Civitas Review

Did AECOM officials contradict themselves in Event Center Study?

Apr
22

Rocky Mount held a City Council Meeting Monday night and heard from many residents about their concerns about the proposed Event Center. While the Council heard from everyone that wanted to speak, there was a question as to whether AECOM officials contradict themselves in their studies.

AECOM states in its 2011 Sioux Falls, South Dakota report (starting on page 35) for that city’s event center:

“… construction of a facility does not guarantee spin-off development.” … [a ]“facility’s value as a catalyst for economic development depends on where it is located and how it is integrated into the area.” … “The influx of people can provide support to restaurants and other retail establishments in the district, but only if there are existing businesses that can benefit from [its] proximity…”

AECOM also recently completed the recent Rocky Mount Events Center Economic and Development Impact Analysis. If AECOM is the expert; and its staff concludes the construction of a facility does not guarantee spin-off development, and then only if there are existing businesses; then how can an event center be promoted as a transformational catalyst for downtown development? The crucial factor is the need for private downtown investment before Rocky Mount even considers an event center.

No, this study isn’t about Rocky Mount. Even though the city has a railroad, the city doesn’t have a sufficient market outside of the event Center, development opportunities are limited around the downtown area, and there is not much in walking distance from the event center.

Why would AECOM say an Event Center be a good thing when circumstances are the same as in Sioux Falls? Could someone be telling them to skew the research?

NC Vote Tracker's Back for 2014

Apr
22

Today is the first day for the NC Vote Tracker (ncvotetracker.com) for the May 6, 2014 Primary. Voters have been voting since the first by-mail ballot was accepted by Mecklenburg County on March 17th. One-stop early voting begins on Thursday (April 24) and on Friday when you check ncvotetracker.com you should see the numbers soar.

The NC Vote Tracker relies on official vote data from the State Board of Elections. Each day, the Board updates their absentee voter file with the previous days input from the 100 local boards and we take the data and add it to ncvotetracker.com. Here are just a couple of interesting observations I have made from the data thus far. More Democrats have voted than Republicans using the absentee by-mail process (see chart 1 below). Ultimately, Republicans usually vote in greater numbers with mail-in ballots and Democrats usually out-number the Republicans in one-stop early voting. If there's a change in that trend this year, we can see it first on ncvotetracker.com.

votetrackerchart2

In a Primary, unaffiliated voters may choose to vote one of the party's ballots or may choose an "unaffiliated" ballot which includes only non-partisan contests. The second chart shows how many ballots (by party) have been voted. This chart ultimately shows which Party ballot the unaffiliated voters are choosing to vote. To this point, 54 percent of Unaffiliated voters have chosen the Democratic ballot, 44 percent of them have requested a Republican ballot and 2 percent have selected the non-partisan ballot – less than one percent have asked for a Libertarian ballot.

Contrast these numbers with 2010 Primary, when on the day before one-stop started, only 1,362 voters had cast ballots. Of those, 656 were cast by Democrats, 655 by Republicans, 50 by Unaffiliated voters and one Libertarian. It's important to remember that one-stop voting is now a ten day period instead of 17, as it was in 2010. In the 2010 Primary a total of 180,675 voters voted early. So far, Bladen County has the highest number of returned ballots (373), Wake follows with 296 and Mecklenburg shows 199 returned ballots.  The highest voting precinct is Farmville A in Pitt County, showing 80 ballots returned. The next four precincts with the highest vote totals are all in Bladen County.

There is much more to be found on the ncvotetracker.com – the vote can be broken down by county, districts (congressional and legislative), political party, race, age and even precinct. We will be update the numbers on ncvotetracker.com each weekday morning.

WCPSS press conference: what they didn't tell you

1
Apr
22

Last week's press conference  by Wake County Public School System (WCPSS) officials isn't sitting well with many.

WCPSS officials called the press conference at Underwood Elementary School to highlight a 41 percent increase in teacher resignations and the need for higher salaries to attract and retain teachers.

WCPSS distributed a chart that showed 612 teachers resigned this past school year. For starters, aside from the jump in overall retirements, the figures don't appear all that different from previous years. Twenty-three percent of those resigning are retiring with either full or reduced benefits. Of course new legislation eliminating teacher tenure and asking school districts to offer contracts to the top 25 percent of teachers would have the natural effect of encouraging some of those numbers.

Still, I can't imagine I was the only one who thought it a little odd that WCPSS chose to have the case for higher teacher pay made by a number of well-paid administrators. Superintendent Dr. James Merrill was leading the discussion . Mr. Merrill's annual salary from WCPSS — not including benefits and perks — $278,000.

Doug Thilman, Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources said "good teachers were having to make hard decisions to leave our classrooms for a better future somewhere else." Thilman's salary is $121,000 a year.

The principal of Underwood Elementary school, Jackie Jordan, wondered if Underwood is losing teachers at this rate, what is happening in other parts of the state that don't have the same community support? Jordan — who makes an annual salary of $86,800 — said Underwood Elementary had 5 teachers resign since the beginning of last year.Of course we don't know why? Maybe they were near retirement age. The resignation form did not contain an option "need more pay."  Speculating a uniform response when we don't know doesn't seem to be responsible exercise.

Are we bashing administrators? No. Anyone has the right to talk about the need to increase teacher salaries. Let's just say if administrators are doing the talking, the message is viewed differently.

But of course several teachers did step forward at the meeting to describe their personal difficulties

Kelly Nystrum a fifth grade teacher said she's leaving the profession because the pay isn't enough to support her family. Nystrum said she is getting $20,000 less than she was making in California 11 years ago.

According to Wake County Public schools salary data, Kelly Nystrum is paid over $47,000 a year. Last I checked the cost of living in California was also markedly higher than North Carolina.

Two other teachers, Tracy and Britt Morgan were also in attendance. They said they couldn't afford to stay in North Carolina. Britt said "they juggle extra jobs such as landscaping, managing a pool and selling athletic equipment.  He said they  "are having to leave just to make ends meet."

Last year the Morgan's combined salary from WCPSS was nearly $92,000.

I don't begrudge any of these employees and the salaries they make. However when the facts are revealed the stories seem far less sympathetic. In fact, all three of the teachers mentioned  had salaries higher than the WCPSS average teacher salary of $45,512.  Median family income in North Carolina in 2012 is $45,150.

Think what you will, but a little perspective is always helpful.

UNC Biz Prof. Critiques Gene Nichol

1
Apr
18

Michael Jacobs, CEO of Jacobs Capital and professor of the Practice of Finance at UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Graduate School of Business, wrote this interesting piece in the N&O criticizing Gene Nichol's approach to addressing poverty. Here are some samples from the article:

If the goal of the poverty center is, in fact, to improve the condition of low-income residents of our state, an approach focused on generating more light than heat no doubt would better serve the poor.

Many on the left define “poverty issues” too narrowly. For example, it seems that the expense of heating a poor person’s home would be a poverty issue. But where is the study from a left-leaning think tank that evaluates the effect of the shale gas revolution on the cost of heating homes of low-income residents? In fact, every policy that affects our subsistence level is a poverty issue.

The deterioration of the family unit affects poor people profoundly. It would be invaluable to have a left-leaning poverty think tank tackle the question of how jobs and welfare affect the family unit respectively. Most people agree that jobs that provide a living wage are the most sustainable way to lift someone from poverty. Perhaps a poverty think tank could rate all policies, liberal and conservative, on the effect they have on job creation.

Jacobs is largely spot on with his critique of Nichol. If Nichol truly cared about improving the quality of life and opportunity for North Carolina's poorest, he should first learn basic economics and gain an understanding of what makes an economy grow. Instead of constantly urging for an expansion of the welfare state to empower the political class and create destructive poverty traps, perhaps Nichol would gain a better understanding about the crucial role of capital accumulation – fueled by savings – in economic growth.

Sadly, though, Nichol's partisan blinders keep him obsessed with politics rather than allowing him to demonstrate genuine concern for the poor.

UNC Must Walk the Walk on Openness

2
Apr
17

We recently queried the University of North Carolina about public comments made by the UNC Law Schools' dean, Jack Boger. He was  quoted as saying: “The open records act permits citizens and institutions to request such records without clarifying what their motives are. I think some within the university — I’m probably one of them – think there ought to be some sort of statutory restraint placed on that capacity. You could bring a university to its knees by simply asking every one of its 1,200 faculty members to ‘give me your last six weeks of emails,’ and have it all sorted through.”

We asked university officials if they had any comment or statement to make on this, and whether the quote represents the university’s policy towards open records – or at least influence how the university responds to such requests.

The gist of the response  from Joel Curran, Vice Chancellor for Communications and Public Affairs, UNC-CH, was:

The University is fully committed to a policy of openness, honesty and cooperation when it comes to disclosing public records under the North Carolina Public Records Act and applicable federal laws covering public records.

We currently have the equivalent of nine full-time employees, at an annual cost of about $600,000, dedicated to carrying out our public records responsibilities.*  Many other members of our campus community are periodically involved in this effort to comply with the law.  Based on our research, the investment in our public records response far exceeds that currently required of our sister UNC campuses.

Members of the campus community have every right to express their personal opinions. Those personal opinions do not reflect a University position or policy.

I can't say this really comes to grip with the issue. Note first the bureaucratic confusion of input with output. It doesn't matter how many employees are assigned to records requests, or how much they spend; what matters is how eager they are to furnish records.  Indeed — just to speak hypothetically — if they see their task as delaying and minimizing response to records requests, the more of them on the job, the more responses will be delayed and minimized.

The University may be "fully committed" to openness. But "the university" is an abstract creation. What really counts is the intent of the people it employs. And what is Jack Boger's intent? He sounds as if he is very dubious about providing public records to the public.

That matters especially because he is the dean of the law school. He's the boss. And employees take their cues from the boss.

And, of course, bureaucrats tend to dislike openness anyway.

So how open is the UNC Law School? Our experience over the last couple of years is that the school is very reluctant to let the public see what it is doing.

It so happens we agree the Law School shouldn't have to employ nine staffers and spend $600,000 to provide open records. All university records should be posted on the Internet for any of the real bosses — the people of North Carolina — to view at any time.

Until that happens, the university's openness will have to be judged not by words and budget items, but by results.

*We assume the figure refers to UNC-CH as a whole.

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