Howard County Maryland Blog

Convention of States in Maryland

Archive for May, 2007

Traveling TB patient, selfish or stupid?

Posted by Ed C on Thursday, May 31, 2007

Okay, maybe it’s the heat, the phase of the moon… but every story I read about Andrew Speaker, trial lawyer and world traveler that was diagnosed with tuberculosis and proceeded to travel about Europe and then snuck home to the U.S. via Canada has me banging my head against my desk.

The initial stories would not identify the individual because of the “stigma” associated with TB. A person that after being informed that he had an exceptionally dangerous, contagious disease that was resistant to conventional treatments, intentionally traveled by plane (after being told not to) and via a circuitous route to avoid detection and non-fly lists. A person who actions could have started an epidemic. We don’t want to stigmatize that person?
Not only did he deserve to be identified, his name and picture should go into the history books right along side Typhoid Mary. At least at first, Mary Mallon did not know she was contagious. Don’t pull an Andrew Speaker should be added to the lexicon as an act of pure selfish behavior and shear stupidity, used to shame children into behaving.

His excuse for leaving Rome after he was informed that he was considered especially dangerous – he feared that he would not “survive” if he didn’t reach the U.S. for treatment. He was in Europe and Canada, those bastions of “Universal Heath Care” The same “model” heath care system that Hilliary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards and their ilk want for the rest of us. I suppose the only better place for him to have been would have been Cuba.

I could have probably let it go until today’s story Border Worker Disregarded TB Warning about the border inspector that permitted the infected Andrew Speaker to pass from Canada into the U.S.

The unidentified inspector explained that he was no doctor but that the infected man seemed perfectly healthy and that he thought the warning was merely “discretionary

Colleen Kelley, president of the union that represents customs and border agents, declined to comment on the specifics of the case, but said “public health issues were not receiving adequate attention and training” within the agency.

Discretionary? Adequate attention and training?

Let’s see how hard this is.

Trainer: You pass the passport through this scanner here – and then you read the screen. If it says PASS, you can let the person in. If it says anything else, follow the instructions or notify a supervisor. Here, lets try this sample here…beep. Okay, what does the screen say?

WARNING – DETAIN TRAVELER.

TUBERCULOSIS

For your protection, anyone dealing with this person should take precautions and wear a protective mask.

Call heath authorities immediately.

Trainer: Okay, what do you do?

Potential Border Inspector: Uh, let him pass?

Trainer: You fired!

Not that hard. Think I’m kidding? He’s the AP account:

The inspector ran Speaker’s passport through a computer, and a warning – including instructions to hold the traveler, don a protective mask in dealing with him, and telephone health authorities – popped up, officials said. About a minute later, Speaker was instead cleared to continue on his journey, according to officials familiar with the records.

And “Inspector Fife” took this as discretionary. If it had been me, “the worker fled with great enthusiasm” would be about the politest thing that would have been written as I went for the nearest face mask and and megaphone to “deal” with Mr. Speaker from a few hundred feet or so.

Just so you feel safer, “The border agent who questioned that person is at present performing administrative duties,” said Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke, adding those duties do not include checking people at the land border crossing.” We can only hope that those duties do not include anything other than making sure that the sun continues to rise in the east and sets in the west – anything else may be considered “discretionary.”

If there can be anything good to come from this officials in the U.S. (national and local) and in Europe need to examine every aspect of this case and determine an effective measure that would have stopped Mr Speaker at each step of his journey. With threats like Avian flu, Ebola virus, small pox,… these actions need to be implemented immediately. At each step, identify a weakness, identify a plan to fix it and then implement it. These step can be taken individually and in parallel, while the inevitable blue ribbon panels hold hearings and hash out the details.

When they produce their reports we can look at their recommendations and then make adjustments. But we should not wait for the “Grand Unified Plan” that will cure all ills. It will not exist, or ever be implemented, but having multiple layers of independent checks just might give us a chance.

Posted in Ed C, General | 6 Comments »

What is the goal of recycling?

Posted by Ed C on Monday, May 28, 2007

What is the goal of recycling? Seems like a simple question, but like most things when you start to look into the details it may not be so cut and dried.

Susan Kinsella at the August 30, 2004 National Recycling Coalition Conference asks the following:

Of course, this raises the question of when should we count something as “recycled”?
Is it when it’s “diverted,” even if eventually it’s landfilled?
Is it when it reaches a manufacturer, even if it cannot be used by them?
Or is it when it actually gets used to make a product?

Both the Baltimore Sun (Recycling redux) and the Examiner (“Single-stream” recycling encourages more to take part) recently published articles on Howard County recycling.

Howard County Executive Ken Ulman (D) is going to spend $280,000 on 5,000 wheeled bins that will be distributed in a pilot program in Elkridge. And if the program “works” it will be expanded to the entire county at a cost of 4 million dollars.

From the Sun:

If Howard’s planned pilot program is successful, it could show how to boost collections at a time when recycling growth has slowed nationwide.

Though the amount of trash that is recycled nationally grew from 16 percent in 1990 to 29 percent in 2000, it has risen to just 32 percent since then, according to a recent report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office. The Environmental Protection Agency’s goal is 38 percent by next year.

According to the Maryland Recyclers Collation Howard County’s waste diversion rate was 45%.

During 2006, Howard’s recycling system took in 58,092 tons, with 24,150 of that from curbside collections, Tomlin said. The rest – things like branches, construction debris, tires, wood, electronics and yard waste – were brought by residents to the county’s Alpha Ridge Landfill. The amount collected last year represented roughly a 6 percent increase over 2005. Commercial firms, which collect trash from businesses and apartments, recycled 121,168 tons in the county, said Alan Wilcom, chief of the county’s recycling division.

Mr. Ulman is proposing to spend 4 million dollars on what amounts to 13.5% of Howard County’s recycled waste. Sure, it may be the most visible part of the program and everyone can “feel good” about recycling, but how effective is it?

One metric that can be used to measure the effectiveness of a recycling program is measuring the volume (or weight) or curb side collection will increase. The theory being that if people have larger bins with wheels, then they will recycle more. In conjunction with this is the concept of “single stream” where all recyclable materials can be mixed and collected at the same time and then separated at a special facility. A complication of the single stream collection is that it can reduce the usability of the materials. The Recycle America facility that processes Howard County’s recycled materials opened in August 2006 in Elkridge and sounds like a model facility. However, neither the Sun or the Examiner articles provide specifics about the efficiency of the plant.

A 2004 study quoted by Susan Kinsella:

In fact, AF&PA released a study in March that found that the cost for manufacturing products
increased by $8/ton when using materials from single stream processors. Even though single stream
tended to reduce the cost of curbside collection by $15/ton, it increased the overall cost of recycling
by $3/ton.

And from her conclusion:

I don’t hear people evaluating choices based on the health of the whole recycling system, only on
what each choice will do for them. But recycling is a collaborative system. All the different sectors in
recycling have to cooperate with each other in order to further their own long-term self-interest.

We need to expand our concept of “diversion” to embrace focus on quality and environmental benefits. Why do recyclers put so much focus on collecting materials and so little on what’s needed to manufacture recycled products that customers will be happy to buy? Putting the focus on what’s needed to manufacture these products is what will reliably drive the diversion from landfills that we want.

What is the goal of the Howard County recycling program? Is it enough to initially divert waste that we would send to a landfill no matter where it eventually ends up? If diverted resources end up being landfilled by a manufacturer or consume more resources to process, are we really helping the environment, or are we just making our selves feel good?

Is this the most economical and environmentally friendly way to spend our 4 million dollars? How about expanding the hours / days that the Alpha Ridge facility is open for recycling? Currently, Alpha Ridge collects 58% of our residential recycled materials, would having the facility open a few days of the week in the evenings increase participation and reduce the lines that form every Saturday? Just think of the gas savings alone.

We should not just settle for diverted. We should be able to measure and then strive to maximize all portions of the recycling chain while minimizing the cost to tax-payers. Before spending more of our money, the administration should be able to document that this is indeed the best use of these funds.

Posted in Ed C, Howard County | 4 Comments »

Let’s import cheap gas from Mexico.

Posted by Ed C on Saturday, May 26, 2007

The Los Angeles Times reports that Americans are taking advantage of $2.60 per gallon gasoline in Mexico. Gasoline prices in CA are averaging $3.43 and top $4.00 in some places. California resident Roger Moore a 63-year-old management consultant (and obvious government policy and oil industry expert.)

“It costs $65 for a tank of gas up there and it costs me $45 here,” Moore said. “It’s a monopoly and it’s cheaper!”

Before House Speaker Pelosi dusts off her 4/24/2006 speech ‘With Skyrocketing Gas Prices, Americans Can No Longer Afford Rubber Stamp Congress’ and starts advocating we buy cheep gas from Mexico, she may want to read more of the article and take a basic Macro-Economics class:

Turns out that the fuel is not a “clean” as the fuel mandated in California (and because of the Maryland General assembly, coming to a pump near you.) And wait, there is more:

The [Mexican] government regulates every aspect of the industry, including the retail price that consumers pay at the pump. There are two sets of prices: one for stations in select cities along the northern border and another for the rest of the country. Officials tend to peg border prices to those in the U.S. so that Mexican operators can stay competitive with their American counterparts.

But as U.S. gas prices have soared, Mexico’s border prices for regular have remained at 7.41 pesos a liter, or about $2.60 a gallon, for most of the year. Prices in the interior are even lower at 6.88 pesos a liter, or about $2.41 a gallon.

Rising demand is straining Mexico’s refining capacity. In April, the world’s No. 5 oil producer had to import almost 45% of its gasoline, Pemex statistics show. Most of that came from the U.S. But the Mexican government hasn’t boosted retail prices significantly to reflect tight supplies.

So, unless U.S. and other refineries are selling at below market prices to Mexico, the Mexican government is subsidizing U.S. drivers. I wonder if Mr. “Monopolies Are Good” Moore took these other items into consideration:

  • $0.447 – CA Gas Tax (Other taxes include a 6% state sales tax and 1.25% county, plus additional local sales taxes and 1.2 cpg state UST fee.)
  • $0.184 – Federal Gas Tax
  • ? – Cost of meeting CA fuel mixture requirements.
  • ? – Cost of doing business in Mexico v.s. CA (for the retailer)

So, if we deduct the $0.631 cpg CA and Federal taxes, the $0.28 (est.) cpg for local and other taxes, the average retail price in California would be $2.58 per gallon – two cents cheaper than in Mexico.

No word if Ms. Pelosi is planning to stop the obscene profits of Big Government and their cronies, the Democratic Party.   Just a though as you empty your wallet this Memorial Day weekend.

Posted in Ed C, General | 6 Comments »

BIG BROTHER RUN AMOK – AGAIN

Posted by pzguru on Wednesday, May 9, 2007

So I was watching TV this evening and sy the glorious press coverage of the Howard County smoking ban, and it dawned on me that what I was watching was historic.  Not in  the sense of something that should be remembered, but in the sense of how out of control BIG BROTHER has gotten in the last few years with no signs of improving. 

 The owner of the Mi Casa restaurant spoke and indicated that he had already banned smoking in his restaurant, before the County law took effect.  No issue with him taking that action.  If he felt that was the right thing for his business and his clientele, then he has every right to do so.

 However, my issue with the “ban smoking everywhere band wagon” is that there are already many other establishments that have VOLUNTARILY banned smoking in their buildings.  That being the case, why is there a need for total abloishment?  It seems that the pro-smoker to anti-smoker status is about 40-60.  If all of the anti-smoker owned establishments banned smoking, and the pro-smoker establishments allowed smoking, wouldn’t that be a fair result?  Doesn’t that leave the choice to the business owner, as should be the case in a free-market society?  I understand the health concerns – employees who don’t to work in an establishment wouldn’t have to.  They’d have a choice.  Smokers wouldn’t be left out in the cold (literally), they’d have a choice.   SIDE NOTE:  the cardiologist who performed my heart scan informed me that the are minimal health concerns for someone who smokes less that 1 pack a day.  He said that amount is essentially no more risky than breathing the air outside because the body can process and counter the effects.  It’s only when people smoke more than their body can handle, that serious health impacts come into play.  I don’t know exactly how much second hand smoke equates to 1 pack a day, but it would be interesting to know.  Anyway – the employee choice factor over-rides the second hand smoke argument.

 The other oddity with the smoking/anti-smoking push and pull is that if it really came down to a pure health issue, then what other aspects of our lives and businesses will be intruded on next?  There are already several cities that are pushing to ban trans fats.  What’s next?  Ban all fast food establishments?  Mandate serving raw vegetables at movie theaters instead of popcorn?  Outlaw Halloween, Valentine’s Day, and Easter since those are candy infested events?  Why not abolish alcohol (oops – tried that already)?    

I realize that the people who support the smoking ban think they are doing the right thing.  But taking away freedoms and choices given to the people by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights is not the right thing to do.  It’s a slippery slope that should be avoided. 

Posted in General | 33 Comments »

DPZ Ombudsman

Posted by pzguru on Tuesday, May 8, 2007

I have read several articles now about the new Ombudsman for the Howard County Department of Planning and Zoning (reference the article titled “New Planning Official aims to reach, engage public” in the 5/3/07 edition of the HCTimes, and the Opinion page in the same edition).

 Although the concept of having an “outreach” person is admirable, and Kimberley Flowers has excellent qualifications for the position, there is a larger underlying problem that needs to be dealt with in order for this initiative to be successful.  That underlying problem is a persistent habit of the County Executive (present and former administration) and Councilpersons (present and former) interfering or meddling in the day to day business of the Department of Planning and Zoning (the Comp Lite fiasco certainly stands out as the most egregious example). 

 Now, you may ask, what exactly do I mean.  What I mean is this.  The Department of Planning and Zoning has taken a lot of misplaced blame for how the public perceives the planning process, whether it’s subdivision regulations, site plan review, variance applications, comprehensive planning and General Plan updates, and so on.  The bottom line is that the staff of DPZ have always held a firm and fair line in the application of the regulations to the various plans and applications that are submitted to that Department.  It is only when “the politicians” get involved, that the system breaks down.  Even the Director of DPZ is subject to pressures from the County Executive or Councilpersons, and is sometimes forced to take action contrary to how he/she would/should.  True, the Director serves at the pleasure of the CE, and is subject to confirmation by the Council.  However, that does not mean that the CE or Councilpersons should interfere in the process to serve their own agenda, or that of a campaign contributor, or a weatlhy land owner.  The rules are supposed to be applied equally to ALL persons in the County.  Rule #1 of the government is that it shall not act in an arbitrary or capricious manner.  It rarely turns out that way, as I can attest from my years in that Department.  It’s a source of tremendous resentment when the staff would be forced to approve something, such as a waiver petition, contrary to past precedent, simply because the applicant was a person with connections.  When neighbors or community activists would call to discuss how approval could be granted, the staff, including myself on many occasions, would have no explanation other than “we were over-ruled”.  It’s no wonder the public doesn’t trust DPZ, but it’s not DPZ’s fault.  The blame lies with any CE or Councilperson who abuses and violates the established laws and procedures for their own agendas. 

 If Ms. Flowers can overcome and help to end the history of politicization and manipulation of the zoning system that comes from outside (or above) DPZ, including from the person who appointed her, then, and only then, will the system be better understood and trusted.  And, she will definitely have earned her pay.  I wish her luck – she has a rough road ahead of her.  

Posted in Howard County Blogs | 1 Comment »

Does Columbia need a High Rise?

Posted by bsflag2007 on Sunday, May 6, 2007

I have not weighed in on the High Rise controversy because I really didn’t feel like I knew enough about the situation to make any kind of comment – though like most people, I have my personal gut level feelings about the need for a high rise.

So, like the product of too much formal education that I am,  I started doing some research and talking to people on a very informal level. The history of the use of this site – and the applicable regulations, etc make it very difficult to make an easy “cut and dried” declaration of who is right about what is or should be “legally” allowed (in spite of what any side might like to claim).

Sure, there have been various “rules” in place at various times, which may or may not have been promulgated at the behest of certain influential groups or individuals instead of in the interest of the common good.

Bottom line:  I think (as Mr. Ulman keeps saying) the best resolution to this issue is a negotiated compromise.

Developers (and anyone trying to do business or simply function) in HoCo truly need to be able to rely on the stability of the rules and laws.

There are lots of decisions and investments made based on the existing rules and laws at any given time. Changes to them simply cannot be arbitrary or unnecessarily frequent — and they cannot result in financial losses to citizens honestly trying to navigate the rules without the municipality making financial amends.

It is fundamental — no taking of property (or the value of the property) without due process or compensation.

Arguments predicated on excluding “developers” as a special class of citizens who are not entitled to this protection don’t persuade fair minded people.

If you are tempted to deny some “rich developer” or company these basic rights, take a deep breath and consider how you would feel if you bought a lot in order to build a house…. spent a substantial portion of your savings on engineering and plans and fees to get a building permit, got a loan and  started paying interest to a bank…. maybe sold your house and moved into a rental …. then the city said,  “uhhhh, wait a minute … we’ve decided we’d rather not have a house built on that lot….  you can always sue us if you don’t like it”    — get ready to cough up huge legal fees, and continue to pay your mortgage and your rent and have all your money and your future tied up for as long as it takes…. maybe years.

If you  think this kind of stress does not apply to “developers” — think again.

You may think they reap gazillions of dollars for very little work.   Not so. These “deals” tend to be pure examples of capitalism – risk versus reward. Most of the time someone “personally guarantees” the loans.   When was the last time you risked everything you own on your business?

I’m not saying “poor developers”.

Some of them are real jerks – some of them “come out o.k.” no matter how ill-conceived the project. Some of them live off the construction loans and future deals in a big house of cards. Just like any other group of people – there are mostly honest, hardworking individuals in real estate and some pond scum money grubbing ethics challenged jerks.

The problem is it is just “unAmerican” to treat everyone as is they are of the “pond scum” variety.

However, when it comes to the proposed tower for Columbia……

Without comment on the personalities involved (on any side) , after a fair amount of research, I have two comments.

1) If the best argument the developers can make “for” the size of the tower is “but you already said we could!” (picture a 12 year old who managed to get you to agree to something which you immediately regretted but are hesitant to renege on because you value your credibility) – which seems to me to be the only valid argument — then the answer needs to be “no”.  However, it is important to behave like adults and negotiate a compromise that acknowledges the original error and “gives” a little something extra for the “inconvenience”.

2) Columbia does NOT need that huge tower.  When looked at from a purely objective position, it is a BAD idea.  It is too big, too tall, and unless it is going to provide low income housing is not needed to fill a specific housing shortage.  It is simply not driven by a market need.  It is a monument to ego – a giant self-absorbed  phallic symbol that will alter the character of Columbia in a way that only the developer seems to want.

Driving through Bethesda/Chevy Chase a few weekends ago I counted my blessings that I don’t have to deal with that traffic and congestion and bad attitudes and road rage and stress and etc…. on a daily basis.

Then I thought about how much some folks would like Columbia to be “more like” Bethesda/Chevy Chase…. prestigious high end enclaves … forgetting about the nose to nose congestion and smarter and richer than everyone else residents.

Yuck.

CIndy Vaillancourt

Posted in General | 19 Comments »