Post #520: Converting fraud to good government

Posted on January 29, 2020
source:  Image courtesy of Vectorstock

My wife tells me that some people object to my use of the word “fraud” in a recent posting (Post #515, but Post #446 does a better job of explaining the issue).  Fair enough.  If everybody is happy about what I write, I’m doing something wrong.

In this post, I’m going to explain how I got to that point.  Briefly, a year and a half ago, I was just sincerely trying to make sense of puzzling behavior by the Town w/r/t the Mill Street garage.  But as the Town’s claims got nuttier, I amped up the rhetoric correspondingly.

I’m going to end this post with a suggestion that would guarantee that this entire taxpayer-financed transaction is above-board, with no hint of fraud.  This suggestion would be cheap and easy to do.  It embodies the essence of good government.  And I am quite sure the Town will never, ever do it.

My suggestion:  Monitor the outcome.  That is, measure and report on Metro commuters’ actual use of these garages, once they are built.  I’m not even saying that the Town should give the money back if it turns out that this was a fraud mistake.  I’m just saying that the funding agencies should demand to know how effective their spending was, at achieving the stated goal of creating a commuter garage.  And if it turns out that this was a complete waste of money from their perspective, then at least they will learn something.  With luck, they will know better the next time somebody tries to pull the same scam make the same implausible argument.

Caution:  high horse ahead.  We can tolerate the occasional wasteful spending decision by a local government entity (NVTA or NVTC).  But we shouldn’t tolerate willful ignorance about the level of waste.  Instead, we should require that these government entities acknowledge and learn from their mistakes.  Just like any real business.  And that feedback loop needs to be built into the system.  And so, anyone receiving tax funding to build a “Metro commuter” garage ought to be required to provide an accurate measurement of the extent to which Metro commuters actually use it.  That’s all I’m saying.  I hope that makes sense.

Some history on this issue

I’ve been trying to make sense of the Town’s actions in this area for more than a year and a half.  That’s when I first found out just exactly how the Town had convinced the NVTA to fund half of the (now defunct) Mill Street garage (see this post dating to June 2018).

I was such a do-bee *, **, *** on this that I actually researched and developed a suggestion for how that garage might best serve Vienna commuters (as the basis for a slug line).  That’s how hard I was trying to make sense of this, at that time.

* Sadly, I find myself sincerely and without irony quoting Romper Room.  Youngsters in the readership here (meaning, anyone under about 60 or so) will have no idea what I’m talking about.  Think of it as reactionary propaganda — religious, patriotic, and social — aimed at the most vulnerable and gullible segment of the population, broadcast over the public airwaves.  It was as if  Sesame Street had been conceived by the John Birch Society.  Clearly, it succeeded at its insidious task, as I will probably remember the phrase “Do be a do-bee, and don’t be a don’t-bee” long after I’ve forgotten the names of my children. 

** This “do-bee/don’t-be” dichotomy is a widely-used method for embedding conventional social norms in literature aimed at young children.  For example, it was later adopted by children’s author Richard Scarry in his classic religious propaganda Busy Town series.  There, the (presumed) brothers Pig Will and Pig Won’t take the place of the gender-neutral Do Bee and Don’t Be, and are repeatedly used to demonstrate behaviors deemed socially acceptable and unacceptable, respectively.   By portraying Good and Evil in a concrete fashion, such authors directly impress their notions of right and wrong onto their target audience.  The sincerity of these characters (as propaganda tools aimed at the vulnerable pre-school popoulation) should be contrasted to the frankly tongue-in-cheek Angel/Devil imagery aimed at older, more rational children, such as the shoulder angel/shoulder devil debate in the animated classic “The Emperor’s New Groove“.

*** Upon close examination, other characters in Scarry’s “Busy Town” series were even more disturbing.  For example, the town butcher was portrayed as a pig, and yet had clearly identifiable hams hanging in his shop window.  I still wonder what message the author had in mind with that.

For the Mill Street garage, the Town only pretended that half the spaces would be for commuter use, and only asked for half the money to build the garage.

But in later iterations, for the proposed Patrick Henry garage, the Town’s story grew more absurd.  When the Town applied to the NVTA for money, it proposed that 100% of the spaces be used by commuters, prompting me to write my “absurdum” post (Post #446).  My point being that if this actually worked out as the Town suggested — if all the spaces were in fact used by commuters — then the garage would do the Town no good.  There’d be no spaces left for its actual use, which is to provide shopper/diner parking for local merchants.   But by saying that 100% of spaces would be used by commuters, it could then ask for 100% of the cost of the garage to be covered.

And in this most recent round (applying to NVTC for money), the Town is proposing that fewer spaces be used by commuters, but it’s still asking for 100% of the cost of the garage to be covered.

My guess is, the request that 100% of costs be covered is driven by our capital budget, where the Town is planning to borrow and spend vastly more in this year’s cycle than it has ever done in the past.  So much so that it had to assume the Patrick Henry garage would be “free” in order to get the numbers to work out (e.g., Post #488, Post #504).

Now, with that as perspective, surely you can put that all together the same way I have.  So far, the Town has done the following:

  • Claimed that half of one garage, on Mill Street, would be used by Metro commuters, and asked for 50% of the cost of that garage to be covered.
  • When the Mill Street garage fell through, blithely moved the money for that, to a different proposed garage on Church street, where the money would cover 59% of the garage.
  • Claimed that 100%, of a different, larger garage (Patrick Henry) would be used by Metro commuters, and asked for 100% of that garage to be covered.
  • Claimed that some smaller share (?) of spaces (certainly, a smaller count of spaces) would be used by commuters, in that same garage, and still asked for 100% of the cost of the garage to be covered.

This is in a Town that, prior to this, has done very close to nothing for Metro commuters.  (Well, they built bus shelters, starting back in 1977.  But not a lot, lately, for sure.)  And a Town where, if people were of a mind to park and catch a bus to Metro, there are copious opportunities for street parking right now (detailed in Post #447)****.

**** “… I count at least the following residential areas, with street-side parking, within walking distance of a bus stop for the 463 Fairfax Connector bus:  Kingsley-Meyers; Tapawingo; Roland-Mendon-Ceret; Moorefield-Princeton-Princess; Wade Hampton-Millwood-Glen; Pleasant; Berry; East; and virtually all the residential streets beyond East that connect to Maple.  That isn’t even counting the other bus routes that have some Metro connection.”

When I put that all together — the totally implausible story about commuting, the existing market test that shows people do not park/bus to Metro despite ample current opportunity, the repetition of the story for two different garages, and the morphing of the story over time — I come to the firm conclusion that the Town’s story is just that — a story.  It’s an untruth told for the purpose of achieving financial gain.  And that’s the definition of a fraud.

A simple fix:  Just come clean about the results

The introduction says pretty much all that needs to be said about this.  Given that nothing will dissuade the Town from doing this, and given that the Town has already gotten millions of dollars (for the Mill Street) garage with this story, it’s clear that this is the Town’s story and they are sticking with it.

My sole suggestion, then, is that the agencies providing the funding actually measure the effectiveness of their spending.  Require that the Town accurately count the number of parking spaces actually used by park-and-bus-to-Metro commuters.  This is the only way to close the loop, and force the funding agencies to admit what they have done — mis-spent funds that were intended for congestion relief, to give Vienna shopper/diner parking for local merchants.

Fill in your favorite aphorism here:

  • Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
  • Better late than never.
  • Experience is simply the name we give to our mistakes.

My point is that, like anyone else, governments need to learn from their mistakes.  And in the case of government, that feedback needs to be built into the system.

If you really don’t think the Town is committing fraud here, then there should be no objection to building in that feedback.  If we are proud of getting taxpayer funding in this fashion, we should be proud to measure the results and to make that measurement publicly known.