Inquiring minds, part 2

OK, so it took me a day longer to get back here. I got busy. Now, back to our forum highlights!

Budget cuts

People do want us to get specific on what to cut, so we do have some ideas. Richard Selwach usually brings up the equal opportunity office because, “We have a gay mayor and a black president. We have arrived. The EOO is unnecessary.” He also wants to cut city pensions. My own favorite targets are the communications office, because we don’t need a new layer of bureaucrats just for press releases and web site updates; empty and near-empty RTS buses; the Community Redevelopment Agency, which is going beyond its mission of street lights and sidewalks and is now a builder with its extra cash; money-losing Ironwood Golf Course; and the One-stop homeless center, which has great promise as an ever-growing drain for taxpayer money. We don’t only want to move the homeless to the outskirts of town; we also want to provide them transportation back into town. Why are we doing this?? Tom Hawkins big cut is a helicopter that he thinks we don’t need.

Bus Rapid Mass Transit

Richard Selwach is flatly against buses that “lose $2 every time a rider gets on”. I don’t know if that figure is correct, but no one denies that buses lose money, not even Tom Hawkins. I believe we should transition toward a private system by first downsizing the vehicles on the routes that are seldom traveled. I see near-empty buses every day downtown and on the outskirts, and these buses are HUGE! RTS burns almost 2500 gallons of diesel fuel every day, and I believe the majority of that could be saved if we just used minivans on those unused routes. The best way, I believe, to do this is by putting those routes up for bid to the taxi companies. Eventually, we need to deregulate the service so more operators can serve routes that are currently underserved because it takes too long to get a bus. My opponent sees these big buses as full some day as we make it harder for people to use their own cars.

More later…

Inquirng minds want to know

I have just come back from the last candidate forum, and I saw no Gainesville Sun reporter there. They have probably had their fill of the forums, with the same questions being hit over and over again. But what about you? What have you missed? You haven’t learned much about them if you read the Sun, because you only get a few of the least relevant sound bites in each story. So, I have decided to give you a quick rehash of these forums and the questions that were asked by the moderators of various forums and candidate screening committees. I will stick with the questions asked in my race as answered by Richard Selwach, Thomas Hawkins and I. Jeff Fiedler has been missing in action since the Human Rights Council forum on January 31.

Homelessness and the Meal Limit

St. Francis House is a downtown homeless shelter that has been in operation for many years, and the city has decided to limit the number of people they can feed each day to 130. The city commission has also decided to get into the homeless business themselves by planning to create a One-Stop homeless Center on the outskirts of town, across the street to a small business park, the owner of which is preparing to sue the city. Richard Selwach is in favor of the meal limit and against they city spending money on the homeless center. He is offering to donate a piece of property to the city for rustic camping, which he calls “Camp Selwach”. (If memory serves me, this is a kinder, gentler Richard Selwach. During last year’s Mayoral race, he said he wanted to provide the homeless vasectomies so they could not reproduce.) The incumbent, Tom Hawkins, is in favor of the meal limit and supports the One-Stop Center as a compassionate act of good government.

I am against the meal limit, and have been since I first heard of it a couple of years ago, because I don’t believe the local government has any business regulating good works. And now, since they want to be a competitor of St. Francis House, I believe it is a conflict of interest. I am also against the One-Stop Center because it is not a function of city government. I have been involved in ministry to the homeless a great deal in the past, and every person I have ever known who has made it back to the main stream has done so through the work of some church that spent their own time and effort to make the judgment calls that government agencies are unable to make. The prognosis for this center, in my opinion, is an ever-growing government make-work drain on the community as we think of more and more “necessary” services in the name of compassion. We are already talking about providing transportation back into town after we have moved them all out of town. Eventually, many citizens will decide to be “homeless” for a week so they can get the city to pay for whatever services they have not been able to get from other agencies.

The Biomass Plant

During the Mayoral race last year, hardly anyone asked about this. Now they all do. Last year, it was Koppers that got all the attention as the city was scrambling to get them out of town just in time for Craig Lowe to take credit for it. This followed 27 years of yawning and posturing by many other commissions.

Richad Selwach is adamantly opposed to the biomass plant, and never stops waving the redacted contract during the forums. He even kept holding up the pages and pages of blacked out text while Tom Hawkins defended the decision to transition from coal to wood, and the not-so-public deal with American Renewables to build the wood-burning plant.

I am also against the plant, which I have been calling the tree-burner, because most people don’t seem to know what biomass is. So much for public notification. From the beginning I knew this was a step backward, going from coal to wood. A few years ago I asked Pegeen Hanrahan at a public forum if wood burned cleaner than coal, and she could not give me a straight answer. This was while the biomass plant was still in the planning stage. And a one minute forum answer is all the public got to a question that was not even asked by the organizers. Since this time I have discovered that there was a whole raft of local environmentalists who have been opposing the plant without getting much press. I took up their cause as they were going to court to fight it, and now the case has been settled. They got the secret contract to be made public, and that is a very big deal. One of the plaintiffs told me they are just getting started, now that they have more ammunition. As a city commissioner, I will be committed to revisiting this the way it should have been in the beginning: skeptically.

Fire services fee

I am a little confused on where Richard Selwach stands on the fire fee as it applies to churches. I thought he was for it originally, but last I heard he is against it. Tom Hawkins says he was against it and voted against it. I have a problem with this because when I talked to the Fire Fighters Union and failed to get their endorsement, it was because I was opposed to the fire fee. And I was told that Tom Hawkins was for it. This sounds like last year’s vote was one of convenience. He could vote against it without stopping it, and then he could appear as conservative as his opponent.

I think this comes down to whether or not you will fight to remove the fee. I believe fire services should be paid for first, out of the property taxes we already pay. When you separate it out, you make more room for property taxes to go up. This fee kept them from having to cut any of their pet projects, like the Homeless Center, Ironwood golf course, money-losing mass transit, narrowing car lanes to make more room for bike lanes, and other unnecessary taxpayer hardships.

More tomorrow! I have to go to work!

Are buses a priority?

At a recent candidate forum, Ozzy Angulo, who is running for the District 3 seat, said that for a single mother with no car, buses are a core service. That is true. And to an avid golfer, I guess Ironwood is a core service. But when prioritizing the expenditure of tax dollars, you must take the whole city into account. And what I have seen with my own eyes, every day, are large, empty, or single-passenger buses making their rounds. Yes, that single passenger needs a ride, but could we not accomplish that at a far lower cost than using a vehicle the size of a small single-wide trailer?

From time to time I get corrected by some champion of the status quo who insists that the cost is covered 60% by riders, and that the rest of the money comes from somewhere else. And as long as “someone else” is paying for it, there is no problem. Actually, there is no “someone else”. All taxes are paid by us, the consumers of all products and services in which these costs are passed on as a business expense. And some of these taxes are more direct than we realize, just as the city gets over a third of its general fund budget as a direct transfer from GRU. If you pay for gasoline, you pay a tax that pays for buses.

Not only is this an expensive and wasteful means of transportation; it’s dirty, too. Our buses burn over 2400 gallons of diesel fuel per day. Is this the commitment to Green Energy that our commissioners say is so important?

What is really worrisome is that our city and county commissioners have big dreams for these big buses. They not only believe that a day is coming when these buses and more will all be filled. They want to make it happen. They want to discourage automobile travel by making it unpleasant. That is why we are looking at narrowing 16th Ave. with bike lanes. This busy road will become more congested by decreasing car capacity.

City Commissioner Tom Hawkins said last night that our buses have 9 million riders that we didn’t have 10 years ago. Does he mean that our ridership increased by 9 million riders in 10 years? Did we go from zero to 9 million, or 4 million to 13 million? And what kind of fuzzy math do you have to do to report 9 million riders in a county of less than a quarter million total residents? If I took the bus every day, for a week, to and from University, and had to transfer to another bus in the process each time, would I be 28 riders? Multiply that by 52 weeks, and I am 1,452 riders!

I am open to suggestions…

The Sun’s fact-check

I don’t know what it is about Gainesville Sun reporters, but you cannot take everything they say as Gospel. Chad Smith reported that I would save money by cutting RTS bus routes. Not true (and I have the recording to prove it). What I said at last night’s University Park Neighborhood Association Forum was that I would put the seldom used routes for competitive bidding by the taxi companies. That way, there would be no actual service reduction, and it would save fuel. That is a big difference. He suggests that I would deny service. I said I would simply downsize the cost of providing service.

Wrist Slaps for All!

I went to the town hall meeting about Gainesville city budget issues last night. I got there a little late because I had to rush from the other side of town after getting done with a job later than I had hoped. I arrived at about 6:10 as city manager Russ Blackburn was giving a Powerpoint presentation on what a great job the city is doing keeping expenses down. Then came the much anticipated citizen comments, so I was right on time.

About 100 people had come out for the 6pm meeting in some lousy weather. Most of them had come to complain about high taxes or some other injury they felt they were suffering, which is the very purpose of a meeting like this. Someone should have told the city commissioners. Instead, it was another chance to tell the citizens why they were ill-informed and just wrong.

After the first citizen commenter finished, there was a few seconds of scattered applause. Mayor Lowe, who has very high standards for decorum, warned the people not to applaud because applause disparities might, “make people feel bad.” However, when one of they city’s plants took her turn to speak, she spent most of her comment time scolding the citizens for, “not doing their homework before speaking.”  She said this several times without rebuke from the Mayor for making anyone “feel bad”.

No matter what complaint about higher taxes and fees, which are very real things, the city commissioners blew off the concerns of the citizens as if they were imaginary. Only one man came out and said what most of us were thinking: “This is a waste of time. We just need to vote you people out.”  Amen, brother!