Sunday, February 19, 2017

TRNE and NNEPRA: “Wronger Together”

As we reported last month (TrainRiders Northeast goes pro), the lobbying organization for NNEPRA hired their first salaried Executive Director.


While we’re not yet familiar with the overall array of talents young Mr. O’Keefe, Jr brings to his new position, it’s apparent he is learning critical skills quickly from his mentor, Chairman and Founder Wayne Davis, the Father of NNEPRA and the Downeaster.

Take for example this propaganda recently published on the TRNE Facebook page (Sunday, 12 Feb; ):


We’re especially taken by this language: “It will, however, operate on a modified schedule in anticipation of lower ridership.”  (emphasis ours)  It makes us wonder if we’ve forgotten a phrase from the cited old Post Office saw that qualfied the pledge thusly: “except in anticipation of lower mail volume.”

These comments followed the above post:


So it didn’t take long to make a retraction of the brash bravado post, or for young Mr. O’Keefe, Jr to demonstrate his dry sense of humor.  Very un-Davis like, that, and we can’t help but wonder if a bit of additional ‘counseling’ on job performance ensued.

Ironically enough, the older post below the above items is this:


Can we have a group chorus of “Oops” please?


Oddly enough, the TRNE web page doesn’t seem to be operating today, which leaves multitudes verklempt, we’re sure, including the lovely ladies of All Aboard Brunswick.  It leaves us wondering just what the new ED and his mentor might have up their collective sleeve.

Before we leave you, we’ll summarize the information we’ve collected on ‘the only dependable public transportation system running’ in our area during the recent winter weather (“unexpected,” no doubt.)

On Feb 13th:

682 and 683 did not run from Brunswick to Boston and return. reason unknown

684 left Brunswick on time and arrived Boston  2' 26" late

685 left Boston 18" late and arrived Brunswick 1' 11" late

From Amtrak public records.  REASONS for delays and cancellations unknown.


Summarizing for the first train out of Brunswick’s new overnight layover facility:

Scheduled departure 7:40am................1st train out of the barn

Mon 2/13    never left

Tues 2/14   departed 35” late and arrived Boston 51” late

Wed 2/15   departed 1” late and arrived Boston 26” late

Thu  2/16    departed 15” late and arrived Boston 41” late

(in railroad lingo, ‘ is the symbol for hour, and “ is the symbol for minutes)

As we said in a post on the 14th,

Wow! What a difference the Brunswick Layover Facility has made…..

We’ll close with this thought: if modifying the Downeaster schedule “in anticipation of lower ridership” was normal practice, wouldn’t half or more of the trips to/from Freeport & Brunswick be canceled? 

We notice NNEPRA hasn’t been reporting ‘city pair’ ridership statistics much in recent months, and maybe this is why.

Oops!  We almost forgot.  As often happens, we have ‘one more thing:’

On Tuesday February 14th, under improved conditions, the snow-covered morning train stored outside in sub-freezing weather at Portland departed on time, and was only 16 minutes late.  This info shows in the Amtrak table above, but we thought you might not notice it and let the implications soak in.  Unless The Ostrich covers it in an upcoming edition.

Go figure, right? 

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Friday, February 17, 2017

Case in point: why Brunswick needs a full time property manager to protect taxpayer interests


Just the other day, we wrote of the need for REAL CHANGE in how Brunswick manages its facility assets, and we included a memo we’re sending the Town Council to propose a policy change that does so.  You’ll find it here:

Shortly after posting the item, we recalled the case of the McLellan.  And a post on the subject dated three years ago:

The ‘road to the McLellan’ was a tortured one, though we don’t expect you to remember the details.  We discovered from our earlier work that the original estimate for remodeling to meet the needs of the town was $100,000.  That figure quickly doubled.  Next thing you know, it was in excess of $1 million, or ten times the original estimate.  We’re not sure how much the final total was.  This was a lesson, ignored as usual, that competence in such matters is an unknown quantity in local governance, especially when various councilors are intent on selling us on an idea.

The post from 2014 included these pictures to express concern over the exterior condition of the building, and to scold Bowdoin College for their lack of diligence in maintaining the building; we mused as to why that might be.  Regardless, the images show a sad and shabby state of affairs three years ago.   In the real estate world, this is called ‘deferred maintenance’ to make it sound like a “normal” occurrence.  In the real world, where the rest of us live, this is called “letting things go to hell.”



You know how time flies.  Or runs, or swims, or walks, or takes the train if you see things differently.

We visit the McLellan from time to time for various purposes, and we usually take note of the condition to see if the situations above have been repaired; those shown are symptomatic of the overall condition of building exterior trim, and who knows what else.

Given our recent thoughts on building care, we were shocked, you might say, to realize the exterior deterioration of our ‘new’ Town Hall has been going on for three years at the very least since we took possession.  So we inquired as to when repairs would be made.

We were told repairs would begin this year, and that the budget for the work is in the range of $200,000.  Your guess is as good as ours as to where the number will actually end up.  The devil is in the details, and the proof is in the pudding.

Experience with our own home proved that a few cracks and dry rot spots here and there could be telltale indicators of far more serious and pervasive underlying damage.  We hope for our own sakes that this is not the case here, because we’ll all be paying for it.  But only time will tell as the contractor begins to rip off all the effected areas to assess the damage.

The real question is how a responsible municipal government could allow such clearly progressive decay to continue for three years without taking decisive action to eliminate the problem.

The question answers itself, we think.

And unquestionably makes the case as to why Brunswick needs a single point of accountability at a senior reporting level for managing the overall care of our hundreds of millions worth of physical assets.

We’er making the proposal; but Frank Lee, our experience in such matters gives us no hope that we’ll see any action taken by our betters.  So we’re not holding our breath that things will change, or betting any of our personal funds on the outcome.  We envision that discussing the situation will cause too much public embarrassment for the council and the school department, and so they’ll avoid it like the plague.

But in keeping with the opening principle, we’d be happy to hold your breath or bet your shekels, because it wouldn’t involve any risk or consequences for us.

If only everything in our lives worked that way.  Why is it that government (“all of us”) can get away with such behavior and never seem to be held accountable, but those of us who pay the bills for their irresponsibility can’t?


They used to call that “the $64,000 question.’

Now a days, it’s more like the million dollar question.

Just for starters.  Or a quick off the cuff estimate.

Cape Brunswick…..jumping into the deep end


Every now and then, especially in the dead of winter after two feet of snow, it’s good to remind ourselves that we live in Cape Brunswick, the best and richest little town in America.

Which recently welcomed a new candy store in town, giving us two.  That’s two real candy stores; the kind you can walk into and buy something.

Turns out there’s a third candy store in town, but it’s a virtual one.  It’s the one where Town Council and School Board members act like Cape Brunswick’s little rich kids in a candy store, gorging themselves on every sweet treat they can think of, fully expecting ‘their parents’ to pay for it.

They can do that because all the important necessities, things like roads, storm drains, sewer and water lines are in tip-top shape.

But, you might say, we need a new school, a new Central Fire Station, and a new Dump.  Oops!  Make that a Land Fill.  C’mon; those are the fruits and vegetables and protein and fiber of community life.

So it’s time for the kids to make a visit to the virtual candy shoppe and find some new treats to gorge themselves on, and this time the sweet treat is called “Municipal Aquatic Center.”  How can we deny them these goodies, given our prime location in one of the coldest climates in the lower 48, and the inacessability of ocean waters for refreshing ourselves ‘naturally.’


You’ll find the feasibility study here:

It’s in the packet for the Town Council meeting of Tuesday, February 21st.  It includes a cost estimate of $3 million, an operations analysis (revenues will exceed expenses!), and a ‘market analysis.)  You can trust the consultants who wrote this report, because they’re not like all the others.

The survey that was done at the request of the Parks and Recreation Department can be found here:

We were sure we’d posted on discussions regarding such an Aquatic Center some years ago, but damned if we could find it; maybe you can.

But don’t worry about that; our town employed a ‘national leader’ to conduct a survey to prove unequivocally that town residents are clamoring for such an aquatic facility.  That firm is known as the ETC Institute, and they specializing in helping communities make better decisions.  Which reminds us of a local firm called Good Decisions that recently helped our school department come up with a strategic vision.  Here’s a glimpse at ETC as they see themselves:

Connecting Communities

ETC Institute's research is implementation oriented to help clients achieve their short- and long-term goals and objectives.


And highlights of their strengths:

Our ability to effectively listen and involve citizens and clients has given ETC Institute a reputation as the premier public policy market research firm in the country. ETC Institute’s services focus on involving citizens, users, and stakeholders in the decision making process and developing creative and sustainable funding strategies.

Core services of the firm involve conducting statistically valid phone and mail/phone services and related market research. We have conducted more than 600 surveys for parks and recreation systems in 49 states across the Country for a wide variety of projects including parks and recreation master plans, strategic plans, and feasibility studies.

Since 1992, the principals and associates of ETC Institute have helped secure funding for more than $2.5 billion of parks and recreation projects. The firm has extensive experience conducting surveys as components of plans leading to successful voter elections. ETC Institute’s work allows the community to see itself in their planning efforts, providing buy-in and trust in the process.


Side, of course, is not riding in his first rodeo, so we take the above ETC self-description for what it is: a promise that they will give you the outcome you want, with lots of collaboration buzzwords sprinkled about to make everyone feel good about themselves.  Those of you with fewer saddle sores may have to read the passage multiple times to grasp what it says ‘between the lines.’

The fact is that the survey was never going to consider the possibility that no such facility should be planned or built.  It wasn’t going to begin with a question like “do you think this is a dumb-ass idea, or a good idea?”  Or “do you think a town with a winter that lasts nine months should build an aquatic facility?”  Or “would you like the town to compel other people to buy you a lovely place to swim whenever you feel like it?”  Or “do you think the town should build a luxury like an aquatic center when it needs two new schools, a new fire station, and a new dump?”

Now the really good news; the agenda for next week’s meeting shows that the new school referendum, the aquatic center, and the Central Fire Station are all on the table for discussion.  See the agenda here:

Seems like this is a good time to review the shopping list for the virtual candy store, not including such frivolities as streets, sidewalks, curbs, storm drains, and water and sewer systems.

  • New Elementary School: $28 million
  • A new Junior High School, sure to follow:  $35-40 million
  • Central Fire Station:  $10 million or so, plus millions more for new rolling stock that will fit in the new facility
  • New Dump (Land Fill): $10 million
  • Aquatic Center:  $5 million (yeah, we know, the consultant estimate says $3 million, but that’s just a SWAG…a starting point before the real candy shoppers have their way)

You can add that up anyway you like; we’ll call it $90 million in what will all eventually be described, if not yet, as essential community expenditures. 

Accordinly, we think the Town Council needs to fess up and come clean.  In recent discussions on the Elementary School construction proposal, they had our Finance Director isolate the cost of the new elementary school and project the financing and tax increases it would require. Instead, they should have her do a projection for the aggregate of all major capital projects on the table, and present the financing profile and property tax increases they would collectively generate.


Trick or treat anyone?  We think that if town officials came clean on the numbers we call for, your reaction would be much more like a good Halloween scare than an all expenses paid visit to a candy store.

Which might be a good thing; you know what happens when you eat too much candy.  Next thing you know, your teeth are rotting, and you need tens of thousands of dollars in dental restoration work.  While you can buy dental insurance, we’re not aware of any property tax increase insurance.


Though we suppose you could call the duck or the gecko to check.  While you’re at it, watch the local media outlets for incisive analysis of the local outlook in such matters; they’re known for their intense focus on the details of such profound local evolutions.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Time for change. REAL CHANGE


Last month, we published several items on the deplorable record of our elected officials for stewardship of both municipal and school buildings.  We asked what Brunswick would be like if ALL the buildings in town were cared for with the same lack of responsibility and accountability.

Our circumstances result from two realities as we see it.  First is the truism expressed above.  Second is the fact that town officials have the power, via the adjustable rate property tax, to compel funds from us with the force of law to pay for their mistakes, and lack of responsibility for the dilgent care of the assets we pay for and entrust to their use.

Clearly something has to change, or the sorry approach to this facet of their responsibilities will continue ad infinitum.

Accordingly, we will be submitting the following message to the Town Council shortly.  We’ll include some attachments, and it may be edited slightly from the version below.  But you can get the idea from what follows.  It will be interesting to see if they even bother to take the issue up for discussion; we aren’t hopeful in that regard.  If they do, it should be even more interesting to see how they dance around it and artfully dodge the root causes.  No doubt many memorable quotes for the ages will ensue.


Town Officials:

The Town Council is currently deliberating the issue of a referendum to borrow $28 million to build a locally funded school to replace Coffin Elementary. A public hearing on the proposal is scheduled for February 22nd. I have no doubt that if things proceed as in the past, the hearing will be dominated by school advocates who believe spending such sums is 'for the children;' the Council will vote overwhelmingly to approve the referendum going to ballot, and the town will overwhelmingly approve the ballot question in a very low turn out election.

It doesn't take much knowledge of town history and current circumstances to expect that close on the heels of this project will be replacement of our Junior High School at even greater cost, with hopes that the state will contribute a good deal of the funding. But if the state demurs, we'll be faced with another one of those 'tough decisions' in which we are 'left with no choice' but to fund JHS replacement on our own.

I write here to implore you to declare “ALL STOP” before proceeding on ANY school construction (or renovation) projects. The reason is that Brunswick has a structural governance problem when it comes to stewardship of municipal capital assets, and unless this deficiency is remedied with a new and robust commitment to responsibility and accountability for these assets, the same periodic crises will continue to arise, confront sitting councilors, and stun unsuspecting residents with never-ending and unaffordable increases in property taxes.

I've been a resident of Brunswick for nearly 20 years. In that time, the town's record for diligent stewardship of building assets, both municipal and school department, has been decidedly undistinguished to say the least. Concern for taxpayers and the burdens placed upon them has been largely non-existent. Brunswick's tax rate is up 35% in ten years; spending is up $11 million per year in the same time frame.

You don't have to dig very deep to find very troubling examples of school and municipal disregard for maintaining buildings in a state of good repair and prioritizing their preservation. The School Department in particular behaves as if they can have their way with local and state taxpayers no matter how poorly they manage their capital assets, and history proves them right. When the base closed, they had a chance to eliminate all temporary classrooms, but instead decided to rid themselves of much loved school buildings (Longfellow & Hawthorne).

The worst examples of this situation are troubling and shameful. In the last several years, there have been reports of broken toilets in the schools going unrepaired. In the recent presentation by Lyndon Keck of PDT, mention was made of non-functioning fire alarms. Why does it take an architect's review to discover this, and how could School Administration allow these problems to exist?

I have never seen any evidence that either the municipal or school side of our local government has a single point of responsibility for the condition and maintenance of buildings assigned to them. This cannot continue; it clearly is a recipe for failure, building decline, poor decision making, and repeated tear down and new construction. Buildings are seen as dispensable and easily replaced. Priorities are non-existent. A central Fire Station more than a century old continues in use while other buildings are replaced at less than half that age.

Accordingly, I propose that the Town Council enact a policy that clearly identifies a single point of responsibility for monitoring, maintaining, and reporting on the condition of all Brunswick capital assets. This reporting should take place publicly at least twice a year, and should include a detailed listing of all required repairs, estimated costs, and how long the repairs will take.

I suggest that the Assistant Town Manager be assigned this responsibility. He seems the perfect choice, since his position is relatively new. Further, as a direct report to the Town Manager, his efforts would receive the high visibility and careful guidance we should expect.

I look forward to a lively council discussion of this proposal. Perhaps the council will deem the subject important enough, and never-ending, to appoint a related Task Force for oversight.

Wow! What a difference the Brunswick Layover Facility has made…..


You may recall that one of the grand justifications for constructing the Massive Layover Facility (MLF) in Brunswick was that the effects of ‘unexpected’ harsh winter weather would be mitigated because trains would be stored inside overnight where they would be kept safe and warm, and those arriving with caked on ice and snow could have it conveniently melted off, including on their wheel and brake system components.  Operations would be vastly improved for all concerned.

Well, we suppose you could say yesterday’s deluge of happy white stuff was ‘unexpected,’ especially if you are NNEPRA and Amtrak.

Now comes word of Downeaster schedule problems today…the day after the storm…when most of us are going about our daily business and making full use of our personal transportation.  A friend with professional qualifications in the field reports these deficiencies in Downeaster operation today:

682 left Brunswick 35 minutes LATE today after sitting inside the BLF all night

684 never left Brunswick after sitting in the BLF all night. (it was cancelled, and so is 685 out of Boston)


680 left Portland ON TIME today after sitting outside all night

(this sort of information is available on national real time web sites for railroad professionals)

So there you have it, you doubting Thomases and Thomasinas.  Conclusive proof that those who make their living spending other peoples’ money can always be trusted, no matter how dubious their claims may seem.


Come to think of it, this turn of events sort of reminds us of the promises that were made of ‘exponential economic benefit’ for Brunswick once the Downeaster started coming to town.

We just have to be patient, we suppose.  You can trust us on this; we’re not like all the others.

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