Letters and numbers

Last week, I had two letters to editors published. First, on Tuesday, Foster’s Daily Democrat published a letter about the insanity of the War on Drugs (second letter from the bottom, in response to this inane editorial). Then, on Thursday, the Portsmouth Herald published one on the DWI checkpoints. For some reason, they skipped a couple of days of on-line letters, so I’ll paste it here:

DWI checkpoints are un-American

Surely a cash-strapped state and city can find something more worthwhile for $10,000 than DWI checkpoints! (“Police receive $43K grant for traffic stops,” Apr. 20.)

While I certainly think that motorists who are observed actively endangering other motorists can and should be removed from the road, DWI checkpoints inconvenience large numbers of innocent motorists without probable cause.

Last summer, one Portsmouth checkpoint stopped about 800 motorists, resulting in four DWI citations (and four other detected violations). That means that about 790 motorists were stopped and questioned for no reason whatsoever—except to show that Portsmouth P.D. is working hard.

The US Supreme Court may have held that these checkpoints are constitutional, but this kind of “papers, please!” grandstanding is definitely un-American.

So that was nice. One colleague of mine in an entirely non-political context brought up that letter (the only way I knew it was published) and said he agreed. Good letters to editors are an excellent way to reach a large number of people; my tally is not nearly as high as Scott McPherson’s yet, but I’m still new in town. Give me time.

Tonight was the budget work session for the fire and police budgets. The good news is that the Fire Commission had already submitted a zero-increase budget, and that the Police Commission revised their submission to also have a zero increase. I still have a few concerns with these budgets, however.

First, much of the savings in both proposals comes out of overtime expenditures. If there is a major fire or a weather disaster, neither department is likely to simply not respond because their budgets have been exhausted; indeed, the overtime budget has been exceeded in previous years, so why should we rely on the proposed number this year? Worse, retirement contributions are based on pay received, so the proposals include cuts in retirement contributions that are also likely to be fictitious.

The fire department proposal includes over $400,000 for overtime coverage due to earned time leave. It seems like sensible scheduling, or even hiring one additional firefighter (at $47,000 salary, so about $100,000 total cost) could eliminate that overtime hit. How many people have worked in a job where they were told that certain blocks of time were unavailable for vacation because there wouldn’t be enough coverage? Why can’t the fire department do that? (There probably is a reason, and it probably involves a union contract.)

The fire department proposal also cuts $5,000 from the training budget; however, fiscal year 2008 had training expenditures that were $10,000 over budget! Is this more fictitious savings?

The police budget proposal was presented after the fire proposal, and the room cleared out. Is the police department less controversial? I suspect so; Police Chief Magnant is far more politic than Fire Chief LeClaire. That can work both ways; Chief LeClaire’s proposal was short and to the point, while Chief Magnant’s presentation was long, supported by PowerPoint, and talked at length about how awesome the Portsmouth Police are before finally getting to the point about the budget.

I’ve observed before that Portsmouth has a far higher per-capita number of sworn officers than San Francisco; about three times. If you take Magnant’s assertion that the service population is actually 65,000, then the number drops to 0.1% of the service population, but you then also have to double San Francisco’s population, and the officer count there drops to 0.06%. Interestingly, Magnant also invited the comparison at the end of his presentation: “I can’t think of another place, except somewhere like San Francisco or San Diego, that provides the services we do and receives the accolades that we do.” (Quotation approximate.)

Magnant also asserted that the City Council asked for no layoffs. I do wonder about that approach. Sure, no one wants to be the one to lay off one’s own neighbors. My boss felt terrible about laying me off! But she did it anyway, because the company had to cut its budget. Why is this not an option for the city government?

In coincidence (I presume) with my letter above, Magnant made particular note of the city’s DWI checkpoints. The police give out surveys to every motorist stopped; he averred that 99% of them come back with positive comments. I do wonder what fraction of the surveys come back at all. My one experience with a checkpoint (over ten years ago in Connecticut, half a mile from my parents’ house, around Yule) was not unprofessional in any way, nor unpleasant on its surface, but still left me feeling completely violated and queasy. I do not know that I would have brought more attention by returning a negative survey. The chief also noted, in regards to the downtown crowds, “We’re responsible for the safety of these people.” Actually, courts at all levels have repeatedly held that they are not; further, it is impossible. Perhaps they should focus on catching perpetrators of harm to others instead. (That said, Portsmouth’s case closure rates are vastly superior to San Francisco’s!)

As noted above, most of the savings came from cutting overtime pay. It will be interesting to see what actual expenditures for fiscal year 2009 come out to, relative to that budget, and to see what similar ratios do to the 2010 budget. Another fascinating note about union politics came up, in response to a question from Councilor Kennedy. The Animal Control Officer is being reduced to a part-time position; Kennedy asked if training for other officers would be used to supplement and support that position. Magnant responded that the two areas of responsibility are represented by different bargaining units, and so sharing responsibility is effectively impossible. I fully support unions as voluntary associations in the private sector, but have never seen them do anything good when it comes to government employees.

After this, the budget front is quiet until 11 May. I will have to find something else to occupy myself with in the meanwhile.

Good government frees, bad government enslaves

Another great op-ed by a member of New Hampshire Seacoast Liberty, Scott McPherson.  Here’s a brief excerpt:

Humans regularly trade what is theirs for something they believe will benefit them more. In early civilizations this meant barter, but a more complex society requires a medium of exchange — money — and for this people work to earn the goods and services they believe will improve their lives.

Back to local stuff

I spent the evening with the Association of Portsmouth Taxpayers. I learned a bit more detail about the sort of shenanigans that are embedded in the budget, and received a bit of clarity as another member observed that the city is currently in a very reactive mode, responding to each crisis with more spending, plans, proposals, and (especially) studies (which cost money, of course). My plan now is to help APT with whatever strategy they want to take on this budget cycle, but then perform a detailed critique of the FY 2010. That critique could be a basis for making specific proposals for the next year’s budget, before the City Manager makes his proposal, and for being better prepared for analyzing that proposal when it does emerge.

For example, with the exception of Little League, it seems that the city runs all of the youth sports leagues. Why? In my hometown, nearly every kid played soccer, but there was a Junior Soccer Association that ran the leagues (using the town’s fields). Why is the government running the Portsmouth junior soccer league? That’s just silly. With a thorough analysis, we could probably find dozens of programs that can be merged or moved to voluntarily-funded non-profit groups. I am looking forward to it.

I also want to try and help APT grow. Apparently, lots of people think they are useful and valuable, and their donations reflect that, but membership sure doesn’t. I think that part of the problem is that the work is so thoroughly un-glamorous, and I don’t know how to fix that, but I suspect that making positive proposals to change things rather than reacting to proposals will be part of the answer.

The nuts and bolts of the budget are interesting to watch develop—especially in how little grand vision there is at any level. The City Manager might have a clear picture of the whole thing, but I am pretty sure no one else does. Next week’s work session focusing on the police and fire departments—two huge sections of the budget—should be lots of fun.

Tax and budgets

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! Even when I am getting a refund, filing my taxes makes me cranky and I put it off. While having to pay extra is certainly painful, getting a refund reminds me that the government has been using my money instead of me for the last year. This year was fun because I bought a hybrid car last summer. That gave me a $525 tax credit. To claim it, I had to use a full Form 1040 instead of a 1040–EZ or even a 1040A, because not all credits are available on all forms. I also had to file a Form 8910 pursuant to the Alternative Motor Vehicle Credit. That form required my Tentative Minimum Tax from Form 6251, Alternative Minimum Tax—just to make sure that the $525 credit was not going to eat my entire tax burden. Add to which that it took me a couple of hours just to figure out which forms I needed in order to claim this credit.

There is an important lesson here. I like the idea of more vehicles with better fuel efficiency on the road. And if one is into top-down social engineering, a tax credit sounds like a fine way to provide an incentive for it. But the aggravation of claiming a credit—really, when was the last time you had to figure out your AMT?—makes this incentive vastly inferior to simply saving money on gasoline and feeling smug each time I buy a tank at the four hundred mile mark.

I filed my federal taxes on-line, but had to make my final payment to the California Republic via the postal monopoly. I was pleased to see that Seacoast Peace Response was out there. I was a little disappointed that their “penny poll” didn’t include an option for cutting taxes to allow private charity and free choice, but it was an effective outreach tool. I briefly considered pocketing the pile of pennies they gave me and walking away, since that really is my vote, but I don’t think that would have been a good way to make friends and influence people. And then whoever received the pennies in an envelope at the Red Cross or homeless shelter would probably have been insulted, rather than grasping the symbolic significance.

Locally, it is still (still!) budget time. The Portsmouth Herald has the full schedule of meetings posted in an editorial. I am remiss right at the outset; I was wiped out from staying up all night Monday to figure out my taxes, and then this morning from taking a house guest down to Logan Airport, so I took a nap instead. But this is an important process, and the more you can get your local neighbors to think about taxation and non-government solutions to problems, the more likely they are to apply that thinking all the way up the chain. We do need a revolution; a mental one, a counterrevolution to the New Deal that made the government the solution to all of our problems and caused our community support structures to atrophy.

On the up side, it feels like spring today, and I had a lovely walk around downtown Portsmouth after submitting my tithe to the Governator. And I didn’t have any New Hampshire tax paperwork to file. I like it here.

Number crunching

Monday, I completely forgot about the City Council meeting. They are just so fascinating that I can’t imagine how that happened… The big news coming out of the meeting was that Pro Portsmouth’s debt to the city for police services at their events was not half-forgiven, as they had asked. I have mixed feelings about that decision; on the one hand, people or groups who incur public expense should certainly be responsible for it, and an event (like First Night or Market Square Day) that ties up the public streets and drags out the police certainly incurs public expense. At the same time, however, I really do wonder first, whether that many police and emergency service personnel are really needed for such an event, and second, whether they really should cost as much as the city claims. It would be interesting to see if Pro Portsmouth can perhaps negotiate to cover some of the responsibility with private security in lieu of government employees. (The PD would doubtless fight such a move, as it would mean a loss of potential overtime income for its officers.)

Market Square Day is also in the news today concerning its impact on local businesses. There is a lesson here that can be more broadly drawn about major events—the Olympics, Super Bowls, political conventions, and anything else that city governments and civic boosters lobby to bring in, including the Portsmouth Criterium. These events are often sold to the locals as a great way to bring business to town. In fact, as many people stay away to avoid the crowds as are drawn, and many of those attending the event do not in fact patronize businesses in the numbers promised. The events are at best a financial wash, and at worst, can temporarily hurt local businesses. The hope for something like Market Square Day is that it promotes Portsmouth to people who then might return on a different day but who otherwise wouldn’t, and that may still be true. (I am hopeful that Seacoast Liberty will have a booth at Market Square Day this year, so this is certainly not to denigrate the event; there is an interesting economics lesson here, all the same.)

Meanwhile, I have finally started to look at Portsmouth’s fiscal 2009 budget (which ends this June). It is no surprise that the schools are by far the most expensive part of local government, accounting for M$35 out of the M$67 operating budget (and M$82 total budget). The police department is M$8.6, the fire department M$6.8, and the rest of the municipal government M$16. Debt service accounts for M$7.5; as I get into the details, I will be interested to see what kind of debt we are servicing, where it comes from, and how we can avoid incurring such debt in the future. I suspect it’s interest on bonds, a good reason to be wary of bond-funded programs.

Tomorrow, I am meeting with another local Porcupine who may be interested in joining our cabal. If so, that would make us three times as large as we were a month ago—a 200% increase—and infinitely larger than this time last year! (See? I can play with numbers as well as any politician!)

Meeting with Portsmouth’s Finest

I had a surprisingly pleasant traffic stop this evening on my way to the Seacoast Liberty weekly Meetup. I was apparently driving “at a speed greater than was reasonable and prudent under the conditions, to wit, at a rate of 55 m.p.h., the prima facie lawful speed limit at the time and place of violation being 35 m.p.h.” I received a written warning that the fine would otherwise have been $100.

So I got stopped by the cops. Why do I call this pleasant? Well, the first reason is that the officer was pleasant and polite, even though I have a Free State Project sticker on my car. Not every law enforcement officer begins a professional encounter from a point of civility.

But secondly, it seemed to be a safety stop rather than a cash stop. The official line behind speed limits is that they are there for our safety. If that were true, and fines only for deterrent effect, we wouldn’t hear about frivolous tickets, about quotas, about speed trap towns that don’t report tickets to insurance companies, about people getting arrested or threatened for telling others about speed traps. So when the officer told me what the speed limit there was, and I expressed my genuine surprise, he wrote a warning, which suggests that the speed trap was actually motivated by safety; I’ve only seen that once before. I would be curious to see what Portsmouth PD’s warning vs. ticket ratio is.

Which brings me to the actual work at hand… I have not yet actually sat down with the budget. It scares me. But I have more free time now, so it’s on my list for this week.

I also note, at the City Clerk’s page, that there are vacancies on local boards. This is an excellent way to get some input into local government; I will be checking the requirements and possibly applying for one of them. Any other Portsmouth residents who might be interested should do the same; if you were to contact me first so we can coördinate the positions we apply for, that would also be nice.

I regret that I did not think ahead to fabricate a hilarious April Fool’s post about the anarcho-capitalist revolution which has liberated the Free State of Portsmouth from its Arts Commission oppressors. Maybe next year.