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    Tuesday
    May012018

    How Cities Fell Out of Love With Sports Stadiums

    Major league teams used to get everything they wanted from sports-mad cities. Now they have to fight for it -- and increasingly, they’re losing.
    BY  MAY 2018
    (AP)

    St. Louis is used to getting stood up by football teams. The city has been home to four different franchises, and all of them have left town. But the last two departures -- and especially the loss of the Rams to Los Angeles in 2016 -- have been gut-wrenching experiences that seem to have broken much of the city’s storied enthusiasm for sports.

    In 1987, St. Louis’ NFL team, the Cardinals, skipped town abruptly. Tired of the old Busch Memorial Stadium and increasingly indifferent fans, the team packed up after 27 years and headed for Arizona. The loss was a bitter one for St. Louis. But the city went after another NFL team with zeal. In the early 1990s, local officials had little trouble winning approval of a new downtown stadium funded entirely with taxpayer dollars. The city failed to win one of two NFL expansion teams awarded in 1993, but eventually it lured the Los Angeles Rams, who had their own problems with an ancient facility and a waning fan base. By 1995, the Rams were kicking off in downtown St. Louis.

    It was a time when other cities were making similar choices. The Maryland Stadium Authority built a new publicly funded football stadium in 1998 as a prize for the NFL team it had stolen away from Cleveland two years earlier. Cleveland, in response, built a taxpayer-funded stadium and won back an NFL franchise in 1999.

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    Thursday
    Mar012018

    The Public Startup Charting Bold New Waters

    Water utilities are struggling to lower their operation costs and simultaneously meet stricter environmental rules. Blue Drop, the brainchild of DC Water’s former leader, wants to help.
    BY  MARCH 2018
    Blue Drop hopes to turn wastewater into a revenue stream. (David Kidd)

    Most startups fail. Within the first four years, anywhere from 50 to 90 percent of firms go belly up. Investing in them is risky. It’s easy for things to go wrong.

    But Blue Drop LLC isn’t a typical startup. To begin with, there isn’t a hoodie or open-loft office to be found in its modest headquarters in downtown Washington, D.C. And the company’s lone investor, the public utility DC Water, hails from an extremely risk-averse sector.

    There’s something else unique about Blue Drop: A healthy portion of its revenue plan relies on selling truckloads of what used to be human poop.

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    Monday
    Oct022017

    Taxpayers Have Their Own Bill of Rights in Colorado. But Who Benefits?

    The unique anti-tax tool has defined spending in the state, and it may spread to more states.
    BY  OCTOBER 2017
    Anti-tax advocate Douglas Bruce led the TABOR effort in 1992. "No one has had the impact on Colorado politics" that he has, according to one academic in the state. (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)

    The blue tag on the streetlight outside Robert Loevy’s Colorado Springs home in 2010 didn’t signal an upcoming utility project. It was a receipt to show he had paid the $100 to keep his light on for the year. The city was facing a decimating $40 million budget gap and, among many other cuts, it was turning off one-third of its streetlights. That is, unless residents could come up with the money themselves. “I could afford to pay it,” Loevy says today, “but I have to think that would have been a stretch for many lower-income people.”

    Loevy, a retired Colorado College professor, says the lights-out incident -- which earned Colorado Springs international infamy that year -- is just one of the many instances in which Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR) has only benefited those taxpayers who can afford to pay for services out of their own pocket. Loevy has been a vocal critic of the law. As he sees it, “TABOR has had its worst effects on poor people.”

    TABOR was approved by Colorado voters 25 years ago next month. The constitutional amendment limits the state’s year-to-year revenue growth to a formula based on inflation plus the growth in population. If revenues exceed TABOR limits, the money has to be rebated to voters, unless they approve an increase in spending.

    Halfway across town, the author of TABOR holds a more cynical view of Colorado Springs’ recession-era cuts, which also included shuttering pools, terminating bus service on evenings and weekends and eliminating 550 municipal jobs. The deeply conservative Colorado Springs has its own TABOR that puts even more limitations on the city’s property tax rate. To Douglas Bruce, an anti-tax advocate who spearheaded the bill of rights effort in 1992 at the state level, the cuts were nothing more than a “publicity stunt” designed to fuel resentment against TABOR. “It confirmed my belief,” Bruce says, “that the people running city government are sadistic bastards.”

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    Friday
    Sep012017

    The Next Big Technology to Transform Government

    It's called blockchain. Some say it will have a bigger impact than the internet.
    BY  SEPTEMBER 2017
    (Shutterstock)

    Imagine this: Homeowners no longer need to buy title insurance. The chronology of ownership and claims for every piece of property in a jurisdiction are on an unhackable, constantly updated, always current ledger.

    Or this: Governments, companies and individuals can transfer funds from their banks to another bank or party instantly -- without any administrative holding period or fee.

    If these sound like future projects, they’re not. They’re both here-and-now developments using an underlying technology called blockchain. Cook County, Ill., is using it to build a land records ledger. Seven of Europe’s largest banks are buying into a blockchain that IBM is putting together for financial institutions. Beyond that, in the wake of questions about the security of voting systems during the 2016 presidential election, many believe blockchain technology will be the answer to securing future elections, allowing them to be audited in real time.

    Blockchain has been on a stealth course in government circles in recent months. At the 2016 conference of the National Association of State Chief Information Officers, nobody had blockchain on their priority list. This year, a NASCIO survey found that a majority of CIOs had begun investigating blockchain through informal discussions. In May, the group released a report calling it the “next big transformational technology” in government. “This is a very big deal. It’s so much more dramatic than [when the internet was launched],” says Eric Sweden, NASCIO’s program director for enterprise architecture and governance. “It’s going to have a huge impact on how we do business, accounting, auditing -- anything that has a data lineage to it.”

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    Tuesday
    Aug012017

    Legal or Not, States Forge Ahead With 401(k)-for-Everyone Plans

    Congress jeopardized the future of state plans to help private employees save for retirement. States don't seem to care.
    BY  AUGUST 2017
    Fifty-seven million American workers don't have access to a retirement plan through their jobs. (David Kidd)

    Matt Birong spent years cooking in upscale restaurants in Boston and New York City. In an industry notorious for low wages and zero benefits, he did something very unusual: He opened a retirement savings account for himself. Birong admits that if his parents hadn’t insisted he do so, he likely would have skipped the process. Even then, the notion of setting up an investment plan on his own would have been overwhelming if he didn’t have a trusted friend in the financial services industry to walk him through it.

    Now, as owner and head chef of 3 Squares Café south of Burlington, Vt., Birong wishes he could do the same thing for his employees. He already offers other unusual perks for the industry to attract quality and loyal workers, such as paid time off after one year of service. But setting up a retirement savings program for his roughly 15 employees? “I’ve got my head under a sink making sure the water’s not leaking on the tenants downstairs,” he says. “I just don’t have the time; it’s not that I don’t want to.”

    Birong’s situation is similar to that of many small-business owners across the country and is a big reason why half of private-sector workers don’t have an employer-sponsored retirement plan. Of those 57 million people, only a small percentage have saved on their own and those savings are generally paltry. According to the National Institute on Retirement Security, the median retirement account balance is $3,000 for all working-age households and $12,000 for near-retirement households.

    Some states want to change that. This July, Oregon became the first to offer a retirement plan to full- and part-time private-sector workers who don’t have access to one through their employer. Eight other states -- California, Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Vermont and Washington -- are implementing similar plans that should reach full rollout within the next five years. In general, the programs will run independently from the state and will be paid for through retirement account fees. When the nine state plans are up and running, they will serve roughly one-quarter of private-sector workers across the country. In California alone, the plans will cover nearly 7 million people.

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