Friday, May 31, 2013

Time for a Turnaround

It’s hard to believe that the Red Sox of tonight are less than a year removed from the sullen, whiny and losing team of 2012. Once again there are real “clubhouse guys” i.e. those bench guys who are part understudy, part cheerleader and they seem happy to be there cheering everyone on. Seeing players -- whose names meant nothing to me a year ago – win games and keep us contending is making this a great season to be a Sox fan. It’s amazing how getting rid of a few bad apples can turn a team around.

We’ve got another local team that needs a new fresh start but I’m afraid they’re headed for some same-old, same-old. The Bristol County Water Authority should expect some hot water at their meeting on June 5th to hear from the public on the change in billing for rental properties. Many landlords received a note recently that said BCWA is planning to start billing the owners of rental properties for water consumption. In other words, the property owners get to foot the bill for tenants’ water use.

The BCWA has been toe-tapping around the reasoning for making the change. The first letter went out noting that the change would bring BCWA in line with “the billing practices of other water utilities,” but BCWA sings a different tune on their website noting that the change is meant to, “reduce the amount of non-collectable accounts” and that since “the property owner has the responsibility for the water charges, it may be in their interest to receive the bill.” My takeaway is that BCWA doesn’t do a good job of collecting their payments, so they’ve decided to indenture local property owners to do it for them.  It’s a bad idea for several reasons.

We have so little affordable housing here and soon we’d have less. If you own a rental property in Bristol and you are suddenly going to be billed for the property’s water usage, what’s the first thing you are going to do? That’s right – raise the rent. The property owner has to shield herself from the potential $500 water bill that comes when a tenant turns on the hose, leaves it on when he goes away for vacation, and then moves out a week later. By forcing property owners to take on that kind of financial risk, rents will go up for everyone and the rental market in town will change. This will hurt seniors, young families and those who want to live in the East Bay but struggle to pay the bills. 

Growing up in Bristol we frequently had water shortages and there were watering bans in effect for the better part of many summers. Lawns were crispy and the few that weren’t were viewed suspiciously and observed with accusing whispers about 3 a.m. waterings.  One man even had a nice painted sign on his gate that noted his water came from an artesian well.  Today my kids have “Don’t be a waterhog” tees that they received for participating in the annual poster content for BCWA. Water conservation has always been top of mind in Bristol – and presumably with the BCWA – until now. As someone who has considered drinking out of her rain barrels, I find this anti-conservation message most disturbing.  We all know that if water is “included” in the rent – and using it does not put a dent in one’s own wallet – the incentive to conserve water is gone and waterhogs will be popping up everywhere.

After everything that BCWA has dealt with in terms of public scrutiny and criticism for being badly managed, it is amazing to me that they would follow their 11% rate hike with this poorly thought-through idea. If they need to improve their billing, they should look at other best practices rather than looking at other RI utilities for their old practices.  Instead of changing the payer, update the payment system.  Encourage people to go “paperless” to save on paper, postage and personnel. For people who still choose a paper bill, leave the blue envelope out and save money on that. Work with the college to make sure that students pay their bills before getting their transcripts and work with property owners who have had problem tenants in the past.

The good news is that there’s time for a turnaround at the BCWA, but unless they rethink their strategy quickly, they may be riding the pine on June 5th and wishing they were playing for a different team.


Monday, May 13, 2013

#RedSox #RIpolitics #journalisticstandardsstillapply

The Sox are showing early signs of a “June swoon” that I refer as “May decay.” I’m reminding myself that the season is young and it’s only a game, but I still shriek at the TV and curse the score.

On the bright side, Lester and Buchholz have been unbelievable and Big Papi had a stellar batting average to start the season.  In fact, Ortiz was hitting so well that Dan Shaughnessy from the Boston Globe suggested that he may be using performance-enhancing drugs.  Hmm.  No evidence was offered – just accusations like “You are from the Dominican Republic.  You are an older player” and “they were chanting ‘steroids’ in Toronto.”  I don’t have enough space to conquer the racist angle here, but the Ortiz-Shaughnessy dustup and recent observations of other news media have made me realize that journalism as a career has either evolved or we have our fair share of irresponsible journalists around here.  It wasn’t always this way.

My first “real” job after college was in Governor Sundlun’s press office.  To say that times have changed is a gross understatement.  While we had computers, there was no e-mail, no Twitter and just one very large mobile phone.  If we wanted to share something with a colleague, we’d have to print it out and walk it over to them.  We had a heck of a fax machine and we very carefully programmed it with the fax numbers of all the relevant news media.  We’d hit the P2 button and magically send our news around Rhode Island over a blaring fax line that took at least an hour to communicate with all the newsrooms. The members of the State House press corps were well known to us as they would pop into the office for a real paper copy of our news releases, get comments for pieces they were working on and pick up Governor Sundlun’s schedule.  Despite the fact that Governor Sundlun had a tendency to generate some “off message” news, our office had a good relationship with the media.  There were some reporters we were more wary of than others, but we were careful – in that position reporters are never your friends – and they were professional, so a delicate balance existed. 

Shaughnessy’s hijinks show that today it’s no longer enough to sniff out a good story, report the facts, and get it out there first.  For some media, creating the controversy, inserting themselves in the story and drumming up attention has become part of the job.  Some call themselves columnists – I suppose to protect themselves and their employers from being sued -- but with the exception of a few Hollywood actors, no one bothers to go after the media anymore.  The line between commenting and reporting is blurry – Shaughnessy’s byline sometimes reads “columnist” and sometimes reads “staff writer” – so what he has a “right” to write is subject to broad interpretation.

Talk show hosts apparently have no standards whatsoever.  Last week I listened to one (who has no background in security or academia) berate a representative from URI for moving their graduation indoors and heard another one (with no expertise in finance) critiquing the state’s investment portfolio.  Apparently having a mike in front on your face can make you an expert in any field and gives you license to tell other people how to do their jobs.  Even worse, they get away with it because many spokespeople and public officials don’t want to appear and have to defend themselves against questions on par with “how often do you beat your wife?”

The 24-hour news cycle is partly to blame for the warping of journalistic standards.  Breaking news is often driven by Twitter and the demand for new information is insatiable.  Sometimes the truth – and even the real desire to report it – seems to get lost in the feeding frenzy of a news cycle and there’s more value placed on who’s “following” you than what you have to report.  It seems that members of the media have to tweet constantly to be relevant and for those that have nothing good to say, this means retweeting old pieces, putting out half-baked stories – or worse, reporting gossip and assumptions as fact.  I’m not the only one noticing some of the guano on Twitter.  During a particularly snarky day in the local political Twitterverse, rising star Ethan Shorey from the Valley Breeze tweeted, “Many "news" tweets by RI press lately bordering on open mocking. #journalisticstandardsstillapply” 

So what’s a news consumer to do?  I’m hoping that the recent spate of bad reporting is like a slump and we can shake it off and move on.  Perhaps as the political season heats up, we should ask reporters to imagine (or remember) what it’s like to go to work with just a fax, a brick phone and a copy of their J-school ethics textbook.  Dan Shaughnessy should also pack a jacket if he’s heading for Red Sox locker room – I think he’s going to find it’s mighty cold in there.


Friday, May 10, 2013

No More Picking Winners and Losers

If Major League Baseball decided that the Chicago Cubs needed to win the World Series this year and gave them $39 million in talent to try to make it happen, I can almost guarantee that no one (outside of Chicago) would think that this was fair.   So why would anyone suggest that Rhode Island taxpayers ought to gamble $39 million to finance the redevelopment of a privately owned building?  I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that most Rhode Islanders are probably more interested in using their tax dollars for almost anything but rescuing an out-of-state developer from a bad investment.   In business and baseball, competition should decide the winners and losers – not the government.

Let’s get one thing straight – the significance of the so-called “Superman” building gets inflated by calling it the “Superman” building.  Some folks seem to forget that Superman is fictional and the building just looks like the one in the comic series.  The creator of Superman has even said that the building in the comic was inspired by buildings in Toronto, not by 111 Westminster Street, so it’s not even the stand-in for the fictional building.  Superman has never been to Providence and while this building is certainly an interesting example of 1920’s architecture, Superman isn’t coming to save it and the taxpayers shouldn’t either.

The building in question was most recently the home of Bank of America in Providence.  When their lease ran out, Bank of America left behind an outdated building with no parking and an aging infrastructure.  High Rock Development LLC has owned the building since 2008 and knew since the time of purchase that the lease was coming to an end.  They failed to get new tenants – most likely because there is better, less expensive office space to be had.  Now the building is empty and there is much hand-wringing over what the state and city “must do” to “save” the building.  I see no role for taxpayer dollars in this episode of Extreme Skyscraper Makeover.

If the building had true historic value – like the Arcade – I would think that reasonable historic tax credits could play a small role in the renovations.  However, just like the now-unavailable historic homeowner tax credits, the tax credits should be capped at a low rate and only be available to truly historic structures – not just an old building with a comic book misnomer.

I was heartened to see that the General Assembly leadership’s response to the $39 million ask was tepid, but remained stunned with the hubris of a company to create a plan for public financing to begin with.  While Rhode Island has developed a reputation for making bad investments because of  the 38 Studios debacle, this deal is actually worse because at least Schilling brought jobs to Rhode Island in an industry that was growing and there was reasonable hope of expanding that sector.  If no tenants lease 111 Westminster after renovation and the developer goes belly up, I suspect we’d still be looking at very large and dark pigeon perch – and taxpayer losses to boot.

While I certainly hope that the owners of 111 Westminster can renovate, find tenants and reopen their building, there is no obligation for the state or the city to be involved in their financing.  Our elected officials should be free to concentrate on developing – or rejecting – policies that enhance the state’s business climate rather than taking on projects that benefit a few.  So although many of us would like to see the lights on in every office building – and a Cubs-Red Sox World Series in 2013 -- I want neither government nor the MLB to pick winners and losers in business and baseball.  Competition is only fair if it’s left on the field.


Thursday, May 2, 2013

No "I" on this team

The first month of the 2013 season seems too good to be true.   As a lifelong Red Sox devotee, I’m writing this knocking on wood with crossed fingers hoping that my mention of their good play doesn’t lead to a string of losses or a rash of injuries.  The difference between last year’s team – where the players seemed to be punching a clock rather than playing a child’s game – is stark.  The dugout is filled with unfamiliar faces and the only source for anxiety is that the eager guys on the bench aren’t getting enough playing time.  This is a far cry from the “can’t play today, I have a hangnail” mantra that we’ve seen in recent years – they are excited to go out there and compete every day as a team.

The same-sex marriage debate highlighted another unexpected winning team – the RI Republican Senate caucus.  I hope others noted that the “Mighty Five” voted as a bloc to approve passage of same sex marriage.  This is remarkable for a few reasons.  They are the first legislative caucus from any party to vote unanimously to approve same sex marriage in any state.  And of course, since Republicans are usually given the broad-brush mischaracterization of being “social conservatives,” their position on same sex marriage may have surprised and educated some.  Senator Dawson Hodgson shared, “Our vote reflects a consistent application of conservative principles across fiscal and social issues: freedom, dignity, rule of law, and limiting government interference in your life are very Republican ideals.”   By locking arms and voting together, it’s clear that at least this slice of the Rhode Island GOP is more the party of Lincoln and less the party of Boehner.

While they used much less colorful language, the RI Republican Senate caucus vote for marriage equality was their Big Papi “this is our (expletive) city” moment.  They took an opportunity to define their values and their space (albeit small) in the political spectrum and are certainly advertising a “big tent” party.  With public opinion favoring same sex marriage, it is unlikely that any of these Senators would lose his seat based on this one vote.  By supporting marriage equality the caucus has the opportunity to be relevant again by attracting more fiscal conservatives with moderate social views and winning seats.

While Big Papi’s sentiments lifted a city and inspired a new team of Dirt Dogs, only time will tell if the solidarity shown by the Mighty Five will help their team grow and be more relevant, but they’ve given themselves a fighting chance.