Friday, December 31, 2010

I hate Retrospective Week

For the record, I hate this week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve.

You cannot escape the hundreds of “year in review” programs. Every channel, television and radio (and newspapers and magazines, for that matter), regurgitates the stories of the year.

I enjoy reminiscing as much as anyone else—just not about things that happened last week.

On the news channels, we relive those fond though hazy memories of the election, way back from… last month. Of course, the Scott Brown victory speech clip in January of him announcing the availability of one of his daughters warms the cockles of our hearts. After all, that is all but ancient history.

Flip to the entertainment channels and you’ll be walked through the story of the year, the world shaking event where Prince William proposed to Maid Marian, or something like that. I even saw a commercial last night where you can purchase a silver plated, cut glass replica of the ring Billy gave to Katy. Not for $119. Not for $69. Only $19 if you call within the next 40 seconds. Otherwise you’ll have to pay $19.

On to ESPN with their retrospective of the World Series, a distant memory from October. Actually, this was a useful recap for me. I couldn’t have named the two teams who played in the World Series this year to save my life. Can you?

So I am thrilled that this week is almost over and we can all return to normalcy this weekend, watching parades, pro football, and news stories with tips for beating that New Year’s Eve hangover.

Copyright 2010 Randy Hunt

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Pay-as-you-throw

The Sandwich board of selectmen has been mulling over the idea of pay-as-you-throw (PAYT) for a year now. A decision may be coming soon; or maybe not. It’s hard to tell. (Vote on PAYT at the right.)

What is it?

PAYT is a system where recycling is free, but non-recycled items are “metered” via an imposed per bag fee. Pick a price, say $2 for a 30-gallon bag. You would purchased these bags in the grocery or hardware store. In this example, a sleeve of ten bags would cost $20. To prevent counterfeiting, the bags would have the town’s logo printed on them and they would be some color that is not generally available, purple for example.

Mary and I go through a couple of 30-gallon bags a week now, but when pushed to recycled all of our paper, glass, corrugated, plastic, Styrofoam, etc., we could easily knock that down to one bag per week.

We should be doing that now, right? “Yes,” I say with an embarrassed tone, but there’s nothing like paying by the bag that will catch people’s attention. In fact, one of the PAYT bag vendors says that communities increase their recycling rates by nearly double when this program is put in place.

In addition to the bag fee, which is generally used to offset the variable costs of disposing of the trash, a sticker fee is imposed to cover the fixed costs of the operation.

Why consider it?

All of our Cape Cod towns are facing a huge increase in “tipping fees” when our current contracts expire. In Sandwich, that would be 2015. We expect to start paying more than double (some say close to triple) the current tipping fee. So the first reason for considering PAYT is to save money (and the environment) by recycling more, thus reducing the tonnage going to SEMASS in Rochester or the Bourne dump.

There is also an equity factor here. An 80-year-old woman who generates a 30-gallon bag of trash over a two-week period might live next door to a family of six, which generates five 30-gallon bags of trash per week. She and that family of six both pay the exact same $110 to use the Sandwich transfer station each year.

Using my numbers and assuming a $50 sticker fee, the 80-year-old woman would pay $50 plus 26 times $2/bag, or $102 per year. The family of six would pay $50 plus 52 times 5 times $2/bag, or $570 per year. I would bet that the family of six would work especially hard to double their recycling efforts and save half of that $520 bag cost. Of course, if they don’t, that’s their choice, but they’ll pay a fair amount for the disposal of their trash.

What did Mashpee do?

The select board in Mashpee decided to put a referendum question on their May 2011 ballot. Bad idea, in my opinion. I predict that people will vote against it. If you pose the question to someone without spending five minutes explaining the whys and hows, chances are they’ll react negatively to PAYT, especially in the privacy of the voting booth.

What will Sandwich do?

If the select board makes a decision soon, say by March, a PAYT system can be in place by July 1st. Our town manager has suggested that our $110 transfer station sticker would then be valid all the way out to June 30, 2012. A new price would then be set for an annual sticker that runs from July 1st to June 30th. This is necessary because the transfer station fees and expenses will be put into an enterprise account that must run on a fiscal year ending June 30th.

The $800,000 question becomes: How much of the cost of running the transfer station will be picked up by the new sticker and bag fees? Currently, about half of the cost is recovered by sticker fees. That leaves somewhere between $700,000 and $800,000 covered by the general tax revenue.

If the board of selectmen chose to cover all of the transfer station costs with the PAYT system revenues, some would argue that it would be a “backdoor override,” meaning that a vote to override Proposition 2½ would not be necessary because the increase would fall in the category of fees, not property taxes.

What would you do?

Given the choice of PAYT, a private trash service, or the prospect of closing the transfer station if an override in 2014 for FY2015 doesn’t pass, what would you choose? Or perhaps there are other options?

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Who gets paid to drive to work?

State legislators: I do! I do!

Let me give you a CPA’s perspective on the periodic controversy of travel payments received by state legislators for driving to the State House.

Most taxpayers are aware that commuting expenses are not deductible on their federal income tax returns. In Massachusetts, on a side note, there is a small deduction available for people who ride the “T” or buy an “E-Z Pass,” but this pales in comparison to the benefit enjoyed by state legislators.

The definition of “commuting” comes from the Internal Revenue Code (IRC) concept of “tax home.” Simply put, traveling to your tax home is called commuting and is not deductible. For most of us, our tax home is where we work and earn our pay; not where we live. If you live in Barnstable and work in Boston, you are traveling to your tax home (Boston). No deduction is allowed for that travel.

State legislators (in all states, by the way, not just in Massachusetts) are subject to IRC Section 162(h), which allows state legislators who live more than 50 miles from the capitol to declare their residence in the legislative district to be their tax home.

This flips the situation from “commuting to work” to “traveling away from home.” Travel away from home is tax deductible and essentially eliminates federal income tax on the per diem travel payments received by legislators.

At least one newly elected state representative announced that he will not take the travel stipend. That is an option, but there’s a better one.

During a debate that was videotaped by Cape Cod Community Media Center, Matt Pitta, WXTK news director, asked Lance Lambros and me if we would be willing to donate the travel stipend to charity. We both agreed.

The idea of refusing the travel payments, thereby leaving that money in the coffers of the state under the spending direction of the state legislature and administration, leaves me a bit cold. My confidence that this money will be wisely spent is low.

Matt’s idea of donating the money to charities of our choice is a terrific alternative. I will meet with Matt over the next couple of weeks and choose one charity for each month. My only stipulation will be that the organization either reside in the 5th Barnstable District or serve people in the district.

If all of our Cape Cod legislators joined in this effort, the combined contributions to our charitable organizations would amount to about $60,000 to $75,000 over the coming year.

What do you say, Cape Cod legislators?

Monday, December 13, 2010

You can't fool human nature

Health care mandate disrespects law of supply and demand

Runaway health insurance premiums have put Massachusetts back in the spotlight and our Beacon Hill innovators are poised to take on the cost of this unique-in-the-nation health insurance mandate.

Because it’s the blueprint for the national health insurance law, which is gearing up for its debut in 2014, politicians are beginning to panic over the uncontrolled spiral of health insurance premiums. The IRS pegged Massachusetts’ small group family plans as leading all 50 states, coming in at more than $14,000 per year.

One has to marvel at the surprised looks on our legislators’ faces when confronted with this news. After all, the Massachusetts health insurance mandate passed in 2006, similar to the national health insurance mandate passed earlier this year, contained no cost cutting measures, other than the hope that if everyone has health insurance the cost of it would go down.

That flies in the face of Economics 101.

Supply versus demand

The first concept I learned in Econ 101 was supply versus demand. In this fundamental economic model, price remains steady as long as supply for a product or service equals demand for the same product or service.

If supply begins to exceed demand, the price of that product or service starts to decline in a Mother Nature-like adjustment to bring the system back to equilibrium. The reverse applies when demand outstrips supply, with price inflating until supply and demand once again return to homeostasis.

Has anyone new to Cape Cod tried to find a primary physician lately?

Why is there such a scarcity of general practitioners these days?

At a time when the ranks of general practitioners is stable or in some areas shrinking, Massachusetts mandated that everyone purchase health insurance. Since most of the previously uninsured folks are unable to afford an insurance plan that allows one to go directly to specialists for treatment, they are forced to seek out a primary physician.

Demand: Increasing

Supply: Not increasing

Price: Inflating

Two more issues significantly increase demand on our health care system.

Out of sight, out of mind

I’m old enough to remember the classic indemnity health insurance plans. In the 80’s, our plan had a $250 individual deductible and a $500 family deductible. After paying the first $250 of health care expenses for one of our kids, for example, that child would then be on 80/20 coinsurance. Spend another $100 on the same rugrat and $80 would be refunded. The same coinsurance would be in place for everyone in the family once we forked over a total of $500 for the family unit.

I hated this system because we fronted all of the money and had to fill out reimbursement forms to recover our 80%. Invariably, the insurance company would delay repayment by asking for further information or pay less than 80% claiming that the doctor’s charges exceeded the “customary fee” for the area.

But I can tell you one thing. I knew exactly how much our health care cost. We didn’t rush to the doctor every time someone sneezed. A lot of people didn’t rush to the doctor when suffering symptoms of a serious disease either. That scenario gave birth to health maintenance organizations (HMOs).

The theory that catching a malady early is cheaper than treating it after it becomes acute or chronic does hold water. To encourage people to be proactive about their health care, HMOs created the concept of a primary physician, essentially an agent that triaged a patient’s situation, treating minor cases, and referring more serious ones to specialists.

A good idea that has a fatal flaw: The hook to encourage people to join these HMOs, knowing that they’d give up a great deal of freedom by being forced to funnel their health care through a primary physician, was the concept of a co-pay.

The first HMO we subscribed to offered a $10 office visit co-pay and no individual or family deductible. Wow, we thought. Now we can go to the doctor every time a kid sneezes.

In spite of the fact that we received an accounting of the actual cost of our office visits, it didn’t matter. That we paid $10 to see a doctor was the only thing that mattered. Those printouts were quickly filed without having been scrutinized.

In a way, the pendulum started to swing too far. After awhile, we stopped getting the detailed accounting of actual costs and we became blind to the real costs of health care. It plays to human nature to ride a roller coaster over and over until you vomit if you have an all-you-can-ride pass; something that would never happen if you paid by the ride.

High costs beget even higher costs

The other side effect of Massachusetts’ mandated health insurance law stems from the so-called minimum creditable coverage (MCC) clause. It’s not enough to subscribe to a health insurance plan in Massachusetts. The plan must comply with the minimum standard of covered items as determined by the state legislature. If a plan falls short of offering every bell and whistle listed in the MCC, it does not meet the mandate and the policyholder is punishable by a fine of more than $1,000 ($2,000 if married).

The premise of forcing everyone onto a blue ribbon health insurance plan is pure socialism. And I don’t mean this in a disparaging way. By making a 25-year old male pay for a policy that includes coverage for in vitro fertilization, couples who actually need the service will pay less for it. You can make up your own mind about this attempt to spread the wealth.

Here’s where this idea of MCC drives demand. Prior to the Massachusetts health care mandate, people bought affordable insurance from a number of sources for far less than the $14,000 per year that I mentioned earlier. No, the plans weren’t rich, for sure, but at $400 or $500 per month, they provided a fallback in case of a catastrophe.

At that price, and because of the deductibles these plans place on their policyholders, people watched their health care spending and thought of the insurance similarly to how they thought of automobile insurance. You don’t decide to crash into another car just because you’re insured.

Now that these low cost policies are unavailable in Massachusetts, we are all paying over $1,000 a month for a family plan (before your employer’s subsidy, if you have one). Some of my clients are paying $2,000 a month.

You can’t fool human nature. At $400 or $500 per month, a health insurance plan was a necessary cost of living most people could deal with. When paying upwards of $2,000 a month, you’re damn well going to use it. This generates more demand on our health care system. In effect, the high cost of premiums is directly responsible for premiums going up even higher. Where does it stop?

Conclusion

I offer these observations to the people who write laws in this state and to their advisors. In all of the articles about how to control the ever increasing cost of health care, nowhere do I see simple suggestions for balancing supply versus demand, such as revamping the MCC with the recognition that not everyone can afford a Cadillac.

A recent article stated that reducing the cost of our health care delivery system is “a task of mind-boggling complexity requiring cooperation among doctors, hospitals, insurers, regulators, state lawmakers and the administration.”

I tend to disagree. Reducing the cost goes back to following the tenets of Economics 101. Implementing government control over the cost of our health care system, on the other hand, will prove to not only be mind-boggling but unwise.

-----------------------
Other articles I've written about health care issues:

3-step process to single-payer health care
America's consolidation of healthcare by outlawing options (ACHOO)
Health care reform: This Edsel just might fly

Copyright 2010 Randy Hunt

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Hotel California

Every so often I catch a TV news magazine story about dirty hotel rooms. The reporter enters a room with CSI-like equipment, including a black light, sterile swabs, and ZipLock freezer bags for specimen collection. (I’ve often wondered if these bags with a label strip are right out of the box from the grocery store or if they cost $10 a piece because they’re purchased from an approved state vendor list.)

Inevitably the investigative reporter finds exotic bacteria, an assortment of bodily fluids, and live creatures—some microscopic, some not so tiny. It’s enough to convince us never to pull back the sheets again in a hotel room.

Help is only $75 away. You can travel with what amounts to a body bag, though much softer as it’s intended to be used by live people. The DreamSack will protect you from making contact with anything left behind by prior guests.


I wish I had owned several DreamSacks back in 1998 when we took the family to Los Angeles for a Disney vacation. Being as cheap as I am, my idea of a Disney vacation does not include staying at a Disney hotel. Instead, I searched out the lowest priced hotel room within a reasonable driving distance to Mickey & Minnie.

In fact, my plan was to spend Wednesday scouting out attractions around Hollywood and Vine, waiting until Thursday to hit Disneyland. I had studied the daily attendance stats for Disneyland and determined that Thursday is the best day to avoid long lines.

So it made sense to find a hotel within walking distance of the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Grauman’s Chinese Theater, and the Hollywood Wax Museum. With six kids and the need to rent two rooms, price is paramount. I found the perfect place, just half a block off Hollywood Boulevard: Motel 6.

It wasn’t until we were driving at night in our rented Lincoln Navigator—which, in spite of its size, didn’t have room for all eight of us with our luggage, so we had purchased bungy cords to lash the suitcases to the roof rack, making the vehicle look remarkably like the truck driven by the Beverly Hillbillies—that I noted an abundance of red lights close to the hotel.

And I don’t mean traffic lights. Who would have guessed how friendly these scantily-clad ladies would be when I stopped to ask directions to North Whitley Avenue?

We eventually found the Motel 6 and I became even more uneasy when I walked into the office and saw the night manager sitting behind bullet-proof glass with one of those metal speaker things. He leaned and over spoke into the speaker thing, asking if there was anything he could help me with, as if the last thing on his mind was that I might be there to rent a room.

Against my better judgment and because it was already 11pm, I rented two rooms. Not being a complete idiot, I paid for the rooms in cash, thinking that my credit card would be charged to the max before our wake up call.

We rode an elevator that barely accommodated the eight of us and found the rooms. One of the kids questioned, “Eeeew! What’s this sticky stuff on the door knob?” I have no idea to this day what it was, but I made him wash his hands until they were raw.

The rooms were visibly dirty, not like the ones on TV that appear to be clean, but aren’t. No need for a black light here. Did we pack sleeping bags?

The two girls stayed in our room and the four boys occupied the adjoining room. I told the kids to sleep with their clothes on, including shoes, and to use some of their packed clothes to make a pillow. Try not to touch anything in the bathroom, I warned. Sleep tight. See you in the morning.

I didn’t sleep too well that night, imagining all sorts of things that had never occurred to me before. I know the girls were pretty apprehensive as well, but the boys slept just fine. Boys are like that. In fact, their room at home had gotten pretty disgusting from time to time, thanks to hoarding food and who knows what else.

The next morning, nobody was dead. Good start to a fun day. First on the list of To-Do’s was to reserve two rooms at the Beverly Garland Holiday Inn. Twice the room rate but, as they say in the Mastercard commercials, “Priceless.”

Have you ever spent a harrowing night in a hotel room? I’d love to hear your tale.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Are you a real person?

I'm getting way too many spam comments these days.

Everyone knows about spam emails. The same thing happens to bloggers. Computer programs troll the blogs and post comments with links to porn sites, prescription drug sites, male enhancement sites, etc., most of which are strewn with viruses, adware, malware--you name it.

Because I release each comment before it gets published, my readers are never exposed to any of this stuff. But the trade-off is that I have to fish through 25 or more spam comments looking for the real ones.

To curtail most of this unwanted activity, I've changed the comment dialog to require that posters type in a word to complete their posts. Not a big deal, but I wanted to you know about the change and why it has been implemented.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

The Cape: A TV series not filmed on the Cape

When I heard that NBC will be debuting a new series in January, The Cape, I perked up, wondering how they could have gotten the show to this point without anyone on Cape Cod catching word of it.

Then I got suspicious, thinking that they’ve pulled one of those stunts where they film the action footage in North Carolina, ala Summer Catch, and shoot just a few setting and transitional scenes here on the Cape.

I called one of my friends who often works on movie sets when production companies come to Massachusetts.

Hey, Dave. Have you heard about this new TV show, The Cape? Did you get a call for any work as a grip on the set?”

“No, Randy. Haven’t heard a thing about it. They must have shot it somewhere else.”

I knew it! Confirmation that NBC commissioned a production company that left Cape Cod out in the cold.

Do you know how much business these TV and movie productions bring to the local economy? Hotels. Caterers. Extras. Grips.

What did Cape Cod get out of this? As Chris Farley would have put it, “Jack Squat.”

Here’s a preview of the series. Since, on principle, I’m boycotting the program, I haven’t watched it. Enjoy it if you can.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Ware Report: Massachusetts Probation Department

Paul Ware’s report about rampant fraud and favoritism in the hiring and promotion process at the probation department exposes how the public trust was trampled on by Jack O’Brien, probation commissioner. It also goes a long way towards indicting the practices of influential legislators in creating a pay-to-play system.

It’s way past time to start cleaning house, but the Ware report makes it impossible to delay corrective actions any further. His report also makes one ponder just how isolated these fraudulent hiring practices are. Does anyone believe that similar schemes are not in play anywhere else in the state or in municipalities, which have a combined payroll of over 100,000?

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

In-state tuition for illegal immigrants

It’s baaaack...

Governor Deval Patrick’s annual assault on our common sense is back after being emboldened by the electorate’s endorsement of his policies on November 2nd.

If I were in charge of naming bills, this one would be called “An Act to Value Illegal Immigrants More Than Iraq and Afghanistan War Veterans.”

Essentially, the legislation would award reduced (in-state) tuition to people here illegally while military veterans and every other person from states other than Massachusetts would be forced to pay higher out-of-state tuition.

California passed similar legislation several years ago and taxpayers there are coughing up as much as $23,000 per year per illegal immigrant to attend school, only to graduate with no prospect of joining the ranks of the employed. (Technically, it’s illegal to hire illegal immigrants—even in Massachusetts.)

Has anyone looked into California’s financial situation lately? It’s worse than ours, yet they are spending $200 million per year of taxpayer dollars to put illegal immigrants through college.

More details of the California law here.

Massachusetts is facing a $2 billion budget deficit and the governor wants to waste your tax dollars on this?

This is the definition of insanity.

Log your vote on this issue above. Then call your legislators and tell them “enough is enough.”

Monday, November 15, 2010

Pay per view newspapers?

Several months ago, when the powers that be at the Cape Cod Times made it public that they were planning to convert their online newspaper to a subscription service, I grimaced.

My daily online CCT reading ritual is to scan the list of articles, reading two or three of them, then reading the district court log (makes for good discussion if any of my clients or their kids have been arrested), editorial, letters to the editor, and the My View column.

How much can this be worth?

How about $180 a year?

Seems like a lot. After all, there are other newspapers still free online, but no dailies that deal with Cape Cod. And don’t tell me about Cape Cod Today. That blog is the biggest piece of crap I’ve ever seen masquerading as a legitimate news source. I haven’t given Walter the courtesy of a click in six months and never will.

I’m not against subscriptions for online material, per se. I’ve had a Wall Street Journal Online subscription since they first started it years ago. And I’m constantly on Consumer Reports Online to compare weed eaters and microwave popcorn.

But $180 a year? My Wall Street Journal subscription sets me back $155 a year, although they offer a “pro” online subscription for $455 a year. As much as joining their exclusive professional readers’ club would boost my sagging self image, I think I’ll pass.

Consumer Reports Online, on the other hand, is $19 a year. Now that’s a deal. And, according to Consumer Reports, it’s the best in category, sporting all red, filled-in circles, beating Consumer Digest hands down.

My decision?

I signed up for the unlimited access subscription to the Cape Cod Times. I really do need to read it, especially considering my new responsibilities as state representative, but I’m not getting the print edition. I canceled that after our dog died and it became clear that Mary was not willing to take on the fetching responsibility.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Campaign-O-Cycle

Faster than a speeding bullet. More powerful than a locomotive. Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.

Look! Down the street!

It's a Harley. It's a rocket. It's Campaign-O-Cycle!!



Copyright 2010 Randy Hunt

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Plan B: How to fix our town buildings

On July 24, 2010, I wrote the following about the timing of putting a debt exclusion on the November ballot (read the entire post here):

Voting to put a debt exclusion on the November 2nd ballot is a big step; unfortunately a misstep.

This November’s election is a referendum on the White House, Capitol Hill and Beacon Hill. It comes in the midst of nine-plus percent unemployment and the worst economic recession in most people’s memory.

That’s quite a backdrop for asking voters for more money. “Let the people decide,” it was said during the discussion at last Thursday’s board of selectmen meeting. They will do that, for sure. You betcha.

Not many people object to maintaining and repairing our town and school buildings. I did hear some interesting comments at the October special town meeting about how the roofs were leaking less than ten years after the Oak Ridge and Forestdale schools were built and how we have a two-man facilities team with a $100,000 annual budget to maintain all of our buildings.

Why didn’t we go after the roof installer when the 20-year roofs failed in seven?

Why don’t we spend more on preventive maintenance in our operating budget?

At this point, the first question is water under the bridge, but the second question is key to convincing voters to support a capital improvement debt exclusion.

How we should proceed

I believe the selectmen need to do three things by the May town meeting to convince voters to support a building improvement override:

1)      Split the question into three categories:
a.       School roofs, which are eligible for a 40% reimbursement from the state. The article could ask for the net amount and be effective only if the project is approved by the state for co-funding.
b.      Building improvements necessary to ensure a safe and healthy environment for our town workers and the public and to bring those buildings up to code.
c.       All other projects on the November debt exclusion.

2)      Make a commitment to fund preventive maintenance at a level necessary to stop the accelerated deterioration of our town and school buildings. Tell us what that number is.

3)      Roll out a plan to balance the operating budget for at least two more years without the need for an operating override. Getting that issue off the table will encourage voters to deal with our critical facilities needs without fear of being assaulted by a tax increase to fund wage increases that no one in the private sector is enjoying.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Possessive of possessive's

Bud’s Country Lounge has gotten a sign facelift. Now it could use a grammar upgrade.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

School committee: There's no more sand for burying heads

Yesterday, an anonymous poster reported that our school superintendent filed a lawsuit on Monday. More of the story was reported this morning by George Brennan. Read it here.

Brennan reported that the lawsuit names the town, the school committee, and four individual members of the school committee as defendants. The superintendent is seeking $300,000 plus damages for emotional distress.

Everyone should be aware that “town” is short-hand for us, the residents and taxpayers of Sandwich. Insurance is unlikely to cover a judgment that involves willful negligence or wrongful acts and certainly would not pay for a valid contract.

Of course, all of this could have been avoided, but inaction has put the school committee in a deep pit. Even still, one of the four defendants said the focus should be on the budget and another is intent on spending money on a superintendent search.

Move on. Nothing to see here.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Monday, October 25, 2010

Randy Hunt endorsed by Timothy R. Clifford, conservative political analyst

Monday, October 25, 2010

Sandwich, MA--Timothy R. Clifford, youthful conservative political analyst, endorsed Randy Hunt for state representative, saying "Vote for Grampa Randy in Massachusetts." He then requested a bowl of ice cream before going to bed. Click here to listen to Mr. Clifford's statement.

Mr. Clifford (right) with state rep candidate Randy Hunt

"The 3-and-under crowd will soon be our next generation of voters and I'm honored to receive this coveted and sought-after endorsement from Mr. Clifford," Randy Hunt commented. Mr. Hunt went on to say that he believes this endorsement will propel him to victory on November 2nd.

*  *  *  *  *

Randy Hunt has been a CPA for nearly 30 years and served for six years on the Town of Sandwich's board of selectmen and three years on the town's finance committee. He seeks the open seat in the House of Representatives in the 5th Barnstable District. For more on Randy Hunt's campaign for state representative, visit ElectRandyHunt.com or call the campaign office at (774) 413-9274.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Cutting school spending and raising taxes

On Monday, October 25th, voters in the Town of Sandwich will attend a special town meeting to decide whether to cut the school budget by nearly $400,000 and borrow $5.4 million to make improvements and repairs to town buildings.

Click here for the special town meeting warrant.

The November 2nd ballot will include a question relative to the $5.4 million debt exclusion. If town meeting fails to pass Article 2, the ballot vote will be moot. It must pass at town meeting and the ballot booth to become effective.

Where do you come down on these two issues? Vote in the poll at the right regarding the $5.4 million borrowing and log your comments here on either or both issues.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Deval Patrick claims cuts of $4.3 billion from Massachusetts' budget

Rhetoric surrounding governmental budgets is always the same. You listen to the politicians claim that they’re cutting budgets, sometimes to the bone, and yet your property taxes go up or sales tax goes up or income tax goes up—you get the drift.

Our governor is crisscrossing the state claiming that he’s cut $4.3 billion from the state budget. No one seems adept enough to challenge his assertion, not even the other three candidates for the governorship.

When a politician says he “cut the budget,” invariably that means the new budget is bigger than the old budget. Make sense?

No?

Then why would Deval Patrick claim that he’s cut the budget when he hasn’t? Because politicians believe that reducing their wish list budget to the actual budget constitutes a budget cut.

Let me explain. Say that your family plans to take a Disney vacation and you budget $3,000 for it. You go and have such a great time that you decide to go again next year—not once but twice. Before next year rolls around, you find out that your hours are being cut back at work, so you cancel your plans for the second trip but can still swing one Mickey Mouse adventure.

An accountant would compare those two budgets—$3,000 spent in the first year and $3,000 spent in the second year. No change.

A politician would claim that he “cut the budget” by $3,000. If, instead, that second trip was an around the world tour, who knows how much the pol would claim? Most likely it would be described as a “draconian cut.”

So what’s the truth?

The commonwealth’s general appropriation act (GAA) for fiscal year 2006 (the year before Patrick took the helm) was $23.9 billion. Our current fiscal year, which runs from July 2010 to June 2011, started with a $26.7 billion GAA and the legislature is just about to add $400 million to it. At $27.1 billion, Patrick will have increased the budget $3.2 billion since becoming governor.

A more accurate description of the $4.3 billion in “cuts” would be $4.3 billion in “reductions to projected budgets that never got passed into law.” But that doesn’t roll off the tongue very well. Does it?

Click here to see the GAA trends. Make sure to look at page 2 to see the FY06 numbers.

The other statement Patrick is making relates to the number of state employees. This morning, he said that we have fewer employees now than when he took office.

So what’s the truth?

Patrick inherited 65,439 employees from FY06. The projected number of employees for FY11 is 66,702. That’s 1,263 more.

The counter argument to this would be that these figures, which reflect actuals and projections as of June 30th are not the actual numbers as of January 2007 and October 2010. Since the monthly figures are not posted anywhere that I can find, it puts me at a disadvantage debating this point.

Click here to see the comparison of employment levels. Again, make sure to look at page 2 for FY06.

It must be the auditor in me, but I remain skeptical of just about anything a politician says, especially when it comes to budgets and finance. As Jerry Maguire might have said if he were a CPA:

SHOW ME THE BUDGET ANALYSIS!!!

Saturday, October 2, 2010

PRESS RELEASE: Cape Cod Times endorses Randy Hunt for state representative

The editorial board of the Cape Cod Times endorsed Randy Hunt, CPA and Republican candidate for the 5th Barnstable District state representative seat.

"I am pleased to receive this vote of confidence from the Times editorial board," Hunt said. "We are working hard to earn the endorsement that really counts; the voters' endorsement at the ballot box on November 2nd. We can relax on November 3rd."

Campaign manager, Frank Pannorfi, commented: "People appreciate the depth of thought brought to the table by Randy. He has consistently demonstrated his ability to separate the wheat from the chaff and to present complicated issues to the voters in a clear way."

Read the Cape Cod Times endorsement by clicking here.

* * * * *
Randy Hunt has been a CPA for nearly 30 years and served for six years on the Town of Sandwich's board of selectmen and three years on the town's finance committee. He seeks the open seat created by Jeff Perry's run for U.S. Congress. For more on Randy Hunt's campaign for state representative, visit ElectRandyHunt.com or call the campaign office at (774) 413-9274.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

DWT banned in MA

Texting, Internet surfing, and playing games on your smart phone/iPod while driving in Massachusetts is officially illegal as of today. Of course, distracted driving as a result of doing any of these things was already illegal and has been for years, so not much has actually changed—for adults, that is.

For drivers under the age of 18, the new law is much worse. Apocalyptic. The end of the world as we know it.

Junior drivers cannot use cell phones at all. Not for tweeting, not for texting, not for facebooking, not for gaming… Oh, I almost forgot. Not for talking. (Like kids have ever used a cell phone for talking.)

With one exception.

The only allowed use of a cell phone by minors is calling 9-1-1, though I’m pretty sure that texting anything to 9-1-1 is now banned.

What to do? What to do?...

Here’s my solution for addicted texters, who 135 years ago would, no doubt, have been employed as telegraph operators, dot dot dotting and dash dash dashing messages across the country, relegating the pony expressers to the unemployment line.

Coordinate with all your bff’s, jump out of bed a few minutes early, and queue up your tweets and texts. Then, just before you turn the key in your ignition, send them all to each other.

The result won’t be any different than any other day.

@barb couldn’t sleep last nite thkg about todd

omg lol

what r u doin

@barb joey is such a jerk

holy crp rotflol

@barb no way

@joey jerk

cul8r

@9-1-1 just ran into a tree-send help

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Question 3: Rhetoric versus fact

There is no doubt in my mind that 90% of the rhetoric we’ll hear regarding Question 3 on the Massachusetts November 2nd ballot will reference teachers, police and firefighters. Just go to VoteNoQuestion3.com and you’ll see their opening line starts with “We all want good schools, police and fire protection…”

It is very effective to argue that your “Yea” vote will overcrowd classrooms, requiring the fire marshal to be called (who just got fired), necessitating a police officer to respond to the commotion (who is in line at the DUA with the teacher and fire marshal).

What is Question 3?

Question 3 is Carla Howell’s latest attempt to control the bloated state budget. Remember Question 1 from the 2008 ballot? That one asked for voters to eliminate the personal state income tax. It didn’t pass. In 2002, a similar petition also failed.

This time, we’re being asked to roll the state sales tax back from 6.25% to 3%. Here’s the secretary of the commonwealth’s summary that you’ll see on your ballot:

Do you approve of a law summarized below, on which no vote was taken by the Senate or the House of Representatives before May 4, 2010?

SUMMARY
This proposed law would reduce the state sales and use tax rates (which were 6.25% as of September 2009) to 3% as of January 1, 2011. It would make the same reduction in the rate used to determine the amount to be deposited with the state Commissioner of Revenue by non-resident building contractors as security for the payment of sales and use tax on tangible personal property used in carrying out their contracts.

The proposed law provides that if the 3% rates would not produce enough revenues to satisfy any lawful pledge of sales and use tax revenues in connection with any bond, note, or other contractual obligation, then the rates would instead be reduced to the lowest level allowed by law.

The proposed law would not affect the collection of moneys due the Commonwealth for sales, storage, use or other consumption of tangible personal property or services occurring before January 1, 2011.

The proposed law states that if any of its parts were declared invalid, the other parts would stay in effect.

A YES VOTE would reduce the state sales and use tax rates to 3%.

A NO VOTE would make no change in the state sales and use tax rates.
Impact on local aid

Since teachers, police and firefighters are on the payrolls of our cities and towns, the effect of the sales tax rollback on these professions would be seen through a reduction of local aid from the state.

This reduction in local aid has been calculated by the Mass Taxpayers Foundation in their white paper entitled “Heading Over the Cliff,” released yesterday. In it, they project a local aid reduction of $473 million in fiscal year 2012 if Question 3 passes. That extrapolates to $3.9 million in lost aid for the four towns in the 5th Barnstable District.

I have calculated the impact of this reduction in local aid on an average taxpayer whose home is assessed at $350,000 if we voted for an override to replace that lost aid. It amounts to $66/year, ranging from $21/year in Barnstable to $116/year in Sandwich. This ignores the fact that there are probably other ways to replace the lost aid without resorting to an override.

See my analysis here.

Those are relatively modest numbers compared to claims by the proponents of the rollback that each family, on average, would save over $800/year. Click here for their FAQ page. I’m skeptical of claims like this, but if your family spends $10,000/year on taxable goods, then you’d save $325, which is still well above the amount we’d pay in additional property taxes to save the jobs of teachers, police and firefighters.

Other impacts

Opponents list the following areas of pain (those in italics are related to local aid cuts):

Public educationPublic schools and colleges would absorb a huge share of the cuts.

Health care – Cuts will hurt community hospitals, school nursing services, public health initiatives, and community health centers.

Quality of lifeLocal aid to cities and towns would be slashed.

EconomyLaying off teachers, firefighters, police officers, social workers, and others could halt the economic recovery.

Property taxesCities and towns would be forced to raise property taxes and seek overrides simply to maintain basic services.

I think you get the idea that the opponents are angling to generate a visceral reaction by focusing almost exclusively on cuts that the average taxpayer would not support.

The rest of the cuts

The Mass Taxpayers Foundation estimates that we’ll be dealing with a $4.8 billion shortfall in fiscal year 2012, $2 billion already attributed to the state’s structural deficit, $2.5 billion resulting from a successful sales tax rollback, and $300 million in federal aid cuts.

The MTF projects that $470 million would come out of local aid, less than 10% of the necessary cuts. The rest of the $4.8 billion would come out of spending for health care ($1.3 billion), human services ($1.3 billion), public safety ($630 million), and other cuts ($1.1 billion).

My position

I believe that we should roll back the sales tax to 5%. However, given that the 5% scenario is not one of the choices on the November ballot, I have to ask you this fundamental question:

Do you want Beacon Hill to tell you how much of your money they are going to spend, or do you want to tell Beacon Hill how much of your money they get to spend?

It’s time to send a message to Beacon Hill that we are tired of our legislators not listening to the electorate. Remember the 5% income tax we voted for in 2000?

I support the rollback because it will force the legislature to get serious about real reforms, cost cutting, and restructuring. Reforming the pension system, giving cities and towns control over health insurance plan design, and restructuring the myriad of state agencies would be good places to start.

The areas that we should protect from drastic cuts include local aid and public safety. Cutting local aid is like tossing the hot potato over the fence. And our district attorneys’ offices, sheriffs’ departments, and state police are already under attack from a funding standpoint.

Finally, the MTF ignored the boost to the economy that $2.5 billion in the hands of consumers would generate, not to mention the improvement in sales that New Hampshire-bordering businesses would instantly enjoy.

Your position

Everyone needs to assess their own position on the tax rollback, but please don’t fall for the rhetoric that involves less than 10% of the cuts. Think about your reliance on state programs, how your family is likely to be affected, and keep in mind that $66/year would keep your teachers, police and firefighters in place.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Going postal?

I was confused when confronting this new sign at the post office.


If I'm not driving a mail truck, can I park there?

Or do I have to move from space to space after parking for 10 seconds in each one?

Or is it only for people who are going postal at the time they're parking?

Adjectively challenged,

Randy

Copyright 2010 Randy Hunt

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Wastewater one-question survey

UPDATED WITH NEW COMMENTS: September 13, 2010

I'm a numbers guy and when I hear $6 billion, I know it's a lot. When I hear that a sewer system is going to cost $50,000 to $80,000 per house to hook up to, you have my attention. Where do you stand on the issue of wastewater management on Cape Cod?

To gather your opinions, I created a simple, one-question survey:

Managing wastewater is a key issue for all of us living on Cape Cod, one that will be on the front burner over the next several years.Given that the cost of hooking up each household to a sewer system, on average, will be in the range of $50,000 to $80,000, how do you feel this issue should be handled?
  • The Cape should be sewered and Title 5 septic systems eliminated.
  • We should focus on known "hot spots," using septic systems elsewhere.
  • We should finish the scientific studies, then develop a plan.
  • Do nothing. The Title 5 systems are working fine.
  • Do nothing. I can't afford $50,000 to $80,000, even over 20 or 25 years.
Take the survey by clicking here.

See the results so far by clicking here.

From Randy Hunt: A couple of the comments discuss the possibility of requiring more frequent pumping of septic systems. I don't claim to be an expert on the topic, but I did play one on TV when I video'd an A Little Knowledge Is A Dangerous Thing episode about septic system monitoring. My understanding is that liquids flow through these systems and dissipate across a leaching field. It is urine that is particularly high in nitrogen content, so more frequent pumping would have a negligible effect on reducing nitrogen loading.

Here are some of the comments made by survey participants:

Perhaps better standards for inspections could be implemented.
My septic failed and my next door neighbor's passed. Same low elevation, same soil types, same ground water. - it seems they were smart enough to have the inspection done in hot weather not the wet Spring. or they hired a "sympathetic" inspector. I don't know.
Crack down on the crooked inspectors and realtors who collude.
A master plan that includes a rating inventory with from worst case failure areas, to high, medium, and low potential failure areas is necessary. Funding the sewer system needs to be handled via a number of methods including impact fees and providing incentives for donors. The Cape is not the first to have this problem. Solutions in other coastal communities should be studied, improved upon and implemented here. Thurston County, Washington has been working on a wastewater plan for many years.
It is not like we don't know how to or are not maintaining safe drinking water and acceptable habitat life quality currently.
Replacing adequately functioning septic systems, disturbing animal habitats, and further burdening existing owners are our only options? These all further an urban vs rural environment.
Where are the options to prohibit adding fertilizer to lawns or pets from living on the cape? Shouldn't we be looking at those "soft and non-structural" mitigations first.
50 to 80k, even spread over 20 years, is far too costly for the average homeowner. Half or less would be more reasonable if worked into property taxes. The study should include cost effective ways to accomplish this massive undertaking.
Your cost estimates appear to be very pessamistic. Isn't $40,000- $45,000 as an average more realistic?
NO ONE CAN AFFORD TO PAY WHAT IS CURRENTLY CIRCA 100 USD PER YEAR TO EMPTY THE SEPTIC SYSTEM. USING YOUR BEST CASE OF 50K OVER 20 YEARS IS 2,500/YR WITHOUT INTEREST AND OTHER ANCILLARY FEES AND CHARGES. A 100 YEAR CONCESSION MANAGED BY THE BARNSTABLE COUNTY/CAPE COD COMMISSION MAY BE THE BEST OPTION USING SATELLITE SYSTEMS SIMILAR TO BEST IN OPERATIONAL PRACTICE WITH MANDATED FEES NOT TO EXCEED 120 USD/YR FOR RESIDENTS. THE BUSINESS MODEL IS VIABLE WITHOUT A GOUGING FEE POLICY THAT IS THE NORM.
If the budget can cover it, septic systems should be eliminated. The cost would be spread over a much larger group thereby being less expensive to each individual. The cost could be collected from each person at the sale of their property. BUT, I am not dogmatic about this.
SOMETHING SHOULD HAVE BEEN DONE IN 1970 WHEN SEPTIC SOLUTIONS WOULD HAVE BEEN MANAGEABLE. NOW WE HAVE INSTALLED CENTRAL SYSTEMS AND ARE ASKED TO FINISH THE REMAINDER. COSTS WILL ONLY INCREASE AND OUR GREAT GRANDCHILDREN WILL BE STRAPPED ALONG WITH THE NATIONAL DEBT TO PAY.
Develop a plan once the science is peer reviewed. Maintain Title 5 sysytems as much as possible. Find the most cost efficient method to remove the nitrogen emphasizing decentralized systems as much as possible.
Avoid the perfection goals that heavily drive cost.
To be truthful, I have no idea about the wastewater situation. I quess I should do some research! I am sure it is something we should address for our future on the Cape.
Many of us probably don't have an adequate understanding of the issues. One thing, however, seems clear:there must be some way to mitigate the huge burden on individual homeowners. One might be to structure the financing to allow funds paid by individuals to be tax deductible.
measure twice cut once - we need more study
My first approach would be to examine what other, similar, areas have done. Long Island comes to mind. Long Island doesn't have a sole-source aquifer, but it has dense development in many areas, and is rural in other areas. Perhaps, since their water is pumped in, septic isn't an issue, but it might be good to know what they've done.
In order to answer this question I would need to understand the numbers, ie, cost per average household per year in new taxes. If that number is $1000 or less for 10 years, OK. if it is $5000 per year, I'll sell my house and move.

I believe a second opinion on the short 5 year study, and questionable computer model extensions being used to evolve DEP & EPA demands to sewer are NOT correct and do not reflect longer, previous studies by MBL scientists and others. Recent waffling by the CC Commission on whether or not to take the National Science Foundation up on its offer to review the models only leads to more questions if their motives are science driven.

$50,000 to $80,000 is an insane expenditure, given the state of the economy and other public needs. Nitrogen in the ocean is just not that serious a problem. Contaminants in drinking water which are causing the breast cancer epidemic should get more attention. Isn't there some less labor-intensive way to sewer a town?

The science that DEP paid for has never been vetted by an independent third party. Also, it is not at all settled that even if a town did what the DEP says should be done that there will be any improvement made in the waters. For this billions should be spent?

Until a real peer review is completed I'm not convinced that outflow from title 5 systems is the largest culprit. Nitrogen and phosphorus based lawn and farm fertilizers could be contributing as much or more. It's analogous to global warming. It's certain that people are contributing something, but, how much is unclear.

If it can be determined that certain areas (N Falmouth and related beaches) have systems that are polluting, owners should be brought into compliance even if they have to build pump-able systems at critical shore areas - owners expense..a sewer system across Cape would be another rotten State bureaucracy in time...enough!

Maybe we are broke and can't do everything that we want to. There are wants and needs and maybe this isn't a need when the country is broke and surrounded by enemies. Also the CLF suit mentions that the EPA did not consider Global Warming. That alone should demand a dismissal of the suit.

I would like to know where these problems of nitrogen loading exist, to what extent and available solutions before investing in unneeded infrastructure solutions.

I'd like to say let's take a commonsense approach to this and make sure every home has a Title 5 first and proceed from there. The studies I have read show that municipal wastewater treatment plants break nitrogen down to, on average, 5-7.5 mL N/L H20. The average Title 5 breaks nitrogen down to 5 mL/L-the same results or better. However, the environmentalists are starting to file lawsuits against municipalities for not moving forward with these plants.

Title 5 systems are doing a great job. The hoopla is thus far eco-fear without known scientific basis. Yes, complete the studies, but make sure they are valid and do not reflect the anti-PAVE PAWS type of pseudoscience all over again.

The reality is that we can't afford nor should we foolishly create an MWRA-Cape Cod. There are private de-nitrification systems that are available which remove up to 80% more N2 than standard Title V. What I can't seem to find at this point is a definitive study by a group that doesn't have a dog in the fight which concludes that we have a serious problem.

I just replaced a failed system two years ago. I'm not up for spending 50 - 80 thousand to hook up to sewer.

One size fits all is a stupid way to approach this problem.

In the past (the MMR cleanup, for example) science took a back seat to environmental campaigns, as somebody else paid. In this case we pay, so scientific data (a formal category) has a chance and actually seems to be winning in some areas. Various peer review groups have countered selectmen, state departments, commissions, even the CLF. In reserve is a large exposure to conflict of interest on the part of the campaigners.

Doing nothing is probably going to make the ultimate solution be more drastic and cost even more. Planning now will give more options.

I think that the estimates are low. Regional waste water systems would be best

Given that the average citizen cannot afford the estimated cost to hook up, I wonder if an at least temporary solution might be to require home owners to have their septic tanks emptied every two years with the waste going to a proper sewerage disposal plant, at a general cost of about $150 - $200. (Many go decades without such service.) That might drastically reduce contamination while a united Cape group could come up with a more permanent and far less costly resolution.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Sandwich Town Hall Rededication Ceremony

The Sandwich Town Hall Rededication Committee (Ever notice how government and nonprofit-related committees adopt really long names? It's like government bureaucrat titles. I digress.) proudly announces the date and time of the rededication ceremony:

Saturday, October 2, 2010 at noon
On the steps of the seriously spruced up Sandwich Town Hall (originally completed in 1834)

After the obligatory speeches from politicians, we'll all get a chance to tour the first floor offices and rifle through Bud's personal files. Then (and this is the greatest part of the project) we'll tour the hall upstairs that's been closed to the public for many years.

With all due respect and total seriousness, I want to congratulate all of the people of Sandwich who supported this project. A good friend of mine, Dick (The Cranky Yankee) Bradley, dreamed of the day when actors and dancers would be performing on the stage once again. I believe he will be smiling down on us that day.

Planning, selling, executing and celebrating this restoration project has been a huge effort by many people and I look forward to seeing the hall booked solid with all kinds of community events.

Don't miss the fun.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Town of Sandwich suggestion box

One of my blog readers suggested that the posts under Selectman Pierce’s article, “A simple five-point plan,” are mostly critical and lack a constructive component.

The objective of this post is to create a suggestion box, rather than a complaint box, to allow people to weigh in with their cost-cutting and revenue generating suggestions for the Town of Sandwich.

The blog reader says “I gotta believe there are some worthwhile ideas out there.”

As you know, I publish comments unless they are obscene, use vulgar language, or are libelous, but for this post I will only publish comments that provide ideas for saving money or generating additional revenues.

If you want to rant, continue posting under Selectman Pierce’s article.

So, what do you say? Does anyone have any ideas out there?

Friday, September 3, 2010

Cell phone use while driving can save lives

I’ve long been convinced that blabbing on a cell phone while driving is a serious distraction. Compared to carrying on an intense debate with a passenger, cell phone conversations are much worse because the person on the other end of the call is unlikely to scream “Stop!!” when you’re about to run a red light.

And what about these hands-free devices? Does anyone really believe that having a Bluetooth thingy jammed in your ear makes your cell phone call any less distracting? I’ve used hands-free devices and experienced the same phenomenon as I have when holding a cell phone to my ear: “Wow! I’m already at the Sagamore Bridge? I don’t even remember going through Rockland, Hanover, Pembroke, Kingston and Plymouth. Son of a gun…”

Read up on a recent study showing no benefit from hands-free cell phones.

Here’s one I don’t think the university psychologists have studied: How many lives have been saved by people who called 9-1-1 on their cell phones to report another motorist driving erratically?

Anecdotally, I’ve heard many stories about drunk drivers being outed by cell phone toting vigilantes. A veritable second police department reporting every line crossing, every weave. It’s like Neighborhood Watch on wheels.

Measuring the number of people who did not get killed by drunk drivers is similar to measuring the number of people whose jobs were saved by the stimulus bill. In fact, so similar, that I’ll just use the same figure and declare that 3.5 million people’s lives were saved by cell phone snitches.

Unfortunately, there are some studies that complicate my plan to combat laws that ban the use of cell phones while driving. A 2006 study by the University of Utah equates the danger of driving while chatting to driving while drinking.

Damn. That really does take the wind out of my sail.

I’m not one who’s big on common sense laws. I never smoked. I never streaked at a Major League Baseball game. I don’t eat a lot of Monte Cristo sandwiches. But I’d like to reserve my right to run naked through the outfield at a Red Sox game with a deep fried sandwich in one hand and a cigarette in the other.

Copyright 2010 Randy Hunt

Saturday, August 28, 2010

A simple five-point plan

Guest article by Jim Pierce, Sandwich selectman

The proposal below addresses only four of the five big slices of the Town of Sandwich budget pie as shown on chart 5 of the August 5th presentation to the selectmen. The intent is to look at the 22% that goes to Gen. Gov't Operating, the 21% combine shown as Employee Related and State & County Assessments, and touch briefly on the 7% labeled debt. The 48% shown as School Operating Budget is the province of the School Committee.

If you want to skip the details, then scroll down to where it says PLAN and save yourself some pain.

To understand what's going on you also need to be familiar with chart 4 of the July 22nd presentation. The pie chart shows that the money comes from three places. Tax bills account for 74%. State aid provides 15% and most of the rest, 8%, comes from local receipts. The first simple fact is that by the General Laws of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts those two pies must be equal. That is the definition of a balanced budget.

First let's look a the big piece of the income pie. For the current fiscal year the dollar amount is just under $45.2 million. Proposition 2.5 allows that number to grow by 2.5% in FY12. Estimated new growth will add another 1%. Doing the math, 3.5% of $45.2M adds about $1.58M to the income pie.

Now let's look at the 15% state aid piece. In FY09 the two biggest pieces of that, Discretionary and Chapter 70, added up to $9.25M.

In FY11 the total of those two was $8.45M. There is every reason to believe the downward trend will continue. The assumptions built into the FY12 budget projection include another 5% reduction in "discretionary" and flat Chapter 70. That pokes an $850,000 hole in the $1,580,000 growth from tax revenue. Local receipts have been relatively flat at $4.8M plus or minus $50,000 for four years. So, there will be no help from there.

Summarizing, the "income" pie will grow by about $730,000 in FY12 vs FY11. That assumes no further cuts in state aid, which is not entirely a safe assumption.

Now let's take a look at the "expenses" pie. The Gen. Gov't employees accepted a "pay freeze" in FY10 and the current year, FY11. The total "pay check" for all 173 employees is $10.5M. What might the employees have gotten if they had taken the town to arbitration? Let's just pick a number out of the air, 2%. That would have added $210,000 in FY10. That would have persisted as part of the base for another 2% in FY11. The FY11 increase would be another $215,000. Adding 210 plus 210 plus 215 comes to $645,000 cost avoidance over the last two fiscal years. Thank you, town employees!

In order to secure that second year "pay freeze" the town contracted with the municipal employees for a 3% raise in each of FY12 and FY13. What does that 0,0,3,3 mean? Over a four year period raises for Gen Gov't employees will average 1.5%. Adding in step raises included in the contract of about 1.25% and you get 2.75%. The "income" pie is growing at a little over 3.25%. That says something very important. Gen Gov't salaries will not add to the "structural deficit" over that four year period. And, if future increases are held around 2% the whole system is sustainable indefinitely within Proposition 2.5.

But, looking at FY12 alone, the 3% plus steps adds about $450,000 to the total Gen Gov't "paycheck". Remember, the whole "income" pie is only projected to grow by $730,000 and that has to be shared over the whole "expenses" pie.

If we look at the Employee/Assessment piece of the "expenses" pie, what do we find? Health Insurance up $400,000, county retirement up $150,000, liability insurance, unemployment and Medicare up a combined $150,000. That total of $700,000 does include the school system portion, which is about $500,000.

Summarizing: The town contracted for a $450,000 pay increase for Gen Gov't employees in exchange for a $645,000 two year savings and getting on a long term sustainable track. Cost elements largely controlled outside the town will grow by $700,000. The revenues available will grow by $730,000. This is the definition of the proverbial rock and hard place.

On top of that, some of our buildings are in need of repair. The Capital Improvement Planning Committee says about $25 million worth. However, they paired it down to a $5.25 million immediate need.

PLAN (Only deals with General Gov't, Employee and Assessment costs)

The problem is simple:
- The Gen. Gov't needs an operating cash injection via Prop 2.5 override, annual impact $750,000.
- The town needs a capital injection via debt exclusion, annual impact $550,000 ($5.25M financed over 20 yrs)
- The timing sucks!

Five Points

1. In 2005 the voters authorized a $2.5M override of Proposition 2.5. Later that year, the voters accepted a $500,000 "underride." Asking the voters to "override the underride" would provide two-thirds of the $750,000 leaving $250,000.

2. The state legislature provided us with an "opportunity" to add an estimated $137,000 to local receipts by raising the meal tax 0.75%. Grab that opportunity, and $250,000 becomes $113,000.

3. The Board of Selectmen has been "jawboning" Pay-As-You-Throw to death for months. There is a proven track record in over 130 communities that says Sandwich will save at least $125,000 in tipping fees alone. That also goes to local receipts. The $750,000 is gone, and, at no time did my fingers leave my hands. "Overriding the underride" does add about $50/yr to the average tax bill.

4. In 2000 Sandwich adopted the Community Preservation Act and added a 3% CPA surtax on top of property taxes. When 3% is applied to $45.2 million the total surtax is $1,356,000. One-third of that is $452,000. A Town Meeting vote coupled to a ballot question could reduce the surtax from 3% to 2%. That's a genuine, no smoke-and-mirrors tax reduction of about $42/yr for the average taxpayer.

5. The debt exclusion of $5.25 million financed over 20 years would cost the average taxpayer about $52 the first year decreasing to about $30 in year 20. That's an average of about $41/yr. A Town Meeting vote coupled to a ballot question is required for a debt exclusion. What is proposed is a shift of priorities from CPA activities to repairing our crumbling infrastructure.

Questions left open:

- Will the voters say, "Thanks for the tax reduction, but, no way on the debt exclusion"?

- How long will the $750,000 combined override, meal tax and PAYT last?

- What will the school system ask for?

Friday, August 20, 2010

Sign Wars

It’s political campaign season and, as Mark Wiklund noted in one of his columns a spring or two ago, the signs are popping up like crocuses and tulips, except that it’s a dry summer with lawns on the decline and there is no evidence of crocuses and tulips.

In the Town of Sandwich, political signs are allowed to be put up 60 days before an election, but we’ve always followed a gentlemen’s agreement that 30 days is sufficient to irritate the complainers but not too long as to be ridiculous.

By the way, any town’s political sign bylaw is purely a guideline for signs erected on private property. The free speech clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution has been widely recognized in the courts to trump local bylaws, including homeowners’ association covenants. If you want to display a four by eight foot banner in your yard screaming “Impeach Bush,” as was the case on Tupper Road in Sandwich for most of a year, the town cannot deny you that right.

Playing the spoiler in our friendly game of Sign Wars is the state Department of Public Works. In an email issued by Donald Pettey, assistant maintenance engineer for the DPW division based in Taunton, Pettey wrote “We are starting to field complaints about political signs. Please remind your personnel to remove any political signs that are obviously in the state highway layout or installed on a fence line.”

And that’s what the workers stationed at the DPW depot on Route 130 across from the Sandwich transfer station did. They pulled only political signs that they eyeballed were in the road layout.

There are several obvious problems with this:

1) By only plucking political signs, it’s clear that the DPW’s responsibility to keep a public way safe by removing unsafe objects was discriminately carried out. That is, how do they justify pulling up a political sign in the road layout and not a “for sale” sign planted in the same road layout? It really isn’t a safety issue, is it?

2) For ten years or more, residents on Route 6A in Sandwich have been displaying the same sized political signs in the same locations without any DPW heavy handedness. In fact, an informal agreement was reached years ago that signs should be placed far enough off the pavement to not impede their grass mowers. Simple and effective.

3) The road layout on Route 6A and Route 130 is 25 feet out from the centerline of the road. Being ancient ways with many antique houses, there are homes with almost no setback. Twenty-five feet from the centerline on some of these houses is six feet inside their living rooms. Does that mean that people in old houses have no right to display political signs? Would the U.S. Supreme Court uphold the Pettey ruling?
I have spoken with my opponent and we both agree that we’ll only plant signs in places authorized by the owners or in the various town-owned spots specifically allowing for political sign display. On state-owned roads, we’ll put the signs back at least 25-feet from the centerline or as far back as possible where 25 feet is impossible.

On another note, signs are expensive and are generally paid for by people who graciously give their money to our campaigns. My opponent and I do not want to see any vandalism or theft of our campaign signs. It’s really not funny to destroy other people’s property.

If you see any political signs in unauthorized places, such as on state or town-owned land or under NSTAR lines, etc., please contact our respective campaigns and ask that they be removed. I assure you that I will act promptly on such a notification.

Monday, August 16, 2010

10-point plan to jumpstart Cape Cod's economy

Cape Cod's economy is fueled by tourism, retirees, technological and ecological development, health care, and the demands for goods and services related to all of the above.

The 5th Barnstable District reflects these same characteristics and its business community is a roster comprised, almost exclusively, of small businesses.

Our focus, as a state legislature, must be on the small business owner. Nationwide, approximately 70 percent of all jobs are created by small businesses; on Cape Cod, that figure is even higher.

Rather than repeat the platitudes and talking points that voters seemingly have become immune to, I have compiled a list of specific items that can be embraced and acted on by your state government to improve the overall business climate and expand opportunities for businesses of all sizes across the commonwealth.

These actionable items fall into three categories:

Health care
  • Adopt a 50-employee exclusion (currently ten) for determining which small businesses must offer health insurance. This is consistent with the new federal Affordable Care Act and would allow small businesses to grow beyond ten employees without triggering a huge expense for mandated insurance.
  • Abandon the "creditable coverage" standard, which mandates that everyone carry a blue ribbon, bells and whistles policy. We have to wake up to the fact that not everyone can afford the same insurance plan enjoyed by our legislators.
  • Implement other measures to reduce the cost of insurance, such as tort reform, standardized electronic medical records, and interstate competition between insurers (a federal issue), to name a few.
  • Allow small businesses to band together to purchase health insurance policies as a group. This is a provision that was included in the Small Business Health Care Cost Relief Bill passed in the most recent legislative session. Unfortunately, that bill also included measures to increase government control in this market which, in the end, will drive away competition and increase costs.

 Taxation

  • Roll back sales, meals and personal income tax to 5 percent. Our state government's insatiable appetite for spending resulted in $2 billion of new taxes during the most severe economic recession in decades. That ignores the fact that it leaves less spendable income in the pockets of consumers, who are the life blood of small businesses.
  • Reduce corporate income tax to 5 percent. At 9.5 percent, Massachusetts is among the highest taxing states in the country; yet another reason for large businesses to not come here or to relocate elsewhere. These large businesses generate big demand for goods and services from our small business community.
  • Reduce the short-term capital gains tax rate from 12 percent to 5 percent. As a CPA, I'm always cautioning my small business owners about the state's taxation of capital gains. This puts the brakes on entrepreneurs who would otherwise expand more quickly. 

Regulation
  • Open public construction projects to all bidders, not just union shops. The governor claims that PLAs (project labor agreements) account for relatively few of the total contracts awarded by the state. What he doesn't say is that those "few" are the largest projects, accounting for the lion's share of project dollars spent.
  • Repeal the Pacheco Law, which bars privatization of state services. Small businesses could certainly benefit if allowed to bid on such things as vehicle fleet maintenance, building management and maintenance, and state park maintenance.
  • STOP CHANGING THE RULES (at least changes that make things worse.) The unpredictability of what our legislators have in store for businesses from year to year makes Massachusetts a poor choice for new and expanding businesses.