Friday, March 30, 2007

Who's Really Doing the Spinning?

“A politician is an animal which can sit on a fence and yet keep both ears to the ground.”

- H.L Mencken

The Emporia city commission race is just about over. The election will be held this next Tuesday.

I spent a bit of time today putting up signs in locations where some mischievous soul has been taking them down about as fast as I can get them planted in the ground. I’ve found it quite amusing. I lived for a while near Chicago where folks deceased for fifty years or more still vote. In Massachusetts where I grew up the slogan has always been, “Vote early, vote often.” Here in the “Heartland” folks pilfer the opposition’s signs.

Since Fox, CBS, ABC, NBC, MSNBC, Rasmussen, and Opinion Dynamics don’t poll in our election I have no idea about the outcome. The one thing I do know is that the issues won’t magically disappear the day after the election.

Steve Sauder, our local media magnate, endorsed two candidates this past week. He stopped short of endorsing a third, but did say that I was the politician in the group, a guy who only says the things people like to hear for personal political benefit. Just about everyone I’ve talked to says that his insults amount to a supreme compliment. I suspect, then, that his rhetoric may have me on the road to sainthood.

For the past three nights there’s been some gunplay in our neighborhood. We call, the police come, and the perpetrators disappear into the night. The police understand that there is something going on, possibly a turf rivalry or some sort of a dispute over a bad loan. They’re hoping to catch them by the weekend.

I’m sure I’ll be accused of pandering by some in this race or others with vested interest in its outcome for even mentioning the gunfire. Their logic probably goes something like this, “Since it’s not happening in my neighborhood, it’s not happening at all.” That’s the sort of twisted A form proposition politicians have hoodwinked the good people of Emporia with for some time. Aristotle is probably turning over in his grave. I’m tempted not to report the shooting at all. If I give it some time it will in all likelihood migrate over to their neighborhoods and then we’ll get a real political response.

I sent one last pre-election letter to the Gazette. I hope it gets published, but in case it doesn’t I’m asking that those who read and agree disseminate it far and wide.

The City Commission election is less than a week away. I’m proud of the campaign I’ve run.

I especially want to express my heartfelt thanks to those who’ve supported me financially or shared encouraging words, fresh ideas, and for their prayers. I’ll always treasure that!

I’ve outlined the issues this city faces because I care deeply. Some have said I’m the consummate politician, spinning for electoral benefit. Nothing could be further from the truth. The issues we face are very real, not spin. There are over 5,000 of us living in poverty. That’s reality, not spin! Our property taxes are excessive, and still climbing. That’s reality, not spin! Businesses are leaving Emporia and our median household incomes are 27% below the Kansas average. That’s reality, not spin! Slum lords are profiting at the expense of Emporians living on the economic margins. That’s reality, not spin! Hispanics represent 22% of our population but less than 10% vote because they feel disenfranchised. That’s reality, not spin!

This city will never get from where we are to the bright promise the 21st century holds for us unless we accept the facts we currently face. That’s reality, not spin!

I’ve campaigned for a seat on the city commission because I love the people of Emporia. I have an abiding faith in their goodness and the goodness of the God who made them. I’m convinced that with servant leadership the citizens of this good city will respond to the current challenge and embrace the hope that’s set before them.

That’s why I’m running. I believe the time for a change of direction has come!

I’m asking for your vote on April 3rd so that I can partner with you to be a voice for change, energy, and a brighter future.

With Warm Regards

Phil Dillon

Sunday, March 18, 2007

A Time to Butt Heads

“Hang on tight, spur hard, and let ‘er buck.”

- Cowboy Proverb

The various candidate forums will be held over the next couple of weeks. It’s time to butt heads. More appropriately, it’s time to butt heads without being butt heads.

I’ve had several conversations lately with folks who want to know what I would do about “them” if I’m elected to the city commission. It’s a question that’s framed to take me through a political minefield. Without actually saying it, the questioners are asking what I would do about the growing number of Hispanics, some of whom are here illegally, who work for some of this town’s manufacturers. If I’m so pro-development, the reasoning goes, I must surely be for getting rid of “them.” So, if I support “them,” I must be against economic development.

This is my position. I’m pro security! I’m pro immigration! First, as a city commissioner I would have no power to build a two thousand mile fence stretching from Texas to California. If it were in my power to deal with our borders I believe we can find, as America has in the past, a much saner, just, and cost effective method of fixing the problem. As for Emporia, I have absolutely no desire to support building a wall around this city to keep “them” out.
It’s been said so often now that it’s become a rallying cry for the world’s huddled masses. This is a nation of immigrants. I’m a first generation American myself. The Pilgrims, many of whom were escaping religious persecution, were immigrants here in the seventeenth century and their children were first generation Americans themselves. So were the Dutch who settled New York. The Irish came here to escape the Potato Famine and built our railroads, with the help of Chinese immigrants. The telephone was invented by Alexander Graham Bell, a Scottish immigrant. The great physicist Albert Einstein was an immigrant from Germany. And who hasn’t delighted to the music of Irving Berlin, a Russian immigrant.

I have a firm belief that the majority of immigrants escaping the poverty of Mexico and Central America want to be a vibrant part of that great tradition. I also have the firm belief that this country can solve the illegal immigration problem without descending into demagoguery. That’s my position. If it loses me votes, so be it.

I have other positions as well. I outlined them for the Gazette and they’ll be published sometime next week. They follow, unedited.

Candidate Profile/Political Positions

Name: Phil Dillon
Age: 64
Occupation: Very actively retired from FedEx (Logistics)
Education: Bachelor of Arts (Communications/Linguistics)
Master of Arts (Biblical Theology)
Personal: Married to my wife Nancy for twenty years. Three children (Jarrod, Beth, Michael), three grandchildren (Ashley, Joshua, Rebeccah). Member of Emporia Lions Club (second vice-president), elected to pastor’s advisory council (Victory Fellowship), writer, community activist.

1. Why are you running for this office?

This city needs responsible, servant leadership, committed to serving all Emporians. Our current leadership has given us high taxes, high poverty rates, businesses leaving, slum lords profiting, and economic decline. I’m committed to reversing that course, revitalizing downtown and bringing 21st century jobs paying 21st century wages to Emporia.

2. If you’re elected, what are your goals?

Give our police officers and firefighters a three to five percent raise
Decrease the city’s portion of the mill levy by 8 to 10 mills in the short term and by 20 mills in the long term.
Actively enforce livability codes
Decrease the administrative cost of city government by 25%.
Revitalize downtown.
Increase median household incomes in Emporia by 20% by bringing in 21st century jobs paying 21st century wages.

3. How will the city commission be better with you as a member?

First, the professional model I worked under for seventeen years at FedEx was the servant-leader. In practice that meant that organizational charts were inverted, with managers serving front-line employees who in turn served FedEx’s customers. That model has made FedEx one of the most successful and admired business enterprises in the world. Second, I have the professional results. I took a high cost logistics operation on the east coast and reduced inventory investments by over $4,000,000 and increased service to FedEx’s customers from 65% to 98% on time. My career was filled with examples like that.

4. What do you think is the biggest issue facing the city and how would you resolve it?

The biggest issue facing Emporia is economic decline. Our median household incomes are 27% below the Kansas average and 37% below the national average. Our poverty rate is a staggering 17.9%! Businesses and jobs are leaving Emporia. This vicious cycle must be broken. It begins with tax policy. The city must immediately reduce its portion of the mill levy by 8 to 10 mills and set an intermediate goal of reducing the levy by another 10 to 12 mills. This can be done through sound management, consolidations within administrative departments, and fiscal discipline. We must also use the available seed capital in the industrial development account and the sale of Lake Kahola wisely to support educational opportunity scholarships, parks, infrastructure, 21st century business ventures and 21st century jobs. This is the pro-development, pro-taxpayer approach that will increase median household incomes, decrease poverty, and revitalize this city. Some say this approach is too ambitious, that Emporia doesn’t have the skill-sets necessary. I don’t believe that! We have a great university and technical college. We’ve got decent, hard working people. Emporia can again be a truly first class city. We need to change direction and begin the long march forward.

5. What should the city commission’s priorities be when it plans a budget?

The primary role of city leadership is to be servants and this ethic should be reflected in the budgeting process. The priority should be service. The outcome of that process should be a budget that is lean, efficient, and provides the services all its citizens pay for. This model would go a long way toward regaining the trust and good will of Emporia’s citizens.

6. Looking to the future, what are three things you’d like to see happen in the city commission?

First, I’d like to see property taxes decreasing. Second, I’d like to see economic and cultural revitalization, borne of a vibrant partnership between the city, our institutions of higher learning, civic groups, churches, religious organizations, economic and commercial developers. Third, I have a dream that Emporians now living on the economic margins will one day be able to claim their share of the American dream and become stake holders in the 21st century ownership society.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

St. Patrick's Day in the Heartland

I took Nancy’s brother James downtown this afternoon to watch Emporia’s version of the St. Patrick’s Day parade. As it is every year it amounted to about 10 pickup trucks draped in Kelley green crepe paper and a few motorcycles. There were a few bagpipes, which, according to Irish legend, were given to the Scotch as revenge. Two of the commission candidates, Tom Myers and Jesse Solis, made their appearances. I’d thought about joining the parade myself, but felt that it wouldn’t have been proper for me to celebrate Ireland’s patron saint by politicking.

I just read Scott Rochat’s piece in the Gazette about the day. A few struck me as particularly appropriate:

“Everywhere you go, it’s quite easy being green. People wear green shirts, or sport green buttons, or even drink green beer. Oh, yes, there’s a vague memory of some man named Patrick who threw the snakes out of Ireland (would he mind visiting Washington)?”

About the only words missing were, “Would he mind visiting Emporia too?”

Happy Saint Patrick’s Day to one and all! Hoist a pint of the bitters and enjoy being a member of one of the great fraternities in the world!

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Voodoo Economics, Emporia Style

“The difference between death and taxes is death doesn't get worse every time Congress meets.”

- Will Rogers

In just about any forum during this election season Emporians have had questions about basic services. Some ask, “Why can’t we get our streets plowed when it snows?” Others ask, “Why do we have so many stray dogs roaming the streets?” There are lots of questions. “Why can’t firemen and policemen get merit raises?” “Why aren’t livability codes enforced?” The questions go on and on. In each case the response of the incumbents like Bobbie Agler and Tom Myers as well as newcomers like Kevin Nelson and Jeff Longbine is, “If the people of Emporia want these things they need to realize that there will be an increased cost for municipal government to provide them.” In layman’s terms, stripped of political nicety, it means HIGHER TAXES!

I strongly disagree with that general assumption. In fact, I believe that one of the first things the city of Emporia needs to do to generate revenue is to LOWER TAXES on both residential and commercial interests!

Back in the eighties people laughed Ronald Reagan to scorn when he said that as President he would lower taxes. After two terms in office, with taxes cut and government revenues actually increasing, “Dutch” had the last laugh.

You’d think that the message would have gotten through here in thoroughly Republican Emporia by now. But, about as creative as some candidates can get is, “Open your wallets and I’ll give you all you want.” In the eighties Reaganomics (or supply side economics) was derided as “voodoo economics.” When I see Emporia’s current reality, with the rattling of the municipal saber of improved services equals increased taxes, I realize what “voodoo economics” is really all about. That’s Emporia’s current reality.

I believe the people of this good city have had enough of the zero sum games the city is playing. They’ve had enough of the high taxes. Many are voting with their feet, leaving town. Our median household incomes and high poverty rates are proof of that. I’ve talked to Emporians who say they’re now ready to leave, that they’ve had enough. I read almost daily of businesses that would like to expand here, but must go elsewhere because the high taxes have bled much of the disposable income from purchasers of goods and services. That must change, and it must change soon!

Some economists say that it’s almost impossible to craft a Laffer curve for a local government. I can tell you what the people of Emporia know all too well. We’re being taxed well beyond the prohibitive range indicated in my introductory graphic. In fact, if there were a place in the graphic for an obscene scale, Emporia’s current tax model would be in that range. Hence, the city is in a downward economic spiral caused in good part by an upward spiral in taxes. This needs to be reversed!

Reducing taxes is the right thing to do. As economists Thomas A. Garrett and John C. Leatherman have noted:

“Because of the inverse relationship between tax rates and tax bases, generating additional revenues may not always be obtained by simply increasing tax rates. A continual increase in tax rates by state and local officials may not guarantee an increase in tax revenues - beyond some point tax rate revenues will actually begin to fall. Thus, within the context of the Leviathan view of government, although governments will attempt to generate as much revenue as possible, additional revenue is not always had by a simple increase in the tax rate.”

To keep increasing taxes and expecting improvement in this city’s economic condition is foolhardy. It’s nothing more than voodoo economics. We can and must do better!

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Education - The Key to the Door of the 21st Century

“All who have meditated on the art of governing mankind have been convinced that the fate of empires depends on the education of youth.”

- Aristotle

I spent part of the morning visiting with some of the members of our local Rotary Club. Like the Lions Club, which I’m a member of, their ideal is service. Over the years the Lions has done significant work on issues dealing with sight, including river blindness, sight partnerships, cataract surgeries, eyeglass recycling, and so forth. Currently, Lions is embarking on an ambitious program called Sight First II, aimed at raising $150,000,000 to continue the work already begun on the issues I just outlined. Rotary, our sister service organization, has done Herculean work on eradicating polio. And, like Lions, they have fostered good will, fellowship, and cultural understanding not only here in Emporia, but around the world. I’m proud to be a Lion and I’m sure that the members of Rotary are proud of their work of service as well.

This morning’s presentation was done by Jim Harter, Emporia State University’s Vice-President of the International Education. One of the highlights of his presentation was the growth in international programs here in Emporia, including increases in the number of international students and increases in the number of sister programs springing up in countries around the world. It’s a very healthy development.

After the presentation, Mike Helbert, one of Rotary’s local leaders, asked how I, as a candidate, felt about the city’s role in supporting Emporia State University. I told him that I believed that municipal support for the university’s efforts here is absolutely critical. In previous posts I’ve outlined in detail our current problems – low median incomes, high taxes, high poverty rates, businesses leaving. One of the keys to improvement and economic and cultural revival for this city is higher education. It’s the key to the door of the 21st century.

I’ve been talking to whoever in town will listen about the 21st century economy, 21st jobs, and 21st century wages. At least one of the incumbents has said that we don’t have the skill-sets for that type of economy. I refuse to believe that. We have two top notch schools here – Emporia State University and Flint Hills Technical College. The University has a plan to expand its student base by a couple of thousand over the next few years. I’d like a lot of them to be Emporians. I’d like to assist Emporians who have, for economic or social reasons, been locked out of higher education. I’d like to see a new generation of Hispanics and other minorities become the human fuel for this city’s revitalization.

How can that be done? After all, the city seems to be broke. Here’s how. Right now there are over a million dollars available in an account for industrial development. The city of Emporia needs to find a way to invest a portion of those dollars now laying fallow into educational opportunity grants for needy students. Tie those grants into a commitment for the students to become entrepreneurs here at home. It’s the same sort of thing that rural communities do to bring medical professionals into their towns. Why not do the same for information technology entrepreneurs or those wanting to develop a bio-fuels cooperative or some other sort of 21st century startup venture?

For too long now the city has focused on the manufacturing sector, which has been relocating off-shore in order to compete in the new global economy. That has meant less jobs available in that sector in the United States and lower wages for those who stay. The amazing growth in our economy has been in the sector economists call “knowledge based.” Right now, that sector represents 34% of America’s jobs, and it also represents a remarkable increase in wages for those working in that sector. America’s future lies in bio-tech, bio-sciences, bio-fuels, information technology and new industries that have not yet even sprung up.

Some in the current leadership will argue that such an ambitious endeavor will require new taxes. I disagree. More on that tomorrow.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Stop the Municipal Insanity!

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”

- Benjamin Franklin

One of the sad symptoms of economic decay here in Emporia, Kansas is the emergence of “payday lenders.” One of my morning routes takes me from my house, through downtown, and then along Sixth Avenue and Merchant Street to Prairie Street, which is about two miles from downtown. As I do, the payday lenders are the most prominent business ventures I see. There are five of them, and another one or two over on Industrial Road, which is the “growth” area here in town. They, along with the four pawnshops in the downtown area reveal the decline that has taken place. Anyone can see them and realize that something is wrong. Unfortunately, our city fathers must not be doing much walking these days, because they say everything here is fine.

I’ve been saying since the early days of my campaign that we need change here in Emporia, Kansas. We’ve got low median household incomes, high poverty, low wages, high taxes, low voter turnout, and businesses leaving town. The pawnshops and payday loan businesses aren’t there because this city is in the midst of an economic revival. The reason they’re gaining is a foothold is that a significant number of Emporians can’t make ends meet and put themselves at the mercy of predatory lenders. As I mention these things the incumbents cast me as being negative and anti-Emporia.

There’s not a lick of truth in what they say.

In a meeting with firefighters earlier this week commissioner Tom Myers said that Emporia doesn’t have the skill-sets for a 21st century economy. I told the firefighters that I didn’t believe that for a millisecond. Emporians are hard working, intelligent, decent people. They’re eminently trainable. In fact, I believe that the 21st century economy is there for Emporia’s taking. We’ve got the skill-sets and work ethic to get the job done. We’ve got a great university and a great technical college.

Who, then, under these circumstances, is really anti-Emporia? Who is being negative?

There’s only one reason Emporia is not succeeding. It’s inertia in our municipal government. Emporia can once again be a flourishing, first class city. This is the same city that once was proud to say it had an opera house (it sat about a half block from where a payday loan shop now sits). Just a generation ago Emporia’s downtown was vibrant. With a change of direction it can once again be a commercial and cultural star. And, it can be done without competing with development in other parts of the city.

In the weekend edition of the Emporia Gazette, Bobbi Mlynar did a feature on Ottawa, Kansas, which is about fifty miles north of us. Ottawa is in the midst of an economic boom and some Emporians are cashing in. Rather than growing their businesses here, they’re moving up the highway. Why? Simply put, the business environment here in Emporia is prohibitive. People don’t have disposable income and business taxes are high. Jerry McCalla, an Emporia businessman, put his decision to purchase an extension of his business in Ottawa this way:

“McCalla saw the purchase as an opportunity.”

“...(T)hat’s a going, good business in an area that’s growing,” McCalla said. “With everything that’s going in that community, that area will have to grow.”

“So, it was just a matter of here we are losing people in Emporia and they’re gaining companies that are 300 and 500 people they’ll be bringing to town.”

Some have said that I’m an anti-retail, anti-business candidate. It’s simply not true. An anti-retail, anti business candidate wouldn’t recommend lowering the tax levy on Emporians. I have and will continue to do so! An anti-retail, anti-business candidate wouldn’t care about the economic plight of Emporians living on low incomes. I do care about Emporia’s working class. I want them to succeed and the 21st century economy is the place they can. I want to adance educational opportunity. I want retail to succeed here in Emporia and in order for that to happen we must find our way into the new economy, bring jobs that will increase our median household incomes, and reduce the high level of poverty that is the sad truth of Emporia today.

When it comes right down to it, I’m the one candidate in this race that is pro-business, pro-retail, pro-growth, and pro-Emporia. We can succeed! I’m convinced of it. All we need to do is change course and abandon the insanity that has brought us to where we are!

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Fire Sale

“If we keep doing what we're doing, we're going to keep getting what we're getting.”

- Steven Covey

Earlier in the week a prominent Emporian took a sideswipe at my campaign. That’s a good sign; it means that my message of Community, Opportunity, Responsibility is taking hold and hitting the mark. In a morning radio spot he said that there’s a commission candidate who “likes to talk about our low incomes and 21st century jobs.” He was only half right. I do talk about our low incomes and the need for 21st century jobs. But, I don’t really “like” to talk about it. I just believe that we have to face the facts and change direction.

In the course of his discussion he also said that we should all “shop Emporia first.” I agree with him there. In fact, that’s one area where my wife Nancy and I put our money where are mouths are. The folks at Sears know this to be true. We recently purchased a large number of appliances there for her mother’s house. The folks at Hill’s Appliance also know this is true. We just purchased a dishwasher there. I’ve purchased jewelry at Stanley’s in downtown Emporia. I buy books at the Town Crier and groceries at Reeble’s Country Mart. The centerpiece of our living room is an electronic grand piano, an anniversary gift for my wife, which I purchased at Flint Hills Music. When Nancy’s not looking I sneak an occasional donut at Willard’s Daylight Donuts or a piece of fudge at the Sweet Granada. When I need a special gift I’m know to frequent Madelynn’s or the Sunflower Nook (which will unfortunately soon close its doors). We also contribute to city projects like the Granada Theatre Alliance, Emporia State University, the Rescue Mission, and our church.

My detractor also said that we need to focus on retail here in Emporia. While I think it needs attention as part of an overall strategy, I don’t believe it should be our main focus. What we need is an infusion of business capital and disposable income. Right now our median household incomes here in Emporia are about the lowest in Kansas ($30,000). That’s twenty-seven percent lower than the Kansas average and thirty-seven percent lower than the national average. Our poverty rates here are five to seven percent higher than the state and national averages. The sad truth is that there isn’t enough disposable incomer in Emporia right now to support the retail first strategy. That’s why we need to focus on 21st century jobs paying 21st century wages.

I walked through downtown Emporia yesterday and this is what I saw. Outfitters, a clothing store, has closed its doors. A block or so from there a hospice support business has ceased its operations. This is all part of a trend. I went to the Flint Hills Mall last night and saw that there are three or for storefronts with “for lease” signs prominently displayed. The fact is, businesses, particularly small businesses, are having a great deal of difficulty succeeding because of the toxic combination of the limited number of disposable dollars available and the extremely high business taxes here. Our residential mill levy is obscene enough. The business levy is twice as obscene as that. A small business with a valuation of $125,000 pays about $5,000 in taxes each year. The 2007 increase on that valuation means an increase of another $500 per year. That number doubles for a business valued at $250,000. The city seems to think that businesses can just keep absorbing the skyrocketing taxes. The truth is, businesses are now frantically trying to sell just to keep pace with the taxes. For example, a business selling a $50 widget or a restaurant selling a $50 meal operating on a margin of 7% would have to sell up to twenty-five additional widgets or meals a month just to keep pace with the taxes. Given that, it’s no wonder that businesses are leaving or failing. It’s the inevitable outcome of bad city policy. If we keep doing what we’re currently doing the final stage of the downfall will be the fire sale. I do not want that!

The way forward is difficult. There’s no doubt about it. But, it can be done. In the early sixties we were miles behind the Soviets in the space race. With each launch failure it appeared we were destined to lose. In the middle of this succession of failures, President John Kennedy committed the nation to landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth by the end of the 1960s. It seemed impossible at the beginning of our national march, but history records that two Americans, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, walked on the moon in 1969!

Fixing Emporia’s problems won’t be easy, but I’m convinced we have the intellectual, moral, and spiritual firepower power to begin our long march. I believe that by the end of the first decade of the 21st century Emporia can be a truly first class Kansas city!. But, in order to do that we must change course. As Steven Covey said, “If we keep doing what we're doing, we're going to keep getting what we're getting.”

Friday, March 09, 2007

Denial is Not an Option

“It’s not easy to steal where the slumlord is a thief.”

- Irish Proverb

This past Wednesday I had a brief conversation with a young man at Emporia State University. He began our dialogue by telling me that my position on enforcing city livability codes was all wrong. “Let the market fix that problem,” he said. Government should have nothing to do with it. If people living in those circumstances work hard they’ll overcome their problems. I’ve worked hard to get where I am in life, and so can they.”

When I hear statements like that I become firmer in my conviction that denial is no longer an option for Emporia, Kansas

The implication of his statement was that my position against this city’s slum lords is tantamount to being against free market capitalism. Nothing could be further from the truth!

While my education was in communications, linguistics, and theology, I’ve also read the works of some great economists. I’ve read Adam Smith, F.A. Hayek, Daniel Pipes, Thomas Sowell, and, most recently, Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto. I’m a passionate advocate for free market capitalism. Like Hayek, I believe that the surest way to serfdom and economic slavery is socialism.

So, does my advocacy of free market capitalism mean that I also believe that government has no role to play in this complex economic dance? No! The city of Emporia has a right and an obligation to act. In fact, the city’s laissez-faire attitude on slum lords has produced the unseemly status quo we now have. The slum lords profit at the expense of Emporians living on the economic margins, the renters live in squalor, and the rest of us pay in high taxes. That’s not 21st century capitalism. It’s the laissez-faire capitalism that gave the world the great depression in the 1920’s. It’s the laissez-faire capitalism that cost millions of Irish lives during the Great Potato Famine of the nineteenth century. It’s the kind of laissez-faire capitalism that condoned slavery in America because of the economic benefits slave owners reaped at the expense of another human being bound in chains.

None of the economists I’ve read have ever suggested that government has no role to play in the economics and sociology of our nation or its states and local municipalities. None has ever suggested that government doesn’t have a role to play when an economy is in free fall. None has ever suggested that an economic policy of benign neglect in the face of millions of needless deaths is sound. None has ever suggested we return to involuntary servitude because of its economic benefits.

This is what free market economist F.A. Hayek said in 1944 about the false choice laissez-faire advocates present:

“The question whether the state should or should not “act” or “interfere” poses an altogether false alternative, and the term “laissez-faire” is a highly ambiguous and misleading description of the principles on which liberal economic policy is based.”

There are times when government has a responsibility to act and one of the tools at its disposal is policy. That’s what livability codes here in Emporia are supposed to be about. If enforced, they don’t inhibit fair, free enterprise. They address a problem.

At the root here in Emporia we have a human problem. Look at the photograph I used in my introduction and ask yourself whether or not you’d live in something like that. Ask yourself whether or not you’d want someone to intervene on your behalf if you were living in such conditions.

Sometimes it’s not enough to simply say “Work your way out of your situation.” There are times when the leverage of public policy is required so that the long trek up the rungs of our economic ladder can begin. The situation with slum lords here in Emporia, Kansas is one of them. The city must act, and if I’m elected to the commission I intend to do my part in that regard!

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Servant Leadership

“You know that foreign rulers like to order their people around. And their great leaders have full power over everyone they rule. But don't act like them. If you want to be great, you must be the servant of all the others.”

- Jesus of Nazareth

A couple of nights ago I met with a group of Emporia’s firemen. One of the questions they asked Commissioner Tom Myers and me was our management philosophy. I told them, without hesitation, that mine is Servant Leadership. For me, this is a matter of faith and years of business practice.

While I have no sectarian interest in this election, faith is at the heart of who I am. I assume the best of the other candidates in this race as well.

My pilgrimage began early. I grew up in the Episcopal Church in Massachusetts. My earliest memories are of observing the great mysteries of faith. Even in my youth I had profound questions. Was God so distant that I could never relate to and with Him? Why was there so much evil in the world? Does God care about whether I live or die? Was Jesus of Nazareth really who He claimed to be? In time I summoned the courage to ask church leaders those questions. To my dismay they didn’t seem to have answers. “Do the best you can in life and God will reward you,” they said. My disappointment and anger led me to abandon faith altogether. Years later, in Vietnam, I had my Damascus Road experience. There, at a time when I cynically viewed the world as nothing more than a battle of the weak against the strong, my moment came. That time and that experience were life altering for me. From there, I set a different course in life and have never looked back. I earned an undergraduate degree in Communications with a minor in Linguistics. I went on to graduate school and earned a Master’s degree in theology. The guiding principles of my life today are grounded in my Christian faith and the principle that my role in life is to be a servant of others. As I’ve stumped around this city I’ve had some folks express the notion that they couldn’t vote for me because I’m “the guy who writes religious stuff.” At times like that it’s tempting to consider shifting gears, to set my faith aside to gain a vote. Of course, I can’t do that. My faith is at the heart of who I am. I cannot deny who I am, nor will I. As I said a paragraph ago, I have no sectarian interest in this election. I have no desire to use my faith as a bludgeon. My campaign is built on three themes – Community, Opportunity, Responsibility. They, in turn, are rooted for me in faith, love, and service. I’m doing what I’m doing because I see the needs and I want to serve.

Professionally, servant leadership is the model I proudly embraced for the last seventeen years of my career with FedEx. Fred Smith, FedEx’s founder, adopted that model in the corporation’s formative years and that’s one of the things that has made FedEx one of the world’s most admired and profitable business entities. Simply put, servant leadership works. One of the most prominent templates on display at FedEx reads, “If you’re not serving a customer directly, your job is to serve someone who is.” Those acquainted with me at FedEx knew that I fully subscribed to that philosophy. They knew, that while I was no shrinking violet, I was also a servant leader. It’s a record I’m proud of.

What does all of this have to do with the City Commission election? Everything. In about a month the voters of Emporia will decide who will sit in three of our “seats of power.” There are some relevant questions I believe that need to be answered for those who would take those seats. Should a servant leader ignore the plight of Emporians living at the mercy of slum lords? Should a servant leader ignore the pleas for fair compensation from public servants like our firefighters? Should a servant leader table equipment needs for these servants in order to present a shadow surplus to the city? Should a servant leader pursue a policy of benign neglect toward its minorities? These, and more, are all public policy questions that need to be answered.

I’ve set my campaign on the sail of servant leadership. It’s a philosophy I will not abandon. In 1521 Martin Luther told the Diet of Worms, “Here I stand, I can do no other.” That’s my stand also!

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Paper Tiger

“When you want to help people, you tell them the truth. When you want to help yourself, you tell them want you think they want to hear.”

- Thomas Sowell

I spent about three hours last night meeting with a group of Emporia’s bravest, our firefighters. One our incumbent commissioners, Tom Myers, was also there. The discussion was wide ranging, moving from compensation to management philosophy to the future of Emporia. I came away with two very distinct impressions. First, our firefighters are honorable, decent, hard-working men and women. They are dedicated to serving this community. Second, this city has, like so many other things, neglected them. They haven’t had a merit increase in years and the across the board raises of less than two percent they’ve been getting don’t even keep pace with the rate of inflation or their increases in insurance premiums.

Yesterday I wrote that the city has delayed looking at merit increases for a long time. For the firefighters and other city employees it means hope deferred over and over and over again. The city’s approach to the problem has been, as commissioner Julie Johnson said a few weeks ago, “to buy time.” In addition, the firefighters’ requests for capital equipment have been deferred. They’ve submitted requests for equipment like “jaws of life,” a thermal imaging camera, and other essentials and have been turned down. The police department has similar requests and they’ve also been turned down.

In the course of our discussions, Commissioner Myers touted the $300,000 surplus the city had produced in its final presentation of the 2006 city budget versus actual. Good news, right? Well, like so many things going on at city hall, the good news turned out to be nothing more than a shadow surplus, built on deferred capital expenditures and long overdue merit increases. If the city is that flush, why won’t it fund the requests of city employees protecting us from fire, thieves, and assorted rogues? Why should those answering our 911 calls and manning the patrol cars and ambulances be forced to come to the city, with hats in hand, to beg for what they need? Why should servants, dedicated to public safety, be treated as pawns in zero sum financial game?

Well, the time for change has come! It’s time for a new generation of city commissioners. It’s time for merit pay to be the norm. It’s time for merit pay to be instituted now, not deferred so that city officials can buy time. It’s time to give our public servants the equipment they need to do their jobs.

Some present last night said they were reluctantly looking elsewhere for employment, that the $8.88 to $12.00 an hour wasn’t enough to support a family. The last thing we need is to lose the good, decent, honorable people. What I heard from them last night was a plea for a return to common sense in city government. I heard them say they wanted to continue serving, that they loved this city. The city of Emporia needs to do its utmost to make sure they continue serving in the thoroughly professional way many of them have for years.

There was a stray item that came up in the discussions that illustrates perfectly what’s happening here in the shadow of the Kansas Flint Hills. Commissioner Myers touted his having drafted the latest version of the city’s livability codes. I applaud him for that. But, without enforcement, the code is nothing more than a paper tiger. It’s legislation without teeth, much like the promises for fair, just pay and the tools for public servants to do their jobs are when request after request is either denied or deferred.

It’s time for the city of Emporia to belly up to the bar and it’s time for the city of Emporia to cease playing the tired old zero sum game. Room can be found to do what’s right without increasing taxes. In fact, the task is “job one.” It’s time to put some teeth into our municipal tiger and do what's right. I’m committed to that!
Tomorrow I'll be discussing management philosophy. I'm a firm proponent of servant leadership. My virtual campaign bus will be ready to roll by about 9:00 A.M. I'd be honored to have you on board.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Give 'Em Hell

“I never give them hell.
I just tell the truth and they think it's hell.”

- Harry S. Truman

About a month ago our commissioners met to discuss the possibility of a pay increase for city workers. It was one in what has become in a long series of all talk, no action discussions that have left city workers, particularly rank and file employees, frustrated and dispirited. Morale at city hall is, understandably, low.

For months now the subject of pay for city employees has been on the table. In a spring discussion, for example, Commissioner Bobbie Agler tried to put forth a proposal that would move the city to a merit based compensation system. It made sense. Unfortunately the other four commissioners turned him down cold. Their reasoning was as startling as it has been consistent. “Developing the metrics to measure performance,” they said, “would be very difficult. We’re a service entity and there are no relevant measurements that could apply to us.” Hence, Bobbie Agler’s good idea was deferred. After the meeting I spoke with Mr. Agler and told him that in seventeen years at FedEx, a service based company, I was compensated based on merit, as was every other employee, in whatever capacity. There were performance metrics for engineers, managers, corporate communications personnel, human resource employees, vice-presidents, couriers, service agents, cargo handlers, analysts, administrative assistants, and information technology professionals. There were performance metrics for everyone at FedEx and compensation flowed from those metrics. The system was fair and just. It rewarded good performance and acted as an incentive for sub-par performers. It ‘s one of the reasons FedEx is such a successful corporation. The right things are rewarded.

When the subject came up again on February 15th, Commissioner Agler once again tried to get the ball rolling:

“What I am hearing is we’re not anywhere on either one,” Agler said, referring to the raises and the insurance. “And meanwhile our employees are left hanging.”

This time all the commissioners seemed to agree. The issue of pay for city employees was reaching critical mass. Unfortunately, little was done. About as good as it got was this from Commissioner Julie Johnson:

“Commissioner Julie Johnson was the first to suggest literally buying some time.”

“How would it be if, for this allocation, we did an across-the-board raise for all employees?” Commissioner Julie Johnson suggested. “That would give us a year to figure out the evaluations and what the procedure is going to be. If we did that, it would kind of release the morale issue as far as this budget year is concerned.”

I’m stunned. The best our commissioners can come up with is buying time. They seem to think that a minimal one time across the board pay raise will make the issue of just compensation go away for a year while they meet in session after session to continue spinning their wheels. That looks more like fear than sound policy to me. The thief is in the house and the commissioners are pulling the blankets over their heads hoping he’ll leave without inflicting too much damage.

In 1976 Howard Beale, the mad prophet of the airwaves, called on his viewers to open their eyes to the realities around them and then open their windows and scream, “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not gonna’ take it anymore.” To the experts and insiders he seemed like a harmless diversion. But, as windows all around the country opened and people began expressing their discontent it became clear that he’d struck a chord. People were as mad as hell and they weren’t gonna’ take it any more.

That’s where we are in Emporia, Kansas. Taxes are high, wages are low. Poverty has a grip on close to 20% of the people of this city. Less than 10% of Emporia’s Hispanics and Latinos go on from high school to college or technical school. Slum lords reign with impunity. Jobs and business are leaving town. Minorities feel disenfranchised. City employees aren’t getting pay raises. All of this is going on in plain sight and the commissioners are buying time, hoping the issues will just go away.

The election coming up in April and that’s when Emporians can express not only our present discontent, but our future hopes. The polling places around town will become the places where we can say not only that we’re mad as hell, but also where we can express the idea that we want change, that we want this city to grow and thrive.

As I’ve said before, that’s what my campaign is all about. If I’m elected I’m not going to hide under a blanket while the thieves of complacency and neglect continue to drain the life out of this city.

Monday, March 05, 2007

That Dog Won't Hunt

“You think you can say some words, take away the hurt
And I'll still be your number one
But when it ain't working out we got a saying down South
Baby ,that dog won't hunt.”

- Waylon Jennings

About three weeks ago City Commissioner Tom Myers proudly declared that retaining a consultant to assist in the hiring of a new city manager was about the best money the city had spent in some time. Amazing!

It’s seems that our city leadership has a penchant for hiring consultants. They hire a consultant to periodically develop a five year plan for the city. Once the seventy thousand or so is spent, the plan gathers dust somewhere in the city archives. When stray dogs roam the streets and some of them bite they consult a consultant to consider what does and does not constitute a dangerous animal. Amazing!

Just before the primary the Commissioners announced that, despite the fact they’d promised an open, transparent hiring process in October, they weren’t going to reveal the names and professional biographies of the five finalists for the position. The reason given was that their consultant had told them it would be better not to. When the public outcry was so great (80% of Emporians disapproved), our leaders reversed course and declared that the process would be opened to the public. The reason given was “our consultant told us it would be alright.” Amazing. I can only hope that their collective heads will be facing forward when all the spinning is said and done.

Some time ago the fire chief asked city management for the funds to hire a consultant. While I’m not a big fan of consultants, his reasoning seemed much more sound than that of the commissioners. All he wanted was the opportunity to explore possible efficiencies that could be gained in his department. The city leaders turned him down, saying that Emporia couldn’t afford the cost of a consultant. Amazing! How could a consultant be, according to one commissioner, a Godsend for them and not be a Godsend for the fire department? That dog won’t hunt!

When the city released its final 2006 budget it showed a surplus of over $300,000. On the surface it seemed like some welcome good news. But, below the surface, in the accounting details, it became clear that the surplus was built on deferred capital expense for the fire and police departments and by not backfilling open positions. Among those not filled was the director of the animal shelter. So, our police now have to wait for the good graces of the commissioners to get the equipment they need to protect us and the stray dogs will continue to roam our streets.

I wonder what advice the consultant might give our commissioners when the outcry for attention to public safety issues comes up, as it inevitably will. Will it sound something like, “We’re doing this because our consultant told us to do it this way.”? Well, that dog won’t hunt, either! It’s time for city leadership that will belly up to the bar and make responsible decisions for the people of this good city!

Saturday, March 03, 2007

"While I Breathe, I Hope"

“I know the price of success: dedication, hard work, and an unremitting devotion to the things you want to see happen.”

- Frank Lloyd Wright

Breaking through the name recognition barrier in a small city is a challenge. Since I began the stretch run to the City Commission primary I’ve heard the words, Phil who?” more than once. It’s also challenging to fight uphill against the political and social inertia that seems to have descended over this town like the potato blight fell upon my forbearers in Ireland during the nineteenth century.

Even with that, though, I’m hopeful. The incumbents are in my sights. There is some momentum going my way. The message is taking hold, because it’s true and on target. The increase in support is very gratifying!

Unlike most of the other candidates I’m not a native Emporian. My wife Nancy and I came here almost eight years ago as a matter of CHOICE! We could have decided to retire in Florida or even New Mexico. But, beginning with a dream in early 1999, we set our sails toward the Flint Hills and haven’t looked back. We love this city and we love its people. We CHOSE to be here!

I was born in Boston, Massachusetts, the youngest son of William and Susie Dillon’s three children. I’m a first generation American. My mother was an immigrant from the Canadian Maritimes, having grown up in the little fishing/whaling village of McIvers, Newfoundland in the early part of the twentieth century. My dad died when I was very young and my mother, who had only a third grade education and little in the way of support, had a nervous breakdown soon after his death. She was hospitalized for a good long while and my brother, sister, and I were at times helped by kind strangers and a few relatives. But, for the most part we were wards of the state, living on welfare. If folks wonder why I think the issue of slumlords and the issue of poverty are important to me I can say from first hand knowledge that I know the sting of poverty and I know the sting of benign neglect. I know what it’s like to live on society’s economic margins and I know what it’s like to live with the expectation that my role in life was to be the recipient of someone else’s goodness rather than becoming a productive member of society on my own.

One of the things my brother, sister, and I are most proud of is that we never gave up. Despite her third grade education, my mother never gave up either. She overcame and taught us the value of hard work and the necessity of education. The result of her labor is that we Dillons can justifiably proclaim that Susie Dillon’s children have succeeded. We’ve earned undergraduate and post-graduate degrees and our children have pursued the American dream even further. One day I believe someone from our family may well be the President of the United States or discover the cure for Alzheimer’s.

My family crest (see introduction) is emblazoned with the Latin proverb “Dum spiro spero.” Translated, it means, “While I breathe, I hope.” That says as much about me as anything. I’m a man of hope and it’s grounded in reality. I don’t believe anyone get from point A to B in this life without starting the journey on real terms. In fact, I believe that denying reality is the surest way to failure. My opponents in this campaign have consistently expressed the idea that everything in Emporia is just fine. I say that it’s denying reality and that this city will never become what we want it to be as long as this denial prevails.

A couple of days ago I sent a letter to the Gazette, expressing what I believe is the most hopeful message in this campaign. You see, I believe in the goodness of the people of this city. I believe they want change. I believe they want Emporia to flourish and thrive. I believe we can succed if we decide to change the current reality.

The letter to the Gazette follows. I say it's a message of hope and I’d appreciate any feedback about what I've said, especially from Emporians.

In the forums leading up to the primary some candidates expressed the idea that things in Emporia are okay, that I’m needlessly focusing on negatives. Let me respond.

I don’t think it’s okay that over 5,000 of my fellow Emporians are living in poverty. I don’t think it’s okay that our median household incomes are about the lowest in Kansas. I don’t think it’s okay that businesses are leaving Emporia and downtown development lags. I don’t think it’s okay that we’re caught in a low wage spiral with no end in sight. I don’t think it’s okay that, on a mill levy basis, our taxes are higher than Massachusetts’. I don’t think it’s okay that slum lords profit at the expense of Emporians living on the economic margins. I don’t think it’s okay that 21st century opportunities and jobs paying 21st century wages are passing us by. I don’t think it’s okay that less than 10% of Emporia’s Hispanics and Latinos vote.

In a day or so we’ll all be getting our 2007 valuations. They’re going up and so will our tax bills. I don’t think that’s okay either!

I love this city. I want it to be all that it can be. But I know that won’t happen by denying the current reality.

We need to change that current reality. We can turn things around and Emporia can be the vibrant city we all want. That’s what my campaign is all about! That’s what Phil Dillon is all about!

Friday, March 02, 2007

Small Town Slobberknocker

“You can lead a politician to water, but you can’t make him think.”

- Texas cowboy philosopher Kinky Friedman

I’ve just been through a primary campaign for City Commission in Emporia, Kansas, my home town. There were eight candidates prior to the election. Now there are six, and I’m one of them. So, from today until April 3rd it’s going to be a rugby match, or as they call it out here, a real slobberknocker. On January 25th I was running dead last according to a Gazette poll. The official results, which will be finalized today, show me running fifth, with about 12 to 13 percent of the vote. One of the incumbents is in my sights and I’m sensing momentum swinging my way. I intend to run hard and hit the themes that have gained me some traction in this race. I intend to win!

As I write the issues before the people of this good city are becoming evident. Valuations are coming out and, while it should be good news, it isn’t. Residential property values are increasing by an average five percent. Business valuations are increasing by an average of eight. That would be good news if the increase in value was due to an increase in individual wealth. But it’s not. Emporia’s median household income ($30,000) is 27% below the Kansas average of $41,000. Individual poverty rates here are 17.9%. In raw numbers it means that over 5,000 Emporians are living in poverty. Our real estate taxes are now beyond the stratosphere, just about ready to break out of orbit and soar to the stars. If our mill levy here in Emporia were applied to the average property value in Massachusetts, for example, the average Bostonian’s real estate tax bill would almost double, from $3,700 to over $6,200!

Yesterday the city engineer met with the current commissioners and recommended an increase in sewer rates of 25 to 30%. The rationale given was that it would only increase water bills by six to eight dollars a month. I guess that doesn’t seem like much to the commissioners or the city engineer. It certainly does to folks living on fixed incomes. It certainly does to the five thousand or more of us living on the economic margins, scraping for every penny to make ends meet. The reason given for the increase was to cover depreciation costs and equipment upgrades. Well, that dog won’t hunt. I kinda’ wonder if it didn’t have something to do with the $600,000 the city took from the water fund a while back to cover shortfalls in the general fund. Then, to make matters worse, the plan was touted as a way of avoiding a bond issue over the matter. In other words, city leadership doesn’t want the people of this city to vote on the issue. They seem to think that the people of this city constitute a perpetual ATM machine and really shouldn’t have a say in the matter. All the city needs to do is press the right buttons and money will magically flow from our wallets to theirs. They play a zero sum game with us, saying that if we want better services we need open the spigots and give ‘em what they want. Well, that dog won’t hunt either.

It’s time for change! The first thing the city needs to do is to reduce its residential portion of the mill levy by 8 mills and reduce the business levy by 10 mills. That would give Emporians the real value of added equity without a tax increase. It can and should be done! Of course that would mean the city would have to either flat line or reduce its budget. That needs to happen, given current trends the possibility now seems remote.

If current trends continue this city is going to have to revise it’s motto to read something like: “Emporia, our taxes are just a bit lower than Sweden’s.”

In the forums leading up to the primary, some of the other candidates said they didn’t like the negative talk, that everything in Emporia is just fine. Well, I’d love to be able to say that, but it wouldn’t be true. I’ll address that tomorrow. Stay tuned!