August 2006

ACES

Atomictumor broke the news yesterday about the Atomic City Education Society; today, it made the Oak Ridger.

That’s the single greatest thing about this town: the people who live here. ACES started with a few friends who saw a problem, identified a need for public involvement, and stepped up to the plate. It’s not the first time: one of the few sat through an entire City Council meeting not long ago for his three minutes at the microphone… but that wasn’t enough.

AT, GAC, Mrs. Eaves, and Bosphorus: you are the greatest!

There are others working toward the same goal, from PTOs to the Oak Ridge Public Schools Education Foundation, and it’s my hope that the collective, coordinated efforts will turn the tide of the last six years, so that we can continue to offer a public education that prepares all of our kids for the future.

One of mine has already benefited, and started her first day of classes at UT yesterday. Three more are working their way through, from 11th grade down to 6th. But this is about much more than children; the quality of the school system affects most or all of what our city strives toward — increased residency, bringing in new business and retail, and generally improving the quality of life in our community.

I’ll be signing up for some bumper stickers as soon as I can get them, and I hope you will too.

Election Review

The first hearing in the contested August election for General Sessions Judge will be on September 1, according to the Oak Ridger. It’s just a touch of irony that Layton, the disputed winner, will be sworn in only an hour earlier.

Whatever you may think about the new e-Slate voting machines, one advantage is that much more data can be gleaned than under the previous system. Information like how long each voter took to cast his or her ballot, which is central to the premise of the suit.

With the Probation Department being disbanded, does it still matter?

Actually, yes. Eliminating the Probation Department, or more specifically, removing Alan Beauchamp from the position where there were serious, formal allegations of wrongdoing, is only one part of the problem. And, Beauchamp is still a County employee, so it’s not like Anderson County has cleaned up its act.

There remains the complaint that persons appearing before the General Sessions Court in Clinton are often treated rudely, including police officers. Also remaining is the question about the propriety of having persons with business before the court referred to programs only available in Anderson County, such as the 9-hour parenting class (State law requires only 8).

Contesting an August election is risky business, as the logical recourse is to hold a new election in November, concurrent with State and Federal races. Given that many more people will vote in November than voted in August (at least that’s the pattern), how many even know anything about this race? How many will still care?

Any thoughts on whether the suit will prevail, and if so, whether the new result will differ from the first one?

Baptist Teaching

Reuters reports on a New York Baptist preacher who fired an 81 year old Sunday School teacher — with more than 50 years in that job — because she is… female. He does not “allow women to teach or have authority over a man.”

I guess he doesn’t believe in college, since there are female professors and deans.

Over the last couple of years, the Southern Baptist Convention has wrangled with the question of whether to officially encourage their members to remove their children from the “godless” public schools. Is it because so many public schoolteachers are women? Or, because public schools recognize that it’s the parents’ role to see to their children’s religious instruction, if any?

Then, there’s this group — advocating the abolishment of all public schools. If you go to their search page and type in local zip codes (37830 for Oak Ridge, 37716 for Clinton), you come up with names of local people who agree. I didn’t know all on the list, but those that I did recognize are — you guessed it — Baptists.

More disturbing is that the Republican candidate for State Representative in our district is on the list. Of course, Rep. Jim Hackworth (D) has done a good job for us, and has been particularly helpful to me in gathering information on the battle for state funding for our schools, so I wasn’t going to support the preacher anyway.

Back to the “women shall not teach” thing: it rather reminds me of the Palestinian (IMHO, terrorist-in-training) from my sophomore year of college, who dropped a beginning computer science course because I was the instructor of the only section. I still remember his “a woman is not qualified” statement, which I found amusing, since I knew the subject matter, and he did not.

What is the world coming to? Unfortunately, one extremist is no better, no less dangerous, than the other. I fully support anyone’s right to home school their kids, or to send them to a religious school; why do they wish to trample the rights of everyone else?

TACIR on Taxes

Both Anotherthing2 and Cup of Joe Powell have noted the recent TACIR study: Local Government Property Tax Revisited: Good News and Bad News. In short, the analysis by Harry Green and Stan Chervin finds that

the growing property tax burden and growing local government dependence on the property tax are on a collision course.

While they note that the problem stems from the fact that property tax revenues, while fairly elastic, is not growing at the same rate as demand for services, no mention is made of exactly which local government services might be driving the pressure on local government budgets.

I would surmise that for all counties, along with the cities and special school districts that support school systems, one of the largest drivers is education costs.

Green and Chervin close with three proposed actions:

1. An expanded state circuit-breaker program designed to blunt the impact of rising property tax burdens on a broad-spectrum of low and moderate income households. The state aid should be targeted to phase out as family income rises, but not set so low that moderate income families are excluded from the program.

2. A significant increase in state aid to local governments designed to help them provide a basic level of services to their residents. The aid should go to the level of government that supplies the service (need based), and reflect consideration of both fiscal capacity and fiscal effort.

3. Significant new taxing authority that allows local governments to take advantage of existing tax bases or activities that are currently untaxed. Possible changes include an increase in the local sales tax single article limitation (currently set at $1,600), the authority to levy payroll taxes, and local ad valorem vehicle taxes in lieu of existing wheel taxes.

So, while admitting that the problem stems from the cost of services not keeping pace with property tax revenues, their first suggestion is to put some sort of limit on property tax increases. How, then, will local governments pay for these services? And of course, no mention is made of the fact that low to moderate income residents already pay low to moderate property taxes, simply because the amount is determined by the value of their property. One exception would be for the elderly, who may well have a more expensive (paid for) residence, while on a fixed retirement income.

That the State needs to step up to the plate with a significant increase in aid to local governments is a no-brainer, but I take issue with tying such aid to “fiscal capacity,” as the fiscal capacity formula is flawed in that it does not take into account property tax rates relative to others — a local government with a high property tax rate is deemed “more wealthy,” while those with lower property tax rates are categorized as “more needy.”

I’m certain that the prospect of allowing new taxing authority to local governments is bound to cause significant outcry, but it’s worthy of consideration. Take, for example, the concept of a payroll tax: communities with a large employment base, where many work in, but do not live (or pay taxes) in that community are an expense — traffic management, streets, utilities, and emergency services. Currently, the expenses for the non-resident workforce falls heavily on the residents, especially in a city like Oak Ridge, where the employer pays no property tax.

If some of the expense for those commuter costs were relieved via a payroll tax, then more of the resident property tax receipts would be available for resident services (like education).

I agree completely that something has to change, and that the local property tax is being squeezed. The State and Federal governments must commit to fully funding their mandates — or simply making optional recommendations.

I’ve taken Harry Green to task before, with no success in changing his perspective… but I have had some measure of success in pointing out the flawed reasoning to others. Like the Senate Education Committee. Harry and I have written dueling editorials for Tennessee Town and City. Unfortunately, rather than intelligent public discourse, this argument seems to have gotten personal.

Heaven forbid that anyone should challenge the great and mighty statistician on the formula that he personally developed… one so complex that few in government understand, but simply take at face value.

It’s simple: a community with a high tax rate to support essential services must be given credit for that effort, or else the incentive is to not support those essential services. And the only way to properly measure that effort is to compare tax rates, particularly measuring the allocations to services required by the State.

If Tennessee would only commit to a realistic level of per-pupil spending in education, an equal amount for every pupil in the state, then a huge burden would be lifted from the local property tax.

Corporate Medicine

I’ve had the same family doctor for about 18 years, and he’s a great guy. Fortunately, I don’t have cause to visit him often. Over the years though, two things have changed: my insurance (which costs more, covers less, and is increasingly a pain in the ***), and his office, which is now corporate-owned and run.

My doctor recognizes me on sight, and knows the bill will be paid. He knows I only show up if there’s really something wrong — bad enough to waste a couple hours of my time for 20 minutes of his. However, there is a fairly large staff of front-desk nazis whose sole job seems to be to keep sick people from seeing the doctor at all, starting with the phone system.

When you call, you’re immediately dumped into one of those bizarre “press 1 if you’re a health-care provider…” automated systems. So, I pressed the right number for an appointment clerk, whereupon I was subjected to no less than 15 minutes’ worth of really bad music (sick people don’t want to listen to disco), interspersed with three episodes of “hold please – CLICK” from a real person.

The usual routine if you’re even able to get an appointment is to show up on time, only to be greeted rudely by the front-desk nazis with “have you ever been seen here before?” “Do you have insurance?” and about 50 pages of paperwork… not one item of which has changed since the last time I filled it all out. Then, once all the papers are processed and the insurance cards copied, there’s a 2-hour wait in a full of people who are 1) gossiping, 2) complaining about their list of ailments to others waiting, or 3) taking cell phone calls nonstop. Oh, and the front-desk nazis want the $10 co-payment before you see the doctor.

I guess they know if you pay before you’re seen, you won’t walk out because of the long wait in a roomfull of crazy people.

This week was the last straw. Whatever crud got ahold of me on Monday, it was clear by Thursday evening that it had migrated to bronchitis, and I needed to get rid of it. After waiting on hold to make an appointment until my cordless phone died (quite a long time), I gave up and went to a relatively new walk-in clinic: Park Med Ambulatory Care.

The deductible was $25 instead of $10 due to my preferred-providor insurance, but who cares. Someone saw me, confirmed that I do have bronchitis, and sent me off with an appropriate antibiotic, cough medicine, and an inhaler. I’m still horizontal more often than vertical, but hopefully this crud will be gone in a day or two.

Now, to find a more permanent solution for a regular physician… one whom I won’t see often, but when I need to get in, I can. I won’t waste their time, but I expect them to have the same respect for mine. I don’t mind paying promptly for my visit, but I do object to being treated like a deadbeat by a front-desk nazi… so I won’t go anywhere that has one. Yes, I have insurance. No, I haven’t moved in 19 years; my phone number is the same, along with all the other mindless questions I’m asked every single visit.

Any suggestions? Surely to goodness there’s one good general practitioner in this city who works the old fashioned way.

I wish my kids’ pediatrician took adults; he’s really the kind of doc I’m looking for.

Moving Day

Clearly, Alpha does not understand just how small a dorm room is.

New Project

For about three months now, one of my projects has been to help a friend who has taken that great plunge — quit her job, and started her own company.

In real estate, all income is commission-based, and the commission is usually split between the buyer’s agent, the seller’s agent, and their respective firms. Because the listing (or selling) agent bears the advertising costs, the listing agent gets a larger percentage than the buyer’s agent. Then, each agent’s firm takes a cut of their share. Some offices also charge office rent and fees, so it’s quite possible for a new agent to actually lose money while selling real estate.

Miss Betsy had worked with a couple of good firms over the last ten years, moving from a situation where she could actually lose money (and did, during a difficult pregnancy when she wasn’t able to work as much) to one where she had no rent or fees, but had to turn over a large portion of her commissions to the firm.

Of course, an employee gets stuck with the Sunday showings, as well as working any hours that the managing broker wants to be on vacation. It’s a classic situation of he who holds the gold makes the rules.

Ever the agitator, when she got really frustrated over the office politics, I told her to quit and go out on her own.

I’ve known her for a very long time, and I know she’s dreamed about starting her own company for years. She was ready — she just needed someone to give her a push. So I did.

She passed the Broker’s Exam on the first try, with flying colors. We drove to Nashville to speed up the licensing process, and within a few weeks, she had her firm license as well.

Today, just 16 days in business, she had her first closing. She gets to keep all of her commission, exept to pay off some of her start-up costs, and a little bit for a cantankerous web developer/support technician/graphic designer.

Betsy was in the delivery room with me (and Hubby) when our last child was born, and I think she was as excited as anyone in the room. Today, I feel that same kind of excitement — I didn’t birth this business, but I certainly cheered her on every step of the way.

I’m easing her into a new way of doing business, of going mostly paperless (as much as is legal, in any case), so that she can conduct business from anywhere there’s an internet connection. Like Lake Tahoe, for example.

Maybe that’s the capitalist republican showing in me… I think that small business is the heart of commerce and a free-market economy. Small businesses can innovate. Small business owners work like crazy, but no one can tell them that they have to work on Saturday instead of going to a child’s soccer game.

I know the website needs work — especially on content — but it will be growing and changing daily. It will have to, to keep up with Betsy. In her first week, she had five listings and a couple of buyers… now we have to grow it.

I’ll be there to help and cheer, just as she has been from Day One of Delta’s life.

Downtime

There were several other things I meant to note on Monday: Alpha turned 18; Beta, Gamma, and Delta had a great first day of school. Alpha’s been packing so she can move in to the dorm at UT tomorrow.

What sidetracked me was just a little thing, but one that put me flat on my back for a full 24 hours: the dreaded Summer Cold. When I heard the news report that Gov. Bredesen was hospitalized with flu-like sympoms, it crossed my pitiful little hypochondriac mind that I might ought to see a doctor… but I couldn’t summon the energy to get out of bed and go.

That, and I’d be too embarassed to go to the doctor for a cold. Even if I did feel like I was going to faint every time I stood up, was alternately freezing and sweating, and the rattle in my lungs that sounds like a harsh October wind through dead leaves along with a wheeze like the creaking door of a haunted house.

Theraflu helps, as does peach Schnapps in my orange juice. But mostly, I think sleeping the better part of 24 hours did some good (despite the fact that I now have twice as much to do and less time to get it done). I think I will live, but it may be a few more days before I can think clearly through the… well, I won’t be graphic.

Whining aside, I’ve been working on a pretty exciting new project — the kind I actually get paid for, and don’t get sued for. More about that a little later, but it’s both productive and fun.

Tidbits

The podcast for David Stuart‘s appearance on WYSH this morning hasn’t been posted yet, but you’ll find it here when or if they get around to it. The topic of discussion was his challenge of the election results, based upon a little-known law that was apparently ignored.

You can agree or disagree with the law, but it is what it is. Although I missed the first 20 minutes or so, most callers seemed unhappy with the problems on election day, but supportive of Stuart’s action.

* * *

Phil Harber called this morning to tell me that Ed Williamson took great offense about my using the domain LetsTalkFrank.com to post unflattering information about his buddy, it didn’t seem to trouble his conscience to buy up www.PhilHarber.com and point it to his own website, LetsTalkTruth.com.

One of the subtleties here is that while “frank talk,” “frankly speaking,” or “let’s talk frank(ly)” are all fairly common expressions, buying up someone else’s name has generally not been upheld in court… unless it happens to be someone else with the same name.

* * *

Speaking of Ed, seems like Beauchamp is paying him off with free publicity. And he finally got around to covering his own story about the end of the probation department… but with the usual puzzling omissions.

He claims that the County was the beneficiary of

$120,000 worth of labor and improvements to county buildings last year.

Really? And of course, if there’s no probation alternative, then everyone will just have to serve their time.

The cost of incarceration for thirty inmates for a period of thirty days or nine hundred days per year is a conservative estimate of the annual cost savings. The total financial impact to Anderson County would be between $30,000 and $50,000 depending on whose cost figures you use. The intern program gave more than 150 high school and college students over the past seven years an opportunity to work in different departments of county government.”

Again, if it’s working so well, then just replace the source of the problem: a director with serious allegations of wrongdoing against him, who seems to find time to run two outside businesses (Energy Media and Inside Anderson County) in addition to serving in at least two jobs with Anderson County.

Lynch was quoted in an earlier story as saying that it wasn’t just Alan, but that other probation department employees had been accused of “playing favorites” and similar complaints from their customers. Yet, Beauchamp compliments Lynch as follows:

“I appreciate Rex working to keep them employed with county government. I am sure that whatever private firm operates the probation services they will employ some of our personnel due to their valuable experience”.

Okay… so Lynch says that the county probation department is efficient, yet he’s dissolving it to get away from the scandal-plagued reputation. And he claims it’s not Alan that’s the problem, but has no qualms about having the same employees work for a private firm doing the same job? So, if Alan’s not the problem, won’t keeping those employees keep the rumor and scandal coming?

Which IS it, Mr. Lynch?

More About Buses

Mrs. Eaves has a thoughtful post over at AtomicTumor this morning, and she’s right — some of the discomfort over the change in bus service is not about household crisis, but about inconvenience. There are some parents who need to shoulder a bit more responsibility for their kids (although this isn’t new).

But only some. There are definitely families that do all the right things, taking time with their kids for study and behavior training, but for whom transportation will be a real problem, as she correctly notes.

One suggestion I mentioned to Dr. Bailey to pass along to the principals for consideration was to see if we could create a “fast lane” drop-off for people carpooling with three or more kids — sort of an incentive to encourage carpooling, and a reward for those who are helping out by getting them through the line faster.

Another suggestion is one I received from Anotherthing2 is an effort that could be coordinated through the PTO/PTA: some sort of “safe place” sign to put on selected houses within the 1-mile zone, where a child walking home can go at any time if they feel afraid or need help. Obviously, someone would have to take charge of making sure that the homeowner with a “safe place” sign really was okay, but still, I do like the concept.

In this city, there are a number of people who walk for exercise, or walk their dogs, every morning. Many no longer have young children at home; might they volunteer to help out a neighbor in a bind with no bus service, by walking with young students to school?

Do we as individuals have the will to address the problem in ways that would strengthen our neighborhoods and the community as a whole? Clearly, reducing bus service was an unpleasant choice. Reducing any service that our students and parents rely on is painful.

At the same time, I do see the possibility of some good coming out of this adversity… of parents and neighbors getting to know each other better, and helping each other in a way that used to be the norm rather than the exception. Perhaps a greater number of students riding bicycles to school could make it more fun, and the combined walking/biking efforts could lead to better health for our children who often don’t get enouch exercise, fresh air, and sunshine.

Maybe it’s too 1950’s to work… but even in the 70’s, it was a special treat for me to ride my bike to school, because it gave me a little “unwind time.”

What might you do to make something good happen from this bad situation?

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