Saturday, February 23, 2008

Ward Five Economic Development Summit

(Photo of the Basilica at Catholic University by Dan Malouff.)

I attended the Ward Five Economic Development Summit earlier today. It was hosted by Councilman Harry Thomas, Jr. and held at Catholic University . Stop Blog and Roll has the agenda posted here.

I was particularly interested in the panel titled "Stimulating Neighborhood Economic Development." (SNED) It was a lot more important, I think, than the "Mini Workshop on Negotiating Community Benefits Packages." Both were billed at one hour each, but the SNED panel started a half an hour late.

The SNED panel spoke for a half an hour, then came time for questions from the audience. The second question was the last, or rather it became the second-to-last after a small protest from the third questioner. Moderator Deborah Crain demonstrated an uncanny ability to get the schedule on track: just end the session. We should hire her for ANC meetings (we are always running over).

I was interested to hear from panelist Ana Harvey, Greater Washington Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, that her organization has been working with Verizon to provide DSL services to small businesses. Noting that the lease is often a business owner's most onerous cost of doing business, Harvey said that the Hispanic Chamber has also been helping businesses renegotiate their leases.

If I had had an opportunity to ask a question of the SNED panel, it would have related to the severe economic downturn that appears to be coming our way (or is here already). As I discussed with a member of the community this past week, one home sale in Bloomingdale had been listed for $524,000, but it sold for only $399,000. As noted in a news article this week, "The [Federal Reserve] stoked anxieties over US prospects with a prediction that America is set to be blighted this year by a combination of anaemic growth, higher inflation and rising unemployment." So what's the economic plan for Ward Five to combat this challenge?

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Another Street Sign Death

Some street signs fade away. Others experience tragic deaths. Our community deserves prompt repair and replacement of damaged, deterioriating, or "totalled" signs.

Well, the D.C. Department of Transportation has sometimes fallen short. Signs have laid on the ground for six months at a time before being picked up.

So here is another opportunity. The sign in the photo above can be found at the corner of 1st Street N.E. and Quince Place [update: it disappeared the morning after this post]. This is another opportunity to see how well the automated on-line service center ( works this time.

When I submitted the request, the system told me: "We were unable to verify the location Quincy Place NE AND 1st Street NE, WASHINGTON, DC." The service request number is 1712458.

Are there DDOT sign success stories? Sort of.

This stop sign, which appears to be a temporary sign that replaced a sign that was destroyed, ended up on the ground about a week after police had tied yellow "Do Not Cross" tape to it in support of a local event. The police never took the yellow tape away, and the sign fell down not long afterwards.

I filled out a request online and the followed up with DDOT's Sharelene Reed. She soon informed me that the request had been fulfilled, and that the case number was now closed.

So what was the catch? Whoever fixed the sign didn't bother to remove the police tape. A neighbor burst out laughing when he saw the sight. Ever get the feeling that someone doesn't care to make the neighborhood better, they just want to get the job done and go? Maybe it's more than just a feeling.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

DC Votes for Presidential Nominees

Yesterday morning, Barack Obama supporters waved signs at the intersection of New York Avenue and Florida Avenue. Given the enthusiasm of passing cars, perhaps Obama taking 75% of the vote today was not completely surprising. John McCain secured a solid victory on the other side of the aisle. Congratulations to both gentlemen.

Monday, February 4, 2008

More on the Mandatory Paid Leave Bill and the Government-financed Nationals Stadium

My recent post on the The Accrued Sick and Safe Leave Act of 2007 took a spin on the Eckington Yahoo! listserv. Former ANC Commissioner Kathy Henderson (who lives about a mile east of North Capitol Street) responds:

Private employees should have paid annual and sick leave. Arguments against such modest benefits are unfair to our citizens and belong in the same category as arguments against raising the minimum wage. There is no such thing as employees that do not get sick; said employees may not take time off because they cannot afford to miss any time from work. I am with Stacie; I would rather see sick employees stay home and convalesce rather that coming to work and possibly infecting others because they cannot miss a paycheck.
Are you familiar with the legend of the boiling frog? In the 1800s, a science experiment found that if a frog was placed in cold water, and the water temperature was increased in very small increments, that the frog would boil to death before jumping out. The legend reminds us that we ought to beware of incremental changes that creep up on us slowly.

Small and moderate-sized businesses are the frog here. They aren't going to stage a big walk-out to protest mandatory paid leave. The cost in time and lost business to mount an opposition effort isn't in the cards. And after all, they will look heartless, and that's bad for business. And so this new regulation will be passed, and it will be added to the large mountain already present. Small businesses will soldier on.... until they finally decide it's time to leave town.

The District is burnishing its reputation as a jurisdiction hostile to business prosperity. Government by nature is always on the prowl to do something, to solve problems even when they aren't the pressing ones. That's how many politicians get elected: spend more money on this, impose another regulation on that.

As a result, our freedom is incrementally diminished in exchange for promises to solve all the latest issues. It's easy to impose mandates on businesses-- sure, let them figure out how to make the latest government edict work with the financial balance sheets (which lead to yet another consideration: what about time consumed by maintaining paperwork to comply with the law)?

Finally, the timing of this "compassion" is poor: most believe that we are in a recession or about to head into one. This is not the time to create hurdles to job creation. The bottom line: Shouldn't we concentrate on attracting businesses to North Capitol Street? There aren't many area businesses available to impose this regulation on in the first place.

In response to another posting, I cited the publicly-financed Nationals baseball stadium as an example of corporate welfare. Henderson again:

Regarding the baseball stadium, only businesses earning five million dollars or more in annual revenue were assessed the special tax to pay for the stadium. Most of these businesses are K Street law firms, which the majority of DC citizens do not patronize. Yes, DC is paying for the infrastructure improvements, which come from Federal Highway Administration funds and very few if any local dollars. Contrary to what some believe, citizens are not paying for the baseball stadium. Corporate welfare does not seem like a fitting term for the stadium funding since many business eagerly purchased their sky boxes in the first stages of the project. Don't forget the annual revenue the city will receive from the stadium lease agreement.

Finally, some will continue to debate the merits of the stadium project up to and beyond opening day next month and the argument that it cost too much has merit. However, this major development project clearly revitalizes what was a blighted industrial eyesore of an area. The projected tax revenue from the new development, including housing, retail and other leased space will offset project costs over time. We should be focusing our ire on the Office of Tax and Revenue former employees that stole money we will never see again.
I am not an expert on the stadium financing, but I have been reading about studies showing that the purported public benefit gained from stadium-financing deals like this rarely materializes.

I couldn't find any information indicating that Federal Highway Administration funds are being used to finance the stadium-- that would be a porkbarrel project. I imagine that any such funds are being used to support changes to area roads to facilitate traffic in the area of the stadium. Does anyone out there know?

So Kathy has clarified that taxpayer income tax money is not being used for the stadium, but corporate tax money is (and the corporations will pass the costs on some way, the money doesn't come out of thin air). Again, this appears to boil down to another case of robbing Peter (the 1% taxed corporations) to pay Paul (the Nationals). Sure, corporation Peter is getting fleeced this time, but "his" time will come, at the taxpayers' expense. Maybe those corporations purchased the skyboxes in part for the benefits of a fancy venue for throwing parties or fundraisers for federal and local politicians.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Councilman Marion Barry Embraces Mayor Fenty's Education Agenda

A lucid column today from Marc Fisher of the Washington Post on D.C.'s current third rail of politics:

When D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty and schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee proposed shutting down 23 of Washington's most egregiously underenrolled schools, knee-jerk politicians predictably behaved like those unscrupulous drivers who shout about whiplash after somebody glances their fender.

Ward 8 Council member Marion Barry, still the reigning champion of winning time on the TV news, issued one outraged statement after another, showed up at every protest and, as late as Thursday, was on the tube railing against Rhee: "The chancellor's just being bullheaded. Stop it! Stop it! Stop it!"

Less than 24 hours later, a different Barry shook the mayor's hand and stepped before the cameras at a news conference announcing the final list of schools to be closed. "This is a historic day," the Mayor for Life said with a big smile. "Mayor Fenty took the bold action of making education number one." The closings -- the very same closings Barry had spent the previous two months slamming at every turn -- were suddenly an essential, empowering act of excellence.

So there you have it. One day Councilman Barry is leading a crowd in an anti-Mayor Fenty/Chancellor Michelle Rhee chant (as seen in the video above), the next week he is by their side in full support of their school reform plans.

The Examiner's Harry Jaffe lays it on thick:

[Four-term former mayor] Marion Barry bears the ultimate responsibility for the disgraceful state of many D.C. public schools. It has taken decades of neglect to bring a once-proud school system to its knees. Barry is the architect of that neglect.

Parents are rightly concerned about dramatic reform, and they ought to be involved in the process. People ought to apply rigorous scrutiny to the Fenty-Rhee plan. But in the end, rather than make impassioned arguments in a manner that would promoted resolution, it appeared to many that several activists sought to promote division and speculate on Fenty's unseemly hidden motives. The activists seemed to relish the fight, actually changing Rhee's mind was secondary.

Mayor Fenty was elected with a mandate to take control of the public school system. He and the chancellor ought to be given the opportunity to succeed, because ultimately they should be held responsible for the outcome.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Another Regulatory Feather Weighing Down Business in the District

The Accrued Sick and Safe Leave Act of 2007, which will be voted upon by the D.C. Council this week, is another case of government being nice to someone at the expense of someone else, and taking all the credit. Proudly following in the steps of San Francisco as the second major city to impose this law, the District is on the cutting edge of creating difficulties for business.

The law would force businesses in the District to pay employees for time off take for medical leave or similar purposes (e.g., if a family member is sick or to attend a school-related activity that their child is involved in). The employee would be able to be paid for up to three-to-seven days of leave per year, depending on the size of the business.

Requiring businesses to pay for this leave (many already do) will make labor more expensive, and the businesses will adjust by creating fewer jobs, cutting other benefits (medical), or raising prices. Of course, a business owner could cut his/her profits, or head across the border to Virginia where it is far safer, the restaurants are permitted to permit smoking if the free market permits it, the property taxes are lower, and the income taxes are far lower.

In addition to the costs, which appears modest to the outsider, there are the logistic issues. As Barbara Lang, President of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce, reads this bill, the law would permit employees to take leave without prior or current notice to the employer. So a cook could fail to show up two days in a row, with no prior notice... and the employer is only permitted to demand "certification" if the employee misses three days. Expect your restaurant meal to more often arrive slower after the passage of this bill!

Knowing human nature, once the paid leave days accrue-- and the employee is only permitted to take a maximum number each year, despite rollover -- we should expect the number of leave days taken to substantially increase. This policy would incentivize the taking of leave, which in turn will create further higher costs and lost productivity. Quite simply, some people will "call in sick" and take their paid vacation.

Finally, the law will be skewed against small business, despite the smaller number of leave days required of them. Small businesses do not have the political connections to draw the corporate welfare that the District government showers upon the select few. Small businesses operate on smaller profit margins and cannot spread costs among a large chain of stores. If you want North Capitol Street to be dominated by the likes of Big Bear Cafe rather than Starbucks, then oppose this bill.

This paid leave law sounds like a good idea. It sounds family-friendly. But it is another regulatory feather that threatens to break the back of small and medium-size business in the District. If the Council believes this is law such a great idea, why shouldn't businesses simply be able to send the D.C. government the bill?