Category Archives: Boring But Important

When Glitches Are More Than Inconvenient

Yes! Weekly is reporting on problems with a rollout of North Carolina Department of Health and Human Service's NC FAST program:

North Carolina Families Accessing Services Through Technology, which is being implemented across all 100 counties of North Carolina, is designed to integrate various social services, including food stamps, Medicaid and WorkFirst, creating a kind of "one-stop shop" for clients seeking assistance. The Forsyth County Department of Social Services calls it a "no wrong door" approach.

Beginning in early July complaints began to crop up in Forsyth County about food stamp benefits being held up for current clients applying for reactivation. A number of clients said their benefits had been delayed for months on end, and food pantries and agencies that provide free meals reported an increase in demand that was partially attributable to disruption in food stamp benefits. Those complaints were a reprise of similar concerns expressed in neighboring Guilford County where the program was piloted.

Many of us have lived through the inconvenience of a software upgrade that didn't go as smoothly as planned, or improved our lives as much as the upgrader promised, but I seriously doubt many of us have lived through such dire consequenses as the result of a systems upgrade. Combine this with the recently constrained unemployment benefits and it's apparent that we all need to be prepared to step up our game to help our local food pantries meet the spike in need in the immediate future. 

The Rise of 14th Street

As a teen growing up in Northern Virginia in the early 80s I'd venture downtown with some of my buddies to witness firsthand the depravity that was on display on 14th Street. I really was too stupid to realize how dangerous it was to go down there to park and watch hookers pick up johns, dealers sell their weed/coke/whatever and pimps managing their "personnel." To me and my buddies it was like going to live theater, except that when we saw the inevitable beatings, assaults and brawls and realized that the blood that was spilled and the bullets that flew were very real, we retreated to our suburbs and ventured downtown only to visit the clubs in Georgetown or Foggy Bottom.

It's from that perspective that I read this article in the Washington Post about the gentrification of the 14th St. corridor.  Whether or not you're a fan of gentrification you have to be amazed at how a city can literally be transformed.

The formerly riot-scarred corridor has gone into gentrification overdrive, a boom fueled by investors looking for a safe place to park hundreds of millions of dollars, the relative ease of obtaining a liquor license, and the arrival of thousands of new residents longing to live downtown.

The result: more than 1,200 condos and apartments and 100,000 square feet of retail are being built or have hit the market in just the past nine months. At the same time, at least 25 bars and restaurants have opened or are under construction along 14th Street, adding more than 2,000 seats to the city’s dining scene at warp speed…

The street’s renaissance began decades ago, with the establishment of Studio Theatre (founded in 1978 and expanded in 1987) and other performing arts venues. But the pace of change accelerated after a successful community lobbying effort to lure Whole Foods Market to P Street, between 14th and 15th streets. A steady progression of improvements followed, with carryouts, auto repair garages and pawnshops giving way to sit-down Thai restaurants, fitness studios and window displays of $5,000 sectional sofas.

This next part interested me from a professional standpoint since I work for an apartment trade association:

Veteran commercial real estate broker Andrew McAllister, who has done $1 billion worth of business along 14th, likened the District’s post-recession situation to last call on a Friday night.

Were we the “best-looking chick? We were the only chick at the bar,” he said.

Washington quickly found itself at the center of a national apartment building boom, spurred by the transformation of millions of former homeowners and would-be home buyers into renters. Many of them experienced unemployment or had their credit ratings decimated by foreclosure. Others couldn’t muster the bigger down payments required to obtain mortgage loans.

Washington’s status as an oasis of job security, in particular, made it one of the nation’s top destinations for the young, highly educated and affluent, putting the city on track to drawmore newcomers between 2009 and 2011 than it had during the previous decade.

A note for our folks here in the Triad: notice how important jobs were to the revitalization of downtown Washington? Our small cities are doing a great job focusing on the redevelopment of their downtowns, but until we get significant job growth it will be hard for our cities to really take off.

The Public Payroll

Back before the economy tanked not many people griped about what government employees made, likely because not many people viewed the jobs as particularly exciting nor well-paying.  Since the economy tanked the public has pulled a 180 thanks in part to the fact that just having a job is something to celebrate and also to the fact that many governments are facing tremendous budget pressures.  Now people are paying very close attention indeed to what government employees are being paid.

The Winston-Salem Journal has a story about the compensation of Winston-Salem's 91 highest paid employees which totals $8.5 million.  Here's an excerpt from the story:

As it turns out, 21 full-time employees make at least $100,000, according to the report of Budget Director Ben Rowe. Earning between $75,000 and $100,000 are 70 full-time employees, according to the report. The total salaries of those 91 employees are valued at about $8.5 million, according to Rowe. They’re lawyers, managers, supervisors, chiefs, coordinators and other top-brass employees.

Excluding those 91 employees from the proposed 1.5 percent merit pay increase would save about $150,000, according to the report.

Cutting that amount would be merely symbolic, Council Member Dan Besse said. Besse, who had asked about the possible savings during a budget meeting last week, said he wanted to know because he opposes the idea of raising salaries the same year that the property-tax rate will be increased…

“The question then becomes: What’s the right balance on things like salaries?” Besse said. “Tentatively, I’m trending toward considering that we can’t simply say, ‘No increase for anybody this year.’ It appears we’re starting to experience problems with recruiting and retaining people in certain positions, like police officers.”

Is it fair to exclude the top level employees from the merit pay increases that the rest of the employees would enjoy to save a symbolic $150,000? Isn't the better question whether or not they did their jobs well, and if they did do their jobs well shouldn't they be compensated appropriately?

It's understandable that people would want to freeze or reduce pay in the face of budget crunches and potential tax rate increases. You might be asking, "How is that any different from a company freezing pay or laying off people when their sales drop or the company is losing money?" Well, the comparison really isn't that simple. Government employees don't get to pick their customers; they have to serve everyone. They also don't have much control over the income side of the ledger since tax revenues are tax revenues. What they can control are expenses and how effectively they do their jobs. If they do that are they to be punished?

Here's another point from the story that should not be lost in the shuffle:

To make up for the $7 million loss, the city would have to increase the tax rate by about 10 percent to 54.25 cents for every $100 of assessed value from the current rate of 49.1 cents. Rather, Garrity has proposed raising the city’s tax rate about 8 percent, from 49.1 cents for every $100 of assessed value to 53 cents.

Because of the revaluation, a large majority of city property owners would actually receive a lower tax bill even if the council members approve the increase in tax rate.

So in other words the symbolic freeze of the highest paid city employees wages would come despite the fact that many taxpayers won't be paying any more in taxes than they did last year.  Five years ago when these folks were largely viewed as average bureaucrats you probably wouldn't have seen this kind of discussion, but now that times are tough those same folks are viewed as overpaid executives ripe for symbolic flagellation. Doesn't quite seem fair to them.

The Higher Education Gravy Train

If you're the parent of a child currently attending a state university the opening paragraph to this story in The Atlantic will get your blood boiling:

Neat fact: If the federal government were to take all of the money it pours into various forms of financial aid each year, it could go ahead and make tuition free, or close to it, for every student at every public college in the country. 

The rest of the article will move you from boiling blood to sever heartburn:

…see the demoralizing report released this week by Stephen Burd of the New America Foundation on the state of financial aid in higher ed. It documents the obscene prices some of the poorest undergraduates are asked to pay at hundreds of educational institutions across the country, even as these same schools lavish discounts on the children of wealthier families in order to lure them onto campus…

Sometimes, colleges (and states) really are just competing to outbid each other on star students. But there are also economic incentives at play, particularly for small, endowment-poor institutions. "After all," Burd writes, "it's more profitable for schools to provide four scholarships of $5,000 each to induce affluent students who will be able to pay the balance than it is to provide a single $20,000 grant to one low-income student." The study notes that, according to the Department of Education's most recent study, 19 percent of undergrads at four-year colleges received merit aid despite scoring under 700 on the SAT. Their only merit, in some cases, might well have been mom and dad's bank account.

That's the kind of math and logic even a lowly English major from a state university can comprehend.

Here’s What You Should Know

A good suggestion for news organizations from Jeff Jarvis:

So the opportunity: If I ran a news organization, I would start a regular feature called, Here’s what you should know about what you’re hearing elsewhere.

Last week, that would have included nuggets such as these:

* You may have heard on CNN that an arrest was made. But you should know that no official confirmation has been made so you should doubt that, even if the report is repeated by the likes of the Associated Press.

* You may have heard reports repeated from police scanners about, for example, the remaining suspect vowing not to be taken alive. But you should know that police scanners are just people with microphones; they do not constitute official or confirmed police reports. Indeed, it may be important for those using police radio to repeat rumor or speculation — even from fake Twitter accounts created an hour ago — for they are the ones who need to verify whether these reports are true. Better safe than sorry is their motto…

* You may have heard reports that there were more bombs. But you should know that we cannot track where these reports started and we have no official confirmation so you should not take those reports as credible. We are calling the police to find out whether they are true and we will let you know as soon as we know.


 

Virginia, We Have Liftoff

Who knew that the Commonwealth of Virginia was home to the newest entrant to the commercial space race?

"A privately owned rocket built in partnership with NASA to haul cargo to the International Space Station blasted off on Sunday for a debut test flight from a new commercial spaceport in Virginia. The 13-story Antares rocket, developed and flown by Orbital Sciences Corp, lifted off at 5 p.m. EDT from a Virginia-owned and operated launch pad at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island."

And where is Wallops Island?


So Many Bills, So Little Time

The bill filing deadline is fast approaching for the NC Legislature so our representatives have kicked into high gear. Here's the House Calendar for Thursday, April 11, 2013. You'll see that bills 676 through 846 were filed and as you can imagine they cover a wide variety of topics. Here are a few:

676

Harrison,
Moffitt and Fisher (Primary Sponsors) – ELIMINATE DIETETICS/NUTRITION
BOARD.

683

B.
Brown, Moffitt, Ramsey and Shepard (Primary Sponsors) – COMMONSENSE
CONSUMPTION ACT.

684

Elmore
and Stevens (Primary Sponsors) – INCREASE DRIVEWAY SAFETY ON CURVY
ROADS.

692

Szoka,
Hanes, Dockham and Samuelson (Primary Sponsors) – AMEND PREDATORY
LENDING LAW.

704

Brody,
Steinburg and Fulghum (Primary Sponsors) – STUDY AND ENCOURAGE USE OF
TELEMEDICINE.

723

Malone,
Avila, Fulghum and Davis (Primary Sponsors) – LEGAL NOTICES/REQUIRE
INTERNET PUBLICATION.

733

Pittman,
Blackwell, Bryan and Speciale (Primary Sponsors) – COMMON CORE STANDARDS
STUDY.

735

Jones,
Jordan, Arp and Riddell (Primary Sponsors) – PROTECT RELIGIOUS STUDENT
GROUPS.

749

Lambeth
and Hanes (Primary Sponsors) – LOCAL SCHOOL FLEXIBILITY.

750

Lambeth,
Glazier and Hanes (Primary Sponsors) – CHARTER SCHOOL FLEXIBILITY/PILOT.

760

Brandon,
Hardister and B. Brown (Primary Sponsors) – SUMMER READING CAMPS.

771

R.
Brawley – INFORM PATIENT/DRUG COST LESS THAN INSURANCE COPAY.

781

Harrison
– INCREASE SMALL BREWERY LIMITS.

782

Starnes,
Luebke, Jordan and Holley (Primary Sponsors) – FORTIFIED MALT BEVERAGES
ACT.

808

Boles
and Alexander (Primary Sponsors) – MERGE CEMETERY COMMISSION/FUNERAL
SERVICE BOARD.

809

Boles,
Moffitt and Murry (Primary Sponsors) – GAME NIGHTS/NONPROFIT
FUNDRAISERS.

815

Luebke,
Harrison, Adams and C. Graham (Primary Sponsors) – BAN USE OF CREDIT
HISTORY IN HIRING/FIRING.

822

Blust,
Jones, Holloway and Jordan (Primary Sponsors) – THREE-FIFTHS VOTE TO
LEVY TAXES.

829

McGrady,
Bryan, Moffitt and L. Hall (Primary Sponsors) – SALE OF GROWLERS BY
CERTAIN ABC PERMITTEES.