Monday, March 19, 2012

Do You Think Kansas City Is Turning Around?

It has been a busy day, and I have not been able to examine Mayor Sly James State of the City speech in detail. I have looked at some of the news coverage and bloggy coverage, and I see a big contrast. In the newspaper, it is all roses and a positive review for Mayor James. In the blogs, it seems as if there is way more skepticism and mistrust. The newspaper is supportive of the downtown train. Most bloggers are not supporters, and feel that it would be a waste of money.

I am not really sure how the majority of Kansas City residents feel about the direction and state of our city. Some things clearly need work, such as our crime rate and homicide rate--I would say the majority of people believe that crime seriously impacts the quality of life in our city. It is hard to assess how people feel about putting more money and stuff into the downtown area, especially transit projects. I think people are fed up with the government spending too much money.

So readers, how do you and your circle of friends feel about this city's direction? Are our leaders making sound decisions or poor ones?

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Where's the Reset Button?

I have been trying to figure out what to blog about these past few days, and as I noted on the Facebook, it is just epically depressing to look at the news these days. Crime and money problems for our city, an indifferent collection of potential opponents to the current occupant of the White House, more issues with divisions, racism, and uncivil discourse, class warfare, add your own to the list...
I keep thinking of how people in past ages have thought the world was completely unraveling before their eyes. We certainly have seen empires fall apart, political upheaval, technological revolution, and other sorts of change occur throughout the course of history. I think what makes these times at least seem different is that the changes are more rapid and are more known throughout all the world. There are rare corners of the world that move at the rates of the 18th, 19th or early 20th centuries any more. Even the rate of information flow that occurred in 1968 seems slow compared to our hyper communicating super fast world of today.
For that reason, it is hard to see if it is really "worse than it has ever been." I have Christian friends who are convinced that this is the end times and that Jesus is coming back any time. I always remind those people that Jesus was quite specific about predicting his return--mainly for people to avoid trying it.
There are moments when humanity shines--they occasionally even show up in the news--but it is usually small groups and individuals, not our ruling class. Our ruling class seems to be selfish, narcissistic, out for themselves, and not very bright; they rarely provide us bright spots in the news broadcast.
We need "Control-Alt-Delete"....

Sunday, March 11, 2012


That is all I got for now...see you all tomorrow.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Managing $500,000

Of course, the main point of this story (link) is that the winner of a $1 million dollar lottery prize in Michigan was still taking food stamps after she had won the prize and taken delivery of the $500,000 check. The outrage was palpable. Of course, the state should have known it, but also the failure of honor on the part of the winner was notable. Some people were upset that lottery tickets were purchased in the first place by someone who was on public assistance.

But we are not going there today. One of the themes that has recurred over and over in commentary concerning this story is that the lottery winner, Amanda Clayton, will run through her money and be broke again, and back on assistance in a year or less. That made me wonder: how would I personally handle a windfall of $500,000?

I know for me, I would spend some money, and some of it on similar things to Ms. Clayton. My car, which I like a lot, has 130K miles on it. I would be buying a new one. Something modest mind you--I would not spend more then about $20-25 K on a car max. Then I would probably drop at least $30K on my house, taking care of deferred maintenance and making improvements. Nothing fancy--no granite countertops or any of that junk. New roof and windows, a revision of a preexisting remodel that wasn't done correctly, redone electrical system, new gas range, tree and landscaping work. The only indulgences might be the back up generator and the wood stove that I would love to have. I would also use the money to help with the cleaning up and thinning process I have been doing for a while, to rent a portable storage bin and a dumpster. After improving my house and car, I would improve myself. I would invest in some education to make myself more employable, and I would continue to work and earn a living, even if it was part time in this economy. There's something about having a skill, practicing it, and getting a bit of money on a steady basis that has a lot of appeal. I could go entrepreneurial too, if I find I have a good idea that others would want--and would pay for.

Say, after all that I have spent $100,000. There is still $400,000 left. Plenty to invest, save and use in many ways if you are willing to live modestly, not show off, and say no to the inevitable grifters, related and otherwise, that will come your way. But unfortunately for Ms. Clayton I think those saying she'll be broke are correct. At the end, she will only have left those things she paid cash for, and if she hasn't figured out that she needs a skill (she's only 24 so plenty of time to train for something--now that would be a good use for her winnings!) she will lose those things as she tries to figure out how to support herself. After that? It's hello, dole.

The irony of all this is that most people, such as myself, who have a clue about money rarely play the state lottery games. We know how long the odds are of winning.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Next Item...

So, we've beaten the Limbaugh thing about to death, to the point almost of "wag the dog" (So what is going on with Iran and Israel, Syria, gas prices, the stock market, real unemployment, yada yada...) and it is time to see what the next controversy is. By the way, have you noticed in this day of the internet how quickly something can blow up to a size totally out of proportion to its importance?

The next thing is local, and it is a bit more important than Rush, but it is another lap around the same mountain--the mountain of race. I am, of course, referring to the story of the 13 year old boy that was burned when he was set on fire reportedly on Tuesday, February 28 as the victim was walking home from school in his northeast neighborhood. First reports of the incident came out over the weekend, and it has been linked on Drudge and picked up in the U.K.

There are still a lot of questions about the case and some are doubting the veracity of the victim's report. Apart from that aspect of simply investigating to see if a crime indeed did occur, a debate has come out about whether or not this is a "hate crime." Now, I really find the entire concept of "hate crime" sort of silly. If a crime was committed, it was committed. It is pretty hard to determine a suspect's state of mind when a crime was committed. Does a crime need the "hate" intensifier? Then we get all this BS that hate crimes can't be committed against the "majority race". Hate crime laws are one of those things that sound good at first, but when you apply logic, they rapidly stop making any sense.

Think about it: someone has to pick out what someone was thinking during the commission of a crime. If the victim is being truthful, a crime has been committed indeed. Attempted murder, assault, etc. are possible charges. If the victim is lying, and he made up the story to cover up something else, then he can be charged with making a false report. It is imperative that there be a thorough and impartial investigation into this incident and a search for the two other parties involved. Once all the facts are in, then prosecute the crime that happened. I am not trying to minimize the event--it is horrible enough as it stands on its own--regardless of which way it falls. How horrible is it to put fire on another, live human being? Or to be at a point where you would put fire to your own skin?

Not everything has to be about race all the time. That is the mountain we keep going around and around, like the people of Moses in the Old Testament. A lot of people filter a lot of life through the funnel of racial matters. The "hate crime" laws are just one example. Trick laws that look so good on a casual peek turn out just to be just another way to divide and separate us; just another way to pick at the scabs of all the hurts of acts of prejudice and racism over all the years. How in the world are we ever be able to come together if we erect all these laws that major in pointing out differences?

Find the crime, gather evidence, prosecute as indicated.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

On Rush's Misstep

Warning: Not Politically Correct Content within.

"Rush is mired in an era when sex, especially outside of marriage, indicates some kind of avante-garde, hippie lifestyle. He misses the fact that the timing of childbirth is a discussion nearly all couples engage in, or wish they had."--Kansas City Star editorial

This is it-- why everyone's knickers are in a knot--sex. You see, before contraception was available every time you had sex there was a risk of a baby. There wasn't just a moral imperative to remaining sexually continent there was a practical aspect too. Actions had consequences. Once reliable and easy contraception became available the consequence was unattached from the action. Only the moral imperative stood in the way. In the end, for many, it was not nearly enough and with each succeeding generation the acceptance of the "rightness" of being chaste has been less and less until we come to today, where today's sexually loose lifestyle is regarded as normal by the majority. Those who think otherwise are regarded as odd at best or weird or, amazingly, just WRONG.
Taking a pill is not the only choice for avoiding having a child outside of marriage. There is that old reliable-- choosing not to be sexually active. Not only will the risk of an unwanted pregnancy be removed, so will risks of AIDS, syphilis, herpes, chlamydia, gonorrhea and cancer of the reproductive organs and genitalia. Not to mention skipping all the heart- break that happens by uniting in sex with someone who is not deeply committed to the relationship; when people, especially women, get their hearts broken when they are set aside like dirty socks...
The idea of remaining chaste outside of marriage should not be invalidated just because contraception is available. Finding disagreement with an active sex life is not an opinion just to be mocked or laughed at--being sexually under control is an option that should be considered, even in this day and age of contraception.

Rush Limbaugh was crude when he called Sandra Fluke names. He was wrong to do that. Contraception needs to be available to those who have real medical needs as well as being available for those who want it in this day and age. To me, however, some of the towering outrage is from the question standing behind Rush's objection: the questioning of just how good and right an indiscriminately active sex life is for both the individual and for our society. Some of those who heard that question were outraged that the rightness of their lifestyle choice was under even a little scrutiny.
You throw a stone at a pack of dogs--how can you tell which one got hit? The dog that yelps the loudest.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Proposed Fire Department Cuts and Changes

In response to the call to be prepared to cut 105 jobs out of the fire department, Chief Smokey Dyer of the Kansas City Fire Department brought the following changes of the operational configuration of the department to the city council this late morning, early afternoon:
1. In the northland, station 3 at 11101 N. Oak Traffic Way would change from a station with a pumper and a truck to a combo unit called a quint. So just one crew (set of crews really, 3 shifts worth of crews, and that applies to all of the following) would be required for station 3 instead of two.
2. Station 39, at 11400 E 47 street, would get the same treatment going from a pumper and a truck to a combo unit.
3. Station 36, at 99th and Holmes would get the same treatment as well.
4. Pumper 32, stationed at station 19 at 550 west 43rd street, will be eliminated. It was not clear if it would be incorporated or replaced by something else. It sounded like it would just be taken away and not replaced.
5. Station 1, at 155th and Holmes, the home of pumper 1, would be closed, with the elimination of the pumper.
6. Change the crews of the technical rescues, stationed in 3 separate stations, would each be reduced from 4 to 3.
7. The crew of HazMat 71 would be reduced from 4 to 3.

There was a lot of other conversation with Chief Dyer concerning the operation of the fire department, including questions about saving money elsewhere, "auto aid" and "mutual aid", examination of the mission of the department, and some words about EMS. One interesting note about that--Chief Dyer said at least twice that his department did not seek out the merger with EMS--that it was mandated by the political action of the City Council. KCFD was placed in the position by the council of having to take up the mantle of EMS after the votes of the council. It is interesting to me that he felt it necessary to say that.
Retirements will be sought from the twenty longest tenured people (no mention if that included any EMS people)--no mention if these were early retirees--and the rest of any layoffs would be from the bottom up. It was noted by the chief that he took in all former MAST employees and have only replaced them as needed due to normal attrition with newly medically trained organic KCFD personnel.
I was just reviewing some things looking for reaction to the day's activities when I saw a reaction to the statement by the fire chief that this years budget was "adequate" to run the department at approximately $131 million (2011-12) but that it would need to go to $144 million (2012-13) to be adequate for this year. My guess is that the difference is inflation. I also think that ye olde EMS Division is costing more then was anticipated and given steady or normally growing revenues coming in, the FD would like more money. Instead, the revenues are going down, and the city is asking for costs to be cut. It would be interesting to see a pie chart of FD expenses; I suspect the majority are in salaries and benefits and this is why the city jumped on the chief to reduce the number of fire fighters.
That being said, Smokey is very committed to continuing the staffing of pumpers and ladders at four people. His commitment is to the point that suburban departments must sent four people per firefighting apparatus even if that is not their normal staffing in order to provide mutual aid for KCFD. When the council pressed him on comparing expenses of fire departments in comparable cities to KCFD, he seemed to interpret this as an attempted attack on 4 person staffing. Thus the quote of the day:
"I will not be here if we have three person pumpers; whoever my replacement is can get that information."
In other department's notes, the police chief appeared to be requesting more money for salaries, to the tune of about $10 million. Chief Forte also noted that the All Star Game will cost an additional %250,000 or so in PD OT. From the public services departments, the main thing that seemed to emerge was a proposal to eliminate the spring leaf and brush neighborhood pick up.

This City Council meeting appeared to only concern itself with just the operating budget and the council reiterated its commitment to a "structurally balanced budget" in the face of a revenue stream that continues to decline in the area of TIF disbursements, gaming taxes, and miscellaneous revenues. There was no discussion of the big dream ideas with regard to a downtown train, infrastructure work and there was no discussion of the pension issues that are still outstanding.

If you want to follow along with budget fun, the rough schedule for budget hearings and such is as follows: The budget itself will be introduced today, March 1. There will be opportunities for discussion March 7 and March 14. I don't think there will be opportunity for more public comment. The budget will need approval by March 22nd.

What I Would Have Said If I Had Been There

Sports won out over civics.

Last night I had a conflict: Watch the Grandview High School Bulldogs as they started their quest for a state championship in basketball or go to a public hearing at the Hillcrest Community Center about the budget process put on by the Finance and Audit Committee of the City Council. Well, I hate to say it, but hoops won out (and congratulations to Grandview for its blowout victory over Lincoln Prep) I still have been thinking about the budget though and I thought it would be interesting to write down what I might have told the committee last night had I not yielded to my sporting instincts.

Honestly, I am not sure how much good these budget hearings do: they have not been very well promoted. I hope that you, the committee, have learned something about how the citizens feel about the city's budget and how the city handles money.

The budget reflects a tension that is visible in all economic planning and thought in these difficult days. Even the most casual study of economists reveals the rift between those who insist on austerity in order to reduce debt accompanied by a reduction in the size and scope of government to help the economy and those who believe that spending on projects funded by the government is a way to propel the economy forward. That rift is reflected in the Kansas City budget. On the one hand, you have a large plan that will cost a billion dollars that concerns itself with infrastructure and on the other hand, you have a budget that is austere to basic services such as police, fire and public services to the point that it may affect the quality of life in the city.

What emerges is a picture of a city that seems willing to spend money on new mass transit pieces, and the promotion of development but is busy telling the police chief, the fire chief and the head of public works to cut, cut, cut their budgets. Furthermore, citizens feel that neighborhoods that are still very viable and lively are left hanging, while the neighborhoods that are in very bad shape are having a lot of money poured into them. In addition, the attempts to revive the downtown area are continuing to require subsidies, and the citizens resent any plan that puts any more money towards projects in the downtown area.

I am as big a fan of mass transit as anyone. I grew up in Manhattan, New York City, where transit truly is practical (although it is still not completely self supporting); we have to face facts: Kansas City mass transit will not ever be practical unless this city contracts substantially and becomes much more dense. If gas ever reaches $10 a gallon, you might see that, but it would be more likely that the city would become dense in naturally occurring centers that already exist, such as commercial centers or schools. It may be that, other then small locally centered efforts, even in the face of European style gas prices, Kansas City may never look like it did in the 1950s. What you would see is neighborhood villages rather then a predominant downtown city center. It may be time for the city leaders to give up on the idea of one city center. In the end, Kansas City may become a city of hubs, with one larger one and many small ones.

I think the closer a government unit gets to the people, the more it needs to concentrate on the issues close to the people. That means catching criminals, preventing crime, putting out fires, providing help to the sick and injured, mowing the park, plowing the streets, patching the potholes, picking up the trash and all the other many details of running a city. Trying out interesting theories of Keynesian economics may be best left to larger and broader government entities. The quality of life in the city is directly related to the quality of the services rendered by City Hall. Poor service will kill a city. Police that do not respond to calls in a timely manner, that appear uncaring because they are overworked, lack of resources to solve crime and a dirth of resources applied to prevent crime by working proactively will result in a perception of a lack of safety in the city--this is just one example of what could happen if basic services are cut to the point of neglect.

The only place where there needs to be a substantial investment in infrastructure is in the water and sewer area. This area is seriously problematic to me, in that it appears in so many ways that the water department is not a competent department, having had a lot of turnover in leadership over the years. Frankly, before any more rate increases are done, and certainly before any other sources of money are given to the water department, the department MUST stabilize its leadership and obtain real expertise in its field. The water department in so many ways has the feel of a department in which patronage has taken precedence over competence. This is not acceptable in light of the task that is before the water department.

In short, it is time to concentrate on basic services. If we are asking ourselves what it is that we can and cannot do, then it is time to bear down on doing the things that make it nice to live in the city. If there is a perception that one is not safe in one's home, that the place is messy and not in good repair--it just looks bad--it matters little what development is provoked by tax breaks and subsidies to private and other entities. No one will stay in a unsafe and unkempt city. That is a fact. Thank you for your time and attention.