Tuesday, May 16, 2006

City Budget Transformative Ideas

The Laguna Beach City budget needs a vision. Thanks to the destination visitors at the Montage, there is an increase in Bed Tax producing an additional $2.7 million discretionary revenue available to spend. So this is the year for transformative ideas.

Most budgets are just more of the same lacking any new ideas. This is not to blame the City Council as typically there is no money available to make any exciting transformative change. Unfortunately, even cost saving ideas over the long term, typically cost a significant amount upfront.

For example, Steve Dicterow is now on the Council for his twelfth year and each and every year, the new budget just authorizes pretty much what the past one did. Since 1994 (and the County declaring bankruptcy) the City’s property tax revenue has gone from $6 million to $20 million per year, so one would think that there was plenty of money. But the City’s employee fringe benefits have risen out of control as increased City revenues have been consistently consumed by City employee workman’s comp, health care and pension costs.

The Transit Occupancy tax is discretionary revenue which the City Council has the responsibility and the authority to spend in the manner deemed by it to be best. Using this money, and perhaps the ongoing $3.2 million per year steam of revenue, transformative change could occur. Does anyone have an idea?

Using this money, and perhaps the $3.2 million per year steam of revenue, transformative change could occur. Some ideas might be:
Effectively widen sidewalks by removing most parking meter poles
- Improve pedestrian experience, and look of City Council
- Move from collecting parking charges from quarters to electronic collection via credit cards
- Not such thing as feeding the meter, improving circulation
- Not such thing as time on the meter being used by the next car
- Reduce headcount necessary to collect parking money

Purchase Paramedic Vans
- 85% of Fire Department calls are Paramedic
- City knows send three personnel in a $500, 000 fire engine
- Could respond with two personnel in a $100,000 paramedic van
- Reduce wearing out $500,000 fire engines
- Response times would be a bit faster

Consolidate Agate and South Laguna Fire Stations
- If there was a time to close two fire stations and build a better one in between those locations, this budget is the opportunity to do so.

Buy-Out City Employee Defined Benefit Pension Plans
- Laguna Beach taxpayers increasingly work until 65 saving for retirement through IRAs, 401K and other defined contribution plans
- City employees can retire at 55 with Safety employees going to be able to retire at 50
- Laguna Beach taxpayers pay City portion, and also pays employee portion of pension contributions
- When stock market goes, Laguna Beach taxpayers have to pay more so defined benefit pension can be guaranteed

How to Stop Iran (Without Firing a Shot)

From May 16, 2006 Wall Street Journal Opinion Journal, see Bret Stephens’ GLOBAL VIEW How to Stop Iran (Without Firing a Shot)
Current diplomacy isn't working. Here's Plan B.

What can the Bush administration do to persuade Iran's leaders that their bid to develop nuclear weapons will exact an unacceptable price on their regime? What can it do, that is, short of launching air strikes?

Begin by shelving the current approach. For three years, the administration has deferred to European and U.N. diplomacy while seeking to build consensus around the idea that a nuclear-armed Iran poses unacceptable risks to global security. The result: Seven leading Muslim states, including Pakistan and Indonesia, have joined hands with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to affirm his right to develop "peaceful" nuclear technology. China and Russia have again rejected calls for U.N. sanctions. The Europeans are again seeking to sweeten the package of technical, commercial and security incentives the mullahs rejected last year. And that's just last week's news.

Today, the international community is less intent on stopping Tehran from getting the bomb than it is on stopping Washington from stopping Tehran. That's something the administration may not be able to change. But there are steps it can take independently to alter Iran's calculations. Here are four.

• Take the diplomatic offensive. "Western countries must push the internal conflicts inside the Iranian government," says Mehdi Khalaji, an Iranian journalist and visiting scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Mr. Khalaji proposes that President Bush write an open letter to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, specifying the conditions under which the U.S. would be prepared to negotiate. By addressing Mr. Khamenei this way, Mr. Bush would bypass and humiliate Mr. Ahmadinejad, aggravate the regime's internal frictions and explain to the Iranian people why theirs is a pariah state.

"The administration could say, 'If you halt enrichment, we can negotiate. If you stop supporting Hamas and Hezbollah, we can negotiate. If you release the following political prisoners, we can negotiate. If you stop meddling in Iraq, we can negotiate.' This would provoke a controversy inside the government. Some would say, 'OK, we can give up on these prisoners. We can back away from our relationship with Hamas. And so on.'"

Mr. Khalaji also urges the U.S. government to recast the content of its Farsi-language radio station, known as Radio Farda. The station's programmers, he says, "misunderstand the young generation of Iran, which is very political. The quality is not appropriate for a serious audience. The news isn't professional the way the BBC is." Offering a serious journalistic alternative to the Beeb ought to be an administration priority.

• Target the regime's financial interests. "In many ways, the Islamic Republic of Iran has become the Islamic Republic of Iran, Inc.," says Afshin Molavi, the Iranian-American author of "Persian Pilgrimages." Between 30% and 50% of Iran's economy is controlled by the bunyad, so-called "Revolutionary Foundations" run by key regime figures answerable only to Mr. Khamenei. Hard-line Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, considered to be Mr. Ahmadinejad's spiritual mentor, controls the sugar monopoly, while former President Ali Rafsanjani is said to be the richest man in the country.

Since Mr. Ahmadinejad came to power, these ayatollah-oligarchs have been running for financial cover: Capital outflows from Iran surpassed the $200 billion mark in the past year alone. Much of that money has made its way to banks in the United Arab Emirates, many of which have correspondent banks in the U.S. "We are preventing financial transactions going to the Palestinian Authority because banks are scared they'll be hit by U.S. terrorism-financing laws," says a source who closely tracks the Iranian economy. "Why can't we do the same thing with Iran?"

• Support an independent labor movement. On May Day, 10,000 workers took to Tehran's streets to demand the resignation of Iran's labor minister. And despite last year's $60 billion oil-revenue bonanza, the Iranian government routinely fails to pay its civil servants, leading to chronic, spontaneous work stoppages.

Workers' rights got a boost in January when Tehran's bus drivers went on strike to demand the release of their imprisoned and tortured leader Mansour Ossanloo. In a state that bans independent labor unions, the strike was an unprecedented event, calling to mind the 1980 Gdansk dock strike that became Poland's Solidarity movement. That movement succeeded largely thanks to the support of Lane Kirkland's AFL-CIO, which in turn received funding from the National Endowment for Democracy. The same model needs to be energetically applied to Iran today.

"The neat thing about the labor movement is that wherever it goes, it's welcomed," says a source familiar with Iranian workers' groups. "It actually makes America look good."

• Threaten Iran's gasoline supply. Iran is often said to have an oil weapon pointed at George Bush's head. Rob Andrews, a Democratic congressman from New Jersey, notes the reverse is closer to the truth: Because Iran lacks refining capacity, it must import 40% of its gasoline. Of that amount, fully 60% is handled by a single company, Rotterdam-based Vitol, which has strategic storage and blending facilities in the UAE. The regime also spends $3 billion a year to subsidize below-market gas prices.

With Illinois Republican Mark Kirk, Mr. Andrews has introduced legislation calling for the quarantine of gasoline imports should Iran continue to flout Security Council resolutions. "If gas prices were to soar in Iran," he says, "the regime would be destabilized, the possibility of internal change would increase and the regime would find a way to back away from the precipice."
One objection: A gas quarantine may require the naval blockade of Iranian ports, which is legally tantamount to an act of war. Not a problem, says Mr. Andrews: "I think the development of a nuclear weapon in violation of an international treaty is an act of war, too."

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Victor Davis Hanson Reviews Past Wars and Level of Success

See RealClearPolitics.com May 09, 2006
The Prison of the Present by Victor Davis Hanson

Listen to the present televised hysteria. Too few troops! No, too many still there! The CIA is out of control! No, it is weak and irrelevant! The Iraq mess only empowered Iran! No, its democratic experiment is the best way to undermine that neighboring theocracy.

Such frenzy of the 24-hour news cycle is now everywhere, as we are lectured that our victories over the Taliban and Saddam Hussein have caused as many problems as they solved.

But in war aren't choices usually between the bad and the far worse? So often victory leads not to utopia, but only something better.

Take our past ambiguous successes. Recall that the outcome of America's horrific, but successful, Civil War that ended slavery led not to racial harmony. Instead followed over a decade of failed Reconstruction and another century of Jim Crow apartheid in the South.

We saved a reeling Britain and France in World War I. But an isolationist United States did not occupy a defeated Germany. So we fought a resurgent Hitler little more than twenty years later, who talked of the 'stab in the back,' while he bragged that imperial Germany had withdrawn unbeaten from foreign soil.

The outcome of World War II (note the sudden need for the Roman numerals) was not perpetual peace or even the freedom of Eastern Europe, but rather its enslavement and a Cold War of a half-century.

The United States prevailed in saving South Korea. Yet it still bequeathed a lunatic nuclear communist state to our grandchildren.

Gulf War I was a smashing success. But it was followed by the slaughter of tens of thousands of Shiites and Kurds, twelve years of no-fly zones, and yet another war against Saddam.

Almost every controversy in this present war also proves to be a rehash of the past. Poorly armored Humvees? Thousands, not hundreds, of Americans perished, in thin-skinned Sherman tanks ("Ronson lighters") that never were up-armored even at the end of World War II.

Too few troops? In late July 1944 as Gen. George Patton raced eastward through France, the topic never came up. But by autumn as several under-strength American armies suddenly stalled on the distant Rhine, national recrimination replaced the earlier euphoria. What fool planner had advocated a broad-front advance into Germany with far too few soldiers?

Did removing Saddam empower Iran? No more so than ending Nazism gave more opportunity for our "ally" Stalin to enslave Eastern Europe.

Why was our Iraqi intelligence so poor in assessing the potential for postwar insurgency? The same was asked how some surprised American divisions near the end of World War II were nearly annihilated by Germans in the Bulge and by the Japanese on Okinawa?

Won't Iraq require years of occupation? We hope not. But years after our victories, American troops are still residing in Germany, Italy, Japan, Korea, Kuwait, and the Balkans.

The point of these historical comparisons is not to excuse our present mistakes by citing worse ones from the past--or to suggest that all wars are always the same. Much less should history's examples be used to stifle necessary contemporary criticism that alone leads to remedy.

Rather knowledge of the capricious nature of wars of the past can restore a little humility to our national psyche.

We need it. Ours is the first generation of Americans that thinks it can demand perfection in war. Our present leisure, wealth, and high technology fool us into thinking that we are demi-gods always be able to trump both human and natural disasters. Accordingly, we become frustrated that we cannot master every wartime obstacle, as we seem otherwise to be able to do with computers or cosmetic surgery. Then, without any benchmarks of comparison from the past, we despair that our actions are failed because they are not perfect.

But why did a poorer, less educated, and more illiberal United States in far bloodier and more error-ridden wars of the past still have greater confidence in itself? Was it that our ancestors, who died younger and far more tragically, did not expect their homeland to be without flaws, only to be considerably better than the enemy's?

Perhaps we have forgotten such modesty because we have ignored the study of history that alone offers us guidance from our forbearers. It now competes as an orphan discipline with social science, -ologies and -isms that entice us into thinking that the more money and education of the present can at last perfect the human condition and thus consign our flawed past to irrelevance.

The result is that while sensitive young Americans seem to know what correct words and ideas they must embrace, they derive neither direction nor solace from past events. After all, very few could identify Vicksburg or Verdun, much less have any idea where or what Iwo Jima was. In such a lonely prison of the present what are historically ignorant Americans to make of a Fallujah or an Iranian madman's threat of annihilation other than such things can't or shouldn't or must not happen to us?

So, of this present war, I think our war-torn forefathers would say to us that both messy Afghanistan and Iraq are better places without their dictators even if they never will resemble Carmel or Austin.

They would add that it is not unusual to be confronted with new crises even after such apparently easy victories. And they would shrug that however scary Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's Iran now appears, it poses nothing new or insurmountable to a confident and strong United States that has dealt with far more serious enemies in the past with its accustomed wisdom and resolve.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Medicare Drug Plan is Meeting Goals

Do you believe this article in the Los Angeles Times?


Drug Plan Is Meeting Goals
The Medicare benefit is helping millions even as the system's complexity vexes many pharmacists and patients. A penalty looms for late enrollees.
By Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar, Times Staff Writer
May 7, 2006

WASHINGTON — With the first enrollment deadline a week away, the Medicare prescription benefit apparently is achieving its primary objective: helping millions of Americans get protection they did not previously have against one of the most draining problems of growing older.

By the May 15 deadline, federal officials expect to have more than 20 million seniors enrolled in plans under Medicare Part D, as the benefit program is called. That would include at least 7 million who previously lacked insurance for outpatient prescriptions. Of the millions who have signed up, many are enjoying significant savings, sometimes $1,000 a year or more.

That's a considerable achievement for a government that has not tried to roll out such an ambitious entitlement program since the days of Lyndon B. Johnson. It's especially so for President Bush, who is no fan of big government.

Even some of the program's critics have given up trying to repeal it, while vowing to make it better.

And the performance of the drug plan, offered through private insurers, goes well beyond benefits for today's seniors. The plan is a test of Bush's idea that, instead of creating new federal bureaucracies, Washington can use businesses, informed consumers and market competition to solve knotty social problems such as access to healthcare — potentially for all Americans.

"This is the first full test of competition in Medicare," said Joseph Antos, a health policy expert at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. "It's also a test of consumerism in healthcare."

So if Medicare Part D is meeting its goals and helping millions of elderly Americans, why isn't it being hailed as an unqualified success?

For one thing, the system remains so complex and hard for seniors to navigate that many have yet to enroll, including about 2 million who live near the poverty line and would benefit from its subsidies.

More important, Part D may not be working so well for a substantial minority of patients — seniors with complex illnesses and those requiring relatively expensive medicines. These patients often face high costs under the new program that threaten to put needed treatment beyond their reach.

A recent poll for the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 19% of enrolled seniors said they expected their medications to cost them more under Part D, compared with the 55% who said they would save.

That's because private insurance companies are quietly putting these medicines into special coverage tiers that carry higher costs for patients. Doing this helps companies meet the twin goals of saving taxpayers money while earning a profit.

Officials of organizations representing patients with multiple sclerosis, mental illnesses, arthritis and cancer have expressed particular concern about the plans' coverage policies.

Another problem is that many pharmacists say they continue to experience difficulties with such basics as timely payment. Pam Grisnik of Grove City, Pa., told Congress recently that more than a third of her fellow pharmacists around the country feared Part D would put them out of business.

Looking ahead, the program faces challenges:

• Simplifying the plans and the choices so that seniors who have remained outside the program will be induced to join.

• Finding ways to make Part D work as well for patients with special needs as it has for the majority.

• Dealing with issues raised by pharmacists and others whose continued cooperation is vital to the program's success.

Further down the road, financial problems await. Part D does not have its own dedicated revenue stream or tax base. It's financed with general tax revenue and premiums paid by beneficiaries. Costs are running below initial projections, but the rosy outlook is bound to change. The program's long-term financial shortfall is estimated to be greater than that of Social Security's.

But for now, the insurance companies and the government vow to fix problems and make the Bush approach work. And, overall, they say it's working well.

Karen Ignagni, the top health insurance lobbyist in Washington, said the industry improved on the standard benefit originally designed by Congress by making changes such as eliminating a $250 annual deductible.

"This is an important benefit, and it is working for seniors," said Ignagni, president and chief executive of the American Assn. of Health Plans, a trade group for private health insurers. "We exceeded expectations."

Pharmacists, among others, are not so sure about that.

Many have discovered that they received more money when the government paid them to dispense medications to millions of poor beneficiaries covered by Medicaid than they do now under the Medicare benefit through private insurers. "Reimbursements are too low and too slow," Grisnik said.

In turn, pharmacists have shifted some of the financial pressure onto the poorest beneficiaries. In the past, many pharmacists felt they could afford to waive nominal co-payments charged by Medicaid, or Medi-Cal in California. That's no longer the case.

"A pharmacy, under Medi-Cal, would get a $7.25 professional dispensing fee," said Stan Rosenstein, California's deputy director of medical services. "Under one of these plans, they might get a $3 fee, and if they waive the co-pay, they are effectively waiving their reimbursement for professional work."

Democrats blame the private middlemen for such problems.

Rep. Pete Stark (D-Fremont) said the government could reduce costs by negotiating prices directly with drug makers, then plowing the savings back into improving the benefit.

"We are going to have to give the secretary [of Health and Human Services] authority to bargain and bring the cost down," said Stark. "If we do that, we can get rid of the doughnut hole. People are not used to having a benefit that comes and goes and comes back again."

The "doughnut hole" Stark was referring to is a coverage gap that begins after seniors reach $2,250 in total drug expenses for the year. After that, beneficiaries are responsible for the next $2,850 in costs. When coverage resumes, Medicare pays 95%.

Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt said he does not seek such bargaining authority and, more important, seniors don't need him to have it. Private insurers will find ways to shrink the coverage gap if seniors demand it, he said.

As proof that privatization is already working, Leavitt points to estimates that the program's net cost to the federal government will be $678 billion over 10 years, instead of the $737 billion projected last year.

"The market is clearly reducing costs," Leavitt said. "The fact that people have been able to select plans that meet their needs will in the long run be the strongest asset this program has."

But economists say there are many other possible explanations for costs being lower than forecast: For example, the early estimates of government actuaries could have been off.

The May 15 enrollment deadline is another sore spot for critics. Seniors who delay signing up face a lifetime penalty that will grow over the years. But the administration is firmly rejecting recommendations to extend the current signup until Dec. 31.

Granting an extension — or waiving the late-enrollment penalty — is a popular idea among seniors. "To charge seniors a penalty is absolutely ludicrous," said Ed McCullough, 68, of San Juan Capistrano. "There is still too much information out there that is unclear for a lot of people."

Indeed, many of the materials Medicare prepared to help seniors understand Part D could rival IRS forms in complexity, a report last week from the Government Accountability Office suggested.

Medicare Administrator Mark McClellan said he had been working to make the program more user-friendly, and he pointed to a string of recent agency actions.

They include a directive limiting the ability of insurers to force patients to switch drugs; a standard appeals form doctors can use when a patient is denied a medication; and a set of common computer codes for pharmacists to communicate more easily with drug plans.

"We are looking ahead to ensure we address any issues facing people with Medicare, caregivers, providers, the plans and pharmacists in the future," McClellan said in a statement to the House Ways and Means Committee.

Around Health and Human Services headquarters in Washington, the new buzzword is "Version 2.0." Next year's Medicare drug benefit will feature fewer plans and better benefits, Leavitt said.

"We will see Medicare Version 2.0 much informed by what we have learned in Version 1.0," he said.

Meanwhile, many seniors are counting their savings — and hoping to avoid another round of confusion next year. Martha Straub, 86, a retired secretary from Woodland Hills, gives her new drug benefit an A and the signup ordeal a D. That averages out to a C+.

"It's very hard for an individual to dial in the plan that's going to be most beneficial to you," said Straub's daughter, Lorna Bashara, who helped her mother. "It was like looking for a needle in a haystack."

Now that the search is over, Straub said, she expects to save $1,746 on medicine this year and has started to think about ways to spend the extra cash.

"I can go to the beauty parlor once a week now," she said.

Redirecting open-space advocates to a blue cause

In May 5, 2006 Laguna Beach Independent
Describing damage to Aliso County Beach and its tidepools from contaminated water, Michael Beanan, a long-serving South Laguna Civic Association board member, challenged council candidates to come up with their own ocean-protecting plans at a Monday meeting of the Laguna Canyon Conservancy.
The guest speaker maintained “it is possible to restore a depleted coastal habitat if local communities form a vision and take productive action.”
Beanan also told the meeting of about 100 environmentalists that financially Lagunans should be motivated to act, as “on-going ocean water pollution at the Montage Resort will soon detract from making this a destination resort and our city’s bed tax revenues will certainly suffer once ‘Laguna’s dirty little secret’ is well known.”
He challenged “Save the Canyon” environmentalists, who have done so much to preserve a greenbelt of open space around Laguna, to take on an equally ambitious goal, saving the Laguna “bluebelt.”
“The bluebelt, of course, is the incredible ocean ecology and beaches, which define Laguna Beach, but is suffering from years of pollution and neglect,” Beanan said, which has destroyed kelp forests from Santa Barbara to Mexico.
“But it gets worse. Urban runoff transports soap in the form of phosphates and fertilizer,” he said. “No kelp. No sea life. Lots of mucky water. No fun. And it gets even worse. When large areas of algae blooms die-off, they produce a neurotoxin called domoic acid poisoning,” he said, which sickens sea lions, makes shellfish unfit for consumption and was linked to the deaths of endangered California brown pelicans as early as 1991.
Beanan touted a new definition for the three Rs: reduce, remove and recycle. He said a coherent strategy would reduce urban runoff from inland cities, remove excessive creek flows and recycle water in order to protect Aliso Creek, Aliso Canyon and the coastline.
Similar successful projects are currently installed or planned around the world and nearby, including in Aliso Viejo, Ladera Ranch, Encinitas, and Newport Beach. There is no excuse, Beanan said, for Laguna Beach City Council candidates not to have a plan.
Available tools include modern technology water filtration and satellite controlled irrigation systems, diverting creek water to wetlands, ancient water harvesting techniques such as cisterns, as well as policy solutions such as eliminating fees for diversion of runoff to treatment plans and stepped water rates discouraging overuse, he said.
Also at the meeting were Orange County supervisorial candidates Eddie Rose and Cathryn DeYoung. Former Assemblywoman Pat Bates had a prior engagement and could not attend.
The LCC’s board was unanimously re-elected for another year term. Its members are Jeanie Bernstein, Max Brown, Sonia Campbell, Catharine Cooper, Ed Drollinger, John Keith, Gene Felder, J.J. Gasparotti, Siggy Johnson, Sharon Larimer, Fran McGowan, John Pfeffer, Kimberly Stuart, Patricia Turnier, Diane Valentino, Gayle Waite, and Carolyn Wood.

Historical Society Program Mon May 15th Council Chambers at 7:30 PM

May Heritage Month Program

Photographer George Hurrell and Pancho Barnes in Laguna Beach
By Dr. Louis F. D'Elia

Monday, May 15, 2006
7:30 PM to 9:30 PM
Laguna Beach City Hall Council Chambers
505 Forest Avenue, Laguna Beach, California

The quintessential glamour photos of movie stars Jean Harlow, Jane Russell, and many others were taken by George Hurrell. He got his start in Laguna Beach. He was friends of Pancho Barnes and made important movie star connections as Pancho threw wild parties at her home on the ocean bluff top area that is now Smithcliffs in North Laguna.

Florence Lowe Barnes was from a very wealthy Philadelphia family who owned among other items a large hotel in Philadelphia as well as 40 acres along the Laguna Beach Coast including what is now Emerald Bay.

Florence was called Pancho and was an early aviator, her pilot’s license signed by Orville Wright. Pancho had her own landing field where is now McKnight Drive. A nice plus when throwing parties.

George Hurrell was a very innovative photographer, became famous, and worked for MGM at the height of the powerful studio period. His career then waned, but he and glamour were later rediscovered.

As part of Laguna Beach’s Heritage month, the Laguna Beach Historical Society is holding a program on Monday, May 15th at the City Hall Council Chambers starting at 7:30 PM. Dr. Lou D’Elia, the owner of the Pancho Barnes Estate, will relate the history showing a PowerPoint presentation including copyrighted photos from Pancho Barnes Estate and the Estate of George Hurrell. Some photos from the Barnes family have never been seen publicly before. The public is welcome and there is no charge.

More information is at http://www.lagunahistory.org/

Yours truly,
Gene Felder
Laguna Beach Historical Society