Friday, July 31, 2009

White Glove Municipal Governance

We all know that Brunswick is in need of a new Town Manager, and that the effort to find one is ongoing. We're investing tens of thousands with "consultants" to help us in the process.

After several months, the field has been narrowed to two candidates: an outsider, and the current acting Town Manager, or if you prefer, the Town Manager according to the town's web site.

Leaving aside the fact that the outcome is all but obvious, the latest revelation about the use of "consultants" in this matter is beyond troubling.

The obvious value of consultants is that they provide plausible deniability for local officials when things don't work out as planned. Everyone involved gets to keep their hands clean. And the dollars spent on consultant services create the illusion that a certain proprietary wisdom has been applied to fill a gaping void in the capacities of our town fathers (and mothers).

Now we read that the "consultants" will be used to "negotiate" a contract with the chosen candidate. Excuse me? And we wonder why the Town Council, who in theory govern this town, defer to town staff? As if they work for the Town Manager, instead of the other way around?

Shouldn't they be embarrassed by such a failure to lead and direct in this situation? How can we expect a consultant who has not a dollar's worth of skin at stake in this entire process to look after the best interests of town residents? And the best interests of the town? Does the consultant stand for re-election? Do residents know who he or she is?

As Side sees it, this whole episode is a shameful and embarrassing example of elected town officials doing everything possible to wash their hands of "tough decisions." Would they hire a consultant to help them establish behavioral expectations for their children, or pick their next new car, or decide on a career choice?

Have the principles of "public service" become so distorted and self-serving as to deny the very essence of the concept? I have long feared that they have, and watching this unfolding play is proof enough.

What's next? When the next council election is held, should voters have to hire consultants to tell them who to vote for?

As a closing note, I'm laying down a marker that the "negotiated" salary for the new manager will be $120,000 plus something like $60,000 in benefits. That's a lot, but managing nine town councilors plus town staff has its challenges, I suppose.

A MoonBeem, a MoonBeem....

It's no secret that Side features a conservative take on things. That doesn't mean that we don't engage in banter and respectful discourse with those on the liberal side of the ideological divide. Why just today I lunched at The Big Top Deli yet again, chomping down on two of those Boars Head hot dogs I told you about. Even though the owner thinks I'm some sort of cretin in social and political matters.

I consider myself to be even tempered and more or less unsurprised by anything I read in the available print media. That said, there are some things that can get my goat. I almost always find the self-righteousness of Paul "Pass the Kool-Aid" Krugman thoroughly irritating, for example.

Even he, though, can't match the condescension, smugness, and sheer leftwing elitism regularly displayed by Edgar Allen (Moon)Beem, the "featured" (and paid) op-ed writer in the Forecaster.

Beem is almost always downright vicious and imbecilic in his commentaries, and this week's is a prime example of his slobbering (thanks, Bernie) obeisance for Obama and all things big government. He is a poster child for what a six-pack of Kool-Aid a day can do to your mind.

Come to think of it, I may take to referring to him and his kind as "Edgar six-pack" when I need a suitable pejorative.

This week Beem reminds us that he is educated, apparently, and, it would seem, not an addict. I take exception to that characterization, as Beem is clearly addicted to himself, and there is no known cure for such an affliction. And whatever education Beem has acquired has only served to prevent him from applying common sense and an understanding of what the American founding means, escpecially as it relates to equality and liberty.

I confess he brings out the worst loathing instincts I have. He disgusts me. He eptimomizes the self-satisfaction and cluelessness of the left's patricians.

But most of all, I ask myself just what is it that brings an otherwise pretty good newspaper to embrace such a collectivist as it's regular paid op-ed writer. Who does he know, or what does he know, to secure such a spot?

(Moon)Beem's latest is a demeaning attack on a local waitress who had a heartfelt letter published in a local daily, and the letter gained national notoriety. How dare an ordinary citizen publicly express views at odds with the Beemer. How dare such an offering achieve national notice. How dare "uneducated" and formerly addicted media personalities challenge the compassion of one who bows to the one and only savior of our future.

I'll stop here, because if I don't, my revulsion to this writer, and in particular this week's offering, will cause me to go beyond the bounds that I hope to enforce on this blog. I will close with this quote from his column:

Among the nine "principles" of Beck's self-centered creed are "I have a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, but there is no guarantee of equal results" and "I work hard for what I have and I will share it with whom I want."

In other words, Beck does not believe in equality, justice, or the common good.

No matter that the cited "creed" derives directly from the Declaration of Independence, and that the expression of such a principle defines the very essence of liberty and property rights that this country was founded to enshrine and protect. And that Beem has a completely perverted interpretation of what "equality, justice, or the common good" are.

The barbarians are inside the gate, and sleeping with the media watchdogs. Where's Joe McCarthy when we really need him?

Reporter Status: Summer happens

Loyal readers know that this reporter has been sluffing off on updates over the last two weeks or so. I beg your indulgence in this regard.

As I reported earlier, we were in an "internet free zone" for several days last week, and we also have family visiting. Tomorrow, even more family arrives, so the pace of reporting will definitely be in a summer "slump."

Please bear with me. I know that many local residents go into "summer mode" this time of year, even if the weather isn't cooperating. There's an uncharacteristic understatement!

Thanks and stay tuned.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

HeALthanol...Government help at its finest

Ok, I know, I’m engaging in stupid word play again. Humor me; David Letterman has his stupid pet tricks, and I have my stupid word tricks. Many more will come your way as the weeks and months move on, even though there isn’t a nickel’s worth of payoff in it for me.

‘Having said that,’ to employ a trite and worthless phrase, this stupid word play came to me as my “fertile” mind juxtaposed two subjects: the hell bent for leather stampede to “free government provided health care for everyone” and ethanol, the perfect example of government incompetence and corrupting power. All I could think was: how can anyone want to turn over their health “care” to the very same bureaucracy that gave us ethanol and is intent on making its consequences even more destructive?

On its face, ethanol sounds like a nice idea – a way to reduce “dependence on foreign oil” and fossil fuels, while similarly reducing “carbon footprint,” however you choose to define that. I am not a chemist, but let’s simply agree that ethanol is a combustible fuel additive produced from vegetation, and in precisely controlled circumstances, it can be substituted for a small portion of traditional refined petroleum products.

Here’s what I know about the consequences of ethanol, especially as added to the gasoline products we purchase at our local gas stations. (I believe we currently are compelled to purchase fuel with a 10% ethanol content.)

· First and foremost, the existence of ethanol in our gasoline is a classic example of the triumph of political capitalism over free market capitalism. That is, state controlled markets where politicians choose winners and losers to preserve their hold on power, rather than free markets that respond to the compatible interests of buyers and sellers to optimize the employment of limited resources.

· The regulations and policies mandating use of ethanol in our fuels are political pandering of the worst sort to farm state constituencies, intended to ensure the permanence of their elected officials. At the same time, ethanol is a counterproductive sop to environmental alarmists. If our senators and representatives ever find a way to make ethanol from lobster shells, expect it to be mandatory in local fuel mixes as well.

· Now for the negatives:

o Ethanol fuel mixes reduce mileage; in my case, about 10% on each vehicle. Gee, that’s helpful.

o Ethanol manufacture and distribution creates more “carbon footprint” than it saves in the end gasoline product.

o Ethanol is detrimental to distributors, storage facilities, boat owners, and everyday users of the fuel mix. It requires special handling, easily separates into distinct fuel “phases,” and attracts water to conventional fuel, which has only bad consequences. In other words, extra expense. It decomposes certain types of fuel tanks and fuel system hardware, requiring expensive repairs and replacements.

o It causes significant performance problems, especially in small engines. I know from personal experience with my generator, my lawn tractor, and a friend’s snow blower that the ethanol mixture creates water in the fuel tank and spawns the creation of extremely fine sediment that makes it past the fuel filter, and then clogs up the fuel bowl and jets. This is no fun when the power is down and it is snowing, and you can’t get your generator or blower to run reliably. Thanks, Washington; we really appreciate the help.

· And the greatest negative of all? It raises food prices worldwide, and contributes to food shortages, because more and more land is being turned over to corn destined for ethanol. It simply is the politically designated most rewarding application of the property. I read that the corn required to make a tank of fuel would feed one person for a year. Think about all the good you’re doing as you pump that ethanol mix into your tank. And thank a politician for being ever so “helpful.”

· Now the good news: based on the sterling success of ethanol as a fuel additive to date, the government is planning on upping the required fuel content from 10% ethanol to 15% ethanol. We should expect proportionate “benefits,” at least for those who repair engines, sell fuel, and grow corn. Along with further food price growth. But hey….it’s all for good intentions (and proven negative consequences), so why complain?

Back to my opening point: do you really want the folks that created the irrationality of ethanol fuel additives to design, manage, and oversee your personal health care? Especially when all those who will compel you to surrender to their designs are very blatantly exempting themselves from the same system they would impose on us? I can think of no finer example of a permanent ruling aristocracy setting themselves apart from the little people over whom they rule. In this case, their behavior is criminal in spirit, if not in letter, and should be all the proof you need to steer clear of their plans, and to throw them out one and all.

I’ll close with a reference to an illuminating article on computerization of the National Health Care system in England. Remember the debacle in Maine a few years back when something like $100 million in taxpayer funds were thrown down the rat hole to “upgrade” the DHHS payment system? This was a trivial and relatively benign undertaking compared to actually making centralized and automated decisions about the care you receive.

A pithy quote:

The judgment as to what to do by way of treatment will, alas, be made by people you have never met but who nonetheless can decide whether what your doctor recommends should be covered by insurance or is wasteful or contradicts the findings in the latest statistical study, perhaps reflecting the results of a small statistical sample of patients in Norway.

Read the article; it describes government incompetence a thousand times more costly than what happened in Maine, and in so doing, gives you a glimpse of the health care “justice” being shoved down our throats by our so called benefactors and “public servants,” all while inoculating themselves from its pathologies. Now that’s a fine recommendation!

(Note: for the one or two of you who wondered why Other Side has not had any new posts in the last week or so, it’s because the Poppycocks sauntered off to an “internet-free” location where we got to observe and hear “common loons” on a regular basis, enjoyed watching kids be kids, having s’mores as a prelude to supper, and otherwise got away from it all. And we have friends to thank for making it possible.)

Updates: Favorite Places

Bintliff's Ocean Grille Edgecomb - Closed!

has some sad news to report. The Poppycocks were planning on taking visiting family and good friends out to a first class breakfast this Sunday, and so Bintliff's in Edgecomb, just across the river from Wiscasset, was in our plans. Since we would be a group of 7, I decided yesterday to call and inquire about reservations. I found phone numbers on the web, the first of which had a recording saying they would not be open for Mother's Day. Strange to say the least.

The second number resulted in an out of service recording. Finally, a third number rang in the "Inn" part of the property, and the young lady confirmed that the restaurant is indeed closed. I could not make heads or tails out of her explanation, however. So until further notice, scratch this truly first class establishment off your list of places to try. Their web site still seems active, and I found no relevant news reports of the closing, which only makes things all the stranger.

Big Top Deli Update - Owner is a prince among men

In a kind and respectful personal message to this reporter, the owner of the Big Top Deli, at which I calculate Side has personally purchased something like 1000 sandwiches, took issue with the characterization of him as "foul-tempered," "a bit obnoxious," and a "dictator," all in the midst of raves for his offerings ("Brunswick's finest deli food," "delicious," etc.)

Any news reports of high officials saying that they didn't know all the facts, but that the deli owner is a friend of theirs and Side acted stupidly in this matter are probably not credible. And the same applies to any statements that this reporter is every deli owner's "worst nightmare."

So in keeping with the civil and tolerant tone of this blog, which eschews profanity and other caustic displays of immaturity, this reporter hereby retracts those characterizations and asserts that the owner is "a truly interesting fellow" who bows to nearly every customer he serves.

And Side further declares that they will not whip you up a tofu and raw bacon sandwich on recycled cardboard pita; reliable sources for the ingredients are too great a challenge.

Side does, however, wish to comment on other Big Top offerings. The soups in particular are of the highest quality, and home-made on site. Try the clam chowder if you are lucky enough to stop by when they have it; the use of herbs to elevate the taste above the ordinary is a victory. And if you like Reubens, they have a world class one, because the excellent quality of the Boar's Head products starts it off on solid ground.

Similarly, Side recommends the hot dogs, and enjoys them often. These are not your traditional Maine steamers; they are anything but. One dog here is probably the equivalent of nearly two steamers in portion size, but that is not the point. The dogs themselves are transcendent examples of the tubular protein art, and they are served on a nicely toasted roll that is to standard hot dog rolls as proscuitto is to spam. Try some inventive combinations of toppings like spicy mustard and coleslaw, or bacon and american cheese, and you'll discover a new world of deli.

For a rare and unique experience, try the Poppycock on toasted pumpernickel. This consists of salami and sharp provolone dressed with spicy mustard, lettuce and tomato, and some pepperoncini. Ummm....ummm.

Your reporter has lobbied for some time to have this creation added to the formal menu, but when ever such a suggestion is made, the princely owner has a distinctly "common" reply that most would translate as "when hell freezes over."

Which, judging by our weather of late, may happen this coming winter. I'll let you know when it makes it to the menu board.

Friday, July 17, 2009

The Professor on LD 1495 "Tax Reform"

The following item appeared on the op-ed page of the Times Record today, but was not posted on their web page. It was written by John Frary, a retired History Professor and past challenger to Mike Michaud for the District 2 seat in Congress.

Since I know the author, I asked him to provide the essay for reading by a broader audience, and he has complied.




In 2006 the liberal Brookings Institution published a report welcomed by Gov. Baldacci as a "blueprint for Maine’s future." Charting Maine’s Future argued that the state’s top income tax rates constitute a drag on economic development and that its "threshold", i.e., taxing incomes over $18,000 at the top marginal rate of 8.5%, was too high. It recommended lowering the top rate and raising the threshold. The report also proposed that the sales tax be broadened to stabilize the revenue flow.

Brookings did not, however, explicitly argue for funding income tax cuts by sales tax increases. It proposed instead that the legislature find the money by establishing a Government Efficiency Commission of "twelve independent minded citizens" to identify administrative economies.

LD 1495, the Democratic majority’s "tax reform" lowers the top rate but no efficiency commission has ever been established. The cuts are to be funded by sales tax increases. Curious about the lack of interest in efficiency. I traveled down to Boothbay on Jun e 29 to hear a presentation by Representatives W. Bruce MacDonald (D-Boothbay), Elspeth Flemmings (D-Bar Harbor) and Thom Watson (D-Bath). As it turned out the subject of efficiency, inefficiency, and savings had no place in their discussion.

Rep. Watson’s statement of his agenda in A Citizen’s Guide to the 124th Maine Legislature includes "culling out business tax incentives that are not producing as promised" but the subject of culling never came up in Boothbay Town Hall. Indeed, none of the representatives have anything to say about spending reform in their statements in the Guide. Apart from the vague talk of culling, their respective statements speak only of novel ways to spend money.

After listening to Representatives Flemmings and Watson boasting about the new budget’s $500 million in cuts I feel prompted to paraphrase a remark once made by Samuel Johnson: "A Democrat cutting taxes is like a dog’s walking. It is not done well, but you are surprised to find it done at all." Although these cuts included some desirable structural changes, they relied mostly on huge one-time infusions of federal funds. Shoving burdens down the line to the municipalities, hence onto the property owners, also helped. Never mind that Charting Maine’s Future was very critical of our state’s high property taxes.

Optimists reckon that the shortfall in the next budget will be $500 million, pessimists reckon $1.520billion. Faced with the choice of further cutting or more "revenue enhancement," I expect the Democratic majority’s mind will turn to tax increases, just as the compass needle turns to the north and the heliotropic flower turns to the sun. A great deal of history supports this prophecy and little contradicts it.

The conviction that LD 1495 is not so much a reform as a tax shift, and a platform to launch increases in the future, is the impetus behind the Republican drive for a people’s veto of the bill. This belief is not exclusive to Republicans. This weekend I spoke with Rep. Stephen Hanley (D-Gardiner, Randolph), who voted against it. He believes that income tax cuts and broadening of the sales tax, coupled with a rate reduction, are necessary but holds the position that LD 1495 is an evasion of responsibility; that spending reduction is the prerequisites to real reform.

Rep. MacDonald began the presentation by explaining the budget’s appropriations, emphasizing that welfare and education accounted for most of the money spent and that these expenditures were the mark of a civilized society. I took this to mean either that he felt sums spent on these programs could never be wasted, or alternatively, that wasting was the civilized thing to do.

Reps. Flemmings and Watson took on the task of explaining the benefits and mechanics of LD 1495. It was a hard sell. The standing room only crowd was polite but the20questions were all skeptical or critical. The explainers insisted that 87% of Mainers can look forward to a tax decrease. Members of the audience seemed to suspect that they would end up among the 13%. The representatives struggled to explain the legislation’s intricacies. The audience remained obstinately baffled. The representatives spoke reassuringly of the Maine Revenue Services’s esoteric calculations. The audience remained unconvinced. Perhaps they were remembering the state’s record on budget projections

Single Payer: It's time, so let's get on with it

Reading this title, you might think I'm gonna sermonize on the "health care crisis."

You would be wrong.

But I do find the concept of a "single payer" providing universal care, and keeping costs down, to be very appealing. As a matter of fact, I'm convinced that the care plan I have in mind is absolutely essential if we are to turn this economy around backwards.

Therefore, with pre-meditated after-thought, I'm requesting that President Obama immediately enact Single Payer Legal Care. This is, pure and simple, social justice, because everyone has a basic human right to accessible legal care. Sticking with the system we have is unacceptable, and we should ask those that defend the status quo just what they find so appealing and why.

The plan I envision would have all lawyers immediately become government chattel, with their salaries controlled by a "Lawyer Czar." The Czar would establish a living wage, and limit lawyers to that level of remuneration. Within that cap, lawyers would have to live with the same sort of reimbursement levels and timeliness that Medicaid providers do.

The PBO (Poppycock Budget Office) estimates that a 10% social justice fee on income of any form, including all transfer payments from Government, coupled with a 10% common good surcharge on all gross business receipts should cover the costs of a pilot program. It's probable that costs will exceed PBO projections, but that's not sufficient rationale for denying the fundamental humanity inherent in this plan.

Heck, people resisted CFL's and mercury pollution, and expanded production of ethanol, and if we had heeded their objections, we'd be missing out on all their benefits. Just ask those who clean out fuel systems and repair engines, and those in the hazardous disposal industry, whether it would have made sense to stay with the status quo.

Single payer legal care may seem like a draconian change to our system, but we can't make progress without such a transformation. Government is the only power with the compelling force of law to make it work regardless of the underlying flaws.

So, as our Dear Leader says, "buck up" lawyers and those who will bear the costs of such a legal utopia. Because we can all count on the government to buck it up as well.

At the same time, it's important that we all immediately show our support for just such a just policy by retiring all elected officials with law degrees at the end of their current terms, and from this point forward disqualify any such individuals from seeking elected public office. We're gonna need them in the trenches of accessible public legal care where they can be in touch with their inner sense of justice.

Come to think of it, while we're at it, how about single payer car care and single payer yard care? If that single payer had to pay for all the rust damage to our vehicles, maybe they could find something besides salt to throw on the roads in the winter - like sand, maybe.

Keep your eye out this weekend for ABA ads backing the plan for Single Payer Legal Care. We might even see a "Barry and Louweezie" ad where they sit at the kitchen table and agonize over how they're going to pay the legal costs of suing their neighbor for electoral malpractice.

ALERT -- Other Side Breaking News Alert!

Other Side Exclusive

Once again the Poppycocks' Friday tradition of lunching on Brunswick's finest deli food has paid off. Lunch at the Big Top was delicious as always, yet somber in mood, since the charming, handsome, and princely owner was not there. But all was not lost, since it provided the opportunity to break a major local news story.

Gazing out the front windows of the Big Top as we ate, I noticed something moving over the buildings on the other side of Maine Street. On closer examination, I could see that a white flag, embroidered with what looked like a wet noodle, was being hoisted up a pole atop the Brunswick Town Hall.

Ever the watchdog for readers, I immediately contacted a trusted source inside the building. The source told me that the Brunswick Hometown Property Tax Revenue Defense Agency has decided to elevate the terrorism threat level associated with tax collections. This has been necessitated by the devastatingly bad economy, and the unusually high number of delinquencies.

My source tells me that the threat of receiving a letter informing you that you are behind in your taxes has gone from virtually insignificant to slight, and therefore, they felt it appropriate to issue a warning to the public so that mailbox vigilance could be increased appropriately.

You'll be comforted to know that the BHPTRDA intends to take the flag down when delinquencies return to normal levels.

Well I never!!!

I never expected, in my wildest imagination, that I would one day receive an issue of Imprimis from Hillsdale College featuring an address delivered there by a Bowdoin Professor. For those of you who know of Hillsdale, and/or Imprimis, they espouse a world view that is the polar opposite of Bowdoin's.

So you could have knocked me over with a Brunswick Times Record when the latest issue arrived, and the featured author is Professor Jean Yarbrough of Bowdoin. She is a Professor of Government and Social Sciences.

And therefore once again, the old saw "never say never; never, never, ever, say never" proves its worth.

A very interesting article it is, entitled "All Honor to Jefferson," and I commend it to you. And it must have been written by someone with a very thick skin, an incredibly disarming sense of humor, or both.

Hear, hear, Professor!

Property taxes as terrorism

I've been labeled a "tax paying, government hating" malcontent in print by a former town councilor. And it's no secret that I've been a taxpayer advocate over the years, with a somewhat public profile.

But I don't recall anything like I read in the Times Record yesterday in their lead article on the tormented organic farmer.

I won't dwell on the farmer's life style, which seems to reflect a certain disdain of reality, mixed with a sense of entitlement. And trust me, there's much tongue biting going on.

This quote goes well beyond anything I can recall in the way of tax related rhetoric, and places the speaker squarely at the F. Lee Bailey and Paul Krugman level of exaggeration:

Johnson shares her house with Joe Ciarrocca, who calls the town’s tax lien warning a “blatant act of terrorism.” He says the town is hiding behind the law by sending these letters, which don’t account for an individual’s situation.

And in response to an input from John Eldridge, a decent, capable, and understanding town staffer, about relevant law, there is this response:

Unfortunately, this is exactly the answer that angers Johnson and Ciarrocca, who counter by asking, “What about the people? What about the individual?

I suppose organic farmers consider themselves exempt from such annoying little details of "community." I'll leave it to the "interested student" to reach their own conclusions about such sentiments, but it would appear the subjects of the article are living in a parallel universe. And they are not alone. I better stop scratching my head before I draw blood.

"Justice" and future opportunity

Pursuant to other writings on our economic outlook, this quote from the Cato Institute's Will Wilkinson is insightful.

There is no justice, and great harm, in diminishing the whole array of future opportunity to save a few people now from a regrettable fate.

I encountered it in Mark Levin's book.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

A New Town Manager for Brunswick

The search for a new Town Manager for Brunswick has been going on for some time now, aided by, of course, consultants. Consultants are great because they provide “air cover” no matter what the circumstances may be. If the council wanted someone in particular, but didn’t have the stones to just come out and say it, they can always have the consultant construct an elaborate rationale for the choice. And if the choice made turns out to be a big mistake downstream, it has to be the consultants’ fault.

I don’t know how much we’re investing in this process, and I’m not sure I want to know. As I’ve written before, if I was a betting man, I’d say the outcome will be that Acting Town Manager Gary Brown will be the choice, and there’ll be glowing statements about how “here he was, right here, already working for us, so he can hit the ground running.” This isn’t much of a leap for me to make, since at least one town web page already shows him as the Town Manager.

The process is drawing to a close, and anticipation is mounting. You can feel it in the air around town. (Or is it just the crummy weather?) So in keeping with my prediction above, I’m putting down a bet for a steak and a couple of beers at Frosty’s that Brown will be the winner. And that just for grins, the salary package will exceed that of the prior Town Manager.

This wasn’t the real reason for this post, however. While it is of no real purpose at this point, I simply wish to make some observations about the qualifications and job description for a Town Manager. These were submitted to the Town Council some time ago, and no doubt they’ve made the same strong impression as my other submissions and statements over the years.

I’m confident that the Town, with the able assistance of the consultants, are looking for someone who would make a fine diplomat or ambassador. Rich in “people skills” and “consensus building” and ability to work with “diverse town interests.” There is ample reason to prize such qualifications.

I tend to look at things more from the performance and responsibilities point of view, especially in view of the challenges Brunswick faces. So herewith are my notes on the subject, which were disclosed as well in a Times Record submission.

• Read Town Charter to delineate Town Manager duties.

• What do we expect from a Town Manager?
o Just an administrator? If so, the job isn’t worth the compensation package we provide.
o Prior manager was cordial and helpful, but also delegated all substantial tasks.

• Ask candidates what we should expect from them.
o Why should we hire you?
o What is the proper role of municipal government, and what isn’t?
o How do you manage and contain costs on capital projects from inception to completion and through operation?
o What objectives would you have for the town? For yourself? For your direct reports?
o How should we measure your performance?
o What measurable performance history can you provide us?
o Any candidates who stumble on such questions are not prepared to lead and do not have a sense of what their purpose is.

• Some thoughts on tasking:
o Establish and maintain 5 year revenue and spending forecast; update and present twice yearly; include debt profiles and projections
o Establish 5 year population/demographic forecast; update and present twice yearly
o Establish formal objectives program for Town Manager and all Department Heads; tie to annual performance/merit reviews
o Establish formal, rigorous capital project process
 CAIV, cost control mechanisms, etc
o Establish formal, rigorous capital asset maintenance process
 Avoid typical deferred maintenance catastrophes
o Establish budget priority categories for ranking needs vs. wants
o Conduct full budget scrub/zero basing immediately, and repeat at least every 3 years

Which comes first - the chicken or the egg?

One often ponders such profound existential conundrums. As a wise Germano, with a richness and diversity of life experiences, I believe I can provide a better answer to this question than a typical white man might.

So here it is. The answer to the question “which comes first” is that it really doesn’t matter, as long as you have one or the other. Because if you have one, you have the means to obtain the other.

It’s when you have neither that you’re up against a brick wall if you want to be in either the egg or the chicken business.

Those who’ve heard the old “Freddie Fulcrum” story will recognize a similar morale to that story.

I attended an MHPC luncheon today at DiMillo’s in Portland. The speaker was Mr. John Dorrer, of the Center for Workforce Research and Information in the Maine Department of Labor. His presentation was titled: "Labor Market Dynamics and Workforce Trends: Formidable Challenges for Maine."

The story he presented is not a pretty one, especially when compounded by Maine’s awful demographics. Dismal as Maine’s economy might be, the outlook for providing the necessary work force with the skills employers need is even worse.

I’ve already read enough on Maine population trends to know we are the oldest state in the nation, and that we are seeing a devastating out-migration of our youth and of adults who are at prime family/household formation ages. Those are the population segments you need to build a sustainable future (or should I say life) for the state. And the very small in-migration can be explained by incoming retirees who are not coming to fill vacant jobs in businesses.

Some of the interesting observations by the speaker are that on average, 2 ½ years of the typical 4 year college degree is now being spent in remediation to compensate for the shortcomings of the government K-12 schools, and that the greatest job growth is in the health care field. That latter factoid probably has as much to do with the aging population as anything else. It’s akin to the fact that in Brunswick, two of the three Funeral Homes have undergone major expansions in the last few years. And that, loyal readers, is not a good sign.

Much of the debate in Maine over this general subject revolves around government involvement, regulations, and funding. One side says the reason we don’t have a more vibrant economy is because we aren’t educating enough people with the right skills to bring business here to grow. The other side says the reason our youth and thirty-something adults are exiting the state is because there is no economic growth to offer them a desirable future.

The chicken and the egg conundrum, you might say. As I was driving home from the event, it occurred to me. We have an economic climate and hostility towards growth that is conducive to producing neither eggs nor chickens.

This is in large part due to a chronic smugness borne of cluelessness. “Quality of place” and the glories of a “creative economy” are two examples. The former talks to those “natural” characteristics of Maine which have so far proven immune to destructive government policies, while the latter talks to things like art galleries, etc, which feed a sense of cultural elitism, but is most often known for the “starving artist” syndrome.

And then there’s the nearly universal conviction that one’s town has the best schools, and that all the teachers are above average. Couple that with an education bureaucracy that prioritizes constant increases in pay and benefits without any performance measures or accountability. The result is a system of government schools that imposes very few expectations upon students, and that has lost its commitment to instill the basics of human knowledge, responsible behavior, and critical thinking skills.

Looking through the prism of Brunswick, I assert that the most vocal segment of the town is almost without exception averse to nearly any concept of economic development, and to almost any residential growth patterns that would be part and parcel of such development. Borrowing money to buy “Land for Brunswick’s Future” is just one very visible indication of such resistance, as is the namesake program at the state level.

Maine’s circumstances are arguably Brunswick’s writ large. What we have here is hostility towards chickens, and an aversion to eggs. We have loathing of financial capital in the form of capitalism, and we’re showing human capital out the door.

As Mark Steyn said in “America Alone:”

“There is no precedent in human history for economic growth on declining human capital – and that’s before anyone invented unsustainable welfare systems.”

If you haven’t read the book, you really should.

It’s widely accepted that ‘demographics is destiny,’ and Maine’s unique factors coupled with the transition of the boomers into retirement creates a double whammy. When all factors are considered, including the steady decline in birth (fertility) rates, we are fast approaching the point of irreversibility.

Chickens and eggs: you can’t have one without the other. Maybe it’s time to put out welcome flags for both. And somebody better do it soon.


Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Kool-Aid Krugman Kicks It Up a Klick

I wrote a while back about Krugman and friends having to escalate the climate predictions as the climate realities became less covenient for them. Well, almost on cue, PK comes through with a winner:

Put it this way: if the consensus of the economic experts is grim, the consensus of the climate experts is utterly terrifying. At this point, the central forecast of leading climate models — not the worst-case scenario but the most likely outcome — is utter catastrophe, a rise in temperatures that will totally disrupt life as we know it, if we continue along our present path. How to head off that catastrophe should be the dominant policy issue of our time.

The Fiscal Quagmire of "Revenue Sharing"

Or, the taxpayer giveth, and the Government taketh away.

I’m not sure when the concept of “revenue sharing” between the levels of government began, but I’m pretty sure it’s been in my lifetime, and perhaps no more than 40 years ago. But I am sure that it has turned out to be an addictive, destructive, and expensive failure, especially when the founders’ ideal of limited government is concerned.

OK, let me be magnanimous for a moment; the first layer of paving on this particular road to hell likely consisted of good intentions. Since then, the road has been resurfaced dozens of times, and the good intentions are buried deeply beneath layer after layer of political manipulation and pork.

A number of decidedly ugly consequences result from revenue sharing. The first is that it fuels the popular perception that government money flowing in our direction is somehow “free.” This is the phenomenon made ever so real here in Brunswick as the majority of the town decided that the new Elementary school is all but free, because the “state is paying for it.” I remember statements like “if we don’t build it, someone else will get the money that should have been for us.” And “why would we turn it down…it’s not costing us anything!”

Not to mention the annual sums the town receives as general revenue sharing and aid to education. Such sums are determined by formulas developed by state politicians who inevitably find themselves in the role of choosing winners and losers as they allocate the resources across the state. And what a wonderful opportunity to prove to your constituents that you were able to manipulate legislation to favor your district!

The ever popular “dollar leveraging” is another route to “free money.” “If the town puts up X, the state will put up 4X.” How can you lose in such an arrangement? The reality is, to those who notice such things, that this is enabling behavior feeding an addiction, complete with all the rationalization exhibited by drug addicts.

The same pathologies exist in the relationship between the Federal Government and the states, which have become all too dependent on “free monies” flowing from Washington. How many times have you heard “it’s a great deal; every dollar the state spends draws down 3 federal dollars,” the clear implication being that those dollars are “free” as well. You can just hear the wheels turning in Augusta as they come up with clever ways to invoke promises of Federal dollars, no matter what the consequences might be. Hell, you can’t turn down such easy money! That would be irresponsible, right?

There’s an even darker side to such arrangements, however. And that’s the fact that regular shipment of funds from the next higher level of government provides a convenient bogey man for the officials in the receiving body. It allows them to point the finger elsewhere when taxes go up, as they inevitably do. For years, Jim Ashe, the former Superintendent of Brunswick Schools, would blame the state for causing the increase in school property tax support because they “weren’t sending us enough.”

In other words, it wasn’t spending that was the problem, but the failure of others elsewhere to cover the increases with free money from afar that somehow is treated as if none of us had anything to do with providing those sums. If I could only cite one fact to prove that the average citizen is clueless, it would be the absolute inability to grasp the simple fact that all government money comes from us, one way or another, no matter who the check is from.

In a similar vein, the state has for years cited “federal cuts” as the reason for huge “structural gaps.” I tired of explaining that the feds had increased funds flowing to Maine by over 60% during the Bush administration, because such facts were easily trumped by the immense hatred of the President. It simply couldn’t be true because it contradicted with the prevailing view.

While these systemic issues are enough to wish that revenue sharing had never been instituted, there is a deeper principle involved. I can’t think of any reason why someone in, let’s say, California, should believe they have a right to have someone in Maine pay for some of their state government foolishness, nor any reason why someone in New Hampshire should pay for any of Maine’s foolishness.

At the local level, I don’t believe anyone in “the county” should feel an obligation to pay a penny towards Brunswick spending, and vice versa. And it only gets worse when you put manipulative politicians in between the donors and the recipients, because it goes without saying that the first priority will be to make the arrangers look good, rather than to do good.

This country and its insatiable appetite for government spending at all levels is in serious trouble, and we may never recover from the hole being dug. The last thing we need in such circumstances are a belief that money falls from the sky, and a ready excuse for elected leaders to blame someone else for their excesses.

Oh…and one last thing. Since the feds can’t look to a “higher government” for more “shared dollars,” they simply print and/or borrow what they need, which is the terminal stage of the “free money” pathology. This is the stage where we become easy pickings for another governing body, whether by a hostile or friendly takeover. If not literally, at least figuratively.

Quagmire, thy name is revenue sharing.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

News from Lake Basebegone

Well, it's been quiet lately here in Lake Basebegone. "King Confidentiality" seems to be doing a fine job of holding things close to his vest, and F. Lee Bailey, "King Hyperbole" in matters related to Oxford Aviation, has been surprisingly quiet as well.

But don't you worry; things are cooking along. In the July issue of The Cryer, published by former State Rep Charlie Crosby, our own Senator Stan Gerzofsky has a page one article - "Marketing Issues and Bonds for BNAS." I wonder how hard he had to twist Charlie's arm to get that space.

In the article, Gerzofsky reassures us with this statement:

"Commissioner Richardson and his staff at the Department of Economic and Community Development (DECD) have been leading the charge and advocating aggressively attracting businesses to this state. Of the nine business development specialists at DECD, one is dedicated to the base redevelopment; working with the town of Brunswick, attending MRRA meetings and making themselves readily available for inquiries."

I spent most of my career in business development, so I want to take comfort from this statement. Without much success, unfortunately. First, I'm having trouble recalling economic developments around the state that would inspire confidence in state specialists' abilities to lead us out of the wilderness. If the efforts of the nine are hard to discern, what should we expect from the efforts of one? Notwithstanding that "confidentiality is king."

One might reasonably ask what the other 60 plus employees of John Richardson's Department are spending their time on. Including a goodly number with total compensation (salary plus benefits) ranging from $90,000 up to $140,000 plus. These "public servants" have job titles like "Public Service Executive II" and "Public Service Manager III."

I'm going to go out on a limb here and suggest that nary a one has their future at risk based on job performance - whether or not they have a salutary effect on Maine's economy. In this regard they are the polar opposite of "Executives" and "Managers" in the private sector, who can be here today, gone tomorrow if business conditions so dictate. In fact, if the entire Department was to be judged on Maine's economy, it might be abolished.

At any rate, given the immense challenge of BNAS closing, and the share of Maine economic activity involved, it might be reasonable to expect that more than one "specialist" was assigned full time to the case.

Now to the second point: it almost doesn't matter. Based on over a decade of observing things, my guess is that every paid state "development specialist" is opposed by a force of 100 or more who earn their living trying to thwart such economic developments. Most are employed in the non-profit industrial complex, although there are a number of apparent "trustafarians" who are individual actors in the mix.

These opponents have a variety of motives for resisting economic development, ranging from global warming, environmentalism, pacifism, and CAVE-ism (Citizens Against Virtually Everything) to plain old hatred of capitalism and entrepreneurship. And the concept of private property and its lawful use.

I've asserted in the past that there is a large contingent in the Brunswick region that feels "good riddance" is the appropriate response to Navy departure from the area. They simply don't understand the role of the military, or the Federal Government's fundamental obligation to provide for national security. I could delve much deeper into the syndrome, but I'll leave it right there for now.

A fine example appears in today's Times Record. Amusingly, the letter I refer to is labeled "Say no todrones" in the print version. For a moment, I wondered just how the writers would define "todrones," which I read as rhyming with "cajones."

A quick glance at the letter writers explained the misunderstanding. The local PeaceWorks group is concerned that the Naval Air Station could find future application in defense related activities, and are horrified at the thought. This view is of a kind with the regular protests over the years at BIW, including trespassing and vandalism, founded on the belief that Navy ships cause war.

These sincere folks are free to believe such things. As long as they accept that a corollary to such beliefs is that Police cause crime, and if you really want to push it, that Doctor's cause disease.

And so we have even more evidence of why concern about the future of the base, and the eocnomic and demographic future of our region, is so well placed. And why the circumstances cry out for leaders who will "take the bull by the tail and face the situation," to reference a prior post.

Statism vs. Liberty

I've just begun to read Mark Levin's "Liberty and Tyranny," which is selling very well in Maine.

I'm only 3 chapters into it, but I am impressed with how clearly Levin delineates the basics of our founding and their underpinning, and how they are being discarded in a headlong rush to statism and "heaven on earth," sponsored by big government.

In particular, I want to pass along this quote from Barry Goldwater's 1964 nomination acceptance speech:

"those who elevate the state and downgrade the citizen must see ultimately a world in which earthly power can be substituted for Divine Will, and this nation was founded upon the rejection of that notion and upon the acceptance of God as the author of freedom.

I'll date myself: the Goldwater election was the first in which I voted. Some years later I was fortunate enough to meet the man and have my picture taken with him when he toured my Company's exhibit at the Paris Air Show, which is an incredible event in itself, orders of magnitude beyond anything done in the US.

To construe the quote as simply the words of a religious zealot is to completely miss the point.

The quote ends the chapter that discusses very clearly the concept of the "unalienable rights" of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," and how they flow from the Founder's incredible grasp of natural law and their understanding that these rights are bestowed by "their Creator."

Today we find assaults from many directions on this pure and exceptional declaration. It is time for all to re-educate themselves on the core principles that created America, so as to fully comprehend them, and to clearly recognize the stake being driven through the heart of such principles.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Frosty's Donuts: Coming Back to Life?

If Side has seemed out of sorts in recent days, there may be a very illogical explanation. Brunswick's own Frosty's Donuts has been closed for four weeks straight, sending the rhythms of loyal patrons' daily life, not to mention their metabolism, into complete disarray.

can't help but wonder whether the nearly intolerable climate pattern of recent weeks hasn't resulted from the not so subtle environmental changes when Frosty stops frying those delectable little dough concoctions.

Frosty's has been practicing the fine donut arts for some decades now, to worldwide acclaim. Side is a regular consumer of their art, and considers the establishment a cornerstone of Brunswick's "creative economy." Once you taste their creations, you're hooked. And you long for that creation to continue on a dependable basis.

So it is with uncontrolled glee that this report is issued: a sign appeared on Frosty's door two days ago saying that they would be open for business on Monday, July 13. I suppose it's a mistake to broadcast the fact, because they'll be out by the time I get there.

Hey.....Side is here to serve. And to suggest that you, like he, eat donuts while the sun shines, for all good things must come to an end, and there is only one Frosty's.

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.”

Kool-Aid by any other name is, well, still Kool-Aid

Informed readers know that ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, has been forced to change its name as a result of all the troubling reports arising from its role in the election of President Obama. The operative theory is that the general public, as F. Lee Bailey says, has an attention span of something like 4 hours, and won’t have a clue what the newly named organization is. Bailey should make a suggestion for processors of cod liver oil: rename it “Essence of the Fair Seas” and sales should go through the roof. “But wait! --- Order in the next 30 minutes and get one free!”

For the past few years, a free bimonthly publication called The Maine Democrat has been distributed around the state. Typically running 24 pages, with modest use of color, the tag line is “The Maine Democrat - Inclusive and Progressive.” In a gesture of bipartisanship, I usually picked up a copy at the Big Top Deli, but I’ve seen it in several other locations around town.

The Maine Democrat was published by Ramona du Houx of Solon, the mother of Alex Cornell du Houx, one time candidate for the Brunswick City Council, and now a state representative from Brunswick. Alex withdrew from the Council race because of military obligations. The state office he now holds was formerly owned by John Richardson, the current Commissioner of Economic and Community Development, so we can expect Alex to rise to the “Mr. Speaker” post in a few short years under Richardson's tutelage.

According to Ms. du Houx, 23,000 copies were distributed around the state, and the copies were printed by “union labor.” It claimed to be a “volunteer publication.”

Not to put too fine a point on it, The Maine Democrat was a shameless propaganda tool for the Maine Democrat Party, even though the masthead disavowed any official connection with the party or any political campaigns. Such disavowal, frankly, never passed TOSOB’s smell test. From front cover to rear cover, every single item was a paean to Baldacci and the governing majorities in the Maine house and senate. With every issue, I made a point of counting the pictures in which Baldacci appeared, and almost without exception, Baldacci pictures outnumbered the number of pages.

Virtually every picture was credited to Ms. du Houx, and literally every article was written by her as well. She seemed to be a Tinkerbell living in Baldacci’s blazer pocket, ready to snap a picture and dictate a story whenever and wherever he might appear. Revenue generating advertising was minimal, and about half of the ads were placed by Democrat candidates or Democrat office holders, and I presume they were given special rates for such ads. It never carried enough business advertising to remotely suggest that printing and distribution costs could be covered, let alone editorial costs.

I was convinced that something was not right about the undertaking, and that various campaign rules and laws were being skirted ever so carefully. But I’m not a lawyer; though I know many of you would wish that fate on me. I am an engineer, and that can be just as arduous, except you don’t have to defend the indefensible. And the pay reflects it. I suppose I could ask “Lee Bailey” to look into it, but for some reason, he won't return my calls lately.

Yesterday, as is our habit, the Poppycock’s had lunch at the Big Top Deli on a glorious and all too rare sunny day. And I picked up a copy of what appeared to be a new publication called Maine Insight.

Well, surprise surprise, a quick examination revealed that it is, in fact, The Maine Democrat with a new campaign hat. Ms. du Houx is still the publisher, taking credit for nearly every article, photo, and artwork. It is, however, down to 16 pages. And I only counted 12 of the 16 pages as having pictures containing Baldacci. Maybe Tinkerbell has had to find other work.

By my count, non-political advertising in this issue would net around $1500 at published rates, not allowing for multi-insertion or other “negotiated” discounts. Not nearly enough, as I see it, to cover even the most basic of costs. Go figure.

If you visit the website linked in the second paragraph, you’ll see that it carries the content of both the old and the new. Questions arise as to what drove the change; could it be Alex’s presence in the Legislature, or could warnings have issued from others concerned about pushing boundaries? If you do visit, you’ll find such comforting pictures as this, reminding us to don’t worry, be happy, about the closing of BNAS.

The really good news, though, is that while The Maine Democrat was a slobbering and transparent house organ for
Maine’s Democrat governing class, Maine Insights, in contrast, is a slobbering and transparent house organ for Maine’s governing Democrats. (Thanks to Bernie Goldberg, a fellow Rutgers grad, for not complaining about my use of “slobbering.”)

And so we are left to contemplate, loyal readers, just what new name F. Lee Bailey will come up with for Oxford Aviation. I predict, for the record, that it will fail TOSOB’s smell test, just like his prior orations on the subject.

Friday, July 10, 2009

"Predatory" Taxation: Adjustable Rate Property Taxes

Do you know what the Maine Income Tax rate is? Do you know what the Maine Sales Tax rate is? Do you know what your Property Tax rate is?

You may not be able to answer any of the above, but my guess is that you may know one or both of the first two, and don't have a clue about the Property Tax rate.

The Property Tax is a particularly malodorous animal, and the fact that you probably don't know what the rate is hints at the reason.

State Income Tax and Sales Tax rates are set by State Law (statute), and remain fixed unless the law is changed, except when those conniving little hellions in Augusta build "indexing" into the law, like they have on the fuel tax. And it takes great political "courage" (and political capital) to face the music when changes to those rates are proposed, especially when such changes are deceptively packaged for an all too gullible public. (By the way, did you know the word "gullible" is not in the Dictionary?) Witness the recent hub-bub over "tax reform" (deception in itself) and the mounting people's veto campaign.

The Property Tax rate is not fixed or set in statute. The rate is free floating on an annual basis, and virtually escapes public notice and controversy. The rate this year has nothing to do with the rates in past years or the rates in coming years. The rate simply is what it is for now, and nothing is set in even the mushiest concrete.

When annual town budget time arrives, neither the School Department or Municipal Government begins by determining the revenue that will be available from the Property Tax rate and other sources, and then proceeding to make expenses match revenue. That would be the dog wagging the tail.

Instead, just the opposite happens; the tail wags the dog. Both entities decide how much they want to spend and borrow, and then proceed to set the Property Tax rate anew to match revenues to desired spending. There is no political capital on the line, no significant courage involved, no chance of a people's veto of the rate (at least not yet.)

Hence a completely unpredictable tax rate, and more to the point, an adjustable tax rate. Remember the inflamed rhetoric in past months about predatory lending practices with adjustable rate mortgages?

If adjustable rates are the demon, than one might say that the Property Tax is predatory taxation. We cannot predict what the tax rate will be 3 or 5 years from now, and no one in an official capacity would touch the subject with a 10 foot campaign sign. Especially in this economy, and more pointedly, in Brunswick, where "standby for heavy rolls" is the operative nautical command.

If everything worked the way Property Taxes work, you'd look at the family budget for next year, and throw in a new car and any other increases, expansions, and other "costs beyond your control" (property taxes, for example), and determine what income you'd need to be able to afford those things.

And then you'd go to your employers and tell them to modify your salary accordingly, or you'll have their business confiscated and sold off to pay you as you wish. That sounds fair, doesn't it? All you're asking for is to be paid based on your ability to spend, right?

Why not have a word with your employers next week to see how they react to you resetting your "adjustable" salary every year with the force of law. It should hearken a new "era" in labor relations.

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.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

"Yes, Minister:" laughing at politics, if you can believe it

Several days ago, in British Comedy Meets Open Government, I posted a humorous excerpt from a BBC Series called "Yes, Minister" that ran in the last century (the 80's).

Intrigued by the dialogue, I decided to see if the series was available locally. As fortune would have it, Bart & Gregs got the DVD set in just about a month ago. Last weekend we picked up the first two DVD's, each of which contains 6 half hour episodes.

I heartily recommend it. It's a highly amusing view of the inner workings of British Government. It mines the difference between government and politics, and the interplay between career civil servants and elected politicians.

It is typically droll and dry in it's humor, and always reality based enough to make you believe it's more true than made up. The two lead characters - the Minister, and his permanent Secretary Lord Humphrey, are brilliant in their rolls, and the interactions and dialogue are superb. The manipulative nature of Humphrey is a wonder to behold, and is truly frightening when you consider how close to the truth it is.

Give it a try; you'll get some good mature laughs, and your eyes will be opened at the same time.

Brunswick Town Property for Sale: Old TR Building

Maybe I'm the last one to find out, but the town has the old Times Record Building on the market.

That takes it off the table for possible Police Department use, or for relocating Town Staff from the Federal Street building so the Police could have that. And looks like we'll have to move council chambers and Cable 3 again.

Little did I know that today I'd find confirmation of some thoughts I posted yesterday here. There's nothing like a little churning to stir up local markets.

They've also posted the Thomas Point Road property, which was once targeted for the East Brunswick Fire Substation.

Here's another update: according to the info on the web page linked above, Gary Brown is now Town Manager, not Acting Town Manager. Will someone please call the consultants and issue them a stop order?

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

On Brunswick Capital Improvement Plans

Hey; it's only money!

We’re in a record setting, prolonged, dreary, depressing, and chilling period, and the forecasts don’t show much hope of improvement. And then there’s the really lousy weather we’re having that makes things even worse. Reminds me of the old standby Put On A Crappy Face, which begins like this: “Clear skies are gonna cloud up, put on a crappy face. Brush off that grin and tear up, put on a crappy face.”

Well don’t you worry. Our Town Council has begun to “spread sunshine all over the place” in the form of the latest five year Capital Improvement Program. That is sunshine I see, isn’t it? These days, you gotta take your sunshine wherever you can find it. Which means we’re all more likely to be dazzled by any light on the horizon, even if it’s only sparks generated by the town rubbing its last two nickels together.

Let’s examine some of their “capital” ideas. The most immediate one is for our next fiscal year, which kicks off in July 2010. The plan is to spend $6.65 million on a new Police Station. I don’t know anyone who believes the police don’t need more space, so let’s stipulate we won’t suggest they make do with what they have.

Are you wondering what $6.65 million, the estimate in the plan, will buy? Well our most recent experience in new construction, the East Brunswick Fire Substation, cost us $2.6 million not too long ago. So we might expect that allowing for inflation (balanced by hungrier contractors), the Police Station they envision would be twice the magnificent new facility on Bath Road. Wow…that would be quite a Police Station, wouldn’t it? There’s nothing like a little healthy competition between the public safety departments.

What’s the likelihood the project will come in at that number? About the same as the likelihood that your humble correspondent will wake up with a fully restored head of hair tomorrow morning. The new school about to get under way for $28 million plus began in the Capital Plan at less than half that amount. The downtown public safety building that voters defeated in 2003 went from $6 million to nearly double that amount in a matter of months, before ever reaching the execution stage. And the new Fire Substation was in the plan at $1.6 million but quickly expanded to $2.6 million. Town costs associated with Maine Street Station haven’t exactly cloaked the Town Hall in glory either.

In other words, there isn’t much reason to believe that $6.65 million is anything more than a starting point for discussion. The unbridled joy of spending other people’s money, compelled from them by law, is simply too intoxicating, especially when “community pride” in the form of lasting monuments with brass plaques inscribed with your name are involved.

There’s nothing to indicate that the current town council and administration is in any way better equipped to rigorously hold to a plan and live within a budget than in the past. Why should they? Nobody else does, and the town can run up a “credit card” just as fast as you can, if not faster.

Based on recent history, it’s a good bet the actual number will end up at $10 million or more. And we simply must have a brand spanking new facility, widely visible to all comers, so that everyone realizes what a perfect place Brunswick is, and knows that we certainly aren’t going to be outshined by that little backwater bump in the road just across the green bridge.

Some years ago, a well known resident recited this old Yankee wisdom at a council meeting: “Use it up, wear it out; make it do, or do without.” I’d never heard it before, and it has stuck with me since. We have a much beloved school about to be closed (Longfellow); an in town facility purchased a few years ago that we refurbed at significant expense (the former Times Record building); and a major vacant facility with a full basement right in the center of town (the former Grand City).

Then there’s facilities the town will acquire as the base closes. Resourcefulness and fiscal prudence would suggest that looking at some combination of the existing Town Hall and these other facilities would provide more than enough room for the Police, and more than enough room for the rest of Town Staff.

Such a course is not politically feasible or appealing, however. While the Town Hall, if occupied only by the police, would at least double their space, it would leave Town Staff looking for a worthy and totally modern facility offering at least twice the room they currently have (trust consultants to make it absolutely a minimum requirement.) And if the Police moved elsewhere, Town Staff should not be condemned to utilizing the unseemly space now occupied by the Police.

We should, therefore, prepare ourselves for a perfect blend of consultants with the catalyst of taxpayer funds. Expect the final cost of proposed facilities to be up to twice what’s now in the plan, just to be safe. And further expect that the eventual plan will maximize the number of new facilities needed, while maximizing the destruction or laying to waste of existing facilities. It’s just the nature of government, and history proves it. Especially in Brunswick. Give me a B, give me an O, give me an H, give me an I, give me a C, give me an A.

I haven’t even touched on the out year items like a new Central Fire Station ($6.5 million, they say) and $7.5 million for work on the few schools we aren’t tossing in the ash heap.

But I do want to address the $1 million for “Land for Brunswick’s Future” in the coming fiscal year. Truth be told, this should be called “Gobbling Up Private Lands With Taxpayer Money To Be Sure They Offer No Economic Benefit To The Town,” because that’s what the intent is. The town will lose whatever tax revenue is derived from the private property purchased, and the land will never be put to productive use in any form.

Will someone explain what the words “for Brunswick’s Future” really mean, and while they’re at it, “for Maine’s Future?” This is language abuse at the hands of disingenuous bureaucracies. Future, in this case, means never. They’re not saving it to be used 10, 30, or even 50 years in the “future.” They’re making sure the land has no future use; that it stays unused forever. That might be a noble purpose, but it has nothing to do with saving it for a rainy day or any other benefit to a future for Brunswick.

I’d be much happier to see our town leaders dedicate themselves to “An Economic Plan for Brunswick’s Future” or “Sustainable Prosperity for Brunswick’s Future” or a “Plan to See That Brunswick Has A Future.” There’s no visible pressure on available land in this area; one might even argue that the opposite is true (remember tearing down McKeen St. Navy housing as an idea?) But there is immense pressure on area demographics and economic outlook. Shouldn’t that be a higher priority than stockpiling land currently on the tax rolls?

One last point, unless I think of something else. Estimates are that the approved Capital Improvement Program would, by itself, raise property taxes by more than 10% over the coming 3 years. That number is subject to all other things being equal, which is about as likely as the capital projects coming in at the numbers just approved. Instead, there are multiple factors that will drive those tax increase numbers upwards.

1) The growth in costs as plans advance.

2) “Normal” escalation in operating costs.

3) A significant property tax demand increase from the School Department, as projected in recent statements.

4) An iceberg of new operating expenses associated with maintenance and operation of Naval Air Station property, with little or no offsetting revenue.

5) Federal and state budget issues of such magnitude that they will inevitably push costs down to the local taxpayer. Figure state aid to education and revenue sharing to decline substantially as primary examples.

No one in an official capacity would dare to address these factors, or even worse, to lay out plans that account for them. You want my guess? I’d say a 50% property tax increase is in the cards for the next 5 years. I’d be willing to lay a dinner on that, if there’s still any dining establishments operating by then. And I don’t do McDonalds.

If Town officials think I’m wrong, all they have to do is publicly respond with an explanation and their own estimates. But before they do, they should look at an estimate done a year or so ago by the Finance Director. It had a number in that range, and conditions are clearly worse than envisioned in that estimate.

The normal mode of government is to blithely ignore such realities until such time as they slap them upside the head with a 4x4, and then claim “unexpected” budget pressures and “factors beyond our control” to dodge the bullet and build reluctant empathy on the part of taxpayers.

And when it happens, you can say you read about it first here. Not that it will make one damn bit of difference.

Anticipating how many readers will react to the foregoing, this quotation may well apply:

“The power of accurate observation is commonly called cynicism by those who have not got it.”

- George Bernard Shaw