Faced with an economy that officially has been in a recession for 12 months now, President-elect Barack Obama has suggested that he’ll ask Congress for funding for a massive public works program designed to create 2.5 million jobs by 2011.


It’s a time-honored tradition for administrations to propose and implement public works programs during economic downturns. Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal” was the most famous, of course.  John F. Kennedy’s administration had its Accelerated Public Works Act in 1962.


(Another time-honored tradition is claiming credit when it’s undeserved and it sure looks like the President-elect is positioning himself to take the credit for the inevitable results of an economic turnaround. Speaking this weekend, Obama said he would provide the leadership to see that the U.S. economy emerges leaner, meaner and more competitive.”  That’s exactly what happens after almost every recession, isn’t it?  Except when burdened by unusual circumstances like the auto industry’s unreasonable and onerous obligations to the United Auto Workers, companies do get leaner and more focused in tough times.  President-elect Obama does deserve praise for selecting an economic team that knows its business but let’s make sure he doesn’t grab the credit that should go to business owners and employees who are already doing their part to turn things around.)


There’s no doubt we need to do address tens of billions of dollars in overdue infrastructure maintenance. Yet, like many Americans, I remain convinced that it makes more sense to fund those needs through governments that are closest to us. Why? Because sending money to Washington comes at a price.  And though we’ve been getting back more than one dollar for every dollar we send to Washington, that’s true for just about every state. That means, obviously, that the federal government is spending more than it’s taking in.  Just like with the federal bailout of Wall Street, taxpayers like you and me are going to have to pay the bill.


That’s why I’d like to see Iowa’s state, local and county leaders sit down together and develop a clear plan to prioritize our infrastructure needs. That doesn’t mean we should pass up our fair share of federal dollars but I’d sure like to see other states pay for their own transportation systems rather than having you and me do it.  An Iowa Infrastructure Summit would do more than help us invest limited tax dollars better; it just might set a good example for other states to follow as that we take on more responsibility for ourselves – and rely a little less on the federal government for so many things.


The Color of Savings

It seems like everyone is looking for savings these days. From Christmas shoppers to business executives to the Mom managing the family budget, finding greater value is a priority.


The most interesting value play I think I’ve seen recently was reported today on AdAge.com involving the multinational consumer goods company, Unilever.


The company, according to Jack Neff’s story, “Cutting Down on Colors Could Save Unilever $26 Million,” outlines a program to reduce the 100-plus hues Unilever uses on its spreads and dressing packaging in Europe to just six colors.  “Unilever’s hope is to save tens or eventually even hundreds of millions of dollars a year. By some estimates, the entire industry could save $5 billion annually if it follows suit.”


Wow!  Who would have imagined such huge savings of “green” from a simple yet out-of-the-box idea to use fewer colors?


Consumers and business leaders aren’t the only people looking for savings. As a Polk County Supervisor, I’m constantly on the lookout for ways to save taxpayer dollars.  One sure-fire approach is to encourage ideas for the people who pay the bills – the taxpayer.


I invite you to contact me any time you have an idea – big, small, mundane or out-of-the-box – that you think could increase production or reduce costs. Working together, you and I just might be able to save taxpayers some green, too.


There was a silver lining today in the dark clouds of the June floods that hit the Birdland neighborhood particularly hard and virtually shut down the Des Moines downtown for several days. Polk County Emergency Management Director A.J. Mumm was named 2008 recipient of ISAC’s Excellence in Action Award in the Outstanding Individual Category.

A.J. directed the Emergency Operations Center (EOC), which was the hub that coordinated all proactive and response activities surrounding the floods.  The EOC is a unified command that represented local governments within Polk County and Polk County government. Law enforcement agencies, the Polk County public health department, the Army Corps of Engineers, public works, fire departments, law enforcement, and other public service entities within Polk County comprise the team that coordinated emergency operational activities and the release of important information for the safety and well being of the public. Also involved in the EOC were entities outside the emergency management membership, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Homeland Security, state homeland security, and the Iowa National Guard.

In announcing the award, ISAC Executive Director Bill Peterson said, “Mr. Mumm’s organizational and leadership skills demonstrated during the flooding are certainly a great example of “excellence in action” in county government.”

Angela Connolly, one of my Board of Supervisors colleagues said, “Without the organizational and leadership skills of A.J. Mumm, Polk County would not have been able to operate as effectively and efficiently during this natural disaster. His calm demeanor and attention to detail brought all entities in Polk County together to work toward the common goal of ensuring the safety of our residents. We all owe a debt of gratitude to all who worked so tirelessly to save our community during this time of crisis. The efficient operation efforts exhibited through the EOC are the best example of regional cooperation this area has seen.”


I can attest to that.


In times of crisis, people turn to leaders who command respect and know what they’re doing. A.J. has been so effective as our emergency management director because of the respect in which he’s held by his peers within Polk County government, city governments throughout the county and the citizens who’ve come in contact with him.


His tireless work and steadying presence during the recent flooding only served to elevate that respect. He pulled people and organizations together and the ‘greater whole’ performed admirably. A lot of people would’ve expected some sort of recognition for this good work. Not A.J. He’s a humble guy and he is all about getting the job done right and getting it done quickly. Polk County is fortunate to have him.

When it comes to good ideas, sometimes you still have to say “no.”  That’s the situation I found myself in yesterday as the Board of Supervisors voted on a $785,000 no-interest loan for the Southeast Polk school district to cover the costs for a pedestrian tunnel between its current high school and the new one still under construction.


My colleague, Tom Hockensmith, whose district includes the school, made a compelling argument in favor of the loan.  He said the project is a public safety issue, which makes it a top priority.


Jeff Riese, president of the Polk-Des Moines Taxpayers association, said the tunnel is a “wonderful project” but correctly noted that paying for school projects is outside the county’s mission.  While I’ve voted to provide some proceeds from Prairie Meadows to schools in the county, I know we have to avoid “mission creep.”  That’s what happens when a government takes on more and more duties – and eventually loses the ability to do well in the few areas it’s supposed to be focused.


That’s why I said the loan would have put us even farther down a slippery slope.  And that’s why I voted no.

Change is almost always hard, but I was pleased to see Iowa Senate Republicans select Paul McKinley as their new leader.


Sen. Paul Wieck of Sioux City, who has been in the post since 2007, has been a capable leader during difficult times for our party. But, just as we’ve seen with the Iowa House, fresh leadership is what’s needed in the wake of the general election results two weeks ago.


I got to know Paul McKinley when we served on the board of directors of a bank not too many years ago. It was obvious then that Paul was very bright and has true conservative values.  He was also a focused and skilled businessman who led his Chariton textile firm, Neely Manufacturing, to success.  He’s since sold the company and now he sets his sights on rebuilding the Iowa GOP and increasing the ranks of his 18-member caucus.


Paul’s many fine traits are going to serve him, our Senate Republicans and all Iowans well as he brings his talents to bear over the next few years to help bring his caucus back to majority status.

If you’ve ever had your house or car broken into, aside from feeling angry, violated and helpless, you want to see the person who did it to you receive a measure of justice.

You’re not too interested in what “jail diversion” option might be available to the miscreant. You just want to see that person in an orange jump suit for a suitable amount of time.  Such is the story of the new Polk County Jail, which opens Wednesday and is located near the east mixmaster of I-80/35.  Such is the story of any jail, actually. That’s why they exist – to protect law-abiding citizens from people who have no qualms about doing damage to the rest of us.

Polk County is, by far, our state’s largest county. We’ll be pushing almost 500,000 folks when the government does their next census in 2010. That’s great. Polk County and central Iowa have been a terrific economic engine for Iowa and, from my perspective, that engine is just getting warmed up.  Other counties are showing some economic growth, make no mistake, but don’t kid yourself; Polk County is the big dog in this story – and probably will be for some time to come.

But, with the good always comes a little bad. Crime is part of the detrius that follows metropolitan areas and dynamic growth, sad to say. when that happens, punishment and justice also must be part of the mix.

The new jail that taxpayers approved recently will cost $63 million. That number is solid. The jail will come in on budget.  Period.

What has us scratching our heads at the Supervisor’s offices is the ongoing operating cost. It’s not that no one anticipated operating costs; it’s just hard to get a handle on them.

I will say, both Republicans and Democrats have worked very well together to produce a financial plan that we can afford. None of this has degenerated into partisan fingerpointing. Nor, should it. The Blues and the Reds are elected to govern, not whine about each other – and that’s what we’ve done.

What’s so hard about figuring out the operating costs? Well, it’s a moving target. Here’s why: of the 1,100 or so inmates we generally hold at the jail, about half of them have been farmed out to other counties in Iowa and Missouri. That would include male and female, juvenile and adults.

Each county carries different costs. Each locale is a different distance, obviously, so transportation costs vary. Add to that, on the revenue line, an uncertain federal participation, costs become even a little harder to gauge.

However, as close as can be determined, the new jail will be a wash, costwise. We spend about $8 million for out-of-county inmate housing. That’s right $8 million per year.  And, the annual cost of hiring new staff and associated expenses will be about, you guessed it, $8 million. 

Where we expect to see savings, though, is in transportation. There will still be transport to the ancient Polk County Courthouse downtown for court dates, but transport from Ankeny is a whole different playing field than constantly driving vanloads of prisoners from Des Moines to Bethany, Mo. or various Iowa county jails.

The other question mark is federal participation. The Feds will have prisoners here and they will pay us to hold them. That’s good because that helps us meet our expenses. At this point, however, they haven’t pinned down a range of how many – or how few – people they want us to hold or for how long. 

Yes, we still believe in punsihment, that hasn’t changed. But, many of our “repeat customers” invariably hold some drug-related addiction. The Sheriff will also provide in-custody substance abuse treatment, which we need to break the cycle of repeat criminal offenses by addicts trying to feed their drug habits. The new jail will more than double the in-custody treatment services.

The Sheriff is currently able to provide 62 beds for in-custody treatment and that’s been pretty successful in getting people back into a crime-free life and out of other people’s homes and vehicles. The Sheriff will now offer 128 beds of treatment. How well will that work in preventing recidivisim? Obviously, we don’t have hard numbers but I believe it’s an investment that will pay dividends by preventing repeat crimes and getting some people off the taxpayers’ backs and onto the tax-paying rolls.

With the opening set for tomorrow after years of planning and hard work, the Polk County Jail is a good example of what we can accomplish with a bipartisan effort atvarious levels of government.

Jail costs would have been an easy one for the Republicans and Democrats to demagogue in hopes of scoring a few easy political points with voters. But, we didn’t. Instead, we all sat down and worked it out until a good plan was formulated. And, that’s a good diversion program!

I was watching CNBC one day while I was working out.  I wanted to get their perspective on the next financial catastrophe that might befall us. CNBC tends a little toward the “alarmist” side of the spectrum. If you’re not aware of that, that’s probably because you avoid the cable news channels. Hats off to you, if that’s the case.

All the cable news networks tend toward alarmism, I think. Some are worse than others, some not so bad.  I think part of it is the blogosphere; some is just the intense 24 hours news cycle. You have to do something to sell the product, right?

Anyway, here’s CNBC discussing the Senate vote on the financial rescue package of early October 2008. On the show I was watching, one of the talking heads opines that the public sure seems angry about this and many of them, the public, that is, actually still favors the bill’s defeat.  This, in spite of the fact that the Dow was down about 500 points for the week! It seemed inconceivable to them. The people on “Main Street,” as they called it, were still pretty ticked off. They all put on their grimmest expressions and shook their heads in disbelief.

“Main Street,” one of the heads said dismissively, “I wish I could explain to them how stupid they actually are! Main Street,” he repeated, this time with a dash of contempt to compliment his dour expression.

The other heads nodded in agreement. Yes, those folks are pretty dumb, alright. That was the implication, anyway. And the implication was loud and clear.

One of the other heads, a woman, strikingly gorgeous, looked like she was all of about twenty three said, “I talked to a Congressman yesterday that said that a constituent called him and said if he voted for this bill, he lose that guy’s vote!

“So, I guess in this country,” She continued sagely, “if you vote to do the right thing, you lose your job!”

The other heads humphed and grimaced a little bit. They, again, nodded in agreement and looked very grim about the future of the Republic. Very grim indeed.

The entire exchange made me think about the polarization of the public versus the “powers-that-be” over this issue. The big financial bail out of 2008. Now, personally, I favored the bill.  I don’t like a lot of things about it, philosophically, but on balance it looks like it’s the solution with the least risk to the most people. And, no, I’m not talking about the Country Clubbers on Wall Street. I’m talking about the rest of us. The great middle class, here in what the CNBCrs would scornfully call “fly-over” land. But, I see the downside, too. A lot of it is pretty persuasive. But, on balance, the “rescue” seems well advised. I hope I’m right. What I do know is that the folks on the other side of the issue aren’t just of bunch country bumpkins, home schooled and out chopping wheat by hand with a scythe in their spare time.

I think the public can grasp all this. The theory advanced by the talking heads on CNBC that the public is, basically, just a bunch of imbeciles. This is not correct. And, it’s not just CNBC, either. I don’t want to single them out. I heard some “expert” on FOX decrying how dumb the American people were and how they’d better “grow a brain” real fast.

So what’s going on here? Many of us in the Republican Party can’t figure out Obama’s message. In fact, he looks, for all the evidence, like an empty suit. And maybe he is. He calls for “Change” whatever that is. Not even Obama can define it. And the people eat it up. Change. Just change, America. Why is that message so persuasive when the message can’t even be defined by anyone and the guy promulgating it has a public record so thin it couldn’t support a small bird? What’s going on?

I think the disconnect between heartland America and the political and media elites, which are clearly inbred, and Obama’s “change” message have a relationship.  I think the people that are paying the freight, the taxpayers, the small businesses, the volunteers and all the people that do the real work in the country are separating, in a big way, from the people that used to “speak for us.” Obama wants change? Well, so do all of us. We want the entertainment and informational media elites to quit treating us and talking to us like we’re freaking morons, for one thing.

We want our Congressmen and Senators that go to Washington with the best of intentions and some connection to the middle class, to quit graduating from their public service careers a quarter of century later as millionaires. We want our CEOs to be part of the companies they run, not just a hit and run-golden parachute artists. We’re not stupid.

People are mad. That’s true. But, it’s more than a bailout that has them mad. They’re upset that people that have Country Club memberships that are more expensive than one year’s wages for most of us, get to walk away from their incompetence (and probably keep the Country Club membership, too.)  When the rest of us screw up like this, we have the re-po man ringing our doorbell. Why is it, we ask, a different playing field for us?

But, it’s not just that. It having to do that and having some fat cat pundit tell us we’re stupid hicks if we don’t support their prolificate ways.

That’s, I think, the real disconnect. And, when Obama says “change,” even if it lacks definition and substance, the people say, “Amen, brother!” He’s hitting some right notes…and there’s a lot of folks that better pay attention!  Just change, America.