Saturday, January 31, 2009

Economic element to be discussed

Last fall, the county supervisors decided to add an optional economic element to the update of the county general plan. Among other things, the element will address the role of agriculture in the local economy.

The first public meeting to discuss the draft policies in the element will be held on Tuesday, February 17, from 9:30 to noon.

Notice that the meeting will be held on a weekday, during the day. When the board of supervisors limited the economic element committee members to business and agriculture groups, the supervisors said the public can comment at the public meetings. But if you have a business to run during the day, or a job to go to, guess what? Apparently you are out of luck.

I guess you can submit written comments, but that's not the same as being in the room to hear the discussion.

I've asked the county planning staff three questions about the draft economic element:
  • When will the draft policies be available for public review?
  • If people have ideas for policies, to whom should they send them and by what date?
  • Will there be any review meetings held in the evening when working people can attend?
No response so far.

It still annoys me that the Amador County Business Council was asked to participate on the committee. This is a pay-to-play organization, whose board members have paid either $1,000 or $2,500 to belong. The group has no history in the county, no track record, and no regular members other than the ones who've paid the big bucks -- at least none that I know of. But apparently, forking out money to pay a consultant to represent your interest is all it takes for county recognition and a seat at the table, at least if you're among the county's business elite.

The timing of the meeting and shape of the committee send an interesting message to the public. Affluent business owners get a seat at the table while working people can't even get in the room.

Ain't democracy grand?

For background information on the county's economy, see the Meeting 15 information on this county planning department page.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

A note to the supervisors

Yesterday, the county board of supervisors held a workshop on ethics, governance, guidelines and procedures, etc. I didn't attend. But I did send them a note in advance. Here's what it said ...

Dear Chairman Novelli and Members of the Board:

I am going to skip your workshop Tuesday because it is a historic day and I plan to spend the morning celebrating our amazing country. However, I'd like to share a few thoughts for your discussion of ethics, responsible governance and leadership, county operating guidelines, etc -- things I might like to say if I did attend. These comments are based on my more than 20 years of interacting with county government, 24 years in public service at the county and state level, and nearly 30 years as a local resident.

I believe that county supervisors should try to:

  • Treat all taxpayers like customers, and build a customer-service driven local government with standards that apply across all agencies. In some state agencies, all staff, including the senior executives, are required to take customer-service training.
  • Train and require staff to do completed staff work before they bring an important issue to you for a decision. A full, written analysis that lays out facts, proposes a variety of alternatives for addressing the issue, analyzes those alternatives, and makes a recommendation can help the board do a better job and ensure that key issues are fully vetted.
  • Ensure the county is governed in a broadly inclusive way. Everyone who lives in this county pays taxes of one kind or another, and we all contribute. We all deserve to be heard and treated with respect, and our opinions considered, whether we are rich or poor, landowners or renters, old or young, from old families or new arrivals, conservative or progressive, Republican or Democrat, etc. We all have an interest in creating a strong, prosperous, sustainable county. Too many people in this county feel they have no say because they are not part of the "good old boy network." You can overcome that alienation by example and help our community move ahead.
  • Ensure that county committees and commissions include broad and balanced points of view and perspectives. That is not only fair -- it will produce better results. Committees about services or programs should include not only the people who provide services, but those who receive or are affected by them. The economic element committee you recently formed could have included representatives of the sizable nonprofit sector (big chunk of local economy, never quantified), the arts, business customers and agricultural product consumers, not only business people and agriculture group reps. If you staff committees and commissions with people who mostly think alike and share the same knowledge and experience, the county will not benefit from the good ideas, networks, energy and critical thinking and analysis that can emerge from a more diverse group.
  • Respect the triple bottom line in all things; economy, people, environment. If you favor any one at the expense of the other two, our county will suffer. Many businesses and institutions have embraced this triple-bottom line approach -- and some have added another element: equity.
  • Not prejudge people who come before the board. It's easy to think you know what someone is going to say, or what they mean, based on a preconceived idea of who they are or what they have done. Instead, supervisors should strive to give them a fair hearing.
  • Involve the public in meaningful, useful ways. Try more workshops and fewer public hearings. Promote conversation and respectful exchange instead of setting up situations where people can only stand up, make statements and sit down. Hold more meetings in the evening and on weekends when working people can attend. Hold more study sessions to learn about issues, inviting experts and the public to participate. Calaveras County has done that for years.
  • Employ innovative technology and broader techniques for public involvement. Many people will not or cannot bring themselves to stand up and speak at a public hearing, but they will answer an online or mail survey, vote confidentially using electronic keypads, or contribute their opinions and insights in other ways.
  • Recognize that you need to cooperate, not compete with the cities, and avoid duplication of services.
I hope these thoughts will help with your discussion.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Life in a civilized society

A friend forwarded to me a "letter" that appears all over the Internet. A local elected official sent it out. It purports to be from a business owner, bemoaning high taxes, the stimulus checks given out last year, welfare mothers, and the like.

I thought about it for much of the day. Here's my response ...

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes called taxes, "the price we pay for living in a civilized society."

My extended family includes people who have started and run successful industrial and retail businesses as well as people like me who have spent their careers working for businesses or government. My husband has been self-employed most of his adult life.

I respect the hard work of businesspeople and their importance in our society. I also know that the taxes they pay can seem onerous at times. My taxes seem that way at times, too.

But those taxes do not come without benefit. Like the rest of us, businesspeople have benefited and continue to benefit from generations of public investment in public services and infrastructure made possible by taxes and other government funding.

Without roads, highways, airports, ports, railroads, police and fire protection, emergency medical services, correctional institutions, the Internet, public colleges and universities (and their innovations), teaching hospitals, public schools, landfills, water and wastewater systems, SBA loans, and more, it would be pretty tough to run a successful business in this country.

Developing countries look to our own to learn how to develop and implement tax systems because they know they need public investment in services and infrastructure to allow businesses and communities to flourish. Delegations come to California every year to learn how our tax system works (and doesn't, I imagine -- it's far from perfect).

I was also interested in the welfare reference in the letter.

People will always argue about what level of taxation is best or most fair and how that money should be used. But many of us do not mind having some of our taxes go to children who would who otherwise not have clothes, food, or housing. No child should suffer in our affluent country, even if their parents are less than perfect. Accountability for adults is one thing, but forcing innocent kids to suffer is quite another. Taking care of children is an American value consistent with all of our traditions.

I looked up the county budget to check out local social services expenditures. If I got the math right (always open to question), the social services part of the county budget is about 14.4 percent of the total. More than 97 percent of the revenue for that chunk of the budget comes from "intergovernmental transfers" -- the state and federal government. Among other things, the money goes to help:
  • Abused children and seniors. There are more of each here than most people realize.
  • Elderly people in nursing homes who have run out of money to pay for this expensive care themselves. These folks have always been a large percentage of the local and state Medi-Cal caseload.
  • Elderly people, blind people, and people with disabilities living at home who, without In-Home Supportive Services, would also be in nursing homes, costing us all a lot more.
  • People who would otherwise have no health coverage for themselves or their kids. Without assistance, they often turn to emergency rooms for their health care and seek care much later when conditions are more costly to treat. The costs get passed on to the rest of us in higher health care costs.
  • People who cannot feed their children without food stamps.
  • And yes, people on public assistance, which largely goes to families with children.
Long ago, I worked for the county Department of Social Services. There are people who use those services that shouldn't, sure. But there are plenty of good people leading hard-working lives who at some point find themselves needing Medi-Cal, or food stamps, or some other helping hand until they can get a job again, or get through some other rough financial spell. And many local middle-class families need help from Medi-Cal when they need to place a loved one in a nursing home. The stereotypical "welfare mother" is just that, a stereotype.

I agree that we need a system in our country, and in our county, that rewards hard work and understands that small business is the foundation of our economy. But I also think we need a system that cares for people when they need help. It's the compassionate, American thing to do.

Does that make me a bleeding heart? Maybe so. But if the alternative is turning a cold shoulder and a hard heart toward people in need, so be it.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Losing auto dealerships would be a big blow

Some folks have wondered why I would work to keep the Prospect auto dealerships in business even though I have criticized the sales tax arrangement that helped them move to Martell.

It's pretty simple ...
  • More than 80 people have lost their jobs and their families are hurting. These folks are our neighbors.
  • We need good family-wage jobs in our community.
  • Our county, Jackson and Sutter Creek really do need the hundreds of thousands of dollars in sales tax revenue the dealerships provide. The dealers are the single largest source of sales tax for the cities and a huge contributor to county coffers as well.
  • The dealerships and their employees spend a lot of money in local businesses, supporting those businesses and their employees, and creating more local government revenue. It's called the "multiplier effect" -- every dollar spent locally recycles in the community many times.
  • According to one study, each job lost to a layoff leads to another 0.5 to 0.7 jobs lost in a community. It's a downward spiral -- a reverse multiplier effect.
  • Local residents are going to buy cars somewhere. Better that they buy them here and create local jobs and revenue than go to Lodi or Folsom.
  • Local residents, especially working people and the elderly, also need the convenient warranty and repair services provided by the dealerships. While independent repair shops may ramp up if the dealerships stay closed, many people will always prefer a dealer for their warranty service and repair.
  • Many local charitable causes benefit from the dealerships.
As we work to save the Prospect dealerships, we also need to work hard to keep other local businesses alive. You can do you part by shopping local, and patronizing locally owned small businesses instead of huge corporate chain stores. And local businesses can do their part by buying from each other.

We also need to be finding more ways to support other local people who have lost their jobs in this difficult time.

At the rally on Saturday, several people said to me, "We're all in this together."

Indeed we are. And that's what community is all about.