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Monday, March 31, 2014

Response to Tom Borthwick's Comment, RE: Abington Heights Teachers

You can read my original posting and Tom's comment HERE.

* * * * * * * * 

Tom, with all due respect, you're trying to rationalize bad behavior, plain and simple.  Put yourself in the shoes of a student:

"You are nervous as heck about getting into college in the first place.  You are equally nervous as heck about asking a that you that you have build a rapport write you a recommendation letter for college.  You finally work up the courage and ask the teacher, only to be told no."

How does this make you (again, putting yourself in the shoes of the student) feel?  Words like "crushed" and "devastated" come to my mind. 

Now if you detect a note of passion in my writing here, it's because my three daughters all went through this same process; fortunately for them, they had teachers at Scranton High School who were willing to take the time (as you indicated you do) to do this in support of their students.  That's part of what makes teaching and teachers special:  truly being there for the students when they are needed the most.  Trust me, a student nervous about getting into college is about a needy as they come.

The above noted, what makes this whole mess even worse?  The fact that it's all about money.

Teachers can not simultaneously claim to be "for the students" while also being "for their own economic interests" when those two concepts collide.  They can't have it both ways, no more so than school district administrators can either, and I've been pretty critical of how school districts are run as well (case in point:  school districts allowing sports when academics are suspended during teacher strikes).

What's left for teachers?  Well pick one:

  • Informational pickets
  • Holding public forums
  • Stop chaperoning ski club trips (and other similar types of non-academic activities)
  • Binding arbitration (you know, the process by which taxpayer interest are secondary)
  • Striking

What shouldn't be on the list?  That would be forgoing the writing of recommendation letters.

Tom, this is a shameful act on the part of Abington Heights teachers and I suspect you darn well know it.  While I applaud you for standing by your union brothers and sisters, at the end of the day I can't help but think that you...yourself...would not abide by this kind of union edict if that anxious student came to you and said "Mr Borthwick, I'm really nervous about getting into college.  Could you write me recommendation letter?".  No, I suspect that you'd write the letter, simply because I don't think you could live with yourself otherwise.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Power & My Garage

Two things I learned today:

Power -
Like most older homes, the electrical wiring in our "new" house is, shall we say, "interesting".  Case in point:  we have a circuit breaker that will not re-set, which means that an odd collection of outlets and lights on our second floor will not work.  In our bedroom, for example, one of two wall lights is not working.  Now if I had been living here for a while, I could probably track down where there was short in the circuit and fix it and/or test the breaker and simply replace it.  However, given that my experience here is all of about 4 months, I've decided that the best course of action, after trying some obvious things, is to call an electrician.  Better safe than fried (or burned...which I have the coal stove for anyway).

My Garage -
Know what else is on the non-functional electrical circuit?  That would be, of all things, our garage door opener.  Oh, and this is the same garage that has no other door to it (well there is, but it was boarded & covered up by the looks of it years ago).  And no, we can't see to get the door to open via battery back-up, so we are locked out of our own garage.  Good thing it's just lawn care stuff in there at the moment.  By the looks of things outside at the moment, there won't be a lot of grass cutting going on for a while anyway.

So what to do?  Well, kinda-sorta in order:
  1. Get the electrical problem solved.  A professional is needed for this job, if for no other reason than the fact that it would be shame for the house to burn down 4 months into owning it.
  2. Actually put a door onto the side of the garage.  I can do that one myself, which involves all manner of tools and cutting things.  Heck, I can even use my 25th anniversary Porter-Cable multi-tool.
  3. Figure out how the battery back-up on the garage door works.  That may take some time, and actually getting into the garage would help.
Now all of this could certainly be cause for distress, but I have to thank the Lord for blessing me with Ms Rivers, as she is very cool under pressure.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Doing Wrong: Abington Heights Teachers

The Scranton Times reported on Friday (03.28.2014) that high school teachers in the Abington Heights School District are refusing to write letters of recommendation for students.  The reason?  A dispute with the district over labor contract issues.

Now for those unfamiliar with what's going on, these letters are very important for high school juniors and seniors as they make college plans.  By refusing to write any recommendation letters, teachers are directly harming the students that, in theory, they supposedly care about.

I know, the above is very harsh language, but so be it:  it's one thing for a unionized teacher to go on strike and simultaneously claim to "care about the kids", for after all in Pennsylvania the law governing public schools guarantees a certain number of instructional days per school year.  The net result of a strike therefore is a lot of inconvenience, but in the end it all works out.  More or less.  The same can't be said for the refusal of teachers to write recommendation letters.

Now I had wanted to write this posting yesterday, but I smartly put it off until today, as I was far too angry to write something yesterday that would make a ton of sense.  It would have been just a written rage.  Time has helped in that regard, but I still have a few choice words for the teachers in the Abington Heights School District who are refusing to write recommendation letters:

You are shaming yourselves.

You are bringing shame to your profession.

You are harming the children you claim to care about...for money, no less.

You are proving that what your worst critics say about you is true.

You are using children as cannon balls in a war they are not a party to at a time when they need your support the most.

Stop this nonsense now.  Give up the "holding the kids hostage" approach and start writing recommendation letters again.  Prove that you are better than this blatant display of union thuggery at its worst.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

I am declaring Winter officially over

 For what it's worth, my declarations, plus $1.00, will get you a copy of the Scranton Times.

Anyway, enough of Winter already.  Enough already!

No more single digit mornings.

No more slippery intersections on Main Street in Duryea during my morning drive to work.

No more warming the car up in the morning.

No more "damn, it's cold outside" when I leave work.

No more false sense of hope as you see the bright sun but then get blasted with a cold wind.

No more "it's really too cold to go out for a walk" on the weekends.

No more of it all I tell you, no more!

I want 50+ degree days.

I want rains to come and wash all the crud that Winter left behind.

I want to leave my home office door open and feel a nice warm breeze.

I want to plan weekend activities that don't involve bundling up.

I want to be to be able to travel for business and not have to worry about snow.

I want to ride my bike.

I want to clean out and organize the garage.

I want to rake up the 2 years worth of leaves in my back yard.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Why I don't drink (alcohol, that is)

As I mentioned to a family member yesterday, sometimes it's easier to see imaginary demons on the outside than it is to face the real ones that reside on the inside.  No where that more true than when the subject is substance abuse.  For me, this has translated to almost 15 years of nearly complete abstinence from alcohol.

Allow me to digress.

Like most "red blooded American teenagers", I did my share of breaking the law via consuming alcohol underage.  It was stupid then, and if I could get my hands on a DeLorean time machine I would most certainly go back in time and dope slap myself upside the head more than a few times.  That trend of drinking continued into college, where I entered what I would call the "major leagues" of alcohol consumption.  Nothing screams over-indulgence like a college dorm party.  From there, I would drink from time to time, but the physicality associated with drinking became problematic:  the older I got, the more I would end up feeling really, really sick afterwards.  

I think the physical reaction to alcohol was trying to tell me something.

That "something" was a lesson, if you will, about not necessarily what alcohol (or any abused drug for that matter) does to you body in as much as what it does to your mind and your spirit.  I've come to learn and appreciate the fact that such things create a fiction for you...they amplify whatever nonsense is in your  head into proportions that wouldn't ordinarily be allowed in a non-inebriated state.  Bitter and angry?  Getting drunk will make you super bitter and angry.  Funny, but that doesn't sound like much of a help to me.

Residing in the back of my head also is the fact that I had a father who, for all intensive purposes, spent the better part of his life incessantly trying to escape demons in a bottle of booze. For the record, the demons always seemed to find him anyway (that's what happens when they are actually on the in...not out...side).  Growing up there was no greater insult that my mother could hurl at her sons than to say "don't be like your father".  On one hand, that's a pretty horrible comment to make; on the other, it was a simple phrase with a ton-o-meaning:  face your reality...whatever it may be...with your head firmly planted on your own head.

So why don't I drink?  Well I don't like the taste of booze for starters.  And in fact I will have a glass of wine once or twice a year.  Mostly though, I don't like what it represents.  I happen to like my reality, well, real.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Bathroom Project

When Ms Rivers and I were contemplating the purchase of the place from which I now write this, our initial reactions when viewing the house for the first time were something along these lines:

Steve - Hey, way cool.  Like the woodwork on the floors and the stairway.  It has space for an office with its own porch!  And we kinda get that fireplace we wanted!  It has a garage!  The kitchen is nice too.

Chris - It's okay.  The upstairs layout is kind of odd.  I like the kitchen.  The woodwork is nice.  Not sure about the parking situation though.

Then there was something of a revelation on the part of Ms Rivers:

Chris - Hey, we could turn the 10'x10' bedroom into a spare bathroom!  That would solve a lot of problems!  I could also move the washer and dryer upstairs.

Then I went into full "2 year civil engineering student mode" and immediately figured out how the plumbing would run.  Fast forward a week or two and we have a plumbing contractor looking at the house (which was our third viewing of the home...God bless the former owners for being so patient with us) and he agrees that the new bathroom idea is very do-able.  In fact, in the whole process we only made one mistake...more on that in a bit.

The actual work commenced a few weeks after I moved in, back in December.  Technically it's still not 100% complete, as we need to have some roof work done having to do with venting; that work couldn't be finished until after the snow melted, as it's simply not safe to have a ladder sitting on ice (even I know that...).  From a cosmetic and functional perspective the work has been done for a while now, with the last two items being things that I did:  adding a privacy film over the window and mounting a towel rack/shelving over the toilet.

Here are some pictures.

January 5, 2014 - This was the space before work began.  The room is about 10'x10' with no closet.  There was a wall-mounted light that was controlled by a pull-chain (no switch).  Like the rest of the house, it has an electric heat register, controlled by its own thermostat.  

January 7, 2014 - Work begins.  It was my idea to have the plumbing running outside the exterior wall (facing inside the house), down into the basement.  This eliminated the need to open up walls downstairs and prevents the water lines from ever freezing.  On the first floor the plumbing was covered by boxing in a corner right by the front door.  The troth you see here is where the plumbing will be run; top left is where the venting, waste water and water service come into the room.  The right hand side is where the washer and dryer will be located.  The house itself is very well insulated for an older home; if you look at the left hand side you can see insulation in wall itself.

January 11, 2014 - Plumbing is installed.  On the left will be the shower, the center the vanity and the right the toilet.  In the center you can see the waste and service lines running to the washer.  What you can't see?  That would be the extensive electrical work we had to have completed to make the project work.  There was a secondary electric service panel in the attic, but was of a brand that is known to randomly burst into flames (the only negative on our inspection report), so we had it replaced with a Square D panel, upgraded to accommodate an electric dryer.  We also had an overhead vent, night light, main light and heat lamp installed in the ceiling as well, plus the addition of many new outlets and lighting above the vanity.

January 25, 2014 - Rough work is complete and painting has begun.  We picked a light purple, bathroom grade paint for the walls, with the trim being gloss white.  You can also see the electrical box where the overhead light, night light, vent fan and heating lamp will be controlled.

March 23, 2014 - The finished product.  The flooring we picked as a high-grade Armstrong vinyl.  We did think about putting stone on the floor, but with an older home that's problematic because of the floor not being completely, 100% level.  What's more, having a washing machine in the room also meant that we'd want something that could easily handle the possibility of water spills (but we also purchased the best water service lines available to connect into the washer, lines that should really last 10+ years).  You can also see the light/night light/heater and vent unit at the top of the picture.  

In doing this project, we had a couple guidelines that helped us make decisions:
  • Substance - Since the bathroom is primarily for Ms River's sons, we wanted the materials to be "teenage boy" proof to the greatest extent.  That meant very durable paint, flooring and fixtures.  
  • Protection - Given the whole teenage boy thing, and the fact that this was also going to be a laundry room, we made deliberate decisions about ancillary materials, including the above referenced high-quality steel water service lines, the use of a pan under the washer, timers for the vent and overhead heating units (boys forget to turn things off...I should know, as I was once a boy...), and best-possible quality electrical service lines and sub-panel.
  • Future Improvements - The "laundry side" of the room is designed such that we can upgrade the washer and dryer in the future.  Ideally that would mean having stacked unit that would then allow us to install something like a clothes folding table.
All told, we are very happy with the project results.

My only regret?  Well, that would be in the economics side of this project.  I made the mistake of first mentioning a budget for the project to the contractor, which of course is what the total project cost came in at; this means that we either got a great deal financially on this, or we, well, didn't.  Lesson learned:  next time ask them what it will cost before telling them what you would be willing to pay.  Now in the grand scheme of things it will all work out, because we got the property at about $25,000 less than what our upper-mid point was for a house purchase, so we more than had the money to make this happen.  What's more, we think that having a house with 2.5 bathrooms and an upstairs laundry room definitely increases the value of the property.  Lastly, having the new full bathroom enabled us to do some other minor work upstairs to create a master suite, complete with its own bathroom, office, and screened in second floor porch.

In the end, it's definitely been worth the money and the inconvenience.  We're even thinking about our next two projects:  re-locating the basement steps (which will allow us to create a full walk-in pantry in the kitchen) and a deck attached to the rear (first floor) porch.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Road Apples, #146

No miracle cure here...TV pitchman and proponent of "secrets they don't want you to know about" Kevin Trudeau is headed to the pokey to spend the next 10 years.  Details HERE.  Mr Trudeau is a small-time con-artist who discovered the power of infomercials on late-night TV.  150 years ago he would have been selling snake oil.  Having read about him over the years, what's more fascinating than his actual scams is the lengths to which he has gone to avoid actually stopping what he was convicted of doing years ago.  In fact, I'm reasonably sure that over the past year I've actually seen this huckster on TV (even when he was apparently banned from such activity).

From the Department of Stupid Lawsuits...a New Jersey teenager has dropped a lawsuit against her parents.  Details HERE.  Yes, she was suing her parents.  It just goes to show you that, in America, if you have money and a nutty idea, you will absolutely find a lawyer to help you carry it out.

Religion and Morality...There is a great opinion piece at CNN that's worth reading on the subject of religion and morality.  You can link to it HERE.  One of the take-aways is this:  if morality requires religion, then why aren't jails full of atheists?  Yes, I do agree that a belief in a higher power can help form concepts such as morality, it's clearly not the only way these concepts can be formed.  What's more, religion can also lead to immorality; one need only look at some of the horrible misdeeds done in the name of religion for proof.  Speaking of religion and immorality, I'm almost done reading this book...

...full report to come.  You can find out more about the book at  Read the's an interesting mix of opinions.  Of course the one star ratings basically claim "Vatican Bashing", but those same folks are probably incapable of reading any books that is critical of the Catholic Church without making that same claim.

Comedian David Brenner...recently passed away.  I can't say that I was much of a fan of his work (growing up I was more into Richard Pryor and George Carlin), but the guy seemed to have staying power.  He also seemed to clearly love his work.  In a world full of self-obsessed and self-loathing celebrities, David Brenner is an example of someone who managed to have a career that didn't kill him.  Rest in Peace.

Toys...I don't really buy that much stuff for myself.  Not being a clothes horse, a gambler, a drinker, a car nut or anything of the sort, my "toys" are generally limited to some technology and, every five years or so, a new camera.  That noted, I did treat myself to a new car stereo.  Specially, the factory radio in my Nissan works well, but I unfortunately managed to bust the audio-out jack a few months ago, which means no connecting external music players.  Anyway, I do get to drive many different kinds of rental cars for my job, and I just love the ones that have touch-screen radios.  So putting both things together, I decided to buy a new radio for the Nissan.  I didn't over-research it, but what I ended up buying is a Kenwood receiver with a 7" screen.  It has all the usual bells-n-whistles, plus Bluetooth so that I can connect my cellphone through it as well.  The installation is scheduled for next Friday.

Leaves, leaves everywhere...When Ms Rivers and I bought our new house in December, we weren't paying that much attention the condition of the yards (front and back), but now that the polar icecaps have melted in West Pittston, it's pretty clear that nothing has been raked on the property in a very, very long time.  No I love doing yard work...but I am sure to get it up to my standards it will take a while.  Like I said, it's a good thing that I really like yard work. also gives me an excuse to get various new forms of outdoor power equipment, including a new weed-wacker and a hedge clipper.  For the latter I'm seriously thinking about something gas powered, as we do have more than a few hedges on the property.

Speaking of yard work...One thing that is abundantly clear to me, as I start the countdown to a half century on the planet, is that my body is starting to feel it's age.  I simply get more aches than I did twenty years ago.  Mind you that doesn't really stop me from doing stuff, but it certainly makes me feel my age it after the stuff is done.  To quote that great philosopher Butthead, "Uh uh uhhh uh uh uhhh, he's old".

Friday, March 21, 2014

Rest in Peace Fred Phelps

As a follow-up to this posting...

...yesterday it was reported that Mr Phelps passed away.

A younger person asked me if I thought Fred Phelps was burning in Hell.  My answer?  Well first, the answer to that question is far, far above my pay grade.  Second, I really, truly believe that all of us, up until the very moment of our very last breath, have a shot at redemption.  Every day and every moment we are on this Earth we have a chance to "get it right".  So here's to hoping that before he passed, Fred Phelps found release from the anger and outrage that apparently consumed so much of his life in latter years.

Rest in Peace Fred Phelps.

Monday, March 17, 2014

St Patrick's Day, Scranton Style

I saw these on-line and just couldn't resist, as sometimes what is intended to be funny is actually fairly close to accurate.

The first is courtesy of The Onion...

The headline reads "Irish-Americans Gear Up For 'The Reinforcin' O' The Stereotypes'" .  Hmmm, thinking they may be on to something there.

Next we have this little gem, also from The Onion...

...and in the "actual real stuff" department, we have this news item from the Scranton Sucks Facebook page...

Yes, quite the family-friendly event going there.  I've actually told people from out of town NOT to go to the St Patrick's Day Parade in Scranton, unless of course you actually like seeing people getting drunk at 10am, enjoy watching someone vomit in a gutter or have a love affair with outside the bar fistfights.

Just to end this on a high note, if you will, here is what I've suggested to Mike Sporer should be the official theme song of the Scranton St Patrick's Day Parade:  Ladies and gentlemen, Dropkick Murphys...

Erin go-freak'n bragh one and all.

Let Fred Phelps die in peace

It's been widely reported that the (apparently former) head of the Westboro Baptist Church, Fred Phelps Sr., is near death.  You can read an article about it HERE.

As you probably already know, Phelps and his cabal are (in)famous for protesting at various funerals.  While the targets of their rantings were supposedly homosexuals, in reality they protested at the funerals of many straight folks as well, creating connections to homosexuality like little children create imaginary friends.  Mostly though, they seems to be less interested in "fighting" homosexuality as they were in promoting themselves and their twisted view of Christianity.

Now the temptation here would be for any number of groups (homosexuals, the military, bikers, college students, etc.) to want to protest at Phelps funeral, but I think that is a bad idea.  Instead, let the man die in whatever peace that may exist for his soul and make his funeral the non-event of the new century.  No signs, no protests, no cameras, no "I-team reporter coverage at 6" or anything of the sort.  Nothing, just the quiet of a deceased man and what family he has left.

Yes, what I am suggesting is, in the case of Fred Phelps, the ultimate example of Christianity at its finest:  turn the other cheek.  Let this bitter man face whatever judgement that awaits him in the obscurity that he and his family apparently so disliked.  Oh, and if you are so inclined, pray for his soul as well, as well as for the souls of all the departed.  We owe this not to the Fred Phelps' of this world but to ourselves.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Best Rickroll, Ever

If you're not familiar with the concept of the "rickroll" then you can get up to speed HERE.

Anyway, without any further hesitation, here is the best rickroll, ever.


Why can't we have cool politicians too?

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

5 Things our elected local and state officials could do...

In my last posting I kinda, sorta, well maybe complained just a little bit.  Rightfully so I might add, as there is much to complain about in these parts.  That did get me thinking though about what we, the residents of NEPA, should be doing right now to make this a better place for ourselves and our communities.  One thing that immediately comes to mind is holding our elected officials accountable for their actions.   So as a result, here are some thoughts, not necessarily listed in order of importance, about what I think our elected officials could be doing to improve the economy of NEPA.
  1. End party line voting.  Party line voting, in my mind, actually encourages an ignorant electorate, which is ultimately responsible for some of what harms this area.  It's the same as giving your vote to someone else (in this case, that would be the "smoke filled back room" political bosses).  This practice needs to end. Voters need to make decisions about candidates, not political parties.  They need to make individual choices for elected offices, not sweeping stimulus-response actions initiated by political hacks.  
  2. Eliminate the ability to governments to tax gross receipts (and other abusive business taxes).  As I noted yesterday, gross receipts taxation is punitive for private sector businesses.  Ditto for any and every other form of business operations taxation that isn't tied to actual profitability.  Yes, businesses should certainly be paying things like property taxes, but places like Scranton have tax structures that basically exist to harm the very businesses that they should be, in theory, wanting to attract.  Gee, do you think that maybe this has had some impact on our abysmal unemployment rate?
  3. Re-assess property values on a regular basis.  Our systems for taxing real estate are designed to hinder initiative and new home ownership.  They are also designed to create work for lawyers through almost automatic appeals of property taxation.  It's time to end the charade.  The reality is that the current system (in Lackawanna County, especially) helps the well off, encourages the status quo, facilitates the hiding of properties from the tax rolls and hurts the middle class.  Enough already.  There should be systematic property re-assessment every twenty years or so.  
  4. Make the concept of "ability to pay" a real, actual, tangible factor in municipal union arbitration & court awards.  Taxpayers do not have an unlimited supply of money for municipal employee salaries and benefits, yet labor arbitrators (and courts) routinely don't seem to care about an government's actual ability to pay for the awards they decree.  Unrealistic awards strangle the budgets of local governments and make bad situations, such as what is happening in Scranton, even worse.  This leads to more oppressive taxes that ultimately harms the local economy.  A viscous cycle for sure, and another example of insanity at it's finest.  Sorry Scranton firefighters and policemen, but in as much as a court said you should get $21 million...and maybe you were cheated out of some back pay...the reality is that there simply isn't $21 million dollars laying around in Scranton to give you.  Period.
  5. Develop a simple and standardized economic development scorecard for local governments.  Let's have our decision makers come up with a scorecard that actually lists economic development factors (types and rates of taxation, infrastructure considerations, land available for development, education rates, etc.) and then have an organization like Pennsylvania's office of Community and Economic Development rate governments accordingly.  Create data for voters to actually evaluate when they make decisions about who to vote for and why.  NEPA has had tons of politicians tout their economic development prowess to voters but yet, still, we have (arguably) the worst economy in Pennsylvania.  Anyone else here see the disconnect?  Time to shed the light of reality into the dark corners of political boasting. 

Small steps, for sure, but still infinitely achievable.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

NEPA's worship of the public sector

There was a great article in the March 9th edition of the Scranton Sunday Times, where the newspaper basically figured out that about 1 in 10 employees in the Dunmore School District are related to members (past and present) of district administration.  You can link to the article HERE. Bravo to the Scranton Times for digging in deep on this particular topic.

Now I've ragged on an on about nep(a)otism here from time to time, so need to re-seed the field.  However there is another angle to this that I've referenced before which I think bears re-treading.

I think this whole sad state of the Dunmore School District and in other simply a symptom of a larger problem:  namely a general indifference (at best) to the private sector and a over-whelming tilt towards the pubic sector when it comes to employment and economic development in NEPA.

Consider the following:

"Where the (good) jobs are"
Why is there so much nep(a)otism in the Dunmore School District (and in Scranton and other places as well)?  I'd guess because that's where the good jobs are considered to reside.  What does this say about the private sector economy in NEPA?  I'd also add, on the side, that many private sector employers have at least some policies in place to guard against nepotism.

"Youse should get a job at Da Depot, like uncle Cappy did"
Why is there a cloud of doom over NEPA (and much marshaling of the troops) when another base closing commission begins to look at Tobyhanna Army Depot (affectionately known as "DaDepot")?  Again, because in NEPA that's where so many of the best jobs are to be found.  Nothing against the work done at DaDepot, but relying on the government as a major source for employment will always involve an almost constant sense of economic endangerment, this side of 1970.

"Sure, why shouldn't a county government should own a shopping mall"
The Steamtown Mall is dying.  What do the county commissioners almost immediately propose?  Why have the county take over the site via eminent domain.  Link HERE.  For the record, Lackawanna County only a few years ago got out of the ski resort business, so I guess there is a general hunkering for more private sector endeavors to partake in before too long.  Now the days of touting the advantages and/or disadvantages of the Steamtown Mall are long gone, as it's here and we all need to deal with it.  What's more, I'm not opposed to the government helping in an effort to revitalize the property, but when all is said and done, it should be owned and operated by the private sector, subject the market disciplines that the private sector requires.  Anything else is just a smoke-screen and will cost taxpayer even more.

"Tax the bastards to death"
On the flip side of the coin, why are Scranton business owners subject to a gross receipt tax?  To the uneducated, allow me to explain:  this is a tax where you pay a percentage tax on what you take in, in addition to the taxes you pay on what you make.  With a gross receipt tax, even if you are losing money you still have to pay the City of Scranton.  Again, why is this?  See thoughts above; in Scranton (at least), the private sector is treated at best with indifference, as this is a punitive tax the has the impact of punishing private sector employers.

"NEPA:  Winner of the award for highest unemployment rate, several years running"
So why does NEPA chronically have the highest unemployment rate in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania?  It's a darn good question, and for the record I've yet to hear a very good answer.  Think about it for a second:

...we have excellent transportation links
...close proximity to large east coast population centers
...several universities that produce thousands of highly qualified graduates each year
...a willing workforce and land that could be developed.

So again, why the highest unemployment rate in the state?  Remember, this means that such garden spots as Johnstown , Altoona and Erie have chronically had lower unemployment rates than NEPA.

I could go on and on, but the point is well made, I think.  In NEPA, I'd venture to guess that, as a percentage of the total labor force employed, the public sector has a higher than average hold in NEPA than it does in other parts of the state.  Now if anyone has any statistics to prove me wrong, then bring'm on, because I'd gladly eat crow on that one if my hunch is incorrect.  Anyway, I truly think that there is an almost in-grained distrust of the private sector in our region, which translates to a defaulted trust in government.  Whenever government is given such power, it is inevitable that there will be some abuse.  The above referenced article about the Dunmore School District is a great example, in that I'll bet the district is probably one of the largest employers in Dunmore.  Holding sway over that many employment opportunities begs for corruption, especially in organizations where nepotism and patronage are treated as job perks for administrators.

Long on questions and short on answers, I know.  My final conclusion is this though:  so long as the private sector is  treated with (at best) distrust, NEPA will continue to suffer economically.  The reality is that the coal barons are gone and the mines are closed.  NEPA residents can stop thinking like chronically oppressed coal miners, ever distrustful of the private sector.  This kind of ingrained attitude...and the policies it spawns...are a part of what's holding the area back.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Mike McQueary's hard lessons

New information is surfacing about Mike McQueary, the assistant who witnessed actual abuse on the part of former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky.  You can read more HERE.

In some ways, I feel genuinely bad for Mr McQueary.  As a fellow graduate of Penn State, I know how easy it is to get fully caught up in the whole "Football U" thing.  Mr McQueary?  Heck, he spent years at ground zero.  Also, it appears that there are elements to his own personal story that make the whole abuse witnessing and trial pretty painful for him.

The whole thing reminds me of a sewage treatment plant.  Yes, the place your toilet ultimately flushes to.

You see, in a sewage treatment plant it stinks.  People that work there go to work knowing that it stunk yesterday, it will stink today and tomorrow will be smelly as well.  Now the folks in a sewage treatment plant have one advantage though:  they know about the smelly aspect of their employment.

With Penn State's football program, it's pretty clear that some things were smelly too, but yet so many, such as Mr McQueary, were so enthralled in a football culture that they were blind (or whatever the equivalent is to not having a sense of smell) to the real stench around them.  I refer to the stench of "what really and only matters is football; everything else...including those things that might take away from football...are secondary".  A boy getting raped in a shower?  Nahhh, just tell Coach Paterno and forget about it.  A boy getting raped in the shower?  Coach Paterno told his boss* so now he can forget about it.  Gambling problem?  That's okay, as long as you are betting on football and Penn State to win.

It really does boil down to culture:  when you live and work in a culture that says "the only thing that matters is football", then of course things like child rape get inevitably swept under the rug.  This was and still is, to this very day, pervasive in some corners of the extended Penn State community.  Some people actually believe that Coach Paterno did enough to stop the abuse, and yet the facts show that he treated the report by Mr McQueary at best as a "to do" item on daily check-list of of things that distracted him from football.   You can read an interesting and factually correct accounting of these events HERE.  Allow me to quote from the article:

According to the Freeh Report, in e-mails from February 2001—after Mike McQueary reported witnessing Sandusky rape a small child in Penn State's Football Program's Lasch building—President Spanier, Vice President Gary Schultz and athletic director Tim Curley decided to confront Sandusky, alert Sandusky's charity/victim breeding ground The Second Mile and, most importantly, contact the Department of Welfare.
That plan changed only after Curley had a little chinwag with coach Joe Paterno.
In an e-mail to Spanier and Schultz Curley writes, "After giving it more thought and talking it over with Joe yesterday, I am uncomfortable with what we agreed were the next steps."
The three decide to merely confront Sandusky and do not contact the Department of Welfare or any law enforcement agency. They decide to keep it hushed up because of a conversation Curley had with Paterno. We don't know what Paterno may have said, but we do have more than two functioning brain cells and can pretty much figure out that Paterno persuaded Curley not to take this outside the University. Keep it in house. And keep it in house they did.
(Source:  The Bleacher Report:  Penn State Football We Now Know What Joe Paterno Knew)

Now why keep it in house?  Because doing so minimized the damage to the Penn State football program.  That's why.

In the end, Mike McQueary is yet another victim of a system that was rewarding the wrong things.  I do feel genuinely bad for Mr McQueary, as his life is in shreds.  And yet, as difficult as he has it, he is still probably in far better shape than that boy Jerry Sandusky raped in the shower all those years ago.  That same boy that Mike McQueary could have helped, had he only acted.  History, it seems, repeats itself in oh so many tragic ways.

As I do with most of my Penn State postings (at least the one's that tend to cheese folks off), I'll sign this...

Steve Albert
Life Member, Penn State Alumni Association
Prior Board Member, Penn State Harrisburg Alumni Society
Graduate, Class of 1986

(*) Truly the saddest joke of them all, as anyone with any insight about how things actually worked at Penn State "back in the day" will tell you that Joe Paterno had no boss.  In fact, when the board once attempted to get him to retire he basically told them the equivalent of "No thanks boys; I think I'll stay on.  No get out of here, as I have a football program to run".

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Response to Tom Borthwick's recent comment

My fellow blogger Tom Borthwick recently commented on THIS POSTING.  Here's what he had to say"

Hey Steve!

I was running for office while Bill was, so I didn't run around putting up signs or knocking on doors for him. I was an open supporter, but there are a lot of other hard workers out there who haven't been put on boards.

In my case, I feel I was asked because I'm a total geek. For the past two years, I have been e-mailing Bill any kind of research or innovative articles I've found on municipal finance, revenue, and even parking. Jon Geeting over at Keystone Politics has pointed me to a lot of great information over the years.

I honestly believe Bill picked me not because of patronage or quid pro quo, but rather I will work. 

Those are just my thoughts. God knows I've been rejected 100 times for other posts! :o)


Now not being one to miss an opportunity to create some (relatively) easy content, I thought I'd respond in this space.  With apologies for bold text, as my eyes are bothering me and I need just about every enhancement I can think of in order to be able to type this.

Dear Tom,

Congratulations again on being named to the Parking Authority.  Let me say first and foremost that I do honestly and truly believe that your interest in helping the City of Scranton is born out of genuine love and concern for your home, not out of a desire for personal gain.  Your level of enthusiasm is simply too real to fake, and I know the shoe leather and calories you have expended in your efforts to make a difference. 

However (and you knew there was going to be a "however"), my issue with board and authority positions has more to do with the selection process than it does personalities.  For me, it's an even worse farce than something you are (sadly) all too familiar with, namely the appointment of replacement directors for the Scranton School District (SSD).  While the SSD at least goes through the appearance of a process...all be it in an incredibly disingenuous manner...the current and all past mayors of Scranton don't even bother going through the motions.  The electorate has, in fact, no way of knowing how or why individuals are picked for these leadership and policy making positions.  Now in your case you told me that you have been in correspondence with Mayor Courtright about parking issues and ideas, which is nothing short of terrific.  But here's my question for you:  are you the exception or the rule?

Want an answer to the question I just posed Tom?  I'm feeling generous, so what the heck:  The answer is "we have no idea".  Want to know why we have no idea?  Because the process of selecting board and authority members is, in fact, a classic example of one where political patronage is the rule, not the exception.  There is no transparency.  Members of the public have to take it as a article of faith that a SCRANTON POLITICIAN IS NOT MAKING POLITICAL decisions.  Re-read that one for me Tom:  the current system relies on Scranton politicians not acting like Scranton politicians.  

Excuse me for a moment, as I have to laugh myself into a petit mal seizure*.


Now in fairness, your typical Scranton politician will respond to my comments (above) by saying something like "But, but, but Steve...City Council has to approve the appointments!  That keeps politics out of the process".   

Oh wait, hold on again for a moment.

Sorry, I had another one of those laughter induced seizures.

The reality is that Scranton City Council has no say in the process for selecting board and authority candidates; all they can do is vote yes or no on an appointment.  What's more, anyone want to argue with me about the effectiveness of past and present Scranton City Councils when it comes to just about anything?  In this realm, they are a check and balance that basically checks and balances nothing.  Yes, a prior council did require that resumes come with all nominations, but we all know that was an exercise in the political theater of "gotcha" between former Mayor Doherty and former Council President Evans.  

The bottom line is this Tom:  Your appointment is a blip.  An aberration.  An anomaly.  I know this because the process for selecting board and authority members is not transparent.  It is not open to public scrutiny.  It's an exercise in political privilege that everyone knows is diseased, but in the open and festering wounds that are Scranton, it is simply the lessor of many forms of decay.

The residents of Scranton are fortunate in that now there is one person (you Tom) who seems genuinely interested in helping the city through an mayoral appointment.  Now there may be others serving on boards and authorities who are also genuine in their desire to serve the city and who are actually qualified for the positions they hold, but the current process simply doesn't let the taxpayers know those facts.  In the end, that was my point in RA#145.

All the Best!
- Steve

(*) For the record, there is nothing funny about seizures or seizure disorders.  I've known people who suffered from them, and my use of the phrase here is just to make a point.  No offense is intended.

Monday, March 3, 2014

The Church at it Worst

Worth the effort to read.

A Church So Poor It Has to Close Schools, Yet So Rich It Can Build a Palace

I know, blah, blah, blah...Catholic bashing...blah, blah, blah.  Except until you read the last four paragraphs of this story, then you realize that this isn't Catholic bashing; rather, it's simply calling out a hypocrite.

In the end, it's pretty clear to me that Archbishop John J. Myers is living far more like Pontius Pilate than John the Baptist (or any other deciple of Jesus Christ).

Shame on you John J. Myers.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Road Apples, #145

Blogging Units...I seem to have more of them these days, well the last few days excluded.  Like most things in life (that matter), energy for pontificating seems to wax and wane over time.  A kind of circadian rhythm if you will for the mock writer.  Anyway, I think it has more to do with that fact that, with my new surroundings and doings, I seem to have found the spaces in time where this kind of endeavor fits.  No complaints.

Scranton School proof positive that some things never, ever change.  Apparently the hiring of temporary maintenance workers still falls under the privilege of Board Directors, or so says an article in yesterday's Sunday Times.  Being elected to the Scranton School Board means that you help run the district; it doesn't mean that you have the power to run an employment agency for your friends and relatives.  Ah, the hiring of relatives, now that is a story in and of itself.  As I have said here time and time again, no relative of a board member or a senior administrator should ever be hired in the Scranton School District, period.  Doing so simply perpetuates an inbred sense of entitlement and embellishes the district's well-earned reputation for graft.  "But what if a relative is the best candidate for a job?" is the cry that is heard by those who benefit from such activities.  My response?  There is no way to actually prove that in a meaningful way, but I can prove that nepotism and cronyism has harmed the district.  As I said, something never change.

Boards and Committees...The Scranton Times is all over newly in office Scranton Mayor Bill Courtright's actions surrounding various boards and committees.  In some instances he has asked sitting board members to resign (they by and large said "no") and in others, he can simply make the change unilaterally.  I'll also note that fellow blogger Tom Borthwick was recently appointed to one of these boards by the Mayor.  Tom's a good guy and I know he will do well, so I don't have an issue with his specific appointment, but I do have an issue with the process as a whole.  Why? Because despite it being 2014, this is still yet another example of political patronage at work.  What was the criteria that the Mayor used to fill these positions, other than that of "political supporter"?  That's a trick question, I know.  This is why many cities are so poorly run.  There is a better way:  how about establishing criteria for board membership, advertising for the openings, and conducting public interviews?  I'm not so foolish as to think that politics can be removed from the process of filling board and committee vacancies, but at least the process can be more transparent.

By the way, if you see a connection between the last two segments, above, then you get a gold star.  There is a common thread:  politicians and their public-sector sense of entitlement.

Anthracite Coal...Having a wood/coal burning stove is proving to be quite the exploration.  Biggest lesson?  Despite it being called "coal", coal does not, in fact, always want to burn.  I think it would actually prefer not to burn, truth be told.  Now when you do get it to burn it's pretty neat (I think the temperature gets close to 900 degrees when it is going good), but getting it to that point?  It's kind of like trying to potty train a toddler.  So far, in maybe three weeks of running the stove, we have had one true, complete burn-down to the point of having to re-fire it.  Two other times it got close to going out, but I was able to salvage the last few embers and get it going again.  Luckily I have about 3/4 of a ton of "nut" coal from which to play with for the balance of the heating season.

Arizona, the post-script...Some talking heads on the political Left are dismissing the veto by Arizona Governor Jan Brewer of the controversial pro-discrimination bill as being nothing more than "business really rules things", as if it actually wasn't much of a victory against discrimination.  I disagree.  Doing the right thing will almost always get you criticized, and no where is that more true than in the world of politics.  The very fact that folks on both the Right and Left fringes were critical of the decision is pretty much proof that Governor Brewer did the right thing.  To imply a motive in this case is simply a waste of time; at best, you can go by what she noted in her signing statement (see HERE), that basically says that this was a bad law that was designed to solve a non-existent problem.  Governor Brewer did the right thing, period.  Everyone needs to move on now.

But I'm not going to move least for a moment.  A letter to the editor writer in a recent edition of the Scranton Times tried to defend the Arizona pro-discrimination bill by making comparisons to NAZI party members asking a Jewish baker to make little swastika cupcakes.  I kid you not.  As if there are hordes of NAZIs just waiting to have a cupcake party near you.  The reality is this:  if you want to do business in the public square, then you have to serve the public, meaning all the public.  Even the public you may find politically offensive.  In the case of the NAZI cupcake party, well as long as Adolf's Admirers were paying good American money for the cupcakes, then I say "have at it Jewish baker!".  That's not to say that I'd do a very good job making the cupcakes.  Oh, and note that a backward swastika is actually an ancient symbol for peace (reference HERE).

Now I'm not going to end this posting on a sour note by talking about NAZIs, so here's a picture of a cat that looks like Adolf Hitler (known as a Kitler).

(Yes, the cat's name is Adolf.  For more cats that look like Hitler visit