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city hall's seedy underbelly
The following is NOT a true story about grift in major American cities. The real estate playing field is perfectly level for everyone. Say it with me: the real estate playing field is perfectly level for everyone. Thank you.
“Ray” (we’ll call him Ray for this story) is like that disagreeable pair of underwear we all have - the ones employed with great reluctance, and only after exhausting all other options, including no underwear whatsoever.
We got to know Ray in the aftermath of a rogue water bill. For years the monthly water bill at one of our shopping centers was $7,000, give or take a few hundred dollars. Preposterous, we thought, when a bill arrived for $45,000.
It didn’t help that the bill arrived in the throws of the Great Financial Crisis, when we were already living on thin steaks. And the bill was for the whole property, not just the landscaping in the common areas - a more typical practice in the shopping center business. In this case, if we didn’t pay, each of our tenants’ water supply would be shut off. No water, no business, no business, no rent, no rent, no loan payments, no loan payments, no bueno.
The water and sewer department’s office didn’t accept visitors. Their phone system didn’t have an option of talking to a live person. Callers could go through a series of prompts, all leading to various methods of paying their bill, or, after a circuitous keypad trail of annoyance, leave a message. And leave messages we did. Pleasant ones at first, followed by unpleasant ones.
The bill was, without a doubt, incorrect - the water meter was submerged under a foot of leaves and floating trash beneath a manhole cover. It hadn't been read, it couldn’t be read, the city wouldn’t answer the phone, and so we paid our normal $7,000 hoping to buy some time.
It didn’t work. We received some hate mail in the form of a new bill letting us know we now owed $83,000 (two months x $45,000 - $7,000) and the water was soon to be shut off if we didn’t pay.
After our feckless City councilman responded “have you tried…?”, and suggesting several time wasting ideas, we widened our search and an old architect pal said, with his face at once both concerned and amused, “well, you know, hmm, you could always call Ray”.
The architect continued, with his hands raised in defense, “you see Ray, well, he operates, shall we say, in an unorthodox manner…”
We met Ray the next day. He had sideburns, wore a white short sleeve oxford, and smelled like cigarettes. He was friendly and all business, opening a laptop and walking us through a presentation on his capabilities.
The presentation looked reasonable and predictable for a consultant - a series of pictures displaying large recognizable commercial properties. Only when listening to his words did it seem crazy.
“We can get this worked out today, no problem”. Ray said. “You see, we have associates at the city that help us sort through all types of issues from permitting to billing - see this property here [pointing to a photo of one of the city’s luxury hotels] - they don’t even receive a water bill.”
Ray continued: “it takes a village, and by being aligned financially, certain city staff members allow our us to use their computer while they’re on break to, you know, help the process along.”
We didn't engage Ray - preferring instead to go commando. But Ray did work all across the city, and every city has a roster of Rays. Bureaucracies are fertile ground for these types.
If grift is a byproduct of bureaucracy, instead of pretending this ambient corruption doesn’t exist, why not embrace it? Open it up to capitalism, bring the Rays out of the shadows - call them “Permit Workers” and remove the stigma. They’ve proven themselves effective and know how to get stuff done. Maybe they’re the cure for government dysfunction?
Nah - let’s give the slippery slope a wide berth and do all we can to strengthen our democracy and protect the rule of law, warts and all.