On Enacting False Economies

Claiming to protect the public’s purse is always great politics, at least in some quarters. Actually doing so requires considerable thought and homework, but grandstanding is cheap and makes for great sound bites in an election season. And thus, it is often silly season not only in Congress, but in many of America’s state legislatures.

I say this because a legislative alert from the Illinois chapter of the American Planning Association (APA), of which I have been a member for decades, turned my attention to an attempt in three pending bills to prohibit (HB4246) the use of local government funds “for expenses connected with attendance by an employee or contractor of the unit of local government at a convention or gathering of personnel.” HB4247 disallows spending on “access to physical space for booths, hospitality suites, or other physical space” at such events. All three bills, HB4246, 4247, and 4248, create the Local Government Convention Expense Control Act, sponsored by Rep. David McSweeney, a Republican conservative from the collar counties north of Chicago. A quick check on McSweeney in Wikipedia illustrates a history of such initiatives, some of which may make sense, but this one is clearly a case of tossing out the baby with the bath water. That said, he has a number of co-sponsors including some Democrats.

I have no problem with appropriate limits on the ways in which public funds are used for conventions and conferences. Public money clearly should be used for sensible and responsible purposes at such events. But I have attended and presented at dozens of professional conferences involving local and state government professionals all across the United States, and I have yet to see anything highly or even mildly inappropriate. When such outrages do occur, they tend to find their way into mass media coverage that goes viral, and heads roll, but such incidents are extremely rare, which raises the question of the necessity of the proposed legislation.

There is a reason for professional conferences that involves an intelligent use of public money. If we can at least accept the notion that we want our professional public servants—planners, financial officers, civil engineers, transit officials, and others—to be well informed and up to date on best practices in their fields—then there is a solid argument for affording them the opportunity to attend professional conferences at which they can attend sessions and workshops and learn. What they bring back to their jobs enhances the service they provide on their jobs.

In my own role, I was usually speaking or attending as an employee of a national nonprofit professional association, APA, most of whose members work in the public sector. Many of the rest are consultants, professors, or land-use attorneys, but there are numerous special niches in which people find useful employment. I did not attend state or regional conferences for urban planners, floodplain mangers, and other professional groups for the social opportunities. I can think of much better forums for enhancing that aspect of my life. I was typically either trying to learn something that would make me a better manager for the research and training projects I was leading, or because I was presenting information in a session or as a keynote speaker. Urban planning, for example, is a rapidly evolving field of practice. Being denied access to the networking and learning opportunities afforded by such gatherings is a blow to the professionalism of the dedicated public servants who work for local government. The alternative—to say that they must spend their own money to attend, which some do anyway—is to drive the best of them away from the public sector to firms that offer such opportunities as a means of maintaining a top-flight staff. It is as much a question in job interviews as compensation or prospects for advancement.

Let me offer a couple of minor examples to make my point. Just three years ago, I attended the Illinois APA conference to present findings from a national study APA’s Hazards Planning Center had completed with support from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) on planning for post-disaster recovery. Sharing the podium for the session was Jon Oliphant, the planning director of Washington, Illinois, a Peoria suburb, which was struck by an EF-4 tornado in November 2013. He complimented my presentation with real-life details of the rebuilding experience in Washington since that event. For the people in that room, many of whom had not experienced a similar disaster in their own communities, but worried about the day they might, it would be hard to replicate the value of being able to hear all this first-hand and to “kick the tires” by asking questions of the panel. The modest expense of attending that two-day conference, within driving distance for many registrants, must be weighed against the considerable value of the knowledge and insights they gained from not only that session but many others they undoubtedly attended while there. The same could largely be said whether the topic is stormwater drainage, public finance, or economic development. If many people later exchanged business cards over drinks and snacks at a reception (typically sponsored by exhibitors), so what? In most cases, in my experience, it was an opportunity to chew over and compare impressions of what they had heard and discussed throughout the day.

In another example, Chad Berginnis, the executive director of the Association of State Floodplain Managers, and I tag-teamed an opening keynote for the Illinois Association for Floodplain and Stormwater Management. Our topic was a forthcoming report, also supported by FEMA, on subdivision design and flood hazard areas. How do we better design and review new developments to minimize or avoid damage from floods? The annual losses from poor handling of this issue can easily exceed any costs associated with anyone’s attendance at that event. It is important that our planners, engineers, and floodplain managers be aware of current best practices in this field. Impoverishing access of such public employees to professional education simply weakens the expertise and knowledge base of the people a city employees.

Simply put, if we are going to insist that public employees do their jobs well, we need to do two things. One, which is the diametrical opposite of what bills like these would achieve (and such proposed legislation is hardly limited to Illinois), is to ensure that our public servants have meaningful opportunities to improve their skills, to say nothing of meeting continuing education requirements for professional certification in their fields. The other is to insist that legislators do their own jobs by making an honest effort to determine whether their proposed legislation helps enrich the quality of service these employees can offer or is a simplistic smoke screen for being too intellectually lazy to undertake an honest evaluation of the true impact of their proposals. I repeat: This is yet another case of throwing the baby out with the bath water. It offers false economies that undermine the value of public service. Taxpayers do not gain; they lose.

Jim Schwab

The High Cost of Indifference

As a young man from a blue-collar family, I partially worked my way through college during the summers at a chemical company near Cleveland that employed my father as a truck mechanic. If there is one thing I learned at the time, it was the value of safety and industrial hygiene. The first summer I was there, we college students were rotated through various departments to fill in for men on vacation. One produced cuprous chloride, where I learned that not keeping a gas mask on would quickly make you dead. Others produced chemicals that produced itches and rashes if you were not careful, and in one I fractured my left ankle when an antimony kiln tipped over. I could go on, but the point is simple: Safety matters.

That theme, however, does not yet seem to be official gospel in Texas. I don’t want to issue a blanket indictment here, because I know some state officials probably want things to be different, but they don’t seem to hold the reins of power. Those who do hold those reins prefer a state that boldly advertises its lack of regulations. They see them as impediments to attracting business. The fact that enlightened businesses have often supported environmental, safety, and public health reforms seems not to affect their point of view.

I am offering this perspective now because the Texas State Fire Marshal’s Office in the past week released a long-awaited Firefighter Fatality Investigation, which it was legally required to produce, and issued a number of recommendations for improvements that could save lives in the future. The study was the result of the explosion in a fertilizer storage facility in West, Texas, on April 17, 2013.

Earlier this spring, I was asked to serve on an expert panel on planning and land use for the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB), a federal agency created in 1999 to investigate chemical and hazards materials accidents. It was one of two panels organized for a hearing in West, Texas, on April 22, a little more than one year after the incident in which a fertilizer storage facility exploded, killing 15 people, two-thirds of them fire fighters. The explosive material was ammonium nitrate, which has a history of such accidents and was also the material used by Timothy McVeigh in the bombing of the Murrah Federal Office Building in Oklahoma City in 1995. The CSB is still working on a report documenting its findings about the incident in West, and I do not wish to comment on or explore the issues that require more technical and scientific investigation to determine precisely what happened.

But there are issues about which I learned that I find troubling on the surface, even without the help of that ongoing investigation. For one, Texas law prohibits counties of fewer than 250,000 residents, unless they are adjacent to a county of 250,000 or more, from adopting a fire code. This is somewhat in line with the fact that Texas also has never bestowed zoning authority on its counties, rendering them powerless to influence land use outside incorporated municipalities (which have their own authority). This was one subject of inquiry by the board at the evening hearing, which lasted four hours, but even the state fire marshal, sitting just to my left on the same panel, could offer no explanation for the origins or rationale of that prohibition. He merely indicated at one point that obviously, as a fire marshal, he would rather not see such restrictions. Nonetheless, over the past year since the explosion, and despite ongoing investigation of such issues by the Dallas Morning-News, there is no sign of movement from Gov. Rick Perry’s office on changing the law. There are indications from Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who apparently prefers a different approach. Good for him. And for St. Rep. Joe Pickett of El Paso, who chairs the Texas House Committee on Homeland Security and Public Safety, who also favors reexamining such issues.

The issue is not simply the usual question of unfunded (or even funded) state mandates. I have followed state planning legislation for years, and about half require local communities to prepare comprehensive plans (also known as master or general plans), to one degree or another, sometimes distinguishing on the basis of community size or some other factor. About ten of those, in one form or another, require communities to include in those plans an element addressing natural or other hazards. The rest of the states have permissive legislation, which grants local governments the authority to undertake planning and zoning without requiring it. It is easy enough to understand why some states are more reluctant than others to impose such a mandate, and similar distinctions between mandating and permitting apply to issues like building and fire codes. What is hard to justify, however, unless one believes in libertarianism run amok, is actually prohibiting such regulation at the local level or denying such authority. In fact, only Texas, to my knowledge, has in place the prohibitions I have described. And I simply do not understand why a state sees it in the public interest to bar counties, in this instance, from adopting safety codes with regard to fire prevention. Whose interests are served by this?

It turns out that McLennan County, where West is located, and whose county seat is Waco, does not have a fire code. Moreover, the fire fighters who died had not been trained in the handling of ammonium nitrate, a substance with a notorious history of unpredictable behavior. The hearing included discussion of the need for more and better research on that point, and for better understanding of this chemical’s behavior, in order to prevent future incidents like the explosion in West. All of that is wise and appropriate.

But there are things the state of Texas can fix now, if only it moved beyond its regulatory myopia to see the larger public safety issues that transcend the simplistic notion that regulation necessarily inhibits job creation. That is a dubious premise in any event, but it also begs the question of what price must be paid to create jobs when brave men like the volunteer fire fighters who responded to the blaze in West must pay the ultimate price just to satisfy such ideological predilections. And what jobs remain at West Fertilizer now? The event is a major setback to economic development in a small town like West, and it will take time to heal.

The Fire Marshal’s report includes some recommendations and conclusions that I find perfectly sensible. It notes, for one thing, that Texas has not adopted minimum training standards for volunteer fire departments. That alone would not be a bad place to start, along with the need for local fire codes. The report states, “The Texas Legislature should consider allowing all counties to adopt a fire code.” The report also notes the lack of a local plan to address hazardous materials, noting that standard procedure for residential or even most industrial incidents is inadequate for dealing with a facility like West Fertilizer.

Let me close by adding that West, judging from my admittedly brief visit, is a pleasant town that deserves better. I learned from a building sign next to the hearing site that West was the hometown of Scott Podsednik, an All-Star member of the 2005 Chicago White Sox team that won the World Series. It has an interesting Czech heritage that caused several people to urge me to visit the Czech Stop, a bakery just off northbound I-35 that sells what I now consider the best kolaches anywhere, as well as a very nice, engaging staff. And it has a mayor, Tommy Muska, who is banging on doors in Austin for answers to some of these urgent questions. I hope he and his town find some. At least then, the destruction of dozens of nearby homes, schools, and a nursing home will not have been in vain.


Jim Schwab