Saturday, December 24, 2011

“My Big Fat Greek Christmas”


We saw the movie “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” at Brunswick’s own Eveningstar Theater some years back, and howled at it.  A friend who went with us has a Greek sister-in-law, and knows her family pretty well.  She assured us that the movie was an accurate portrayal of Greek family character, traditions, and eccentricities.

It remains one of our favorite movies; if you haven’t seen it, you should.  If your sensibilities and sense of humor are even remotely close to ours, it will bring tears to your eyes, in more ways than one.

Our daughter’s neighborhood has a house that reminds us of the family patriarch’s house in the movie.

Well, you should see it at Christmas!  Now the parallel to “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” is truly compelling and unavoidable.

To prove the point, and provide some Christmas cheer appropriate to the season, we pass along these photos – one in daylight, and one at night with full, and we mean full, big, fat illumination!



Trust us, the night time photo doesn’t do the place justice; our usually reliable professional photog just didn’t have his A-game tonight.  We may get him to go back and video the place so you can see all the motion characters and hear the music.

We’ll close with this for now: Merry Christmas, loyal readers!

And here’s hoping Santa brings a bottle of Windex down your Chimney!


Friday, December 23, 2011

MSHA: is it time to come clean?

In this recent post, we wondered how the MSHA funded Elm Street “affordable housing project” (yeah, that’s a good one!) could have quickly gone from a projected cost of $314,000 per unit to an approved cost of $265,000 per unit.

The facts are becoming clearer, and they all point to ‘someone,’ as we speculated earlier, at MSHA.

MSHA held a board meeting this week, on Tuesday the 20th, and this very subject came up.  Dale McCormick, the Director of MSHA, provided a rather low key explanation.  It wasn’t so much about reducing the cost of the project as it was about increasing the number of units in the existing building, meaning the average size of the ‘affordable units’ was decreased to lower average cost to politically acceptable levels.  The total cost of the project, while lowered a few percent from the worst case n number, is still significantly higher than the initial estimate.

This is not unlike the property tax game, where two variables are involved: mil rate, and assessed value.  Periodic reassessments, that drive housing values significantly higher, allow local officials to ‘lower’ the mil rate, and claim they are somehow lowering the tax burden on local residents.  This isn’t lying in the literal sense, but it’s close enough for horse-shoes.

The other items cited to lower the final Elm Street per unit price include a reduction in ‘developer fees,’ and ‘value engineering.’

These terms are nebulouse, which makes them perfectly suited to the purpose of so-called public servants trying to squirm out from under a very heavy rock.

We’ll watch for a detailed written summary from the Authority, but until we see it, you can bet the monkey is only sitting on one back, and said monkey was whispering in MSHA’s ear for some time, to no avail.  Here’s hoping the monkey is listened to in the future.

Or is it time to clean up?

At this same meeting, an embarrassing subject arose: reports of squalid conditions in subsidized ‘affordable housing’ in Norway, Maine, involving what most would call a slum landlord, who would often take advantage of taxpayer provided rent payments via government programs.  And relatively helpless tenants.

Follow the references here to get a ‘picture’ of what’s been going on:

State stops Section 8...

“I'll tell you right now, the people we're dealing with today should not be in new construction," she said. "You should see these houses when they move out.” She cited trash, dirty “flushes” and other unsanitary conditions brought on by tenants. “It's not fair; there's not much we can do about it,” she said.

Pratt no more

NORWAY — Landlord Madeline Pratt will no longer be allowed to participate in the Section 8 housing program, state officials confirmed on Friday. Pratt's daughter Beverly Kimball, who helps to manage her mother's apartments, said that the state is not giving them a fair chance to bring their apartments into compliance.


Imagine renting an apartment where, when a neighbor flushes the toilet, waste bubbles up in the bathroom sink. Or living in a third floor apartment with the only way to get out being down the stairs because the exterior fire escape is barely attached ... its nails pulling out of the wall. Or living with everything you own plugged in via various power strips and extension cords to an outlet outside of your apartment.

Please note that Avesta Housing, headed by Brunswick’s own Dana Totman, is a leading player in this drama.  Dana is often seen in various civic leadership posts, including the board guiding the highly successful MRRA efforts to turn the former Naval Air Station into a vibrant and dynamic economic engine.  As if anyone in the area wants such a thing.

We’re confident Dana will have a cogent and defensible explanation of how his organization has been victimized and made the subject of a witch hunt in these reports.  We’re biting our tongue really hard right now; we’ll just promise to print his defense here when it is issued.

MSHA and Totman are no doubt finding the way ahead more treacherous than they have previously encountered, since the Norway SNAFU has been elevated to federal attention levels.

Senator Susan Collins was contacted by local Norway officials.  Here’s a report from another source:

The Maine Wire has obtained a copy of a letter sent today by U.S. Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine) to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, asking for an investigation into the recently-reported Section 8 housing violations at an affordable housing complex in Norway.

From the letter:

“I am writing to request your assistance in investigating the property inspection and fire code enforcement practices for federally subsidized properties in Oxford County, Maine. I have been contact by the Fire Chief of the Town of Paris, Maine, about serious safety violations in units that receive federal payments under the Section 8 program.

You can find the letter from the Senator here.

What’s the old saying about may you live in interesting times?

In this case, I think we’ll get our wish.


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Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Cross words for the Ostrich

In the lingering days of our paid subscription to the Brunswick Bleep Bleep, the only thing that provided any value of note to this reporter was the daily NY Times Crossword Puzzle.

As best we can tell, the new, full and complete web version of The Ostrich does not include the NY Times puzzles.

As if any more nails were needed.

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Tuesday, December 20, 2011

There are TIFs, and then there are TIFs.

Not that Ostrich editors can tell the difference!

In a fit of editorial pique, The Ostrich recently ran this editorial:

Peter Anastos of Yarmouth, a partner in the firm that operates hotels in Bath and Brunswick, believes the Brunswick Town Council erred in agreeing to a tax-increment financing (TIF) deal with the developer of the Inn at Brunswick Station.

Anastos has made his displeasure known in court cases, at Town Council meetings and in letters to the editor.

He certainly has a right to voice his opinion, but it’s time for Anastos to end his long-running tantrum.

In agreeing to the downtown TIF, Brunswick’s town councilors simply followed through on a commitment made by their predecessors. Their predecessors included the TIF, a common economic development practice, in a plan that successfully achieved development of a contaminated, decades-old eyesore in the heart of Brunswick.

While Bath city government used a different form of TIF during development of the hotel that Anastos’ group built in that city in 2009, his firm gained a $387,000 contract to design sidewalks and streetscapes around the hotel. That’s a very similar government-aided competitive advantage to the one for which Anastos lambastes Brunswick officials.

It’s disingenous (sic) for Anastos to blame the Brunswick TIF for hard times at local inns while ignoring the Bath deal. He would be better served by devoting his energy to touting his own properties.

An angry innkeeper alienates guests.

Turns out the editors had done their usual quarter-inch deep research on the subject, and a ‘clarification’ was published a few days later.  Even that was not fully accurate.

We submitted a letter on the subject, and didn’t even bother to hold the editor to account for his spelling gaffe.  It read thusly:

To the Editor:

On a visit to your web site, I read the item “Hostility trumps hospitality,” published December 12th.

It addresses hotelier Peter Anastos and the City of Bath, and alludes to ‘a different form of TIF,’ without explaining further.

There are, as you point out, different forms of TIF. For example, some require no application or approval; only the benign neglect or tolerant benevolence of current town councilors and their predecessors.

For a case in point, one prominent Brunswick business, known well to you and your readers, owes more than $220,000 in property taxes, dating back to 2009. This business did nothing to qualify for this ‘tax increment financing,’ other than fail to pay their taxes on time. While not a common form, this ‘TIF’ has benefits similar to other types, in that it defers tax obligations that the rest of us are required to meet.

Others might suggest that the holder of this form of ‘TIF’ is engaged in a quid pro quo with town officials - an exchange for amiable and non-critical reporting on Brunswick town governance. This notion is unseemly, to say the least, so I will not make this claim.

If I did, I’d have to counsel you that editorial hypocrisy alienates readership and advertisers, which could easily lead to declining revenues and the dreaded consequences one might expect.

And even worse, my doing so might cause you to throw a tantrum. Goodness knows Brunswick doesn’t need or want that.

Apparently, the letter got lost in the mail, because we got no response to the initial submission, nor a subsequent inquiry on the letter’s disposition.   Must be they’re overwhelmed with reader submissions, or the new web site thingy is driving them bonkers.

(Note: if you can guess who the ‘prominent Brunswick business’ is that owes the $220,000 plus in taxes, you’ll be entered in our drawing for a free one year subscription to Other Side.  Losers will be referred to The Ostrich to sign up for a paid one year subscription, in hopes it will help them pay their delinquent taxes.)

The Ostrich’s webbed footprint; one day at a time.

We reported here, almost two weeks ago, that our beloved local rag, The Ostrich, is headed down the road of the paperless business model.  We could start an office pool about how long they’ll have any business model, but why trouble ourselves?

Something like two and a half years ago, about the time we founded this publication, the folks over on Industry Road who publish said Ostrich gave us a hint as to what was to come.

They had, until that point, a fairly stable web site that carried the most important content from the daily print version,  And they had an archive function that was years deep, and which we found very useful for researching various local issues.

The site carried several days of highlights, so you could catch up on things if you hadn’t read the  paper in several days, or were out of town.

Suddenly, the archive function was ‘redesigned’ to carry only two weeks of recent content, which means it was no longer an ‘archive’ in any meaningful sense.

For us, this diminished the already marginal value of the web site, if not the print version, to the near worthless level.  None-the-less, we were still able to visit the site every week or so, and skim the major stories and op-ed page content of recent days.

So much for that.

With their latest enhancement, The Ostrich has decided to live up to, or should we say exceed, our very low expectations.

The latest version of their web site, which will cost you $89.95 per year for full access come January 1st, has one day’s content, and that’s it.  So if you don’t check the site every day, you’ll be completely shut out from yesterday’s news.  Which, come to think of it, is their specialty.

We suppose there’s a method to their madness; they want to force you to come to their web page every publishing day, thereby increasing their ‘hit count’ so they can maximize their internet based ad revenue. 

Good luck with that.  We sure love going out of our way to read advertising on the web, and expect you do too.

We’ve also noticed that their archive feature is now even more useless than it has been in recent years, which is almost impossible.  Unless you’re trying to alienate whatever is left of your readership as you exit the publishing world.

Damn; how are we going to keep current with Paul Krugman and the other balanced viewpoints they publish?

Don’t worry; we’ll find a way.  And save money in doing so.  Like we’ve said before, we don’t recommend paying for a year in advance; that creates risky financial exposure.

If you just can’t control your addiction, at least don’t pay for more than a week at a time.  Or tell them you’ll pay after the service is delivered, not before.

Or even better, after they pay up on their property taxes.  That would be ‘journalistic justice,’ to coin a phrase.

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Tuesday, December 13, 2011

"Eid Mubarak,” loyal readers.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to those of you who stop by our festive and well decked publication.  (It wouldn’t make much sense to wish this to those who don’t come by, would it?)

To get you in the spirit, we offer this Christmas Greeting photo from our distant past:    

1987 puppy jpg

We delivered this litter of 9 English Springer Spaniel puppies in our home, with the help of our kids.  The delivery and weeks that followed were quite a circus.

So much for making nice.  We want to tell you about an ‘incident’ with our wonderful US Postal Service.   Mrs. Poppycock traveled to the local branch to buy some Christmas Stamps for our outgoing cards.

She was offered Kwanza stamps, Chanukah Stamps, and Madonna and Child Stamps.  She said she just wanted ‘ordinary’ Christmas Stamps, perhaps something with a Christmas Tree.

She was offered this stamp -

and mindful of the line waiting, she took it to be a stylized, ‘artsy’ Christmas Tree.  She made her purchase and came home.

Your correspondent noticed them on the kitchen counter and decided to take a look.  What we found, on closer examination was this:

When we told the missus that she had purchased Islamic themed stamps, she was incredulous.  After we applied smelling salts, and lifted her back to a vertical position, she jumped in her sleigh, and headed back to the Post Office and asked to exchange the stamps for something else.

Ever helpful, the person she spoke to said “we’re not exchanging them.”  Admirably persistent, our spouse finally got another counter agent to make the exchange, which cost her about a half hour of personal time, not to mention the wear and tear and fuel for her sleigh.

Not long after she returned, she was telling her friend about this, and you guessed it, she had also come home with the Eid stamps without realizing it.  Said friend went through the line twice at the in-town branch trying to exchange the stamps, but had no luck.  So she headed to the satellite branch on the other side of town, where they were easily traded in.

We wonder how many of you were sold the same stamps, and without realizing it, sent off your Christmas cards carrying an Islamic holiday salute.

Lest you think this is a multicultural, politically correct ‘Christmas Holiday’ stamp, the Postal Service issued it in August, well before even the most ambitious card senders might need it.

You may be wondering just what “Eid” is.  According to Wikipedia, it is an Arabic word for festival, and there are two such festivals:

Eid ul-Fitr (Arabic: عيد الفطر ‘īdu l-fiṭr "Festival of the Fast Breaking"), marks the end of the month of Ramadan.

Eid al-Adha (Arabic: عيد الأضحى ‘īdu l-’aḍḥā "Festival of the Sacrifice"), Greater Eid, or Eid-e Qurban , celebrated to commemorate prophet Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son for God.

We trust the recipients of your cards, should you have sent them off with this stamp, will receive it with good cheer and thanks that you would remember them in such a distinctive way.

We can’t wait to hear how it goes; please report back to us.

And prepare yourself for Eid Mubarak greetings sometime in the coming year(s) in response.  This is the greeting used by muslims during the two holidays described above.

You might worry that Eid Mubarak cards will be hard to find, but don’t shortchange the USPS, which needs all the revenue generators it can muster.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.  They could of course come up with another special stamp that would be a big seller:

1987 puppy jpg

You can decide which would add more cheer to your cards.

Monday, December 12, 2011

So which is it, MSHA: did you over-spec, or did your developer over-price?

You may have come across this item published on the Bangor Daily News website yesterday; it provides some ‘closure’ to a contentious public discussion about a particularly pricey ‘affordable housing’ project under the auspices of the Maine State Housing Authority.

Controversial Elm Terrace development gets OK at $265K per unit

By Kevin Miller, BDN Staff
Posted Dec. 11, 2011, at 5:52 p.m.

The head of the Maine State Housing Authority has approved plans for a low-income housing complex in Portland for $265,000 per unit, roughly $50,000 below an earlier cost estimate that has sparked a political showdown with state Treasurer Bruce Poliquin.

Dale McCormick, director of MaineHousing, said Sunday evening that she signed a letter of commitment with the developer late last week to construct a 38-unit Elm Terrace complex after the developer managed to lower the costs from $314,000 per unit.

“It has been approved to go forward and that happened because they found the $50,000 in cost savings that we said they had to find,” McCormick said.

Included in the report is this bizarre statement that perfectly embodies the logical and moral divide between private sector taxpayers and government benefactors in the public sector:

McCormick said there are reasons why affordable housing complexes cost more to build….

Excuse me??  ‘How dare they’ doesn’t even begin to capture the ‘we’re not like you, we’re the government’ arrogance endemic to such agencies.

Tough at it is, we’ll put that aspect of this discussion aside, and instead, dazzle you with a blinding flash of the obvious. We must ask MSHA officials how the price per unit suddenly and inexplicably dropped from $314,000 to $265,000. 

Specifically, has the scope of the Elm Street Project been reduced to drive the price down, or is the scope being held firm?

If MSHA took $50,000 in scope out of each unit, why was there this much unnecessary content in supposedly 'affordable housing' for 'low income' families?  Was this a gold plated, green agenda 'statement' project, at the cost of more housing units for the needy?

Or was the developer about to sign a deal for a price inflated by $50,000 per unit, and if so, how could this be allowed to happen? 

As the saying goes, we report, you decide.  From where we sit, there doesn’t seem to be an answer that doesn’t make ‘somebody’ look bad.

And ‘somebody’ works at MSHA.

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Sunday, December 11, 2011

How dare they??

We’ve been sitting here today watching football, napping, and feeding the fire.  The Pats got kind of lucky; they didn’t look like a commanding presence on the field.  The Packers look like they are.  We predict an unfavorable playoff outcome for our New England team.

No matter the distractions available to us, including snuggling with the pups, we couldn’t seem to avoid thinking on the MSHA issue.  You know the posts we’ve published in recent days, and if you don’t, we’re not going to force them upon you now.

What really got to us as we tried to relax is the ‘how dare they’ aspect of this situation.

Here we have 140 plus bureaucrats, all of whom earn well above the average income for Maine residents, who have Cadillac benefits, and who have job security beyond the imaginating of all who don’t work for government.  And with all these advantages, they cloak themselves in the moral superiority of ‘public service.’

How dare they.

Even worse, they have the incredible arrogance to use their taxpayer funded web site to complain about their compensation.

How dare they, times two.

To make things worse, their so-called leaders are going public expressing umbrage over efforts to examine and rationalize their stewardship of vast sums of other people’s money.  They’ve been dispensing, by their own account, more than $1 Billion in federal funds per year. And spending who knows how much more on their operations and other expenses.

‘Witch hunt,’ they and their big government disciples, activists, and ‘non-profit’ crornies are quick to proclaim.  Their enablers in the mainstream media attack any such efforts as a war on the homeless.

How dare they, times ten. 

This whole snafu is a case study, nay, a poster child for what government by bleeding hearts and busybodies has given us in the way of ‘unsustainability.’

Personally, we don’t buy any of the rhetoric about cutting them some slack or claiming ‘we don’t understand'.’  We’ve had it up to here with the bloviation emanating from entrenched bureaucrats and career hacks.

For now, we’ll leave you with this previously posted, pithy essay that perfectly captures the attitudinal pathology at MSHA.


Nobody spends somebody else’s money as carefully as he spends his own.

Ever wonder about those stories of $600
hammers and $800 toilet seats that the
government sometimes buys? You could walk
the length and breadth of this land and not
find a soul who would say he’d gladly spend his
own money that way. And yet this waste often
occurs in government and occasionally in other
walks of life, too.

Why? Because invariably, the
spender is spending somebody else’s money.

Economist Milton Friedman elaborated
on this some time ago when he pointed
out that there are only four ways to spend

When you spend your own money
on yourself, you make occasional mistakes,
but they’re few and far between. The
connection between the one who is earning
the money, the one who is spending it, and
the one who is reaping the final benefit is
pretty strong, direct and immediate.

When you use your money to buy someone
else a gift, you have some incentive to get
your money’s worth, but you might not
end up getting something the intended
recipient really needs or values.

When you use somebody else’s money to
buy something for yourself, such as lunch
on an expense account, you have some
incentive to get the right thing, but little
reason to economize.

Finally, when you spend other people’s
money to buy something for someone
else, the connection between the earner,
the spender and the recipient is the most
remote — and the potential for mischief
and waste is the greatest.

Think about it — somebody spending somebody else’s
money on yet somebody else. That’s what
government does all the time.

But this principle is not just a commentary
about government. I recall a time, back in the
1990s, when the Mackinac Center took a close
look at the Michigan Education Association’s
self-serving statement that it would oppose
any competitive contracting of any school
support service (like busing, food or custodial)
by any school district anytime, anywhere.

We discovered that at the MEA’s own posh,
sprawling East Lansing headquarters,
the union did not have its own full-time,
unionized workforce of janitors and food
service workers. It was contracting out all of
its cafeteria, custodial, security and mailing
duties to private companies, and three out of
four of them were nonunion!

So the MEA — the state’s largest union of
cooks, janitors, bus drivers and teachers —
was doing one thing with its own money and
calling for something very different with
regard to the public’s tax money.

Nobody — repeat, nobody — spends someone else’s
money as carefully as he spends his own.


There you go.  And as we’ve seen on numerous bumper stickers on Subarus, Volvos, and Piouses around town over the years,

“If you aren’t angry, you aren’t paying attention.”

Which is just the way the ‘public servants’ at MSHA like it.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

More ‘firsts’ for Maine

Depending on how you define ‘first,’ that is, especially as it relates to whether you have the page right side up or upside down.

By now, you may already have heard about or seen the 2011 Forbes report on the best states for business and careers.  Just in case you haven’t, though, we want to pass it along.

We’ve got plenty of ‘don’t worry, be happy’ types around here, and in our state overall.  Fine.  But ignoring our systemic economic challenges, and that whether you like it or not, states are in competition with each other, is whistling past the ash heap of history.

So take a look at the data in this report.  Any such summary survey is bound to have margins of error, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pay attention to the outcomes, especially when they track pretty consistently with other sources and prior year results.

You can rationalize that your doctor or nurse didn’t take your blood pressure exactly by the book, but if the numbers are elevated year after year, you’d be a fool to ignore them, wouldn't you?  You can think of the numbers in the Forbes report as Maine’s annual checkup and go from there.

In this case, instead of two numbers, there are six.  Rankings in business costs, labor supply, regulatory environment, economic climate, growth prospects, and quality of life.  These are combined to come up with an overall ranking for the 50 (or is it 57??) states.

Whoopee, Maine ranks first overall!  At least if you hold the page upside down.  If you don’t, we rank dead last.

Why?  Because we rank 44th in business costs; 28th in labor supply; 45th in regulatory environment; 42nd in economic climate; 50th in growth prospects; and 17th in quality of life.

Based on what we’ve observed in the way of public opinion over our years here, we’re confident that many area and state residents find the last place ranking overall, and the last place ranking in growth prospects, perfectly to their liking.

Why?  Because they can’t see beyond next year.  And they think that Maine’s ‘quality of place,’ touted by the anti-growth, anti free-market, big government crowd trumps every other consideration.

We assume they don’t have children and grandchildren they’d like to see stay here and build their futures where they were born and raised.  We also assume they are immune to the risks of high blood pressure.

We’ll close with this: ponder the difference between ‘quality of place’ and ‘quality of life.’  And what factors contribute to each. 

If you think they are the same thing, you probably don’t come here often. 

And you aren’t very good at remembering to take your blood pressure medicine, if you even have any.

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Are you getting YOUR ‘fair share,’ fella?

Hey there, Bucky, this is the old Poppycock philosopher with some questions for you.

Assuming you’re still working, are you being paid enough?  Are you friend?

Look at that; almost everyone has their hand up!  Not much surprise there.

Next question: if you had control of your employer’s web site, would you proclaim on it, for all the world to see, how underpaid you are?

Well…what happened?  No hands up; you’re not so brave when it comes to criticizing your employer on his own web site, for all the world to see, are you?

Not everybody is as sheepish as you, friend, when it comes to speaking up. To prove the point, consider the Maine State Housing Authority, about which we’ve posted many times.

We hear a lot about not ‘paying our fair share’ these days, as the federal government tries to find a plausible excuse for spending way beyond their means.  But our friends at MSHA are out there publicly proclaiming that they aren’t getting their fair share, and they’re happy to tell you why.

Just visit this page at their web site.  You’ll find such as this:

The Maine Department of Labor published three salaries for each position: average, experienced, and those in the top 10% of the field. MaineHousing employees with less than 5 years experience in their position are compared with the average market salary, those with 5 to 20 years of experience in their position are compared to the experienced market salary, and those with more than 20 years experience in their position are compared to the top 10% of their field.

  • MaineHousing salaries average 15% below the average market salaries for the same position. (The salaries for the 20 employees who were employed at MaineHousing for less than a year were not factored.)
  • When experience is taken into account, MaineHousing salaries fall to 25.7% below the comparable market position with the same level of experience.

Note that what most would consider ‘entry level’ employees, those with less than 5 years experience, are compared with ‘average’ market salary.  No rigging the outcome here, right?

If you want position by position ‘proof,’ you can look at individual salaries.

What term is appropriate here: unmitigated gall?  Brass ones?  Big cajones?  The nerve of some people?

Polite language is ineffective at characterizing the chutzpah of government employees brash enough to complain about their compensation on their agency web site.  Where they gush about addressing the needs of the less fortunate. 

We bet those using the web site to find the help they need to get by are just thrilled to see the list of salaries used to emphasize staff complaints!  Great expression of compassion, folks.

This is the same MSHA whose compensation growth in recent years was publicized by the Maine Open Government activity at the Maine Heritage Policy Center, based on information provided by MSHA itself.  Staff compensation there has increased by 30% in the most recent five years:

Do you find this troubling, friend?  Well lift your head up high, and tell everyone you’ll never give up -- that ship!

But don’t expect those at MSHA to be troubled, because they’ll say you just don’t understand the difference between the public sector and the private sector.  That you don’t appreciate their sacrifice as ‘public servants.’

We don’t know about you, but the staff here at Side sure as hell doesn’t understand.

We don’t understand why those with all the benefits, job security, and absence of competition of government employment can grumble about their circumstances.

And we are pretty sure we never, ever will.

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Friday, December 9, 2011

The Ostrich: going “paper”- less

It’s been some time since we’ve had anything worthy of note to report about The Ostrich, or as it’s known locally, The Brunswick Bleep Bleep.

We’ve commented on their efforts in a number of posts over the years, and for those of you so inclined, you can catch up by going here.  The number of items may seem overwhelming, but their history is lengthy, and it takes this kind of coverage to document how much they’ve meant to us in recent years.

Beyond their editorial bias, and their self-important conceit as ‘government watchdogs,’ we’ve been most interested in their failure to pay their ‘fair share’ in the form of assessed property taxes.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

We can only imagine what the consequences would be if we didn’t pay our property taxes on time, and we don’t intend to find out. We suppose that makes us wimpy suckers, at least compared to the owners of The Ostrich, who have continued to operate as the self-appointed conscience of the community, while being tens of thousands of dollars in arrears on their obligations. (We’ll research the latest figures, and report them when we get them.)

We should expect such forbearance from town officials for the local elites, of whom the Bleep Bleep is a charter member. The Bleep Bleep could slam the officials in print in a Brunswick minute if they were not given wide latitude in tax matters. 

Gotcha scoring favors the Bleep Bleep, especially since the town already owns one vacated newspaper facility. Owning two might set a world record, not to mention heaping shame on those involved.

We don’t need to remind you that we asked the Bleep Bleep to continue to deliver our paper on a daily basis, even though we had not renewed our subscription,  as a quid pro quo for us paying our property taxes on time and carrying them in their delinquency status. 

We could gloat and be petty about this.  As juvenile as such behavior would be, it is more than warranted in this case, so we’ll go with it.

Now the news.  It turns out that The Ostrich has decided to go with an on-line emphasis.  A few years back, they redesigned their web site to eliminate the most useful feature it had at that time: a several year deep archive feature, which made researching their coverage on local issues fairly convenient.  They ‘modernized’ by changing the archive feature to a two week history.

When they did, they kept the print edition pretty much as it was up to that time.  While we could no longer use their web site for any useful research purposes, we occasionally visited to see what their view of important local events was.  We could do this in a minute or two, given the shallowness of their coverage; but we could do it at no cost.

Well, friends and enemies, those days are coming to an end.  Today, The Ostrich announced that the on-line version of the Bleep Bleep will cost $89.95 a year to read, only slightly less than what they used to charge for a print subscription.  The good news is that the web version will be complete with advertisements,etc.  Good move on their part; consumers have been flocking to the web to pay for content, especially advertisements.

Why didn’t we think of that?

In their own words, here’s what your ninety bucks a year will buy:

The new design will expand options for readers and advertisers by providing all of the content from each day’s newspaper online — in a format easily accessible on home computers, mobile devices and tablets.
Every story, photo, advertisement, news brief, column, comic and feature that now appears in print will be available online daily, effective Dec. 15. Honor rolls, police logs and other items that previously only appeared in print — and which readers asked us to post online — will be fully available on the upgraded website.

We wish them the same success they’ve had recently with their print version.  We‘re confident they wish the same for us.

Our advice to you, just like it was some months ago, is that should you choose to sign up for the service, don’t pay for a year in advance.  Since they don’t pay their taxes on time, there’s no reason they should have your cold hard cash in advance.

And don’t believe the rumors that John Corzine reportedly contacted the Bleep Bleep to see if they are for sale.  Even he is bright enough, if not honest enough, to know their future is as solid as a snowflake’s.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Stew: the missing link

There’s nothing like a bubbling caldron of stew, especially now that winter is here, if not by the calendar, by the thermometer.

But dad-gummit, your reporter once again failed to include all the ingredients that prove the common links in the recipes described in our post just the other day.

While our efforts are usually flawless, at least in our opinion, we do have a persistent and maddening habit of coming up with more thoughts after posting an essay.  Sometimes minutes later, sometimes days later.  And here we come again.

We suggested that a ‘common theme’ united Betsy, the MSHA, and the federal government, making them ‘peas in a pod.’

We remain firm in that conviction; and to emphasize our point, add this common property: good intentions.  Nothing works so well to justify and rationalize otherwise absurd behavior, actions, spending, and programs as the tried and true ‘we care more’ shibboleth.

We’re sure Betsy believes that spending a quarter million or so on global and gender studies will help her make the world a better place, eliminating racism, class warfare, and human rights abuse.  And thereby justifying a claim on OPM to cover the costs of her ‘education.’

Good intentions, thy name is Betsy.

Moving on, is there any doubt that the 143 people working at MSHA have good intentions?  How could providing affordable housing for the needy, no matter how much it costs, be anything other than  a pure and noble pursuit?

Lastly, we turn to Washington.  As we all know, the federal government is motivated by fairness and economic and social justice.  Questioning the motives of our benevolent ruling class relegates one to the mean-spirited detention room.

The common attributes thus become clearer: spending OPM, lubricated by the moral superiority of good intentions.

The only open question at the moment is this: have you paid your fair share today? 

If you haven’t, we’d be happy to drop by and pick up your check.   You can make it out to ‘the greater good,’ a subsidiary of Poppycock Enterprises.

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Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Stewing, a la OPM

You know what stew is, we assume:  a slowly cooked mixture of various ingredients in which the individual components meld to create a blend of greater complexity and satisfying flavors.

Here at Side, we love the comforting aroma of simmering stew, and most of all, slurping down the final result.

Which now that we read our own words, makes this introduction of our thesis tortured to say the least, and absurd at the worst.  Oh well, everyone should do what they do best, and we do stupid metaphors as well as anyone.

So let’s segue into the meat of the matter on our cutting board.  We’ve been stewing for several days on the subjects of MSHA, the youth that supposedly comprise our future, our unmanageable public debt, and the reckless deficit spending in spite of it.

We find them all to be harmonious ingredients, united by a common theme.  Let us explain.

Let us begin with Betsy, exemplar of our future, as described in this prior post.  We cited this Coastal Journal passage:

For Betsy (redacted,) who is from Brunswick and is studying global and gender issues at New York City's New School, the Occupy movement goes beyond economic frustration. Like a lot of college students and graduates, she and her mother are deep in debt to financial institutions that funded her education. She (sic) believes, however, the Occupy movement also involves human rights issues, class warfare, and racism. She has participated in Occupy protests in New York.

We looked into the details, and learned that tuition alone at The New School is $35,000 a year.  Add living and eating in New York, plus all the party expenses, and you’re probably looking at close to $50,000 a year, or $200,000 for a degree, unless you go the 5 year route, in which case you’re staring at a cool quarter million.

All so Betsy can study pointless prattle like this:

Gender's meaning changes. In other words, the culturally constructed idea of what sex difference means is unstable and is often renegotiated over time and from place to place. To study gender is to study a central category of identity that shapes basic structures such as:

  • divisions of public and private
  • the distribution of wealth and patterns of labor
  • the ways in which gender is represented in art, literature, and popular culture
  • how sexuality and the body are understood
  • definitions of sickness and health
  • the creation of norms for public life and the state
  • the production of knowledge itself

Courses in Gender Studies are one way to understand the ideologies, social patterns, and images that shape the changing world in which we live. Gender Studies raises questions about how the gender divide is formed and maintained, and how it is often resisted or undermined. Students explore gender scholarship from the last four decades in the United States and rest of the world. It includes courses about the history of feminist thought and action; men’s studies; gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender studies; and queer theory. Working in conjunction with the program on Race and Ethnicity, these programs explore the many intersections among race, class, and gender.

Imagine spending and borrowing more than the median price of a home in Maine to immerse yourself in studies that prepare you for nothing other than teaching the same twaddle to those as gullible as you.  (Need we remind you the word gullible is not in the dictionary?)

We are convinced that Betsy and her mother, considering the other ‘affordable’ options they had, signed up for this crushing debt in the belief that the tooth fairy, or perhaps the fairy godmother, would come to their rescue.  We expect they hold a tacit belief the government should pay for her education, and that a benevolent agent of hope will ride to their rescue and bail them out with, you guessed it: OPM.

Strange as this may sound, the Maine State Housing Authority is known to spend more than this on an ‘affordable housing’ apartment.  So it’s all relative when it comes to borrowing, government, and the thirst for knowledge, useless or otherwise, and the pursuit of the common good.  They all are addicted to the drug  of choice: OPM.  Say it slowly; Oh-Pi-M.

Is there any doubt that if Betsy gets to Congress one day, she’ll support borrowing the country into oblivion because ‘it’s the right thing to do?’  What other choice could she make if she doesn’t have enough common sense in her young adult years to avoid chaining herself down with unmanageable debt, with the support of her mother?  Unless they expect someone else to bail her out?

Which brings us to the third corner of this triangulation scheme: the federal government itself.  High on their own self-importance and lust for remaining in power, our so called leaders are busy spending over 60% more than they have in revenue, making up the difference with Monopoly money and debt we will never be able to repay.  In the process, they are driving us down a greased death spiral that leads to almost certain collapse for the American experiment in liberty, self-determination, and self-government.

Coming full circle from our silly introduction, we arrive at a conclusion that Betsy, the MSHA, and our federal government are all alike.  They are ‘peas in a pod,’ to extend our original thought.

Which doesn’t make for a very tasty stew, unless you can compel other people to give whatever they have to bail out your supper.


It is my belief that the writer, the free-lance author, should be and must be a critic of the society in which he lives. It is easy enough, and always profitable, to rail away at national enemies beyond the sea, at foreign powers beyond our borders who question the prevailing order. But the moral duty of the free writer is to begin his work at home; to be a critic of his own community, his own country, his own culture. If the writer is unwilling to fill this part, then the writer should abandon pretense and find another line of work: become a shoe repairman, a brain surgeon, a janitor, a cowboy, a nuclear physicist, a bus driver. -Edward Abbey, naturalist and author (1927-1989)

Our choices are pretty clear, according to Mr. Abbey.  But we can’t help wondering why he didn’t mention the option of becoming a chef.


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Saturday, December 3, 2011

The Disability Business, and Maine

Little more than a week ago, the Wall Street Journal published an article about apparent hanky-panky on the part of an administrative judge in the Social Security Administration.  You can find it here.

(We apologize for not being able to link you to the complete article; the link worked fine several days ago, but now only gives the abbreviated version.  We’ll keep working to find the full item for readers.)

The article included a US map, in which the percentage of disability recipients by state is shown:

Of note is the fact that Maine is in the top rank of states when it comes to recipients.  This comports well with personal but unscientific observations on a day to day basis.  These include our visits to the SSA office in Portland to sign up for Medicare a few years back.  On both trips, we were surprised to find the majority of clients in the office were not seniors like us.  And to the eye, they virtually all appeared able-bodied.

What really is galling in the subject article is the record of one particular judge, and one particular attorney he seemed to enjoy “working with:”

……….In 2010, he awarded benefits in all but four of 1,284 decisions. In 2011, before he was put on leave, Mr. Daugherty awarded benefits in all but two of the 1,003 cases he decided. Typically, judges award benefits in about 60% of their cases.

……….about Mr. Daugherty's high award rates and the number of cases he would assign himself from a Kentucky attorney, Eric C. Conn. The Social Security Administration in 2010 paid Mr. Conn $3.8 million in fees for winning benefits for his clients…..

Not bad money for appearing before a judge who seemed predisposed to find in your client’s favor virtually all the time.  We don’t mean to disparage disabled folks who qualify for and deserve the benefits.  But we’ve long believed that if there is a large, and virtually unlimited vault full of public money accessible to the citizenry, eventually careers will be built and people will get very rich raiding the kitty.

In this particular case, if you grab a pencil and paper and look at the numbers, you conclude that the judge and his attorney friend were making disposition of 4, 5 or maybe even more cases per day, depending on how many days they actually processed cases.

Result: Judge finds for the applicant. Attorney collects oh, say $3,000 for 2 or 3 hours of his work, and 6 hours of paralegal staff work.  A person could make a living doing this!

Is this typical?  We can’t say, but it does demonstrate how easy it apparently is to work the system while seemingly doing good.  And there simply aren’t enough auditors and other investigators to monitor the perhaps millions of transactions that take place each day in which funds from the public treasury are sought for a bewildering and overwhelming collection of purposes and clients.  It’s what we get when we allow government to grow more or less without limits.

A bit of looking into things gives a hint at how the system is biased.  We found this on an SSA web site:

Disability is something most people do not like to think about. But the chances that you will become disabled probably are greater than you realize. Studies show that a 20-year-old worker has a 3 in 10 chance of becoming disabled before reaching full retirement age.

IN other words, the government is biased towards an expectation that 30% of the public will eventually collect disability.  If you dig a little further, you’ll find the list of impairments that will qualify one for disability.  This reads like they are encouraging everyone to consider applying for benefits

It's hard to imagine that an attorney who specializes in such matters would have a hard time finding something under which his client should qualify, and easily send his government administrator into a kerfuffle of confusion. Especially if the burden is on a civil servant to prove that an applicant has not a single one of the listed impairments sufficient to qualify.

Wonder why we have government employment growing steadily while the private sector is struggling?  Wonder why government spending and public debt are at unsustainable levels and growing like uncontrolled wild fires?

Wonder no more, mon amis.  The answer lies ‘not in the stars, but in ourselves,’ to borrow a famous passage.


Friday, December 2, 2011

Friday Frivolities, Part Deux

You can file this addendum in the stuff file cabinet, under PSMIS.

That stands for “Please, Someone, Make It Stop!”  And put it in the Bowdoin College sub-folder.

Some of you know that we publish here as ‘P. C. Poppycock.’  P. C., as it turns out, are this reporter’s real first initials.  They also stand for politically correct, a pox upon our land.  Poppycock means nonsense, and its synonyms include:

babble, balderdash, baloney, bull*, bunk, drivel, empty talk, foolery, foolishness, gibberish, hogwash, hooey, hot air, jive, malarkey, mumbo jumbo, palaver, prattle, rubbish, silliness, trash.

Hence our nom-de-plume is part eponymous and part pseudonymous.

P. C. Poppycock is exactly what came to mind as we glanced at today’s Bowdoin Orient, the campus student newspaper.  Page 1 features an article titled Sexual assault allegations stir Colby, no doubt published with considerable glee by Orient staff.

There are some telling, to say the least, pronouncements by Colby officials in the article (emphasis ours):

The allegations have sparked dialogue across Colby's campus. Colby President William Adams wrote to the student body in an email, "These are deeply troubling allegations that have far-reaching impacts on our community. And I know we are all concerned about whether the campus climate encourages or excuses behaviors that are antithetical to our community values."

Antithetical to our community values??? It takes the unmitigated gall to say this that only a modern day liberal academic could possess. As anyone familiar with campus culture these days knows, college community values are sex any time, all the time, with anyone, no questions asked, no gooey relationships needed. Preferably with copious amounts of 'substances' as lubrication.

And then there’s this:

The dialogue continued at a large event held in Colby's Page Commons on November 15. A notice from Colby's Vice President of Student Affairs and Dean of Students James Terhune explained that the purpose of the event was exploring "how Colby deals with sexual misconduct."

Exploring how you deal with sexual misconduct? What is this, a safari?  Or a first in history occurrence?  Pure academic psycho-babble that fully exhibits why we have the culture we do; so called leaders are at the bleeding edge of societal dumbing down through language abuse heaped on top of all the other forms of intellectual abuse present on our campuses.

Both, we submit, are fine examples of P. C. Poppycock.  But that’s just us, although we have little choice in who to be.

As a second addendum candidate, we noted a Security Report in the Orient that perfectly illustrates, in our opinion, the thoughts we expressed on college students in our post earlier today.  Unfortunately, we can’t find it on the web version of the paper.  If we did, it would help you end your day with a laugh followed by a moment of somber reflection.

Since we can’t give you the whole article, we’ll just offer a few prize-winners; keep in mind these are items officially reported to and by the Bowdoin Office of Safety and Security:

- An intoxicated student vandalized the paper towel and soap dispensers in a Smith Union men’s room.

- A student was escorted to Parkview Adventist Medical Center after he slipped on a wet floor in Coles Tower and cut his eyebrow.  (Couldn’t he had waited until the next day to trim his eyebrow?)

- A student at Stowe Inn reported being disturbed by noise from a nearby room.

Surely there’s a cause for protest or cries for social injustice somewhere in these reports.

One thing’s for sure; this ain’t your father’s college campus. 

And you know what?  It ain’t mine either. 

We conclude with a burning question: the next time our grandkids visit, can we call the Brunswick ‘campus’ police to report being “disturbed by noise from a nearby room?”


Friday Frivolities

A Frosty’s Return: Could it be???

As we strolled the ample sidewalks of downtown Brunswick on our way to lunch today, we noted, surprise of surprises, an ‘under contract’ sign in the window of the long closed Frosty’s Donut Shop.

This matches up with something we heard from a ‘little bird’ who visits the Other Side ‘feeder’ from time to time for a few grains of corn and other tasty offerings.  The ‘bird’ says the sales contract reportedly calls for the current shop owner to teach the buyer how to make classic Frosty’s offerings, for which we have long pined.

Could it be true?  Could we be noshing on twists or cinnamon swirl coffee buns or jelly donuts in mere weeks or months?  You can count on us to keep an eye out on your behalf, and report to you as soon as something tangible occurs.  And don’t worry; if the shop does reopen, we’ll put our eye back in.

Given our years of loyalty to the shop while it was open, we wouldn’t be surprised if we detect the aroma of dough frying in hot oil before any other indication.

Even if we do live four or five miles away.  Our schnozola has been well trained for just such purposes.

Local Occupiers: the past and the ‘future’ on display

In keeping with our usual habit, we surveyed the latest print media offerings as we chomped away on our Big Top lunch.

The lead article ‘above the fold’ in this week’s Coastal Journal is about ‘Occupiers’ in our local area.  In our view, the top level message in the article is that the well-known and oft-seen peace and anti-war groups in our area, largely composed of those in the older generations, are attempting to ride the latest media white horse by claiming ‘solidarity’ with the mostly younger ‘occupiers.’

Many of the local occupiers are stumbling all over themselves in their nearby encampments, embarrassing the concept of ‘protest.’  Public drunks, dopers, and common criminals don’t seem like the best choices for our local sign carriers, dialoguers, and face painters to align with, given that your friends say an awful lot about you.  But the usual suspects aren’t given to circumspection in such matters, are they?

Marching on, a few specific passages in the article (besides the oh so tired and typical BIW Destroyer comments) particularly tweaked our usually well controlled cynicism, and we are compelled to pass them along for your consideration and reflection.

Brunswick resident Joe (redacted) said that while Americans are typically greedy, he thinks people deserve a lot in life they can't get.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, over.  That’s either one of the most inscrutable comments we’ve read in a long time, or an example of incompetent reporting and editing.  Or, more likely, a combination of both, considering those involved.

Here’s another telling example:

Dan (redacted) is Mike's son, and is a graduate student at the University of Maine studying peace and reconciliation.

“All of these issues are connected,” he said, referencing Mahatma Ghandi, who spoke of economic violence and of his studies. “The one percent on top of the hierarchy exploits everyone else.”

We can’t help but wonder what the job prospects for young Dan will be upon graduation, other than carrying signs at protests.  Joblessness stemming from poor choices would, however, put him in real solidarity with the occupiers.  Unless that is, he intends to exploit everyone else by charging for his counsel.

Here’s another example of a total lack of common sense, or if you prefer, cluelessness amidst our current generation of college students:

For Betsy (redacted,) who is from Brunswick and is studying global and gender issues at New York City's New School, the Occupy movement goes beyond economic frustration. Like a lot of college students and graduates, she and her mother are deep in debt to financial institutions that funded her education. She (sic) believes, however, the Occupy movement also involves human rights issues, class warfare, and racism. She has participated in Occupy protests in New York.

Good luck, Betsy, on finding a job as a global gender specialist, or analyst, or whatever (hamburger flipper?) once you graduate.  That’s a fine choice of major, right up there with pursuing government dependency studies.  Perhaps you’re minoring in the latter, since we have a hunch you believe that other people (id est, taxpayers) should be funding your education, even though there were a lot less expensive options open to you, and majors that might actually prepare you to make your own way after graduation.

Call us unjust and insensitive, but we don’t have a bit of sympathy to spare on those who have allowed themselves to be sent down the primrose path of aimlessness, often with the encouragement of their parents.

While we’re snickering a bit as we write this, sadness is overwhelming our funny bone.  You’ll come to your own conclusions, but ours is that we are melting down as a culture and society. Those carrying the heat guns are ‘the children’ who are being deluded and misguided by many of our ‘elders’ in the attitude formation and ‘helping’ fields, especially our government schools and academia. 

If these ‘children’ are ‘our future,’ as Yogi Berra famously said, ‘the future ain’t what it used to be.’  And you can take that any way you damn well want to; we doubt you’ll have any questions about how we mean it.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Thanksgiving Weekend Diversions…

Side’s recent publishing slowdown stems from the fact that your correspondent and his frau traipsed off to points south for the Thanksgiving Holiday weekend.  We departed on an inconveniently snowy morning, but soon escaped that and enjoyed a relatively mild several days in the greater New York City area, most of which was at our daughter’s house in North Jersey, not far from where we were conceived, delivered, and reared.

The first part of our trip was taking in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.  Mrs. P wisely elected not to come along, as we were joining in with 3 million or so others who had the same idea.  We were coached by a high school classmate of ours on how to go about things.

We met her and her family members at 56th and 7th Avenue, well before the parade began, and only after enduring a ‘train’ ride and a ‘subway’ ride in which the dominant sensation was that of being a sardine.  Us ‘seniors’ tried as best we could to coordinate via cell phone, and were left wondering how the modern generation can manage to talk clearly in raucous urban circumstances.

Here we offer two snaps of the famous balloons making their way south along 7th Avenue.  They move surprisingly fast, and it’s amazing to note how much preparation takes place, including rotating all the traffic signal arms out of the way, of which there must be thousands.  In both photos, the building in the background on the right, behind the ‘Muni-Meter’ sign, is Carnegie Hall.

You know the old joke:

Q: “how do you get to Carnegie Hall?'”

A: “Practice, practice, practice.”



We’re glad we made the effort, and we look forward to enjoying other delights of Manhattan on upcoming trips.  Being in the midst of residents of the area, to put it mildly, is ‘entertainment’ in its own right.

Further, we’re resolute in our belief that attending this parade is something best done no more than once, like attending the Rose Bowl.  Standing motionless for 3 or more hours, bracketed by high energy commuter trips, left us pretty well wrung out.  Enough so that we deferred the gala family turkey feast to the following day.  More on that in a subsequent post.

On Saturday of the weekend, we went off in search of an Italian Bakery/Deli we had been given a lead on by a friend here in Brunswick who grew up in North Jersey.  It’s called Lotito’s, in Ramsey, just a few miles from the New York State border.

It’s one of those places that you walk into and feel transported – back to your growing up days, and into a world where ethnic ambience and specialties overwhelm you.  It’s hard to describe; you really need to experience and wallow in it.  Think The Sopranos, combined with Wild Oats, combined with Micucci’s, and that only hints at the pleasure of such places. 

Oh how we wish that Maine, and Brunswick in particular, could host and make such places a facet of our ordinary daily lives.  Sadly, we don’t have whatever it takes to make it so.  We could muse at length at what ‘it takes,’ without ever making sense, so we won’t bother.

Instead, we’ll just make sure we enjoy such places every time we’re down in the land of our youth, to which we feel an increasing connection as the months and years go by.  Perhaps you feel the same about where you grew up.

We hope so; feeling this connection has been a great pleasure for us.

Here our some views of what we enjoyed:




We’re tempted to say “eat your heart out,” but we’re worried our Doctors would not take such words in the sense they are intended.

So be it, dear readers.

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Monday, November 21, 2011

Amtrak Foot Warmer?

You may have noted when driving by Maine Street Station in recent weeks that concrete work for the boarding platform is under way.  Here are a couple of views we took on a recent journey past the area.



There are two widely separated ramps already poured, setting the stage for a rather long spanning platform to accommodate the 100 or so passengers projected to arrive every day by the consultants we use to justify otherwise unjustifiable spending, or more appropriately, speculation with other people’s money. 

Whether it’s five trains a day with 20 passengers each, or two trains a day with 50 passengers each, who knows?  And whose counting anyway when the funding is ‘free?’

We heard recently that the ramp will be 400 feet long (think a football field plus end zones.)  That’s why it’s virtually impossible to capture the grandeur of the entire structure in a single view.  Imagine a world class Olympic sprinter needing something like 10 seconds to dash from one end to the other.

And wonder of wonders, we understand that a portion of it will be heated, no doubt to melt snow and prevent ice build-up.

So if you should find yourself in town this winter, and need to get your tootsies nice and toasty, you’ll be able to head on over to the station platform and get them as warm as roasted chestnuts.

For those of you who support the Amtrak ‘experiment’ because it will save the earth by reducing the number of cars on the road, please make sure you revise your calculations to include the energy costs of heating the platform.  It might help remind you of why you don’t have a heated driveway to deal with snow and ice.

Here at Side, we’ve had ‘cold feet’ about the whole train thing since it began, convinced it will be a forever subsidized sop to the local constituency, suitable for self-serving publicity events, photos, and grandiose campaign statements, but not much else. 

And if you think about it, another income redistribution scheme.  Which to many, makes it a wonder of wonders.  You know; social and economic justice and all that.

Go figure.

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Wednesday, November 16, 2011

MSHA: assorted foot (-in mouth?) notes

We just can’t stop our trailing thoughts on this subject, so while they are ‘top of mind,’ we’ll expunge them from our troubled braincase by passing them along.  Let’s set the stage for today’s commentary with this gem;

It's often the case that when a critic uses an embarrassingly accurate term to describe what a wrong-doer is doing, the wrong-doer protests: "Why don't you use my white-washed, conscience-soothing euphemism?" Such euphemisms, they claim, help promote "civilized debate."

- Steve Kangas

Let’s be honest with each other; the activity we’re discussing isn’t ‘affordable housing’ any more than a ‘free lunch’ is free.  In plain and simple English, which is rare these days, we’re talking about government subsidized housing.  No more, no less. 

Calling it affordable housing is a ‘white washed, conscience-soothing, euphemism,’ and carries the added benefit of making lots of bureaucrats and social justice advocates feel good about themselves, if not morally superior to the realists among us.

In objective economic terms, many of the projects that fall under this heading are actually unaffordable in real market terms.  If you’ve ever owned free market rental property, like we have, you know that the operative equation is whether the property can ‘carry itself’ at the very least, and hopefully provide a real return on investment.

In our simple way of thinking, there are three parties involved in this ‘affordable housing’ game (we had to bite our tongue more than once to avoid using the word ‘racket.’)  One party is the government, acting as proxy for taxpayers. This party doesn’t particularly care about rational concepts of ‘affordability,’ or return on investment, since it can compel whatever revenue it needs to make the deal work by force of law from we taxpayers.

The second party is a contractor/developer/property manager who decides to enter the ‘affordable housing’ sector as a business opportunity.  Think Rosa Scarcelli and Stanford Management, for example, who we referenced in recent posts.  As a side-note, they/she ‘have’ three properties right here in Brunswick.

Those who operate such properties are freed from the economic realities of open market, competitively priced rental properties in the region of interest.  They know they have a captive, targeted, government subsidized rental client base. If they are developers as well, construction costs are similarly distorted by government involvement and override of market reality, plus various and assorted tax credits, etc.

The third party is the client or tenant, to whom the housing is affordable in relative terms, but only because other persons (taxpayers) subsidize it, no matter how unaffordable it may be in real economic terms.

So why don’t we just call it government subsidized housing?  See the quote we opened with above.  Some will call us insensitive or impolite for suggesting such a thing.  Poppycock; PC terminology like ‘affordable housing’ is insensitive, impolite, and far worse. It disguises the insidious and widespread use of government power to insinuate itself into every aspect of our daily lives, and every square mile of our local landscape.  Signs in front of such housing seem benign and vaguely uplifting, instead of reminding us that the heavy hand of government is involved.

Not only that, but it sets the stage for capitol cronyism by which those with the ‘right’ connections can become wealthy without suffering the uncertainties of free markets; perhaps even wealthy enough to finance their own campaigns for high political office.

Wow; we’ve exceeded the expectations we had for ourselves as we began this post, so we need to head for the exit.  As we do, we’ll leave you with media coverage of yesterday’s meeting:

Then you can go to this item, which has a link to an audio only report on the meeting.

In one final thought, we can’t help but marvel at the irony that Dale McCormick, MSHA Director since 2005, was formerly Maine State Treasurer for 8 years or so.  This is the very same position now held by Bruce Poliquin, who is leading the way in demanding accountability from quasi-governmental ‘authorities’ who manage huge sums of taxpayer funds with virtually no oversight.

If you think the election a year ago didn’t make any difference, you haven’t been paying attention.  And it’s time you do, because ‘sunlight,’ even in the dead of winter, is illuminating all sorts of interesting things.  Many of which haven’t had to wear sunscreen for decades.

Maybe you should make sure you have a good pair of sunglasses handy, so that when unexpected glare occurs, your ‘eyes’ are protected.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

MSHA, affordable housing, and McKeen Street

We attended the MSHA board meeting today (Tuesday, November 15), and will do our best, which usually isn’t good enough, to keep this report short.

Before we begin the report, however, an item we forgot to include in the ‘lagging thoughts’ post.  (See why ‘our best’ isn’t usually good enough?)

Leave it to the government to conclude that $300,000 apartments are ‘affordable,’ when the median housing price in Maine is well below $200,000.  Ponder these figures in the context of this recent report, which addresses former Navy housing in Brunswick:

Schott said prices for homes in the McKeen Street tract would likely range from $110,000 to $145,000, where most units have three bedrooms.  (emphasis ours)
“It is definitely affordable housing in that range,” Schott said. “There’s not much in that price range in town.”

It occurred to us in this context that most of us wouldn’t think of Cadillacs, BMWs, and Volvos as ‘affordable transportation.’  Or Mercedes Benz, for that matter.

But if government buys these vehicles, and then turns them over to you and I for say, 25% of the purchase price, guess what – they suddenly seem very affordable, don’t they? 

Which brings us to the central question here: when a bureaucrat uses the word ‘affordable,’ what do they mean? 

Do they mean ‘affordable’ to the provider, in this case the government, which really means we taxpayers, compared to prices in the open marketplace, or do they mean ‘affordable’ to the recipient, after government subsidies are applied?  Based on our experience to date, including the meeting today, we are convinced the former is irrelevant in deference to the latter.

So let us summarize our experience today.  The ‘open to the public’ meeting was to begin at 9:00 AM.  Concerned about the parking situation, we arrived at 8:20, and secured our spot.  After 10 minutes or so inspecting the interior of our truckster, we decided to enter the MSHA building, thinking we might get to find a seat in the meeting room and have a cup of coffee.

Dream on, reader.  Upon entering the building, we were asked to sign in, and were given a badge, and then told to wait in the lobby area with other arriving members of the public.  This did not create a positive first impression.  At least we weren’t given full Hazmat suits to put on.

40 minutes later, at 9:10, we were escorted to the elevator and up to the meeting, which was already underway, it appeared.  It was standing room only, with perhaps 30 or so general public showing up.

We could be wrong, but our sense is that this is a modern day record for such meetings.

So – what happened?  In our view, MSHA staff got a real surprise from the Commissioners in attendance, and also heard from several members of the public, your correspondent included, about project cost profiles that are way out of whack with broader real estate market figures.

Our overall impression is this.  As we’ve told you before, we spent our career in the defense industry, and were frequently pummeled by government officials and the public alike over “$400 hammers” and “$600 toilet seats.”  Almost without exception, those costs, if even true, are entirely due to government regulations for these items.

Still, we were a business that competed with other businesses, and we had to make a profit to survive.  Over the years, we improved our quality and cost profiles to make ourselves more competitive, and to ensure our SURVIVAL.

Today’s meeting revealed an MSHA culture totally devoid of competitive challenges, profit/loss considerations, and survival instincts.  You couldn’t avoid the impression this is an organization that believes there is not a single threat to their existence, and even more so, with a public mandate to keep doing what they do exactly as they have been doing it.

In other words, we saw another concrete example of why state and federal governments are in a fiscal crisis beyond any in our history.

At least as we see it.  And we’re doing our best to watch.

Monday, November 14, 2011

MSHA – Lagging thoughts, as usual….

Some tidbits, in no particular order:

We hear much about ‘crony capitalism’ these days; books on the subject have been written and published.  We think the label may be off the mark, so Side hereby coins the term “capitol cronyism” to describe the likes of Rosa Scarcelli’s ‘Stanford Management’ and too many similar enterprises to mention.  In these cases, ‘capitalism’ as commonly understood is not involved, but capitols, of both the state and federal type, clearly are.  Just to remind you of the scale of such ‘business:’

Rosa Scarcelli currently owns and manages over eighty affordable housing complexes in Connecticut, Maine and Pennsylvania and continues to grow Stanford Management’s affordable housing portfolio.  She has managed the development of over $500 million in real estate assets throughout the Eastern United States, and oversees a large staff in several regional offices.

We’re frightened, frankly, as we ponder just how many such ‘under the radar’ government based speculative enterprises exist, operating well outside the normal bounds of free market forces.

Now let’s talk about MSHA operation.  We’d sure like to have someone explain the business model from inception to destruction for MSHA projects.  Who is the funder?  What is the competition process?  Who owns and operates the result?  Who profits from the project (see Rosa Scarcelli and family)?  What form does the $13,000 plus per home for more than 84,000 Maine homes take?  is this a permanent arrangement, or does the benefit expire at some point?  What are the qualifications to receive the benefit? 

In other words, could we please see a flow chart of funds across all stages of MSHA activities?

Moving on, it turns out that the LIHEAP program is run by MSHA; that’s the “Low Income Heating Energy Assistance Program,” and it’s always in the news this time of year.  Recently, AARP, that supposed non-partisan organization, is all in a dither over funds available under the program this year, and wants State Government to pony up added dollars to boost the kitty:

AARP urges state support for heat assistance

November 10, 2011 11:36 PM

To the Editor:

....AARP’s Public Policy Institute ... issued a report on winter heating is not good.

....For New England residents age 65 and older, the average....cost in 2010-11 was $3,058. Projections indicate ... for 2011-12, this will jump almost 10 percent.

.... huge cut to LIHEAP ...will...affect many Mainers... AARP’s sincere hope that Gov. Paul LePage will consider directing part of the state budget toward helping low-income Mainers as they struggle to stay warm.

John Hennessy
AARP Maine Director of Advocacy


So let’s get this straight: by their own admission, MSHA dishes out more than $1 Billion annually in federal funds, but they don’t have enough for heating cost assistance? More than 84,000 homes getting an average of $13,000 each in ‘services,’ but there isn’t enough for heating costs?

Next subject: interestingly, one of the most prominent items on MSHA’s web site is their report on how the salaries of their more than 100 employees compare to salaries elsewhere:

Each year, the Maine Department of Labor independently compares salaries of many organizations to comparable positions in the total Maine market. Using the labor department’s 2010 data and comparing it to MaineHousing salaries, MaineHousing employees are paid on average 15% below the market.

At the end of the discussion is a link to a list of their salaries compared to ‘the Maine market.’  You can follow up and see what you think.

By the way, for those of you interested in just how much money has been spent by Maine Government in recent years, including federal funds, to address AARP concerns, take a look at this resource:

It’s awful hard to look at these totals and accept that any aspect of government services is suffering, since total state expenditures have grown and grown over the years, and most of all, the federal component. At a far faster rate than economic output has.

One wonders how many other MSHA type operations there are funneling billions to destinations unknown and lacking in full public disclosure. 

More than you know, more than we can guess, we are confident.   We better stop here, or the venting could get ugly.  Next thing you know, we’d be making up stories about federal subsidies being used to bring trains to Brunswick, whether that makes any sense or not.

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