Thursday, September 13, 2018

The Maine Wire: Is Referendax right for you?

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An item by your correspondent was published on the Maine Wire today; you can read it here:

http://www.themainewire.com/2018/09/doctor-referendax/

A passage or three to whet your appetite is shown below; enjoy.

Matt Gagnon did a superb job of “fisking” Edgar Allen Beem‘s recent Forecaster column attacking MHPC’s report on Maine’s referendum process.  The report details how the process has increasingly been used by out of state big money interests.  In his response, Matt clearly showed how intellectually bankrupt Beem is, and how perverted his journalistic principles are.  Ethics and integrity are the least of Beem’s concerns, and he shows his disrespect for Forecaster readers because of it.

Beem has “dined out” on his hatred of Gov. LePage and all things Republican, and since 2016, has added President Trump to his regular meals.  Without these two, it’s safe to say he’d be scratching in his front lawn for column subject matter.  Last year he went so far as to say “99% of Trump voters are white trash Americans.”

Surely you’ve seen the numerous pharmaceutical commercials on TV–they are more prominent than ever.  They’re filled with schmaltzy visuals of loving individuals romping through spring fields, or nuzzling at home, or enjoying time with friends, overlaid with fine print and voice overs about warnings and side effects, sometimes mentioning death as a possible outcome!

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Back in the cockpit, in a manner of speaking….

       

Regular followers of Other Side know that we’ve rapidly transitioned in the last year or two from a more or less daily to weekly to monthly to quarterly posting schedule.  A number of things have caused this, not the least of which is age, and a sort of wearying of the enterprise and whatever obligations it imposes on us.  In the nine years this publication has existed, we’ve published more than 1200 items, and from time to time “broke” a story that might otherwise not have seen the light of day.  But you are no doubt of the “yeah, but what have you done for us lately?” persuasion.

Further, we’re more or less resigned to the fact that Brunswick governance, and the other regular targets of our analysis and insights, are essentially irredeemable, incorrigible, and completely immune to published commentary.  No matter how embarrassing it might be, at least by what use to be normal standards.  In so many words, most of what we’ve done here has been a complete waste of time. 

We’ve long been fond of banging our head against any nearby wall in order to retain a smidgeon of self-respect, even if some in elected office like to call us “Mr. Grumpy.”  That’s a darn sight better than being known as “Mr.  Pushover,” as we see it.

The last “excuse” we’ll offer is a 10 month old Springer Spaniel named Snoopy who is an attention junky.  He finds it difficult to allow us more than 10 or 15 minutes of reflection, let alone focused writing, at a time.  And he’s not particularly helpful when it comes to our desire for regular naps.

We should add that most of our posting over the years has been a matter of being compelled by some item in the news or a personal concern over the state of affairs.  We have rarely posted out of any sense of obligation.   In the last year or two, inspiration has been coming at a slower and slower pace.

Which brings us to the reason for this post.  Recent news has crossed the wires on three of our most favored targets for comment.  These are the abject looniness that is the Amtrak Downeaster, the truckloads of “corporate welfare” delivered to the former BNAS, and the profligate capital spending of Brunswick.

We’ve often referred to Brunswick as “the richest little town in America.”  The taxpayer spending on the Downeaster and the former Navy base makes it clear that we are the richest state and national governments in the world, even it if takes printing and borrowing funds to do so.  In so many words, we don’t think governments at any level give a flying fig how much they spend, because it’s not their money!  And they know that resistance is weak and futile.

To quote an oft cited truism, “nobody spends other people’s money as carefully as they spend their own.”

So dear readers, loyal or not, reality has finally stuck enough pins in our generous but curvaceous butt to get us back at the keyboard.  Whether or not this is a passing phase remains to be seen; we’ll simply see how the muse of irritation directs us.

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For purposes of the moment, we’re simply going to introduce the latest in appalling funding of capital work at Brunswick Landing, and in particular the so called Brunswick Executive Airport.  I was fuming as I read the article:

https://www.timesrecord.com/articles/front-page/airport-at-former-brunswick-naval-air-station-to-to-get-new-hangar-as-part-of-6-2-million-faa-package/

Brunswick Executive Airport will receive $6.2 million from the Federal Aviation Administration to build a new hangar, install fencing and make other improvements to the airport.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, the chairwoman of the Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee, announced the funding through the FAA’s Airport Improvement Program, which sets aside funding for the Military Airport Program, on Monday.

“Brunswick Executive Airport is home to multiple aviation and aerospace companies and has been a major catalyst for the redevelopment of Brunswick Naval Air Station,” said Sen. Collins. “In addition to improving safety and making important infrastructure upgrades, this investment will help the airport continue to attract businesses and good-paying jobs to the region.”

The funding will be awarded as follows:

 $3,636,800 for the construction of a new hangar to accommodate general aviation aircraft;

 $1,029,445 to install perimeter fencing;

 $330,255 to repair utilities, and

 $1,219,320 to improve airport drainage

At this point, you’ve likely forgotten the post where we itemized the annual pork rations doled out to MRRA for airport enhancements.  You’ll find it here:

https://othersideofbrunswick.blogspot.com/2017/08/yes-brunswick-just-like-we-told.html

It lists nearly $13 million in grants for the “private airport.”  As of last summer.  With this latest barrel of lard, you can start using $20 million as a round number.  Which is irresponsible and obscene on so many levels, though the good Lord knows, as do we all, that the former BNAS has always been short on hangar space.

The full article contains other words that strain belief, especially if you compare details given in the cited Other Side post.

We’ve decided to defer any further comment until such time as we receive related information requested under FOIA/FOAA provisions.  We fully expect the information will get the juices flowing…and perhaps nearing the boiling point.

Those who examine the figures listed above, and who have any sense of perspective on such “improvements,” should already be fuming.  Any plans you had for taking your kids and grandkids swimming and fishing at the base lake will have to look elsewhere.  We assume the drainage work will eliminate it from the landscape.

When you come right down to it, is it any wonder that many of us just throw our arms up, and think in terms of tossing all the Washington careerists under the bus?  As we’ve said before, if this is what goes on in our little speck in the world, imagine the scale of things on a nationwide basis.

A trillion here, a trillion there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money.  Watch the mail for the bill for your share.

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Saturday, June 9, 2018

ICYMI: BJHS Q&A event

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We became aware of this announcement through one of our field reporters.  The less we say about it the better, lest we be skewered as some sort of unhinged blogger, as a local columnist views us.  A conveyor of toxic masculinity… or some other fashionable label of our era.

We do think the community at large should be aware of such programming at our public schools, and the influence it has on school budgets, which is no doubt impossible to determine in detail.  We assume related activities take place at other schools in our system.

So here it is, direct from its source…the BJHS web site:

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If you were thinking that “Q&A” in the title referred to questions and answers, you would be wrong.  We’re assuming anyone with a sense of today’s culture can decode the Q.

If you don’t know what an Ally is, let’s just say it’s not a bank.  And you need to “get woke,” in contemporary SJW street language.

We won’t comment on the opportunities for shaming this week provides.  Let’s just say we’re reminded of the Seinfeld episode where Kramer wouldn’t “wear the ribbon.”  The irony, of course, is that a program about inclusion can just as easily be one about exclusion, if you get our drift.

We have one other question.  Do you suppose there’s a 3R club that holds a pride week to celebrate the readin’, ritin’, and rithmatic they’ve mastered at BJHS?  With all the hoopla over the annual school budget, we can’t recall a single celebration of accomplishing the basic education mission assigned to our several schools and their staffs.

Maybe we need to “get woke” on such purposes.  How dare we hold on to such archaic expectations?

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Friday, April 20, 2018

Footnotes to the post on our PPH column

Some of you may be wondering about these passages in the column:

To request an immediate stop to the project, pending a detailed investigation and peer review, I personally contacted in writing all relevant legislative committees, the Governor’s Office, and MDOT leadership in January.

Not a single response or acknowledgment ensued.

Not a soul in the authority chain seems to give a damn about this.

The written contact referred to is this (in part:)

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You can find the entire document here:

https://www.scribd.com/document/376899444/Addendum-to-Ltr-to-JTrans-Com-Jan-2018

The previous memo to which this was an addendum is this (in part:)

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You can find this entire document here:

https://www.scribd.com/document/376899311/Ltr-to-JTransCom-on-NNEPRA-Dec-17

Just to be clear, not a single response ensued, from any of the numerous addressees to each document.  Hence the PPH op-ed.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Something smells fishy, and we think it’s coming from NNEPRA

You may have seen news earlier this year about NNEPRA adding to the Downeaster passenger rail service with summer weekend runs up the coast from Brunswick to Rockland.  Here’s one example:

https://www.coastaljournal.com/2018/01/31/wiscasset-gives-nod-amtrak/

The service is a pilot project dubbed the “Coastal Connection,” and would only run on weekends as a slower excursion designed for tourists stopping in Bath, Wiscasset, Newcastle, and Rockland.

The plan, said NNERPA Executive Director Patricia Quinn, is to more fully utilize train sets already in use by the organization, minimizing the cost – about $200,000 – of the additional run.

A conservative estimate of potential ticket sales is around $100,000, Quinn added.

It didn’t take long before affected communities….Bath, Wiscasset, Newcastle, and Rockland….were counting their chickens before they hatched, and looking for summer time infusions of free money from wild-spending tourists.

While the initial hype was that the new service would run ten weekends per year, it didn’t take long before plans were revised down to three weekends.

And then, before the chickens and free money hatched, the kibosh was put on the whole idea.  From  http://www.trainridersne.org/:

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http://bangordailynews.com/2018/03/27/business/report-passenger-rail-extension-to-rockland-canceled-for-2018/

Quinn has said the extension of the Downeaster service would utilize existing rail and train infrastructure. While the Maine Department of Transportation owns the 58 miles of tracks between Brunswick and Rockland, the Central Maine and Quebec Railway lease the tracks for carrying freight……..Amtrak will come back later this year to conduct the risk assessment on the Brunswick-Rockland line, she said.

Let’s cut to the chase with some succinct points in response to the specifics of this situation:

1) Patricia Quinn, ED of NNEPRA, is an employee of the State of Maine entrusted with managing operation of the Downeaster, and any other passenger rail service she can go out and sell to anyone who will listen and help find the funds to pay for it.   She clearly proposed seasonal weekend service to the communities along the Rockland Branch, getting them all worked up and salivating over the new economic riches that would come their way this summer.  Doing so before seeing to it that everything was in place to make these promises come true is a clear indication of how she prioritizes marketing far higher than managing the operation of the NNEPRA/Downeaster enterprise on behalf of citizens/taxpayers of Maine.

“The public support was overwhelming. There’s a lot of energy,” said Quinn. “I think it just showed there’s really a strong desire for such a service.”……..“We’re hopeful we can get the resources and the support that we need going forward such that we can offer a good service in 2019.”

2) Selling this service to the affected towns isn’t hard; there are always downtown association and chamber types who will rave about the possibility of incoming dollars for which they are convinced will be paid for with OPM.  They NEVER consider the downside, like economic suction from their communities to points more exciting down south, like Boston.

3) Quinn commented that she believed she could pay for the losses involved in any such new service out of existing operating accounts.  This is preposterous and laughable considering that the current Downeaster operation runs at an operating loss in the range of $10 million per year.  Apparently she has adopted the Federal Government’s approach towards overspending, deficits, and federal debt.  This should come as no surprise, since Amtrak, the provider of Downeaster Train Sets and Crews has operated at a substantial loss since its inception.  We believe it was created to fill the gap left by private passenger rail services going belly-up because they were not viable and sustainable.

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(Above extract is from a letter dated February 26, 2018 from the Commissioner of MDOT)

4) The State of Maine owns the Rockland Branch – the trackage upon which the summer excursion would operate.  Accordingly, NNEPRA did not have the bargaining options open to it that they do with Pan Am and the MBTA.  Quid-pro-quo arrangements with the State just aren’t an option.  We’re suspicious this is already a money-loser for the State, and hence their recent letter to NNEPRA and it’s Board stating they would not be providing any new funding to help initiate the Downeaster extension to Rockland.

5) We’re told by reliable sources that the Rockland Branch is in very good shape, and may be in better shape than much of the Downeaster route south of Brunswick.  Witness the plans for another major tie replacement this year, in the range of 15,000 to 20,000 ties total.  That should cause a major hit in service curtailments and on-time-performance.

6) NNEPRA’s proposal for this service claimed the 58 mile run would take two hours plus.  That’s an average of something under 30 miles an hour, which would make sense, since it would be a summertime excursion service, and sightseeing would be a substantial appeal, if not the only appeal.  This top speed requires far less in track bed quality than running at 70 miles an hour.  Furthermore, the Maine Eastern Railroad ran a nearly identical service between Brunswick and Rockland for several years, but gave it up because it was not economically viable.  But they are a private railroad, not a publicly operated one.  None-the-less, they didn’t seem to have any issues with track and bridge condition to operate their service.

7) Using the excuse that Amtrak is too backed up to get to route inspection in time to initiate the service this summer is a distraction of convenience.  The Rockland Branch gets very little use since the Maine Eastern service ended, and should not have deteriorated significantly since then.  As shown by the MDOT letter, the State is not willing to fund any remediation deemed necessary for the Downeaster runs.

Amtrak was unable to complete a risk assessment of the railroad from Brunswick to Rockland in time to launch the pilot program this summer, according to Patricia Quinn, executive director of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority.

“One of the caveats of moving forward with the service this summer was that Amtrak would be able to complete what they are calling a risk assessment of the railroad line,” she said Tuesday. “We were notified yesterday that due to some of their other priorities and other deadlines that they have, they’re not going to be able to complete that this spring in timely enough fashion for us to be able to get crew qualified and operate services this summer.”

8) Lastly, using Amtrak as the scapegoat for not beginning the service this summer is too cute by half.  Amtrak is way off there in the distance in the seat of our Nation’s government.  They are big scary federal officials, not easily accessible to the ladies of AAB or any other zealots for passenger rail.  Invoking them as the cause is tantamount to saying “it’s not us, it’s them, and there isn’t anything we can do about it.

  

All in all, this situation comes down to another indication of NNEPRA’s lack of expertise in the real details of railroading, program management, and execution.  Not to mention Ms. Quinn’s penchant (and TRNE’s as well) for selling the sizzle before she has any ideal how to buy, cook, and serve a steak.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Quick note on the PPH Opinion Column

If you’ve followed up on the post about our Maine Voices column that appears in today’s Portland paper, you should look at the comments too.

One includes a link to this article:  https://www.heritage.org/transportation/report/federal-transportation-programs-shortchange-motorists-update-usdot-study

Here’s how it begins; the chart is a real eye-opener:

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Falmouth throws down the gauntlet….

We’ve been musing on school budgets in the last few days, including showing you this chart that benchmarks Brunswick against a “cohort of peers.”

   

Now comes exciting news from Falmouth in the great race to the top of school spending.  A resident there we know sends data along stating that Falmouth is proposing to spend $36,905,000 in the coming school year to educate 2105 students.  That works out to $17,532 per student per year.

So you might say Falmouth has come a long way, baby, in just 3 years.  Increasing total spending by $4 Million, and per student spending by $2,000!  By any measure, that’s a dazzling pace of spending increase, paid for by you know who (in Falmouth.)

Weak and feeble Brunswick is only increasing spending over the same three years by a little over $2 million, with a per student increase of only $1,000 or so.  To be clear, Brunswick’s proposed spending for FY 18-19 is $38.9 Million, for per student spending of $16,500.  For another $2.4 million, we could match Falmouth per student figures.  But we’re too cheap, and we don’t care enough about the children.  (In reality, we’re not paying the teachers as highly, or shrinking class size enough.)

Oh, the shame!

You know, we just noticed another difference in the cohort numbers, which are sourced from the state.  Our data shows Brunswick had a school budget of $36.5 million in FY 15-16, netting out to $15,600 per student.

We suspect that the state’s DOE excludes transportation and debt service in their figures.  We don’t for obvious reasons.  It’s money taxpayers have to provide, and the Department spends to discharge its responsibilities.  This may mean that the figures cited above for Yarmouth in FY 15-16 are similarly modified.  The $36,905,000 provided by our contact is the TOTAL spending proposed.

But it’s clear as your property tax bill that Brunswick needs to hide in shame by comparison.

One more thing is obvious.  The state should stop adjusting total spending by the towns so the top line is clear.  And valuation figures should reflect taxable appraised valuation, not total valuation.  Then comparing figures might actually have some merit.

But no; that would mess things up by making them clearer, and we can’t have that in government conduct of our business, can we.

It’s more useful to our officials to keep us as mushrooms.  Even if in Falmouth they are all morels, compared to the Baby Bellas in Brunswick.

Side’s opinion published in the Portland Press Herald

For your amusement and edification:

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The entire item is here:  https://www.pressherald.com/2018/04/17/maine-voices-rail-authority-demonstrates-two-degrees-of-fraud-waste-and-abuse/

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Monday, April 16, 2018

School Budget Embarrassment….a quick thought

You might remember that in yesterday’s post, the table below appeared.  In the Budget Book published by the BSD, it appeared under the title “Benchmarking Against a Peer Cohort.”  We pointed out that we didn’t know how the other members of the cohort were chosen, but we did suggest the data was provided to suggest that Brunswick residents are tightwads, relatively speaking, since our tangible real estate wealth is exceeded only slightly by a wealthy coastal enclave of lovely estates and waterfront properties.  SAD 75, of course, consists of 4 towns, including Harpswell with all its coastal properties.

As we thought about these numbers after publishing the post, we recalled the total valuation figures we’d seen over the years, along with exemptions.  What came to mind was roughly $2 Billion in total appraised value, reduced by about $700 Million in exemptions, netting a taxable valuation in the range of $1.3 Billion.

Sure enough, we found this summary from the town in our files.

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As you can see, it shows a taxable real estate total of $1.28 Billion, after deducting $782 Million in exemptions.

We’re not exactly sure how the $2 Billion plus figure used by the state for valuation in 15-16 came about, but we’ll assume it comes from a number of state specific tweaks, perhaps involving personal property and BETE numbers.  But as you can see, it grossly overstates the total Taxable Value in town, which according to budget documents in our archives, stood at $1.375 Billion in FY15-16.

Now this could be an innocent mistake.  Or, it could be a convenient difference that, as we suggested earlier, might help in heaping shame upon uninformed residents, greasing the skids for generous spending and tax increases in due consideration of our town’s wealth.

We’ve generally thought that the bulk of tax exemptions in Brunswick can be attributed primarily to Bowdoin College and two Hospital complexes.  Then add all the properties in conservation.  How the former BNAS fits into this we have no clue.  Regardless, we’re pretty sure the other members of the “benchmarking peer group” have no exemptions in the class of a college and two hospitals.

So we believe it’s entirely fair to assert that the Brunswick number should be reduced to the $1.3 billion range to be consistent with the numbers for the other cohort members.

Note that if you do so, Brunswick moves to just above the lowest in total valuation, and nearly the highest in total spending.

That, dear readers, is a difference with distinction.  As compared to the second highest in town valuation and the second highest in total school spending.  The simple fact is that 35-40% of Brunswick’s total real estate value is non-taxable, and that is a very large share.

You can try to estimate how the tax burden that would have accrued to those exempted properties ends up being shifted to the rest of us.  Not an easy calculation, of course, fraught with all sorts of policy complications. 

It’s safe to say, we’re confident, that it has a huge effect on the tax bills of each one of us.

We thought you’d like to know about this numerical “anomaly,” and its effects on the psychology of taxation.

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Sunday, April 15, 2018

Brunswick Schools…what a shameful embarrassment….

Note to readers:  Our posting pace in recent months hasn’t exaclty been torrid, you might say.  We won’t bore you with why.  But we did want to mention an administrative point.  If you’re signed up to get an email whenever we post new items, you may want to check the SPAM folder in your email system.

We use the service ourselves as a sort of error check.  We inadvertently discovered that the email notices were ending up in our SPAM folder.  It’s hard to know how SPAM filters work, but one way is if the “from” address is one you haven’t received mail from before and read, so it’s not saved in your address book.  When that happens in my system, the trick is to move the subject message to your inbox and open it up to read.  Hopefully that should correct the problem for you if you have it.

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Now to the subject of this post.  We think every one who pays property taxes in Brunswick, the richest little town in America, should be ashamed.  We expect you to show it when you go about your daily business, with body language appropriate to your behavior.

Why?  Because as your Brunswick School Department points out in this year’s Budget Presentation, there are other towns in Maine that spend more per student than we do!  How can you not be embarrassed?

You wouldn’t let a friend or neighbor outspend you to feed your family, would you?  If they were paying more for their car insurance, or more on their electric bill, you wouldn’t stand for that, right?  You’d call your insurance agent and ask him to raise your premium, and start leaving all sorts of lights on 24 hours a day to make up for your shortcomings, wouldn’t you?

That’s exacty the mentality embedded in our School Department.  Take a look at this Budget Proposal Book for FY 2019:

http://www.brunswick.k12.me.us/school-board/files/2018/04/FY19-BSD-Board-Proposed-Budget-Booklet-2018.pdf

While we could not get confirmation of this, our take is this document contains all the earmarks of a hired consultant used to put the package together, and in the process, combine virtue signaling with budget shaming.  Our guess is that “Good Group Decisions,” a Brunswick firm, has become good friends with the School Department, and may be tutoring them in the finer points of persuasion.

We note that the Booklet opens with three full pages of “Points of Pride,” loaded with lovely photos, to soften up the room.  In our view, “Points of Achievement" might have more meaning, but we’re just old fashioned fuddy-duddys.

This is followed by a page on “Strategic Framework,” loaded with all the language of pop-psycho babble you get when using a firm like this, which the BSD did for developing this plan a few years back.  Rather than lay out tangible, measurable objectives, it overflows with touchy-feely emotion-laden rhetoric like embrace, positive, proactive, and community.

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Then comes “Benchmarkiing Against a Peer Cohort.”  In other words, demonstrating how the BSD has greater burdens and spends less that others.  How they selected the peers is not explained.

Frankly, if you can stand looking at it, you’ll find the first 13 pages are designed to soften up the reader to a sympathetic position of saying “please, please, spend more; we’ll pay whatever we have to in order to contribute our fair share and treat our children well.”  And to make sure we’re first among out peers, right?  Whether it be the Jones or something else.

Note that when they show the enrollment changes, they don’t show the pre-base closure numbers when they enrolled 1,000 more students, and when they left town, how much budgets declined accordingly.  Along with employment.  Because they didn’t.  Showing that data would be embarrasing.

Ten years ago, when we had 1,000 more students, and more schools operating, we were spending in the $10 thousand range per student.  Now, with fewer school plants and 1,000 fewer students, we’re spending $16 thousand plus per student.  Presumably you’re spending 60% more on all your household budget items, including property taxes.  And your income has increased by 60% to pay for it.

Enough whining.  Instead, we’d like to give you another spending yardstick here in Brunswick.  The figures below are for street resurfacing in the recent 10 years:

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These are figures in the Public Works budget, and do not include amounts for street reconstruction, which we’re following up on.  These work out to an average of something like $533,000 per year to maintain our town thoroughfares.  Not that the condition of our streets matters in the larger sense.

   

But in an era when town budgets exceed $60 million, and school budgets are approaching $40 million, we think it lends a sense of perspective.  And how poorly we’ve all done at seeing that some sense of proportion exists in town priorities.

$533,000 is not much more than a rounding error in the school budget, but it’s the total we spend to keep our streets in decent condition….or not.

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Clearly there’s enough shame to weigh everyone down.

Oh, and one more thing.  When you study the School Budget Booklet in detail, which we know you will, please take note of the pages on which our public servants go into detail on student achievement and how it compares to the other school systems in our peer group.  And how they compare the performance metrics for the teachers in the same vein, other than comparing average salaries, which does little more than tell you about the average age of the cohort.  Why?  Because if the peers compensate their teachers the same way we do, pay is determined almost exclusively by how many years of service you have, not by how good a job you do compared to your peers.

Performance does not enter into the equation at all.  And why would it, if student performance isn’t a primary indicator of Department metrics?

This is just the idea of participation trophies taken to the next level.  Teachers and students are evaluated solely on the basis of participation, not excellence and achievement.

Think about that the next time you need a brain surgeon.

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Friday, April 13, 2018

It’s in the bag….

Once again we’re forced to come to grips with the fact that the richest little town in America is finding itself unable to come to grips with its massive municipal obligations.  So, as you might expect, our town Zethers are going to take up appropriate measures at the council meeting next week, as described here:

48. The Town Council will consider setting a public hearing for May 7, 2018, to amend the Town of Brunswick Municipal Code of Ordinances Master Schedule of Revenues, Charges, Fees and Fines to increase the retail cost of the Town trash bags, and will take any appropriate action. (Town Manager Eldridge)

Notes: The Town’s Finance and Recycling & Sustainability Committees have recently reviewed the Town’s Pay-As-You-Throw (PAYT) program. They discussed the price of bags, and reviewed a survey comparing programs from neighboring communities, where an average retail price for small bags was $1.26, and for large bags, $2.38. The Town’s prices are $.50 for small and $1.00 for large bags, and they are recommending an increase effective July 1, 2018, to $1.00 for small and $2.00 for large bags. The PAYT program provides revenue to help offset landfill closure costs and promotes reduction of waste through recycling. Copies of memos from Finance Director Julia Henze and the Recycling & Sustainability Committee, a redlined copy of the Brunswick Code of Ordinances Chapter 13, a redlined copy of the Master Schedule of Fees – Chapter 13 and a draft public hearing notices are included in your packet.

(Note: we know calling councilors Town Fathers, or Town Mothers,  is entirely inappropriate in this enlightened age.  We could call them our betters, as we have in the past, but that would not be honest.  So we coined “zethers” as a gender neutral substitute for fathers or mothers, in keeping with current pronoun theology.)

As for the survey referred to above, we wonder who performed it, and what the ground-rules were.  We’re reminded how our teenagers (many years ago) always noticed those who had fancier cars or whatever than they did, but never seemed to notice those who had lesser items, or even no such possessions.  It’s a standard human failing.  We always want to “keep up with the Jones,” rather than “keeping down with the Smiths.”

We should remind you that we already pay for trash collection and operation of the landfill as a component of our property taxes.  So don’t fall into the trap of believing that “it’s only fair that we  pay for something that is free.”

 

Twelve  years ago, we delivered a statement on “Fee Per Bag” to the town council; you’ll find it appended to this post below.  It had the same effect and influence on the council that every other statement we’ve made has had.  Still, we found it amusing to reread, and we hope you will get at least one chuckle from it….in retrospect.  If nothing else, you should appreciate that if the RIGHT PEOPLE are in favor of pay per use, it sails through.  While if the same people receive a similar proposal that wrinkles their noses, the originator is a crank and an enemy of fairness.

Since we’re in the mood for oldies but goodies, we’ll also refer you to this collection of posts that invoke the “pay per use” philosophy.  All postdate the introduction of our green bag revolution; we founded this blog in 2009.

http://othersideofbrunswick.blogspot.com/search?q=pay+per+bag

We amused ourselves by rereading the items ourselves.  Sometimes we lose sight of just how many posts we’ve published over the years,  And to be petty, just how creative we were in some of our flights of sarcasm.  No wonder we’ve made so much from our publishing efforts.

As a final note, if you’ve fprgptten the noble purpose of PayT, here’s a reminder.  You can cut it out and keep it close to your heart.

And please remember, this is not intended to generate revenue like taxes do.  The price of the bags is instead a disincentive to wasteful living.

Got it?  Now you can start thinking how you’ll cut your contributions to the landfill by another 50%.

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Statement on “Fee per bag” April 17, 2006

  • I’d like to talk about the proposed new trash collection tax.

  • Supporters of tax per bag, which is what it is, claim that this new charge for town services will cause us to generate less trash. I suppose you all have in mind what foods you will no longer buy, and what purchases you will no longer make, once the plan goes into place.

  • No more ice cream, for example…those containers are so bulky. And no more eggs; those cartons are such a travesty. And back to cloth diapers, because those disposables clearly add to the bag count. I can even envision that we’ll have trash police one of these days, going through our town approved bags to tell us which items we are no longer allowed to buy.

  • As for me, I’m at a loss to understand how paying a new tax for trash collection will cause my household to generate less trash. “Honey, don’t buy cereal this week, it will cost too much to trash the box; I’ll just have coffee for breakfast.”

  • In fact, we may actually generate MORE trash, since we’ll now be throwing away town approved bags on a weekly basis.

  • If those bags are plastic, which apparently is common, I have to assume our beloved wildlife will appreciate our efforts. Nothing enjoys a plastic bag of trash, nor can decimate it faster, than a hungry crow, and other cherished members of our native population.

  • I love the comments on this so far. Some councilors often remind us of how they “listen to their constituents,” when it suits their purpose; but when it doesn’t, they rationalize that they “aren’t elected to do what’s popular.” How convenient a principle.

  • A year and a half ago, when I proposed the possibility of some user fees to help plug any revenue gap caused by Palesky, I was castigated as having outrageously undemocratic thoughts. Now, the same councilor who was disgusted by my suggestion finds such fees to be entirely appropriate (see Forecaster article.) Again, how convenient.

  • Of course, in addition to the new bags that will be added to the landfill, we’ll all be burning more fossil fuel as we drive wherever we have to go to buy the bags.

  • I hope some of the per bag fees will go to the Police Department, and to the new Public Works TSI unit, both of which will be responding to regular reports of unauthorized dumping at the various midnight trash disposal sites around town. No doubt folks in the “Rural Smart Growth Area” will be especially popular when it comes to such “off peak” refuse disposal activities. I expect the Town’s rubber glove budget line to increase significantly. (In case you didn’t get it, TSI stands for Trash Scene Investigation.)

  • Come to think of it, there’ll be the expense of producing, storing, and selling the bags. Based on figures I got from John Foster, the town will have to sell something like 10,000 bags or so per week, or about 1500 per day. That should keep somebody somewhere hopping! And we may just need an assistant director of bags; I hope you’ve figured this in to your estimates.

  • Now if you accept the premise that increasing the tax levied on trash collection will discourage trash generation, than you also have to accept the premise that raising the tax on purchases will discourage sales, and that raising the property tax will discourage real property construction and purchase. Surely you see the principle here….increasing a tax on a given behavior discourages that behavior. I hope you’ll keep that in mind as you discuss and enact the upcoming budget.

  • I’d like to make a clear distinction for purposes of this discussion. There are functions that are core obligations of government; these are critical and essential to public health and safety, and they are legitimate top priorities for public funding. There is no reasonable alternative to these functions; a perfect example is trash disposition. Let me quote from our Solid Waste Ordinance, Section 13-2:

    • Purpose: …to protect the health, safety, and general wellbeing of the citizens…….

  • On the other hand, there are functions that are not critical and essential to public health and safety, and that are arguably public amenities, not related to public health and safety. An example would be the public library.

  • In the current budget year, this town will spend about $200,000 to collect residential trash, and I’m told the staffing to do this is about four full time equivalent employees.

  • In this same budget year, this town is providing $922,000 for the operation of Curtis Library. And the library has a staff of about 22 full time equivalent employees.

  • This seems a bit out of whack to me. I can hear the gasps and shocked amazement among those who cherish the library, but they are missing the point.

  • Government does not have unlimited resources, because those of us who pay for government do not have unlimited resources. For those who have not yet figured it out, government can only spend that which it first takes from us.

  • Accordingly, choices have to be made, and therefore, priorities have to be set. It’s well known that elected officials are deathly afraid of making such choices; they’d rather believe everything is possible, no matter how much it might cost.

  • When it comes to priorities, I conclude that trash collection, because it is an essential public health and safety function, ranks well ahead of public libraries, which are at best a public amenity; a luxury, if you will. Said another way, my expectation of having trash safely disposed of trumps your expectation of having someone else pay for your books, magazines, and newspapers.

  • Furthermore, EVERY resident of this town, whether they pay property tax directly or indirectly, is a user of the essential trash collection service we pay for in this town. Regardless of the popularity of the library, I am confident that not EVERY resident of this town makes use of this delightful amenity.

  • What is my point? Here it is plain and simple. Before you even think about “tax per bag” trash collection, you should enact “tax per library card,” and “tax per book.” Simply because library use, and many other so called services this town provides, are not essential in the way that police, firefighting, emergency medical services, and trash collection are essential.

  • There are those gasps again. But if you don’t accept my argument, here’s another way to look at it. Imagine stopping all trash collection for six months. Then imagine stopping library operation for six months. Now tell me which decision had the greater effect on public health and safety, and overall community well-being.

  • Until town residents, and you as a governing body, are willing to establish and prioritize legitimate functions of government, this town will always be in crisis mode with budgets, and in dealing with citizen expectations for a government big and rich enough to provide whatever they want.

  • Some will say I’ve gored a pretty big ox tonight, and no doubt folks I consider friends will be very upset with me. That saddens me, but I’m not willing to ignore reality in the name of a false sense of tranquility. I don’t mind touching the third rail every now and then. I don’t have ambitions for a political future, and I don’t want to be known as someone who sat around and complained about what is happening, but did nothing about it.

  • And besides, my oxen are a lot bigger than the ox I may have gored, and I’m tired of mine being gored. My oxen are called common sense and responsible governing. They haven’t been treated well for years, and I’m going to continue to do what I can to change that.

  • Thank you.

  • ===========================================

  • Pay Per Flush Program

  • I’d like to talk about the town’s proposal to institute a Pay per flush program.

  • Oops, I’m sorry…wrong statement. This is one I’m getting ready for next year.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Legislative “Oversight” of NNEPRA: what a joke!

  

This may go back too far for most readers, but something like two years ago, the Maine Legislature’s Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability (OPEGA) undertook an audit of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority (NNEPRA).  The decision to do so was based on a lengthy list of issues associated with poor management, poor stewardship of public funds, and several other weighty indictments, all document in due detail. 

The Government Oversight Committee of the Legislature, which exists solely to direct the efforts of OPEGA, quickly demonstrated a reluctance to look into the government itself, and before long, discussions on the subject soon led to how they might withdraw themselves from the effort.  2016, with its pending election to fill all Legislative seats anew in November, provided a nice escape clause, with then members stating how they didn’t want to presume that a newly formed GOC following the election would support the idea of the audit.

So they looked for a plausible and politically expedient way to round file the effort and stop the proceedings.  Soon enough they came up with the idea of embellishing “oversight” of  NNEPRA to increase accountability and prevent sub-optimal performance in the future.

As shown here, “oversight” has more than one meaning.  We suggest based on our years of experience in this matter that definitions 1 and 2 below are relevant to this discussion, because definition 3 sure as hell is not.

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On Thursday, March 1st, Patricia Quinn, Executive Director of NNEPRA, presented a “Downeaster Update” to the Joint Standing Committee on Transportation, which you can find here:

https://www.scribd.com/document/373027647/NNEPRA-March-2018-to-Trans

We believe this was in fulfillment of the committee’s newfound “oversight” responsibilities.

Side and a colleague were in attendance, and as far as we could tell, no others in the very sparse audience were there for her talk.  They seemed to be there for a work session that would follow on totally unrelated legislation.  We saw not a single NNEPRA Board Member, or anyone from MDOT or the Governor’s Office.

Ms. Quinn arrived barely one minute before her scheduled agenda slot, and offered brief hellos to a few of the committee members present.  She then launched into her presentation, which she completed in 20 minutes, moving so quickly that we considered her style dismissive of the committee.  30 + slides in 20 minutes is nearly a world record.

Likewise, we considered the committee’s behavior dismissive of their oversight obligations.  11 of the 13 members were present for this “important” event.  Questions following Quinn’s brief were at best perfunctory, relating to food service and the proposed summer trips to Rockland, and most were from a single committee member.

Even though we had submitted two memos to this committee in recent months calling for an investigation of NNEPRA on two very specific matters, they acted as if they had never read them, which is likely the reality of the matter.

As soon as Quinn answered the few questions, she packed up her kit-bag and ran for the exit.

So much for “oversight” and “accountability.”  As we suggested in the title of this post, the whole episode was a real joke.  But one that only NNEPRA staff and foamers would laugh at, we’d like to think.  Otherwise, it was a perfect example of how feckless and un-committed to “public servanthood” our elected and appointed officials are, if not downright corrupt and incompetent.

Based on our experience, we’d like to suggest that definition two in the dictionary entry above be edited to replace “unintentional” with “intentional.”

That would more accurately describe the behavior we observe in our state officials in recent years.

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And there’s not a damn thing we can do about;  not that we haven’t been trying. 

We have the flattened forehead to prove it.