Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Bend's Tour de Homes unimpresses

The eternal phrase of real estate agents
Central Oregon's annual Tour of Homes has been lackluster for the past few years during the Great Recession.

This year is no different.

Most of the new homes have lousy layouts, dull colors and all the warmth you'd expect from a doctor's modern office building.

Naturally, many of these costly cribs, particularly in NorthWest Crossing, are sold.

Not sure if flippers are buying them because $500,000 is still a lot of money in a place with double-digit unemployment.

Consistent with recent trends, the lots are small, leaving little or no yard, which translates into less yardwork but a general lack of privacy when your neighbor can peer into your bedroom from 10 feet away.

When we bought our first house in Bend in 1984, the 6,000-square-foot lot (60 by 100 feet) was considered a "small" city lot.

Today, Realtors tout that same-size lot as "large."

Lot sizes have shrunk to as low as 3,000 square feet.

We check out the tour each year because we want to see what the current trends are in terms of kitchen counters, for example, so we can get ideas when we upgrade our current home.

The best that can be said for some of the homes on the tour is that they are more eco-friendly in terms of materials used and energy saved.

Some homes are deemed "Net Zero" because their solar panels offset electricity from the grid.

It would be great if the city of Bend, which claims abundant, year-round sunshine, would mandate that all new homes be "Net Zero."

But, that is asking a lot from a city that has trouble with basic infrastructure like water, sewer and roads.

Until the city can manage what it has, there is no reason whatsoever to extend the urban growth boundary.

Plus, there are still hundreds of acres in the city limits with nothing on them.

Prices may be high for new homes in Bend, but it has nothing to do with what's available.

Developers/builders set the high prices based on what they perceive the market will bear. No other reason.

Nevermind that Bend had the most inflated housing prices in the nation during the boom and the greatest housing price decline during the bust. Now is always the time to buy.

All in all, I'm grateful for my home when compared to what's out there for such unreasonable prices.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Tax breaks for rich companies bring few jobs

The daily newspaper had a rather unremarkable story the other day titled "Data centers remake Crook County."

There was no news in the article, just a regurgitation of information reported many times before.

Facebook, and then Apple, extracted huge long-term tax exemptions from the state and Crook County for the building of gigantic data centers near Prineville.

Facebook employs a couple of dozen employees, most of whom were hired from out of the area. No word on how many of these employees are janitors.

Apple, after getting such a gift from Oregonians, said it wouldn't hire anyone at the data center but rather do all the work via remote technicians, no doubt in India or China.

Apple now claims they will hire about 35 people at the first of its two 338,000-square-foot data centers. Again, these could be janitors or other part-time workers.

And, what about Crook County? How has it benefited from all these "wonderful" new data centers?

Well, so much money has been generated by the data centers that the county can now bring a part-time building inspector up to full-time, according to the story.

Yep, that's it.

For giving away the farm, Crook County got one-half of one job.

It's no wonder that the richest companies in the world can extract massive concessions from such rubes. Supposedly, Crook County officials are ready to bend over for another tech company's data center.

But, the other property taxpayers in the county have to pay more so that Apple, Facebook and the unnamed tech company can pay less.

To say this whole system is ass-backwards is merely stating the obvious.

What it really means is that the problem with this country is that the rich evade paying taxes at the expense of our budget deficit, education, health care, infrastructure, etc.

It would help if the handful of journalist left in this country would read some books by award-winning journalist David Cay Johnston.

His latest, "The Fine Print," plus his previous work, "Free Lunch," show definitely that giving tax breaks to the wealthiest companies in the world does little, if anything long-term, for the local economy.

But, hey, one-half of one job in Crook County is better than no job at all.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Post-racial America?

Amid the nationwide heat wave, while most Americans were busy trying to keep cool or be cool, President Obama apparently gave a speech on the Trayvon Martin travesty.

Like most citizens, I didn't know anything about it, but the media quickly pounced on Obama's "controversial" comments.

Really? How controversial? Well, here it is:

It seems like a heartfelt rumination on where we are as a country in terms of race relations and gun violence.

But, to the extreme commenters on the WSJ and Fox News websites, it is President Obama who is a racist and is guilty of fomenting racial tensions.


The comments are clearly a sign that we do not live in a "post-racial" America.

Far from it.

Here are some samples from the comment section after the WSJ story:

1) "Obama: Trayvon Martin 'Could Have Been Me'
(too bad, it wasn't)
2) One would expect the President to be the President of all Americans not just the black race's President. Then again his position is of no surprise.
3) Is Obama beginning a new war on whites, women, and Hispanics?

4) Nahhhh...Sorry Mr. President.....Not buying your race batting. ....he did not have your opportunities to scam the system...he was one of millions of disenfranchised black young men failed by the black community because you and other will not invest in the young black youth....yes Mr. President you are a racist and an opportunist you like thousands like you never waist a horrible tragedy to further your self serving addenda...I pray this destroys your fake facade with the Hispanic community

Or, these comments after the Fox News essay by Juan Williams:

1) Sorry Juan - the only people who are obsessed with skin color in this country, are black people.
Who brought up racism into the confrontation between Zimmerman and Treyvon? . . . Treyvon did by calling Zimmerman a "cracker". 
Black people are the ones that need to get over their skin color - everyone else already has.

2) Obama is admitting that he would call white people "Cracker" and he would jump a guy on the sidewalk of a neighborhood and Assault him.   Ok Obama.

3) Arrest all liberals, put them behind razor wire and then deport them.

4) Obama, the second Adolph.


Thursday, July 18, 2013

Off the rails and in the ditch

Here's a link to an essay that gets at the heart of what's the matter with the Grand Old Party.

The piece also points out why our country can't seem to advance progressive causes that most Americans believe in.

That said, the GOP continues to have a powerful hold on the levers of power.

Consider the recent brouhaha over the "nuclear option" of busting the filibuster that the GOP has used so effectively to thwart President Obama's agenda.

Naturally, since the GOP Senate leadership budged ever so slightly, the purists on "hate radio" claimed that Republicans were taken the woodshed and beaten senseless.

In reality, the GOP continues to show how powerful it is by getting the Democrats to cave.

The most important fact is this: "Before President Obama took office, 20 executive-branch nominees were filibustered. Under the Obama administration, 16 have been filibustered."

Or how about this fact: "Former Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson faced one filibuster. Sen Harry Reid has faced more than 400."

In essence, the GOP has earned its racist stripes.

While both parties serve at the beck and call of major corporations, the GOP caters to southern whites and fundamentalists who hate gays, immigrants and women who want control over their bodies.

You would think that the GOP's "big tent" is now a mere lean-to, but gerrymandering has given Republicans enormous clout considering how its base is diminishing.

While the Democrats still try to work with Republicans, the GOP pounces.

Until the Democratic Party is willing to play hardball and bean the heads of the GOP, we won't see much change in this country.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Time to buy a gun

Another lynching in Florida, this time with a gun
Trayvon Martin's biggest mistake, other than being a young, black man wearing a hoodie, was that he was unarmed. That is, he had no assault weapon.

At 17, he was too young to buy a gun.

I'm sure, in light of this not-guilty verdict, the NRA will work hard to ensure anyone of any age can buy a gun. Uh, not really.

If Martin had been packing a Glock and managed to kill George Zimmerman before Martin himself could be shot, Martin would have been convicted because he was a young, black man wearing a hoodie, who was too young to own a gun.

The "stand your ground" laws across the country, including Oregon, allow for a gun-toting Americans to kill someone if he feels threatened. Zimmerman's lawyer's prudently decided to use the far less exacting standard of "self defense."

Nevermind that Martin was the one being threatened in the Florida case. He didn't have a gun, so he couldn't defend himself very well against someone who was armed and dangerous.

According to justice in Florida, any black man can now kill Zimmerman because he is obviously a threat to any black man.

The point is that we all must have guns. We must all be willing to kill someone if we feel threatened.

It's the American way.

Unfortunately, the ridiculous amount of media (read that TV) coverage of the Zimmerman trial meant that far more important stories were left uncovered.

Namely, why is it that young black men are far more likely to be unemployed than young white men.

Or, why are corporations sitting on more than one trillion dollars rather than investing in American workers, be they black or white?

Or, why are we obsessed with a terrible crime story rather than what really ails this country?

The reason is that it's easy to report on a story with ready-made images and racial conflict at its core.

It's far more difficult to report on stories that can really change this country. It's hard to investigate the powers that be and their destructive effect on the vast majority of Americans.

As we've seen with the Martin-Zimmerman case, TV is incapable of informing Americans about current events so that they're enlightened about what's going on.


Wednesday, July 10, 2013

OSU-Cascades already lost in the forest

Now that Oregon legislators backed $16 million in bonds for an Oregon State University branch campus in Bend, it's a wonder why they did so given the fact that there is no location for the school just yet.

Yes, a few million was raised locally for OSU-Cascades, which currently occupies its own building on the campus of Central Oregon Community College in west Bend.

For the past decade, the city of Bend has been trying to lure a four-year, "world class" research university to its fledgling mixed-use project, Juniper Ridge, on Bend's north end.

But, the current "brain trust" at OSU-Cascades rejected Juniper Ridge because it would take too much expensive infrastructure to make it a reality.

Meanwhile, property owners in and around the Shevlin Center, a business "park" on Bend's west side, were preparing for a heroin fix of government money to cash in at the public's expense with the hope of siting the branch campus amid a hodge-podge of office buildings.

Now, the daily newspaper says OSU-Cascades is looking at the former Deschutes County demolition landfill on Bend's west side for the new campus.

Are you kidding me? WTF?

There is no infrastructure at the site, so it would make no sense to choose this location over Juniper Ridge, since Juniper Ridge is designed to handle traffic that a 5,000-student university would generate. The west side of Bend is designed to handle no more traffic than it currently does.

The real problem with the former 68-acre demo landfill is that it was already the subject of a lawsuit when a boy was badly burned there from the subterranean fires that still burn to this day from all the construction debris dumped there.

Plus, throw in the probability of hazardous waste being chucked there over the years and you have a potential catastrophe on your hands.

Plus, 68 acres is too small. When COCC was created in the early 1960s, 100 acres was considered the minimum amount of space.

When you allow for student housing, OSU-Cascades would need even more than 100 acres for its campus.

I would expect such nucklehead thinking from the University of Oregon since it gave up its engineering college decades ago.

But, OSU is known for its engineering school. Have these folks lost all sense of deductive reasoning?

Do they know what they're doing?

Evidently not.

Since the educated folks at the higher ed levels in this state cannot envision the scenic campus of COCC evolving into OSU-Cascades, than Juniper Ridge is the only real alternative for the branch campus.

It's more centrally located for the population of Central Oregon. Plus, Juniper Ridge was designed for such an institution. The west side of Bend is not designed for anything but boutique shops and brewpubs.

If the "smart" folks can't figure out where to site OSU-Cascades, put it up for a vote of the people, like what happened decades ago when Bend was picked over Redmond for COCC.

Clearly, there is no need to rush into a disastrous decision.

We've lived this long without a legitimate four-year university. We can wait a few more years until we get this right.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

For doing business, Oregon ranks 17th, says CNBC

Not that these rankings mean much, but it is amazing that CNBC's annual ranking of states for business has Oregon ranked 17th.

This is a state with little military money streaming into it like some of the top states such as Virginia and Utah. Plus, we don't frack here like they do in CNBC's top states of the Dakotas and Texas.

In fact, we should have a voter initiative on the ballot to ban fracking within our borders.

CNBC's criteria for the rankings:

 Cost of Doing Business (450 points)
• Economy (375 points)
• Infrastructure (350 points)
 Workforce (300 points)
 Quality of Life (300 points)
 Technology & Innovation (300 points)
 Business Friendliness (200 points)
 Education (150 points)
 Cost of Living (50 points)
• Access to Capital (25 points)

We always hear the whining from business "leaders" that our overly generous public employee retirement system is costing us jobs. We hear the groaning over high taxes, yet Oregon doesn't really rate that high. It's 16th lowest on this list.

Meanwhile, California has the 4th highest tax burden and ranks 47th on CNBC's list. In Washington, the Evergreen state ranks 21st for business, and in taxes, it ranks 23rd.

Our neighbors to the north and south take in billions each year in military moolah, either for bases, or more importantly, for defense contracts. And, have less to show for it.

As for the Texas "miracle," CNBC notes that the Lone Star State "Texas has some of the highest electricity costs in the country, and office and retail rent is on the high side as well. Texas also suffers in our Quality of Life category, falling to 41st (tied with South Carolina) from 35th in the category last year. The state’s air and water quality rank poorly, and Texas leads the nation in residents without health insurance."

How shocking.

Another ranking on health outcomes, shows Deschutes (7th) and Crook (8th) counties doing well in this survey. Jefferson County, though, ranks 32nd out of our 36 counties.

All in all, Oregon isn't doing that badly when compared to other states. In fact, we're doing okay.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

As Pilot Butte crumbles, so does government funding

If you can't patch it, paint it
It's fitting that Pilot Butte, in the center of Bend, attracts tourists from all over the country and the world to take in one of the greatest views of the Cascade Range in the Northwest.

On the drive up, though, they can't dodge potholes in the roadway because they can't take their eyes off of the edge of the asphalt since it's breaking away like a crumb cake.

As I neared the 400-mile mark this last spring in hiking up and down the 2-mile trail, I'd heard from volunteers that the state was going to fix the road this summer.

Well, I'm now past the 500-mile mark and the only changes have been the addition of reflective road markers and a freshly-painted edge line.

The white line makes the road narrower than before, in some spots almost two feet skinnier. The crumbling roadway didn't deter the line painters, though. They just painted right over the gaps in the pavement.

These "improvements" were designed to make the drive safer, but they make it more difficult for two vehicles to pass each other on the road, one going up and the other going down, at the same spot. It's now more dangerous.

In this small way, Pilot Butte shows what happens when taxes collected for the public good are instead given back to companies or never collected in the first place. No wonder there was no huge outcry when the payroll tax jumped in January.

Oregon has joined 16 other states in allowing large corporations to keep the payroll taxes they deduct from your check.

Yes, that's right. Many Oregonians are paying the companies they work for, including BendBroadband, the cable monopoly in Central Oregon.

Also, since these workers see the payroll tax deductions on their checks, they assume they're paying the state government for the services it provides.

No wonder they get angry when they see that there isn't enough money in the state to fix things like the road up Pilot Butte.

Or, that the state's two largest universities have to reject deserving in-state students for the far more lucrative tuition paid by out-of-state students. Nearly half of the University or Oregon's student body is from out of state. At OSU, it's 25 percent. In California, less than 3 percent of the state's universities' student bodies are from out of state.

Or, that Bend must raise water prices at triple the rate of inflation each year for 20 years to pay for infrastructure needs caused by developers.

The list goes on and on.

In Bend, city officials were deeply torn about whether to raise the motel room tax from 9 percent to 11 percent. In the end, they decided to raise it incrementally.

As if that mattered.

Seventy percent of the money raised by the room tax goes back to the lodging industry so that it can promote itself. Meanwhile, the city that the local lodging industry is trying to promote has huge potholes all over town that are left unfilled because of a lack of funding from sources such as the room tax.

It's a sign of how shady the lodging industry is when it needs the government to collect these de facto promotion dues.

Meanwhile, Nike, Apple and Facebook, three of the wealthiest corporations on the planet, got sweetheart tax deals from the state of Oregon for the promise of "adding jobs."

Well, as award-winning journalist David Cay Johnston notes in his latest work, "The Fine Print: How Big Companies use 'Plain English' to Rob you Blind," these giveaways never produce a net number of jobs, but rather deplete government coffers that could have benefited the public in a number of ways.

Ever wonder why we give away all these tax breaks to corporations and yet the unemployment rate, and, more importantly, the under-employment rate, stays at record highs.

Well, corporations get to keep the money that's supposed to go for the public good. Check out the Good Jobs First website for tracking subsidies to corporations.

In Salem on Tuesday, Republicans affirmed their allegiance to Grover Norquist rather than to the people of Oregon. With additional cuts to the public employee retirement system (PERS) on the line, estimated to save about $5 billion, Republicans, led by Bend's Tim Knopp (rhymes with dope) voted to forego these cuts to PERS that they were begging for, because then they would have to vote for a companion bill to modestly increase taxes on high earners, and Norquist's oath forbids such action.

Back in Bend, the view from atop Pilot Butte is as breathtaking as ever. Better see it before operations at this state park are taken over by a corporation that will charge you a fee for a vista you already own.

As Mitt(Wit) Romney said, "Corporations are people, my friend."