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Our Views: Edgerton sets example in rejecting developer's request

So rare is it for a city council to reject a developer’s request for tax incentives that such an event—like a passing of Halley’s Comet—warrants recognition.

Last month in Edgerton, at a joint meeting between the city council and the redevelopment authority, officials refused a local developer’s request for $430,000 as part of a $1.3 million project to build an eight-unit apartment complex.

When these requests arrive at council meetings, they’re typically granted and often embraced by elected officials who are quick to promote a project’s economic promises. That a group of representatives in Edgerton made a calculation determining a project’s costs outweighed the benefits is to be lauded. It means they’re not just rubber-stamping agreements. They’re thinking about the wisdom of the project itself and, presumably, the potential consequences to taxpayers.

The council’s decision seemed to befuddle developer Dan Rinehart, who said it was a “little confusing to me because we’ve been doing plans similar to this.”

But the project’s math wasn’t mysterious, City Administrator Ramona Flanigan said. While the project would have cost $1.3 million, it was expected to add only $750,000 of value to the tax base. Other projects, including some advanced by Rinehart, have offered a much better return, she noted.

Rinehart has a track record of working with the city to improve the downtown, notably in renovating three former tobacco warehouses into apartments. The city’s revitalization efforts have been a success by most measures, and Flanigan said the city remains open to working with Rinehart.

“This isn’t an indication of anything of the future,” she said. “It’s simply an indication of the credentials of this project.”

Edgerton’s decision should serve as a message to other councils that they’re free to scrutinize tax incentive proposals. Local government has no obligation to subsidize development. Though it may be in a city’s interest to offer tax incentives, city councils should recognize this isn’t true for every case.

Where to draw the line on tax incentives is a tricky calculation because it’s difficult to predict when or if the financial fortunes of a tax increment finance district might sour. TIF districts were once rare designations, but today local governments seem more willing than ever to risk tax dollars in hopes of luring companies dangling the promise of jobs.

When appropriately applied, TIF districts can resurrect ailing parts of cities, and both Janesville and Edgerton have been using TIF districts to spur downtown development.

Edgerton has made downtown living a focus of its redevelopment efforts, believing restaurants and other niche businesses will thrive in a downtown with mixed uses. The strategy appears to be working and one worth trying to replicate in Janesville.

But each TIF deal must be evaluated on its own merits, and a public official’s task boils down to a simple question: Do a project’s costs outweigh the benefits? If so, councils should follow Edgerton’s example and reject proposals that offer minimal returns.

City councils can be open to development possibilities while still safeguarding taxpayer funds. Councils should show developers that their approval must be earned and cannot be taken for granted, regardless of the size of a project or the number of jobs promised.

Gerson: In Trump's White House, it's the survival of the servile


White House staffers have two general objectives: to serve the president and to please the president. The two do not always coincide.

I can recall, as a policy adviser to President George W. Bush, sending him articles and columns (including some by Nicholas Kristof) savaging the administration’s reaction to the unfolding Darfur genocide. Predictably, Bush called me into the Oval Office to vent against the unfairness of the criticism.

Just as typically, he ended the meeting by telling me a series of steps he was taking to review and toughen our policy.

Or take the example of Bush’s chief of staff Joshua Bolten. In 2006, Bolten sent clip after clip to the president demonstrating how American strategy in Iraq was failing. A more successful approach—“the surge”—was built on this foundation of presidential disillusionment.

It is clear that President Trump does not reward this type of service. The way to reach Trump is to flatter him in the extreme. This does not mean that everyone in the administration is always obsequious. But it does mean that all the incentives run toward obsequiousness. It is Trump’s form of natural selection: the survival of the servile.

White House senior adviser Stephen Miller has risen by climbing this greasy pole. His appearance last Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union”—in which he hailed his boss as a “political genius”—was a master class in toadying. Miller’s purpose was not to make public arguments but, as Jake Tapper appropriately put it, to please “one viewer.” And that viewer immediately provided a reward: “Jake Tapper of Fake News CNN just got destroyed in his interview with Stephen Miller,” tweeted the president. A crass and obvious feedback loop was immediately at work.

Miller is not alone. Members of the Cabinet have been trained to burst out in praise of the Great Leader on a moment’s notice. Members of Congress—even past critics—have figured out the power of subservience in the Trump era. Media figures such as Sean Hannity get the deal. So do the Chinese and Saudi governments, which have made stroking the president’s ego into an effective tool of diplomacy.

But what I know best is the White House. And here the triumph of suck-uppery presents special problems.

First, an atmosphere of flattery can exaggerate a president’s worst traits. During Richard Nixon’s presidency, the cooler heads at the White House tried to ignore his obsession with enemies and schemes of retribution. The yes men, such as (by his own later admission) Chuck Colson, ran with Nixon’s instincts—turning his manias into plans—to help consolidate their influence. Miller has done much the same on immigration—feeding Trump’s anti-immigrant bias and undermining the prospect of a legislative deal.

Second, sycophancy in the White House makes it more difficult to correct errors. Governing is not a science. It is necessary to make policy adjustments all the time, large and small. If a president does not understand and acknowledge mistakes, he can’t learn from them and correct them. The flatterer is thus an impediment to effective governing.

Third, obsequiousness creates an anti-empirical culture. Aides are tempted to select and pass along the most positive, pleasing information. They distort reality to stay in favor rather than presenting reality in order to help confront it. This appears to be happening right now with members of Trump’s legal team. They seem to be assuring him that special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation is nearing an end, and that Trump’s legal exposure is limited. They should be preparing him for the onslaught of a skilled prosecutor, armed with highly damaging information on collusion, obstruction of justice and (if Steve Bannon is to be believed) money laundering.

Fourth, an atmosphere of flattery is often an atmosphere of fear. When staffers set out to win the favor of an egotistical and mercurial boss, they are generally pitted against each other. The ethos is acidic. Trump’s main management goal seems to be to keep his employees off balance—unsure of his regard—in order to motivate conspicuous acts of loyalty. This is a way to gain adulation, but also to sow enmity. Trump’s style of leadership motivated the competition and contempt that characterized the initial failures of the Trump White House—particularly the self-serving leaks. And there is little evidence this dynamic has changed.

It won’t change, of course, until the president really wants it to. This would require only one simple, impossible thing: for Trump to part with the narrative of his own infallibility.

Web Views for Friday, Jan. 12

From online story comments and Facebook

On planned downtown Janesville fitness court: Since the city is wasting our tax money, can they build a water park in my backyard? I know it will get used a lot.

—Mike Peterson

I have a headache. Dumbest thing I’ve heard of since the floating dock.

—Jeffrey D Scott

What a waste of money. The people who would use it already have memberships to gyms, which there are a lot of in Janesville. And those who can’t afford a membership will use it for a day and never touch it again.

—Steven Brantmeier

How about fixing some roads in this city instead?

—George Smazal

Didn’t they have something like this workout station in Palmer Park back in the 1980s? I believe they tore them out due to vandalism and little usage.

—Lisa Prentice

Add a tiki bar and call me Jack LeLanne.

—Harry Hatrick

On Milwaukee Street reconstruction in 2020: It’s not as bad as people complained it to be, but it does need changing. I’m glad they’re looking for input. Hopefully they take the input from people that actually visit downtown over all those that claim to avoid it now (but weren’t down there in the first place).

—Phil Junior

What did they waste turning it into a two-way street, like over $200k?

—Dave Manthei

I’m used to it now; it doesn’t seem as awkward anymore.

—Lisa Virnig Thompson

On Edgerton downtown: I don’t think Edgerton needs housing downtown. What we need are venues for the kids other than the teen center, which doesn’t have proper supervision. We also need businesses and ones that are going to stay, not just bars and restaurants. Our community is no longer the one it used to be. More and more it’s about money and who you are.

—Jennifer M. Pretty

On Jakubowski’s request to move Rock County trial: This made national news. A lot of people know who this guy is. Another county won’t change that.

—Rebecca Anne Camper

Get the guy some mental help. Not an actual prison. From following this, it all revolves around his mental health.

—Stephanie Marie

On Attorney General Jeff Sessions challenging pot: Sounds like Sessions needs to smoke a bowl and chill.

—Jennifer Lewis

Your Views: GOP gives up on being the party of fiscal responsibility

I just reviewed the annual report mailed from Rep. Paul Ryan’s congressional office. It's an interesting read, detailing federal revenue and expenditures albeit from the 60,000-foot level. Importantly, in smaller font at the bottom of the chart, there is a notation that “spending is 117 percent of revenue”--another way of saying that nationally we aren’t paying our collective bill and 17 percent of the shortfall will be added to the national debt.

It seems irresponsible to me that, in light of yearly budget revenue shortfalls, Congress passed a massive tax reduction that will add $1.5 TRILLION (yes, with a gigantic T) to the national debt. Are you comfortable that this huge shortfall will be passed on to our children and grandchildren? I am not!

And to compound the situation, the vast majority of the tax rebate will be given back to the very wealthy and large corporations without reducing the large number of loopholes that these entities have been using for years. Despite this legislation being branded as a middle-class tax cut, it most certainly was not!

The Republican Party used to be the party of fiscal responsibility. They’ve long ago lost this mantel. They tax and spend just like the Democrats they readily criticize. The difference is that Republicans disproportionately prefer to cut taxes to the wealthy to the detriment of the middle and lower classes.