Budget Up for Approval

The Swansboro Board of Commissioners is likely to approve the town’s $4.3 million budget for the new fiscal year during a public hearing tomorrow night at Town Hall.

As far as I know, nothing much has changed since I first described the proposed budget and my objections to it in a blog post here a few weeks ago. I still intend to vote against it.

I won’t detail all the reasons why. You can go back and re-read them if you like. To summarize, the budget simply makes policy choices that I don’t agree with. It prioritizes extraordinary future expenses over current staff needs, devalues our expert legal services and, most importantly, moves toward ending free health insurance for our employees. We will become one of the few local governments in the state that require employees to pay a portion of their insurance premium, which I fear will make it harder for us to attract good employees and keep the ones we have.

The commissioners will also consider approving an Economic Development Strategic Plan that’s been almost two years in the making. Drafted by a committee of residents with considerable public input, the plan has four basic principles: Develop as a connected community, improve and protect the town’s natural environment, foster and improve the town’s sense of place and actively recruit new businesses and support the expansion of existing businesses.

The meeting starts at 6 p.m. Hope to see you there.

Bad News for N.C. Coast

Bad news this week for us along the North Carolina coast: The Antarctic ice sheet is melting three times faster than it did 10 years ago, according to research published Wednesday in the journal “Nature.” If the acceleration continues – and there’s no reason to think it won’t – rising seas will begin to flood many low-lying areas of the globe far sooner than anyone had feared. After South Florida, the flat North Carolina coast is considered the most vulnerable real estate on the East Coast.

The map, produced by scientists at East Carolina University, shows areas along the Outer Banks and in northeast North Carolina, that are vulnerable to flooding from sea-level rise. A three-foot rise, which is predicted by the end of the century, would flood everything in red. Much of the Outer Banks would be underwater.

Scientists involved with the new research think we have, at best, 10 years to get our carbon emissions under control to escape the worst consequences of a changed climate.

Good luck with that.

As an old environmental reporter, I know the maxim of the trade: Don’t dwell too heavily on the negative. Give readers hope that solutions are possible.

But I’ve been writing about climate change since the 1980s, when it all sounded so fantastic and futuristic, and I must be honest. I fear it is far too late to do anything meaningful that will greatly change the future we have so foolishly and blindly blundered toward. Had we back then taken even small steps to cut our carbon emissions, we’d have a chance today to rewrite the script. At the time, though, we had a rudimentary scientific understanding of the atmosphere. The computer models we used to simulate it were crude and inconsistent. Understandably, passing policies that would affect almost every facet of life was politically impossible.

So, we predictably did nothing.

We now know a great deal more. There is no longer a scientific debate about what’s causing our atmosphere to warm and our seas to rise at a rate unseen in many thousands of years. Those computer models are now very sophisticated and have accurately predicted many of the consequences of a changing climate. If anything, they have been far too conservative. The rate of change is outpacing the assumptions and science that drive the simulations. Things are happening faster than we thought they would.

While our science has advanced, our politics has moved backwards. Climate change, like the minimum wage or health care or immigration reform, has joined the mix of rancorous politics with the two parties at opposites. One party wants to take cautious action; the other party has convinced itself that none of this is happening or, if it is, it ain’t our fault.

A cottage industry of deniers, fueled by big money from secretive donors and fossil fuel industries and supported by conservative media, sows doubt and doles out campaign contributions. It’s the playbook that the tobacco industry devised and followed for decades to forestall government action on cigarette smoking.

So, we predictably still do nothing. In fact, we go backwards. New policies to ease auto mileage standards and restrictions on coal-fired power plants will only make things worse. Pulling out of the Paris Accord and removing climate data from government websites are signs that none of this will change soon.

So, we will continue to do nothing.

A spring tide in March 2018 flooded N.C. 12 in Avon on Hatteras Island.

But physics doesn’t care. No matter what the political parties believe, no matter who sits in the Oval Office, ice will continue to melt at 32 degrees.

When the glaciers melt, the sea rises. In the past century, it has risen nine inches. A third of that rise occurred in the last 23 years. By 2060, it’s predicted to rise another two feet, with no sign of slowing down. Think about that. Water levels could easily be two feet higher in 40 years. And scientists say that’s a conservative estimate. Dramatic change is now decades not centuries away.

N.C. 12 on the Outer Banks now regularly floods during minor storms. King tides now invade the streets of downtown Manteo and Wrightsville Beach. Saltwater now pollutes groundwater, threatening water supplies all along the coast and farming in Hyde, Tyrrell and other low-lying counties. Oysters now grow in some front yards in Swansboro, fed by the saltwater pushing up storm drains.

And this is only the beginning.

While we may be unable to change the future, we can prepare for it.

Swansboro, I’m pleased to report, is one of the few coastal towns in the state that is taking the first steps to do that. We have partnered with the N.C. Division of Coastal Management, the Sea Grant program at N.C. State University, the Nature Conservancy and the N.C. Coastal Federation to begin looking for ways to adapt the to changing world. For the rest of the year, we’ll identify areas in town that are particularly vulnerable to flooding and storm damage and devise possible policies to lessen that future damage. Any policies would then be considered by the Board of Commissioners for adoption as amendments to our land-use plan, which is also being revised.

The adaptability study is just beginning, and there will be several public meetings later in the year. I’ll keep you posted here.

(NOTE: While I welcome your comments, I won’t allow this space or may Facebook page to be used to further the false debate about the causes of climate change. We can debate what the consequences might be and what we should do about them, but I’ll delete any comments that argue it isn’t happening, regardless of the sources or bogus science cited. Let me apologize in advance if that offends you, but these are my pages and I make the rules.)


Boaters: Slow the %$#@ Down

I’m morally opposed to the death penalty, but I may be willing to make an exception for power boaters who don’t slow down for kayakers, canoers and paddleboarders.

This morning, for the second time in five years, an unthinking, uncaring and fool of a jack ass behind the wheel of a power boat went by me at close quarters and high speed in the White Oak River and turned me over with his wake. Luckily, I was in shallow water. I stood up and righted the kayak. But I lost my phone and, more importantly, the 17-inch flounder that I had caught earlier and put in a bucket in the stern. We had to eat leftovers for dinner. I’m not happy.

Not surprisingly, the boater kept going.

Five years ago, a bigger fool in a bigger boat went by me at even closer quarters and an even faster rate of speed in the Intracoastal Waterway. He flipped me in 14 feet of water. He, too, kept on trucking.

Unfortunately, these two boaters are the rule, rather than the exception. It’s the rare power boater who will slow down to a safe speed when passing a kayak. As a result, I generally avoid those waters frequented by power boats, especially on weekends during the summer when our waters are full of inexperienced boaters with coolers full of beer.

This morning, though, I was fishing home turf where few boaters venture. The water there is shallow, and the deeper channels poorly marked. Jagged and unseen oyster beds await to chew up fiberglass hulls steered by inattentive captains. But you’re never safe from the bozo in a boat.

To my boating friends here, let me urge as emphatically as I can: SLOW DOWN when passing a vessel whose only power of locomotion is a paddle. Give it a wide berth and keep your wake to a minimum. You are legally responsible for any damage it causes.

The boater this morning was zipping through an unmarked, historic channel that doesn’t appear on any charts. Only locals know about it. I’ll see him again in his 21-foot, white Carolina Skiff with the blue T-top and the 110 Yamaha four stroke on the back.

I’m Italian. We don’t stay mad for long, but we always get even.

The Night the World Changed

Kennedy Campaigns In Detroit
Robert F. Kennedy campaigns in Detroit in May 1968.

Fifty years ago tonight, the world changed.

Or at least I want to think it did.

A gunman – some now think, two – shot Bobby Kennedy in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in L.A. He died the next day. Kennedy had just won the California Democratic primary. It is now widely surmised, with the special intensity of a counterfactual myth that can neither be proved nor disproved, that Kennedy would have gone on to win the presidency, sparing America and the world from years of bloody conflict in Vietnam and from the Nixon presidency with its polarization, corruption and eventual disgrace. I often wonder how different the world would now be had Kennedy lived.

At least that’s what my heart keeps telling me.

The facts seem to say something else. They suggest that Kennedy had a slim chance to capture the Democratic nomination. His anti-war rival Gene McCarthy wasn’t inclined to get out of his way, and the Johnson-Humphrey administration had a firm grip on delegates for the 33 states that didn’t hold primaries. LBJ hated RFK and wasn’t likely to release those delegates to that “damn pipsqueak.”  Even a Kennedy aide assessed years later that the campaign was losing altitude and that Kennedy was considering accepting the vice president slot if it was offered.

But Kennedy alone, it seemed, could draw working-class white, black and Latino voters into an umbrella coalition. He was an “activist champion of the country’s disinherited,” argues Chris Matthews of MSNBC.

I’ve posted one of my favorite photos of Kennedy that supports that point. It was taken on the campaign trail in Detroit in May 1968. McCarthy or Humphrey wouldn’t have drawn half the crowd. Nixon wouldn’t have tried.

Bobby certainly excited a 17-year-old in Asheville. It is sad that after 50 years Kennedy is still the only politician that I ever enthusiastically supported. I haven’t decided if I’m more to blame or our politics.

I stayed up late that night to listen to the returns from California. I watched Bobby tell the crowd in the hotel lobby that he was on to Chicago. I turned off the TV and went to bed, buoyed by the prospects.

I awoke the next morning. I turned on the transistor by the bedside, as was my habit. They were playing this clip over and over. I later learned it was Andrew West, a reporter for the Mutual Broadcasting System, who had witnessed the assassination.

“Senator Kennedy has been … Senator Kennedy has been shot! Is that possible? It is possible, ladies and gentlemen! It is possible! He has … Not only Senator Kennedy! Oh my God! … I am right here, and Rafer Johnson has hold of the man who apparently fired the shot! He still has the gun! The gun is pointed at me right this moment! Get the gun! Get the gun! Get the gun! Stay away from the guy! Get his thumb! Get his thumb! Break it if you have to! Get the gun, Rafer [Johnson]! Hold him! We don’t want another Oswald!”

I cried, and the world changed.

Or at least I think it did.

Whether  it did or not, we ought to remember.

New Budget: Sidewalks and Fire Trucks

The Swansboro Board of Commissioners Tuesday will hold a public hearing on the new town budget for the coming year. We’ll likely pass it, though I won’t vote for it.

There are some things to commend in the proposed $4.3 million budget: It provides residents with the same level of services without raising taxes. It also puts aside about $54,500 in a capital reserve fund as a down payment for large future expenses, such as $1 million in new fire trucks that we’ll need in the next decade. Add the $43,000 that we’ll put in that account after selling our old fire truck and we have a nice nest egg for future purchases of fire apparatus.

But there are many other things in this budget that I can’t support. To come up with that down payment and another $50,000 for sidewalks without raising taxes, the board revised the budget proposed by the town manager, redirecting thousands of dollars from a host of items that the manager had proposed.

Our finance director told us she needs fulltime help to do her job more efficiently. She works long hours and is hard-pressed to meet the demands of the job while fulfilling state and federal reporting requirements. Burn out is a real concern. She also needs modern financial software.

The commissioners, though, decided not to set aside money for the software package and opted to provide her with part-time assistance. That made another $25,000 available for sidewalks and firetrucks.

The commissioners think they’ve found another $17,000 by cutting what we now pay for our town attorney by almost 47 percent. We currently contract with Ward and Smith of New Bern for our legal services. Their lawyer is on retainer. He attends two board meetings every month and is available for unlimited consultations. I don’t think anyone on the board would disagree that Ward and Smith has provided us with excellent legal advice. The commissioners, though, have set aside about $19,000 in their budget for a piecemeal legal plan that would provide some basic level of service. We would pay for anything else at an hourly rate.

We’re still shopping that contract around with law firms in the area. No one, at the moment, is really sure what we’ll get for our money. I’ll go out on a limb and predict we that won’t get the same level of service for half the price.

Eliminating the fulltime finance position, deleting money to set aside for the financial software and the bare-bones legal plan provide most of $100,000 for sidewalks and fire trucks. The rest comes from a bunch of nickel-and-dime cuts: about $10,000 from various travel and training budgets; $5,000 from the fire department’s overtime budget; and eliminating a part-time position requested by the Parks and Recreation Dept.

The philosophy behind this budget is puzzling. Paying for extraordinary capital expenses like fire trucks and sidewalks through a small, annual operating budget like ours without raising taxes is very difficult. There’s just not a lot of money to spare. You end up making hard and, in my view, unnecessary choices, as this budget does. It chooses sidewalks and future fire trucks over providing needed help for our dedicated, hardworking staff and paying for competent, professional services. Those aren’t choices I’m willing to make.

Neither am I willing to part with most towns and cities in the state by charging our employees for health care. This budget takes the first step in ending that important benefit. We chose a better health insurance plan than employees have now, but it will cost about $60 more a month per employee. The 24 employees on the plan will be required to make up that difference. We’ll boost their salaries by that amount for one year but with no guarantee that the subsidy will continue.

Those on the board who favor this approach have noted that hardly anyone in the private sector – “the real world,” they like to call it – gets free health care these days. While there’s no disputing that, it’s equally true that in this world of local government, free health care is an industry standard. Most public employees could make more money working in that “real world.” Health and retirement benefits attempt to level the playing field.

In our previous discussions about the budget, the town manager provided us with a survey he conducted of health-care plans and costs in eight nearby cities and counties: Newport, Pine Knoll Shores, Atlantic Beach, Emerald Isle, River Bend, Snow Hill, Oriental and Onslow County. Swansboro’s current health-care plan costs us $520 a month per employee. That was the third-lowest on the list. Importantly, only Onslow County charges employees $25 a month if they opted for the more expensive of the two plans offered.

The commissioners’ new approach of requiring employees to pay a portion of their health insurance isn’t common in North Carolina. If we were in that “real world,” one could say we are at a competitive disadvantage. Recruiting new employees and retaining the ones we have could now be difficult.

And, finally, I’m very troubled by the process we used to get to Tuesday night’s vote. We have talked publicly about this budget for months, holding six or seven public meetings and workshops. The town manager, at the board’s request, devised two budgets: one with a tax increase and one without.

A couple of board members got their pencils out over a weekend in early May and began cutting money from one line item of the manager’s budgets and moving it to another.

The commissioners’ alternative budget, as it has been called, was first made public at our meeting on May 8. Mayor John Davis called me that morning informing me of the alternate budget. He had contacted the other commissioners as well. It was clear from the conversation that all had approved the numbers. I told Davis that I could not.

He visited our town manager, who had worked for months on the budget with his staff, later that day and briefed him extensively on the commissioners’ desires.

At the meeting that night, the board discussed the new numbers and directed the manager to use them to fashion the budget that will be the subject of Tuesday’s meeting.

I wonder why we wasted all that time for all those months publicly talking about a budget. Who knew that it could be quickly resolved by a couple of folks with a pencil over a weekend, followed by a few phone calls and emails? Live and learn.

The meeting Tuesday starts at 6 p.m. at Town Hall.

You can review the proposed budget here.

Hoover Dam: Human Ingenuity and Grit

The statue of “Alabam” honors one of the unsung workers who built Hoover Dam.

Boulder City, about 30 miles southeast of Las Vegas, is famous as the company town that housed the 7,000 men who built nearby Hoover Dam in the early 1930s. One of those men is immortalized by an eight-foot tall bronze statue on Wyoming Street and Nevada Way that welcomes visitors to the city’s old town district. He’s carrying a broom, like a rifle, across one shoulder and has a bandolier of 15 rolls of toilet paper draped around his neck. On a construction site full of draftsmen and designers, he called himself a “sanitary engineer.” 

He’s “Alabam,” one of the unsung workers of Hoover Dam. The city has about 20 statues around town. Many memorialize the dam workers. It says something about this town that it chose its first statue in 2007 to honor the guy who cleaned the outhouses. Bravo, I say. 

We, of course, had to visit the dam while we are this way. The electrical power it provides and the water from Lake Meade that it created make the neon lights and flowing fountains of modern Las Vegas possible. Los Angeles, a couple of hours away, would also be very different if not for Hoover Dam. Most of the Southwest for that matter. 

We first visited the small museum on the second floor of a historic Boulder City hotel that tells the story of the town rose out of the harsh desert. Nearby Black Canyon was chosen in 1930 as the site of the great dam that would finally tame the unruly Colorado River. Desperate men in search of work began showing up in tiny Las Vegas or built a collection ramshackle huts along the river known as “Ragtown.” 

Hoover Dam is a testament to human ingenuity and grit.

The federal government and the company chosen to build the dam needed permanent housing for these and the thousands of other workers who would build the dam. It would be a place where clean living would encourage good work habits. Finishing the dam on time was the goal. 

So, no alcohol and gambling. A grainy black-and-white photograph in the museum shows the guard gate that everyone entering the town had to pass. The road leading to the gate, the caption explains, was littered with the broken remnants of the booze bottles of returning workers who had enjoyed a brief respite to Vegas.  

Even today, Boulder City remains one of only two towns in the state where gambling is still illegal.  

To lessen temptation, no women were allowed in either unless they were part of workers’ families. 

Sims Ely, a no-nonsense sort judging from the unsmiling photo of him, was given dictatorial powers as the town manager. He decided what businesses were allowed and who could stay. If Ely considered a resident unsavory, the offender was shown the gate and told never to return. There was no appeal. 

It all worked. Construction on the single, largest civil works project on U.S. soil started in 1931 and continued non-stop, 24-hours-a-day until the dam was completed four years later, two years ahead of schedule. 

Lake Meade is one of the most important lakes in America because it changed the Southwest.

A short ride down U.S. 93 brings you to the gleaming, white concrete that curves gracefully between the canyon walls. The elevators aren’t working – Sims Ely would be very displeased. So, we couldn’t tour the inside of the massive structure.  

Standing atop it, though, gave me a deep appreciation of what the men of Boulder City did. More than 100 died in the process working under grim and dangerous conditions. One survivor noted many years later that OSHA, had it existed at the time, would have stopped the work in 24 hours. 

Hoover Dam remains and enduring testament to human ingenuity and grit. It will serve as a counterpoint to the rest of this trip. 

From here, we move on to the great canyons of the Colorado Plateau, nature’s ongoing engineering projects. 

Vegas Sort of Grows on You

The north end of The Strip

I didn’t expect to like Las Vegas, but the place sort of sneaks up on you.

Though more than 40 million people come through here each year, the city is immaculately clean. Police presence is muted and panhandlers non-existent.

Gambling, of course, is what draws all those visitors.  Casinos line Las Vegas Boulevard for miles. The famed Strip, with its fake Eiffel Tower and New York skyscrapers and its gondolas and Chinese gardens, is certainly over the top, but strangely it’s not tacky and gaudy like the Canadian side of Niagra Falls.

Inside the loud, cavernous casinos, you can wager a bet on the turn of a card at the blackjack and poker tables, on the roll of dice, the spin of roulette wheels, the push of buttons on slot machines. You can even bet on the outcome of a soccer game in Greece or on the winner of the American League pennant – the Yankees are 9-6 favorites.

The casino at the Golden Nugget in “old” Vegas.

The casinos, though, weren’t crowded – many of the card tables were empty or attracted just one or two gamblers. I was able to nurse $20 through three nights of light betting on the poker slots at Planet Hollywood. About an hour a time was all I could muster before getting bored. I eventually lost it all – the machine wins 60 percent of the time, I’m told – but I had several enjoyable hours of pushing buttons, watching the casino night life and drinking freely of the its gin and scotch.

The food can be superb – I had the best prime rib of my life at Binion’s steakhouse – and the entertainment top notch. Elton John, Cher and Janet Lopez performed within a couple of blocks of each other during our time there. They were too rich for our budget, though. We opted instead for Cirque du Soleil’s breathtaking “O” show at the Bellagio. It’s a stunning mixture of the athleticism of high-flying trapeze artists, the beauty and grace of synchronized swimming and the mayhem of the Marx Brothers.

The old section of Vegas along Fremont Avenue retains some of the naughtiness of a bygone era. There, under the roof of a pedestrian mall that connects some of the oldest casinos in town, fortune tellers will read your palm, guys stand naked except for a jockstrap playing bad electrical guitar and girls dressed as nuns flash their breasts with cops standing not 10 feet away.

“That’s just wrong,” Doris said.

I found it exhilarating. No, not the fake nuns’ bare breasts, but the fact that they were out there baring them. I wish New York had preserved the some of the seediness of the Times Square that I remember as a kid instead of allowing all it to be sanitized and Disneyfied.

But three days is enough. We leave tomorrow for the canyons of Zion and Bryce and, of course, the grandest of all.