2-27-15 Aggregation in a Nutshell

I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member,” – Groucho Marx.

            Woody Allen used this quote at the beginning of the movie “Annie Hall” to describe his relationships with women. Great movie if you’ve never seen it. A paraphrase of that quote could describe how some people feel about government – “I refuse to join any club that the government would prefer I be a member.”

            But sometimes there are benefits to joining the herd, especially when the herd’s bargaining power can be used to wrestle better prices out of everyone’s second favorite punching bag after the IRS – utility companies. That is the point of the county’s government electricity aggregation program.

            Have you ever been to a meeting where people discussed a topic that you really didn’t understand so you sat quietly and nodded your head whenever someone looked your way? About twice a year, the representative from Palmer Energy, our electricity aggregation broker, comes to the Commissioners’ Office to give us an update on our program. For two years, I sat quietly and nodded my head when someone looked my way.

            Unable to learn much through the sheer force of time and osmosis as I’d hoped, when he came this week, I just flat out admitted that I didn’t understand what any of it was about. I live in a Co-op service area that isn’t eligible for aggregation anyway. But I figured if I had this much exposure and still didn’t understand it, there must be several people similarly adrift in that boat. Our rep was more than happy to very slowly explain.

            In 2012, certain townships, villages, and the City of Van Wert, voted to enter into a government electricity aggregation program. This put individual consumers into a county-wide pool to increase bargaining power. There are two parts in providing power to your home – the delivery and the supply. The delivery part involves the lines and the poles and billing and the company doing that in much of the county is AEP, which has an absolute monopoly in its zones of operation.

Electrical aggregation effects the supply part of the equation. There are several companies that supply power – basically purchasing it from power plants and reselling it. The supply price for the parts of the county that entered aggregation in 2012 has remained $5.85 per kWh ever since. AEP’s delivery charges add on another two or three cents to the total rate.

            If your governing entity, meaning your township or town, voted to enter aggregation, then you are automatically signed-up and have to take some action to opt out of it. Here’s where some confusion began. First Energy is the company that won the 2012 contract, so everyone in an aggregation zone was automatically signed up with that company. But then, another division of First Energy began trying to sell a different contract in the county. Some people understandably thought that they had to sign that contract to enter into or remain in the aggregation program, but really, they were opting out of aggregation into a different program.

First Energy was eventually convinced to knock it off although other companies continued to sell their products. You may still get flyers and calls trying to sign you up with different electricity suppliers. Doing so would automatically remove you from aggregation.

Another source of confusion derives from the fact that your utility companies are far from perfect. Just because you should have gotten the lower rates doesn’t mean you weren’t conveniently over-looked in a billing program. This is more common than you might think. If you are in an AEP service area and your bill does not have First Energy on it as the supplier, you are not getting the aggregation price. Don’t be afraid to call and complain. Also don’t be afraid to be put on hold for longer than would seem necessary.

            It is easier to list the places in the county that are not in aggregation than it is to list the ones that are. First, if your electric company is Midwest Electric or Paulding-Putnam Electric, you are in a Co-op and not eligible for aggregation. That is why, like me, you may have been blissfully ignorant of the drama with aggregation and the outlier supply companies. About half of the rural population is served by one of these two Co-ops.

As for the towns: Delphos does its own aggregation and is not in the county plan. Ohio City is not in aggregation because it has its own municipal power supply. Venedocia, Scott, and Elgin are not in aggregation but should consider it as they are all served by AEP.

The only townships not in aggregation are Tully and Hoaglin. 95% of Tully and 80% of Hoaglin are served by Paulding-Putnam and not eligible for aggregation. Willshire Township joined aggregation a year late. Partly because of that and partly because it has some areas served by Dayton Power and Light, that township gets different rates and different suppliers than the rest of the county.

            Nothing keeps you from opting for a different supplier than the aggregation supplier. It is unlikely your purchasing power would get a better price than you and all your neighbors in the county combined but you can try. Some might offer sweet deals for a year but beware what could befall in year two. If there is an optimal supplier, the county program will opt for that supplier or wrangle that rate out of its current supplier when the contract is reviewed at the end of every two year period anyway.

Almost always, the government electricity aggregation rate will be the best option. You can exercise this option by doing nothing and continuing to do so, a remarkably easy thing to do considering how complicated the utility companies have tried to make it.

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2-20-15 County Update

Every Sunday morning at around 8:20 AM on 99.7 FM there airs a program called “The Commissioners’ Corner.” On that show, county business is discussed by host Chris Roberts, myself, and another commissioner or two. Many of the things discussed there either aren’t involved enough or developed enough to fill a column, but combined, they make for a nice county update.

The hottest topic under discussion is still the Starr Campus and the possible Northwest State/Ohio State presence there. By last November, representatives from the Starr, OSU and Northwest State had met the idea with enthusiasm but left it for us to provide a business plan. For the next few months, we waited on a lease or purchase price from the Starr – hard to develop a plan without a number. Unbeknownst to us, the Commonwealth was involved in its own restructuring.

Although we still don’t have a price, the project for the campus is back on the front burner and we’ll be meeting with Starr higher-ups next week. As far as a business plan, I threw a rough draft together and our Economic Development office is working it over into something presentable. As it stands, all the parties involved still present as enthusiastic but are waiting on us to make it happen, so we will.

Speaking of our ED office, this past week, the superintendents from Van Wert, Lincolnview, Crestview, and Delphos Jefferson met in our office for a presentation from a Colorado group about middle school physics. It’s a program that has been successful in interesting younger kids in basic physics out there, which facilitates an easier and earlier transition to higher levels of science and tech in high school.  Van Wert already has a program in its middle schools that resembles what we presented.

Demographics seem to indicate that the most important factor for locating a business in the future will be workforce availability. If our schools can find a way to fit middle school physics into an already crowded curriculum, Van Wert County will immediately be well ahead of the rest of the state for next decade’s workforce. With a top notch vocational facility out at Vantage and the possibility of an Ohio State presence, we’re hoping to get the jump on a rapidly changing national economic landscape, one that isn’t promising for rural communities.

We keep looking for ways to build our infrastructure as well. At last month’s Regional Planning Commission (RPC) meeting, grant coordinators presented some possible projects for the county. One promising project involves developing bike trails through the county. There was a $3 million grant that went unclaimed in the state last year for such a project – we’ll be sure it won’t go unclaimed a second time. Trails from Ohio City to Van Wert and from Van Wert to Delphos have been discussed.

Also at that RPC meeting, from the myriad of programs examined, an idea developed to try to apply for a different project in each of our villages this year. Middle Point has the big grant work coming in 2015 with North Adams Street and some other side streets being reworked. But smaller projects, such as lights in ballparks, were also discussed as part of bringing our villages into a process where they work together to rotate through the different available grant programs.

Now for trash talk. The lease for the county’s transfer station terminated at the end of 2014. That’s the building on the top of the hill across the highway from Towne Center. We are currently looking at bids for a new company to operate that solid waste disposal facility. It had only been open on Saturdays for some time but whatever company takes it over will likely have it open at least some days throughout the week soon.

The current County Engineer buildings are going up for auction in the next few months. These are the buildings and lots on the corners of South Market and East Crawford Streets. For information on the sale, contact Bee Gee Realty. The Engineer’s office will be moving all of its operations to its location on Grill Road in the coming years. (Or Kear Road or Bonnewitz Avenue, depending on how far you’ve gone and in which direction – Van Wert residents get the joke.)

We spent 2013 searching for a new health insurance provider for county employees. The company we went with came in about a half million below four other quotes that were all about the same. Any time the quote is that much lower, you have to take it but you also have to wonder what mess you’re getting into. Despite a few glitches that could be expected with any switch in insurance carriers, 2014 went off well and 2015 has begun well. The savings have enabled a budget surplus. Big thanks to Gallagher Bassett for thinking outside the box for us and with us.

We will be fortunate if that surplus is not quickly eaten up in 2015. Our first budget problem is payroll. There are 52 weeks in a year – plus a day or two depending on if there is a Leap Day. The county pays its employees bi-weekly. That extra day or two adds up to an extra pay period every twelve years or so. That happens this year. That one extra pay period costs a couple hundred thousand dollars.

Another budget hit could come compliments of our friendly neighborhood Wal-Mart. Since moving out to Towne Center, it has twice successfully applied for a reduction in its property taxes. The dynamics between Wal-Mart, Equity (the company that owns Towne Center), the City, and the County actually could fill an entire column, but the final analysis is this: Equity is not returning phone calls about delinquent tax and debt payments, said delinquency is, in part, caused by the reduction in payments from Wal-Mart, and the county guaranteed it all way back when. Another couple hundred thousand hit could come if Equity goes under.

Windmills are on hold while the state decides how it wants to handle setbacks and incentives. We’ve heard some rumblings from our state officials that the schools who are getting windmill PILOT payments may get their state formula funding reduced. That this would happen had been anticipated by many people on both sides of the windmill debate, but that it is happening this quickly is surprising, especially after all the guarantees from our pro-windmill state officials that it would never happen.

So it goes in Van Wert County, February, 2015.

 

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2-13-15 The Return of the States

Article V of the United States Constitution: “The Congress, whenever two thirds of both houses shall deem it necessary, shall propose amendments to this Constitution, or, on the application of the legislatures of two thirds of the several states, shall call a convention for proposing amendments, which, in either case, shall be valid to all intents and purposes, as part of this Constitution, when ratified by the legislatures of three fourths of the several states, or by conventions in three fourths thereof . ..”

The federal government is never going to solve its debt problem. It doesn’t even intend to. The hard-fought-for sequester that took effect in 2013 cut federal spending in that year by $85.3 billion. In that same year, the government still ran a $680 billion deficit. In 2014, we went another $483 billion into debt. In two years of alleged austerity, we accumulated a trillion dollars of new debt. Welcome to the new normal.

When it was signed into law in 2011, the argument against the sequester was that we didn’t want to make spending cuts in a weak economy. Last week, President Obama suggested we should ease the sequester in the coming year as, with the economy picking up, there is no need for such austerity. Congressional Republicans talk a lot about the need for spending cuts – except those that would affect their own districts. Round and round we go.

            Fortunately, despite their fetish for knickers, our Founding Fathers were wise men. Don’t try to make their intent a point in a political conversation anymore, though. We’re far beyond that in our national dialogue. The people who don’t agree with what the Founders meant also don’t care what they meant, and the silent disinterested majority wince at a James Madison reference. In the Constitution, however, all such people were foreseen, and that was the real wisdom.

            Our Constitution serves two main purposes: First to create a federal government and second to limit that federal government. At the time, the States, meaning the people and their local governments, were concerned about maintaining their own autonomy. The Tenth Amendment, leaving the States all powers not explicitly granted to the federal government, wasn’t a throw-in to make the Bill of Rights a nice round number. It was a demand without which the States, meaning the people, would not have consented to a federal government.

But the Tenth Amendment can be overridden by activist federal courts. That last sentence pretty much sums up the last sixty years of Supreme Court jurisprudence.

            Article V is the final line of defense against what has happened and is happening. It allows the States, through their own legislatures, to call a national convention to amend the Constitution. If former Ohio Rep. Matt Huffman of Lima and his allies in our state’s government are successful, an Article V convention is on its way.

            Huffman, who is now back in his private law practice after serving his allotted terms in the Ohio House, sponsored a successful initiative while in office for the Ohio General Assembly to call for a constitutional convention. The purpose behind the convention would be to pass a Balanced Budget Amendment to the Constitution. Despite being term-limited off the Columbus scene for now, Huffman is still a lead sponsor of the project.

            That initiative now has the support of 24 states. Two-thirds of the States, or 34, must call for a convention for it to be held. Ohio’s Governor John Kasich could be found in recent weeks touring some western states trying to drum up support. Once called, a convention can propose an amendment to the constitution and present it to all the states. If three-fourths, or 38 states, approve the amendment through their legislatures, then the Constitution is amended.

            Although a convention of the states has never amended the constitution, Huffman is quick to point out that several times in the past, when momentum for a convention has gathered, Congress has been forced to take some initiative itself and get legislation accomplished. The income tax, the repeal of prohibition, and the direct election of Senators all were constitutional amendments that resulted in part by pressure from the possibility of an Article V convention.

            States’ Rights have hovered on the backburner of political debate for the last few decades. The doctrine took a moral shellacking when it was used to defend first slavery, and then Jim Crow. Everything good about state government and local control got thrown aside based on laws that intended to fix only these problems. Now, the federal government is involved in most decisions in our lives, including how our children are educated and where we get health care. The only reason it doesn’t make every decision for us is that it hasn’t found a way to yet, but it’s looking. States, save California, have never made such presumptions.

            The federal government is crippling its population for the following century with debt. The numbers are too big to seem real, which is kind of how they are successfully ignored in Washington. If we always had a balanced budget and suddenly came up a half trillion short one year, it would be a scandal. In your personal life, if you get a bill for a thousand dollars it’s painful because you can eventually pay it. If you get a bill for a million dollars, it’s a joke because you can’t.

            Critics worry that such a convention could roll out of control in amending our fundamental document. With the requirement of the approval of three-quarters of States compared to the two-thirds of Congress, it’s hard to see how such shenanigans could develop.

As the idea gains steam, you’ll begin to hear criticism. Listen carefully. You will find the echoes of Washington politicians and lobbyists, both of whom only want the game to stay the same. If anyone saves us from these people, it will be the States.

           

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2-6-15 Van Wert Goes Amish

            Reality television came to Van Wert in 2014 when a show called “Vanilla Ice Goes Amish” featured a project at one of our county’s homes. For those who aren’t fans of early 1990’s pop music, Vanilla Ice was a white rapper who made it big by swiping a bass-line from a Queen song and creating a hip-hop ode to himself. Unable to find subsequent subject matter as compelling as himself, he never had a second hit. Turns out, he’s more enjoyable as an Amish sidekick than he ever was a rap artist. But then, I wasn’t a fan.

            You know who never saw an airing of that show? The Amish. They were apparently more interested in our real estate while they were here with Mr. Ice anyway. In the past few years, despite record high prices for farmland, Amish families have purchased three farms in the southwest part of our county and set up old-timey shop. For those who live in the vicinity of Willshire and Wren, you’ve likely already swerved once or twice to miss a surprise buggy heading down the side of the road in the only part of the county with the semblance of hills.

            More buggies are on the way. According to a 2012 story in the Washington Times, the Amish population in America is expected to quadruple over the next 40 years from 250,000 to over a million. The large family concept that built this country still exists in the Amish communities where families have six or seven kids on average, one of which is invariable named Zebediah. Ohio is home to the largest number of Amish – 60,000. Pennsylvania and Indiana are close behind.

            Considering the non-Amish rural population in the Midwest is on the decline and there is a large Amish community right across the Indiana line, apparently quadrupling, we can expect further Amish immigration in the near future. Especially as our farm land seem to be tilting back toward reality. Famous for keeping to themselves, an influx of Amish will nevertheless recreate some old school issues we haven’t had to deal with since the rail cars first started rolling through.

            The horse and buggies might give you a warm feeling when you see them, might make you remember that things used to be simple. Simple isn’t necessarily the highest good, however. There is probably nothing less complicated than a pile of crap on asphalt. Anyone who has been to a parade knows that horses don’t keep a regular schedule for their leavings. Whenever it happens, it happens. That’s fine out on the pasture, but on the roads, the leavings can cause cosmetic harm to cars and physical harm to motorcyclists.

            We’re looking at how the nearby counties in Indiana deal with the issue. There are some who have proposed diaper laws for horses. Another option is buggy license plates, the fees collected to be used to help maintain clean roadways or create side paths along the roads. We’re not there yet, but if more Amish arrive, we’ll have to look at such eventualities.

            And I wouldn’t say that the Amish are “fans” of electricity and indoor plumbing. They are so not enamored with such luxuries that they tend to rip the wiring and pipes out of the homes that they buy. This is all well and good, but through this intentional devaluation of property, they are then able to apply for lower property taxes.  

It is their property, so it’s hard to argue that they can’t do with it what they want. And the law is that the tax value of the home is the actual value regardless of intentional acts to diminish overall worth – you only pay on what you actually own whether or not you have taken a ball bat to it. But there may need to be some verification process for this over time just for the sake of fairness to property owners who are forced to put in $15,000 plumbing systems upon purchasing old properties to comply with EPA mandates. Amish are exempt from this because they don’t use plumbing systems – they use holes in the ground.

            Amish are just about the least likely people to suddenly change course on the issue of plumbing or anything else, however. Some misunderstand the Amish aversion to electricity and modern comforts, thinking that there must be something in their religion that says electricity is of the devil. This leads to further pondering – how can Amish can justify riding in vans to the worksite or borrowing cell phones to make calls?

My understanding of it is that they want to maintain a certain lifestyle that predates electricity and that the gadgets of the modern world lead to envy and dissension in the community. There is no aversion to electricity, per se, it’s an aversion to televisions and appliances and cars that replace a sense of community with a sense of pride and ownership and distances the owner from the family. Anyone with a teenager equipped with a cell phone will have trouble countering this argument. It’s about humility, and is there anything more humbling than having to, every day, ask somebody for a ride?

But what makes Amish distinctively Amish is an unwillingness to participate in the larger world. So don’t expect them to begin joining in the community as they arrive – they stay to themselves if possible. They are exempt from paying Social Security taxes and think insurance is immoral. Their education system goes to about the eighth grade because that’s the extent of education needed to live in their community. They do pay income taxes but generally shun subsidies, and shun each other for acts inconsistent with Amishism.

At the end of their education, young Amish are allowed a period of what’s called rumspringa. That’s when you might see them at Willshire Days or the Wren Whiffle Ball Tournament, whooping it up. This is a period of sowing oats in the modern world before a final decision to commit to the Amish world. There must be something to it – after experiencing what America has to offer for a year or two, 90% of Amish choose to go back to their communities. We would certainly take that rate of retention in the county.

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1-30-15 Make Your Argument

“If you’re good at something, never do it for free.” – Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight.

            A friend of mine recently got elected to a commissioner spot in a nearby county. One of his co-commissioners there has served for several decades and is well-known in the state – a sage of local politics. My friend told him about these columns I write. The old-timer looked at him sideways and asked, “He does what?”

            There is no good political reason to write these things. In fact, for a local politician, it’s pretty stupid. Every time I take an unnecessary public stand on any issue, even if a majority agrees, it likely costs me in the polls. Human nature is that you can agree with what someone says fifty times but what sticks in your craw is the one thing they say that you didn’t like.

            Although there is no reason to take a stand on every issue, for the life of me, I can’t understand why anyone would want to be in politics other than to make an argument. It’s not great pay and, locally, there isn’t much glory in it. There are better ways to pass time than trying to be popular for the sake of being popular.

            But writing isn’t for everyone. Writing is work and it’s work that most people find disagreeable. Initially, I called this column the “County Forum” in hopes of generating some lively local debate. (And is there no one here that will defend the progressive agenda? Anyone?). In the couple of years I’ve been doing this, I’ve gotten virtually no counterargument, not by anyone who would put their name on it anyway. I have sometimes got, “You shouldn’t have said it that way.” As my favorite columnist, George Will, would reply: Well.

            These columns were a subject on the Van Wert Topix website about a year ago when the economic development disagreements went public. If you’re not familiar with that particular online forum, it’s where most discussions end with one anonymous poster calling another a heroin addict. The subject could be donations to the United Way and someone’s a heroin addict by the end of it. One of the most commented-on threads there was titled “You kind of smell like cat pee.” A parade of genius and inspiration it is not.

            Nonetheless, I was oddly proud of the thread generated there about Citizen Wolfrum because it maintained a decent level of discussion for a few days. One Citizen Wolfrum supporter asked one of my critics, “Why don’t you write a column and contradict what he’s saying.” The answer was “Writing columns isn’t my job.” I’ve got some bad news for you sunshine – It’s not my job either. It’s something I do for free and you can too.

            Most people can say their opinions – write it as you would say it first. For me, the hardest part is the first draft. I just type straight through for about a thousand words without trying to make coherent sense in any of it. I did that with this column and every other one I’ve written. I never have an outline when I start and what I write in a first draft is mostly garbage – there are times I end up using nothing from it. But I get a framework for what I want to say and my thoughts start to organize.

            Personally, I enjoy the rewriting part where I can cut and paste paragraphs and rewrite sentences until it all looks right to me.  I can’t write in groups and I generally have to be sitting alone in a room with a television on. Everyone’s different – some people like to carry on a conversation while they write and ask for input. (Wierdos) You find your own process the more you do it.

Some don’t like the way I write and it’s fine not to be everyone’s cup of tea. Attempts at humor in particular are easily taken the wrong way. No matter how good the joke on a person of the Polish persuasion, it falls flat in Poland. But if someone doesn’t like your writing style, it at least means you have some style. For my money, bad style is better than no style at all – if people read what you say to find grammatical errors, then at least they’ve heard your argument. Ain’t no law you can’t use double negatives here and there to liven things up.

            For me, the process takes about three hours in the late afternoon and early evening every Friday. I take time off from writing these things when I get busy with other projects at the law office, commissioners’ office, or when someone destroys one of my rental properties. I would enjoy people taking over for a week here and there as guest columnists but there still doesn’t seem to be a groundswell for it.

            I don’t have a column in the paper because I’m a commissioner and I didn’t have the one before because I’m an attorney. I have one because I take the time to do it and I meet the deadlines the editor gives me. If you want your own column in the paper, there’s no trick to it. Send them one – they generally will put it in if it’s an honest attempt. Then send them another one. Anyone can have a regular column in a newspaper and anyone with seven dollars a month can have a blog. You could be the next Dave Barry but you have to write the first one.

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1-23-15 BROTHER O’S TRAVELLING SALVATION SHOW

        “We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.” John F. Kennedy, 1962.

            There is a scene in the movie “The Naked Gun” where Leslie Nielsen’s slapstick detective character is working undercover as an umpire in a major league baseball game. The first pitch comes and Nielsen pauses, realizes he’s supposed to say something, and says “Strike?” The crowd applauds. The second pitch comes and he calls “Strike!” with more assurance and the crowd cheers louder. By the third pitch, he calls the strike before the ball even crosses the plate and begins a celebration dance as the crowd goes wild.

            Our State of the Union address is like that. The sitting president, whether Republican or Democrat, drones through a speech predetermined to be interrupted by automatic standing ovations. There might as well be an applause sign like on Saturday Night Live. Sadly, this State of the Union microcosm, vapid and formulaic, seems an apt depiction of our national politics.

            President Obama, at least, doesn’t drone. Anyone who has ever spoken publicly can attest – this guy is incredible, gliding through an hour-long speech without missing a beat. His greatest qualification (arguably his only qualification) for the nation’s highest office was the speech he gave in 2004 at the Democratic National Convention. That rhetorical flourish launched him from Illinois state congress obscurity right past the Hillary Clinton machine and into your life.

            If they take the time to listen and observe, conservatives likely will agree with some of what the President said on Tuesday and some of what he has done over the last several months. In fact, they will likely agree with about half of it, because Barrack Obama only talks about or does the easy half of anything and then waits for the applause as if he had done the hard part too.

            For example, granting amnesty by executive fiat, although unconstitutional, was probably the right thing to do, if you did the other half of what was necessary. Doing it without fixing the border made the problem deeper, more complex, and less likely to ever be solved. Granting amnesty (and it will be amnesty in the end) was the easy thing that anyone could have done – the other part would have required leadership.

            Ending the Cuban embargo was the right thing to do if you could get some concessions on human rights for Cubans. Anything. Any jack wagon could have ended the embargo – it literally took just signing a document. The hard half would have been getting something in exchange for giving away fifty years’ worth of foreign policy.

            The President called for free community college in his State of the Union speech. Of course, as we are running a deficit, any new costs are paid for by borrowing. The easy half of the idea is free community college. The easy half of any government program is proposing it. The difficult part is paying for it, which actually could be done by eliminating the mostly unconstitutional and entirely useless Department of Education. The President didn’t propose to pay for either college or the free daycare he also proposed.

            We are no longer in wars abroad. Ending them was the easy part. Providing a peaceful way forward is what’s hard. Personally, I support a policy of limited intervention, but not in the way it’s been implemented. It has seemed more the result of disinterest or downright laziness than a thoughtful strategy. It has left our enemies (and our allies) confused and wondering whether a bomb or an apology is headed their way. An isolationist policy requires clarity as to when and why we intend to engage in the future. Can anyone explain our foreign policy?

            It’s easy to say we need to close tax loopholes for the very wealthy. The hard part is identifying specific loopholes because there are rich liberals that donate too. Again, the President expressed anger at tax breaks for companies to locate jobs overseas. Mitt Romney’s response to that contention during the presidential campaign was “I’ve been in business for several decades and I have no idea what you’re talking about.” There are no such tax breaks. Identify a loophole and eliminate it by one of those now famous executive orders instead of pandering to the base about illusory problems.

            The absolute best example: How easy is it to close Gitmo by releasing all the terrorists?

            And much like Nielsen calling strikes, the President revels in receiving cheers for things he had nothing to do with. His policies lowered oil prices? Really? His policies thwarted Putin? They thwarted him into owning Crimea. The economic crisis is over despite record low work-force participation and record high food stamp participation? He’s the champion of middle class economics as the median wage continues its steady decline under his leadership?

            Is there anything more morally reprehensible than passing an $18 trillion debt to the next several generations? The national debt was not addressed in the President’s speech. Is it more astonishing that it wasn’t mentioned or that the omission didn’t astonish us? The President did say that the annual deficit has been reduced, but that is the result of ending two wars. The actual debt, the bundle of empty obligation the nation has created and continues to create for its future, and Obama’s $8 trillion chunk of it, was conveniently forgotten.

I’m not arguing national Republicans are any better, they just happen to mostly pander to the people who work and pay the bills. It would be refreshing for any national leader to say, “This is going to be hard, but I’m calling on the nation to sacrifice. Everybody, rich and poor, is going to be asked to help us out of this mess – everyone is going to be asked to sacrifice in some way. Here is the plan. It is going to be hard, but we’re Americans and that used to mean something, can still mean something.”

Or, the same leader can just yell “Strike Three!” and begin a celebration dance as Nielsen did. Half of the crowd will go wild. That was the President last Tuesday night.

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1-16-15 The Playoffs That Urban Meyer Will Hate

            It could be argued that this year’s college football playoffs were the most popular two-week sporting event in the state of Ohio since the Big Red Machine won the 1976 World Series. Every football fan loved it and every Buckeye especially loved it. Every Buckeye, that is, except the one that it made immortal.

The day after the championship, most pundits were already calling for what the fans have been demanding for years: expanded playoffs. Urban Meyer was the first to come out adamantly against anything of the kind. Let’s pause for a second and recognize. Even though OSU was the best team, the Bucks may not have deserved to be in the playoffs. Had Ohio State been third and TCU fifth instead of the other way around, would the Horned Frogs have leapfrogged (pun) the Buckeyes into the playoffs in the final week in an otherwise identical scenario. It’s all politics, man, and we are THE Ohio State University. The current playoffs did right by us and then some.

            I’ll preface what comes next by saying that if Urban Meyer is in a restaurant that I am in, he won’t be paying for his meal. That’s probably true most everywhere in Ohio right now. But just because he’s a coaching genius, that doesn’t mean you can’t contend with his propositions. Urban argues that expanded playoffs would be bad because: a) 15 games are already too many; b) there is too much travel expense for families; c) there are too few scholarship players; and d) these playoff games are “heavyweight” contests, i.e. too stressful, to have any more of them.

            First, some overriding bad news for Meyer. The TV ratings for the college playoff games were higher than the NFL playoff games. That means it’s only a matter of time before we have more of them. And a playoff involving all of the 128 FCS teams is possible with no more than 16 games for the likely champion – I’ll explain how in a minute.

Do you know who already plays 16 games? The champion in the next level down in college football, which has been North Dakota State for the last four years. And how much travelling do you suppose you have to do if you start in North Dakota? They seem to survive. An Ohio high school team plays 15 games to win a title. An NFL team plays 18 or 19, depending if it has to play in the wild card round. 16 seems like an overwhelmingly appropriate number.

            The new money coming from an expanded playoff could address the scholarship issue. But 85 scholarships really isn’t enough? Four deep at every position on both sides of the ball? And what of “heavyweight” contests? In what sport anywhere does becoming a champion not mean beating a succession of strong teams. In every level of every sport but college football, that’s the only thing being a champion means. I know the big games are stressful for coaches, but that’s why they get those heavy bags of money.

Here’s the Wolfrum Model for an all-inclusive playoff that everyone will soon be talking about: It begins two weeks before Thanksgiving after a ten-game regular season. Everyone plays an eleventh game, which is their first playoff game. Every Power 5 conference team in this system plays its first playoff game at home, so they’re happy. Indiana will play its first meaningful home game in November since the invention of the forward pass.

            There were 128 teams in the top level of college football this year. This number screams to be put into brackets – it’s twice the field of 64 in March Madness: A first round begins with 32 games and 32 teams eliminated. I’m looking at mostly mid-majors here. Who fooled these guys into a system where they could never play for a championship in the first place? Sprinkle in the last-place Power 5 Conference teams here as well to get them their home game.

The next weekend, a second round with 32 new teams playing the winners from the week before, the newbies being lower and mid-level Power 5 schools and the top mid-majors playing at home -32 new games and 32 more teams eliminated. This gets us down to 64 and a Thanksgiving football weekend for the ages. All the big boys come in – the top 32 teams from the Power 5 conferences playing at home against the previous week’s winners, all elimination games. High, high drama. They’ll sell you the whole seat, but you’ll only need the edge.

            The month of December would have its bowls, but they would be played earlier as part of the tournament with the 32 teams who survive Thanksgiving. Bowls are traditionally more after than before Christmas, but they need to rethink that. If you were a bowl city, wouldn’t you rather have fans come to your town before Christmas to shop than after Christmas to party and vomit all over the curbs? And all the games would be between top teams or darling upstarts. In the nearly four weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas, two more rounds would fill the days and whittle the teams to eight, and what law says we can’t call those games bowls?

            New Year’s Day would have four games – the final eight of the tournament. Rose, Sugar, Orange, and Fiesta Bowls. About ten days later the semi-final games and about ten days after that the championship. This would add about one week to the season. Figuring the ten-game regular season, it would amount to 16 games to win the title for one of the top 32 teams. If someone outside the top 32 wins, it would be more games, but no one would complain. Villanova, the greatest Cinderella in NCAA basketball history, was an eight seed in its region in 1985, meaning one of the top 32 teams. To play more than 16 games in this season, you would have to tell a better story than Villanova, and that would mean Urban-style immortality.

            We’re far from this, but John Lennon says we have to be able to imagine it before it can happen.  Is there any reason that this is not where it’s all headed? The fascination with just a four-team playoff this year broke some molds. Someone who is connected, please forward this plan to the NCAA. I don’t need to be given credit, I just want to watch. Judging by the ratings, so do you.

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1-9-2015 A Generation Retires and What Comes Next

            I’m too young. Grandmothers are old. They bake, and they sew and they tell you stories about the Depression. I was at Woodstock, for C—–’s sake! I peed in a field!

I hung onto the Who’s helicopter as it flew away.” – Diane Wiest’s character in the 1989 movie “Parenthood” upon learning of her daughter’s pregnancy.

It may have happened faster than any of them expected, but the members of the famous generation known as the Baby Boomers are starting to retire. With them goes inestimable expertise and decades of on-the-job experience. What follows them is an enormous demographic problem which is the subject of a book by Mark Lautman titled “When the Boomers Bail: A Community Economic Survival Guide.”

Mr. Lautman worked on a large economic development project outside of Albuquerque years ago. The project was to create x number of jobs and y number of new businesses. There were plans for housing and infrastructure and everything that goes into creating a community from a barren field. All of the estimates fell into established guidelines of what to expect from such development. But well into the planning stages, Lautman discovered a critical problem: Where were they going to get the people to fill the jobs even if the businesses could be found?

Lautman’s subsequent research into nationwide trends and birthrates led him to a startling conclusion: There were not only not going to be enough qualified workers for the jobs they intended to create in Albuquerque, there weren’t going to be enough qualified workers in the entire United States once Baby Boomers started to retire.

Most people already have a sense of the change in manufacturing jobs over the last twenty years. Gone are the days when you could walk down the street after high school graduation and get a job at a factory where, if you were willing to work, you could earn a wage to support a family. Manufacturing jobs are becoming either highly skilled or lower paying – and many of the higher skilled jobs are currently filled by the soon-to-retire. These are the jobs Lautman describes as requiring “qualified workers.”

For multiple reasons, foremost among them falling birth rates and the misplaced focus of our education system, there are far too few qualified workers expected to enter the workforce in the next decade to replace the retiring Boomers. As a result, what businesses will be desperately seeking in the coming years are communities that can supply these workers.

Our local problem is heightened. Our demographics are off beyond the national averages that so vex Lautman. Our county’s steady population decline over the past two decades has been in the age groups under 50 leaving us with ever fewer kids graduating our high schools. Many of our large local employers indicate that they can’t find workers to fill open jobs. A “qualified worker” locally is becoming someone that can pass a drug test and show up on time.

In the last few months, there have been advertisements on WIMA radio for both Progressive Stamping in Ottoville and Kalida Manufacturing seeking general laborers. I know people who work at both of these companies and these are decent paying factories and decent jobs – not Ford, but certainly comparable with anything around here. There isn’t a workforce available for these jobs, much less the ones that require higher skills.

It would be easy to blast the next generation, but I’ll assume that this group will grow out of their adolescence just like the Boomers themselves did all those years ago and as us Gen Xers did more recently. But even assuming this eventuality, we still have on our hands the problem Lautman describes multiplied by an already decimated population of young people.

Ohio’s state development office currently supports a regional and statewide focus.  Such a focus will benefit only the areas in each region with the best amenities and available workforce. Columbus will likely do fine with its endless supply of qualified workers that emanate from the state university. Cleveland, Dayton and Cincinnati will be fine too. (Toledo hasn’t been fine in years.) But what of the rest of the state? Who sincerely believes that this is even a concern to our elected officials in Columbus?

Lautman points out that the old incentives to lure business – i.e. land and tax breaks – still have value, but almost every community in the nation now offers these. To attract, keep or generate a business in the next ten to twenty years, a community will have to be unique not in the incentives it provides but in the workforce it can supply.

Mr. Lautman will be speaking at a special session for local business that the Van Wert County Economic and Community Development Office has set up at Kennedy Kuhn’s new training center this coming Thursday afternoon. We hope to have a more open forum in the near future. If you have input on this issue or would like a copy of Mr. Lautman’s book, feel free to contact the County Development Office.

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12-19-14 Monarchy in the U.S.A.

MONARCHY IN THE U.S.A.

            “God save the queen/ We mean it man/ And there is no future/ In England’s dreams” – The Sex Pistols.

A few months ago, I finished a biography of Thomas Jefferson by Jon Meacham. Meacham presented a complex caricature of the man we know as our third president and greatest champion of States Rights. It wasn’t a puff piece – Jefferson’s failure as Virginia’s governor and relationship with a slave named Sally Hemmings, which began when Hemmings was a teenager, were not skipped.

Whatever Jefferson’s failures, the man had conviction. He didn’t just write the Declaration of Independence, he did so at a time when that document was, undoubtedly, treason. Had the British won our first war, our Forefathers all faced summary execution. And until the last few years, we were continually on the verge of losing. Jefferson kept the faith.

Jefferson’s candidacy for president in 1800 was a response to the rise of a monarchist movement in colonial America. There was much to figure out in the first decade of the first Republic and the new Constitution took much of the blame for the chaos. It was hard to have freedom when the limits of freedom – and there had to be some – were unknown. The Revolutionary War was fought for independence from England but not necessarily for democracy. The possibility of reverting to a British-styled constitutional monarchy was real – there were even overtures made to members of the House of Hanover to come help establish some order.

Jefferson wanted to be president to buy the Constitution some time – to protect liberty, democracy, and local government until these concepts proved themselves, and they did. The Republican Party he founded was one of the great sea changes in American political history. Jefferson was, save Washington, the person most responsible for putting our country on the course toward becoming what it is.

After reading Meacham’s account of Jefferson, I thought it would be a nice contrast to read a book about someone who wants to be president to . .. well, I guess just to be president. Hillary Clinton has been in the national public eye for over twenty years now and anyone would have trouble saying just what it is that makes her qualified to head the country. With all her opportunity to lead, where has she ever led anyone? What outcome has she ever effected? (Not counting Benghazi.) More importantly, what outcome does she ever intend to effect?

So I read her book “Hard Choices” just to make sure I wasn’t missing anything. It wasn’t a horrible read, as conservative critics made it out to be. It was more of a vacuum – 450 pages of name-dropping and globe-trotting in her role as Secretary of State with another 100 pages or so tacked on at the end giving lip service to the liberal agenda. To hear her tell it, she is friends with virtually everyone in the world. She has no real ideas and less passion – it was obvious she didn’t write this book. At the end, she thanks her “team” that helped put the book together. Read: Ghostwriters.

Hillary’s utter lack of conviction comes across whenever she gives a speech. Calling her robotic would be an insult to the robotics industry. To paraphrase what Dennis Miller once said about Al Gore – Hillary Clinton couldn’t be any more phony if she were a professional Hillary Clinton impersonator. If this is the Democratic presumptive choice for 2016, Republicans should rejoice.

That is, they could have rejoiced until Jeb Bush threw his hat into the ring this week. His support of Common Core alone will likely lose him any chance at his party’s nomination. Because if thirteen plus five equals ten plus three plus ten minus five we can take the sums of those two different calculations and put them into an algorithm, then that might be an easier way to arrive at 18 than just learning numbers. We all learn different, you know.

But, sadly, we can’t discount the House of Bush. The scary thing about the modern Republican Party is that it always chooses an establishment candidate for president. Always. Even Reagan earned his spot through years of working in the party machine.

Upon wrapping up his second term as Florida’s governor in 2007, Jeb Bush became an advisor at Lehman Brothers shortly before it collapsed. A Mitt Romney business record he does not possess. But he did make millions “advising” other companies after Lehman. Now he’s back after sufficiently cashing in on his lineage in the private sector. If his name was anything other than Bush, would he be taken seriously after abandoning the conservative cause to make some comfort money? If his name was Jeb Huckabee, for example, would anyone return his calls?

The times of Jefferson were dire. If John Adams had won the 1800, the shape of our country would be much different today. Adams’ Federalism eventually had its day, but only after the years of small government leadership from Jefferson through Andrew Jackson in the first half of the 1800s provided this country its character.

Our times are just as dire. $17 trillion is a real number even though it seems too big to be so. Some call our national debt the greatest threat to our security – greater than terrorism. You’ll never hear Jeb Bush talk about our debt with any conviction because he is not a conservative. Like Hillary, he is a moderate and an opportunist – wanting to be president not to forward an agenda, but rather just to be president.

Jefferson fought against the impulse of monarchism. Sounds silly today? Well, would we be talking about either Hillary Clinton or Jeb Bush if it wasn’t for their husband or father and brother respectively? `If choosing a leader by relation isn’t monarchy, then what is?

The mere candidacy of either must have Thomas Jefferson turning over in his grave.

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12-12-14 Van Wert Christmas Shopping Pride

Less than two weeks until Christmas. If you’re like me, you’re having to start thinking about what you might buy for people at 2 P.M. on Christmas Eve. I used to have to worry a lot more, but now I sleep easy thanks to the miracle of gift certificates.

Most people are better shoppers than the likes of me, getting the bulk of Christmas bought in the days after Thanksgiving. But even for the responsible, gift certificates can help fill the gaps. The further you get away from immediate family, the further you are from having a clue what the person you’re buying for might want.  A gift card says, hey, I think you’re worth about $25 to me on Christmas but I only have a cursory knowledge of you and there’s not enough time to change any of that.

Might I take the opportunity to encourage people to finish out their shopping with gift certificates from Van Wert County stores. Shifting $50 from Kohl’s to Peebles or Maurice’s or from Menards to Ace or Sears makes a difference. If enough people do it, it makes a big difference. There might be slightly better deals in the big box stores, but through the miracle of gift cards, the receiving person knows you spent $50 on them instead of thinking you might have caught a blue light special or, to reference Seinfeld, are re-gifting.

There’s certainly no shortage of local stores and they almost all stock gift certificates. Last year, I got my wife a gift card to the then new MOD Boutique and, after shopping there, she had her favorite present. I received a gift card to Ace where I seem to buy something about every third day anyway – I appreciated that much more than whatever $20 guestimate of me someone would have thrown into a normal gift exchange.

It’s hard to miss with a restaurant gift card – everyone eats. I was going to recommend the new Black Angus, which is coming soon where the Bistro used to be, but it’s not likely to open before Christmas. There are plenty of other eateries to choose from. Wild Hare, Fricker’s, Orchard Tree, Balyeat’s, any of the Chinese or Mexican restaurants. Perhaps you would like to introduce someone to more of a novelty, like Cake Crazy or Collins Fine Foods, or to our local coffee at Perks or Brewed Expressions.

Men are especially easy to shop for with gift certificates. If your man can’t find something at Ace, Sears, or Century Trading, then he needs to re-evaluate his manness. Even the chain stores like Rural King and Tractor Supply provide local jobs and pay local taxes so your money is well-utilized there if your giftee has expressed a preference for these stores.

Your kids or grandkids might like something from Mengerink’s or Welch’s with the school logo on it. Your Bible Study group might like something from the Bridge and your boss might like a product offered by Wilkinson’s or Burcham printing shops. There’s ways to give gift certificates for all of that.

If you live around one of our small towns, consider the restaurants or small shops there. From experience, I can tell you that a $25 gift certificate purchased from a small town pizza place is much appreciated because it can bring someone in to try the food that may not have thought to try it otherwise. One new customer can lead to a dozen by word of mouth. Delphos people, you have no shortage of options.

And there’s another Christmas miracle to consider: Installment payments. In my never-ending quest to please my significant other, I happened into Francis Furniture a few years back. You, sirs, may be in a similar quandary – recognize the need for some new furniture but don’t want to get hit with the bill. We got some nice pieces at Francis and they found financing to make it all less painful. (I don’t mind sounding like a commercial.) $1,200 is a lot harder to stomach than $100 a month for the next year. Van Wert Bedrooms can help you too, I’m sure.

The miracle of installments can aid greatly the purchase of jewelry. I’m sure Slusher’s or Laudick’s can set you up with financing to deaden the blow while you still get that same glimmer in your wife’s eye that says forever – for a few days anyway. (Personally, I still reference the movie “Blood Diamond” when my wife starts clamoring for anything glittery but that’s losing its power. Get busy on that sequel, DiCaprio.)

And ladies, think how practical your husband will think you are if you get him a certificate for an oil change at Quick Change. It will blow his mind.

Of course, I’m leaving businesses out but I’ve already exceeded my word limit. You know the stores you might like to share with someone else. DeShia, Once I Was, Rehab Fab, From the Garden, Barnhart’s, the antique stores, the Embroidery Coup – whatever store you like, introduce it to someone else with a gift card. If you have to resort to Wal-Mart and McDonald’s to buy for someone out of town, buy that gift certificate locally – that does help a little.

Nobody’s striking it rich in this economy, so if we want our stores to stick around until times get better, we’ve got to support them when there’s an opportunity. The tail end of Christmas shopping, when you are just filling in or frantic, is perhaps the easiest time to express some pride through investment in our county. And just because it’s easy doesn’t mean it’s insignificant.

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