Friday, January 30, 2015

Baltimore's 2015 Fiscal Cliff: The Coming Storm (2 of 3)

Baltimore, where I've lived for most of the last 20 years, and have owned a home for the last 11 years,  has survived the recession.  That is to say Baltimore is not Detroit.  The reasons for this are legion but I believe the most three significant positive drivers are as follows:

1.  Baltimore is a city whose residents have a "grass roots" positive mentality and culture. 
2.  Baltimore is significantly bolstered by its proximity to Washington DC.
3.  Baltimore has enjoyed, for the bulk of the last 40 years, a friendly legislature and governor.

Despite these factors, Baltimore remains a very poor city with very serious problems.  Here's a look at the present - why hasn't Baltimore prospered in an era of heavy state and federal funding?

1.  Failure to grow employable or college-ready students in public schools. 
2.  Ineffective Laws on Violent Crime. 
3.  Prohibitive Tax Rates. 
4.  Environmental Disasters.

It's clear that unfortunately, "more money" and "more laws" are not the only solution to Baltimore's problems (if only it were so). Simultaneously, some realities have been operating in the background that bear some serious consideration in the name of figuring out "what is Baltimore to do?"  My next essay on the topic will examine those, as a legislative and fiscal preview to 2015 (and FY16).

1.  State fiscal disaster.  Outgoing Governor O'Malley recently announced that after eight years in office, his administration is leaving behind a $1.2 billion structural deficit.  That's a minor amount for a nation, but an inexplicably high number for a state government.  As a result, incoming Governor Hogan will have to slash the state budget by roughly 20% for two years just to keep the state's credit and bond ratings intact.   Significant amounts of those moneys (hundreds of millions of dollars) would have come to Baltimore directly (grants and allocations in state budget) and indirectly (grants to city-based nonprofits, budgets of state agencies located within the City).   Many planned projects, both social and capital, simply will not happen in the next two years as a result.

2.  State's loss of political interest.  Baltimore City's Democratic Party could not deliver the City's vote (92% registered Democrats) for the most recent state election (roughly 33% voted, and only 68% for the state Democratic ticket).   The main reason according to polled voters:   the lack of economic recovery in the City over the 8-year period of Democratic rule (the state has elected two Republican governors in the last 40 years - including 2014).    This tells the state's new Republican administration that while there's little they can do to produce big votes from the City, there may be little they can do wrong by reducing state spending in the City.

3.  State fiscal cost/benefit.  The new Republican administration is taking this all to mean that the hundreds of millions of state dollars flowing to Baltimore City have not led to meaningful improvements in City life.   Both truth and fallacy exist in that line of thought - it's so much money that it's impossible to generalize what funding is a "success," what "requires more time and money," and what is a "failure" without devoting reams of paper and thousands of hours to properly study it all.   But lacking time to study it all, the likely short term result is that the funding will be sharply reduced.

4.  First City agency audits in history.  To the significant objection of City agency directors, Baltimore City agencies will begin their first external fiscal audits since....well, since ever.  The largest agencies in the City have never been audited.  After citizen outcries, the City's Parks and Recreation department was audited in 2012.  The auditing firm reported that fiscal mismanagement was so severe and systemic that the audit itself could not be completed.   Let that sink in for a minute.  There was no audit finding because insufficient financial records exist on which to base the audit paperwork.   I bet that money's being spent well!

As a result, an angered City Council passed a law authorizing and requiring city agency audits starting in 2015.  Three major city agencies will be audited in 2015, and almost everyone acknowledges that the results of the audits will show significant findings that result in criminal charges.   In 2016, the Mayor's own Office of Finance will be audited.  Again, the result will likely be politically shattering.  Impacts will be described in better detail in Part 3 of this series.

5.  Environmental Compliance deadlines.  Baltimore City, paved well before even the most archaic American stormwater or trash laws were in place, serves as a singular point source of trash, water pollution, air pollution, and vector (rat, bed bug) production.   Until well into the 1990s, regulatory agencies at the state and federal level ignored these issues as "irreconcilable."  City agencies said, "Too bad, we don't have any money, suck it up, it's just trash/rats/sewage/bed bugs."  However, as city advocates, activists, and non-profits began suing those agencies to enforce their own regulations against the City, assessments were made of the true impacts of these problems.  Those were groundbreaking and unsettling.  Legal action against the City ensued.

In 2002, the US EPA successfully signed a "consent decree" (a legal contract) with Baltimore City, requiring a comprehensive overhaul of the City's sewer system by 2016.  In 2013, the City pleaded to the EPA that it could not meet the 2016 deadline.  EPA agreed to push the deadline to 2019, with Baltimore's pledge that it would surely be able to raise more funding in 2015-2019 than it had in 2002-2013.  Of course, political fortunes in the meantime have made that impossible.

In 2010, the US EPA was forced to enforce its own Clean Water Act, requiring a vast cleanup of pollutants (trash, nutrients, sediment, bacteria) from Chesapeake Bay waterways.  Watershed Implementation Plans were due from local governments by December, 2012.  Baltimore City submitted theirs for review in January, 2015.  Can you see where this is headed? Reviews of what the City has submitted to MDE and EPA thus far indicate that not only did Baltimore not meet the majority (in pollution reduction) of its goals for the 2014 year, but in all likelihood, Baltimore will not meet its 2014 goals by 2020, primarily as a result of its failure to raise enough money in enough time to put enough contractors to work (bureacracy plays a part in this, but it's largely a fiscal issue).   The entirety of Baltimore's watersheds are required to be "cleaned" by 2025.  This was always an impossible goal without significant political interest, which is lacking in Baltimore.  Federal action - of the most intrusive and expensive kinds - will result.  We'll discuss that in Part 3.

Two weeks ago, US EPA approved a trash TMDL (pollution limits) for trash entering Baltimore City's Patapsco River.   Again, this plan involves city action (money), monitoring, and potential fines and federal takeovers if the city fails.   With the fiscal cliff looming, what will happen?

In summary, the fiscal outlook for Baltimore's 2015 (FY16-FY17) looks bleak if not disastrous.  The combination of a governor suddenly not looking for City votes, a record-breaking deficit left by the outgoing governor, increasing federal and state demands for cleaner water and air, and politically explosive fiscal audits of previously "untouchable" city agencies will lead to a break in political strength away from the City's historic core of political power.  In Part 3, we'll take a closer look at how that might shake out.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Bad Neighbor Duck Hunting on the USS Thunder Island

We enjoyed a suburban duck blind for the better part of a decade - fifth generation landowner and all.  The blind was a spot for tall tales and occasionally good hunting, and many, many sad stories about how healthy the Chesapeake Bay once was.  Two years ago. some rich folks bought part of the peninsula and it just so happens that their McMansion is fifty feet above the duckblind and 124 yards away from it.  We tried to make peace with them, possibly negotiating for later shooting times on certain days to not wake the lady of the home, and things of that sort.  The duck blind, as it was, could only be used to shoot away from their house, making a minimal acoustic footprint for those folks.  They wanted none of it, believing that they could force the 5th generation landowner off of the property if they could get our duck blind deemed "illegal."  You see, it's illegal to have a duck blind within 150 yards of an occupied dwelling without that occupant's written permission.

Well, they did just that (had our blind deemed "illegal"), except the landowner retained his duck blind license.  So we built the USS Thunder Island, a 15' x 15' pontoon duck blind that works as a jonboat-driven barge, and used the existing duck blind license to park the new blind 151.5 yards from the neighbor's shoreline (an even more conservative placement method, to ensure we stayed legal).  Now we can shoot ducks that fly between the duck blind and the McMansion, which I imagine is pretty loud.    We also installed a solar power navigation beacon on top of the blind (for safety's sake), which unfortunately blinks at the McMansion every six seconds, 24 hours per day.  Here's what they now see when they look over their majestic, million dollar waterfront (the former shoreline blind was invisible to them).

On a balmy January day I got to enjoy my first hunt on Thunder Island.  A few fat mallards lazed about but didn't move offshore towards us.  The game warden, who checked the blind and hunters during the USS Thunder Island's first five hunts, sped by and waved from her boat.   The geese and diving ducks, our intended prey, stayed out at the rivermouth, not needing to aggressively feed in creeks like ours.   We talked about the coming end of the season, my recent trip to Florida, and work plans for 2015.  It should be a good year.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Virginia HB 2345: Liberal Hound Retrieve Comes Under Fire in Virginia

Uncollared deer hound, no owner in sight,
stops traffic on Virgina 4-lane highway. 
I have hunted in Virginia for over 20 years, and in fact, I possess a Lifetime Hunting License in the state (actually a commonwealth).  I've learned many things about hunting and property rights during those two decades.  I've learned that if I shoot a deer and it jumps a fence before dying, I cannot legally retrieve it without obtaining the neighbor's permission.   If my retriever (RIP, Roan) goes bonkers and runs across the property line to the neighbor's duck blind, I owe my neighbor an apology, then I need his permission to access his property, and then I need to hope he doesn't have me prosecuted for trespass via animal after my dog screwed up his hunt.

But if I'm hunting deer with hounds, I face no such hurdles.   I have no legal requirement to keep my dogs on the 30 acre parcel I lease, and prevent them from running onto adjacent farms, past other hunters, through herds of livestock, or into a neighbor's chicken house.   And when I get around to retrieving my wayward hound, I don't need to ask anybody.  I can pull up in their driveway and just help myself to their property.  That's the legal side. To hear it that way - the way the houndsmen tell it - one might think that Virginia HB 2345, currently under consideration in Virginia's House of Delegates, might be "too much medicine for the patient."  HB 2345 would repeal Virginia's bizarre legal standard "right to retrieve hounds without permission," commonly referred to as "liberal retrieve."  Could it really be that bad, if it's just unarmed guys collecting hounds?

Maybe not......but maybe.  That was the legal side of liberal retrieve.  The illegal side is harder for Virginia landowners to swallow - though swallow it is what they're required to do every year, as they contact game wardens about situations like the one below, to hear the game wardens say, "Sorry, we've had 5 calls like this already today, and we're investigating #2 right now."

The illegal side goes like this:  15 hounds get released on CSX railroad right-of-way (trespassing, hunting without permission).   The hounds wander onto the two posted private properties on each side of the rail bed (trespassing, hunting without permission).   Half of the houndsmen post themselves up and down the public road with loaded weapons (illegal), even though they have no permission to shoot any game animals that might approach them from the adjacent properties (illegal).  The other houndsmen walk down the railroad tracks (illegally), spotting a man in a treestand who happens to be one of the landowners.  A conflict ensues wherein the houndsmen scream that "we hunt this land until we say we don't."  

No deer are flushed but the hounds do not return.  The houndsmen leave.  They return at 9:00 at night with spotlights and loaded guns to "retrieve their hounds."  To better accomplish this, they drive (without permission) through the neighbor's fields on ATV's, destroying his cover crop.  They stay out all night, retrieving 13 of their 15 hounds.  They return the next day, without permission, and still armed, to "retrieve" the last two hounds.  They leave mud tracks up and down the neighbor's farm road and into the county road.  

That's a fictional story composed of real cases encountered by Virginia game wardens.  It's the worst case scenario (besides a landowner getting shot by an uninvited houndsman), but it's representative of what the worst 5-10% of houndsmen put their neighbors through every year, all without permission to enter others' property.  Despite a 20 year-old standpoint of "These things never happen!" with a secretive background murmur of "Damn, we have to stop doing this!" the hound hunting community has totally failed at policing the behavior of their own.  

The houndsmen have a tough ideological hill to climb, and one that inarguably deceives logic.  Are private property rights important, or are they not?  Should any member of the public (or the government) be able to enter your property at any time?  What if an ATF agent is simply retrieving his hound from your private property 10 minutes after you drive away and go to work?  Surely, that's not an issue - right?  And there's no requirement that you successfully retrieve your hound, so who's to say that Johnny ATF didn't release one (accidentally of course) on your private property.  

When houndsmen claim that "we're the good ones," one has to ask, "Do you know any lawbreaking houndsmen?" because the truth is, they do.  The next question must be, "How have you tried to mentor him to get him to stop breaking the law or being discourteous to landowners?" and the only answer I've found in that conversation has been, "Well, we don't really talk about it."

Unfortunately for the hound community, Virginia landowners decided to talk to some folks about it. We'll be watching HB 2345 to see how it progresses.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Kayak Fishing the Peace River

A few days after our arrival in Southwest Florida, I locked in a trip with Capt. Mike from It's Time! Kayak Fishing in Port Charlotte.  We met at Ponce de Leon Park in Punta Gorda and paddled around to try a variety of different fishing techniques, from trolling topwater tackle, to bait fishing the edge of the navigation canal.  Capt. Mike provided a great history of the area's fishing and the current state of the resource, which he estimates to be pretty poor.  A retired commercial powerboat fishing guide from the Florida Keys, he admitted, "I was part of it.  I've killed my share of fish."    His guide business now focuses on catch and release fishing, though he doesn't object if clients keep their fish.

As we pulled up into a shallow flat outside the mouth of the Peace River, I admit that I was a little disappointed at how little seagrass was in the water - I'd guess 10-20% coverage.   We got into a few small redfish using live shrimp, but the current and building wind on the open water were a little distracting.  Catching my first Gulf Coast redfish was a moment of excitement I was too embarrassed to share.  It felt great!  

I admit that I was relieved when we paddled into the mangroves for some more targeted fishing against structure (my favorite way to fish) - tight quarters but little current and no wind.    Capt. Mike mentioned that the lack of current would hurt our search for snook but redfish might still be found.  I hooked up really quick with a saltwater (hardhead) catfish which ran out the drag really nice and gave me a fight without ever jumping.  After getting barbed in the finger and releasing the thing, I caught two more.   I learned on a subsequent trip that once hardhead catfish start biting, you have to leave the area....redfish and other game fish will never get to the bait.

After four or five catfish in two separate parts of the mangrove swamp, one catfish measuring almost 18 inches and easily two pounds, we decided to move on back with the changing tide and a favorable wind into the mouth of the Peace River.   The changing tide found a moderate amount of boat traffic at the ramp, and we continued paddling up the canal to chase snook with the now ripping tide funneling through the mangroves.  This was the only negative part of an otherwise great trip, as the boat wakes (boats coming out of residential areas, into this feeder canal, into the Peace River) and heavy tidal current made it very difficult to stay put and fish a spot, even with an anchor deployed.  I ended up tangling a stationary rod's lure in a mangrove while throwing a windknot from my active rod, and getting swamped by a boat wake all in about 8 seconds.  That pretty much ended it for me.  Capt. Mike caught up with me as I paddled back out to the mouth of the Peace River, and upstream to our put-in at Ponce de Leon Park.  We broke down the gear and then enjoyed a quick beer together before saying adios.

What a great introduction to Florida flats and mangrove fishing - leaving me hungry for more.