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Posts published in January 2009

Avimor’s timeline

We've been wondering about how the string of mega-developments around Boise, all launched a year or two to mere months before the real estate/finance crash last year, are getting along. The key case would be Avimor.

Avimor is a big development, located in the Boise foothills partway between Eagle and Horseshoe Bend off Highway 55. The developers' web site offers a by-the-numbers rundown: "684: The number of housing units. The majority would be single-family homes, with about 60 multifamily units such as lofts. 75,000: Square footage of commercial and community space. 1,952: Projected population of Avimor. 830: Total acres in Avimor. 498: Acres of open space and parks in Avimor. 9.5: Miles of public trails in Avimor. 5: Years to build Avimor."

Note that last: Five years to build, according to the web statement in February 2006. We're now nearly three years into that.

Their odds of hitting target don't look great. From a post a few days ago in the Boise Guardian:

We got the following from an obvious insider and frankly what they apparently see as a positive sign is pretty weak.

“Avimor has had residents since October. There are three homes closed, two with families living therein. One home is under construction for a family. Another pre-sold home is about to start for yet another family.

“All four families are from the valley and have lived in Idaho for several years. The MLS only has a few spec homes listed which none have sold. Two spec homes have contracts pending, contingent on financing which is almost impossible to get.”

Even if we give them the benefit of SIX homes sold in the past year, it will take 500 years for them to sell 3,000 homes.

D.C. stimulus? Don’t count on it

Thompson

Dock Thompson at EDTI Committee/TVW

There's an undercurrent of discussion in the Northwest statehouses, hard-pressed financially all three of them, about the possibility of at least partial salvation coming from Washington, D.C. There is, in that Washington, a major stimulus package under development. What will it mean for the states in the Northwest? No one knows.

But the legislatures would like to know what they can. In Washington, Governor Chris Gregoire at one point said she was hoping for a billion dollars or so in stimulus money.

Best not count on it. This afternoon, the Washington Senate Economic Development, Trade & Innovation Committee heard from Dick Thompson, special assistant to the governor (and previously holding a wide range of positions in state government), who has been tasked with finding out what to expect.

"For year, my advice to people who were going to testigy was never guess," he said. But: "Guesses and rumors is about all I can give you today. . . . I will tell you everything we think we know. But there is not a lot we know in real fact."

Much of the package, he said, seems to be in the form of tax relief rather than direct spending, so that portion doesn't do much for state budgets. "We have gone from thinking we have large discretion to thinking we have very, very little." (A big difference from the bank bailout last year.) Highways and bridges have been thought to be a key component of this, he said, but it still amounts to just about $30 billion nationally - and maybe a little over $500 million might make its way to Washington. Not nearly as much as once hoped for.

Looks like a window of three to four months to let bids, which means project would have to be close to ready to go. And money apparently would go directly to local or state agencies, not to the state for general distribution.

There's little clarity though, he said, of whether this formula is an Obama-backed proposal or just something wandering through the U.S. House. And everyone waits . . .

Dairy downer

Jeff Kropf

Barely noticed outside the industry, but of some real import to various places around the Northwest, especially southern and southwest Idaho: Prices for dairy products are dropping, fast.

A notable piece in the Twin Falls Times News said, "Dairy prices are about $7 below the break-even point needed for dairymen to pay operating costs - that means that the industry, in large part, is looking to bank loans to stay in operation. 'This is as bad as we have ever seen it,' said Rick Naerebout, an industry representative with Independent Milk Producers. 'But what makes it worse is the uncertainty that's ahead.' Dairymen across the United States are feeling the pinch as demand for milk and other dairy products decline in both foreign and domestic markets."

More specifically, to take one key example: "Milk prices peaked at $20.25 in June 2008, before dropping to $11.12 - not including protein and other solids. Dairymen need about $13.00 per hundredweight to break even with current feed prices and other operating costs."

Factor that into regional economics, especially considering that dairy has been the biggest ag growth area in the region in recent years.

You can watch it here too

Joining the mass of sites offering the option for Tuesday morning:

Partly too because Hulu is a big favorite around these quarters, watched considerably more than the sum total of broadcast TV.

Sub-minimum jury pay

Jeff Kropf

The minimum wage in Washington as of the new year is $8.55 an hour, which translates to $68.40 for an eight-hour work day. But wait! There's an exception: a group of state employees who literally have power over the life, death and property of their fellow Washingtonians: trial jurors.

In Washington, statutory compensation for jurors ranges from $10 to $25 per day - from $1.25 an hour to $3.12 an hour. Plus some unspecified to help with travel mileage. Little wonder so few people see much incentive, apart from civic responsibility, in serving on juries.

Not to single out Washington here. In Oregon, the rate is $10 for the first two days and $25 after that, and eight to 20 cents for mileage. In Idaho, it's $10 a day and mileage. Rates like this might have made sense around the time of statehood, but certainly not any more.

In his state of the judiciary speech on Friday, Washington Supreme Court Chief Justice Gerry Alexander took on the matter, in the face of a huge budget crunch. After running through the pay increases he isn't asking for this year, he said this:

Since we are not asking for any funding of new programs, I suppose I could stand down now and head back across the street. But I don’t want to do that without addressing a familiar issue that we believe deserves attention by this legislature. It is an issue that I have highlighted in each of the previous State of the Judiciary addresses I have presented to you. It concerns Washington’s low rate of pay for our jurors. Let me quickly add that we have not set forth any amount in our proposed budget to fund an increase in the attendance fee for the reasons I have already given. We will, though, seek introduction of a bill that would provide for an increase in the fee.

To refresh your memory, the daily attendance fee for jury service is set by statute at no less that $10 per day and no more than $25. Significantly, almost every jurisdiction in the state pays the minimum of $10. That fee was established in 1958, a time when $10 was roughly equivalent to the minimum wage for a day’s work. It is clear that today the fee is woefully inadequate and its meagerness is evidenced by the fact that for a five-day trial, Washington ranks 45th out of 50 states in terms of jury compensation.

To the legislature’s great credit, you did fund the pilot project that allowed us to raise the fee in three jurisdictions to an amount akin to the current minimum wage. You also underwrote the cost of a study of the effect of the fee increase on the response to the jury summons by persons called for jury duty, juror satisfaction, and the diversity of our jury panels. While the study, a copy of which you should have received this week, does reveal greater juror satisfaction on the part of those who received the higher fee, it was not entirely clear what effect the increase had on responses to the jury summons—that may have been due, in part, to the fact that many, if not most, prospective jurors were not entirely aware of the fact that the attendance fee had been increased.

But regardless of whether an increase in the fee will get more citizens to fulfill this important responsibility of American citizenship, the fee should be increased as a matter of equity. Even though we are getting jurors to serve, we believe that it is simply not fair to pay them such a low fee, particularly those who devote more than one day to jury service.

The amounts would be small in the context of the Washington state budget. But the impact on people who decide important issues could be outsized.

Cooperative hardball politics

capitol

All those who think Idaho Democratic Representative Walt Minnick is a dead man walking for the election in 2010, and all those who think the (Republican) rest of the Idaho congressional delegation is SOL what with the decisive Democratic takeover of Congress, listen up.

You need to pay attention to a string of three recent press releases. They carry a weight of meaning.

Here's the lead paragraph from one, dated January 6, from the of office of Republican Representative (2nd district) Mike Simpson, with co-contact information from Minnick's office: "Idaho Congressmen Mike Simpson and Walt Minnick today introduced the Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act (CIEDRA). The bill settles ongoing disputes over how to manage public land in Central Idaho by creating wilderness, releasing wilderness study areas, allowing for federal land transfers and providing for economic relief to residents in Custer and Blaine counties."

The Republican and Democratic representatives jointly introducing a wilderness bill (which Simpson had been pushing, over the opposition of Minnick's Republican predecessor, for some years). Hmm.

Here's another one, also jointly released from the offices on Wednesday: "Idaho Congressmen Mike Simpson and Walt Minnick today voted to pass a measure that will ease financial burdens on thousands of Idaho families. The State Children Health Insurance program was reauthorized today by the U.S. House of Representatives. Children from hardworking, low- to middle-income Idaho families who do not qualify for Medicare would have access to health care under the S-CHIP bill."

Working together on a health/welfare issue. Hmm.

Now the third, out today, from the office of new Senator Jim Risch, Republican of Idaho, countering a lawsuit by environmental groups against a roadless area plan Risch worked on as governor. The third paragraph says this: "'Over the last several years, Idaho has been at the forefront of the collaborative, local-focused approach to management of public lands. The west needs more of that, and fewer lawsuits,' Idaho Congressman Walt Minnick said. 'Senator Risch’s carefully crafted roadless plan is yet another fine example of what can be done when leaders bring people to the table in an effort to find common ground, and I hope today’s news does not hamper future collaboration between sportsmen, business, leaders such as Governor Otter, Senator Risch, the rest of our delegation, and the many other people who care about Idaho’s public lands.'”

Here we have Minnick appearing favorably in a Risch press release, and Minnick offering some support for Risch on an environmental issue.

Hey, wait a minute: Where's all the partisan bashing? Didn't these guys go to D.C.? Don't they know how this stuff works?

Actually, they seem to have figured out, quickly, some significant things. (more…)

Circuit City closes

A big story nationally - there being 567 big-box stores involved - but notable in the Northwest: Circuit City said today it is shuttering all its stores in the United States (though, for some reason, not in Canada). Jobs lost: About 30,000. The company has been in bankruptcy proceedings since November.

CC is a big retailer in the Pacific Northwest. It has nine stores in the Seattle-Tacoma area, one at Bellingham, two around Spokane, one at Richland, five at Portland, two at Salem, one at Springfield, one at Medford, two at Boise, one at Idaho Falls (Ammon) - 25 big stores in the region, employing a whole lot of people. Or, did employ.

On the consumer level, this has a notable impact in some of the smaller metros; Boise, Bellingham, the Tri-Cities and Idaho Falls will have relatively limited choices at this point for consumer electronics.

A big box bill

Jeff Kropf

New legislation is pouring into the three Northwest statehouse, and quite a few proposals (apart from the financial ones now getting almost all the attention) merit some watching. One interesting measure, based around an effort in Maine, appears headed for action of some kind in Salem: A measure that would give critics of big-box stores a few extra weapons.

You might think anything that could be seen as a business blocker would have a hard time right now, even in Oregon or Washington. But oftimes what helps one business hurts another. Consider the rationale offered by Onward Oregon:

Big box stores can either help or hurt local commerce, but communities should make the final decision. Join with our state's small businesses and pass the Oregon Informed Growth Act to give communities the right to protect their local economies.

The Oregon Informed Growth Act empowers communities to accept or deny a "big box" store based on its impact on the local economy. If you own a small business (or if you know someone who does, please forward this email to them), please sign the petition.

The Oregon Informed Growth Act lets our local governments investigate the impact of big box stores (anything bigger than 1.5 football fields). When the WalMarts of the world apply to move into your town, an independent consultant surveys the economic and environmental impact of the development (at the cost of the developer).

The consultant checks if the big box store hurts local business, jobs, wages or the town's carbon footprint. Then the town can weigh in at a public hearing and local officials make the final decision: will the development help or hurt the community?

Sold as a protect-the-local-economy measure, this might have some real appeal. It appears not to have been formally introduced, yet, in Oregon. But we'll keep watch to see what kind of reaction the petition drive gets.

WA: An aggressive approach

Chris Gregoire

Chris Gregoire

The view of a sizable number of Republicans in Washington is that, while Governor Chris Gregoire and the Democrats didn't cause the national economic calamity, they are responsible for making worse the impact on government in the state, by pushing for more spending in the last few years than they might have. State spending has in fact risen quickly in the last few years, and if it had grown more slowly, state revenues and spending might be at least closer to alignment. (In Republican-run Idaho, where spending hasn't been increasing nearly as much, Republicans talk about how fortunate they are in that regard - and now need to make big cuts in spending.)

There's a powerful argument in that, and no doubt the Democrats in charge in Olympia are going to have a harder time maintaining in the fact. A few years ago you might have expected a bunch of Democrats to sign off on it, at least partly and in principle. But Gregoire, delivering her second inaugural address today, made clear that she doesn't and won't. A central segment:

Instead, we must renew hope for Washingtonians who are suffering today, and lay — for them — a platform for a better tomorrow.

First, we can and must quickly create new jobs for working families by rebuilding roads and schools, and creating a green economy for the 21st century — all in partnership with President-elect Barack Obama’s “American Recovery and Reinvestment” plan.

Second, like our struggling families and businesses, we can and will tighten our belts, balance our budget and focus on basic needs — protection of our children, our schools and colleges, our public safety, our environment and our economy.

Third, we won’t waste this crisis! We can and must reform state government. In this moment of clarity, we must grab the opportunity to reform so we can respond to the evolving needs of this century.

Fourth, we can and must approach all our challenges as a computer engineer might. Let’s build a new platform that makes Washington unique — that can support the exciting possibilities of the 21st century rather than the fading possibilities of the last.

And finally, this is the time for generosity among all Washingtonians.

So what we're seeing here is a call for activism, in a time of revenue diminishment - maybe a little less than in Oregon, a lot more than in Idaho. She has yet to lay out all the specifics, but the outline in her speech today seems clear enough: "We can quickly create thousands of new jobs this year and next by accelerating nearly $1 billion in public works projects. These projects will build new roads and schools, and create green-collar jobs to lay more groundwork for the prosperity to come. The time to act is now!"

Philosophical lines are being drawn - two very different approaches to dealing with the down times. We'll be able to do some sharp comparisons in the months ahead as they play out.

THE VIADUCT The apparent consensus decision among state, county and city officials (Gregoire, Chopp, King, Nickels and others) to go for the tunnel as the replacement for the Alaskan Way Viaduct seems of a piece with this. The tunnel is the most costly way of dealing with the need for action on the viaduct, and it may be the long-range quality solution, but it also is the most expensive. That is why so many people recoiled from it before. But now? There's no certainty about where the money will come from, and there's a distinct possibility (as the Seattle Times notes) of a taxpayer revolt. Will there be?