Monday, April 14, 2014

HOT Lanes Contractor Picked...let the spending begin!

After more than a year of back and forth with critics and opponents of wasteful spending, NCDOT picked the contractor for the I77 HOT Lanes project.  And the winner is...CINTRA, a Spanish firm with experience in this field.

As a sign the critics were right all along about the out of control costs, the initial price tag is a cool $665 million - well above the stated price of $500-$550 million used during the whole debate about the project.  When all is said and done, it WILL be much higher than even that.  These projects always work out that way.

Who pays all of this extra money?  You, that's who.

Per Davidson Mayor John Woods at

Davidson Mayor John Woods said the I-77 widening would have “a long-lasting effect on our region.” He said the use of a public-partnership has been critical.

“Although we haven’t got all the details before us, this announcement certainly proves locally that P3s are a viable method to structure and pay for large projects,” he said. “In addition, this announcement confirms the viability of our I-77 widening project and certainly greatly accelerates the project completion, which is so badly needed in our region.”

If just getting a contract on the table without all the details that costs at least 25% more than originally stated qualifies as a plan that "confirms the viability" of a project, then we are all in big, big trouble. 

Of course, why should you expect to hear otherwise from someone who thought Mi-Connection was a good idea?  It's not his money.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Thom TIllis's "Conservative" Problem

I recently received an interesting email blast from a former lower-level MeckGOP official in North Mecklenburg asking a former high ranking MeckGOP official for evidence of Speaker Thom Tillis's conservative credentials.  This evidence was being sought to assuage the concerns of a Triad area friend regarding Speaker Tillis's conservative bona fides to be the NCGOP nominee to take on Kay Hagan in the looming US Senate contest.
You see, this Triad area voter had concerns about Speaker Tillis.  The Speaker had not appeared at a recent candidate forum put on by a party organization.  There were also concerns about whether or not his conservative convictions were strong enough.  Would he just go-along to get along if he makes it to Washington?  That's what this voter wanted to know. 
The response?  The former high ranking MeckGOP official simply forwarded copy pulled from the Thom Tillis for Senate campaign site.  This was sent with the now standard encouragement that Thom Tillis is the best candidate to take on Kay Hagan this November.
What does this anecdote tell us?  A few things come to mind. 
First, it's not a great sign if establishment party officials have to dig around for evidence to support their candidate and the best they can come up with is copy from a campaign site.  That's not likely to convince an incredulous voter.
Second, it's some hard evidence that the Speaker constantly missing these small forums across the state is something people notice.  It does impact their decision making.  And, it might prove fatal particularly if this contest heads to a run-off. 
Third, when combined with recent polling data, this anecdote is just one more data point that shows the Speaker has a real problem with at least a portion of the conservative NCGOP base. 
Recent polling by Public Policy Polling and Survey USA shows a consistent theme.  In the GOP primary, there seems to be a strong vein of “anybody but Tillis” in the likely electorate.  Even though Thom Tillis enjoys high name recognition among the GOP faithful, raises more money from deep pocketed sources, and possesses the support of the national GOP establishment, he has been unable to break away from the pack in these polls.  
The combined totals for the other candidates double the Speaker’s totals with a large contingent of undecideds still in the mix.  These other candidates regularly campaign to the right of the Speaker, so their combined totals have significance – especially if this contest heads into a run-off.

The Tillis Campaign has been relatively cautious by not aggressively attacking his primary opponents.  He'll need their supporters if he is ultimately the GOP candidate.  However, there is another tidbit in these polls that shows winning over some of these folks may be an uphill climb no matter what.

Most of these polls also asked about head to head match ups against Kay Hagan. In all of them that did, there is a strong "anybody but Hagan" block - averaging around 40% to 45% of the general election population.  However, among the leading GOP candidates, Thom Tillis is the one who more often trails Hagan in head to head match ups. (Hagan bests Tillis in 2 of the 3 polls) In the most recent PPP poll he is the only Republican from the entire GOP field trailing Hagan.  All of these are within the margin of error, but that consistency in trailing Hagan may indicate that the Speaker is not carrying all of the "anybody but Hagan" block.

Finally, there is evidence that all of this is getting to the establishment, and they are beginning to react.  The most obvious example is Governor McCrory's recent endorsement/non-endorsement of the Speaker to the Washington Post.  Governor McCrory called Tillis the "most viable" Republican to take on Hagan.  (Note: McCrory splits hairs and doesn't call this an endorsement.  Readers can decide for themselves.)  The poll numbers say otherwise, and the Governor is certainly entitled to his opinion like everyone else.  However, there are two problems with this endorsement.

What happens if the Speaker is ultimately not the GOP candidate?  How does the Governor believably support the Republican nominee when he's on record saying someone else was the "most viable"?  McCrory's endorsement actually hurts the general election GOP candidate if the nominee is not Tillis.  The Hagan campaign will have a field day with that.

Also, it's questionable how much a McCrory endorsement helps Tillis with the most conservative in the GOP base for the primary.  Many conservatives have the same problems with the Governor that they have with the Speaker.

Add to that, comments like the recent one from NC Senator Bob Rucho (R-Meck) saying the establishment money will only follow Tillis in the general and not the other GOP hopefuls, and you might begin to think the establishment only cares about getting their guy elected. Sabotaging other GOP candidates in the general is an acceptable price to pay in the attempt to win the primary. 

That's something to remember the next time you hear demands for party unity above all else.

Buckle up!  The next month of this campaign could get bumpy.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Fear and Loathing on the Road to the NCSEN Primary

"The stage lay set in a perfectly diabolical manner.  All the pieces were in place. 

The pesky media stood docilely outside - locked out by having the event in a church.  A similar tactic worked well when the mafia needed to meet away from the prying eyes of law enforcement - using their doctors' and lawyers' offices to gain a certain freedom to conduct business.   If a tactic like that worked for them, why not for a political party convention?

The plan for the new rules change had been kept secret and hidden like an assassin's poison ready to do it's ugly work.  The snake-oil salesmen rehearsed their pitches well to ensure it was taken in by the audience with ease - ready to spin anyone brave enough to try and talk some sense into the crowd. 

A sense of F.E.A.R. - False Evidence Appearing Real - permeated the room."

Channeling Hunter S Thompson and picturing a large, free-flowing vat of electric cool-aid provides the best way to make sense of what happened last Saturday at the MeckGOP convention after reading this piece by Christian Hine over at

Rule 19(a) as passed by the latest MeckGOP convention effectively eliminates issue-based resolutions at the county convention.  This comes on the heals of the unanimous issue based resolution against HOT lanes at last year's convention.  The rule will likely become a divisive lightning rod in future conventions as one can picture grassroots activists repeatedly trying (and failing) to get a supermajority to override the rule and pass resolutions on the hottest issues of the day.  It's hard to fathom why local GOP leaders truly thought this rule was a good idea.  It will do nothing but drive a deeper wedge between establishment and tea party type grassroots activists.

The only answer that makes any sense is F.E.A.R.  The local GOP establishment seems to have fallen into the trap laid by fear - believing in the falsehoods that conflict equates to weakness, that anything but total unanimity of opinion leads to failure.  The reality will be just the opposite.

After what happened on Saturday, how do establishment Republicans expect to say with a straight face that all factions should support the eventual nominee for US Senate - their assumption of course being that the nominee will be Speaker Thom Tillis.  This rule change effectively says "we do not want to hear your opinion."  Passing it in the way it was done - without significant early notice - says "dirty pool" is Ok. 

With Mecklenburg having the 2nd largest number of Republicans in the state, this was a terribly risky maneuver by the MeckGOP to achieve effectively nothing of value. This rule plays right into the problem outlined in this piece nearly a year ago - making it much harder to repair any damage after the primary season is over.  If Republicans lose the US Senate race, regardless of who the nominee turns out to be, it will be actions like this that are to blame as much as anything else.

By comparison, at Monday night's WakeGOP convention leaders seemed more inclined to do the right thing in the face of a possibly less than favorable outcome for the establishment.  Wake is the largest GOP county in the state.  They did a straw poll (something the MeckGOP also avoided) and they let the chips fall where they may.

Here are the results: Brannon 45%, Tillis 33%, Harris 20%, all others 2%.

They were not overcome by F.E.A.R.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Town of Davidson Plans to Lower Taxes Next Budget Cycle Due to Improved Mi-Connection Financial Situation

In light of the recent volatile negotiations between Viacom and local cable operators like Mi-Connection, town officials have decided to let Viacom channels be removed from the cable system altogether while keeping rates unchanged.  Acknowledging that negotiating with those nasty private sector companies is HARD, town officials did point out an upside to this plan.

This plan will dramatically improve EBITDA for MiC by lowering costs while keeping revenue unchanged.  The net result will reduce the subsidies required from the town going forward to prop up the local cable operation.  This will allow the Town of Davidson to lower taxes with the "windfall of new revenue" from not having to pay as much subsidy.

As the only comment regarding the negative impact to Davidson families for losing channels like Nickelodeon and Nick Jr one official who wished to remain anonymous said  "Can't the kids all watch Disney or something?

In light of all the local April Fools stories about draining LKN, a parking deck on the Town Green, and Commissioner Graham building a 12 story appartment tower, we wanted to get in on the act.  As tense negotiations with content providers become the norm for MiC, hopefully, we don't all wake up one day with this scenario and logic being actual reality.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

After bumpy week on the campaign trail, MeckGOP Convention looms for Team Tillis

Last week was maybe the roughest PR week yet for the Tillis Campaign in the run-up to the May 6th primary for the US Senate race.  How well he bounces back will be interesting to watch.  Here are the highlights of what went down:
  • Wednesday, the Harris Campaign released results of an internal push poll.  The "poll" shows that when "character" questions are raised about Thom Tillis, he falls from 1st place to 3rd behind Harris and Greg Brannon.  Regardless of the source, or the probable flaws in the sampling technique of a campaign's internal poll, or the hypocrisy of using unethical push polling to question another candidate's character, these results do show that raising these questions does very negatively impact the results for the Speaker.
  • Thursday saw the rise of a story about Thom Tillis's college education history.  The story was broken by TalkingPointsMemo website.  It pointed out multiple occasions both on websites and in interviews where the Speaker's college credentials were incorrectly stated as being from University of Maryland at College Park (the flagship of the Maryland system) rather than University of Maryland University College (a primarily online college).  The Tillis campaign brushed this off as a simple mistake (and it very well may be), but it plays right into the vein of  questioning that the Harris poll was attacking.
  • Finally, on Friday Thom Tillis's old opponent for the NC98 legislative seat - John Rhodes - unloaded a barrage of ethical questions about the Speaker from Cornelius Town Hall.  Tillis supporters dismiss this as nothing but sour grapes by an old political foe, but again it plays right into Harris's argument. 
Obviously a rough week no campaign wants to repeat.

Against this backdrop, Mecklenburg Republicans head to their County Convention this coming Saturday.  At last year's convention, delegates unanimously passed a resolution against HOT Lanes - one of the Speaker's signature "achievements".  See MeckGOP Raises the Political Stakes for HOT Lanes Supporters for the details on the events a year ago.  Somewhat ironically, HOT Lanes are once again in the local news as the final proposals for the project are scheduled to be submitted at the end of this month.  How this issue plays out at this year's MeckGOP convention will be fun to watch   as candidates use their opposition to the plan as something to distinguish themselves or have to defend against their support for it.

Then there will, maybe, probably not be the straw poll. (See update below)

Greg Brannon and Mark Harris have each racked up wins in straw polls at these conventions across the state.  Speaker Tillis won big recently in a straw poll in Lincoln County but did less well in a closer victory at the Iredell County GOP Convention.

Straw polls often don't mean much.  They are made up only of strong partisans and activists.  They aren't representative of the whole political party - much less the general electorate.  Their main value is in the crowing that can be done by the victor.  However, the importance of Mecklenburg's might be different.  Mecklenburg County has the second largest number of Republicans in the state.  (Wake has the most.)  Mecklenburg is also home to two of the top candidates - Mark Harris and Thom Tillis.  How Mecklenburg goes could very well determine the outcome of this primary.  Reading the tea leaves on any data point - even one like a straw poll - could provide some important insights.

For Thom Tillis there's no real upside to a MeckGOP straw poll - only downside risk.  If Tillis wins big, the other candidates can brush it off as 'expected' in the Speaker's home county.  However, if Tillis does not win big, that will be trumpeted by his opponents as a real sign of vulnerability.  With Mark Harris also calling Mecklenburg home, he should do well.  Greg Brannon has a strong following among the local Tea Party crowd - a group that goes to conventions and votes.

There was a real effort last year by those running the convention to minimize the impact of the unanimous vote against the HOT Lanes the Speaker supports.  It wouldn't be surprising to see similar efforts around a straw poll this Saturday. 

The best outcome for the Speaker is to not even have one.

Bonus Observation: After doubling down on the "character" line of attack this week, it seems safe to say the Harris Campaign is in it to win it.  This should dispel the notion that he's nothing but a stalking horse for Thom Tillis. See Tillis accuses Harris of 'going negative' and Harris fires back.

Update: Word has been received that there likely will not be a straw poll at tomorrow's convention.  Apparently, Mecklenburg typically does not have them regularly at this event.  Smaller counties regularly have them, but apparently larger ones sometimes do not.  However, GOP straw polls in large counties do have recent precedent during Federal election years.  Wake County, the largest GOP county in the state, had one at their 2012 convention.  The MeckGOP also had one at its 2012 countywide precinct meeting.  In fact, google searches show all of the top five GOP counties having some form of straw poll at some form of party event during 2012.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Some dubious sign location choices by the Bradford Campaign

Campaign signs began popping up this weekend, and John Bradford's campaign for NC House 98 found some interesting locations in Davidson.  Interesting for their boldness as well as the less than likely odds of them lasting very long.  Were they chosen to make a point?  Or were they just placed by someone without much experience placing campaign signs in Davidson?

Here are a few fine examples:

In front of River Run...this one might survive..a while.

Sign at Davdison Concord Rd Roundabout
(Give this one another day before it's picked up by Public Works)

Sign removed from the edge of
Davidson's Town Green
by Town Manger Leamon Brice
(This poor sign had no chance at all.)

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Davidson Needs a PILOT Program

After what can best be described as an act of high-dollar "NIMBYism", The Pines has shown the real need for a PILOT program here in Davidson.

As reported in, last week The Pines purchased the neighboring 31 acre Chartwell estate which was likely to be developed into a "high-density" development under the town's Village Infill zoning designation.  That's something the Pines did not want, and they were willing to pay to prevent it.  Rather than let the property develop and bring additional revenue to the town, The Pines had different ideas about who should benefit from the property as stated in its announcement posted along with the story.  See the below excerpt as an example.  (The previous owners were there Fishbacks.)

"In order to assure that the Fishback Property is maintained and would someday be used in a way that meets the best interests of The Pines and its current and future residents, The Pines purchased the Fishback Property from the developer for a purchase price of $2,837,500."

What exact form development of the Chartwell property would have taken is just speculation, but most certainly any development would have brought significantly increased tax revenues to the town and would have met the town goals to increase density in areas walkable to the town center.  The Chartwell estate currently generates about $12,000/year in taxes for the town.  The Pines purchase will take it off the books as The Pines is a non-profit organization.  However, the $12k/year is just a drop in the bucket when compared to the various possibilities if the property was developed.

The below chart outlines various development scenarios for the 31 acres off of Avinger lane.  It includes current development, various development scenarios as 2 acre lots, and development as higher end town homes with roughly 50% open space.  The three single-family lot scenarios are presented based on the values of several nearby properties that are roughly 2 acres a piece.

What the above chart shows is that The Pines just cost the Town of Davidson much more than the current $12,000 per year in taxes.  The true opportunity cost to the town is more likely somewhere in the range of $50-$100k per year.  That's real money for a town that has huge subsidies for Mi-Connection on its books, the highest tax rates in the area when compared to neighboring towns, and a need for a new fire station looming in our near future.

Add this to the recent cost of adding CHS as another tax exempt major land owner as well as the perpetual cost to the town from the College, and you have the makings of a real problem for our town.  Currently, Davidson receives Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) payments from the College and the Pines.  However, the town receives nothing from CHS.  Also, the amounts paid are wildly inconsistent based on the services received.
  • Davidson College PILOT - $62,500
  • The Pines PILOT- $106,000 ($8000 is designated to the Fire Department, $20,566 goes to Solid Waste Fund to pay for trash collection pick-up)
  • Carolinas Healthcare System PILOT - $0.00
A solution to this problem is available.  A model does exist that encourages non-profits to pay their fair share for the benefits they receive.  The City of Boston implemented a formal PILOT program and in FY2013 received a 53% increase in payments over what had been received in FY2011. It has been a huge success in getting major non-profits to pay their fair share toward the expenses they incur for the City.  Here are some highlights of the program.
  • It is aimed only at major non-profits, not smaller organizations.  In Davidson that would mean only CHS, The Pines, and Davidson College - not, Ada Jenkins, churches, or any of the smaller operations like the Davidson Cornelius Child Development Center.
  • It accounts for both cash and intangible benefits these large non-profits provide the municipality. 
  • It provides a transparent formula for non-profits and local government to operate under when it comes to PILOT payments.  It removes one-off side deals from the picture which is good for both sides of this situation.  The government is not in the position of negotiating with multiple entities, and the non-profits can not be accused of receiving favorable treatment which is bad for their image.
Rather than spending the next year looking at if there's a need for a program, or how other town's handle this situation, Davidson's Town Board should immediately direct the Town of Davidson Staff  to contact the City of Boston for some real-world feedback on this type of program and begin implementing something similar here based on their proven model.  The wrong option here is to continue letting major non-profits take advantage of the town by buying up property and continuing to not cover the costs of basic services like police and fire protection.