Friday, January 13, 2017

Time for some “Oldies but Goodies!”

                

Oh, stop worrying.  We aren’t about to punish you with our imitation of Clyde McPhatter and The Platters singing “Only You,”  though we have fond memories of slow dancing to it at Friday night dances in our High School’s Music Room.

                

Nor with our take on “Tears on My Pillow” by Little Anthony and The Imperials.  Strangely enough, we can still pretty much recall all the words to both, and any number of other such hits from our formative years.  And in the latter case, we had a 45 rpm version that played on the upside down RCA record player mounted below the dash in our ‘60 Plymouth Fury convertible.  Which looked pretty much like this:

           

No, tonight we come to you inspired by the current discussions in Cape Brunswick about spending $35 million or thereabouts ‘for the children.’  Mostly because the adults in our School bureaucracy couldn’t tend to stewardship of the physical assets they’ve been entrusted with.

‘For the taxpayers,’ if you will.

As Chance would have it, we were reviewing some past ‘hits’ from our posting career, and came across these two that we feel are especially relevant and timely for our current circumtances.  They still “have a good beat, and you can dance to them” in a manner of speaking.

The first one is this: http://othersideofbrunswick.blogspot.com/2009/07/economics-101-prioritizing-spending.html

It refers to this earlier post: http://othersideofbrunswick.blogspot.com/2009/07/tough-choices-governing-or-spending.html

You can read them by following the links, but like a good OS, we want to make them accessible to you, so we’re spinning them up right here tonight for all you groovy guys and gals.  (Note that both are from just our second month of existence, so our ‘voice’ had not yet reached its current level of maturity.)

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Friday, July 10, 2009

Tough Choices: Governing, or Spending?

A friend once mentioned this simple concept: "you can govern, or you can spend." I've repeated it a number of times in "testimony" before the Town Council, with the usual results of such efforts. I appreciate the underlying wisdom anyway.

To govern means to "moderate." If you put a governor on your child's car, it is not there to allow them to go beyond what the car (and they) can handle. It is there to moderate, or limit, the speed your child can achieve.

And many of us, a dying breed perhaps, look for our elected "leaders" to exercise prudence and judg-e-ment (see Biden pronunciation guide) as they assess the revenue they have available and the budget requests before them, and attempt to reconcile the two.

And what do we hear in response? "We have a lot of tough choices to make." Or, "we face some really tough decisions."

Let's declare at the outset that those who fund government, involuntarily I might add, face such challenges everyday as they grapple with their own financial realities. And we shouldn't blame those good folks a bit if they feel little sympathy for their elected officials.

All of us understand that there are a broad range of factors that complicate matching local revenues with local expenses. Some of these are random in nature, or relatively unpredictable, such as twice the normal rainfall or snowfall amounts. Other factors are entirely predictable, because they have to do with the popular tendency to look to government and the taxpayers to resolve whatever personal dilemmas a constituent might face, like finding a babysitter, for example.

Other equivocations aside, I assert there are at least two fundamental reasons why budget cycles at every level result in wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth.

First, government officials are oblivious to the defining principles that dictate what the role of government is, and what it isn't. At the Federal level, the U.S. Constitution constrains the role of government, and every federal official takes an oath to protect and defend the principles of that document, although you'd never know it. At the State level, there is a Constitution that defines and limits the powers of the government in Augusta, with oaths required to uphold those constraints. Again, you'd never know it. What fun is it to be in power if you can't do whatever you damn well want?

At the local level, we have a Town Charter that defines the role that municipal government is to play in the day to day conduct of town affairs. This document, in theory, says what our local leaders can dabble in, and what they can't.

A few years ago, a town resident pleaded for town government to provide day care for her children. I could find no language in the town charter that authorized such a role, but that objection seemed to fall on deaf ears. "People are demanding these services" is the response in such instances. To which I reply if people "demand" that the town service and repair their cars, does that mean we should do it at taxpayer expense? Of course not. Demanding has absolutely nothing to do with legitimacy. And we've yet to see a list of names of those demanding things from the town; wouldn't that be fun to look at?

Second, elected officials, no matter what their previous principles might have been, undergo a conversion once they arrive in office. I have personally seen this happen in more than one case. The impulse to make everyone happy overwhelms the ability to distinguish "needs" from "wants." Suddenly, whatever anyone asks for becomes a priority. Subjectivity overwhelms objectivity.
So, when it comes to budgets, our officials have no grounding in what government is obligated to do and prohibited from doing, and further, they seem unable to distinguish which "demands" from residents are a necessity, and which are simply a blatant attempt to have someone else pay for their desires.

The end result is a disaster every time budget season rolls around. Those responsible end up overwhelmed by all manner of emotional pleadings and irrelevancies, because they have not established an a priori understanding of what budgets are designed to do and not do. In the absence of such specifics, seekers and pleaders perceive a blank canvas on which to draw their idyllic view of "community needs."

You can't run your family and home this way. Business owners can't run their enterprises this way. And there is absolutely no reason to tolerate government running OUR public affairs this way.

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Saturday, July 11, 2009

Economics 101: Prioritizing Spending

(Note: what follows is an essay drafted some time ago. It is posted as a follow-on to "Tough Choices: Governing, or Spending?")

The first law of economics is “scarcity;” resources are limited, and there are competing needs for them. In other words, there is never enough money to take care of all the “needs” and “wants” that a person, an organization, a community, a state, or a nation considers vitally important.

Economics, at its most basic level, is the study of how choices are made given that scarcity exists. Prioritizing competing needs for limited resources is just one such aspect of how choices can be made.

The first law of politics, it is said, is to ignore the first law of economics. The aggregate needs and wants carried to government always vastly exceed the revenues available for funding them. “Scarce” beyond measure, however, is the politician who is ready to say no at the drop of a hat.

What’s the fun in saying no? How can you help someone, or solve a problem, by saying no? After all, most politicians run for office to “solve” some problem or to satisfy some “need” or to “make things better” for those who “need our help.” So the tendency is to act as if there are unlimited funds available, and at the first sign that there isn’t, to look for ways to increase available resources. Only when the taxpayers are pushed to a breaking point do we see a pulling back, and reluctant recognition of reality. Occasionally, a wily opportunist will see a chance to have a foxhole conversion from the normal spending ways, and become a tax-fighting populist.

Let me be clear; I don’t mean to imply that EVERY elected official lacks the common sense to understand the laws of economics, and of human nature, for that matter. There are those who are responsible and work their buns off to limit the size of government and the burden it places upon those who pay for it. At the same time, it’s abundantly obvious from our current state of affairs that these responsible and prudent individuals are not the dominant force in the politics of today; in fact, they endure frequent abuse for the positions they take.

I will say that I can cite cases of those who professed to be for lower taxes and limited government having a “conversion” to the big spending side once elected. And I can’t think of one example at the moment of a determined tax and spend “helper” who converted in the other direction once elected. It’s much more ego inflating to get swept up in the fun of responding to popular “demands” than it is to join the forces of reality and fiscal common sense.

Let’s get back to scarcity and prioritizing. We all generally recognize these principles as we manage our own personal finances. And we try to teach our children the same things, if only because we simply never have enough income to give them everything they want.

We generally understand that “vital needs” like food, shelter, and transportation have to take precedence over the latest fashion statements and adding another 1000 sq. ft. to our homes. We realize that we can’t buy a new computer every 3 months because they’ve gotten cheaper and better yet again! We know, I trust, that living on credit cards and never paying off the balances is economic suicide.

Since most humans develop an instinctive sense of these realities as they manage their own lives, why is it so terribly difficult for them to recognize the realities of managing government enterprises? I can think of at least three reasons why elected “leaders” behave in such ways:

1) They frankly believe that the purpose of government is to grow and redistribute income, and the consequences are irrelevant because the moral righteousness of their purpose trumps any other concern. They see themselves as having a higher calling than you and I, and that is to achieve societal perfection. They consider themselves to be instruments of “social and economic justice,” and they view the laws of economics and the behavior of free markets as inconvenient impediments that can simply be dismissed, or overcome with enough government action and spending. Rather than recognize the hard truths of human behavior, they believe their job is to absolve all who ask for help of responsibility for their bad choices and actions. As a result, they have a near-religious dedication to government activism.

2) Being in government is like having thousands of children all pounding on you for what they want, and asking you to spend OPM (other people’s money) to give it to them. How can you deny so many “children?” It’s so much easier to give them what they want and make them go away.

3) They have no robust tools for analyzing and proceeding in a responsible and orderly manner, and living within the means of the enterprise. So they are lost in the woods and unable to find their way out.

(note: I was going to list a reason 4), that they are fundamentally clueless in such matters, but making such an assertion is beneath Other Side.)

Reason number one can only be dealt with in practical terms by changing who we elect to take responsibility for the government enterprise. Reason number two has to do with wanting to be liked (loved?) and being pleased with seeing one’s name on a brass plaque, among other attractions. I can’t really do much about these.

But I do have some ideas on reason number 3. I spent my career in the Defense industry, working with combat control systems that are used aboard Navy ships. As much money as DOD spends every year, it still isn’t enough to do everything that should be done, buy everything that should be bought, and perfect our national defense. Combat systems are inherently very expensive, and they must perform as perfectly as we can manage, because they are capable of sending powerful weapons over very long distances, and they are responsible for protecting innumerable lives and very costly assets. Still, the scarcity law applies.

Some years ago, I came across a priority system that a Defense organization uses to rank the need for upgrades to existing systems. It may not be perfect; but no matter. It provides a definitive way to prioritize funding and hence facilitate making choices.

Municipal government (and school departments, as well) have expenses falling into two major categories: operating expenses, and capital expenses. The first is the normal recurring expenses for salaries, supplies, utilities, etc. The second is mostly for big ticket items like new buildings, expansions, etc, and is where some hugely irresponsible and far-reaching mistakes are made. Too often, those responsible get swept up in the enthusiasm for building monuments to government primacy, all in the name of “community pride” and similar touchy-feely irrelevancies.

I have since adapted the defense priority system for use in prioritizing municipal capital budget items, and it can easily be adapted for other uses as well.

Here it is: a proposed structure for capital planning priorities:

Municipal Priority 1: The current situation prevents the accomplishment of an authorized, critical, and essential municipal function or responsibility, and jeopardizes health, safety, security, or is otherwise life threatening to municipality residents or visitors.

Municipal Priority 2: The current situation adversely affects the accomplishment of an authorized, critical, and essential municipal function or responsibility, and no work-around solution is known; it adversely affects cost and schedule risks to life cycle sustainment of the municipal activity.

Municipal Priority 3: The current situation adversely affects the accomplishment of an authorized, critical, and essential municipal function or responsibility, but a work-around solution is known.

Municipal Priority 4: The current situation results in citizen or staff inconvenience or annoyance, but does not affect accomplishment of an authorized and essential municipal function or responsibility.

Municipal Priority 5: Any other effect.

The nice thing about a priority structure like this is that it is objective; it has no ego, no pride, no personality, no lust for power, no anger, or any other human failing. So if you can get the governing body to accept the structure before getting down to individual items, you go a long way towards eliminating, or at least reducing bruised feelings. You have a very straightforward way to explain why one proposal is getting funded, and why another proposal isn’t. You have a way to rise above the human emotions that afflict such matters.

Here in Brunswick, this sort of discipline has never been popular, but it occasionally seeps into the process. If you look around town, you’ll see a magnificent addition to the town library, a lovely bike path, and brick sidewalks. All were “investments” made while the fire department and emergency medical technicians were housed in a station built during the horse and buggy era, and that can’t accommodate the weight and size of modern fire-fighting equipment. All while police work out of a basement in the lovely Town Hall.

This is a reflection on the priorities and influence of the beautiful people, who see libraries as expressions of elite stature and community exceptionalism, while public safety staffs are simply the gritty details of day-to-day existence. They do not add to the town’s panache like a gleaming library does, or a new school as well. Take it from me: never get in the way of the “schoolies,” and never get in the way of the “bookies,” either, unless you are itching for a knock-down drag-out with slim chances of success.

As I reread the above, it’s pretty obvious that the priority structure shown is not limited to just capital expenditures. It is, in fact, just as well suited to operational elements in the budget. Does eliminating a position cripple the accomplishment of a core municipal responsibility, or does it simply inconvenience someone wanting to renew their dog’s license, for example?

That’s it for this trip around the town. I hope you’ll either take the priority structure as it is, or modify it as you see fit, and then go to your town officials with it and ask that they begin to develop budgets with greater rigor, and that they be able to demonstrate to the taxpayers just how they went about making choices. Because that’s a very big part of governing. And as the saying goes, “you can govern, or you can spend.”

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Here’s hoping our elected betters will try real hard not to ‘step on our toes’ in their upcoming deliberations.  But if we were you, we’d wear steel-tipped boots to the Tuesday dance.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Bringing New Energy to Municipal Governance Discourse?

                  

Friends, acquaintances, readers, and others we’ve encountered in our lengthy local travels know that Side has devoted considerable time and mental energy (agony??) ‘fighting City Hall,’ as the old saying goes.  Furthermore, much of the content published here over the seven plus years of the outlet’s life has addressed various foibles of our local governance, some more profound than others.

We’re embarrassed to admit there are no windmills lying in ruin because of our efforts.  In fact, there may be even more gracing our lovely little town then before.  But we can tell you this: our forehead is a good deal flatter and more calloused than it once was, and various walls have suffered damage at eye level from our public (and sometimes not so public) efforts.

So we’re delighted to report that a new group effort is coming together to focus on the same general subject.  We only learned of it recently, and as best we can tell, the impetus for its formation at the moment can be succinctly expressed in this item from the upcoming Town Council Meeting agenda:

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The meeting takes place this coming Tuesday, January 17th, at 7 pm

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The group has established a web page: http://opedonbrunswick.com/

We encourage you to visit the site and explore the various materials posted there; follow the directions provided to see them all.  We expect the amount of information provided to grow subtantially and regularly, and we’ll be providing materials from our personal archives to help in that effort.

An article related to the formation of the group appeared recently in The Ostrich (http://www.timesrecord.com/news/2017-01-03/Opinion/The_School_Department_Needs_to_Hear_No.html):

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Pursuant to the items above, the group convened on Tuesday the 10th at 1pm in the conference room on the first floor in the Brunswick Municipal Building.  Reports are that approximately 10 residents attended, and that discussion was lively, so we expect the effort to grow accordingly.  We’re sure that watching the press and the web page will keep you informed as to upcoming meetings. 

Back to the agenda item coming before the town next week as shown above.  Those of us who have paid attention to the sordid ‘stewardship’ of school plant assets by the Brunswick School Department over the years know that the proposal in many ways represents the culmination of what can only be described as an intentional combination of dereliction of duty, deferred maintenance, and a grand scheme to squeeze local taxpayers beyond reason so that ‘community pride’ is appropriately honored, and that perfect Brunswick continues to have ‘the best schools and the best teachers.’

Oops!  And I almost forgot: “for the children,” of course!

The fleecing technique has been perfected in recent decades, with help from ‘professionals’ who seem to repeatedly show up here in Brunswick, and in other nearby towns, playing the role of a svengali of sorts. An excerpt from page 61 of the council packet for next week’s meeting gives some hint of what we mean:

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(For those who don’t recognize “PDT,” just substitute Lyndon Keck.)

“Professionals,” of course, can’t be questioned.  Even though it was Education “Professionals” who led us to build Jordan Acres in the open classroom design fad of that day, which then led to its ‘accidental’ structural collapse.  Yeah, right.

Side is intending to speak at the hearing on Tuesday, and we sincerely hope a multitude of others will join in and do the same.  One of the things we intend to mention is the role that fake news, a popular theme these days, has played in getting us to this point.

While the Mommy Mafia, the School Board, and this runaway train will be hard to slow down, we still derive some encouragement from the Citizens for a Better Way effort of 2003.

We don’t know how many of you recall it, but CBW organized a campaign to oppose the Public Safety Building referendum for a construction bond of $13 million.

Surprisingly, the proposal was defeated by a margin of 2 to 1, so it can be done.  And we still recall council members of that year resoundingly claiming how ‘they got the message from the public loud and clear’ after the vote.

We seem to recall that it took them at least a few months before they forgot it, and went back to business as usual.  So you can knock a blade or two off a windmill from time to time, but our betters always have the funds and staff to have it repaired PDQ.

Lances, horses, and armor, on the other hand, are not so easy to come by.

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Thursday, December 15, 2016

The ALPHA and OPEGA of the Downeaster’s NNEPRA

                          

It’s come to our attention that a good number of our friends, neighbors, readers, critics, and other influential members of the local community may have a knowledge base of the investigation into the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority (NNEPRA) by Maine’s Government Oversight Committee (GOC) that is well beyond it’s expiration date. 

The GOC is the legislative body that directs the efforts of the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability (OPEGA.)  (OK, you Greekophiles, we are taking poetic license with the last letter of the Greek alphabet.)

                             

The main reason the knowledge expiration date has been reached is because those who have the primary responsibility for keeping the public informed don’t operate by the same principles we do.  The Ostrich, for example, prints ‘all the news’ it thinks will confirm the biases of the local carriage set, without doing anything to upset their sensibilities.  They’re not about to give the vapors to the ladies of the AAB, for example.

                        

And so their staff coverage of the OPEGA investigation into NNEPRA, which has reached a higher level of concern at GOC meetings since September, has been conspicuous by its absence.  Nor did we find anything in the Forecaster, or the ‘paper of record’ that issues from the big city to our south.

      

We did, however, find related coverage on the TrainRiders Northeast web site.  The group, founded and led by S.Wayne Davis, is the chief lobbying group for the Downeaster, and also the most vocal apologists and advocates for passenger rail service, no matter what the consequences and costs may be.

For example, consider this report from  http://www.trainridersne.org/index.php/18-trne-news/428-state-oversight-board-gives-nnepra-high-marks

State Oversight Office Gives NNEPRA High Marks

  • Published on Saturday, 17 September 2016 14:29
  • Written by TRN Webmaster

The Government Oversight Committee held a session this week to hear the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability's position regarding an investigation into NNEPRA's management of its finances and operational supervision of the Downeaster passenger rail service.

State Senator Stan Gerzofsky of Brunswick, an outgoing member of the Government Oversight Committee, had forcefully pursued the investigation. The following report is from All Aboard Brunswick which has been closely following the process.

OPEGA found NNEPRA to be a well-run organization with lots of oversight, tasked with the challenge of coordinating operations with Amtrak, Pam Am Railways, the MBTA, Maine DOT, individual station owners, and responsible to the Legislature, Maine DOT, the Federal Rail Authority (FRA), and the Federal Transportation Authority (FTA).  Basically, the report said, “Nothing to see here, folks.  Move along now.”

The report’s three recommendations were:

1. Better communication between NNEPRA and the Legislature, with the Transportation Committee scheduling NNEPRA to present its annual reports at public meetings. In the past, presentations at public meetings have typically been initiated by NNEPRA.

2. As part of the process of establishing passenger rail policy, planning and implementation, the Legislature, MDOT and NNEPRA should rely on objective cost-benefit research and analysis, and provide timely and appropriate forums for public input throughout a project’s duration.

3. Reevaluation of the role of Maine Passenger Rail Advisory Council (PRAC), specifically with regard to improving communication and promoting public input.

There will be a public hearing on the report at the GOC’s next meeting at 9:30 AM on Thursday, October 6.  The chair, Sen. Roger Katz, stressed that the public hearing would be on the report, only, and not on any other issues related to rail service in Maine or NNEPRA.

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The same organization published this report on the October 6 public hearing:

Public Hearing on OPEGA's Review of NNEPRA

Published on Saturday, 08 October 2016 02:27
Written by TRN Webmaster

The public hearing of the Maine Government Oversight Committee was held on October 6th, in Augusta. The purpose was to allow public comments on the recent Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability's (OPEGA) review of NNEPRA's financial and operational administration of the Amtrak Downeaster. Those who were displeased that the report failed to find fault with NNEPRA management, refocused their attention from trying to prevent the construction of the Brunswick Layover Facility to requesting further investigation of the decisions of NNEPA Executive Director Patricia Quinn as well as the board itself. Ms. Quinn, TrainRiders/NE Counsel F. Bruce Sleeper and an impassioned Board Chairman Martin Eisenstein returned the fire.

……..

As confirmed by statements made by Senator Gerzofsky, this was nothing more or less than an attack on NNEPRA’s executive director, Patricia Quinn.  That attack ignores both the accomplishments of NNEPRA under her leadership, as well as her nationally recognized, and nationally lauded, leadership role in passenger rail.  Sour grapes anyone?

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Just below is a snip from the TRNE video summary of the testimony at the October 6 hearing.  It shows Marty Eisenstein, Chair of the NNEPRA Board of Directors, in what we can only describe as ‘testimony’ delivered with some loose screws in his hinges.  Marty, we should point out, is the “Alpha Male” of NNEPRA.

We hope he’s had his hinge screws tightened up, because he’s going to have some tougher moments to deal with in the future.  We have no way of knowing, but a repeat performance will not help NNEPRA’s case, or inspire confidence in the Board’s governance.

Some of the screws almost certainly came loose when Dick Donovan, founder and head of Maine Rail Transit Coalition, a ‘widely known passenger rail advocate’ in all the best places, told members of the committee that he had personally seen the NNEPRA Board acting as ‘rubber stamps’ when dealing with staff at regular Board Meetings, which he regularly attends..

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tGAjGt3_Pqo

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Those of you with insatiable intellectual curiosity in the testimony delivered at the public hearing can find a compendium of it here: http://legislature.maine.gov/uploads/originals/nnepra-information-brief-public-comments-received.pdf

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To bring you up to date as to the current state of play on the OPEGA audit of NNEPRA, the Government Oversight Committee met again on November 17th of this year for a work session to follow up and act upon the public testimony given at the October 6th hearing.

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Several of us were there to observe the work session, and to answer questions about our testimony at the earlier session should they arise.  None of us had to do so.

A good deal of discussion and back and forth took place on the primary question of whether OPEGA should continue to investigate NNEPRA operations, or wrap it up with the work already done.  Things were complicated a bit by the fact that this meeting was the last of the current Legislative session, and that the committee would have a new mix of members when it reconvenes in January, since several are not returning for the new session.

In the end, here is the outcome of the work session as recorded and promulgated by the Director of OPEGA as it relates to the NNEPRA investigation.  (Edited to omit unrelated items; emphasis ours.)

From: Ashcroft, Beth
Sent: Friday, November 18, 2016 8:36 AM
To: Connors, Etta  (GOC Clerk)
Subject: Motions

Here it is Etta.  It’s lengthy but I think its important for it to be clear what they are voting on.

These are the three motions that those who were not present can vote on:

1. Motion: For OPEGA to continue current review of NNEPRA with fieldwork (next phase) focused on effectiveness of the NNEPRA Board in its various roles, accuracy and transparency of performance metrics for the Downeaster service, and NNEPRA’s administration and oversight of contractual arrangements with key partners for operating the Downeaster service. Final vote is 6 in favor, 4 opposed, 2 absent so motion passed.  At the meeting the vote was 4-4 and Rep. Campbell and Sen. Davis voted later in favor in accordance with Committee rules.

2. Motion: To place a review of the Brunswick Taxi Contract with Amtrak on OPEGA’s Biennial Work Plan for 2015 and 2016 with review to include how the contract was awarded and whether NNEPRA played a role in the awarding of the contract. Final vote is 5 in favor, 5 opposed, 2 absent so motion fails. At the meeting the vote was 3 in favor and 5 opposed. Rep. Campbell and Sen. Davis voted later in favor in accordance with Committee rules. The GOC had also passed a motion at the meeting to put this same topic On Deck.  Given that the motion to put it on the Work Plan failed, the review topic will go On Deck.

Before voting on these motions, members may want to listen to the audio of the meeting to hear the GOC’s discussion.  Members should also be aware of the following that was discussed/took place at the meeting:

· Related to Motion 1 – OPEGA would continue with review, develop scope questions appropriate to the focus areas in the motion, and present a final report to the next GOC once the review is completed.

· Related to Motion 2 – During the work OPEGA has already done on this review, we learned that the Taxi Contract is between Amtrak and Brunswick Taxi. NNEPRA states in had no role in the awarding of the contract. Amtrak’s expenses for the Taxi service for its employees are reimbursed by NNEPRA. OPEGA Director is unsure at this time whether the contract itself or any related documents/communications held by Amtrak or Brunswick Taxi would be within OPEGA/GOC authority to obtain given that it is between two private entities.  If there are no documents to review, results of this review would primarily come from interviews with relevant parties.

· Related to Motion 2 – Putting this review on OPEGA’s Work Plan for 2015-2016 means that it will potentially roll forward to the next GOC to consider what its priority should be or whether it should remain on the Plan.

· Related to Motion 2 – We have an odd situation where the GOC also voted to put this review On Deck and that motion has already passed. So, if Motion 2 passes then the review will go on OPEGA’s Work Plan.  If it does not, then the review will go On Deck.

· Related to both Motion 1 and 2, the GOC also voted to place a review of the entire process for deciding and implementing the plan to site the Layover Maintenance Facility at its current location in Brunswick (including grant funding obtained to pay for it) on the GOC’s On Deck list. This means that future GOC will have opportunity to consider placing it on OPEGA’s Work Plan for the next Biennium.

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This should make it pretty obvious why TrainRiders, The Ostrich, and others have maintained a ‘low profile’ in reporting on events that transpired subsequent to the first Information Brief on the subject.  This was released by OPEGA on September 8, 2016, and TrainRiders and others immediately interpreted it as a clean bill of health with no findings of concern, plus a few recommendations for improving things in the future.

Clearly, subsequent meetings, public testimony, and Committee deliiberations found just the opposite, and hence we enter the new year with considerable anticipation as to how far, deep, and wide the expanding investigation will lead.  Items 1 and 3 in the first motion, in particular, are sweeping enough in their language to take on a broad range of troubling issues, many of which were detailed in public testimony and prior submissions.

We assume that subjects of the investigation are busy doing the appropriate prep work for what lies ahead.  Those of us who testified in favor of moving forward with an expanded scope of interest will do the same.

   

We expect all the usual suspects are seeing to it that their sincere outfits are in dandy, go to meeting condition, and that they’re practicing their best beguiling looks.  They’ll need all the tricks at their command to be convincing in upcoming deliberations, interviews, and what-not.

         

Interested parties should watch the TRNE web site and other likely locations for upcoming casting calls.  They’ll be seeking energetic advocates who can follow directions well, and can shake their pom-poms in rhythmic unison.  Note how the colors on the team above are a lovely match for those of Brunswick Taxi. 

Now that we mention it, perhaps the Brunswick Development Corporation has sufficient funds in their kitty to grant a forgivable loan to the group for uniform design and production.  It’s all for the good of the community, isn’t it?

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Just in case you thought our public schools were non-partisan…

….and your children would be free from ideological pressures as they learned the ‘three R’s,’ comes news to disabuse you of such an idea.

As we think we’ve told you in the past, our own political inclinations are pretty well known in these here parts, but we’ve worked hard to see that with only a rare, justified exception, Other Side avoids dabbling in political partisanship and posturing, or even editorial comment.  Every now and then, however, some locally relevant piece of news causes us to dabble in such pursuits, if only to chastise the behavior of others.

                     

This is one of those rare moments.  Clearly we’re in days and weeks of all sorts of political fallout from the recent election, and the shock it visited upon so many.  Bowdoin College students, faculty, and administration are in a phase of near melt-down several notches above their quiescent level of hand-wringing and teeth-gnashing over various and sundry injustices and grievances as they ensure every graduate (well, most, anyway) feel either a profound sense of victimhood or guilt.  Safe spaces were beyond capacity, hot chocolate and play dough supplies were exhausted, and other stressful consequences are still evident more than a month later.  No one has scheduled “How to Grow Up” seminars, though we believe that could be a growth industry on college campuses these days.

On the Town side of the Town and Gown mix, we’re convinced that the uptick in activity related to the Brunswick Human RIghts Task Force owes much to the election outcome.  Councilor Kathy Wilson’s appearance on a WGME video report (Kathy Wilson on WGME) clearly stems from the results.

As for us, it’s taken a mightly dose of self-control to keep us from filing a complaint with the Task Force aserting that HRC and Bernie bumper stickers and yard signs were visible acts of micro-agression and micro-invalidation aimed directly at us.  We can only imagine how scared we would have been by public reactions if we had worn a Trump MAGA hat while patronizing local establishments.

Many of us remember what was labeled Bush Derangement Syndrome (BDS) after the election of George W. Bush, which lingered as a chronic inflammation in many forms all during his years in office, and for many years thereafter.  We fully expect that Trump Derangement Syndrome (TDS), or its related malady, Trump Hysteria Disorder (THD), will prove to be a far more virulent and difficult to cure social disease.  You do remember what a ‘social disease’ is, don’t you?

Nowadays, they’re called STDs, or sexually transmitted diseases.  We’re guessing the diseases we mentioned in the prior paragraph will be grouped under the heading STD’s as well, but meaning socially transmitted diseases for the new era of diagnostics..

Enough setting the stage.  Let’s introduce the star of this post:

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You can find the entire item here:

http://stateandcapitol.bangordailynews.com/2016/12/14/liberal-maine-town-eyes-adding-civics-lessons-in-wake-of-trump-win/

We’ll limit our comments on the subject to these:

  • Why hasn’t basic civics been a part of the core curriculum all along?  What replaced it, and what was the justification for doing so?
  • Superintendent PP’s proclivities in such matters are on the record, as the article describes, when he couldn’t keep his mouth shut, per this passage:

“This is not the first time Perzanoski has publicly criticized conservative education policy. In an Augusta 2012 welcome letter to staff, “Perzanoski took aim at Republican Gov. Paul LePage.”

  • If you think the Super will be able to implement a new policy that doesn’t embody his own liberal leanings, and that of the preponderance of the professional educational staff and related bureaucracy, you need to go ‘back to school’ yourself, but one more suited to objective, unbiased, adult learning.

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Please remember; we’re dealing with a special place here, not ‘everytown USA.’  These passages provide additional insight; we hope you take the time to read the entire linked item:

Perzanoski implied that Trump’s election threatens students with diverse heritage or beliefs.

“[The election] does not dictate that an equal opportunity for every student will be lost because of his/her heritage or beliefs,” he wrote.

As Maine’s political dynamics shift, Brunswick remains solidly liberal and loyal to the Democratic Party. The town’s voters overwhelmingly backed Democrat Hillary Clinton in this year’s presidential election, with Trump earning less than 30 percent of the vote there.

And we must ensure and protect the freedom of speech and freedom of thought of our future citizens, or else!

“Regardless of our political persuasions, we must help each other and listen to one another as we move forward,” wrote Perzanoski, who could not be reached this morning for comment.

How else can we ensure that the electoral traditions and ideological bent of our perfect little town endure?

Increased Sausage Rations for Brunswick Taxi?

             Image result for Brunswick taxi Maine

We can’t help but wonder how the new Downeaster schedule is affecting the fortunes of Brunswick Taxi, owned by the Kings (and Queens?) of Brunswick.  Regular visitors to Other Side know of the cushy deal they’ve had for transporting Amtrak crews between Brunswick and Portland every day of the year.  Not to mention the little hissy fit they had, expressed in an attorney’s letter, over language used by former State Senator Stan “Big G” Gerzofsky to describe the arrangement.

Based on eyewitness evidence, they’ve been making two round trips a day since the Downeaster began coming to Brunswick.  The first one to transport the Amtrak crew that manned the train arriving just after noon back to Portland, as the train just sat here in Brunswick, puffing diesel fumes on most days, for about five hours.  Later in the day, a taxi headed back to Portland to pick up an Amtrak crew that would man the train for a return trip to Portland.  You may recall when they briefly held us hostatge a while back, leading to a visit to our offices by Brunswick Police.

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NNEPRA has steadfastly professed to know nothing of the Taxi service contract ‘because that’s an Amtrak business arrangement.’  Pardon us, but that’s blatant bureaucratic evasion, and amounts to so much Brunswick Sausage.  One way or another, NNEPRA is paying for the taxi service in the contract charges they pay for Amtrak train service, including crew costs.  If they don’t know what the taxi cost is in that total bill, it reflects a lack of due diligence in their management and oversight of the subcontracting process.

A question or two comes to mind regarding the taxi contract.  Does it pay a flat rate for annual services, whether used or not?  One thinks of “service curtailments” in recent years, one of which happened just recently.  Numerous trains were cancelled between Brunswick and points south.  Was Brunswick Taxi paid regardless of whether they made the trip or not?  They could argue that they purchased vehicle capacity and employed staff to make the two daily round trips, and those costs largely were fixed, except for fuel.

How long a time span did the original contract cover?  Was it negotiated once a year, or was it for a longer term, in order to obtain better pricing, although Amtrak has virtually no incentive reduce costs?

Did the contract anticipate schedule changes like the one just put in place?  Which brings us to the point of this post.  How is Brunswick Taxi “faring” in the new schedule environment?

The new schedule shows two Amtrak train sets arriving and overnighting in Brunswick, and as you might expect, the same two train sets beginning service with a southbound run from Brunswick the next day.  Hence the possibility of doubling the Taxi service required to transport the crews.  Two round trips at the end of the day to transport the arriving crews back to Portland, and two round trips at the start of the day to bring crews up to Brunswick to man the departing trains.

All sorts of options to this scenario are possible, we suppose.  Arrangements could be made to overnight crews in Brunswick.  Or several crews could be relocated to have Brunswick as their home base.  Or crew members could receive vehicle allowances to transport themselves between the relevant points.

Anyone familiar with business travel and relocation costs these days knows that any of these alternatives would involve significant costs that may or may not be worthwhile tradeoffs compared to Brunswick Taxi services.   No doubt crew members belong to a union, and that could substantially complicate necessary arrangements and drive costs up and up.

We haven’t asked, but we can guess that were we to inquire of NNEPRA about these details, we’d get the same shoulder shrug as before, even though it’s clear that NNEPRA will have to cover these new costs, whatever they are, just as they have to absorb the costs of the new crew damands.

Perhaps someone with an oversight role…say a member of NNEPRA’s Board…or a member of a cognizant Legislative committee could ask for details on the subject.

        

Once they get a definitive answer, if somehow the end result is fewer round trips for Brunswick Taxi instead of the same number as before or even more, they could ask what the compensation will be for the Kings (and Queens?) of Brunswick under the terms of the contracts that were put in place before the schedule change.

Somebody somewhere knows exactly what’s going on, even if they’re doing their damdest to make sure we don’t find out.

NNEPRA is certainly paying the costs under the old schedule, and paying the costs under the new schedule.

Which means that WE are paying those costs as the taxpayers who fund the operation of the system and fork over the required annual subsidies, including the expenses funded by Brunswick Town Government.  Whether we want to or not, we might add.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

AAB Encouraged to Expand, Form AABBB Auxiliary!

     

We all know and adore the good ladies of All Aboard Brunswick, members all of the carriage set who act as arbiters of what’s best for our ‘community.’  We take them to be objective, fair minded folk, who only want what’s good for us, and hold no special affinity for one civic advance over any other.

     

Which is why we’re expecting them to ‘get aboard’ the emerging proposal that the Metro Breez add Brunswick, the northern terminus of the Amtrak Downeaster, to their growing daily service between nearby towns and Portland.

We’ve posted on the subject in the past here:  http://othersideofbrunswick.blogspot.com/2015/10/all-aboard-freeportbut-not-on-downeaster.html

Reports on the origination of the Metro Breez service have been glowing:

http://news.keepmecurrent.com/its-a-breez-metro-kicks-off-its-new-bus-service-with-first-day-fete/

We’re so sure our good ladies will be supportive that we’re suggesting they form an auxiliary to support this new offering, and call it “All Aboard Brunswick’s Breez Bus.”  We’re so excited about the plan that we won’t even charge them for coming up with this inspired name.

Funny; terms like “AAB” and “AABBB” almost make one think we’re talking about bond ratings or some such. 

Last week’s Town Council meeting featured a presentation by the head of the Portland Metro Bus operation.  We watched the replay on community cable TV, and it appears our officials are largely in favor of the proposal, which could start service in a matter of a few months, with no need for tens of millions in capital ‘investment.’  And with ten trips every weekday!  That should give some serious travel flexibility.  And lots of alternatives to the Downeaster, mon Dieu!

Yesterday’s big city newspaper carried this story on the proposal: http://www.pressherald.com/2016/12/11/brunswick-mulls-link-to-portland-to-freeport-breez-bus-service/comments/

                      

We’re counting on our friends, who have staked so much of their reputations on introducing and sustaining Downeaster service, to stand just as strongly behind this proposal.  We’ve tracked down the documents used with our town officials, and made them accessible to you via these links.

https://www.scribd.com/document/334106895/Portland-Metro-Breez-schedule

https://www.scribd.com/document/334107065/TM-memo-to-Town-Council-re-Metro-Breez-proposal

https://www.scribd.com/document/334106755/Portland-Metro-Breez-Presentation

If you wish to view the discussion at the Town Council meeting, you can find it here:

http://tv3hd.brunswickme.org/Cablecast/Public/Show.aspx?ChannelID=1&ShowID=3617

According to our records, the discussion begins at time point 38:00 in the video.

     

Camera angles for the meetings don’t really suit our purposes and interests, but we did note a definite lack of pom-poms in the public gallery.  Perhaps candidates for AABBB nomination were out uniform shopping.  We certainly hope so.  We’re looking forward to their display of emotion when the bus service begins, as we’re sure it will.

Every nown and then, even a perfect little town like Brunswick has to make room for common sense, unsettling as it can be.

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Monday, December 12, 2016

Brunswick Businesses Brace for Boom; Freeport Too

                

While you may not be up to speed on the latest changes to the Downeaster schedule, which now makes three daily round trips to Brunswick, Patricia Quinn is in full gush mode on how the schedule changes should mean a real breakthrough for Freeport establishments.

Witness her comments in this artice: http://www.fosters.com/news/20161211/downeaster-train-marks-15-years-of-transportation

Downeaster sees riders for more than just Boston-based travel, although travel to Boston is one of its biggest markets. Quinn said people in Wells, Maine, will take the short ride to shop at the outlets in Freeport, for example. The Freeport station puts riders right in front of the L.L. Bean flagship store.

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A quick look at the schedule shows that shoppers from Wells, Maine would be scheduled to arrive in Freeport at 4:10 pm.

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Which should make for a brisk shopping experience, since the return trip from Freeport, if on schedule, departs at 5:35pm, a full hour and twenty-five minutes later.

The circumstances are even better for Brunswick merchants.  Wells customers would arrive at 4:25 pm, and have to depart less than an hour later at 5:20 pm.  That’s barely enough time to revel in the public art piece in front of the station, and quaff a quick Guinness.

The irony here is that Quinn believes people in Wells don’t mind an hour and a half train ride in each direction to shop in Freeport at the ‘outlets.’  Especially when the outlets at Kittery are a mere 21 miles away, with an estimated drive time of 23 minutes.  Sure; Kittery doesn’t have a train station, but you can start and end your shopping trip there any old time you like, and spend as much or little time shopping as you damn well please.  As a bonus, we’re pretty sure Kittery has a far greater selection of outlets than Freeport.  And Brunswick has…..well, none that we know of.

There are some other exciting facts pertaining to the Downeaster service, especially for Maine taxpayers, who subsidize the service to the tune of millions of dollars per year.  Witness these passages in the same Fosters item linked above:

Quinn said Exeter is the biggest ridership on the Downeaster in New Hampshire. Anywhere from 70 to 100 riders travel to and from Exeter a day. "Exeter is a big market for us," Quinn said. "We have a hefty amount of commuters every weekday from Exeter."

Bob Hall, chairman of the Exeter Train Committee, said Exeter last summer topped the 1 million mark for total riders since the service began.

"The monthly pass to ride with unlimited use is $299 and let me tell you, you can't find a parking space anywhere close to that in Boston," Hall said.

"Events in Boston like the Red Sox, concerts or the TD Garden, people like the train," he said. "When the Patriots won the championship and had a parade, every train was sold out for that entire day."

When train service began in 2001, the UNH-Durham stop was only Friday through Sunday. "Soon thereafter, we were offered daily service and it has been transformative," said UNH Director of Special Projects Campus Planning Stephen Pesci. "Sixteen years ago there was no way to get from campus to most of the station communities without a private car."

Pesci said the Durham station is approaching its 700,000-trip milestone.

As a friend has observed, the Downeaster schedule greatly favors southbound travel to Boston, including numerous New Hampshire and Massachusetts commuters, and pretty much ignores commuters to Portland from either the North or South.  Just as you would expect.  Boston is the primary suction for the system, not Portland or any other point in Maine.

The shame of it all is that while Maine subsidizes the Downeaster operating budget, neither New Hampshire or Massachusetts do.

Which may be just what we deserve for being so gullible.

He adds that “Ms. Quinn is an excellent marketeer,” but it’s pretty obvious she isn’t selling Maine.

Like we’ve said before, the prevailing ‘tradewinds’ are out of the northeast.

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Tuesday, December 6, 2016

You’d ‘Rather’ what?

             

Those of you who know us have more than likely heard us mention that we suffer from ‘the curse of an active mind.’  Those of you who don’t know us should be thankful for small blessings.

In recent weeks, meaning mostly since the election four weeks ago, there’s been much talk in both print and electronic media of a ‘fake news’ phenomena sweeping our system of journalism and the ‘free press.’  Which is to say that serving the purposes of ‘informing the public’ and ‘government watchdog’ is a load of crap in more ways than one.

As we reflected on the general subject, we couldn’t help but recall the case of Dan Rather, the journalistic ‘icon’ pictured above, breaking the story about false documentation for Bush W’s service in the Air National Guard.  As the story unfolded, it became clearer and clearer that the so-called evidence supporting the claim was in fact falsified.

In response, ‘big media’ attempted to turn this sow’s ear into a silk purse by inventing the story line that it wasn’t so much the accuracy of the evidence that mattered, as it was the ‘seriousness of the charges.’

In other words, they can make anything up they like, and even if the ‘evidence’ that they put forward won’t hold water, you all need to listen to them because the ‘charges are so serious,’ even if they are a total fraud.  This was a major step forward in journalism living up to our low expectations.

We can’t help but wonder if this isn’t the MO behind the WGME/Kathy Wilson story we’ve posted about in recent days.  Shirley this isn’t a case of trumped up charges making headlines because the ‘charges are so serious.’  Not here in Brunswick, where all the kids are above average, all the women are good looking, and all the men are hard-working.

We don’t know, but we promise you this.  We’re not going to let this story go until we get to the bottom of it. And when we do, we will do the honorable thing in response, wherever that might place the monkey.

Those with details to pass along know how to reach our offices, and we look forward to the help.

Correspondent’s Notebook

“Could Not Be Reached”

While we’d be a bit presumptuous to call ourselves an investigative journalist, we do admit to a certain curiosity about the underlying particulars behind a story here and there.  Every now and then you find an onion with mule’s ears, and other times you discover a quarter-million dollar forgivable loan to local well-connected businesses.  So it is that we went in search of the rationale for the above story on WGME, which we talked about here: http://othersideofbrunswick.blogspot.com/2016/12/councilor-kathy-wilson-recent-election.html

We pursued two possible sources for more information, and we think they’re exactly the sources most readers would pursue if they were in our socks.  Four days later, neither has replied to our  inquiry.  So we’re going to stick with our original inclination, which reads thus:

Absent any such evidence in the local newspaper of record, we’re left to infer that Councilor Wilson trumped up these accusations in order to incite media attention, inflame local emotions, and reinvigorate the Task Force.

Always intereste in more in more details, we repeat that Councilor Wilson, or anyone with more information, can contact us if they like.

Life Is Just A Bowl of Olives

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Those of you who enjoy an adult beverage from time to time may recognize this garnish caddy once common at traditional bars.  We don’t know if they still are common.  Not because we don’t enjoy such beverages these days, but because we normally have them served at our table, rather than while seated at a classic ‘bar,’ like a Bogart wannabe in a tux.

Image result for bogart martini

But we do recall from time to time asking for an extra olive (or two) in our classic icy Martini, and not having to pay extra for it.  Come to think of it, we may have nipped an olive or two from the caddy years ago when the barkeep was looking elsewhere.

                                 Image result for bogart martini

On occasion we find ourselves on the ‘other side’ of the classic cocktail axis, ordering a Manhattan “up,’' especially in colder seasons.  This drink is typically garnished with a maraschino cherry, providing a sweet counterpoint to the taste of bitters used in the recipe.

As Chance would have it, we found ourself in just such a situation recently at a local establishment.  We asked our server to make arrangements for us to have two (2) cherries in our drink, and indeed we did when it arrived.

                            Image result for maraschino cherries

For those not well versed in such trivia, these cherries range from low end, rather small and lifeless without stems, and looking a bit maimed from automated processing.

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To those looking much more sassy, full of color, stems intact, juicy and plump, and relatively undamaged.

From time to time, we’ve had the full range of specimens presented on anything from a wooden toothpick, to one of those little plastic swords or spears, to simply lying in the bottom of our drink.  The stemmed versions, obviously, are less in need of such accessorizing.

On this recent occasion, our two cherries were from the first category above, and absent any accessory to make them easier to enjoy.  We were left to treat them as finger food, or fish them out with a utensil; we won’t tell you which we did.

But we will tell you that the two, sizewise, were at best the equivalent of one of the proud examples in the second photo.

By now, you’re probably saying ‘so what,’ and wondering why we’re bothering you with this story.

Good questions.  And here’s the answer.  Because when our bill came, we had been charged $1 for the extra cherrry, limp as it was, on top of the price of our drink.  In a place whose food prices we found beyond normal expectations.  And whose table settings were wrapped in paper napkins and standing in a little bucket on the quasi picnic table we were seated at.

That’s why.  What’s next?  Charging by the packet of sugar for one’s coffee?

We’re pretty sure the management has no idea what an impression this gave us, because we didn’t complain.  But we can assure you we will not gladly return because of it.

As our spouse likes to tell servers, “he doesn’t get out much anymore,’' and that’s true.  But we did spend twenty years or so of our career getting out a lot, and eating at some of the finest establishments around.  And not a one ever charged us for an extra olive or extra cherry.

At our age, we suppose, it’s only right that we get all the pits, figuratively speaking.

Fair warning: don’t ask for a warmer on your coffee if you haven’t priced it first. 

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Saturday, December 3, 2016

Betke on Brunswick & Freeport Schedules

Our friend George Betke, a railroading professional, had an item published yesterday in The Ostrich.  It dovetails nicely with our item published earlier in the week, about which we posted yesterday.

We thought you’d enjoy this photo, which shows NNEPRA/Downeaster glitterati accompanying Senator King, Angus to the Brunswick celebration of November 21st.  Note how the three: NNEPRA Board Chair Marty Eisenstein; TRNE Chairman S Wayne Davis; and NNEPRA ED Patricia Quinn maintain an appropriate and repectful distance of several paces behind the Senator.

U.S. Sen Angus King, I-Maine, arrives in Brunswick Monday, Nov. 21, to mark the inaugural third daily roundtrip of the Amtrak Downeaster between Brunswick and Boston. He was joined by Marty Eisenstein, chairman of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority; TrainRiders Northeast Chairman Wayne Davis, and Patricia Quinn, NNEPRA executive director. The new late-morning departure and evening arrival were made possible by the recent opening of a new train layover facility in Brunswick. (Keith Spiro / For The Forecaster)

Here is Mr. Betke’s offering in its entirety:

Downeaster schedule shortchanges Freeport, Brunswick

Heavily promoted economic benefits of extending Amtrak Downeaster passenger service north of Portland have taken a step backward. An original impetus for getting the train to Freeport (and leading to further extension of the route to Brunswick) was to enable day-trippers from Boston and intermediate points to enjoy a Maine shopping experience.

The revised schedule recently implemented by the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority lists the first northbound train arrival in Freeport at 4:10 p.m., barely allowing for a convenience-store stop before the last southbound departure at 5:35 p.m. Travelers seeking a same-day train trip to Brunswick are faced with an even more pressing, 55-minute time constraint, 4:25-5:20 p.m. Perhaps NNEPRA marketers had the local overnight lodging establishments in mind.

On the other hand, they clearly were thinking of big-city sporting and entertainment attractions, scheduling late-evening weekend departures from Boston that encourage visiting Mainers to boost the Massachusetts economy. Is there any doubt that the flow of continuing economic benefit from the “Downeaster” is decidedly southward?

What about all the transit-oriented real-estate improvements that supposedly accompany the introduction of rail service? The train actually followed such development in Freeport, and though Brunswick has a nice new station complex, none of its occupants is dependent on rail travelers. Two restaurants simply moved from other locations into new quarters, and the nearby inn reports few guests utilizing the train.

The main purpose of the new schedule appears to be positioning trains for overnight occupancy of Brunswick’s massive new maintenance and layover facility, making the town a regular destination for equipment if not passengers. The obvious irony is that Freeport and Brunswick are being short-changed by this paltry return on a committed investment of more than $70-million. After four years, the transformative economic stimulus envisioned by the “Wouldn’t it be nice to have a train?” crowd can only be described as an expensive hoax.

George C. Betke, Jr.,

Newcastle

And here are the schedules he refers to:

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As the All Aboarders like to day, “we’re livin’ the dream, baby!”

Even though others may see it more as a nightmare for taxpayers, and those whose “safe space” has been violated by the microaggression of arriving and departing train whistles.