Rss Feed
Tweeter button
Facebook button

Archives for December 15, 2015

Volunteer at North Davis habitat projects on Sunday

Enter your email address to subscribe to this newspaper and receive notifications of new articles by email.

Article source:

New leaders to oversee renovations at Lauderdale Marine Center

New top executives have been named to oversee renovations at Lauderdale Marine Center, the sprawling boatyard and marina purchased this summer by financial heavyweight The Carlyle Group.

Doug West now is president of South Florida’s largest boat repair center and oversees both day-to-day operations and planning. West had been president for nine years at Rybovich, a boatyard in Palm Beach County. He lives in Palm Beach Gardens, a news release said Monday.

Kurt Winselmann, a certified public accountant and U.S. Coast Guard-certified captain, is controller and runs financial activities at the center. He worked 21 years with Seaboard Marine as controller of its ship management division and four years with Norwegian Cruise Line. He lives in Hollywood.

Jennifer Lang is operations director at the center. She runs leasing, office administration and human resources and also coordinates support for information-technology. Lang had been regional manager and trainer for Bloomin Brands’ Carrabbas Italian Grill. She lives in Coral Springs.

The new team will oversee improvements, set to begin in February, that will enable the boatyard to handle six additional 150-foot yachts and add parking, among other features.

The team also will supervise renovations at the adjacent River Bend Marine Center that feature new drainage, paving of a boat storage area and new landscaping.

“These capital improvements will help us increase the number of large yachts we are able to service at Lauderdale Marine Center, which in turn, will help bring more marine business to Fort Lauderdale,” said Thad Paul, managing director of The Carlyle Group, in the statement.

The Lauderdale Marine Center spans roughly 60 acres on the New River in Fort Lauderdale and features 156 wet slips, contractor work spaces, lifts, and two large arches over docks visible from Interstate 95. It can accommodate boats up to 200-feet long.

Unlike most boatyards that employ staff to provide services, the center leases space to dozens of on-site contractors who provide services such as fiberglass repair, painting and welding.

The Carlyle Group, a global asset manager based in Washington D.C., paid more than $140 million for the Lauderdale Marine Center in a deal that closed in July., 305-810-5009,@dhemlock on Twitter

Article source:

What’s Killing the Trees in Denver Parks? It’s the Water — and a Lot More

What's Killing the Trees in Denver Parks? It's the Water — and a Lot More

The attack came without warning. It was carried out swiftly, with ruthless, mechanized efficiency. And when it was over, it was as if the trees had never been there in the first place.

Rich Grant had never seen anything like it. A forty-year resident of the Washington Park area and the retired director of communications for Visit Denver, Grant walks around the park every day. One exceptionally warm day in October, he headed out on his usual route, eager to take in the fall colors — and found Evergreen Hill closed off and under siege. The hill, a prized grove of conifers on the north side of the park, had been taken over by Denver Parks and Recreation crews equipped with cherry pickers and chainsaws.

Within a matter of hours, the crews had taken down and hauled off 21 mature trees. White firs, Douglas firs, Colorado blue spruce — some of them a hundred years old. Even more astonishing, Grant says, was the speed with which city workers hustled to dispose of the remains.

“The next day they came out with stump removers,” he marvels. “They’ve never moved that fast in that park before. It was like they were burying the bodies.”

Among park lovers, the event soon became known as the Evergreen Hill Massacre — a dubious achievement for a city that just a few years ago was trumpeting the many economic and environmental benefits of a thriving urban forest and pushing a campaign to plant a million trees. But even though it took October’s noisy operation to stir public outrage, it was hardly the first time the execution squad had paid a visit to Evergreen Hill. The area has been losing sickly and dying trees at a substantial clip for several years now.

“They started cutting down these mature conifers in a big way in about 2011,” says local activist Sonia John, who lives a few blocks from the park. “They would take out ten or twelve in a season, every spring and fall. They were so thick in here that at first it wasn’t noticeable.”

John has written a guide to the 76 species of trees in Washington Park, available at local coffee shops and other businesses. From researching park archives and studying tree rings on stumps, she has a pretty good idea of when many of the trees on Evergreen Hill were planted. Some date back to the dawn of World War I, when the sons of the legendary Frederick Olmsted were advising the city on its park landscaping; some arrived shortly after World War II. Based on her own painstaking inventory, Evergreen Hill has lost nearly two-thirds of its mature conifers over the past decade. Out of 136 trees that she mapped on the hill in 2004, only about fifty remain — a sparser, scrawnier canopy hovering over a midget battalion of freshly staked new plantings. Some of the replacements aren’t looking so hot themselves.

“This was a historical area,” says John, walking through the thinned-out display. “Cheesman has more conifers than Washington Park, but this thing was dense, a much larger deal. I’m afraid it’s kind of destroyed. Some of these trees…this one doesn’t look healthy. That one is pretty good. But see, there are two Douglas firs over here that look pretty punk.”

Park officials say there are several factors behind the rash of tree removals. Some of the elderly conifers were simply at the end of their lives, they suggest; some had been stressed by drought or attacked by bugs; some apparently never recovered from a couple of vicious cold snaps in recent years, including a 77-degree temperature drop over three days last year. John says she doesn’t doubt that a few individual trees might have fallen victim to such predations, but that doesn’t begin to explain what happened on Evergreen Hill.

“The official line is that there are many things that cause trees to decline and die,” she notes. “Virus. Bacteria. Fungal diseases. Weather. Anthropogenic causes, like compacting the soil with construction equipment. But nobody has come up with a credible potential cause of this die-off that will explain why that cause isn’t operative on trees in neighbors’ yards across the street from the park.”

In 2004, the parks department began to irrigate with recycled water from Denver Water’s treatment plant.

The primary reason for the die-off, John contends, is much simpler: The healthy trees on private property across the street from the park receive potable water — not the recycled water that’s been used in Washington Park since 2004.

Last June, Denver Water officials agreed to meet with members of Denver INC, short for Inter-Neighborhood Cooperation, a coalition of registered neighborhood associations and other groups. High on the agenda was a discussion of Denver Water’s recycled-water program, which provides wastewater that’s been sufficiently treated for irrigation purposes at a fraction of the cost of drinking water. The meeting was the first opportunity that John and others had to question the program’s boosters about several studies that had been done, mostly at the utility’s request, on the program’s impact on soils, vegetation — and especially trees. Collectively, the studies make a persuasive case that foliage and soils in city parks treated with Denver Water’s recycled product contain high amounts of sodium — which, over time, can be particularly lethal to conifers, since they draw water from their roots most of the year.

Washington Park was one of the first city parks to convert to recycled water; John says it’s no surprise that the ill effects should surface there more rapidly than at other parks. But 20 percent of the department’s irrigated properties are now using recycled water, which involves an entirely separate delivery system from that used for potable water. Park advocates say the high-sodium regimen is beginning to claim evergreens in other parks, too, and John fears it may be only a matter of time before deciduous trees get affected as well; she’s already seen “a lot more leaf scorch” on lindens in Wash Park, a possible indication that the trees are overdosing on salt. The City of Denver now saves a million dollars a year on park watering costs because of recycled water, but the park department’s critics claim that the city hasn’t embarked on any “meaningful remediation” to address a problem it’s known about for years.

Denver Parks deputy manager Scott Gilmore says the situation isn’t as black-and-white as the neighbors want it to be. “When people say it’s reused water, that’s trying to simplify a very complicated situation,” he sighs. “This isn’t Seattle. This isn’t California or back east, where you have lots of natural forest. This is an urban forest that humans created. We’re losing trees because of weather conditions and drought — and reused water. All those things coming together.”

Recycled water clearly has its place, particularly in the semi-arid West. But not every “green” solution is as environmentally friendly as it seems. If the water saves money but ends up costing Denver cherished areas of its urban forest, is it still a win-win? John doesn’t think so.

“I think we’ve got enough evidence to say that recycled water is a problem,” she says. “Up until now, it’s mainly been used on golf courses.
Turf is quite resistant to sodium, and the vegetation in other states can be quite different from ours. In some ways, we’re kind of a guinea pig here.”

Sonia John, author of a guide to Washington Park’s trees, has watched Evergreen Hill’s conifers dwindle since she took inventory in 2004.

Russell Plakke shakes a canister of styrene pellets, not unlike the indestructible, non-biodegradable material used to stuff bean-bag chairs, so popular in the disco era. “I always say this is the best thing to come out of the ’70s,” he says.

Plakke is the supervisor for Denver Water’s recycled-water plant in Commerce City, a sprawling operation that stretches across several buildings. The treatment process begins with the styrene pellets and microorganisms, ends with crushed coal and chemicals, and can produce up to thirty million gallons of reused water a day. Open since 2004, the plant has grown its customer base gradually and hasn’t yet reached its design capacity, but Plakke says there have been days when production has hit the mid-twenties.

In the late 1980s, when Plakke was just out of the Navy, he toured a Denver Water demonstration facility on the same site as the current recycling plant. Back then, though, the project was focused on exploring the viability of “direct potable reuse” — the daunting task of taking storm runoff and sewer discharge and cleansing it sufficiently of contaminants to make it suitable for human consumption. Denver Water was a pioneer in such research, compelled by agreements that require it to explore various forms of water reuse for the supplies it diverts from the Western Slope.

Plakke was deeply impressed with what he saw on the tour. “It shaped what I wanted to do with my career,” he says.

After experimenting with numerous processes, Denver Water shuttered the demo plant in the early 1990s. It’s technologically feasible to turn sewer water into drinking water, but in most situations, the cost is prohibitive. There’s also the marketing challenge of convincing people to imbibe something that’s already traveled through toilets and drains, in intimate contact with every variety of human waste. (Although, as Plakke points out, communities that pull drinking water from the South Platte River downstream from Denver are already engaging in a form of indirect potable reuse, since the city’s treated wastewater is returned to the river.) Instead, the company decided to focus on a recycling plant for non-potable reuse. And Plakke is now a kind of brewmaster, overseeing the transformation of yesterday’s effluent into a resource suitable for today’s golf-course sprinklers.

Perversely, the process begins by introducing bacteria to water that’s already less than pure. The water comes from the Metro Wastewater Reclamation District, which has treated it to a point at which the water can be acceptably discharged into the river. The recycling plant has a biosystem at the front end, meaning that it adds ammonia-eating bacteria at the start of the filtering process; the styrene bean-bag beads dumped into the water supply give the little critters a perch on which to grow. Coagulants are then added to help draw together tiny particles of contaminant material, a clumping action that is further aided by a paddle-wheel device.

The water then flows through a series of basins, baffles and filter beds designed to separate and capture sediment, including a process that uses anthracite-coal particles as a kind of carbon filter. A final chlorine bath amps up the water quality, and the finished product is stored in a covered, eleven-million-gallon reservoir. It’s then pumped through a seventy-mile network of purple pipes to users across the metro area.

Denver Parks and Recreation was one of the plant’s first customers. Washington Park, City Park and several other parks began irrigating with recycled water in 2004; dozens more have switched over in the past decade, including Congress, Cheesman and many of the department’s newer facilities in Stapleton and the northeast corridor. The City Park and Park Hill golf courses also use recycled water, as do the Denver Country Club and the Denver Zoo. Recycled water keeps the grounds green at Denver’s East High, feeds the soccer field at Stanley British Primary School and helps generate electricity at Xcel Energy’s Cherokee power plant.

Plakke says that the current customer base represents about half the demand that the plant is designed to address; the goal is to supply 17,500 acre-feet of recycled water a year, freeing up enough potable water for more than 40,000 homes. But there was skepticism about the program even before the trees started dying in Washington Park. A few years ago, environmental activists questioned the wisdom of reusing wastewater that includes groundwater from the Lowry Landfill, which had been used for disposal of radioactive industrial, medical and household waste. The EPA’s own monitoring studies suggest that the minuscule amounts of Lowry groundwater in Metro’s treated product pose no identifiable risk. Still, the Rocky Mountain Arsenal, now a national wildlife refuge, had to undergo an extensive review by state and federal health officials before it could start using Denver’s recycled water (considered a “degraded” source of supply) to fill its lakes and irrigate bison and bird habitat.

The more immediate concern about recycled water is not about anything as exotic as plutonium. Wastewater is high in sodium, which comes from many sources — including many powdered laundry detergents. The recycling process can result in an even higher concentration, since chemicals such as sodium hydroxide (lye) and sodium bisulfite are used to adjust the alkaline levels and remove chlorine. Plakke says the plant’s initial output had a very high sodium content — as much as 190 parts per million — but has since dropped to half that level. He credits Metro Wastewater’s upgraded treatment plant for much of the drop, adding that the sodium used in his plant amounts to “5 percent or less” of the total sodium in the water that customers receive.

What's Killing the Trees in Denver Parks? It's the Water — and a Lot More

“It’s one of our success stories,” he says. “The quality of the water we’re getting now has improved dramatically, to the point where we no longer have to add a lot of product to the water to achieve our quality goals. Our treatment processes aren’t adding sodium.”

But the amount of sodium that remains is still high enough to pose a threat to vegetation. A 2010 Denver Water study of trees in several city parks and golf courses found the trees in Cheesman Park, which at that point wasn’t using recycled water, to be faring much better than those that were on the purple pipe. Trees in City Park and Swansea Park and on the Park Hill and City Park golf courses all showed “extremely high” or “excessively high” levels of sodium; and the symptoms of dieback, desiccation and foliar burn were found to be particularly “prevalent and obvious” among the white firs in Washington Park, which were described as “declining irreversibly.” A study conducted by Colorado State University, comparing soil samples collected from Denver parks and golf courses, showed that sodium levels at sites using recycled water approximately doubled between 2004 and 2009.

In a handout referring to the studies, Denver Water puts as positive a spin on the results as possible. “Recycled water sites had an average of 56 percent of trees classified as good,” the handout notes. “Tree tissues analysis indicated that sodium was the only constituent of concern.”

Yet subsequent studies have continued to show that concern is significant. One graduate student’s research on ponderosa pines in Denver parks found that prolonged exposure to recycled water had a marked effect on the pines’ ability to generate healthy needles; foliage samples from trees dependent on recycled water showed high concentrations of sodium and significantly higher needle necrosis.

Too much salt can block a tree’s ability to take in nutrients. Sonia John describes the effect of sodium on a conifer as similar to the dehydration that occurs when a man in a lifeboat tries to slake his thirst with seawater: The more he drinks, the worse off he is. Although Evergreen Hill has been hit the hardest, by John’s calculations all of Washington Park has lost more than a third of its mature conifers in the past decade, since the recycling program began. City Park has lost about a fifth of its conifers. Cheesman, which has only been on the purple pipe since 2013, has lost less than 10 percent of its conifers in the same time period.

Those losses have not gone unnoticed by other private and public agencies that have extensive landscaping to protect. True, the purple pipe represents substantial savings; Plakke says the program offers irrigation water at about 30 percent of the cost of potable water. According to Gilmore, Parks and Rec is saving even more: “A thousand gallons of potable water costs three dollars, and a thousand gallons of reused water is closer to thirty cents,” he says. But the hidden costs in those savings can be difficult to quantify.

One organization that has declined to sign up for the purple pipe is the Denver Botanic Gardens. “We are aware of and love the idea of the recycled-water program,” says DBG spokeswoman Erin Bird. “But since our plants are part of a living museum collection, we need to ensure that water and other nutrient sources are optimal. We do not want to take any chances with our collections, some of which are rare or fragile.”

In 2004, the parks department began to irrigate with recycled water from Denver Water’s treatment plant.

In his 2006 State of the City address, then-Denver mayor John Hickenlooper announced a plan to plant a million trees in the metro area by 2025. Suncor Energy, the Canadian oil giant best known for the environmentally problematic extraction of synthetic crude from tar sands, pledged a million bucks in acorn money.

The Suncor grant ran out three years ago, and the Mile High Million campaign has stalled out after planting between 250,000 and 500,000 trees. The administration of Hickenlooper’s successor, Michael Hancock, has said that it’s focused on protecting the current urban canopy — not just the 79,000 trees in the city’s parks and parkways, but the estimated 2.2 million trees in the city as a whole — from threats such as drought and the emerald ash borer.

But Hancock’s team has had a rocky relationship with park advocates and neighborhood groups, who have questioned the city’s priorities and stewardship. The mayor’s push to turn over nine acres of a formerly designated natural area in southeast Denver to Denver Public Schools led to a long, ultimately unsuccessful legal challenge. An effort to install a “regional attraction” known as City Loop, a half-mile ring of plastic tubing, bike tracks and play areas that would have occupied several acres of City Park, collapsed under citizen protests (“Parks and Wreck,” December 19, 2013) — as did a plan by the Denver Zoo to install a gasification plant to convert animal waste into energy, an idea that had been endorsed by the parks department.

The use of recycled water in the parks threatens to be an even more divisive issue, with tree lovers lining up to bash a supposedly green initiative. Gilmore says his team was already exploring possible sodium-remediation measures before the uproar over the tree removal on Evergreen Hill and will be sitting down with Denver Water employees later this month to discuss their options. But neighborhood activists wonder why that discussion didn’t begin years ago, when the studies emerged showing the high sodium levels and recommending various steps to prevent further tree losses. One of those reports, prepared for Denver Water by two consulting firms in 2011, warns of the possibility that “delaying salt management programs could ultimately result in more expensive management or remediation programs.”

“For years, they did nothing,” John says. “Zip. And we’re at a point now where it’s going to be harder to correct.”

“To me, the elephant in the room is Denver Water,” adds Cynthia Johnstone, the board president of Friends and Neighbors of Washington Park. “They’re so big. They should be leading the discussion.”

Plant supervisor Plakke acknowledges that there are ways to lower the sodium content during the treatment process. But the methods — reverse osmosis, ion exchange, desalination and so on — are all considered far too expensive to be practical. They would use more energy, pose a new challenge of brine disposal, and significantly raise the price of recycled water.

A better solution, Plakke suggests, is to apply additional recycled water to the trees, in order to flush the sodium out of the root zone. The trees on the grounds of the treatment plant receive such attention, he points out, and aren’t doing badly at all — including the ponderosa pines.

“Each site is going to require different techniques or multiple techniques,” Plakke says. “I think [Parks and Recreation] is doing an exceptional job of learning this system.”

Supplemental watering is, in fact, one of the key recommendations made by all of the reports prepared by the utility’s consultants — though they don’t specify more recycled water as the best tool for flushing out the salts produced by recycled water. Using potable water would cost more, of course, and Gilmore is skeptical that the process would have the desired effect, even if the logistical challenges of irrigating with two different supply sources could be overcome.

“Flushing is pretty hard,” the parks deputy says. “To flush with potable, you’d have to switch the system from reuse, which would take quite a bit of time. Look at how many parks we have.”

John doesn’t think the delivery problem is quite so insurmountable; she envisions using fire hydrants or water trucks to flood the saltiest areas. Gilmore, though, stresses other possible measures, such as delivering additional nutrients or a sodium blocker through the current irrigation system and making sure that the sprinklers are properly adjusted so that they aim low and avoid spraying recycled water on the conifer needles.

This fall, Denver INC passed a resolution urging Denver Parks and Recreation to immediately start flushing its evergreens with potable water once a month, with an increase to biweekly waterings during the summer. The subject will certainly come up again when a study committee, consisting of parks and Denver Water employees, citizen reps and other stakeholders, begins to meet early next year to develop a plan of action on the sodium question. The parks department is also studying various tree species that have a higher salt tolerance, such as evergreens accustomed to ocean-based storms in the Northwest, as possible replacement candidates. In the future, Gilmore suggests, the vegetation in Denver’s parks may look quite different from what it is now.

“We don’t have unlimited water supplies,” he says. “We have to be responsible and find sustainable practices for our park system.”

But sustainability and expediency aren’t always the same thing. Environmental writer David Owen makes that point resoundingly in his 2011 book The Conundrum: How Scientific Innovation, Increased Efficiency, and Good Intentions Can Make Our Energy and Climate Problems Worse. The presumed “savings” from more efficient lightbulbs or cheaper natural gas are largely illusory, Owen argues, since such innovations encourage people to consume more. One chapter is devoted to southern Nevada’s efforts to conserve water by irrigating with recycled water and pushing xeriscaping; the project has “saved” water, but also created a range of problems with sodium in the soil and, by keeping the state from reaching its limited allotment of Colorado River water, made possible further development in Las Vegas that will demand even more water.

Similarly, Denver Water’s stated goal of saving enough water through its recycling program for 40,000 households is of no tangible benefit to existing Denver residents — except, perhaps, for folks in construction and allied industries. It just enables the assembling of 40,000 additional homes on the semi-arid prairie.

“What appear at the time to be valuable environmental breakthroughs often turn out to be long-term disasters in the making,” Owen writes.
In Denver, the larger conversation about recycled water and its effects on the environment has yet to begin. For now, Gilmore is just grateful for all the wet weather last spring — all that non-acidic, low-salt rain from the heavens, naturally flushing the roots of the trees on Evergreen Hill and all across the parks system.

“This year is one of the best things that could happen,” he says, “when you’re dealing with reused water.”

Article source:

Home & Garden: Designer Advice to Deck the Halls

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WTXL) — This Home Garden is helping you be sure your house is all decked out for the holiday season. 


Brian Kendall, owner of Christmas Decor Tallahassee, joined us on WTXL Sunrise for some expert advice and to offer some inspiration.

Kendall says LED lights are a great option for decorating.

They are more cost efficient and often use 80-percent less energy than tradition bulbs.

Recent technological upgrades have improved the look the LEDs and they now available in more warm colors.

According to Kendall, multi-colored lights are also making a comeback this Christmas season.

The older version of these big bulbs were painted. Now though, they’re acrylic lenses meaning they’re more sturdy and weather-resistant.

Kendall also recommends starlight spheres, which he predicts are going to be even more popular this year. 

You can either buy or DIY. Christmas Decor of Tallahassee’s starlight spheres are all handmade.

Click the thumbnail for more of Kendall’s expertise.

Christmas Decor of Tallahassee offers design, installation, take down and storage options.

For more information, call (850) 894-1875 or click here.

Article source:

Tony Winner Karen Ziemba to Lead NATIVE GARDENS at Cincinnati Playhouse

Tony Winner Karen Ziemba to Lead NATIVE GARDENS at Cincinnati Playhouse

Veteran Broadway actor Karen Ziemba, who received Tony, Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle awards for her portrayal of The Wife in Contact, has been cast in the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park’s upcoming production of NATIVE GARDENS.

Ziemba’s additional credits include the Kander and Ebb musical Curtains, for which she received an Outer Critics Circle Award and Tony, Drama Desk and L.A. Ovation award nominations; Never Gonna Dance (Outer Critics Circle Award, Tony nomination); Steel Pier (Tony, Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle award nominations); And the World Goes ‘Round (Drama Desk Award); and I Do! I Do! (Drama Desk nomination).

NATIVE GARDENS is a world premiere by Karen Zacarías, author of The Book Club Play, which was a smash hit at the Playhouse in 2013 and at theatres across the country. In the show, gardens and cultures clash, turning friendly neighbors into feuding enemies. NATIVE GARDENS uses comedy to dig into deeper issues of taste, class, privilege and entitlement with hilarious results.

Zacarías’ world premiere – one of five of her plays debuting this season throughout the country – was commissioned through the Playhouse’s Jerome A. Fey Endowment as part of its ongoing commitment to the development and production of new plays. NATIVE GARDENS, which will be directed by Playhouse Artistic Director Blake Robison, runs Jan. 23 through Feb. 21 in the Robert S. Marx Theatre.

In NATIVE GARDENS, Ziemba will portray community denizen Virginia Capanini Butley. She will be joined by John Lescault as her husband and avid gardener Frank Butley and by Gabriel Ruiz and Sabina Zuniga Varela as Pablo and Tania Del Valle, a new-to-the-neighborhood couple with fresh ideas for landscaping their yard next door.

Tickets to NATIVE GARDENS are on sale now. For more information, call the Playhouse Box Office at 513-421-3888 (toll-free in Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana at 800-582-3208) or visit Call 513-345-2248 for Telecommunications Device for the Deaf accessibility.

Article source:

Rauner pushes privatization as more efficient for IL government; history …


Bruce Rauner wants to sell the James R. Thompson Center in Chicago. He says it’s inefficient and expensive to operate.


When Gov. Bruce Rauner announced plans in October to sell the James R. Thompson Center, he made a pitch worthy of his deal-making days in the private sector.

“We’ve got to drive value for taxpayers,” the former private equity executive said as he asserted the building is ineffective for government offices and declared his plan “good news” for Illinois.

Bruce RaunerRauner said the downtown Chicago office tower isn’t the only property being eyed for sale as he’s reviewing all Illinois-owned assets, including those in central and downstate Illinois. His comments follow a union’s earlier disclosure that Rauner is asking state workers for more latitude to seek private operators for government services.

As Illinois falls short of cash, faces declining revenue and wrestles with more than $100 million in unfunded pension obligations, Rauner is signaling that one way to ease those financial burdens is by spinning off government assets and services to private operators for millions of dollars and likely more. It’s not a new idea: Past governors from Jim Edgar to Pat Quinn embraced aspects of outsourcing.

But the state’s past ham-handed execution of private deals — from a veteran’s home to the lottery to health care for prisoners — illustrates why privatization is no panacea or cure-all.

Often, the actual process to approve such deals historically lacks transparency, oversight and protections to make sure the government doesn’t get hoodwinked, a Better Government Association analysis finds.

Although Rauner offers few details of his plans for privatization, his fellow Republicans in the Legislature have brought ideas to him in hopes that — given the state’s finances — they can convince Democrats who control the General Assembly to consider such proposals.

Related Article: Privatization Ordinance Passes Chicago City Council

“I do believe it is a prudent option,” said Republican House Minority Leader Jim Durkin. “We have to look into every area of government for efficiencies.”

Here’s a sampling of areas Rauner and his fellow Republicans are considering for privatization:

  • The Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity. Privatizing the business recruitment agency is a top priority for Rauner. This year, House Democrats largely gave Rauner what he wanted in a bill, but the governor said he couldn’t support a sunset provision to review the private contract in three years.
  • The Department of Corrections. State Sen. Dave Syverson (R-Rockford) says Illinois can save substantially by setting up a private nursing home for aging inmates. While corrections reform advocates say elderly prisoners should be housed in a central facility, neither they nor Democratic lawmakers interviewed support a private operator.
  • The Department of Central Management Services. Sen. Michael Connelly (R-Lisle) thinks the state’s central management services can be reformed to hand over functions to the private sector. Among the areas: property management, which can be better handled by a private company, he said. Sen. Syverson agrees, saying everything from landscaping to fleet vehicles should be examined.
  • State buildings. Durkin introduced legislation to help speed Rauner’s proposed sale of the James R. Thompson Center in Chicago. Assessing the value of state-owned properties is prudent and the Thompson Center is “the whitest of white elephants of state government,” Durkin said. (See sidebar: Save, Don’t Raze Thompson Center)

A more near-term agenda item is the Illinois Lottery. After a deal to outsource management of the Illinois Lottery flopped in spectacular fashion, Rauner is looking for a new private manager, a move one longtime critic says would be a mistake.

“I don’t think the default should be give it back to private industry,” state Rep. Jack Franks (D-Woodstock) said.

For years, Franks repeatedly criticized the lottery plan, an agreement struck by Quinn in 2010. That contract with Northstar Lottery Group officially ended when Rauner fired the company in September. Northstar fell short of promised revenue goals by hundreds of millions of dollars.

The lottery isn’t the only private deal that ran into problems.

Concerns over the quality of medical care given to Illinois prison inmates raised questions about a $1.4 billion contract between the state and Wexford Health Sources of Pittsburgh.

The 10-year contract to treat the state’s more than 40,000 inmates was signed in 2011. An audit of the contractor’s performance at each state prison is under way after a push for a review by Illinois Rep. Greg Harris (D-Chicago), who said he received complaints about delayed care of inmates, staffing shortages and other issues.

One of the problems with the contract with Wexford is that there was no monitoring system put in place as a condition of the agreement, Harris said. Issues arising from poor care of the inmates ultimately may cost the state money to fix the problems, he added. Vendors need to be held accountable through better oversight, he said.

Noting that there were “clear problems” with the care of inmates, Harris said he believes contractors lack incentives to provide the best medical treatment unless someone from government is providing diligent supervision.

From a private company’s vantage point, he said, “there’s an incentive for putting money in your pocket rather than providing care.”

Under Gov. Edgar, operation of the Illinois Veterans’ Home in downstate Anna was handed over to a private manager, a move that led to a myriad of staffing problems, quality of service complaints and multiple vendors.

After seven years of private operation, Gov. Rod Blagojevich signed into law a measure in 2003 to take back state control of the facility. Citing poor quality of food and service, Blagojevich said in a statement at the time that under the state’s watch the priority for the facility would “be on care for veterans, not on a private company’s bottom line.”

That’s not to say Blagojevich was against selling off government assets or services to private operators.

Far from it.

During his term, the state studied the possible sales of the Illinois Tollway and the lottery. A tollway sale proved to be too controversial and Blagojevich himself publicly dismissed the idea.

Since taking office in January, Rauner’s biggest privatization push calls for contracting out management of the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity.

Skeptics point to problems with other states’ moves to turn business recruiting agencies over to private contractors, with a scandal-plagued program in Wisconsin serving as one of the most blatant examples of a seemingly good idea gone bad.

Democrats in the Illinois House passed a bill in June that gave Rauner his privately operated agency. But the governor said he wouldn’t support it because the bill requires a review for renewal of the program within three years.

In September, the Council 31 American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) put out a bulletin to its members asserting that Rauner was asking the union to give up a say on privatizing state jobs.

Under the union’s contract, the state is expected to discuss contracting plans with the union and explain why outsourcing is a more cost-effective use of state dollars.

The union stipulation is important.

In 2013, AFSCME successfully scuttled a contract with a company, Maximum Health Services, hired to sift out Medicaid fraud. The union argued that state workers could do the work more efficiently. It ultimately won an arbitrator’s ruling, which determined the private contract violated AFSCME’s collective bargaining agreement. Rauner and AFSCME are currently in labor contract negotiations.

Rauner’s office had no comment on the governor’s privatization plans. “I don’t have any information,” a spokeswoman said.

House and Senate Republicans, who are in the minority of the Illinois General Assembly, said they are hopeful Rauner can show leadership on the idea.

“This administration is markedly different than previous administrations,” Durkin said. “That’s how [Rauner] became successful. He gets the most out of his transactions for the beneficiaries he’s working for — he’s looking for every way to make Illinois more efficient.”

And while Durkin said he believes every area of state government needs to be evaluated for privatization, he adds that oversight is key.

“We have to quantify how we’re going to benefit from this. There have to be benchmarks in the contract with the vendor to make sure they are meeting objectives,” he said.

Durkin stops short of saying there needs to be a law laying out guidelines but adds that there are limitations to outsourcing.

“It’s not as if privatization across the board is good,” Durkin said.

In Durkin’s comment there seems to be some common ground with Democratic leaders who control both chambers of the legislature. Those leaders also express caution about going overboard.

“The problem is people pop up and say we should run government like a business,” said Steve Brown, a spokesman for Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan. “That doesn’t really work. The government is there to provide some sort of a safety net.”

A spokeswoman for Senate President John Cullerton made a similar assertion.

The senate majority leader  “is open to some areas of privatization, but he’s not looking at it as a top-tier solution” to the state’s budget crisis, said Rikeesha Phelon, a Cullerton spokesperson.

Across the country, many local governments are cooling to outsourcing services following problems with private contracts, said Mildred Warner, a professor at Cornell University who studies and writes about the trend.

While some governments continue to explore privatizing services, a number are reversing the practice and bringing services back under full government control, she says citing her own research. Taken together, privatization is beginning to flatten in the U.S., she said.

Related Article: Byrd-Bennett Arrest, The Perils Of Privatization

A key problem with public-private arrangements, according to Warner is that many lack true competition beyond a bidding process.

“Most people think they can sign a contract and walk away — you have to monitor,” Warner said. “There is no statistical support that privatization is cheaper. Why? The theory is competition leads to lower costs but there’s no competition. It’s still a monopoly and private actors maximize profit at the cost of quality.”

Warner and other academic researchers point to Chicago’s privatization of the city’s parking meters as a poster child of a bad deal. Under former Mayor Richard M. Daley, Chicago was paid more than $1 billion for a 75-year lease of the parking meters. The deal underestimated the value of the city asset and almost all the money was used to shore up budget shortfalls.

Chicago and Illinois politicians have touted the promise of privatization only to see expectations crash hard. Chicago’s parking meter debacle, which also resulted in hefty rate hikes, is the subject of academic research papers illustrating what can go wrong with such deals.

Users of the privatized Chicago Skyway raise similar gripes.

Recognizing the problems with the Daley administration’s deals, Mayor Rahm Emanuel endorsed a BGA-backed plan to make privatization contracts more transparent. The law, passed by the Chicago City Council November 18, may provide a template for entering state outsourcing deals.

Rauner previously acknowledged private deals can go bad, criticizing the process set up by Quinn to select lottery manager Northstar. Others urge caution.

“I’m a business guy. I’m not saying you should never do privatization,” said Franks, a partner in a Marengo law firm. “We have to think long term. We have a fiduciary obligation to the taxpayers.”

Article source:

Tiny parks changing Indy’s landscape

Big ideas aren’t always about the size.

Yes, the city is reviewing bids to create a new Downtown park near the City County Building with a splash pad, ice skating rink and great big lawn to toss a ball or disc around. But the project set to move ahead later next year isn’t the only green idea out there.

Pocket parks — small green spaces in the hearts of neighborhoods — are popping up across the city as more residents look for ways to improve their communities.

On the city’s Near Westside, a vacant lot filled with debris a year ago has become a gathering place for families. Neighborhood birthday parties are now popular at what was once a dumping ground for old furniture and trash.

“Kids were playing in the lot,” resident and community leader Danny Marquez said. “Literally swimming in the mud piles there.”

The lot was a problem, an eyesore on North Holmes Avenue.

A pocket park became the solution.

The parks are in high demand. Close to 50 applications pour into Keep Indianapolis Beautiful Inc. annually. But with funding limited, only about a handful are completed each year.

Five communities will get their wish in 2016, thanks to grant funding, donations and community partners.

Keep Indianapolis Beautiful Inc., a nonprofit that puts volunteers to work cleaning up local neighborhoods, teams up with Indianapolis Power Light Co. and the city to develop the green spaces.

“It’s about helping people and nature thrive,” said Ashlee Wilson Fujawa, director of public relations at Keep Indianapolis Beautiful Inc.

The nonprofit’s volunteers have planted more than 100 green spaces across Central Indiana in the past 40 years. Every project is different, but the mission is the same.

Pocket projects range from $10,000 to $50,000. The price tag “depends on what the neighborhood vision is,” Fujawa explained.

In 2016, the Eastside neighborhoods of Martindale-Brightwood and Springdale, the Downtown neighborhood of Cole-Noble, the Southside neighborhood of Bates-Hendricks and Speedway will receive park makeovers.

Springdale neighbors will build a pocket park around a 300-year-old oak tree that sits next to a vacant lot at 2319 N. Nowland Ave. The green space will have native landscaping, educational signage and public art, making the iconic tree a destination in the neighborhood.

In the Martindale-Brightwood neighborhood, an urban garden will be planted with help from Felege HiywotCenter volunteers.

Wheeler Mission Ministries Inc. will be working in the Cole-Noble neighborhood to add native plant palette and public art murals to the city’s main thoroughfares.

The Bates-Hendricks Neighborhood Association wants to revitalize Ringgold Park at Cottage and Ringgold avenues. Design plans include a lush native plant palette, large shade trees and other natural park amenities.

Needs vary, and not every green space starts off in bad shape.

In the town of Speedway, Keep Indianapolis Beautiful volunteers will go to work near a roundabout on Main Street. The space is blank now, but by spring a touch of character will be added.

Residents want the green space to honor the Speedway Schools’ sister city relationships with Motegi, Japan, and Varano de’ Melegari, Italy. Both cities are linked to racing, cars and innovation.

“Even though we’re a small town, we’re also an international destination,” Speedway Town Manager Ian Nicolini said.

“For us, it’s always been a very important part of our strategy to make sure there is visible appeal, not just concrete, asphalt and the occasional tree.”

Keep Indianapolis Beautiful Inc. will celebrate its 40th anniversary next year. Volunteers are needed for 2016 projects. Donations can be made online.

“For us, all of our work is grass-roots driven,” Fujawa said. “We listen to what the neighbors want, then we find ways to make that happen.”

Call Star reporter Cara Anthony at (317) 444-6049. Follow her on  Twitter: @CaraRAnthony.

Article source: