Monday, December 27, 2010

Trolls

If you look at my page, you will see that I follow Tim Skubick's blog.  This does not mean that I always agree with him, I just happen to read his column and find his insight, interesting.

I do wish he would screen his comment area.  You can do this by not allowing comments to post automatically and instead you must approve their posting.  Or not.  That is what 'trash' is for.

It would appear that Mr. Skubick has attracted some 'trolls' to his site.  These are people who try to start 'flame wars' by posting incendiary comments on a blog. 

The Urban Dictionary defines a "blog troll" as, "A depraved individual who sits in front of a computer all day and posts flames of an idiotic or pseudo-intellectual nature on public forums and private websites..."

This latest blog shows that these 'nuts' are ever present.  It is not the first time this has happened.  If these trolls do not agree with Mr. Skubick's opinion or anyone else's for that matter, let them create their own incendiary blog.  But at the very least, Tim, block their access to yours.  I get enough of a rush in the morning from caffeine.

Dealing with the Weather

Snow, snow, snow.  Or lack thereof.  Now the entire Eastern Seaboard is covered in snow with travelers stranded in airports, including Metro.

A few years ago, my oldest son, who lives in Texas, planned to come home for Christmas.  He got as far as O'Hare and after two days he flew back home to Texas.  So much for Happy Holidays in the north.  I know from personal experience about the treacherous Chicago winter snows and summer rains and airport shutdowns.

Anyway, we decided that Thanksgiving and summer were better times to visit up here.  That being said, I was in San Antonio one December when our plans to meet got changed when the entire State was hit by an ice storm.  They literally close the freeways down there.  My son was one of the few people in his apartment complex with an ice scraper in his car, since he had recently moved to the Austin area.  Others were using their credit cards.

So, this year, we talked about holidays and my son informed me that he was spending them 'down under'.  Since he was working in Malaysia in early December, it made sense to take a Christmas time vacation and head to Australia and New Zealand.

While I was sitting here watching the snow come down on a recent Sunday, I received an email from Melbourne inquiring about what I thought were the 'must see' places.  Of course, the Great Ocean Road was on the top of my list.  So, a few days before Christmas, I received the following picture of a wonderful December day in the 'deep south'.  What a beautiful way to spend a holiday.  And what a view!

Getting to the Bottom Line

A lot has been said and continues to be said about the adoption of a State Budget by July 1.  This is a good idea.  It means that when the State's new fiscal year begins on October 1, departments and legislators know exactly what the numbers are.  It virtually eliminates the chance for a government shut down.  Would that the same scenario could be said in Townships.

For fifteen of the twenty-one budgets I was involved with at West Bloomfield Township, the budget was required to be done sixty days prior to the start of the fiscal year.  In 2003, the law was changed to require a budget be prepared and adopted by December 31.

For West Bloomfield, which starts its fiscal year on January 1, this cuts the adoption really close.  For the majority of townships in Michigan, the fiscal year begins on April 1 (such is the case with Bloomfield Township).  Adopting a budget by December 1 means that they have to adopt a budget earlier than before. 

I have tried to make sense of how and why this passed, but have never been able to do so.  Some of the sponsoring legislators had townships with January 1 dates and others with April 1.  It meant that all would have a longer time to prepare their budgets, but that those communities with January 1 years would be cutting it pretty close.  And since tax rates are set in October, communities already have pretty solid tax revenue numbers to work with.  The State budget has been set so that revenue sharing numbers, while estimated, are still pretty solid. 

The law requires that Township Department Heads submit their budget requests 150 days prior to the start of the fiscal year and that the Supervisor submit a budget to the Township Board no later than 120 days prior to the fiscal year.  That gave Township Boards prior to the law change at least two months to approve budgets and adopt them. 

No matter the change in the law, there is nothing stopping Townships from adopting their budgets in a timely manner, well in advance of the start of the fiscal year.  Let's hope that our Legislators in Lansing do the same.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Beating up on the RCOC

OK.  We have been reading about the poor performance of the Road Commission of Oakland County for over a week. I am not going to get into that.  Rather, I think this photo puts them at least one step above the performance of the Arizona Department of Transportation:



'Nuf said.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

I'll agree with That

Ever since I retired my morning ritual has included reading the newspaper.  This morning was no exception. 

I always read the editorial page, which gets my brain working and my blood flowing, sometimes boiling.  This morning's editorial in the Oakland Press hit the nail on the head when it comes to 'hyping' the weather.  I've already stated that I hate winter, but this is Michigan and I have learned to expect cold and snow.  I don't have to like it.  But what I dislike even more is the constant threat of impending doom when a snow cloud appears in the Midwest. 

I listen to a news radio station in the morning when I am getting ready for the day.  There is a female 'commentator' who is particularly annoying.  She hypes the fall of the first snowflake as though it alone will produce two feet of snow. 

Earlier this week we were told that we would get snow on Monday night and into Tuesday morning.  Didn't happen.  The forecasters also said that snow will arrive on Christmas Eve and into Christmas day.  One person I talked to was upset that their holiday driving would be hampered.  Another told me on Monday that they may have to spend Christmas Eve at their guest's home instead of making a treacherous drive back to their own home.

The forecast wouldn't be so bad if the people telling the story weren't doing such a horrible job of delivering the message, which often turns out to be wrong anyway.  Watch television during the evening and you get commercials about staying tuned for the forecast so you  know whether or not to send your child to school in the morning, even when no snow is forecast.

The worst part of this, IMHO, is that I have become desensitized to the forecasts and reports and never know what to believe.  I look out my window and decide to head out, or stay home, based on my driveway conditions.  If I listened to that crazed woman on the radio, I'd be stuck here until Easter.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Our Library

For those of you have do not know (how could that be?), West Bloomfield has a terrific library.

First Lady Michelle Obama presented the 2010 National Medal for Museum and Library Service to the Library at a White House ceremony December 17. The National Medal is the nation's highest award for museums and libraries.

 I want to share the latest pictures of their National Honor with you in case you have not seen them on their website.

Just click here

A big CONGRATULATIONS to all of them.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Before and After

Pictures to go along with my bathroom repair:


BEFORE

AFTER

BEFORE


AFTER

As I said in an earlier posting, you have to leave this room to change your mind.  Mighty small, indeed.

Of Troy and Building Permits and West Bloomfield

I woke up this morning thinking I will now write about my experience with my bathroom 'repair'.  I wrote about this previously, but then removed the blogs.  Now, I finally have my 'Certificate of Occupancy' in hand, and decided I would tell the tale. 

But first, I go to my mailbox and get my morning Oakland Press to read while I have my coffee (and at the same time shoo three deer out of the yard). 

Headline: Builders sue Troy; allege fee gouging

Oh, really?  Does anyone think they are the only ones? 

During the various building boom eras in the suburbs, building permit revenue was a huge source of cash for communities.  Why do you think the State Construction Code was changed to require that the money received only be used for the costs of running the department issuing the permits and doing the inspections?

Anyway, that is not what I am interested in discussing.  Rather, it is the cost associated with the process and the fact that tax-paying residents trying to maintain their homes are 'ripped-off' by outrageous fees.

Several years ago I needed to replace my hot water heater.  I shopped around and everytime I told the salesman I lived in West Bloomfield, they said that was too bad because West Bloomfield had the highest permit fees. 

This summer, when I hired a handyman to fix up my 38-year old, 34 square foot bathroom (not a misprint, only 34 sf of usable space), he never ever mentioned the need for any permits.  According to the State Construction Code, cabinet replacement, tiling, light fixture replacement and toilet replacement (which we didn't do), do not require permits. 

Imagine my surprise when a township employee called to say that he was told I was 'remodeling' my bathroom and needed to send an inspector over.  I asked why I would need inspections and permits and he said that I would need permits for everything I mentioned above and even threw in the replacement of a shower door.  I told him I would have my handyman speak with him.

Imagine my complete surprise when I was told I would have to pay $590 for permits and inspections.  Apparently, there is a clause that if the repairs exceed $600, you still have to get permits.  Folks, I saw a medicine cabinet that was $1200.  If this is the case, then the communities should just install kiosks in the local Home Depots and collect the money when you walk out the door. 

As it was, my handyman had no idea what I was spending, since I purchased all the materials myself.  He only knew what his fee was, which increased considerably as a result of the township holding things up.  We lost the whole day of the call, while I was paying him to stand around.  And his costs far exceeded material costs.  I had all sorts of free time to shop around for deals on supplies.

My handyman had to submit a drawing of the plan of the room.  Let's see, EVERYTHING is going back where it was!!!  While waiting for approval, my handyman went off to another job and then I had to wait to get him back.

Let me put this in the context of what I pay in taxes to the township general fund this year:  $265.77.  The voted public safety millage I pay is $252.27.  Together, that is less than permits for a 34 square foot bathroom, in a home I have owned and paid taxes on for 38 years.  And the $590 doesn't include the money I had to pay to a separate mechanical contractor.

And what did I get for my money?  A blessing by West Bloomfield that my handyman properly performed the work.  The plumbing permit covered making sure the water wasn't too hot.  The electrical permit - well I am still not sure why we even needed that except to be told that we 'should probably upgrade all the electrical in the house'.  Will do as soon as the township gives me the money to do it.  Oh, they also checked for smoke detectors.  And the mechanical?  Well, I had the handyman vent my bathroom exhaust fan to the outside.  Yes, the township in 1972 allowed the builder to vent fans into the attic.  Luckily, I had no attic damage, probably thanks to the roof vents I had to add myself several years ago (none provided by the builder) and the attic fans that were installed.  It makes me wonder what was being inspected back in 1972.

The State Construction Code is supposed to protect the homeowner from unscrupulous contractors.  It is supposed to insure that work is done properly and 'up to code'.  But who protects the property owner from the local communities who enforce the code and charge ridiculous fees?  It is not hard to see how departments can be padded with employees to justify the higher fee required to pay their salaries and benefits. 

I was on a committee at the State when the Construction Code was changed requiring the use of fees for related expenses only.  I remember another member asking if he only had one building permit would he have to charge the full cost of the department to that permit.  I wondered why you would have a full-time department if you had no building being done. 

With the current economy, many communities should look at privatizing this area.  But, if they are not doing the work, I see no reason to get any money from the process, other than a nominal fee for updating records.  When it is a percentage, that starts to sound more like a 'kick-back' than a fee.  And yes, I feel that this is an unjustified tax.  I felt that way even before I saw the article.  Any fee paid to a community is supposed to fairly represent the value of the service.  $590?  I think not. 

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Was it Really THAT Important?

I survived the first snow storm of the winter.  Well, late fall actually, since it is not officially winter yet.  I did not leave my home Sunday, or Monday, or Tuesday. 

My Monday appointment was cancelled.  Even if they hadn't beat me to the phone, I would have called and cancelled the meeting myself.  I had no need to leave my home.  Sunday was my son's birthday, but we postponed his coming over for dinner until last night.  No sense taking chances.

What amazes me is that there are other folks out there who are retired, as I am, and somehow seem compelled to go out in the bad weather.  What could possibly be so important?

Church on Sunday?  What is the worst that can happen if you don't show up?  On Monday?  They are retired so it's not like their boss insists they come to work.  And if you need a cup of sugar, or coffee, I'll bet there is at least one neighbor willing to accommodate you.

No, these people go out on the roadway as though they were baptized with the US Postal Service creed. You know, 'Neither rain, nor snow...'.  I don't get it. 

It has to be a life-threatening emergency to get me out in bad weather.  While I did blow the snow off my driveway, I did it in three separate trips to make the going easier.  When I see these snows cover the drive, I always remember the words of my godfather when he was asked if he was going to clean the snow off the driveway.  "God put it there, let God take it away". 

If it didn't hamper my getting to the mailbox, I'd take his advice and wait till Spring.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

A controversy in search of an issue

A while back I stopped watching Township Board meetings.  I do not read the minutes.  I assume not much is happening since no one has sent an email or called to tell me I need to pay attention.  My life is bliss - up until I read the newspaper.

So, last week when I read the story of a 'controversy' about closed session minutes, I figured I must have skimmed it too fast and missed what the issue was and why there was a problem.  I supposed that something had happened at a Board meeting.

I went on with my business for the week remembering my own twenty-year experience on the Board.  Simply put, you vote to go into closed session, you discuss and leave.  You can take no votes and make no motions in the session.  What is discussed is protected information, either because it involves negotiations or a lawsuit.  There would be nothing to approve in the way of minutes, other than who was in the room and what the issue was.  And that information already appears in the general session minutes.

After reading today's newspaper, including the letter to the editor, I had an 'AHA' moment.  I figure that someone (or some two) has an issue with the clerk and likely called the paper to stir things up.  The very call would be evidence of her incompetence.  (Rumor has it that they have already lined up a new candidate for clerk in 2012.)

A recent serviceman to my home, not realizing who I was in my previous life, informed me that 'this new Board is worse than the last bunch.'  Amen to that. 

So, pray tell, just what is the problem here?

Doing the Math

A story problem:

There are 12 Republicans and 12 Democrats on a committee.

The Democrats make amendments to a contract before a vote. 

Twenty-one people vote on the contract.

The vote is 19-2, not to pass the contract.

Why is it the Republicans fault that it didn't pass?

Friday, December 10, 2010

Holiday Food

I am sure we all get many forwarded emails, usually humorous stories or cartoons, all year long.  This year is no exception.  I received seven yesterday alone.  Here is one that I had not seen before.  I will be cooking and eating this holiday season and thought I would pass this along, with thanks to whomever authored it.

GOOD HOLIDAY EATING HABITS

1. Avoid carrot sticks. Anyone who puts carrots on a holiday buffet table knows nothing of the Christmas spirit. In fact, if you see carrots, leave immediately. Go next door, where they're serving rum balls.

2. Drink as much eggnog as you can. And quickly. it's rare. You can't find it any other time of year but now. So drink up! Who cares that it has 10,000 calories in every sip? It's not as if you're going to turn into an eggnog-alcoholic or something. It's a treat. Enjoy it. Have one for me. Have two. It's later than you think. It's Christmas!

3. If something comes with gravy, use it. That's the whole point of gravy. Gravy does not stand alone. Pour it on. Make a volcano out of your mashed potatoes. Fill it with gravy. Eat the volcano. Repeat.

4. As for mashed potatoes, always ask if they're made with skim milk or whole milk. If it's skim, pass. Why bother? It's like buying a sports car with an automatic transmission.

5. Do not have a snack before going to a party in an effort to control your eating. The whole point of going to a Christmas party is to eat other people's food for free. Lots of it. Hello?

6. Under no circumstances should you exercise between now and New Year's. You can do that in January when you have nothing else to do. This is the time for long naps, which you'll need after circling the buffet table while carrying a 10-pound plate of food and that vat of eggnog.

7. If you come across something really good at a buffet table, like frosted Christmas cookies in the shape and size of Santa, position yourself near them and don't budge. Have as many as you can before becoming the center of attention. They're like a beautiful pair of shoes. If you leave them behind, you're never going to see them again.

8. Same for pies...Apple, Pumpkin, Mincemeat. Have a slice of each. Or if you don't like mincemeat, have two apples and one pumpkin. Always have three. When else do you get to have more than one dessert? Labor Day?

9. Did someone mention fruitcake? Granted, it's loaded with the mandatory celebratory calories, but avoid it at all cost. I mean, have some standards.

10. One final tip: If you don't feel terrible when you leave the party or get up from the table, you haven't been paying attention. Re-read tips; start over, but hurry, January is just around the corner.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Biting the Bullet

Since June of this year, I have been chairing a Michigan Government Finance Officers Fiscal Stress Committee. Working with the Senate Fiscal Agency (SFA) we have been looking at debt obligations in communities around the state.  Since the SFA has yet to issue the report, I'll leave out any specifics, but talk in generalities of what I have seen and discovered in the process of data gathering.

We looked at delinquent taxes around the State.  The data was relatively easy to get from Counties we questioned and revealed some interesting facts about increasing delinquency around the state.  The Oakland Press has been printing the Oakland County foreclosures with its paper.  That section will probably be even larger next year.

We also wanted to examine the taxing capacity of local units.  Was the local community levying its full allowable millage?  Unfortunately, they is no electronic data base available to get the information. 

Was the community levying the Property Tax Administration Fee?  That fee is allowed by the State to cover the cost of assessing property and collecting taxes.  Again, that information is not readily available.  Both of these issues are part of the political will of the officials.  Are they willing to make the tough choice of instituting or increasing a levy?

Pick up the Oakland Press over the last few weeks and there are stories of communities having a hard time balancing their budgets.  Having being a previous Township Official, I have had some experience on the issue.

Back in the early 1990's, West Bloomfield's Board decided to lower the millage they were levying.  I and the Supervisor at the time opposed the reduction.  We argued that there were legacy costs (retiree health care) and outstanding bonds for which the Township could use the cash.  Well, we were in the minority.  After all, 1992 was an election year and members wanted to brag that they lowered taxes.

I got a lot of very nasty phone calls.  The fact that the average homeowner savings was less than the cost of a 'happy meal' made no difference.  One angry woman called to tell me I was forcing her out of her home.

As the years went by and the Township considered the annual levy, the lower rate stayed in place.  After 911, with the stock market imploding and values of pension accounts dropping, the Board still took no action.  And then the economy really tanked with housing values and investment earnings plummeting.

And so as we move into 2011, communities struggle to make ends meet.  Have they cut all they could?  Have they 'bitten the bullet' and levied what is necessary to be fiscally responsible?  The extra half-mil levy on my property would cost me $4.00.  I do not know what the current Township tax-base is, so I do not know what the increase would generate, but I am guessing it would be over $150,000.  And the tax administration fee would easily generate over $500,000.

Elected officials, in every community, need to be the ones making the hard decisions.  That is what they are elected to do.  To pass it off on the voters, who may reject the idea of an increase as we have already seen in some communities, is irresponsible on their part.  Besides, by the time the voters decide to reject the idea, the community may be headed for a State takeover.  And that is of no benefit to the homeowner.

The goal of any public official should not be to get re-elected, but to leave their community, State, or Country, in better shape than when they arrived.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Winter

I hate winter.  I really hate winter.  The days are too short, even though they start to get longer on December 21.  The days are too cold and the nights are even colder.  Getting the newspapers and mail from the box at the street require bundling up like I'm going to the North Pole.  Not to mention the ice that will form on the driveway.

Winter has two colors.  Brown and dirty white.  And did I mention that the white stuff that turns dirty white is cold?

Years ago when I worked at the hospital a bunch of friends were planning a ski weekend.  I noticed that one of the regulars in the ski group was not participating in the plans.  I asked her why she wasn't going and she explained that after 20 years she had finally realized that she hated cold weather and why in tarnation had she ever gone skiing in the first place?  Aha!  I had figured that out before ever learning to ski.

I remember an ice skating Saturday when I was in High School.  Our phys ed teacher lived on the Detroit River.  She invited a bunch of us to her house to ice skate.  I went along, but  still remember the cold wind blowing and how much I did not enjoy the day. 

Not that I always hated everything to do with winter.  A cousin of mine lived in East Detroit north of Nine Mile Road.  The I-94 expressway was being constructed and the area had been dug down to lower the grade of the road.  We grabbed our sleds and went sledding down the embankment.  That was fun.

But now I find that if I didn't like winter before, every year I like it less and less.  Cold dreary days, snow, ice, snow.  Did I mention cold?  And snow?  Yuck!

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Remember When...

I had a very long day in East Lansing on Friday.  While driving home in the late Friday afternoon traffic, my mind somehow wandered to my old phone number.  Back when I was growing up in the 50's.  Go figure.  It got me thinking about how my life growing up was so different from what it is like today.  So, here is a simple 'remember when' from my youth:

Remember when...

Everyone's phone number began with a name - Prescott, Slocum, Lakeview, Venice, Toledo, etc.  Even when I moved to West Bloomfield in 1972 I had a 'Mayfair' exchange.

Everyone you knew who had a phone had a party line.  Only folks who were wealthy could afford a private phone line.

Answering machines were non-existent.  No messages were left and you had no idea who called while you were gone.

No one had to remember a 'zip code'.  And mail came twice a day during the holidays. 

The local dry cleaner picked up and delivered your clothes to your home.  

The Twin Pines milkman delivered milk in glass bottles, which we rinsed and gave back to him.  Hey, we were recycling before it was fashionable.

And the coal company and ice truck also made home delivery if it was needed.

There was a fruit and vegetable man who came down the street with his cart, not just the 'Good Humor' man.

We were not allowed to play outside and run in the sprinkler hose in the hot summer, lest we catch polio.

Speaking of summer, we left the house in the morning and played with our friends all day making sure we were home when the street lights came on.  We ate at whichever house we were at.

During the holidays, we went downtown to the JL Hudson Company to see the decorated store windows and visit the 12th floor with myriad decorations.  We rode up on an elevator manned, or womaned, by elevator operators.

The best pizza was found at the local bowling alleys and small Italian bakeries.  I still remember when Little Caesars became popular in the 60's.  Who knew.

All of these thoughts ran through my head as I made my way home.  I am sure if you start thinking about it, you too can come up with many 'somewhat trivial' things that have changed.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Extending the Rule

Anyone who has rad this blog from the beginning may remember me talking bout my '50 page rule'.  That is the one where if I am not into a book by page 50, I stop reading it.

Well, I am returning my latest endeavor to the library. "Fall of Giants".  Having made it to page 386 out of more than 1,000, I am done.  Why so long?  Well, it is not that it isn't interesting, it is just that it is not compelling enough to continue. 

World War I has started.  Finally.  I already know how that turns out.  As for the characters, I have only found one that catches my interest and she has little of a role in the story at this point. 

If I wanted to know all about the political and war strategies, I would read a good non-fiction book on the subject.  If I want to read about the Russians, I'll read Tolstoy. 

The next book in the series is supposed to deal with World War II.  With the same characters, I can probably pick it up and not miss a thing.

While the novel has received fairly good reviews, I will set it aside and move on.  It's already way past my rule.