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Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The hens are walking down North Washington Avenue in Scranton

Ever hear the expression "the hens are coming home to roost?"?  Well when it comes to Scranton's financial situation, they are now just a few blocks away from city hall.

This is the end.  There aren't enough assets to sell.  The Auditor General is just confirming what many have been saying all along:  Scranton is functionally bankrupt.

When the pension plans run dry, which they will, retirees who were sold a bill of goods...namely pension benefits that city leaders knew (or should have known) were unsustainable...will take legal action that will lead to a bankruptcy declaration.

Will it happen in 3 years?  I'm not sure.  The city could find something else to sell, or lease back, or hold a hunkering large bake sale for that matter, forestalling the inevitable for a bit longer.  In the end though, the gravity of Scranton's finances, where far more is spent than which is taken in, will force this issue to come to a boil.

Gloom and doom?  Hardly.  More like a reality that successive city mayors and council members have patently ignored for decades.

Mark my words:  this will not end well.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

High Anxiety

As I write this I am operating on maybe two hours of what would best be described as "low grade" sleep.  My stomach feels like it is becoming a super-massive black hole.  My neck is sore.  What's it all about?

High anxiety.

I am embarking on a new endeavor, and after my first experience I am feeling like I was just told I have three months to live.  It's all so horribly, horribly illogical; I don't feel well and I loathe the fact that I can't really articulate why I don't feel well.  

What if I can't do this?

What if I fail?

Who will be disappointed?

What if I embarrass myself?

What if I'm not as good as others think?

What if doing this takes up all of my free time?

I could go on and on and on, and the questions wouldn't make any more sense.  Yes, even I know the answers to the above questions:

Q: What if I can't do this?
A:  In fact I can.  Others have and I can too.

Q: What if I fail?
A:  There isn't a "fail" here, there is only a "try".  If it ends up not working out, then so be it.

Q: Who will be disappointed?
A:  For the people that truly matter in my life, no one.

Q: What if I embarrass myself?
A:  I already have a doctorate in embarrassing myself.

Q: What if I'm not as good as others think?
A:  It doesn't matter what others think, only what I think.

Q: What if doing this takes up all of my free time?
A:  It will not, and besides, I can make this work time wise.

You see though, therein lies the problem:  I know the answers but yet I still feel this way.  I suspect that, in the end, the only "cure" is to march forward.  Maybe, just maybe, what I am afraid of is simply being afraid.  That's a tough statement to make coming from someone like me, but as I often say, "it has the benefit of being true".  It's at times like this that I fall back on that great philosopher of modern times, Sylvester Stallone.

I can't think of a good way to end this posting, so I'll simply, well, end it.

Here's to trying.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

The summer that was...

It's Sunday August 24th as I  begin to  write this, and while the meteorologists out there may disagree, for most purposes the summer of 2014 is coming to a close.

How was yours?*

Mine?  Well, in a word, "busy".  Maybe too busy actually.

There were two formal vacations:  Ocean City, Maryland and Southwest Harbor, Maine.  Both were nice and relaxing (while there), but I also think it made for a summer that was a tad bit too hectic.  Looking back, I probably should have taken a "staycation" as well.  It would have been nice to simply bike more and explore the new territories a bit.  It would have also been nice to get in some fishing, but that fell victim to time pressures (so much so that I didn't even bother to get a Pennsylvania license this year).

There were big family events:  My oldest daughter moved back to Pennsylvania from Missouri, via North Dakota.  Long story for her to tell.  My middle daughter moved to Massachusetts where she is starting graduate school.  Did I mention the horrid drive up to and back from Amherst?  Oh, yeah, I wrote an entire posting on it.  My youngest daughter continued to "make the donuts" throughout it all.

There was simply being in a new house this summer:  My first summer in the new house, with the wonderful Ms Rivers.  The house has been surprisingly cool throughout the summer, so much so that there were only perhaps 3 or 4 days when we ran the house air conditioning.  We did manage to get in a few summer projects, including some major work in the yard, where about 15 feet of hedges was dug out by yours truly, making addition space by the garage available for some future purpose.  We also has the kitchen ceiling fan replaced, some hallway lighting added and a new living room light installed.  There are about 1,456 other things left yet to do, including re-vamping the porch outside of my office (from whence I write this) but a decent dent was made never the less.

There were changes at work:  I am reporting to someone new, although I continue my 14 year streak of not being the same state as my reports-to manager.  I did the math on this, and it turns out that I end up reporting to someone new about ever 3.5 years (on average).  With every new person you report to you gain new perspectives and opportunities to learn.  The bottom line throughout it all is that my ID badge continues to open the doors every Monday morning, so all is well.  I am truly blessed to work for a great firm that treats people well and where I get to do interesting stuff.

Now looking forward to next summer is always fraught with danger, but never the less Ms Rivers and I have, and by the looks of things there will be a lot going on, but hopefully we can adjust the pace just a little bit here and there.  Learning from what life gives you is important, and sometimes the lessons are far more subtle than direct.  The trick, I suspect, is to be in a calm enough frame of mind to actually experience the lessons in the first place.

(*) For the record, in close to 1600 postings, this is the first time I've ever asked a "reader" a question.  Not that such trivia matters, but I just wanted to point it out.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Ferguson, Missouri

Just three thoughts:

  1. "He might have stolen cigars cigars" as an allegation simply doesn't justify the death penalty.  Now did he beat that police officer within an inch of his life?  That could change the narrative.  Regardless, can we PLEASE STOP DEMONIZING BOTH individuals until an actual investigation has concluded?  
  2. "That poor boy was shot so I need to steal a 52 inch flat screen TV."  When you write it out it makes even less sense.  Note to file:  it's still looting, even if an innocent person was shot.  Please, no one complain in ten years about the lack of jobs and businesses in Ferguson, MO.  
  3. "These people don't..." and "Those people don't..." Note to file:  Whenever someone, you know, like Bill O'Reilly*, starts a sentence like that it's actually code for "[Insert minority name] don't...".  This is coming from a man who flies into a rage at the mere mention of the word loafah; just think what HE WOULD DO if the police were racially profiling well-dressed, angry white guys?

(Image credit to THIS page)

(*) Actual quote can be found HERE.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

In the future she can say "My Old School"

**Monday Morning, August 18th****
I love this song by Steely Dan...

...with apologies for the quality, but it's the best sounding of the clips I can find for this song that also includes a "vintage" performance by the band.

"...when you put me on the Wolverine up to Annandale".  

In the song, "Annandale" probably refers to the town of Annandale on Hudson, home to Bard College, where I believe that the founders of Steely Dan, Donald Fagan and Walter Becker first met.

Whenever I think of college I think of this song for some reason.

I'm thinking of college a lot these days for several reasons, none the least of which is the fact that my middle daughter is heading up to Amherst to begin her graduate studies in Biology.   Smart young lady to say the least, but then again her two sisters are bright bulbs as well.  I take no credit for that by the way; at best I'll probably say that I didn't harm matters all that much.

One of the things I will, by the way, take credit for is the fact that I am helping to move much of my daughter's stuff (well her stuff and the stuff of her roommate) to Amherst.  500 miles in a 12 foot Penske rental truck.  Oh, and I have crappy to-non-existent depth perception.  Score!  Luckily I have a co-pilot in the guise of my youngest daughter.  Such thing are important, if for no reason than to keep me from going crazy at the level of concentration required to keep the truckster on the straight and narrow over I84.  By the way, I did purchase the optional insurance for  the truck, you know, just in case.  

In another thought, you have to give credit for folks, our children included, who are willing to take big chances.  Be it a big change at work, moving away to college or an entirely new job, we have to acknowledge that it takes guts to try new stuff.  We "older folks" sometimes fall into patterns where we stop doing big things, which is a shame.  I know that for myself at least, it takes effort to do the big stuff.  It's as if the emotional gravity that wants to keep me grounded gets significantly stronger the older I get.  I suspect that's true for others as well.  And so I ramble.

Anyway, the Amherst bound truck sets sail shortly.

**Tuesday Evening, August 18th****
It was pure, unadulterated Hell.  Hell I tell you!  One of the worst experiences that I've had in years.  I refer, of course, to driving a 12' rental truck for over 10 hours yesterday at highway speeds.  The kind of thing that Dad's do for their daughters.  Pretty much only for their daughters.

I almost crushed a poor Chevy Spark.  Got blindspots?

The tire low pressure warning light went off 45 miles into the trip, giving me visions of a burst tire and careening off an I84 embankment.  Luckily it was a bad sensor.

This truck had light steering.  Very light.  Light as in the slightest correction sent it plowing into whatever direction it was pointed to at the very moment.

I was able to average about 60 miles an hour on good roads.  This meant that I did about 50 in Pennsylvania.

My knees were literally locked into place after pulling into the truck rental place last night.  My left foot was numb.

I set a "World's Steve Record" not not taking bathroom breaks on the trip back:  just one stop between Amherst and Pittston.  I was so busy concentrating on not getting killed driving the truck that apparently my urination system simply stopped working.  I think my left leg ended up filling with urine, like some kind of weird inverse catheter bag.

All told, it was a long day.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Web-Shame 101, Scranton Style: Why some folks just shouldn't be allowed on the Internet

There is a group organizing a boycott of businesses in the City of Scranton over a recently enacted (well, kinda sorta enacted) commuter tax.  The tax itself is a bad idea, but the boycott is even worse.  See THIS posting.  Anyway, in response to a Facebook group advocating for the boycott, another group sprang up:  Boycott the Scranton Boycotters.  You can link to the Facebook page for this group HERE.

Here's where it gets interesting:  the group actually advocating for a boycott of Scranton businesses (have I mentioned yet how STUPID of an idea such a boycott really is?  Oh, I did already...) apparently thought that the web-address '' was unavailable.  Turns out that wasn't the case.  Even worse?  Guess who discovered that the domain was actually available?  If you guessed "the boycott Scranton boycotters" then you would be correct.  All of which leads us to the following:

Today's lesson is on Web-Shaming.
(photo from

Friday, August 15, 2014

Road Apples, #151

Desktop Order...I'm always looking for ways to better organize stuff, to make room for things, to just generally more efficient.  Along those lines, I found this neat little gizmo on Amazon -

- which allows me to get my 21" monitor off the desktop, giving me some much needed room.  It's a great stand came assembled in the box, is very sturdy, works exactly as advertised.  Highly recommended.  You can find it HERE on

Robin Williams...apparently had Parkinson's disease, one of the symptoms of which is depression.  See THIS link.  So much for Rush Limbaugh's theory that liberalism killed the late actor/comedian.  Now of course "El Rushbo" is claiming that he was misquoted/picked on/etc.(his usual Jr High school girl post-getting caught crying routine), so just find a transcript of Limbaugh's original rant and decide for yourself.  As for me, I agree with Jon Stewart -

There are times when I wish I was actually interested in using Twitter.

Great Move...Well maybe not so great once it is done, but I am helping to move my middle daughter to UMass, where she will begin her graduate studies.  It's a privileged of dadhood to help your children in major life events, and helping create a future "Dr Albert" is certainly something that is good to be a part of, at least for me.  As for driving a 12' cube truck 4 hours?  Well ask me after the move. 

First Movie of the Pluto/Charon can see it HERE.  The actual New Horizons flyby is scheduled for July on 2015 and I can hardly wait!  It's this kind of thing that I wished society would do more of; this is humanity at just about it's very best.

Cellphone Experiment...I have written before about my poor relationship with sleep (as in I hate sleeping and sleeping hates me), so I am game to try just about anything that might make sleeping easier/more enjoyable/possible.  The latest change?  I've decided to banish my cellphone from my bedroom at night.  It is now relegated to my office for overnights.  The underlying idea is that having your cellphone by your bed is bad because it encourages your brain to be "on" all the time...or something like that.  Anyway, it's been about two weeks of phone banishment (I did keep it near me while sleeping in Maine thought), and I really can't tell much of a difference in my sleeping pattern.  I have noticed this though:  it's a nice thought not to reach for a phone when you wake up first thing in the morning.  It just feels better, less harried.  I am thinking this is a permanent change.

The Good Man a Facebook feed that I get and truly enjoy.  I highly recommend it for male-centric reading.  You can find it HERE.  I make a genuine effort to only subscribe to pages that I really find useful/entertaining/insightful, and The Good Man Project meets that criteria on many levels.  

My Current Jim Palmer's Notes from Over the Edge...; you can find it HERE at  I am not quite half-way through and it's been somewhat slow going.  He seems to repeat the same concepts over and over, at least during the first 110 or so pages.  I have high hopes though once I get past the current chapter.  After that?  I just got Brene Brown's I Thought It Was Just Me....  I own both the paper and audio books for Dr Brown's The Gifts of Imperfection, which I thoroughly enjoy and which I have recommended to others at work.  Dr Brown's specialty is the area of shame research, which is fascinating in and of itself.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

When People Leave

I commented to a former co-worker that the news of Robin Williams death reminded me of another well-known persons death, namely that of Dr Hunter S. Thompson.  In the case of Hunter Thompson, it was also a suicide, although from what I understand HST was in more physical than mental pain at the time he decided to end his life.  It seems that we count on some folks to just be around us forever, and when they go, it's as if something was ripped away from our lives, as if by force.  The reality though is that these folks were never "ours" to begin with, and their death is simply a reminder of that fact.  In both cases though (Williams and Thompson), we are blessed to have bodies of work for us and for our children to enjoy in the ages to come.

While not a pleasant thought, it's also worth noting that as we grow older, we give some people the opportunity to have an even greater impact on our lives.  For those blessed to have wonderfully supportive parents, I am sure that this point hits home even more so.  I suspect it's the connection that matters.  While certainly not the same as a parent-child connection, I connected with Hunter Thompson in high school; reading his work made me realize for the first time in my life that it was somehow okay to be a little on the odd side.  Yes, I am odd, and that's okay.  Anyway, I enjoyed much of what he wrote over the years, as it reinforced that special connection created years before.  Similarly, I suspect that there are younger folks who may have connected with Robin Williams at first through his wonderful work on the Disney movie Aladdin.  Me?  I really loved Moscow on the Hudson, Dead Poets Society, Good Morning Vietnam and a few other movies.  I also loved listening to his stand-up routines.  Connecting through laughter isn't something that should be taken lightly by the way, as I think laughter is this kind of lubrication for the simply makes you work better at whatever you are doing (now, in life, etc.).  Losing that connection is tough, as I had to come to grips with knowing that I won't be able to read any new "Hey Rube!" columns and now I will not be listen to any new stand-up.  As noted above though, both individuals left the world with bodies of work to enjoy.

Maybe one of the lessons from all of this is the acknowledgment that all of us have an obligation to create connections.  Not to be ripped away at some point in the future to cause pain, but rather to somehow, in big ways or small, to make the lives of others better.  If you are a parent you get to do that every day.  If you are not, well, then you get to explore other avenues.  Regardless, we all eventually exit this world, but we all don't make a positive difference in lives of others.  The true "difference" though is that we can't control one, but we can control the other.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Robin Williams & Mental Illness

(Image source HERE)

I had originally planned on going to the movies after work today, but after three strikes of trying to get company, I was out.  Instead I opted for doing, well, basically nothing.  Well "nothing" consisted of watching various mindless YouTube clips about atheism.  Why atheism?  Well "why not?" is probably my best defense.  Anyway, it was during one such trolling expedition that I heard the news that Robin Williams had died.

You can read more HERE.

I've always enjoyed Robin Williams' work, especially the rapid fire extemporaneous stuff you would see him pull off while on a talk show.  Genius, pure genius.  I've read some criticisms of Mr Williams, namely that he liberally stole material from other comedians, but never the less the guy wasn't lifting jokes when he would (for example) have the crew on the Today show laughing out loud.

If news reports are correct, then Mr Williams apparently died at his own hands, having suffered from severe depression of late.  Now I've written about mental illness several times on this blog, as I've had family members and others close to me who have suffered, sometimes greatly, from similar challenges.  Words like "terror" come mind when you get the phone call telling you that someone close to you has just tried to commit suicide.  You don't forget it and you don't get over it.  Ever.  And it's times like this, for me, that dredge those feeling up again.  

I hate those feelings, for the record.  There is a dark complexity to mental illness that is both difficult for me to understand but yet familiar.  I need to be clear here:  Personally I think we all suffer, to one degree or another, from some mental illness.  Heck, there are things that I do which I know to be completely bat-crap crazy.  But those things are far different than the dark places where the life-ending mental illness, of the kind Mr Williams likely suffered from, reside.  I think those places are inside my head too, but they are way, way, in the background.  They are there, but yet far away.  This is one of the reasons why it has been extraordinarily difficult for me in dealing with family member who have suffered from severe depression, namely that for whatever reason I can always keep myself out of the dark places, yet while never understanding why others could not.  

Why me and why not Robin Williams?  I don't know.  It's certainly not a function of money, talent or intelligence.  I think the late Mr Williams probably had me beat in all three of those categories.  No, I just think that some of us just end up with this almost paradoxical mental health reaction to stresses in a way.  When those dark places rear their ugly heads, there is just something in me that instinctively knows how to push them back.  It's as if they are on a very tight leash.  Even in the darkest of hours.  Thinking back to late 2010 I was a wreck, in many, many ways, yet as bad as I was, the thought of falling into a one of  the dark places of depression was as unlikely as my learning to play the piano (or learning to speak French).  Again, why me?  I guess the short answer is "I don't really know".

Regardless of what I think, Robin Williams has hopefully arrived at a destination where there are no dark places.  

Rest in Peace O'Captain, My Captain!

Saturday, August 9, 2014

6 Reasons Why Boycotting Scranton is a Truly Dumb Idea

Before I even start this I will note the following:
  • While I have spent most of my life in Scranton, I am no longer a resident.  My last day as a resident was December 13, 2013.
  • While my employer has a Scranton mailing address, it is not actually (mostly) located in Scranton, therefore I will not be subject the commuter tax.
Based on the above, I don't have a financial stake in the recently enacted Scranton commuter tax.  I do, however, have an opinion about it.  More precisely, the tax is simply a really, really bad idea; here's just one reason of many:  it's referred to as a temporary tax, but yet it will never be able to accomplish its goal, namely fully funding public safety pension plans.  So much for "temporary".

Anyway, while I don't agree with the tax, boycotting business based in Scranton as some form of retribution is at best ill-conceived, at worst it's just plan stupid.  Here are my six reasons why.

Reason 1 - It will actually increase the need for the commuter tax.
If Scranton businesses are harmed by the boycott, they will end up paying less in taxes (business revenue down, tax revenue down).  This will make the need for commuter tax even greater.

Reason 2 - It harms the wrong people.
If someone wants to target a business and also have a direct impact on Scranton tax policy I have two suggestions:  Wayne Evans' real estate business and Bill Courtright's martial arts studio.   Those are two individuals who can help make tax policy for Scranton.  "Joe and Peg's Coffee Shop and Gunsmith"?  Not so much.  Joe and Peg have nothing to do with the commuter tax.  Heck, Joe and Peg probably think the commuter tax is load of rubbish too, but they are currently too busy paying their city tax on gross receipts to whine about it.

Reason 3 - It's unworkable.
Will a Dunmore resident who is having a heart attack refuse to be sent to Geisinger Community Medical Center for treatment because it is located in Scranton?  I don't think so.  How many commuters will end trusted professional relationships with city doctors, dentists, lawyers and accountants?  I'm thinking the answer is somewhere between "none" and "very few".

Reason 4 - It lets state lawmakers off the hook.
The more commuters and city residents engage in a circular firing squad, the more folks like State Senator Mellow Blake can simply sit by and continue to do virtually nothing about the plight of Scranton, well other than playing both sides against each other.  Now I don't expect local elected officials to like the commuter tax or to simply give Scranton even more money to squander.  I do, however, expect them to engage FAR, FAR MORE than they have so far in getting Scranton on a sound financial footing.  Simply being against the commuter tax but doing nothing else is, as I have noted previously, shameful behavior on the part of our elected officials.

Reason 5 - It's an emotional reaction to a rational problem.
Rational problems require rational solutions, and getting angry simply doesn't do anything to help.  It's like punching a wall when you are angry:  it feels good for about 30 seconds, then you end up with a sore hand and a hole in the wall (both of which will last far longer than 30 seconds).  This boycott stinks of an emotional reaction.

Reason 6 - It reinforces a stereotype of NEPA residents.
Know any angry, bitter, cynical NEPA residents?  You know, nasty, troll-like proto-coal miner types?  Well this is what the commuter tax boycott types sound like to me   The kind of people who, when I was a little kid living in the housing project, used to scream "get off the grass!" when I was, *gasp* playing.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

A tale of two Popes, Several Bishops, Paraguay and (wait for it...) Scranton

If you haven't been following the saga of the Reverend Carlos Urrutignoity then please do yourself a favor and read this article that appears in today's Huffington Post.

While not mentioned in the article, give credit where is credit is due to Scranton Diocese Bishop Bambera for acting when it became clear that the Rev. Urrutignoity would be promoted.

Mark my words:  this will get uglier before it gets better.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

The Spaces In Between

I want to note even before I write this that I am growing tired of the "now that I am older..." posting that keep coming out of my mind via my fingers.  It is, quite frankly, getting annoying on two distinct levels:

1) I don't really need to be reminded that I am growing older; in fact, I've made that point clear countless times already.

2) Not only am physically older, but I'm starting to sound mentally older too.

The above noted, I am going to be annoying I supposed for one more time.  Well, probably many more times to come, but specifically this time.  Be forewarned.  Blame going to Maine on vacation, as it has a habit of bring this kind of stuff out.

* * * * * * * * * *

One of the things I have noticed as I ponder the deeper stuff in life (such as "Why am I here?", "What will my legacy be?", "Have I made enough of a difference?" and "Why still can't I have clear skin?") is that you start to see connections between things.  Life, it seems, is a series of connected events; the trick is to see that the events are in fact connected.  Circular?  You bet, but it also has the benefit of being true.

Now I could probably cite a few examples, but writing about the most relevant ones would violate my own rules about protecting the innocent here, so I'll be needlessly circumspect for the moment.

Anyway, I see in life that what came before (as difficult as those events were) were requirements to be here now.  It's like of like a college course in a way:  you have to take Accounting 101 before you take Accounting 102.  Actually I took both at the same time, but so I digress.  Anyway and unlike accounting though, it's not always easy to see how the past events prepared you for today.  It's also impossible, in the moment, to see how events today prepare us for tomorrow.  What you can see though, through experience (there goes that "age/wisdom crap" again), is the learning process in action.

There is a trick of sorts here, namely not just seeing how the events in your life tie together, but rather understanding how the process of growth happens between those events.  Maybe, just maybe, if you put enough of those related events together, seeing enough of the connections, you can begin to piece together a pattern that can help you understand where you are going into the future.  It's almost a math kind of thing:  if you analyze the intervals between events, pretty soon you garner enough data so that you can then model what you might be learning in the future between events.

This becomes important stuff in a lot of ways, especially as you grow older.  The way I figure it, I have more days behind me than in front of me, so I have to make those days really, really count.  I simply have fewer to waste, and that trend will only be accelerating.  The beautiful part?  It's all remarkably possible.

When you boil it all down, what's really important aren't the events, but really the spaces between the events.  That's where life gets interesting.  That's where the rubber hits the road.  That's where we have the most control, quite frankly.  Control?  Why certainly; consider the fact that all of us will experience what I will artfully call...

Relating (to)

...or CRAPP for short.  The CRAPP comes to all of us, rich or poor, prepared or not.  Some of the CRAPP is of our own doing, some is completely alien CRAPP.  The source of the CRAPP doesn't matter. What does matter though is what we do with the CRAPP.  The "what we do" part is the space between the piles of CRAPP in our lives.

Could I be any more sophomoric than the above?  In fairness to me, I am not the first to come up with a silly acronym, although mine at least works within the context of the posting.  What's more, it's kind of fun.

Back to being serious.

No matter what these life events are called, it's up to us to make sense of them, as they are all truly a gift.  Even the worst of them are gifts.  Every moment after every hardship is an opportunity to grow and to learn, and within the context of human existence, there is no higher order endeavor than learning and growing.

Enjoy those spaces.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Commentary on Tom Borthwick's Posting, RE: Scranton's Commuter Tax

Below are my thoughts and commentary related to Tom Borthwick's recent blog posting, On Scranton's Commuter Tax.

You can link to Tom's original posting HERE.

For my own ease of posting, I've liberally quoted from Tom's work; his words are in light text, mine are in [dark red bracketed text].

Here goes.
* * * * * * * * * *

[All told, I think Tom completely and glaringly minimized (at best) one key point:  namely that Scranton's fiscal plight is at least partially (and in fact mostly) the result of gross mismanagement by city leaders over a period of time that spans decades.  Yes, he does say the following:

"Scranton hasn’t helped its fiscal nightmare for a good 3 decades."

...but that's it.  Nothing about punitive business and wage taxation.  Nothing about about managing costs.  Nothing about knowingly making promises to city workers that city leaders knew could never be kept.  Nothing about that which all of us who are adults have to do all the time, namely live within our means.  In fact, based on Tom's posting, you would think that every single city in Pennsylvania should be Scranton's equal in the fiscal nightmare department.  The truth though is that most aren't because they were able to manage their fiscal houses in a way that prevented (or at least forestalled) much of what has befallen Scranton.

On to the specific commentary.]

Nobody likes taxes, period.  And nobody likes taxation without representation.  But wait, don’t we elect the people who write up these laws that allow for commuter taxes?  Never you mind that. [Yes, we do elect them; they then write up rules to allow for commuter taxes that they then seek to undermine.  There's a word for what is it?  Hmmmmm, oh now I remember: Politics!  By playing smaller towns/boroughs against cities, hopefully voters pay even less attention to all the special interest padding that is happening in Harrisburg.]
Ah, the hell with it.  I won’t be snarky.  Listen.  It’s the state’s fault.  

[No, it's not entirely the state's fault.  

Did the state REQUIRE manning clauses in city employment contracts?  

Did the state REQUIRE specific benefit packages for uniformed employees?  

Did the state REQUIRE that they city not layoff employees?  

Did the state REQUIRE work rules that, for decades, glaringly favored employees at the expense of efficiency gains that could have helped the city?

No, those were all decisions made by CITY leaders who, over decades decided to write checks for things that they KNEW were not affordable.  Was it a secret that the city's tax base was shrinking?  Of course it wasn't, but yet the city continued to be run as if the population was over 100,000 residents.] Simple as that.  Why, you ask?  A ton of reasons.
  • State policy encourages business flight from the City.  Shall we level another mountain in Jessup and build another business/industrial park?  Taxes are lower there, businesses are incentivized to leave, the City is required to raise taxes in order to cover the gap.  Scranton has the infrastructure to support business and industrial development, but there isn’t any guidance or policy from the state that pushes development into the city.  [Agreed, somewhat.  Where we probably disagree is in the impact of the overall fiscal management of the city, which has clearly played a role in business flight from Scranton.  Over decades, Scranton continued to rely on things like the gross receipts tax (where a business owner is taxed even if they lose money), which is quite frankly the worst possible taxation idea, ever.  Couple business un-friendly taxes with a punishing wage tax and is it any wonder those businesses want to move to Jessup?  Now I do agree that the state should not be encouraging environmental degradation, especially when there are brownfields available in Scranton, but alas we then run into the whole "Scranton's taxes discourage business" argument again, and city leaders bear responsibility for taxation levels.]
  • Townships and boroughs can rely on the state police for their services.  They have volunteer fire departments, rather than paid, professional ones.  That’s a lot of savings cities don’t get.  [Absolutely agreed.  The state should not allow smaller governments to shun their responsibility to provide basic public safety services.]
  • The State can take action to combine all of the seemingly endless government pension systems across the Commonwealth, which would help solvency not just in Scranton, but everywhere.  [Absolutely agreed.  I'll go one step further:  the state could be taking action to combine many things in the name of efficiency.  For example, there is no reason why West Pittston, Exeter, Wyoming, West Wyoming, etc. all have to pay for separate police forces, recycling programs, etc.]
  • Since State law allows for non-profits to avoid taxes, the State should be reimbursing Cities the lost revenue.  Currently, taxpayers simply absorb it through increases to cover the gap.  [Where would the revenue for this reimbursement come from?   That's a trick question because it all comes down to simply playing a shell game with tax dollars.  As Governor Tom Corbett knows well (via his punitive educational policies), simply shifting a tax burden from one level of government to another is bad policy and bad for taxpayers.]
Some think that blaming Harrisburg is a cop-out and I understand this.  [It is and it allows for a convenient way of avoiding the offense of local elected officials and unionized employees who will, eventually, have to bear the burden of Scranton's fiscal nightmare (whether they like it or not).] Scranton hasn’t helped its fiscal nightmare for a good 3 decades.  [I'd would like to see a posting that would expand on this point further. Scranton passed its own budgets for decades knowing full well that they were not worth the paper they were written on.] But being hamstrung by a State that cares little for cities certainly hasn’t helped. [The Pennsylvania legislature cares mostly about protecting and promoting the political fortunes of legislators, period.]
In fact, the state is actively attempting to hurt the city with the full support of our very own State Senator, John Blake.  Over 40 municipalities statewide have had this commuter tax for years.  As soon as Scranton needs it to get its house in order, nope.  Nada.  The hell with all y’all.  I’ll be writing in Cthulu come November, because why vote for a lesser evil?  [I agree with Tom in that Senator Blake rarely has helped Scranton, but let's also not forget that he was also the hand-picked successor of a convicted felon, (jailed) (former) Senator Bob Mellow.  Are those two points related?  Probably not, but I do think that Senator Blake has worked hard to shake off the perception of a Bob Mellow's my job to remind one and all of where he came from, as facts are facts.  Anyway, my own opinion is that Senator Mellow Blake is playing politics with the issue, knowing that stonewalling this kind of tax will be wildly popular with non-Scranton voters (because Scranton voters will vote for just about anyone who is a Democrat, like Senator Mellow Blake, anyway).  By the way,I actually don't think the state should be encouraging commuter taxes, but to poison one option without offering an alternative is simply disgraceful acting on the part of Senator Mellow Blake.]
Regardless, it’s more than that.  The County can’t function without the City.  Workers here do indeed use our roads.  If there is an accident, our cops.  Our fire department.  Our infrastructure supports the major hospitals of the region.  The universities.  [Yes, these groups do use Scranton infrastructure, but all of us use the infrastructure of many different municipal governments.  Should I be greasing the borough of Taylor because I drive through it on the way to work Monday-Friday?]
The temporary tax, at .75%, isn’t much to help a beleaguered city.  [I've looked at the math, and it's clear that it is IMPOSSIBLE for that tax in and of itself to do what it is designed to do, namely create fully funded pension plans.  By that measure it will be far more permanent than temporary.]  People in this county should want to see the city succeed.  This isn’t a competition where one borough steals business from another with KOZs and lower taxes.    We are all in this together.  Or at least we should be.  [Agreed, however, commuters shouldn't be liable for the governmental ineptitude of city leaders.  Case in point:  the 22% funding level for uniformed public safety employees pension plan didn't just happen overnight.  It took years and multiple city administrations (both mayors and councils) to get it to this level.  These were mayors and council members that no commuter ever got a chance to elect or vote out of office, yet these same commuters are now having to help pay for those mistakes.]
Instead, I keep hearing about boycotting city businesses.  That really won’t be helpful, because, aside from harming the innocent, that will simply mean the city is out that much more money in things like business and mercantile taxes.  [Boycotting city business is quite frankly stupid, as it will only make matters worse.]
To the credit of the new administration, they’ve been trying to get the house in order.  [I'm sorry, I just laughed myself into a stupor.  How is demanding that commuters pay a new tax before insisting on benefit changes from uniformed city employees an example of "getting the house in order"?  Now I genuinely feel bad for the police (and to a far lessor extent  the firemen) in Scranton, as they were given promises that city leaders KNEW COULD NOT BE KEPT, but this is a classic tale for city employees of "be careful what you ask for".  Over years these employees yielded considerable clout in city governance, and yet no one was actually thinking about the long-term financial impact of successive contracts awarded to these same employees.]  This is one step in that direction.  The state hasn’t acted to aid us, so we’re taking what avenues we have available.  [The state sold Scranton a "bill of goods" when it comes to failed recovery plans.  Shame on them, but the greater shame is on Scranton's elected leaders who have knowingly allowed the city to become functionally bankrupt in the first place.] We are trying.  [Scranton can try all it wants, but at the end of the day it works out to this:  Scranton has been on a decades long spending spree, and now the bill is due.]  And it would be wonderful if people supported us.
[Scranton is bankrupt, as liabilities far exceed assets and there is insufficient revenue to meet on-going expenses.  All that's left is for the formal filing.  Mark my words:  none of these measures will actually help over the long term.  Scranton's situation is not much different than an individual who gets into severe credit card debt, goes on a program to help reduce that debt, but then continues charging up a storm.  As I have said repeatedly over the years, Scranton doesn't have a revenue has an expense problem...and the situation will not improve until that expense problem is addressed.]

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Top 10 Lessons & Observations from Maine 2014

Listed in no particular order.

Bathrooms - If you are a 50 year old man it is essential that the bathroom you are assigned to use is on the same floor as your bedroom.  No further explanations need be provided.

Fishy Smell - After catching fish, just about everything around you starts to smell like fish for a while.  At dinner on Thursday night my drinking water smelled fishy.  So did my plate.  So did my napkin.  For the record, fishing had been 7 hours (and several substantial hand washings) earlier and I wasn't having fish for dinner.

Maine's State Insect:  The Mosquito - The state insect of Maine has to be the Mosquito. It just has to be.  I was actually swarmed by a flock of them while hiking.  We are talking about nasty reddish-rust colored critters here, the one's that seem to smell out-of-towners like my cat smells a freshly opened bag of treats.

Old + Active - Maine provides proof that the key to happiness in later years lies in being active.  You will not find a happier group of middle aged and older folks than what you find on a warm day on Mount Desert Isle in the summer.

Blueberries - It's impossible to consume too many blueberries.  What's more, they are to Maine what coal is to northeastern Pennsylvania:  you literally see them just laying on the ground, all over the place.

God As A Co-Pilot - It's great to have God as your co-pilot, but when you are driving back from Maine to Northeastern Pennsylvania in one day, it helps to have someone next to you who can also drive.

Fog - I saw a year's worth of NEPA fog in just one week at Southwest Harbor.  And I am talking real, London-esque, hardcore fog to boot.

Pool -  I need a pool table, as playing is just too much fun to be without one.  The fact that I have been playing since about age 7 and still lost several games this past week make the need all the greater.

Whales - Whales, like Penguins, are show-offs.  They must be.

Probably (not) Going Back (for a while) - I'm probably not coming back to Maine for a couple of years.  The reason?  Well there is just a lot going on for me over the next few years, and while I love Maine to death and would like to re-visit in about two or three years, being here reminded me of just what kind of investment this trip entails.  It isn't the money (investment) part either that I'm referring to; rather, it's the time and the place your mind needs to be if you want to go there and really make the best of it.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Maine Course, Day 5

Full and final day five in Maine, with today's main course being whale watching. Rather than trying to describe the trip in words, here are just a few of the pictures I took.

Whales, like penguins, seem to love to be photographed, well at least from the rear-end.

It was a nice time, although I did end up with wind burns and a salty face when I returned to land. Oh, and hair that would make Beetlejuice proud. Anyway, nothing good was ever achieved without some hardship, and in reality, this wasn't a hardship.

From whale watching it was a final extended Rivers family dinner at the conveniently located across the street restaurant. Seeing as though I think lobsters are giant bugs that simply crawl on the bottom of the sea (as opposed to, say, your kitchen floor), that was not on my menu.  For the record I was in the minority, something that, from a food perspective, I am used to (having the dietary habits of a 6 year old boy).

As for now, it's time to start packing up for the long trek back to NEPA tomorrow morning.  We figure 10-12 hours between here and there, including a stop or three.  The stops will include a brief pit stop at the L.L. Bean store in Ellsworth, about 30-40 minutes from Southwest Harbor.  I need to upgrade my collection of socks, and what better place for that?

Peace, love, granola, high tide, green grass and lots of other nice stuff.

Good night from Maine.