Thimblerigging

Thimblerigging

In magic, the shell game, or the thimblerig, or the cups and balls all operate on a fundamental basic principle: a sly shuffle of something from one place to another right under your nose.

Penn and Teller have an amazing cups and balls routine where the magic isn’t in the trick but in the performance.

The shell game is all around us and the con isn’t just limited to some walnut shells and a tiny pea. Governmental policy shell games are all too common, I fear. This, alas, gets me back to the conversation about the funding for the new Amarillo civic center (or civic center improvements - however you want to define it).

One note, dear readers, I desperately want our community to grow and bring opportunity for everyone here. My problem is with duplicity and disingenuous arguments.

So here goes:

During the May 24, 2022 city council presentation on issuing tax notes (remember, the city council wants to issue debt to pay for the civic center but this time without voter approval) Laura Storrs, the assistant city manager offered different ways of coming up with the money. At three hours, 30 minutes into the meeting, this is what she said:

There’s also a green line on here, which is another funding option. It would still be to look at issuing the tax notes, but to shift some of our existing cash funding that we do for the replacement of our fleet equipment and vehicles. So that’s like your police cars, your fire trucks, your trash trucks, your traffic trucks, parks, trucks, all those we pay for those every year in cash. We could change that and start issuing debt for those items every single year. But it would take an option like this would take issuing debt consecutively over a seven year time period for the replacement of those fleet vehicles. So you’re switching it from one side of the tax rate to the other side of the tax rate.

This is simply jaw-dropping. What she’s saying is we’ll issue debt to pay for the things we normally use cash for and we’ll turn around and use that cash for the civic center. The implicit argument, of course, is that taxpayers will have no trouble issuing debt to help police and firefighters, which is a good bet based on the voting history in Amarillo.

That’s a shell game. It’s just moving money from one place to another when you’re not looking.

The very same happened with the stadium. The city shifted the hotel occupancy tax money to the stadium (in the words of the previous mayor: “Hey, it’s hotel tax money. We aren’t paying for the MPEV. Visitors are.”)

The trouble is the hotel occupancy tax money moved to the stadium from . . . yes, you guess it, from the civic center.

And now the bill is coming due. And it’s not the visitors who have to pay.

Really, I have no argument with how Laura Storrs said what she said. That’s what the people who work at the city do: they try to figure out how to pay for stuff the city council wants. So Laura is spitballing and giving the budgetary cups and balls option.

My problem is the utter and indefensible silence from the city council.  No one jumped at this and said, “WAIT a minute! Are you saying we’ll use the money we have on the civic center and then tell people, well, nuts. We’re out of dough. If you want the police to answer your 911 phone call we have to borrow some more money.”

But no one brought it up because it was pointless to do so. This meeting was performative. The deal was already done and the vote mostly predetermined.

Winning a game of three card monte is nearly impossible. Unless you know how the thimble is rigged.