Saturday, March 26, 2011

Bonanza Column 229 - Time to Take a Stand

A couple of weeks ago the Bonanza reported on the results of the 2010 U.S. Census as it applies to Incline Village – Crystal Bay and the Tahoe Basin as a whole. In case you missed it, the population of IV/CB has declined some 12% since the 2000 Census, and there are currently more vacant housing units than occupied. The Census does not measure second home ownership versus primary residences, but IVGID figures indicate that the former has increased at the expense of the latter, and the schools have shown a decrease of some 400 kids from ten years ago.
These figures will no doubt be very good news for the vocal minority who want to see Incline decline. The ones who would strip IVGID of all be the most basic powers and those whose misguided form of environmentalism boils down to having as few people in the environment as possible. For those of us who are concerned with the quality of life here and with a future for this community (and that group includes both full-timers and second home owners), it is bad news indeed.
In the same article, Kathy Carter, Washoe County Community Relations Director is quoted as saying that the decline in building due to the economy, along with the population decline, the community planning that was done several years ago is “not as urgent as it was.” I disagree and I suggest that Ms Carter’s view is both short-sighted and wrong.
In my view the economic situation of the past couple of years, while in many ways devastating, is a correction to an overheated economy that began in the ‘90’s and was based on a combination of greed and self-delusion – the first created a series of bubbles and the second allowed most of us to believe they would never burst. When they did, sanity returned with painful consequences to a great many people. I believe these consequences, while difficult in the short run, will return us to a more rational economy that, if we can remember the lessons learned, will give us much greater stability and sanity in the long haul.
If that view is correct, it means that planning for a community that is sustainable – economically, socially, environmentally – the “triple bottom line” – is more, not less important. If those of us who care about the future of the community as more than a retirement community allow a nebulous group of malcontents led by an outsider who has a very troublesome history of disrupting communities for reasons that are unclear to take advantage of the population decline and current economic situation to hijack that future, then we will have done a great disservice to a community we love and that they will leave. Similarly, if we allow eco-fundamentalists to block business efforts that are valuable and sustainable while environmental damage from current structures continue, then we are na├»ve indeed.
Since I began this series of columns on the subject of “vocal minorities” I have received the usual attacks – no matter how many facts I cite, I am accused of not having any facts by people who then cite none in rebuttal. I am told that I and those who agree with my views are the real minority, and the troglodytes are the majority, yet these accusations come from the same people over and over again, and they have yet to reveal who they count in their supposed majority. Typical demagogic tactics when you have no arguments that hold water and no people to pose them.
More importantly,, I have heard from many people who agree and who want to know what to do . My answer is simple: speak up – often and loudly. Make it clear that the so-called Village People and the eco-fundamentalists (and I'm distinguishing them from those of us who have a real concern for the environment, one that includes that people and businesses are part of it) are NOT the majority. Research and reveal their real agendas, and let the entities involved – the IVGID Board, the TRPA Governing Board, the Washoe County Board of Commissioners – that they have allies in holding the line against the forces of regression. There have started to be letters and guest columns in the Bonanza along these lines – we need more. It’s time to end the foolishness and take our community back from those who would throw sand in the gears of progress just for their own amusement or their own agendas.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Bonanza Column 228: Boulder Bay - Will Reason Prevail?

Continuing our theme of the past couple of weeks, we have another example of a vocal minority trying to advance its agenda regardless of anyone else’s view.

This week the TRPA Governing Board will take what should be the final action to allow the Boulder Bay Project to proceed and actually start building. Since it was first proposed in 2007, the Boulder Bay plan has made change after change in response to concerns from “interested public parties.” In the end, the plan that will go before TRPA on Wednesday will be a huge improvement over the current sight which is both an esthetic and environmental blight, will reduce energy use on the site by 38%, provide alternative-fuel transportation and walkable spaces for guests, transportation and housing for employees, and create an additional 225 jobs. Four traffic studies, each taking a more conservative look than the last, concluded that traffic would decrease.

So everybody wins, right? The objectors got a lot of what they asked for, the project will be built, and all’s well. Not so much. According to last week’s paper, the League to Save Lake continues its vocal opposition as does the so-called North Tahoe Preservation Alliance. It seems that no matter what Boulder Bay does, no matter what study after study says, these groups or at least their putative leaderships will continue to insist that it be done their way or not at all. They’ve blocked progress for four years and one would hope that the TRPA’s passage of the final approval on Wednesday would put the issue to bed and these worthies will move on to other matters.

It’s worth noting that, as usual, it’s the opposition that has been most vocal and has received the most attention in the media. From that you might think that public opinion on the pro side has been weak or non-existent. On the contrary most of the public comment at TRPA hearings has been unabashedly positive as have written comments submitted by people who could not attend the hearings.

There has been a cost to the delays – every day that the current structure exists has environmentally negative effects. For example, a UC Davis study indicated that in a wet year (like this year) some 30,000 pounds of sediment runoff from the site goes into the lake, including fine sediment, nitrogen, and phosphorus. This will be reduced by about 90% when Boulder Bay is built.

You understood correctly. These groups, in the name of the environment and their view of what the scenery should be, have been willing to tolerate this kind of environmental damage. If they refuse to accept defeat as seems likely on Wednesday, (there’s a reason detractors call it “The League to Sue Lake Tahoe”), this damage will be prolonged. In what environmental universe does this make sense?

But that’s the problem with our local vocal minorities – whether they’re suing IVGID over the beaches, accusing hard-working IVGID staff of being corrupt, blocking intelligent community planning, or demanding that their view of what’s good for the environment prevail, they always insist that their take on things is so right that it should prevail even in the face of widespread disagreement. Even if they have the best of intentions, and I believe that some (though not all) of them do, their insistence on imposing their will on the community regardless of the public will or of evidence that they are, if not entirely wrong, certainly not entirely right invalidates those intentions.

One respondent to my column last week said “TVP [The Village People] live here TOO!” True, but they’re not the only ones and not the majority by far. It’s interesting to me that while a number of people respond negatively to these columns, none of them seem to have anything to offer except ad hominem attacks and name-calling, but no rational argument except that they’re right and I'm not. Maybe so, but it seems a whole lot more people agree with me than with them. If you do, get out to the TRPA Governing Board meeting at the Chateau on Wednesday afternoon and make yourself heard; if you can’t make it, send them a written comment and let rational heads prevail.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Bonanza Column 227 – Will We Change or Will Change Change Us?

In a recent article Daniel Burrus, one of the world’s leading technology forecasters and business strategists, made a strong case for what he calls a “hard trend.” A trend is something that may happen; a hard trend is something that WILL happen – it’s a prediction, not a probability. The trend Burrus was positing was that the accelerating rate at which things are changing will continue indefinitely.

In the past, Burrus points out, stability and change were two contrasting states: when you achieved stability, you did so despite change. Today you can achieve stability only by embracing change as a continuous and permanent state. It used to be, you could find something you do well, learn how to do it, and just keep on doing it. Not anymore.

There are two kinds of change: change from the outside in, and change from the inside out. The first happens to you. The second is an initiative that you take through conscious intention. Burrus asserts that today there is an urgent need to anticipate and take the initiative to change from the inside out, even as all these transformations are coming at us from the outside in. The highway is littered with the corpses of companies that failed to see this, and governments, from nations to municipalities, are not immune from the impact of this trend.

As a consultant to companies ranging from Fortune 100 to middle-size businesses, the truth of Burrus’ analysis has been apparent to me for some years now, but I find that when I work with governments and non-profits, their resistance to this truth is at the level of the resistance of businesses like IBM and Kodak twenty years ago (both these companies famously lagged behind revolutions in their industries; IBM recovered, Kodak did not).

The current tempest in a teapot that the organization called the Village People is trying to stir up regarding IVGID is a close-to-home case in point. A vocal minority of residents in Incline Village and Crystal Bay has been trying for years to stem the tide of change like Horatius at the bridge. It seems they would strip IVGID of all but the most necessary powers, roll back taxes (good luck with that one), and shut down most of what makes IV/CB unique, and based on the response by IVGID to the VP’s advertisement in the Bonanza a few weeks ago, it would seem they are not above the very crimes they accuse IVGID of – distorting the facts, lying, and obfuscating. I guess they think their “cause” is so just that they can use any means necessary.

In past years this vocal minority has tied IVGID up in lawsuits, claiming to represent a constituency they don’t identify, they have managed to get out enough votes to defeat the perhaps less passionate voices that favored becoming a town or a county, and have managed to block any substantive results from some very good conversations in Incline Vision and TRPA Place-Based Planning – conversations that had the potential to initiate the kind of change from within that would get us as a community out ahead of economic and social changes that could overwhelm us.

The sad thing is that the Indian Chief, the biker, the cop, the cowboy, the construction worker, and the GI – oh, sorry, wrong Village People – could get their way. It’s hard to gin up the passion for embracing change than for trying to keep anything from changing, and in the not too distant future we may find ourselves ill-equipped to meet the change that will, inevitably, be forced on us. If the imperative is “change or die,” this community as it’s developed over 40 years or so could die. We could become one more Sun City – a community of retirees and second home owners who are here part of the time – no young people, no children, no life.

One last thing – a couple of people pointed out to me that something I said in last week’s column lent itself to misinterpretation. I did not mean to imply that all part-time residents didn’t care about the community. On the contrary, a great many do care a great deal – Chuck Otto and others in the golf community, Jim Peterson and the Veterans Club come to mind and there are a lot more. Still it is undeniable that there are part-timers and absentee owners who don’t really care much about the quality of life here for those who are here year-round, and there are a few who make noise out of proportion to their numbers, who just want to stir up controversy. I wish they would do it somewhere else. Absent that, it’s time for those of us who give a damn to start making our voices heard.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

The IVGID Cutbacks – Once Again it’s Whose Ox is Being Gored

Governments all over the country, at every level from Federal to local are struggling with financial issues. Like almost everyone else, during the boom years of the ‘90’s and part of the first decade of this century, governments took in record revenues and spent in record amounts. Like almost everyone else, governments naively acted like the boom would never end, and like almost everyone else, they are now paying the price for that naivete in the form of shortfalls, debts coming due, and cutbacks.

Naturally, IVGID is no exception to this overdue adjustment. I don’t think that blaming is particularly useful, but if we are to apportion responsibility for the current situation, then the Boards of Trustees from, say, 1995 – 2005 certainly come in for some serious consideration. The IVGID staff and the District Manager don’t make major decisions on their own – everything comes to the Board in the form of recommendations, and it is the Board that makes the call and that sets the budget.

Yet some IV/CB residents seem to be taking the opportunity of the current situation to call (once again) for Bill Horn’s head on a platter and to vilify the honest efforts of the IVGID staff, particularly department heads, to carry out the Board’s mandates. This is both ridiculous and wrong.

IVGID, like any municipal entity, has a large and complex budget. I took a course some years ago called “Finance for Non-Financial Managers” and was astonished to discover that the whole business of finance and accounting was not nearly as difficult as I thought it would be. Oh sure, it can be complex, and like any discipline you have to learn the basic rules (called GAAP – Generally Accepted Accounting Principles), some of which seem arbitrary or made up, but once you accept those rules it’s relatively easy to follow the game – not at an expert level, but enough to know if something doesn’t make sense. On that level anyone can sit down with the IVGID budget and see what’s going on.

Then there are experts – in this case called Auditors – whose job it is to look at financial matters on a much deeper level and whose expertise allows them to see disconnects or discrepancies that we lay people would miss. The IVGID budget is audited every year and with the exception of one minor mistake has received full marks for its integrity every time.

Given all that, it makes no sense for people to suggest (and not show any evidence to back it up) that Mr. Horn, Ms Cruz, or anyone else whose job it is to properly manage the budget the Board gives them are mismanaging or mishandling the District’s finances.

The Board spends months each year formulating the District Budget. In this process they hold workshops and public hearings and hear both staff recommendations and the views of those of the public who have the commitment and what my mother used to call the sitzfleisch (not really translatable, but sitz is “seat” and fleisch is “meat”) to sit through the hours of mind-numbing number crunching, and they then adopt the budget they come up with in an open meeting with plenty of public comment, so while you may not agree with their decisions or their priorities, it’s disingenuous of critics to accuse the Board of not being transparent.

In all likelihood this year’s budget brouhaha will come down to whose ox is being gored. It’s possible that a coalition of second-home owners and others who are interested only in reducing their expenses will succeed in intimidating the IVGID Board into cutting programs and cutting back overall until all IVGID does is water, sewer, garbage, and minimal recreation. It’s even possible that, now that we’ve lost an excellent golf manager, they will succeed in driving away the General Manager and his senior staff. If they do, those of us who care about this village being more than a retirement community of second-home owners will be the poorer for it. It’s up to us to make sure that doesn’t happen.

And a note to my loyal detractors – telling me I don’t know what I'm talking about without offering anything to factually contradict what I say is really not an argument that’s likely to gain traction.