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Posts published in April 2009

Cutting off the backcountry


The backcountry supply plane takes off/Linda Watkins (1984)

For about a dozen years, Linda lived and worked in Idaho's backcountry, at some of the guest ranches, some of them in what's now massive wilderness country, some of them nearby but still very, very remote.

In that country, Ray Arnold, who flies planes out of Cascade, was a central figure. A lot of the people in that area were isolated - really isolated - and cut off from the outside world, other than by radio communications. Arnold was, and is, a pilot, and he would make regular weekly runs through stops around the backcountry. (In the summer weekly, and in the winter monthly.) He was the central source of supplies and information, and mail. If people needed a ride from place to place, or back to town, he often helped out. He was the one reliable outside figure across a vast region. For the people who wintered in the backcountry, Arnold might be the only non-resident person you saw for four or five months. In the winter, he was the source of some of the food. Christmas packages came by way of Ray Arnold. His visits were a very big deal.

Such trips are not cheap, and part of what has helped underwrite them has been the postal run - Arnold was the mailman for the area, dropping off mail once a week or month. That federal contract (not enormous - the amount has been $46,000) didn't pay for the travel, either, but as a part of the package, it's helped Arnold keep flying through the area, and the backcountry keep in touch with the outside world, for decades.

Evidently now, some of that is at risk - and some will be going away. Pete Zimowsky of the Idaho Statesman is reporting that the Postal Service is canceling Arnold's contract and ending mail delivery to the backcountry; his is the last air mail route to backcountry in the lower 48 states.

Zimowsky writes, "The U.S. Postal Service doesn't have a clue about the vastness of Idaho and the West. It doesn't have a clue about the backcountry folks living in the central Idaho wilderness. Many of the ranches are more than 60 miles from the nearest road. In the winter, Arnold flies in on his Cessna 185 outfitted with skis."

The Post Office's response evidently is: Let 'em come to town. Except, of course, that might mean they get their mail once a year.

This is going to be a bitter pill for a big area. Sounds like a job for a congressional delegation . . .

How Washington is income tax-less

A good summation of Washington's troubled relationship with the income tax in today's Peter Callaghan column in the Tacoma News Tribune.

And why Washington still operates, essentially, on a tax system developed in the middle of the Great Depression.

The idea of a limited income tax - on only those with $500,000-a-year and up income - still seems to be gaining some traction this year. But the obstacles it faces turn up neatly in this anecdote from Callaghan:

"Take the case of Glenn Pascall, a very smart guy who was then-Gov. John Spellman’s Department of Revenue director. It was the first week of the 1982 session and the state was considering how to get out of yet-another deep budget hole. Pascall told a legislative committee that everything was on the table and that the income tax is no longer 'an idea which is doomed to fail. It is one unpopular option in a range of unpopular options.' The next day, Spellman convened a press conference:'I have not considered an income tax. We are not considering an income tax. And Mr. Pascall has resigned.'”

The public involvement way

Idaho Power Company has taken a whole lot of heat locally in communities in far eastern Oregon and southwestern Idaho - over its plan to string a high-power transmission line roughly between Boardman, Oregon, and Murphy, Idaho.

You wouldn't think such a line would generate that kind of conflict, since there's so much wide open space in that country, and a tremendous amount of public land where the line presumably could go. Instead, significant pieces of the siting have been located near communities, and a number of them have been protesting.

Now, apparently, Idaho Power has backed off, at least in part. One of the hotly protesting cities has been Parma, and a state senator from there, Melinda Smyser, is quoted as saying that Idaho Power will relocated its line proposal for that stretch, and will bring in public involvement.

That seems a likely model for where this may be going. The opposition hasn't been to a long-run transmission line in the area, but only to where it specifically is being located. This looks like an issue amenable to a negotiated solution, albeit one that may take a little longer to develop.

Trends continuing

By way of followup tracking, here's where Oregon has gone since the November election in the area of voter and party registration . . .

The grand total in registered voters has hardly budged, as of the end of February stats: 2,154,384 - up 491, hardly a blip.

But there were some changes. The biggest is the increase in numbers for the Independent Party - up 2,328 to 45,358, a bigger increase than anyone else got in that period. (Non-affiliateds increased by exactly 100.)

Both Democrats and Republicans dropped in registered voters. While Democrats dropped 669, Republicans fell by 1,979 - extending the registration gap between the parties by more than 1,000, to 238,039.

Avimor on the block?


Entrance to Avimor, at Highway 55/Stapilus

We've been following the Avimor saga for a while now, for the reason that in the Boise area it's a big deal: It amounts to creating a whole city off the highway between Eagle (just west of Boise) and Horseshoe Bend. It is the biggest of the large planned developments in the Boise foothills, it has progressed substantially, and it could have a big effect (actually various big effects) on development in the area. Its plans contain, we should note, a number of attractive features; there are also a number of drawbacks.

It has not, however, been progressing very rapidly. In February 2006, Avimore's parent, SunCor Development of Arizona, projected that within five years the project would be completed with 684 housing units, a resident population of 1,952, some commercial development and various amenities. In January of this year, three years in, reports surfaced that just six properties apparently had been sold and two families were resident.

Against that background, consider this report from yesterday's Arizona Republic newspaper:

"Pinnacle West Capital Corp.'s real-estate subsidiary, SunCor Development Co., will attempt to sell $400 million in housing developments and golf courses - most of them in Arizona - to reduce debt and focus on commercial building, the company announced Thursday. Arizona Public Service Co. is Pinnacle's main subsidiary, but the smaller SunCor business has been a drag on earnings recently. In the fourth quarter of 2008, SunCor impairment charges of $32.5 million helped push the parent company to a quarterly loss, so the SunCor board of directors voted to sell nearly all of its assets, spokesman Alan Bunnell said."

There's no reference yet to the selloff on the SunCor web site on on Pinnacle's. Possible Avimor isn't on the block. But it looks likely.

And what will happen to it then?

Parochial issues


Here is a good example of why people seeking redress at the state legislative level need to get their local disputes taken care of and in order first: Idaho Senate Bill 1157.

It sounds simple enough, having to do with the naming of a city. State law sets the rules if two cities decide (by voter election) to merge, as some have in Idaho over the years. One of those rules is that when two cities merge, the new city takes the name of the larger one. SB 1157 would alternatively allow to be used a name "mutually agreed upon," the decision being made by the voters at the consolidation election.

This is arising, as you might suspect, because of a specific local circumstance. There's been a lot of talk in Ketchum and Sun Valley, which is an incorporated city as well as a well-known resort, of merging the two cities. Ketchum, with about 3,000 people, is about three times the size of Sun Valley, and so logically would become the new city name. SB 1157 was sponsored by Senator Jon Thorson, D-Sun Valley, who is filling in for Clint Stennett; Thorson would like consolidation to happen.

That has infuriated any number of people at Sun Valley, and a local feud over the subject has erupted. And it has spilled over into the legislature. Wally Huffman, the long-time general manager, warned of "a disaster for my company" if the merger happens. In fact, the Sun Valley contingent seems deeply, and bitterly, split over what should be done.

(And as for the name of the city: It's not terribly important, except for the numbers of people who would have to be changing their addresses and stationary. What possible effect it could have on the resort at Sun Valley is unclear: It has a very well-known brand because of the resort itself, and the mountains nearby, and not because of the small obscure muncipality in the area. Most people who "go to Sun Valley" and don't stay at the resort itself stay, not in the city of Sun Valley, but at one of the many lodges in Ketchum.)

Imagine yourself as a legislator dealing with this: The prospect getting into the middle of a local war.

The response was the only obvious thing to do: Kill the bill. Veteran Senator Denton Darrington, R-Declo, made the point cleanly: "The perception is crystal-clear that this injects the Legislature in the middle of a huge local feud.” Where, in other words, it would have had no business being . . .

The silly bills

Are these the silliest bills in Salem? Your chance to weigh in.

But how can you not vote for the one, House Bill 3146, described by its own sponsor (Representative Chip Shields, D-Portland) as "a stupid bill." (Go to the link and look at the list; that's where you'll kinda get the point.)

Now: How about Washington and Idaho?

A non-starter, or a game-changer


Jeanne Kohl-Welles

Everybody has their legislative non-starters - among those issues a lot of people talk about with some seriousness. In Oregon, the sale tax. In Washington, the income tax.

Or . . . suppose you structured the tax so it would apply only to a small minority, but still raise a bunch of money? Is there a calculus under which (especially in hard times) the unthinkable becomes thinkable?

So now, introduced as of today, we have in Washington a proposal for an income tax, usually considered a poisonous third-rail subject. Democrats are proposing Senate Bill 6147, and Republicans are going to pounce (actually, take the future tense out of that).

Here's the twist: It would only apply about 1% of Washingtonians (those earning a half-million dollars a year or more for individuals, with the bar higher in some other cases) and would be set at a relatively low level - 1%. Easy to grasp.

It has backing from majority Democrats; the key sponsor is Senator Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, along with six others. Majority leadership doesn't seem to be dousing the idea. It carries a trap door: Legislators wouldn't give themselves a final sayt; the idea would go to the voters for an up or down.

The specific statement of intent in the bill says, "It is the intent of the legislature in adopting this title to provide the necessary revenues for the support of vital state services on a more stable and equitable basis." But that's not its real political engine. What could make this possible is the specific populist environment of the moment: Go ahead and tax the rich. As matters sit, in this case, a number of Washingtonians usually unwilling to budge on the income tax might be tempted. Republicans will argue this is an entre to something larger, and they could be right. But for the moment, the ballot issue is what it is. (If it ultimately is.)

There's something much broader going on here than a typical question of tax policy. This will bear close watching.

Cost savings among the homeless

In business, you sometimes hear the expression, "You have spend money to make money." Sometimes, you have to spend it to save it, too. Consider the case of the homeless.

Consider a study in the current Journal of the American Medical Association. It was an intensive study - there are 11 co-authors - and here's the local tie: "95 housed participants (with drinking permitted) with 39 wait-list control participants enrolled between November 2005 and March 2007 in Seattle, Washington."

From the abstract:

Results Housing First participants had total costs of $8 175 922 in the year prior to the study, or median costs of $4066 per person per month (interquartile range [IQR], $2067-$8264). Median monthly costs decreased to $1492 (IQR, $337-$5709) and $958 (IQR, $98-$3200) after 6 and 12 months in housing, respectively. Poisson generalized estimating equation regressions using propensity score adjustments showed total cost rate reduction of 53% for housed participants relative to wait-list controls (rate ratio, 0.47; 95% confidence interval, 0.25-0.88) over the first 6 months. Total cost offsets for Housing First participants relative to controls averaged $2449 per person per month after accounting for housing program costs.

Conclusions In this population of chronically homeless individuals with high service use and costs, a Housing First program was associated with a relative decrease in costs after 6 months. These benefits increased to the extent that participants were retained in housing longer.

Put another way: You save a lot of money by helping these people and getting them off the street, as opposed to leaving them there until major health or safety problems result.

The full text is behind a pay wall, but a well-written summary at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer web site is well worth reading.