Go-slow governments create frustrating economic hurdles
Written by Michael Lewis on June 23, 2015
Frustration with governments’ snail’s pace has reached the point that critics now sit within government halls.
New bathrooms were due in Coconut Grove’s Kennedy Park two years ago but work hasn’t begun, Miami Commissioner Marc Sarnoff lamented this month, and “I can’t get the administration to move on it.”
The city’s Douglas Park, closed years back because its soil was contaminated decades ago, was to reopen last November, the public was told, but work hasn’t begun yet, Commissioner Francis Suarez fumed.
When talking about project completion, the city moves so slowly that “frankly, I don’t even use dates anymore,” said commission Chairman Willy Gort.
Federal rules slow things so much, South Florida Regional Transportation Authority Executive Director Jack Stephens told the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce, that he tells people to “make sure there is no federal money” in projects because the delay of red tape “drives costs totally out of the realm of possibility.”
ZooMiami is nearing 1 million visitors a year and Brand USA plans to promote South Dade’s attractions globally, but decade-long efforts to have developers build a vast water park beside the zoo seem dammed up as various governments muddy the waters.
It took years and hundreds of meetings before Coral Gables this month OK’d the vast Mediterranean Village mixed-use development that began in another form a decade ago.
A revamp of Flagler Street downtown to lure pedestrians and shoppers, long a goal and in the works four years, just met a setback when designs didn’t allow sufficient drainage. So it’s back to the drawing board just as work was to start.
Why is government so slow? Does its nature demand roadblocks? Or is it merely cautious to protect the public?
There’s no one answer. Causes vary. Some delays might be vital.
And yes, one good reason to go slowly is the attempt to protect public assets as officials decide the proper action. It isn’t all a sham. Not everything is good enough the first time around.
Another valid reason for slow motion is that government must hear all sides, not just proponents, and then weigh findings fairly. Maybe listening and deciding could go faster, but they can’t simply be skipped to save time.
Then there’s the painful delay Mr. Stephens notes in federal contracts to be sure they meet environmental rules and pay prevailing local wages. We could live with fewer rules but they’re law, not the agencies’ whim. As Mr. Stephens pointed out, to avoid those delays you have to avoid projects that include federal funds.
What else slows government?
Think of the political process of getting a commission to vote yes. Projects that face government review often involve lobbyists whose behind-the-scenes dance with elected officials might require slow horse trading. It’s not right, but it’s real.
There’s also the political need to divide the benefits pie by commissioners – five slices at the City of Miami, 13 at Miami-Dade County – and add a slice for the mayor. This lets everyone come out a winner when a project falls in just one commission district. It’s just another negative of district elections.
Requirements to spread work and purchases among various categories of bidders also eat up time. So do preference requirements, because government has to verify all claimed advantages. How do you prove a company is local versus only having a local address? Are you sure the bidder is really minority owned? The more bids, the more to check before a project advances.
Once a project finally does begin, it runs an obstacle course of inspectors and regulators who justify their jobs by finding things that must be changed as work goes on.
But with the exception of these inspectors and regulators, totally private projects don’t face most of these hurdles. That speeds them up and holds costs down. So private enterprise can take advantage of limited time windows before action loses its value.
Governments aren’t ignorant of their tortoise-like pace in the marketplace race. Constituents let officials know that the Kennedy Park bathrooms aren’t open, that Douglas Park remains closed, that Flagler Street work hasn’t begun.
In county hall, commissioners finally gave administrators the power to move fast to refinance bonds – but they only did so after a move to refinance aviation bonds several years ago went so slowly through required steps that by the time commissioners OK’d refinancing a possible savings of many millions became a loss as interest rates rose.
The county gained millions in refinancing after the red tape was cut. It shows that government doesn’t have to run in costly slow motion.
Unfortunately, that lesson hasn’t spread far and wide. It should. When well-intended rules and procedures become detrimental roadblocks, they should be eliminated or changed.
Finally, while too much government slows progress, too little might also slow action through sheer lack of manpower.
Federal figures released Friday show that Miami-Dade County employment in virtually every category rose over the year ended May 30, adding 30,500 jobs. Only one category decreased: government cut 1,500 jobs. In the past decade, the loss here has been 14,800 government jobs.
While doing more with less prevailed in private business in the past decade, it’s possible that government is merely doing less with less. One thing is sure: overall, it isn’t moving fast enough.