Thursday, April 26, 2012

Pompous and Circumstances

The unveiling of pompous teachers, principals and administrators that have been lying to parents and taxpayers alike in order to bloat their undeserved paychecks.

And circumstances that undermine even the most pollyannish of parents' ability to maintain the self deception that is "MY child is getting a great education".

To what do we owe this revelation revolution? Well, it seems that someone decided to make an accurate count of high school graduates and it turns out our school systems not only cheat on standardized tests, they cheat on published statistics. But the systems' spinmeisters are already hard at work.

Suppose the previous, albeit bogus, stat claimed a 75% graduation rate, but it is now revealed to be an accurate 50%. The spinmeisters will  state that the rate dropped by one third. There are a couple of problems with that.
  1. The first claim was bogus. It is an unadulterated bald-faced lie. There can be nothing more reprehensible than our employees, our elected officials, our educators, lying straight faced to taxpayers.
  2. Since the first claim is bogus, the proper way to view the "change" is to recognize the lie and calculate its magnitude. Given the actual rate was 50% all along, they lied by 50% (as 75 is 50% larger than 50). Round these parts they call that a "whopper".
The other scam previously used to inflated graduation rates has been to blame "mobility". This has been taken away as well, and now a full accounting must be rendered. They can longer pretend that all students they've lost track of had an educational epiphany and graduated, probably with honors, in some neighboring school system.

So the spinmeisters can be expected to turn up the heat well beyond mere twists of arithmetic. Mobility will certainly rear its head, even uglier than before. Expect charges of "Dummy Dumping" between schools and districts. Or just round up the usual demographics--it's all their fault. But not the demographic most readily characterized as having "parental involvement"--that is the one keeping graduation rates from falling to zero.

And parents will fall all over themselves to believe that there is a rock their child hides under. That they are part of the select few, the elite that navigate the treacherous waters of this odious system. Anything less than shouting at the top of their lungs about how great an education their child is getting would beg the question "and what are you going to do about it?" when their only answer is "nothing". They are not going give up the nice car, the mani-pedi's, the ski trips or the cruises to pay private school tuition. It is too easy to drink the Koolaid. Too easy to swim in the deep waters of denial.

That leaves the taxpayer holding the bag. The kind of bag often found burning on a front porch right after the doorbell rings. Well the bell has rung, and apparently no one is at home.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Set My MARTA Free!

Here is a radical idea that has been floating around section 8 housing for a quite a few years now:
make MARTA train and bus services totally free to anyone. 
Turns out the idea has some merit if tackled properly.

Given we're about to engage in a TSPLOST Train Wreck that primarily serves a few already rich developers perhaps establishing a comprehensive region wide "No Fare" public transportation system may not be so silly after all. Is it really any sillier than the "Train to Lovejoy", a revival of the archaic concept of streetcars or the Atlanta beltline project?

This warrants some serious consideration.

Suppose travelers to Atlanta could get off a plane, pick up their bags and hop right on the train without buying a breeze card, without the "how do you swipe this card" delay, and without negotiating baggage through those goofy swinging gates. That would set Atlanta ahead and above all major passenger hubs in the world in both convenience and service.

To make this work several important things must happen.

The State must step up to the plate with a funding mechanism that leverages regional assets to build out a world class system. After all, this is the same region that is being lobbied to mindlessly vote for the TSPLOST for a patchwork of studies that will lead nowhere but to more taxes. Grow up--get real. It's time for the legislature to put some "big boy" pants on and state for the record that Atlanta regional transportation is important to the entire state. Just like the port at Savannah or an auto plant in west Georgia.

MARTA must go away. And GRTA. And the Cobb and the Gwinnett and the Clayton bus systems.

Expanding MARTA's role will not work as MARTA suffers from a well-deserved, region-wide negative brand image. When authorizing MARTA, the state wisely restricted the budget to a fifty-fifty split between operations and capital expenditures, suspecting that MARTA would become pretty much what it is today. Since then MARTA has played fast and loose with the rules (e.g., selling capital equipment and leasing it back) to divert funds to operations justifying the original wariness of the State.

It is also viewed, again with reasonable justification, as a jobs program for a particular demographic and we are not likely to see a top MARTA official that does not meet that profile.

This has had an expected and very tangible impact on service. While MARTA may attract the best available from an artificially small selection, they do not seek the best overall talent. This has created a sense of entitlement amongst the employees who, knowing they will not be fired, see no reason to make on-time service Job One. Or Job NONE for that matter. It has become so bad that it is no longer unusual for the first train leaving the North Springs station to leave late! And MARTA is not alone--over the years we have witnessed the (mis)management of the Atlanta Airport which operates under the same model. We won't even start with the school systems.

We must have a single, region wide agency responsible for all transportation in the area. There must be a single throat to choke, a single agency to manage, a single agency to be held accountable. And "all transportation"  includes the 800 lb gorilla, the Atlanta Airport, as well as other, often overlooked airports like PDK (which is the second busiest in the state). This agency must also be responsible for all surface transportation in the region. If there are to be tolls, if the existing tolls are to continue, it would be the responsibility of this agency to establish and maintain these systems. If "the gulch" is to ever be used as a multi-modal transportation hub, this agency will make it happen. If "Rubber Rail" with dedicated lanes comes to the area, it will be directly because of the efforts of this agency. 

Finally, this agency must represent and respect the needs of the entire region, not just one area and not just a select few. The balkanization that characterizes and paralyzes the Atlanta metro area must be torn down. Transparency and fiduciary responsibility must be foundational. Service must be paramount. There is no reason to believe that our transportation systems cannot be run as efficiently as those in Japan or Europe. There is no reason to accept less.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Dunwoody Fan Rag Taking It Home

The good folk of "Brookford" have come to realize that the Dunwoody Fan Rag has a new target for their unabashed, some say shameless, adoration. All things "City of Brookhaven". This is fitting and proper as the owner/operator doesn't even live in Dunwoody, but rather in the much awaited and soon to be city to our south.

The promotional, fan rag aspects of the publication are now causing some concern in Brookford, much as it had earlier in its namesake region.  There has even been some public outcry that the Fan Rag only pretends to be an unbiased source of local information and that it is in fact unencumbered by any journalistic burden.

Gobstopping. Absolutely gobstopping. Who would ever suspect that an owner, an editor, a journalist, or even a mere reporter, would abuse such a position to advocate for a mere political cause. But seriously, this "Poor Dickie's Almanac" hardly carries more intellectual gravitas than weight loss fliers distributed in a Publix parking lot.

Perhaps the format, the paper, the ink, the "litter in the drive" delivery paradigm, might make the unsuspecting believe this rag really is a newspaper. After all it IS newsprint, right? But one only has to read a couple of issues before realizing this rag is many things. It is a "free" catalog of local products and services. It is a printed pep rally for local sports, perhaps supporting the ad revenue of the catalog portion of their presentation. It is a couple of rather innocuous columns that fill in the gaps between sports and ads. It is a bully pulpit for favored politicians. And it is cleverly curated letters to the editor.

What it is not, is a legitimate product of our valued Fourth Estate.

Don't worry, just enjoy it.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Brookhaven: Smarter Than We Think They Are

Google Analytics indicates that the fine folk of Brookhaven will not go blindly into a forced-upon-them city. They have shown particular interest in a couple of points that warrant comment.

The first is franchise fees:
  1. A tax by any other name. All monies go into the general fund and not into an account set aside exclusively for the stated purpose of the levy.
  2. Taking franchise fees as a whole, and comparing to combined property tax  with HOST property tax subsidy, franchise fees are the second largest income item. It is just another way to spell greed.
  3. It is the "best kind of tax" as it is largely paid by folks without a vote, particularly businesses and to some degree folks in unincorporated areas. Screw them, eh?
  4. By and large the county didn't receive these fees, yet the infrastructure these fees are allegedly required for are in place and doing quite nicely.  How can that be?
  5. Franchise fee revenue makes any comparison stating the city will provide same or better services for "less taxes" morally and intellectually bankrupt.
Slimy politicians are pretty sure voters will tax themselves a dime to get a dollar from other folks, but to the extent that these citizen-voters are customers of local business, the voters are simply paying a pass-along tax. To mystify the reality city proponents are using the "Starbucks" tactic: this will cost you less per (month/week/day) than a latte at Starbucks. That they even have to address it at all is a credit to the soon-to-be good citizens of Brookhaven.

The second hot topic appears to be privatization of government services. This too is over-hyped by those hell-bent on yet another city in DeKalb.
  1. It has it's place. If you have a janitor, auto mechanic or copier repair-woman on what will inevitably be a payroll characterized by gold-plated benefits then you are a fool.
  2. Much like the city itself, the finances of wholesale outsourcing do not pass the smell test. The outsourcing company may offer economies of scale, but have no doubt, just as you will pay for new city bureaucrats, you will also pay for the profits and bonuses of these private outsourcing companies. How can this possibly be more cost effective?
  3. You can re-bid often if you don't like the services or costs, but you will soon find you've exhausted all your options. Fact is there are not that many companies to turn to for turn key operation.
  4. When you outsource services, you outsource quality, you outsource accountability and you outsource transparency. Any part of a city operation where you might, just maybe, want to make an open records request is not something you want these politicians hiding behind an impenetrable wall of "corporate trade secrets".
Privatization had been all the rage, but now, eh, not so much. Even in Sandy Springs, the poster child for Three Pee Uh Oh, the enthusiasm has waned, the costs have skyrocket and the loss of control has been deemed intolerable. If Dunwoody can show Brookhaven how to do anything it would probably be where to draw the line between in-house services and those contracted out.

You will be told a lot of stories that do not align with this view of reality. But you will listen because these pandering political prevaricators will become your new city leadership. At least you are starting early and you are asking some smart questions. Keep up the good work.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Dunwoody To Get Biking and Hiking Trails

Dunwoody is finally set to acquire biking, hiking and walking trails and other green space. After the great Power Line kerfuffle and the equally disastrous "Shopping Spree" referendum, our fair city is poised at the precipice of parkland paradise. And no, this is not about some silly park spin-off from the City's soon to be exploited role as local land bank and shopping center developer. This is bigger. This is better.

There are only a few things that might toss a wooden shoe in the machinery.

First is reliance on the much ballyhooed TSPLOST, up for vote this July. The money this tax will generate is absolutely necessary for the plan to have a referendum's chance in Dunwoody. Without this money, there will not be enough pay to subsidize the play. So, it is critical that everyone in Dunwoody vote to raise their taxes and encourage all other "smart" folk they can find to do the same. We are all in this together.

Another itty bitty problem is location. As everyone in Dunwoody knows everything is all about location, location, location. Simply put there is not enough space here in Dunwoody, so these trails and recreational areas must be located where land costs are not nearly so high and significant contiguous and connected space is available. That's right, Dunwoody is simply not a viable location for this project. Instead, it must be located in downtown Atlanta.

Hence the TSPLOST.

It turns out that the transportation SPLOST is targeted to expend much of its resources on the desperately needed subsidy of Atlanta's beltline project, which we all know is of great regional importance. And how do we know? Well being the smart folk that we in Dunwoody are, we know because our politicians have told us so. How else would we know, from some non-profit propaganda group?

And you might be asking what this beltline project has to do with TRANSPORTATION. Silly you. It's actually quite simple. This recreational nirvana is not just for Dunwoody. No. It is for the entire region, and based on detailed demographic analysis it has been determined that a vast majority of those paying for these facilities live quite a long distance from the beltline. In order to avail themselves of their beltline, they will have to pack up the kids, the bikes and the dog and travel to downtown Atlanta. And just how will they do that? You got it, TRANSPORTATION!!!

So we have the opportunity to kill a whole flock of birds with one stone. We raise our taxes, aiding in the battle against excessive, flamboyant consumerism. We create much needed green space moving us towards our goal of overtaking Minneapolis in the Green Wars. And finally we will add more demand for our underutilized transportation infrastructure. All this and create jobs too!