Commentary From the Mile High City

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Joshua Sharf

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January 29, 2009

"Worker Retention"

That's the term for a recession-induced, recession-prolonging piece of extended patronage being considered by the power-conscious but economically illiterate Denver City Council.

According to the Denver Post, the City Council is considering enacting so-called "worker retention" laws for city contracts:

Now Nevitt and eight other members of the 13-member City Council say they want to extend "worker retention" for all service contracts for the city and airport.

Firing workers just because a new contractor comes on the scene is "both inefficient from an operational perspective, expensive from a budget perspective and cruel from a personnel perspective," Nevitt said.

Oh-for-three. There's no particular reason to think it's inefficient operationally: if the duties performed are routine, the new, winning bid may in fact derive from operational efficiencies. It's less expensive by definition, as the winning bid by a new company must be, by definition, lower than the incumbent's bid. As while nobody wants to see anyone else lose his job, where's the kindness in leaving the winner's employees on unemployment?

It's perfect reasonable for people to seek security in this economy. You think I'm not worried about my job, too? But pressure to keep wages high was one of the chief factors in the New Deal's prolonging of the Depression, and this bill would do nothing if not keep wages artificially high.

Finally, this basically extends permanent job security from direct city employees to city contractors, in effect creating an entirely new patronage class dependent on the largess of city budgets.

December 30, 2008

Bronco Bustin'

Fourteen years is a long time at any job, but especially as an NFL head coach. Mike Shanahan hadn't replicated the great success of his two Super Bowl wins of the late 90s, hadn't even come close in a long time. And just when he seemed a cinch to put the team in the playoffs for the first time in 3 years, he pulled a Norv Turner, his team crashing and burning in spectacular fashion on Sunday night.

Denver, like Washington, is a football town. I remember in 1989, the season after the Redskins beat Denver in the Super Bowl, a Redskins pre-season game won it's time slot in what the WaPo,'s TV critic dubbed, "The Redskins devour everything in their path." Denver's pretty much the same way. The town put up with B+ teams for a decade only because of those two Lombardi trophies.

Coaches with total control, who double as GMs rarely do well. It's almost impossible to be both good cop and bad cop at the same time to the same player. Instead of working with what they have, they have to divide their attention with getting more. They'll fall in love with personnel decisions that are a mistake. (Some of Joe Gibbs's biggest blunders came when he demanded particular players. Almost certainly his success the 2nd time around was limited by the lack of a strong GM like Charley Casserly or Bobby Beathard.)

Still, those two Super Bowl wins, numerous playoff appearances, they count for a lot. Towns with winning teams tend to forget how hard it is to get there, and how long it can be between successes. Shanahan's time was probably up. But we should appreciate what he did while he was here.

December 3, 2008

Denver Debt

This past election, Denver voters passed a school bond initiative worth almost half a billion dollars, the only locality to pass its bond initiative.  There's a reason places De-Bruce, but there's also a reason that it's a terrible idea to do so.  Now Dave Ballmer of Douglas County is probably one of the smartest guys in the State House, and he's pointed out that if you can borrow low, it's better to do that and lock in a low interest rate for the long-term.

The problem is that right now may not be the best time to borrow low.

At the moment, Denver's not exactly swimming in debt, but it also doesn't have a huge amount of flexibility there.  According to the 2008 Approved Budget, the city will spend $361 million in debt service, most of which ($274 million) is for DIA bonds.  That's from total net expenditures of about $2.1 billion, for just under 17% of spending.  That's more than was on the books for capital expenditures - $272 million.

However, Denver's already facing a $7 million shortfall this year.  That may not sound like much, but it will assuredly be larger next year.  Denver will have to float that debt, which by definition is general obligation debt and not revenue bonds. 

We have some idea of what the market might pay. The Bond Buyer Muni Index which measures the prices paid for municipal bonds.  It's off 19% from its high 2 years ago, and the average yield is now 6.16%, well up from its 52-week low of 4.72%.  But consider this: yesterday the NY/NJ Port Authority got no takers at auction.

Hell of a time to take on another $500,000,000 in debt, huh?

December 14, 2007

Bureaucratic Efficiency

No, really.

This morning, I went to go get my emissions tested and my Jeep re-registered. This was supposed to have been done several months ago, but I let it slide. Then, as a contract web developer now (whose contract is ending a few weeks), any diversion to the now-inconvenient MVD for a few hours would be expensive, so I continued to let it slide because I couldn't afford the time off. This eventually devolved into Commuting Roulette, and it had to come to an end.

So this morning, it did.

Now part of the reason I took so long to perform my Civic Duity - although I drive a Jeep, not a Honda - was that I had heard horror stories of people waiting for hours, nay, days, nay weeks, at the MVD to register their cars. When I arrived there from the emissions testing service, I expected to find DIA of October 1997. Spouses would come by with hot meals, reliving in irony Charlie on the MTA, since we would be there in order to avoid public transport. These would have been replaced by relief caravans by now, of course. Crowded tent cities (Rittervilles, they would be called) would have sprung up, people huddling around sumdge pots in the parking lot, grumbling and demanding higher taxes to pay for more efficient computers that would be set aside from ordering baseball tickets.

Inside, things would be mayhem. The more affluent among us would be crowding the outlets with our laptops and cell phones, deperately reassuring our bosses that today, yes, today! would be the day that we would finally show up for work. Those who had been waiting inside, each night seeing the employees leave, each morning raising their hopes anew as they unlocked the doors, would be near the breaking point. A black market in tickets would have developed, with citizens re-enacting scenes from the commodities trading pit at the CBOE, the wealthy buying their way out (no waiting for you, Ms. Stryker!), the poor, condemned, like William Shatner in a small-town diner, to ask, plaintively, "Will today be the day I can re-register?"

Instead, crickets.

Well, ok, not crickets because it's December and it's snowing and the crickets are all dead, but...snow crickets. Tumbleweed through the reception area. Red LEDs flashing, "Now Serving 19." My ticket number: 20. And immediately, "Now Serving 20" A cheerful woman, no doubt the gal who had seen Wag the Dog and gotten a bright idea to reduce workload, had me in and out in, literally, three minutes.

When I asked where all the people were, she smiled knowingly, and blamed the snow.

October 15, 2007

A Few Questions Before Buying

I've written here before about the proposed property tax hikes. Here's a list of 9 questions - plus follow-ups - that those proposing this increase should have to answer before we vote for any of these bonds, and certainly before we vote for the mill levy increase:

1) This set of packages will exceed the city's bonding authority. How is the limit of the bonding authority determined? How often is it re-assessed? At what point will it be raised again?

The city may need more money for more pressing projects, or may discover the need for additional revenue after the current bonding limit has been reached. It's important to understand how that limit is arrived at, and what effect raising our debt multiple times would have on the city's bond rating and our ability to pay.

2) What is the city's current bond rating? What is the interest rate expected to be, and when do the bonds mature?

Speaking of which, what is the current bond rating. I assume it's pretty good, but it'd be nice to know. And what are the terms on these general obligation bonds that are being issued?

3) How do the amounts raised compare to the amounts required by the individual projects? In effect, what's the allowance for possible overruns?

For instance, there's a $40 million proposal for a new concert hall. How was that number arrived at, and how did the budgeting process for these individual projects differ, if at all, from the normal city budgeting process? We've a had a boatload of cost over-runs and questionable expenditures over the last few years, so perhaps a little oversight in the matter might be in order.

More important, since we're now hitting the limit of our bonding authority, how likely is it that these same agencies are going to come back, hat in hand, for more money to finish the projects we've voted to start? If there are cost over-runs, what is the City's obligation to finish what it starts?

4) Who were the panel members, and how were they chosen?

The mayor has some pretty effective ads talking about a citizens' committee that helped set these priorities. Which citizens, and how did he choose them? What common assumptions did they have going in that need to be challenged?

5) During the process, what effort was made to assess where the additional spending could be offset by savings in other parts of the city budget? How was the list of projects to be funded arrived at? Was there any attempt to prioritize these within the overall city budget?

For instance, this one. Look, if rehabbing the Greek Ampitheater is so important as to require a tax increase, maybe it's more important than something that's already in the budget. Something that could be cut. What efforts were made to figure this out, or was there just a limit assumed and then projects were cut or kept on the basis of fitting under that cap?

6) The city has pointed out the expected effect on the average homeowner. Is the average price the median home price or the mean?

It's a simple math question. Because if this is the median, 50% of homeowners will pay more than the oft-quoted $63 a year. And if it's the mean, then we're adding another more-progressive-than-it-seems tax to the tax burden.

7) Will the property tax increase apply to residential rental property? If so, what will be the effect on the average renter? What is the average income, and average rent, of a renter in Denver?

I assume it would apply to apartment buildings and certainly to single-family rentals. We've heard much about that $63-per numbers. But Denver has a large and growing renter population. Growing because of foreclosures. Right now, a lot of people may not be in a position to move farther out, and landlords will try to pass at least some of this tax increase along to renters. It's important - and so far completely unaddressed - to know how the increase will affect renters.

8) Will the tax increase apply to commercial rental property?

Again, postentially increasing the cost of goods and services sold, or alternately making it harder for businesses to get by. Don't think Starbucks here. Think your local, funky, protest-flyer-on-the-wall coffee shop with the free-range beans and the free wifi.

9) What guarantees are there that the money will not be shuffled around, a la Referendum C revenues, so that existing non-mill-levy revenues will continue to go to infrastructure?

The Independence Institute has shown that non-Ref-C priority areas have grown faster than the supposed Ref C areas of the Colorado budget, indicating that all that Ref C money isn't going where it's been promised. Money is fungible. What guarantees do we have that the government won't take current maintenance money out of the budget, and then come begging for more in a couple of years?

So far, I have seen the local papers address exactly none of these questions. Government officials are particularly good at putting forward tax proposals, on the grounds that they're all for good causes. They rarely get asked questions about how these particular causes are arrived at, or how they set priorities within budgets. So they're used to being able to tell us, unchallenged, that we "need" this or that amount of money for some project or other, or for ongoing operations.

They're also quite good at minimizing the effect of their new piggy banks on ours. Here, for instance, they give the numbers for the average homeowner, who may not at all be the average resident.

They're particularly good at gaming the process to limit the amount of time, discussion, and questioning before a vote, then claiming emergencies and lack of time for discussion.

Housing prices are dropping a little here. The government wants to raise taxes on your most valuable asset. For those of you who rent, it wants to make it harder for you to save for that down payment.

Don't you want to know how they came to this conclusion, before writing out a bigger check each year?

September 5, 2007


That giant sucking sound you hear is the last of my free time leaving the building. I've signed up to be one of the guest bloggers on the Denver Post's Gang of Four blog, on its PoliticsWest site run by Stephen Keating. Stephen's basically a conservative, which explains why the site is fairly balanced.

Another Virginian, from Tidewater no less, Jim Spencer, will blog from the left.

The idea is to provide a western, and Colorado, perspective on politics both national and local, through this election cycle. Right now's kind of a probationary period, so stop by and see what you think.

June 20, 2007

The Municipal Maternal Instinct

Councilman Doug Linkhart is thinking about your food. Specifically, trans-fats. Between this idea and Mayor Hicklenlooper's green initiative, I want to deep-fry some chicken on my engine manifold, while idling the Jeep in a premium downtown parking spot.

On the basis of a poll conducted in his newsletter, he is considering introducing a bill to ban transfats in Denver restaurants. The poll came back 2-1 in favor, but he doesn't tell us who responded. This is exactly the kind of survey that's geared to get this sort of response, getting a disproportionate response from a self-selected group of activists. It's also an object lesson in how, once everything becomes the government's business, it's particularly dangerous to take your eyes off them, even for a moment, and that's just too exhausting for most people.

June 17, 2007

Sauce For the Gander

UPDATE: Welcome Instapundit Readers! Thanks for coming, and have a look around the rest of the place.

By now, you've probably heard about the trial balloon Green Program that Mayor Hickenlooper has been spending his time on. Good to know that the next elections will run smoothly, the snow will be picked up efficiently, that traffic lights will be timed non-randomly, and that 8th Avenue between Speer and the viaduct won't need a 4WD vehicle to navigate. (The poor Prii that Mayor Hickenlooper wants to populate the streets of Denver with would be rattled apart on that stretch of road.)

The Mayor wants to have insurance companies charge drivers with long commutes more for their insurance (they do already), to have those who use more natural gas to heat their homes pay more for the right (they do already), to give preferential parking to Prii, and to force new housing to be green.

Ah, the Nanny State! So here are few suggestions that our elected officials should certainly be willing to go along with:

  1. There shall be no use of private jets for official travel when commercial service is available; this is a purely green idea.
  2. Reiumbursement for auto travel on official business for all city employees shall be based on the cost-per-mile of the highest-mileage car available on the market.
  3. There shall be no reimbursement for parking at DIA, or for mileage driven to DIA; employees will be reimbursed for the cost of using public transportation to get to and from the airport
  4. City government parking lots, used by city government workers, shall also set aside an increasing number of slots for hybrid and E-85 cars.
  5. Since timely maintenance saves gas, all elected official shall be required to report what cars are used in their households, and to maintain on file with the city up-to-date maintenance records
  6. Since driving uses less gas than idling, the city shall be required to conduct a comprehensive review of its traffic light timing, and to re-time the lights in the most efficient manner

January 15, 2007

Welcome to Arcti-City

I'm sure the burst pipes and 10-ft.-high snow mountains are all part of global warming, but right now, it sure doesn't seem that way. The fahrenheit temperatures look like centigrade, and the centigrade temperatures look like the trade deficit.

I took advantage of the rare day off to go up to Left Hand Canyon again, and take the dog hiking for a short way along a snowshoeing trail. After we got to the trees, and out of the gale-force winds, the dog forgot all about how cold his paws were and actually enjoyed the walk. The trail itself was packed well enough that I didn't even need snowshoes - until I got to the steep part, which is why you need crampons on snow and not on dirt.

In the meantime, there are bits of my lungs still wanting to know what was wrong with the non-liquid air...

January 9, 2007


So tell me, when exactly did Denver turn into Narnia? This Friday's scheduled snowstorm has been scaled back to 6", courtesy of some arctic air that's apparently going to stick around for some weekend skiing. Normally, this stuff melts off, but with the bulldozers piling it up in the streets, some of the ice hills around Crestmoor Park will be there until March.

Of course, none of this would be happening if we had signed Kyoto.

Fortunately, my Dad was able to drive back to Geo'gia before the wind swept across Broomfield, turning Boulder into an island. We drove up to Boulder, and then into the foothills near Ward and Nederland on Sunday, and the wind was blurring the mountains even at a distance. Yesterday, it slid down the foothills onto the front range and closed down US-36. I've seen this effect from an office in Broomfield before, and it's pretty spectacular.

The other frightful event today was the swearing in of Bill Ritter as governor. I wish him well, really, and I think he's more of the Romanoff mold than the Fitzgerald. This isn't a day for sourness; it's a day to note that we can have a peaceful transfer of power from one party to the other, and not have half the counties in the state setting up roadblocks and designing uniforms. The color may be blue, but for a long while yet, the institutions are still strong.

August 28, 2006

New Houses

New stops on the Parade of Homes here.

June 27, 2006

The New Tattered Cover

Needing some exercise, and with the weather at a seasonable 80 degrees, I walked down from the office to the newly-relocated Tattered Cover during lunch.

I can't say I was disappointed, since I really didn't expect all that much. The floor space is half the size of the old store at Cherry Creek. I suppose that brings it into line with the LoDo store, but I always liked the Four Stories of Books! even if it wasn't quite Powell;s. The decor is pretty much the same, just arranged differently and crammed into less space. This leaves less room both for books and for people. There's an artificial barrier right in the middle of the sales floor, the back edge of the Orchestra Pit, which also makes for awkward traffic flow. Maybe it's supposed to make it feel busier, but to me, it just felt more crowded, like the bar that Fred Astaire keeps having to negotiate in Royal Wedding.

The problem with the new location is, well, the location. The new store is at the site of the old Lowenstein Theater, at Elizabeth and Colfax, and it's clearly a whole staircase down in neighborhood, too. The police may just have to open a station there, to respond to all the false alarms from people nervously fingering 9-1-1 on their speed dial. You can't just drop in, have a drink at the Fourth Story, and then wander aimlessly around window-shopping. The old building may have looked a little like a fortress, but the Colfax location is the real deal.

It is right across from East High School, though, so maybe some of the kids there will take the hint and learn how to read.


Power, Faith, and Fantasy

Six Days of War

An Army of Davids

Learning to Read Midrash

Size Matters

Deals From Hell

A War Like No Other


A Civil War

Supreme Command

The (Mis)Behavior of Markets

The Wisdom of Crowds

Inventing Money

When Genius Failed

Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking

Back in Action : An American Soldier's Story of Courage, Faith and Fortitude

How Would You Move Mt. Fuji?

Good to Great

Built to Last

Financial Fine Print

The Day the Universe Changed


The Multiple Identities of the Middle-East

The Case for Democracy

A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America's Last Years in Vietnam

The Italians

Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory

Beyond the Verse: Talmudic Readings and Lectures

Reading Levinas/Reading Talmud