Wednesday, February 28, 2007

The VA: a lost opportunity

Mayor Tom Barrett is abandoning what was, for a while, one of his administratinon's signature efforts: redeveloping the Veteran's Administration grounds and saving many of the beautiful, Civil War era buildings there.

Ouch. The vets lose, the city loses, and history loses.

It's hard to figure just where this effort went off the tracks. Team Barrett clearly did not win the hearts and minds of veterans' organizations. The Department of City Development was overly secretive for a long time and then refused to explain its secrecy. By the time it opened up, the vets weren't listening.

It isn't clear, though, whether the veterans' groups would have listened if DCD had kept them informed from the beginning. Barrett stepped into the VA issue because of the Bush administration's policy of opening VA centers up for development. The mayor was looking for a way to meet the fiscal requirements of the Veteran's Administration while preserving those terrific old buildings. The vets want the VA to be for veterans -- understandable, but not in the Bush game plan. Some vets did not want non-veterans to be able to live in housing proposed for the site, even if no veterans wanted to live there. The vets also want land at the VA to be made available for expansion of the cemetery. Barrett said his plan would have accommodated that.

So here we are. Barrett bowed out, the Bush administration still wants to lease out VA property, the historic buildings on the VA grounds will continue to deteriorate, and non-vets won't be able to live on the VA grounds, but there won't be new housing for veterans there, either.

The sequel to this one probably will be pretty ugly.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Holdout

Happy digital mandate week. I'm not going.

Thursday is the day that all TVs sold in this country must go digital, according to the Boston Globe.

Ha! They can pry the 20-some-year-old analog set out of our cold, damp basement when the picture dims and the duct tape is no longer enough to hold the aerial together.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Banners visible from outer space

The Department of City Development wants to visually blight up our city by allowing buildings to boast banners that are up to 600 square feet in size, up from the 72 square feet generally allowed now. Last week the Common Council's Zoning, Neighborhoods and Development Committee put the matter on hold.

It's bad enough that DCD wants banners so big they are visible from outer space. DCD also wants to limit permissible speech on those banners, and I wonder if the folks that came up with this particular bad idea have thought of the First Amendment issues. The proposed ordinance, for example, would allow a banner announcement of a building's conversion to condo ownership, but not a banner announcement about a conversion to apartments.

While building renovations could be announced on the banner, announcements of used car sales, strip shows, religious rallies, sporting events, honor roll achievers or free immunizations would not be allowed. Why is the real estate industry given special speech privileges under this ordinance? DCD doesn't explain, but it probably has to do with the real estate industry having pretty good lobbyists.

It's like this: if my neighbor is allowed to hang a 600-square-foot banner from her building, then I'm allowed to hang a 600-square-foot banner from my building of the same size, and DCD has no damned business telling me what that sign can say. If a city agency can regulate building banners, why not window signs in commercial buildings? Why doesn't it also sharply restrict what can be advertised on billboards, or on buses?

Are we ready for DCD Commissioner Rocky Marcoux to be the city's censor?

DCD should really rethink this one. And then kill it.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

That offensive, fishy smell

Kentucky Fried Chicken might be Kentucky Roasted in Hell for what it did.

It's Lent and the guys and gals at KFC are introducing a new fish sandwich just in time for Catholics who take meatless Fridays especially serious at this time of the year.

The company has asked the Pope himself for his blessing, with KFC President Gregg Dedrick sending a personal letter to the Vatican...

The sandwich, KFC says, is ideal for American Catholics who want to observe Lenten season traditions while still leading their busy, modern lifestyles. The company has turned to Pope Benedict XVI, beseeching him to bestow his Papal blessing for this innovative new menu item. Vatican officials confirmed they received KFC's request, and the company is hopeful to get the Pope's blessing this Lenten season.

It's appropriate, on one level, for a chicken peddler to appeal for assistance to a pope who is pretty right wing on many issues. This whole publicity stunt, however, like many things about KFC, is pretty damned tasteless.

Hat tip: Food & Water Watch

Friday, February 23, 2007

UW-Milwaukee / UW-Waukesha merger

I've been trying to figure out how this would work. Would students attend classes on both campuses? Would they have 10 minutes between classes? Would different programs be offered on each campus? Would transportation between campuses be provided?

The JS is reporting today that a new report says the merger could cost $25 million a year. The report doesn't explain all the costs, though, a pretty good sign that readers of said report should be highly skeptical of what they are reading.

The paper also reports:

Advocates of the merger have contended that it would allow the Waukesha campus to offer a wider range of services, improve education and promote synergy and efficiency.

Any time the word "synergy" is bandied about in support of anything, readers/listeners/watchers are advised to be highly skeptical of the viability of the proposal at hand.

That is just one of those rules of life that serves one well.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Is MATC out of its mind?

It's a small story that reveals a potentially horrendous deal for taxpayers. The MATC Board Finance Committee couldn't get a quorum together for a meeting -- to consider, among other things, renting a welding lab from Esperanza Unida for $72,000 a year for five years.

What!!!??? Hellloooo! Whose bright idea was this? $72,000 a year for five years? That's a lot of money!

Let's hope that MATC Board members ask some really basic questions: Is this the best price out there? Who arranged this deal? Did the college use a broker? If not, why not? What did the college do to solicit proposals? Why can't the college use one of its own campuses for the lab?

Just what is going on here?

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Walker's audacity

Scott Walker has no shame. The JS reports this morning that Walker opposes Mayor Tom Barrett's transit plan because the county exec needs to protect the bus system. Besides, he envisions a county so prosperous that everyone owns cars.

Putting aside the geopolitical and environmental problems that will arise if we continue to push cars as the ultimate transportation mode, Walker's statements are ludicrously unbelievable. He has slashed transit, raised fares, and never, ever has he been a champion of the poor.

Walker's comments are really over the top -- an insult to Milwaukee County.

Barrett needs to hang more details on the outline of his plan, but he is years and years and years ahead of Walker on this one. It's too bad that Walker has run away, as fast and far as he can, from showing needed leadership on this issue.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Voting

I was number 53 or 54 about 12:30 p.m. Pathetic.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Doyle and local control

Gov. Doyle has every right to try to hasten the death of the Milwaukee County Transit System if he feels that is appropriate. If the governor wants to propose a budget that isolates the poor and makes it impossible for people who don't have cars to get to jobs, he can do that.

If the governor wants to push a billion dollar freeway project to the head of the line to please suburbanites with heated cars and attached garages while poor people in the central city wait in the freezing cold for buses that won't come any more, what can anyone say? That's just the kind of guy the governor is.

If Doyle wants to complain about oil company profits while pushing road projects that will increase oil dependency and oil company profits, he can do that, too.

If he wants to talk about the need to deal with global warming while promoting transportation policies that will only add to the problem, by golly, he can go right ahead and do that as well!

And he did! All of it!

The Doyle administration apparently went further than that, though. While the gov was occupied putting together a state budget that will put another knife into the Milwaukee County Transit System, his minions were reaching into local affairs and nixing local funding proposals as well. The Doylies told local officials that they should not look to a local sales tax increase or a lcoal vehicle registration fee to raise the money to keep the transit system alive.

Way to go, gov.

Eating our way sick

Peter Pan peanut butter, named after the kid who wouldn't grow up, is making folks throw up instead.

Oscar Mayer is recalling chicken breast strips that might be contaminiated with bad-acting bacteria.

Dole is recalling several thousand cases of imported melons after tests indicate they, too, have been touched by salmonella.

What's going on? Well, in short, our federal food safety program is broken. We know from a lot of disasters that President Bush won't respond appropriately or at all, but Congress is taking a pass, too, being all occupied debating non-binding resolutions instead of doing anything real.

The scandal that food safety has become isn't new; it's just growing. The Government Accountability Office recently designated federal oversight of food safety as "high risk," a label it reserves for things that are really messed up. Said the GAO:

Each year, about 76 million people contract a foodborne illness in the United States; about 325,000 require hospitalization; and about 5,000 die.

As fewer megafirms produce more of our food, the numbers of people made sick and made dead very likely will increase.

Comptroller General David Walker put it pretty plainly in testimony before a Congressional committee:

As we have repeatedly reported, our fragmented food safety system has resulted in inconsistent oversight, ineffective coordination, and inefficient use of resources.

Fifteen agencies have their fingers in a food safety stew that includes 30 different confusing, comlicated laws that do not always make a whole lot of sense:

How a packaged ham and cheese sandwich is regulated depends on how the sandwich is presented. USDA inspects manufacturers of packaged open- face meat or poultry sandwiches (e.g., those with one slice of bread), but FDA inspects manufacturers of packaged closed-face meat or poultry sandwiches (e.g., those with two slices of bread). Although there are no differences in the risks posed by these products, USDA inspects wholesale manufacturers of open-face sandwiches sold in interstate commerce daily, while FDA inspects manufacturers of closed-face sandwiches an average of once every 5 years.

Walker said, and let's hope someone somewhere is listening,
that "a fundamental reexamination of the federal food safety system is warranted."

Let's get to it.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

New crime: Felon in possession of a wiener dog

It's so hard to take our politicians seriously sometimes. OK, it's hard to take our politicians seriously most of the time, but sometimes they are so far out there in "what the hell were you thinking about?" land that it's hard even to pretend to take them seriously.

Now we've got some state legislators with nothing better to do than try to criminalize felons in possession of unfixed dogs.

This is real live, true legislative proposal. Honest. Really. Swear to God. State Sen. Dave Hansen (D-Green Bay) wants to put certain folks in jail if they are in possession of an unspayed cocker spaniel or wiener dog.

Yup, the courts aren't busy enough. Let's load 'em up with this crap.

Hansen's bill starts out by proposing to make possession of a vicious dog by serious felony offenders an offense punishable by a $10,000 fine, imprisonment for up to nine months, or both. So far, so good. Vicious dogs can be weapons and shouldn't be possessed by anyone.

Then Hansen and friends (yes, this thing has co-sponsors) take a reasonable beginning and turn it into something that is one pup short of a full litter. Serious felons, under this bill, wouldn't be allowed to "possess, control or reside" with "intact dogs," which are those pooches more than 12 weeks old that have not been spayed or neutered. It also would require any dogs that hang out with said felonious types to be implanted with a microchip.

Geez, no wonder the Department of Corrections needs that huge budget boost.

Hansen's co-defendants in sponsoring this bill are State Representatives Scott Suder (R-Abbotsford), Sheryl Albers (R-Reedsburg), Alvin Ott (R-Forest Junction), and Terry Musser (R-Black River Falls).

It bites, folks.

Friday, February 16, 2007

The other agency that ate the budget

The Department of Corrections. Another budget (along with the Department of Transportation's) that is eating the State of Wisconsin alive.

The governor is proposing a $288 million increase in DOC's budget for the next biennium, the second biggest increase proposed, behind the $328 million more he wants for education.

The prison system, though, chews through money as fast as it does people. A bill to reallocate money in state agencies this year was introduced this week at the request of the governor -- and DOC is the big winner. The gov wants to plump up DOC's budget by $56.3 million to pay for adult services, $6 million to pay for contract costs, and a cool million to pay for juvenile offender programs. That's a total of $63.3 million, for the arithmetically-challenged.

And if a major state industry is locking poor people up, then you need someone to defend them. The gov is seeking $9.7 million to pay for private lawyers and investigators hired through the Public Defender Board.

Atty. Gen. JB Van Hollen also wins a big prize: authorization for 15 more positions in the crime lab for DNA analysis. The additional money needed for that isn't much -- $96,600, meaning the gov doesn't expect the hiring process to be done until very, very late in the year or even next year, or the Justice Department has some money floating around somewhere to cover the cost of whoever comes on board this year.

Also on the table: A $30 million cut to the Department of Workforce Development's allocation for the earned income tax credit and a $30 million increase for its deficit ridden child-care program (indicating that neither is run very well).

The funding for the Badger Care health program would go up by $5.5 million, but would be more than offset by big cuts elsewhere in social services. The state's share of Medicaid costs would be cut by $69.7 million, funding for prescription drug assistance would be slashed by $15.7 million, money for foster care and adoption services would drop $3.1 million.

Big money for the prison system paid for by cuts to health care. No wonder young people want to get the hell out of this state.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Does Doyle hate transit, or what?

Such a coincidence: a few weeks after a planning agency warns that continued state budget increases of 2% for transit will just about kill the Milwaukee County Transit System, Gov. Doyle proposes -- a 2% increase for transit. He also wants to keep a promise he made to road builders and Waukesha County to spend $24 millionon studies for reconstructing the Zoo Interchange ahead of schedule.

Let's review this again. The Milwaukee County Transit System -- used mostly by City of Milwaukee residents, lots of whom don't have cars -- gets gutted under Doyle's proposal; wealthy Waukesha County gets what it wants, even gets it ahead of time. His other major transportation initiatives -- high speed rail between Milwaukee and Madison and the Kenosha-Racine-Milwaukee commuter rail -- are great, but also will serve wealthier, more mobile constituencies.

Dear Gov: You won't improve Milwaukee by making impossible for poor residents to get to their jobs.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

JS, mastering scare tactics, to join Homeland Security

The Milwaukee Wisconsin Journal Sentinel, having proven its ability to blow an incident involving two cars totally out of proportion to make Mayfair mall seem especially dangerous, announced that today that it will join the Bush Administration's Homeland Security Department so such shoddy journalism will win praise.

"We are proud of instilling unnecessary fear because we wanted to," said Martin Kaiser, editor of the new Bush Administration tool. "We know we played on racial anxieties, even though the story did not overtly mention race. "

"Did you like the way we gave way more play to this story about an isolated incident in a suburban shopping center parking lot than we do to stories about most city of Milwaukee homicides? We hope to rise to new heights in inducing fear by reaching new lows in journalism. I think we're well on our way to achieving that."

Saturday, February 10, 2007

EPA jam job

When it comes to making important information public, the Bush Administration doesn't even try. No, wait a minute -- the Bush Administration does try, but the other direction. In the case of the Toxics Release Inventory, it went out of its way to make sure the public is kept in the toxic dark,

Despite thousands of comment from people opposed, the Administration last month changed the TRI rule that regulates when companies have to give detailed information about the toxics it releases. Before the rule change, releases of 500 pounds or more of specific chemicals triggered a requirement that the companies provide detailed information about the kinds and amounts of toxics it released. The Bush-ites upped the limit to 2,000 pounds.

The old TRI didn't simply tell the public the bad things they were breathing and drinking -- it also helped emergency response providers understand the kinds of challenges they might face and should prepare for. According to the GAO's summary of its findings:

We believe that the TRI reporting changes will likely have a significant impact on information available to the public about dozens of toxic chemicals from thousands of facilities in states and communities across the country.

What's worse, according to the report, is that the Bushies had to cheat in order to keep this crucial information from the public. According to the GAO:

Although we have not yet completed our evaluation, our preliminary observations indicate that EPA did not adhere to its own rulemaking guidelines in all respects when developing the proposal to change TRI reporting requirements. We have identified several significant differences between the guidelines and the process EPA followed. First, late in the process, senior EPA management directed the inclusion of a burden reduction option that raised the Form R reporting threshold, an option that the TRI workgroup charged with analyzing potential options, had dropped from consideration early in the process. Second, EPA developed this option on an expedited schedule that appears to have provided a limited amount of time for conducting various impact analyses. Third, the decision to expedite final agency review, when EPA’s internal and regional offices determine whether they concur with the final proposal, appears to have limited the amount of input they could provide to senior EPA management.

The full report has this specific warning:

One way to characterize the impact of the TRI reporting changes on publicly available data is in terms of information about specific chemicals at the state level. The number of chemicals for which no information is likely to be reported under the new rule ranges from 3 chemicals in South Dakota to 60 chemicals in Georgia. That means that all quantitative information currently reported about those chemicals could no longer appear in the TRI database.... Thirteen states—Delaware, Georgia, Hawaii, Iowa, Maryland, Massachusetts, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wisconsin—could no longer have quantitative information for at least 20 percent of all reported chemicals in the state.

Wisconsinites -- breathe at your own risk.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Let's say we have a thousand more cops: then what?

What if Milwaukee could actually afford 1,000 more cops? And what if none of them were sloppy, or lazy, or crooks themselves -- in other words, what if the cops we could afford formed the type of top-notch, unblemished work force that does not exist anywhere in the real world?

What then?

More crooks would be caught, most likely, and that is a good thing. More speeders and tailgaters and people who don't put on their turn signal would be caught, too. Would a lot of crime be prevented? Maybe some -- certainly taking crooks off the street would prevent them from committing crimes while they are in jail.

The causes and cures for crime, though, make for a big, messy complex problem and the politicians agitating for more cops, more cops, more cops, are only addressing a tiny part of a small part of a big puzzle. So we get 1,000 more cops -- where do we put the people they arrest? The jail and House of Correction have been pretty crowded in recent years -- do we build more cells? Do we release more people on bail? Do we raise taxes to do this? County Executive Scott Walker certainly would not want to do that. Would Mayor Barrett?

Has anyone figured out just exactly what we want these cops to do? Is there a plan out there somewhere?

If we hire 1,000 cops and the number of murders goes up by 10, do we hire 1,000 more cops? 2,000 more? What if the number of armed robberies and murders goes down, but the number of rapes goes way up?

As more cops write more and more tickets, will we hire more judges in Municipal Court and more prosecutors in the city attorney's office? Will there be enough legal representation available for the indigent? There will be tons and tons of new cases -- small, petty cases -- that will wind up in Circuit Court. Will we hire more district attorneys and public defenders and judges?

And after that -- will we build more prisons? How many more? For whom? The robbers and murders -- sure, those are the easy ones. What about the woman who didn't pay four speeding tickets, or the guy busted a couple of times for shoplifting? The issues involved in hiring more cops don't end when the cops hit the street. One thing leads to another, and more arrests lead to more court appearances and incarcerations.

If we hire lots more cops, what then? Just asking.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Profiting from the chill

You may have suspected it would happen. You may have known deep, deep in your heart that it would happen, even though you wished that it would not happen.

It happened: it got cold, and heating oil prices went up. More good times for big oil. From "This Week in Petroleum:"

Residential heating oil prices increased with the period ending February 5, 2007. The average residential heating oil price rose by 5.3 cents per gallon last week to reach 241.3 cents per gallon, a decrease of 3.4 cents from this time last year. Wholesale heating oil prices gained 10.0 cents to reach 176.8 cents per gallon, a decrease of 2.2 cents compared to the same period last year.

The average residential propane price increased by 1.2 cents, reaching 200.8 cents per gallon. This was an increase of 0.8 cent compared to the 200.0 cents per gallon average for this same time last year. Wholesale propane prices rose by 3.4 cents per gallon, from 99.1 to 102.5 cents per gallon. This was an increase of 1.8 cents from the February 6, 2006 price of 100.7 cents per gallon.

Oh, goodie. Another Mueller Communications / SEWRPC survey

If the Reginal Transit Authority wants to maintain its credibility, it will take pains to ensure that its planned survey regarding the Kenosha Racine Milwaukee commuter rail system is not anything like the piece of garbage that the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission and Mueller Communciations concocted in order to push for freeway expansion.

Both SEWRPC and Mueller Communications are deeply involved in the RTA, the body putting together the funding plan for the Kenosha-Racine-Milwaukee commuter rail proposal. SEWRPC is staffing the RTA, and Mueller Communications won a $490,000 contract to help promote the proposal.

The (Mueller-led) group will be conducting a poll, trying to sway government officials and community groups to hop on board, figuring out a funding source for the project, creating and operating a Web site and churning out newsletters, press releases and other spin devices, the JS reported.

The freeway survey these same two bodies teamed up to foist upon the public at the public's expense was a civic atrocity, a prime example of a government agency pushing special interests' agenda.

The survey told respondents what to think before it asked for their thoughts. For example, respondents were told that traffic growth was causing frequent congestion and delays. Then they were asked if they believed traffic congestion was a problem. They were told the regional freeway system needs to be modernized, then they were asked if they favored a modern freeway system. The survey made no mention of the $6.2 billion cost estimate (year 2000 dollars) or the estimated 216 residences and 31 businesses SEWRPC's freeway plan envisioned destroying.

The trouble with involving either SEWRPC or Mueller Communications in developing another transportation survey is that SEWRPC and Mueller Communications have already destroyed their credibility on this score. The RTA ought not trust them with the task, and should reassure the public that it is not trusting them with this task. Any survey or poll done should be vetted by survey experts for objectivity and fairness.

Taxpayers simply should not be asked to fund a survey that is being conducted only to achieve a pre-determined outcome.

Friday, February 02, 2007

And the George Petak award for flip-flopping goes to....

...Sharon Robinson, Mayor Tom Barrett's director of administration.

George Petak, for those who don't remember or never knew, was a Republican state legislator from Racine who swore to his constituents he wouldn't vote in favor of the plan to build Miller Park. When crunch time came, though, Petak flipped and cast the deciding vote in favor of the stadium plan. He was promptly recalled from office and now enjoys life as a lobbyist.

Robinson is out-Petak-ing Petak in her duties on the Regional Transit Authority. Last week, she told a Common Council committee that she would not vote in favor of any funding plan for the Kenosha-Racine-Milwaukee commuter rail system that did not also include a plan for funding local transit. When crunch time came at an RTA meeting earlier this week, though, Robinson flipped and voted in favor of a plan that funds only the KRM. Barrett's team said she had no choice -- any proposals to fund local transit were doomed, the KRM is important to the region, and Robinson was able at least to win a promise that the issue of local transit would be considered later.

OK. Giving Robinson the benefit of the doubt, maybe she should have hedged a bit more with the committee. She should engrave on her heart: "Never say never." Several key aldermen, though, are furious with both her and Barrett. It's pretty clear that her switcheroo left relations between the them and the mayor's office in a pretty chilly state.

Robinson apparently isn't one for damage control, as she went on to inflict more. Last week, she respeatedly told the council committee last week that Barrett supported a 0.3% sales tax increase for local transit and the KRM, with 0.05% going to the KRM and .25% going to transit.

This week, though, she told the JS that Barrett had planned to try to later manipulate that plan had it been approved, a point she did not share with the council committee or the general public. Reports the JS:

Robinson's boss, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, has said he wants a new local sales tax to fund parks and public safety agencies as well as public transit. She said Barrett would have backed the transit sales tax but then would have sought changes to use some of the money for those other services. (Emphasis added)

This newly-revealed scheme ought to plunge council-Barrett administration relations into the "frozen mackerel" zone. It won't do anything to build the public's faith in the mayor's office, either.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Molly Ivins, an Authentic American

The writer Molly Ivins, who employed humor and a sharp edge in defending the best things about America, has died of breast cancer.

Damn, damn, damn.