Archive for the ‘local’ Category

Municipal bankruptcy

Sunday, August 12th, 2012

UPDATE: That didn’t take long.

Moody’s credit rating service issued a report stating that the plummeting financial condition of many California counties, cities, school districts and other government agencies will soon result in large numbers of municipal bankruptcy filings. Concerned about their own potential liability for providing high ratings that encouraged conservative elderly Americans to invest in risky bonds; Moody’s announced they will undertake a wide-ranging review of municipal finances because of the growing insolvencies.
The Moody’s report comes just two days after we reported that “CALIFORNIA SALES TAX REVENUE NOSE-DIVES BY 33.5%.” Stock brokers have often recommended California municipal bonds as very safe investments, due to historically low default rates and relatively stable finances. But Moody’s said that outlook is changing after the Chapter 9 Bankruptcy filings of Stockton, San Bernardino and Mammoth Lakes.

I’m watching a Fox News program on municipal bankruptcy. The obvious examples are in California but Jefferson County, Alabama is the largest example in the country. An earlier example was Harrisburg, PA. Both cases involved insurance companies which had guaranteed the municipal bonds.

San Bernardino, CA is the latest California example and public employee unions are a big part. The real estate collapse was the other big factor but the San Bernardino area was always very susceptible to these problems because that area had become a commuter bed room community for Orange and Los Angeles Counties. People who could not afford homes in the communities where their jobs were located are a recent phenomenon in California. Nobody wanted to live near a steel mill or an old fashioned industrial plant. If they could afford it, they commuted.

I moved to Mission Viejo, CA in 1972. At the time, this was a small bed room community for Los Angeles. The commuter traffic was northbound in the morning and southbound in the afternoon. About 1980, this began to change as Irvine, CA was developed after Mission Viejo and wisely included industrial parks for light industry. The city of Irvine is located in an old land grant from the days when California was part of Mexico. The Irvine family, who owned the land (two of whom attended USC with me in the 50s), got Donald Bren, the son of actress Claire Trevor, to run the company that developed the land and somebody wisely donated land to the University of California for a new campus.

Donal Bren has become a billionaire and the city of Irvine became a center for high tech industry, partly based near the new university. The commuter patterns changed and, now, southbound traffic from Los Angeles is in the morning. Home prices in Irvine went way up and those whose incomes did not allow them to buy a home in Irvine or Mission Viejo, bought homes in San Bernardino and other “eastern empire” communities. That meant they were less able to weather a real estate collapse with the loss of value in those homes. The problems are not limited to California but they have been severe here.

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A day at the ocean

Saturday, July 7th, 2012

Today my son, Joe, and his son, William, went to the harbor at San Pedro to see the USS Iowa on the first day it was open to the public. We had neglected to buy tickets online and, when we arrived, we found first that it had been moved from where we thought it was, and that the line was enormous. In fact, they had stopped selling tickets because the ship was too crowded.

Joe got on his cell phone and logged into the ship website, where he was able to buy tickets for the 2 o’clock boarding time. He couldn’t print, of course, so we went over to the yacht club where we were able to print the tickets. We had lunch and went back to the ship about 1:40. We found the end of the line for 2 o’clock and boarded just about on time.

It was still very crowded but the tour was enjoyable.

Here are Joe and William on the main deck with the two forward turrets in the background. The #2 turret is the one that had the lethal explosion in 1989. The initial reports suggested that it had occurred by sabotage.

The first investigation into the explosion, conducted by the US Navy, concluded that one of the gun turret crew members, Clayton Hartwig, who died in the explosion, had deliberately caused it. During the investigation, numerous leaks to the media, later attributed to Navy officers and investigators, implied that Hartwig and another sailor, Kendall Truitt, had engaged in a homosexual relationship and that Hartwig had caused the explosion after their relationship had soured. In its report, however, the Navy concluded that the evidence did not show that Hartwig was homosexual but that he was suicidal and had caused the explosion with either an electronic or chemical detonator.

Ultimately, that explanation was rejected by the public and Congress as an out for the Navy and the explanation was an error in loading the bags of powder.

Here is William standing by a shell and the powder bags on the main deck. The bags are behind the shell and are rammed into the breech after the shell with a rammer. The investigation concluded that it was not a human error or a deliberate act but an error in loading.

During its review, Sandia determined that a significant overram of the powder bags into the gun had occurred as it was being loaded and that the overram could have caused the explosion. A subsequent test by the Navy of the overram scenario confirmed that an overram could have caused an explosion in the gun breech. Sandia’s technicians also found that the physical evidence did not support the Navy’s theory that an electronic or chemical detonator had been used to initiate the explosion.

At any rate, the tour was fun and the day was beautiful. The ship is still not fully restored and will require a lot of work to get into good shape for tourists. It got quite warm in the after section where the ship store is and I finally headed up to the main deck again to cool off.

Here are Joe and William at the stern of the ship looking out at the empty cruise ship terminal.

Here is William on the bridge with the rest of the ship in the background.

Here is Joe taking a photo of William with the main gun turrets in the background.

It was a beautiful day. We will be back.

Summer may be finally coming.

Friday, May 27th, 2011

It is finally warming up, four days before Memorial Day weekend. Last year, it snowed the weekend before. This year, I thought it would snow a week ago today as it was cold and looked threatening. Still, this is a resort because it is cool in summer so one must accept the cool of the spring, as well.

Last year, we noticed that the back yard was, in one spot, rather wet and almost swampy. By mid-July it was dry but this year has been wetter than last and I have engaged some workmen to build French drains behind my stone wall in the rear. Also, we had two very heavy rain storms last fall, one of which dropped about 12 inches of rain, and my small stream was partly washed out. My fence was washed out in the place it passes over the combined streams.

The repairs are under way and I will document them.

First, last April 2, a large tree in the back yard fell. Cindy was sitting with the deck door open and just heard a noise. Down it went. It was about 40 feet tall or more because it reached the back fence and crossed the access road behind it. The young fellow next door, who does that sort of thing, came over and offered to clean it up, including cutting the trunk into logs short enough for the fireplace.

A couple of weeks later, after the next snow melted, I noticed there was a spring flowing quite actively out of the root ball hole from the tree.

The water just welled up in the hole and then flowed down the hill to the stone wall. The ground below the stone wall was wet and almost marshy. Last year, it was much the same but it dried up by mid-July. This year is wetter and I don’t think it will dry up until later, if at all. The fact that the spring is still welling up from the root ball hole suggests why the tree fell.

If you compare this photo wth that of the fallen tree, you can see that we dug out the dirt behind the stone down to the level of the bottom of the wall. We then laid PVC perforated pipe along the bottom of the trench and connected it to drains at each end. The trench was then filled in with 3/4 inch rock. This is how you make a French drain. They can be quite deep but this one is only about two feet.

Here is one that drains into the creek just after it enters the yard from beneath the road. Even after a month, it is still flowing. The other drain is under the bridge and almost hidden by the rocks.

I noticed that the wood bridge that crosses the small stream was getting warped and we then found a large crack in one of the support beams. You can’t see it here but when the snow melted and we were looking at the bridge again, it was obvious that it was not doing well. After inspecting it, I decided to dismantle it and make “sister” beams to reenforce the structure. We also found that the ends were sitting on some old cement blocks with rotted out 4 x 12 beams below them. This is probably the second, if not the third, bridge there.

Here the beams have been “sistered” by bolting a 2 x 12 to each and bolting them together. After they are fixed together, the curve is restored using a Sawzall. The rails were removed to get at the beams and the entire bridge was lifted onto the lawn. The new footings for each side were dug out and forms set up. After the concrete dried and set the bridge was put back although the upstream rail is left off to assist in repairs to the stream bed and water wheel.

The water wheel is actually a fountain with an electric pump in the tank to pump water to the top and it then turns the wheel as it flows down. The pump was shot and the wheel and tank were all silted in so that was the next job.

A lot of rocks that lined the banks of the little stream had been washed away last winter so we collected some and rebuilt a footing for the water wheel. This will be supplemented with mortar and a block wall was built to shore up one side of the creek wall under the bridge.

That block wall will be covered with river rock to make it look more natural. The whole front of the house is river rock.

The next project after the bridge will be the small stream which was badly eroded in a couple of big storms last fall. After cutting down some ugly little trees to get at it, you can see that it was once lined on each side by river rock with some mortar to hold them. Many are still there but some have washed away.

When the ivy is pulled away, you can see some of the wall. I will get some more rock and do some repairs. The little stream ends in a tiny waterfall.

You have to look closely to see it but it is still flowing pretty well. Below that waterfall, there is a washout area and the two streams converge.

The area can be dug out and lined with stone. A small dam would back up a pond for the frogs and maybe even some small fish. There are a few large boulders which will help anchor the stream and divert flow away form the house.

Here is a better view of the two streams coming together. These are tiny now but in the heavy rain last fall, each was probably five to six feet deep and flowing at a huge rate.

Summer is here and I will document as I go along.

A progress report

Saturday, August 7th, 2010

Winston and I are moving into our house in Lake Arrowhead. Today, I had the Direct TV guy here for about four hours and we now have TV. Courtesy of a neighbor who has not figured out how to set up security on a wireless router, we also have internet. What else could I want ? Well, the contractors who were working on a wetness problem in the family room that involved mold spores, seem to have disconnected the ducts from the furnace so I cannot heat the house. I called one highly recommended furnace repair man and he said “No.” He was going “down the hill today.” So much for that. I stopped at the local hardware store to pick up some duct tape and a mask. The mask was because I had a coughing fit that lasted a half hour after I handled the ducts earlier today.

Well, the best intentions and all that. It is now 7 PM and I haven’t fixed the ducts. I have had my dinner and a glass of wine. That, after all, is the order of precedence. Now, we have to get Winston his dinner of ground beef. Then a cigar and a walk.
More later.

Further progress as of 8/18/10.

Most of the boxes are unpacked. Winston’s fence is not yet completed as Lowes did not have enough “kennel wire.” I need 370 feet. The heat works but the past few days have been unbearably hot so that issue is moot at the moment. I figured out the trash day and that the trash company does not provide cans so that was another trip down the hill to Lowes to get trash cans and a fan.

Next week, the contractor will be restoring the downstairs family room, which was torn up due to a mold issue. My office will also be fixed up next week.

The weather is beautiful although I hear they had a heavy rainstorm over at Big Bear yesterday. It is 26 miles east and about 2,000 feet higher.

A little local color

Wednesday, July 21st, 2010

I moved to the mountains about three weeks ago, after selling my house in Orange County, and am awaiting my escrow close on a new house up here. In the meantime, I am renting a nice older cabin which backs up to the national forest. I was walking Winston this evening when some neighbors stopped by. I learned that, about a half hour before, a bear had walked into the neighbor’s house ( the next one up the road) through an open front door. He had apparently rummaged through the garbage and then decided to seek more nourishment from the source. The home owner jumped up and yelled at the bear, which beat a retreat.

Life in the forest. I got so interested in the story that I forgot Winston’s liver which was cooking on the stove. It looks a bit burned but I am sure he will not mind. His usual daily ration is about a pound of liver or ground beef, mixed with two hands full of dry food. He is a very big Bassett, probably related to his diet.

He didn’t seem to mind. It was eaten in 30 seconds.

Here he is with a nationally known blogger.

I am sure he smells the bears and the coyote pack as he will not go out after dark without me close by. In the morning, he also waits for me to go out with him. The rest of the day, he will potter about the cabin but doesn’t go far. About two weeks ago, I was serenaded by a pack of coyotes about dawn. I have not heard them since Winston has been here. He did chase one a week ago but I managed to call him back. That is an old trick of coyotes. One will appear and tempt a dog to follow or chase. Around the corner is the pack. Coyotes will even send a female in heat to entice a male dog to follow her.

I’ve had a couple of experiences with this in human females and so know better.

Tea Party Day in Mission Viejo

Thursday, April 15th, 2010

UPDATE: Here is another account with more information. I didn’t know, for example, that a guy attended with an Obama tee shirt and was invited to speak several times but declined. That was across the street where there was more room and where the speakers were.

Here is the OC Register with a typical undercount. There was a head count of 600 by one observer but the Register gets it wrong more than it’s right. I was a subscriber for many years but no more. Oddly enough, the Register is delivered to my house every morning and goes straight to the recycling bin.

I went down to the corner of La Paz and Marguerite, the putative city center of Mission Viejo to see the Tea Party rally. I would say the group was larger than the last one last year. There were groups on all four corners although the southeast corner seems to have the largest group. They filled the sidewalk and, this time, spilled over into the parking lot of the office building. The total number was about 750 to 1,000. I took a number of pictures to show the signs, especially.

This is walking up Marguerite from south to north. This was the most crowded corner, I thought.

Lots of flags, big and small

This is looking across at the northwest corner. This was about 6 PM and there were 100 to 150 people there.

More signs.

This is from the parking lot behind. The sidewalk was too crowded.

More signs and again the view across the intersection. Lots of honking.

There was music and some speeches on the corner across La Paz. More room there.

There were lots of kids there. I would say the average age was about 50 with the median very close to that, as well.

Democracy in action. I saw few signs that were not about spending.

I don’t know who this guy is but will find out.

More signs.

Spilling over the curb into the street. Nobody seemed to mind. Lots of honking.

Here’s the spillover into the parking lot behind as the crowd got bigger. This was about 6:30. I headed home after this. It was a successful demonstration for a small town like Mission Viejo.

Why I like Sarah Palin

Monday, November 30th, 2009

UPDATE: The New York Times actually prints a favorable review of her book and most of the comments are about what one would expect from the Times readers.

I like Sarah Palin and have since I first heard about her record as governor of Alaska. I reviewed her book and was particularly interested in the sections on her career in local government. One reason is because I know someone a lot like her and because I saw what happened to reformers in local government in my own small city. A history of the reform group in Mission Viejo, where I live and have lived since 1972, is here. I became vaguely aware of the group when the apartment issue reared its ugly head. Mission Viejo is a small city that was planned in 1962, at a time that Orange County was a bedroom community for people who commuted to Los Angeles to work. It was definitely middle class and new homes sold for about $25,000 to $65,000. There were model homes and the homes were typically sold before they were built, at least in the early days. There was a cluster of apartments in the center of the city and these were almost completely occupied by families waiting for their home to be built.

The huge apartment project that first got my attention was a change in the city master plan and violated the principles of planning that made this a good place to live. The first planned cities did not anticipate the rise of small business and the information economy. The assumption was that most residents would commute. The city plan did not include much of a commercial zone since local offices would probably be local businesses like lawyers, doctors and accountants. Newer developments have included large swaths of low industrial park that reduces commuter traffic and allows small business to be located in proximity to the homes of the owners and employees. That was still to be learned when Mission Viejo was planned.

In 1995 or so, real estate developers proposed a large apartment project that would require changes in the master plan and zoning laws. Large apartment projects are not very friendly to neighbors. They increase traffic and often demand additional school construction while contributing little to the tax base. They also tend to attract crime and often add to parking problems since the parking codes do not anticipate families with four cars occupying a two bedroom unit. In my time on the Transportation and Planning Commission, I became very aware of these issues.

Others, who knew more about it than I did, organized a petition drive opposing the project and the master plan change. I signed the petition and attended the Planning Commission meeting. I got a lesson in local government tyranny. The agenda placed the item last so the enormous crowd, probably 500 or so. had to wait until midnight to get a hearing. This, of course, was planned to tire out all but the most enthusiastic. The Commission cared little about the comfort of the protestors. They voted approval of the project in spite of the petition and the attendance of hundreds. The scene was reminiscent of the town halls last summer.

In 2000, I became aware of more nastiness during the election. I had voted by absentee as I had to be in Ohio on business election day. Ironically, the person who was the victim of the nastiness and the cause of my entry into electoral activism, when finally elected to the city council, turned out to be a faker and made lots of new friends among developers and other shady characters. If you get involved in politics, prepare to be disappointed. The rest of the story is pretty much at the link.

My story begins about here:

Fall 2000 CIG members support Gail Reavis for city council.

Gail Reavis is a very nice lady who reminds me of Sarah Palin. What follows explains why.

Nov 2000 General Election. CIG member Gail Reavis, in her first race for elected office, defeats an incumbent after he spent $80,000 in the most costly candidate expenditure in city history.

The election of Gail to the city council infuriated the majority, which had had things largely to itself. The first of the reformers to be elected, John Paul Ledesma, was a minority of one and could be ignored. He, however, was the one who got them in trouble over the Brown Act violation since he knew they had violated it. For this mortal sin, he was ostracized. When Gail was elected, the majority felt a chill.

The majority, which consisted of two women and a man, decided that she would not be tolerated. The women would not speak to her and, more frustrating, they refused to confirm her appointments to city commissions. This had never happened before but they would not allow her to exercise the normal functions of her position. At this point, after they had voted down her nominee for the Planning Commission, I was asked if I would be willing to serve. I was interested and she nominated me to the commission. I had never met Gail before that meeting. I did have one quality the others didn’t. I had operated on one of the councilwomen or her husband. I really didn’t remember them but didn’t let on as she voted for me and then congratulated me.

For the next two years I served on the commission and got a real dose of nasty local politics. The new city hall was built in spite of opposition from the CIG group. It was far too expensive for our small city. When it opened, a reception was held by the council majority to which the city residents were not invited. It was that kind of situation. When I went to the city hall for my first commission meeting after it opened, I was informed by the receptionist that I could not go to the first floor meeting room without an escort. I wrote a letter to the local paper complaining about the whole tone of the “Taj Majal” city hall, as many of us had begun calling it. The day the weekly paper came out, I got a furious phone call at home from the city manager. He was in a rage because I had criticized the city in a newspaper. He was in such a rage that spittle could have shorted out his phone. I informed him that I did not work for him and when that didn’t calm him down, I finally told him I was recording the call. He quickly hung up. He also had a couple of rages that affected Gail who is a small stature woman and which occurred in the city hall. She called me and I suggested she get the names of witnesses.

Then came the earthquake:

Nov 5, 2002 “Shock and Awe.” Clean Sweep. Three city council candidates, strongly supported by CIG members, defeat high profile incumbent mayor and mayor pro-tem. Trish Kelley, John Paul Ledesma and Lance MacLean finish first, second and third.

Now, we had four of five council members from the reform group. The city manager knew his job was in trouble so he filed a harassment lawsuit against the tiny woman he had threatened in one of his rages. His remaining allies on the council plus a turncoat from the supposed reform majority, gave him a $500,000 settlement.

By 2004, the reform majority was breaking up under the stress of learning that power corrupts and political allies will sell out or just go off the reservation for no good reason if they are silly enough (Examples of both). Gail, however, continued to read the city check register and find all sorts of nasty little “easter eggs” in there. For her troubles, she was hated by the friends of the old majority and some of her supporters were hassled and nitpicked. Finally, she decided not to run for re-election last year. Her husband said it wasn’t worth it and she had no higher office ambitions.

Knowing the story gave me a lot of insight into what Sarah Palin went through and is still going through. Henry Kissinger once said that the politics of the Harvard faculty were far more cut throat than anything he saw from the Russians. The reason, he said, was because the stakes are so small. I think that is also true of small city government although the feckless city council of Mission Viejo may eventually bankrupt the city. There are too many employees with too high salaries and pensions and the city gave away too many handouts to friends. Some of the story can be found in exchanges of letters in local papers, like these. The big newspapers show little interest in small cities so a lot of this goes along under the radar. Fortunately, we have some local blogs that make up the difference. And sometimes we get really good local office holders like Gail Reavis and Sarah Palin and some us know enough to appreciate them.

Not enough, though.

Top 10 cities for political activity.

Monday, September 28th, 2009

US News and World Report has Mission Viejo as one of the top 10 cities for political activity in the nation. The article also notes that it is the safest city in America. Coincidence ?

Other important factors that play into political participation are the quality of education in a community and the level of incomes. Cities on this list tend to be more educated and well off than nearby cities or the country as a whole. They also tend to be residential suburbs of cities with service-based economies. Those characteristics lead to greater political interest not only because wealthier people with children tend to care more about public affairs. Such interest also stems from the fact that prosperous, tight-knit communities are natural breeding grounds for political activity.

One other factor, mentioned by one of the community activists of Mission Viejo, is to have a “dysfunctional city council.” Yes, that does help. The comments on this local blog expand a bit on the city council’s role in stimulating political activism. I got interested in 2000 when I became aware of some very nasty campaign stunts funded by city vendors who were in cahoots with the then council majority. We had seen some questionable spending decisions, such as a very expensive city hall and a city library that was a showplace. The city council seemed to be under the impression that this was Beverly Hills. A couple of years later, they were outside, looking in.

Unfortunately, we all learned that Lord Acton knew what he was talking about when he said “Power Corrupts.” The new council members we had worked so hard to elect became almost as corrupt as the old group. Community activism took a nosedive for a while. The Tea Parties seem to be bringing it back to life.

Duck season

Sunday, August 2nd, 2009

I was up this morning making coffee and watching the Sunday talk shows when I noticed a duck swimming in the pool out the window. The ducks seem to like our pool because it is just over a fence from a small lake that they spend all year swimming in. Unfortunately, they poop in the pool and, in the summer heat, algae becomes a serious problem. My first response when seeing ducks in the pool is to chase them out. This time was different.

When I started to go out the door, I noticed that the female duck had an escort. She had her duckling swimming right along her right wing tip. I watched them for a while and finally opened the door. The mother duck squawked and jumped out of the pool. The duckling could not get up to the deck from the water. The distance was too great. After a few minutes, the mother duck gave up flew away. I decided I would help the duckling out of the water although I couldn’t see how he had gotten into the yard. He must have walked under the gate which does have a gap of about 6 inches although it is screened by a lot of flowers.

As soon as the duckling saw me, he was excited and, as soon as I headed his way, he would madly paddle the other. He practically was airborne he was paddling so furiously. I tried to use the small skimmer net to lift him out but he was just too fast. Finally, I went up and woke Cindy to help me. We came downstairs and looked out but no duckling. I figured he had gotten out somehow. Cindy was up now and she decided to lie in the sun while I watched the rest of the talk show.

A few minutes later, she opened the door and came in with the duckling in her hand. She had decided to look in the pool skimmer and there he was. He went madly paddling away but came back to the skimmer and she caught him. We decided to put him through the fence onto the sand next to the larger lake. We couldn’t see the mother duck but hoped she would find him before a coyote did. Cindy set him down and he huddled on the sand.

After a few minutes, she reached down to pet him and he took off running to the lake. He dove in and then the mother, who had been sitting under a tree nearby, came flying over and took him in hand. A few minutes later, they were paddling around the lake as though nothing had happened. I hope she learned her lesson as we might not be here to rescue the ducking the next time.

Another quiet Arizona Sunday morning.

Apres Moi, Deluge

Wednesday, July 8th, 2009

UPDATE: There is a state that is working. It is called Texas, and the Economist has a report.

The French king, Louis XV, is said to have predicted that “the deluge” would follow his reign. His great grandfather, Louis XIV, the “Sun King” had reigned for 72 years, from the age of five. he left France glorious but financially ruined. One wit of the time said if the courtiers could be convinced to put paper on their walls and gold in their pockets, the kingdom would be far better off. They did not and profligacy continued. Finally, it all ended with the hapless grandson of Louis XV when he ( Louis XVI) and his young wife, Marie Antoinette went to the guillotine.

Something like this is happening in California as the public employee unions are determined to prevent any attempt to rationalize the state’s finances. Now, they will try to block insolvent cities from filing bankruptcy.

Mendoza’s bill would not only empower the commission to regulate bankruptcy filings but allow it to impose conditions on the filings they do allow, which is the nut of the issue. Local governments that file for bankruptcy may be able to abrogate their labor contracts, but if AB 155 becomes law, the debt commission could – or at least the unions hope they would – block abrogation.

You’d think IOUs would be enough to convince them of the seriousness of the problems. Louis XVI wavered and almost was persuaded of the necessity for financial reform but his arrogant nobles were convinced they could overcome the rabble.

Tumbrils, anyone ?