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:)

image

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:)

image

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/:

         image

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.

   image

(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:

image


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:

image

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

Technorati Tags: ,

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.

image

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.

Technorati Tags: ,,,

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.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++  

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.

  image

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:

                       image

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.

                           Image result for ashamed look

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.

Technorati Tags: ,,,

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%.

========================================================

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.

  image

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.

                     image

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.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

The Welcome Wagon seems to have lost its way….

        image_thumb1[1]       

The other night, before climbing the stair well to our bed chamber, donning our nite-cap, and blowing out the candles, we decided to watch a replay of the Sanctuary Brunswick agenda item at Tuesday night’s town council meeting.  You can find the on demand recording here:

http://tightrope.brunswickme.org/Cablecast/public-site/index.html#/show/3924?channel=1

The discussion was something like an hour and a half in on the replay; you’ll have to find it yourself.  We don’t have the stomach to look at it again to find you the time stamp.

   image[6]_thumb[3]

Here’s the link to the group that brought this breakthrough to our town: http://www.sanctuarybrunswick.com/posts/

Two things jumped out and grabbed us as we watched the replay, notwithstanding the fact that comments from the councilors frequently leave us aghast for a variety of reasons.

On this night, we were particularly struck by how many of our elected governing elite can completely ignore the reality that words have meaning, and choices have consequences.  In this specific case, the drive to be seen as virtuous before the cameras allowed several to brazenly ignore the plain English meaning of the written words in the resolution before them.  They choose to be Alice in Wonderland like and assert that words mean whatever they wish them to mean.

Secondly, there was repeated bandying about of the psycho-babble phrases “this is not who we are” and “this is who we are.”  We don’t know about you, but we don’t like one bit when elected officials suggest in public view that they know “who we are” or “who we are not.”  They have no right, or no divine knowledge to claim understanding of 20,000 plus residents’ view of matters such as these.  Perhaps they should think about the meaning of their words before they utter them; they really were saying something more like “this is what I want all residents of our town to think” or “not think.”

The more we reflected on this last point, the more we recognized that these sentiments from elected betters are certifiably false and unsustainable.  Here’s why.

Brunswick is home to a “prominent” journalist who’s opinion pieces are published in a free weekly newspaper distributed in southern Maine.  He hasn’t lived here all that long, and when he moved to our town, he let readers know that Brunswick is inferior to his beloved Yarmouth, but that he moved here to find a home that would cost him less.

                                       image_thumb6

More often than not, this columnist asserts his moral, social, and intellectual superiority to the unwashed masses upon which he looks down.  Including thousands in Brunswick.

                         image_thumb7

This columnist’s tolerance for those who see things differently than he has always been lip service at best.  A recent column of his provides a useful example.

      image_thumb5

In the comment thread, in which we and various others were participants, he labeled those who voted for Hillary Clinton’s opponent in the 2016 general election “white trash Americans” and racists and sexists and all sorts of other derogatory terms.  He’s an expert at descending into vicious name-calling at the drop of a hat, all while maintaining his lily-white moral superiority.

In the process, he labeled more than 3600 town residents with these defamatory terms.  Even worse, he inspires his groupies to indulge in the same approach, though most of them can’t match his vitriol.  In the same thread, one of his most fervent fan-girls called the same voters “lousy Americans.”

image_thumb3

As for the state, these two thought leaders, and those who agree with them, called more than 330,000 Maine voters the same reprehensible names.

Our point here, which should be obvious to most, but not to town councilors and other opinion formation gurus, is that they should think twice before making assertions about “who we are” and “who we are not.”

Shouldn’t these illuminati have learned that allocating population segments into various categorical “baskets” is a very dangerous way to think? 

Not to mention a gross insult to the very idea of tolerance, diversity of thought, and individuality. 

Especially when combined with failure to comprehend plain English.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Here in Brunswick, we’re known as givers. You don’t mind paying for it, do you?

    image

Brunswick has a contingent of penny-pinchers when it comes to what makes sense for municipal spending and what doesn’t, and we have not a shadow of a doubt that Side is viewed as a charter member of that group.  We’re proud to be so, because  it means we have a healthy respect for OPM….other people’s money.  OPM is the mother’s milk of those who like to signal their virtue by lavishing it on the cause celebre of the moment or the era.  We also delude ourselves into believing we have common sense, and respect for fellow residents.

As we often quote,

“No one spends other people’s money as carefully as they spend their own.”

Witness the recent vote to establish Sanctuary Brunswick, as we discussed in this recent post: http://othersideofbrunswick.blogspot.com/2018/02/sanctuary-brunswick-what-does-it-really.html

The proponents of that resolution will claim it has no financial consequences, but that’s a load of bull.  Stating that no funds were appropriated to back it up is to misrepresent the consequences of announcing that we are open and affirming and welcoming to any and all, especially without regard to their immigration status.  But let’s not dwell on those nits.

   image

Instead, we come to you today to discuss Brunswick’s new found love of drones.  We don’t imagine many of you remember the “No drones for Brunswick” movement that surfaced briefly, and even sprouted bumper stickers, as base closure proceeded and rumors of it being a site for testing of military “drones” was rumored. 

“Drones” was used in a pejorative sense, because the subject vehicles were more correctly identified as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, or UAV’s.  For a while, these were an item of some interest in Defense planning, since they could take on a number of roles of manned aircraft without the risk to human lives inherent in the latter.

In the blink of an eye, UAV’s were eclipsed by drones more akin to sophisticated toys.  In fact, our grandson got one for Christmas.  Even the most basic include a video camera as it’s basic payload, and the video is digitized and available live to viewing devices on the ground.  Note the use of the words “unmanned drone.”  That’s deceptive; there may be no one inside the drone, but it can’t operate without “manning” on the ground controlling it and monitoring its video.  Not to mention the overall planning for its use and routine patrol plan.  (Pardon us for using the terms unmanned and manning.)

This particular drone related story, appearing January 17, 2018, is our main focus here:

http://www.theforecaster.net/brunswick-police-promise-drones-wont-leave-the-tracks/

A question immediately came to mind as we read the story:  why isn’t this a NNEPRA, PanAm, or Amtrak responsibility, instead of Brunswick’s?  These are private rights of way; not Brunswick’s public jurisdiction.  We’re probably out of our league here legally.   We assume the plan is to monitor the entire extent of the right of way within Brunswick borders, which will include the track and crossings east of Brunswick Station when the summer service being proposed goes into effect, taking passengers to Rockland.

Brunswick police patrol our street from time to time, which means they’re looking for suspicious activity on our residential properties, at least to the extent they can see on these properties.  The road they patrol is a public way, not a private thorofare.

But we don’t expect them to employ drones to monitor activity on our property, nor would we want them to.  Even though we pay significant sums via our property taxes to fund their patrols and related actions. 

We can think of lots of things Police could use drones for in monitoring behavior in the public domain.  Among them jay-walking on Maine St, and running of stop signs at Woodside and  Pleasant Hill, and Pleasant Hill and Church Road.  These uses could even generate revenue to offset the costs.

None-the-less, we are perplexed by the notion of our Police taking on the responsibility for monitoring Downeaster operations.  To begin with, this could/should be handled by NNEPRA and Amtrak personnel using strategically located video cameras.  It appears to us that cameras are located at the Church Road grade crossing, and likely elsewhere.  You can see the camera in this photo of the equipment installation adjacent to the crossing.

         image

Furthermore, we know for a fact that Amtrak has their own police force.  We’ve seen them here in town as shown in this snapshot, taken near the Town Hall:

         image

So as far as we’re concerned, NNEPRA, Amtrak, or Pan Am has the responsibility for monitoring the safety of the right of way utilized by the Downeaster, including the “rail yard” area on which the Layover Facility is located.

In case it hasn’t occurred to you, real time monitoring by the Brunswick Police, which is the only kind that makes sense if “accidents” or other public safety violations are to be avoided, will require installation of monitoring equipment at Police HQ, and assignment of personnel to pilot the drones and monitor their video 24 hours a day.  Recording will be required for use in any legal proceedings that might pursue.  Then there’s the planning and reporting required to conduct such surveillance.

Where are the detailed concept disclosure and cost estimates for providing this service?  Where is the plan for reimbursement by NNEPRA?

Or will the entire cost of this service be added as a surcharge on Downeaster tickets sold for arrival and departure at Brunswick station?

           

Talk about causing a case of the vapors…that should surely do it.

But as you probably can guess, we don’t really give a fig.  Or a banana, or a case of mangoes.

This is not our responsibility, and it’s not yours either.  The total burden for this effort needs to land on the desk of Patricia Quinn at NNEPRA, and she’ll have to decide how to pay for it.

                                         

Which, given the Downeaster business model, means we’ll all end up paying for it anyway so we can keep Ambassadors and other local dignitaries happy.  We all know they aren’t willing to travel by the same conveyances we little people use.

Like we said, Brunswick is a town of givers.  Even if the gift needs to be compelled from us by government. 

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Sanctuary Brunswick; what does it really tell us?

  image

Which is from this article:

https://www.pressherald.com/2018/02/21/brunswick-adopts-resolution-welcoming-new-residents/comments/

Here’s the introduction of this item for the Council Agenda of 20 February:

image

Here’s the text of the subject resolution:

image

As we see it, the key passage in the resolution is this:

image

When it comes to matters of law, the key words seem to be “without regard to…..citizenship or immigration status.”

Councilor Kathy Wilson, who apparently has the legal credentials we lack, made this comment:

“This isn’t going to change laws,” she said. “What this does is just extend a hand that says you’re welcome here.”

Sorry, but to us, this resolution is tantamout to telling the Police Department to avoid questioning the “citizenship or immigration status” of anyone they encounter within Brunswick’s boundaries.   It may not be CHANGING laws, but it sure seems like changing the ENFORCEMENT of laws.

We suppose we’ll take a lot of heat for this, but how does this not amount to the Town Council giving itself the authority to welcome and protect fugitives from justice?  What other categories of illegality will Brunswick declare itself to be unwilling to enforce?

How about those with revoked driver’s licenses?  Don’t they have rights as well?  How about those ignoring court orders for child support and other domestic obligations?  Will Brunswick welcome and protect them?  How about those on the SOR?  Will drug dealers be given refuge here?

We trust the Town Council will promptly direct the Police Department to enumerate those laws that will be enforced within our boundaries, and those that won’t.

More importantly, will the Town Council and the Police Department tell us which freedoms we now enjoy they will no longer respect?  How about the freedom to seek a concealed carry permit?  If that freedom does not please the council, will it pass a resolution making it null and void?  Is the Town Council now a legislative body able to nullify state and federal law that defines either illegality or legality?

This action by the Town Council is just another step down the slippery slope we talked about when they created the Brunswick Human Rights Task Force.  Each and every member of the Town Council knows it is political suicide to oppose such feel good actions, and that they will eventually have to up the ante by passing various regulations and resolutions and other virtue signalling expansions in this regard.

And if you haven’t already thought about it, we could now be seen as competition for Lewiston in such matters.  We hope “Sanctuary Brunswick” and councilors who supported this resolution are preparing space in their own homes to demonstrate their welcoming attitudes.  And changing local ordinances that govern setting up camp on public and private properties.  Otherwise, the sentiments expressed are nothing more than moral posturing, and a hollow sentiment designed to put the burden on others who did not sign up for it.

Before we close, we have one more tangential issue that is frying our knee socks.  Several years ago we proposed the Council undertake an “Economic Benefit Study” to determine the local effects of the Downeaster coming to town, since that was the primary rationale for investing vast sums of federal, state, and local moneys to make it happen.  And in a moment of collaborative inspiration, we proposed it be a joint effort with Bowdoin Economics majors.

We posted many items on the general subject, but this one might be the most relevant at the moment:

http://othersideofbrunswick.blogspot.com/2014/12/an-ostrich-op-ed-challenging-brunswick.html

We were told at the time that we would need multiple councilors to give the OK to make it an item on an upcoming Council agenda….just so it could be discussed in public.  As we reported in the post, we could not get anyone we contacted to agree to move the idea forward for discussion.

  

This Sanctuary resolution, which is pursuant to enforcement of the law in Brunswick, appears to have come before the Council for a vote because of one councilor’s sponsorship.

Pardon us for thinking that standards relating to Council agenda items are lacking in any sort of rigor, and instead, are based completely on emotion, sentiment, and socio-political expediency.

But hey; that’s just us, and we’re in the overwhelming minority on such matters.