Wednesday, February 29, 2012

What's In the Box? (Wednesday LINKS)

There is a scene at the end of the movie Se7en where a confused, angry, beat-up Brad Pitt is holding up a gun to the side of Kevin Spacey's head yelling "What's in the box?" over and over again.  Due to the delicate sensibilities of my readers, I will not tell you what is in that box, but I will say that the contents determined whether Brad Pitt pulled the trigger.

Morgan Freeman, having seen what's in the box, just wants Brad Pitt to put the gun down.

It's probably one of my favorite scenes in all cinema and offers a great one liner when you want to know something that someone else won't tell you.

Like the fire tax.

Lindsey McPherson has yet another great piece in the Flier, this time writing about the proposed fire tax and the Ulman administration's steadfast refusal to discuss rates until after the county-wide tax provision is passed:  "We'll have a discussion about what the rates will be in the context of the budget," Ulman said.

I don't think Executive Ulman gets to set the parameters of this discussion like that.  In fact, I think the Council should tell him to take a walk with his county-wide tax scheme until he is willing to come back with the proposed rate.  As we learned from 2007, despite Ken's comments regarding the "eastern end of the county...subsidizing the west", a increase for one is an increase for all.  While the West could expect a much greater increase than the metro regions, there is no reason to believe this is a one-sided increase.  Secondly, it is injurious to the public's ability to discuss this matter to hold back "what's in the box" in terms of what this ultimately means -- more tax revenue.

Ken, and his team, know exactly what this increase will be under both county-wide and split tax schemes.  Budget Director Ray Wacks is far too good of a numbers man to sit back and say "I'll let the politicians figure this out and then I'll do the math."

This withholding is almost smug -- "Yeah, I'll tell you what the taxes will be.  You just pass that thing first."  But in one of the more unfortunate quotes we've seen in the Flier in some time, we learn from Fire Chief Bill Goddard that this is not a "tax increase":  "While one could say it's a tax increase, I call it a tax adjustment," Goddard said.

*Wince*

Bottom line -- The Council needs to get these numbers.  What are the rates with the dual system?  What are the rates in a county-wide system?  The Ulman administration had the opportunity to get out in front of this with data about service between the two districts and prospective rates, but now the conversation is leaving their grasp and going out to the public for digestion.

If you're going to adjust all of our taxes, please allow us an opportunity to adjust your legislation.

LINKS

You know you have a good interview with a politician when you get the quote: "I've answered the question."  Lindsey McPherson exercises some journalistic muscle in questioning Ken Ulman about "adjusting" the fire tax in the context of his pledge of having "zero intention to raise taxes." (Which "some" suggested was an irresponsible thing to say in the specter of the teacher pension shift).  Lindsey hits on all the questions that needs to be asked and seems to wonder what kind of success Ken will have with this "I'll tell you later" approach:

"What I'm asking the council to do is put the rate conservation aside because this is about the fairness," he said.

That may be asking a lot of the council members, who have always seemed to adhere to the philosophy, "The devil's in the details."

I think this iteration of the Political Notebook may be better than...

After early questions about what a Howard County Veteran's Commission would do, it seems like the Council picked the right folks with the right kind of insight necessary to make this new initiative work.  There were a lot of interesting ideas tossed about to make Howard County a better resource for veterans and help those who have been looked over by "the system."

Mitt Romney won primaries in both Arizona and Michigan, averting yet another near-miss in his drive for the GOP nomination.  I'm sure this made some people very happy.  You know.  As happy as you get about Mitt Romney.  They probably enjoyed an alcoholic beverage and made a fist pump...are fist pumps communist or is that just the "fist pound"?  Well if fist pumps are communist, then they probably raised both hands over their head in a Rocky position.  There is nothing communist about Rocky.

Featured Blog Post of the Day:  WB covers the "dress rehearsal" for Town Center with pictures of the display put on in an effort to woo Whole Foods.  The only thing Howard Hughes left out was a giant poster on the side of the building that would have said "Median Income: $101K  That's a lot of Cremini!"

That's all for today.  My wake-up time (5:50) is a great gauge for whether we are getting more sunlight.  If I can tell what color my shirt is prior to leaving the bedroom, it is getting lighter out.  Well, my friends, it is getting lighter out.

Have a great Wednesday doing what you love!

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Bully Pulpit (Tuesday LINKS)

I recently heard an interesting quip about religion that I will paraphrase here:

"Religion is like a public pool.  All the noise is in the shallow end."

Presidential candidate Rick Santorum, for good or bad, has had us thinking a lot about religion recently.  During his Sunday Talk Show circuit, he repeatedly expressed his concern (with various references to upchuck) that those with religious views are being arbitrarily removed from the "public square" in favor of those with secular views.  I heard this while he was on Meet the Press and thought to myself "Huh, that's actually a good point."  But the more I thought about it, the more I began to think that this is just more of the "victimization narrative" that seems to be bubbling over during these past four years. 

Religion is very much in the public square, but it is mostly noise from the shallow end.  Opposition to abortion, same-sex marriage, and stem cell research seems to be all you hear from those taking a religious perspective. Not feeding the poor.  Not comforting the sick.  Not visiting and uplifting the underrepresented.  I find it odd that a religion such as Christianity, which is premised on loving thy neighbor, has so rarely been invoked in the public square to do the same or that those who profess its tenets would allow these messages to be drowned out by the less central (sometimes obscure) citations of religion as a "code of conduct" in pursuit of a greater truth (rather than the conduct being an end in itself). 

Comedian Stephen Colbert has an internet meme of sorts addressing the curious contradiction of religion in public discourse:

“If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn't help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we've got to acknowledge that He commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition and then admit that we just don't want to do it.”


That is religious commentary in the public square.  It makes us uncomfortable.  But it also expresses, in semi-mocking tones, the uncertainty of what it means to be a "Christian Nation" as opposed to a secular one.


I consider myself to be a religious person.  I represent my views freely in the public square.  That seems to be acceptable, until I counter another religious view.  Then I am being "radically secular."  Might it just be that no one wants to discuss religion in the public square, especially the religious? 


LINKS


The very sad story of Pam Myers murder may be coming to some sort of closure with the conviction of Richard Rondola for second degree murder.  Ms. Myers was set on fire by her boyfriend Mr. Rondola in the midst of an alcohol induced argument.  The accounts of this event are very disturbing.  Rondola took lighter fluid, poured it on Ms. Myers twice, took out his lighter, and set her on fire.  She lived another few weeks before succumbing to her injuries.

Plans to move the Howard County Courthouse to a temporary location in the Ascend One building have been halted after administrative Judge Leonore Gelfman concluded that the temporary facilities would not provide an adequate level of security.


Mayor SRB is relaunching a second attempt to raise the bottle tax in Baltimore City.  It is going as expected.


The Annapolis City Council's attempts to removed a sitting alderman, subsequent to learning that he is effectively homeless, will take a unanimous vote.  This is an offensive attempt to impose a political caste system and squash a very positive story in local government.  I hope it fails and is an embarrassment for all those working towards its passage.


It appears that Baltimore City will be the subject of numerous cuts under President Obama's budget, including funds that had been counted on for waste-water treatment in the City.


Featured Blog Post of the Day: HowChow notes that R&R Taqueria (i.e., gas station tacos) was on Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives last night.  Hopefully you tried those tacos before they were on TV, but if not, I find that the 1 pm - 2 pm hour on Saturdays to be a good time to go.


That's all for today.  I am going to the Heavy Seas Beer Dinner at Victoria tonight, which motivated me through a rather painful Monday.  Hopefully I will see some of you there.


Have a great Tuesday doing what you love!

Monday, February 27, 2012

Return of the Fire Tax (Monday LINKS)

As I noted on Saturday, we can expect the proposal of a county-wide fire tax to be on the lips of many a county-watcher over the next month or so.  A friend of the blog noted that contrary to the news coverage and my post, this is not the first time Executive Ulman has proposed a county-wide system.  In fact, when presenting his first budget as an Executive in 2007, Ulman proposed a county-wide tax of 13.55 cents per $100 assessed value, which constituted a 3 cent rise in the west and 1 cent rise in the "metro" areas.  It is interesting to note that in 2007, Executive Ulman was comfortable submitting his county-wide proposal with the Budget whereas in 2012 he wants the fire tax issue resolved before showing his hand.

At that time, Council-member Greg Fox commented that until Ken could show that the services in the West would be equal to those in the metro regions, he would not be supporting the increase.  Greg was able to convince a majority of the Council and limit the increase to 1 cent per $100 assessed value across the County, maintaining the disparity between Metro and Rural regions.  Notably, the 13.55 cents per $100 assessed value represents the rate for "real property" and not "personal property" (which I could use some help distinguishing in terms of how a fire tax applies).

Either way, the fact that the Executive is attempting the same proposal twice with an identical set of Council members makes you wonder what has changed since 2007.  My presumption is that the aspirations for higher office will probably allow the fire department to turn a swing vote, presuming that the Council is split 3-2.  Greg Fox scored a considerable victory in the last round, having convinced a new Council that his district should receive protection from a county-wide tax, despite being in the political and geographic minority, but that probably does nothing for his confidence in this bout.

Most interesting to me is the apparent bifurcation of the fire tax from the Budget.  It is a naked move to take numbers out of the conversation and one that is unlikely to go very far.  You can't talk about taxes without talking about numbers.  Period.  If I were the Council, I would go back to the Administration and request proposed rates.  Otherwise, you are setting all of us up.

LINKS

Great Headline:  Assembly Shift Attention from Love to Money.  Now we're talking about taxes.  It seems likely that it is just a matter of "which ones", but I would expect there to be a lot of talk about making substantial cuts to the Governor's Budget.  Similarly, I think the Teacher Pension Shift will happen, but we will have a lot of measures put in place to make this as painless of a transition as possible.  Where those two matters overlap is the extinguishment of deductions for "high income earners" and the County receipts increasing to off-set the new liability.

There is a very interesting saga in Anne Arundel County.  After one of the County Council members was sent to prison for tax evasion, the remainder chose (rightfully) to remove him from the Council.  They are now tasked with finding a replacement.  "They" being a panel of white men.  After vetting the applicants down to two individuals, the Council must now choose between "former state Sen. Michael J. Wagner of Ferndale, who is white, and Peter I. Smith, a Marine reservist from Severn who is black."  Along the way, at least two on the Council have made some unfortunate comments including a racial slur for African Americans and a poorly worded dismissal of "diversity" as an aspiration for a public body.  Yet again, Howard County is made to look even more boring.

Featured Blog Post of the Day: Sarah encourages us all to become educated about the names featured on the 2012 ballot(s) before the April Primary and provides some resources for doing so.

That's all for today.  I got a little caught up in the fire tax stuff and short-changed the links.  Sorry, links.

Have a great Monday doing what you love!

Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Next Big Thing: County-wide Fire Tax

Most, if not all, of the political missteps taken by the Ulman Administration over the past year have a common fault:

People in favor of the measure < People against the measure

Well, duh, right?  But it may be slightly more complicated than that.  Presumably, Executive Ulman and his staff would argue that the vocal minority does not properly represent the majority of people who would benefit, however marginally, from the proposed change, whether it be new development, school board changes, or a succession of turf field (which notably has since passed).

Taking a break from "Ken's Fall", the Administration has now proposed another measure that is treacherous at best and presents yet another opportunity for a political slip.  The Fire Tax.

As noted by Andrea Siegel and Jessica Anderson at the Sun, Executive Ulman has asked the County Council to consider legislation that would end the two-tiered fire tax and replace it with a single county-wide rate.  Notably, this was attempted by two previous administrations in 1993 and 1999; both unsuccessful.

First, some background.  The fire tax rates are currently set per $100 assessment at $0.34 $0.14 "metro" and $0.29 $0.12 "rural."  The boundary line can be viewed here (PDF) and seems to split the County just about in half.

Some simple math on a $350,000 home would yield the following taxes:


$1,190 $490 - metro
$1,015 $420 - rural

Notably, Ken Ulman does not want to discuss rates until after the county-wide rate is approved, which makes all the practical sense in the world in terms of budgeting, but recreates the "political formula of doom" noted above.  "Metro" voters have the opportunity to see their fire taxes go down.  "Rural" voters can expect their fire taxes to go up.  Without being able to communicate a likely rate, the motivation is on the side of those subject to a tax increase.  Admittedly, this same motivation would exist even if a rate were available, but as of now it is just some haunting spectre that allows any Western Howard County activist to tell residents that they are going to pay "hundreds" more if this tax passes.  In all likelihood, the real outcome will be a change of about $80 for the average homeowner, but this is hard to say in light of the size of your average Western HoCo home.

Similarly, there is no way to tell Metro homeowners how much they have to gain from this shift.  It would be politically unwise and dishonest to use the same tactics as an activist (i.e., "You'll save hundreds!"), but the prospect for lowering taxes for metro homeowners is probably the only way the political out-cry (come next week) will be countered.  You also have the opportunity to avoid the label of "raising taxes" when you present the true picture of leveling.

The best way for the Ulman administration to make sure this is not Groundhog day for last Fall is to get out in front of this storm with data:

1) What were the comparable expenditures for fire between metro and rural districts (last 5 years)?
2) How many fires requiring response were there between the two districts (last 5 years)?
3) What is a likely county-wide rate?
4) Is this net positive, neutral, or negative for the County?  

Without this data, you are abdicating its collection to those who make propaganda and fear-monger.  I think Western Howard Countians have every right and every motivation to oppose a county-wide tax, but the Ulman folks have an obligation to make this an educated debate.  Otherwise you will lose again.  And it will be embarrassing.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Merriweather-Symphony Woods Concept Plan

I asked Jan Clark to send me the schematics and drawings from last night's presentation so that I could share with all of you.  You can find those drawings here.  For a good idea of what was proposed by Howard Hughes, you can look at the drawing below:

You will note from the linked schematics that the light green parcel on the upper left side is projected as a possible site for the new Central Branch Library, but these are just ideas.

CA Board Recap: February 23, 2012 Board of Directors Meeting

Start Time: 7:36 pm
End Time: 10:37 pm

Shorter than expected meeting, but there is little pride to be taken there.  This meeting does not have much to show for the time, effort, and frustration that was spent on its existence.

Symphony Woods
CA must submit its revised plan for Symphony Woods by March 6.  This new plan will be a "Neighborhood Plan" including both Symphony Woods and Merriweather Post Pavilion.  Last night the Board, and a few members of the public, received a preview of the Plan to be proposed by Howard Hughes with an accompanying schematic by CA for Symphony Woods.  There were two items of this Plan that received some resistance from the Board.

First, the Howard Hughes Plan presumes/incorporates a series of land transfers for some vendor pavilions on the south-east side from CA to HH (i.e., pavilions are noted on property that currently belongs to CA).  Board members objecting to this schematic seemed to presume that Staff was interested in relinquishing this land without negotiation, payment, or trade.  The Staff's response was that a) This is just a schematic with little to no legal significance in terms of ownership of land; b) This land may be sold or leased to create a more complete design for the neighborhood with due compensation being received by CA.

The second concern was a parking lot on the north-west side of the neighborhood.  Notably, this parking lot is much larger than that proposed by CA's SW plan and presumably would serve MPP.  I can't recall whether the proposed lot was on CA land, but I do know that the primary concern was...more trees will be cut down.

On top of everything else, there were five residents, primarily if not exclusively from Oakland Mills, who expressed concern regarding the "53 healthy trees" that would be cut down in the creation of Symphony Woods park.  I clearly lied to myself when I thought the issue of trees in Symphony Woods had been put to bed.  The tree issue is jumping on the bed, breaking the springs, and waking the neighbors.

There is a well-used quip in Howard County that every resident presumes that once they pulled their "for sale" sign out of the ground, a big fence came swinging across the County borders with a "No Vacancy" sign.  The SW complaints are that notion under a different cloak.  This sparsely used, vacant park was no one's "paradise" until changes were proposed.  These changes are focused on a forward-looking "new" Columbia that is down-right scary to those who have spent their entire lives here.  I understand that and have a significant amount of empathy for those who are concerned.  Nonetheless, if you think there weren't 53 trees cut down to build your house, your grocery store, or even your favorite man-made lake, you are deluding yourself into this fiction that "Columbia is nature."  It's not.  And Symphony Woods is not a natural preserve.

Either way, the Board did not vote on anything last night.  It was an "FYI" session.  For my information, this is going to be a boondoggle once there comes a time for the Board to vote.

Dashboard Metrics
Pavlov would have a field day testing my blood pressure whenever someone uses the word "Dashboard."  (Is it possible to get PTSD from meetings?)

We spent another hour (plus) discussing how to make the Board more efficient by way of a set of graphs (known as the "Dashboard") that will provide a snapshot of where our organization is along those metrics.  This is a fantastic idea in concept.  Execution is looking grim.  As a member of the Staff joked last night "We are no longer looking at this as a destination as much as it is a journey."

The most significant debate last night was whether survey results for member satisfaction with CA Staff in the Sports/Fitness and Community Services context would be a valuable metric.  The survey responses to be gauged were Excellent, Good, Fair, Poor, and Not Sure.  Staff included all responses, but then combined "Excellent/Good" to great consternation and gnashing of teeth by the Board.

I don't find this metric to be useful at all.  Maybe it is my general skepticism of survey statistics, but the variation between Excellent and Good does not amount to anything in my judgment; certainly not anything I would expect the Board to act on.  Imagine a 50% drop in Excellent's to Good's.  What does that mean?  It was a rainy day?  People were suffering from seasonal affective disorder?  Or that staff is losing a step?  Nonetheless, I was a minority vote on this item, which found itself in limbo over the simple fact that these surveys are done approximately every two years (at $20,000 expense to CA lien-holders) and would not have much relevance in a quarterly survey.

The next metric proposed was "Internet/Social Media Metrics."  Some Board members wanted to add a metric that would show our "Internet communications."  Seeing that I may be in the minority of Board members that follow CA on Twitter and on Facebook, this seemed a bit hypocritical and/or ignorant.  There are easier ways to see whether CA is a salient target for spam-bots.  But again, I was in the minority, and this metric will be "attempted" in the next proposal.

What I keep coming back to is one of my first meetings as a Board member.  The Quarterly Report had just come out and a number of Board members were demanding certain pieces of "data" from the Staff.  Question by question, the Staff would respond that the data was provided in the Quarterly Report.  It was embarrassing.  In this context, it is not too difficult to imagine a day in which a future Board demands "Metrics" from Staff, to which they will point to a 40 page packet and say "It's in the Dashboard."  At which time, I will stand up and slow clap.

Service Reductions

Certain members of the Board (overlapping with those who wish to cut staff salaries, rates, and CPRA fees), want there to be at least 30 day notice for any "service reduction" that adversely affects residents.  This is another nice idea in theory.  Unfortunately, its application is a hot mess.  New programs, failing programs, or simple redundancies cannot and should not be subject to a 30 day holding period.  Some Board members responded that this would only be a "Guideline" and not "Policy", to which I have to ask "Why are you wasting our time?"  Is the presumption that Staff does not have common business sense and they are only waiting for proper inputs from our amateur Board?

The policy is going back to the drawing board, but I would just as soon see it thrown away.  If there is an improper handling of a service reduction, the Board will have every opportunity to take that up with Staff...as an operational criticism.  Not as Board action.

Similar to Board meetings, I have run out of time to discuss the matters before the External Relations Committee (i.e., the Committee upon which I sit).

Have a great FRIDAY (!!) doing what you love!

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Is The CPRA Lien Fair? (Thursday LINKS)

There was a Columbia Association Board meeting last night, but it was not long enough to justify a Board Recap.  By that, I mean it was only two hours (sad face) with approximately 45 minutes being closed (re: contract negotiations).

A focal point of last night's discussion was the Columbia Parks and Recreation Association Lien also referred to as "the Assessment."  Before last night's meeting, it was 68 cents for every $100 of assessed value with a 2.5% increase cap for any individual home-owner.  After last night, it was 68 cents for every $100 of assessed value with a 2.5% increase cap for any individual home-owner.  (For those working as slow as I am this morning, it stayed the same).

I emphasize that because to hear some of our Board members speak last night you would think we voted on an increase.  In fact, you may have heard people say things like "A resident's property value may have gone down 20-30% yet they will still be paying more to CA."  I couldn't tell if this was populist nonsense or a general misunderstanding of property taxes, caps, and assessments.  CA staff provided a guesstimate that approximately 0.4% of all Columbia residents would be paying more in FY2013 than they did in FY2012.  Forget Occupy's 99%...think of the 0.4%!

This is an area of great misunderstanding.  Property taxes and the CA Assessment are both based on property value with maximum annual increases in what your actual payment will be.  As such, as your property value goes up, your tax/assessment will only go up in accordance with the stepped cap (5% or 2.5%).  For short-term home-owners (1-5 years), it is an unfortunate possibility that your property assessments have gone down so far that you will be paying less in CPRA/Property taxes this year than you did last year.  For those who have been in their homes for 5-15 years, it is likely that your CPRA cap increase of 2.5% has kept your actual payment low enough that you have not seen an appreciable change over the last 5 years and almost certainly will not see an increase for FY2013.  Now, for those long-term property owners (15 years+), you may be part of the 0.4%.  If there remains increased value in your home that has not been reflected in the CPRA due to the 2.5% cap (i.e., if the assessment still needs to "catch up" with the increased assessment of your home), you may see an increase.  At most, it will be 2.5%.

If you want to call property appreciation a tax increase, that is your prerogative, but you would do well to provide an alternative, because that is the foundation of a property tax.  Notably, there were no alternatives proposed last night.  There were a number of nice sound bites regarding "compassion", "tough economic times" and that this Budget is a "failure", but none of the Board members suggested an alternative.  In my book, that's posturing.

Bottom line: No increase was passed last night.  I would not have voted for one.  I doubt there is anyone on that Board who would have voted for an increase.  We kept the assessment exactly where it is.  And in the face of declining property values, that is a merit to the Staff.  Not something that should be deemed a "failure."

LINKS

TJ does a bang up job destroying Governor O'Malley's proposal to shift teacher pensions from the State to the counties.  It would be nice to see this picked up by the other Patches (is that how you use the plural of "Patch"?  Makes me think of an orange cat).  Most interesting to me was his discussion of how much teachers already pay into the pension, which is frequently acknowledged to be unsustainable.  Imagine paying into two retirement vehicles (SS and pension) that are repeatedly referred to as items that may not last the next 20-30 years.  (County employees -- this is why you should probably give a toot about OPEB, but I am not opening that can of worms today).

George Huguely, former UVA lacrosse player accused of murdering his girlfriend, has been found guilty and sentenced to 26 years.  This verdict is disturbing on many levels.  It is undisputed that Mr. Hughuely killed a 21 year old woman after previous instances of abuse.  That is a grave offense and one that I believe amounts to more than 2nd Degree Murder.  Nonetheless, Mr. Huguely's sentence is comparable to the jail time doled out for any number of crimes in Baltimore City relating to drugs.  Just drugs.  These are very different jurisdictions with very different juries, but I don't blame the juries.  I wonder what kind of criminal justice system we have that puts scores of young men in prison for half-lifetimes for drugs (just drugs), yet killing a woman in the prime of her life merits only 26 years.

Yet another audit has been released in Baltimore City: "The audit, released Wednesday, found that some homes received only estimated water bills for years at a time while others received no bills."  This adds up to about $4.2 million issued back to the bill-payers.

Featured Blog Post of the Day:  Here's some truth -- If it had not been for HowChow, I would never have tried Korean food.  It's nice to be able to link certain life experiences back to particular folks that had an influence on your life.  For me, it was a blog.  HowChow gets back on the kimchi box to tell you why you should get out to Rte 40 and try some grilled meats.

That's all for today.  For those who asked, I am feeling much better.  Thank you for your concern.  I had heard horror stories about how this bug was a 7-10 day ordeal, but mine ended up being the slow buffalo.

Have a great Thursday doing what you love!

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

How to Take What's Comin' (Wednesday LINKS)

The Baltimore Sun has an op/ed column lauding Baltimore County Executive Ken Kamenetz's tact on the teacher pension shift.  The piece notes that due to its population and median income, Baltimore County is poised to be hurt the worst by the new scheme:

Poorer jurisdictions are due to get an influx of direct state aid under the governor's proposal, and richer ones benefit more from Mr. O'Malley's idea to limit income tax exemptions and deductions for the top fifth of earners. The result is that Baltimore County would see a hit of nearly $3 million in the fiscal year that begins in July, with the effects magnified in the years after that.

Despite repeatedly endorsing Mr. Kamenetz's position on pensions, the writer never really explains exactly what that approach is, other than to note:

He is seeking legislation that would allow the county to combine efforts with the school system in areas like information technology, workers compensation, procurement and data management. Mr. Kamenetz believes that the county and schools can eliminate redundancy and save money without affecting what goes on in the classroom.

The general point of the piece becomes clear only at the end:

But the biggest fight Mr. Kamenetz faces, and the one on which he could use some back-up from the other executives, is over the governor's scheme for providing the counties with more revenue to compensate for the new costs they would face.

"Come on, counties!  Don't you see the Governor is trying to give you money?"  Despite the serpentine logic of the column, I think it is a very good explanation of the teacher pension debate, including the suggestion that this shift will provide a platform for pension reform.  If you want to extend the "brace for impact" logic a little further, The Sun may also suggest that it would behoove teacher's unions to get out in front of this avalanche and make suggestions to their independent school boards about how pensions may be restructured, costs may be cut, and balance sheets fixed.

What's more interesting about this piece is that the approach advocated would undercut the benefits of adversarial government.  The Executives don't get a vote on the teacher pension shift, but they do have political power.  Doesn't it make sense for these elected leaders to use whatever influence they may have to fight against a shift so that the eventual compromise is one that hurts the least?  Controversial government actions are subject to compromise but only if the controversy presents itself.  The teacher pension shift is big (and bears repeating).

Kamenetz's "twice for flinching" approach may be accommodating and romantically stoic, but, as The Sun piece notes, Baltimore County will be taking the worst of this change in expenses.  Notably, this is after a recent spat between the County government and the teacher's union related to tight funds and teacher cuts.

I think Ken Ulman knows that teacher pensions will be shifted back to the County.  I also think he is going to make that a very hard decision for our State Legislature and one that comes with as many bells and whistles for the counties as may be available.  That's the way controversial decisions should be made.  With compromise.  Not concession.

LINKS

Speaking of education funding, the Howard County Board of Education unanimously passed a $697 million operating budget request for FY 2013.  That is a 1.9% increase from 2012.  Here's the bad part:  "But some members noted that the budget did not include a contingency plan for dealing with the possibility that teacher pension costs could be shifted from the state to the county level. French said the Tuesday meeting was not the time or place for such a discussion, but agreed that a full discussion needed to be held in front of the public — and soon. French suggested such a discussion be held during the board's March 8 meeting."  No evacuation plan.

The Howard Delegates' votes on same-sex marriage went 5 for, 3 against.  I wouldn't be surprised to see that as a pretty fair representation of the popular vote in this County should the matter go to a referendum.

Frederick County Commissioners have voted to make English the County's official language.  Proponents say it will deter illegal immigrants from settling in the County...obviously reflecting the fact that illegal immigrants look to obscure County ordinances when determining where they will live.

Meanwhile, back in places that are passing legislation that matters, Baltimore County has passed a transgender discrimination ban, defeating a "bathroom amendment" that would have excluded bathrooms, locker-rooms, and dressing rooms from the protections offered by the new law.  I loved this line from the article: "Opponents of the bill have said it would lead to men dressed as women assaulting females in restrooms, though critics could not point to any specific incidents in places that have transgender anti-discrimination laws."  Doesn't that pretty much sum up any argument against any civil rights bill for the history of time?  "Something horrible's going to happen!!"  "Do you have an example of this happening elsewhere?"  "No, but...HORRIBLE!!"

Featured Blog Post of the Day: Sarah is making a movie!  Ok, so her husband is making a movie, but she is helping and running the website.  This seems like a cool thing to follow, especially since I tend to believe Howard County lacks in the cinema department (despite those warehouses were Homicide and The Wire were filmed).

That's all for today.  I'm feeling a little under the weather, so forgive me if any of the logic was fuzzy (can I put that disclaimer on the bottom of all my posts?  "Geez, Tom really needs to get over that cold.  He's not making a lick of sense.")

Have a great Wednesday doing what you love!

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Retreat (Tuesday LINKS)

I spent the last four days in a remote cabin in the middle of New York State.  There was no TV, no Internet, and no Cell Service.  Local government was relevant only insofar as that's where people go when there is a dispute about land boundaries and hunting licenses.  You can get from place to place by car, but most people take ATV's.  They tell a lot of bear stories.

It was a great vacation for someone like me.  I have a tendency to find myself drawn to "screens" to see what's going on.  It's a bad habit.

But nature is also the most effective method of providing humility.  The thing about technology, particularly the Internet, is that it provides the illusion of control.  You would think the vast expanses of the techno-verse would be similarly humbling, but everything is a Google search away.  Not so when you look up a wooded mountain and think about going to the top; looking at millions of stars unaffected by city lights; or something as simple as the complete silence of the outdoors without the hum of HVAC units, murmur of televisions, or swishing of passing cars.

It was also odd to look out from high up on the hills and see expanses of land that were comparable to all of Howard County and think about what we've made of our "spot."  This hive.

Life is so much different there.  It makes you think in so much simpler terms, but in such greater depth.  While I enjoyed my retreat, I think I picked the right life for me.  Maybe I'll spend a little less time with my screens.

LINKS

On my way back home, I listened to a Midday with Dan Rodrick's podcast discussing the new headquarters for Exelon in Harbor East.  Dan cited a recent column by (soon to be former) Sun columnist Jay Hancock that reminded me of the Columbia Downtown Development debate: "Developers always say they need tax breaks because the "economics" of the project wouldn't work without them. But that proposition is rarely tested. Cities and states always cave in. And the books are rarely thrown open to reveal the most interesting economics — how tax incentives feather developers' profits."

The same-sex marriage bill has moved to the Maryland State Senate after passing in the House of Delegates.   While the magnitude of this bill is significant, its passage has almost become a formality with the thunder of chest thumping undertaken by Republicans who promise to take the measure to referendum.  In effect, I think this has almost given an "out" to legislators that fear reprisal in their districts who can now say "I think this should be decided by the people and therefore am voting with the understanding that it will go to referenda."  Good.  You do that.  I understand that these votes have gone against marriage equality in the past, but I think Maryland may be different in that regard.  So long as the protections for religious liberty are incorporated and sound, the motivation to get-out-the-vote against the bill just isn't there.  Now, for those favoring marriage equality, there is all the motivation in the world to knock on doors, vote, and enjoy all of the attributes that go along with fighting for civil rights.  And THAT could be very dangerous for Maryland Republicans.

I like what Baltimore County is doing with regard to "Planned Unit Developments" and making more information online for those projects that will skirt underlying zoning in exchange for a "community benefit."  Admittedly, as we've seen locally, the more information you make available, the more you may be accused of "hiding something", but there are the reasonable folks in the middle who just want to know what's happening with their community.  This type of transparency lessens their burden.

Featured Blog Post of the Day: HowChow continues his "Welcome Home Series" (which would make a nice book) with a review of those great places in HoCo that many people talk about, but few people know how to get to.  Thankfully, smart phones have made destination driving a little easier, but I don't think you have lived a complete Howard County experience unless you have eaten at a place, thought it was great food, but then forgot how to get back.

That's all for today.  Great to be back.  Have a great Tuesday doing what you love!

Thursday, February 16, 2012

You've Got (Social) Issues (Thursday LINKS)

A while back I wrote a post lamenting the death of the same sex marriage bill.  I noted how it was a missed opportunity to put Maryland amongst the first in the Country to pass such legislation.  I went on to say that we were letting a significant portion of the population down.

Friend of the blog, Ox posted (to paraphrase): "I'm glad this is over so we can get back to the economic issues that are affecting the lives of millions of Marylanders...Tom sucks."

He was right (not on the last part).

Same-sex marriage is important.  It should pass.  But it, along with so many other social issues, constitute a smoke-screen and one that I hope you don't buy into.  Politicians enjoy the opportunity to see themselves as liberators and defenders.  They don't like to see themselves as taxers and spenders (which they all are regardless of party stripe).  Social issues allow our elected leaders to put on the mantle of liberators and defenders.  Look at their newsletters, Facebook posts, and Twitter feeds.  They aren't talking about bond bills and capital projects.  They're talking about "marriage equality", "protecting your wallet", and...well...Bible verses that somehow endorse what they are about to do.  It makes state government seem like the crucible of freedom, if not the final battle between good and evil itself.

There have been a good number of articles recently about how the blue collar workforce is essentially using its political power against itself in supporting the Tea Party and other conservative initiatives.  Whether or not that's true, there is no reason to fault their logic.  This is not about the practical issue of how bills will be paid!  This is about LIBERTY!  FREEDOM!  BALD EAGLES! And for the Dems it is about EQUALITY!  FAIRNESS!  That bad ass O logo!

I guess it is too much to ask folks to look beyond these issues.  My Facebook wall, and presumably yours, is filled with all of the liberator and defender claptrap that can only be expected to increase over the next 9 months.  Somehow it is allowing regular citizens to ignore the fact that our taxes are about to go up, gas taxes are regressive, the vast majority of our National Debt was collected under Republican administrations, the Teacher Pension shift is a shift in sovereignty, and our roads are taking a silent tax on all of our cars year in and year out.

But...ok...I was following you.  But what does all of that have to do with bald eagles?  FREEDOM!

LINKS

The ONLY potentially good move made by the Baltimore Orioles during the off-season, signing of South Korean Kim Seong-min, has been denied by Major League Baseball.  Next thing you know they're going to retroactively cancel out the O's contract with Brian Roberts. ...  I said the Next Thing You Know...

Maryland counties came out in force against Gov. O'Malley's proposal to shift teacher pensions back to the counties.  I noted above that this would be a "shift in sovereignty."  What I mean by that is noting that the counties are limited by statute in terms of revenue.  Increasing their liabilities will not just be a financial burden, it will significantly curtail what they can do for their citizens, whether that means environmental initiatives, nonprofit funding, schools, or public safety.  The folks that really should be testifying are the teachers.  "Splitting the baby" in this context means two things: Cutting the Education Budget and Pension Reform.

Baltimore City is looking to close one of its high schools and curtail grade levels at others in an effort to restructure failing programs.  These are brave moves, but unfortunately it looks like City School reform is little more than "brave moves."  There has been little to show for all of the revolutionary efforts that have been made to bring City Schools up to par with those across the State.

Featured Blog Post of the Day: Lisa looks behind the recent "reading class" kerfuffle at "Common Core", which is being implemented across the State of Maryland.  Common Core represents a "Disciplinary Literacy" approach to reading in which reading is increased within the context of their "content classes."  I've been told that this is being implemented in middle schools because studies have shown that growth in reading does not show marked improvement after 5th grade if skills are taught in isolation from content.  This makes a lot of sense.  Reading comprehension, a core focus of advanced reading in middle schools, can only be accomplished when there is a purpose in comprehension.  Content classes would seem to provide that purpose.  So don't worry.  Your children will not forget how to read in 6th grade.

That's all for today.  Have a great Thursday doing what you love!

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

What Speech Has Woodbine Wrought

In reviewing an article about the proposed legislation "that would require the State Highway Administration to create a permit program allowing individuals and organizations to display American flags in traffic roundabouts", I noticed the following quote:
"[The SHA] also expressed concern that the bill is not 'content neutral' — it would allow for flags to be flown but not other items — and would raise 'a likely challenge under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.'"

This is a textbook example of Pandora's Box legislation.  Prescribing a certain type of speech on public land is dangerous, regardless of "noble intent."  I understand that previous commentators have been told that "if you are against this legislation, you are against America."  I welcome the comments.  My concern, and one I would represent to the good folks of Western Howard County, is that once this bill passes, your roundabout is no longer yours to control.  I think we all would like to imagine a garden of American Flags, but that's not how free speech works.  You don't get what you want.  The thing about speech is that it only needs protection when it is otherwise unwanted.  Intermixed with your flags may be athiest promotion, political signs, and, unquestionably, signs about the nearest open house.

In fact, if I were you, I would keep government out of it.  SHA can remove your flags at its own peril.  No one is going to pass a law prohibiting the removal of the Northrop Team.

The Seven Percent Solution (Wednesday LINKS)

As expected, the Teacher Pension Shift proposal has the eye of county governments across Maryland and has the prospect of doing significant damage to local budgets.  While just about all County leaders are fighting against this bill, I have not read anything from Annapolis suggesting that the shift is otherwise imperiled.  The only discussion I've heard is "which knife" -- proportional shift or "each according to their ability to pay" (as advocated for by Baltimore City leaders)...(and if you were to ask me, I would see things going this way, since any other solution would cripple Baltimore City budgets for the next decade, thereby injuring a significant engine of Maryland economic growth).

But our County is prepared.  Lindsay McPherson writes that Howard County's Budget Administrator and other administration leaders are preparing for the $6 million to $17 million burden:

"What the county executive has done is gone to department heads and asked them for alternative plans to reduce (their) budget request by seven percent," Wacks said.

This is good leadership and I hope the Ulman administration shares these proposed reductions with the public (regardless of whether they are implemented), paired with an expected reduction in service, performance, or efficiency.  I've long thought that all government departments should have "Evacuation Plans" as a matter of course so that when contraction is necessary, it can be executed in a well-planned manner without undermining the government service at issue.  Cutting taxes is a legitimate objective of government leadership, regardless of party affiliation.  Nonetheless, the character of government is to grow, not to retract, unless an elected leader dictates otherwise.  From my perspective, the best way to do this is by way of cooperation with leaders within the administration who know (as deeply held secrets) where the trimming can be made.

Have no doubt that these are sincerely difficult decisions.  Everyone is a government slasher until they sit down at the table with the person who prepared the budget.  Everyone thinks the government is too big until they work in the cubicle next to a person whose job is cut.  And let's not forget about our books.  As extension of something noted in Lindsey's piece, Citizen A notices a tax cut once.  They notice a reduction in library books repeatedly over the course of their residency in the County.

The Board of Education would do well to create their own 7% solution and Evacuation Plans.  If the Teacher Pension Shift is to occur, which I predict it will, you can be certain that Executive Ulman will expect a pound of flesh from the BoE...if not more.  Proportionally, the greatest opportunity for reduction in spending is in the Education Budget, regardless of what kind of horrors that may raise in the heads of parents and teachers.  This shift is going to hurt all of us in measurable and concrete ways that we notice.  Ken Ulman is doing the right thing by making sure we see it coming and the cuts are as painless as possible.

LINKS

Sara Toth notes that Howard County's most prominent teacher's union plans to recommend to the Board of Education that they either seek mediation or quit.  With all due respect to the HCEA, I don't think you can fix agitation with agitation.  This is like a wife telling her husband that he either clean the dishes or move out of the house.  It is not going to get those dishes clean.  In fact, I think agitation has stressed this Board out.  Every single thing they do is met with such scrutiny and criticism that it appears to be impossible to operate.  They work under the constant threat of litigation, whether that be tort or impeachment.  That will fray your nerves, and that's coming from an attorney.  What I would recommend, to both the HCEA and the Board, is to just take it down a notch.  The soap-box speeches aren't going anywhere.  The threat of litigation is not going anywhere.  But you need to find a way to operate above it.  Ignore what you can.  Recognize that there are other good people sitting on the Board with you.  And keep everything on the up and up.

Lindsey McPherson's Political Notebook: "As County Executive Ken Ulman spends more time making connections in other parts of the state, other gubernatorial hopefuls are making some connections of their own — here in Howard County."  

It appears that the Grand Prix will not be going anywhere.  Baltimore City has reached a new five year deal with "Downforce Racing."  Respectfully, that sounds like a Speed Racer bad guy.

Featured Blog Post of the Day: If you link to two local blogs in a single post, you stand a good chance to get the daily nod.  Sarah visits the Family Market, runs into WB, and notes that both of them ended up there after reading a post on HowChow.  It's like getting extra credit in first grade for using two "words of the week" in a single sentence!

That's all for today.  I should note that I had another nice surprise courtesy of the blog yesterday.  My 6th Grade Social Studies teacher, Mr. Stout, sent me an e-mail noting that he reads the blog.  That was pretty cool.

Have a great Wednesday doing what you love!

Monday, February 13, 2012

Show Me A Sign (Monday Links)

According to the Howard County Municipal Sign Code, the start date for when political signs relating to the April 3, 2012 primary were allowed was February 3, 2012 (60 days out from the election).  By my amateur survey of Howard County's hills and valleys, no one seems all that interested.

By the look of things, the HoCo GOP may have to consider mounting their horses sometime soon.  Whether it is Mitt, Rick, or Newt, the Nomination is unlikely to be locked up by April 3, barring some kind of sweep on Super Tuesday (March 6th). Even then, the new delegate structure whereby the runner-up gets proportional delegates may permit the hangers-on to hang-on well past the house-guest/dead fish mark.

More importantly, where are our Board of Education candidates?  I very well may have missed it, but I recall there having been numerous forums well before the primary in 2010.  Not to puff our collective chests, but smart candidates will find themselves at the Corner Stable this evening to get their name out in a game where that ends up being 70% of the effort (with the other 30% being where that name falls amongst the alphabet).

Whatever you're putting in the ground, tread lightly.  I know of a good number of friends that will steadfastly refuse to vote for anyone who places illegal signs (i.e., those found along public property).  We all know you didn't ask the round-about's permission before placing that sign.

I am reserving at least one of my primary votes for whomever has the most signage.  It seems like the American thing to do.

LINKS

The Fed's may be cutting back, but Maryland's two largest federal employers, Social Security and the Center for Medicaid and Medicare, are staying put at about the same size they are at now.

This article made me happy: "Bill seeks to keep guilty pols from getting paychecks, pensions."  Depending on the political bent of the person you are speaking with, you may often hear the phrase that Maryland is the "most corrupt state" in the Union.  More times than not, the individual is referring to ethics and corruption prosecutions, which are not really a fair measure of actual corruption.  The places you really want to watch out for are those where everyone says things are peachy-keen.

Jessica Anderson's article regarding the Elkridge CSX site makes some of our Howard County polliterati (yeah, that's right, I made up a word) look like a bunch of citizens filing FOIA requests regarding additional costs to CSX related to the potential sites for the intermodal facility.  She closes with a breath-taking stat: "CSX and the state estimate that the transfer cargo site will generate more than $18 billion in direct and indirect economic activity and 6,700 jobs over 30 years."  Looks like the people that will really be affected by the new intermodal site have yet to arrive.

Featured Blog Post of the Day: HowChow welcomes newcomers with a "tiny tour" of Howard County cuisine, lamenting that no matter what, you're going to have to get in your car.  He includes the most important tip -- "Then read HowChow more and see what else you'd want."  That's what I do.

That's all for today.  Sorry if the post was a little "blah."  The Baltimore Sun was more slow than normal and I feel like I may be stuck in first gear.  I have a mini-vacation on the horizon, which will be much needed and much appreciated.

Have a great Monday doing what you love!

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Voting on a Jet Plane

I was recently referred to the 5 hr 30 min mark of this session of the Howard County Board of Education meeting.  It begins with an admonition by the disembodied voice of Brian Meshkin to the Board for originally disallowing his participation in the meeting via teleconference and then changing course to bring Mr. Meshkin in as a tie-breaking vote.

Then it devolves.  First at a trickle.  Then the dam breaks.

A few things:
1) Mr. Meshkin should be embarrassed that this was ever necessary.  He admits to having had to miss a number of meetings due to his business in California, which he would have certainly been aware of prior to running for office.  I don't know all of the facts, but based on the unrefuted comments of the Board members, Mr. Meshkin first requested participation by phone that morning.  If anything, I would expect him to be thanking the Board for permitting his participation in absentia, not shaming them for a perceived conspiracy to "use him" for his vote.

2) At about 5 hr 44 min, Allen Dyer requests that the Board recall its vote to impeach him.  That was a nice aside.

3) When addressing the procedures of a deliberative body, you need to presume that what is good for one is good for all.  Do we want our elected bodies to be small speaker boxes sitting behind name plates?  It is an obligation of elected office to sit before the public, face to face, and cast your vote.  Technology is not going to overcome this requirement.  Consider the legal system.  As much as we may like to challenge our speeding ticket over Skype or have witnesses in Colorado testify at criminal trials in Maryland through a television set, the law does not allow it.  In my own experience with CA, it is inevitable that when a member participates over the phone, there will be problems.  They can't hear.  It cuts out.  They inadvertently interrupt other members.  It is a mess.  So while I know there are alternative views on who is wrong and who is right, I just think there is a more practical  issue of what we expect of those we elect.  Above all things, I think "presence" is a fair preliminary.

4) Holster your weapons.  Mr. Meshkin's accusation here is so ludicrous that it almost escapes reason.  "I want to vote for this item.  You were not going to let me vote for it.  Now you are.  You are using me for my vote.  It hurts my feelings."  And the dungeon analogy?  Did Board of Education storm troopers escort you onto that plane, Mr. Meshkin?  This Board has seen enough discord and controversy that it is all the more unfortunate that this non-controversy was blown up due to the conscious choices of one of its members.

I was not going to write about this item.  I wasn't even going to post today.  But this bothers me.  We are all accountable for our own actions.  The world has enough martyrs.

Friday, February 10, 2012

CA Board Recap: February 9, 2012 Board of Directors Meeting

Start Time: 7:34 pm
End Time: 10:58 pm

This Board meeting was dedicated entirely to Columbia Association's Operating Budget.  It became apparent early on that some members (member?) have viewed the Board's opportunity to "review and approve" the Budget as a paired opportunity to dictate the very operations of this organization.  This is after repeated assurances that they are not interested in "getting into operations" and are rather exercising the Board's responsibility of "oversight."

What was even more frustrating is that it seems the Board is either unable or unwilling to prevent a blatant acknowledged tyranny by the minority in the course of Board meetings.  As will be noted below, the Board considered over 34 proposals regarding the Operating Budget.  With two to three items that were put on Tracking Forms for later action, none of the proposals made it past a straw vote.  That means the majority was not interested in the proposal, which was apparent from the start on many of these items.  Despite the CA Board's Special Procedures that are intended to govern our meetings, which explicitly say that the Chair is to take note of how many members would like to speak for or against a given item, each proposal was subject to discussion amongst whomever still had muscle-nerve contact between their shoulder and their hand.

In terms of Operational interference, it is time for the Staff to just say "no."  There is a legal limit on what a Nonprofit Board of Directors may require of Staff in terms of dictating action.  I would probably stand up and cheer if one Thursday a member of the Staff said to a Board member "We believe your proposal is entirely within the realm of CA operations and will not be following your directive on this."  It would surely infuriate the Board Member, and possibly others, but it would also seem to curb this blank checkbook approach that has micro-managed a very good organization into nonsensical spiderwebs of policies, white papers, and inequitable formulas.

As I noted above, we reviewed over 30 some-odd proposals.  I am only going to include those that stuck out for me.  Again, spoiler alert, none of them passed.  

Salaries Line Item

If you enjoyed "Attack on the Staff, Part 1" you'll love "Attack on the Staff, Part 8."  Yet again, members of the Board sought to limit the increase in the salary line item to keep it at the same amount as 2012.  Whether it is federal, state, or the nonprofit sector, I do not believe in taking "hard times" out on well-performing Staff.  If we were looking to curtail our budget to save money, I firmly believe it should have been in Capital Projects or Programming.  It was yet another round of amateur hour in terms of what CA's thousands of employees "deserve" due to "tough economic times."  This proposal was voted down, as were subsequent proposals looking to edit salary items in the budget.

Rates

If you enjoyed "Attack of the Rate-Slashers, Part 1" you'll love "Attack of the Rate-Slashers, Part 8."  Frequent readers will know that many on this Board see no measure of science in calculating rates.  If it is a lot of money, it is too much.  If the difference between resident and non-resident rates appears too small, it is not "significant."  Who has time for market comparisons when we have the "eyeball test" to apply to complicated matters of CA income?

I appreciate the interest in lowering rates...for low income residents.  Respectfully, for everyone else, I am willing to trust our Staff to consider market rates and our interest in providing Columbia residents a rate that is significantly below that rate.  Other than that, I have no experience to offer in this regard and will not impose my judgment on the rates that have been calculated.  These numbers don't exist in space.  They're based on the cost of fulfilling a membership, the cost of subsidization between resident and non-resident, market competition, etc., etc.  You have to wonder whether this organization would be spiraling into the red if there were two to three different Board members who thought Board service was an opportunity to get cheaper golf for their friends.

We also returned to the Board's policy of not offering Double Discounts.  Anyone paying attention to the Senior Discount will know that this has become a bit controversial.  In short, CA does not allow "double discounts" as a matter of "good business practices" and therefore a member who has a 10% Senior Discount may not also enjoy a 20% discount on the early renewal, leading to a 30% discount on their Plan.  It was suggested that we abolish the double discount rate at the Board level, which I tend to agree with.  The trouble is that the way it was written suggested that this may be misconstrued as prohibiting staff from setting their own discount policy, including the prohibition on double discounts.  (Still with me?).  As such, the matter was deferred for later Board action.

Soon after the straw vote went through, one of the Board members, who happens to be the standard-bearer for the senior discount, called the Board "spineless" and then corrected himself to say we were "gutless."  I would counter that this populist nonsense with no basis in data of any sort, and very well may be injurious to CA, is spineless...reckless and arrogant.  Offering up to 30% off CA memberships to a growing segment of our population is not just wrong; it is dumb.

It looks like I have run out of time.  Those were the two most prominent areas of discussion from last night's Board meeting.  I didn't see any members of the press, but I've been wrong before.  Nevertheless, I don't know if there was anything to cover.

I can't imagine that the ten directors enjoyed the use of their time last night.  Three and a half hours that could have been spent with your spouse, your children, your pet, or just reading a book.  But why aren't we doing anything about it?  We talk a lot about the Board's credibility and our interest in transparency, but both are injured by long purposeless meetings.

Residents will have their say in April.  Maybe they'll actually tell us something this time.

Have a great Friday doing what you love.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Shameless Plug

It brings me a particular amount of pride to note that my father's accounting firm, Coale, Pripstein, and Associates, is now advertising on the HoCoMoJo Network.  Every once in a while, I will (quite literally) shake my head and say "This blog thing is a trip."  Whether it is someone introducing themselves as a reader or being told that "so and so" doesn't like me because of something I wrote, it has been a fascinating and exciting journey that I would recommend to anyone who enjoys writing. 

But having my Dad buy a spot alongside my blog posts.  That's something I appreciate in a different way altogether.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Ulman Fighting for...a Pay Cut

According to this salary slide-show by the Baltimore Sun, should Ken Ulman seek to become Maryland's next Governor, he would be taking a $13,841 pay cut.

Governor O'Malley makes $150,000 a year.
County Executive Ken Ulman makes $163,841 a year.

Notably, Executive Ulman was shown to have the second higest salary of those listed, coming in behind only Congressman Elijah Cummings who makes $174,000 a year.

Should Ken get the big spot, I think we can presume that the $14K would be made up in mortgage payments.

Paralyzed (Wednesday LINKS)

It has been a while since we saw this Council as divided as it is over a measure like Council Redistricting.  By my recollection, the original bill was introduced in early December and the Council has now voted to table and extend the life of the bill to early March.  As noted in Lindsey's piece, the Commission's Plan automatically becomes law if no action is taken by March 15, 2012.  (I guess the Charter folks predicted this kind of strife.)

What's really puzzling is the apparent purposelessness of the dispute.  This is a 4-1 majority Dem Council.  If this was 3-2 D-R (or vice versa) you would almost expect the plan to be torn to pieces by heated partisans as the moderates roll their eyes and suggest "Why don't we just pass the Commission Map?"  In fact, I would presume that Greg Fox and the HoCo GOP are saying to themselves "Is this really happening?"  They were facing down a map that was clearly unfavorable to them, making District 1 more blue and the other Districts even further out of their reach, yet this Plan is under fire.  Not only that, but Greg finds himself in the position of being a swing vote.


"Drunk with success" has significant meaning for Howard County Democrats here.

With the apparent conclusion that these Democrats are no longer concerned regarding the success of their own party, what are they fighting about?

Fiefdoms.  Anyone close to this debate has heard "my district" enough to make them look for the court jester.  Sure, there has been a lot of angst with varying levels of validity regarding who is in what district, but a lot of that is fear-mongering.  "If you're in that district, imagine what will happen."  Nothing.  Imaginary lines will fall on someone else's lawn.

The only other concern that seems less acknowledged but also "there" is the ability to designate a successor.  That seems to make a lot of sense when you see all of the fighting over particular neighborhoods while others are thrown in and out of districts without mention.  Chief of staff, best friend, campaign manager, etc. etc.  This is where I hope I'm wrong.  Regardless of one's opinions about the legislation passed by the Council, the individual members do not seem to have the arrogance necessary to think that their hand alone will select who follows them.

Don't get me wrong, this is all fun to watch, but you have to wonder what the heck they are doing...other than helping the GOP.

(WB has a similar take here.)


LINKS

The County has decided to ignore the large "Don't Mess With Elkridge" warning label that comes affixed to that zip code.  Auto Mechanic Brian Wilson has faced a series of zoning challenges related to his shop on Montgomery Road that don't seem to be going away anytime soon as he applies for a variance to include additional parking.  The interesting question now is whether Mr. Wilson or the County are the ones that are going against the community.  (Props to Kevin Rector who, by my review, has written 20-30% of the articles that the Flier has been putting out over the past few weeks.  Great work.)


I've often expressed how fortunate Howard County voters are to have the League of Women Voters.  Alice Giles shows that yet again with a letter to the editor questioning why the Howard Delegation is holding their annual hearing in Annapolis.  This is unacceptable.


Rick Santorum won the GOP primaries in Colorado, Missouri, and Minnesota.  Really?  He did?

Baltimore City Teachers may be regretting their deal with the devil...ahem...for more pay as a large number receive poor teacher evaluations.  I love the subheading "Teachers believe it is attempt to avoid pay raises, but system says it is effort to help them become more effective."  Shut up, system.

Featured Blog Post of the Day: How can I not go to my friend HowChow when he posts about a new NIGERIAN food spot coming to the Long Reach Village Center.  I can already see the conversation in my household.  "Wanna try the new Nigerian place?"  "I don't know...it sounds spicy."  "How does it sound spicy?  It's a country!" "No, let's go to Facci."

That's all for today.  Have a great Wednesday doing what you love!!

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Please, No More (Tuesday Links)

Jane and I were watching the news last night and something came up about the (insert controversy) funding by (insert previously benign organization) or government regulation of (insert political hot button).  I can't remember which.  Anyhow, Jane turned to me to comment and before she finished her sentence, I politely asked her to stop.

"Please, no more.  No more politics."

February is a little early for political exhaustion, but it hit me yesterday.  Hard.  I don't want to hear anyone named Mitt or Newt talk for the next two days.  I don't want to hear about Planned Parenthood.  I don't want to talk about which medical procedures have religious implications.

"Please, no more.  No more politics."

There really is no escaping this stuff.  Social media is awash with "If you stand by ____, repost this as your status, change your profile picture, or defriend all college classmates that begin with the letter R."  I also have had my fill of various friends and family posting Op/Ed's as if they are revealing some hidden conspiracy that was not covered by the mainstream media.  It has Op/Ed written on it for a reason.  These writers know that your emotions work faster than your intelligence and are making a living off of it.  Play their game if you want, but it will probably take less than two clicks of a mouse for your recipients to realize that you've been fooled.  And that's uncomfortable for everyone.

So when I sat down to type my post this morning, the only thing I could think was "Please, no more.  No more politics."  Looks like I couldn't even run away from it in my own head.

LINKS

The Orioles have traded their (arguably) best pitcher, Jeremy Guthrie, for two pitchers of lesser quality and around the same age.  The Duquette Era hurts me.

Opponents to the transgender bill in Baltimore County testified last night.  One citizen is even quoted as saying that they are having trouble sleeping over the idea that a man might be in the women's restroom.  With all of the problems of the world, you are concerned regarding a de facto no trespassing sign being violated?

It didn't take long for the Maryland Legislature to consider that slots just wasn't enough.  A bill introduced in the Senate last night would allow table games and an additional casino in Prince George's County.

Comptroller Peter Franchot is opposing Governor O'Malley's gas tax and plans to go right to the people with his message for why it is a bad idea.  He's holding a roundtable discussion today in Annapolis on the subject, with two out-spoken opponents of the measure.  Franchot is slowly beginning to take the inside track for those "practical Republicans", who don't feel the GOP has a chance at the Governor's Mansion.

Featured Blog Post(s) of the Day: HowChow has been on a tear recently and is covering a number of local restaurants (Facci, Maiwand Kabob) that are expanding or moving in the near future.  Click over and get updated before your pumpkin craving is met by an empty storefront.

That's all for today.  Have a great Tuesday doing what you love!

Monday, February 6, 2012

The Extremes Are Watching (Monday LINKS)

Over the weekend I posted a snarky status on Facebook about Rachel Maddow and Rush Limbaugh (as I am known to do since neither are my "friends") and received the following response comment: 

Sometimes being in the middle doesn't mean your right. Sometimes what you believe is a common sense approach is wrong. Sometimes the extreme of either end is the awakening call. And lastly, while the middle looks at the ends as "extreme" and "too passionate" the ends look at the middle as "indecisive", "grey", "mushy", and worse, the group that puts the bad-guy in office!

I found it interesting on a number of levels, but mostly because it challenged some of my deepest held beliefs about politics.  Namely -- moderation in all things creates the correct path.

But in a political climate where meaningless words like "post-partisan" are thrown around as if they have decisive heft, have we lost touch with those words that at one time actually described something?  Does "moderate" even mean anything anymore?  I found that the more I thought over the comment in my head, the less I felt it actually applied to me.  Is it "moderate" to spend an hour a day typing words into space?  Do I hold "moderate" beliefs about anything?  I don't think I do.  I'm pretty extreme about moderate things. (Insert sip of coffee to think over whether that makes sense).

Said otherwise, I do think my general political beliefs are what could be considered moderate, but I am anything but "indecisive, gray, or mushy" about their achievement.

A lot more could be said about the extremes and "cult politics" whereby people begin to define themselves by the issues they hold on placards.  That will never be me.  I will never yell at someone to communicate a political objective.  That time is wasted.  It would be better spent on the mushy folks.

LINKS

After the Giants won their second Super Bowl with Eli Manning at the helm, we will be told that he is elite.  Over and over.  Nevertheless, we all will continue to think that "there is something not-right with that boy."

There has been a public outcry over Columbia's new story "Charm City Puppies", which sells, you guessed it, puppies.  I hate puppy mills.  Both of our dogs are rescues, with one being a puppy mill reject that we had to rehabilitate from a serious case of mange.  I also hate to see a new store face this kind of adversity in its most critical months of life.  But overall, I would hope that anyone looking for a dog would go to the Howard County Shelter before dropping a couple grand on a dog that comes with a certificate.

Stink bugs have found it difficult to survive the many storms this area has faced over the last six months.  Too bad so sad.

Anne Arundel County Councilman Jerry Walker wants to make English the official language of Anne Arundel County.  The bill submitted last Monday "would require that all official county documents, communications and agreements be in English."  It would also require all government employees to cover their ears and say "I'm not listening" whenever a foreign tongue is used.

Featured Blog Post of the Day: WB looks at one of Howard County's "green" programs that may take a hit with a cut in State funding: kitchen waste recycling.  It's good to hear that the County is already looking at ways to downsize.

That's all for today.  Have a great Monday doing what you love.  Patriots fans -- don't worry, you'll feel better in approximately two weeks.  And just be glad you didn't lose on a field goal.

Friday, February 3, 2012

CA Board Recap: February 2, 2012 PSC Budget Work Session -- Capital Projects

Start Time: 7:36 pm
End Time: 10:42 pm

I found this to be a productive meeting.  The Board lost its path a few times, but overall I felt as if the members were oriented towards voting, which is a good thing.

Staff Incentives/Bonuses

Although this meeting was to be dedicated to Capital Projects, we still had old business regarding how bonuses for CA Staff were to be governed.  The Board passed a Motion that bonuses would be allocated from 50% of surplus (under-budget) funds, excluding depreciation and interest.  Of that money, each individual staff member would received no greater than a 5% bonus.  There were at least three Board members (including myself) that wondered how we got to a point where we have narrowed the availability of bonuses to this level.  Rather than increase transparency and fairness, it seems as if this level of micro-managing has obfuscated the process and put an individual staff member completely in the dark as to what they need to do to earn a bonus.

After the budget process is over, the Board may want to consider going back and untying some of these knots placed on personnel.  The meeting in which Staff tells the Board "we're losing good people" will be when it is too late to change.

Symphony Woods Park

Prior to last night, Symphony Woods Park had been allocated $1 million in the 2013 Budget.  The Board determined (with guidance from Staff) that in light of set-backs with the County, it was very unlikely that this Project would be ready to utilize those funds by next year.  In response, the Board swapped 2014 funding ($585,000) for FY 2013 funding in anticipation of being able to do the bulk of construction in 2014 (which notably is a conditional budget).

I would have preferred to leave the $1 million in FY 2013.  Based on my review of how things are going, it would seem that once the County grants us permission, there will be a lot to do at a fairly steady pace.  I also recalled that some Board members had asked whether our fountain plans were constrained due to an inappropriate allocation of funds.  This was the Board's opportunity to give Staff additional flexibility.

I understand why other Board members were disinclined to "park" money, but I think that is an erroneous view of how CA funds are allocated.  Said otherwise, we don't have a $1 million piggy bank with "SymFony Woodz" written on it.  But all the same, the reallocation of about $300,000 should appear in the form of smaller projects being completed faster, which is something I can support.

Lake Kittamaqundi

Many Board members, myself included, were disappointed that only $50,000 was allocated for completing the pathway around Lake K.  This is a project of high priority for the Board and one that we would like to see completed as soon as possible.  Nonetheless, there are significant permitting hurdles that were further held up by lake dredging.  The good news is that the "other side of the lake" is not under the new downtown zoning scheme, so we will be able to save ourselves what has turned out to be about 8 months of planning and evaluation by the County.  This project has been allocated $220,000 for 2014.

Dorsey's Search Meeting Room
As you all may imagine, this particular project has had my attention throughout the budget process.  Without getting too far into the details, the "Meeting Room" attached to the Dorsey's Search pool is part of the "aging infrastructure" that I have alluded to in numerous posts about CA's future challenges.  Every Village has a structure like this and every Village seems to have had a viable project voted down because of either infighting or the determination by CA that the improvement would not be profit positive.

When it comes to Village improvements, we can't look at these projects in terms of profit.  If that was the objective, all of our Village Centers would host ReMax agents and Starbucks barristas.  Our Village Centers and meeting spaces are there to provide resources and value to the residents.  In the case of Dorsey's Search, the Meeting Room has hosted a succession of day care operations that have repeatedly outgrown the space.  This space was not serving the residents adequately.

I am very happy to note that the PSC voted to approve the expansion of the Meeting Room.  It probably was the happiest 10 seconds of my time on the CA Board.  Not only because it helped my Village, but also because it showed that this infighting of "Your Village isn't getting a project until my Village gets one" may be behind us.  I look forward to seeing future proposals for updating our Village Centers and plan to provide my full support.

Hobbit's Glen

The expansion/renovation/reconstruction of the Hobbit's Glen Clubhouse was approved before I came to the Board.  I apparently made the mistake of asking about why this decision was made, which was interpreted as asking for "justification" (and thereby imperiling the Meeting Room expansion -- gotta love politics).  As someone who has actually taken a pair of scissors to the collar of greens during the Senior PGA Tournament, it was almost laughable that I ended up on the other side of this criticism, but we can put that aside for now.  My concern is that we are not doing an adequate job explaining this project to our residents.  Hobbit's Glen appeared to be the straw-man at Tuesday's Aquatics Master Plan Work Session and there is clearly a lot of angst over CA's funding of this project.  I was told that the purpose of the renewed attention was to make sure all of our amenities were in good repair and could be a source of pride for residents.  Ok, that's good, but I think we need more.

The CA Board will be receiving proposals for the new Clubhouse in about three months.  I hope to be able to share more with you then, but as of right now, I know about as much as all of you.  And apparently am not allowed to ask questions...

Well, time flies while you're talking about the Budget.  We discussed additional projects, but I think I covered all of the big ticket items.

Have a great FRIDAY (!!) doing what you love!

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Water Water Everywhere (Thursday LINKS)

A Work Session for the proposed CA Aquatics Maters Plan was held this past Tuesday in the River Hill Village Center.  It brought out an impressive number of citizens comprising approximately an hour and a half of testimony.  Some of this testimony was persuasive, reasonable, and well thought out.  Other testimony showed that some folks just want to be angry...with the intermixed pot shot at Hobbit's Glen.

I've found that considering public testimony is one of the most difficult aspects of serving on the CA Board.  Do I take this as dispositive of the public sentiment?  Do I consider the "content majority" who were not so moved as to come out against a proposal?  Should I look at the proportion of people speaking for or against a particular item and project that out amongst all Columbia residents?

This Board is easily moved by public testimony.  Almost to the point that we may be walked into bad decisions by those that have access to much less information.  That's not a knock on those who testify, but it is the Board's responsibility to look at a particular vote on the whole, while residents are invited (and expected) to speak only from their experience.  I've often wondered whether the Board made the right decision on Splashdown when we voted to drop over $200,000 on repairs that may only last two years.  But that is what the testimony overwhelmingly supported.  So that's what we did.

On Tuesday, I heard two contrasting opinions.  One said "Make Columbia cutting edge again."  The other "Stick with the status quo; it's what's expected."  The former had two to three proponents, the latter 10-15.  One is semantically and conceptually attractive, the other politically attractive.

I have no interest in closing any pools and I am very frustrated at those who are trying to scare residents into testifying on this matter.  The bottom line question is whether Columbia lien-payers want to subsidize under-utilized pools.  I understand that there is a underlying question of why those pools are underutilized, but to answer that CA will have to spend a great deal of resources to come to the same conclusion that has already been reached: We have too many outdoor pools.

I hope that Columbia residents stay involved...as problem-solvers.  We have heard the concerns, but if this community is to pride itself on its involvement, we are going to have to solve this together.

LINKS

You know a political commentator has struck all the right notes when people from two different Gubernatorial campaigns are promoting the analysis on Facebook.  On Tuesday, I saw folks from the Franchot camp and the Ulman camp post this piece from the FreeStater Blog, noting how "astute" it was.  This line is stuck in my head "Ulman cannot easily be defined as liberal or conservative - he is, dare I say, post-partisan."  I'm sorry...what did you say?  Post-partisan?  Ken Ulman has successfully prosecuted almost every single plank of the Democratic Platform on a smaller scale.  You folks may get Climate Change elsewhere, but here in Maryland?  We're safe.  Health-care reform?  Thanks for catching up, Obama.  Smoking Ban?  First in the State.  We even warn people that lightning is dangerous!!  I think Ken Ulman is a very good executive with some of the smartest staffers in the State, but post-partisan he is not.  Only in Maryland would that line pass the laugh test...and I actually don't think it did.

For those with blogs, I highly recommend this post regarding...ahem...jerk commenters that was forwarded to me by my friend TJ.  Out of all of the local blogs, I am probably the quickest to block/delete a comment.  I started doing this after someone told me that they would comment more often, but they don't want to spend the day arguing with an anonymous troll.  In my book, you get a little more leeway being a jack...donkey if you use your real name, but not much.  Said otherwise, I want everyone to feel free to comment and if someone else fails to keep the conversation on the up and up, they will be asked to leave...by an internet bouncer...a 300 lb internet bouncer.

Speaking of TJ, check out his thoughts on the Woodbine Flag controversy.  To summarize, he is not particularly sympathetic.

A "Thank You" and kudos to Jessica Anderson for covering the loss of CA's People Tree as its logo.  It may be too late to turn this ship around, but I think the people of Columbia have a right to know about this and be heard on whether they want to fight it.  The People Tree and CA are synonymous (that word use makes sense in my head, so deal).  If nothing else, I think we may have taken ownership of the symbol by way of adverse possession.

The Howard County Board of Education finally has a Duckett's Lane site that is projected to open for the 2013-14 school year.

Featured Blog Post of the Day: Duane looks at the changing demographics of Howard County, including the smaller proportion of young families.  You have to wonder if Howard County has priced itself out of reach for most young families who are looking for housing that they can grow into.  By my anecdotal review, most young families in Howard County seem to live in the smallest of houses.

That's all for today.  In honor of the CA Capital Projects Budget Work Session, please enjoy this segment from Portlandia on Dog Parks:


Have a great day doing what you love!