Monday, December 29, 2008

Mother Nature Vs. Property Laws

A new report by the US Geological Survey (USGS) says that the next few decades could see "rapid" ice melting in the arctic and a major rise in sea levels. The News Journal ran an article covering the report here along with a cool interactive map that shows how the Delaware coastline would change as sea levels rise. That map can be found here.

Now, let's put aside the whole "global warming" debate for a moment and just assume that the report is accurate. We can argue later about what's causing it, but it looks like the arctic ice is indeed melting and sea levels are indeed rising. The real question is what happens when the seas rise and ultimately overtake what is now dry land?

This is where things get tricky. You see, like in most states, individuals cannot own the water. Delaware law allows property boundaries on the coastline to extend as far down as the low tide line (check out the Delaware Coastal Zone Act for reference). But what happens to a beach property when the low tide line reaches well onto, or even over, the property lot lines? Does that property simply cease to exist? Does the property owner simply lose the right to any land? As far as the law is concerned, I think the answer is yes. This means, among other things, billions of dollars of lost property and rent value for Delawareans and billions more in lost property tax revenue and tourism revenue.

One way to look at this problem is from the economic point of view. Like any other investment, property comes with risk. Flood, fire, sea rise...these are all risks involved with getting into the game of owning property. If the risks begin to increase with the threat of rising seas, property owners will simply have to choose whether to stay "in the market" or sell their property and invest in something else while they have the luxury to do so. For those that do hold onto their beach properties, they'll have to be okay with the idea that someday their investment will be gone, stuck under a few feet of seawater.

Another way to look at this issue is from the political point of view. For many years, taxpayers have reduced the risks of property ownership on the beach by paying for beach replenishment and dune construction. In my view, these are wasteful programs that simply delay the inevitable. "Polishing the brass on the titanic," so to speak. When these programs no longer serve their purpose to hold back the rising seas and the storm surges, we'll either have to ramp up our efforts or abandon them. Sure, we can go the Netherlands route and start building dams and levees and pump trillions into projects that would either maintain or create dry land out of what would otherwise be a home for fish. In light of our economic and social problems, this kind of brass polish seems like a poor use of our tax money.

Monday, December 22, 2008

A Good Plate With Nothing On It

This comparison chart appeared today in the Washington Post, detailing the pathetic state of "state-of-the-art" voting technology. Based on this, maybe we need to outsource our voting systems to Donald Trump. But, the current focus of Diebold and the insecurity of their touch-screen voting systems seems to cover up a more fundamental and notoriously "low-tech" problem that plagues our voting system: no one votes!

Voter registration and voting numbers in the US are ridiculous. At any one time, only about 70% of Americans who can register to vote actually bother to get registered. Of of those, less than half bother to show up to vote. Children and other ineligible residents included, our elected officials--the ones who get to decide how to use trillions of our tax dollars--are voted into office by less than 20% of Americans. That's right, only one out of five of us really counts, or bothers to stand up and be counted. Local elections are even worse. Cities with tens of thousands of residents have voter roles of mere hundreds, with even fewer turning out to vote. The next time a Delaware town holds an election, take a look at the vote tallies they list in the News Journal. Absolutely absurd!

With a voting public so apathetic, so unmotivated to even voice their political opinions, does it really, truly matter that elections might be stolen or manipulated by faulty electronic voting systems?

Two quotes come to mind on this very issue.

"With great power comes great responsibility." This is that line made famous in the three Spider-Man movies. American democracy places the power to decide, the power to control the system of government, squarely in the hands of the public. This power is one of the fundamental rights granted to us by the US Constitution. But, with this right come the responsibility to use that power justly and appropriately. We all seem to act like a spoiled brat who was born rich and squanders his parents' fortune because he never appreciated all the work it took to get it. We need to reinvigorate that sense of "rights and responsibilities" in our younger generations to get them to show up and vote, and then take some measure of responsibility for what happens in Washington and in Dover.

"90% of life is just showing up." I think Woody Allen said this, and it's more true than we know. Americans' inability to "show up" when it comes to voting and participating in government activities is what can (and has in the past) lead to government leaders who abuse their power and misuse taxpayer money and resources while the public sits mindlessly in front of their TVs. Yes, I know you don't want to miss the premiere of "So you think you can dance," but just for once act like an adult and go to that Town Council meeting or school board meeting and send a message to elected leaders that we're willing to show up and be counted.

So. to bring this back to the original point...let's assume that we fixed our voting system. Let's assume that we made the voting machines secure and accountable and that we didn't have to worry about the dread "hanging chads" ever again. Even then. what's the difference? If there were a perfect election and nobody showed up, do the elected officials still get to spend your tax money? You betcha'!

Kinda' makes that tree falling in the forest question a little deeper now, doesn't it?

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Does Your Gift-Giving Shine?

Now we down here in the lower counties are not known for our quick wits, our fast pace, or our techno-savvy. But, we do have a set of fundamental values and good-natured integrity that makes us unique from the rest of the state.

We all learned the song back in Sunday School.

This little light of mine, I'm gonna' let it shine...

But does it shine when and where it matters most?

I recently watched the movie "What Would Jesus Buy," an indie documentary film produced in part by Morgan Spurlock, the man who criticized America's fast food culture in his film "Super Size Me." This time, the sights are set clearly on American consumerism and the way that it prevents us from truly celebrating the true meaning of Christmas. The main focus of the film is the exploits of Reverend Billy, a tongue-in-cheek evangelist with his own back-up chorale, as he tours (er, gets thrown out of) shopping malls across the country to promote his message. That message? Stop Shopping!

Now, I'm not here to tell you that I agree wholeheartedly with his message or his methods. But, I think there's more than a little truth in the intent and sentiment behind the circus act that is "Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping." And it's not all about Christmas.

For retailers, product manufacturers, and advertisers, the concept of giving gifts at Christmastime has become just another way to sucker us into buying whatever crap they're peddling this year. Remember how you just had to buy your kid that Cabbage Patch Kid in the 80s? And little Timmy just had to have that Playstation in the 90s. And now your tweeny-bopper just has to have that iPhone this year, right? I mean, it just wouldn't be Christmas if your kid didn't have the newest and greatest! Pshhhh.

Let's take a step back and reassess before we make with all the credit-card swiping.

Is our gift-buying and gift-giving a bad thing? I think the clear answer is no. We offer gifts to our loved ones and friends to demonstrate our affection and love for them. Most of us couldn't whittle a toothpick--let alone manufacture an XBox--with our own tools and our bare hands, so we pay money to someone else who can. That's the way our economy works in these modern times and, in moderation, it can be a wonderful thing to make a child's eyes light up on Christmas morning with fun toys and new clothes bought at the mall or store.

But, can our obsession with "buying things" for people pervert the spirit of the season? Absolutely! When we buy lots of expensive things for our kids or loved ones because, "well, that's just what you do on Christmas," then I think we lose a lot of the meaning behind the gift-giving act. The kings each brought Jesus a gift that expressed their own sincere feelings for their new "King." And, they each brought only one gift. Only three gifts!? Yup, just three. If three presents is enough for the Christ baby, it's good enough for our little imps.

And the debt factor is another thing. The kings brought Jesus gifts that they could afford. There was no Visa, no Mastercard, and no Discover. What they could not make themselves or afford in cash they did not purchase. So should we also be able to buy and give gifts that we can afford.

All of us should take stock in our own talents and skills, the "gifts" given to us by our Creator from our birth. With these we should try to fashion the gifts that we give each other, made by our own hands as He made us. This is the highest and best way for our light to shine upon those we adore and upon the world.

For everything else, there's Mastercard. I'm Kidding, I'm kidding. Just use your credit responsibly and get your kids to appreciate a small number of gifts that you can afford to give them this year...who knows what next year may bring.

BTW, you can find Revered Billy's site here.

Monday, December 15, 2008

The Commons Conundrum

The News Journal's website carried (very shortly) an article today (found here) about the State's intention to sue the EPA over air quality regulations that Delaware thinks are unfair. The result could be that Delaware loses millions of dollars in federal transportation funding.

This issue brings to light a fundamental concept that plagues every government entity: the "commons" problem. Now, you could fill an entire library with the number of books and articles that define and examine this problem (the field of ecology is basically centered around this one principle), but I'll try to outline some of the key points and how they apply in this case...and how Delaware may be up the creek without a paddle on this one.

There are certain things that people need to survive, biologically speaking. Water and air are two biggies. Governments at all levels (federal, state, local) have a big role in making sure that these three things are available in sufficient quantity and quality to the people who live under their power. To do this, they use money taken from their resident taxpayers to keep the air and water and food clean and flowing free. But, when the federal or state government spends money on, say, nice clean air, people outside of their jurisdiction (people who did NOT pay taxes) end up getting some of the benefits in the form of cleaner air and cleaner water. This is the "commons" problem. Air and water systems extend well beyond the jurisdiction of any one government. And governments, like people, are selfish.

This problem works the other way too. When people in one place pollute the air with coal-fired power plants or lots of cars, the negative effects are felt by many people outside of the place that is causing the problem. This is called the tragedy of the commons, and it is the very thing that Delaware officials are whining about to the EPA. They're mad that states to the west (upwind, as it were) are polluting the air, leading to bad air quality in Delaware, and now Delaware is being held responsible.

It's a fair and valid point, to be sure. Delaware residents suffer with bad air and bad water because people and governments upstream and upwind have failed to "clean up their act." But, the problem here is the question of "who pays?" when it comes to the commons. No, Delaware cannot control what midwest states do to prevent air pollution. But, it can't just "pass the buck" when it comes to making sure its own people--its own taxpayers--have clean air.

If we give in to DNREC's logic here, we end up in a massive downward spiral of buck-passing that ends in environmental ruin. Someone somewhere someday will have to pay. If not us here now, then our grandkids (or Europe's grandkids or Asia's grandkids) tomorrow. I would rather pay for clean air in Delaware knowing that at least we're doing something to improve our own health now. Yes, we're cleaning up someone else's mess. And yes, other states and countries will benefit without paying. But I'd rather be the one to step up and say "I'll do it" than the spineless wimp in the back of the room trying to hide from the problem. I believe that's the forthright thing to do, and for once, instead of just hopping on the bandwagon, we can MAKE the bandwagon that others might hop on.

Kill Your Television

It's only right to return the favor.

I wish I could bring myself to kill mine.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Revolution Will Be Knitted

I love graffiti. There. I said it.

I know. It's a crime. And I know it's a representation of everything anarchistic. But everyone has to have they're little vices. And I just love when artistic skill meets youthful antidisestblishmentarianism in the form of beautiful color on an otherwise-mundane urban facade. Blank walls equal blank minds. Fill the world with art and everyone prospers.

There's a new trend in urban art that's sweeping...errr...swiffering the nation (let's keep this modern). American craft meets Gen-Y defiance in urban knitting. It seems some people have chosen o express themselves by enrobing city trees in colorful knitted creations. Pictures are below, but I have to confess that I stole them from here. Enjoy!

Friday, December 12, 2008

There's No "I" in Delaware

We live in a remarkably small state. It's small enough that one can live on one end and work on the other. The result of this small scale of geography is that, to a greater or lesser extent, the way that one of us uses our land has the potential to impact almost everyone in the state. Therefore, it makes sense to manage--or at least coordinate--the use and development of land at the state level. This is the logic behind the most current of many similar land use planning initiatives introduced by our progressive governors since the 1970s, this time called "Livable Delaware."

Since 2001, Livable Delaware's administrative agency--the Office for State Planning Coordination (OSPC)--has made all local jurisdictions come to the table in Dover to ask for permission on every type of land use decision from building a new school to annexing new land into a city. Built into this process (called the Preliminary Land Use Service, or PLUS) is the opportunity for OSPC staff and other agency officials to offer "suggestions" on how counties and cities should regulate the development of land across the State. One of the most controversial of these "recommendations" has revolved around how to discourage the disappearance of our local farmland by discouraging their development.

In a bold move, Kent County became a pioneer in adopting land use regulations that make development of farmland impossible by allowing only one house for every ten acres of land outside of the State's designated "growth area." In an even bolder move, Delaware farmers are now suing Kent County because they say that this regulation takes away their property rights and prevents them from being able to retire by selling the land to a developer. This lawsuit will probably go nowhere, at least in the long run, for several reasons:

Reason One: Taking away the potential for someone to do something with their land does not mean that that person's property rights have been violated. For example, just because you think you may or might open an arena rock hall someday on your plot of land in downtown Dover does not prevent the City from passing a noise ordinance that effectively prohibits an arena rock hall from being developed on your land. The government cannot read your mind and cannot predict the way the market and technology will evolve in the future. They can only be held responsible for tangible negative consequences of their actions.

Reason Two: The line needs to be drawn somewhere. At some point, the government needs to step in and say that development can happen here but cannot happen over there, and it should (and in this case, did) happen well before the point that development becomes too much too handle (e.g., traffic, noise, pollution, etc.). Buying and selling land is like buying and selling's a very risky business. Ask any homeowner who bought their house four years ago for five times what it's worth now. The government and its regulations are just one of many factors that make land investments risky. Delaware is a mid-atlantic state with a relatively large density of residents, and chances are that your development might just push the area over into the category of "unlivable" because of all the bad things that come from building too many houses in a such a small state. Sorry about your luck, farmer brown. Them's the breaks. You should've had your farm up for sale in the nineties.

Reason Three: New Jersey. That's what unchecked development looks like. It's a mess and it's only getting better now because the government has taxed the crap out of residents and enacted dictatorial development laws in order to stabilize a landscape that was quickly headed for the crapper. We need to learn from New Jersey and find a good middle ground between property rights and preserving public health, safety, and welfare. Having a good regional economy that is at least partly based in agriculture also helps the state by adding diversity to our collective economic "portfolio."

So, my take on this is that farmers will have to swallow their avarice-ridden pride and start raising the next generation of farmers. Either that, or sell the farm at a fair price to someone who wants to be a farmer (what a concept!). The rest of us city-folk will have to start getting more and more comfortable with giving up the idea of limitless possibilities for developing our property and enjoy what we can do with what we have. No, you don't get to decide that that pretty farm field next door will stay that way forever, and no you don't get to raise pigs in your condo in downtown Georgetown. We all need to start thinking in terms of what is enough rather than what is bigger and better and faster.

Of course, I would hope that the process for deciding land development rules will also incorporate a good helping of public input...and not just that little "public hearing" that gets advertised once on page 27 of the local paper. We need to be able to communicate our values and desires and visions more effectively with the people who end up telling us what we can and can't do with our land. That's real democracy, folks, and we need to push our elected leaders to start using it.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Delaware, Then

Here's a gem from the State Board of Agriculture collection:

The photo came without a date or a description. I'm guessing those are pumpkins, but I have no idea what kind of orchard this is. Peaches, maybe? If you know, chime in!

Save the Red Knot?

Environmental groups have begun to push for stronger regulations and actions to help save the failing population of red knots along the beaches of the Delaware Bay. Can't we just run up to Joann's, buy some crimson thread, get out on the beach and just go to town? We'd have a ton of red knots in no time.

Ok, bad pun, I know. In all seriousness, there are some major issues I have with some of the things that endangered species advocates say. Here's a quote from the article, found here:

"Basically, the [US Fish & Wildlife] service is admitting that the red knot desperately needs help, yet is once again refusing to actually offer any help," said Caroline Kennedy, senior director of field conservation for Defenders of Wildlife.

There is a huge amount of arrogance implied in the idea that any living thing or natural process "needs our help." I'm certainly pro-environmental protection and I'm definitely not a global warming naysayer, but I do question people who basically try to get what they want by heaping shame on the public and the government. These are the people who misuse scientific knowledge for ends that may or may not be the right thing to do. Science is the act of falsification. In other words, science can only prove what is untrue, it cannot prove undeniably that something is true. Thus, science can bring us closer and closer to the truth of something, but we will probably never truly understand everything about something.

This is the problem with rabid environmentalists. They pretend that they have the answers to solve all of our environmental problems when, in reality, they--like all of us--only see part of the bigger picture. Are red knot numbers declining? Absolutely yes. Is this necessarily a bad thing? Well, maybe. But maybe not. Evolutionary theory tells us that species need to go extinct in order for better and more viable species to take hold. In that case, we need to examine very carefully whether we should intervene or not. I'm not saying we shouldn't, but I'm also not saying we should. I just don't think we have enough information to say one way or the other. Of course, if we wait too long for a clear answer, it may be too late and the Red Knot will go the way of the Dodo.

A second issue is the art of law and economics. Ahh..the American Golden Rule: He who has the gold makes the rules. Environmental protections and laws (like the Endangered Species Act) only become barriers to development and action for those who can't afford to break the rules. For a big corporation like Walmart or a super-rich private property owner, their lawyers and goons can break through the red tape and Mickey Mouse politics of these laws to let them do whatever they want. For those of us who don't have these resources, including most small business owners and middle-class homeowners, we're stuck having to abide by the rules only because we can't afford not to.

Ultimately, this issue is about priorities. Our State and our federal government only have so many people and so much money at their disposal. We need to pick the problems that are most severe and focus heavily to fix them. Cancer, AIDS, violent crime, education, crumbling roads and bridges, failing water and sewer pipes, starving and dying children. These are problems that we have ignored or under-funded for way too long. In contrast to these problems, things like endangered species and getting a man on Mars seem like extra credit to me.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Ain't No Party Like a Dewey Beach Party...


You'd think I'm trying to beat up on Dewey with all the coverage they've been getting, but they have just ended up making the news a lot recently. But, I think Dewey Beach is a very good model in our area for a place that is, like many others across the country, facing the brunt of the economic crisis.

You see, Dewey Beach is a curious animal. Back in '81 when the place got its charter, the residents made sure to include a "no property tax" provision in there. That's right, folks. Property owners in Dewey Beach pay no property taxes.

Now, that's a great deal if you own property in Dewey, maybe. Not having a property tax means that the local government must depend upon other, less stable, sources of revenue, including the now-infamous transfer tax (the 3% kickback the government gets whenever you sell your house) as well as things like parking tickets and business license fees (both of which are very dependent upon tourism and, thus, a robust economy). In this economy, all of the sources of revenue that Dewey has come to depend upon (and, let's be honest here, they've made a killing for the last couple of decades) have all but dried up. No multimillion dollar beach houses a selling, and fewer people are vacationing there, so that means fewer speeding and parking tickets.

The result of all this is an economic nightmare. The government has virtually no revenue stream to rely on, so now they have to make some serious decisions about what they can and can't afford to do. Today, the Town announced that they will be raising fees and cutting police and lifeguards in order to make up for a current budget shortfall. The leadership there says that these changes will result in a surplus, which is good news for the people who live in Dewey.

Of, course, what do they care? Nobody can raise their taxes, and they'll have lots of watering holes to choose from when they need to escape from the Great Depression II.

Markell Asks, SNL Responds

Governor-Elect Jack Markell held a town hall meeting last night to ask Delaware residents, "what should be done about the state's budget?"

One particularly articulate and adept resident, pictured below, showed up to voice his own opinion on the issue of the failing economy and to present a workable and effective solution to the problem.

His proposed cure for dealing with the State budget?


Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Thanks, Captain Obvious

Environmental groups are trying hard to shame the Bush Administration and the State of Delaware into forcing more ridiculous environmental regulations on our local poultry farms. The main crux of the pro-environment argument being made in the article, which can be found here, is that Delaware poultry farms produce much more ammonia than our state factories. The news release appears in today's News Journal, which apparently is now employing Ric Romero.

I'm not a biologist, but I do know that living things produce ammonia in the form products. And 246 million living things (the number of broilers produced by Delaware farms last year) probably produce a lot of waste. Anybody who's been stuck behind a chicken truck on some back road downstate can tell you that broilers are basically eating and pooping machines until the day that they're harvested. Sure, our factories might produce some ammonia, but I'll bet a lot of it comes from the living things (i.e., factory workers) inside.

I'm not insensitive to the pro-environment folks. I agree that we need to clean up after ourselves. But, hey, it the aughts, people! We have awesome technology that can be used to deal with the ammonia produced by our poultry farms. Instead of sitting up on our high horse shouting "shame shame!" maybe the federal and state governments should give these farmers the information and technical resources they need to install the equipment and initiate the processes needed to keep the peninsula safe from ammonia pollution. But not before they ask some really tough questions of some unbiased environmental scientists about what the real impact of all this ammonia is and our options for dealing with it effectively and efficiently. The last thing we need in these economic times is to spend millions of taxpayer dollars on a problem that isn't as bad as we think or even doesn't really exist at all.

On the flip side, we're not talking about a whole heap of poor farmers here. A majority of the land used for poultry farming in Delaware is either owned or leased by the big two: Perdue and Mountaire Farms. These are huge corporation with enough money and people to solve this crisis without a lot of government cheese helping them along. So, it may not be bad to hold their feet to the fire, just as long as we can afford the consequences the next time we go to the grocery store.

Oh, never mind. Ban chickens. Broil me a tree-hugger! Hehe.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Uproar on the Shore

Dewey beach was one of the last towns in Delaware to receive a charter and become a municipality. Prior to its incorporation in 1981, though, Dewey Beach was probably one of the most distinct places in all of Delaware. Known for its beach-bonanza craziness, seedy bar life, and a live-and-let-live approach to rule enforcement, Dewey and its denizens had a wonderfully unique character and reputation around the state and around the region. When a group of people got together to trek over to Dewey, they knew what they were getting into.

Today, I guess it's a different story. The News Journal published an article here that talks about the increasing anger of Dewey Beach residents over the loud and rowdy nightlife that has always defined Dewey and set it apart from the "Quiet Resorts" of Bethany Beach, South Bethany, and Fenwick Island. Some residents claim that Dewey's restaurants are mainly a front for alcohol sales and that properties end up unrented because they are too close to the noise.

Of course, all this hoopla finds a lot of its roots in an episode of the reality show COPS that was filmed there this past summer and aired in September. The backlash against the portrayal of Dewey Beach as a "Daytona Beach of the Mid-Atlantic" was palpable and many residents expressed their anger about it to their local leaders and the media.

Within all this bad noise and yelling about nuisance and drunkenness, I can't help but see an underlying tone of puritanical rage and major overreaction. And, above it all, you can hear me shouting, "It's the economy, stupids!" The blend of cheap rooms, high availability of alcohol, and many decades of a reputation as a party town is an economic force that no WASPy, upper-middle-class petition-signing is going to make go away. Dewey is what it is. It is not a "Quiet Resort" and the bars and restaurants that are there know this and respond to the people who come to Dewey. Fifty-million Dewey fans can't be wrong...and they all just got another round on the house.

Let me give you a little glimpse into the near future in Dewey Beach. Those Dewey residents who are complaining will ultimately do one of four things: sell their Dewey property and buy a nice, quiet set-up in Bear Trap Dunes; rent their Dewey property to more tolerant young hooligans and buy a nice, quiet set-up in South Bethany; live with it until they ultimately die of stress and worry about all those darn (drunk) kids on their lawn; or, embrace it and open up a big, gaudy tiki bar that will give the Starboard a run for its money.

Don't fight the powerful force of nature that is the local economy. I would think that people who live so close to the beach (a la "don't turn your back on the ocean) would know better.

Controversy for Controversy's Sake, Part II

This past weekend, the News Journal began its comprehensive examination of the volunteer fire services in Delaware by presenting interactive map data that it hoped would speak to the question, "Has Delaware outgrown its volunteer firefighters?" Based on a critical analysis of the maps and data that they presented, I made a very good case (see post below) that the data and information presented really didn't say anything about the issue of volunteer vs. career firefighters and served only as a sensationalist piece of fake news drawn up to sell papers and agitate/scare the public into thinking about an issue that really does not exist.

Today, TNJ has presented its second part in this series, which looks at how volunteer fire departments bring in money and how they spend it. Again, the article is rife with misinformation, misdirection, and psychological BS, and I aim to do a number on it all right here and right now.

Let's take a look first at the headline and by-line for the story:

So, the fire companies are "sitting on" money? To me that language suggests that these fire departments are either unnecessarily hoarding money (to some unknown end) or they're hiding money from the public and it was discovered by TNJ's crack team of investigative journalists. Untrue on both counts. Second, the larger phrase "sit on cash cushions" suggests that the fire companies are so amazingly rich that they can actually afford to make chairs with cushions sewn together from crisp hundred dollar bills...oh, my, what a regal image! The entire headline, however it was meant, is misleading at best and really slimy at worst. No fire department is being accused of illicitly hoarding money nor doing inappropriate things with it. Only when you get to the off-white colored by-line (over a white background...very hard to see even for someone with 20/20 vision) do you get the real story, that our fire departments simply have big savings accounts.

So, our fire departments have become very good at raising money and saving a great deal of it. Why is this bad? Am I missing the scandal here, or is there something else? If not, then it seems a little less than newsworthy. Do you have any idea how much a new ladder truck, fully spec'ed out, costs? Maybe a half-million dollars or more, I'd say. In the event your department's current one gets smashed up in a major accident, wouldn't you like to still be able to save someone's life and property tomorrow morning? If I lived id Magnolia, I think I'd now sleep much better at night knowing about that two million dollar savings fund being "sat on" by my fore department.

Other than the headline, most people who (like me) hate reading will look at the pictures. Let's look at the pics that were meant to reinforce the main ideas of this article:

All of the pictures are photos of "firefighters in action," so we can expect that TNJ is trying to show us what firemen and women do during the day? The first picture shows a firefighter "on an unscheduled break," leading us to mistakenly conclude that our firefighters are apathetic and lazy? Why not show that same guy five minutes earlier or later while he's actually doing work, which is what most of our volunteers never stop doing while at their firehouse. The second and third pictures show firemen calling bingo and selling 50/50 tickets as part of their fundraising activities. So, fire departments are wasting our time and money just trying to raise more money? As we'll see, fundraising makes up less than 1% of the resource use of the fire departments. So, like with their first article in this series, TNJ is trying to show us exceptions to what is the norm in order to defend its indefensible position that the volunteer fire department system should be eliminated.

But it's not over yet, folks! TNJ uses some nicely erroneous and typo-ridden graphics to prove its point about the volunteer "problem" in our fire departments. Let's take a look at those:

Corporate organizations that provide a necessary public service and are provided tax-exempt status by the government are called "non-profit organizations" (NPOs). The volunteer fire departments in Delaware are a great example of an NPO. These types of corporate organizations are governed by a board of directors (not a committee of stockholders like private corporations) and must abide by certain standards as established by any government entity (usually the state, along with a national board or chapter) from which the receive grant money, including not using their resources and money to make more resources and money that can be passed on to corporate board members(this can be done only in a for-profit enterprise). By definition, profit is the excess portion of money generated by selling goods and services for more than they cost to the corporation to make or buy in bulk. This excess money is then passed on to shareholders in the form of divided checks that must be declared as income to Uncle Sam every April.

I cannot believe that TNJ, knowing all they know about the function of NPOs, still decided to stick with the term "profit" and "profit margins" when talking about our volunteer fire companies. They could have used the term "budget excess" or "overage" or the term "reserve funds" which is what municipalities have when their utilities (water, sewer, trash, electricity) make more money than they cost to operate. Having reserve funds is an important part of managing an NPO, since it provides most of the capital money that can be used for big-ticket things like vehicular equipment, communications technology, and up-to-date facilities.

And here are the income and spending charts that TNJ published:

First of all, how confusing is the erroneous placement of "Donations and Fundraisers" on the Chart for Spending? It makes everything more jumbled, super-confusing, and less-decipherable to the regular reader.

Second, the American Institute of Philanthrophy (AIP) ( sets minimum standards for deciding which NPOs people should donate to. One of the most important is the percentage of NPO money used for fundraising. According to AIP, this should be less than 40% for a good charity or NPO. As you can see here, our fire departments spends only 1% of their money on fundraising activities and more than 90% on their actual mission and operations (fire and rescue). Another AIP standard is the "years of available assets," which is the amount of savings the organization has. Well, shoot, TNJ said it was a bad thing to have savings, but not true. Apparently having money in the bank for a rainy day is a good thing! Go figure!

Once again, I am dumbfounded at the level of sansationalism and misinformation that is going on here. And once again, this article omits any comparisons to regional or national numbers, which keeps any contextual facts out of the picture. Once again, I say to The News Journal: why are you doing this to us? However much you think you can fool us, we do have some common sense and we look out for one another. The last thing we need here in lower Delaware is a big upheaval in a major public service that end with many more dead or wounded people who were previously receiving superior service.

Again, please let me know if you agree or disagree with my take on TNJ's numbers and facts. Maybe, as usual, I'm way off base here, but I don't think so.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Controversy for Controversy's Sake?

The running local blockbuster over at the News Journal's website this weekend is an interactive map that purports to provide data regarding whether or not the volunteer firefighter system still works for Delaware. You can find the map here.

I'm by no means a statistical expert, but I do have some basic knowledge of research and data analysis along with a good helping of common sense. Just a basic reading of the maps and numbers that TNJ is using here reveals the truly "geo-centric" and faux-compelling nature of this report and the fundamental disconnection between the headline and the data they present.

To say that the piece is misleading is an insult to spin-mongers everywhere. First of all, here are the data legends for the two statistics that they show us:

The first legend shows fire call response times as compared to the standard set by the National Fire Protection Association. They take this entire data set out of context for the reader by not saying what the standard is nor what percentage of national fire stations meet the standard. Second, they have two categories at the top: "meets standard" and "meets standard only." If they wanted to be really clear here, they would have said what they mean here: "exceeds standard" and "meets standard." Unfortunately, they chose to be controversial instead of honest.

The second legend shows the "'profit margins'" of the fire companies. TNJ should know better...our volunteer fire companies are non-profit corporations that are prohibited from "turning a profit" that can be passed on to shareholders, which is what "profit" means to the public. They could have chosen any word for this other than "profit" (e.g., surplus, excess revenue), but they chose the word "profit" seemingly to reinforce the idea that our fire companies "make too much money." The truth, of course is that most of the money is either public funds or donations from local residents, neither of which could be called "profit" since these fire companies do not sell anything to anyone (except maybe renting out their buildings for weddings and bar mitzvahs).

The maps themselves are also misleading because they collapse so much data into such simple categories and nice pretty colors to distract the reader. But more importantly, they reveal the clear and uncontroversial answer to TNJ's headline question.

Here is the map for departments' "profits":

I don't know about you, but I feel much better knowing that a good portion of the fire departments have some extra money on hand for building and expanding and buying modern equipment than if it were the other way around. Hey Gannett, what happens when your company doesn't turn a profit? You probably have to cut jobs, right? How would you feel if our fire departments didn't have enough money and started cutting volunteers and using old, outdated equipment?

Here is the map of response times for fire companies up in yankee country:

Looks pretty bad right? Oh my! We need to overhaul our fire departments, right? I'm not sure the data fits the question here. The better question would be WHY response times in northern NCC are so bad. The answer can probably be boiled down to three things--Traffic, Development Density, and Suburban Sprawl--all three of which go hand-in-hand...and all three of which have nothing at all to do with whether or not our fire companies are volunteer or paid.

To add to this critical deficiency, look at the maps of response times for all of us down here in the slower lower areas:

The entire southern 80% of the state is served by volunteer fire departments that exceed the national standard. So, we're supposed to believe that the companies in the north are the exception that proves the rule?

This entire dog and pony show is an exercise in agitation that undermines a system that, as a whole is working well despite bad state decisions regarding development and infrastructure. So, TNJ wants us to turn the operation over to the state or county governments with their merit employment systems and expensive government benefits? Yeah, because DelDOT and NCC are working and managing their finances so well, it just makes sense! Please.

Why, just why? Why do this? Why agitate the public and upset our many honorable volunteer firemen and women? To the editors at The News Journal: Leave our well-oiled and well-funded fire departments alone! And until you do some real research and get some decent data to throw our way, stop doing stuff like this. We're not fooled and we don't want to be a New Jersey or a Southeast Pennsylvania.

If you have a different read of this data, please respond in the comments and let me know. Maybe I misread the whole thing, but I don't think so. Thanks!

UPDATE: The Sunday News Journal has published the text article to accompany the map data here. The comments on the article page are delightfully ridiculous so far.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Moore is Right, More Crappy Cars are Wrong

As with a recent previous post, this one also grew out of a comment to another blog post. I sincerely thank my fellow bloggers for some inspiring some great of my most epic ramblings. So, here we go...

What a Smell? posted an entry here this afternoon decrying the unions' role in the auto industry crisis and praising Rush Limbaugh for calling them out on it.

Hold it! Beep! Beep! Beep! Back it up just a second.

I'm not sure I would place all the blame for this solely on labor unions. Sure, the culture of American unions has certainly hurt the auto industry. The walk-outs, the shake-downs, the abused grievance system, they all serve to only quash company-wide innovation and accomplish only short-sighted goals. However, both Japan and Korea have labor unions for their autoworkers as well, but they accomplish their goals very very differently. No walk-outs, no "nyet" negotiation style, just social and symbolic pressure and reasoned, stability-seeking deal-making.

A huge part of the equation here are the choices of auto VPs about what to produce. The Dodge Challenger? The Ford Excursion? Are you kidding me? The American automakers are mostly motorized "comfort food" and not enough four-wheeled "health food." It used to be that huge, gas-guzzling, space-wasting autos were only "extra credit" for people who could afford it, but today American auto advertising makes us actually believe that these are practical, everyday cars and SUVs that we all have fundamental right to own. Of course, Nissan and Toyota have both made a pretty penny on this SUV-entitlement culture, their mainstays have always been really practical, small and mid-size cars that focus on reliability and simple taste. When you compare the business plans and products of the American and Asian car industries, it's really clear why we've been blown straight out of the water in this sector.

While this will be a jagged little pill to swallow for the midwest, I hope that Washington lets the automakers file bankruptcy and ultimately shake out into a smaller and (hopefully) smarter new corporate entity or entities that can truly compete in the market. It would be nice to start seeing American automakers setting up shop in the overseas industrialized countries instead of Honda starting up new manufacturing facilities all over the midwest and south. But, if we do bail them out (I hope with a loan instead of a huge check with no strings), I think we should follow the advice of Mr. Michael Moore and tell the American auto industry that, if we give you anything substantial, "we're gonna' own your ass!" Then, we get these companies out of the economic sector they can't compete in (i.e., consumer autos) and into more "public-serving" and "economic development-oriented" sectors: trains, buses, commercial shipping vehicles, and light rail.

Fix the sprawling cities, keep the jobs, keep the secondary markets, just ditch the non-competetiveness. Win-win. Of, course, it will all go just as easy as I explained it, right? Heh. You betcha' not!