Monday, September 30, 2013

The Water Rate Increase: What If City Hall Is No Longer That Relevant?

Sunday morning, 8:59 AM
Here is one scenario. Let's say hardly anyone shows up at this evening's special City Council meeting on the water rate increase. A good possibility, I think. Things have been that way for quite a while now.

Mayor Walsh has commented on the lack of resident meeting attendance a few times recently, and my impression is that she feels this is because people just don't care. Something that she isn't necessarily displeased about. It means she can raise water rates just as high as she likes and nobody will give her too much guff about it. As you are likely aware, Nancy doesn't handle differences of opinion very well. She prefers to get things done her way, and without too much unnecessary input from the likes of you.

But here is another point of view. Each time I raise the water rate question here on this blog, traffic goes up. Comment numbers don't always reflect it, but page view figures do. It appears that people are concerned about this topic, yet they are not taking those concerns to City Hall. Quite the contrary, they are literally staying away in droves.

The screen shot I've posted above with this article today was taken at 8:59 AM Sunday morning. It shows over 630 hits during a three hour period. Those being the first three hours after I had posted yesterday about the City's water rate hike.

Sunday morning is a time when traffic is normally about a third of that.

Let's say City Hall does the same thing it did during the 2010 water rate so-called process and refuses to send out a Prop 218 ballot to the rate paying residents. A vote suppression tactic that would once again leave people fending for themselves. As I have said here before, I am willing to step in and mail out Prop 218 ballots in the City's place. And if I do this correctly and the response is significantly large enough to beat the third water rate increase in about as many years, what will that indicate?

A few things. First it would obviously mean this latest water rate increase is finished. And after a year when practically every rate and fee City Hall controls has gone up, that would be an interesting turnaround.

This would also raise questions regarding the continuing relevance of our city government in such matters. By mailing Prop 218 ballots ourselves, we will have taken things into our own hands, well beyond the control of Mayor Nancy Walsh, City Manger Elaine Aguilar or Mayor Pro Tem* John Harabedian. Which is how Prop 218 is designed to work. This would reaffirm what happened previously when Measure V prevailed. Or when the voters turned down the UUT extension in April of 2012.

It would be as if our City government no longer counts for as much as it once did. Especially on the big questions of taxation and land use. Perhaps a fitting consequence for their having conducted our City's affairs as poorly as they have.

You'd think the City would realize that sending these ballots out themselves would be in their best interest.

The Other Part

There is an Agenda Report available on the City of Sierra Madre website, which you can access by clicking here. There you will find a summary that contains what I feel is a bit of a ploy. It is very much in line with what the more bureaucratic of our city's officials refer to as "the process." Here's what is said:

It is important to note that the information provided in this staff report is for evaluation and discussion purposes. This is not the draft rate study. Raftelis (Mod: "the consultant") will provide information regarding various financial assumptions and the resulting possible rate structures. Upon further City Council discussion and direction, staff and Raftelis will prepare the draft report for the October 8th City Council meeting. This evening is an opportunity for public input prior to the preparation of the draft report. Through the Raftelis presentation software, the City Council will be able to see the financial impact of the Council's policy direction, before the preparation of the draft rate study.

What is actually taking place here is Raftelis Financial Consultants, Inc. is providing a menu of options with prices attached. This will allow the City Council to ponder the different levels of costs and effects without having to invest too much time and effort into the eventual decision.

A consultant such as this also helps provide political cover, necessary when asking for yet another round of water rate increases in a relatively short period of time.

Like I said, this is very much a "process" style deliberative sequence. The preferred agenda is laid down by the consultant at the beginning, setting the tone for what is to follow. This is then used by the City Council as a kind of script, serving as the foundation for both the discussion and final decision. The results are pretty much preordained, and outside of some minor tinkering there is little left to be done. And whatever public input there might have been is effectively marginalized. The fix being already in.

Here is the menu of options:

Scenario 1 Water Revenue Increases:
"Although the first scenario results in a negative cash flow in FY 2013-14, it is a rate structure that satisfies the debt covenants and provides for a net cash flow in FY 2014-15. This scenario maintains a positive fund balance of at least $600,000 in reserves through the end of FY 2015-16, after which reserves build to cover both O & M Reserve and Capital Reserve."
Jan. 1, 2014 - 19%
July 1, 2014 - 19%
July 1, 2015 - 15%
July 1, 2016 -   3%
July 1, 2017 -   3%
Five Year Increase = 59%

Scenario 2 Water Revenue Increases:
"Like Scenario 1, this scenario satisfies the debt covenants in FY 2014-15. Scenario 2, however, reduces the impact in the first 12 months by reducing the July 2014 rate increase to 15%. Scenario 2, unlike the first scenario, does not achieve a net positive cash flow FY 2014-15; under Scenario 2 achieving that goal that is (sic) delayed until FY 2016-17."
Jan. 1, 2014 - 19%
July 1, 2014 - 15%
July 1, 2015 - 10%
July 1, 2016 -   3%
July 1, 2017 -   3%
Five year increase = 50%

Scenario 3 Water Revenue Increase
"Like Scenarios 1 and 2, this scenario satisfies the debt covenants in FY 2014-15. Scenario 3, however, spreads the impact over the first 12 months by reducing the January 2014 increase to 17% and setting the July 2014 rate increases by 17%. This scenario results in negative cash flow the first three fiscal years, with net positive cash flow achieved in FY 2016-17.
Jan. 1, 2014 - 17%
July 1, 2014 - 17%
July 1, 2015 -   9%
July 1, 2016 -   3%
July 1, 2017 -   3%
Five year increase = 49%

Assuming that SMTV3 is broadcasting this special City Council meeting tonight we will be live blogging it. Otherwise you will be stuck having to go to City Hall with me.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Water Rate Increase: Last Time vs. This Time

(Mod: I keep going back to the last water increase so-called process in hopes of finding clues to this one. They are there, of course. Much of what we see today is unfinished business from the previous combined water rate increases, a series of connected events leading up to about a 100% overall hike in the cost of water here. That is, should the current proposals stand ... One thing that has become very clear to me is that so much of the animosity and strife from the previous water rate dilemma stemmed from the inability of the city to honor its moral obligation to facilitate a vote on this issue. The refusal of City Hall to mail out Prop 218 ballots with its water rate increase notification remains one of the most divisive acts ever committed by our local government agency. This should never happen again, even if the residents have to mail out a ballot themselves. Our right to a vote on this issue is of paramount importance ... Below are some excerpts from a talk Kurt Zimmerman gave in January of 2011 about how our city government conducted itself the last time it contrived to raise our water rates. The red meat issues he discussed are as relevant today as they were the last time.)

Historically, the City has been the purveyor of its own water. However, it has also entered into water contracts with other municipal suppliers.

To fund infrastructure improvements, make repairs and subsidize operating costs, the City floated two bonds: one in 1998 for $6,475,000; and another in 2003, for an additional $6,750,000. More recently the City borrowed $1,500,000 from the San Gabriel Water District for water-related purposes.

According to the City, our total current debt is $18,757,563, which includes bond interest. Unfortunately, I cannot vouch for these numbers as the City has a history of providing inaccurate or incomplete information regarding Sierra Madre's water system and water debt.

Disinformation has also been the City's rule as far as the water rate hike is concerned.

On May 13, 2010, the City Council began the process which culminated in the water rate hike. Towards that end, the City staff sent ratepayers a written notice regarding the proposed rate increase. That notice was intended to comply -- but did not -- with California's Proposition 218. For those of you unfamiliar with Proposition 218, it was a Proposition approved through the initiative process. It was intended to enhance voter participation in the efforts of municipalities to increase their revenues.

At this point I want to note that Proposition 218 is not merely a regulation or statute, but is part of the Constitution of the State of California.

Among other things, Proposition 218 requires that at least 45 days before a hearing on a water rate increase that Sierra Madre provide the ratepayers with a notice that contains the amount of the proposed fee and the reasons for that fee. That notice contained no such information.

First, the notice did not provide each Owner with the amount of the proposed rate increase as required by Proposition 218. Instead, the Notice required each Owner to estimate his or her increase based on such factors as the meter size and the possible applicability of a discount for "low income." Because the Notice lacked definitions or explanations for such factors, however, it was impossible for each Owner to make any estimation of meter size or determine whether he or she qualified as "low income."

How many of you, when you received this notice, knew your meter size?

How many of you, when you received this notice, knew what the City meant by low income and more importantly whether you qualified for a low income exemption?

As if these violations of Prop 218 were not bad enough already, the City continued to consider the proposed rate hike at subsequent City Council meetings without sending the residents additional written notices. Even worse, the City in October 2010, determined that the original, proposed rate increase from May 2010 should be changed. That's right, the rate hike that the City proposed to implement in October 2010 and which it finally approved in January 2011 was not the rate increase it proposed back in May of 2010.

How many of you knew that the City approved a different rate increase? How many of you received a notice, as required by Proposition 218, informing you of the revised rate increase? The answer is none, because the City never sent one!

Worst, the reasons the City provided for the rate increase were misleading at best. The City's party line has been that much of the rate increase was to fund capital improvements. To replace, for example, aging pipes. In a letter to a resident in August 2010, however, the City conceded that the rate increase was not enough to fund a pay as you go capital improvement program. "Funding a capital improvement program to begin immediate replacement of deteriorated water mains (for example) would require a rate increase significantly higher than what was proposed earlier this year."

Then, in October 2010, the City conducted a "Water 411" presentation complete with PowerPoint slides.

Not one, but two PowerPoint slides state that the rate increase "did not provide for a pay as you go capital improvement program."

Instead, the PowerPoint slides reveal the driving force behind the rate increase - the water debt. The PowerPoint continues "the proposed rate increase covered only the bond requirements and projected operational expenses."

How many of you here today would have protested the proposed rate increase had you known that none of the money was being used for repairs or improvements?

Despite our repeated demands, the City has refused to comply with the notice requirements of Prop 218, leaving only a legal challenge, which is the filing of a writ of mandate, as the instrument of our redress.

I also note that a trial court in Merced County recently heard a case involving the City of Livingston's alleged violation of Proposition 218 based on, among other things: the City's failure to provide adequate notice of the hearing on the rate increase; failure to provide separate notices for hearings on the rate increase; and failure to provide a separate notice of a revised rate increase. Does any of that sound familiar?

The Court ruled in favor of the ratepayer plaintiff based on all of these failures and against the City.

(Mod: The agenda report for tomorrow evening's special City Council meeting on water, along with a few pages of pretty graphics from the consultant, can be accessed by clicking here. More on that tomorrow.)

The City of Sierra Madre is hiring!

If a four day work week, government benefits and an extremely short commute appeal to you, then the position of Electronic Resources Analyst: Website & Digital Content could be your ticket to la dolce vita. Check this out:

This is a great opportunity to work in a collaborative enviroment in the great City of Sierra Madre. This position is responsible for managing and maintaining the complex functions of both the City’s and the Library’s electronic resources, including the City website, and digital content. This position will also contribute to the development, implementation and evaluation of technology plans, policies and procedures. The position is based in the Library but will have to opportunity to work with all City departments. 

I guess the hiring freeze is over. Was there ever a freeze? Click here to access the "application process" and other information.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

The Tattler Weekend News: Information You Need, When You Need It

Hundreds learning to face their fears
(Mod: Have you ever wondered what a former scourge of the British punk rock movement would look like if he was doing a butter ad? Your dreams will come true if you click here. Have you ever wondered what a very large rubber duck would look like if it was towed down Pittsburgh's historic Allegheny River? I never have, but if you want you can click here. And what if you really needed to know how many books you'd have to read in order to get a free cheeseburger? Then you would click here. We are all about getting you the answers you want here at the Sierra Madre Tattler. And this is exactly why we are honored to bring you the Weekend News. So that you too can share in our dream.)

Chinese doctor builds new nose on man's forehead (Kansas City Star link): A surgeon in China says he has constructed an extra nose out of a man's rib cartilage and implanted it under the skin of his forehead to prepare for a transplant in probably the first operation of its kind.

In this Tuesday Sept. 24, 2013 photo, a 22-year-old patient, with a surgical made extra nose out of his rib cartilage and implanted under the skin of his forehead, rests at Fujian Medical University Union Hospital, in Fuzhou city, in southeast China's Fujian province. A surgeon in China said he has constructed the extra nose to prepare for a transplant in probably the first operation of its kind. Surgeon Guo Zhihui at the hospital spent nine months cultivating the graft for the man whose nose was damaged.

Surgeon Guo Zhihui at Fujian Medical University Union Hospital in China's southeastern province of Fujian spent nine months cultivating the graft for a 22-year-old man whose nose was damaged.

The striking images of the implant — with the nostril section facing diagonally upward on the left side of the man's forehead — drew widespread publicity after they began to circulate in Chinese media this week. Guo plans to cut the nose from the forehead while leaving a section of skin still connected, and then rotate and graft it into position in a later operation.

"We were just interested in helping the man and did not expect it would stir up this much attention," Guo said in an interview Friday with The Associated Press.

(Mod: You can only hope that this won't develop into a fashion statement. Or that multiple forehead noses won't evolve into some sort of a prestige issue.)

What California Comeback? (Real Clear Politics link): Since November’s election and, with it, a referendum in the Golden State on higher taxes—Gov. Jerry Brown’s Proposition 30—reporters have a new pet story: the so-called “California Comeback” and the tale of a state that’s rediscovered its economic footing.

However, judging by the results of the Hoover Institution’s latest Golden State Poll, which surveyed Californians on their economic confidence, the resurgence is fragile, with skepticism easily trumping optimism.

Following the passage of Prop 30, the state became flush with tax revenue, helping to “balance” the budget (that balancing act being a game of numerical smoke and mirrors). However, Californians aren’t convinced Sacramento won’t come a-knocking’ again. Seventy four percent of Californians in our Hoover survey believe state taxes will increase either a little or a lot over the next three years—this despite the fact that Prop 30’s tax increases won’t expire until the 2019 fiscal year. Just 15 percent of Californians think their taxes will remain the same, while 2 percent believe taxes will decrease.

The Golden State Poll showed that higher taxes are a concern that crosses incomes levels. Seventy five percent and 73% of those making between $40,000 and 100,000 and under $40,000, respectively, believe state taxes will increase a little or a lot. Interesting, liberals and Democrats (59 percent and 67 percent, respectively) predicted taxes would go up—reaffirming that the State Legislature, with a supermajority of liberal lawmakers in both chambers, has a default position of raising taxes and fees.

(Mod: It is time we all moved to Jefferson. I know a couple of Sierra Madre people who are in the process of doing just that. They are very happy and have no regrets.)

The FPPC’s New Role: The Internet Cop (Fox & Hounds link): Last week, as a parting gift to its chairwoman, Ann Ravel (who is slated to be confirmed to the Federal Election Commission), the California Fair Political Practices Commission enacted a sweeping proposal to regulate online political communication. The move makes California the first state  to attempt to require the disclosure of online communication by someone paid by a campaign to engage in social media.

The reason for this pioneering regulation, insist FPPC officials, is that voters deserve to know if someone expressing their free speech rights is getting a paycheck to do so. On the face of it, that makes some sense. But here’s the reality: self-policing by the online community, as well as current reporting requirements, has made paid non-reported blogging almost nonexistent in our state. Most blogs typically require that authors disclose their affiliation with any campaign.

But pressed, the FPPC repeatedly fails to provide more than a handful of examples of when those engaged in social media didn’t already report their activity — or tried to conceal it.

Nonetheless, the FPPC has enacted a regulation in search of a problem, one that will be unworkable and unenforceable and will result in an avalanche of unnecessary paperwork. The net will result will be less online activity, and reduced voter engagement.

(Mod: You know why this doesn't mean anything to The Tattler, right? We don't take any money. Here we can say any old thing we want and we don't have to divulge the source. Which more often than not is the lack of sleep and a bad reaction to my own cooking.)

New Poll Finds Americans View Death Of Close Relative More Favorably Than Congress (The Onion link): According to a poll released Friday by the Pew Research Center, the favorability rating of the U.S. Congress has sunk so low that the legislative body is now looked upon more negatively than the death of a close relative.

“When asked whether they would prefer to select a casket for their child or endure the forthcoming congressional showdown over the debt ceiling, 89 percent of Americans said they would rather bury their own offspring,” said Pew spokesperson Diana Shostak, adding that the figure went up to 96 percent when it was specified that the political brinksmanship could go on for weeks without a single piece of legislation ever making it to the floor for a goddamn up-or-down vote.

“Watching one’s grandmother weep uncontrollably at the impending death of her husband of 60 years, having the agonizing conversation about whether to pull the plug on his life support unit, and looking on as he gasps for his final breaths—these situations all enjoyed higher approval ratings than any individual member of the House or Senate.”

The poll also found that the prospect of suffering one’s own death by slow asphyxiation was viewed four times more favorably than anything having to do with filibusters.

(Mod: Has anybody ever done a poll of this sort in regards to government here in Sierra Madre?)

Hill prediction: Headed for shutdown (Politico link): House and Senate leadership aides in both parties are increasingly convinced the federal government will close for the first time in more than 17 years on Tuesday morning.

There is still time to avoid such a climactic stalemate, the aides acknowledged. But unless there is a dramatic change in momentum, the likelihood that a partisan showdown over government funding and the future of Obamacare could lead to a shutdown has increased dramatically.

With a special closed-door meeting meeting of House Republicans set for noon Saturday, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and his top lieutenants have not yet formulated their next play in their quest to keep the government open. It’s not even clear that the House will vote on Saturday.

There have been repeated contacts between GOP and Democratic leaders and senior aides in recent days but no negotiations of any sort – or sign those are about to start – to resolve the standoff. Both sides feel they have made their position known to the other side, and are unwilling to make any concessions at this moment.

(Mod: You know what? They should just do it. Shut the damn thing down. What the hell. The time is coming when nobody is going to want to lend us money anymore, so why wait? Federal government collapse is inevitable, so let's at least do it on our own terms. The only can we should be kicking down the road now is the one attached to whatever politician happens to be in front of us at the time.)

L.A. County workers demand higher pay, plan rally on Tuesday (Los Angeles Times link): On the verge of having their contract with Los Angeles County expire, labor organizers on Thursday urged their members to participate in a march and rally next week.

“Our purpose right now is to make sure we send a message to the media, educate the public and we tell the county what they are proposing is unacceptable,” said Norma Herrera, a worksite organizer with SEIU Local 721, which represents 55,000 county workers.

Speaking to more than 50 workers gathered at lunchtime outside the Hall of Administration in downtown Los Angeles, she said, “The most powerful part of any contract is the threat of the workforce.”

The current contract expires at midnight on Monday, and there is no chance that a new one could be ratified before the rally next Tuesday.

The county Board of Supervisors’ cancelled their weekly meeting that day, an action Herrera called “cowardly” and attributed to the labor dispute. County officials say the meeting was cancelled on Sept. 10 when supervisors realized they would not have a quorum.

The proposal on the table is similar to one accepted by several other bargaining units. It calls for workers to receive a 6% raise over 30 months. Other proposals are being debated, including raising the amount employees pay for their medical coverage.

In fliers sprinkled around the Hall of Administration urging participation in a “Day of Action,” SEIU argues that for low-wage workers, the cost of health care is greater than the raise, resulting in a pay cut.

(Mod: It was good to see these folks getting out of their offices and taking in a little sunshine for a change. Some of them obviously needed it.)

23 Pieces Of Evidence That Punk Is Dead (BuzzFeed link)

(Mod: I was going to send this to our friend Tony Brandenburg, but then I figured I'd just put it here and see if he noticed. That Justin Bieber/Black Flag t-shirt is particularly compelling. Of course, punk has been dying since just after it started. Its seemingly endless death is a part of its enduring appeal.)

You're right, I need to stop now.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Jefferson: Is Secession Fever Sweeping California?

Dos Equis
It certainly does looks like seceding from the State of California has become quite a craze in the once Golden State. We do live in a part of the country noted for its cutting edge ways and all, so who knows what effect this is going to have on the rest of the United States.

Last year some folks from those vast stretches of desert just to the east of us talked about forming a breakaway state that they wanted to call South California. And now within the last few months Siskiyou County way up on the northern border of California voted to form a new entity called the State of Jefferson. Citizens of that erstwhile 51st State can be seen pictured here with their new state flag. They seem excited.

The Double X design emblazoned at the heart of Jefferson's new kelly green state banner stands for "double crossed." As in double crossed by both California and Oregon. Just in case you were wondering. It has nothing to do with the popular beer from Mexico that wants you to stay thirsty, my friend.

And just when you thought this might have been a one week story that was destined to fade away once the newspapers lost interest, another California county has now voted to stand with Siskiyou County and join them in the State of Jefferson. This from the San Jose Mercury News (link):

2nd California county votes to secede from state On Friday, Modoc County supervisors voted 4-0 in favor of secession, just weeks after neighboring Siskiyou County made a similar decision, according to the Record Searchlight of Redding.

Modoc County Board Chairwoman Geri Byrne tells the Record Searchlight that she put the secession measure forward after hearing support for the idea from people in her district. "We're not saying we're seceding today, we're saying let's look into it," Byrne said.

The goal is to form a separate state called Jefferson that would also include parts of Southern Oregon. The idea for the state goes back to the 19th century.

Many of the residents of the rural counties along the Oregon-California border have long felt that those in the urban halls of power in both states ignore their needs.

Nearly 40 people turned out for the meeting, Byrne told the newspaper, which amounted to a standing-room-only crowd in Modoc's county chambers. Modoc County has a population of about 9,300 people; Siskiyou has more than 44,000.

A group spearheading the secession effort said the goal is to get a dozen counties to commit before asking California's legislators to allow the formation of a new state. The U.S. Congress would also have to approve such a move.

"California is essentially ungovernable in its present size," Mark Baird, a spokesman for the Jefferson Declaration Committee, said. "We lack the representation to address the problems that affect the North State."

Now you might think that this is all the work of some rather eccentric and wily locals from up north somewhere looking to sell a lot of hats and t-shirts with XX flags on them. And in the spirit of full disclosure, I have ordered mine and they should be arriving in the mail any day now.

However, according to the news site, there is apparently more to it than mere merchandizing. It is a populist political trend. Check this out (link):

Americans warming up to concept of secession as additional counties in California go through process As more and more counties nationwide consider secession, Americans are generally warming up to the concept of leaving their current state or the United States entirely.

A poll conducted by Rasmussen Reports released Thursday found that 17 percent of Americans would vote to have their state secede from the union. Among those 17 percent of Americans is 24 percent of Americans making less than $30,000 annually and 31 percent of people who consider themselves to be entrepreneurs.

Moreover, 22 percent of Americans believe that sections of states have the right to form their own state, while 21 percent of Americans think that sections of states have the right to form their own state within the U.S.

California isn’t the only state where residents are talking about adding states to the union. Several counties in northern Colorado plan to vote on secession from the Centennial State in November over the state’s new environmental and gun control laws, while residents of several counties in western Maryland are considering breaking away from the existing Old Line State as well.

Regardless, any secession movement would have to be approved by both the state government and the federal government, as outlined in the United States Constitution. Only four states – Kentucky, Maine, Tennessee and West Virginia – were formed through the secession process, the last of which (West Virginia) taking place 150 years ago.

If you care to read all of the Rasmussen Reports article cited above ("17% Would Vote to Secede and Form New State"), you can do so by clicking here.

Just so you know, there is no truth to the rumors that those portions of Sierra Madre to the west of Lima are leaving the city. Though I am not sure you can say the same about what is happening in the Canyon.

Happy Friday.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Prop 218: No City Water Ballot Bingo

I received a call from Sierra Madre City Manager Elaine Aguilar yesterday. Why she would want to squander some of her valuable work time talking with someone who has a blog that nobody reads is a mystery to me, but I did appreciate the effort Elaine made to reach out. It was nice to chit chat about some of the issues facing our city these days. There is so much going on as of late, and it is important to communicate.

One thing I do need to note here, however. Often I feel that my conversations with Elaine are not quite as satisfying as they could be. Perhaps the most vexing problem is that, and no matter what the topic mind you, I am invariably wrong in Elaine's opinion. And when Elaine explains why I am wrong (like I said, that happens as often as we speak), she then also informs me what the correct information might be. Information that I invariably find makes little sense. That is, if I even understand what she is talking about at all.

An example of this would be the City of Sierra Madre's 2003 water bond debacle (link). Though I am sure Elaine would not want to use the word "debacle." At that time we had indebted ourselves to the tune of $6.75 million dollars in order to buy water infrastructure. The large water tank down the street from my home being one example that Elaine cited. Much of the money used to pay for these useful things came from Federal (and other) matching funds, money that we became eligible to receive once we had raised $6.75 million dollars through that 2003 bond sale.

As nice as those tanks are, here is the problem as I see it. That $6.75 million dollars raised through selling water bonds in 2003 later became nearly $15 million dollars in hard debt. And this came about because City Hall somehow decided to make interest only payments on that big slug of fiscal woe. To use the somewhat controversial home loan metaphor (I personally don't think it is a valid one, but it has been used in official settings), we are now underwater about two and a quarter times. Which should be seen as a bad thing.

In my chat with Elaine yesterday I brought up what I believe is City Hall's public perception problem. Many feel the information given by them often seems overly complex, unduly confusing and jargon ridden, at times counterintuitive and, at least in the minds of those giving it, never open to challenge.

Using the 2003 Water Bonds example, my suggestion to Elaine was that it really would be helpful to her cause if perhaps a little vulnerability was shown. Admit turning $6.75 million dollars into $15 million in chronic debt through an interest only payments scheme probably wasn't the smartest thing to do. Then promise that such a thing will never ever happen again.

Look, this all began well before Elaine was even working here, and none of the folks on the current  City Council are responsible for this debt disaster either, so what is the big deal? Throw the bums under the bus and move on.

If the City want to raise water rates for the third time since 2010, which would cumulatively make it close to a 100% increase should this latest proposed round survive, the City should at the least consider discussing the possibility that we got to this woeful pass because some poor decisions were made in the past. And having to pay $15 million for bond debt when the amount could have been half of that (interest included) was a pretty boneheaded and irresponsible move.

However, Elaine told me I was wrong, and that she could never do such a thing. It was then that I got to hear all about those water tanks.

Another topic came up during our chin wag, and that was whether or not City Hall would be including Prop 218 ballots with its legally mandated mailing notifying the ratepayers that they are about to be socked with yet another immense water rate increase. The public does have the legal right through Prop 218 to ratify (or not ratify) this rate increase, and a ballot mailed out by the City would be helpful. And voting is widely recognized in this country as being a good thing.

Elaine's response was that this Prop 218 ballot question would have to be addressed by the City Council, and that her opinion here would not really count for all that much. This would be a decision that they would make, and her role as City Manager would then be to carry out their will.

After our phone exchange had concluded I thought about Elaine's reply a little. And something about what she had just told me didn't seem quite right. And as I usually do when I need to solve one of life's vexing problems, I started poking around the Internet to see what the real deal might be. And that is where I found the following City of Sierra Madre document.

According to the following, the decision to not include a Prop 218 ballot with the city's 2010 Water Rate Increase notification was not made by the City Council. It was instead made by our then City Attorney, the always generously coiffed Sandra J. Levin. Something that then triggered the "water rate process." Whatever that might be.

Check this out:

PROPOSITION 218 PROCESS AND PROPOSED WATER RATE INCREASE (June 22, 2010): The process for adopting the rate increase is as set forth in the staff report of May 11, 2010:

1. The first step is providing staff the direction to initiate the process. An affirmative vote on this agenda item tonight (May 11th) does not raise the water rates; it simply directs staff to proceed with the process.

2. Mail notices at least 45 days before public hearing. The second step in the process of adjusting rates is to mail notices to all water customers within the City’s service area. A standard letter will be sent out describing the amount of the rate adjustment, stating the effective date of the adjustment if approved, advising the customer of the protest procedure, and stating the date of the Public Hearing. The notices for water fees do not include ballots. Instead, those who wish to protest must submit a written protest (usually in the form of a letter). Guidelines for the submission and tabulation of protests are attached to this report as Exhibit D, and if the City Council acts to approve the initiation of the 218 process, approval the Guidelines is included in that action.

3. Hold Public Hearing. On the appointed date, the City Council will hold a public hearing and receive testimony on the matter of the proposed rate adjustment. If directed to proceed with the 218 process this evening (May 11th), the Public Hearing will be held July 13th.

4. First reading of ordinance at same meeting as hearing. Following the Public Hearing, if a majority protest has not occurred and the City Council approves of the rate increase, the City Council will receive first reading of an ordinance setting the adjusted rates.

5. Second reading at following meeting. Second reading and adoption of the rate adjustment takes place two weeks later. This is typically a consent calendar item."

As those who participated will vividly recall, this was why a small group of us concerned citizen types had to run around town with clipboards getting people to sign petitions protesting the 2010 water rate hikes. Which a couple of thousand residents did. The City of Sierra Madre had concluded it was not legally incumbent upon them to send out any ballots to the ratepayers, so we were forced to do it for ourselves.

That we came as close to winning as we did was a kind of miracle.

Anyway, here is what I would like to share with Elaine Aguilar and the City Council. I am not really sure how I feel about this water hike. Even though the City lacks the emotional wisdom to admit it screwed things up in the past, and it did, we are now suffering the consequences. But does this mean we should possibly risk putting the water division into financial peril? I quite honestly do not know.

I can tell you this. I do not think a compelling case has been made yet for raising water rates again. What we are hearing is very similar to what we heard three or so years ago, and what difference did that make? Very little, apparently. The math turned out to be lousy, and the rate hikes were ineffective. Things have actually gotten worse.

But if there is one thing I do believe in, it is Democracy. The right of citizens to vote is important, and simply must be respected. This water rate increase must go to a Prop 218 vote of the people. It is the law. A nearly 60% water rate hike is no laughing matter, and the voices of the ratepayers need to be heard on this matter.

So here is my deal. If the City Council of the City of Sierra Madre will not authorize sending out Proposition 218 water rate ballots to the people of our town, I, along with that small group of people I consider to be some of the best friends I have ever made, will be honored to do that for them.

One way or the other the people of Sierra Madre will get to vote on this water rate increase. What our City's big domes need to ask now is do they want that ballot to come from them, or The Tattler.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Mayor Walsh Gets Called Out

I don't know about you, but a lot of the fun in messing around with City Hall just isn't there anymore. This has all become a kind of grim business. So little of what you hear from these people is actually on the level, and then how do you deal with the sheer volume? It just keeps coming, and in very large amounts. Baloney in bulk, as it were. And they certainly aren't the most pleasant people to have to deal with, either.

All civility jokes aside, government in our town has turned rather mean as of late. To the point where the sitting Mayor of Sierra Madre has actually taken to stalking volunteers. It has literally gotten that bad. It is an embarrassment.

Last night Sierra Madre resident and devoted volunteer Leslee Hinton (General Plan Steering Committee, Community Services Commission) showed us that she had endured just about all of the demeaning insults she intended to take from Mayor Nancy Walsh. She wrote a statement detailing a recent unfortunate experience with the Mayor, and then did something that she felt was necessary to do. Leslee took her message to last night's City Council meeting and read it for all the town to hear. This is what she said:

Last week there was a joint meeting of the Community Services Commission and the Senior Commission to discuss turning the Memorial Park women’s restroom into storage and converting the men’s restroom into a unisex bathroom.  After public comment was closed Nancy came to the podium and interrupted the meeting.

It was at that time she accused me of doing and saying things that were untrue.  She said that I had interviewed mothers and caretakers in the park and reported back that they wanted a family bathroom.  I replied, “NO I hadn’t.   Nancy then said quote, “That is what you reported, that you interviewed mothers in the park.”  I responded that I never spoke to mothers in the park.  

Nancy responded, “I can actually believe that you didn’t speak to them but you did report that you had.  She said, “It’s probably in the minutes.” She also said that I was being disingenuous. In other words, she said I was lying.   

I have reviewed the Community Service Commission minutes and the tape of the City Council meeting on April 12, 2011. There wasn’t anything in The Community Services minutes relating to a unisex bathroom or storage.   Not only did I not speak at the Council meeting, but a pan of the audience showed I was not even at that meeting. 

Nancy you have called me a liar in public meeting and you own me a public apology.

Think about this for a second. A sitting Mayor of the City of Sierra Madre shows up at a committee meeting apparently with the intent of confronting one of the volunteer members there. The point of disagreement being something as innocuous as who said what about renovating a bathroom in Memorial Park. With the Mayor then going up to the podium and actually accusing that volunteer of not telling the truth. Again, over who said what about renovating a bathroom.

There was no apology from the Mayor. I am sorry, but this is bizarre behavior. The incident is also not a unique one for Nancy Walsh. This matter needs to be discussed.

Assemblyman Chris Holden supports the use of arbitrary Eminent Domain in Redevelopment

More bizarre behavior I'm afraid. Our Assemblyman came to speak to the City of Sierra Madre last night about what he called the "State of the State." It turned into a sales pitch for some very scary Sacramento initiatives. None more so than SB-1. Here is what Chris Holden's meeting handout had to say on that topic:

SB-1 (Steinberg) - Allows cities to establish a Sustainable Communities Investment Authority and direct tax increment revenues to that Authority in order to address blight by supporting development in transit priority project areas, small walkable communities and clean energy manufacturing sites.

That is, of course, the airbrushed version. Here is how the Los Angeles Times more accurately portrayed this bill:

Bill advances creating new redevelopment in California (link): Denounced by one property owner as a “communist land grab,” a bill is advancing in the California Legislature that would allow local governments to spend tax money to seize land from residents and provide it at a discount to private developers.

Dubbed by some as the “son of redevelopment,” SB 1 would replace redevelopment project areas disbanded more than a year ago with new Sustainable Communities Investment Areas.

The establishment of the areas would allow local officials to use money from the growth in property tax revenue, bonded indebtedness and powers of eminent domain to take properties from some and give them to others for economic development. Unlike the old redevelopment areas, government officials would not have to show that an area is blighted to be targeted.

“There is a big void without redevelopment,” Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg told an Assembly committee Wednesday. The panel approved his bill, which he said “is good for jobs and its good for the environment.”

However, more than a dozen property rights activists testified against the bill before the Assembly Local Government Committee. The measure would have a “chilling effect on the rights of property owners,” and result in a “drastic loss” of farmland, said John Gamper, a lobbyist for the California Farm Bureau Federation.

After one woman called the measure  a “communist land grab,” Republicans also weighed in with opposition. Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez (R-Lake Elsinore) said many residents don’t trust government to have the power to take private property. “That’s of huge concern for most people in California, that the government will abuse that authority,” she said.

SB-1 is little more than a mechanism by which shady Sacramento politicians like Chris Holden can pay back the unions, developers and Realty organizations that shower them with money by allowing local government to seize the property of private individuals on the cheap. Done so that certain favored interested parties can build things like condo complexes and bowling alleys.

Sierra Madre is a town where the residents voted overwhelming to outlaw eminent domain. Chris Holden believes he has the right to not only reimpose it upon us from above, but do so in a way that gives the maximum possible rewards to his most prominent campaign donors. All backed up by the muscle of our pathological central state government.

We really need to work very hard to defeat this guy in the next election. He's dangerous.

The SGVMWD water hook up - Is it here to stay?

Last night the consultant the City Council hired to help them build a case for some pretty outrageous water rate increases might have spilled the beans about a permanent loss of sustainability in our water supply. In his PowerPoint presentation the following was revealed as a justification for increasing water rates here by as much as 59%:

... increased imported water costs commencing in Fiscal Year 2015.

Correct me if I am wrong, but hasn't City Hall been putting out the message that the San Gabriel Valley Municipal Water District connection is only a temporary one? And that as soon as Sierra Madre's water supplies are replenished in the upcoming rainy seasons that tie would be quickly severed and the Water Division returned to supplying water here in the same way it has for decades? From our own mountain fed aquifers?

Is that understanding no longer an operative one? Has something changed and we haven't been told about it? If this SGVMWD hook-up is only temporary, why is the consultant talking about needing to raise water rates in part because the cost of importing water is going to go up in 2015?

Another question. Why would importing water like this become a permanent condition? More development, perhaps? I asked about this from the public comment box, but no answer was given.

There will be another opportunity to get an answer, both on that and many other questions. Apparently the need to raise water rates for the third time in 4 years is a pressing one for City Hall. So much so that they now plan to pick this conversation up again at a special meeting on the subject next Monday evening. Something that was rather spontaneously cooked up late last evening.

You really ought to go. It could be that you haven't been getting the whole story.

Those are three things that jumped out at me last evening. There was plenty more. But it is very late and I really need to call it a night.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Is Chris Holden the Best State Assembly Majority Whip that Money Can Buy?

(Is $199,000 enough?)
Our State Assemblyman Chris Holden will be stopping by to speak to Sierra Madre at tonight's City Council meeting. He is slated to talk about how things are going up in Sacramento, and all the many wonderful things that are being done there for us, the hardworking citizen taxpayers of California. It is being called a "State of the State" speech. And perhaps Chris will also take a moment to describe exactly how he achieved the august position of State Assembly Majority Whip mere weeks after being elected to that legislative body for the very first time last November. It would be an interesting tale to hear him tell.

But since I don't think Assemblyman Holden will have enough time to cover that particular topic this evening, I am going to discuss it for him here on The Tattler.

You would think that a legislator would need to get at least one term in the California State Assembly under his belt before assuming so senior post as State Assembly Majority Whip. As the sixth ranking power player in our de facto one party State Assembly, someone who works directly with the Speaker of the Assembly in helping to create and enact important legislation on behalf of the people of our state, it really is quite a plum position.

Most folks would naturally assume that an office with that much potential influence would only be given to someone with years of hard won experience and seniority, right?

Yet Chris Holden, freshman Assemblyman from our very own 41st Assembly District, was given the prestigious and very senior position of State Assembly Majority Whip (link) only weeks after being first elected to the Assembly. And had a few other rather influential assignments thrown his way as well. Here is how the happy news is celebrated in a press release from Chris's very own official State Assembly website (link):

Holden Named to Key Assembly Committees
Created on Thursday, 03 January 2013 16:11
Sacramento – Assemblymember Chris Holden (D-Pasadena) was today appointed by Assembly Speaker John Perez to several key committees. Holden, who serves as Majority Whip, will also serve on the Appropriations Committee, Business, Professions and Consumer Protection, Labor and Employment Committee and Transportation Committee.

"I am pleased and honored to participate in these important committee assignments to improve the lives of all Californians," said Assemblymember Holden. "Many of these committees are areas in which I have some experience from my years working in the Pasadena City Council, the Burbank Airport Authority, and with Metro Gold Line. I look forward to putting that experience to work dealing with the challenges facing our district and our state."

Assemblymember Holden represents the 41st Assembly District which includes the communities of Altadena, Pasadena, South Pasadena, Sierra Madre, Monrovia, San Dimas, La Verne, Claremont, and Upland.

CONTACT: Wendy Gordon, (626) 720-3409

So how did Chris manage to do all that? The press release doesn't actually say. But according to the Center for Investigative Reporting, newly elected freshman Assemblyman Chris Holden may have paid Speaker John Perez $199,000 in specially targeted campaign donations in order to obtain these prestigious and influential positions.

It seems that this is how such things currently get done in our vastly corrupt State Assembly.

In an article titled "California speaker gives Assembly's juiciest jobs to biggest fundraisers" (link), here is how the Center for Investigative Reporting describes this, er, "process:"

In May 2012 and again in June, Speaker John A. Pérez wrote memos to Democrats in the California Assembly. He wanted millions in campaign cash to win a handful of key races.

At stake, Pérez wrote, was their party’s control of the Assembly – and, as it turned out, the perks and power enjoyed by the lawmakers themselves.

“It is critical that we band together to maximize our financial resources,” the burly Los Angeles legislative leader wrote in the memos, copies of which were obtained by the Center for Investigative Reporting.

The lawmakers gave Pérez what he wanted, state campaign finance records show.

Exploiting loopholes in a law enacted to stanch the flow of big money in state politics, the Assembly Democrats pumped $5.8 million into the campaigns Pérez designated, a CIR data analysis shows. The infusion of cash helped the Democrats win a supermajority in the Capitol: two-thirds control of the Legislature for the first time since 1883.

The system also paid off for the speaker’s biggest fundraisers in the Assembly.

According to the data, Pérez gave lawmakers who raised the most money the best assignments in the new Legislature – posts on the speaker’s leadership team and seats on the powerful “juice committees.”

These are seven of the Assembly’s 30 standing policy committees. They control bills affecting the financial bottom line for the Capitol’s wealthiest interest groups: from banks, insurance companies and public utilities to casinos, racetracks and liquor distributors. For lawmakers who serve on them, the committees are a source of political campaign “juice”: abundant donations.

Pérez’s spokesman John Vigna said the speaker makes legislative assignments based on merits, not money.

“There is absolutely no connection, zero connection, between Speaker Pérez’s leadership selections and any political considerations, including fundraising,” he said.

“Speaker Pérez chooses his leadership team based on their ability to serve the people of California” and nothing else, Vigna added.

CIR’s analysis of more than 38,000 contributions to Assembly Democrats in the 2011-12 campaign shows a link between donations to the speaker’s targeted races and a lawmaker’s prospects for important legislative assignments.

Among the findings:

The mega-donors to Pérez’s targets – three lawmakers who gave more than $250,000 – obtained positions of power. Each was named to either a leadership post or chairmanship of a juice committee, along with a seat on at least one juice committee. The top donor, Toni Atkins of San Diego, was named Assembly majority floor leader – next to the speaker, the top leadership post.

Lawmakers who gave more than $150,000 were likely to get multiple important posts. All 18 got one juice committee seat, and 16 got a leadership post, chairmanship of a juice committee or a seat on a second juice committee.

Lawmakers who gave less got less. Donors who contributed less than $150,000 stood a 13 percent chance of heading a juice committee or joining the leadership. No lawmaker who gave less than $40,000 was named chairman of a juice committee.

So does Chris Holden, our apparently paid up power player in the State Assembly, give preferential treatment to the interests of those who fronted him the dough required to buy all that influence in Sacramento?

Let me put it to you this way, chances are you are not someone who has given Chris any substantial checks lately. Have you received any phone calls from your State Assemblyman?

And if you had given our brand new State Assembly Majority Whip a large check in the last year or so, do you think that maybe you would be able to get him on the phone if there was something you needed? Of course you could. Isn't that kind of access what you were really paying for?

Without that money Chris Holden could have been just another rank and file freshman backbencher with little of value to sell. Access costs money and money is power in Sacramento, and he is now one of the people those having that kind of cash are going to want to get in touch with.

Who helped Holden buy this influence in Sacramento? Thanks to Follow the, that information is only one click away (link). Just to whet your appetite, Sacramento made man Holden has received over $1,000,000 in campaign donations, most of it from influence hungry organizations. It really is quite a roster.

And who is right there among Chris's top campaign donors? The California Association of Realtors.

Now there is a coincidence.

For a hilarious video that accompanies the CfIR's expose', click here. Chris has a neat cameo.

Welcome to Sierra Madre, State Assembly Majority Whip Holden! We have been following your career closely. I don't know how much you know about our town, but we take this kind of stuff rather seriously here. And we do enjoy talking it over with our neighbors.

This isn't Pasadena. Just so you know.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Your Tattler "Wolfman Special Edition" of the City Council Meeting Preview

As everyone is certainly aware, City Council meetings happen only once every other Tuesday evening. They could happen every week I suppose, but then who would go? Well, OK, nobody hardly ever goes now, so I suppose the point is moot. Would things improve if the meetings were held monthly? Or even quarterly? How about only when the moon is full and the forests ring with the fearsome howls of the Wolfman? All here have heard those anguished and lonely cries, and certainly that would bring some immediacy to these proceedings. We could hang religious sacraments from the Council Chamber doors and offer sanctuary to all who might seek it. Trust me, there would hardly be an empty seat left.

But I digress, and perhaps badly so. Tuesday evening's meeting has some important issues on tap for us, especially regarding certain exorbitant water and sewer rate increases. A topic which, a few years back, would have brought out angry mobs armed with pitchforks and torches. Kind of like those nights when the moon is full and the Wolfman begins to howl. We trepidatious villagers must always be vigilant about the dark forces that move among us.

Tuesday's meeting begins with the secret session. It is where the many legal entanglements our city government faces are discussed, and tomorrow there will be two such topics on the docket. The first one reads this way:

Existing Litigation: Case No. GC046442
Case Name: City of Sierra Madre v. Jeffrey M. Hildreth and Taryn N. Hildreth d/b/a The Sterling Oak; Suntrust Mortgage, Inc. a Virginia Corporation; and does 1-50 inclusive.

This item continues the death match between the City of Sierra Madre and the Hildreth family. The latter being folks having the temerity to try and start a wine business in a zone that city favored development interests had designated for their special brand of junk redevelopment. As Vin Scully might say, "This one could go all the way!"

This matter should have been settled amicably years ago, but that didn't happen. The resulting legal costs to the taxpayers caused by City Hall's intransigence are already immense. And wait'll you see the bill if the damn fools lose this case. Which they very well could. You never know.

The other item is a bit more mysterious. Here is the agenda take on this one:

Pursuant to Calif. Government Code Section 54956.9(d)(4)
The City Council finds based on advice from legal counsel, that discussion in open session will prejudice the position of the local agency in the litigation. Initiation of Litigation: Number of potential cases – Two

Channeling Vin Scully one more time, it looks like a doubleheader. Government Code for the item is identified this way:

54956.9(d) For purposes of this section, litigation shall be considered pending when any of the following circumstances exist: (4) Based on existing facts and circumstances, the legislative body of the local agency has decided to initiate or is deciding whether to initiate litigation.

We have seen this particular code number several times before, so obviously the city is still looking to change its luck and go on the offensive over some things. Who they are planning to sue is anyone's guess, however. Maybe they'll just do like everyone else and sue themselves instead? It would certainly be a unique way of dealing with the situation, and perhaps that way they could win.

After the City Council concludes its secret deliberations it will enter Council Chambers for the public portion of the evening's event. The usual rituals will be practiced, cleansing the area of evil spirits and other annoying impediments to true government process. Each Councilmember will then speak about their deeds over the last 14 days, testimony to their leadership and value for the community.

Assemblyman Chris Holden will then rise to speak about how great things are going in Sacramento, something that only the lowliest of yes men (and yes women) present will buy into. The majority of those being on the City Council. Chris advocates both an arbitrary use of eminent domain as a redevelopment tool (SB-1), and the building of the 710 Tunnel. Two things that for me make anything he might have to say tomorrow night meaningless.

Consent Calendar Item (a): The regular public portion of this approximation of a city government in a state of distress kicks off per usual with the spending of large sums from the public purse. How it got to this point is anyone's guess, but the amount of $702,154 will pass from the hands of the sorely tested taxpayers Tuesday evening and straight out the door. Checks from us are always in the mail. Vast flocks of them.

Third World Edison, the intermittent power provider that recently gouged us for the electricity needed to operate our water company, gets $84,298.25. The City of Arcadia gets $24,565.16 for something to do with water I suspect. Even though we supposedly aren't buying any of it from them right now. Dapeer, Rosenblit & Litvak get $19,556.72 for their legal wisdom, and Perry Thomas Construction will receive $109,561.60 for the MWD Connection Project. This being for the pipes hooking us up to the San Gabriel Valley Municipal Water District, but only for temporary use. I'd sure hate to see what the cost would be if that hookup was to be used permanently.

Item letter (b) on the Consent Calendar informs us of the following:

Recommendation that the City Council approve Resolution No. 13-65 and authorize staff to delay the application of penalties for customers who exceed their conservation target until the bills that will be calculated and mailed after the November 2013 billing cycle.

Now that we are about to be hooked up to the chloramine-rich waters of the SGVMWD, what need is there for fining residents? Well, OK, the City wants the money. There is that.

This apparently is a postponement of the schedule of fines that our supposedly independent water company will use to level punishments upon its captive customer base. Which means that Sierra Madre's water hostages will begin to be fined for overly exuberant water usage right around the time the city's water rate increases go into effect. An "elegant solution," to use a particularly redolent Josh-ism.

Item letter (c) deals with Street Rehabilitation. I don't know how you rehabilitate a street. Perhaps you put it in a ten step program? I'm just kidding. Here is how our all knowing City Staff puts it in the Meeting Agenda:

Recommendation that the City Council authorize modification of funding of the fiscal year 2012-2013 street project and approve the contingency funding.

The problem here is that the City Council limited the spend on these various street repaving projects to about $693,000. However, and as per the usual, there are certain contingencies to think about (albeit in this case a little late), and if you factor those into the mix the actual amount required increases to $725,735. The City Council will be asked to either rebid all of this, give Bruce Inman some more cash, or cut the scope of the entire project.

What is odd here is that the recommendation on the meeting agenda, and the one in the staff report, are in complete disagreement. Compare the above quote with what is said in the meeting packet:

Staff Recommendation: Staff recommends that the Council reject the bids received for the project and direct staff to re-bid the project with a reduced scope.

Seems like a contradiction to me. Or maybe it's "blue sky" thinking. Or twerking. But only in a metaphorical sense.

Item 1(d) on the Consent Calendar should give anyone in attendance a little sorely needed comic relief. This has to do with that "Art in Public Places" situation you've been hearing about, and the only reason it is even on the agenda at all is because it is one of those rare items that Mayor Walsh can actually understand. Here is how it reads:

Recommendation that the City Council read by title, pass second reading, and approve Ordinance No. 1345 amending Chapter 17.90 of the Sierra Madre Municipal Code pertaining to the Arts in Public Places Program.

Apparently there is going to be between $20,000 and $60,000 available for the purchase and installation of "Art in Public Places" at some point during this fiscal year. Most of it is rumored to be coming out of Kensington funds via some rather creative means.

That this mandate comes from a city that constantly complains about how badly it lacks for funding, while raising every available fee, rate and tax, does add a certain level of absurdity here.

If these folks really do want to put their art into public places in Sierra Madre, they should just donate it. I can hardly see why any money should be spent funding art projects that cannot stand on their own in the private marketplace.

Item 1 (e) on the Consent Calendar involves creating plans for rebuilding sewers, with the cost expected to come in at around $7,500. If you were to take a more postmodern look at this item it could be possible to view these plans as a form of art. And since sewers are public places, though not often frequented, wouldn't it then be possible to take the money needed for this item out of "Art in Public Places" funds?

The last item on the Consent Calendar roster is letter (f), and it has to deal with an inventory of Sierra Madre's streets. The amount set aside to accomplish this feat is $13,950, and it looks like City Hall darlings Bucknam will be getting the gig. Apparently Jerry Brown has some Prop C money to give us for street repair, especially those streets serving as conduits for public transportation. You know, like buses. In order to receive some of this Sacramento generated largess a report must be created, which for around $14 grand Bucknam will happily do.

We've finally gotten to Agenda Item #2, which finds us contemplating the dreams of a Parker and Barbara Williams and their wish to pack in some high density housing at 215 N. Baldwin Avenue. City Staff has no problem with the high density request, they'd turn this city into Rancho Cucamonga if they thought it would look good on a resume.' What does give them pause, however, is the request that the City also waive $35,149.18 in Public Facilities fees. Since City Hall is glomming onto every spare cent it can exact from anyone doing business in this town, they are reluctant to do that. A Conditional Use Permit will be approved by the pro-development bobbleheads on the City Council, but those penny-pinching Parkers will have to pay through the nose to get it.

By the way, our new neighbor Parker Williams has an interesting past. One that includes some jail time for a little development related bribery when he was an elected official in Alhambra. A place apparently celebrated for such behavior. To read the Tattler expose' on this dude, click here. Let's just hope he hasn't tried anything quite so funny while here in Sierra Madre.

Agenda Item #3 contains one of the most profound disconnects of any recent meeting. As you will see in a minute, our waterless Water Department is requesting upwards of a 60% increase in its rates, yet in this item they are asking for over $1.4 million dollars to purchase so-called "smart water meters." Here is how this is described in the agenda:

Recommendation that the City Council approve the installation of a citywide AMI system, awarding the contract to Concord Utility Services for an amount not to exceed $1,406,385; with the procurement of Sensus AMI meters and AMI appurtenances from Aqua-Metric; and provide staff with direction as to which financing option to utilize in funding the project and what funding source to utilize for funding the project.

"AMI" is the acronym for Advanced Metering Infrastructure. Our water wizards want to extend payments on these meters out for 8 years, which I am sure makes sense to them. After all, they are basically the same folks who extended our payments on the 2003 water bonds into the 2030s, and at the cost of nearly $9 million to the taxpayers. If anybody wants to know why our Water Department is in the kinds of financial trouble it is today, you need look no further than this agenda item.

Agenda Item #4 is the main bout of the evening. Here Raftelis Financial Consultants, Inc., a vastly overpaid outfit hired mainly to provide some political cover for our less than courageous City Council, will attempt to build the case for water rate increases of nearly 60%, with a sewer rate hike of up to 95% being pushed as well. This is very much a "process" situation in that these consultant suggested rates are not as yet official requests, just the recommendation of Raftelis.

However, this does serve the purpose of starting the conversation around a certain set of numbers, and from this point forward the City Council will be able to build their rate increases upon an established benchmark. It is the reality creation portion of the "process."

Again, the purpose of this rate hike is not to repair water infrastructure, or make this department's services any less worse. Rather it is to help create a financial condition where it will be possible to rejuvenate our distressed bond ratings, and then issue another round of water bonds. In effect creating even more bond debt than we already have. Currently we are in the hole for around $20 million dollars. After this City Council sets in motion its "solution," which includes stiff water and sewer rate hikes, that number could climb to more than $30 million.

Unfortunately, the only way we can stop any further ballooning of this city's bond debt is to stop the Raftelis water rate hikes. There really aren't any other options. In order to keep this City Council from making a terrible mistake, one that this jurisdiction might not survive, we might need to shoot these proposed water rate increases down. At this point I don't see any other choice.

Next comes Agenda item #5, and here we see City Staff lobbying for yet another fee rate increase. In the past two years there has been quite a few rate, fee and tax increases, and we can now add this to the list. In order to fund pension and benefit increases, City Staff has been sparing no effort in getting every tax (etc.) they control increased. On the agenda report this one is described as a "Public Facilities Fee Rate Adjustment." The adjustment in this case being the increases necessary to cover costs of things like sewer and water main hook-ups.

All that said, this is the cost developers are required to pay when building new projects. It is my hope that we will see some really large increases, ones that will help take all of the possible profit out of building here. You know that this city administration is quite capable of that.

Agenda Item #6 is at the request of Mayor Pro Tem* Harabedian, and at first glance it seems like a pretty good idea. Described on the agenda as "OpenGov Online Budget and Financial Transparency and Data Visualization Software," what this involves is spending $1,788 a year to a company called OpenGov (link). An outfit that would then help share with anyone here who so desires the capacity to examine the city's finances on their home computers. It would certainly help me when obtaining information for this blog. Here is how it is described in the Staff Report:

This financial transparency and data visualization software can assist non-finance staff zero in on their own operating data and run their own financial reports without going into the accounting system. It allows the public unprecedented access to the budget and operating numbers, which build trust in the community.

There is one problem here, however. What does OpenGov itself do with this information? And how do we know they are not bundling and then selling it to interested parties? This would give them quite a lot of access to once secret city business as well. Certainly there are vendors who could profit greatly if they had this kind of information in advance.

The last item is Number 7, and it is yet another attempt at a "Strategic Plan Update from (the) April 4, 2013 Retreat" review. They are not likely to get to it, and nobody outside of the City Manager will care if they don't.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

And Now, Here Is The Sunday News

Mod: We have had so much success with our Saturday posted "Weekend News" concept that we decided it would be best to return this feature back to its less popular Sunday slot. I know this might seem counterintuitive to some, but there is a reason for it. However, I'd rather not discuss that with you right now. It's not that the matter is particularly sensitive, or there are any big awful secrets involved. It is just that I don't see why I need to tell you everything. One other matter while I have you. Most of the news we've posted here today is not particularly good. Why that is I am not really sure. I had hoped things would have been better, but sometimes they just don't seem to turn out that way. This clearly is not my fault. Here's the Sunday News.

Homeless used to buy iPhones in Pasadena left stranded, unpaid (The Los Angeles Times link): Dozens of people picked up on skid row by an enterprising man hoping to secure a load of new iPhones said they were left unpaid and stranded at the Pasadena Apple store.

Dominoe Moody, 43, said he was taken to Pasadena from a downtown Los Angeles homeless mission with several van-loads of people to wait in line overnight for the latest iPhone. He was promised $40, but said he wasn’t paid because after handing the man the iPhone, the man was taken away by police when people became upset with him.

“It didn’t go right. I stood out here all night,” he said, adding that he has no way to get home.

Pasadena Police Lt. Jason Clawson confirmed that a fight broke out about 9 a.m. as a man left the store with multiple iPhones. Other people who were in line and hired by the man began fighting with him because they said they weren’t being paid enough, Clawson said. Police escorted the man from the scene, he said.

Most people weren’t paid by the man, Moody said, estimating that 70 to 80 were recruited and driven to the store to wait in line.

“They need to bring him back ... to pick up the people that he brought here,” said Vivian Fields, 49. “We have no way to get home.”

Fields, who is in a wheelchair, said she was approached by recruiters at a homeless shelter on skid row and arrived in Pasadena on Thursday about 7 p.m. She waited overnight at the store.

Pasadena police are not investigating the incident, Clawson said. "It's not a police issue. It's a business issue," he said.

(Mod: I stood in a long line once at the Pasadena Apple store to get an iPhone, but unlike these people I got to keep it. I hope they at least got to visit the Cheesecake Factory.)

No peaceful, easy feeling after N. Chas. woman accused of stabbing roommate (The Post & Courier link): A North Charleston woman is accused of wielding a knife in an assault on her roommate after he refused to stop listening to rock music by the Eagles Monday night. Vernett Bader, 54, of Brossy Circle, is charged with criminal domestic violence of a high and aggravated nature.

North Charleston police responded to Bader's home late Monday concerning a reported stabbing, an incident report states.

The woman's 64-year-old roommate was nursing stab wounds to his arm, hand and elbow, police said. The wounded man told police that Bader grew angry with him while he was listening to the Eagles and watching television with his brother.

Bader told her roommate she didn't want to listen to the band. He responded by telling her to shut up, the report states.

Bader grabbed a serrated knife from a kitchen drawer and swung it at the man, police said. When the two men wrestled the knife away from Bader, she went back into the kitchen and found another, the report states.

(Mod: The Eagles? No jury will convict her.)

A Green Car Named Desire - Electric car subsidies for the rich are now a drain on California's budget (The Wall Street Journal link): California's green regulations often drive national policies, so it's worth pointing out how its programs to cut vehicle emissions have become a gravy train for the 1%. You'll enjoy this if you live in the other 49 states.

To meet the state's goal of cutting its greenhouse emissions to 80% below 1990 levels, effectively all new cars sold in California by 2040 will have to be electric or plug-in hybrids. As a regulatory weigh station, Governor Jerry Brown has ordered that 1.5 million zero-emission vehicles "be on California roads" by 2025. That last bit is the immediate rub.

Car makers are compelled by the California Air Resources Board to increase their electric fleets to meet these mandates. However, the battery-powered cars have been duds with most consumers. So the board has graciously allowed manufacturers to comply with its diktats by buying "credits." Palo Alto-based electric car maker Tesla has made a $119.5 million killing (300% of its net income) this year from hawking its excess credits.

To get more electric cars on the road, the state also offers consumers $2,500 rebates financed by a $20 "smog abatement fee," which all drivers in the state must pay for their first six registration years. The rebate is on top of the $7,500 federal tax credit and $1,000 or more the state pays drivers to retire their gas guzzlers. The combined government incentives can reduce the price of a Nissan electric Leaf to about $18,000.

(Mod: Speaking of counterintuitive, we just bought a Chevy Spark EV. Which, in its country of origin, is called a Daewoo Matiz. And yes, we got a $7,500 tax credit from Uncle Sugar, plus we expect to receive a $2,500 check from Jerry Brown in the next couple of weeks. It really is a great car, and we love it. No gas stations, no oil changes, no smog tests, no tune ups, and significantly more driving range than that absurd Nissan thing. Plus the government practically paid us to take it, so why not? Powered by coal generated electricity. It is hardly my fault they're nuts.)

Coca-Cola Apologizes for Offensive Bottle Cap (Good Morning America via Yahoo link): Pardon their French? Coca-Cola recently issued an apology to a family after one member purchased a Vitaminwater with a bottle cap bearing an offensive message.

Blake Loates of Edmonton in Alberta, Canada told Metro Calgary she was shocked when she opened her beverage and read the words "YOU RETARD," written inside of the cap. The language was particularly painful to her and her family as one of Loates' younger sisters, Fiona, 11, has cerebral palsy and autism.

The cap inspired Loates' father, who lives in Tacoma, Wash., to issue a lengthy letter of complaint to Vitaminwater's parent company Coca-Cola.

"What would you do if you opened up your bottle of Vitamin Water and on the bottom of the lid it read, "YOU RETARD"?" Doug Loates wrote in his letter swearing off the beverage company for life. "Think about it. I bet you'd be pissed off if you had a Fiona in your life… Can you imagine if SHE had opened this bottle?"

The Loates family did not immediately respond to ABC News' requests for comment.

Representatives for Coca-Cola have since stated that the language inside of the cap was the product of a competition pairing one random English word with a second random French word. In French, "retard" means "late" or "delayed." The word's English connotation was missed during the review process, said a spokesperson.

(Mod: There you go, blame the French guy.)

US nearly detonated atomic bomb over North Carolina – secret document (The Guardian link): A secret document, published in declassified form for the first time by the Guardian today, reveals that the US Air Force came dramatically close to detonating an atom bomb over North Carolina that would have been 260 times more powerful than the device that devastated Hiroshima.

The document, obtained by the investigative journalist Eric Schlosser under the Freedom of Information Act, gives the first conclusive evidence that the US was narrowly spared a disaster of monumental proportions when two Mark 39 hydrogen bombs were accidentally dropped over Goldsboro, North Carolina on 23 January 1961. The bombs fell to earth after a B-52 bomber broke up in mid-air, and one of the devices behaved precisely as a nuclear weapon was designed to behave in warfare: its parachute opened, its trigger mechanisms engaged, and only one low-voltage switch prevented untold carnage.

Each bomb carried a payload of 4 megatons – the equivalent of 4 million tons of TNT explosive. Had the device detonated, lethal fallout could have been deposited over Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia and as far north as New York city – putting millions of lives at risk.

(Mod: That certainly would have taken care of the problem they have in North Carolina with people listening to The Eagles.)

DWP says it can't track millions in ratepayer money (The Los Angeles Times link): The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power has directed an estimated $40 million in ratepayer money to two nonprofit groups charged with improving relations with the utility's largest employee union, but the agency claims to have scant information on how the public funds have been spent.

The Joint Training Institute and the Joint Safety Institute, controlled by DWP managers and union leaders, have received up to $4 million per year since their creation more than a decade ago after a contentious round of job cutbacks at one of the nation's largest municipal utilities.

Nearly all of the nonprofits' money comes from DWP ratepayers, records show. About $1 million per year has been used to pay the salaries of a handful of administrators, according to the limited records the utility has provided to The Times under the California Public Records Act. Separate federal tax records offer only summaries of the organizations' outlays, including more than $360,000 spent on travel from 2009 to 2011.

Officials at the nonprofits, the DWP and the employees' union, Local 18 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, declined to be interviewed about the institutes' activities and spending.

(Mod: Maybe it went out with the recycling. Did they check in the blue can?)

Bride accused of pushing Kalispell man off cliff in Glacier Park (Billings Gazette link): Cody Lee Johnson’s family is convinced the 25-year-old Kalispell man was murdered in Glacier National Park this summer.

Now federal authorities are, too – and they say it was Johnson’s new bride who allegedly pushed him over a cliff, and to his death, during an argument on July 7.

Johnson’s widow, 22-year-old Jordan Linn Graham of Kalispell, was taken into custody in Kalispell Monday morning and made an initial appearance in U.S. District Court in Missoula Monday afternoon on a complaint alleging second-degree murder.

The couple had been married for eight days when Johnson was killed, according to Johnson family friend Tracey Maness.

“Nobody is shocked at all” that Graham is suspected in her husband’s murder, according to Maness. “She’d been telling people she knew she never wanted to be married, she just wanted to have a wedding, and that’s apparently what they were arguing about.”

According to an affidavit in support of the complaint, Graham allegedly confessed to the killing to FBI special agent Steven Liss in mid-July. Graham had initially told law enforcement her husband had gotten into a dark car with Washington plates on July 7 and never returned home.

Johnson’s body was located on July 12 below The Loop, a switchback and parking area on Glacier’s famous Going-to-the-Sun Road.

(Mod: At least it wasn't because he refused to wash the dishes.)

Enjoy the rest of your weekend.