Gas Tax Increases vs. The Mathematically Challenged


Over on Facebook, someone was complaining about the proposed 45 cent per gallon tax increase that has been the source of all the rage directed toward Lansing lately.

OK, I get it, 45 cents per gallon sounds like a lot of money.

Or maybe not, if you really analyze the truth and the facts of the matter.

The complaining party accused me thusly: “I see you want that 45 cent gas tax increase.”

Ha!

In general, if you don’t want to pay to maintain Michigan’s road system, you’re going to have to perform a few minor tasks:

1. End inflation.
2. Get all vehicles weighing more than 20,000 pounds off the road.
3. Make it stop freezing in Michigan in the wintertime.

Since none of the above are going to happen, it’s time for a few facts:

Gas is cheap right now

The highest price a gallon of regular unleaded ever hit in unadjusted dollars was $4.25 on May 4, 2011.

Adjusted for inflation, that same 2011 gallon of gasoline in 2019 dollars would cost $4.84 There has been a cumulative rate of inflation of 13.8% since 2011.

Had this new gas tax increase been in effect in 2011, when it might have done some good, we would have paid $4.65 in 2011 dollars.  Today if we were still paying the highest price for gas ever, it would have been $5.29.

Today, the average price for a gallon of gas in Michigan is $2.65/gallon. Adding the proposed 45 cents to that, we come up with $3.10/gallon in 2019 dollars.

Pfft.  Some increase.  I paid that last week.

Inflation is killing us

We all hear about what grandpa used to pay for gas back in the old days, right?  Prices well below a dollar, right?  Prices that seem like, well, a dream from yesteryear.

Have you ever heard of this thing called inflation?

It’s where the U.S. Treasury borrows hundreds of billions of dollars every year via T-bills, prints the money up, and then cuts Congress loose with the checkbook.  Congress then spends it into the economy by the truckload.

Every single borrowed dollar they spend into the economy devalues every dollar you have in your pocket.  That’s what inflation is: your money becoming worth less every year until at some point in the future it becomes worthless.

Our friends and neighbors in the federal government think this is a good thing.  They try really hard to make sure that your dollar is worth at least 2.1% less every year.  They call this “low inflation.”

It’s great if you’re a banker, a stock broker or a government purchasing official.  For the rest of us?  It’s not so great.

Gasoline Inflation Is…Strange

The economy is complex to the point where you can study economics as a professional for your entire life and still only have a partial understanding.

Gasoline is, itself, somewhat resistant to inflation despite inflation’s effects on the rest of the economy.

One of the reasons could be that the pricing isn’t set by pure supply-and-demand.  Gas prices are based on futures markets, and the futures are traded on markets by people who are mostly hoping the prices always go up.  A sharp increase today in the price for an option to buy a certain quantity of gasoline six months in the future will likely result in a sharp increase at the pump today.  But today’s supply hasn’t changed much, if at all: the price increase in the futures market and at the pump is a reflection of an emotional reaction to what it MIGHT be at some point in the future.  That drives the price up at the pump, and in turn, causes the value of the futures options to go up.  Sometimes.

It’s a whole different topic, but this is what’s at the root of why we’ve got the Navy sitting near the Straits of Hormuz in the Middle East, why Iran is supposedly public enemy number one, and why we have people who want to blow up buildings in the United States.  These things are complex, inter-related, and on balance, poorly understood by everyone (myself included.)

Inflation = An Unstable Currency

One effect of inflation is that your memory of prices from years ago can’t be directly compared to prices today.

In other words, things a long time ago only seemed less expensive.

Here’s what a sampling of the average gas prices were in “the old days”, and what they would be today adjusted for inflation:

1939: 15 cents ($2.76 in 2019 dollars)
1949: 23 cents ($2.47 in 2019 dollars)
1959: 28 cents ($2.46 in 2019 dollars)
1969: 33 cents ($2.30 in 2019 dollars)
1979: 88 cents ($3.10 in 2019 dollars)
1989: $1.06 ($2.19 in 2019 dollars)
1999: $1.22 ($1.88 in 2019 dollars)
2009: $2.40 ($2.86 in 2019 dollars)

What does this do?  Well, for one thing, it destroys your confidence that a dollar you have today will be worth a dollar tomorrow.  This is the very essence of an unstable currency.

The Effects on the Economy

Another effect of inflation, of course, is that your savings are devalued over time.  So if you’re a retiree on a fixed income, your nest egg’s real buying power decreases each and every year.

Our personal income growth tends to lag behind the rate of inflation.  Sometimes by quite a bit.  In my case, this year in terms of purchasing power, I am (not) enjoying a substantial decrease, despite the fact that I received a monetary raise.  The raise was lower than the rate of inflation.  This year I am poorer than I was last year, even though my paychecks are bigger.

In response, Americans have done the sensible thing: they’ve stopped saving money.  Instead they spend it, because today’s bird-in-the-hand is better than tomorrow’s “no bird at all, you can’t afford it.”

If you think that the $37,000 average price of a new car today is too expensive, you better suck it up and buy it now.  In a few short years, it will be well over $40,000.  By then, you and I will be even further behind the curve.  So go ahead, finance it for 84 months.  The bankers, along with their willing accomplices in the U.S. Congress, Wall Street, and the Federal Reserve, have engineered things to ensure it is the smartest financial decision you can possibly make…for them!

The same thing is true for local governments.

If you’re a local government, your tax revenue’s buying power decreases every year as well.  Local governments, you see, can’t print money like the Federal Government does.  They’re at the same disadvantage as the rest of us.

“Saving money” is a bad idea.  If you need new police cars, you had better buy them right now.  Starting to get the picture here?

45 Cents Ain’t Gonna Do It…Six Bucks A Gallon Might

I know inflation isn’t easy to understand, so let me sum it up for you:

  • Right now you’re paying about the same amount per gallon of gas in constant dollars we have paid since the late 1930s.  My dad turns 81 in a month. He’s paid pretty much the same amount per gallon, in constant dollars, on average, for a gallon of gas for his entire life, with a few very short-term exceptions.
  • The 45 cent increase?  It’s nothing.  In fact, it’s worse than nothing: 45 cents per gallon will simply kick the can down the road and make the roads worse in the medium-to-long term.

County Chief Executive Mark Hackel just told us a few weeks ago that the entire state’s worth of increased revenue might just about pay for the road improvements needed in Macomb County alone.  We’d have to probably double the price of gas to fix the roads under the current funding scheme.

Gariepy’s Gone Crazy Again!

I know what you’re thinking: “Gariepy’s lost it again, he wants to pay SIX BUCKS PER GALLON to fix the roads!”

Nothing could be further from the truth. What I really want is a little honesty coming from the politicians in Lansing about how screwed we really are, and for them to have the courage to completely revamp the way we pay for our roads.

Of course, expecting honesty in the current partisan environment in Lansing is foolish.  Lansing is where the talking points are all that count and the facts don’t matter.

And courage?  Courage is anathema to the partisan political class.  It will take a truckload of courage to actually tackle the road problem and fix it.

Why?

Because having courage would mean we stop subsidizing the special interests to which the Lansing and DC politicians are beholden by continuing to prop up the current, failed funding-via-fuel-consumption-taxes scheme.

That model is horribly broken–beyond repair.

I don’t see this situation changing, however.  The politicians are not going to sacrifice each of their respective party’s special interests or talking points for the public good.  It never happens.

See ya in the line at the tire store.

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Golden Orifices, Boaty McBoatface, and Half a Road


Many people are familiar with the story of Boaty McBoatface, a $287 million polar research ship built by the British government. The name, according to a New York Times story,  was the clear front-runner in an Internet contest to name the ship. As the title of the story suggests, unfortunately this is what you get when the Internet names something for you.

Here on this side of the Atlantic, for reasons which aren’t entirely clear, Sterling Heights decided to dub its half of the section of M59 running through the north edge of town ‘The Golden Corridor’. Even a brief perusal of the city’s website will tell you the true ‘Golden Corridor’ runs right up between Van Dyke and Mound Roads. In my opinion, that’s where the name should have stayed. It wasn’t up to me, though, and they needed a moniker for a marketing effort being directed towards M59.

The strip, although heavily travelled, has fallen on some hard times as of late with Lakeside Mall’s troubles and the decay slowly becoming apparent on the Shelby Township side of the street. With 100,000 vehicles passing through the area each day, the city decided to try to capitalize on the commercial potential of their half of the strip.

So they appropriated the name, had some signs built, and for the pièce de résistance, approved the construction of a 35 foot tall golden ring designed to be the anchoring monument of the city’s marketing effort.

Unfortunately, the plans didn’t include a name for the giant golden ring.

Everyone knows nature abhors a vacuum. Everyone also knows the average mental age of the typical Internet user is 14. As we all know, ring was quickly dubbed ‘The Golden Butthole’ on Facebook, and it was derided far and wide as an example of government waste. Many drums of newspaper printing ink have already been devoted to the topic of the resident backlash, and I don’t care to repeat the gory details here.

Now, I’m a computer programmer, not a marketing expert. I must confess I wasn’t paying terribly close attention to what the city was up to back when this came up for a vote. I’m not sure I would have foreseen the problem caused by not getting in front of the naming effort which we all now know was inevitable. If asked, I would have opined the ‘Golden Corridor’ moniker belonged elsewhere, and certainly doesn’t belong on a strip of road of which only half is within the city limits. But my kvetching aside, the Golden Corridor is on M59, and we’ve got, um, a 35 foot tall Golden something-or-another to show for it.

The question is, what next?

From all appearances, the city is trying to just be a good sport about it and suffer through the joke. The mayor has rather sheepishly taken the ribbing in several interviews on the topic, and he’s defended the ring as having served its purpose of drawing attention to the area. Rightfully so, as it turns out: my 79 year old Aunt who lives on Long Island asked me about it the other day. But a few people connected to City Hall whom I’ve spoken with privately tell me there has been some consternation internally over the blunder. So far, nothing has been said about how the city plans to move on from here.

We don’t have a lot of appealing choices. But given the city’s equally unappealing situation of having its new monument deemed a golden, um, orifice, maybe some damage control is in order.

The city could retroactively name the silly thing, have a ribbon cutting party in the spring, and just try to put the entire experience behind it. In time, it might even work; fifteen or twenty years from now most people will probably have forgotten about the ‘Golden Butthole’ debacle and will just call the thing by whatever its official name is supposed to be. The trouble with this is the city has a short time preference on this one: they want their marketing effort to work, and they need it to work in order to give the maximum amount of lift to the very substantial, hopefully much better thought out effort to design a PUD ordinance for Lakeside Mall which we all pray will kick off the redevelopment so badly needed there.

Another option is to simply if not explicitly embrace the ‘Golden Butthole’ name, not bother to give the ring another official name, and hope the whole thing blows over. The research ship I started out telling you about will never shake the “Boaty McBoatface” moniker regardless of what the Brits decide the official name is, so throwing good money after bad on the ring might be ill-advised. Maybe some enterprising individual can sell T-shirts with an image of the ring emblazoned with the saying “Hey, leave our butthole alone!” There’s probably an upside there of a few kilobucks. Somehow this solution seems less than satisfactory. Look, we all make mistakes, and regardless of the official party line, this was a big one. It deserves fixing.

The city could simply admit their mistake and have the thing torn down. It would be hugely embarrassing, would give their political enemies more than ample ammunition for the upcoming election on how the current administration spends wastefully — even though it doesn’t — and make national news. Out of all of the unappealing choices, this one is the worst.

My suggestion is a redesign. The golden ring concept as a symbol to represent ‘The Golden Corridor’ wasn’t the best idea I’ve seen come from the minds in City Hall. Considering that we have some serious artistic talent in this town, a re-think of what the finished product looks like could be an economically feasible way for the city to save face, and it could even be spun in such a way to show that even though no organization is perfect, our city’s administration is not too proud to admit it has made a mistake and that it is capable of both recognizing that and then making a well considered effort to, um, rectify it.

If it was up to me, I’d solicit redesign ideas that reused the existing structure in whole or in part which could be achieved at a modest cost. I am certain this can be achieved and that the result would be much more appealing. I don’t know what I’d actually change, but I’m not an artist after all.

This accomplishes a few things: it puts “the Golden Butthole” behind us, it refocuses the visual part of the marketing effort so it is more to the point, it minimizes any additional cost, and it allows the city to gracefully admit its mistake, fix it, and move on, thus defusing the issue.

In my view, we either redesign this thing, or find a really large proctology office that’s looking for a new monument sign at a heavily discounted rate!

Gariepy’s 20 Axioms of Local Government


After a decade of careful study, I have determined the following rules about local government to be axiomatic and therefore unassailable by either conservatives or liberals alike.

Compliance with the following rules is not only expected, but mandatory, as they are as well-accepted as the Constitution and as incontrovertible as the Law of Gravity.

If you dare even consider an alternative viewpoint, ye shall be cast in with the followers of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Illinois Nazis, supporters of the FBI actions at Ruby Ridge and members of the Chinese Communist Party.

Since I am being kind enough to save you a decade of your own time figuring this out, you may render your payment in gratitude for the education via Paypal to geoff.gariepy@gmail.com.

 

Gariepy’s 20 Axioms of Local Government

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1.   The sole legitimate purpose of local government is either road maintenance or the organizing of volunteer fire departments. Take your pick.
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2.  Tax increases are enacted in secret, and the public will not be informed before the vote is taken, especially if it is to be put to a vote by the public.

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3.  Every product or service purchased by a municipality is either unnecessary, substandard, inefficient, more expensive than if purchased by the private sector, or all four.
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4.  Taxpayer-funded services provided by local government are always inefficient and are readily available at lower cost to individuals paying out of pocket in the private sector.

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5.  Any public expense costing more than $2 in annual property taxes is wasteful government spending, and you’ll be threatened and harassed until you pay it!  The money should be spent on road maintenance instead (See #1).

The 'Golden Butthole'

6.  The purpose of public art projects is to create personal monuments to the politicians who voted for them.  They are wasteful government spending and the money should be spent on road maintenance instead (See #1).

Safe Streets Millage Logo

7.  Support for any tax or tax continuance renders an individual a ‘tax and spend liberal’ and any prior acceptance of that person as being a conservative is rightfully revoked.


8.  Support for any legislation designed to protect the rights of vulnerable groups renders an individual a member of the extreme left wing.

Dodge Park Amphitheater

9.  Most large scale public works projects are merely the outcome of a personal vendetta between an elected official and resident, or a group of residents.  They are wasteful government spending, and the money should be spent on road maintenance instead (See #1).

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10.  Major decisions cannot be entrusted to elected officials and must be decided by a public vote because we live in a democracy.

Large apartment fire from December 24, 2018

11.  Professional, paid police officers and firefighters are overpriced luxuries the public can ill afford.  (See #1)

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12.  No taxpayer-funded, outsourced public service shall be provided by the public sector for any reason. To do so is emblematic of socialism.

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13.  Municipal budgets are exempt from currency inflation, as are the personal budgets of municipal employees.

A local resident commenting at a city council meeting

14.  Public meeting attendance is a license to harangue public officials. Cab drivers get first dibs, then former politicians, then folks who couldn’t get elected. Ideologues come next, followed by the merely insane or terribly confused. The public meeting is also the perfect place to harangue the supporters of the public officials, and additionally demagogue, libel and slander them!  Yay!

Trump, enemy of reasonable discussion on local government

15.  For the purpose of any budgetary discussion, municipal government is the moral and fiscal equivalent of the federal government.
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16.  The First Amendment mandates maximum public speaking times of at least fifteen minutes.

17.  Policies you disagree with can only be usefully discussed while on camera at a public meeting.

18  People and places of worship associated with Christianity are welcomed and encouraged. The presence of other faiths causes property values to decline and violent crime rates to increase.

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19.  ALL Politicians are lying, overpaid sociopaths who seek election only to aggregate personal power for themselves in order to swindle the public out of its hard-earned money.

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20.  Any public official who defends his opinion on a controversial issue is disrespectful to voters and should at be kicked out of office and possibly prosecuted for a crime.

Misspelled 'remember in November' sign

Remember, folks, political careers are made of this stuff.  Any transgression of the axioms usually results in at least four new politicians running for office during the next cycle, each claiming they’re “not a politician” and that they’re going to “drain the swamp.”

Yeah,  right.

Firefighter Wages


Over on the Sterling Heights Local Politics Facebook Group, much ado is currently being made out of how much firefighters get paid.  One of the local looney tunes has gotten his hands on the city’s 2019 budget and apparently thinks that a proper salary analysis consists of taking the total budget for salaries and then dividing it by the number of employees.  This sort of thing, predictably, leads people to conclude that firefighters, a group of working-class and middle-class people if there ever was one, are somehow rolling in the dough, making an average of $180+K per year.

Let’s clear this thing up, shall we?  Click the link below and you’ll have the most recent contract I can find, which, by the way, appears to have expired on June 30th of last year and hasn’t yet been renewed:

20151104_Firefighters Local 1557 Contract

Labor Contracts are Extremely Complex

If you can be troubled to read the contract, you will learn that labor union contracts spell out in excruciating detail how much every job classification gets paid, what bonuses, if any, are given on an annual basis, how frequently employees can expect raises, and what supervisory employees are paid in terms of a percentage on top of what the people they manage are paid.

Reading a labor union contract such as the one linked above doesn’t require a law degree, but in order to follow what’s going on, you have to not only absorb the content of the pay tables given in Appendix A, but also the details in the other parts of the contract that modify those wages.  These details are complex, because they describe a complex set of duties, what they consist of, how they are classified, and what modifications, if any, someone with that job classification has to the base wage scale.  For example, a firefighter in the Extinguishment division who is also a licensed paramedic gets a 6% increase over his or her base pay.   Someone who is trained and qualified to be a fire engine operator (FEO) gets a 4% increase.  If a worker is on the Hazmat or Technical Rescue teams, they get a 1.5% increase.  There are rules about how many of these increases can apply; I believe from my reading, for example, that you can’t be on both the Hazmat and the Technical Rescue team, so you can’t “stack” the increases to 3%.

In addition you have to understand the concept of “steps.”  Steps are a system by which the workers are progressively paid more, i.e. given raises, as they put in their time over a period of months and years.  As it happens, in the firefighter contract, each “step” corresponds to six months on the job.  This is similar to getting a salary review twice a year in the private sector.  Some steps have larger increases than others; these are negotiated when the contract is written, just like everything else.  Negotiating a contract is a balancing act: both sides have to act in good faith, and both of them have to get what they need out of the negotiation without taking too much away from the other side.  It’s tricky business, and it requires skills that most people, myself included, do not have.

In addition to “steps” there is also the concept of longevity pay.  You see, there are only so many steps spelled out in the contract, and if it isn’t in the contract, you cannot proceed to another, higher step.  After a worker rises to the highest step, the only way he or she gets a pay increase is via either an annual cost of living increase that is specified in the contract, by continuing his or her education and acquiring new certifications or college degrees, or by going off somewhere and finding a new career!  So in order to entice the most senior people to stick around, they also get annual bonuses for longevity which start at 5 years of service, and increase at 10, 15 and 20 years of service.

For example, a 20+ year employee will get a $2,700 annual bonus on top of his or her regular pay.  Now it is important to understand something: 20+ year employees are the exception, not the rule in the fire service.  There are 40-hour employees like inspectors and some of those folks might have some grey in their hair and qualify for the 20+ year annual longevity bonus.  On the other hand, fire extinguishment is, by and large, a younger person’s game.

Just like with any demanding, physical job, a firefighter’s body starts wearing out, and the number of still working employees in their late 40s are far fewer than people in their 20s and 30s.  This mirrors what we see in professional athletes; there aren’t too many who make it past 40.  There probably aren’t many, if any at all, in the Extinguishment division who go running into burning buildings who are enjoying the 20+ year bonus — they would be at an absolute minimum 38 years old, and hired directly into the department at 18, and that just doesn’t happen at SHFD.  I haven’t surveyed the employees to find out the counts of how many qualify for each level of longevity, but suffice it to say there are not a lot who handle a hose getting that 20 year bonus, if any.

Another thing to know is that there are pay modifiers for fire fighters who have certain levels of education.  The primary modifier appears to be whether or not they are certified in Advanced Life Support (ALS), but there are increases for other certifications depending on job class, as well as increases for people who hold college degrees from accredited institutions.  These bonuses aren’t large, they amount to several hundred dollars per year at maximum, and more often $100 or $200.

Suffice it to say, you don’t figure out what the average guy is making with simple long division.

So what DO they get paid, anyway?

But enough of all this.  I’ve gotten the basic idea across that firefighter pay is complicated stuff and you have to really read and understand the contract to know what they get paid.  If you really want to know all of the details, you’ll have to sit down and read it for yourself.  Let’s answer the basic question: what does a firefighter get paid?

Turn to Appendix A, and look at the pay levels that came into effect in 2017, when a 1.5% cost of living increase was applied over the previous year.  (Note, by the way, that 1.5% is a measly increase compared to the private sector, which averaged 3.0% from 2016-2017.)

A brand new firefighter, assuming he or she was trained in Advanced Life Support, started at $15.00 per hour, or $43,708 per year.  After five years on the job, assuming they don’t move up to Fire Engine Operator and get that 4% bonus, they will top out at Step 10, which pays $26.69 per hour, or $77,728 per year.  They will then qualify for the five year level longevity bonus of $1,300 per year, so they’ll make $79,028 per year before taxes.  That is, assuming they like the work, don’t get injured, perform up to some rather high expectations, and the city doesn’t go through a budget crisis like it did in 2008-2009 and lay a bunch of them off.

Sergeants, Lieutenants and Captains make more, but it isn’t a whole lot more.  The top step for an ALS-certified Sergeant is $28.02/hour or $80,793 per year.  An ALS-certified Captain — and there aren’t many of those folks — tops out at $33.46/hour, or $97,433 per year.  Presumably, once they rise to that level they are getting some other bonuses for education, certifications, and longevity as well, so their base pay, not including any overtime, might break into the low six figures.  In other words, they’ll be at the top of their profession, and making roughly what a 5-year I.T. programmer makes in the private sector in California.

Where are all of the $180K Firefighters?

Now you and I can debate about whether or not that is too much, but realize this: it isn’t $180K/year no matter how you cut it.  The city has to pay some employment costs for training and the like.  It also is paying for at least a portion of the health insurance, and from what I can tell it is not nearly the equivalent of the health insurance I enjoy in the private sector.  There are also deductibles and co-pays, which once upon a time were unheard of for union employees.  There’s dental coverage, vision coverage, etc., and all of these things are at the city taxpayer expense, but you have to realize that the city is not operating in a vacuum: if they don’t pay a competitive wage, they won’t be able to get people to do the work.  It’s the same everywhere, whether you’re in the public or the private sector, working behind a desk like I do, or driving a fire truck and saving lives and property.

Would you risk your life every day for $79,000 per year?

This might not sit well with a lot of people, but, personally, they couldn’t pay me enough to do that job, so I don’t have much of a problem with the 5-year firefighter making $79,000 before taxes.  I don’t run into burning buildings, I don’t perform CPR on resident’s kitchen floors, and I don’t cut people out of wrecks in the middle of the road.  And true, while I am in my fifties and in my peak earning years, the biggest injury I’m going to suffer is eye strain and carpal tunnel syndrome, yet I make a hell of a lot more money writing code than those guys do for saving lives.  I never have to leave my house in the wintertime, I have much better medical benefits, and I am eligible for bonuses that put the ones that these guys get to shame.  If I don’t show up for work, somebody’s software might not get fixed that day.  If a firefighter/paramedic doesn’t show up for work, somebody might die that day.

Nowhere in my employee handbook does the company I work for feel the need to describe what will happen if I have the bad manners to suddenly die on the job.  I can purchase life insurance through my company cafeteria benefit plan, but that’s about it.  You see, computer programmers usually die of old age; typically they don’t risk electrocution via their keyboards; there just aren’t a lot of occupational hazards in that kind of work that are fatal.  For firefighters, it’s a different story, and there is a rather sobering section of the contract that spells out what happens to provide for the firefighter’s family should he or she get killed on the job.

When you get through the entire contract, consider what these people are asked to do every day, and then consider the potential consequences to their health and well-being, I think they’re paid fairly.  And it’s nowhere near the crazy number that you’re reading online.

But Isn’t A Hundred Grand Per Year Wealthy?

And for those of you for whom $79,000 sounds like a lot of money?  It isn’t.  It’s a middle class wage at best, and not an upper middle class wage.  If the firefighter’s spouse is also working, and the firefighter gets a great deal of overtime, then yes, they can do pretty well for themselves.  Remember how I’ve told you that I make considerably more than a firefighter?  I’m still taking out loans to put my kid through college, I drive vehicles that are eight and eleven years old respectively, I’ve got a mortgage like everyone else, and bills to pay.  The price of entry into the upper middle class — where you’re truly comfortable — probably starts around $175,000 per year for a family of four leading a modern lifestyle in a modestly well-appointed home in a place like Sterling Heights.  Nobody working for the SHFD is in any danger of becoming wealthy.  Not even the Fire Chief.

If you want a crazy high salary, go get a senior management job at GM or FCA.

Raising Chickens in Sterling Heights?


Over on the Nextdoor.com, a social media site for neighborhoods, a resident of the Cigarette sub asked whether or not it was legal to raise a few chickens on his property for the eggs.  He stated that he wouldn’t keep a rooster, and the chickens would be ‘treated as pets, housed in a coop and run, not allowed free roam of the yard.’

In Sterling Heights, part of the zoning ordinance covers this.  Here’s the relevant section:

Ordinance No. 278-NN, § 5, 1-6-09, in part, states: “SECTION 3.01. PERMITTED USES. The following uses shall be permitted, subject to the limitations of this ordinance: A. One family detached dwellings (subject to section 28.08); B. Agriculture, provided that on parcels of less than eight acres, there shall be no raising of livestock, fowl or other animals;” ….

Another poster to the site then said words to the effect that such a law was ‘ludicrous’ and mentioned the fact that people keep large dogs on their properties here, so what’s a few chickens.  He commented “If you cant keep chickens, get them working on changing the rules. It’s ludicrous that people can keep like three St. Bernard’s on a residential lot, that poop a lot more than a few chickens, can maul people when they get out, bark at all hours of the day and don’t make you breakfast but…you can’t keep a few hens for eggs?”

Well, here’s where the trouble usually begins.

Somebody wants to do X.  Someone else says “the law says you can’t do X”.  Then yet someone else says “by golly, you should have the right to do X!  It’s an injustice!  Look, there are people doing Y!  If you can do Y, then you should be able to do X!  Get the law changed!”

Although I understand where the person arguing for changing the law is  coming from, I would recommend to ANYONE wanting ANY sort of change to the law that a confrontational tone is not necessary nor will it be helpful.

Most of these laws have been in place for a very long time, and the current members of council quite frequently weren’t even in office when they were enacted. You might feel the law is ludicrous, and depending on who you ask, you might even find someone on council who agrees with you, but you will catch more flies with honey than vinegar. Trust me on this one: starting from the standpoint that a change to the law is your right is the wrong place to start.

In this case, this guy would be asking for a change to the zoning law.  At a minimum this is a complex process. It is not impossible, but it wouldn’t be something that happens overnight.  I am not sure how the council members would feel about changing the ordinance to allow raising fowl on lots in the city smaller than 8 acres; but he would need a majority of them (4 votes) to change the law.

With something like this, you will find that factions will quickly form within the city, and there will likely be just as many people opposed to the idea as are for it.  It is very typical for people to react negatively to changes in the rules which affect their neighborhoods, I see it as a Planning Commissioner each and every month. Council members, in general, try to serve the residents as best they can, and if there is overwhelming opposition to something, it usually (but not always) doesn’t pass.

Changing something like the zoning law is unlikely at best, but not impossible. To be successful, a person would want the support of their neighbors. They would probably also want to have formed a group of residents also interested in changing the law and willing to stand with them in public meetings to show their support. They would have to be familiar with the current law, why it exists, and have some good reasons for wanting to change it. They would need a strategy for dealing with the opposition.  I guarantee there would be opposition, and it would be powerful, so they would have to be very persuasive.

To sum up, if you want to change a law, you will need to have all of the facts at your disposal, have a plan crafted to persuade the powers that be to make the change, have a plan for dealing with (or better yet, compromising with) the opposition, and then you need to approach members of council to persuade them to make the change you want.

If, by some chance, you persuaded them to propose a change, the city attorneys would become involved in writing the ordinance change. When that was finished, there would be a minimum of two public hearings on the issue: an ordinance introduction, and a final vote, during two separate city council meetings.

If this sounds like a big project that will take a lot of time, effort, and perhaps not insignificant expense, you’re getting the right idea. This is not red tape or an unnecessary burden, by the way; this is how modern societies make peaceful decisions on how people can live among each other.  This is much, much better than the alternative.

I am in my 11th year of being involved in city politics. I have seen a lot of ideas come and go, and I’ve seen some unlikely stuff succeed, but it is rare. What I do know is that an educated resident who is reasonable, persuasive and willing to become involved in the political process has a good chance of having an influence on what goes on in this town.  It has happened for me.  I have lost as many times as I’ve won, but I have managed to make a few small differences here and there.

I encourage everyone who reads this to educate themselves, learn about their local government, its elected officials, and become involved. It is best when this is not done as part of a crusade on any one particular issue, but rather as part of a sincere effort to become involved for the good of the city as a whole.

So… if you want to raise chickens in Sterling Heights, there’s a guy over in the Cigarette sub who might be right there with you.  Go join Nextdoor.com and see if you can connect with him. I wish you luck.

Open letter to Jazmine Early on the Trip to Colorado


Some local residents have made much ado online and at a recent city council meeting regarding a trip being made to Lakewood, Colorado by members of the Planning Commission, City Council, city administration and others.  The official reason for the trip is to determine how the site made its successful transformation from a dying mall (similar to Lakeside Mall) to a thriving destination in metropolitan Denver, and to parlay that information into a PUD ordinance to be publicly heard and voted on by the Planning Commission and City Council this fall.

The PUD ordinance will lay the groundwork for developers to come in and pitch proposals for how the site might be redeveloped.  We anticipate that the current owner of the mall will work with nationally known developers to redevelop the site; having the legal framework in place for them to do so is an important step of the process.

The residents I mention have spoken out against this trip as a waste of taxpayer dollars in a technological era where distance learning is possible via remote presentations and meetings.  It is an interesting question, and one that I have been giving consideration myself.

One prominent resident, Jazmine Early, a candidate for office in the Michigan Legislature, has taken to Nextdoor.com, posing questions about the trip, implying the trip is unnecessary.  Since the Nextdoor website is inaccessible to non-members, I will reproduce her initial post here:

I would like to take the opportunity to respond to Jazmine with some questions of my own via the following open letter:

Dear Jazmine:

It appears you have convinced yourself the Partridge Creek concept is similar enough to the Belmar site that you wouldn’t need to travel to Lakewood, Colorado to get a sense of what it is like.

It seems this sentiment resulted in your making a  judgement call as to whether or not the trip to Colorado by city officials is worth the expenditure of taxpayer dollars.

I find your conclusion interesting.  Since at least some people share your sentiments, I would like to ask you, as a prominent citizen and candidate for public office, for some information and advice.

First, I would like for you to provide your thoughts regarding the wording of the PUD the city will be preparing and presenting in public forums this fall.

If you have been certified as a Michigan Planner, as I have, I would be especially interested to hear your thoughts with regard to the mixed uses that are being contemplated for the PUD for the Lakeside site, and any input you might have regarding the proposed layout, building materials, setback requirements, parking requirements, building heights, traffic flow, and other design aspects to be encoded in the PUD.

Further drawing upon your planning expertise, could you please give the other readers of this site a summary of what a PUD is, including what the provision in the law seeks to do and why it is a useful in a Planner’s arsenal of strategies?

While you’re at it, I would appreciate your informed commentary on how the Partridge Creek development is doing financially and how that relates to the Lakeside site; please include sourced information regarding the revenues, targeted markets and demographics, as well as a comparative analysis between Lakeside and Partridge Creek.  (Of course, as a candidate for office and a tax paying resident, you are privy to this information, right?)

Could you please provide me with the cost of your proposed remote site tour vs. the cost of the tour that will take place next week?   Which vendor(s) might be able to put together such a remote learning presentation?  Please include the itemized costs for aerial photography, teleconferencing from multiple sites, and a narrative explanation of what we are seeing.

Can your preferred vendor also arrange for a teleconference with public officials, representatives from the Belmar site, and members of the public in Colorado during the business day for questions?  Please include the costs for that as well, if possible.

With regard to the people we would be meeting in person, and the visibility of all of the design aspects in person vs. via teleconference, would you please provide a cost/benefit analysis comparing the two approaches?

In your response, I’d also like to see a comparative analysis between the Belmar site and the Partridge Creek site with regard to their uses, local market conditions, geographic considerations including transit, accessibility to major highways, and the retailer mix.  Please then explain how this relates to the Lakeside site in particular.

And finally, could you please comment on at what point the cost of educating public officials becomes unreasonable, and where the public expenditure of $675 per official falls on the spectrum between “minimal” and “too much?”

If you do not feel that $675 is unreasonable on a per individual basis, perhaps as an alternative to a remote teleconference we could instead just send some of the officials, rather than all of them.  Could you please tell us, if we were to take this approach, which public officials who have a vote on the issue should be given the training firsthand and who should receive it secondhand from the people who attended?

To clarify, I mean to ask, should only the mayor and elected officials go?  Should it only be members of the administration?  Should it only be Planning Commissioners?  If you feel it should be a mix of these, could you identify the individuals who should receive the information firsthand vs the ones who should receive the information secondhand?  I would like to know which of the individual votes cast on the PUD will be less important than others; that should help narrow down the list of attendees.

Thank you in advance for your thoughts, information, analysis and conclusions.  I look forward to reading them in detail.

–Geoff

Sterling Heights CERT is Looking for Volunteers


As many readers know, I have a passion for self-reliance and public service.  This is why I am the unofficial civilian coordinator of the Sterling Heights CERT, or Community Emergency Response Team.  It is the group membership that enables you to help your fellow residents in their time of need, while at the same time building your own skills to help sustain you should disaster strike, either large scale or small.

About a month ago, CERT held a training event titled “Welcome to Houston.”  It was a search and rescue training exercise playing off of the recent hurricane strike in Texas, and it was an excellent look at the things CERT members are trained to perform should a natural disaster strike.  SHTV was kind enough to take video of the event, and it has been released for public consumption within the past 24 hours.

If you are interested in learning more about joining CERT, I would be pleased to help.  Contact me at geoff.gariepy@gmail.com.

Ready to sign up?  Even better!  You can find the form to register at https://www.sterling-heights.net/527/Community-Emergency-Response-Team-Regist

 

A Good Stopping Point


Today I’m writing to announce that my term of ownership of the Sterling Heights Local Politics Facebook group will be ending as of 11:59PM Tuesday, November 7, 2017. The group ownership will revert back to Michael Lombardini, more commonly known in these parts as Malcolm McEasy. Malcolm was and always has been the first guy I’d ever go to if I decided I was done owning the group, and he will be the best choice going forward for the advancement of the group.

Politics in Sterling Heights follow a two-year cycle that begins and ends with the bi-annual elections. Tomorrow night the current cycle ends, and another begins anew. There is no better time for a transfer of ownership of this group, which is so closely linked to the political cycle. I have reached a good stopping point: a chance to go out while group membership is at an all-time high, the current political cycle is coming to an end, and most of all, while I am satisfied with the job I’ve done.

Owning a group like SHLP and making it grow several times over is a much bigger task than I ever thought it would be when I first took the helm. Not only is there the job of keeping an eye on things from day to day, there is also a lot going on behind the scenes as well. Generating interest via new content and maintaining it for something like this requires ongoing effort, and everyone needs a break from ongoing efforts, myself included. Malcolm’s had some time away from owning the group now and I think he’s been reinvigorated by that break.

Although I will no longer be the group owner, I will continue to participate frequently and I will also be a moderator, which means that if Malcolm’s other responsibilities take him away from tending to the group I’ll be able to step in temporarily when necessary. But make no mistake: the change in ownership means a change in policy, and Malcolm will take the group and its rules in the direction he sees fit. If he wants to make certain discussions “on topic” where I decided otherwise, it will be his prerogative. If he wants to unwind any decisions I’ve made about who can join or who can’t, it is up to him. That’s the privilege of ownership. I will support him in any changes he deems necessary, and I wish him all the success in the world.

For my part, I’ve still got a lot of stuff I want to do, both in the Sterling Heights politics space as well in other areas, and I’m going to now have a little more time to do those things. I am thoroughly enjoying my roles as Planning Commissioner and CERT member/coordinator, and I will continue with those for the foreseeable future. I will continue with my blogging here on the PolitiBlog page when I see fit. I also have some new ventures cooking on a back burner which may or may not come to light sometime. If they do, you’ll read about them here.

During my time at the helm, I’ve had my share of successes and failures, and of course supporters and detractors. As I’ve often said, I am satisfied with who my supporters are, and even more satisfied with who my detractors are. The group has grown tremendously during my time owning it, and that’s something I’m very gratified by: it really IS about the members and their participation, and not so much the person who owns the group. I look forward to checking out the group membership in a couple of years’ time to find it has doubled or even tripled in size from where it stands today. I know Malcolm has the energy, drive, and skills to make that happen. I thank him for giving me this opportunity in the first place, and I congratulate him and thank him for taking the lead role once again.

In closing, I hope all of you who are enjoying the group continue to participate. I also hope you take a moment to congratulate Malcolm on his renewed venture, which is nothing short of the best place on the Internet to discuss Sterling Heights Local Politics. Thanks for reading.

Election 2017 Coverage


Over the past few evenings I’ve been putting the finishing touches on my Election 2017 candidate information package, a continuation of a series that I began producing several years ago for the 2013 election.  I believe you can look long and hard and still not find better coverage of the local election in Sterling Heights in any of the traditional media.  I am pleased to announce that this year’s coverage is complete, subject only to revision for errata if they come up.  All of the articles are linked below, however if you’re in a hurry, click or tap on the Election 2017 menu above and you’ll find information on every candidate on the Sterling Heights ballot for November 7, 2017.

Bias Warning

Knowing the candidates as I do, both incumbents and challengers, it is difficult at best to produce information like what you will find in this package without including a certain amount of my own personal biases.  Since each year we have many new readers I think it is only fair to explain that in general, I find myself very satisfied with the direction the city is taking, and therefore my support goes toward the incumbents.  In 2015, the slate of candidates was so truly awful that I abandoned all pretense of objectivity in these pages.  My sentiments were reflected in the outcome of the vote: the residents agreed with me 100%, returning all of the incumbents to their posts.

This year, we have a number of interesting new candidates along with some retreads from 2015.  New to the ballot for 2017 will be candidates Castiglia, Cavalli, Choulagh and Radtke.  Perennial also-rans Early and Elias round out the six-candidate City Council ballot.   I feel the first four challenger candidates could be reasonable choices for reasonable people.  Mrs. Early and Ms. Elias, however, are a different story.

On the incumbent side, familiar candidates Koski, Schmidt, Shannon, and Ziarko reappear this year.  New additions are appointees Lusk and Sierawski, both seeking to retain the offices they were temporarily appointed to earlier in 2017 after the departures of councilmembers Doug Skrzyniarz and Joseph Romano.  I intend to vote for the incumbents.  That is my bias.

For the Mayoral Election, any regular reader of this blog can tell you that I am an unabashed supporter of Mayor Michael C. Taylor.  I do not feel that council gadfly Jeffrey Norgrove is worthy of your consideration for numerous reasons that I believe are objectively observable and well-founded.

After it’s all said and done, it is important to remember something: I am not a news reporter.  The reason this blog exists is for me to express my own political viewpoints which I have come by through my heavy involvement with the city.  That it falls upon a political blogger to present information that the media can hardly be bothered to is more an indictment of the local news coverage than it is a problem with blogging in general.  If they were doing a better job, I wouldn’t spend dozens of hours every election year doing it myself.   As it stands, this is currently your best source of information.

How to Use This Information

My hope is that regardless of my admitted biases, you will find the information useful no matter who you want to know more about or who you wind up voting for.  Aside from a few lines of text and a graphic image I have created, all of the information presented in these pages comes from either the candidates’ own websites, or from their appearance at the city’s Meet the Candidates event, to which I contributed a number of questions.  I have excerpted segments of the overall video from each candidate’s summation and linked to it directly on their respective pages; a couple of minutes of reviewing their video and campaign websites will serve to present their information to you exactly as they would themselves.  No, I could not resist the impulse to editorialize in my own writings, but it’s hard to argue that the candidates would not be their own best representatives, and they are given full rein to do so here.

Want to know even more?

If you’re really interested in the politics of what has become a major city in Michigan in its own right, you would do well to visit my Facebook group, Sterling Heights Local Politics.  Anyone can view the group.  Membership is only limited to people who are using their real names on their Facebook accounts.   Topics for discussion are strictly local; no national politics are permitted.  Many of our city’s politicians participate in one way or another, and you can be sure that all of them are reading it.  It is not unusual for a resident to mention a concern or problem they’re having  on the group and find out that it has been resolved within a few short hours.  Do come pay us a visit; all opinions are tolerated as long as they are expressed civilly.  Your voice will be heard directly by the politicians, and you will be treated equally alongside them as long as you observe the rules.  Disagreement with me in particular is encouraged and invited.

Politics 101: Nominating a SHPD Police Chief — Updated 5-SEP 11AM


shpdA prominent former resident of the City of Sterling Heights, Michael Lombardini, has taken to Facebook to accuse members of City Council of “creating and enshrining a permanent culture of corruption” with their anticipated vote to confirm Dale Dwojakowski as the Police Chief tomorrow night.  To bolster his argument, Mr. Lombardini has linked to a blog post of mine from when the story first broke more than five years ago claiming that it represents my “thoughts at the time.”

Mr. Lombardini is only one man who is not even in the city, and if this was just him talking about this, it wouldn’t be worth the lengthy response I’m offering here.  I would just tell him, privately, that I think he’s wrong, and leave it at that.

The fact is, this is an election year.  The confirmation of the police chief is therefore an election issue.  There is a considerable amount of mistruth circulating about this confirmation, and it is important because Mr. Lombardini is just echoing what is being whispered in back rooms and barrooms across the city.   In an election year, it’s important we get the facts straight before we vote, and so I’m going to sit down with you here and tell you what’s really going on.

A warning in advance: this is a long read.  It’s a story five years in the making, and unwinding it takes me a couple thousand words-plus.  Please don’t let that dissuade you.  Read on if you really want to know what happened.

Background

If you are just tuning in, you need some background information on the political process here in town concerning the nomination of police chiefs in general, the time card scandal, and what it all means with regards to tomorrow night’s city council meeting.

The process of nominating someone to the Police Chief job in Sterling Heights is politically dramatic.   The SHPD is a very highly regarded police department statewide, and it attracts career-minded cops from all over the region.  These people are high performers.  The depth of talent we have on the City Administration’s team in general, and in the police department in particular, goes far beyond the ordinary.  I daresay that the caliber of individual I have seen working for the city generally tends to be much higher than what I have observed in my personal career, and I work in a field — software development — that has its fair share of smart individuals.  For crying out loud, the guy driving the sewer truck is an intellectual who was recently invited to give a presentation on the labor movement in a college classroom.  There are a LOT of high caliber, sharp people working in this city, from top to bottom.

One of the things you get when you have a group of smart professionals is… people who are highly competitive and ambitious who aspire to the top jobs.  The Chief of Police job is a highly coveted prize that is sought by many.

When many people want the same thing, politics inevitably enters into the picture.  It’s simply human nature at work: people are willing to compete for the grand prize of being at the top of the org chart, and they will fight for the job as hard as they can.  And, of course, the politics that ensue are messy.  Here in Sterling Heights, the fur really starts to fly when it comes to the Police Chief job.

In my years of watching this process, I have observed Police Chief candidates lobbying members of council and people who are influential in town in order to better their chances of being selected.  Rifts appear between members of council.  Opposing factions form in the police department, for and against different candidates.   Sometimes people who are loyal to one candidate sometimes spread unsubstantiated rumors about the other guy as fact.  People choose sides based on who they like vs. who is the most capable.  Politically astute candidates who play the game well get tagged as being <spit> politicians (which is worse than being a lawyer in many circles). Phone calls are made from residents to members of council (I’m guilty as charged on this) lobbying for one candidate or another.  It’s pretty intense.

Ultimately, well, it all works out, but that doesn’t mean everyone goes away happy.

The Last Competition for Chief

As it happens, the last time Sterling Heights got around to appointing a Chief of Police, the drama described above was in full swing.  John Berg, the man who ultimately won the competition, got the nod, while Dale Dwojakowski didn’t.

I supported John Berg at the time because Mr. Berg had made an excellent first impression on me, and it spoke volumes about his character and fitness for the job.  In addition, people I knew at the time actually lobbied me in favor of Berg, as though I would have a hand in deciding it.  (Hot tip: I don’t.)

In fact, I am fairly sure that people are also lobbying Mr. Lombardini, both then and now, but he has not said so to me. (Note: He claims this morning that this is not the case.)

I had nothing against Mr. Dwojakowski at the time other than that Berg was my guy and Dwojakowski wasn’t — mostly because I didn’t know him.  The impression I got upon meeting then-Captain Berg was a powerful one, and I was assured by quite a number of people that he would serve us well, which, of course, he did.

The night the vote was taken, I was enormously impressed by Dwojakowski’s statement before council: he graciously conceded that Mr. Berg would make an excellent Chief of Police, and he further pledged to support him and work with him in a shared vision to the continued success of the department.  Character counts heavily for me, and this showed me a man of good character.  Thus was the genesis of my current support for Dwojakowski.

The Recent Departure of Chief Berg

One must understand that John Berg was only supposed to occupy the Chief’s post for a certain amount of time: that time being what remained before his pre-determined retirement date.  You see, he was enrolled in the DROP program, and there are hard and fast rules about retirement dates involved with that.  That retirement date was in early June of this year, but as the time approached, Chief Berg apparently decided he would like to stay on.

Legally, this is difficult to do, if not nigh on to impossible.  The rules of the DROP program are convoluted and complex to say the least.  As I understand it, a loophole was found in the case of Fire Chief Christopher Martin, but for reasons that are unclear to me, that loophole wasn’t available in the case of John Berg.  Mr. Berg had to retire according to the rules of the program, on time, as originally scheduled.  I hear he was disappointed by this, and if that’s true,  I can’t blame him for that.  For most people who rise to the top, the time there is fleeting.  Generally, they’re within a few years of retirement.  When you’ve worked hard all of your life to achieve a goal and you reach it, you would like to enjoy being there for more than a year or two.  Alas, that was not to be the case for Mr. Berg.

As I’ve said, these things are political, and the factions that form are significant both in their size and durability.  The faction that supported Berg’s original candidacy in the run-up to being named Chief still exists, and it was upset that he could not have his time in the top job extended.

A lot of what you’re seeing going on today is happening because that faction still exists.  This is responsible for some of the political tension that is playing out at this moment as Mr. Dwojakowski prepares to be confirmed in his role of Acting Police Chief to being named the permanent Police Chief.  And ultimately, this is why the time card scandal is being rehashed.

The recent departure of former Chief of Police John Berg turns out to be far more complex than the writing crossed out above.  At this point, I cannot say that I fully comprehend all of the new information that has come in to me this morning, however I now know the following things:

  • The Command Officers Association took a vote of confidence in John Berg as Police Chief some time after he became chief.  The vote tally was 24 in favor, 3 not in favor.  Mr. Berg had the support of his union — who are the other command officers — and they wanted his time as Chief extended significantly.
  • Mr. Berg was promised the position for two years, unless he “wowed council.”
  • City Manager Mark Vanderpool entered into an agreement with the Police Command Officers Association dated March 27, 2017 which provided for a way for John Berg to continue his employment with the city beyond the end date for his participation in the DROP program.  (Berg Letter of Understanding) Curiously, the city then opted to not pursue that course of action.

As I have stated in the past, I am a supporter of John Berg.  Although I believe there are most certainly factions of support for Mr. Berg and Mr. Dwojakowski, both men speak highly of each other and are personal friends.  Sometimes understanding this stuff is like taking on a plumbing project at home.  What at first looks quick and easy winds up being an exercise in tearing out walls and digging holes in the ground.  There is always more to know and understand than what first appears.  The above information doesn’t change my support for Dale Dwojakowski one iota, but it does shed some light on a political process that has many moving parts.

What do the Residents Know?

If you are an ordinary resident who doesn’t spend much time around the SHPD, you tend to believe whatever it is you happen to hear from whichever faction you happen to hear it from, and there is a danger you will form your opinions based on rumor and hearsay.  The Berg faction was and is highly popular with people of a conservative bent — yours truly included — but that is not to say that the Dwojakowski faction was or is liberal — it’s not.  It’s just a different faction that didn’t capture the imagination of the more vocal conservatives in town.

Oh, and by the way, cops tend to be conservative.  Some of them very conservative.

Chances are, if you are a conservative in Sterling Heights who is paying a normal amount of attention to city politics — which is to say, you’re not obsessed with it nor consumed by it,  involved in it, or writing twenty-seven hundred word essays about it — you’re on the Berg side, even though Mr. Berg is technically eliminated from any further consideration for the job as Chief of Police.  And you might even be nursing some sour grapes over the fact that Berg is out, and apparently Dwojakowski is on his way in, water over the bridge notwithstanding.  Loyalty is a funny thing: it tends to outlast the circumstances under which it forms.

The Time Card Scandal and its Relevance to Today

If you’re still with me after I’ve taken over a thousand words just to set the stage, then you will understand that bringing up the time card scandal some five and a half years and (almost) two chiefs of police later is police chief faction politics at work.   The time card scandal was not widely understood by people outside the police department at the time, and as it recedes further into the past, that circumstance is not improving with age.

Mr. Lombardini, in his effort to use my writings here as a device to oppose Mr. Dwojakowski’s appointment to the position of Police Chief, has apparently forgotten that I wrote quite a bit more about the scandal.

What Really Happened

In a post entitled “Time Card Scandal: What the Official Version of the Story Is Missing,” I explained how the official story was, er, a bit light on the facts.  I believe that the information contained in that post, written some time after the blog post of mine which Mr. Lombardini linked to, is largely exculpatory in nature and explains the difference between people who were out to defraud the city and people like Dale Dwojakowski, who clearly were not.

Let’s face it: the time card scandal was a black mark on a police department which is otherwise regarded very highly statewide.  A very small number of individuals — cops, all of them — conspired to steal money from the city — mostly for spite because of a contract issue that was going on at the time.

Unfortunately a bunch of good cops (indeed, the entire department) got dragged through the mud right along with the crooks by the city’s response.  The local press failed to get the complete story, and it was up to yours truly, a software developer, political activist and hobbyist writer — not a trained news reporter — to discover the truth about what happened well after the local news media had moved on and the impressions of the residents at large had already been formed.

Now be that as it may, as you read further I want you to ask yourself about how groups of highly competent, intelligent and competitive individuals behave when rotten apples are found in the group.

The Mishandling of the Scandal

The police chief at the time of the scandal, Michael Reese, gave an official version of the story before council that didn’t shed much light; in fact, it was designed to try to make the whole thing go away as quietly as possible, while assuring residents that those dirty cops who were responsible would be severely punished.   I believe this did a terrible disservice to a lot of good cops. In fact, I’m certain of it.

Actually, you don’t need to know much about what happened to see that Reese was trying to put a fire out, rather than shine the  light of truth on all of the circumstances and make the guilty pay.  All you had to do was listen carefully to what he said in his statement before council.  Here’s the most important quote: “If the command officer participated, or had knowledge that this was occurring without participating, then that individual is also in violation.  Likewise, the degree of participation does not lessen the violation.”

Reading just those two sentences alone, anyone can tell Reese sought to spread the blame around as widely as possible.   In other words, what he said was that every command officer who even knew something might have been awry was deemed just as guilty as people who were actively stealing from the city.

Every regular cop that might have slid out the door a few minutes early was just as criminal as the few command officers involved in the criminal conspiracy to steal from the city.

It didn’t matter what those cops actually did, what they knew, or when they knew it.  They got stamped with the same rubber stamp — GUILTY — regardless.

I’m a guy originally from Roseville who has deep blue-collar roots.  Over on that side of town, we called that sort of guilt-by-association thing bullshit.

A Fundamental Smear Job

For a department that prides itself on high standards, Chief Reese’s standard of guilt was pretty freaking low. The reality was there were three or four people who deserved criminal prosecution. There were 17 or 18 good cops whose names were dragged through the mud, who lost their vacations, and were hung out to dry by a police department that didn’t want to name names or create the potential for a hugely damaging lawsuit.  Dale Dwojakowski was among those good cops.

Even worse, there was an entire department that was tarnished — needlessly and wrongfully — by a police chief who was trying to spread around the blame for this incident as widely as possible.    I can’t tell you how this makes me feel.  I’ve already used up my one swear word for this blog post.

Therefore, residents have been given the false impressions that a.) a large number of dirty cops in command positions were stealing from the city, b.) those cops were given a slap on the wrist by a city that just wanted to make the whole thing go away, c.) that those dirty cops are still on the force and d.) one of those dirty cops is about to become chief.

Nice, huh?  More bovine, um, you know.

Why the Scandal Should Be Laid To Rest

I would be willing to bet you that the people who want to talk about the time card scandal in relationship to Dale Dwojakowski being appointed Chief of Police either don’t know or conveniently forgot the foregoing.  Further, I would bet you that people who want to bring this up couldn’t tell you which of the Police Command Officers who were named in the newspaper as being part of the scandal still even work for the department.

Remember how I asked you to think about how groups of highly competent, intelligent and competitive individuals behave when rotten apples are found in the group?

Here’s the answer: they push them out.  They disassociate themselves from them.  They refuse to tolerate their presence, because they understand that they will be tarnished via the guilt by association thing.

The fact is that the criminal conspirators are gone.  They have been for years.  The worst among them left in March, 2012.  The only ones named in that newspaper article who are still left on the force are the ones who got needlessly dragged through the mud.  That is a fact.

Five years later, this tired, old story is only relevant to people who either a.) didn’t know what actually happened, or b.) are part of a political faction that is using the story as the basis for an argument they cannot make with actual facts or logic.  It’s exactly like the whole Obama Birther scandal, or the 9/11 Truther scandal, or <insert –gate here>, except on a city-wide, rather than nation-wide scale.

It’s political garbage that has taken on a life of its own that has little to do with the actual facts.

That’s why it should be laid to rest.  It doesn’t illuminate, it obfuscates.  It’s being used as a political football long after the original game ended and the participants left.  It’s being repeated endlessly by people who either have an agenda or who don’t know what happened in the first place.

All of which is to say that we’ll still be talking about it ten years from now.