Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Will City Employ Car Con Game?

If you've ever bought a car, you've seen this con in action.
You want to buy the car at a certain price.  The salesman switches tactics.  Instead of talking total out-the-door price, he starts throwing around "monthly payment" figures.  Those numbers get adjusted up and down as things are added and subtracted.  You finally give up and say "okay" when the monthly payment gets to a number you think you can afford.
But when you finally sign the contract, you learn that instead of paying the $22,000 sticker price for the car, or the $20,000 you intended to pay, you're signing for a grand total of $25,000.  Oh, and the way those payments got lowered?  You're on the hook for six years instead of the traditional four.
Welcome to the Car Con Game.  Become familiar with it.  Get comfortable with it.  Because it's likely the City of Mesquite will use it to bamboozle businessowners and newcomers.
Most of the current council members have stated at one time or another that Mesquite has to become more "business friendly."  As a part of that claim, more than a couple have indicated that one of the ways to do that is to dial back the unreasonably high business license fees, impact fees, environmental fees, and permit fees that have defined the city over the last few years.
In listening to those council members agree that fees are too high, you might get the impression that they're going to fix it by lowering or eliminating some of those fees.
But ask any patient of modern medicine and they'll tell you -- knowing and acknowledging that something is broken isn't the same as fixing it.
Based on a series of terrific interviews with the council members by Barbara Ellestad of Mesquite Citizen Journal, it's beginning to smell as if the council might try to use the Car Con Game on the citizens.
Most of them talked about the fees being high, and that they're going to correct that. 
Wait for it...
By allowing the business to make payments.
It's offensive that governments are just now getting around to a concept that's been used for centuries.
But it's scarier when you look at where this is going.  And you don't have to look any further than your television set.
Have you noticed that most of the big car makers no longer show the MSRP (Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price) when they discuss their cars?  Instead, they show monthly payments.  Even better (and even more deceitful) is the fact that the number they put out is often a lease payment instead of an actual car payment.
However, by playing this game, they have managed to increase the price of a car way beyond the rate of inflation.  A 1970 Ford Mustang cost $2,721 in 1970.  Today a 2012 Mustang costs $22,200.  When you factor in the inflation rates between 1970 and 2012, the price should be $16,658.  Instead, because payments have slowly been stretched from a two year term to a six year term, people think the payments are "reasonable."
By applying payments to license fees that are already too high, it gives the city a chance to increase rates over the next few years without being noticed because it won't "hurt as much" when spread out over a year.
And don't forget about interest.  Keep a close eye on discussions about what that rate is going to be.
To be fair, payments are a good idea, and it's a positive move that the council is considering the concept (although it should have been an option from the beginning in 1984).
And if it is done in conjunction with an actual fee rate decrease?  Then every council member who votes "yea" deserves to be lauded and re-elected, and companies from around the country should line up for a chance to do business in our town.  We will have truly rolled out the Welcome Mat.
But if it's used to cover up and pretend that those outrageous license fees have gone down?
Well, let's just say that politicians and car salesmen are often cut from the same cloth, so it wouldn't be a surprise.
Just make sure that, as public citizens, you follow the phrase that has been a part of car buying since the invention of the wheel:
Caveat Emptor.  Let the buyer beware.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

VVWD Rips Off Ratepayers With Another Land Deal

You're on your way to work.  You see a homeless guy on the sidewalk with a sign that tells a sad story, so you flip him a dollar.  You do this the day after, and the day after.
On the fourth day, he tells an even better story of how he needs just a few more dollars to get his life on track, so this time you flip him a five-spot.
Less than 10 minutes later, you spot the guy coming out of the liquor store with a bottle of wine under each arm.
Are you mad?
You bet.
This is the scam the Virgin Valley Water District has just pulled on the rate payers of this community.
And we should be mad as hell.
Over the last decade, the water district has squandered millions of dollars on bad decisions, corrupt employees, and pie-in-the-sky projects.  Both the previous general manager and hydrologist are under indictment.
One of the things that financially wrecked the water district was a decision to float an enormous bond to pay for a variety of projects, including the arsenic treatment plants.  However, squirreled away in that batch of cash was a plan to build a palatial new headquarters in Bunkerville.
When the bond was issued, the interest clock started ticking.  After a year or two, the board got around to discussing the new headquarters.  But by then, the economy had turned, and the citizens had gotten wise to the scam.  Also, investigators were looking into things.  So the board killed the deal.  Unfortunately, they couldn't just "give back" the money (according to then-GM Mike Winters). 
In the meantime, the board decided to use some of that money to purchase unneeded shares of river water, something that was never intended under the terms of the bond.
So the district wound up paying interest for another year until a new regime came in and arranged to restructure the bond.
However, as part of that restructuring, the water district implemented a series of water rate increases that local users have been getting popped with over the last two years.
In other words, the board screwed up, wasted millions, and the people of Mesquite and Bunkerville had to bail them out.
Last week, the board quietly approved -- you guessed it -- the purchase of some nearby land to expand their headquarters.
Think about it.  The VVWD jacked up our rates significantly, but suddenly have some extra money to waste on land for expansion?
If there was any overage (which it appears there isn't), it should have been given back to the people in the form of lowered rates.
Of course, the board is beating its chest, claiming the $340,000 in ratepayer money paid for the parcel is a steal, since the land was going for more than $1 million just a few years ago.  But that's a ridiculous argument.
For starters, dog houses in Mesquite were going for $200,000 "just a few years ago."  Using the outrageous, overheated market prices from back then is a misleading ruse.
But more importantly, the water district is back to talking about expanding their headquarters.
There was no reason for an expansion in 2008, and there damn sure isn't a reason for an expansion in the foreseeable future when our economy remains in the sewer and houses are being built at a Methuselah pace.
It's now obvious that the problems at the VVWD weren't just the result of an (allegedly) crooked hydrologist and a good ole boy GM.  They're systemic.  As the joke goes, there must be something in the water, because that quasi-governmental agency continues to spit in the face of ratepayers by raping us on our rates, then turning around and wasting that money on land they don't need.
Heck, the board even admitted last week that one of their employees was arrested on 10 counts of burglary.  The employee was terminated, but you have to wonder whether it's because he got caught, or because he didn't give the water district its cut.
Apparently, the problems run so deep at the VVWD that even elections and appointing new board members and GM's can't cure it.
It's time for someone at the state to take a look at the mess in Mesquite, with an eye toward possibly taking it over.  Obviously the local people we've put in place can't be trusted with our dollars.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

New Library Should Squash City Schemes...For Now

Now that Mesquite's library has been expanded,
what will become of this dirt lot?

Mesquite finally has a bigger library.
According to an excellent story by John Taylor in the Mesquite Citizen Journal, the old library reopened this week following an expansion project that doubled the size of the facility.
Hopefully, this will remove one big boondoggle that has repeatedly been used to scam the people of Mesquite over the years.
Back in 2005, a plan was afoot at City Hall to convert the old Virgin Valley Elementary School gymnasium into a new library.  At least, that was the excuse given when city officials attempted to kick the non-profit Mesquite Boxing Club out of the building.
To put it another way, the city wanted to take a building that was designed specifically and exclusively as a gymnasium, one that had been used as such for decades, and convert it into something it was never meant to be.
Public outcry bought the boys and girls time, but ultimately the group left.
During the two years the club was out, the city did absolutely nothing with the building.
And we're talking about years when the city had more money than they knew what to do with.
The club eventually returned to the facility, and it continues to operate today as a place where kids can go to learn the "sweet science." 
Whenever somebody trots out that ludicrous statement "there's nothing for the kids to do in this town," the boxing gym is one of the 13 or 14 things to be listed in rebuttal.
Then in 2009, under a new regime, the concept of a new library was used as the excuse to purchase an overpriced piece of Mesquite Blvd. land from the LDS church.  The deal happened so fast, and in such an underhanded manner, the citizens weren't able to mount much of a "public outcry," although there was plenty of it afterwards.
Again, the lie being put forth was that this land would make a great location for a much-needed bigger library.  And of course, it would be "for the children."
The city ignored a few facts along the way.  For starters, they never seemed to care that libraries are not within the city's province.   Bookatoriums in Clark County are the responsibility of the Las Vegas Clark County Library District. 
More importantly, when the library district officials were queried, they admitted they had no intention of building a new library in Mesquite anytime soon.
During those debates over what is now known as the "library land," several people continued to insist that there was plenty of available land surrounding the current library, and it would be easy to expand.  (By the way, for those who didn't know, the land where the library presently sits was also city-owned land which the city purchased from the LDS church then turned around and gave to the library district).  City officials, being the experts in library science and architecture that they were, said that wasn't a workable idea.
This week's opening of the new 2,600 square foot library expansion shows once again just how wrong that previous regime could be.
The new facility is also a testament to the changing face of libraries as a concept.
The truth is that libraries are being marginalized by the continuing growth of the Internet.  Believe it or not, kids are reading more today than ever before in the history of mankind; only they're reading computer screens instead of books.  Libraries as we have known them are a dying entity.
The new building in Mesquite has doubled in size, but they didn't double the number of books on hand.  In fact, they increased by only 12,000 "items" from their previous total of 38,000.  What they more than "doubled" was the number of computers available, going from four to 10 computers for general public use, and from two to five computers for kids.  By doing so, the library district has basically run up the white flag and admitted that libraries of the future will actually be more like internet cafes than warehouses for books.  It's a forward-thinking approach for which our library officials should be commended.
The opening of the expansion should also put an end to any additional schemes by government officials looking to pull at our nostalgic heartstrings by using a larger library as the ruse for more shady deals. 
Of course as long as there are children on the planet, like for example kids who play soccer, city officials will continue to find ways to manipulate taxpayers into accepting idiotic and expensive schemes for unnecessary land purchases and unneeded plastic buildings.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Who Would Make A Good Mayor

During an enjoyable discussion of local politics last week, a friend asked who I thought would be a good mayor for the city of Mesquite.
It was an excellent question, and it caught me short.  Since I've been out of the news game for the last year, and there's no local election until next April, I hadn't really thought about who should be leading our town.
It's much easier to identify who shouldn't be at the helm, a list that starts and ends with anyone who was a member of the city's previous regime.
Former mayor Susan Holecheck is on the political prowl again, plucking a juicy high-profile job at Mesa View Regional Hospital recently.  Well-founded rumors have already started which claim that she will be running for Al Litman's city council seat in 2013. 
I can think of few catastrophes short of earthquakes and volcanoes that would hurt this town's recovery more than her return to the city council.
Ditto for her chief henchman, Karl Gustaveson.  He was originally appointed to the council in an underhanded way, and is the lone remnant from a horrendous lineup of municipal legislators.  Because of his powerful position as the head of the Virgin Valley Water District board, his name has been bounced around as a possible mayoral candidate, mostly by those who crave the "good old days" of Holecheck-style secrecy and heavy-handed Gestapo tactics. 
Then you have the old Chuck Horne crowd waiting in the wings.  Given a battle between Horne and Holecheck, I'd have to go with Horne.  A battle between Horne and just about anybody else?  Vote for "just about anybody else."
While discussing former mayors, the name Bill Nicholes is sure to come up.  You know, the mayor who was in charge when Mesquite was enjoying explosive growth, budget surpluses, and national attention for all the right reasons.  For those who remember the bloody election of 2007, you'll be happy to hear that Nicholes didn't go to jail as a result of all those accusations involving the FBI.  In fact, he wasn't even charged.  Why?  Because there was nothing to it.  His reputation, and that of his amazing and kind wife, were savaged merely for political gain.  Lies were spread about him that cost him the election.  So how's that working out for us?  Not very well. 
It's hard to tell if Nicholes would be a good mayor today.  The economy and the dynamics of the city have changed.  We'll never know if our prosperity from 2004 to 2007 was a result of his vision and extraordinary ability to get people fired up about Mesquite, or if he happened to be in the captain's chair during a calm sea.  Also, he made some bad decisions to go along with his good ones, like the despised medians along Mesquite and Sandhill Boulevards that Nicholes demanded, and the fact that he was the guy who hired Tim Hacker.
Speaking of Hacker, we can thank our lucky stars that he has moved on to create his patented version of despotism in North Las Vegas, where his answer to their problems is to declare the city a disaster area because they seem ignorant of basic addition and subtraction at budget time.  If he still lived here, he would be emotionally unable to stay out of city politics, and could very well have made a charge for the top seat in search of some political payback, if for no other reason.
So who would be a good mayor, other than possibly Nicholes?
I'll catch heat for this, but I actually believe Theron Jensen would be a good choice.  While he comes off as an easygoing good old boy, he's actually extremely sharp, and very charismatic.  He's a visionary, which is something this town desperately needs as it seems completely incapable of picking a direction.  Are we a casino town?  A golfing town?  A retirement community?  An average, boring town with a mundane mix of industries?  Jensen could balance the city's history with its future.  Unfortunately, it's that "good old boy" rap that would probably doom him at the polls, along with his religious affiliation.  Mesquite seems insistent upon re-enacting our own version of the Civil War, with the battle lines drawn between members of the LDS church and those who aren't.  I believe Jensen could very well be the Abraham Lincoln who ends that divisive battle and points us in a new, harmonious direction.  But after his most recent loss in a run for Justice of the Peace, along with his narrow defeat for mayor in 2003, it's pretty unlikely anyone will be able to talk him into running for anything in the future.
You can't discount current mayor Mark Wier.  He has been one of the quietest mayors this city has ever seen.  He doesn't get tangled up in controversy, doesn't let his ego dictate his direction, and has done a superb job of opening the city and making it more accessible to its people.  He has been quietly undoing all of the damage caused in the previous four years by a mayor that did the exact opposite.  And, most surprising of all, he has managed to remain an honest, decent human being.  Unfortunately, his quiet leadership is being seen by some as "no leadership."  He has yet to express his vision for the city or to steer the ship in a particular direction, so we STILL don't know what Mesquite wants to be when it grows up.
He also seems to be timid about personnel matters, which means we still have serious problems with upper level staff that must be addressed if this town is to move forward.  The longer those cancers remain, the more dire the prognosis.
All that said, he would still be a good choice to continue caretaking this city as it heals.  Hopefully, once the scars have started to mend, he can finally pick a direction and lead us toward a new prosperity, and it would be nice to fall in line behind an honest man.
As for my answer to my friend last week?
It only took me 60 seconds to come up with the best answer:
Greg Lee.
Lee is the head of the Eureka Casino.  He is one of the five smartest men I've ever known, but doesn't get distracted by ego or a drive for personal power.  He is a true visionary, a man who can actually see 20 years down the road, and is brilliant enough to formulate a plan for getting there.  He is articulate, and has the ability to get people to line up behind him.  And, as proven by his devotion to the Wounded Warrior project and the recent Fourth of July fireworks celebration he funded last week, he cares about his fellow man and this community.
Sadly, like most truly great men in this era, he won't run for political office.  He has a multi-million dollar casino to run, a family fortune to safeguard, and gets enough challenges in the business world to satisfy his intellectual hunger. 
He won't run, so he makes a safe and easy answer.  But it's nice to dream.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

New Agency May Keep Us From Becoming Another Goldfield

This morning I popped open my daily online edition of Mesquite Citizen Journal, and there was an Op-Ed by one of my favorite local conservative columnists, Dr. Leo Black. [Click here to see Dr. Black's article.]
Dr. Black is an anomaly.  He's a guy with a degree that somehow has managed to maintain that most uncommon of traits -- common sense.  He usually makes a lot of sense, and he has some good points in his most recent diatribe about governments trying to foster "economic development."  The truth is, government almost always sucks at business.  And no municipal government has sucked worse at it in the last five years than the City of Mesquite.  Solstice...Desert Falls...NCS...the lack of promised solar and wind energy facilities in an area with an over-abundance of both...  Allowing the City of Mesquite to participate in a "joint development agreement" is like the kiss of death.  Our city government is to business what Tom Cruise has become to the box office -- poison.
That said, I think he's a little bit off the mark in his most recent column.
I agree that the city's "Economic Development" department has been an Orwellian entity, accomplishing almost the exact opposite of what its name indicates (like renaming the War Department the Department of Peace).
Business in Mesquite is worse than in many other places in this economically-challenged nation.  A lot of it is because our city officials haven't heeded Dr. Black's ongoing battle cry for government to "get the hell out of the way."  Some of it is because of an anti-business attitude among its citizens, exemplified by the plethora of "no soliciting" and other business-unfriendly rules found in nearly every HOA in town, as well as the extremely strict ordinances against door-to-door marketing that has previously resulted in even the Boy Scouts being banned from holding food drives. 
Oppressive sign ordinances, onerous zoning, and unreasonable license and impact fees have scared away plenty of potential businesses. 
Pile on top of that the fact that chains and national retailers can't trust the Mesquite government.  For years the City has lied about our population numbers, claiming we were well above the 21,000 mark and on our way to 25,000, when the 2010 Census showed Mesquite actually has only 15,276 people.  That number won't draw the fast food chains or any other big retailers, especially since out-of-town corporations can't believe the City or its numbers.
Meanwhile, our consistently dysfunctional clique-driven Chamber of Commerce has been stuck in neutral for years, doing little for local businesses beyond parties and luncheons, while failing to lure tourists or new businesses to our resort-driven town.
This is precisely why (and the justification for) a new business agency is desperately needed.  For our town to do away with all "economic development" activity would be societal suicide. 
Like it or not, we are in competition with every other forward-thinking city and town in America; thousands of municipalities using property tax abatements, free land, and other inducements and incentives for businesses to build in and bring new jobs to their area.
More importantly, we simply need to work at this.  Mesquite's days of explosive growth and overwhelming tourist volume are behind us, and with it a lot of the things that lured businesses to our town without a lot of effort on our part.  Now we're going to have to earn it.
To do that, it will take money.  More importantly, it will take some very smart, motivated people.
Like Dr. Black, I'm philosophically opposed to governments providing funds for the benefit of private enterprise.  I have railed vehemently against the bailouts of AIG, Chase, and other banking concerns. 
But if anybody listened to me, I wouldn't have a nice Dodge in my garage today.  Without the government backing Chrysler back in the 1980's, that company would have joined American Motors and DeSoto in the history books.
The truth remains that government sucks at business.  However, when it comes to cash, success doesn't care about the source.
The city is putting up $50,000 toward a new economic development agency.  For starters, compared to the hundreds of thousands of dollars budgeted annually to economic development by the city over the last few years, that's a stone-cold bargain.
More importantly, this agency won't be run by the government bureaucrats Dr. Black alluded to in his article.  It involves super-sharp businessmen like Dave Ballweg, a guy who not-so-many years ago brought his multi-million dollar international company to Mesquite.  He could have gone anywhere, but he chose us.  And he certainly didn't get much help from city government.  For anyone to refer to him as a "bureaucrat" or to insinuate that he isn't good at business?  I love ya, Leo, but you're just flat wrong. 
We should be heaping praises and thanks upon Ballweg for taking time out of his busy, successful international business to help us.  All of his customers (meaning all of his income) come from out-of-town, so it in no way benefits him to spend his time and resources on trying to help us get our economic house in order; yet there he is at every City Council meeting, every development meeting, every political and public gathering, offering ideas, suggestions, and his help.  All without ANY political agenda.  He's not running for office, isn't particularly connected to any specific council member, and isn't trying to promote some partisan viewpoint.  He should be praised and lauded, and we should be deeply grateful to him and the other businessmen volunteering their time.
It's because of Ballweg and the others that I believe this agency will succeed.  Money alone couldn't have saved Chrysler in the 1980's.  It took a brilliant, determined businessman named Iacocca to turn that mess around.  Ballweg may well be our Iacocca.
I also believe that, unlike most government agencies and taxes, this one doesn't have to be permanent.  Once it's up and running, it's very likely that the agency will find its own funding (which it can do, since it will be an independent corporation unto itself), or that the Mesquite Chamber of Commerce will one day experience the internal revolution which will return it to a place of relevance and respect in our community, and will start picking up the tab for this endeavor.  That's only right -- a business organization that actually works for and funds the improvement and expansion of business.  Or maybe, if the Chamber doesn't improve, the new agency will absorb and replace it.
So while I am fundamentally in agreement with Dr. Black's assessment that government shouldn't meddle in the private sector, I have to disagree with his opposition to the new agency in Mesquite.  I believe it is desperately needed, and that the city's seed money is well spent.  If that $50k results in new businesses coming here, and more tourists and retirees rediscovering Mesquite as a destination and new place to call home, it will bring in more residents and more tax dollars.  It will be the catalyst for our rebirth as a thriving community. 
Otherwise, we'll just be another dying Tonopah or Goldfield -- a town with tremendous potential that wasn't smart enough to figure out how to survive when the "gold" played out.