Monday, November 24, 2008

What's 10 Percent Between Friends?

Sometime in the next two months there's a chance that local aid from the state is going to be cut. Some people say it's going to happen, some people think it's going to happen, pretty much everyone hopes it's not going to happen.

The buzz is building around 10 percent as a cut figure. No one is quite sure if this true or not -- and no one knows if that's even an accurate number.

But it's important to pay attention to that number and that background now, as the City Council wrangles with funding (or not) union contracts this week. For the councilors thinking about not voting for the contracts, the problems with those potential local aids are their chief source of concern (along with perks, although we discussed that last week).

First, let's dispel the myth that a 10 percent cut in local aid would equal a 10 percent cut in the city's services. The city government receives a grand total of $11.8 million in local aid, most of it in the $10.6 million in lottery aid, state aid to fill in for lottery decreases, and additional assistance. A 10 percent cut of the city's government aid would be about $1.2 million, or about 5 percent of the $51.9 million spent on city services.

Now, on the school side, a 10 percent cut of all local aid would equal about $4.2 million in a $46 million budget ($44.1 million not counting Monty Tech). That's a far tougher cut (just ask the 25-kid kindergarten class teachers how they feel about it). But honestly, not relative to this conversation. I can hyperventilate over that later.

OK, back to the city-side budget. Of that $52 million in play, $22 million is wrapped up in employee benefits. Let's say you're whacking 5 percent out of that. How many employees do you have to lay off to save $1 million? )Honestly, that's a question. I don't know the answer.) The next biggest area is the cops, at $6.2 million. That would be a $300,000 cut there. Then debt at $5.3 million, but I don't see how that's cut. Fire is next, also at $5.3 million. That's a $250,000-plus cut there. Next is DPW, at $3.3 million, or $150,000-plus. Would 5 percent be cut across the board? Who knows? Probably not.

The council has a bit of tough decision here. It would go a long, long way for the city to settle these contracts. Would the few hundred thousand it would cost to do it be devastating to the city if local aid cuts happen? What's the level of cuts, however, where it would be bad to approve these contracts? 10 percent? 5 percent? Anything? Does anyone really, truly, know what's going to happen with local aid? (And if someone says they do, they're either lying or have a good Tarot card reader around.) It's tough to not consider potential local aid cuts, but it's also tough to vote against something based on something that might or might not happen.

Anyway, if you decide to watch this go down, there's your background on where things stand.

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Thursday, November 20, 2008

Contracting Incentives

The council spent some time Tuesday night picking away at the police contract, and there was some grousing about the incentives and perks in the deal. Which are the same as the old perks and incentives.

Look, some of these perks are silly and need to get gone one of these day. I'm thinking the "no accident" clause is one. Some concerns are completely valid, and need to be addressed. I'm thinking about Dave Clark's long-standing effort to get new employees to pay a larger portion of health insurance costs.

Here's the thing, though. There wasn't a lot of wiggle room here. In some way, this is an emergency settlement.

Wong needs to get the unions to the table on the health insurance. Has to happen at some point. But isn't settling contracts that are two years expired top priority? Considering there's a whole different process on that, it could take some time.

More pressing are incentives. But really, how far could Wong go? And how far could the union go? The union set aside retroactive raises. The 4 and 2 percent bumps in January and July only go so far in curing that. The union left thousands of dollars per member on the table. You gotta give a little to get a little. The union left money on the table, it kept its perks.

Hopefully we can include "for now." It's easy to make political hay on incentives and perks. But getting them negotiated out is a whole different ballgame. You have to give a little to get a little (yeah, I'm repetitive), so what does the city have to give to get the incentives eliminated? Or does the city go nuclear, try to rip out the incentives, and offer nothing in return? That would be, um, interesting.

The bottom line at this point is that for better or worse you can't fiddle with the perks without giving something back. And considering how horrible this situation was/in, rolling them over at this point may have been the only way to get any kind of contract done.

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Saturday, November 15, 2008

A Reporter Complains

There's news today that two more union contracts were settled last this week. That's good news.

But for a reporter, this turn events is very frustrating.

At Wednesday's press conference, I asked the mayor four or five questions about the other pending union negotiations. In effect, she didn't answer any of them. She danced around them, relying on "not publicly discussing ongoing negotiations." One of the questions was pretty much "are other contracts close." She pretty much completely didn't answer that one. (If you really want to watch the oh so awesome display, I think you can download video here. If not, try here.)

Of course they were close to completion. She settled them a day or two later. But instead of even expressing optimism that something else might happen soon, she completely clammed up.

After I asked my first question, I knew I wasn't getting anything out of her. I decided to ask a few more questions, mostly to send some kind of signal that her non-answers were frustrating. I didn't want to grandstand, but I did want to push a little bit. I might have pushed harder, in retrospect.

She can say or not say what she wants to the public and the media. She's committed no great crime or treason by not spilling her guts. But if nothing else, that was the perfect example of the conservative nature of this Mayor's Office when it comes to publicly talking about things it might not want to talk about. From Day 1, Wong has a discipline that maintains walls around what she wants walls around. Whether it's a press conference, at an event, or in a one-on-one, she's very disciplined about what she says -- and what she doesn't say. Wednesday was a great example of that. I asked my four or five questions, but halfway through her answer to the first one, I knew I was banging my head against a stone wall.

I wonder if the public cares. As a reporter, I don't think it would have done any damage to express optimism that some contracts might be close, and that things were going smoothly. Heck, she wouldn't give insight into the character of the negotiations and her relationship with the unions.

I guess in the end, results matter. She's getting these things settled, and you'd have to think more are going to get done very soon. But a touch more sunshine -- not giving away the farm, but being a little more accomodating -- wouldn't hurt.



Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Police Get a Deal

The head of the police union says his members aren't happy with the deal. Annie DiMartino says she won't vote for a 6 percent increase. Sometimes, the sign of a good compromise is everyone hates it.

If you missed it, the police union and the mayor have agreed to a contract that gives the union a 4 percent raise on Jan. 1, and a 2 percent raise on July 1. (Note: those percentages are flipped from what you might have read in today's papers. Wong says the above numbers are accurate). There is no retroactive raises for '07 and '08.

The police union doesn't have to like this deal, but its members should be praised for accepting it. Big time. I'm amazed they pushed aside retro pay. The 4 percent is a pretty good number (a very good number), but leaving the retro pay behind is a huge move for them. Can't be understated. If you want a symbol for doing the right thing, the police union throws out a big one today.

From my simple calculations, according to the budget the patrolmen are being paid $3 million this year. The overall increase from both raises is about $180,000. (That hasn't been confirmed, and is merely a ballpark figure. Don't take it to the bank.)

But one of the big factors lurking behind all of this is the back pay that would have come with retroactive raises. If DiMartino is opposed to the 6 percent in total increase, how would she have felt if there were retro raises? Let's say the patrolmen salaries were $3 million in 2006. (Sure, that might not be accurate, but without raises, and layoff since then, the number is probably higher. Just bear with me.). Four 2 percent raises (in 07, 08, 09, 10) would cost the city a total of $247,000, or $67,000 more than the deal as structured. A good chunk of that would have been back pay ($121,000 according to two years of 2 percent increases starting at $3M). So, the city got the union to move away from retro pay. A huge move.

So, good for the union for agreeing to it, and good for the mayor for getting them to agree to it. I don't get the feeling they'll be holding hands together anytime soon, but it's a step forward for the city.

Now, what will the council do? If DiMartino is the voice of the majority, do they shoot this down? That might be the question of the day.

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Friday, November 07, 2008

What Do We Want? Verizon. When Do We Want It? Now.

I'm now on Day 3 of screaming at Comcast, and it has gotten me nowheres.

Somehow, my e-mail address with Comcast, which I've had for at least 5 years, has been wiped out. Gone. No one knows what happened. What started as a technical glitch -- a mild term, considering all the address rebuilding and whatnot that comes with this -- is now a customer service issue. I was told Wednesday someone would call me back within an hour. Nada. When I called Thursday, I was asked why someone should call me back at this point. I want on a rampage about bringing me back and what not. Nada. This afternoon, I was told there's a 72-hour minimum before they call back, as they try to figure out what happened. Not long enough to calm me down on this one.

So, shockingly, the cable company is showing little to no customer service. Why am I not surprised?

What's my point? The city is currently negotiating with Verizon to bring FiOS into Fitchburg. At this point, it can't happen soon enough. If you're someone working on the cable contract and are reading this, I'm begging you to get this done soon. Begging you. We need an option.

If you think Comcast stinks, too (and why wouldn't you?), please share below.



Thursday, November 06, 2008

It Only Gets Harder

I took yesterday off from writing here, mostly because I didn't think there was much I could add that wasn't written somewhere else.

Today, I considered writing something about what will be on one of Obama's biggest problems. He won 340-something EC delegates, more than a majority of the popular vote, but a significant chunk of the country will not give this guy a legitimate chance to prove himself.

I realized I couldn't say it much better than my college buddy Mike Biglin, who wrote the following on Facebook Tuesday afternoon. I'm gonna let Bigsie bring it on home, Philly style:

After hearing some things and reading some of your comments, just one thought I wanted to put out there as we enter into mid-afternoon on Election Day 2008:

We're all in this together, no matter whom we support or voted for. Everyone has been talking so much about fear these days -- the Daily Show did a STELLAR John Oliver report last week on it from both sides, showing how both sides sound like COMPLETE TWITS -- so keeping with that theme, here's what I fear most from tonight: Obama supporters being so obnoxious when they win that they'll make the worst of Patriots fans look like lobotomized vegatables. OR, if McCain wins, Obama supporters going over the top the other way - acting like the apocalypse just hit the planet.

Hey folks, if McCain wins tonight -- the world's gonna keep turning on its axis, the sun will rise and you're gonna wake up; trust me.

We MUST work together, whoever is in charge. and this country is too big, too great, for the election of ONE MAN to completely destroy what centuries of people have toiled and given their lives to build. If you think that, you're deluded beyond comprehension -- and I'm talking equally about both sides here.

when did intelligently agreeing to disagree cease to exist? I voted for Obama, but if McCain wins I'm sure as hell not going to jump off the Tobin. and Obama people, if you think that your way is the only way and refuse to listen to anyone else -- well, then you're no worse than that lovely gent residing on Penn. Avenue in DC for the last eight years - that's the way HE THINKS.

so get over yourselves, open up your minds and hearts and embrace the one thing that this day DOES represent -- how great this country is, and remember the blood that has been spilt in places like Concord and Valley Forge; Spotsylvania Court House, Anteitam and Little Round Top; the fields of Meuse-Argonne and St. Mihiel; the hedgerows of Normandy and the jungles of Guadalcanal; and today in the hills of Afghanistan so you DO have the right to walk up to that polling place and cast your vote.

think about them before you start acting like an @ss tonight, OK?
thanks for reading


Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Tonight's TV

I'll be interested to see how tonight's TV coverage goes. If Obama wins Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania by 9 p.m., will they call it? Or try to build some false drama for a McCain rally? Usually there's a race to be first. It will be interesting to see what happens. Could they call the election before California closes? What if Obama rolls up 215 early on? Everyone knows he's winning Cali. Do you call it then, and maybe lose viewers steadily as the night goes on? I dunno.

I'll say this for some corners of the national media: They've gone out of their way to keep McCain in the game. In general, the media love a good story, and an Obama blowout, at least for tonight, is just about the worst story. A close election, and dramatic comeback or hold-off, is a much better storyline tonight. That's why Pennsylvania is suddenly back in play. McCain has shown a twitch of life there, so it's suddenly a state he can win and create some more avenues to 270. We'll see.

Part of the talk of keeping McCain alive is that the polls might be wrong. In some states, where polling has been going non-stop for weeks and months, that seems difficult to imagine. And consider this: (yes, I love that site) reported this afternoon that its database includes 2,077,765 interviews. What an amazing figure. If the polls are off, the poll system is so horribly broken, it's scary. But is the poll system really that broken? I guess we'll find out tonight, but considering the width and breadth of polling, that's tough to imagine.



What's Going On Out There?

Chime in and let us know what's going on at your polling place. It's gonna be busy.

A 3A voter early on said he was number 135. Mrs. Save Fitchburg went around 8:15 in 3A, and was number 279. Wow. A 4B voter reported being 148 at about 9 a.m.

I think I'll be standing in a line tonight when a go. What was going on when you voted today?



Where It All Ended

If you haven't heard, today's Election Day. Go and do your civic duty, for crying out loud. If nothing else, send a message to the Legislature, make pot a little more legal, and end dog racing*.

Today will be heralded as the end of the very long presidential election, but that's not 100 percent true. The presidential election was decided about six weeks ago, when John McCain's Two Big Gambles came up snake eyes.

Usually, I dislike national polls for presidential elections, because they're useless. Winning the national election doesn't matter, winning states and Electoral College votes do count. Just ask Al Gore. But when you look at the tracking of the national polls, and look back to what was going on, it makes all the sense in the world.

McCain was leading the national polls narrowly in late September (check out the line graph at to get the details), which makes sense coming on the heels of a pretty good national convention. But then the wheels came off for McCain.

While politics and policy play a big role in choosing a president, there's also that big part of the American public that looks for leadership, intelligence, and steadiness in a president. It's the elected position in our country that probably has more to do with intangibles than it does actual policy goals. Maybe it's because the country and the federal government is so big we subconsciously understand one guy can't really make that much difference. But we look for someone to guide us through the tough times and spur us on when the opportunity to do better arises. With that in mind, consider the second half of September for McCain.

By then, about three weeks after the convention, Sarah Palin was exposed as the horrible choice that she was. Immediately after her pick, the base loved her but a lot of people wanted to find out more. After her woeful Charlie Gibson interview and a better sense of background on Palin, the verdict was in: Palin's best attribute was allowing Tina Fey to absolutely scorch her on Saturday nights. The pick reflected poorly on McCain, and did not exactly point out solid judgment on McCain's part. Arguable in early September, it's almost indefensible now.

At almost the same time, as more and more people wondered "what was he thinking," McCain took what might have been a bigger short-term gamble by staging his threatened debate walk-off to get involved in the bailout talks. That was another one that was quickly scorched by McCain non-fans, and the fallout was even worse. From all reports, McCain offered almost nothing to the conversation, and when the first bailout failed, he was tied to a sinking ship. With the Palin issue nipping at his heels, his judgment and leadership again came up short. He couldn't take credit for making a great save, and instead looked ineffective and jumpy.

In the meantime, Obama took her slow and steady. His was a campaign that wasn't the Tom Brady Patriots of 2007, but the early Tom Brady Patriots. Didn't make mistakes. Took advantage of opportunities. Moved the chains. Didn't try to do too much in one spurt. Accuracy and game planning were the keys.

McCain, however, felt compelled to take risks. In the end, Americans don't want a risk-taker in the White House. They want someone who appears to be a steady hand on the wheel. McCain took two big risks and he failed on both of them. Look at the graphic of the national polls from late September through the first few weeks of October. Obama's numbers took off, and McCain was never able to turn the tide. Those numbers reflect a final verdict on McCain and his judgment.

After eight years of W, McCain may have had an uphill climb from the very beginning, but he made two choices that in the end will prove to have been fatal, and put his candidacy on life support six weeks ago.

*-I don't necessarily subscribe to those opinions, as you might know. And some of that is just factually incorrect (like the pot thing, but let's not get into that now, OK?).



Monday, November 03, 2008

Winners, Winners, Chicken Dinners

No need to watch TV tomorrow night to find out who won and who lost. Here's what's going to happen. Or not. I was wrong one time before, about 14 years ago. It does happen.

It appears not "who," but "by how much." I'm not really feeling the 350-plus predictions for Obama, and think he'll do better than the slightly panicky 320 predictions. Let's say he'll get around 330-335 Electoral College votes, a very good haul. The much tougher question is whether or not Obama can declare a mandate with over 50 percent of the total vote. I think he'll just barely make it. But barely.

U.S. Senate and Congress
Locally, John Kerry and John Olver will cruise, each with over 60 percent of the vote. It's worth noting that Kerry's opponent raised something like $2 million, but had to pay $1.75 million to his fundraising consultants. The Globe wrote a story about it last week, and wrote a larger story on Response America over the summer. Nathan Bech was loudly badgering Olver over the summer, but my inbox is lot quieter now than it was in August. Which is weird. Anyway, not much heat in these elections.

State House, Senate and the rest
Heavy boredom, with unchallenged races and down-ballot seats that don't require any attention.

Question 1
It'll fail. I'm not sure it will reach the high-50s that polls have it at. I'm guessing it will be pretty close to 2002, when it failed about 55-45. If the question's proponents were smart, they'd drop it and consider an income tax reduction in the future to 4 percent or so. Then we'd really have something to talk about.

Question 2
Polls have this question exceptionally close. All kinds of police chiefs and other law-and-order types are opposed. I'm guessing, but I think it'll fail. In the end, people will feel like they're making marijuana more OK, and will automatically think that is bad.

Question 3
I think this will fail also, but it will be close. And I wouldn't be surprised if it passes. But I think the emotional argument loses out to voters who wonder just how badly someone would treat their money-makers.

Question 4
This one came out of nowhere. It's non-binding, and encourages green technologies. Fitchburg is one of 11 House districts that have it on the ballot. I got my first press release on it last Thursday night/Friday morning. If people read the question, they'll probably vote in favor of it, but who knows?

So, there you go.

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