Corporate welfare is bleeding Indianapolis in the name of saving it. Just how long has it been since leeches were a medical treatment of choice?
Just within the past few years, a city that can't fix its streets or keep them safe has doled out nine figures, maybe 10 - no one can pretend to know the ultimate value - to wealthy and connected interests seeking to build or continue enterprises from which they expect profits in which the rest of us can only pray we will share.
Our leaders back loans for luxury apartments that banks shy away from, grant tax abatements for condos and retail as if that were not even real money, throw in city-owned land as if it amounted to so much dirt and treat professional sports as if it were a public amenity such as waterworks or schools.
Meanwhile, the might of city hall is brought down upon our poorest residents with the ugly but candid rationale that the presence of beggars will hurt us financially by offending the delicate sensibilities of tourists. No proof of that cold-hearted conclusion is offered or can be offered, any more than the cost-effectiveness of the various gold-plated giveaways can be plausibly estimated. Economic impact numbers from subsidized economic development and sporting extravaganzas are joke material for real journalists, candy for TV news.
The latest embarrassment, the 10-year, $160 million donation to billionaire Herb Simon's Indiana Pacers, is an unnecessary reminder to the taxpaying sports fan to be careful what he wishes for. Success on the field or court emboldens the beggars in the front office, who assure us pennant-wavers they'd hate to leave the city they love as much as the city that loves them would hate to see them take their winning ways elsewhere. As if there were an elsewhere left that would match the sweet deal the Pacers, like the Colts, have wrested from our hard-nosed negotiators in city hall.
We built the gorgeous state-of-the art fieldhouse and left the Pacers with the comparative pittance of operating cost. Whatever gratitude that may have induced faded over time, and several years ago the impoverished but agreeable Capital Improvement Board agreed to take over that cost as well. It was a stopgap, and we all knew the guys who sure would hate to leave would be back. Even though they ply their trade on our property, they don't have to prove to us that they really can't afford the 16 mil a year; they need only - vaguely - raise the threat of sticking the city with a show palace with 41-plus open dates every year.
We can sympathize with the mayor, the CIB and the City-County Council. They don't hold the cards. We can commiserate with Simon as well; $16 million a year will just about get you a decent power forward these days. He's got a hellacious payroll to meet, and thus far he and the NBA have yet to figure out how to make the doctors of dunk into civil service employees.
Maybe we should beat them to the punch. Maybe we've reached such a point of imbalance in private luxury gifts from a depleted and overwhelmed public treasury that we ought to consider buying the Pacers and all these other subsidized operations and running them as municipal agencies. We'd control the revenue streams about which we can only speculate, just as we would have with the waterworks and parking meters that will milk the citizenry ad aeternam now that the glittering up-front payments are long spent. Make everybody who's getting paid into a city employee so we can track his/her earnings and fire the slackers. Larry Bird might make an all-star deputy mayor.
Crazy idea, giving the city the business? Crazy, the saying goes, is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Somebody's been giving the city the business for decades; perhaps the rest of us, those who are closer to the panhandlers on the sidewalk than the dealers in the suites, should take a turn.
Dan Carpenter is a freelance writer, a contributor to Indianapolis Business Journal and the author of "Indiana Out Loud."