Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Add pit bull terriers to the list

Like many people, I read with horror the story of the 10-day old child that was mauled to death in Jackson while sleeping in a basinett.

As reported in today's Detroit Free Press:
The mother of the boy said she laid her son down for a nap in the bassinet and fell asleep in another bedroom. The pit bull entered the room and attacked the sleeping infant.
Officers said a preliminary investigation has not uncovered any negligence at this time.
If I give the parents the benefit of the doubt and assume they're as responsible as ourselves in matters both of the child and the dog, the only guilty party is the pit bull.  The parents, providing they've any sense of humanity, will be tortured the rest of their lives for the gruesome death of their child.

I wonder if they'll ever question their choice of dog breed.  I wonder if they'd ever bring suit against the breeder or pit bull advocates for defending the breed in light of the evidence against it.

It reminds of cigarette companies and their defending cigarettes from the mounting evidence of their negative health affects, and the massive lawsuit and windfall that became for states.

Nothing similar will likely happen with pit bulls, rottweilers, or other dangerous dog breeds.  There simply isn't enough money to make it worthwhile for lawyers to start the campaign pro bono.

The question is, does the government have the right to tell citizens which animals they may or may not have?

The answer, at least in Michigan, is yes.  There are many animals citizens are restricted from keeping including  stock, exotics, endangered species, and wild animals.  

And eventually, maybe pit bull terriers and Rottweilers.

Would laws banning pit bulls and related breeds be for the family's protection or their neighbors?

Similar to smoking, the state has already decided it can violate private property rights and require property owners to prohibit smoking in their own bars and restaurants.  I'm not a big fan of that law but it is a Camel's nose under the tent.

In 2011, is there any practical reason to have any breed of dog in a residential area except that people want them?  After the feeding, vet bills, and poop scooping, isn't it less expensive just to get a burglar alarm?  No one has ever had to pick-up after their Guardian Alarm System in my lawn, nor has anyone's kid had to wipe the ADT stickers off their pants after playing in the park.

PS  While looking at pictures of pit bulls through history I noticed they seem to look different today than the pictures I found at SaveABull.com.  I wonder if something different hasn't happened in their breeding that can be reflected both in how they look and their disposition.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Yes in May, No in November

[Note: Unlike other of my posts, I reserve the right to make changes or corrections to this article.  Specifically if my math or facts are off a bit I'll correct them.  And I may change some statements to emphasize or de-emphasize a point.  If necessary, errata will be noted at the bottom of the article.]
Ferndale voters should pass the Headlee Override ballot proposal.  Then in November they should begin the process of replacing city council persons that would rather spend money on pet projects and self indulgences with candidates that promise restraint and self control.

The first part can be done quickly on Tuesday, May 3, in only a few minutes time.  The second part, replacing council persons with shorter "what I want to do for you" agendas with replacements promising "my agenda isn't as important as the city's" (as well as the ability to do simple math) will take over 33 months and longer-term memories than voters are normally reckoned to possess.

Households must manage their budgets, as should governments.  When a household's income is reduced its expenses must be reduced, depending on how much cash has been saved.  When a household can't meet its legal obligations (mortgage, utility bills) or its needs (food, clothing), the household is bankrupt and its assets liquidated to pay-off its obligations.

The popular theory is that governments should do likewise.  When their revenue shrinks so should their expenses. Just as employees don't have the privilege of demanding increased wages from their employers, governments shouldn't demand increased taxes from their citizens.

The difference is we created our government and charged it with the responsibilities of both custodian and guardian.  Its custodial responsibilities include the stewardship of public assets like buildings, property, parks, and infrastructure like streets, drains, and lighting.  It's also a guardian of the public and the public's assets through public safety and in keeping the peace between neighbors in the area of establishing and enforcing zoning ordinances.

But because we created it we are also responsible for it.  We are responsible for electing its trustees and for providing them the resources needed to discharge their responsibilities.  But citizens are not required to provide the resources for the trustees pet projects, pipe dreams, or indulgences.

That is why this article makes two related recommendations.  The first is to pass the Headlee Override requested by city council and recommended by the 12-member Financial Planning Committee so that the city may have the resources needed to meet its duties to the citizens.  The second recommendation is to replace at least three city council persons that have proven their willingness, or compulsion, to spend taxpayer money on frivolous and indulgent projects even when facts and economic conditions urged otherwise.

The immediate issue at hand, however, is May's ballot issue to increase property taxes by 5.4 mills through 2015.  There's is enough time before November to discuss council elections in other articles.

Many pass-the-override advocates point out it may take years to return to 2009's nearly $20 million revenue number.  They're correct in that it will take years to return to that revenue, but they're incorrect in using 2009 as the benchmark against which subsequent years should be measured.

They are wrong because 2009's $19.5 million budget was based on property taxes collected on 2007's inflated property values.  It's important to remember that inflated means the property values were irrational.  They were irrational because Ferndale's property values were not grounded on any objective measure like scarcity of land, Ferndale's location, the performance of its school system, job or population growth.  Instead, like real estate all across America, property values were based on speculation, weak mortgage qualifications, and a similar irrational exuberance that created the Internet Bubble that burst in 2000 and the savings and loan crisis that exploded in 1989.

So to find a rational budget number to begin with it is necessary to look at tax revenues before the housing bubble started; 2002/2003.  Since taxes are collected approximately two years after assessments a better budget year to begin with is fiscal year-ending (FYE) 2005's more modest $17 million ($16,955,150 to be more accurate).

To come up with some a grounded estimation of what our budget should be we can index 2005's budget to the rate of inflation and come up with more rational numbers ($ in millions):
Actual Revenue
So using an inflation-based, rather than an inflated-based projection, this year's budget should have been closer to $19.6 million rather than the $16.7 million it is, which is $2.9 million short of the indexed-to-inflation 2005 budget amount.

State revenue sharing also has a major impact on the city's revenue.  In 2005 Ferndale received $3.2 million, or 18.9% of its budget, from the state.  In 2011 that amount is budgeted to be $2.2 million--40% less than 2005's contribution adjusted for inflation, and only 13% of the budget.

If the numbers in the table above include state revenue sharing, the case for passing the Headlee amendment is only slightly less compelling with those numbers removed.  2005's revenue less state revenue sharing was $13.7552 million.  Adjusted for inflation that number should have been $15.8850 million in 2011, but will only be $14.6639 million, or $1.2 million short of where it rationally belongs.

If, as former city manager Bob Bruner estimated, each mill levied in Ferndale property taxes will generate about $500,000, then non-state-revenue sources are approximately 2.4 mills short.

Coincidentally, May's ballot language calls for limiting the first year's Headlee Override to just three mills.

Citizens created the government and have elected its trustees.  Dissatisfaction with council's earlier spending is, at least in the case of local elections, not a legitimate reason to vote no on the millage increase.  Nor is starving the beast a substitute for electing more fiscally conservative and market-aware  trustees.  Both the city's budget and its council need correcting, but medicine for one is not medicine for the other.  Even if the current council had a better record of fiscal restraint the millage increase would still be necessary.

In May voters should pass the millage.  November may require something different.

2011-2-24  Mike Shuler pointed out that immediately below the chart, 19.6 - 16.7 = $2.9 million,  not $1.9 million.

Inflation calculator

Inflation chart

Ferndale Budgets

Financial Planning Committee's 1/10/2011 Presentation to Council

Sunday, February 13, 2011

It's time for an American Reformation

I read recently (sorry I can't remember where) that more people are reading The Constitution, the whole thing, in unprecedented numbers than ever before.  The article attributed it to both the Tea Party and the Obamacare.  It seems people are are reading the commerce and necessary and proper clauses to discover for themselves if the founder's idea of limited government could really be stretched into what 235-years' removal has created from it.

And they're discovering stretch marks.

It reminded me of my first foray into Protestant religions, and the ministers' encouragement to their congregations to read the bible for themselves so they couldn't be tricked into thinking the bible says something it doesn't.

The Reformation hasn't died.

Protestants believed Christians didn't need a church to tell them what the bible says.  They didn't need a hierarchy interpreting sacred scriptures for them, or trying to sell them indulgences for their sins that were little more than fund-raisers for "the church."

Certainly, the Roman Catholic Church did a lot of good with that money, but all that money also corrupted parts of the church because in the end the church is operated by humans, and humans are imperfect.

There are a lot of parallels to our government and its sacred document, The Constitution.

More of us need to read The Constitution.  More of us need to read the Bill of Rights and ponder the power and meaning of those words, and consider their inspiration.

When I read sections of The Constitution my faith in the document increases, my faith in the founders increases, but my faith in the institutions and representatives responsible for protecting and guarding the nation is troubled.

When it comes to what our government should and should not be doing, or what our elected representatives should or should not be doing, and I think our nation is ready, perhaps over-due, for a constitutional reformation.

The entire document is only 4609 words, including signatures.  The Bill of Rights is only 714 words.  Together they're only 5323 words.  Both can be read in a couple hours.

If congress would only limit itself to legislation no longer than 5323 words, I suspect it might be a more limited government, have fewer earmarks, less pork, and be more deserving of sharing space in the archives next to the greatest constitution ever written for the greatest nation ever imagined, and ever born.

So try-on a little reformist thinking, cut-out the middle men, read it for yourself.  Find someone to discuss it with, then consider if we've made of it what we should.  We are all children of The Revolution, and shouldn't squander or take for granted our inheritance.

Strawberry closes, but to the DDA they're just a number

On Friday (2/11), the Ferndale Patch's Terry Paris Jr. reported on the closing of downtown favorite, Strawberry Moon Bakery.
"We just aren't making any money," owner Jon Glab said. "It's difficult and disappointing. We've had a good time in Ferndale. We just can't do it anymore." 
"We lost a lot of customers due to the recession that didn't come back." 
Glab said they stuck it out in the hopes that it might turn around, but it hasn't. 
"It's been rough," he said. "I haven't paid myself in a very long time."
Less than three weeks ago, the DDA trumpted to city council that 40 new businesses came to Ferndale in 2010, helping make-up for 14 that left in the same year and 26 vacancies from the year before (14 + 26 = 40).

Contrary to their boasting about new businesses coming to Ferndale, the DDA's communications and marketing directory Chris Hughes' struck a more sedate tone about Strawberry's closing:
"We're surprised as well as disappointed to see Strawberry Moon close," said Chris Hughes, communications director of the Ferndale Downtown Development Authority. "It's always sad to have a business you know and love (close)."
Hughes said she doesn't think the recent closures are a trend, especially because a few of the spaces have already been leased or sold. 
"Club 9 has been sold and is expected to reopen as another club. Rockin Soul is closed, but the space has been leased. We've learned to stop hitting the panic button."
Not hitting the panic button is a luxury the DDA has that downtown businesses do not enjoy.  The DDA is tax-payer supported and has a  $500,000+ budget that survives whether businesses do or not--as long as there are landlords owning the buildings.

Strawberry's owners hit the panic button--as did the owners of Amoure, Rockin' Soul, Nami, New to You Music, Angel's Cafe, The Chaldean Club, Josephine's and others.
"The bottom line is that businesses come and go, let's not panic," (Hughes) said.
Easy for her to say.  As successful as the DDA may be at recruiting businesses to downtown Ferndale, they seem far less successful at retaining them.  Of course, the DDA isn't necessarily responsible for businesses' success, but it is supposed to be responsible for a healthy business climate--for both bars and retailers.

The DDA has used the number of 210 as the number of core downtown businesses.  40 new businesses represents a turnover of nearly 20% (40/210*100=19.0476%).  If the DDA were a business with 20% turnover in employees, they'd be performing horribly.  But a 20% turnover in office supplies (paper clips, staples, white-out) is OK.

So the DDA's lack of reaction to downtown's turnover may be a good measure of how they regard downtown businesses--easily replaceable.  Better to assign them numbers like farmers do steer and sheep for slaughter so they don't get too attached to them.

Perhaps its simply an occupational hazard (".. businesses come and go..").  I'll believe the DDA has sustainability on the mind when I start hearing from downtown retailers that the DDA is spending more time asking them how they can help their stores (or get out of their way) than bars or the DDA's reputation with the Main Street program.

CPAC is better with GOProud, than DeMint, Christie, Hertiage Foundation, FRC, and others

Republicanism and conservatism are not religious or Christian movements.  The fact religious and political conservatives share many common goals is a good thing, but Republicans are not and should not be subordinate to religious pouting, much less tantrums and dictates.

The debate for conservative ideas must be had on their logical and political merits, not on religious arguments.  The relationship between Christianity and Republicans is orthogonal, not causal or parallel.

Welcome to the debate, GOProud!

Monday, February 07, 2011

It's liberty, stupid!

"I think all the concern about democracy is overblown because the constitution lays out very clearly what it intended to accomplish and democracy is not among those. The blessings of liberty, protecting the blessings of liberty is the purpose of the constitution, and so where that clashes with democracy we should reject democracy."
That was a comment made from the audience by Timothy Sandefur as an introduction to a question, which I completely missed because I was busy digesting his first two sentences.

The audience was listening to a discussion called, Alternatives to Originalism: Conservative and Libertarian Perspectives, which discussed many other interesting viewpoints, not the least of which are the affects theory, methodology, and structure have on judges in their duty to interpret the constitution.

But I think it interesting to consider what the questioner posited, that nearly all the constitution's text, save its preamble, is to construct a tool whose purpose is to accomplish the goals described in its first 52 words:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
Everything that follows those words are in pursuit of those words' goals.  

The structure of the constitution has a form of precedent of its own, and that is the first measure of any law's constitutionality should be whether it furthers the purposes of the constitution itself; justice, domestic tranquility, common defense, promote the general welfare, and the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity.

It's difficult to even type those words, especially the "..and our Posterity.." without wondering about our nation's $14 trillion debt and wonder how much of our prosperity will be consumed with paying-off the debt created by "ourselves."  The debt we've accumulated is of recent-enough origins that we can't justifiably blame its size on our ancestry, but our children will certainly be justified blaming it on us.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Municipal Math

[Note: This article originally appeared in the February 2011 edition of Ferndale Friends] 
In June 2007 council approved approximately $39,500 to repair a section of the screening wall around the Winthington parking lot.  Five months later, DPW director Byron Photiades was back asking for another $30,755.

When council asked why it was so expensive he said something about deteriorating caps, expanding rods and a park bench, but wrapped up by saying, “It may sound expensive, but it’s a really nice wall.”

It’s a really nice wall?

Just last June city council spent over $438,411 on new hardware and software to improve efficiencies. The very next month they spent another $447,930 on office furniture and carpeting one council woman (I won’t say which) thought was necessary to make city hall ADA-compliant (that cost was a relatively modest $21,500 – just 5% of the total).

But it’s really nice furniture.

According to (then) city manager Bob Bruner, the investment would save over $150,000/year in efficiencies and pay for itself in three years.

Of course, those savings didn’t show-up in the budget as expense reductions for the Financial Planning Committee to consider.  Why not?  Because the money was already “saved” when council laid-off staff earlier in the year. You can’t save the same money twice—except perhaps at Enron and Ferndale.

Well, not at Enron anymore.

Somehow, this little double-counting slipped past the Financial Planning Committee when their report commended city council for its efforts and encouraged them to keep it up.

And what, triple-count it?

Two council seats are up in November.  Anyone challenging the incumbents should publicize their ability to do math along-side their endorsements and favorite cities other than Ferndale (one of the tougher questions asked candidates for mayor last month).

If candidates avoid discussing their math skills, maybe someone in the audience at a League of Women Voters-sponsored forum can pass a simple multiplication or division problem on a 3x5 card to the candidates.

Here’s a multiple choice math problem you can write down and save for October.

“Ferndale’s proposed 5.45 millage increase was closer to a) 33% increase in city taxes, b) 10% increase in homestead property taxes,  or c) a drop in the bucket.“

Answers: a and b.  C is a quote from Galloway when he favored passing a Principle Shopping District tax in 2008, perhaps to help pay for the screening wall.

DDA Math

How about a story problem?

“If Ferndale’s DDA gets a National Park Service grant for $120,000 to help pay for 36 way-finding signs and kiosks downtown, how many previously unknown bars, salons, and stores might be discovered?”

Actually, that’s not a math question.  Some business owners suspect DDA staff are the only visitors to Ferndale that need a map, as they’ve never visited their stores.

Let’s try another.

“If Ferndale’s DDA gets a National Park Service grant for $120,000 to help pay for 36 way-finding signs and kiosks downtown, how much money did taxpayer’s save?”

With apologies to Adam Sandler’s Water Boy (1998):
“Mama say [sic] that grant money is from magic rays of sunshine that come down when you feelin' blue.”
The correct answer is it didn’t save them anything.  In fact, those way-finding signs will cost taxpayers more than $120,000 because we (the US government) borrowed $48,000 (40%) to pay for them.  And since we’re barely making interest payments on our debt, your children, grand children, and great grand children will be able to enjoy those signs, kiosks, and historical markers AND still be paying for them long after the DDA director and city council have retired.

Remember that when you pass the signs, kiosks, historical markers, and DDA members.

But the real magic is yet to come.

According to the DDA, the city of Ferndale’s $20,000 contribution toward the $262,254 spent on the signs represents an 1150% return on investment.  (Applause--really!  Don’t take my word for it.  Watch the video yourself from the January 24th council meeting.)

With all the laptop computers on city council’s table it remains a mystery why no one on city council laughed out loud or demanded an immediate audit of the DDA’s books.  Or maybe it’s not a mystery if math isn’t a core requirement for urban planning or law degrees.

Independent calculations aren’t able to duplicate the DDA’s numbers exactly, but using DDA math (not taught in Ferndale Public Schools)  if the city’s $20,000 “investment” earned an 1150% return, then the Woodward Avenue Action Association’s (WA3) $10,000 contribution earned 2300%.

If Cristina Sheppard-Decius, the DDA’s director, had pitched-in $100 of her own money hers would have been a 23,000% return.

(More applause.)

Only Bernie Madoff got those returns for his investors.  Well, not anymore.

The only return the city, WA3, and National Park Service got for their money is 36 signs and kiosks that can’t be exchanged for dollars to help balance the city budget.  The only return they got is that way-finding signs will outnumber sidewalk sandwich boards 2-1, and the DDA didn’t need to apply for a variance to the sign ordinance or pay an annual permit like downtown businesses are required to pay.

But they’re really nice signs.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

A little information can cause a lot of damage

On January 21, 2011, I received an email from MoveOn.Org urging I contact my senators and congressman to express outrage over the US Supreme Court's ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, and to support an amendment to the constitution withholding free speech protections from corporations.

I was going to leave the issue alone until I read a letter-to-the-editor in the Ferndale 115.  It is too late to discourage that letter from being written, but I hope this article at least encourages people to pause before following orders sent them by email, Nigerian princes, or voices in their head.

Everyone that watched President Obama's 2010's State of the Union Address may remember the president exercising his free speech displeasure with the supreme court when he said, 
With all due deference to separation of powers, last week the Supreme Court reversed a century of law that I believe will open the floodgates for special interests –- including foreign corporations (like this?) –- to spend without limit in our elections.
He was referring to a similar issue (and thorn) that MoveOn.org complains about in their email.

MoveOn actually doesn't believe all corporations should be prohibited from free speech.  MoveOn.Org is itself a corporation--though a not-for-profit 501c3, and presumably wants to preserve free speech for itself.  What they must mean, then, is for-profit corporations should be prohibited from free speech, but that would include companies building green-products like wind turbines and solar panels, growing and selling organic foods, and other corporations that are in good standing with MoveOn.

So what we're left with is they must only want to prohibit free speech from corporations whose interests aren't aligned with MoveOn's and concordingly ACORN, Rainbow Push Coalition, and Common Cause--all non-profit corporations that exploit free speech for their own purposes (OK--not so much ACORN since 11/2010's bankruptcy filing).

The hypocrisy of these non-profit corporations claiming free speech should be prohibited to corporations is the subject of James Tarranto's Wall Street Journal article, Everybody Does It?  Really?

"So here we have a corporation (Common Cause) that advertises itself as a "grassroots organization" while exercising its First Amendment rights to advance the position that corporations do not have First Amendment rights, only individuals do. Some individuals, participating in the corporation's "grassroots" rally, exercise their First Amendment rights in ways that harm the corporation's image. The corporation responds by exercising its First Amendment rights to denounce those individuals for having exercised their First Amendment rights. And it does so in its capacity as a faceless corporation, by issuing a statement for which no individual--not even CEO Bob Edgar--takes responsibility."
Unfortunately, too many people don't appreciate the definitions of either "corporation" or "free speech."

Since 1975's Bigelow v. Virginia ruling, free speech includes commercial speech.    According to seven justices, commercial speech is as precious and valuable to protecting liberty as political speech.  Whether you agree with that decision or not, you can thank that court (sans justices Rehnquist and White) not for raising our appreciation of the contributions advertising has brought to humanity, but for lowering the value of Dr. Martin Luther King's "Now is the time!" to Cialis'® "When the time's right."

So does MoveOn, like Obama, want to reverse 41 years of precedent protecting corporate commercial speech, or just corporate political speech--like MoveOn's?