2010 in Review: Bad news and more bad news



We're tempted to say good riddance, but hey, there were some fantastic moments in 2010, even if, in general, things kind of sucked. Or maybe we just think so 'cause our gravity bong shattered on the basement rug and we were grumpy.

We found ourselves, for a good stretch there, in some strange alternative universe where the Pacers win and Colts lose. Where Tea Partiers made the Mad Hatter seem sane. And then there all those tweets from Jim Irsay, threatening to overwhelm all the other news stories we think are important. Read on to revisit some of the more alarming headlines of the year.

Cap and degrade

On Nov. 2, Hoosiers voted for a lot of empty suits, a few hucksters, the odd double-talker, some rich white guys and a lot of politics-as-usual. But politicians come and go – or, in Dan Coats' case, come, then go to become a lobbyist and make lots of money peddling political influence, then come again. But we digress.

What won't come and go, presumably until hell freezes over, is the property tax cap enshrined by Hoosiers in the state constitution by popular referendum. And the caps were, indeed, popular. Property assessments had been lax around the state for a generation, and home and business owners had continued paying taxes based on assessments that were, in many cases, decades old. Suddenly, many property owners were paying several times what they had just paid a year before. Who could blame them for wanting a break?

If we must we must. Because the truth is, the vote and the political opportunism behind property tax caps in Indiana were terribly shortsighted.

Joanne Sanders, minority leader of the Indianapolis City-County Council, has rightly noted that, already, "property tax caps have decimated local government budgets." This is true, as millions of dollars in budget cuts to Indy libraries (see below) and public safety departments have already demonstrated since 2009, when the caps were installed on a temporary basis. Further budget shortfalls are already looming for buses, some school funds, emergency communication services and the Health and Hospital Corporation of Marion County, each of which is tied to property tax revenues. In an economy where real estate values continue to slump and foreclosures remain high, more cuts seem imminent.

That's bad enough now. But the permanence of the caps is scariest. Though the caps are now a statewide law, it's local and municipal budgets that have always relied upon property tax revenue to keep their counties, cities and towns running. The state law effectively ties the hands of those smaller governments, who know better than the state which potholes need patching, which fire trucks need hoses. Because it's in the constitution, repealing the law would require two votes in the Statehouse and another referendum. Again, when hell freezes over.

C. Kurt Zorn, professor of public and environmental affairs at Indiana University Bloomington and former chairman of the State Board of Tax Commissioners, called the idea of making property tax caps a part of the constitution "flat-out awful policy" and a "poor substitute for the legislature and the executive branch governing correctly." We can't help but agree.

Bad cop, bad cop

By the time cops were reprimanded earlier this month by the Citizens Police Complaint Board for kicking the shit out of then-15-year-old Brandon Johnson, it hardly mattered who was right and who was wrong. The damage had already been done, and not just to Johnson's face.

The complaint board's ruling was a kid-sized Band-Aid on an adult-sized arterial wound after the kind of year Indy police had – not least of all because Officer Jerry Piland, the officer accused of using excessive force, had already been reinstated by the Civilian Police Merit Board.

The Indianapolis Star did the math for us back in August: some 27 cases of alleged police misconduct between then and April 2008. Lowlights included more excessive force, prostitutes, sexual misconduct, drug-trafficking and, probably worst of all, the death of 30-year-old motorcyclist Eric Wells, who was killed whilst stopped at a traffic light by on-duty Officer David Bisard, whom early blood tests indicated was drunk at about twice the legal limit. Two other motorcyclists were seriously injured.

Marion County Prosecutor Carl Brizzi threw out the blood test evidence on a technicality, and investigations revealed one layer of obfuscation after another, exposing a culture of corruption that ran deeper than just a few bad apples. Mayor Ballard and Public Safety Director Frank Straub have worked hard at damage control since then and implemented some laudable reform measures. But they still have a lot of work to do.

Indy on the auction block

You might be broke. But big business had an outstanding year in 2010, as city and state officials (and the law firms that control them) gave over one public asset after another to corporate hands.

It started with a hangover from last year: millions in expenses – from federal penalties to legal fees – associated with last year's botched attempt by Mitch Daniels to privatize social welfare services – part of a $1.16 billion deal with IBM and Affiliated Computer Services (ACS), a Xerox-owned company based in Dallas.

Then, this summer, Mayor Ballard gave $33.5 million to the Indiana Pacers, a franchise that hadn't turned a profit in years, under the vague and not-particularly-credible threat that the Simons, who own the Pacers, would pull up stakes and leave. Meanwhile, libraries were under threat of closing, and millions from public safety budgets were getting slashed.

We all wondered where the city's priorities lay. We "wondered" rhetorically, that is, since the answer was pretty damn clear.

That was just the tip of the champagne ice sculpture. Led by deputy mayor for economic development, Michael Huber, a former Daniels staffer, the mayor's office proceeded to sell the city's water and sewer facilities to Citizens Energy Group this summer (still awaiting approval by the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission). The water sale had its merits. Utilities would be held in a public charitable trust, which meant private shareholders couldn't fleece the city for profits, and Citizens, which already ran the city gas, was a locally-based company, willing to sink $425 million back into the city and take on the city's $1.5 billion in related debt. In exchange, Indy loses a good deal of control over its water assets.


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