Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Keffler: These are Balanced Budgets

"These are balanced budgets." Those are Richardson City Manager Bill Keffler's words Monday evening at a public hearing on the proposed 2011-2012 budget. Keffler seemed unusually agitated as he tried to explain why the budget shows an excess of expenditures over revenues. He said public opinion had "misunderstood" this matter and he wanted to "set the record straight."

I had the uncomfortable feeling that he was speaking to me. So, even though I didn't think there was anything left to say, let's go, after the jump, to Keffler's argument and my response.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

All PDFs Are Not Created Equal

The City of Richardson has been recognized for transparency and rightly so. But transparency is not like pregnancy. You can't be a little bit pregnant. You're either pregnant or you're not. With transparency, there's room for all sorts of in-between states. That's where Richardson is right now. That's OK as long as we're getting better. You like to think that we're living in Drew Barrymore's world where she can say, "I'm not only in the best place I've ever been, but it keeps getting better and better." We're not quite there.

After the jump, an irritating inconsistency in Richardson's transparency from year to year.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Speaking English: Balanced Budget

balanced budget: noun. A budget is balanced when current expenditures are equal to receipts

balanced budget: Government budget where the current expenditure equals current revenue.

balanced budget: A budget for which expenditures are equal to income. Sometimes a budget for which expenditures are less than income is also considered balanced.

There you have it. A general-purpose dictionary, a business dictionary and an investment dictionary all agree. So, when I looked at Richardson's proposed 2011-2012 budget, saw that expenditures ($188.6 million) exceeded revenues ($186.9 million), and pronounced it "not balanced," it seemed to be an easy call for me. I couldn't understand why the city insisted the budget was balanced. I did have my theories:

"Maybe there's a state legal requirement that city budgets be balanced, meaning there's a legal definition of what "balanced" means that doesn't exactly match the dictionary definition. As long as the city meets the legal definition, their budget is in (legal) balance, even if the numbers show a teensy-tiny (dictionary) deficit."

After the jump, Bill McCalpin fleshes out that theory.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Wildcats 34, Skeeters 27

From 2011 Football

On a hot summer night, the average lifespan of a mosquito is one to two hours. The Skeeters of Mesquite High School lasted that long and more, persistent pests until the end. The Lake Highlands Wildcats eventually prevailed 34-27 in the season opener for both schools at Wildcat-Ram Stadium.

The bands and color guards and drill teams and cheerleaders and everything else that goes into making high school football the best value in Friday night entertainment are also off to a good start. It promises to be a great season.

More photos from this game and all of the 2011 season can be found here.

In other Friday night games involving RISD schools, JJ Pearce beat Lake Dallas 36-32 (w00t) and Frisco Centennial beat Richardson 51-7 (ouch). Earlier, on Thursday night, Berkner beat South Garland 29-23.

Friday, August 26, 2011

The Return of High School Football

From 2011 Football

Still hotter than blazes. But it's late August. You know what that means. High school football returns. Thursday night, at Garland's Homer B. Johnson Stadium, the Berkner Rams came from behind to beat the South Garland Colonels 29-23. The go ahead touchdown for the Rams came with five minutes left in the game, then the defense did its part with a pass interception on the 5 yard line with a minute to play to nail down the win. It's a great time to be a Ram!

More photos from the game can be found here.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Fear of Commitment in 27 Pages

The City of Richardson's Statement of Goals has always been a grab bag. Part vision and mission statement, part job description for city government, part wish list, part laundry list, it's a jumble of goals, priorities and action items. Its length is indicative of its problems. This year, after several multiple hour sessions, the City Council managed to whittle it down from 28 pages to, let's count 'em, 1, 2, 3, ..., 27 pages.

After the jump, some random examples of what's wrong with the current draft of the City of Richardson's Statement of Goals.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Counting the Holes, Not the Trees

How do you count 50,000 trees? How do you count 3,000,000? Recently, I blogged about Richardson's "Tree the Town" program (goal: plant 50,000 trees) and North Texas's "Tree North Texas" program (goal: plant 3,000,000 trees) and pondered the challenge of counting all those trees.

Since then, I've learned a thing or two from readers (wonderful readers!) that turns my thinking completely upside down. I experienced an "ah ha!" moment. You know, when the light bulb clicks on over your head (the new cool squiggly kind, not the old Easy-Bake Oven heat source kind). I was thinking about the problem of counting trees in the exact opposite way I should have been. The experience reminded me of a chapter in the history of science:

"Around 1752, Benjamin Franklin developed his theory on the flow of electricity. Franklin believed that electricity flows like a fluid, and this fluid flows from areas of positive charge to areas of negative charge. It would be over 100 years before it was understood that current flow was actually the movement of charged particles.

"By the time science understood that electric current was the movement of negatively charged electrons, it was too late to change the standards, the textbooks, the schematic diagrams, and the generally accepted theory. The direction of current flow was set as opposite to the actual flow of the charge carriers, which we now know flow from areas of negative charge to areas of positive charge."

Today, it's best to think of electric current not as a flow of electrons in one direction, but as a flow of "holes" left behind as electrons move in the opposite direction.

After the jump, why Ben Franklin's mistake is like the challenge of counting trees.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Budget Apples, Oranges and Cherry-Picking

Yesterday, I cited Texas jobs' data as the perfect example of how data can be cherry-picked in different ways to tell two completely different stories. Do the jobs' data make Rick Perry's case for a Texas economic miracle? Or do they make his critics' case for a Texas economic myth? The answer to both questions is yes.

Last week, I explored the City of Richardson's proposed budget. I reconstructed historical data from the last six of Richardson's budgets. I concluded that "the fact that Richardson's proposed 2011-2012 budget shows a very slight deficit is not a cause for concern."

Is this another case of cherry-picking data? After the jump, an analysis.

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Best of Times, The Worst of Times

"There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics."
" 'Lies, damned lies, and statistics' is a phrase describing the persuasive power of numbers, particularly the use of statistics to bolster weak arguments, and the tendency of people to disparage statistics that do not support their positions. It is also sometimes colloquially used to doubt statistics used to prove an opponent's point. The term was popularised in the United States by Mark Twain (among others)."
-- Wikipedia
Never was that phrase more apt than in first days after Texas Gov. Rick Perry announced his run for the 2012 GOP nomination for President. Perry made his record of job creation in Texas a centerpiece of his campaign. Critics, including a Nobel Prize-winning economist, quickly pointed out weaknesses in Perry's claim (see here and here). My topic today isn't so much who is correct, as how this topic has provided the perfect illustration of the old saying about "lies, damned lies, and statistics."

After the jump, two charts.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Global Warming, Evolution and Team Eve

Jon Huntsman, the 2012 GOP candidate for President, tweeted, "To be clear. I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy."

To which, Time's Joel Stein tweeted back, "I'll call you Not the GOP Nominee."

That exchange gives me the opportunity to round up news items on some of my favorite topics. After the jump, Global Warming, Evolution and Creationism, the conversation starters - and enders - that never let you down.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Deficit or Not, Numbers Matter More Than Words

"A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you're talking real money."
-- Senator Everett Dirksen

Yesterday, I asked what I considered to be a very simple question: Is Richardson's proposed 2011-2012 budget in balance? The city says yes. I looked at the numbers and concluded no.

Wouldn't you think that's a simple question that we ought to be able to agree on? Look at revenues. Look at expenditures. Subtract. If the number is positive, you have a surplus. If the number is negative, you have a deficit. I have a pretty hefty background in mathematics. I've studied differential calculus and matrix algebra and non-Euclidean geometry. But I admit my accounting training is limited (and by limited, I mean non-existent). So, I won't claim I'm necessarily right on an accounting question. But this one seems simple. And no one's stepped forward to educate me on why I'm wrong. I have several theories why that might be.

One, maybe because I'm actually right, but the city has a mental block preventing them from admitting that their budget has a (slight) deficit. Their belief that it's just prudent fiscal management to draw down those excess funds (it might well be) prevents them from conceiving how that can be compatible with a budget deficit. They are ingrained to believe that deficits are always bad, so how can they possibly be recommending a budget that is in deficit? The only way to resolve their cognitive dissonance is to deny the obvious: that their budget has a (slight) deficit.

Or two, maybe because there's a state legal requirement that city budgets be balanced, meaning there's a legal definition of what "balanced" means that doesn't exactly match the dictionary definition. As long as the city meets the legal definition, their budget is in (legal) balance, even if the numbers show a teensy-tiny (dictionary) deficit.

Or three, maybe because I'm just too dense to understand accounting and the city has given up trying to explain it to me. Let's go with this last possibility as our working hypothesis.

After the jump, moving on to the next question.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Fashion in Finance: Red is the New Black

Monday night, the Richardson City Council spent four hours reviewing the 2011-2012 Proposed Budget. Of that four hours, almost an hour was spent on essentially one topic -- raises for city employees. The discussion was led by city employees. Perhaps a university sociologist might want to research the connection between those facts. If the discussion were instead led by, say, HOA presidents, might the time spent on different areas of the budget have been different? Not that I begrudge city employees a raise. I'm just reporting the idle thoughts I had while I watched all the evidence collected and presented by city employees justifying raises for city employees.

After the jump, a more effective use of your time -- the budget in a nutshell and the key points that affect your pocketbook.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The DMN Has Gone to the Dogs

If you're a reader of online news in Dallas, you're certainly aware that The Dallas Morning News erected a paywall in March, meaning that much of the newspaper's content is available only to paid subscribers. Here's what Publisher Jim Moroney said subscribers could expect:
"As your 'window on the world,' The Dallas Morning News takes seriously its mission to provide you not only with practical day-to-day news and analysis to prepare you for the day ahead, but also in-depth coverage of the larger stories that shape your world. We have invested heavily in our newsroom to ensure you get not only the most extensive original coverage of what is happening locally, but also commentary and insight into those regional, state, national and international events that impact your life right here in North Texas.
The journalism you’ve come to value in your print edition is now available in a new, easier-to-use format at, as well as through new applications for your tablet and smartphone. While these digital versions will be updated several times a day, we’ll also be bringing you breaking stories -- complete with stunning photos, video and our first-rate reporting -- as they happen."
Anyway, that was the promise. After the jump, an example of "the journalism you've come to value" that he's hiding behind the paywall.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Richardson Budget: So Close to Black

The City of Richardson's 2011-2012 Proposed Budget is available for review on the city's website.

The most important item on my own wish list does not appear to have been granted. I said, make sure the budget is "balanced." By that, I meant the line labeled "Net Budgeted Revenues" ($186,906,381) should be greater than the line labeled "Net Budgeted Expenditures" ($188,561,154). You do the math.

After the jump, a rant and a question.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Open Mike Night: Goals

The Visitors Section of the Richardson City Council meeting sometimes is the best part of the show. Sometimes that is because of the amusement it offers, but sometimes because of the thoughtful and thought-provoking ideas offered. Monday night's lineup included some of the latter.

Andrew Laska offered his suggestions for the Statement of Goals for the 2011-2013 council term. You know the routine for such documents -- Vision, Mission, Priorities, Goals and Action Items liberally sprinkled throughout with Snooze. Even the best of these efforts are often painful to read. Worse, Richardson's past efforts weren't among the best of these efforts.

After the jump, my own rant about Richardson's past efforts and Andrew Laska's recommendations.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Queen of Rage

Newsweek is catching a lot of criticism for its cover photo of Michele Bachmann. Some think it's an unflattering angle (true enough). Some say it shows her with crazy eyes (maybe, but crazy is in the eye of the beholder, no?). The caption, "The Queen of Rage," has made some ... how should I put this, crazy with rage? And some predict that the Newsweek publicity will end up working to the advantage of both the magazine (buzz) and candidate (sympathy).

Bachmann herself seems unperturbed. "Aha. Well, we'll have to take a look at that, won't we?" she said when a follower told her about the cover. Her reaction was described as being thoughtful and serious and "hopeful," even.

Hope. I've heard that word before somewhere. Maureen Dowd says Bachmann is stealing Obama's mantra, quoting her as saying at one campaign stop in Iowa, "The power behind our campaign is hope and a future. That's all I believe in."

Fair enough. Keeping all this in mind, I know how Bachmann can exploit this advantage throughout the campaign. Think Newsweek meets "Obama 2008." After the jump, the "Bachmann 2012" campaign poster.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Wrestling Card From Ames, Iowa

Tonight's GOP Presidential forum was more fun than a professional wrestling match. The big winner? Probably President Barack Obama. The Republicans were too busy trying to take each other down to land many blows on the man in the White House.

After the jump, my quick takeaways on each candidate.

Cool Enough For You?

The streak of consecutive 100-degree days is over at 40, two days shy of the all-time record set in 1980. The Twitterverse is filled with Dallasites who are disappointed. It seems like I'm the only one who is happy. Today is more comfortable than any day since sometime in June. The threat of brownouts is lessened. We'll get to talk about something other than the weather again.

Was it just me or did anyone else find it unseemly to be cheering for the streak to continue? Was there also open cheering for the Mississippi River to rise just another few inches to top the sandbags? I wanted to say, "Hello?!? Do you know people are dying from heat stroke?"

All for an arbitrary record. If, like the whole rest of the world, we measured temperature on the Celsius scale instead of Fahrenheit, we'd have a whole different set of streaks to compare to. Does anyone even know what the longest streak of days over 40 degrees C is? Is anyone even aware that if we used the weather station at Love Field instead of DFW Airport for the "official" statistics, this streak would have been broken in mid-July? Who spent the last 40 days all at DFW Airport anyway?

On the other hand, the streak did give me one good memory. That was a tweet from a forgotten wag who said, "The last time the Heat was this bad in Dallas was during the NBA Finals." It warms my heart recalling that.

Credit Crisis Creeps Closer

Last week, I spoke too soon when I breathed a sigh of relief and said,
"Now that the federal government has raised the debt ceiling, the risk to Richardson is lessened. The city's Aaa credit rating appears to be safe, at least until the next crisis in Washington."
That didn't take long. Crises in Washington come fast nowadays. Moody's may have reaffirmed the US's Aaa credit rating, but Standard & Poor's went ahead and downgraded its rating of US debt from AAA to AA+.

There are legitimate reasons to question the competency of S&P, but that's not my topic today. I want to focus on the collateral damage being inflicted. After the jump, S&P's spreading damage and the risk to Richardson.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

You Can Water on the Twelfth of Never

1916. That's even. That means I can water on even-numbered days, right? That's what the city's announcements said. But not more than once every three days. Huh? Is the combination of those two rules the same thing as once every four days? What's that, you say? Ignore all that? New rules? Now, because of my even address, I can water only on Tuesdays and Saturdays? That's straight from the city, you say? Who am I supposed to believe? The city or the city?

For the record, water conservation is important, despite the impression given by how the city may be bungling its rollout of Stage 2 water restrictions. The latest word on restrictions, which I believe the city will stick with, is that odd addresses can water on Wednesdays and Sundays. Even addresses can water on Tuesdays and Saturdays. No watering is allowed between the hours of 10 a.m. and 6 p.m.

If confusion still leads you to get one of those $150 citations, be sure to tell your lawyer about the city's mixed messages during the rollout of these new restrictions. It might help.

Stage 2 water restrictions

Two-a-Days: A Game Plan for Trouble

Let's take our eyes off the roller coaster stock ticker for a minute and talk about something else that can make your heart stop -- literally. Surely you know that Texas is in the midst of a killer heat wave. That's why I was left chilled when Lake Highlands Today (@LHToday) tweeted:
"With the start of two-a-days, the 2011 Wildcat football campaign is now officially underway. GO 'CATS!"
The excitement is misguided. Football two-a-day drills are a relic of an age when abusing your body was considered proof that you were tough enough for football. And what is more abusive than to overwork a body in extreme summer heat, then do it a second time the same day, before the body has time to recover?

After the jump, a new look at the unsafe practice of summer two-a-days.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

83 And Under

Restaurant Scores
The Health Department of the City of Richardson conducts inspections of restaurants on a regular basis. The department publishes the results for all to see. According to the city, "Scores are based on a scale of zero to 100. A score of 90 to 100 is excellent; 80 to 89 is good; 70 to 79 is acceptable; and 60 to 69 is marginal."

It's rare for any restaurant to be scored below "acceptable." Most are good or even excellent. Many achieve a perfect 100 score. After the jump, a list of under achievers.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Counting Trees

The City of Richardson has a goal of planting 50,000 trees in its 28 square miles. Impossible? Maybe. Or maybe not. That's a question for another post.

Today, I want to discuss how we'll count all those trees being planted as part of the "Tree the Town" program. 1, 2, 3, ..., 50,000. Easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy, right? Maybe. Or maybe not.

After the jump, how another city is counting its own trees and the many benefits of the effort. Maybe Richardson ought to consider upgrading its own efforts in this area. (Hint to Amir Omar: think of an app as cool as RunKeeper, but for trees.)

Sunday, August 7, 2011

OTBR: Atop the Cliffs on Mornington Peninsula

Latitude: 38.4871 S
Longitude: 144.9746 E

A child on a road trip with his family asks, "Where are we?" and the father answers, "Let's check the map. We're off the blue roads [the Interstate Highways marked in blue on the road atlas]. We're off the red roads [the US and state highways]. We're off the black roads [the county highways]. I think we're off the map altogether." It was always my dream to be off the map altogether.

After the jump, a few of the random places (and I mean random literally) that I visited vicariously last month that are "off the blue roads".

Saturday, August 6, 2011

It's Hot. Officially Hot.

And dry. It's one for the record books:
"It's official: Texas is now in the midst of the worst one-year drought on record. ... July was the warmest month recorded since data collection began in 1895."
This good news comes from State Climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon of Texas A&M. I know what you're thinking. Who knew Texas even had a state climatologist? With a European-sounding hyphenated name. From Texas A&M of all places. Texas climatologist must be a cushy job. What's there to study? Texans know that the climate isn't changing. I recommend that you check if this Texas "State Climatologist" is real or if this story is something from The Onion before paying off any global-warming-is-bunk bets you might have lost to tree-hugging, environmentalist friends.

If you're wondering whether this hot weather is "normal", the answer is no. Or at least it won't be for another ten years. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), who keeps track of such things, just updated its dataset of "normal" weather based on actuals from 1980-2010. This summer's heat wave won't contribute to NOAA's definition of "normal" until the next update, due out in 2021. Expect "normal" to be redefined upwards then. I can't wait.

By the way, the heat is putting a strain on the state's electricity grid. The City of Richardson deserves credit for using its backup gasoline generators to power the Civic Center during peak demand this week, reducing a little demand on the grid. Every little bit helps. Turn up your thermostats, folks, during those peak demand hours of 3-7 pm. Don't worry, it won't mean you've changed your minds about global warming.

Friday, August 5, 2011

It's Hot. Is This the New Normal?

If you put a frog in a pot of hot water, he will sense the heat and jump out. If you put a frog in a pot of cold water and raise the temperature ever so slowly, the frog will rest happily until it eventually cooks to death.
-- Folklore
We can all agree that it's hot. This week's temperatures: Sunday, 107; Monday, 110; Tuesday, 109; Wednesday, 109; Thursday, 107. This whole summer has been hot. We're at 34 days in a row over 100 degrees F and counting. But the longest streak was set way back in 1980, so it's not like Dallas hasn't had hot weather, before. So, relax. It's normal. Right?

After the jump, is this normal?

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Fun With Medicare Math

Q. What happens when the smartest guy in Oklahoma moves to Texas?
A. The average IQ of both states drops.
I was reminded of that old joke when I was reading about some of the proposed ways to cut the cost of Medicare. One of the policy changes discussed as part of the deal to raise the federal debt ceiling was increasing the eligibility age for Medicare from 65 to 67. Sarah Kliff, in a Washington Post blog, warns of a possible negative consequence:
"A recent Kaiser Family Foundation report found that premiums in the [states' health insurance] exchanges would rise about 3 percent if all eligible 65- and 66-year-olds enrolled. Medicare would see a similar premium increase, with its youngest, healthier subscribers leaving the program."
That is, if Medicare drops them and the insurance exchanges are forced to enroll them, this addition of older (and therefore, on average, sicker) Americans will cause exchange premiums to go up. And if Medicare loses these very same 65- and 66-year-olds (who are, on average, healthier than the even older Medicare enrollees who would be left in that program), then Medicare's premiums will go up, too. Sounds like a lose-lose situation, right?

After the jump, how to turn it into win-win.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Grades: Washington, D+. Richardson, AAA

Congress finally raised the debt ceiling. Whew! I know, it's crazy when the question whether the government will pay its bills is considered iffy, but for a while there it was in doubt. Refusing to raise the debt ceiling is like a homeowner worrying that maybe he bought more house than he can afford and deciding to "solve" his problem by stopping payment on the mortgage. The tea party caucus in Congress urged the country to become a deadbeat and pretend it's being fiscally responsible. Luckily, saner heads prevailed. (Unfortunately, what the "saner" heads came up with is not going to help the unemployment numbers, but that's another story.)

After the jump, the impact on Richardson.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Repeat Tweets: Debt Ceiling and Light Bulbs

Repeat tweets from July, 2011:

  • 2011 07 01 - Navy Pier. Michigan Ave at the Chicago River. Cars, pedestrians. Outdoor cafes. Chicago at midnight - crowded, active, alive.
  • 2011 07 05 - From the city with the Chicago Bears to a lake in northern Wisconsin with the real thing. Haven't seen bears here in 50 years. Exciting.
  • 2011 07 11 - Instead of raising railings, why don't Rangers build a ledge (of netting, chain-link fencing, whatever) out from upper decks?
  • 2011 07 13 - It's sadly ironic that Texas conservatives are suddenly pro-choice ... about light bulbs, not a woman's right to control her own body.
  • 2011 07 14 - Headline: "Atheist group sues to block Perry from prayer rally." Atheists&lawyers ganging up on Perry? Are they secretly trying to help him?
  • 2011 07 14 - Compact fluorescents are the new motorcycle helmets. Despite being good for you, some foolishly reject them just because they're the law.
  • 2011 07 14 - The Greater Journey, by David McCullough: Go East, not West. American writers & artists in Paris in the 1800s. Clever concept that works. B-

After the jump, more repeat tweets.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Midsummer in the Steger Garden (2011)

From Flowers

Dallas/Ft Worth's second longest streak of consecutive days over 100°F:

July 2 101°F
July 3 101°F
July 4 100°F
July 5 102°F
July 6 102°F
July 7 102°F
July 8 105°F
July 9 101°F
July 10 100°F
July 11 100°F

July 12 100°F
July 13 103°F
July 14 103°F
July 15 105°F
July 16 101°F
July 17 101°F
July 18 101°F
July 19 101°F
July 20 100°F
July 21 102°F

July 22 101°F
July 23 101°F
July 24 104°F
July 25 106°F
July 26 102°F
July 27 104°F
July 28 101°F
July 29 101°F
July 30 100°F
July 31 103°F

We can tie the all-time record streak (42 consecutive days in 1980) in just twelve more days. No, I don't think that's anything to cheer about.