Wednesday, September 19, 2018

I live just a few hundred feet from Churchill School in an older neighborhood over on the west side of Baker City, Oregon. For years I have watched the neighborhood children head for Churchill School, not to study there, but to be picked up and bused to other schools in the city.  In the afternoon, the bus would drop them off at Churchill and they would disperse back into the neighborhood. I never viewed the school as an eyesore, just more of an embarrassment for, and a monument to, the irresponsible actions of the 5j Board of Education.
What is a school building really worth?
Those of us who are fortunate enough to own property are advised to insure the property for what it would cost to replace it because rising construction costs guarantee that the replacement cost will be much more than what you paid for it. I mean you have this home that serves your needs and you only paid $80,000 for it, but now it might cost two times that to replace it--Same with a school.
I got to digging around to find relatively current, post recession building costs for schools in Eastern Oregon and found that they are astronomically high, and getting higher.  A July 9, 2018 article by the Oregon School Boards Association, Unexpectedlysteep increases in construction expenses strain bond plans, noted that prices were increasing rapidly:
"Scott Rogers, Wenaha Group senior project manager, said a recent bid for an education-related project in eastern Oregon came in about 25 percent over budget. Some construction bid areas — including plumbing, electrical, concrete, masonry and steel — were twice the cost per square foot as for a similar project a year ago, he said. Rogers said tariff"s are wreaking havoc, particularly with steel-related costs. He said a contractor told him that the market is so volatile that an estimate older than 45 days is already obsolete. He said contractors are bidding overtime equivalent rates for regular labor." ....
Rogers, who is the Athena-Weston School Board chair and an OSBA Board member, said a school built in Umatilla County in 2015 cost about $225 per square foot. By 2017 such a project had risen to about $255 per square foot. A similar project Rogers is working on now received bids of $318 per square foot.”
With that information in hand, what is the likely replacement cost of Churchill School? According to the Assessor's office information, Churchill School is 18,258 square feet in size.
I'm not in construction, but it seems that at $255/sq. ft. it would be 255 X 18,258, which equals $4,655,790.00. That's a sizable chunk of change.
At $318/sq. ft. it would be $318 X 18,258, which equals $5,806,044.00. Five million, eight hundred and 6 thousand and forty four dollars!  The school board originally sold it for $205,000 and the Vegters bought it for $194,104 in May of this year. Not a bad deal.
A nagging question in the back of my mind of course, is why did the school district sell it in the first place for so little money, and, given that the original purchasers couldn't go through with their plans for it, why didn't they buy it back when they saw school enrollment going back up?
I asked this question in writing, along with several others, to Superintendent Witty on August 22, a month ago, but he hasn't responded to the questions.
One distinct possibility is that they had made other plans some time ago without asking for the public’s approval. After all, they had already purchased property where they want to build their new elementary school. The timely purchase of the Churchill School by the Vegters in May served as a fait accompli, which assured that the possibility of the district buying back Churchill would no longer be available as a solution to our school's crowding problems. In fact, Kevin Cassidy, chairperson for the 5j Board of Education, and facilities committee member Aletha Bonebrake, enthusiastically supported the Vetger's "visionary" commercial project. What a relief it must have been to turn a monument to folly into a purported community asset while guaranteeing it could no longer be used for the purpose for which it was built.
One of the more interesting letters to the planning commission in support of the Vegters using Churchill School, instead of the children it was built for, was from hometown girl Ginger Savage, wife of the County Assessor, former bank executive, former school board member, and now Executive Director of Crossroads Carnegie Art Center. In the letter she was honest in admitting that she was on the school board that sold off this valuable asset.
She began her letter with the words:
"I would like to offer my voice in support of the conditional use permit for Churchill School to Brian and Corrine Vegter. Brian and Corrine bring a solid plan to transform the derelict old school to life again providing a small to mid size performance space, a much needed bike hostel, appropriate limited residential housing for the Vegters to be onsite and to manage the property." (emphasis added)
Golly, how did that old school, which was originally a valuable public asset, become "derelict" in the first place? Oh, that's right, she and the school board got rid of this public asset that could have been put back into use, and that now will cost millions to replace! Much needed bike hostel? I'm sure that was on the top of every citizen's list for town improvements.
The next paragraph was worthy of a 'gag-me-with-a-spoon' award:
"The Vegters are the perfect example of the "artisan class" which communities around the country are attracting to come to move to their cities.  The artisan class looks at properties like Churchill and sees opportunity and all the amazing ways they can transform it into working and useful space. The artisans have the talent and abilities to transform buildings. They see opportunity when others see a mess."
Ay yi yi!!!!!  OK, artists and creative people are terrific, but do we elevate them above teachers, doctors and other healthcare workers, biologists, social workers, engineers, accountants, builders, electricians, plumbers, bakers, shopkeepers and clerks, and all the other hard working people in our communities? Do we allow public assets to be taken over by them because our leaders and the “artisan class” see a mess and cannot see a school where a school obviously exists? Why do they want to transform what was a working school into a residence and commercial event center, hostel and artist colony in a residential neighborhood when what we need are schools? Is that what we call civic-minded responsibility these days?
And what is the "artisan class" anyway? We are all artisans in one way or the other, but most of us are sensible enough to know we won't be able to make a living at it. Been there, done that. When will the proliferation of stick figures and welded scrap metal animals reach the saturation point where the novelty ends? You can't eat art. Have they not heard of starving artists?
Sorry, but I think it is just another how can I elevate my status thing. As there are fewer satisfying employment opportunities, as resources become depleted, and as robots take over our jobs, what do we do that will reward us personally and bring us some form of social approval, while producing little of intrinsic value except for those few people with money to burn in a society of increasing inequality?
In her final paragraph, Ms. Savage brings up the new theme that using an older school as a school just isn't an option:

"I humbly implore you work with the Vegter's and make this work. If you, as the planning commission, don't start planning for the needs to transform some of our beloved old structures the only option will be demolition."

Demolition is the only other option? Oh yes, of course! It couldn't possibly be purchased for the use it was intended for because that would provide an alternative to the $48 million school building plan currently being pushed by the elite.
Given the reality of the actual value of the "artisan class," one wonders why our public assets are being taken over by the artists and those in the middle and upper classes.  The question is especially relevant when those public assets and spaces could be used for early learning and the after school care and tutoring of young people, including some art, of course. Crossroads took over the Carnegie Library a long time ago and has a 30 year, no-rent lease. That’s right, they pay nothing for the use of a public building. The poor people of our community cannot afford the fees for classes and the vast majority are not interested anyway. You would think the relatively well off people who use this public facility, including those who are making a living off it, could pay some rent to our city for it.  Better yet, we could dump the arts thing and use it as an early learning center for young children.
More on the privatization of Churchill School in future posts.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Questions For Superintendent Mark Witty

 Churchill School
I sent the following questions to Mr. Witty three weeks ago but have not received a response as yet. I followed up a week later and he responded that he was busy with the start of the school year which seemed reasonable.  I thought with school having started last week that I would be getting a response, but still nothing. In my preface to the questions I reminded Mr. Witty that a lot of us in Baker live in poverty and that the elderly on Social Security do not get cost of living raises that keep up with their actual cost of living. In other words, that their primary expenses for medical care, property taxes, city utility charges and fees, home and auto insurance, etc., are going up faster than the cost of living raises granted by Social Security. Every year we sink deeper into impoverishment and the School bond will increase the risk of some losing their homes or of not be able to meet the rent, which is an existential threat. In fact, studies have shown that living in poverty itself is an existential threat. All that said, I asked the questions which can be found below.
 Churchill School was sold by the school district in March of 2007
for $205,000.  In the years since, as the building stood empty, the 
district has been adding portables to the other schools to handle the 
increasing number of students. The Vegters purchased the property for 
their home and commercial ventures in May of this year for $194,104. 
Both the planning department and the Planning Commission allowed
them to create commercial businesses in a medium density residential
 area even though it subverted the development code. If the district had
 bought it back at that price, they would have made a profit of $10, 896.00.
 If they hadn't sold it in the first place, it could have been housing many
students. How short-sighted of them! Or was it intentional?
Anyway, here are some questions pertaining to the $48 million bond issue that you, the school board, and the BSD Long Range Facilities Planning Committee wish to impose on our community. I use the word “you” kind of loosely below, but take it as meaning the school board and the committee as well, but you [Mr. Witty] certainly seem to be a prime mover of this proposal.

August 22, 2018

First question I and my neighbors are wondering about:

  1. Given that you and the committee have been planning this since at least 3/2017, why didn’t the district just buy back Churchill school, which recently sold for less than what the School Board sold it for years ago, to provide additional classroom space with facilities? It seems to me that keeping neighborhood schools could cut down on busing costs, which will be increasingly important in the future as energy per capita becomes more scarce and expensive. Corollary Question: Did the committee in any way encourage or help arrange for the school to be sold off to Vegter so it couldn’t interfere with the new plans?

Other questions:

  1. Why are you asking voters to approve a $48 million school bond when the Facilities Master Planning Committee thought that “the most urgent needs for building improvements” were “estimated to cost about $26.7 million?

  1. Do the elite folks chosen for the BSD Long Range Facilities Planning Committee in any way represent an actual cross section of residents of Baker City? Wasn’t the fix in from the start in that they were chosen because they could be counted on to support a big bond issue? Do they have any understanding of what the socio-economic lives of poor and regular folks are like and what this bond would do to them?

  1. Why are there no poor people on the committee? Are they just to stupid to contribute meaningful opinions on a grandiose plan?

  1. What is a 21st century learning environment, and how will it improve outcomes? Are you going to transform the home environment of lower income people so that their needs are met and they will be more able to be receptive to education, or is this just a plan to make wealthy residents feel that their kids are on a par with Portland?

  1. The report talks about operational costs and energy efficiency, so why are you proposing that walking-distance neighborhood schools be abandoned in favor of a costly, energy hungry, busing plan to transport children from the far reaches of Baker City to Hughes Lanes on the north side? At risk of sounding like your grandfather perhaps, I have to tell you that I walked long distances to my elementary and junior high schools, and I suspect it was good for me.

  1. When I was in Germany in 1970, people used and took care of buildings several centuries old. Why is the committee proposing to abandon them? Is sustainability not a goal of the school district? Aren’t earthquake retrofit grants available?

  1. How do you feel about the economic burden the bond will put on the many poverty stricken people in Baker City? Do you not foresee rising rents for poor renters and additional unbearable costs for seniors already struggling on low fixed incomes? Are the elite folks trying to drive the poor out of town?  Are you familiar with the concept of gentrification and are you and the committee in effect proponents of it???  Are you willing to put myself and others at risk of our losing homes in order to educate newcomers and promote unnecessary population growth. I asked the last question to a teacher two months ago and he seemed to be OK with that outcome. His thinking was that it would attract new businesses, people and growth, and well, if some of us who live here have to suffer, then so be it. Obviously he hadn’t spent the years from 1950 to 2000 in Southern California to watch it be destroyed by the kind of “growth” that he seeks, and he obviously hadn’t read “Better Not Bigger” by Eben Fodor. As they say,
    Be careful what you wish for.”

  1. The committee “discussed economic and community development considerations.” What were there conclusions as to the effect of the bond on economic and community development?

  1.  Recognizing the stressful financial difficulties that poverty stricken seniors face, some municipalities and, at least in the past, some states, relieve poor elderly people from property taxes and school taxes. Given the competitive meanness infecting the country since the 80s, such relief has been disappearing and now tax relief goes largely to the wealthy. Did you and the committee consider how to mitigate the damaging effects of the bond proposal on the poor and elderly?  Did the thought even enter their minds? If so, what were your conclusions?

  1. In identifying overcrowding as a “critical” problem, “you” give figures for the number of students a school was built for, compared to the current number of students attending. Aren’t the additional students being taught in portables, as is common practice throughout the U.S.?

  1. My calculations, if they are correct, indicate that the current number of additional students over original capacity is 221 and that in this new school year the estimate will be about 246. Leaving aside the number that could have been housed at Churchill (there were 183 sixth graders there in 2002, and that was not the maximum capacity), given that there are 395 unfilled spaces at the High School, why couldn’t they go there?  I doubt that high schoolers will be flirting with elementary school children, and apparently you think the same as you want to build an elementary school next to the high school. The additional Middle School students could be using Churchill if the school board hadn’t sold it.

  1. What is responsible for this growth in the number of students and when did it start?

  1. Isn’t re-purposing Brooklyn Elementary as an early learning center an expansion of the educational industrial complex and attendant bureaucracy? Who is going to pay for it? (I think provision of day care and health care by professionals could be a great social program, but where is the money?)

  1. Is it true that day care at the conceptualized early learning center is only for staff and community partners and not the rest of the community?

  1. Doesn’t Head Start already have adequate space on 16th Street? If not, why aren’t they using Churchill School?

  1. Isn’t it true that you can provide key card entry and secure points of entry throughout the school system without building a new Gr, 1-6 school?

  1. You say that you are committed to preserving the value that each school property brings to its respective neighborhood within the larger community.  What does that mean? The district shortsightedly sold (i.e., privatized) Churchill, a public asset, and it is now needed. It was resold to an entrepreneur/”artist” that will use it to serve a fraction of the community and some visitors. Is that what you mean?

  1. The handout given out on one of your promotional tours shows a budget estimate of $65,124,107 for Option 1, and an estimate of $56,000,000 for option 2. What happened to the $48 million budget?

That’s all for now Mark.  Thanks for reading, and I look forward to your response.

Christopher Christie
Baker City



I was listening to The Ralph Nader Radio Hour this last weekend and one of Ralph's guests was Rosemary Gibson, "Senior Advisor at The Hastings Center, which is the world’s first bioethics research institute, and she is an editor for the Journal of the American Medical Association." She was on to discuss her recent book, “China RX: Exposing the Risks for America’s Dependence on China for Medicine,” about the unsettling fact that the manufacture of the vast majority of the prescription drugs taken by Americans has been taken over by China.

You may recall that this is similar to China now having almost cornered the market on rare earth elements that are used in electronics for everything from cell phones to renewable energy to military applications. After helping to drive it into bankruptcy, a Chinese consortium purchased Americas largest rare earths mine, the Mountain Pass Mine near Las Vegas, Nevada in 2017, leaving us more dependent on China for these elements.

I'm not beating a drum against China though. Government intervention could have saved both the rare earths mine and the American drug manufacturing industry, but money was apparently more important than national security.

From the Ralph Nader Radio Hour web site :

“There was country of origin labeling legislation put forward about ten years ago, but it was immediately killed. And when I asked an industry person to describe why that happened, this person said, “Well, the industry probably thought it wouldn’t be good for their customers to know where their medicines are being made.” And that’s because in a poll from the Pew Trust, only 6% of Americans trust medicines made in China. So, companies have good reason to hide it.” Rosemary Gibson, author of “China Rx: Exposing the Risk of America’s Dependence on China for Medicine.”
You can listen to or download download the Nader China Rx podcast by clicking this link and scrolling down the page.

Publisher's description:
About China Rx

Millions of Americans are taking prescription drugs made in China and don’t know it–and pharmaceutical companies are not eager to tell them. This is a disturbing, well-researched wake-up call for improving the current system of drug supply and manufacturing.

 Several decades ago, penicillin, vitamin C, and many other prescription and over-the-counter products were manufactured in the United States. But with the rise of globalization, antibiotics, antidepressants, birth control pills, blood pressure medicines, cancer drugs, among many others are made in China and sold in the United States. 

China’s biggest impact on the US drug supply is making essential ingredients for thousands of medicines found in American homes and used in hospital intensive care units and operating rooms. 

The authors convincingly argue that there are at least two major problems with this scenario. First, it is inherently risky for the United States to become dependent on any one country as a source for vital medicines, especially given the uncertainties of geopolitics. For example, if an altercation in the South China Sea causes military personnel to be wounded, doctors may rely upon medicines with essential ingredients made by the adversary. Second, lapses in safety standards and quality control in Chinese manufacturing are a risk. Citing the concerns of FDA officials and insiders within the pharmaceutical industry, the authors document incidents of illness and death caused by contaminated medications that prompted reform. 

This probing book examines the implications of our reliance on China on the quality and availability of vital medicines.

You can watch the C-SPAN presentation here.


Thursday, September 6, 2018

OTEC? You have no choice. They own you.

This blog is intended to be a view of Baker City, Oregon, from the perspective of the disenfranchised, and taken-for-granted citizens of Baker City. Critiques will be generally aimed at the powerful and in many cases, the self-serving hypocrites who run this town, from the business people on our Disneyland Main Street, to the subsidized and catered-to flim-flams who take over our public assets and spaces while calling themselves "artists," to the monopoly electric co-op which steals from the poor to feed the rich, and the golf course which does likewise. Harsh, I know, but you would have to see them in action and follow the tragic descent in the quality of people who run for City Council, from self-dealing business people and artists, to drunks and petty criminals, to understand the situation.

I'm just learning how to use the new format in this first blog, so I thought I'd start by posting my last three letters to the editor about our unregulated electric co-op, Oregon Trail Electric Cooperative.

Due to the inaction of the generally apathetic and intimidated members of the co-op, the administrators and board have been able to pump up their compensation while unfairly penalizing residential singles and couples, including low income elderly, who conserve electricity, while benefiting irrigators and other users of large amounts of electricity in the rural areas. In other words, the co-op has been co-opted by a relatively few people to serve their own interests.

The letters to the editor below are constrained by word limits imposed by the newspaper editors, but in the future I intend to revisit them to flesh them out. But for now, here they are:

January 22, 2018
Christopher Christie

To the Editor
Baker City Herald

To The Editor:
Oregon Trail Electric Consumer’s Cooperative (OTEC) members and customers have experienced increases in OTEC’s  monthly “delivery charge” on their monthly bill in recent years. In a little over 8 years, accompanied by an impressive propaganda campaign, OTEC has raised this fixed charge, the money you have to pay OTEC just to buy electricity, by almost 300 percent, from $10 to $29.50/mo, and they would like to raise it even higher. Idaho Power’s monthly charge is $8 for Oregon residents and even less in Idaho. Public Utilities Commissions in the various states tend to keep these monthly delivery charges low and recover most delivery costs through a tiered rate system based on usage and its benefits, but electric cooperatives are for the most part unregulated monopolies that have little oversight from the Public Utility Commission, so they get away with the practice.

OTEC constantly reminds members of our low rate for electricity used, but figures from OTEC tell another tale: because of our high delivery charge, more than half of OTEC members would have a lower bill if they were with Idaho Power under its current rate structure. That’s you if you average less than 1000 kWh a month.

Consumer Reports commissioned a study of these fixed charges that indicated that higher fixed charges are inequitable, increase the bills of low usage customers like singles and elderly the most, and disproportionately impact the poor while reducing incentives for energy efficiency.
There are expenditure changes that could help lower fixed charges and OTEC member’s bills though.

Employee compensation would be a good place to start as the top 8 employees took home $2,286,446 in compensation and other benefits in 2016, skewed high by the $785,135 raked in by exiting CEO Werner Buehler. The elected directors yearly take for 3 to 8 hours of work a week varied from $16,100 to $26,250 with an hourly wage that ranged from $71 to $103 per hour depending on the director.

Another place to look are programs unrelated to OTEC’s purpose of providing power and assisting members with their electricity infrastructure needs. OTEC spent $655,681on these unrelated programs in the last 5 years.
Christopher Christie
Baker City

March 16, 2018
Christopher Christie

To The Editor:

I recently listened to a program host ridiculing controlled elections in the old Soviet Union by saying they had to throw a party and serve food at the polling stations to get anyone to vote. As an observer of OTEC's election process over the years, I must say that the charade is similar, except that OTEC also bribes members to vote with a $500.00 prize drawing. The bribes are understandable, given the usual slate of incumbents and the obstacles OTEC has erected to keep candidates from running.

OTEC's 4-month election period begins quietly with the appointment of a secretive, elite "nominating committee," whose task is to determine if you are "qualified" to run. They could actively reach out to members to find potential candidates, but little if any effort is expended for that. Sometimes a director retires early so that an insider can be appointed, giving them incumbency status and a leg up in the next election. The result is that often the only choices on the ballot are incumbents, but in one case where another well-qualified candidate was in the race, important experience was left out of his Ruralite profile.

The bylaws allow additional nominations not less than 60 days prior to the annual meeting if a member can get over the next hurdle which is to collect 50 member signatures by petition before the end of the time period. Several years back, there was a candidate who was told that nominations were closed even though the nomination period was not over. He then had to go out and find 50 members to sign a nominating petition to get on the ballot.

This year, if you were unhappy with the incumbent candidates finally announced by OTEC in the March Ruralite, you might have wanted to try and get 50 signatures to get on the ballot. Too bad--you would have been out of luck, because the signed petitions had to be submitted by February 20th, several days before the candidates were even announced in Ruralite, and write-ins and nominations from the floor are not allowed. Cooperative democracy in action!

Christopher Christie
Baker City

 August 24, 2018
Christopher Christie

To The Editor:
Someone once noted that “the whole point of good propaganda” is that “You want to create a slogan that nobody’s going to be against, . . . Nobody knows what it means, because it doesn’t mean anything. It’s crucial that it diverts your attention from a question that does mean something . . . .”
Which brings me to the recent issue of OTEC’s Ruralite. Nestled amongst articles on county fairs and funerals was an article offering slogans aplenty and another highlighting the D.C. Youth Tour. These were meant to burnish the reputation of OTEC as a community-minded citizen, but careful reading reveals just empty slogans and half-truths.

The article “It’s a Matter of Principles,” contained 7 warm and fuzzy headliner slogans, but I’ll concentrate on the first: “The Power of Membership,” with translations along the way.

“local members call the shots” = if you can get through all the obstacles for getting elected as a well paid director, they will have to listen to you, otherwise forget it. 

“We are accessible. You can call or email us and know someone here is listening.” = of course they listen, but they don’t have to respond, especially if you ask essential questions pertaining to rate studies or employee compensation.

Directors “have only two things in mind: . . . keeping the lights on and keeping costs affordable.” = except for bloated administrative salaries and pet projects like sending well-heeled teens to lobby in D.C., which despite OTEC’s repeated statements, does affect rates. Every penny spent on pet projects could have been spent on capital projects like substations.
Speaking of rates, OTEC’s were not raised but Idaho Power’s residential rates decreased by 3.27% recently, so many OTEC members would still be better off with Idaho Power.

As for my enquiries, OTEC would not even provide crucial information needed to understand whether they are treating all classes of ratepayers fairly or whether total compensation for various positions is adequate or extravagant. So no, as a member you don’t call the shots--your power is very limited. Looks like the uncooperative co-op to me.
Christopher Christie
Baker City

I'll fill in more of the details later, because the letters to the editor are constrained to 350 words, more or less, which is not sufficient to convey an adequate understanding of any issue. In the last letter I should have said most residential OTEC members would still be better off with Idaho Power.

Idaho Power is regulated to control costs and to bring rate fairness--OTEC is not.  It is a shame when we arrive at a place where unregulated  "cooperatives," which are intended to save users money because they are non-profit, end up costing ratepayers more that what they would pay at investor owned utilities. It is more of a shame when they won't tell members where the money is going. You have to rely on librarians and school teachers as board members to reign in the majority of rancher and farmer board members, but unfortunately they are not up to it, perhaps because they don't understand what is going on. The rates are tilted in favor of the irrigators, other heavy users, and those who live in the far-flung portions of the service areas at the expense of city residents. In addition, the board members are more interested in the public relations benefits of inventing special project give-aways that benefit wealthy members at the expense of the poor, elderly and single people who have no choice but to get their power from OTEC, than they are in controlling costs. Unfortunately, there is little you can do about it unless you can get on the board. There is no other electricity provider for you to choose. That is what OTEC depends on--your dependency! You have no choice.

More later on this and other issues. . .  please stay tuned!