Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Public Corruption? Eh.

Go read this editorial from today's Commercial Appeal about the TDOT report detailing "misrepresentation" (their word) about building the FedEx Forum. Am I alone is sensing a massive "So what?" attitude from them?

It starts with the headline, Garage gaffe. Oh, a gaffe, like missing your cue onstage or picking up the wrong fork at the dinner table? $20 million dollars rates a gaffe? Already they're telling us it's no big deal. Just a gaffe, worth a titter or a sharp look. Nothing more.
To opponents of the financing plan for FedExForum -- trying to make their case for a public referendum in the summer of 2001 -- it was easy to imagine bigwigs plotting behind closed doors to keep them off the ballot.
Notice the careful parsing here. It's not opponents of the Forum, nor the rush to build it, but "opponents of the financing plan." Redefining opposition to a smaller group so as to minimise their apparent breadth.

And the biggest wig of them all -- Mayor Willie Herenton -- was very vocal that we needed to move with all possible speed to make things happen. What was opposed was the speed with which things were moving. Lots of folks were concerned that Memphis was giving too much away in the contract that few read, even some of the City Councillors and County Commissioners who voted on it! We wanted to slow down and take a closer look at things.

Do you not agree, oh wise ones of the CA, that if things had been slowed down a bit and looked over a bit more closely, that we might have avoided this mess?
Carrying signs that said "No Taxes NBA," "Major league rip-off in progress" and the like, they voiced a consistent theme: Powerful forces were at work in the community and would stop at nothing to bring big-time professional basketball to the city.
Oh, sign-wavers. Horn honkers. You know, those people. "Powerful forces were at work in the community and would stop at nothing to bring big-time professional basketball to the city." Well, DUH! Both mayors, some Councillors and Commissioners, Fred "FedEx" Smith, the NBA Now group and the CA itself. Sounds pretty "big" to me.

But no, the CA wants to paint a dark picture of conspiracy-minded kooks and their dyspeptic mutterings. All the better to marginalise you with, my dear!
Then, the context was the decision to float revenue bonds for the arena rather than dip into the city and county general funds to come up with a $24 million contribution.

Today, the switch is necessary because federal highway transportation dollars were used inappropriately to help pay for the 1,500-space garage.
First of all, notice how the editors very neatly slide right past the problem of the parking garage's size. It was supposed to have at least 1800 parking spaces, until that level of the design was changed to make the spaces into Grizzlies offices. No one knows who authorised that, either.

Fifteen hundred parking spaces for an 18,000 seat arena? What were they smoking? If you generously assume that only 75% of attendees will come packed four-to-a-car that's still ... um, waitaminute ... over 3200 spaces needed. And that doesn't even cover the "park'n'ride" users of the "intermodal transfer facility."

How did this ever get past anyone?

The city's leaders were pretty much forced to go with a bond issue as, even then, we were struggling with other debt, property tax increases and tight budgets. It was seen as a way to have our cake while letting others pay for it.

What the CA's editors are trying to do here is set up a false equivalence. Sort of, "Well, we were going to use mix'n'match Federal funds then anyway but went another way, and all we're doing now is the same thing, so it's all the same." NOT TRUE.

One of the constant themes of the building of the Forum was that it was going to cost exactly $250 million dollars and not a penny more. "On time and on budget" was all you heard, until now when we learn we must cough up $26 million more to pay for it. And that doesn't include the tens of millions spent by the City on "improvements" to the general area (new streets, sidewalks, park refurbishing, etc.) nor the many streams of revenue (including money charged for parking in a free facility!) that should have gone to debt repayment but were, instead, diverted into the pockets of Heisley, Hoops and the Grizzlies.

The Forum is costing us $26 million more than expected or was announced, since the money has nothing to do with the $250 million bond issue that is always touted as the "real" cost of the Forum. We're just lucky that the City, County, State and Federal governments are all willing to play a complex shell game to cover it all.

And that should worry people a lot. Since when do we believe that a "misreprentation" of this kind and size is easily cleared up by having other levels of government pick up the tab, or shift the bills around to different tables? I was immediately struck by how quickly and quietly everything was "made right." With all these many, competing turfs being involved no one is playing a power game or trying to shift (heck, or even assign!) blame? Smells like bullshit to me.

And the Commercial Appeal is perfectly willing to play along, to sweep it all under the rug, to divert our attention and -- Hey! Pretty shiny! Look over here!

Where was I? Oh yeah, diversion.
In the context of the financing plan for the $250 million FedExForum, it should be pointed out, this right pocket, left pocket switch won't have a major economic impact.
Isn't that good to know? It's like discovering your car was stolen only to have the police tell you, "Well, you have another car, so it won't have a major economic impact on you."

Something went very, very wrong. We need to know what, who and how. We need answers and, if there was criminal wrongdoing, prosecutions.
No one has been accused of pocketing any cash, and it's not even clear who's responsible. Those are issues that are worth exploring in greater depth.
Yeah, you do that. Will Hell be arctic by then?
Arena opponents maintained all along that there are powerful people in the community who don't care what the average taxpayer thinks, and it's too bad those kinds of suspicions are still being fueled.
And rather than confront and put to rest our suspicions the CA wants to put them aside and murmur in our ears until we go back to sleep. Good going, "watchdog." Voice of the people, defenders against tyranny. Lackeys. Milquetoasts.

The Commerical Appeal ends this horrifying example of toadying with this:
FedExForum is a fait accompli, but public confidence in the decisions of public officials is and will always be a work in progress.
Ah yes. The last refuge of the guilty. "Well, it's too late now anyway. It's already done." Yes, the Forum is already built, but many of the players involved in getting it finanaced and built are also still in office. If any of them are guilty of malfeasance or fraud or personal enrichment, then I wnat them found, prosecuted and, if guilty, imprisoned.

Is that really so much to ask?

The Commercial Appeal's answer is, "Hmm? What?"

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