Saturday, September 23, 2006

ISS's headin' right fer us!

Here's a special treat for regular Manteca Live! readers.

Tomorrow morning (Sunday morning, at about 5:46 am) the International Space Station will be passing almost directly over Manteca.

And, you can see it if you go outside and simply look up at the right time! It should look like a blazing star streaking across the sky. They just added another array of solar panels, which should add to the brightness of the station as it passes. You will be one of the first to see the new configuration.

Viewing is not difficult, but you do need to know where and when to look. Go outside around 5:45 am. Then, look toward the South-West, about halfway between the horizon and zenith (straight up). If you are lucky, you should see a bright "thing" suddenly appear. This is one of the unique aspects of this viewing opportunity -- The station will be passing from darkness into light, and it should look like it "just appears" in the sky. On board the station, they are experiencing one of the many daily "sunrises." The station should appear about 5:45:48. An accurate time source is helpful.

The Station is so bright, it's hard to miss. You can refer to the charts for the more information. Good luck!

Manteca dusts off ancient document called "The Constitution"

"As always, the individuals arrested are innocent until proven otherwise."

The Manteca Bulletin suddenly discovered journalistic standards. Evidently, this new rule protects the identity of the accused if: a) It's a minor matter, just some "domestic violence," b) if the victim didn't need to be rushed to the hospital right then and there, and c) if the accused is a member of the police department.

In addition, such stories should be accompanied by a disclaimer explaining the reason for the cover up. After all, no one has been proven guilty of anything, so why should we print any names or pictures of someone simply because they were arrested? No no, the Bulletin never does that! All those front page stories about some guy who arrested for whatever reason that we've been reading for the last few years, including pictures and names -- they are simply figments of your imagination. That never happens.


Monday, September 18, 2006

Your tax dollars at work - Manteca buys a hybrid

If you've ever wondered how the government squanders your tax dollars, here's one small example:

Tonight the City Council will decide if they want to buy a new car for the trash collectors. (I'm sorry, the Solid Waste Division, I don't like euphemisms, it makes it sound like there is something wrong with the trash collection service.)

They want to buy a 2007 Ford Escape Hybrid. A hybrid! The standard Ford Escape goes for about $19,320. The hybrid version costs about $26,479. (this is from yahoo auto.)

They list the specs for the regular Ford escape as 24/26 mpg, and for the hybrid version, 36/31. I don't buy into that "city" figure too much. There have been many reports in the press that say that mostly, that "city" figure is not really valid for a hybrid, because the hybrid is sort of tuned to "game the test" and score abnormally high. Which does make sense because of the way hybrids work and the way the test works. (I looked that up a while ago but don't have the data handy right now)

So, lets just consider the highway mileage. Driving for 100,000 miles, the hybrid would use 620 gallons of gasoline less than the regular model. How can that possibly justify spending more than $7,000 more? Just to save 620 gallons? You can figure it out for yourself -- that's a savings of about $1,736 over the whole 100,000 miles. (assuming $2.80/gal). Gasoline would have to be something more than $12.50/gal for the hybrid to "save money" on gasoline.

If you check out that yahoo website and compare the regular version with the hybrid version, you'll see they more or less confirm that the "total cost of ownership" is much higher for the hybrid version, about $37,856 for the regular version and $45,218 for the hybrid!

Again, this makes perfect sense. The hybrid is a complex technology, and expensive to manufacture and repair. In fact those repair costs are something that might be a shock because there isn't that much experience with hybrid.

But someone might argue, the hybrid is "better for the earth!" Isn't that a good enough reason? Well, I'd dispute that and here's why. The price represents the added resources that had to go into the manufacture of the hybrid system. Things like huge batteries, electric motors that convert to generators, a complex drivetrain, etc. All those things use energy to manufacture, and we haven't even gotten into the possible disposal problems with those batteries that are made of toxic metals and other nasty stuff. Just to cut past the technicalities, you can think of the price as a good proxy for the actual resources "from the earth" that the vehicle uses.

So, the fact that it's not "cost effective" is more than just interesting to accountants. The amount the vehicle costs actually represents the added resources used to make the vehicle. In other words, it burns more fossil fuels to make the hybrid than it saves. By that analysis, driving the hybrid harms the earth more than driving the conventional model!

And one more thing, did anyone notice that the great deal Manteca Ford is giving us is a good thousand dollars more than the average MSPR price, according to that yahoo auto website?

We haven't even gotten into why the city needs this extravagant vehicle and what possible mission this vehicle might be needed for, and why a less expensive model wouldn't do?

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

A nation of wimps?

Yesterday was the 5 year anniversary of the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center and like many other people, I remember exactly where I was when it occurred...I was sound asleep in my bed. It was still pitch dark outside here in California when the bedroom door opened and a flashlight was pointed at my face. "An airplane crashed into the World Trade Center," said Joe. I half sat up and asked what kind of airplane. He said he didn't know and that I should get some rest and he'd let me know when he found out more information. I laid back down thinking it was probably some small private airplane that had somehow gotten off course. I went back to sleep but a short time later, the bedroom door again opened and again the flashlight in my face woke me up. "A second plane crashed into the World Trade Center and one crashed into the Pentagon, it looks like we're under attack," reported Joe. "You better get up." In September 2001, we worked for and this was definitely "breaking news," the stuff we lived for.

As I made my way out of bed to my computer, Joe had a cup of coffee waiting for me. The TVs were on and the official chat room was full of people anxious to know what was happening and wanting to talk about it. Like every other dot-com in 2001, CNN's online community had been downsized in recent months and Joe and I along with a handful of staff were the only ones left to handle the crowds that were gathering online. By mid-afternoon, CNN called me and told me to hire back as many staff as I could because they wanted the chat rooms open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for as long as needed. Over the next days and weeks, we got very little sleep. Thousands of people a day from all over the world had a desperate need to talk about what had happened and about the repercussions that ensued, the anthrax scares, the invasion of Afghanistan, the search for Osama Bin Laden, and it was our job to listen to them and record what they had to say.

I no longer work for CNN but I'm still a news and politics junkie, though a jaded one to be sure. I think working for a news giant for 5 years will do that to you. I've seen how the media can put a spin on a story to give it a bias one way or another without obviously appearing to do so, deftly insinuating how we should think about an issue without coming right out and saying it. I've seen them hype one news story over another equally or more important story when they want to downplay something that might otherwise be embarrassing to them. Joe and I call it the "Maybe There'll Be Breaking News Tomorrow" syndrome...but that's a story for another day. TV, radio, newspapers and magazines have tremendous impact on our perception of the world around us and on how we react to things.

As I watched and read the coverage of the memorials to the 9/11 attacks yesterday, I was struck by what a nation of wimps we are. Yes, that's what I said...wimps! Am I the only one who thinks it's unseemly for Americans to be openly weeping about the loss of lives on that day FIVE YEARS after it happened? Whatever happened to the strong American? A picture of strength and courage that comes to mind for me is Jackie Kennedy after President Kennedy was assassinated. I don't believe she or her children ever cried in public. Today she would probably be called some kind of cold-hearted person if she didn't break down for the cameras. Today, instead of showing strength to the world, we show how much we "care" and how deeply we "feel the pain" of others by crying and whining for years about any tragedy that befalls us. We memorialize everything, whether or not it affects us personally. I blame the era of 24-hour cable news channels for this. When you've got 24 hours of airtime to fill and it's a slow news day, life can be a bitch. News media love anniversaries of tragedies, whether it's the 9/11 attacks, the Columbine shootings or the murder of Jon-Benet Ramsey. We're subjected to the tears of those who were there, or who knew someone who was there, or who knew the cousin of someone who knew someone who was there and call it "news." They can fill up hours of programming for days with a good anniversary.

Besides showing the world what wimps we are, I think all this public grieving has a terrible effect on our children. I think it teaches them to be weak, as individuals and as Americans. Death is a fact of life, whether it happens naturally or through an accident or through murder or terrorism. Instead of showing strength in the face of tragedy and adversity, we cry. Instead of celebrating someone's life, we erect morbid "memorials" complete with burning candles and photos on roadsides where someone died in a car crash or in front of the home of someone who was murdered. Total strangers come to these "altars" to cry and be sad and leave little tokens, often with news cameras and reporters there to record it. I'm sorry, but I think that is just too weird. We use the media as a therapist's couch, crying over how devastated we are, telling the world that we don't know how we'll get through this or over that (whatever it is). One news channel yesterday remarked that it was so much more difficult for children who lost a parent in the 9/11 attacks than it was for a child who lost a parent to some other sort of death, so much more to cope with. Do they think a 12 year old whose father died unexpectedly in a car accident is any less devastated than one whose parent died on 9/11? Perhaps it's the endless tears on TV that is keeping the children of 9/11 victims from getting on with their lives.

I don't know, maybe I'm just too cynical.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Officials: The problems is growth; no correct that, the problem is lack of growth

This is from The Record (Stockton).

Here, City Manager Adams admits that if the "growth" were to stop or slow down, that would be bad, we "wouldn't be able to afford things."

This is a direct contradiction of what we've been told until now. We've been told that that "because of all the growth, we need to raise the taxes to keep up!" In other words, that "new growth" was a "burden" to the city. The phrase "keep up with growth" is one we hear all the time. I've long suspected that was nonsense. Now we find out, we've been living off those "developer fees" that we've been told are insufficient to even cover the costs of "new growth!"

I've often suspected that the amounts they decided to charge for "developer fees" was somehow pre-ordained. In other words, they first decide how much they feel like charging as a developer fee, then they play with the numbers to make the "amount" come out right (to what they previously decided they wanted to charge.) For example, look at the recent fight over the "government facility fee." That's a fee charged to all new homes, and it's supposed to pay for "government facilities" that are needed because of the new growth. According to the "development fee" law, the fees are not suppose to be a "way around" the proposition 13 limits, they aren't supposed to be a "stealth tax" used to support other city services.

In order to figure out ("justify") the new developer fees, the law requires that engineers do all sorts of calculations; things like if there is one street light for every two houses, they can charge for the cost of 1/2 a street light for each new house. And they figure out how many feet of new street and new sewer line is needed per house, and they can add that in. The idea is that "growth pays it's own way" -- but that growth isn't supposed to be a bonanza of "bonus money" for the city to do with as it pleases and use for crazy projects and exorbitant raises in pay for government workers, etc.

That term crazy projects makes me think of the latest raise in developer fees. They included the future cost of a performing arts center as something caused by the new growth. In other words, if there are new houses, we will suddenly need a performing arts center. Remember that with developer fees, they are thousands of dollars charged for each new home, the new resident pays these fees, but they are charged now, before they even move in. How do we know that these new residents will have any interest whatsoever in a performing arts center? What I'm saying is that when they were creating the developer fees, they decided on what the fee should be (first), then added things to make the numbers work. Sort of like "these numbers aren't working out... What can we add... I got it, lets add a performing arts center, lets say it costs so many million dollars... There we go, now the math works out."

In theory, according to the way it's "supposed to be figured out," if "growth" were to stop today, it should make absolutely no difference to the city budget. After all, they did all these very careful calculations showing that the fees charged per new house is exactly what is needed for the growth only, and not for the rest of the city.

The fact that the city manager is now moaning about how some city programs might be cut, or someone might not get their raise, if the housing market were to slow down is proof that the calculations are wrong; that the city has been depending on the new houses to fund things for the rest of us.

In other words, when they want to raise the developer fees, we are told how they are so low, they don't even cover anything, they have to be raised (poor, poor us!). And we are told it's because of all that damn growth! There's nothing we can do about it, we can't stop the growth, so we just have to raise the fees and the taxes. Now, suddenly, the tables turn and growth threatens to stop, and now the city is saying "oh no! This is terrible, without that growth, we're doomed, we need that growth to pay for things.

Which is it? Is growth "a burden" that costs us money, or is growth the cash cow that buys us everything? The answer, it seems, is what ever sounds best for whatever political goal they happen to have at the moment.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Shocking news -- group paid by city supports new tax

There should be some sort of disclosure on these things. Like, if you are paid by city or you get tax money, you should have to mention that if you're going to "endorse" a new tax.

Also, notice that every time the new tax is mentioned in the Bulletin, there is always this same "key talking points" in every article.

This is the current drum beat:
  • Now they are talking about 30 new positions. Before it was 15 police and 15 fire, which is the same thing, except that 30 sounds like more.
  • Now the tax is just a tiny little 50 cents for every $100. Sounds like almost nothing! Yet, somehow this will raise $4 million every year.
  • Repeating the same "guarantee" that the general fund support of police and fire does not "slip below" the current level. "In other words no shifting of funds." They leave out any explanation of how anyone can ensure this. The actual text of the measure says it's "the intention" not to "supplant." That's the word it uses. "Intentions" are one thing, guarantees are another!
  • The money would be split evenly (interesting choice of words!) between the police and fire departments. As for why this would be is anyone's guess, since it costs roughly twice as much to run a police dept as a fire dept in the city of Manteca. I guess it just sounds better or "more fair" to say it will go to both evenly, even though it doesn't make sense.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Criminals steal $50 per capita; less than government of Manteca

Ever since I noted that the new Measure M tax will cost every family about $240 per year, or $60 per capita, comparisons are now in style!

I guess $50 a person stolen is a lot. But lets take a closer look at this figure.

First, the figure is a tad high, they are using 63,000 as the population of Manteca, and most sources put the population figure closer to 67,000. That would make the actual per capita loss at $47.72.

Second, contrary to the headline, the article says over half the stolen property is recovered! This would put the actual loss at less than $24.

And this is the year to date, so lets think in terms of per year. $24 /7 *12 = about $41 per year.

Now to be sure, this is a purely economic analysis, and doesn't consider the moral issues of crime. But in terms of pure monetary value, does it make sense to spend another $60 on "crime prevention" when the losses are, at most $41? Before you decide that sounds pretty close, bear in mind: 1) this cost figure of the tax is over and above the hundreds of $'s per year we already pay for police services and 2) in order to see that savings of $41 a year, the Manteca Police Department would have to perform a miracle and completely eliminate all crime. If they reduce crime a little, you might save a dollar or two, who knows.

But remember, this is all predicated on the ability of the police to reduce crime. It sounds simple, but very hard to do. There's yet to be a really good study that proves that "more police" or "better police" have any effect whatsoever on the crime rate. You'll hear things both ways, but it's just hard to prove one way or the other.

For example, look at Stockton. They passed "Measure W" the tax increase to "hire more police, make the community safer, etc." The result? Two years later violent crime is up 13.6% (Figures from The Record (Stockton))

Friday, September 01, 2006

Professor Harold Hill visits Manteca neighbor

(note: Click on the title above to read this article from the Ceres Courier)

This must be a growth industry. This firm apparently travels from city to city telling them "we can get you money!" It reminds me of professor Hill in The Music Man, who told the town "you got trouble!" and of course, he could fix it for the right price.

The method is strikingly similar. L.E.G. comes to town, promises to sell the people on the idea that there is some "crisis." And the only way to fix this manufactured "crisis" is to raise the taxes. And for their services, they get a nice "piece of the action."

Note the following ominous boast of "100 percent win rate." And the term "finance measures" instead of the more accurate term "tax increases."