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The fine print of government spending PDF Print E-mail
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Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 09 April 2014 14:31

A student’s now famous science project and the success of a county shared-ride program suggest that government waste won’t be found in type fonts or taxis

A 14-year-old boy has found a way to save taxpayers nearly half a billion dollars a year by simply changing a typeface used in government documents.

    Or so it has been reported on the Internet and elsewhere. It sounds too good to be true, and it definitely is, but the fact that the story has generated attention measured in incalculable numbers of words, hits, posts and comments across the media sphere is a reminder that the term “government spending” is synonymous with waste and excess in the minds of many.

    For a science project at his Pittsburgh area middle school, Suvir Mirchandani posited that if the federal and state governments changed the type font used in their documents, substituting Garamond for Times New Roman, they could save $467 million a year. Unfortunately, his eureka! discovery turned out to be more wishful thinking than fact.

    The student based his calculations on the amount of printer ink needed to reproduce documents using the Times New Roman font versus the lighter, finer Garamond font. The flaw here, as was widely pointed out, is that most government documents are printed on offset printing presses, a far more economical process than computer printers for large quantities and, for smaller quantities, with copiers that use toner, which is much cheaper than printer ink.

    Type experts cited a bigger problem. The Garamond typeface is not as legible as Times New Roman. To make the documents easily readable in Garamond, a larger type size would have to be used, requiring about the same amount of ink as the Times New Roman font.

    Suvir probably won’t achieve lasting fame as the poster boy for cutting government waste, but let’s give him an A-plus for producing a thought-provoking proposal that captured the attention of vast numbers of Americans to the point of, as they say, going viral. That alone is an accomplishment that suggests the boy will go far.

    Besides, everyone who has choked on the outrageous prices charged for tiny amounts of ink for their computer printers owes a debt of gratitude to Suvir for including in his paper a suspicion-confirming statement that printer ink is priced so high it costs twice as much as expensive perfume. The claim has been checked and it’s true: An ounce of Chanel No. 5 costs $38; the same amount of Hewlett-Packard printer ink costs $75.

    You can’t blame people for wanting to believe a bright teenager figured out something government bureaucrats were too dull to get. The $700 toilet seats once bought in large numbers by the Pentagon and the $320 million “bridge to nowhere” Congress almost approved have achieved icon status in the annals of government waste.

    Yet for every one of those egregious squanderings of taxpayer money there are many other examples of government expenditures that deliver solid value in making people’s lives better.

    Here is an obvious one: the Ozaukee County shared-ride taxi service.

    In February, the service set a record by providing 9,224 rides in a single month. As readers will learn from a story in this week’s Ozaukee Press Good Living section (typeset in a member of the Times New Roman type family), this growing demand is driven in large part by the need of workers to get to their jobs, giving the shared-ride service a role in supporting the county’s economy. Other Ozaukee County residents need the rides in the cars, minivans and buses operated by the county to get to doctor appointments, the grocery store, church and other destinations that would otherwise be out of reach for people without access to personal vehicles.

    This is not a traditional taxi service; the shared-ride feature makes it more like riding a bus. The people who benefit from this service pay for it, but not the full cost, because that would be beyond the means of many of them. The rest is paid for by county, state and federal taxpayers.

    Yes, this is our tax dollars at work, not in the cynical, joking sense we often hear, but seriously at work to meet genuine need that is otherwise not be filled. (See what the driver interviewed for the Good Living story says about the people, ages 6 to 90, she has transported.) By all means, let the fight against government waste go on. But now we know that two places we’re not likely to find it are in the type fonts used in government printing and shared-ride taxi services like Ozaukee County’s.



 
Wired for arrogance PDF Print E-mail
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Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 02 April 2014 18:51

AT&T’s demand for nearly $100,000 to bury phone lines in lakefront parking lots is an affront to taxpayers by a utility shielded from regulation

The arrogance flaunted by AT&T in telling the City of Port Washington it can like its outrageous charge of almost $100,000 to bury parking lot telephone lines or lump it should surprise no one.
 
   The Wisconsin Legislature in 2011 passed a law that granted AT&T immunity from regulation by the Public Service Commission, allowing the company to charge customers any price it wants for landline telephone service and to treat customer complaints with any degree of indifference it wants. It’s obvious that AT&T now feels empowered to stick it to taxpayers as well as customers.

    The near six-figure charge is a joke, but no one is laughing except AT&T. There are only a few telephone wires to put underground as part of the city’s project to improve the lakefront parking lots behind the Duluth Trading Co. storeand Port Washington State Bank. What’s more, AT&T won’t have to dig the trenches; its lines will go into the same trenches used for We Energies power lines.

    The city has asked AT&T to reduce the charge to a reasonable amount that reflects its actual costs, but according to one alderman, “it will not budge.”

    This would send the telephone company to the top of any graph tracking utility rip-offs of communities trying to improve the look of their streets and public spaces. The utilities have the municipalities at their mercy in projects that require putting overhead wires underground, and experience around here shows they take full advantage of it.

    In 2010, members of the Port Washington Common Council were appalled when We Energies charged almost half a million dollars to bury power lines along a short stretch of the rebuilt Highway 33. The bill was paid. It would have made no sense to invest in the rebuilding and beautification of the thoroughfare between Port and Saukville without clearing the sky of the blight of wires and poles.

    (Incidentally, in another gauge of the absurdity of the proposed parking lot charge, AT&T charged only $11,500 to bury its lines for that Highway 33 project less than four years ago.)

    In the Village of Fredonia, plans to eliminate the utility poles and wires in the rebuilding of Fredonia Avenue were dashed when the cost estimate for burying the lines came in at a breathtaking $600,000 to $1 million. The village asked voters in a non-binding referendum two years ago if the money should be spent. You can’t blame the majority for voting no.

    With their inflated charges for burying lines, the utilities are blocking progress communities need to make. The necessary improvement of streets and public spaces requires enormous investments of taxpayer money; to do that without addressing community aesthetics makes no sense. Utilities should be supporting efforts to make their infrastructure less obtrusive

    Judging from the aerial clutter, you would think electricity and communication via wires were new inventions—utilities are still stringing wires on poles the way it was done a century ago.

    It’s not just about unsightliness. As power outages from storms and accidents attest, overhead wires are vulnerable. Burying all utility lines to make them safer, more reliable and out of sight is for now an unrealistic goal, but doing it in increments should be a policy: When utility lines are installed or moved, they should go underground.

    To its credit, Fredonia has not surrendered in the wires war. Village President Chuck Lapicola said the village still hopes some of the utility lines along its new main street can be buried. Trustee Jill Bertram persuasively expressed the reason to do that, saying it could be 35 years before the road is rebuilt again, “so we’ll never get another chance in our lifetime.”

    As for Port Washington’s parking lot project, the utility lines are going to be buried regardless of the cost. If AT&T insists on extorting nearly $100,000 from taxpayers and the private property owners who will be covering some of the cost, all that is left to say is: Shame on AT&T.

 
When local government is outgunned PDF Print E-mail
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Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 26 March 2014 16:25

Saukville proved to be no match for a powerful corporation in a fight to control land use in line with its plan for growth

The authority of small municipalities to regulate land use is no match for corporate power.

    We refer anyone who doubts that statement to the saga of Kwik Trip and the Village of Saukville.

    The story began in 2012 when Saukville officials told Kwik Trip, a billion-dollar corporation, that it could not build a complex containing a gas station, convenience store and car wash on land at the northwest corner of Highway 33 and Foster Street.

    It ended on March 13, 2014, when the Saukville Plan Commission voted to approve a conditional-use permit that will allow Kwik Trip to build its gas station complex.

    How did that happen? The answer is simple: The billion-dollar corporation would not take no for an answer. Unlike ordinary citizens who think no means no when their application for a conditional-use permit is denied, Kwik Trip was confident that no just means try again—and again and again if necessary. It was so confident it bought the land without approval to build on it.

    Saukville’s first no was unequivocal. Village officials were adamant that they did not want a gas station on prime commercial land in a designated entertainment district where a hotel was the preferred use of the site targeted by Kwik Trip.

    As the company persisted, the village based its opposition on the fact that the gas station would violate a Saukville ordinance by being too close to a wetland that drains into the Milwaukee River.  

    To a corporation with Kwik Trip’s resources, this was a softball lob waiting to be hit out of the park. There are many ways for developers to get around wetland protection regulations; when Kwik Trip representatives appeared before the Plan Commission two weeks ago they presented a package of pollution mitigation measures that seemed to answer every wetland issue.

    Even so, the Plan Commission was less than enthusiastic. The motion to approve the permit almost failed for lack of a second. Two commission members who were strongly opposed to the development refused to take part in the voting. Finally, the permit was approved by a 5-0 vote.

    Much was made at the meeting, with repeated warnings from the village attorney, of the fact that the Plan Commission cannot base denial of a conditional-use permit for a business on a desire to protect similar businesses from competition. The owners of two gas station-convenience stores located near the Kwik Trip site predicted at a public hearing that Plan Commission approval would have devastating consequences for their businesses.

    It is true that the village government must not get involved in trying to regulate competition, but from a planning standpoint it certainly was justified in considering the impact Kwik Trip would have on the mix of businesses in one small part of the village. The vision Saukville officials had for developing the great potential of the village’s eastern commercial corridor surely did not include three gas station-convenience stores clustered in two blocks of Highway 33. But that is the reality they’re stuck with now.

    It may be small consolation, but Saukville officials who opposed Kwik Trip can at least point to some positive results from their battle. They were able to get the company to drop its plan for a diesel pumping station to service semis, which could have clogged Highway 33 with heavy truck traffic from I-43. At the village’s insistence, the traffic pattern and building design were improved over the original plan. And the company has pledged to help the village find a desirable buyer for land it owns adjacent to its gas station site, such as a hotel or restaurant.           

    It can be said too that though the development is not in the best interests of Saukville and Kwik Trip pulled no punches in getting its way, the community will at least be getting a corporate resident of good repute. The company is a well regarded family-owned business based in LaCrosse that has achieved remarkable success, with some 500 gas station-convenience stores and annual revenues approaching $5 billion.

    None of this changes the fact that the Plan Commission’s action gives Saukville a development it doesn’t want. Which is more evidence that corporate power trumps municipal authority.

 
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