A few of us got together to hang out at the federal building on 3rd and Rosser today and watch cars go by and honk to send a message to the unreachable Earl Pomeroy. It was a bit of a surprise to see a bunch of people show up to hold signs in favor of the government healthcare takeover, but not a surprise to find out the story behind them (which, by the way, you won't find in North Dakota's mainstream media).
These were the two ringleaders who brought stacks of pre-printed signs and were most vocal in engaging the grassroots folks while I sat and listened (of course I chimed in on occasion). Who they really are tells the story: Dave Kemnitz, on the left is the president of the AFL-CIO union. The guy on the right is Don Morrison of "ndpeople.org" -- an organization I'll get to later on in this post.
Here's a stack of the professionally made (and printed by a union shop) signs that Mr. Kemnitz brought for his lackeys. He neglects to note on his signs, however, that Earl Pomeroy has been bankrolled by the big insurance companies for the past seventeen years. Liberals always cover for their own.
I think some of these folks were made available for this counter-protest by the incredibly great effect labor unions had on Bobcat jobs in our city. Given all the jobs they drove out of here, there could have been another couple hundred union folks here...
I wonder if anyone has told this fella about SCHIP, Medicare, Medicaid, CHAND, or any of the other social programs that take care of people who cannot afford health insurance. Something about this professionally made sign sets it apart from the grassroots movement that's been sweeping the USA like a wildfire...
...oh yeah. Professionally printed by union shops for union operatives. This is called "astroturfing," named for the antithesis of a "grassroots" movement.
Now, about ndpeople.org - a site which got a weblink in this story from KFYR-TV, although the organizers of the event did not (they could have linked to americansforprosperity.org or honkno.com just as easily. The ndpeople.org people have their headquarters in the NDEA building (another farcical union entity, in my opinion). I photographed it last summer but didn't use the pics for anything until now.
The posters that adorned the windows of this place all have one thing in common. (Aside: how's that "Health Care '09" thing working out for ya?) Most of these have since been removed. Do you know what that is?
Have you spotted it yet? All that talk of evil CEOs and profits clued you in yet? Or do you recognize any familiar logos?
Here ya go. SEIU union logos all over the place. That URL on the one poster, healthcareforamericanow.org, well that's interesting. According to the Discover the Networks website, this group is a front, controlled by the AFL-CIO and other unions! In other words, Don Morrison and his group are simply not-so-cleverly-disguised union lackeys.
The KFYR-TV report focused more on a five minute spat that was going on just as I arrived, which quickly turned into a relatively amicable discussion between both sides for the next forty-five minutes and ended in a bunch of handshakes. In the web version they put up a web link to the union front group ndpeople.org but didn't do the same for the organizers of the event. More importantly, they completely ignored the fact that this entire counter-protest was a 100% union operation. Well, I guess that's what the "new media" is for - connecting the dots that otherwise go unreported.
The afternoon was fun; I got to spend my lunch break outside with some pals, we had some good spirited political discussion, and it was Taco Tuesday at our local Taco John's. Lots of people honked, and I saw some interesting hand-signals flashed at the union group on the corner. The counter-protesters exercised the same freedom of speech that we did, even if they did have to staff it with union labor in order to try getting their message out.
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What better opportunity to take my little toddlers outside and let 'em play in the sun and snow? We journeyed downtown to an empty parking lot Saturday to play. We built a snowman, something my Texan wife was unfamiliar with, as well as other snow and toy-related activities. There has been no shortage of snow to play in this winter; however, the temperatures were not very toddler-friendly.
My little three year old is terribly excited to go geocaching this year. He talks all the time about how, when the snow melts and it gets nice out, we get to go geocaching and fishing. The cute part is that he has no idea what geocaching is! It's just that he gets to go outside and do it with his daddy. That works for me. Think Spring!
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This large vacant lot along North 19th Street in Bismarck becomes the home of an enormous snow pile during the winter. We've had plenty of snow this winter, so the lot has been filling up over the past few months. In order to maximize the space, the snow is pushed into piles as it accumulates. These days there's a surprise atop a couple of the piles if you look closely.
Some enterprising soul has put a couple of United States flags atop these snow piles. I don't know if they were placed there as the snow was piled, or if some hiked out on top of the vast expanse of snow to place them. But they're there...waving proudly.
Hopefully they don't fall into the muck as the snow melts...whoever put them there, I hope they keep an eye on them. In any case, it was really neat to look over one afternoon and see the flags waving on top of a monument to the bountiful winter we've had so far!
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I had the opportunity to attend a meeting of the Bismarck City Commission last night and got to hear some really boring stuff, along with some very interesting stuff. Which do you think I'd like to write about this morning? :)
Recently there have been many questions brought up about the legality of the Renaissance Zone Authority, a body put together by the City Commission to authorize various pet projects in the city... beautification and upgrades, that kind of thing. If you read this letter (PDF) sent to the Commission you'll find that the way the City did it doesn't necessarily meet state law. But that's a separate matter from what I want to discuss.
Here's my "average citizen" understanding of what I heard last night (if I'm in error, please correct me):
When the City determines an area needs to be "renewed" the law enables them to come up with a specific renewal plan. They are then allowed to use Tax Increment Financing (TIF) to fund the plan for its specified goal. They assess the taxes of properties in the specified area at their current value at the time of the plan (in this case, 1978 or so). As those properties periodically rise in value, the amount collected over and above the assessed amount goes to the renewal fund. Once the work is completed, the fund is to be closed, and the remainder distributed to local entities such as school districts and the like. That fact is very important. Here's why...
If the urban renewal plan is "amended" along the way, the City is required to re-assess the baseline value of the properties taxed therein. Last night's vote to amend the plan was referred to as the seventh time this has happened. The way I heard it last night, the properties in the downtown area, however, have not been adjusted in the TIF plan since their original value! That simple fact is the basis for this post. What does it mean to you or me?
Let's say I had property downtown that was taxed at $100 a year at the start of the renewal plan. Year one of the plan I paid $105 in taxes, so $5 went to the Urban Renewal Fund. Fine and dandy...but fast forward 32 years, and maybe I'm paying $1000 in property taxes. now the county gets $100 again, and the urban renewal fund gets $900! That's $900 that could go to roads, schools, and things other than beautifying someone else's neighborhood.
If you paid attention to the last legislative session, you know that the state passed a boondoggle of a bill in the name of "property tax relief" because people are upset at the amount they need to pay for property taxes. At the same time, the City of Bismarck is using questionable math and, to my understanding, bending the law as it relates to urban renewal. All the while it's padding its urban renewal coffers by neglecting to re-assess the properties in the TIF area!
Like I said, the TIF idea enables the cities to "skim off the top" a bit for urban renewal. BUT...it also requires the amount above which they can skim to be adjusted every time the plan is updated for new pet projects! Apparently, in the past 32 years that has NOT been done.
This, of course, also flies in the face of the fact that the urban renewal law intended for a specific plan to be made, executed, funded, and then ended. The City of Bismarck seems to think they can keep amending this plan ad infinitum, collecting all the money in excess of 32 year old property tax values, and then congratulates itself for having FIFTEEN MILLION DOLLARS of tax money available for said projects. This is dishonest, it's a violation of policy, and might just be illegal.
My friend Brett over at the North Dakota Policy Council has been following this and put together a little video about this Tax Increment Financing. As a taxpayer I suggest you watch it:
You can also read a little more on this page, which has the same video and a link to the PDF letter sent to the City Commission. If you'll note in the letter, a decision to amend the Urban Renewal Plan was made by the Renaissance Zone Authority board, which was delegated that authority by the state. The problem is that the City did not follow state law in setting up such a board, nor did they comply with the law in delegating their authority to amend the Plan to the Renaissance Zone entity.
I heard buzz that the reason they held the meeting last night addressing the Urban Renewal amendment was so the City Commission could vote on it themselves, since they realized they screwed up with the Renaissance Zone Authority. That's all speculation. Even if it's true, it highlighted one other fact, one that meetings won't fix: the City has been dragging this Urban Renewal Plan along, with apparently little oversight from us, the citizens. It's time that is changed. The Urban Renewal plan wasn't intended to be turned into an open-ended pet project.
If they're sitting on $15 million that was taxed improperly, then I suggest that Urban Renewal Plan projects be STOPPED until the TIF mess can be sorted out. Money that should not have been skimmed into the fund should be returned to the entities who need it, and the remainder made available for Urban Renewal as planned. The City should be required to outline a specific, finite plan for renewal and, according to the law, finish that plan and close out the fund. If they find another project that needs TIF financing, then write up a new plan for that project and go about it on its own merits. It's time to get rid of the city's perpetual Urban Renewal piggy bank!
This TIF money in the urban renewal fund is money that would otherwise go to schools, roads, or emergency services. Instead, it's sitting in an account waiting to dress up someone else's property. Is that how the people in the Cathedral District got a facelift for their neighborhoods? Citizens of Bismarck, we need to wake up and keep an eye on how our city government is collecting and spending our tax money!
Let's say I'm wrong, and the property values have been adjusted along the way as this Urban Renewal plan morphs into an open-ended pet project. That makes much of my argument above irrelevant, except for one thing: Urban Renewal plans are NOT supposed to be perpetual. They are supposed to be designed with specific project goals and closed when those projects are completed. A new Urban Renewal project should have its own plan and funding. That prevents a mess like I've outlined above from dragging itself out over thirty years and tying up millions of dollars in taxpayers' money.
(Here's a Bismarck Tribune article on the meeting, but they don't get into why there's concern about the pool of money in the Urban Renewal fund, or how it got there.)
Again, this is my understanding of the program as a taxpaying citizen and property owner. I'm still getting up to speed. I'm also not implying malicious intent on the part of any city officials, just that the city's Urban Renewal activities need to be scrutinized and brought into compliance with state law. If you spot anything in this post that's inaccurate, let me know so I can correct it ASAP. For more information on how you relate to your government, check out the North Dakota Policy Council website frequently. It's a great resource.
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In the past few months I've had several friends show up on billboards around town for various ad campaigns. Those were cool to see, and my little toddlers love pointing them out. This sign, however, is my new favorite! It points right toward the Federal Building on 3rd and Rosser, and I think it's visible from Earl Pomeroy's office windows! In many ways, the view from his Fortress of Solitude isn't so lovely these days.
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