Column: Math Is Hard, But This Ain’t Math

Or: How does the gasoline get into your tank?

Even in a smaller-sized city like Ann Arbor, governmental issues can be fairly complex. Still, our local issues are typically simple enough that they can be mastered even by an ordinary citizen who can read words on a page.

Bezonki is terrible at math, which could explain why stuff is always exploding.

This panel is from The Chronicle’s monthly comic, Bezonki, which is drawn by local artist Alvey Jones, a partner at the WSG Gallery. Bezonki is really terrible at math, which could explain why stuff is always exploding during his adventures. (This image links to a listing of all of the Bezonki panels.)

However, over the last several weeks, a significant issue has been brought forward for debate that’s been portrayed by some local officials as far more complex than that.

For now, let’s not even think about what the issue might be. It could be zoning. Or dog parks. Or parking rates. Or police staffing levels. Or public art. Or express bus service. Or outdoor signs. Or none of those. Call it Issue X.

As I’ve chronicled the workings of Ann Arbor’s local governance recently, I’ve watched as two local representatives – one elected and one appointed – have seemed to portray Issue X as too mathematically challenging to grasp. I chalk that up to politics: If the math can be set aside, then the conversation can more easily move to pure politics – the strong suit of elected and appointed officials.

To be clear, Issue X is fraught with politics. But I don’t think that focusing on the politics of Issue X serves the interests of Ann Arbor residents.

Issue X is also fraught with mathematical calculations. But not everyone is comfortable with equations.

So in this column I’ll sketch out an analogy that I think, on a purely conceptual level, accurately captures the essence of Issue X – in non-mathematical, non-political terms.

Issue X: The Gas Cards

Imagine a company called CommunityWorks. The company has five frontline employees in the Ann Arbor area: Allison, Ann, Walter, William and Dan. Each employee has a company automobile. The company gives four of the employees a card with a magnetic strip – which they can swipe at the CommunityWorks pump to put gasoline into their automobiles. Using that gasoline, they can drive places to do important work for the company. But Dan is the odd man out. Dan doesn’t receive a gasoline card.

So what is Dan supposed to do for gasoline to keep his car running?

Issue X: How Dan Gets Gas

Dan gets his gasoline using a CommunityWorks company policy, set forth by the CEO. The policy allows Dan to go to the other employees’ cars and extract gasoline from their tanks. So Dan routinely hooks up a hose to Allison’s car – and to Ann’s and Walter’s and William’s – and extracts some gasoline from their tanks.

It’s just a small portion of the gasoline in each tank that Dan extracts. The amount is strictly regulated by a special meter – given to Dan by the CEO and calibrated by Ann’s supervisor. Dan is required to attach the special meter to the gasoline extraction hose whenever he uses it to extract gasoline from someone else’s tank.

The other employees know that Dan is doing this, and they might grumble about it from time to time – because other than Ann, they didn’t have any say in the formulation of the gas hose policy. But they understand that it’s all perfectly consistent with the policy. Still, they sometimes ask Dan where he’s driving with the gasoline he has extracted from their tanks. They ask, because they themselves can’t drive quite as far to do their own work for the company – on account of the gas that Dan takes out of their tanks. So they feel it’s fair to ask Dan to account for where he drives.

And Dan will explain that he’s used their gasoline, for example, to make client visits. And Dan will tell them that this generates more income for the company. And Dan often talks about the fact that he calls on really difficult clients, and convinces those difficult clients to do business with the company. These are the clients that Allison, Ann, Walter and William would probably not otherwise call on, according to Dan.

The company’s employees seem to be mostly satisfied with the arrangement – and they all agree that Dan is a solid employee who makes a positive contribution to the company. Dan is able to make pleasant small talk around the water cooler.

And the other employees think it might be possible that what Dan is saying is true – that Dan is generating additional income for the company, that allows additional gasoline to be put into the pump for the other employees: Allison, Ann, Walter and William.

Issue X: The Special Meter

But one day, as Ann is watching Dan extracting the gasoline from her tank, she notices that Dan has attached the special meter to the hose in an odd way. It looks upside-down to her. And when questioned about it, Dan concedes that it looks upside-down, but says he’s always done it that way. It turns out that Dan’s way of attaching the meter to the hose increases the amount of gasoline that Dan is able to extract from the other employees’ gas tanks.

So Ann says to Dan: I think you ought to attach the meter so that it’s right-side-up. Dan agrees in the future to use the meter in its right-side-up position. And Dan even goes so far as to put back some gasoline into the other employees’ tanks based on the excess amounts he’s previously extracted.

But then Allison, Walter and William notice something: Dan didn’t use the special meter that the CEO had given him to measure out the amount of gasoline he put back into their tanks. They notice that Dan used a different meter – one that returned to them less gasoline than the company’s meter would have dispensed.

So they question Dan about this. Dan’s response: I’ve hired a mechanic who tells me the technique I’ve always been using to attach the meter to the hose is actually an acceptable way to do it; and, by the way, I didn’t need to put that gasoline back into your tanks in the first place.

Issue X: Resolving the Dispute

Ann’s supervisor – the guy who calibrated the meter – proposes that a safety clamp be added, to ensure that in the future, when the meter is attached to the hose, it’s right-side-up.

Tax Increment Finance (TIF)

I’m guessing that at least some Chronicle readers quickly recognized Issue X as the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority tax increment finance (TIF) capture. In terms of Issue X, the city council is Ann’s supervisor.

The council is currently poised to add a safety clamp to the meter that attaches to the DDA’s TIF revenue hose. That safety clamp takes the form of revisions to Chapter 7 of the city’s code, which established the DDA.

When the politics and the math are stripped away – as they are in the CommunityWorks analogy – it’s easy to see why those ordinance revisions received majority support (7-3) when the council took its initial vote on April 1.

And it’s easy to see why city councilmembers who are focused on the substance of the issue, instead of the politics, would support those revisions on April 15. That’s when the council is set to take its second and final vote.

Cast of Characters, Props

A more complete key to the characters in the CommunityWorks analogy:

  • gasoline: tax money
  • gas card: legal authority to levy a tax
  • extracted gasoline from another tank: tax increment finance (TIF) revenue
  • gas hose and meter: Michigan’s Downtown Development Authority Act
  • inner workings of gas hose meter: Ann Arbor’s DDA ordinance (Chapter 7)
  • Allison: Ann Arbor District Library
  • Ann: City of Ann Arbor
  • Ann’s Supervisor: Ann Arbor city council
  • Walter: Washtenaw County
  • William: Washtenaw Community College
  • Dan: Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority
  • The Mechanic: DDA legal counsel
  • CommunityWorks: State of Michigan
  • CEO of CommunityWorks:  Michigan state legislature

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  1. April 10, 2013 at 7:50 pm | permalink

    I like how this lets CommunityWorks pretend that it’s not actually using any of its client’s money to buy gas for Dan.

  2. By Timothy Durham
    April 11, 2013 at 8:30 am | permalink

    In what way are Dan’s clients “difficult?”

    Since I have been trying to follow this, Dan’s clients have seemed like low-hanging fruit, development-wise, and profit-wise, while actually difficult clients (like Packard Square, North Main at Depot, the DTE/Amtrak site, as examples- out of Dan’s zone, yes, but still) are left to languish?

    “Difficult” might also mean finding a developer to build something of universal, and long term, value to Ann Arbor civically, (but not maximally profitable) on a site that could be maximized for easy profitability but hated by the citizenry.

  3. By anna ercoli schnitzer
    April 11, 2013 at 8:31 am | permalink

    I really enjoyed (and learned from) your analogy, Dave (and particularly appreciated the key to the characters)–even though I had to read the column several times to capture and understand all the details. Thanks very much for writing this. It really simplified the so-called “math” for me.

  4. April 11, 2013 at 10:02 am | permalink

    Re: [3] “In what way are Dan’s clients ‘difficult’?”

    Tim, what I had in mind here was, for example, repairing the parking structures – difficult in the sense that the taxing jurisdictions themselves might not be willing to undertake these types of projects. This part of the analogy was meant to capture the fact that, for example, DDA board members and staff will point to the fact that historically the city was not willing to make those investments in parking structure repair. Think of any projects that require long term planning and investment but would be easy to do without in the short term. Allison and Ann and Walter and William deal with the “clients” that would bail on the company if they didn’t get a visit today – collecting the trash and the like. Dan deals with “clients” that require long-term cultivation and relationships.

  5. By Timothy Durham
    April 11, 2013 at 10:09 am | permalink

    [4] Thanks Dave. Got it. Thanks for the analogy, too. It helps the newly initiated get a grip on what can be a counterintuitive descent into deep, and political, bureaucracy.

  6. By James Jefferson
    April 12, 2013 at 1:19 am | permalink

    I like it but still am not completely clear on the cast of characters. Who is the taxpayer, who has the ability to replace Ann’s Supervisor(s) If they are dissatisfied with the way she/he is doing their job?

  7. By Eco Bruce
    April 12, 2013 at 5:02 pm | permalink

    Cute analogy, but there are some edits to make.

    Dan, although he does not have a gas card, does have a gas station to use – the old fashioned kind that uses attendants to disperse fuel. The CFO gets to determine how much gas Dan gets pumped into his tank annually. The CFO does this by sending out one particular attendant to the car. There are at least five attendants on standby, and each of them would use a different meter to put gas in Dan’s tank, but for the last 30 years or so that Dan has been working for CommunityWorks, the CFO has always sent the same attendant. Occasionally, the Board of Directors asks Dan to bring his car in for service, and at least once while the car was in the shop, they asked the attendant for gas to be extracted out of the tank.

    Most of the Directors know that Dan does a really good job. Some think that if it had not been for Dan, CommunityWorks may have gone bankrupt during the Great Recession. Some Directors even think that because of Dan, there is more gas for everyone’s tank.

    Chapter 2:
    Director K, who desires to become the CEO, wants to fire Dan – regardless of his successes! When he realized that the other Directors would never agree to this, he began to plot to get the CFO to send out a new attendant to fill Dan’s gas tank. Director K is confident that any of the other attendants’ meters would pump less gas into Dan’s car. He is also confident that his actions will win praises from the shareholders and when they send in their proxy votes, they will be sure to check the box next to his name for another term on the Board.

    CFO – The City Assessor
    Board of Directors – City Council
    Shareholders- Voters