The survival of our communities — from hospitals to school systems to family businesses — is a political choice.

This article is aimed primarily at Polk County’s state and local elected officials.

If I can ever get the School Board to meet virtually (working on it, I swear), I’m going to ask that we take a formal voting position on a resolution/letter to our U.S. Congressional delegation that looks something like the one that follows.

I’m also going to try to get the Polk County Commission and city commissions to sign on. Your help in encouraging them is important, as is your continued pressure on federal lawmakers. State and local are barely relevant to longer-term outcomes beyond our capacity to advocate. I’ll explain the background of this on the other side.

State and local governments and communities, which operate under balanced budget rules and lack their own currencies, face an existential crisis of local public services as we look forward.

We cannot preserve our local public infrastructure functions: medical facilities, schools, and law enforcement, for instance, on state and local tax revenues collected during an extended pandemic and its related economic collapse. The survival of these local institutions is not a “state or local” matter; it is a national security matter.

Therefore, we are unifying as a coalition of local governments, to demand consistent, clear action and leadership from all parts of the federal government. We demand that our federal government:

  • Immediately authorize remote/virtual Congressional voting; or return immediately to Washington D.C. to do your jobs and suffer the same risks that health care and grocery workers face;
  • Mobilize the economic structure of the country to fight two simultaneous wars: the pandemic and the economic collapse. We debt spent our way out of the Great Depression and into WWII victory by building materials designed for destruction and funding fighting designed to create death. Today, we can debt-fund people to care for each other and their children; stay away from each other; and keep the supply chain of basic needs flowing, as humanely and equitably as possible, until we have definitive victory over the virus. The period of time required to reach a vaccine should be much shorter than World War II; but much longer than May 1.

This economic mobilization includes:

  • Spend at least as much ($4.5 trillion) on the suffering people and small businesses of the United States of America as you have on a handful of giant corporations.
  • Streamline the convoluted distribution channels of aid; or replace them with direct cash support.
  • Direct the Federal Reserve to directly support local hospitals, schools, and public safety operations as institutions of national importance, just as banks with local branches are considered institutions of national support.
  • Fund a “continuity of service” national grant program to sustain health care providers, schools, and public safety operations until hey are able to stand on their own, financially.
  • Pay extra money — and provide extra protection — to our vital supply chain workers, risking their lives to keep shelves stocked for the rest of us.

That’s a draft of the resolution; now for the article.

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When do you think we’ll re-open the schools?

I get asked that all the time; and I always answer the same way: the virus will tell us when we can open schools safely. And then I give the second part of the answer: I don’t see how finances will allow us to open the schools at all. So you need to be thinking about the federal school and public service sustenance bill that will be necessary. 

Multiply that by infinity, for basically every public service and every small business in the country, and you begin to see the scale of the fight for survival ahead of us. By now, everybody has seen the models showing more than 100,000 deaths if we do everything right, with Florida peaking in May. Thirty-nine percent of American households have already lost income because of the pandemic/economic collapse, according to this poll.

Normalcy = vaccine.

The first part of this fight is obviously slowing the spread of the virus and limiting the health damage and death until we can vaccinate ourselves against it.

I don’t see much evidence of anything being “over” until there’s a successful vaccine. I’m happy to be wrong about that; but I don’t think anyone can count on any real social or economic normalcy until that vaccine emerges. I have a hard time envisioning the political and operational scenario in which schools reopen en masse without a vaccine. Again, I’m happy to be wrong. Believe me.

But opening schools as mass gathering places because social distancing worked is likely to make social distancing necessary again and force the schools closed again, especially in an America that has to hoard masks and has no systemic approach to testing.

For instance, in Gov. DeSantis’ favorite schools-open city-state of Singapore, it appears that the recent spike in COVID cases is tied to a day care center.

After Singapore’s recent school-based outbreaks, the city-state agreed to move to a four-day school week, but Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong appeared to rule out a nationwide shutdown.

Want to bet how long it takes that 4-day week to become a no-day week? I don’t think something like normalcy returns to American life until the organized, free child care and social support of schools returns. And I don’t think that happens without a vaccine. Again, happy to be wrong.

We’ll begin to get test cases of this from China, which has still opened only the tiniest handful of schools with strict protection measures. Maybe data will change; although I don’t trust China’s data any more than ours, honestly.

And without honest data, I can’t afford wishful thinking as a public official.

Embrace the scale of the tsunami; there’s no other choice

Thus, I think the extended time scale of vast economic disruption makes micro economic arguments against “shelter-at-home” orders (whatever they actually mean in the fine print) less compelling than the human arguments and the unintended-gathering-place arguments. [Update: the governor just enacted something called a “stay-at-home” order. We’ll see what the fine print actually says. Later update: It says you can still go to church, which is about as bad as going to school from a distancing/gathering point-of-view. This is not a real order and it’s full of incoherence on what’s “essential.” #Florida.]

I generally side with the folks who want to close “non-essential workplaces” but re-open wilderness-type parks with clear government management of distancing. I don’t think I would open golf courses to golf gatherings. I would consider allowing managed, distanced walking on the golf course as a space.

It is a fact that jamming people into smallish public areas like Lake Morton, Lake Hollingsworth, Munn Park, etc. rather than expansive areas like Cleveland Heights presents a real health risk; so does having no outdoor outlet at all. In my opinion, any mass potential mass gathering place, like a beach, should be shut down. But remote state parks, like Colt Creek State Park, should be open and actively distance-managed by government. But these are not easy questions; and my opinion is just my opinion. I’m not questioning any decision the Lakeland City Commission made yesterday.

On the economic side, there has been some talk among some local elected officials that every day a business can stay open makes it more likely to survive. But I don’t think there is any evidence of that. Survival will depend largely on how politics delivers resources with which to sustain ourselves, not how many extra days can be squeezed out of severely reduced revenue at any individual business.

Indeed, local debate over the business/economic impact of closing “non-essential” local businesses or workplaces is like debating whether to use an umbrella to keep dry when a tsunami is roaring toward you. It’s absolutely a life-and-death question to the person with umbrella — for the businesses in question — but the umbrella isn’t going to protect them from the tsunami.

And it wastes time and energy we should be using to build the sort of high ground protection that only serious and organized politics can create right now.

That fight for survival isn’t primarily economic; it’s almost entirely political.

Indeed, our community survival largely depends on politics. It depends on our ability, as local communities, to force the federal government to demand World War II-style economic mobilization of every potential economic resource to provide national sustenance. It may depend on our ability and willingness to force the federal government to pay supply chain workers a lot more money.

State and local government cannot do this for two reasons: 1) most, if not all, have legal or constitutional mandates to balance budgets each year. 2) They have no state bank to borrow from — and then have their loans forgiven — in their own currency.

Local and state government will have to operate vital local and state public services with whatever tax money comes in. It won’t be anywhere near enough to sustain public services in the short or medium term as anything we recognize. Maybe you could cut law enforcement capacity by half and still have something that feels like law enforcement, just reduced. But how could you reduce school capacity by half and still accommodate compulsory education laws or IEP requirements, for instance?

We better start asking these questions loudly and demanding answers — as people and as local public officials. Because we-the-people have already lost round one of the political battles for local public service survival.

Spend the same $4.5 trillion on sustaining people and vital services as government is spending to sustain corporations

The “stimulus/sustenance” bill from DC is badly skewed in every way to the narrow interests of giant corporations and hedge funds. It’s indifferent to any general, common good, national interest.

It’s essentially $4.5 trillion for lifestyle preservation of a very very few — including the president — and $1.5 trillion for everybody else. See this rundown. And the $1.5 trillion for people is distributed through channels deliberately constructed to be difficult and inefficient. Why? Because much of our bipartisan leadership has, for a very long time, behaved sociopathically toward anyone not in possession of excess capital. One need not choose to call oneself capitalist or socialist or any other meaningless-“ist” to recognize that sociopathic leadership is bad leadership.

Expect this choice by people of power to prioritize corporate well-being over national well-being to exacerbate the “wildcat strike” labor flashpoints that are already occurring all over the country. We need to rebalance. Pressure from local governments can steer how the current money is distributed — even the $4.5 trillion for big business — and shape the next round of support.

Community infrastructure first

There is a comparatively small amount of money earmarked for state government support and small business support. But the state and local support is particularly inadequate for the scale of the need at any reasonable first glance.

It looks to me like Florida would get about $800 million in federal education support to divide among all local districts. That amount is nothing. Polk’s school budget is about $1.2 billion, just for scale. Much more will have to come if we are going to reopen the human interaction functions of schools at scale.

The White House, of course, sends conflicting reports about any future COVID-War-I spending. The president has now floated $2 trillion in physical infrastructure spending for the “next” bill just after his aides said there wouldn’t be a “next” bill.  But that’s to be expected. Consistency is not his strength.

A $2 trillion physical infrastructure bill could be a very good idea for late 2021, after we hopefully have a vaccine. But it’s hard to justify spending on bridges to carry cars that aren’t driving when hospitals, schools (even online), and law enforcement agencies may shutter in the near future. Not to mention the entire universe of non-corporate business, which is also fundamental to community fabric and well-being. Somewhat encouragingly, I’m reading that small business part of the $1.5 trillion that normal people get is better than what might be expected — both in generosity to workers and simplicity of application. If you’re a business owner, you should jump on it and see.

In any event, human, social infrastructure, and small business support — to match big business support — must be political spending priority number 1, right now. And yet, Congress isn’t even around to discuss it or equipped to vote on anything more than its already done quickly and remotely.

Polk schools are — probably — illegally closed. Shall we reopen them? No? Then Congress can vote remotely.

Thus, the first order of local political business should be for local elected bodies demand Congress either return to meet in person (which is COVID-19 foolish and irresponsible) or allow for remote voting now. We can’t afford to have federal lawmakers sideline themselves at a time that lives and society are stake. Congress cannot abdicate its responsibility to the country.

Lakeland City Commissioner Scott Franklin is challenging U.S. Rep. Ross Spano in the Republican primary. I would hope he would run on Congress’s role to save local communities — and demand it stay in emergency, open-ended virtual session.

And before you say: but wait, the formality of law is sacrosanct, consider this: the School Board never voted to close the physical Polk schools, which I believe is an authority reserved solely for us. Do you propose that we reopen them so that we can officially vote them closed? Or are you OK with common sense acclimation?

Re-opening them, I promise, will be a different legal and political act, based on the timing and circumstances. It will be a very different kind of debate.

A schools case study: what’s coming after June 30

Florida schools, very roughly, are financed from a mixed pool of local property tax and state-level funding. The local tax rate is set by the state; collections are sent to the state, where local money goes into a big education fund with state money; then it’s re-distributed back to the districts based on a painfully complex formula. This is actually not a bad way to do it. Florida’s funding problem is always the size of the pie, not the distribution of slices, which is a lot better than many other places in the country.

The big problem now with Florida — and most state governments — is that states generally have balanced budget requirements. Annual spending must equal revenue, more or less. Florida is a heavy sales tax state, reliant on tourists to pay much for many of our key state functions, including education. How do you think sales tax collections are going?

The property value tax base may hold up in the short-term; but how many people are not going to pay their property taxes now?

I’m going to be diving into the precise cash flow for the Polk District. I haven’t wanted to give anyone an extra duty as we try to ramp up the distance learning program. So I don’t have numbers; I only have logical inferences and sense of the general math. But we need to know now what opening physically in August or September would look like — or if it’s even possible. I doubt it will be possible financially.

I’ll be very curious to see what the year-long term cash flow picture is for Lakeland Regional Health, Polk County, and all city governments.

What happens if Polk’s largest employer and child care provider disappears?

Most education costs are human costs — personnel costs — whether we do it online, or in-person. And that is expensive, even for Florida state government, which does it as cheaply, abusively, and unsuccessfully as possible. We spend most non-capital money allocated to us each year.

The Polk District and other state districts generally have tiny reserves because the state is stingy; and it demands that we keep low reserves because it doesn’t to pay for both staff and reserves. But even if we lived in state education-funding Nirvana, there would no way to financially prepare for extended sustenance of school systems with greatly diminished state and local cash flow incoming.

In Polk County — and likely all over the state — all basic, normal pay, to my knowledge, continues for education employees until June 30. Teacher “holdback” pay goes beyond that, as I understand it. But all parents, community members, public school employees, and business people should understand that paid “learning” operations, distance or in-person, end on June 30, as far as I know. What happens after that? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

The Polk School District is Polk County’s largest employer. What will removing 14,000-ish paying customers from the economic board after June 30 mean for the local economy? Now multiply that by probably all state districts. Think real hard about that and model it in your head.

And then realize that local communities are in a political fight for primarily federal resources and for survival. My fellow local elected officials; we need to get in that fight. Now.

One comment

  1. Denise Bender

    Thanks for expressing your thoughts and ideas. Please continue to provide this level of information because it is very helpful to know what your views are regarding the COVID Pandemic impacts, 6.6 million people have filed unemployment claims – just announced today – knowledge is power. I so agree that coordinated information sharing will allow us to work together since we are so remote from each other and some hard decisions and strong measures, lots and lots of FLEXIBLE planning due to the unknown and ever changing landscape due to the COVID Pandemic will be needed in order to reopen our schools, community and our Nation. A takeaway for me was how you framed up how Polk schools and Polk local governments are funded. I was aware of how schools are funded on a high level (taxes) but you were able to “break it down” regarding the distribution of the funding in a way that helps me to get a better grasp of how fragile the Funding underpinnings are for our schools and local and Polk County Government.