Monday, October 1, 2018

“Freedom isn’t free,” it’s been said….

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Here we are, just trying to scrape the rust off our aged editorial body, and already we’ve run smack into the barricades of modern day news and information access.

As we noted in our post of Sept 11th, one of the items that captured our interest enough to comment was the recent awarding of taxpayer dollars to the Brunswick Executive Airport operation.  You can review that post here:

http://othersideofbrunswick.blogspot.com/2018/09/back-in-cockpit-in-manner-of-speaking.html

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We ordered up a gallon jug of Geritol, and invigorated by its magical powers, we decided to do a little investigative reporting on the subject.  Doing so gave us a shot of adrenalin, and reminded us of the determination once a regular feature of our digging and reporting on your behalf.  As always, it’s abundantly clear that none of the local or regional “media outlets” has any interest in doing so. 

Frankly, we don’t think any of them even consider the idea; digging into stories that cry out for further investigation and reporting never occurs to them.  That would take work, initiative, and journalistic dedication.  Or at least what used to amount to responsible execution of First Amendment free press guarantees.  Not to mention that it would question the big government, free money status quo.

As you well know, we are not formally trained in such arts.  Which, we suspect, makes us the equal of most that write for our local sources.  Still, we exercised our curiosity by requesting relevant information via Freedom of Access statute, or what is generally referred to as “FOIA” provisions.

Our first missive was to Steve Levesque, Executive Director of MRRA, the Maine State agency responsible for redevelopment of the former Brunswick Naval Air Station.  It reads as follows:

You are mentioned in today's TR article as follows:

"Last year, Levesque wrote in a Times Record op-ed that 31 resident aircraft owners were collectively paying $3,000 annually in excise taxes. At the time, Levesque had projected 18,000 air operations by year-end and a 10 percent annual growth in airport usage and fuel sales."

Please tell me how many air operations there were in 2017, and how many so far this year.  Exclusive of air shows, etc.

We posted this item to Levesque on 11 September, and have yet to receive a response of any sort.  “His people” may be working diligently to tally the air operations totals, but we have no way of knowing.  We believe that airports are required to keep logs of such operations, and at the worst, responding to our request would call for totaling daily counts.

Just for fun, the projected 18,000 air operations would yield an average of 49 per day.  We live within ear shot of the airport, and have a friend who lives close enough to the runway and aircraft pattern to hear each and every takeoff and landing.  Based on our “empirical” evidence, 49 operations per day is a bit much.  Actually, a lot much.

We expect you to be impressed, however, by the annual excise taxes paid by resident aircraft owners, averaging $97 each.   We own two motor vehicles, and our annual excise tax bill is significantly more than that.  While we’re sure the town is a far better place for that $3,000 in annual tax revenue, we fail to see how it offsets nearly $20 million in taxpayer subsidy to the airport…..so far, that is.

We are well aware that many in our local midst revile what they call “corporate welfare.”  We think it’s time they realize that this is exactly what these sums amount to.  To begin with, the operator of the airport is a private sector entity, and the aircraft are privately owned as well.  We believe that if the details of all $20 million in grants was exposed in detail, there’d be more than enough to cause gnashing of local teeth and wringing of local hands.  Unless, that is, the truth that corporate welfare for others is bad, but corporate welfare for us is wonderful.

On the same day (11 September,) we filed a request with the Office of Senator Susan Collins asking for documentation associated with the funding request, and the actual grant.  As of this writing, we have not received a single peep in response.

Just for good measure, we filed one more request…this time with the MRRA staffer designated as the Freedom of Information contact.  It read as follows:

I request documentation associated with this recent award:

BRUNSWICK

Brunswick Executive Airport will receive $6.2 million from the Federal Aviation Administration to build a new hangar, install fencing and make other improvements to the airport.

This would include applications and documented cost estimates for the proposed work to be done and the need, and documents associated with the award and details of what it covers.

I also request annual flight operation totals for the airport since it began operation.

We were gratified and encouraged by these prompt responses on 11 Sept:

Pem,  Thank you for your email.  I’ll email you when the documents are ready.  Would you like to receive an estimate of the cost beforehand?

Kathy

Pem,  Also, we will provide the information once we receive and execute the contract docs from the FAA, which should be fairly soon.

Best regards,

Kathy

We replied that same day as follows:

I only need an estimate if it's going to be beyond $20 or so.  I've forgotten what state law says.

Thanks,

Pem

Imagine our “surprise" when we received this response on 25 Sept:

Good morning.  We have compiled the documents you requested, 151MB total file size.   For determining the cost estimate, these documents add up to 2328 standard (8.5” x 11”) pages and 105 pages of plan drawings that are best viewed in large format (11” x 17” or larger). 

At $0.20 per sheet, that adds up to $486.60 for the printing.

So far time expended amounts to $130.00.  Additional time would be added for the time to print the documents.

How would you like to proceed?

Best regards,

Kathy

While we have yet to respond, it seems pretty clear MRRA has already obligated us to a minimum of $130, even though we said we’d like an estimate if the total cost was going to exceed $20.

We don’t even know where to begin with 2433 pages to document the funding request and the award.  Or the $486.60 for printing them.  You’d think a $6.2 million grant might have sufficient “contingency funds” to cover our request, but hey…they run tight budgets and tough ships in this game.

Right?

Here’s info on the relevant state law, found at https://www.maine.gov/foaa/faq/index.shtml:

Can an agency charge for public records?

There is no initial fee for submitting a FOAA request and agencies cannot charge an individual to inspect records unless the public record cannot be inspected without being compiled or converted. 1 M.R.S. § 408-A(8)(D) However, agencies can and normally do charge for copying records. Although the FOAA does not set standard copying rates, it permits agencies to charge "a reasonable fee to cover the cost of copying". 1 M.R.S. § 408-A(8)(A)

Agencies and officials may also charge fees for the time spent searching for, retrieving, compiling or redacting confidential information from the requested records. The FOAA authorizes agencies or officials to charge $15 per hour after the first hour of staff time per request. 1 M.R.S. § 408-A(8)(B) Where conversion of a record is necessary, the agency or official may also charge a fee to cover the actual cost of conversion. 1 M.R.S. § 408-A(8)(C)

The agency or official must prepare an estimate of the time and cost required to complete a request within a reasonable amount of time of receipt of the request. If the estimate is greater than $30, the agency or official must notify the requester before proceeding. The agency may request payment of the costs in advance if the estimated cost exceeds $100 or if the requester has previously failed to pay a fee properly assessed under the FOAA. 1 M.R.S. § 408-A(9), (10) P.L. 2013, ch. 350

So there you have it; the “state” of affairs in our latest effort to get to the bottom of a local story about the expenditure of millions of taxpayer dollars on top of previously spent millions of taxpayer dollars, with what in our amateur opinion is a suspiciously weak rationale.

In keeping with current cultural norms, we’re thinking of starting a Go Fund Me campaign to fund these expenses, and when it gets to $500,000 or so, we’ll be able to go ahead and pull the trigger on the story.

That’s a bit much, you say?  Not by governmental standards, we say.  After all, your correspondent pays more in local excise taxes per vehicle than the cited local aircraft owners!

         

And then there’s the cosmetic surgery required to make our forehead appear “normal.”

As a final thought, there’s this shot right between the eyes:

        

(note to local editors: replace “is done” in last sentence with “was once done.”)

1 comment:

  1. Follow this carefully and you will read a case study in the essentials of investigative journalism. The great (although not good) H.L. Mencken once remarked that “The older I get the more I admire and crave competence, just simple competence, in any field from adultery to zoology.” Old Heinrich Ludwig would have found little competence to admire in contemporary journalism. Bias is not the only problem

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