Monday, December 31, 2007

What Must They Think?

It is always refreshing to be enlightened by the journalistic emanations from the penumbra of civilization in Central Arkansas. It lets us know what the elite and effete think of us up here in Northwest Arkansas, holding up a mirror to our own venality and vanity. We can be glad that it only happens every so often: once when we elect goofball zealots to public office, and once when columnists write their year-end reflections.

In their "Best & Worst of 2007," the staff of Arkansas Business declared Northwest Arkansas the winner of
Best Place to Be a Bankruptcy Attorney. With the northwest Arkansas housing market taking a dive in 2007, bankruptcy attorneys there stayed plenty busy. At the end of the year, at least 16 residential contractors had filed for bankruptcy protection, each listing more than $1 million in debts. One bankruptcy attorney, Theresa L. Pockrus of Fayetteville, told Arkansas Business in June: "I have visited with numerous clients related to the contraction industry. We haven't seen the end of it yet."

Northwest Arkansas received much more attention in the B&W 2007 cover story by Bob Lancaster in the Arkansas Times. Great columnist in the state's best newspaper. Here are a few of them:

Worst excuse. The mayor of Centerton (pop. 6,743) since 2001 resigned in November after disclosing that his life before coming to the Bentonville suburb more than 20 years ago had been one of multiple identities in which, starting out as a clergyman in New York state, he was relentlessly hounded across the country by a gang of evil Satanists intent on capturing and brainwashing him. He seems to have started and deserted several families along the way. The devil-worshippers caught him at least once, he said, forcing him into the back of a van and erasing five years from his memory with an electric torture device. And from there, the story gets really strange.

Worst class to attend if you're a raccoon. An agri/shop teacher killed a live, caged raccoon with a nail gun in November at the start of a Huntsville High School class on wildlife skinning. School authorities saw no need for a reprimand or anything, and in fact with all the attention the coon-killer teacher became something of a folk hero at Huntsville, one admirer showing support by killing and skinning a dog and hanging the carcass on the gatepost of another Huntsville teacher who was thought to have reported the original coon-killing to the Humane Society.

Best Duggar. Michelle (Mrs. Jim Bob) Duggar of Springdale popped her 417th natural-born child, a girl, in early August. Only a slight exaggeration.

Worst drama. Ill-advised e-mailings and cell-phone calls apparently cost Houston Nutt, the 10-year head football coach at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, what he called the “dream job of a lifetime” as he was allowed to resign in November and lug away a hefty severance to coach the lowly Rebs at Ole Miss. The UA coaching melodrama played out over a year and it was so tacky, so trashy in so many respects, that it was finally sad, maybe pathetic, for what it said about everyone involved in it, the fans included.

Worst seasoning for green beans. A Siloam Springs cannery offered $100 in October as a "goodwill gesture" to a Utah woman who found a severed mouse head in a can of the company's green beans that she'd bought at Wal-Mart. She saw the $100 as a hush-money offer, and declined it, and said she would continue to speak out for a mousehead-free canning process.

Best '07 Arkansas tourist destinations. If you were the type who'd rather not have your every move scrutinized by authorities manning a 24-7 surveillance camera atop a 200-foot transmission tower, anywhere but Lowell. If your idea of a landmark worth visiting wasn't a giant hole in the ground dug at taxpayer expense with money filched from schoolchildren, anywhere but Fayetteville. If your papers maybe weren't exactly 1,000 percent in order, with every “i” crossed and every “t” dotted, or even if they were, anywhere but Rogers. If you planned to take any pets, livestock, or other living creatures along with you, and preferred that they not be killed with a nail gun and skint on the spot, anywhere but Huntsville.

Best infiltrator. Benton County's only Democrat — not only its only Democratic office-holder, its only Democrat, period — announced in May that because he aspired to higher elective office he would be switching parties.

Worst overpaid. Dr. Jay P. Greene of the University of Arkansas School of Education Reform at Fayetteville, pulling down $160,000 a year of pub ed money to advance a blowhard conservative political agenda, argued in a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece in January that public school teachers, few of whom make half as much as he does, are paid too much.

Best wish list. A civic survey in January asked Green Forest residents what they'd like to see in the way of development in their home town. The local paper summarized their wish list: “A small-town atmosphere that is safe and friendly, good jobs, nice restaurants, big box stores like Wal-Mart or Target, and a major community center…” Otherwise they were pretty much satisfied with the place the way it is.

Worst image. John White's “golden handcuffs.”

Worst worrier about losing the breeding war to blacks. Sen. Denny Altes.

Now that you've got the hang of it, feel free to add your own nominations for 2007's Best and Worst of Northwest Arkansas in the comments section.

How Goes the LAP Dance?

It has now been 230 days since Mayor Coody announced that John Coleman, the Texan he hired for the newly created administrative position of Sustainability Coordinator at a rather handsome salary, "presented his short and long terms plans for minimizing the City’s carbon footprint and reducing energy consumption. Through John’s leadership," he promised, "We will identify where we are using energy, and based on that data, we will develop a Local Action Plan (LAP) for reducing that consumption. The LAP will allow the city to explore various methods for realizing energy savings, identify potential policy changes such as green purchasing and building requirements, and even encourage small and simple behavior changes like turning off computers and lights when not in use." Sounds great.

The overall annual utility expense for all city government operations is close to $2 million and it has been growing at a rate of 8% per year over the last ten years.
Mayor Coody said, and I certainly agree, "Saving energy not only reduces our impact on climate change, it saves money, and when it is your city government that is saving money that means that in the long run you save tax dollars."

Coody later
explained that "John’s job is to reduce energy consumption by more than his salary." Did he do his job? Did the City reduce energy consumption compared with last year, have lower utility bills and tax expenditures, and cover John Coleman's salary and benefits? Don't keep us in the dark.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Coody Confused about Aspen Ridge

They told him that they were going to build 220 luxury townhomes, a nature preserve with beautiful lake, and bike and walking trails on 28 acres at 6th Street and South Hill Avenue. He took their word for it and required no performance bond. Two and a half years ago, Developer Hank Broyles staged a grand groundbreaking of the Aspen Ridge project with buffo publicity and fawning news coverage from the local media, and Mayor Dan Coody was there on center stage like a trained pup. "We are very pleased to see this development occur,” swooned the Mayor, “Not only is it a stimulus for other area economic development, bringing tremendous value to the region, but also it will solve some existing environmental problems.” It didn’t quite work out that way.

One of the neighbors said, "I was listening to Dan that day, since he's the Mayor, about it, and he was confused about some of the ramifications. It was obvious that he just hadn't simply read the documents, so I wanted to tell him that he just needed to read it with his own eyes and not rely on anyone else's interpretation. I just wanted him to see whether the potential situation or if our concerns had been addressed. It was no big deal. I just wanted everybody to be on the same page with all the right information."

Then came that right information --
the treeless trail, increased noise, the scrapping of promised rain gardens, silting of Town Branch Creek, the filling of wetlands, removal of the topsoil from the proposed park land of less than an acre, denuding the natural tree canopy, rejection of the Audubon proposal, broken silt fences, massive erosion, and everything else that Mayor Coody must have been confused about because he swallowed the developers' interpretation and didn't listen to the neighbors' concerns with his own ears.

"It’s very unfortunate,” said Developer Hank Broyles of what everyone now has come to know as the Aspen Ridge debacle, and no one -- not even Dan Coody -- could be confused about that. Bait-and-Switch Broyles now wants to turn the Aspen Ridge Mud Hole into 19 or 20 big buildings of rental apartments for students, and he says, "I think it’s going to be a great solution for a big problem that the City has in that area."

I can hear it now, as a dazed Mayor Coody stands proudly by Developer Broyles in the red dirt mud where trees used to stand,
"We are very pleased to see this development occur. Not only is it a stimulus for other area economic development, bringing tremendous value to the region, but also it will solve some existing environmental problems.”

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Is UA Medical School in NWA a Priority?

Local legislators appropriated $3.1 million to hire initial staff and make renovations at the old Washington Regional Medical Center for classrooms and training facilities, the first step in establishing a satellite facility affiliated with the University of Arkansas medical school. We even have a vice chancellor in charge of the UAMS-Northwest operation. The plan is to train more doctors, pharmacists, and nurses and to hope they stay in Arkansas to provide quality health care.

It is certainly not a done deal. Doug Thompson's column today lays out the arguments being floated for and against a branch of the UA Medical School in
Fayetteville, and he concludes that it would be a net plus and that those for it have a more compelling case. The big question remaining is whether the proposed project is worth $5 million to $8 million a year it will cost to operate? Governor Beebe met with local legislators and UA officials here earlier this month, and he made clear that it would not happen without a dedicated source of funding of at least $8 million a year.

UAMS Chancellor Dodd Wilson provided perspective when he said the annual operating costs t
o train about 250 more students and residents annually were about the equivalent of two, maybe three, football coaches. UA Chancellor John White flashed a smug smile but gave no indication that he thought a medical school was as important as a well-paid coaching staff. Fayetteville's legislative delegation expressed a commitment to work for funding, but the majority of area legislators are Republicans, many of whom have vowed never to vote for any tax increase, even for a medical school in Northwest Arkansas.

So, here is the Jonah Tebbetts Plan for funding a branch of the UAMS Medical School in Fayetteville: close the loopholes and repeal a few of the state sales tax exemptions of more than $600 million for special interests that are not nearly as important as better health care for all Arkansans. For example, here are some of the smaller tax giveaways, based on DF&A estimates in 2001 under a lower tax rate: automobiles purchased by rental car companies, $2,992,000; sale of billboard advertising, $488,000; and membership dues paid for the privilege of membership, $1,773,000. That's more than $5 million right there, and there are lots more of special interest tax exemptions that need to be repealed in the interest of fairness.

But, I don't think it will happen, because powerful lobbyists have more influence than the people, and they think their tax exemptions are more important than adequate health care or a
Fayetteville branch of the UA Medical School. The State Chamber would fight repeal of the $17,950,000 tax exemption for aircraft sold by a manufacture or substantially completed in Arkansas to a purchaser out of state for use exclusively outside Arkansas, even while you pay the sales tax on a used car to get to work. The Farm Bureau would kill any repeal of the $16,210,000 exemption for fertilizer, agricultural chemicals, pesticides, herbicides, and vaccines and medications for livestock and poultry, even while we pay sales tax on medicine for sick children. The big corporate media chains that own the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and The Morning News would beat any repeal of the $17,180,000 sales tax exemption for advertising, while the rest of us still pay sales tax on books and groceries.

The Tax Man Rings Twice

Did you catch Mike Masterson's column last Saturday? He spent the first half of it applauding the raids on four Acambaro Mexican restaurants in Northwest Arkansas and lecturing his readers on why the law must be obeyed, regardless of whether the food was good or the employees were working long hours for mediocre pay in hope of a better life. The feds closed them all and are seeking civil forfeiture of all the restaurants and two offices of Garcia’s Distribution Company.

Then Masterson lamented the fact that
Shanghai, the Chinese restaurant at 1998 North College Avenue "closed its doors forever at the end of November. It had become one of the city’s most popular lunchtime and after-church eateries. It had been our favorite for Chinese, especially for lunch on Sundays. The owners said they were closing because they were weary and had enjoyed all of the restaurant business that they could stand. Farewell lemon chicken...." He failed to mention in this paean of praise that the Arkansas DF&A Office of Excise Tax Administration had slapped a Business Closure Order on Shanghai's owners back on March 20th for failing to remit sales taxes collected for the third time or to include a pious sermonette insisting that the tax laws must be obeyed.

Something else interesting shows up in the roll call of tax slackers in DF&A's List of Businesses Served with Business Closure Notices -- more indicia of bad news for the Benton County Bubble. In the last quarter of 2007, seven Benton County businesses have been served: B & N Construction LLC, What's for Dinner? Johnny's! and Samurai Japanese Steak/Sushi in Bentonville; Luxe Derma Spa and American Maid Service of NWA in Rogers; Digital Images by Laurie May in Bella Vista; and Arkansas Tool & Auto Repair in Lowell. By contrast, only one business in Washington County made the quarterly list of deadbeats, Shearp Graphics of Springdale.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Someone Should Have Thought About That

Now, more than three and a half years after the city laid out over a million bucks and took the abandoned Tyson Mexican Original plant off the tax rolls, members of the Fayetteville City Council are ready to get an appraisal and unload the vacant albatross.

The still neglected and unloved White Elephant at 1815 Huntsville Road was first pushed on the City Council for use as a joint command center for fire, police and the district court in June 2004. Then, before that got off the ground, the city started thinking it had to have the old Woolworth Building at 101 West Mountain, although the mayor and council members were not ready even to speculate on specific possible uses of the building. In this must-buy-something atmosphere, the city snatched the Tyson property from the market where it had long languished. The police command center and District Court idea have gone nowhere, and it still stands empty and unused.

Mayor Dan Coody said yesterday that he now wants to figure out what to do with the bugger and then get it appraised. He also wants to create a committee to study “all the ramifications” and “spend some time looking at the long-term prognosis.”

Maybe it's just me, but isn't that something that should have been done four years ago , before the city rushed out and bought the building with our tax dollars?

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Attention Christian Shoppers

That thin facade of Christmas spirit where some only pretend it is better to give than to receive seems to have been fleeting. Today's newspapers tell the real story of the commercial Epiphany. There is an article on the tough choice for receivers between "regifting" crap you don't want or unloading it for cash on eBay. Another article proclaims the after-Christmas bargains for those who received cash or gift cards or were sly enough to wait for the many businesses trying to get rid of unsold Christmas merchandise so they can start stocking spring and summer goods. Kohl's opened early at 6 a. m. and stayed open until 11 p. m. to maximize income.

Be not dismayed, thou little flock, there are twelve days of Christmas
, and the number of shoppers also increases at Christian retailers in Northwest Arkansas during the extended Christmas shopping season. Bentonville's SKIA store, opened by California transplants Bill and Tina Beyer, stocks and sells Bibles and 5,000 religious books, more than 3,000 Christian-based music CDs, Christian apparel, including jeans, shorts, tops, jewelry, and accessories, and it has a trendy coffee shop with modern furniture and stacks of television screens as the main attraction of the 5,600-square-foot store in a strip mall at 3301 South Walton Boulevard. SKIA is open from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, and even from 1 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Sunday.

Christian commerce is good. The retail value of Christian products sold by member suppliers of the Association for Christian Retail reached $4.63 billion last year, but
Bill Beyer says his business is more ministry than store, and his employees often pray with customers. “We’re focused on God," he said, then added, "You’d probably have to go to California to find stuff like this.” The store's grand opening in May featured a skateboarding show by Hero Skateboards, a Christian Skateboard Ministry from Springfield, whose MySpace page says they have been called by God to "reach kids through skateboarding."

started a display of Christian art on skateboards in his store, and now Christian skateboards have become a popular product line, inspired by such popular entertainers as Saved Skaters Chrisian Skateboard Minisries. Regular customer Robin Johnson, said, “We’re very impressed they have Christian skateboards." She and her husband, Kevin, bought gifts for their students living at Cookson Hills Christian School and Children’s Home in Bentonville. They said they had too often found skateboards elsewhere with marijuana logos or similar designs. However, such ministries as King of Kings, one of a growing number of Christian evangelical groups, is "successfully using the skateboard not as Satan's plaything but as an instrument of the Lord."

Just don't try that skateboard witnessing in Hot Springs.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Benton County Bubble

The gloating of the Philistines might be coming to an end. Reports on home sales and sales tax collections for October are in, and things are not looking up. Seven years of George Bush and six years of John Boozman are coming home to roost for their stalwart supporters in the state's most Republican county. Can't blame these cold facts on Gay Mexicans.

Benton County real estate agents sold 28.8% fewer homes in October than in the same month last year, in contrast to the statewide drop of 12.2%, and some saw it coming. Year-to-date home sales were down 17.7% in the county, compared to 9.1% statewide. While the county still has the highest average home prices in the state, those prices fell 9.1% in October, more than three times greater than the statewide drop of 3.0%.

The real kicker is that October 2007 sales tax revenue for Rogers fell to $912,582, down from $971,997 in October 2006, a 6% drop and almost $70,000, according to numbers released by the Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration. Sales tax revenue for Benton County was down 9% from $996,508 in October 2006 to $905,638 in October 2007 -- more than a $90,000 shortfall.

Richard McComas, the Benton County comptroller, said, “I think the economy is in somewhat of a recession." Ya think?

Scrutinizing SouthPass

Earlier this month, a reader on this blog commented, "Jonah - how about writing something on Southpass and why such a huge and costly development is being undertaken during economically unstable times. How much is the City obligating us for in terms of maintenance down the pike?" I don't know the answer to either question, but the proposed SouthPass development and park are worthy topics for community discussion, and the comment section here is as good a place as any.

We've been at this since 1999, when park planners and citizens began discussions that resulted in the 2002 Parks and Recreation 10-Year Master Plan. Under the category of facility priorities developed in that process, a multi-sports complex with field sports was the number one priority followed by a city/regional trail network at number two. In 2004, the City issued a
request for proposals intended to secure 200 acres for development as a community park without the city having to acquire the land, and that September the Council passed resolution authorizing Mayor Coody to negotiate with SouthPass Development Company to accept 200 acres of park land and $1 million for park land development in consideration for the city’s acceptance of and responsibility for a former 32-acre landfill on the property. The first public forum on the developers' plans was held in January 2005, almost three years ago. In November 2006, developers John Nock and Richard Alexander brought in Urban Design Associates and LaQuatra Bonci Associates to seek more citizen input and finalize the design plans. They presented that vision in March 2007.

The Parks and Recreation Board approved and accepted the proposal on May 29 of this year. Now we are told that "
Fayetteville’s community park — a 400-acre wonder combining soccer, baseball, softball, biking and hiking trails, a water feature, pocket parks, dog park, conservation areas and two amphitheaters — could be started in the spring of 2008, depending on approval of the master concept for a planned zoning district." An editorial in today's Arkansas Democrat-Gazette accepts the new 400-acre claim and praises the project. "And, yes, this whole, 400-acre Frederick Law Olmsted dream could take years to complete. But at least Fayetteville is getting started—and not just talking about getting started. Someday. If all goes as planned, or close to as planned, this regional park could have a statewide impact."

Adam Wallworth of the Northwest Arkansas Times has provided consistent coverage of SouthPass issues as they have developed from the beginning. There was some discussion about this enterprise on Urban Planet back in November 2005. PARB member Valarie Biendara had a supportive entry on her blog this March, but drew no reader comments. I'm inclined to think that the proposed SouthPass development and park is a good deal for Fayetteville.
What do you think?

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

A Brand-X State of Mind

Why not? We already have XNA as the regional airport, so why not just adopt that meaningless but unifying XNA designation for this part of Arkansas? The Morning News today lets us know that our "community leaders" envision that "consistent signs and individual branding for cities would distinguish Northwest Arkansas as a region of one." Give me a friggin' break!

You probably did not know where our "community leaders" were leading you, so this news will help you be a better follower. According to the article, Bentonville interests are taking the lead in trying to generate support among area cities, and the deadline for action appears tied to the opening of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. Our "community leaders" have determined that to achieve our new unitary identity, the "first step will be to jointly hire a consultant to recommend a plan with concepts, timeline and estimated costs." Right.

Who are our "community leaders" making these decisions for us? Probably the same self-anointed Northwest Arkansas Council of Corporations and Wealthy Business Executives that gave us XNA and now wants us to form a regional Mobility Authority to build the Bella Vista By-Pass with increased local taxes on everyone else. The "community leaders" identified in the article are Kalene Griffith, president of the Bentonville Convention and Visitors Bureau; Ed Clifford, president of Bentonville/Bella Vista Chamber of Commerce; Daniel Hintz, now executive director of Downtown Bentonville Inc.; and Tom Gaylon, executive director of the Rogers Convention and Visitors Bureau. I don't recall voting for any of them to be our leaders.

"It's not about telling the cities what they have to do or what they must look like but to create a general vibe," said Hintz. "It's about cost-sharing, identity-sharing, resource-sharing." It sounds more like community identity theft. It's about Chamber-types, who don't have enough to do, making up stuff and wanting us to pay for their general vibes, but that hardly makes them "community leaders." Reporters need to take vocabulary lessons, or just start calling them what they are -- unelected Chamber bureaucrats.

Monday, December 24, 2007

The Critics of Christmas and Chili

No, I am not talking about the phonies who want you to think there is a War on Christmas or those who suggest that Santa Died for Your Mastercard. I am talking about newspaper editorial writers (and bloggers) who fancy themselves literary critics and turn their analytic urges upon the prose and poetry of the season. There be many among us.

The Northwest Arkansas Times reflects on Francis Pharcellus Church's now famous reply to Virginia O'Hanlon, published in the New York Sun in 1897 and finds it perfect. "The response her query produced represents probably the best-known editorial in history. Why is that? It's been run and rerun time and again. One might argue that's just because editorial writers want to get off work early just like everyone else, but in reality it's because there's no point in trying to improve on a perfect response. We could write our answer to the same question - 'Is there a Santa Claus?' - but Church's words (written 110 years ago ) pretty much say it all."

The Morning News offers commentary on "Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas," the poem first published by the Troy, New York, Sentinel in 1823 and better known by it's first line, "'Twas the Night before Christmas." They say it doesn't really matter that Don Foster, Professor of English at Vassar College and a famous forensic linguist, determined that the poem was written by Henry Livingston and not by Clement Moore, who claimed credit for authorship. The editorial asks "why would anyone argue those claims of authorship when all such argument can do is enrich a handful of distant relatives and diminish the poem's appeal and its value as an affirmation of the Christmas Spirit? ... We'd have to wonder, after all this time, how much of a difference a change in the author's name would make?"

I have no real complaint with either editorial. I am a bit intrigued, however, by something in the fascinating and inspiring Ozark Profile of Fayetteville's own Rev. Gary Lunsford, the pastor of St. James United Methodist Church, whom I have long admired. According to the article, Lunsford claims that God sent him to Chili, and he went back for more at least once a year during the next nine years. It must have been a loving God and some mighty fine chili.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Publicizing the Petitions

Dr. Janine Parry, the UA Political Science professor, is also the spokesperson for BuildSmart (BS). The group has been working for months to encourage the school board and future milage voters to devote greater attention to the advantages of building a world-class high school facility on its current, central location. They have collected the signatures of 700 registered voters in support of their position, but Professor Parry doesn't think they are getting adequate coverage of their efforts by the local newspapers. She is probably right.

Northwest Arkansas Times, which is a member of the Chamber of Cowbirds and the Fayetteville Economic Development Council (FEDC) that both want to construct a new high school out in the 'burbs, had a 624-word article by Brett Bennett on Friday that devoted 45 words to the presentation of the petitions at a school board meeting. In an earlier article highlighting former school board members pushing to sell the current campus to the UA and build a new facility out near Wheeler, Bennett gave Parry and her group's position 138 words to balance the 760 words devoted to the Reed Greenwood and Laura Underwood led sell-and-move coalition of eight, which included Jeff Koenig, Chairman of the FEDC. By contrast, in another article by Bennett, the Sell-and-Move advocates were given 326 words to rebut BuildSmart's fiscal and environmental impact studies on the hidden costs of building out on Deane Solomon Road.

Morning News, owned by the Stephens family that also sells bonds for new school construction, made no mention of the BuildSmart petition presentation at the school board meeting. Reporter Rose Ann Pearce did give 102 words and a mention of the 700 signatures for BuildSmart in an earlier 547-word article about the Gang of Eight people wanting the district to sell the campus.

It should be clear to anyone that Dr. Parry and BuildSmart will not get equal coverage from the local newspapers. They can't compete with the biased corporate chain newspapers that slant coverage and write editorials against them or with the bought media of the Koenig-Greenwood-Underwood group of eight who are used to getting their way. Unless they relish the role of perpetual underdog in this public debate about the future location of Fayetteville High School, the professor and her group of self-proclaimed "millage voters" need to practice a lot more old-fashioned
politics and a little less schoolbook political science. Otherwise, they will find that 700 citizen petitioners matter far less than the demands by eight of their betters.

Advisory Committee for Advisory Committee

I enjoy the arts scene in Fayetteville as much as anyone. Some of my best friends are artists. Not only are they artsy, but they are entertaining. Like this week when the fledgling Fayetteville Arts Council decided it needed to form an advisory committee to foster communication between the arts community and local businesses. That's entertainment, as they say.

The City Council once considered allocating a "business" slot on the Arts Council, but in the end they did not guarantee representation by either the Chamber or any other special interest group. Not a single "business" person applied for membership on the Arts Council. Not one. So now the group is considering creating an advisory committee of business interests to advise the advisory Arts Council. If that's what they want, why don't they just ask the Chamber of Cowbirds? They'll take credit for "everything that makes Fayetteville great." Especially if they don't have to go through the formal application and appointment process or have to do any real work.

But why stop there? Maybe the Arts Council should also form advisory committees "to foster communication between the arts community and the" student community, the labor community, the homeless community, the retail community, the gay community, the black community, the Hispanic community, the industrial community, the environmental community, the consultant community, the developer community, the elderly community, the religious community, the veterans community, the hunting community, the fishing community, the paintball community, the militia community. Or, they could just do the job they were appointed to do.

Quote of the Day

"It would be interesting to know how much in political donations to campaigns are being received, and by whom, from those contractors who are receiving these no-bid contracts. It also would be interesting to note how much is being donated to funds such as the Razorback Foundation by these same contractors. It seems as if there is an inexhaustible supply of money to pay off coaches who have fallen from grace. This money must come from somewhere and I would suspect that it may be refundable to the donors in various good-ole-boy ways. This may be an interesting project for one of your competent investigative reporters. The fragrance coming from the University of Arkansas and the state legislators is becoming hard for us ordinary citizens to tolerate."

--Richard H. Eggert, "Follow Trail of Money," Letter to Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Lifeline Water and Sewer Rates Endorsed

Chairman Kyle Cook and the Fayetteville City Council's Water and Sewer Committee unanimously endorsed the concept of lower "lifeline" water and sewer rates for low-income elderly residents, probably 25% lower than regular rates. This progressive policy innovation was strongly supported by Aldermen Lioneld Jordan and Bobby Ferrell.

As might be expected, the only objections came from Dave Jurgens, city water and sewer director, who complained there would be extra staff costs and training to administer such a program, more likelihood of staff error, and problems providing adequate public information. He even suggested staff could not handle it and might have to hire an outside consulting firm. That seems to be the administration's answer to everything.

The out-of-state consultants hired by the city to advise on rate structure proposed dumping the entire lifeline subsidy costs on other residential ratepayers and giving a free ride to government, business, and industrial users. That's not right. We all share in our obligations to the community, and Chamber members should be willing to pay their fair share.

Other policy decisions still to be decided are whether to move to true cost-of-service rates for all users, or whether to continue the present rate structure that has residential customers subsidizing lower rates for industrial users who have no incentive to conserve. Darrell Froud, operations manager of the Tyson Foods plant in Fayetteville, said phasing in the increases would be the best for his company, meaning that residential customers should pay higher rates and bear the burden so corporations did not have to absorb the actual cost of doing business.

Neither the out-of-state consultants nor the corporate managers care that times are hard for working families and that rising costs affect every residential customer just as much. We'll have to wait to see whether our elected city officials represent the interests of the average citizens or the demands of the business interests represented by the Chamber crowd. We're hopeful that our Aldermen will have the wisdom and courage do the right thing.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Dixie Developer Declared Deadbeat

You remember Ben Israel, the optometrist turned developer who was a prominent member of the Free Lunch Club that didn't want to pay impact fees? You know, the one who has numerous lawsuits and properties in financial distress? Turns out that he also doesn't pay his property taxes that go to support our schools and libraries.

Washington County Tax Collector David Ruff filed a petition yesterday showing that Dixie Development Inc. owes $15,694, plus penalties and interest, in delinquent property taxes for 2006, that Israel has failed and refused to pay the taxes despite demands for it, and that judgment should be rendered for the property.

Israel said he might pay up sometime next year. Or not.

Boozman a Shameless Deceiver

Congress this week approved an Omnibus Budget measure funding 14 Cabinet agencies, as well as a number of earmarked pork project appropriations for Northwest Arkansas. Transportation funding includes $2.63 million for a taxiway at XNA, $490,000 for the proposed Bella Vista bypass, and $656,600 for a study of a "Northwest Arkansas Western Beltway" west of Interstate 540 in Benton and Washington counties. Nothing for mass transit.

In addition, the University of Arkansas will receive $825,183 for the Institute for Food Science and Engineering; $1.57 million for the poultry production and product safety research unit; $267,900 for the Arkansas Center for Space and Planetary Sciences; $577,926 for the National Center for Agricultural Law Research and Information; $500,000 for infrastructure improvements at Arkansas Research and Technology Park in Fayetteville; and $446,500 for the Arkansas World Trade Center in Rogers.

Fayetteville gets $656,600 for an affordable housing program designed to make it easier for teachers, police officers and firefighters to become homeowners; $446,500 for a new communication system for the Fayetteville Police Department, and $295,320 for water system improvements. Then there is $492,200 for the Northwest Arkansas Conservation Authority for sewer and wastewater services in Benton and Washington counties.

In announcing the projects for Northwest Arkansas, our duplicitous Republican Rep. John Boozman of Pinnacle tried to claim credit and said, “This shows what the Arkansas delegation is capable of – putting the state first.” What he failed to disclose is that every other Arkansas Congressman and both Senators voted for the Omnibus Budget bill, but John Boozman voted Against it and every appropriation for Arkansas.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Something's Fishy

Tired of all the embarrassing news about police officers surfing the 'net for porn or being indicted for distributing child pornography, Benton County law enforcement agencies joined forces to set up a speed trap on the information highway. In a coordinated effort with Perverted Justice, the Decatur and Highfill police departments, and the Rogers Police Department’s Crime Suppression Unit, the Gentry Police Department lured six men to Gentry and busted them for wanting to have sex with a police officer pretending to be Jail Bait.

It is against the law to attempt to meet up with an undercover cop pretending on the internet to be a 13-year old girl interested in having sex. You can be
charged with Internet stalking of a child, a class A felony punishable with a prison sentence ranging from six to 30 years. You could also be charged with being really stupid. Even if you are acquitted later, you will get your name in the paper, as did Jackie Ray Beasley, 40, of Fayetteville, and James Brock Lyons III, 28, of Fort Smith. That's never a good thing.

Now, I suppose this internet scheme to lure potential predators to Benton County is what the cops do after they have solved all previous crimes and arrested all the criminals in the area. That and pretending to
be doing the jobs of nonfeasant federal Immigration Officers. It should increase local revenue from fines and forfeited bonds. I can even understand the local Chamber or the state Parks and Tourism Department supporting such operations to increase tourism revenues, since most of those arrested were from Oklahoma, Texas, or Missouri.

What I don't get is what probable cause, or even improbable cause, existed to establish jurisdiction and justify participation in the bust by
Arkansas Game and Fish Commission wildlife enforcement officers. Were they expecting Angus MacGregor to show up? Perhaps herds of Satyrs and Centaurs? Lesbian Mermaids? This is pretty weird, even for Benton County.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Citizen Action Gets Results

The West Fork Environmental Protection Association is a great example of citizens taking action when their local government cannot or will not act on their behalf and advance community interests. They stopped a landfill and opened a volunteer recycling center, and now they have achieved non-profit status that allows them to apply for grants to do even more.

Henry Griffith, group coordinator, said the group has been active for about four years, and, after success in opposing the landfill, decided it wanted to do other projects to help the community and keep the West Fork valley clean and green. The association has its sights set on the annual West Fork River cleanup and celebration coming up in the spring, creating a Web site with helpful information, building a composting demonstration facility, and bringing environmental and educational programs to the city of West Fork.

Congratulations on your success, and thanks for setting an example.

Quote of the Day

"Planning is one thing, but reaching consensus is a whole different animal. So when the Walker Park Neighborhood Master Plan was met with general approval by citizens last week, the city's planners certainly must have felt they had a major accomplishment under their belt...

"My concern about this very attractive master plan is that it is truly just a vision; none of it is guaranteed. The treelined streets and boulevards, the Jefferson square, the park, the sidewalks, the community gardens and mixed income housing will happen only if citizens lean on politicians from now until the drawings become the reality. Rather than just saying the deed is done, we need to understand we have few policies in place that actually require the city to create citizens' visions upon the existing infrastructure. To make things happen, we have to point fingers and take names and persist through time for results.

"Citizens can begin this persistence process by testing the candidates for mayor and aldermen positions before next year's elections about what, if any, steps they will take toward implementation of this vision. We, and they, must understand that plans - and elections - are merely the beginning, not the end, of what we want."

--Fran Alexander, "Back to the Future," Northwest Arkansas Times

Sunday, December 16, 2007

A Consumer's Commercial Conundrum

Greg Harton has a good column in today's Northwest Arkansas Times about the scam of gift cards, a nifty marketing bonanza for retailers that nets them $8 billion a year from unredeemed cards. That's $8 billion for nothing, probably the most lucrative little swindle ever invented by the business and corporate purveyors of Christmas.

Harton's column, "The Gift that Keeps Giving (to Retailers)," points out that gift cards are a really bad deal for consumers, because they are often lost or only partially redeemed. At best they are an interest-free loan to the retail business, and at worst they force recipients to spend additional funds to get anything useful. "I used to believe cash was a crass gift, but it is preferable for the recipient to receive the full value of the intended gift than to watch a bank or retailer make off with all or a portion of the money," he advises.

Walter Hussman's advertising department at the NTWAT apparently didn't get Executive Editor Harton's memo. They are running their annual Reader's Choice Awards to endear themselves to local businesses and sell them newspaper advertising. The contest of commerce is just across the gutter on the adjoining page, actually touching the lower right corner of Harton's column explaining the dangers of gift certificates and cards. If you name your favorite business in each of about 80-something categories of advertisers ranging from chiropractors to mini-storage sheds to real estate agents, then mail in the buffo business ballot, you will have a chance to win one of the four valuable prizes offered by the newspaper -- a $50 Gift Certificate to one of the participating businesses advertisers.

Actions sometimes speak louder than words, especially when it involves the words and actions of corporate chain newspapers where advertisers speak louder than the news and editorial staff.

Masterson on Media Madness

Mike Masterson, a columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, usually writes sensational pieces about the multiple exhumations and autopsies of Janie Ward, a 16-year old girl who died 18 years ago at a Searcy County beer bust. Sometimes he writes about himself, about how much he enjoys being spanked and how much his readers enjoy his columns about being spanked.

Today, however, Masterson
chides the corporate media for writing about frivolous and inane events, listing what he thinks "are the most irrelevant non-stories mistaken for nationally significant 'news' by broadcast, cable stations and some newspapers in 2007....It’s important to recognize," he tells us, "that they also were presented as somehow nationally relevant 'news' events during a period in our nation when the national debt easily exceeds a trillion dollars, the value of the dollar is rapidly sinking, oil prices are setting historic highs, we’re at war in two countries, efforts continue to undermine our Constitution, Islamic radicals openly seek to destroy Western civilization, our housing market is collapsing, public schools are declining, our Congress and president have beyond dismal public approval ratings, mass murders increase and a no-holds-barred presidential election is under way....

"The point is that not only has the media eagerly all but surrendered its vital role as a watchdog in the public interest," Masterson contends, "it has become a corporatized promoter of irrelevant gossip and lucrative titillation. The consequence is a public largely uninformed on issues of genuine significance to our very survival as a nation." Like ghoulish autopsies and pleasurable butt-spankings.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Carrying Water for Big Business?

HDR Engineering, yet another out-of-state consulting firm, will get paid $107,789 by Fayetteville taxpayers to give advice to our elected officials on how much to raise our water and sewer rates. Under one scheme, they will have the average residential customer's monthly rates go up from $46.60 this year to at least $56.48 in the next four years.

There are major policy issues besides how much additional revenue is needed for operation of our water and sewer system, and those decisions cannot be delegated to a bunch of consultants or city employees. Our elected officials must make those decisions. Mayor Coody seems disengaged from the process, and in the absence of executive leadership, the task falls to the city council.

The first decision is about what constitutes a fair rate structure. Alderman Lioneld Jordan supports a flat rate plan where all customers will pay the same cost per gallon for water and sewer used. Alderman Bobby Ferrell wants residential customers to pay higher rates to subsidize lower rates for large industrial users and commercial businesses. Alderman Kyle Cook, Chair of the Water and Sewer Committee, is advocating an approach that varies rates based on "cost of service" to each customer, and this seems like the consensus view on the council. No one has advocated a progressive rate structure that would encourage conservation and hold down costs for additional construction by graduated increasing rates as more water is consumed.

Alderman Jordan has also taken the lead in arguing for "lifeline" reduced rates for elderly residents living on fixed income such as Social Security. This is a good idea and the right thing to do, and the lower rates could be supported by a small increase for all other classes of users. The city staff and the hired consultants are trying to dump this all on residential customers, but it should be shared by commercial and industrial users as well.

On both issues, Alderman Jordan is championing the cause of residential customers, especially the elderly and moderate income working families. Alderman Ferrell is the Chamber's in-house lobbyist on the council urging corporate welfare for businesses and the large corporate industrial interests of Tyson Foods, Pinnacle Foods, and Superior Industries that use millions of gallons a day. In that, he is supported by the compliant corporate media. The final rate structure adopted by the City Council will reveal much about the city's priorities and whether the power lies with average citizens or the Chamber crowd.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Just More Hot Air

Last March the state legislature passed and Governor Beebe signed Act 696 to establish a state Global Warming Commission to study the issue and make recommendations in 2008. Environmental groups hailed it as a great victory. It sailed through both houses, because it was virtually toothless to do anything and required no appropriation. Yet there were some who opposed even investigating the issue. In the House, three of the four votes against it came from Benton County Republican Reps. Mike Kenney, Daryl Pace, and Aaron Burkes, while Washington County's Mark Martin (R-Prairie Grove) demonstrated his legendary courage by voting Present. In the Senate, all three votes against it came from Northwest Arkansas Republicans Bill Pritchard, Kim Hendren, and Ruth Whitaker.

Governor Beebe's appointments to the 21-member commission included three very qualified Fayetteville residents:
Dr. Art Hobson, Dr. Betty Martin, and Dr. Cindy Sagers. He also appointed lobbyists for the state Chamber of Commerce, the Farm Bureau, electric utilities, and an oil company. At its meeting yesterday, now nine months after the legislation passed, the Commission took its first action. It hired an out-of-state consulting firm for $50,000 to give it a list of options to consider. Big whoopie.

Meanwhile, on the same day, the Republican minority in the U.S. Senate deftly
gutted the energy bill by threatening a filibuster. Gone in a moment were incentives for clean energy industries, including wind, solar, biomass and carbon capture from coal plants, and a requirement that investor-owned utilities generate 15% of their electricity from renewable sources. Does our Global Warming Commission really think that Arkansas legislators will be any more likely to stand up to the Chamber and the utility companies and do anything meaningful?

Just last month, the state
Public Service Commission, led by Beebe's Chairman Paul Suske, approved construction of SWEPCO's 600-megawatt coal-fired electric plant near Texarkana that will spew 5 million tons of planet-killing CO2 into the atmosphere every year, not to mention mercury, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, particulates, volatile organic compounds, and lead. Rogers attorney David Matthews, a former Democrat legislator and now hired mouthpiece for SWEPCO, noted that not a single one of Governor Beebe's state agency directors chose to intervene against the coal plant, and suggested, “It is safe to assume that the agencies have concluded that the environmental issues are well enough under control that no intervention was necessary.”

Local environmentalist opposed to the carbon-gushing coal plant are
pinning their hopes on a petition beseeching Governor Beebe to hold up any construction work by SWEPCO until after the Global Warming Commission issues its report. That's the same Governor Beebe who appointed Paul Suskie to head the PSC and sent not a single one of his appointed agency directors to intervene in the case. Lots of luck.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Affordable Housing in Fayetteville

The City of Fayetteville is moving closer to its priority goal of meeting the demand for attainable workforce housing. On next week's City Council consent agenda is a contract with Rausch Coleman Homes LLC to partner with the city and secure grants through the Arkansas Development Finance Authority to subsidize the purchase of affordable homes. The project is aimed at residents with low to moderate incomes (80% of the city median household income), which for a family of four would be $42,500 and a home in the price range of $89,236 to $99,262, depending on mortgage rates.

That would not include
John White's $2.77 million Chancellor's Mansion of 11,500 square feet on three prime acres on the UA campus, which includes a caterer's kitchen, a butler's pantry, his-and-her toilet closets, a hot tub, five bathrooms, three fireplaces, two dishwashers, and an exercise room. Mike Masterson's column today calls it "elegant." It will replace the 3,868-square foot home the University bought for White in 1997 at a cost of a mere $387,500. White also owns other grand homes at the exclusive Pinnacle gated community in Rogers and at Long Cove Club on Hilton Head Island, SC.

Then there's the 5,606 square foot Nutt House, recently listed with Jim Lindsey for only $899,000. Six bedrooms and five and a half baths with a swimming pool and a three-car garage on four acres. With a down payment of $44,950 and a 30-year mortgage at 6.5%, your monthly payment would be only $5,398 per month. Affordable?

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

They'll Believe Anything in Johnson

Developer Tracy Hoskins asked the Johnson City Council to approve a Tax Increment Finance District and issue bonds for his benefit, because area banks have tightened their grip on speculative high-risk financing for developers.

Developer Tracy Hoskins asked the Johnson City Council to approve a Tax Increment Finance District and issue bonds for his benefit, and asked them to believe that his 28 acres of prime commercial property near
Joyce Boulevard and Wilkerson Street is a "blighted" area.

Developer Tracy Hoskins asked the Johnson City Council to approve a Tax Increment Finance District and issue bonds for his benefit, and told them that
his project would produce $52 million in additional income to the various taxing entities over 25 years.

One of the above is true, but the Johnson City Council seems to be eager to give Developer Hoskins a government handout anyway. Only
Alderman Melissa Tomlinson had the good sense to vote against the blatant grab of tax revenue for corporate welfare on first and second reading. She said the property was not blighted and that the city of Johnson shouldn't be in the job of creative financing for private developers. The final giveaway will come during third and final reading on January 8. They seem to have forgotten about their last TIF disaster and the orphan road that no one wants to finish.