The unused portion remained in the state’s hands and continued to serve as a park, even to the point of spending additional money to add a ball diamond.

The neighbors and heirs who filed suit against CHDO based their objection on the reversionary clause that the property be used as a park but the local court ruled that the heirs had no interest in the property because of the compensation accepted at the time the land was taken. This did not satisfy the plaintiffs, particularly since the 1960 deed included the same reversionary clause. No one can figure that out. Even the appeals court says that’s confusing!

However, in the end, the appeals court decided the deed details were not relevant: “We base our decision on Dible (Dible v. City of Lafayette) and the principle that a reversionary clause cannot be enforced against an entity with the power of eminent domain.” They added that doing so would defeat the purpose of eminent domain. One can expect to be compensated as any other person with interest in a property, but that’s it.

They were very worried about maintaining eminent domain power: “If the reversionary clause would have been enforced against the state, it would have been unable to build I-64 as planned.” The court was much more concerned about the 1960 action than Linden Meadows not only because they needed to back up all the eminent domain actions that have taken place since then, but also to maintain the power for the future.

In other words, the court, and I’m paraphrasing here, said “Holy Cow Batman! We can’t allow this to go through! If we did then that means individuals can avoid having their property taken by government! People would start putting restrictions on land so they could actually own it! We can’t have that! Let’s enforce this stuff for private battles but by golly we need to give the government a special exemption!”

As you can see, we have at least two nasty results of this project — the Linden Meadows deal created another legal precedent which further bolsters the powers of eminent domain and, after seven years of various entities spending money on the project, the homes are apparently going to be razed anyway.

What is the best outcome to hope for concerning Linden Meadows now? I don’t know — maybe create a nice little park?

— Southern Indiana resident Debbie Harbeson has been pulling at her hair ever since she started really looking into government actions.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Jeffersonville Government Competing with Private Business?

HARBESON: Fit to be tied

> SOUTHERN INDIANA — Shortly after taking office, Jeffersonville Mayor Mike Moore announced that he would not pursue renovations on the big blue barge, which was purchased under the previous administration and intended to replace the current RiverStage entertainment barge. Since this new barge included a banquet/reception hall, one reason Moore gave for drowning the idea was that he doesn’t want the city competing with private businesses.

That’s a great principle to hold and although there are many ways the city of Jeffersonville currently competes with private businesses, Moore at least took a first step by not adding another one. Upholding this principle didn’t last long though. Moore has already directly contradicted himself and created a brand new government program that has the city competing with private businesses — coincidentally using the RiverStage barge.

Here’s how it happened. One of the personal causes Moore wants to push as mayor is health and fitness so he created a Mayor’s Fitness Council and appointed people to work on ideas to promote fitness in the community. (Let’s hope these are walking meetings and members are not sitting on their butts in a conference room.)

 One result of these meetings is the Anchors A-Weigh program. This program, which has cost $19,000 — appropriated by the city council — so far and even has its own dedicated website, uses the RiverStage to hold “free” fitness classes, two of which are Jazzercise and Zumba. Guess who gets paid to teach the classes. That’s right, members of the same government council that created the government program — who just happen to be Zumba and Jazzercise instructors.

There are several questionable aspects here, but let’s focus on Moore’s previously stated principle that he doesn’t want the city competing with private businesses. Teaching various fitness classes is actually one of the few areas left that does not have huge barriers to entry due to government regulation. It’s a good choice for those who have a passion for fitness and want to be more independent and start their own business.

Many people work very hard in this field trying to build and grow a customer base that will enable them to make a profit. They stay busy trying to find prospective clients who are seeking effective methods to help them keep healthy and fit. So when Jeffersonville offers “free” fitness classes nearly every day of the week, the city is directly competing with those hard-working small business owners.

In addition, getting one’s name out there and developing a reputation as an expert is important in the fitness business, which means the members on the Mayor’s Fitness Council who are now employed by the government to teach these classes are getting an additional marketing benefit. While they are being paid, not only to teach but to market themselves, their competitors are out there marketing themselves on their own dimes.

Owners of fitness businesses understand that they need to find ways to attract clients and persuade them to use their services and they use various techniques to accomplish this goal such as giving free or introductory priced sessions to new students. Moore’s government program interferes with this process and creates competition with private fitness-based businesses, in direct contradiction to his stated principles.

If the mayor and his friends are so passionate and interested in promoting fitness to others, there are loads of ways they can do so without creating city programs that compete with private businesses. The instructors on the council can volunteer their time and host truly free sessions to introduce people to various forms of exercise. Mayor Moore could set up group sessions outside his government office focusing on squat exercises and call it “Quads on the Quadrangle.”

If they worked to promote their cause using purely voluntary means, then no government spending is necessary and private businesses will not be forced to compete with city government. Which is what the mayor wants, right?

— Clark County resident Debbie Harbeson exercises hard in the summer sweating over lots of push-ups — the orange kind that is.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Handling Racism in Government Police Departments

HARBESON: What’s the problem?

> SOUTHERN INDIANA — Now that the Indiana Supreme Court has denied a request for appeal, the City of New Albany may finally have closure on the controversy surrounding the allegedly racist comments made by police officer Jack Messer. So like Barney Fife did when Andy took his single bullet away, I guess Messer will have to accept his 30-day suspension.

I don’t blame Messer at all for trying to get his suspension reversed based on his constitutional right to free speech. As a government employee, he has the ability to file such a suit. (Click here for a pdf of the Indiana Court of Appeals Opinion.) However, this would be a completely different story if he worked in the private voluntary market. As a matter of fact, it may not have even been a “story” at all.

If Messer was an employee of a private security firm, a situation like this would likely have been handled much differently. For example, if, after a “roll call” meeting of security officers, several employees gathered together and Messer made statements that seemed to be racist, it’s doubtful that a co-worker would run off to outside groups or the media.

If he was concerned enough to act, he would likely approach his employer. There’s no guarantee the private employer would do exactly what the complaining co-worker wants but an employer certainly has an incentive to do his best to handle the situation in a manner that will protect the business’ reputation.

Messer does not work for a private firm though. He works for an organization which claims monopoly control over a geographical area. In addition, Messer and his co-workers enforce not just the laws that follow natural logic and have real victims — they also enforce illogical and inconsistent laws that are determined by political whim and personal preference.

This creates an imbalance of power in relationship to other individuals who don’t have the shiny badges and since the “customers” do not voluntarily pay for the government enforcement, the potential for abuse and corruption exists.

Certainly everyone wants to believe that all police officers are consistently virtuous men and women, yet intellectually we know that’s impossible. We have to admit that this imbalance of power is just as likely, if not more so, to draw in people who are the exact opposite. So it makes sense to have policies that hold police officers to an extremely high standard of behavior and whether deserved or not, Messer got caught up in it.

It’s entirely possible that “getting caught up in it” is exactly what happened. Messer has claimed from the start that he was misunderstood and that his point, even if horribly verbalized as Messer himself admits, was really supposed to be about how government policies may have harmed black people more than they helped.

Who really knows if he’s just desperately backtracking, but there is no reason to think he meant otherwise. After all, during the entire time this issue has been in the news, no evidence has been brought forth to show that, in his 27 years of being an officer, he has ever mistreated a person of color while performing his job.

If Messer’s comments were questionable, the reaction by the local NAACP was questionable as well because back when this all started, representatives of this organization behaved as if they knew this man’s exact intent as well as his beliefs and, without even being present to hear the conversation in context, were somehow still able to judge him guilty of racist attitudes.

That’s just wrong. The NAACP representatives were doing the same thing — assuming ill intent without clear evidence — that they accuse police of doing when they pull people over for “driving while black.”

Messer says he would apologize to the person at the roll call who was apparently offended by his comments if he knew who it was. I do find it odd that this individual did not confront Messer directly at the time this all occurred. After all, the police are supposedly trained in conflict resolution so shouldn’t we expect that they would be capable of using their training to actually resolve their own personal conflicts?

Southern Indiana resident Debbie Harbeson never has a problem resolving conflicts with her husband. If you want to know how she does it, you can write to her at Debbie@debbieharbeson.com

Sunday, July 8, 2012

All You Need to Know about the Constitution

HARBESON: Two issues, put simply

> SOUTHERN INDIANA — Today I want to comment on two major news items from last week. Let’s start with the one that caused the most fireworks.

You can probably guess which story I’m talking about. For months, people have been discussing, speculating and making predictions about it. When the papers were finally filed, social media sizzled. The story was so hot you could literally feel the heat here in Southern Indiana.

Some people were celebrating the decision. Some were angry and disappointed. Still others, myself included, were just plain apathetic. I’m talking of course about the breakup of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes.

Holmes filed for the divorce and though I don’t really know for sure what the problems are between the couple, I heard from my secret media sources that at least one issue centered on an annoying habit of Cruise’s.

No, it’s not his propensity to jump around on couches. Yes, I’m sure that could be a potential issue causing irreconcilable differences since it could prematurely wear out the living room furniture, but from what my sources tell me, the problem is not about what Cruise is doing. The problem is focused on what he’s not doing, which is to say he’s not putting the toilet seat down.

Apparently, Holmes tried to settle this by giving Tom a mandate. She even reportedly pasted a note on the bathroom wall reminding him that it was “necessary and proper” to put the seat down and if he failed to do so, he would be charged a “shared responsibility payment” because she had to hire someone to take care of it.

Wait, I think I may be getting my stories confused. Those points are relevant to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on the Affordable Care Act, the second story I wanted to discuss.

Sorry about that. My mind’s a bit rattled after reading just a part of the Court’s opinion. I’m still trying to process the similarities and legal implications of using the words “shall” versus “may” in federal government legislation.

Speaking of similarities, the more I dive into these political controversies, the more the Constitution seems to be like any other old text that groups of people decide to worship — if you work hard enough, you can search through these documents and find plenty of vague phrases that will allow you to interpret them in any way that fits your needs.

The proclamations and interpretations made about the Constitution may be more dangerous than those other texts, though, because these judgments and decisions can end up legitimizing aggression — the initiation of force — upon others.

Once the aggression begins, everyone is stuck trying to deal with the damage. Previous government interventions have created a lot of damage to the health care market and this is one reason why all three branches of our so-called limited government have been spending so much time on this particular issue.

We know there’s a problem because all the concern is focused on insurance rather than health care. Due to the effects and consequences of long-term government involvement that have increased regulations and costs, we now have a system so messed up that no one can imagine being able to provide and access health care without piling on even more government involvement.

Even those who support this law should be able to see that something is very wrong when you find yourself gleefully cheering the fact that people may now be forced to hand over money to either big corporations or big government.

In hindsight, I realize I could have prevented myself from getting so confused if I had just stopped reading the Supreme Court opinion at page five, where Justice Roberts said: “Put simply, Congress may tax and spend.”

To understand our current situation, that’s really all anyone needs to know about the Constitution.

— Clark County resident Debbie Harbeson is slowly coming out of her Constitution-induced confusion.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Consequences do not disappear when governments interfere

HARBESON: Laws create a smoking gun

> SOUTHERN INDIANA — Up until last week when I learned that Indiana is one of several states that passed what’s known as “smoker’s bill of rights” legislation, I thought it was only the nonsmokers who were willing to use government force to get what they want. I had no idea that 20 years ago smokers did the same thing.

In 1991, Indiana politicians passed legislation that prohibits employers from making hiring decisions based on whether or not the prospective employee smokes and also prohibits employers from making smokers pay for the higher costs it takes to provide health insurance benefits.

That law, as well as the statewide smoking ban that comes into play next week, should have never been passed. Neither law would have either, if everyone respected two very basic concepts: property ownership and accepting responsibility for the consequences of one’s choices.

I’ve always maintained that government-mandated smoking bans ignore the concept of property ownership and the decision on whether or not to allow smoking in a given business belongs to each individual business owner. Patrons and other interested parties can certainly work to persuade a business owner to take a specific action, but the ultimate decision belongs to the owner.

Like the smoking ban, the “smoker’s bill of rights” legislation also ignores the concept of property ownership. The jobs that an individual business owner has available are his property and he should be free to make decisions about the requirements of a given job however he sees fit, which would include requirements regarding smoking.

The owner needs the ability to set whatever parameters he chooses for a given job and it doesn’t matter if you, I, or politicians disagree with his choices. None of us are the owners of the business; we are not taking the risks involved when creating a job and hiring an individual to perform the job.

There are many factors to consider when making any business decision and those factors can be quite different for each individual business. This is why the decision needs to be left to each individual owner. It may be a good choice or it may be a mistake but it’s the owner’s decision to make, not anyone else’s. Prospective employees can either agree to the job requirements or they can move on.

Government need not be involved.

It goes both ways though. The business owner should not get special government favors or protection from any consequences or costs of implementing their policies. The freedom to control the business and make decisions in how to run the business includes accepting all the risks, costs and consequences associated with those choices.

Much of the problem in regards to smoking, and most other issues where government gets involved I suppose, is a result of everyone trying to avoid the consequences of their choices by creating laws that force others to take on the responsibility they are unwilling to accept.

The smokers who supported the “smoker’s bill of rights” wanted to avoid any negative consequences resulting from their choice to smoke. They wanted other people to hire them even if those business owners did not want to hire smokers, and the smokers also wanted other people to bear the extra costs of insuring their health.

The nonsmokers who support government bans are no different in this regard though. They also wanted to push the consequences of their choices on to others. Instead of accepting that it was their responsibility to stay away from establishments that allowed smoking if they did not want to be near smoke, and/or actively working to persuade business owners to change their policies voluntarily, they were willing to use government to force business owners to comply with their wishes.

Using government to avoid consequences does not lead to a better society. The consequences do not disappear when politicians interfere — all that happens is that the responsibility for the consequences is transferred to others.

So, as special interest groups battle to transfer consequences back and forth, piling law upon law over decades, the consequence we now all must bear is a bigger, more intrusive government — one that is not going to suddenly stop with smoking.

— Clark County resident Debbie Harbeson wishes she could transfer the consequences of standing underneath that bird the other day.