Thursday, February 16, 2012

Atlantans Can Choose Their Future with the T-SPLOST vote

Win or lose, the T-SPLOST will solve Atlanta's traffic problems. 
Atlanta recently landed in 38th place on BusinessWeek's list of America's one hundred best cities. It's a sad showing for a city that considers itself to be the economic engine of the southeast.  Today metro Atlanta is in a high stakes race with many of the 37 cities above it in that list, as well as the trailing 63. But, in this critical race the Atlanta economic engine is stalled in traffic. 
This summer citizens of the Atlanta metro region will have the opportunity to finally get out of traffic. They can either vote for the penny T-SPLOST to fund critical transportation projects across the ten county region, or, if they feel there's not enough in it for them, vote against it.
Either way, the region's traffic problem will ultimately be solved and any question of Altanta's competitiveness with cities like Raleigh, Charlotte, Orlando, and Dallas will be answered. 
A "yes" vote for more than $9 billion (including federal matching funds) in road and transit projects will set the stage for a decade of progress toward resolving the region's transportation problem. In fact, a "No" vote will also resolve the transportation problems the region is facing.  But for terrifyingly different reasons.  
The outcome of a "yes" vote will be to give citizens transportation choices they currently don't have.  Communities throughout the region will ensure their citizens have alternative ways of getting around...road, rail or trail.  By giving residents these options Atlanta will also be giving its competitors the message that Metro Atlanta is seriously in the game to win the crown of business center of the Southeastern United States.  Traffic and people will move throughout the region and companies, new and established, will move here to take advantage of Metro Atlanta's significant human and physical resources.
A "no" vote will similarly enable Atlanta commuters to ultimately get relief from gridlock. Traffic will move.  Not because of what we've done. But because of what we didn't do.
Commuters will fly down the Interstate unimpeded by other drivers rushing to their jobs. The jobs won't be there. Instead of companies moving into the metro area with jobs and opportunities for our citizens, they'll  be leaving. And, others will never have come.
The young people we educated in our great schools will have moved to where there are jobs.  And their parents may have also left for better prospects. Highways throughout the ten-county region will be congestion-free because a decade earlier, when they were stuck in traffic, Atlantans chose to do nothing. And by doing so, they let metro Atlanta's future pack up and move to cities that will be the winners in the race to be the business and economic centers of the Southeast---Raleigh, Charlotte, Orlando, and Dallas.  

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Candidates face challenge of sounding informed

There's an old Spanish adage that says, "If you can't fight, wear a big hat."  In political debates here in Gwinnett County, it might say, "If you don't know the answer to the question, give any answer, whether or not the question was asked."

At least three of the candidates for Gwinnett County Commission Chairman participating at the candidate forum at the Gwinnett Justice and Administration Center on Monday night, seemed to have subscribed to that very approach. When asked their position on the county's International Gateway plan, it became painfully clear that they did not have one, because they didn't know what the International Gateway plan is.

But that lack of knowledge didn't stop each one from verbally treading water for the full time allocated for an answer, regardless of how incomprehensible their statements were. Fortunately for the candidates, most of the people in the room didn't know what the International Gateway plan was either.

One of the few people in the room who did, was candidate Charlotte Nash who demonstrated her knowledge of this and all the other issues with clear, concise statements and explanations that came from her years of involvement in county government, including most recently her participation in Engage Gwinnett.

So when the topic of transportation and the 2012 penny transportation sales tax referendum came up, Messrs. Costa, Gause and Kissel sat there essentially spinning their wheels. Kissel even stated that transportation, which ranks among the highest concerns of citizens in Gwinnett, was not a high priority for him. Gause thought curb cuts and some lane improvements would solve the county's transportation problem, while Costa focused on vague references to the usual suspects...SR 316 and I-85.

They left it to Ms Nash to explain what the proposed transportation sales tax was all about; that the process was already underway with the Regional Transportation Roundtable, where the County Chairman had a seat, currently meeting, and that Gwinnett's existing transportation plan included numerous critical projects that could become realities only with funding generated by the tax. And finally, she explained that whether any proposed projects were worthy of an additional penny sales tax would be up to the citizens.

It was obvious from the turnout of more than 200 people that voters cared more about what the next county commission chairman has to say about the challenges facing the county than what the current commission members have to say about anything. Recent BOC Citizen Forums have set attendance records of about a dozen people.

I had hoped to see a heated debate among the four candidates for this important post, but the format of preselected questions from a moderator prevented anything but formulaic responses to emanate from most of the contestants. With a little imagination on their part, things might have gotten interesting.  In part the problem was that everyone was too polite, too civil: a dangerous trend in any democracy. But the real cause of the slumberous discourse was that most of the candidates were too uninformed to express anything beyond vague references to smaller government and pointing out that, surprise, the county was in the midst of a serious crisis. It could have turned into a battle of wits, but with the exception of Charlotte Nash, the participants came unarmed.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Predictions for 2011

What does the new year have in store for us?  I predict:

1) The Gwinnett County Board of Commissioners will move its public meetings to nearby Hall, Forsyth, Fulton, Dekalb, Barrow and Walton counties in the hope of having friendlier audiences.

2) With the success last year of the Tea Party movement, new political parties will be launched, including the Coffee Klatch (decaffeinated and regular). These groups will form primarily in "Blue" states, meeting in organizers' kitchens or neighborhood Starbucks and calling for a return to the traditional family values of the Clinton White House.

3) Public employee union members in major cities, already reeling in the backlash of citizens finally catching on that civil servants were receiving higher pay with greater benefits then private sector workers, will agree that taxes are too high where they work and move to lower-cost, union-free communities.

4) Gwinnett County will finally settle its dispute with its 15 municipalities over the Service Deliver Strategy (SDS) by trading chief financial officer Aaron Bovos to the Gwinnett Braves for a yet to be named utility infielder.

5) The HOT (High Occupancy Toll) lanes on I-85 will prove to be so popular that Morgan Stanley will begin trading toll lane futures collateralizing them into bonds to sell to the same gullible investors who bought subprime mortgage bonds three years ago.

6) The housing market will finally show signs of recovery with home prices returning to the level they were at in 1956.

7) Having won three union organizing elections, the top managers at Delta Airlines, in an effort to ensure their own job security, will vote to join a union.

8) The Evermore CID will elect an entirely new board.

9) The City of Suwanee will announce that it won an award, for something or other.

10) All the remaining Democrats in the Georgia legislature will switch to the Republican party, leaving no one to blame if the session ends with nothing being accomplished.

11) Learning from the experience of clogged streets and expressway and virtual shutdown resulting from the record January snowstorm, the City of Atlanta will buy a snow shovel.

12) The Gwinnett County Board of Commissioners will move its public meetings back to Gwinnett County in the hope of getting a friendlier audience.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

What Does AARP Stand For?

If you're over 50 you've already heard from the folks at the AARP. If you think you know who or what the AARP is, or what AARP stands for, you're probably mistaken. Today, rather than representing the interests of retired Americans, AARP represents what can only be called a political agenda. 
Last year, when the AARP campaigned in support of healthcare reform legislation that many believed threatened Medicare benefits, people began to ask who does AARP represent, and what exactly does AARP stand for, both the letters in its name and the organization itself.

AARP once did "stand for" something. In fact two things. The letters stood for American Association of Retired Persons, and the organization stood for, in support of, the interests of retired people. Or is it persons?

But today many people don't retire at 65, if they actually still have jobs to go to, and the AARP sends membership applications to anyone who turns 50. If the AARP continues to lower the age for membership, the bar to entry will be so low that toddlers will be able to get over it and become members.  

So in 1998, with the name no longer reflecting the demographics of its members, it was changed to just a set of letters. Today, the organization itself no longer reflects the interests of what it claims are its 40 million members.

But are these really "members?" They don't show up for meetings or make policy decisions. They don't actually elect delegates to represent them. It's probably even less representative and democratic than any business corporation. Those 40 million "members" are members only because they pay a nominal annual fee of $16, which gets them what they really want...discounts on everything from hotel rooms to health insurance and prescription drugs. 

For $16 you become a member of AARP in the same sense that you become an American Express member for $150.  The difference is that American Express doesn't go to Washington claiming to speak for the interests of its 48 million "members."  Something that AARP does. But who appointed AARP to speak for 40 million Americans?  How could they? That's more than 10 percent of the nation's population.  Only the president of the United States can claim such a large constituency.

It's time for AARP to get honest. It does not represent the interests of seniors, retired people, or even people over 50. It's a marketing organization that licenses its name to hawkers of products and services to those people. It then leverages its market clout to promote a political agenda that is often at odds with the true interests of the people it disingenuously claims to represent.  That might require another name change, although it would be hard to spell out in a handful of letters.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

A tale of one county. It was the worst of times. It was the worst of times.

Join me on a trip down memory lane from a Gwinnett County millage rate increase that “will carry us through the five-year financial plan,” yet just seven months later instead be a $47.5 million deficit. 
March 21, 2010 “We feel like the cuts that we made in 2009, including the millage rate increase, will carry us through the five-year financial plan,” said Aaron Bovos, Gwinnett’s chief financial officer. “We went through the pain last year.” AJC
August 17, 2010 Finance director Aaron Bovos acknowledged it’s a temporary budget fix. He said the county must overcome a $31 million shortfall as it begins to put together its 2011 budget. AJC
November 10, 2010 “Affirmation of our ratings is solid evidence of Gwinnett County’s financial stability and sound management as we navigate today’s difficult financial and economic conditions,” Bovos said. Gwinnett Daily Post
November 16, 2010 Gwinnett could cut its library budget by 15 percent and money to subsidies in half to try to make up a $47.5 million budget deficit. Finance Director Aaron Bovos made the recommendation Tuesday but noted that even with the use of $15.8 million from a one-time second tax payment earlier this year, the county is still $17 million in the hole. Gwinnett Daily Post
What will be next? 

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

What part of financial crisis don't you get?

What part of financial crisis don't you get?  That's what I would ask the department heads in the Gwinnett County (Georgia) government.  I read the budget requests submitted by each of the County's departments and what I saw distressed me.  Not because the total of requests represents a net increase over the current year budget or because a few departments actually requested increases, while a few others proposed reductions for their departments.  No, I'm distressed because anyone with the responsibility of heading a department of the County's government would have the temerity to propose a budget demanding more money than last year when every indication is that county will be collecting less money than last year, and is likely to collect even less money in the following year.

It's not that these offending department heads don't know the financial crisis facing the County.  It's been a matter of discussion and debate for more than 18 months.  It's apparent that these department heads, rather than pitching in to help resolve the problem, continue to subscribe to the old dictum of budgeting, "if you ask for more than you really need, your request will be cut to what you really wanted in the first place."  So, ask for more; you'll get less, but it'll be what you really want, or close to it."  It's dishonest. It's lazy. It's unprofessional. And it's destructive to good government and citizen trust.

So rather than being honest and actually assessing their departments' needs in the context of what is affordable, they just fire off a "hail Mary" pass and hope for the best.  That's not how professionals should do their jobs and it's not what is needed in this situation.  The fact that they did it anyway demonstrates that each lacks the leadership qualities their position and these times demand of them. It similarly demonstrates that their bosses in the County Government, both in the administration and the County Commission, lack the leadership skills and qualities to get the people reporting to them to perform in a manner commensurate with the demands of their jobs and the current circumstances.

While the final budget will surely (hopefully) look a lot different than the department requests suggest, the fact that there are people in the government who don't understand that it's not business as usual, and that no one managed to make them understand, underscores the crisis of leadership this County faces.  It's my hope that someone with integrity and demonstrated leadership qualities will step up next month to offer to turn this situation around.  The citizens of Gwinnett County can not afford to have a government that's in a state of permanent denial. The County is in a financial and leadership crisis.  Pretending it's not will only compound the pain we will inevitably have to endure.  The time is getting short.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Stone age solutions can't fix a computer age economy

You wouldn't use a hammer to fix your software problem. But in Washington, our leaders--the president and his congressional majority are attempting to fix our techology-based economy with machine-age tools. 

Now that it's obvious that the president's $3 trillion stimulus packages haven't stimulated anything but the federal deficit, he and his allies in congress are proposing to up the tab with another $50 billion infrastructure stimulus package.  It's the kind of spending programs that makes you think of a time when the United States was a land of farmers and factory laborers... the 1930s.  

When economic disaster hit in the form of the Great Depression, the government rolled out make-work projects that built some our nation's most enduring landmarks and parks.  It did little for unemployment or nothing for economic recovery. But we did get us some pretty nice trails through the Appalachian mountains and other places.  

To actually get out of the economic malaise of the Depression, the nation had to wait for World War II to arrive.  Nothing like a little war or get people back to work, or better yet, out of the labor market completely by putting them in uniform and shipping overseas. Besides putting millions to work building airplanes and ships, it sent most of the people who would have been unemployed off to Europe or into the Pacific to kill or be killed.  Economic stagnation and unemployment solved: not by the economic policies of a president or congress, but by the irrational behavior of insane men in Berlin and Tokyo. 

But the myth persists that the alphabet soup programs of the Roosevelt administration pulled the nation out of the worst economic disaster of the last century. The problem with this myth is that its believers are currently in charge of running this country. And worst of all, as true believers, they can't accept that not only were 1930s style programs inappropriate and ineffective in the 1930s, but they won't accept that these programs are even more inappropriate and less effective today.  They continue to believe that the health of our post industrial, technology-based economy can be restored by spending billions of dollars that the government doesn't have, to build roads, bridges and train tracks.  The trains to run on those tracks, by the way, would be produced by European or Asian companies since no U.S. company has built a train in more than two decades.

It's time for our leaders to stop trying to fix every 21st century problem with early 20th century tools. Just as we've moved beyond starting our automobiles by turning a crank, our economy and its problems are beyond being fixed by turning shovels of dirt.