Sunday, December 30, 2007

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Is Manteca adding a new firehouse?

Are they really adding a fourth fire station? Here's a map showing the current fire station (the red blob on the right) and the proposed "new" fire station (circled in red on the left). Personally, I have my doubts, but we'll see.

One thing still raises some doubt -- why did the fire chief talk about how the new station will cover the 2,000 or so homes not currently within the 5 minute response time window, and then add that there might be "200 or so homes" (on the east side of town) that will become just outside the 5 minute area? Why would that be so? Wouldn't that only occur if the eastern station was closed? (i.e. the 200 homes in the 5 min. range now -- how will they become out of range unless a fire station is closed?) hmmmm.

Correct me if I've misinterpreted something or leave a comment.

Council wrap up

Last night's city council meeting had some issues that I thought I'd note here.

1. The "memorandum of understanding" for the police union was presented. Check out the raises involved here. There are eleven raises, ranging from 2 to 7.5 percent over the five years (about two raises each year, one in January and one in July.) Two of the raises in years 3 and 4 are unspecified, but may be up to 7.5 percent each and based on some "study" of what other cities are paying their people. How much you want to bet they pick 4 or 5 cities that pay a lot to compare us with?

Just the listed raises turn out to be about a 37 percent increase over the five years. And the two unspecified raises could increase that more, maybe a lot more. The part that I find interesting is that if you do a back of the envelope kind of calculation, if you assume the fire depart will has gotten a similar contract, you find the added costs for payroll is just about $3.9 million. The Measure M tax was estimated to "bring in" about $4 million! So, more or less, the Measure M tax wasn't for "improved public safety" it has gone to lavish pay raises.

And this isn't even considering the two unspecified raises. My guess is whatever money happens to be left in any department or in any source will be used up by the unspecified raises. But maybe I'm too cynical.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Bullhorn permit law in Manteca

I want to clear up my comments made to the council last week. The newspaper just said I thought the new "noise ordinance" was turning Manteca into something "like the Soviet Union!" Which is kind of dramatic. Heck, I would have printed the same thing.

But that was only part of my comments. I don't think anyone has the right to disturb the peace of their neighbor. (The newspaper made it sound like I was against any reasonable noise law.)

What's odd about the new idea from Manteca is two things:

First, the fines for a loud party are "open ended." The police just "decide" how much the fine is. Yes, you read that right. The chief explained how, well, it might be $500, maybe $1500 or $3000 depending on how many police cars have to come out there, what kind "of attitude" they get, etc.

It's this idea of open ended fines determined by the police -- acting as judge and jury -- is why I said it sounded oppressive. Actually when the police, without any judge or a court or even a written guideline can just hand out any fine or punishment they see fit, that's the definition of a police state.

Secondly, the law also requires anyone using a bullhorn or any sort of sound system to give lectures or give political talks has to get permission from the chief of police ten days in advance! That's what the law actually says, it talks about lectures and talks to people, it's not just aimed at "loud car stereos."

When questioned, the chief defended this, saying that it was a "must issue" type of thing. So, in other words, he has to issue the permit. OK, so my question is, then why require the permit then? And if it's "must issue" and there's no decision making, why does it take ten days to issue the permit? Also there's a reference to some unspecified fee associated with the permit. No one could say what the fee might be.

All of these kinds of laws are subject to abuse. Some politically favored group might get a permit for a bullhorn for $5, and some other unpopular group might be charged $500 for the permit, who knows. Also, if by chance there's a labor strike or spontaneous protest, and the protesters take to the street the leader could be arrested and his bullhorn seized even if it was otherwise a peaceful assembly of people protesting something -- if the leader didn't have the proper "permit" for his bullhorn.

That's what I was talking about when I said this reminded me of how in the old Soviet Union you needed a permit to have a typewriter. If you're curious, there's a good depiction of this in the movie Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others).

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Talking back!

Here I give the city council (actually sitting as The Redevelopment Agency) a piece of my mind. As if I can spare it. We touched on three topics. Two of my comments have been subjects of discussion in the local newspaper. So here are the comments, edited slightly for clarity:

The first issue was the council/rda (the people I'm addressing) wanted to spend $60,000 to hire some guy or "consultant" or "guru" to analyze the city and "bring in" better restaurants and hotels. That's where the comment about "the free market" comes from -- it's the free market that determines what restaurant moves in.

The next thing I'm scoffing at is there was some discussion that our "fast food" to "grocery store" ratio is off kilter and that's why everyone is so fat. So there was talk that they should give preferential treatment to food sellers who claim their stuff is "healthy" and we should keep out the evil McDonald's and things like that. "Because of the obesity epidemic." I didn't really have the time or inclination to explain why this "crazy talk."

Next, and it's worth waiting for, I compare the council to the queen's court where they grant special favors to people they like. In this case, developers with lots of money....

Which leads to the last point, they appropriated $150,000 of your tax money to be given to some special people to "help them" buy houses (down payment assistance/gift). I have as much compassion as the next guy, but I ask, "where's my house?" How can we justify taking money from the hard working poor people of Manteca to give it to some selected special people so they can buy a house?

The part that's really infuriating is that while they are pretending to be "compassionate" and "helping people" buy houses (using your money), everything else they do hurts people by making houses more expensive to buy. It takes years to go through "the process" and get permission to build something on your own land. Only a rich corporation with a team of lawyers and consultants can afford to do that. And for that privilege, the city charges a plethora of special fees. It adds up to about $60,000 for each new home. Even though the taxes on new homes are called "development fees" and they make it sound like it's paid "by the developers" it's not. The tax, I'm sorry, "fee" is paid by the new home buyer. And now they want to use tax money to "help people" pay this tax fee in the form of that "assistance program" mentioned above.

What I'm saying. in other words, is that if the city didn't charge an extra $60,000 per house, that would help people a hell of a lot more than this "special program" that gives a few certain special lucky people "up to $50,000" to buy a new home using your money.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Manteca checkpoint not so voluntary

The Manteca Bulletin reports that the Manteca police set up two checkpoints in the city in the hopes of finding drunk drivers. From the sound of the article (click on the headline to read article), the clever Manteca PD wasn't going to let anyone slip past them. Most of the arrests, interrogations, DUI tests and seizure of vehicles seems to have taken place by chasing and stopping people who turned off the road before going through the checkpoint.

The article tells us one guy turned right onto a side road before the checkpoint, and thought he would escape the iron grip of the law, but intrepid police officers knew this trick all too well, and were hiding in the side streets for just such a thing. I forget what eventually happened to the motorists, you'll have to read the article...

It all sounds great except for one little thing. Actually, they aren't supposed to do that. The police aren't "allowed to" stop a car just because the driver decides not to go through the checkpoint. Don't believe it? Read on...

DUI checkpoints have been subject to debate for years. The debate was sort of settled in the early '90's when The U.S. Supreme Court, somehow, found the checkpoints didn't necessarily violate a citizen's 4th amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches. So long as the checkpoint is "voluntary." And "voluntary" means you don't have to go through the checkpoint, they have to put up signs letting you know a checkpoint is up ahead, and if you turn off and decide to exercise your right not to be interrogated and searched, they can't chase you. Because it's your right, you can't grab someone off the street for simply exercising their rights Well, in Manteca, "can't" is relative apparently.

Specifically: First, it went to the California Supreme Court in 1987. (Ingersoll v. Palmer (1987) 43 Cal.3d 1321 , 743 P.2d 1299; 241 Cal.Rptr. 42). Here, the court looked at the procedures being used, and decided so long as these rules were followed, the checkpoint was legal:

A sign announcing the checkpoint was posted sufficiently in advance of the checkpoint location to permit motorists to turn aside, and under the operational guidelines no motorist was to be stopped merely for choosing to avoid the checkpoint.

and ...

Checkpoint personnel were specifically instructed
that drivers were not to be stopped merely for avoiding the checkpoint.
fn. 5 The road sign announcing the checkpoint was placed sufficiently in advance of the checkpoint that motorists could choose to avoid the checkpoint.


FN 5. Cars avoiding the checkpoint would be stopped, however, if in avoiding the checkpoint the driver did anything unlawful, or exhibited obvious signs of impairment.

So, if you blast through the checkpoint with tires screeching or you make a sliding U-turn like you're filming Dukes of Hazard II, then they can chase you and stop you. (And should chase you. I want to be clear -- I'm not arguing for our rights because I have any love for drunken drivers.)

Here's where it gets interesting. In 1990, the Dept. of Transportation issued some instructions for police departments on how to conduct DUI checkpoints, and that same rule noted above, and the same exception appears. This is from DOT HS 807 656, also known with the catchy title The Use of Sobriety Checkpoints for Impaired Driving Enforcement, published in 1990. And it says, on page A-3:

  • A motorist who wishes to avoid the checkpoint by legally turning before enterning the checkpoint area should be allowed to do so unless a traffic violation(s) is observed or probable cause exists to take other action. The act of avoiding a sobriety checkpoint does not consititute grounds for a stop.
Not to nit pick too much, but extra points for spelling in that last quote.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

California Economic Summit

Great Minds meet to discuss how to "cultivate job growth through innovation, entrepreneurship...."

Yesterday the important people (and you know who they are) met for a series of talks and panel discussions on the future of "economic development" in the San Joaquin Valley of California. I wasn't expecting to find a libertarian tea party, but I was surprised by the level of talk that revolved around protectionism, heavy handed government meddling and economic shortsightedness. Particularly because some of the presentations were billed with names like "unleashing the entrepreneurial spirit." It was more like unleashing the power of government to protect entrenched interests!

After some introductory remarks about the "entrepreneurial spirit" and the wealth of the area by Congressman McNerney, the mayor of Stockton gave a few remarks.

Mayor Chavez held up the recent decision of the City of Stockton to deny Wal-Mart permission to build a new larger store in the city as an example of the wonderful things the city was doing to help the poor people of the area. He repeated the theme that "we won't be bullied or intimidated by Wal-Mart" and said something about the "threat" of Wal-Mart. He ended with "we won't let Stockton be known as 'the discount city!'" Maybe it's just wishful thinking, but it didn't seem to me that the crowd responded very positively to the thought of an outright ban on Wal-Mart.

The question in my mind is "what power does Wal-Mart have?" How can Wal-Mart threaten anyone or intimidate? The mayor's comments are 180 degrees from reality. Wal-Mart can't force anyone to shop at their stores, they don't have the power to make anyone do anything. Wal-Mart, like every other store, has to rely on persuasion to try to entice a free person to shop there. Contrast that with the threats from Wal-Mart's competitors. The competitors organize "grass roots" efforts through threats and intimidation, they make anti-Wal~Mart websites and even an anti-Wal~Mart movie. The labor unions, who depend on Wal~Mart's competitors, threaten political leaders with promises of organizing against elected leaders unless they exercise governmental power to force people to shop at their stores. In other words, it's the labor unions and competitors who tell the political leaders "either keep out Wal~Mart or you won't be elected again."

So, I ask, who is intimidating whom? Who is the bully here? It isn't even the labor unions or the activists; they may act like bullies and talk like bullies, but really, the labor unions and the activists have no power to stop anyone from shopping anywhere. No, only the government is the real bully here. The government is acting as the codependent enabler for the bullying activists and labor unions by stopping people from shopping where they prefer and by stopping a successful legitimate business from operating. Only the government has that sort of power. That's what's so insulting about the mayor's comments.

Next, the panel on "unleashing the entrepreneurial spirit" spoke. One of the panelists, a member of the "winegrape commission," complained about the terrible effects of cheap wine from Australia "coming in." The irony seemed to be lost on most people. No one questioned why the entrepreneurial spirit of the Australian winemakers is suddenly a bad thing if it competes with the members of my group.

I was waiting, maybe foolishly, for the next panel on "Encouraging 'Smart Growth'" to explain or at least make some argument why so-called "smart growth" is better than non-smart growth, but I was disappointed. The issue of "smart growth" is a book in itself, but in a nutshell, it's a set of mandates designed to keep the moderately successful people away from good places to live, and to reserve the best land and homes for the truly deserving super-wealthy. All others are directed by government policy to live in high rise apartments (high density) next to bus lines that take them to their government designated "power centers" or "employment centers" (to achieve the government mandated jobs/homes "balance"). So called "smart growth" is really an incredible set of principles, you should look it up on Google. The last time these principles were used was in the Soviet Union.

The idea that many of the government leaders seemed to fully embrace, without discussion or debate or thoughtful consideration, the collectivistic principles promoted by this "smart growth" group is frightening.

One of the principles mentioned a few times was how we have to "preserve agriculture" because it's such an important part of our economy. Sounds fine, except that if a farm is making money, why does the law need to command someone to "keep farming?" No one ever answered that question. Made me think of the ideal of the simple pastoral people promoted by both Thomas Jefferson and the communist Chinese.

After the break, we heard a stirring lecture on the benefits of "renewable" energy. Which was sort of great until they started explaining how all these fantastic technologies -- bio-diesel, wind and solar power -- need government "help" or tax money. If someone can make a device that creates electric power, won't people buy it? That's the fallacy that panel was trying to sell us on. In other words, what they weren't saying was that "we can make power that is not as good, and costs more than what we have now -- but we have a sincere belief that people should buy our product even though they don't want to -- and we would like the government to force people to buy our product." (Presumably, because people are too stupid to know what is good for them?)

Lastly, the panel on education told us how much better the schools are doing than in 1999. There were some stats provided that I haven't evaluated. So who knows, maybe student performance has improved slightly since the dismal nadir of '99. I sort of got the impression that it got so bad that Johnny couldn't count to four back then, but today he can count to seven, so it's a "great improvement."

The Dean of Workforce and Economic Development at Delta College defended, after a question, the "nurse lottery system" where people are accepted in the nursing program by a roll of the dice. She explained this wasn't as bad as it sounded and not just anyone can apply. All the applicants have to be "good enough." It was heartening to know that the sick and elderly would be cared for not by people who are the best qualified, but don't worry, mom's nurse is "good enough." I can see that in a new slogan: "San Joaquin, the land where most critical medical people are probably good enough."

I wish I could have asked a question of that last panel, but they yammered so long they ran the clock out on questioning. But I was impressed by the comments of John Solis, Director of the Workforce Investment Board. He told us how hard it was to find jobs for young people and that he hears how they don't have the skills or work ethic. My question would have been something like this: "Mr Solis, if a Fortune 500 company wanted to expand their operations in Stockton and hire 800 people, with a large number of those jobs being offered to anyone who wants to work hard and be paid a fair wage, wouldn't that help young people get a start in the working world? And what if that company comes from Bentonville, Arkansas?

Monday, August 20, 2007

Words from the commissar

If you want to see the most elitist, arrogant argument ever made by a public official, check out the video of the Stockton City Council meeting. They voted to start the process to "keep Wal-Mart out of Stockton." View the video here. And also, this argument is the next runner up for "most ignorant commentary."

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Manteca's "degenerate art"

The City of Manteca has reached an agreement with the California Public Art and Mural Symposium. The city will give the artists hosting this event $3,500 and in return the artists agree to let the Manteca Police Department review the art and determine what type of art is proper! In fact, from questions and answers at the council meeting, the artists said they would require the "spray paint artists" to submit complete sketches in pencil of their proposed art and the police "gang unit" would approve or disapprove the art. The artists said they would be looking out for "gang art" or "gang symbols" or "certain colors."

So now the artists in Manteca can only produce government approved art?

Does anyone see any historical parallels here? Although there have always been controversies over "public funding of art" those were usually involving the commissioning of some large projects and involved criticisms of the art after it was produced. You can't please everyone, and what is "art" is often in the eye of the beholder.

But in Manteca, there are some distinctions. First, instead of complaining about if the art is good or not after it's made, by pre-approving sketches the city government is participating in the art process. And secondly, instead of the art being judged by the public process or city officials, city policemen will be making judgments as to what kind of art the participants are allowed to make. Art being produced literally at gunpoint. And, this is no slam against the fine Manteca Police Dept., but I didn't know that Manteca police officers were skilled artists or somehow qualified to judge, much less dictate, what kind of art is permitted.

One aspect of art is supposed to be an expression of something that can't be said in words. A form of communication of feelings or thoughts on a different level, sort of like music or poetry. The idea that the government can, or should, only let people produce only approved art is an anathema to free expression.

I know what some would say. That we just can't let these kids make any art they want. They might make "gang art" or something. Well, so what? Isn't that the purpose of art? To express whatever is on the mind of the artist? And if it's gang symbols, well, frankly I'd be curious to know that. On the other hand, what if the young participants were allowed to produce whatever art they wanted to without a policeman standing over them? And what if they produced some fantastic creative art? Then we would have some true idea that maybe young people aren't all gang members. But as planned, the participants will be forced to produce police approved "good" art at gunpoint. So, what does that really tell us about the inner feelings of the artist? Nothing! You'll always get the result you're looking for, and this nullifies the whole purpose of making art -- to find learn the true feelings of the artist.

If you really want to draw some historical parallels, this policy is not that different than what Hitler did in the 1930's. The Nazi's were obsessed with art. And the storm troopers kept and eye out for "degenerate art." Hitler preferred certain art forms that glorified the German State, and the superiority of the "Aryan race." Common themes that were permitted were muscular blond haired men and women, living in health and beauty (usually without clothing) under the wonderful Nazi system. Other types of art, and the artists were persecuted and their art purged from public galleries. Even today some of the art the Nazi's didn't like is on display in special galleries of "degenerate art."

I also fault the Manteca Mural Society. In order to get a few dollars they are apparently willing to give up their right to free expression and instead are willing enablers of the government's plan to control the art. Bear in mind we aren't talking about a mural or art project commissioned by the city -- in that case of course the city would specify what they want produced. But in this case, they are advertising this "art symposium" as some kind of free competition between artists. Even they probably recognize the shame of the arrangement, because I notice no where in their promotional literature do they mention that the "competition with other artists" will be under the watchful eye of police officials who will order you to produce art that is pleasing to the government.

In addition an artist from Manteca would probably be put on a list if they defiantly paint the wrong color or draw the wrong thing. The MPD "gang unit" spends a lot of time compiling this list of "known gang members and associates" and if you get two or more "gang indicators" on your record, you are considered a "gang member." One of those hits for the list is displaying "gang colors." So how's that for a formula for creative expression? Come to Manteca's art competition, where you will ask a policemen for permission to draw something, and if you deviate from the approved colors or symbols in your art, or if the art expert/critic/policeman doesn't like your art, you go on "the enemies list" where you'll be watched like a hawk by the government for at least the next two years. Sounds like just the kind of thing young people would like to participate in! Sign me up!

But for some reason, the promotional mailings don't mention this, I can't figure out why!?

Thursday, July 12, 2007

This can't be true! Shocking!

From the Department of This-Explains-a-Lot:

From the Manteca Bulletin opinion page, a letter writer chastising the editor for not "respecting education." The letter writer's comment: "It's a degree in journalism which gives Mr. Wyatt the background and credibility to run a newspaper, and I respect that."

I guess to be fair I should add that not being indoctrinated by "Journalism School" is actually a good thing. Some of the most respected journalists proudly proclaim they haven't been told what to think by some journalism school. Examples such as Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings, John Stossel.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Hunger Awareness Day

The Second Harvest Food Bank held an open house and tour. All the city big wigs and everyone else seemed to be there.

Like most charity operations of this type, I didn't really learn much about the economics of how such an operation works. All we heard about was in sweeping terms of how food is "donated" by rich corporations and "given" to the poor and hungry. It would have been interesting to critically evaluate how the operation works, with an eye toward answering the question "does an enterprise like this really do any good?"

I suspect the answer is they do some good.

California is, believe it or not, one of the stingiest states in this one area of welfare. The "food stamp" program gives out very little, anyone making over $405/month is disqualified. Anyone convicted of any drug felony, no matter how long ago, is forever barred from getting food stamps. Note that this prohibition only applies to drug crimes, it doesn't matter if you killed somebody or hold up liquor stores at gunpoint; you are fine to get food stamps.

A speaker on NPR this week was bemoaning the fact that California, because of its strict rules, can't give away food stamps and much of the budget is unused.

Maybe there is a lesson here for the libertarian. When government withdraws from an area of "giving," other private persons step up to fill the gap. The reverse of this process was noted by controversial state supreme court justice Janice Rogers Brown. Her comments from a speech was repeated by pundits and used against her to show how "anti-government" she is (and presumably this makes you less qualified to be a judge?). She noted: "where government moves in, community retreats, civil society disintegrates, and our ability to control our own destiny atrophies..."

Here we see the reverse, where government gets out of the way, charity and giving thrive. My guess is that people who may have been caught with a marijuana seed in the '70's, and are now forever unworthy human beings according to the state, may find some relief of their food insecurity by this operation of private individuals.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Honoring Memorial Day

How to best honor those who died to give us the chance to be free?

It's often said that on Memorial Day we honor and remember those who fought to make us "free." Every Memorial Day politicians fall over themselves in speeches and press releases to proclaim their "support for the troops." The streets of Manteca are filled with flags, and the bumper stickers are on display. A nearby church even has a full scale styrofoam replica of the tomb of the unknown soldier.

I'd like to take this Memorial Day to re-affirm my own support for "our troops" who fought and died and remember that no one gives us freedom. Defending our nation in war is required for a nation to be free. However, no amount of fighting in any war, no matter how just or how horrific, has ever given us "freedom." It would be more proper to say that our military gives us the right to freedom, not freedom itself.

There's nothing magical about destroying the enemy on a foreign or domestic battlefield that automatically makes us free -- or gives us any particular political system. The political system we live under is up to us to make. Military security preserves our right to live as free people or, conversely, allows us to squander that right and live as slaves. It's up to us, not the military. All the battles in all the wars ever fought have never, by themselves, made a single person free unless that people decide by their own will to live as free people. Military security is necessary but not sufficient to ensure our freedom.

So, this Memorial Day, when the politicians are loudly proclaiming how we are free because so many died to give us that freedom, and urging us to honor that gift of freedom, ask yourself, "how free are we?" If the answer is that we're not very free, then what does that say about our personal commitment to honoring those who fought for that right to be free?

It's my belief that freedom doesn't come from politicians in Washington D.C. or from the president, or the senators or congress, or from Sacramento, the county or from any of the plethora of commissions and councils that infest California. Freedom starts right here, in Manteca, with us. What have you done to increase our freedom? I ask the political leaders the same question. When deciding any of the various political issues that always seem to "come up" in a small town, how much do we consider the question, "which side of the issue is most consistent with American freedom?"

By choosing or permitting ourselves to give up a little freedom, usually for some promise of a better "quality of life" or "security" or some other high minded collectivist goal, are we dishonoring those who fought and died to give us the right to life as a free people? By failing to take upon ourselves the burdens of freedom, are we dishonoring those sacrifices? And sometimes freedom is a burden because living free often means doing for yourself instead of accepting the easy promise that some government agency will do something for you. Freedom is messy, you have to tolerate things you don't like and fight the urge to make everyone, at gunpoint if needed, live in a way you would prefer, or some social expert tells you ought to prefer.

So when you're pondering where you're going to put your support the troops ribbon, wave your flag or complain about high gas prices, think about how a free people should have decided local issues that we have faced in the last years:

Ask yourself:

  • Why are your children educated in prison-like compounds, with wire fences, searched, sniffed by dogs, wanded, with frequent "lockdowns" and taught by a policeman who may or may not have finished high school himself, who often has his own office in many schools and is paid more than most teachers. Young people are indoctrinated to do and say and think as they are told. You are forced to pay staff in California schools more than anywhere else in the nation, yet students score near the bottom in performance.

  • Why does it take the permission of a dozen commissions to start a business, or build a house? Why can't you run a hot dog stand or a "taco truck" without running afoul of some regulation? Why can't you sell a teddy bear, or a flower or tamale on the street corner for one day? Why can't you park a restored historic truck on your own property? Why can't you pursue your own happiness or your own dream or your own "vision" unless it meets with the approval of a commission of experts and deal with a gaggle complainers? Why can't you protect yourself from those who may attack you on the street or at your home?

  • Why are you not only denied the opportunity to work as you see fit, but also you are forced to pay, through your tax dollars, to help pay for someone else's dream or vision. The poor people of Manteca are being forced to pay as much as $61 million to "help" the immensely prosperous Bass Pro Shop just to build a store here. You are paying another roughly $60 million (after interest on the debt) to pay for someone else's "Big League Dreams" ballpark/bar/restaurant. To build a house you have to pay thousands of dollars to an unnamed mysterious farmer to "mitigate" the so called "loss of farmland." The owner of the downtown movie theater is forced to pay taxes that go to help his competitor -- some of his money is given to the movie theater at the "lifestyle mall" project.

  • Why are you subject to relentless propaganda from all directions, government and the "free" press? Persuading you by telling you what you think has become an art form in the age of power wielded by popular delusion. We are constantly told, and many accept, that all this freedom is bad for you, and you should give up your freedom to "the greater good" or the "quality of life." Someone's quality of life is improved, but that someone is usually not you. Unless you are one of the politically favored few.

  • Why are you sent to prison for choosing to take the wrong medicine or growing the wrong plant, or various other (sometimes unwise) life choices? Why are more persons in prison (per capita) in California than any society on earth or in the history of mankind, including the old Soviet Union, South Africa or communist China? Is California the most criminal society that has ever existed?

  • And other seemingly endless threats to our freedoms.

The politicians, the expert consultants, the committees and commissions have decided not only where and how you should work, but also what store you should shop. Milton Friedman put it best when he wrote, "What most people really object to when they object to a free market is that it is so hard for them to shape it to their own will. The market gives people what the people want instead of what other people think they ought to want. At the bottom of many criticisms of the market economy is really lack of belief in freedom itself."

This Memorial Day, honor the sacrifice of those who fought for our right to freedom by getting informed, then getting involved and then telling the government to get less involved. Demand that leaders honor the fight for freedom by actually preserving our freedoms.

Or you could have a barbeque on Memorial Day. I recommend the bison burger.

    Thursday, May 10, 2007

    Have some water

    Some consultants developed a new "water plan" for Manteca and presented the results of their study at the city council meeting. As usual with these kinds of presentations, they brought some powerpoint slides and spent most of the time simply reciting the requirements of CEQA and talked very little about the actual results of their study.

    Only a few details were given. It looked like they thought the public didn't need to know too much. But my favorite was when they noted the "substantial and unmitgatible impact" of "population growth." They said this (presumably bad) "impact" was caused by the fact that the main goal of the project was to facilitate the growth of the population. In other words, what the high priced environmental experts told us was that this project designed to help the population grow will have the effect of increasing the population. Hmm.

    Thank you to all of you who have sent me supportive comments. (I've gotten more comments from people in Manteca about that Q&A session than any other for some odd reason.) Since the Q & A session degenerated into a debate of the meaning of a "public hearing" some were wondering what I was "getting at?" Am I opposed to the water plan? Is the cost too much? Is the plan wrong somehow?

    Well, the simple answer is I don't know, that's why I was asking the questions. I don't know if $110 million is a lot. It is for the water supply for 130,000 people, and paid over 20 years. That could be anything from $7 or $20 a month extra for each household. Water isn't free, so who knows. Maybe the plan is great. But I still don't know because they never addressed any other question.

    What I asked was three questions. First, what was the estimated cost? (they said about $110 million over the years to 2030). By the way, even getting that answer was difficult, they started in with a song and dance about how it was to spent over many years, etc etc and I had to rephrase the question to "if we were to build all these things today, what would it cost, about?"

    That was when the mayor interrupted and told the consultants they didn't have to talk to me anymore. But anyway, I also asked if the end result of the project was 39,000 Ac-ft/yr of water, how much do we have now? It was a simple question -- Does that $110 million give us a lot more water or just a little more water? That's why I was asking what's the capacity of the water supply now. The last question was where they came up with that 39,290 Ac-ft/yr figure. They really didn't like that question for some reason. I must have stumbled onto something but I don't know what yet. Maybe it's related to the way that water will be obtained.

    Let me explain one other thing. Why ask such questions? Most questions at the public meeting fall into two classifications. One is the questions from consultants, builders, "stakeholders" etc. These are usually highly technical discussions about some particular aspect that affects their business. The other type of questions are the "personal" type. Things like "you'll have to tear up my cow pasture to put in that line..." and so on.

    The questions I was asking were neither of those. But I want to make clear, there is a purpose for them. It's not my intention to waste the time of the public officials or the people who make the effort to attend the public hearings. The questions I was asking were what, in my view, were the questions that would be important to you the readers and you, the people of Manteca.

    That's why I asked the simple questions that were basically "What will this cost?" And, "What benefit do we get for that cost?"

    If you were there, did you notice that I pointed out that the purpose of this public meeting is to provide the public the opportunity to ask questions, and people have a right to have those questions answered! (any reasonable question that is).

    After I took my seat and my "time was up" the mayor asked city manager and clerk to clear that up. I'll have to review the tape but one or both of them said that the purpose of this meeting is just to take public comments and they have no obligation to answer or address anything.

    Which is completely wrong: Check out the "staff report" on this very issue. This document was issued by the city in preparation for this particular meeting. It tells what the purpose of the meeting is, what is to be discussed, etc. Go to page 92 in the pdf , look under the instructions for this very item. It says:

    1. Hold a Public Hearing to respond to questions or receive comments relative to the 2005 Water Master Plan and the 2005 Water Master Plan Final Environmental Impact Report.

    Note the phrase "respond to questions."

    Thursday, April 19, 2007

    We bring you ... order!

    One phrase that keeps coming up at planning meetings and council meetings and board of supervisor meetings, and in propaganda from the various ministries is "orderly growth." The way it's usually used is "the purpose of the ordinance (or zoning or the commission) is to encourage 'orderly growth' in the community." Every time I hear that, I want to jump up and ask them what in the hell that is.

    Well, now at least we have a clue. Here's a story about "orderly growth's" evil and opposite twin, "haphazard growth!"

    In fact, the reporter tells us this is an "object lesson" in haphazard growth. Theme alert: notice the words 20th century and growth patterns mentioned? The narrative of that theme goes something like this: All these GI's came home from WWII and they "needed a place to live" so crafty fellows like Levitt built these terrible little cheap boxes scattered hither and yon and thus condemned a generation to an existence in suburban banality and sprawling isolation. A lot of newspaper editors repeat this tale a lot. Perhaps to convince us of something. Personally, I don't buy it but that's another story. For more reading about 'the burbs' and how "sprawl" might actually improve our lives, read David Brook's On Paradise Drive.

    Far from condemning past haphazard "building out" of Sacramento, this story is an object lesson in how poorly these planning commission make decisions. Or, at least how much worse the decisions made by commissions is than the choices freely made by individuals.

    Notice another theme: Sacramento "build out?" Does Sacramento build things? Or do people build things?

    We're being told that this little strip of land has been "blighted" and unused because "no one ever bothered to change the zoning..." Well, who exactly was responsible to decide what should be there? Doesn't someone own this land? Is the owner happy with it? Does the owner want to sell it? We'll get back to that.

    The rest of this article is the same song and dance about "housing prices" and some ad copy from the house builder. (1,350 to 1,765 square feet!... priced from the low $200,000s to the mid-$300,000s!)

    We are told, eleven of the "units" will be "sold below market rates?" Doesn't anyone notice that's technically impossible? Whatever you sell something for is the market. What they mean, but don't want to say is they are going to use money taken from you (taxes) to purchase the "units." It makes the developer sound a lot nicer, like they are giving something away to the poor -- like a charity, to phrase it they way they did. But what they are really doing is taking from you to enrich themselves. In other words, they sell the house for full market price except that the poor person pays some of it, and you the taxpayer pays the rest of the cost. Either way, the developer gets his full profit. That sounds a lot different than the way it's presented in The Bee story, doesn't it? The Bee reporter makes it sound like the developer is some kind of humanitarian who's giving away houses to the poor at lower cost. Interesting how propaganda works, isn't it?

    Let me get back to the main idea here, and I don't think I've explained it too well. What is wrong with this idea of "haphazard growth" vs. "orderly growth." The Bee article implies the assumed party line, that "haphazard growth" is bad and what causes "haphazard growth" is that old post-war idea that you should just be free to build where you want. In other words, see how bad things were before there was a planning commission to tell you where to build a house and what you can do with your own land? You see, we are told, back in the olden days, evil or dumb people would just selfishly build things on their land where they wanted. And see what problems this causes?

    Except that all this "haphazardness" was caused by government regulation, not choices in the free market. The article admits it's the "zoning regulation" that was the problem. But they never ask the obvious question, why do we even need a zoning regulation? What would happen if there was no such thing? Heresy you say? Do you know there are places, including some major cities in the U.S. that don't have any "zoning?" And, surprisingly, the "patterns of build out" turn out to be just about the same, or better than the "planned and orderly" growth dictated by a commission. (Example, Dallas/Ft. Worth Texas). Still don't believe it? Then how was just about the entire nation built without zoning boards? The first zoning laws didn't appear until the early 20th century and weren't widespread till just a few decades ago.

    The answer is that the free market, i.e. choices made by individual people looking out for their best interests results paradoxically in what is best for the entire community. (See "Adam Smith")

    I'll just leave you with this to think about. In all the words in that article, why isn't one simple question answered? Who owns this land?

    Why isn't that even worth mentioning? You'd think that was the single most important fact of the entire story. What does this tell us about land use policy and political influence for fun and profit?

    Wednesday, April 18, 2007

    Newspapers echo party line, ignore contrary evidence

    Why is it that nearly every news story just repeats the party line? This one isn't the only story like this. In fact, I've met Paul Burgarino a few times and he's really trying hard. I like that. But it seems like he was simply overwhelmed by the number of spokesmen the city provided (they have an unlimited number -- they are paid to say what they are told to say) and how each one spouted the identical line like it was a mantra: "It's not about money, it's for your safety... etc." But no matter how many city workers step up to the microphone and make the same assertions, this doesn't tell us anything unless we ask for any evidence that any of these claims are actually true. Isn't it obvious that they aren't "informing" the populace, they are "selling us" on the idea. Heck, at least the citizen critics who spoke at the city council meeting had different opinions, suggesting that they are thinking for themselves. But the government spokesmen and the vendor don't vary from their reality defying insistence what we say is true no matter what the evidence shows.

    Maybe I'm asking for too much. After all, check out this story from the Washington Post: Red-Light Cameras Fail to Reduce Accidents. It's no different. Even faced with the numbers and three independent traffic experts saying without the slightest doubt the data clearly show that the red light cameras cause more traffic accidents, the chief of police simply asserts they make us safer.

    Tuesday, April 17, 2007

    Red light camera supplier determines we should buy their product

    Unknown to most in Manteca, Redflex Inc. set up cameras to "survey" some intersections in Manteca. They wanted to determine if there were enough red light violations to make installing a "red light camera" system feasible.

    Redflex is the company that contracts with Modesto and Stockton to supply their red light camera systems.

    After videotaping various intersections in Manteca. The company that profits from the installation of their red light cameras came to the none too surprising conclusion: By Jove! You need to purchase our product! Lives are at stake!

    Doesn't this sound a little suspicious to anyone?

    My guess is that the guys who drive around servicing the cameras were going from Modesto to Stockton and noticed that Manteca was right in between, they probably figured wouldn't it be great if we could set up some of these red light cash generating machines in Manteca.

    A lot has been written about red light cameras, and I'm not going to repeat all those words here. Like a lot of things, I'm sure neither side of the issue is the absolute truth. Here you can read the various comments yourself.

    The best report on the issue is a massive five part series by Matt Labash of The Weekly Standard. This report can be summed up:
    Red-light cameras are ... coming to a city near you. The science behind them is bad and the police are using them to make money, not save lives. It's much worse than you thought.

    This report was "blasted" by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which
    represents the interests of the auto insurance industry. The IIHS simply asserts that
    all the critics are "not scientific." For example, they criticise the Labash data as
    "unreliable" and say things like his data shows some accident rates going up
    after the installation of red light cameras -- and since "we know this can't
    possibly be true" those studies should be disregarded. In other words, to the
    Insurance Institute, only data or studies that support their position can
    possibly be considered "true." hmm. I should point out that the IIHS represents the
    companies that sell automobile insurance. And since the premiums
    insurance companies can charge is regulated, each red light ticket permits them
    to charge more for auto insurance. Red light cameras are a cash cow for the
    insurance companies -- regardless of their effectiveness.

    Some of the "studies" that show positive effects were done at the same time the State of California increased the fines for red light violations from $104 to $271. But the IIHS attributes the decrease in red light running to the product they help sell. They can't explain how red light running decreased by about the same amount at
    intersections where there was no cameras installed. Sometimes they pull out the
    term "spillover effect." Maybe. But the effect was seen all over the state.
    That's some major "spillover!"

    Actually, I am repeating some of what was written on the subject. But if you take the time to study the subject, you'll be struck by the overall lack of data, one way or another. This is acknowledged in one of the few semi-scientific studies done by the federal DOT.

    Note how this study talks about "the paucity of definitive studies..." Other points from this study:

    • Crash effects detected were consistent in direction with those found in many previous studies: decreased right-angle crashes and increased rear end ones.

    • There were weak indications of a spillover effect that point to a need for a more definitive ... study of this issue.

    • ... estimates of the safety effect ... vary considerably. The bulk of the results appear to support a conclusion that red light cameras reduce right-angle crashes and could increase rear end crashes; however, most of the studies are tainted by methodological difficulties that would render useless any conclusions from them.

    • Check out the tables of costs. They attempt to put a dollar value on each type of accident, and more or less decide that that since the side impact crashes cost more, even though the rear end crashes are increased there's a marginal benefit. That's reassuring. Except that this analysis depends on carefully choosing which accidents to "count."

    • The DOT study revealed one other negative effect that no one had detected before. Paradoxically, they found that although right angle crashes were decreased, those that did occur were more serious. The conclusions of this study are tempered with the caution that they may not be valid if "the statistically non-significant shift to slightly more severe angle crashes remaining after treatment is, in fact, real." "Non-significant" is a statistical term that means there wasn't good enough data to tell if this increase in severity of the accidents was just "a fluke" or if it was real.

    There were a few other points I wanted to bring up at the meeting, but didn't get to them with the time constraints:

    • What about people driving around without licenses? The local scandal sheet says about 40% or more in Manteca don't seem to have valid "papers." I don't know if that's true or not, but if it is, isn't it a little unfair to send violations to the legal people with valid license and registration and let the illegal drivers off the hook? That's what, in effect, the red light camera program would do.

    • This type of program is open to abuse. The pictures taken by the cameras are collected and sorted by this private company. The company sends the ones they like to the police department for further review. All this is done in secret, there's no independent record or audit of what pictures have been taken. So, we must trust that if the mayor's son is snapped going through the light that it will be treated just the same as a picture of one of the politically unpopular people. Bear in mind, the pictures are viewed, the license plates are run, the owner or driver is identified -- all this before anyone outside the police dept or the company knows about the existence of the photograph.

    • Manteca people will now be vulnerable to more fraud schemes. Already, there are scam artists sending out fake "violation" letters to people who live in cities with these cameras. The letters look official, they demand payment, except that the payments go to a post office box in some mail drop. People in Manteca and in the San Joaquin County are already getting deluged with fraud attempts -- this has been noted in several of the local newspapers. (examples: Bank fraud schemes and money from Nigerian diplomats and fake checks with instructions to wire funds and "keep" some of the money, etc.) The presence of the red light cameras will open up a new opportunity for fraud that affects the poor and old most. You can read about one such case here. Notice how authentic this fraud looked, and how many people people were defrauded even though the letter was "sloppy." It's only a matter of time before these letters get better. If fact, the extent of this red light camera fraud may not be known. This is hinted at in the article in the The San Bernardino Press-Enterprise. Notice the police didn't want to identify the suspect. This suggest this case was just part of a larger network of fraud or that there are others doing the same thing (the police didn't want to tip off the fraudsters.)

    On the plus side, the council did ask some tough questions during the meeting. They didn't sound 100% convinced. Councilman Hernandez is commended for voting against the step toward the red light cameras. Also, contrary to the press reports, it's not a forgone conclusion. There is still another public hearing on the issue and I think some other council actions needed to actually implement the red light camera scheme. I'm hoping that maybe after thinking about it some more, the council will decide against this questionable program that promises so much, costs so much, and gives so little benefit.

    Sunday, April 15, 2007

    We have to pay businesses to open stores here?

    A few months ago, we were told the "Lifestyle Mall" was going to be paying us. (Lifestyle mall paying special tax, October 16, 2006). Now, just a few months later, and after the election that asked for the taxes to be raised, we find out (funny thing) actually we will be paying them. Evidently, the Bass Pro Shop didn't like the idea that the sales tax in Manteca is the highest in San Joaquin County.

    It's it curious the way the headlines before the election told us how we don't have a penny to spare, there's not enough money for the police and fire departments, and developers have to pay special extra taxes.

    Now we find out the city was planning to pay the mall project developers about $1.7 million a year in the form of a "rebate" of the sales tax! Surprise!

    By the way, this was pushed through the city council so fast that if you went on vacation on Friday two weeks ago, and came back last Monday, you would have missed it. That's right, it was announced three days before the Monday night regular meeting (the minimum time required by law) and then passed with the second reading the next Monday at 9am, again the minimum time required. (Actually, five days is the minimum but that would have been on the weekend.)

    Imagine spending as much money as was spent on the "Big League Dreams" ballpark and introducing the idea and passing it all within a week! The public debate over the Big League Dreams project took years. (Maybe that's what they were trying to avoid?)

    I asked the mayor and council about this and how long they knew about the plan to pay the mall developer $61.7 million. The mayor said they'd been working on it in secret closed session, for "what, like two and a half years?"

    In other words, they knew they were planning to give this huge gift to the mall developer before the election. While they were telling us how poor the city was, and begging people to please vote for the new sales tax and how critical it was to your children's safety, etc. -- they were secretly planning to give nearly half of the money collected by the new tax to this wealthy developer!

    There's no way that anyone would have voted for the new tax if they knew half of it was going to be given away to "entice" a Bass Pro Shop to move here.

    Tuesday, April 03, 2007

    It's not that I have anything against local businesses...

    In answer to the question why don't I feel an obligation to buy things in Manteca (now that the sales tax has gone up) -- what I actually told the reporter was that I didn't feel an obligation to buy things in Manteca because the business people in Manteca are smart, educated people and they, of all people, should have opposed the new sales tax. But they didn't. Maybe they were frightened, bamboozled, or intimidated, who knows why. (This is was partly quoted in the Tri-Valley Herald, but they left off the last part about the reason why.)

    Council Comment links

    You might be wondering what were those two articles I mentioned at the city council meeting.

    The first was an article in Reason that talked about how the Bass Pro Shop is one of the big abusers of public money. They threaten cities with not moving there and they play one city off the other, demanding tax money (your money) just to open a store in your community. That story is here.

    The other reference was to the wonderful essay on (don't laugh) economics. No, economics is not just boring numbers -- it's the fascinating story of human beings and why they do what they do. The story here is told from the perspective of a simple pencil, called I...Pencil. The entire essay by Leonard Read, with a forward by Milton Friedman can be found at the Foundation for Economic Education, the link is here.

    Monday, March 19, 2007

    Blueprint for tyranny

    A lot of "planning" goes on in California.
    The latest round of "planning" for San Joaquin County is organized by the San Joaquin Council of Governments (COG) using a $2 million grant from the federal government. The general idea is that they are supposed to use the money to organize a program of "finding out what people want" with regard to "planning."

    One should always be a little wary when the government spends a lot of money to "involve" you in some plan, or their plan. If history is any guide, whenever the government funds a plan to gauge public opinion, the answers always seem to be what the government experts wanted in the first place.

    Now we are getting a chance to witness this first-hand. The COG is organizing a series of public meetings or "workshops" to, presumably, find out what people "want."

    I got to attend one of these workshops in Lathrop.

    It starts out with a presentation from the expert about the scary growth. He then suggests that it's up to "us" to determine "what to do about it."

    Maybe this was a quirk, but I found it interesting that of all the persons at our table, only ONE (1) was someone who lived in the community. Others were City Councilmen, former city councilmen, planning commissioners, real estate brokers, someone in the building trades. I introduced myself as someone interested in the process, which is the truth, but I didn't live in Lathrop either! The facilitator seemed perfectly happy with the group mix, and even invited me to be sure to come to workshop in Manteca! (The Manteca workshop is Wednesday, Mar 21, at 6:30 pm at the Manteca Public Library -- you should go!)

    Next, after breaking up into small groups led by a COG "facilitator" we get the chance to express "what we want." We're presented with seven areas of interest, and have to pick the five most important. For example, things like "housing" or "water" or "transportation." This, presumably, tells us what we think is important.

    However, note that what we are really choosing is which of the five topics presented by them is most important. This is different than what the people think is important. For example, no where on that list of "things you think are most important" did anything like "freedom" or "property rights" or "abuse of eminent domain" or "abuse of redevelopment" appear. Those, apparently, aren't options the people are allowed to think about or choose.

    After choosing the five "most important" issues (as determined by them), next we were to choose what to do about them.

    The way this exercise worked is that everyone is given a stack of colored cards, about the size of playing cards. For each of the issues that they, I mean we, determined were important, you then have to pick one of four cards, indicating "what you want to do about it."

    For example, lets say the topic is "water." You have to pick one of the four pre-selected options for how to deal with the "water problems." And here's the interesting thing. The cards have bar graphs on them indicating how much governmental interference you would prefer. They are ranked one to four, with one being the least regulation and four being the most regulation. The cards were also coded with playing card suits, that is, clubs, diamond, spade and hearts. Although the reason for the suits is unclear.

    One person was a little confused by the process. I half-jokingly suggested that the four cards represent "the Republican, Democrat, Green Party and the Communist Workers' Party, take your pick."

    This is the point -- in every case, the "lowest level of regulation" was the current level of regulation. And it went up from there. Level 2 was "a little more regulation," level 3 was "a moderate amount of regulation," and if you picked the fourth card, you were choosing "heavy regulation." So, I ask, where is the choice for less regulation? What kind of answer do you expect to get when the lowest level you can choose is the current regulations? Where is the voice of those who want less regulation?

    Maybe that's sacrilege to them. The possibility that someone would blame the current regulation for some of our problems apparently either never occurred to any of the government facilitators or, that's just not an answer they want to hear.

    Overall, our groups seemed to center around "level 3." You can tell this because the selected cards are handed in and put on a board, they form what looks like a bar graph on the board. Given the limited choices and various other ways that each option was presented (I haven't gone into details here) that is what we are being told that we want. It is interesting that that process doesn't just involve getting input from the public. Information was going both ways, we were not only being told what we want, but also being told "see, this what all your neighbors want too!"

    So quit arguing!

    Thursday, February 08, 2007

    Manteca approves development scheme

    Left: Developers, lawyers and EDAW people seem happy their project has been approved.

    If you ever need a lesson in why housing costs so much, look no further than the Environmental Impact Report prepared for this project.

    The Oleander, Sundance, Sundance 2 project is a plan to build houses and "develop" a 230 acre area just south of Manteca. The plan is to build 1,074 new houses, to set aside some land for "commercial development" and to construct various parks, including a promised new Boys' and Girls' Club. The experts estimate that about 3,341 people will live in the project, increasing Manteca's population by about 6.8 percent.

    The Environmental Impact Report is required by a California law passed in the 1970s. The intention of the law is to, I guess, minimize damage or "impacts" to the environment. Or, lacking that, at least notify everyone about the "impacts."

    By the way, did you notice that term, "impact?" Why is nothing ever just an "effect" or a "result," but rather, an "impact." To "impact" something is to hit it or strike it -- it conjures up the mental image of something slamming into an object, causing destruction. E.g. "The impact of the meteor ...." But I digress again.

    The way the EIR is organized, it attempts to list or identify all the "environmental effects" (or impacts), then recommends or mandates mitigations or things that can be done to reduce these effects or make them less damaging to the environment.

    I put the word in quotes there on purpose because, as you'd see if you ever read one of these reports, a lot of the effects of the project are anything but "environmental." Instead, most of the report talks about how they will need more of your tax money for the schools, the roads, the sewage treatment plant, a new water tank, etc. In addition, the EIR spends a lot of time on what I call "meddling." These are things that are someone's idea of what a housing project should look like, for example, the size of the garages on the houses, the requirement for gabled roofs, the requirement for walking trails and "neighborhood centers," etc, etc. etc. What do these things really have to do with "the environment?" Much of the EIR reads like a document from the Central Planning department of the old Soviet Union.

    Now, you might get the idea I don't like the idea, or don't like "development." No, you won't hear any silly complaints from me. Things like "all these new people are moving in" and how Manteca isn't the small town we love, how we are losing the "character" of the town or something, how we are losing all this "great farmland," etc, and how terrible this is. I don't get into that. In fact, I'm all for the building of new houses. People need a place to live. The only way to create affordable housing is to build houses.

    And that's where the problem is. The real purpose of this years-long process of study, preparation and publishing an EIR seems to just make it harder to build a house. And, perversely, prevents competition from other house builders. That makes whoever can get through the process and finally get permission to build and sell houses very happy. And leaves everyone else to either pay their price or not have a house. It's sort of a win/win so long as you don't count the people who would like to have a house.

    Maybe some examples from the EIR itself will help show what I'm talking about:

    1. The report says if they find any burrowing owls during construction, they have to stay 75 meters away from the nest until a "qualified biologist" determines that the fledglings can forage on their own. Whatever that's supposed to help, I don't know. But the fun part is that they permit the construction workers to blast the field with chemicals to poison the ground squirrels, the owl's favorite food! "To discourage the owls... by discouraging the presence of the ground squirrels..."

    Maybe they skipped biology 101: When you poison the prey, you poison the predator. The field of perhaps 230 acres will be covered in dead or dying poisoned squirrels, the food for the owl we are trying to "protect." What kind of mitigation is this?

    2. The area is a "likely," and I'll paraphrase a bit, Indian burial ground. As a fix or "mitigation," they are going to bring out a state-certified archaeologist and an American Indian medicine man who will perform some unspecified procedure. See pg 4.4-12 in the EIR if you think I'm making this up. I sure hope it works! Don't they watch those movies?

    3. A drainage ditch a few feet long, dug on one of the farms, has been declared "a waterway of the United States" and they have to fence it off, bring in the Army Corps of Engineers, and apply for a bunch of permits before they fill it in. In the end, they are just going to fill it in anyway. So why bother with the fences and the Army?

    4. This is my favorite -- They determined that State Road 120, which runs just north of the project, spews out something they call "toxic air contaminants" (TACs). There's nothing they can do about that, but it's the suggested fixes that get me.

    First, they say to put the Boys' and Girls' Club 500 ft. from the roadway to lessen the exposure to "sensitive receptors," otherwise known as boys and girls.

    Next, they suggest putting the high density housing (read: poor people) next to the highway, the area with the toxic air! That way the wealthy home buyers can enjoy the cleaner air. What a plan! Sure, they don't put it quite those words. The reason given talks about how this is because the poor have "greater turnover" and so because the poor people in the apartments won't stay there as long as the wealthy homeowners, their overall exposure to the toxins will be less. (EIR, pg 4.3-23). Along the same lines, they suggest a wall and planting a row of trees. To stop the toxins from the highway?

    I wonder if they are going to be handing out a notice to the renters that says something like "the air here is highly toxic, but we don't expect you to stay here too long, so I'm sure you'll be fine."

    Tuesday, January 02, 2007

    Developers: Don't let any competitors build houses!

    Notes on council comments, 18 Dec 06:


    In Manteca, a "Community Revised Growth Management Program" (CRGMP) restricts the number of new houses that can be built to about 3.9 percent each year. The stated purpose is to "help" the community, preserve the "small town culture" and control or limit traffic "congestion" and other high-minded principles. However, as Milton Friedman explained years ago, you shouldn't judge a government program by its intentions, but by its actual effects. The actual effect of the CRGMP, or "growth cap" is to limit the number of houses that can be built. This serves two main purposes: First, the city wants to get large sums of money for the permits to build each house. (The mayor made these comments a few yeas ago, he said "we're in the driver's seat" and we can demand almost anything from developers, they want to build so badly.) A secondary benefit, for the developers is that limiting the number of houses that can be built helps them demand higher sale prices for their houses. This would help explain why the developers tend to complain a little, but generally go along with the "growth cap" scheme.

    The problem with these two effects is that they, as with almost any interference with the free market, the law creates winners and losers. The newspapers and press tout the rising home prices as nothing but a good thing, for the most part. The same is true of the city officials. But there is another side to the issue. For every developer that is able to command a higher than market price for their houses, there is a loser, the individual who wishes to purchase a house at a lower price.

    The city even gives lip service to the goal of providing "affordable housing" and has created and proposed programs that cost the taxpayers millions of dollars with the stated goal of providing low cost housing. These "affordable housing" programs are in direct conflict with the "growth cap" policies. One arm of the city attempts to lower the cost of housing, and the other attempts to raise the cost of housing. All at taxpayer expense!

    Last month, one of the city's prominent developers asked to have their permits to build houses extended. The spokesman talked about "delays" and "paperwork" first, but then added, almost as an aside, that the market has taken a downturn. He talked about how, darn it, those papers sat on someone's desk for months and we just never got to build the houses in the two years the permit is valid. But I submit that it is the market conditions that is really the issue. Papers don't sit on desks gathering dust when there's millions of dollars to be made. But when the market turns down, as it always does at some point, then perhaps papers can sit on desks gathering dust. In other words, the delay was not primarily caused by paperwork. The delay was deliberate and an attempt to hold off building houses when the price wasn't high enough, and to wait until prices became higher.

    This is, of course, a decision the developer is free to make. It's a gamble. The developer knows how much time is left on the permits and he can makes a judgment to build or not build houses. The same is true when a developer requests the permits. They are extremely costly to obtain and the developer has to make a business judgment. Will the cost of the permits be "worth it" considering the current price of houses and the future risk?

    When the housing market (bubble) was booming, developers were falling over each other to obtain those permits. There was so much money to be made, they competed with each other with more and more elaborate housing plans, larger houses, more ornate "amenities" being promised; all in the hope of beating a competitor and obtaining the coveted permits. Other smaller or lower cost builders were out competed for the permits.

    The developers who made such grand promises to the city in return for the rare and coveted "allocations" were making a decision. Like all business decisions, there are benefits and risks to consider. There's never a guarantee that any business venture will be profitable. When the developer entered into the agreement with the city, they knew the permit cost a certain amount. It was valid for two years. They had to consider the possible amount of profit that could be made, and had to consider the risk of what would happen if housing prices dropped. There was never any agreement to "fix" things and go back and re-negotiate if the market didn't go their way!

    You could think of it just like buying or selling anything else. The stock buyer doesn't know for sure the price of the stock will go up. It might go down. But the buyer makes his best judgment. If he guesses right, he makes lots of money. But what if he guesses wrong? Should the government or city council tell the buyer, "we'll fix market" to make it right for you? In the case of houses, there are two sides, the developer (seller) and the buyer. If the city steps in to try to "help" the sellers, they end up hurting the buyers who want to buy houses at lower prices.

    The lower housing prices are good for some, bad for others. The city should not be taking a position that favors one side of the economic equation (the house sellers) and harm the other side (the house buyers). Why would one group deserve favor and the other group deserve to be harmed?

    The talk at the Council meeting was about how they want to "stimulate" the market. This is confusing talk. Nothing could be further from the truth. They mentioned how important it was to "keep the builder working!" But the effect of the policy is to reduce, not increase, the amount of construction! They are reducing the number of building permits available. That does not help the builder to build more, it prevents the builder from building. The one it "helps" is anyone who owns the development firm and doesn't want any competitors to get permits. That is not "stimulating" anything. The home buyers also will be spending more money on their home instead of spending it on any other business in Manteca. In a way, trying to "support" the price of houses hurts a lot of people, not just those who wish to buy a house, it hurts every business because their customers must now pay more for their houses instead of something else.

    The new proposal:

    The plan is complicated, but I'll try to simplify it. The plan is to "extend" all the current permits by an additional year. This helps the holders of the permits because what they can do is "hold" the permits for another year and hope that the prices of houses goes back up, then they can possibly build houses when the price is better for them. The drawback of this is that there will be no permits available for any others who want to build houses. There may be lower cost developers who want to build, and would be willing to apply for the permits. Competitors may be able to get the permits at less cost, and not need to promise as many "amenities," etc. Also, they may see an opportunity to build and sell lower priced houses. They may, correctly, decide there's pent up demand on the lower end of the financial scale, and this presents an opportunity for selling lower cost housing. This would provide "affordable" housing at no taxpayer expense!

    But the current permit holders don't want that. They want to "hold" all the permits. By holding the permits, they are, in effect, stopping every competitor from building houses at lower cost! This is not good for the people of Manteca. Many people need housing! There are many who would love to buy a house at lower cost. But the city, in attempting to be "nice" to one group, the developers, and give them "help" will end up hurting those who want an affordable home.

    The plan also includes adding a few hundred allocations. The justification is silly. The argument given is that the new police headquarters is allocated 60,000 gallons per day, but will probably only use 6000 gpd. So, then that leaves 54,000 gpd "available." But there are other buildings around town, like department stores and things like that, that use a fraction of what the city rules estimated. There are millions of gpd "available" if that is the standard. It appears that the city planner simply picked a figure of 54,000 gpd so that it would permit about 250 new housing permits.

    In other words, the bottom line of the plan is to let the developers hold their expiring permits, leaving none available this year. So, instead of having 890 permits available this year, the new plan will hand out about 250 "extra" permits. But whatever they are called, instead of giving out 890 permits, they will give out 250. This is an obvious attempt to raise the price of housing by making it scarce or harder to build a house! It's an attempt to "fix" what they see as a "problem," namely, houses becoming affordable.

    For the first time, the city staff actually acknowledged this. For years, they have been saying the reason for the housing permits is for those previously mentioned reasons, to "control growth" for "the good of the everyone." In the meeting, the assistant city manager (McLaughlin) talked about "the price of housing" and how the goal is "to try to stimulate the ... uh... economic" something. What she was saying, or trying to avoid saying was that the goal is to limit the number of permits available, in the hope that this will make housing more expensive, and in turn, make the developers happy, regardless of how this may be bad for everyone who's not a developer.

    Which finally leads to my objection to the whole thing. The city government should not be hurting the people who need affordable housing, in order to grant favor to politically well connected developers. The people shouldn't have to pay extra taxes to help "provide" affordable housing at the same time the city is creating the shortage of affordable housing!

    Last, to add insult to injury, there is talk that the much touted fire station may not be built. The reason is that the developer promised to help build the fire station, and if he doesn't get this special favor, he won't build the fire station as he promised. The city just passed a controversial sales tax increase, Measure M, and promised the voters if they approve it, there will be a new fire station by July! By July! And now, we are being told that "the fire station will be built on schedule, but, oh, the schedule has been changed, now it may not be until ... get this... 2014. The year 2014! Incredible!

    In fact, at the previous City Council meeting, when the issue was first raised, the Fire Chief of Manteca gave a presentation. Why the fire chief was talking on behalf of the developer is anyone's guess, I didn't ask that question. He showed maps of how needed this fire station was, and urged us and the City Council to "give the developers what they want... we really need this fire station! Live are at stake!" But the people of Manteca had just voted for Measure M, raising the sales tax to 8.25 percent and were promised the fire station if they voted for it! This is an outrageous betrayal of the public trust.

    As a side note, if you look at those maps the Fire Chief provided (I'll have to scan those in) you can see that only a small portion of the "3000 homes" outside the 5 minute response time will be helped by the addition of this new fire station. Only houses in the northwest section of the city are helped by the new fire station. There are huge new developments in the southwest and southeast of the city that will go "without" even with the new fire station, as well as a neighborhood in the northeast. This wasn't mentioned when the city leaders promised that the measure M tax increase was "needed." They mentioned how there were 3000 or 2000 houses far from a fire station, but they didn't mention that even with the new fire station, there still will be thousands of houses that won't be helped at all by one fire station in Northwestern Manteca. (Yes, thousands. They are still building in those other areas, meaning there will still be thousands of houses outside the 5 min. response time even if or when the new station is built) (That figure of 2000 or 3000 houses is also in dispute. That's a subject for another article. The last count was really1,979 homes outside the 5 minute range. But I digress)

    Along the same lines, the city backed "citizen group" that campaigned for Measure M repeatedly said "We have the money to build the fire station, we just can't afford to staff it!" They repeated that many times. Yet no city official corrected that. (The city disputed things I said about Measure M, even though it turns out I was right, but that's another story). After promising the new fire station, now we find out that it "depends" on giving special favor to some developers!

    OK, one more point. The developers were big contributors to City Council candidates, and, maybe most importantly, all of the largest developers gave cash to the "Measure M" campaign group. Why would developers want to give money to raise the sales tax? Raising the sales tax doesn't help you sell houses. People are slightly less inclined to buy a house in a town that has a high sales tax verses a town with lower sales taxes! So why were the developers giving thousands of dollars to get Measure M passed? Could it be they are now getting their payback in the form of special privileges? They get to hold their permits and stop competitors from building houses for the next year. It's brilliant.