The joke isn’t funny anymore. No one is laughing. Resignation is setting in around the financial world. Trying to sleep, listening late into the night to the international financial news, the markets in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Tokyo and around Asia are “jittery” about the “American crisis.” A BBC analyst insists that things will not be so bad because “we have been repeatedly assured that bondholders will be paid no matter what.” Another says that “this could be a Lehman Brothers moment for the global economy.” We’re in uncharted territory here. Perception is a large part of the international financial relationships that make and break countries, and right now the perception is that our federal government has been pushed off the rails by some elected officials who do not know how to play well with others.
Ghosts of the Future who are reading this column next week, you know so much more than I can know right now. [This column was written July 22.]
The consensus feeling among analysts had been that there would be an agreement made in Washington on the debt ceiling. That has started to change as this is being written, with numerous reports of intrigue and internecine maneuvering in party caucuses and the growing realization that there are about 60 representatives who are ready to steer us towards the sun, crank up the music and watch the pretty colors. The Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve are now in active preparation for the possibility of the U.S. government running out of the money it needs to fulfill its authorized and legal obligations. They are now trying to assure worldwide markets that no matter what is cut or closed, payments will be made to bond investors.
1. Let’s start here: The South Mall Expressway in Albany was suddenly closed yesterday for emergency repairs. There are two 10-foot-long cracks in the pier cap beams that support this highway, which connects downtown Albany and the Empire State Plaza with I-787 and the Dunn Memorial Bridge across the Hudson River. The bridge, now inaccessible from the west, is typically used by 14,000 cars each day. Transportation officials said temporary repairs will be made to open everything by early August, after which they will figure out how to make, and pay for, permanent repairs.
2. “We have not had resources to repair the roads and bridges we need and want to. This has been a problem for a long time. Because of the resources we have, we’ve been duct taping our infrastructure together…” said Mike Elmendorf, state president of the Associated General Contractors of America (Albany Times Union).
1. Total budgeted property tax levy by all New York school districts in 2011-2012: $19.292 billion. Total cost to the state government of rebating 100 percent of the stock transfer taxes paid by investors in 2010: $14.471 billion, down from a high of $16.313 billion in 2008.
2. Estimated cost to the state government of allowing two temporary tax brackets on high-income earners (7.85 percent and 8.97 percent) to expire at the end of 2011: Approximately $5 billion in 2012.
I am often slow on the uptake, so I’m struggling to get this straight in my mind. The North Hempstead Town Board is willing to purchase an actual former country club in Roslyn Heights in order to satisfy many of the neighboring residents. Meanwhile, the same board will go no further than to authorize a “legal and environmental analysis” of beleaguered Alvan Petrus Park off Harbor Road in Port Washington.
Purchase of the 10-acre former Roslyn Country Club property and the Royalton Mansion catering house within it will cost millions of dollars. It will likely require an eminent domain proceding, the most extreme action that can be undertaken by an American local government, to assume title to the property from an owner who is reluctant to sell.
1. Here’s one of the less amusing aspects of Nassau County returning to the same, failed, privatized bus operation that so frustrated decision makers and the public 30 years ago. One difference between a public agency and a private company running operations is that the Freedom of Information and Open Meetings laws don’t apply to private companies. If the company writes a report to the county, then it becomes an agency record and you can file a FOIL request. In some other states that are a few years ahead of New York in selling off or leasing everything, the media, the public and the government are having big problems with private companies stonewalling critical information.
1. Throughout the night and the morning this is being written, European and Asian news services are nearly wall-to-wall news about Greece. At the same moment, our region’s major tabloid newspapers contain not a word about it, and neither do most major media outlets. Total disconnect.
2. In 2002, Goldman Sachs, the firm that just keeps on giving back to the world, engineered a “cross currency swap” that, basically, allowed financiers to bundle faulty Greek national debt securities much the same way they bundled faulty mortgage debt here. These debts are maturing, swelling Greece’s deficit. Greece can’t pay its debts (330 billion Euros). Unlike the U.S., the Greeks are locked into the Euro system and cannot create money or inflate their way out of debt. If they default, it may sink some of the world’s important banks, and where the dominos will eventually fall no one knows. It may turn out just fine, which scares the bankers very much.
What at least one Congressman has been doing with his cell phone has been in the media quite a bit lately. Since late March, quite a few senators and representatives have taken a sudden interest in what happens when we use our phones and other mobile devices.
Security researchers announced that several models of Apple’s popular iPhone and iPad were logging the whereabouts of users, including precise GPS location data and information about nearby cell towers and Wi-Fi networks. They were storing the data and even migrating it to new devices you might buy. Despite Apple’s claims about security and privacy, the researchers were able to create a program that mapped user locations from the iPhones they examined. Very soon, The Wall Street Journal revealed that users of phones using the Android operating system were being similarly tracked by Google.
The United States has lost over 7 million jobs since the end of 2007, on top of the 7 million officially unemployed people before the official start of this “recession.” Recession? Please. Since then, over 7 million new workers have come of age or graduated and entered the workforce. We’re about 22 million jobs in the hole, and that doesn’t count those who have dropped out.
The number of civilians officially unemployed for at least 27 weeks shot up to over six million at the end of 2009 and has stayed there, even with the ginned stats and “seasonal adjustments.” This is unprecedented, by a wide margin, since this statistic (the “UEMP27OV” number) was first kept by the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 1948.
We can always learn to live with change, adjust to new circumstances, figure out more efficient ways to do things. That’s not what is happening in New York. There is no real Plan B or Plan C. We’re going to white knuckle everything.
Long Island’s schools are “the driving force behind this region’s economic vitality and attractiveness to business.” I stole that line from the Long Island Association, the region’s premier business organization, quoted in a recent L.I. Index report. So we have to get this right. And we’re not.
A cap on property tax increases for schools and local governments is apparently coming. As of this writing, it looks like there will be a cap of 2 percent or the inflation rate, whichever is lower. Some raises in expenditures will be exempt, and school districts can have higher budget increases with a 60 percent approval by voters.
The part that I dread the most is that for the next few years we will hear politicians braying about how they’ve solved the property tax problem, reined in taxes, made a big step forward to fix taxes. Two-thirds of Nassau County’s school districts would have come in below the cap if it had been applied to the recent budget elections. This is not relief. This is not reform. This is pretend. This is locking us into a system again that is backwards and upside down, in which tax rates are highest in the neediest districts and lowest in the high-wealth districts, and in which personal circumstances play no role.
So we can all start planning, the budgets of these Nassau districts have been passed by an average of 60 percent or more on the first try across the past ten school budget elections: Bethpage, Carle Place, East Williston, Elmont, Glen Cove, Great Neck, Island Trees, Jericho, Long Beach, Lynbrook, Merrick, North Bellmore, North Merrick, North Shore, Plainview-Old Bethpage, Roslyn, Syosset, Uniondale, Valley Stream 24 and 30. In addition, Amityville, Baldwin, Bellmore-Merrick, East Meadow and Island Park missed this list by less than a percentage point.
Great Neck’s budget averaged 78.1 percent over the last 10 years. Westbury averaged 49.7 percent. Westbury’s budget was defeated on the first try six times over 10 years.
When push comes to shove, some districts will have options. Some districts will begin to pull away. Residents in some districts, a few years out, just may begin receiving shiny, mysteriously-funded mailings touting the benefits of charter schools.
“The Nassau-Suffolk School Board Association took exception yesterday to a statement by Governor Rockefeller that local school boards lacked the courage to levy needed school taxes.” That’s from an article in The New York Times (February 18, 1960). This is how a previous generation talked about their responsibilities to each other and to those who would come next. Governor Rockefeller was pressing hard for his plan to allow school districts to adopt alternatives to real property taxes.
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Michael Miller is a freelance writer, designer and strategic consultant who has worked in state and local government. Email: email@example.com