Thursday, January 27, 2011

Shining a light on the Port Authority

The Tuscarawas County Port Authority, born from good intentions, has become a two-headed monster and, after a number of years without much scrutiny, is coming under some fire.

Disclosure: I have friends who sit as directors of the Port Authority and I was party to initial discussions when the idea of having a local building inspector was first proposed. Those discussions involved a number of area contractors, including some whom I consider to be friends.

Those discussions also included a dissent from Dover electrical contractor Bob Horn, who argued against establishing a new government bureaucracy, albeit a "local" one. ("Local" is always better than "state" or "feds," right?)

He thought dealing with the state, which contractors did way back then, wasn't that bad. In other words, if it ain't broken, don't fix it.

Judging from the overwhelming negative view of what is now the East Central Ohio Building Authority, I think Bob Horn probably was right.

But first things first. The Port Authority was formed a decade or so ago after a proposal to construct a golf course and resort in western Tuscarawas County was floated by a developer who needed a funding agent. Long story short here: The development idea collapsed; the Port Authority lived on. Coming much later was the addition of the East Central Ohio Building Authority, which in the chain of command answers to Port Authority Director Harry Eadon.

On Jan. 13,  the Times-Reporter reported that the Tuscarawas County commissioners guaranteed $3.3 million on a restructured loan the Port Authority has with JPMorgan Chase & Co., on the old Reeves mill property on Oxford St. in Dover.

That means in case of default, taxpayers will have to cover the obligation.

The Port Authority also used five properties it owns as collateral. Eadon says those properties are worth a total of $1.6 million while the Reeves property is worth $6 million.

The problem with putting values on commercial and industrial properties is that there are loads of them for sale and lease all over this part of Ohio.  Old, decaying commercial and industrial properties are tough sells in a good economy let alone during the worst recession since the Great Depression.

In the T-R story, Eadon is quoted as saying, "We have a relationship with Chase that is a good, strong one."

Well, that might be the case, but Chase was playing hardball with the Port Authority when it restructured the loan. Obviously it didn't like what it saw.

I understand why Eadon and the commissioners want to put a good spin on all this. Commissioner Kerry Metzger, the paper said, had high praise for the work of the Port Authority. Well, sure he did. I wouldn't volunteer a negative response on a risky loan deal either. (Well, maybe I would if I didn't care about re-election. Whole different issue there.)

Metzger can't say what I concluded from the story, which is basically this: The Port Authority is in deep trouble because it has to make a $23,117 per month payment on a restructured loan with an adjustable rate that had to be guaranteed by the taxpayers because the bank has big doubts that the Port Authority will be solvent in the long term.

The loan's current rate is 3.15 percent, but will be adjusted annually. The paper didn't say what parameters the bank will use to adjust that rate.

So, the Port Authority has to generate at least $23,117 a month for the loan and additional revenue to cover salaries and expenses. That seems to me to be a tall order. And who will it turn to if it falls short?

Meanwhile, the East Central Ohio Building Authority has irked just about everyone who has been involved in a minor or major construction project involving a commercial building. And you don't have to go farther than ECOBA's website to understand the angst.

The site offers forms and more forms and detailed instructions on how to fill them out. And don't forget about the fees. Want to improve your non-residential property? First you have to pay the government even if you are the government. It's a legal shakedown.

Apparently, Dover City Councilman Greg Bair has heard enough, although he is quick to point out his goal is not to conduct an inquisition and acknowledges that intense scrutiny of construction projects is as much a safety issue as anything else.

Bair, Service Committee chairman, has called a meeting to discuss the Port Authority and its contract with the city as it relates to the East Central Ohio Building Authority. (When I have a date and time, I'll post it here.)

I'll be interested to see who will attend and who will speak out. I suspect few contractors will go on the record with their true feelings about ECOBA because they'll not want to get on its bad side. Perhaps Bob Horn will have a few things to say. Perhaps he'll remind us that he told us so.

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Tuesday, January 18, 2011

She is Tiger Mom; hear her roar

It's fun to think about what would have happened to legendary musicians and actors if Amy Chua had been their mother.

John Lennon never would have founded The Beatles, but he'd probably be a great violinist. Somewhere.

Dustin Hoffman never would have starred in such classic films such as "The Graduate" or "Midnight Cowboy," but might have been a great math teacher at your favorite state university.

Amy Chua, a Yale law professor, is enjoying her 15 minutes of fame right now for being a "tiger mother," a term she apparently coined to describe the type of parenting to which she subscribes, which, in effect, is Mother From Hell.

Last week, an excerpt from her book, "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother," appeared in the Wall Street Journal. It has caused a firestorm of punditry.

According to the Journal, some tenets of her parenting style:

Children are not allowed

-- to attend a sleepover

-- to have a playdate

-- to be in a school play

-- to complain about not being in a school play

-- to watch TV or play computer games

-- to choose their own extracurricular activities

-- to get any grade less than an A

-- to not be the No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama

-- to play any instrument other than the piano or violin

-- to not play the piano or violin.

Last time I checked, the piece had drawn more than 6,800 comments, most of which were negative.

I am of the firm belief that no two sets of parents parent exactly alike and during the course of my parenting years tried to refrain from passing judgment. But it's safe to acknowledge there are plenty of bad parents out there and that parents -- not schools -- are/were the primary driving force behind successful adult children.
 One commentator pointed out that Amy Chua's book is premature because her two daughters, Sophia and Louisa, are still in their teens and one cannot judge the style of parenting until the children are emancipated (good word in this case) and begin to leave their mark on the world.

(And even passing judgment then is dicey. How does one kid in five not succeed when the other four did?)

I think Sophia and Louisa will get as far away from their mother as possible. And maybe they will write their own book some day. Maybe they'll call it "Living With A Wild And Really Crazy Tiger Mom."

Plenty has been written in the aftermath of the publication of Chua's book excerpt. The New York Times' David Brooks calls her a wimp for protecting her children from the rigors of socialization, which is where one really proves his/her mettle.

Are sleepovers a learning experience? You bet. Ask any young woman to reflect on her middle school years. She'll tell you.

You can check out other links by going to Amy Chua's Wikipedia page.

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Thank goodness for Google. On Martin Luther King Day, it seems everyone on Facebook posted at least one MLK quotation. Some FB'ers posted one an hour. Or so it seemed.

Let me pose a rhetorical:

You and a friend are enjoying adult beverages at the local pub. The discussion turns to politics and your friend leans over the table and declares: "This country will be a lot better off when we get that f------ n----- out of office."

Would you have the courage to call out your friend on his blatantly racist comment? Or not?

We'll turn the corner in this country when such an incident is unheard of and unfathomable.

And that brings me to my favorite MLK quotation: "In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends."

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Putting the editor hat back on.

I was taken aback when I saw this headline in the local paper: Drifter dies in electric chair for 1919 shooting.

Whoa, I thought. Talk about the wheels of justice turning slowly. When I clicked on the headline, I realized it was the headline over Jon Baker's popular history column.

In the art of headline writing, a present-tense verb actually means immediate past. A past-tense verb actually means historical past. A better headline would have been Drifter died in electric chair for 1919 shooting.

And in my last post I asked whether you would have eliminated this passage in a Plain Dealer story on a gubernatorial inauguration celebration:

(Lt. Gov.-elect Mary) Taylor, 44, looking like a Hollywood star in black satin pants, a black leather jacket, low-cut black-and-white blouse and a pink and glittery silver necklace, said that she appreciated the people of Ohio.

Had the story not provided details of other party-goers' fashions, I would have eliminated the Taylor passage. But since it did, Taylor's fashion statement was fair game.

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Some quick hitters:

-- New Philadelphia resident and former state tax commissioner Joanne Limbach has been quoted recently in the Columbus Dispatch and the AARP Bulletin regarding the $8 billion budget deficit Ohio is facing. She is an excellent resource and I would encourage local folks who want to know how the budget process works to invite her to speak to their club or organization. I think she'd be happy to do it.

-- Taxpayers also are victims of newspaper contraction. Many government bodies, including your local board of education, that used to be scrutinized by the press are now being left to operate pretty much as they see fit. I wonder if the public eventually will notice.

-- Still no news of a partner for Twin City Hospital. Brown County General Hospital in southwestern Ohio also has been looking for a buyer without a lot of success. Here's a link to a newspaper story about that hospital's situation.

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Monday, January 10, 2011

Brother, can you spare a dime?

Every news cycle, it seems, brings us a story of another entity that is broke.

Late last week we learned that the Tuscarawas Community Improvement Corp. will run out of operating money as early as next month. If ever there were a need for the CIC, which has worked since 1963 to encourage economic development in Tuscarawas County, it is now.

Despite the negativity that seems to permeate the atmosphere around here, the county is poised to take advantage of emerging industries. The infrastructure -- the high tech park off University Dr. in New Philadelphia -- is in place. And an incubator will be built in the park in the near future.

This is not the time for the CIC to fade away. The county needs this private sector/public sector partnership to continue its work.

The CIC has asked for short-term financial help from the county commissioners, all of whom at one time or another underscored economic development as a major issue in their campaigns for office.

(OK, I have no citations for that statement, but tell me it's not true. I'd argue that "economic development" has been a campaign plank for every commissioner and mayoral candidate in the last 30 years.)

I would hope the commissioners come to the CIC's salvation in the short term. In the long term, I guess this county needs a philanthropist who believes in the CIC's role and mission and is willing to fund it well into the future.

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Also broke, of course, is Twin City Hospital, which filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy last October. From what I'm hearing, there will be no forthcoming partnership with Union Hospital.

There was a hint of that fact in the paper last month. Union CEO Bruce James was asked if Tuscarawas County could support two hospitals.

“I don’t know that I have a good answer for that," he said. "I want to do what’s best for health care in Tuscarawas County.

“We can’t afford to have two unhealthy hospitals in the county.”

It's well-documented that the demographics of the Twin City area have not been kind to Twin City Hospital. A very small proportion of emergency room patients is actually admitted to the hospital, which means there is a very large proportion of emergency room cases that are not emergencies. And those kind of patients usually are not paying for services rendered.

And that's just one symptom of trouble.

Certainly a healthy, vibrant Twin City Hospital was a worthy goal for numerous well-meaning folks in the Uhrichsville-Dennison area. But it now appears that the operation of a full-service facility in that part of the county is unworkable in today's economic environment. So, don't look for a Union Hospital bailout. It's just not going to happen.

I look for the bankruptcy court to affirm that conclusion soon if it hasn't already.

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I wanted to give Gov. John Kasich the benefit of the doubt, but his desire to bar the press from his swearing-in ceremony leaves me wondering.

Can this guy be trusted?

Certainly if I was advising him, I would have told him that trying to keep the press out of a swearing-in ceremony was a move that would have worked well in the cold war Soviet Union, but never in America. (Full disclosure: I electronically moved my resume to Kasich, but have heard nothing. Bummer.)

Kasich, as you probably know, relented on the swearing-in ceremony, which was moved to the statehouse and opened to the press. Still, it makes me curious about what else he'd like to keep under wraps and out of the public's view.

I suspect there will be plenty of closed-door meetings. Feel comfortable about that?

* * *
Let's play "You Be The Editor."

Last Friday, members of the Kasich administration celebrated at Cleveland's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

In reporting the story -- written by a female -- the Plain Dealer offered us this little tidbit:

(Lt. Gov.-elect Mary) Taylor, 44, looking like a Hollywood star in black satin pants, a black leather jacket, low-cut black-and-white blouse and a pink and glittery silver necklace, said that she appreciated the people of Ohio.

When I read the passage, the editor in me cringed. Was this sexist? Was it necessary to the story? Should it be included in the story?

Further down in the story, we learn that Kasich wore an open-neck shirt, blue blazer and dark pants and that other attendees had worn fur coats and even tennis shoes.

If you were the editor, would you keep the Taylor description in the story, tone it down or abandon it altogether? I'll give my answer in an addendum after readers (hopefully) weigh in.

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I feel the same way about the Arizona shootings that I did about the Virginia Tech massacre: We don't do a very good job of identifying dangerous people with mental health issues and then preventing them from owning and using firearms.

I don't blame Sarah Palin, conservatives, liberals or talk show hosts. (That's not to say we shouldn't civilize the debate.)

What is emerging about Jared Lee Loughner is that he is very mentally ill. And how do we protect ourselves against someone who is mentally ill and has access to guns and ammo?

It would make sense to remove him from the equation before he removes you. I can think of a few ways one could do that, but none of them are currently legal.

And I'm not sure any gun control legislation will totally protect the rest of us from the criminally insane. Somehow they'll find a way to carry out their demented acts of violence. It seems they always do.

No answers here. Only questions.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Happy new year! Brace yourself

Welcome to 2011, which appears to be a year of reckoning for state and local governments everywhere. Incoming Gov. John Kasich's first task will be figuring out how to balance a budget that is projected to be $8 billion in the red.

Think about that for a minute. That is a boatload of money. And Kasich promises to balance the state budget without raising taxes. That means a massive downscaling of expenses.

With that in mind, the Columbus Dispatch last weekend offered an interactive feature for readers to allow them to participate in the budget process. The feature produces fantasy headlines based on one's choices, to wit: "Police unions oppose Farrell's prison cutbacks."

It's a fun exercise, but underscorses the difficulty of cutting $8 billion. Know this: Many people will be hurt in the process and all of us will feel it in one way or another. I suspect local governments will lose a lot of state funding in the process, which will, in turn, create budget crises in towns, cities and townships throughout Ohio.
Ohio, of course, is not alone. There are plenty of other states that find themselves in the same or worse condition. And a number of states point to the bloated public pension fund payments and payouts as well as collective bargaining agreements as contributing causes.
The economy may be improving, but for government this is still the fall of 2008. I think it's rather naive to believe $8 billion can be cut from Ohio's budget without scores, even hundreds, of people losing jobs.
Kind of like "Groundhog Day," this is the recession that doesn't seem to have an end for those of us in middle America.
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Media analyst Alan Mutter has an interesting lookback at the publishing industry's Wall Street performance in 2010, and I provide a link to his blog as a public service. I think you'll find it interesting.
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Congratulations to longtime Dover Police Capt. Joe Ball, who has been named the department's next chief. Ball, who will take over in April, succeeds Ron Johnson.
I've known Joe since he served as a sheriff deputy back in the '70s and always found him to be one of the good guys who understands the value of public relations.
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I'm going to make a sweeping generalization: Traffic lights in both Dover and New Philadelphia impede the flow of traffic rather than help it.
If there's a last straw, it's the darn lights at the new interchange in Dover. They are unnecessary and, coupled with the lights at Ohio Ave. and N. Wooster, make the area a frustrating one for motorists.
Some years ago, traffic engineers (consultants?) suggested New Philadelphia spend a lot of money for traffic signals at 4th and 3rd Sts. NW. Ultimately they were removed after it became apparent to everyone except the traffic engineers that they were unnecessary. I think we have a similar case at the interchange. At the very least, the traffic experts should speed up the cycles.
I will give props to Dover for the Hospital Dr. traffic light system. I think that one helps the flow of traffic. That's the key, isn't it?
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