Sunday, March 25, 2007


Back in the 70s when I was a graduate student at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School, three of the most challenging courses for me in my politics, policy and administration curriculum were Public Budgeting, Managerial Economics For Public Administrators, And State And Local Government Finance. Not only did each have a lot of reading and homework, but I also learned that challenging courses are even more so when the professor is the author of the textbook.

Some of the lessons learned those many years ago come to mind as I observe our local budget process that we engage in at this time of year. Textbooks state that our budget is simply a plan that provides a mechanism to allocate resources for the pursuit of goals that are consistent with the community’s preferences and needs.

To complicate it, we the public want a lot, and these wants shouldn’t be confused with needs. We are willing to provide our government with our money so that the government can spend it to benefit us. I can still remember Professor Jesse Burkhead challenging us to remember to keep the theory and practice separated in our minds because financial wizards can propose a theoretically perfect budget, but the political process makes the plan a living one.

We in Chapel Hill are now at the proposal stage. Our Town Council normally holds three public forums and hearings before making decisions each spring on the annual budget, the 15-year capital improvements program, and applications for community development, housing, and transportation grants.

Tough questions have to be answered, like what services will the Town provide and at what levels, and where will the money come from. Our current Chapel Hill budget is $81.5 million. Know what’s in it? If we wanted to maintain only the items included in it, we would still have to find additional funds for next year to cover inflation. If we don’t want to raise more money, then we have to cut something just to keep pace with the prior year.

Municipal budgets are typically incremental, as we don’t start from scratch and build the budget from a zero base. Rarely do budgets decrease from year to year, so to hold steady we usually reduce spending or reduce some program or activity. Most families find themselves doing the same thing when they see that their available funds won’t cover all their needs and wants. It would be nice to be able to go to the boss and say, “Boss, I need a raise so that I can balance my budget.” I suspect most people are as successful with approach as cartoon character Dagwood Bumstead is when he repeatedly tries it with Mr. Dithers!

Governments can in fact do this to balance their budgets — the raise is called a tax increase. Local budgets must be balanced so you either spend less or get more money. I think we most often see a blend of the two but it still seems like tax increases come right regular. Since we have the occasion to participate in the process to set priorities and let decision makers know how we feel about the spending decisions and potential increases, we should take advantage of these opportunities.

For the budget that will go into effect beginning July 1, department work sessions were held in February and citizen boards and commissions also had the opportunity to provide their input. Then, the first public forum was held on January 31. The Manager will present a budget status report and hold another public forum on Wednesday, March 28. In addition to the annual budget, citizens also have the chance to comment on how we spend federal and state grant money and the components of our 15-year capital program that includes near-term priorities such as the expansion of the Chapel Hill Public Library, Parking Lot 5 redevelopment and the Southern Community Park near Southern Village.

The Manager plans to present his recommended budget on April 23. The last opportunity for public involvement will be a public hearing on May 16. The council then hopes to take its final vote on the budget on June 11.

Have you already participated in developing our plan? Do you plan to participate in the future? Do you think some of the priorities ought to be revised? Do you have some ideas on how to make our operations more efficient and effective? If you do, you should take advantage of these occasions to be heard. Having this significant opportunity to participate in the hard work of government budgeting in this manner is a good thing; translating budget theory into practice is an even better thing!

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Sunday, March 18, 2007


Do you have any idea where you were March 13, 2006? Some might remember that on that evening there was a party near the Duke University campus at 612 N. Buchanan Blvd. As the majority of students were on Spring Break, some members of the Duke Lacrosse team threw a party.

Media reports indicated that there were adult beverages (even though all participants didn’t meet the “adult” requirement) and “exotic” dancers hired to provide the entertainment. The truth of what else happened that night is still in dispute, but, as we all realize, the “party” has had a disastrous impact on that team, Duke University, and the entire community.

I remember very well where I was last year on that date, for I was also at a “party” and both UNC and Duke students were with me. Our party involved a “road trip” (remember that great line from the movie Animal House?”) and it was a life-influencing party. Actually, our party was a work party, and our beverage of choice was water and I assure you that there were no dancers.

Our party was “Alternative Spring Break 2006” and students from the Lutheran Campus Ministry organizations at both UNC and Duke departed on March 10th to help with the Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts. We drove our vans to a camp on a church’s property in Ocean Springs, MS. The camp was overflowing with students and other volunteers from all over America, and everyone was there to do what they could to help.

Having seen the pictures on TV of the horrible devastation caused by Katrina, you think that you are prepared for the up close and personal view of the damage, but believe me, you’re not. When you see it, feel it, and smell it, your senses are overwhelmed. Just driving into Ocean Springs on the Gulf Coast was shocking enough, but the drive around New Orleans exposed us to destruction unlike any that I’ve ever seen. We all commented about how little seemed to have been done in the seven months since the storm hit.

We organized our party of 31 into three work teams. My team’s first project was a home in Pascagoula, MS. Our homeowner was at work and we didn’t get to meet her until our third day. Talk about a party that tore the house up! That’s exactly what our party was all about. We removed the walls, insulation, cabinets, floors, bathrooms, and the kitchen. With our respirators and safety glasses in place, we literally “deconstructed the home,” hauled everything outside, and then cleaned and sanitized the surfaces with a chlorine solution. The black mold was everywhere and removing it as we had been trained made it a very undesirable party event.

It was dirty work and the heat of the day didn’t help at all, but slowly, the house got cleared and clean. The homeowner’s mother told our group several times that she prayed each night for help because the family had no way to do the job themselves. When we departed, she said that she didn’t know that there were college students like ours, adding that they could have been at the beach having fun, but here they were helping people they didn’t even know. Then, with emotion that affected us all, she said, “When you’re the answer to someone’s prayers, you’re somebody special.”

After finishing our first job, we went on another project and came to know another family that had also lost most of what they owned. Each of our teams had similar experiences with the same kind of homeowners — proud people who were determined to stay in their town and rebuild. We simply met great people, including all of the volunteers who operated our camp, cooked our food, provided technical assistance, and encouraged us when we needed it.

For me the highlight was getting to know the great students in our party. They worked untiringly and were selfless. They knew that they were doing something special but they all realized that being part of the work party was more of a growth experience for them. And just as I came to know these great young people, they made friendships that transcended any school rivalries. In their unity, they saw the power that acts of kindness have on people who have experienced tragedy and extreme loss.

So when you think about students and their parties, remember these students and their party. They were so inspired and moved by the first work party that they wanted to do it again. So the day after graduation in May, we went back. You can never completely replicate a good party but the second trip came incredibly close. Overall, parties that help people are a good thing!

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Sunday, March 11, 2007


Not too long ago in the mail, we received a letter from one of those mortgage companies that wanted to save us money. They said that they could lower our monthly mortgage payments because they specialize in loans and are a leader in this area. This was not our first such mailing and I suspect that others have received similar ones.

The recent letter that we received stated that “public records indicated” the amount of our initial mortgage. I hadn’t given much thought to my mortgage being a public record until that letter arrived. Next came all of the media coverage on the home that the Edwards family built near Chapel Hill. Not only did reports indicate how much the Edwards’ home cost, but also there was information on the amount of their tax bill.

It is amazing what information is available to anyone who wants to spend the time to gather it. In days past, one had to go to some government office building to retrieve public documents. Today, the computer revolution and the digitization of public documents have made the task pretty easy. With a little finger work, you can not only obtain home sale and tax bills, but you can also determine voting records and other bits of data about your friends and neighbors without leaving your home.

Having such information available in the public domain means just about anyone can access the information, and some companies are cashing in by harvesting the information and selling it online to whoever is willing to pay for it. Nothing new about those with the entrepreneurial spirit finding a way to make money, but if you search the Internet, you might be surprised at how many firms out there are willing to sell whatever they can find in public documents about you to anyone interested.

To be honest about this, we must acknowledge that certain records are deemed public to ensure fair access to information. But with more and more identity theft in our nation, maybe it’s time for a change. What is essential for anyone to have access to? What information on each of us should be, in fact, confidential?

If this was easy to answer, I’m sure that the smart people who deal with this issue on a day-to-day basis would have solved it by now. A personal experience showed me how difficult the answers are. When I retired from the U.S. Army, it was recommended that I take my DD Form 214 (the release or discharge from active duty form) to my county clerk and get it certified and filed so I could get certified copies later. Then, as identify theft got more popular, the DD Form 214 became an easy target because it had all of the information on it that info thieves would ever want. In 2003, North Carolina changed its law to treat the DD Form 214 as confidential.

Another related problem is the fact that the military switched from the service number system that it had used previously to making the social security number the service number. A few years ago some enterprising thieves went to the library and used the Congressional Record to get the social security numbers of some newly promoted generals right off the document that showed that the Senate had confirmed them for their new rank. Armed with this information, they obtained credit cards and quickly ran up astronomical bills in the names of the unsuspecting victims. When the scheme was discovered, new rules required that only the last four digits of the service number/social security number be used.

Those who were caught in this scam were furious because not only their good name was compromised, but also their credit scores took a hit. After a good deal of time and more than a few dollars, things were sorted out. Sadly, those generals were not alone in having to deal with this crime. Our Federal Trade Commission estimates that as many as 9 million Americans have their identities stolen each year. These skilled thieves have all sorts of ways to take advantage of an unsuspecting public, but I think that readily available “public” information can only makes their job easier.

We can shred documents, protect critical data, not give out personal information indiscriminately, be extra careful on the Internet, and a host of other sound steps to protect ourselves, but how can we ensure that our information in the public domain is not used illegally? Fortunately, states like ours are aware of this problem and they are working to help our laws catch up with all of this technology. Let’s hope that our representatives do what’s necessary to ensure that we don’t become victims of technology or the valid need for public documents. Being a victim is not a good thing.

Sunday, March 4, 2007


Last year our church, Holy Trinity Lutheran on Rosemary and Pickard, started a wonderful new health and wellness ministry within our congregation. In addition to incorporating health awareness and a variety of programs and activities to enhance our quality of life, they recently sponsored an evening cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) training course. Since I tried to increase awareness of emergency preparedness when I wrote about it recently, my wife and I decided that we should both be better prepared to take care of each other.

Our three outstanding instructors, Caroline, Dawn, and Jeff, came from the South Orange Rescue Squad, another one of our local resources that makes this the special community that it is. They see offering these courses as a part of their mission to educate the public. With the support of a generous grant from Strowd Roses Inc, a non-profit foundation dedicated to supporting the greater community, the South Orange Rescue Squad is able to offers free CPR and AED (Automated External Defibrillator) classes to individuals and groups within our county.

Our class of two dozen ranged from university students to fully retired but extremely active senior citizens. Our instructors asked us why we were taking the course. We had some who needed a refresher course for their jobs, but we had more than a few who decided that it was just a good thing to learn or re-learn. In my case, the last course that I had taken was back in the early 1990s and CPR had changed. Learning the current procedures seemed like a good idea.

We watched a video about CPR and its importance before we started our practical work. The take-away message was that numerous studies clearly show that effective CPR performed immediately improves survival from cardiac arrest. Since cardiac arrest can occur in your presence, knowing how to perform it properly can help save family, friends, co-workers, or people you don’t even know.

We also learned that in 2005 new CPR guidelines were established with the goal of simplifying CPR for lay rescuers and healthcare providers alike to maximize the potential for early resuscitation. When the video presentation ended and the questions were asked and answered, our instructors told us to pair up, find a spot on the floor, and then one team member needed to go get our practice dummy. My wife returned with the new training device that the Strowd Roses grant made possible.

This plastic fellow was really state of the art compared to the old ones. You could breathe into his mouth and make his chest move, and this was really helpful when practicing your two breaths at one second each. When you did your thirty compressions, you could also feel his chest move, making the training so much more realistic than it used to be. We also were trained on the use of a mask that can be used if it is available.

We each practiced the required actions for adults and children over eight years old, for children under eight, and for infants under one year old. We also learned what to do differently if we were alone or in the company of others. It was stressed that if alone with a child or infant, you do your five cycles (2 minutes) before calling 911. If others are around, you get them to call 911 immediately. We were reminded that in this era of cell phones, you can’t always assume the phone will work. Another valuable piece of information was that the local 411 people are not able right now to identify the origin of a cell phone call.

After practicing our cycles of two breaths at one second each and 30 compressions and passing our test, we exchanged our adult dummy for an infant sized one and practiced more cycles using our fingers instead of our hands. We were tested again and then watched a video presentation on the AED device. Lastly, we learned and then practiced choking management, or simply removing an obstruction in the airway for adults, children, and infants.

After a couple of hours, we were all pretty tired, not to mention a little sore from being on our knees on the floor. But all of that was significantly overshadowed by our satisfaction from learning the current CPR steps and choking management techniques. Our top-notch instructors made it a superb learning experience.

This is a great course for individuals and for other groups to offer their members. You can contact the South Orange Rescue Squad at (919) 967-1515 or email them at to arrange training sessions. This is really a good thing to do!