Thursday, November 11, 2010

Chance Eats Grass

I grew some grass for our cat Chance at work. She's a complete indoor cat, so doesn't see the real stuff too often unless I grow some. She sometimes makes a mess of my houseplants by chewing on them. My co-worker and friend Susan joined in to grow a pot for her cat Bettie. I had some seed packets which were meant for cats, so reading the contents I improvised a seed mix of rye grass (regular lawn seed), oat berries, wheat berries, and spelt berries. The latter three were from the pantry. Most of it sprouted just fine and within a week and a half I had this cat treat.
Chance took to it right away.

Yum! That was last night. This morning I found some puked up grass and foamy cat stuff on the floor. I think they are supposed to like doing that. I hope.

Sunday, October 03, 2010


Wildlife in the Adirondacks.
Posted by Picasa

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

AT&T Attempts To Digest Soul Of Artists Living and Dead

AT&T has been airing commercials during American Idol promoting their wireless coverage.
They feature the world being enveloped in golden cloth, not unlike - OK, exactly like, the works of artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude. They are famous for environmental installations in huge proportions, where they wrap many things including land and architecture. (Jeane-Claude died last year.) Notably, in 2005, they installed The Gates in Central Park (pictured at right). I have a swatch of the fabric right here on my desk (they handed them out). But the duo did much more than that.

AT&T has now "covered" them in their commercial and now includes a disclaimer. Bad move AT&T. Unfortunately, your commercial looks more like what BP is doing to "cover" the Gulf.

Monday, May 03, 2010

City School Northampton: Week 8 - Dispatch

Welcome. By this point, you have been following my exploits in City School. Congratulations, you've made it to one of the best classes yet. If you check out last week's class (or any other for that matter) right near the beginning, you will see that I explain what Northampton City School is all about. So let's dig in.

This week's class covers the Northampton Fire Department and Dispatch. I've separated this week into two parts. You will learn that the Fire Department does more than putting out fires and getting cats out of trees (they don't actually do that). You'll also learn that Dispatch, the people who answer our local 9-1-1, do more than that. Oh, and today's class ends with some fun.


Melissa Nazzaro has been at Northampton Dispatch since 2000, and its Director since 2006. She told our class more than you could even guess about Dispatch. If you look at the website for Dispatch, there isn't much there, and this makes perfect sense. If you have an emergency, you can call 9-1-1. And you can call it from anywhere. There isn't too much more to know. If you have a non-emergency here in Northampton, but are still kinda urgent about something, you can call the local number 413-587-1100. You will get the same people, but a different phone system and slightly different protocol.

Northampton has a civilian dispatch center. This means it is run by people who are not Police or Fire officials. This is a good thing. Those people should be fighting crime and putting out fires (and whatever else they do.) There are 12 people working at Dispatch and always 2 on duty. There were 4 on on December 27, 2009, the night of The Arsons. It used to be that if you called the Police, you got a police officer. But now you get a specially trained person who can dispatch one. If you have a fire, you'll get someone trained to tell you to get out of your house, so you can meet the fire truck when it arrives. Or if you are drastically ill, the person might talk you through how to deal with the emergency while you are waiting for the EMTs. If the next shift doesn't show up for some reason, the Dispatchers cannot leave. If there are extreme events (e.g. weather conditions) more Dispatchers might be called in to work.

Dispatch is located on the second floor of the new fire station on King Street. Their office has its own ventilation system and bullet-proof windows. (Hey, it's a new building and they have an important job, so what the heck.) If you call 9-1-1 from your cell phone, you'll get a different Dispatch over at the State Police barracks on North King Street. They serve all of Western Massachusetts. If your emergency is in Northampton, they will transfer you to the local one.


Our Dispatch has Secure Communications Accreditation. This means the facility and the people who work there meet high standards. Prospective Dispatchers are interviewed and have a hearing test. Any employee has at least 12 weeks of training and they usually get more. They also get refresher training and of course learn new things as they go.

Here, I quote from my copious notes: 16 hours 9-1-1 training, 8 hours incident training (NIMS/ICS), 40 hours training in basic telcom. They receive 64 hours in Emergency Dispatching training. That's EMD/EFD/EPD where M=medical, F=fire, and P=police. (Here's one link for illustration purposes. It is not the actual link to the people who actually do the training our people). Some of this training is in using something like a flip-chart to talk you through, for example, doing CPR on your baby.

There's more. 32 hours of training in suicide, domestic violence, stress identification and management, active shooter. Can you picture that there are specific trainings for civilians in this stuff? Now, where was I? 36 hours of ride-alongs (with emergency responders) and court observations. 250 hours with a trainer going over our city protocols (our specific procedures) and equipment. Unlike other training, they get scored and have to do well and it must be documented. Additionally, they learn about the Computer Aided Dispatch program and how to use the radios.

Crazy Stuff

So perhaps you think that Dispatchers just answer the phone and then radio the Fire Department, eh?
Let me remind you here, that 9-1-1 Dispatchers are the people who talk the proverbial child through helping her mother deliver her new baby sibling. Just search the news headlines, and you will see this stuff happens all the time. It is not folklore.

Now imagine any of these scenarios: I'm going to kill myself. He's got a gun. I can't talk. I don't know where I am. Send help. The house is on fire. I smell smoke. And so on. And each on it's own phone call. Now imagine that you answer the phone and someone just had a car accident. You deal with it and hang up. It rings immediately and it's someone else who has a pain in their chest. Again you deal with it and hang up. Now it's someone is shouting, almost incoherently, and on a cell phone and will not say where they are. And so on. Every day. And Dispatch still must be polite and calm and quickly free the phone line for the next caller. And all this while on the radio with Police and Fire. And as soon as the EMTs arrive, the remote CPR instruction from Dispatch ends. For Dispatch, this event might be over, but they don't know how it ends. And so, the phone rings again. A nightmare.

To be fair, many people call 9-1-1 for non-emergency reasons and several emergency situations are resolved by Dispatch on the phone. But in our class we were told that whether they are answering the Business line or 9-1-1 it's equally likely to be a serious call or not. Dispatch must always suspect that something is wrong. Some people call, but are not clear even in what is wrong. I have a headache. Can you breathe? Oh, and sometimes the caller cannot speak English. And sometimes they cannot speak at all.

The Calls

9-1-1 started with the first call placed in Alabama on February 16, 1968. Now about  240M calls are made to 9-1-1 every year. About one-third are wireless calls, and here in Massachusetts more than half are. Massachusetts makes about 3.3M 9-1-1 calls a year which are answered by one of the 272 Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs). Most recently, our state government has been talking about consolidating these to save money to spend on the war/banks. This might make sense, unless you want the Dispatcher answering the phone to have an intimate knowledge of your town and be aware that there is both a Bridge Road and a Bridge Street when they send the ambulance.

Dealing with cell calls can be challenging, because Dispatch cannot identify the precise location of a mobile caller. This might vary in detail from within phone-shot of a cell tower to longitude and latitude. Such calls may not matter as much if the neighborhood has no side streets. Of course, there's also the chance that the caller may be in a moving car.

Last year in Northampton, there were 34,000 "events" with about 10 calls per event. An event might be a traffic accident. 10 people on average will make a call. If it's one of the drivers, they will get some assistance. If it is the fifth report, they will be told thank you we know. Dispatch also get Police-initiated calls. Most calls are medical-related. 834 events last year were fire alarms. Fire dispatches are far fewer, but those incidents take much more work and take longer to resolve.

If needed, Dispatch has scripts to read which are transliterations of 14 languages. They can also route calls through a real-time translation service. They even have protocols for directing people who are unable to speak (perhaps they are mute, choking or too scared) to respond by hitting touch-tones®.

Additionally, Northampton Dispatch receives off-hour DPW calls for the city. They have procedures which might specify what to do if you are locked out of the Water Treatment plant. Dispatch will know who to call or tell you whether to find the key under the mat. (For the record, I made up that scenario.)

What else?

Melissa Nazarro told us she has learned the ability to track two conversations at once, which she says comes in very handy at cocktail parties. She played a few old recorded 9-1-1 calls for us and described the handling of these calls.

Here is a FAQ about 9-1-1 for you in case want more information. But really what you mainly need to know is to dial 9-1-1 and to identify your location.

Here's some amazing statistics about 9-1-1.

That's some of what I learned about our unsung heroes at Dispatch.


See the next post, when it's ready to learn about our Fire Department.

And use the comments feature below or email me to tell me what you think.

Monday, April 12, 2010

City School Northampton: Week 7 - Police

Welcome to a new class at Northampton City School. Last week, we learned about Planning and Development. This week in City School we learn about the Northampton Police department.

Hopefully, for your sake, I have learned my lesson and will finally err on the side of brevity. Since Police is a topic many of us think we know about, I may be able to skip some information. You will soon find out that our Police here in Northampton are not the same ones you grew up with.

Police Department

Police Chief Russ Sienkewiecz led the talk. He was joined by some of his senior staff, and later we had a tour of some Police vehicles. Sienkewiecz has been Chief of the Northampton Police Department since 1994. In the Police Department, hierarchy is clear, and it was clear during our class (the uniforms are also a bit of a give-away) as everyone called him Chief (he actually was not in uniform.) He answers to the Mayor, but government has only control over budget and appointment authority. The Police are otherwise independent. The Northampton Police must enforce the Massachusetts Constitution and State and local laws, and they must keep up to date on new laws and case law. Our Police Department was established when Northampton incorporated as a City in 1884.

Budget and Staffing

The Northampton Police Department had a budget of $15K in 1911. It now has a $4.6M budget. This is down $200K from 2009. The last proposition 2 1/2 tax override saved 9 positions. 92% of the costs are for personnel. The Northampton Police have 62 Officers and 5 civilian employees. Like many other city departments, they make do with what they have and are creative with planning and grants, but their demands are far higher than their funding and staffing. They have about 2.1 officers per 1,000 residents which we were told was a reasonable number in general. Unfortunately since we have a busy town with a lot of transient traffic, this number is not necessarily adequate. For example, in 81% of local auto crashes one of the drivers is from out of town; in 52% of crashes both drivers are. 43% of arrests are for non-residents and 19% are of homeless. As you know we have a busy night life here. We have parades and events, many local colleges and one in town, a VA, a hospital, also we have Route 91 and traffic to and from there, and so on.

For perspective, but not necessarily a fair comparison, let's contrast the Northampton Police with the New York City Police - the country's largest and oldest and 'finest' Police department. Founded: NYC 1840, Northampton 1884. Budget: NYC $4 Billion, Northampton $4.6 Million. Number of Officers per 1,000 residents: NYC 5, Northampton 2.1. Budget divided by officers: NYC $100K, Northampton $75K.

Social Service

The Northampton police are also a Social Service agency (just as we will learn next week, that the Fire Department, is a medical service agency.) They are available at all hours. Last year, they assisted in 572 suicidal mental health commitments (escorts to hospital), received 11 requests to take elementary school kids to school (I think I got that right). There were 60 unattended deaths a year which means they have to be investigated. There were 381 domestic violence calls; 7,066 motor vehicle citations, 34,000 9-1-1 calls, 3,900 serious felonies. They supervise 11 part-time school crossing guards and issue local firearms permits. They also host the Civilian Police Academy every year, which a 10 week course and is what Northampton City School is based on.

The Elusive Goal

One day there will be a new Police headquarters. Our class was meeting at the new Firehouse on King Street, because there is no room to meet at the current Police facility which was built 45 years ago. That building is 9K square feet and in disrepair (repairs are on hold because of the budget and because a new building is always around the corner.) The current building doesn't have a real lockup, that is at the Jail. To meet its current needs, it really should be four times its present size. There were quite recent plans and money almost allocated to build a new facility, but plans were stopped due to the war economy. The plans are available and a project is 'shovel-ready' and waiting, (hint, hint, Mr. Obama) but alas there is no stimulus money for this type of development.

To become a Northampton Cop

Captain Scott Sovino led the talk about what goes into being a Northampton cop. We also heard from Captain Joe Koncas about administration. Sovino has been at the job for 24 years. 10 as an officer, 10 as a sergeant, and he has been a Captain since January. He is head of Operations. Our police department is MPAC accredited. This allowed our force to be eligible for educational benefits. Unfortunately this state benefit was cut last year. Our Police could accept anyone with a high school degree, but part of accreditation is to meet higher standards. As such, our police are harder to hire and there is more to their training. The result is that they are better at what they do. To hire a policeman here, they must have an associate degree (AS) or sometimes be MPTC (state Police Academy) trained. They must go through a process, so there are often as many as four empty positions. A dozen have been lost to federal agencies (one them was an officer who was the main subject of the book home town by local author Tracy Kidder.)

To become a Northampton cop you have to take an exam which is offered every 2 years, then pass medical, psychological, and physical tests. Only one in 10 pass. After that they get 21 weeks of training (currently this is in Springfield, but the location moves around.) Then they have 15 weeks of field training (on the job) and evaluation. 1 in 3 drop out in training. After that, they are on probation for the first year. They learn about the law, CPR, defensive tactics, firearms, and equipment. They eventually become familiar with 600 documented policies (these and more were compiled as part of the MPAC accreditation) and all the street names in town. All of them have to live within 15 miles of the Northampton City border. All of them have tried pepper spray on themselves.

Who's On?

Our Police rotate over three shifts: 7am to 3pm, 3 to 11pm, and 11pm to 7am. There is always at least senior Sergeant in charge. A shift usually consists of 1 patrol lieutenant, 1 sergeant, 7 patrol officers (1 on foot, 5 in cruisers, 1 at the station), and 1 to 2 detectives. 6 officers do bike patrol (3 day and 3 evening.) Additionally, they transport cruisers (they don't call them Police cars and I suppose nobody else is allowed to drive them), do administrative activities like paperwork, and testifying in court. They answer calls, investigate crimes, and pursue "self-initiated activities". Here's a list of what they do.

Eventually an officer will take on multiple duties. There is a highway safety officer who does accident reconstruction and Crime Scene Services which do an off-broadway version of CSI. There are 8 field training officers, a forensic artist, a firearms instructor. There are detectives who are on call, but usually doing day or night shifts. Believe it or not until 1996, if you called 9-1-1, the phone was answered by Police, but now there is a civilian dispatch center which we will visit and hear more about next week. One officer is actually assigned to the public schools. Funding for that specific position was cut, but they decided to keep Officer St. Onge (DARE since 1995) in the elementary and middle schools. He plays an important role which allows early intervention with our youth. Additionally, there are the civilian staff who will do quality assurance on the paperwork and do other things like bill for alarms, leaving the Police with more time to police.

The Gear

After all that, we still had not seen a police car or the Crime Scene Vehicle. Our class eagerly went outside to get a tour from a Police Training Officer and the Crime Scene Sergeant.

Police cars are always running. This might be because Police Officers need to keep their feet warm in winter, cool in summer, but mainly because they need to be ready at a moment's notice, and mostly it's because they need to charge their car batteries. They have lots of gadgets. There are radios, both local and regional. Lights on top that flash and spots. And their lights are bright. There are sirens and horns. Radar detectors - front, rear, and hand-held. There is a mounted laptop with a data connection. There is a video camera that automatically turns on at a stop. On their person, they have another radio and an audio recorder. There were a few other things that I may have missed, but you get the idea. The back seat of a cruiser is now hard-plastic and the windows are protected from being 'kicked out' by a metal grille. In the trunk, there is a big gun locked up (if you know me by now, you know I don't know my weaponry, so I won't elaborate.) There are blankets (to cover unsightly stuff) and gloves and tools and such, and, for a child in need, there's a teddy bear.

The Northampton Police have a fairly new Crime Scene vehicle. It was purchased and then custom outfitted. They are proud of it. It has a power inverter and equipment to sample DNA and fingerprints. It has a pop-up canopy that you might take camping and was used during that rainy night of the recent arsons. It also has a fingerprint camera that can be used with special powder to find prints in real time. It has gadgets that scan for clues using different light spectrum. They all take training and come in big plastic crates that buckle close. Some of the equipment is occasionally borrowed by other local Police departments. (I do not have many other notes on the gear. It was cold and dark out, the class was a little later than usual, and I don't watch CSI.)

December 27, 2009

The arsons in Ward 3 made for a watershed moment for Northampton. It tested the Police Department, the Fire Department and Dispatch (we'll hear about the latter 2 next week.) It tested the Police Officers. It tested the Crime Scene vehicle, the many backup plans, and the book of 600 documented policies. The consensus is that they passed. They are competent, always ready and able.

Next Week

Hey. This week was fun. Wasn't it? If you agree or have some feedback, please leave a comment.

Just wait until we get to the next two weeks of City School. Next week, we hear about Fire and Dispatch. The week after it's Public Works. I promise you will be interested and surprised. Remember, it is the 21st century and this is Northampton.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

City School Northampton: Week 6 - Planning and Development

Yin and yang. Long term, short term. Planning and zoning. Development and preservation. Building and economic development. Keep, take, and give.

This week in City School we hear from the town planner and the head of economic development. This class was our most relaxed one yet, because we only heard from two people and only two departments, and because this class was more like a discussion. Whew!

City School is a program here in Northampton where a lowly citizen like me can get a regular glimpse into the very guts of municipal government in the form of a class. Last time, we heard about City Finance. Together with 16 other people, I am meeting for ten weeks with representatives of different City of Northampton departments to hear how sausage is made. We gaze into the headlights of mighty powers and ask the most humbling of questions.

OK, by now you've got the point. Northampton, Massachusetts has a population of about 29,000. This has not changed for 60 years, but many other things have changed as we will learn during today's class. It's a city, a county seat, the home of courts, homeless shelters, regional social services, a VA. It has a well known college, the oldest county fair, farms, a major highway, a lively downtown, and a 350 year history. Something has to keep this together and a big aspect has to do with planning and development. Planning keeps development from getting out of control and development maintains our tax base. Oh, I wish it were so simple.

Planning and Development

Wayne Feiden is the director of Planning and Development. Just like the bird watchers who can tell an American Woodcock by its plumage, call, and habitat, he can tell you who owns which property, what considerations must be taken when developing property, and when to act to appropriate land. He makes maps and plans and bides his time, giving sage advice on his vision on how to arrange the pieces of our toy train set of a town.

Feiden has been working for Northampton for 21 years. Northampton develops an open space plan every seven years, so many recent developments have his fingerprints on them. He works with the 6 boards that issue permits including the Planning Board and is often seen at town meetings (on our public access TV.) Feiden is grateful that unlike some municipalities our boards get along well. Most recently, Planning was in the spot light regarding the city acquisition of Bean Farm. A little more on that later.

By state law Northampton must take a census once a year (I just received my form last week) just as the country must do it every ten (I received this too, be sure to send yours in.) It turns out that people generally tend to stay in Northampton, but younger people do leave. Apparently there is a cohort from age 22 to 35 which is missing from town (Now, this is not scientific, but this happens to be the age of all my neighbor's children who no longer live here.) Then after age 35, people move in again (this happens to be my age group.)

Northampton now has 2.14 people per house. Back in 1950, there were fewer houses and about the same number of people. At the time there were also two mental institutions housing 3,000 people. Now Northampton has protected 2,000 acres of land, but has less open space. Life expectancy is up. Family size is about half what it once was, so the number of kids is down. Houses are larger, but not nearly as large as the national average, and there are more of them, but fewer people in them. You see, the population is about the same, main street too, but not much else.

Most cities make most money (in taxes) off industrial, commercial, and office development. Houses generally cost the city money. Chiefly this is because of the services (schools, police, fire, water, sewage, etc.) that the city must provide to people. It might do OK (think tax revenue) when expensive houses are built, and people have no children (no school expenses). It might make sense for the City to purchase land that would cost more if it was developed (think of a new development for familes with school age children on a far edge of town requiring utilities and services.) All of this is in balance and probably would not matter as much if the city was flush with cash, but unfortunately it's not.

Cities can make plans, but the way they can do their will over land is through zoning, regulations, and buying land or development rights. They can also use eminent domain to appropriate (or take) land against the will of the owner (while compensating them). For instance, eminent domain was used to create the industrial park some 30 years ago. Zoning now prevents new development near wetlands, but regulations allow expansion of existing buildings. This is the case of development in the Meadows near the Oxbow and in the industrial park. This is all a trade-off which is one of the themes of planning, if you have not guessed by now.

Oh, in case you were wondering, the city does not just go out and buy land. It uses Community Preservation Act (CPA) funds to do so. They are collected based on a 3% surcharge on property tax.The CPA has different missions and committees which make these decisions: Preservation, Affordable housing, Recreation, and Agricultural. They recently decided to purchase the Bean and Allard farms in Florence for $990K. Eventually 24 acres of the Bean farm will be used for recreation. The farmland will be preserved for farming purposes, and there will probably be some community gardens.

Community and Economic development

We also heard from Teri Anderson who is director of community and economic development. CED is funded mostly by federal grants. It gets $750K per year from HUD. $360K goes to debt on the Northampton Senior Center and $150K to development. There are many other, usually project-based, grants which must be applied for and administrated.

Chiefly, CED provides support to and participates in city committees. They provide support to city staff. They work on regional projects and with regional groups like Next Step Collaborative, the Chamber of Commerce, or the Passenger Rail Advisory Committee (which as you should know recently received $70M in stimulus bank bailout funding to get Amtrak running through town and shaving 45 minutes off my trip to New York (look for this to actually happen within the next two years.) CED also works on housing and economic development projects including the Fairgrounds and building at the old State Hospital.

James House Learning Center

As an example of development, Anderson told us about the James House. Originally a Bank, then Juvenile court on Gothic Street, the James House Learning Center would be a long term educational space mostly aimed at adults. The city council said it should self-sustainable (not subsidized). Including the Center for New Americans, classroom with Child care. For renovations, unions have provided volunteer labor and local businesses have provided discounted materials. Unfortunately, due to the war budget cuts, the actual staff to run programming (i.e. classes) has been laid off. In the works for James House: provide transitional assistance through the regional Welfare office which currently is located in Holyoke.

Next Week

Whew! Pat yourself on the back. You made it through another week.

Next week, we'll be visiting the Police Department. Cops, robbers. That should be easy. As usual, please tell me what you think by leaving a comment.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Five-Spice Gunpowder

We recently had some good chicken at a local Chinese restaurant, and I was wondering what was in it. This restaurant is unusual in that it has a separate 'good' menu where you can order their Hong Kong style food.

The chicken tasted like it had Five-Spice Powder in it. I know this because we have some at home. Now what are those 5 spices? When I got home, I went to our spice cabinet, took out the bottle of Five-Spice Powder and looked at the ingredients which were both in English and Chinese and it read "Spice", so no help there.

I was still curious, so I looked on the web. As I was typing the letters into a Google search, it filled in the top popular useful searches. I entered the characters "five-" and it suggested "five - seven = negative two".

Huh? I studied math in school, and I already knew that 5-7 = -2. Now why would Google suggest that? Why would that be a top search? And what is in Five-Spice Powder anyway?

Here are the answers:

Many many people are searching for a nasty pistol called a "Five-Seven". They go to Google to find it and enter their search text. Google tries to show off and do the math for them and provides links underneath the result. Five-Spice Powder is the third choice on their suggestion list when they type the first few characters: "Five-".

Here's what's in Five-Spice Powder: star anise, cloves, cinnamon, Sichuan pepper, and ground fennel seeds. And here's a recipe if you want to make it yourself, and this is a similar chicken recipe to the one I had at the Chinese restaurant.

Here's a link to information about the Five-Seven pistol, and some information about cheap bullets.

If you didn't know, Google will also do other math tricks like unit conversions for you. For example, try entering "8 gallons in cubic centimeters" into a Google search.

Lastly, I suggest you prepare the chicken according to the recipe and tell me how it came out; you can even shoot the chicken yourself with your Five-Seven and serve it with some Gunpowder tea.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

City School Northampton: Week 5 - Finance

Apologies, I'm back from a small hiatus. I did not go anywhere, but I've been remiss in my bloggerly duties regarding City Schools. Northampton City Schools, if you haven't learned by now, is where regular citizens learn about the workings of our small city. Last time we heard about the schools. Previously, we learned about things like the Health Department and many other facets of our city government. I'm a few weeks behind in relaying what I have learned from you, so you have yet to hear about today's subject of City Finance or even about Community, Economic and Land Development, or our Police Department. But I've taken pretty good notes, and I hope to synthesize some of what I've learned.


This week we finally met the Mayor - our subject was city finance. Once again, let me summarize that we are quite lucky that we have so many competent people working for us - and willing to share information about what they do. We started off with Mayor Higgins describing the budget, where money goes and where it comes from. Karen Bellavance-Grace, the Mayor's assistant, who is organizing City School had given us a municipal finance crossword puzzle to work on for homework. It was quite hard, though the words aren't that difficult to recognize now that we have the answers e.g. bond, tax rate, levy, audit. Karen also often sends us some links to city departments so we can either learn or look into the subject of a City School class ahead of time. Most of the city websites are not polished, but they are quite full of information. (I am often pasting such links into this blog because they will be useful for you for further study - not just because it's fun to link to odd stuff.)

Proposition 2 1/2

Basically, almost everything in the Northampton City Budget depends upon Property Tax. Mayor Higgins gave us her Power-Point printout that illustrates the budget. We learned about Proposition 2 1/2 and we found out that 2 1/2 is a magic awful number. This all started with the tax revolt in California (they passed the aptly named Proposition 13 in 1978) and voter referendums. Massachusetts version is proposition 2 1/2. It basically limits property tax increases to 2.5%, but there's more to it. To give you an idea, before 2 1/2 arrived, taxes brought in $12M. When it kicked in back in 1982, taxes were reset to $10M. It wasn't until 1987 that taxes got back to their 1981 level. The city must vote for a tax override to go beyond a 2.5% increase. The city has only done this to fund school building projects and the new fire station. It wasn't until last year that the city voted for a general override. This is something that neighboring towns like Amherst have just voted to do (tonight). 2 1/2 sounds simple, but it isn't quite. It is also notorious for binding the hands of government. Basically if the city comes up short, they must cut services and/or lay off people because they cannot simply raise taxes.

City Revenue

Because revenue is limited, everything goes back to 2 1/2.

To figure out the income for the city of Northampton, you add the following:
  • $36M - last year's levy
  • $1.1M - personal property tax
  • $900K - the 2.5% increase
  • $300K - an estimate for new growth (new buildings or additions)
  • $1.2M - exclusion overrides for the school project and fire station debt
  • $2M more - last year local voters passed the general override required by 2 1/2
That adds up to $41.5 million for taxes.

There are other revenues:
  • $6.3M - Smith Vocational School tuition for out of city residents
  • $2M - auto and boat excise taxes
  • $900K - fines and forfeits (mainly parking tickets)
  • $400K in other income
  • $377K in hotel taxes
  • $300K interest on tax titles and Payments In Lieu of Taxes (PILOT)
  • $8.5M - state school aid
  • $1M - school choice income
  • $3M - school construction aid
  • $4.3M - general government aid including lottery and state PILOT
  • $400K federal reimbursements for things like Medicaid services
  • $3M - revenue from providing services to enterprise funds like sewer, water, and sold waste which are all run as a self-sufficient enterprises
  • $165K - money from the local cable company
  • $25K - CPA funds and fees that pay city salaries. 
This adds up to around $91M.

Unfortunately, due to the lousy economy new building is down, interest is down, probably fewer expensive new cars are being purchased - so auto excise tax is down. You probably have an idea that costs are only going up and so on. (Figures here are approximate. I hope they add up correctly.)

Thus the budget is born. $91,000,000. 71% of revenue comes from local sources - people like me, 24% from the state, and 0.6% Federal. More detailed Northampton finance information can be found here.

City Budget

Like the revenue, most of the expenditures are fixed. The state was doing better 20 years ago, but now things are always tight. Costs are climbing every year, there are cuts, cuts, and more cuts. So spending for the most part is non-discretionary. Not much waste here.

In broad strokes, here's the budget:
  • 73% - salaries and benefits
  • 18% - maintenance
  • 8% - debt
The money goes to, and roughly close but not quite the same percentage of employees work in each of, these areas:
  • 61% - education
  • 19% - public safety
  • 8% - public works
  • 8% - government
  • 3% - culture and recreation
  • 1% - human services
As you may surmise, most of these expenses are simply things that can't be cut very easily. In fact they are areas that have been cut over and over, so it's difficult to cut some more. I could tell you all about how your tax money is going to pay the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but you probably don't want to hear that. I could tell you about how the city can't simply raise taxes when they need them, but I did that already. We are currently stuck with the lot we have and we are lucky that we have smart people running things.

Tonight's Parade

Our city finance director Chris Pile organized our most efficient class yet. Tonight's class was about City Finance and that's what we got plenty of. I'm not going to give each player a fair amount of time here. I'll mostly introduce some of the roles in city fiance. The Mayor led our parade, since she produces the budget which must be approved by City Council.


We heard from Joe Cross who along with the City Assessor assesses the value of residential, business, industrial, and personal property taxes. Assessment is done using standard rules and the last full year of sales data among other things. Northampton has 12,000 parcels of land and is worth $32 Billion! The average assessment is $303K. The average tax bill is $4K. Our tax rate is $12.64. The tax rate fluctuates from year to year to match the tax increases and the change in property values.

Now if the town is really worth $32 Billion why would anyone complain about the measly little $41 Million tax bill.

Tax Collector

The City of Northampton has a Tax Collector who basically bills everybody for just about everything. We heard from the collector Melissa Lampron. She sends out 25,000 excise tax bills for all our cars (22,000) and our boats. The collector collects any bills. This is one of the various separation of powers required by the Massachusetts State Department of Revenue. They bill car dealers for licenses; they collect Smith Vocational High School tuition from other school districts, Water and Sewer bills, Tax bills; you name it.

Additionally, the collector fulfills the role of a collection agency that you might fear if you do not pay a bill. She will issue a Municipal Lien certificate and bill for outstanding parking fines and tell DMV to mark or lock your license renewals or release them if you are now up to date and paid up. (By the way, if you are an out-of-stater you can get away without paying your bill, but if you live in certain states like New York, then you cannot. Also, do not park your junk heap in our town if you can't bother to put a quarter in the parking meter. Hey! And also the usual parking ticket is $10 and not your out-of-town city slicker price. How dare you not pay! Aren't you ashamed now? Not paying for parking while on your big expensive vacation in our sweet little story-book city where they even forgive your first ticket - or so I heard - but maybe just for residents.)

In 2009, the collector collected $36M in revenue and had about $257K uncollected. The city collects taxes on 10,000 residential parcels.


Joyce Karpinski is the Northampton City Auditor. She spoke with us about what her department does. From The Auditor's website:
The Auditor's office provides payroll, accounts payable, purchasing and accounting services for all of the city's departments. They keep a complete and accurate set of general ledger and budgetary accounts. Additionally, accounts are maintained in nine separate funds including enterprise funds, capital projects funds and special revenue funds.
The auditor reconciles with the Treasurer and Collector, does city payroll which comes in the form of warrants that are signed by the finance director or mayor and given to the Treasurer to release. She does W-2s. She pays 500 invoices a week (fortunately, their present software won't let her pay more than that.) She arranges an annual outside audit and makes sure that bids and contracts follow proper procedures. There are many other auditor duties.


George Zimmerman is the Northampton City Treasurer. He said that he basically runs the city checkbook. The Treasurer makes no budget decisions.

The Treasurer moves money around. He wheels and deals with bank accounts and invests money. (I meant to ask, but I assume the money invested is in short and long term funds for good reason, like our rainy day funds, as opposed to simply trying to strike it rich for the city.)  Unfortunately interest rates went down over the past 5 years from 5% to about 1%. The Treasurer also disburses money and borrows money when told to do so. He controls 32 accounts and 150 sub-accounts at 8 banks.
About $100M will come into the city this year or about $2M a week (if it could only be thus.)

The City of Northampton has an A+ bond rating. To me this is good and sounds appropriate. (Of course, the USA has a higher rating despite the state of the current economy, and the ratings agencies themselves rated highly many of those banks and finanical companies that got bailed out. I don't rate the rating agencies highly one bit. Who can trust people who came up with a scale that goes from AAA to A to BBB to B to CCC to C and down to D not to mention all the combinations in-between?)

Break Time

At City School we took a break (actually a little earlier, but you deserve one now). We were meeting at Smith Voc in their restaurant. The little bakers (students) were kind enough to leave us cookies and coffee that they prepared. We were meeting at 6pm, so they were not around. The Oliver Smith Restaurant is open Tuesdays, Thursdays, and fridays for lunch (10:45 to 12:15pm). Call if you need information 413-587-1414 ext. 3522.

Soothing break below. Sand drawing, what could be more soothing?

OK, the break is over! Back to Class!

Northampton Public School Finance

Now that we are almost worn out, I will rush through some of the important stuff, namely the school budget. It is prepared by the Northampton Public Schools Business Manager. Her name is Susan Wright, and together with the Superintendent (and others) she prepares the budget. She handed out a 40 page budget to us for fiscal year 2010 and went through some highlights. I am not going to do that with you. I'm just going to give you a link to it. As you have learned before, the city council appropriates, but the school committee allocates. The city is assuming a level services budget - same level of service. (Unfortunately, your country and state have other priorities more important that the education of our young and are likely to cut something.)

The budget is about $28M plus about $10M in (school building) debt and health insurance and city services. We spend about $10K per student here in Northampton, while Amherst spends about $13K.

One thing I learned (and as always there is a highlight even when looking at the budget) is that just like the PTO does fund raisers and sells cookies to fund a class trip, city agencies are continually writing and managing grants to pay for things. They simply do not get all the money they need. They expect to receive $1.7M in grants in FY10 (fiscal year 2010). This means that they have to apply for the grants, win the grants, and administer the grants. This means that someone must be employed to hand all this. In some cases for city agencies, they share people who do this or allocate a 1/2 an employee. But it happens here and elsewhere. My daughter's teacher sometimes writes her own grants and has been awarded NEF money in the past. Fortunately there is less paperwork for her, but also less money at stake.

Smith Voc Business Manager

Our host (we were eating her school's cookies after all) Nancy Roberts is the Smith Voc. Business Manager. She spoke to us about the budget. Smith Vocational High School, as you learned here, is another school district within Northampton. It has a budget of $7.5M, $4.5M of which comes from tuition to cover students from other school districts. There are 450 students and 45 "sending districts". The Business Manager handles various revolving accounts (like the monies taken in by the restaurant) and school finances. Smith Voc. needs to equip their shops with modern equipment, so their students have up-to-date skills so they can get jobs after they graduate. They have a grant writer (see I told you.) They also have 2.7 clerks (we puzzled over that one.) and a Bursar.

It costs about $17K per student to educate their kids annually. They bill other districts four times a year for tuition which is about $14K. They have small class size (partially due to safety reasons) and expensive teaching equipment (thingy to straighten the frame of your car and a shop to paint a car.) They provide special school buses which are only allowed to drive students to job sites. They share a social worker (4o%) and project and contract bidding with Northampton Public Schools.

Their budget goes to 76% Instruction, 14% Maintenance, 2% Student services, 1% Other. (Sorry these numbers don't quite add up to 100%.) They own land can can sell it, but the money would only go into their stabilization fund. The city covers capital costs.

We learned that at Smith Voc on the day of our class that a goat had triplets, they had a new calf named Kipper and a new lamb named Norman.

Finance Director

Chris Pile is the finance director. He is the Mayor's right-hand-man (although he might be left-handed, you never know) and the senior finance resource for the city and a fount of budget knowledge. I've seen him on public access cable at a city council meeting answering budget questions. (I found a recent story featuring him that paints a picture about city finance at a city council meeting.) He spoke about about general municipal finance and most importantly was very good at organizing the class tonight.

Next Week

I sound like a broken record CD, but I'll say it again. These people are all quite knowlegable, competent, and are on our side. They are even looking for suggestions and help (and possibly a fictional generous billionaire to move into town and solve our problems, but I wouldn't count on that happening anytime soon.)

Sorry to cut this so short (kidding). Next week we will all learn about Development and Planning. Then the Police Department, the week after that.

Thanks for joining me in City School. Please grade this week's paper and leave your comments here on this blog. Thank you.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Long Island Movies and Documentaries

It's my intention to maintain the definitive list of movies that take place, are supposed to take place, or are about Long Island, New York. (That would be the part of Long Island which is not located in New York City.) I'll try to keep this up to date, but please do not hesitate to recommend additions and changes by posting to the comments area.

  • 3 Backyards (Eric Mendelsohn, 2010) [IMDB] - Another indie film from Old Bethpage's own Eric Mendelsohn. Being an indie it is not necessarily in full release, but I have my fingers crossed. 
  • Grey Gardens (Michael Sucsy, 2009 ) [IMDB] - Well reviewed bio-pic about Jackie O's eccentric Aunt and Cousin. Based on a documentary of the same name from 1975 (see below).
  • Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004) [IMBD] - Two lovers are so torn when they break up that they have their memories removed. Sweet, sentimental, and different. This, plus some of his other non-LI films, made me a Gondry fan. Charlie Kaufman collaborated on the screenplay and my old neighbor in Brooklyn created the sets - including the absurdly giant kitchen and the shell of a house on the beach.
  • Pollock (Ed Harris, 2000) [IMDB] - Ed Harris portrays the inspired and tragic life of artist Jackson Pollock. Filmed at the house Pollock Krasner house which is now a museum you can visit.
  • L.I.E. (2001) [IMDB] - I have not yet seen this rough movie about struggling LI kids. 
  • Judy Berlin (Eric Mendelsohn, 1999) [IMDB] - This very blog's author's old-schoolmate directs Edie Falco who it appears is stuck in Old Bethpage. This movie made me relive my long ago Long Island late summer evenings. 
  • Love And Death On Long Island (1997) [IMDB] - Though it's really a "Hamptons" movie, it's a wonderful Long Island film with challenging roles. Stuffy professor and stunning actor John Hurt is utterly infatuated beyond his control with a famous heartthrob actor (think Keanu Reeves) played by Jason Priestley. Allusions to Death In Venice are purely intentional .
  • The Daytrippers (Greg Mottola, 1996) [IMDB] - Thanksgiving on Long Island is interrupted for a non-stop family trip to New York City. Stanley Tucci, Liev Schreiber, Parker Posey, and Anne Meara.
  • Simple Men (Hal Hartley, 1992) [IMDB] - Lindenhurst and out east.
  • Trust (Hal Hartley, 1990) [IMDB] - Starring Shelly and Edie Falco and others. More Lindenhurst.
  • The Unbelievable Truth (Hal Hartley, 1989) [IMDB] - One of several Long Island films by director Hal Hartley. Here an ex-con returns home to Lindenhurst. (I actually saw the premier of this film, at the Huntington Cinema Arts Center. After the film, all the actors stood up. We applauded. This among the earliest movies for each of them, so it's more than likely that Adrienne Shelly, Edie Falco, Hal Hartley were there. In fact, it's so early in their careers, it's likely that their parents were there as well.)
  • Family Business (Sidney Lumet, 1989) [IMDB] - Sean Connery, Dustin Hoffman, and Matthew Broderick play three generations of criminals in this comedy. I cannot remember exactly how much of this takes place on Long Island, but I definitely recall some recognizable Syosset office buildings. Sorry, no Sayville.
  • She-Devil (Susan Seidelman, 1989) [IMDB] - I was living in Port Jefferson Station when this movie was filmed at an estate in Port Jeff's Belle Terre - the big pink one at the end. Roseanne plays as the eponymous character. Even with Meryl Streep starring in it, I still haven't seen it.
  • The Amityville Horror (Stuart Rosenberg, 1979) [IMDB] - This film, which I'm sure I originally saw for 99 cents at the Morton Village Theater in Plainview, started a string of almost a dozen remakes, sequels, 'documentaries', and of course practically it's own genre ( Horror Movies Ripped From The Headlines). I recall driving by the real Amityville Horror house during driver's ed.
  • Interiors (Woody Allen, 1978) [IMDB] - One of the first not starring the director himself. This serious Bergman-inspired film has many long scenes with no dialog at the beach. Can you hear the surf? Can you see people speaking in profile? Is that death I smell or the surf?
  • Annie Hall (Woody Allen, 1977) [IMDB] - Since I do not need to tell you about this film, I can remind you that some of it takes place on Long Island. (Please help me identify any scenes or any other of his films I should include here.)

  • Farmingville (2004) [IMDB] - Why is it that bad things make for good documentaries? This award winning documentary explores a string of attacks by Suffolk county residents on Mexican farm workers. Unfortunately, this is still going on today. What? Do the locals really want to work at farms and menial labor themselves? This film does not make you proud of our great Long Island heritage. Not one bit.
  • Capturing the Friedmans (Andrew Jarecki, 2003) [IMDB]
  • Wonderland (1997) [IMDB] -  Quirky documentary of Levittown and some of its residents.
  • Grey Gardens (1975) [IMDB] - Documentary about Jackie O's eccentric Aunt and Cousin. See 2009 film based on this above.

Scenes (this is a placeholder heading)
  • Crocodile Dundee (Peter Faiman, 1986)  [IMDB] - Paul Hogan plays an Australian Out-Back fish out of water when he visits NYC with his large knife. The love interest is a reporter for Newsday, a great Long Island Newspaper. A least one scene is at the Newsday headquarters in Melville, but do help me out here because that may have been in the sequel where the two end up back in Australia. This movie came out of the local fame of Paul Hogan as well as a curious pre-occupation by US movie distributors with Australian comedies around this period (Muriel's Wedding, Pricilla, etc.).
  • North by Northwest (1959 [IMBD] - One of Alfred Hitchcock's masterpieces. You'll see Hitchcock's cameo in there somewhere, but most importantly 1950s Glen Cove, LI makes a cameo as well. I don't know where it was actually filmed, but traditionally, the Russian embassy types kept home on Long Island's north shore. I recall them being harassed by patriotic citizens during the Cold War in the 1970s.
 Other Lists of Long Island Movies
  • An article about Long Island award winners.
  • list of top 10 Long Island movies.
  • A strange Sayville-obsessed Long Island list. OK, we admit it, everything started in Sayville.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Hawaiian Music And Hula

We saw Hapa tonight and Hula. Here's a video. No, we weren't at this show.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Logorama: Ronald McDonald Takes Hostages and LA Is Destroyed

The short film Logorama won an Academy Award (Oscar) this past Sunday.

I found it on the web Monday.
It was taken down by today, but can be found here.
I assume it is copyright that keeps it offline, but please tell me where you will find a venue to legitimately see this film. I'm not sure you can buy it or rent it yet.

You must check it out before it disappears again.

It's a 16 minute animated film where the characters, props and sets are 6,000 logos. Ronald McDonald is wanted by the police (Michelin Men) and LA is consumed by an earthquake and everything - I mean everything - is a brand name. (Oh, and there is some Tarantino-ish cursing, so preview it before you put it in front of the kids.)

And, by the way, I'm willing to see it again on the big screen.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

City School Northampton: Week 4 - Education

I have been attending City School here in Northampton, Massachusetts. City School is a unique program where ordinary citizens like me learn the workings of local municipal government. I realize that it has been a while since I've updated you. In the interim we had two snow days and one class where we learned about public education which I will share with you shortly.

When local government calls a snow day - for it's schools, banning overnight parking, readying the snow plows, etc. - you can bet that they will also call off our class, which usually takes place after-hours in a city building with lectures usually delivered by a city employee who either should be doing something more important during a snowstorm or perhaps should be snug at home with her family. (I simply must be the king of the run-on sentence, the aside, and the digression. It is my destiny. It is my quest. More. I want more.)  If the public schools and local colleges are closed, then it is likely that City School will also be. I am lucky to pay nothing for the privilege of being educated in the ways our Libraries are funded by our Library Director and how our city Health Department works by its chief. Eventually, we will hear more about how the city operates from the Mayor and the innards of city finance from the Finance Director.

This week we learned about the two school districts within our city. Northampton is unique in this respect compared to the state. We have Northampton Public Schools and Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School. Northampton Public Schools include four elementary schools, a middle school, and a high school. We met in the Library at Northampton High. It was chilly. It was school vacation week. Everyone who spoke to us that night was taking time from their own vacation.

Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School

Smith Voc, as it is fondly called, is one of the many important institutions in Northampton founded by a  19th century benefactor. In prior weeks, you heard about the Forbes and Lilly Libraries. Others that we are unlikely to address at City School include Smith College, Clarke School For the Deaf, and the Hill Institute. Each has its own colorful history. Each deserves their own essay. I'm sure that there are several more. Institutions like this make our city special. (Pause with me now to thank God for dead 19th century wealthy people. We are especially lucky when they have no heirs or have taken care in writing their wills. More on that shortly.)


Smith Voc was founded at behest of the will of Oliver Smith who died in 1845. The will was contested by his relatives, but defended by New England's own Daniel Webster for Northampton which was still a town (it incorporated into a city in 1884). It may be customary for the time, but the money eventually sat until 1905 when $50,000 was spent to buy land (81 acres for the school, plus 180 acres used by their forestry program). Finally in 1908 Smith Voc opened as the first Vocational School in Massachusetts. It was originally only private, but after UMass Stockbridge School of Agriculture opened in 1918, Smith Voc had some local competition. It was after this that it joined forces with Northampton to become a Public-Private school. Northampton students can attend for "free" while out-of-district students "pay". In the bargain, the Mayor and the Northampton School Superintendent are on the board of trustees along with 3 publicly elected board members. In reality, students do not pay. Their respective school districts do. Due to its origins Smith Voc remains the only independent public school in the state.

We heard all this and more from John Cotton who became Chair of the Smith Voc Board of Trustees only the day before our class. He started as an instructor in 1977 and has been on the Board shortly after he retired from teaching. The board was shaken up last year after the death of longtime Trustee David Bourbeau last summer. We also heard from the Superintendent Arthur Apostolou who filled us in on academics and how the school operates.


Students at Smith Voc alternate weeks of academic classes and vocational classes. They choose one of twelve programs including agriculture, forestry, automotive, plumbing, cosmetology, and the like. When new students enter, they rotate between each of the programs, then try out four of them to narrow their choice down to one. Students will often focus their studies to match their programs. For instance, students studying veterinarian/animal science will learn Biology. Juniors and Seniors must intern in their field. When they graduate they receive a High School diploma as well as a Certificate of Occupational Proficiency. They are accredited, of course, and belong to High Schools That Work which is an association of vocational schools.

Smith Voc Students actually compete in Skills USA which is like an Olympics of vocational schools (Smith Voc has alumni who won the nationals in plumbing and autobody.) Students also compete through Future Farmers of America. Additionally, there is an advisory committee for each professional trade and academic area made up of community members. They serve to keep the school up tod ate and help place seniors.

I was much impressed with the school (as you can tell by my lack of digressions here), so I will give you a few more bits of information before pushing on. Last year 117 students graduated, next year there will be about 125 new 9th graders, there are 61 faculty members split about equally between academic and vocational. About one third of the students are from Northampton, the rest are from out-of-district. The school has not had a new building since 1977, but they have received a grant to build a new Agricultural and Science building; this is still in the planning stages.

Since Smith Voc teaches skills, they do real work. Local car dealers might loan them a new car or engines. They actually repair the city Police cruisers, and if you are patient, they will fix your car. You can arrange to get your hair cut at the school, and then actually luncheon at their restaurant (culinary program) during a weekdays.

Northampton Public Schools

We also heard about Northampton Public Schools (NPS) from Superintendent Isabellina Rodriguez, Barbara Black the Early Childhood Coordinator, Nathan Zieglar from Pupil Services, and Karen Jarvis from Health Services. Weeks earlier, we heard from School Committee chair Stephanie Pick about what they do.

I just know that I am going to short-change NPS here, but that is because some of the operations of a public school seems obvious to me because I attended them and have a child currently in school. Also, sadly, their story is more difficult. As you can see from the NPS speakers, none of them are direct educators. Teachers teach, Principals run schools. These people above make sure that things work and comply with laws and guidelines and curriculum and codes. They make sure the numbers add up, that students with problems do not fall through the cracks, that they are ready to enter school. And that our schools comply with onerous testing standards. There is so much to all this, it makes you wonder why government does not get out of the way and let schools educate students in peace. OK. Don't get me started. This is something I won't get into. Nope.

Northampton has an elected School Committee which hires and supervises the Superintendent. They also deal with the school budget. Rodriguez told us about the District Improvement Plan. Which narrows down priorities to set five goals for our schools along with metrics to see if they are being met. Each school has its own corresponding School Improvement Plan. The plans can be used as a basis to make data-driven decisions - something especially important when there are impending cuts and at best flat-lined budgets are on everyone's lips.

We heard about how the schools are trying to use consistency to add efficiency to the school day. For instance, from early on the students learn about "Do Nows" which are short assignments they should do as soon as they enter the classroom. Henry Ford would be proud. The schools plan on setting up advisor/advisee relationships between adults and children in school where they check in for 10 minutes 3 days a week and hopefully end up solving problems before they occur. I also heard the term "sub-groups" several times referring to at-risk students or student demographic groups which simply need more attention so they are successful in school - and often times outside of school.

We heard about Early Childhood education, Pre-School, and a little about the James House Comunity Learning Center which includes the Center for New Americans and the Literacy Project.  Clearly Northampton has grand plans for education at all levels.

Health Services

Karen Jarvis Vance, the Director of Health Services for NPS, spoke about what she and her department does. Health Services deals with the usual - immunizations and sick students. Jarvis reminded us of a quote:
"You cannot educate an unhealthy child and you cannot keep an uneducated child healthy." 
Dr. M. Jocelyn Elders, former US Surgeon General
Jarvis supervises the school nurses who all have Department of Education licenses and other certification. Jarvis herself is an RN and sometimes covers when a school Nurse is sick. Health Services also promotes good health, meets with Physical Education teachers, does health screening and now reports on BMI (body mass index) because of new regulations. Like all other school personnel, she writes grants and is on various committees. If that wasn't enough, she's also currently the sexual harassment and civil rights coordinator. She still loves her job.

Pupil Services

Lastly, we heard from Nathan Zieglar who is the head of Pupil Services. Zieglar was much more technical about education. Like it or not, he's the king of education acronyms. I could be wrong, but he is the master of regulations, compliance, remediation, special-ed, and testing. He was able to rattle off the 12 official disabilities which include autism, developmental delay, intellectual impairment, sensory impairment/hearing, sensory impairment/vision, sensory impairment/deafblind, neurological impairment, emotional impairment, communication impairment, physical impairment, health impairment, and specific learning disabilities. (I only wrote down two that he mentioned. These I just got off the web.) Good thing he's on our side.

Next Week

Actually, everyone who presented to our class to date is on our side. They have been asked to present to a small group of Northampton citizens a summary of what they do. They have an opportunity to boast, but were willing to admit limitations. Generally, the biggest obstacle to our education system is standardized testing from the diversion of time from regular education to the possible consequences should students not do well.

Thus concludes another week at City School. Next week, we will be finally be learning about City Finance, and we will be meeting at Smith Vocational High School. I'll tell you what happens.

And you? I have some homework for you. Please leave some feedback and tell me what you think.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Devil and Independence

Once again, the Spouse urges me to blog.

Even while the dead remained uncounted and unburied, Pat Robertson's claimed that Haiti made a "pact with the Devil", and that they continue to pay for it with their history of poverty and most recently with the devastation caused by last month's earthquake. His pact presumably allowed them independence in 1804. If you search for 'devil pact' on Google today, you will most assuredly get hits on Robertson's image and words. For me this of course begs the question of what pact Robertson himself made with the powers of evil to get where he is.

Today I joined my daughter as we watched the always refreshing and spine-tinglingly patriotic musical 1776. The musical, made a few years before our nation's bi-centennial, recreates the final weeks before the Declaration of Independence of the United States. It includes some real quotes from the likes of John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin. Being a musical, it contains some myth and of course a love story or two. It tips its hat to the famous painting by John Trumbull (here's an interactive version.) which hangs in the Capitol Rotunda. It includes the stories of the love and partnership between Adams and his wife Abigail (their letters are now famous and actually online), as well as more lusty relationship between Jefferson and his wife Martha. The musical ends with the history striking out of references to (the immorality of) slavery from the Declaration just before it passes.

Robertson says that Haiti made a pact with the devil (and left behind its origins in slavery) in order to become independent. The United States made its own pact with the devil to assert independence with slavery intact, and it has been paying for it ever since.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

The I's Don't Quite Have It

My spouse pointed out a blog entry talking about over-analysis of Obama's speeches.

Fox news is now tracking the frequency of the use of the word "I" in speeches by President Obama.

I think I use "I" in many of my sentences, but I'm just me and allowed my opinion of myself. And of course everyone who has read a resume or been taught anything about parenting and civil and civic discourse has been advised to use I-messages e.g. "I am hurt when you speak to me that way."

I decided to do my own quick test. I would compare the frequency of words used in the acceptance speeches of both Barack Obama and John McCain. Neither were President yet. At that period they were pretty much equals with the same goal and probably on top of their egotistical games.

I used this free word frequency counter to measure word frequency in the speeches. I obtained both transcripts from the New York Times. I've listed variations on the use of the word "I" and for comparison the word "we". I included the use of contractions of these words. I've also included a few familiar words.

Below are the results. Judge for yourself. Clearly each has chosen their words carefully.

Obama Acceptance Speech. (transcript)
  • (Count / Word)
  • 77 we
  • 67 i
  • 24 america
  • 21 mccain
  • 18 american
  • 16 country
  • 9 i've
  • 8 i'll
  • 2 i'm
  • 1 we've
  • 1 we're
McCain Acceptance Speech. (transcript)
  • (Count / Word)
  • 115 i
  • 53 we
  • 28 country
  • 17 i'm
  • 17 americans
  • 16 we're
  • 16 i've
  • 14 we'll
  • 9 american
  • 6 obama
  • 5 america
  • 4 we've
  • 3 i'd
  • 2 i'll

Sunday, February 07, 2010

City School Northampton: Week 3

We're back again for another edition of City School where We The People get to learn from those who represent, work, or volunteer for us in city government. We are at Week 3 in a 10 week course in municipal civics. Last week, we learned about some of the Arts, Culture, Fun, and the Health Department. This week, we learn about resources for special populations in the city of Northampton, Massachusetts.

Previously, I speculated where this great idea for City School came from. It's mostly attributed to our Mayor, but I figured that she was too busy to start this totally voluntary program. And the cynic in me wonders why would any politician invest time in fostering an informed citizenry? It turns out that is came from conversations between Karen Bellavance-Grace , who is an aide to the Mayor and also organizes City School, and the Mayor. It is modeled on the Citizens Police Academy which my neighbor attended last year and totally raved about. Here's a story about the first City School from October, 2008. We'll be the second graduating class.

This week's class was held in our modern Senior Center where we met with members of the Northampton Youth Commission and the Directors of the Council on Aging and Veterans Services. I'll be sharing my class notes with you. I'll tell you a bit about the Senior Center and Senior services. About some really cool kids and what they are up to. And I'll amaze you with some information about what Northampton can do and is required to do for its Veterans.

Youth Commission

We met with two members of the Northampton Youth Commission as well as City Councilor Paul Spector who represents Ward 3 and is an advisor and City Council liason to the Youth Commission (YC). Spector has been liason for about 7 years since his child was on the YC. Another advisor is, you guessed it, the Mayor. Now I must confess (I think all good blog entries must have an earnest confession every now and then) that I did not record the names of the two Youth Commissioners. They were delightful young women who joined the YC as Sophmores and now are Seniors at Northampton High School.

There are 15 members of the Youth Commission all appointed. You have be 13 to 18 years old and to apply to serve, but then you are appointed, just like other official city Commissions. The YC was started back when there were some issues regarding police relations to youth congregating in front of local stores. As I have not been in Northampton that long, this is before my time. (OK, just about everything is before my time here.) They meet the first and third Wednesday of the month.

The YC advocates for teenage youths. They usually have a radio show on Valley Free Radio. Unfortunately, the show has not been produced recently, but getting it back on the air is in the works. They have fund-raisers - often to raise money for Northampton Public Schools. They've produced a youth card with the contact information for youth-oriented resources and services. Also, they have been able to award SPIFFY (Strategic Planning Initiative for Families and Youth) grants to the community that can benefit kids in the city. How cool is that?

Last year, during the budget crunch (as if it has gone away), the Mayor went through the budget line by line with the YC. I can remember when I was young I was on the Board of Education Citizens Budget Advisory Committee (or whatever it was called) in my home town. I made no decisions. The YC sounds better.

They discuss issues like Panhandling or more recently the fate of Bean Farm. The YCs goal may be to one day have a Youth Center, but first they will be developing a survey to see if our kids even want and need one.

Senior Center

As I said before, we met at the new Senior Center building. We heard from Patte Shaughnessy the Director of the Senior Center and the Council on Aging. She worked for the Council when they were in one room in Memorial Hall and before that she held city offices.

Since 2007, there has been an actual Senior Center which is a modern building that is LEED silver certified, meaning it is a so-called Green building. It is heated with geo-thermal energy, has computer-controlled lighting and heating, and used green materials in its construction. The building has a large kitchen, an exercise room, a computer room, a fitness room, a large room for events and meetings and can be rented, plus there are rooms to provide many services. In the last 3 months of 2009, 15,000 people made use of the building and services. Our Senior Center is simply lovely. (Our class had a tour at the end of the evening.) Drop in and check it out some weekday. Try the cafe.

The Council on Aging has a 15 member board, 50% seniors. Northampton has 5,000 seniors usually age 60 and older (some consider age 55-59 as well, but I won't get into that.) They provide many services. They will do home visits to check up on living situations, they provide an inexpensive handyman for home-repair to help people age in-place. They help provide loans and and grants through the CDBGs (Community Development Block Grants) for home repairs. They provide medical transportation and rely on volunteers (who are first checked out). They have an emergency food pantry. They have fun things to do. They have worked with the Youth Commission on fund raisers. They provide many many services including a social worker. Unfortunately, I'm not doing justice to all that they get accomplished here.

This year, the city will directly pay $133K toward salaries. The city also provides custodial services and other support. Much of their services are paid by grants, donations, and revenues from their ongoing book sale, their cafe (which is open to anyone), rentals of meeting rooms for events, and donations.

Northampton is supposed to be a great place to retire and grow old and our Senior Center and related services definitely contribute.
Veterans Services

Once again, I'll say right from the start that I will not do justice to all the things that the Department of Veterans Services does. Director Steven Connor spoke to us about Veterans Services and the role of a Veterans Services Officer (VSO). He a veteran, a requirement for a VSO.

Every municipality in Massachusetts has a VSO (no doubt there are 352 state-wide.) But Northampton is special because it's a city and has its own a VA. It is special also because we have Steven Connor and his co-workers. They assist 137 Veterans city-wide. There are way more Veterans in the city of course, and they definitely should contact The Northampton Department of Veterans Services if they need anything.

A common theme, if not a cliche, is that Veterans do not get the benefits and services they deserve. The have to get it from one of the largest bureaucracies on earth (with one of the smallest URLs - the Veterans Administration.  Connor said that the VA has a one million case backlog and it can take about 18 months to wait for a claim. As such, the municipalities of Massachusetts are required to assist Veterans by fronting them some funds which later be reimbursed by 75% from the state a year later. Often the other 25% is reimbursed at some level. Now I have a feeling that supporting Vets is a win-win for the city. First off, the Vets get benefits and services they deserve. Also, all this activity provides enormous economic activity for the city at relatively little direct cost.

The VSO can also give some immediate aid and loans as long as he has a good idea that the Veteran is eligible.The other theme is that if you are a Vet or a spouse or widow of a Vet, then you are probably entitled to a benefit that you do not even know about. If you know you are in need, then look into getting some help - be it money, healthcare, or other benefits or services.

Veterans Services handles Health, Housing and Food and Personal care. It helps Homeless, disabled and seniors. And works on local, state, and Federal level.

The VSO can also be in the Memorial Day and Veterans Day Parades. And unfortunately, this is often the extent of the Veterans Services that a smaller town is able to or believes it should provide.

Northampton has our Nation's oldest Memorial day Parade. It has been going since it was called Decoration Day (which does sound ever so much cheerier).

Next Week

I hope you have enjoyed this installment. Leave me a comment below and tell me what you think.

Next week we will be learning about City and School Finance and meeting at the Smith Vocational High School. While the US economy stinks, I can hardly wait. about the two public school districts within Northampton and meeting at Northampton High School.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

City School Northampton: Week 2

I had another exciting week at City School, here in Northampton, Massachusetts. We meet one night a week, and usually in a mostly vacant city building. As you might guess, in the middle of winter they can be a little cold. Especially, if it's one of our two libraries that's not open on Wednesdays and so probably not heated very much. If you haven't heard, City School, is a home-grown program where regular citizens like me get to learn about how local government works.

This week we covered Arts, Culture, Libraries, Health, and Recreation.


Our town has everything you can name, and perhaps I'll see them all, but it has simply everything: bowling alley, movie theater, concert hall, hospital, college, town hall, court house, jail, you name it, we have it. As I say to my spouse, Northampton is just like the town on the model train set. (Yes, we have the real trains too, and we are about to regain an Amtrak stop with our stimulus funds - Woo hoo!)

Our town has two wonderful old Libraries (one quaint and family-style, one more scholarly and architecturally magnificent). Around the time that Andrew Carnegie started running around passing out libraries like they were cigars (he actually built over 1,600 in the United States), two wealthy patrons each built a library in our town. The Forbes Library near Smith College and downtown Northampton and the Lilly Library in Florence.

Janet Moulding, Director of the Forbes Library, told us a great deal about the Forbes, about the Lilly too, and about how Massachusetts libraries work, as well as information on our regional library system. Rick Hart, the head of Reference for Forbes, showed us some of the features of the library website and spoke about some of the collections that they have at Forbes - some are online. Later, we spoke with Kim Evans-Perez, The Lilly Children's Librarian.

Here's a smattering of information about the Forbes which is available for all ages and abilities, for residents and researchers. It has a great deal of information not located anywhere else. It has books and references. It subscribes to several research services. It has electronic books - and even book readers. It has banjos, laptops and DVDs. It has music and more. About 800 people visit the library every day and about half the town residents have active library cards. I take it that these are good statistics for library use. The Forbes also has the papers of Calvin Coolidge who lived on Massasoit Street.

But here are some curious things about our Libraries. The Forbes library was given to the city by Judge Charles E. Forbes. You can see his will from 1893 online which endowed the library. The money is used to buy books. The Forbes library has 5 elected trustees. The town owns the building, but not the books. The town Northampton does not own the Lilly library either. It is owned by the board of trustees which reappoints its 9 members. Weird, eh? A town with two Libraries that it doesn't own? Plus the two Libraries are separate. They don't share books, but they do share some things, since the town has to maintain the libraries and fund these libraries to maintain state certification. Certification requires that they are open at least 59 hours a week, have weekend and evening hours, and spend 13% of their budget on books and materials. Thus they are treated as one Library from the state point of view. They can split the days that they are open for instance and share some of the costs of being part of the C/W Mars Regional Library System which lets me reserve a book online which might be in Williamstown and have it show up at the Children's desk at the Lilly library - and send me an email when it is ready.

Each city resident pays about $45 per year to fund our Libraries. About $50K comes from the state. They have their endowments, grants, gifts, donations, and each have their Friends of the Library group which supports their work. Do you might feel bad when your books are late? The only person you are hurting is the people who are waiting for your book to come back. The benefit is revenue for the library - the Forbes Library takes in a whopping $40K in overdue fines! The smaller Lilly Library is the third busiest library for inter-library loan. Hey, we read a lot here in Northampton.

Board of Health

Ben Wood is the director of the Northampton The Board of Health and Health Department. There is actually a difference, but I'll let you look that up. He's been on the job for about 2 months. But he's young and has big ideas and lots of energy. He had plenty of information for us. (And here, I'll try to speed up a little.)

In 1799, err.... I guess going back 200 years doesn't speed things up. Anway, in 1799 Massachusetts was the first state to establish a Health Department. I will have to consult, my father-in-law's book on Massachusetts history which I received today to verify this. The first Chair was none other than Paul Revere. In 1859, the Health Department became a non-political entity separate from City government. There are 352 local health entities in the state. The Board of Health  has the authority to enforce state and local law. Local laws can only be more strict than state laws. The Health Department is the staff of the Board.

Our Health department deals with disease, sanitation and inspection of mostly food establishments and housing, nuisances, and issues permits. There's a dichotomy between following mandated regulation vs. the promotion of public health. The Department spends most of their time dealing with regulation and less of their time making sure that we live healthy lifestyles. Often they are listening to complaints and doing mediation. As I warned you last week, there is a whole lotta mediation going on in city Government. Ben Wood said he'd like to do more health advocacy if he can, but right now he's spending most of his time and budget dealing with complaints and regulations.

Arts Council

In 1982, during the Massachusetts Miracle, the state was flush, so it established 352 arts councils with funding based on population and originally from Lottery revenue. This is no longer the case. In 1988, the city came up with a cultural plan, and Bob Cilman was there. He's well-known and well-linked from his position as director of the Young @ Heart Chorus. If any of you know anything about Northampton, you will know it is an artsy place and a place where you too, young and old, rich and usually poor, can become or at least see or hear an artist - or the work of one. The Northampton Arts Council does a lot. It produces Transperformance, which is Woodstock-like day-long concert of local people making music. Usually there is a theme and costumes and bad puns. Usually they are doing covers of well known songs. Here it is described in their words:

TRANSPERFORMANCE creates the opportunity for local performers to assume the personas of well-known and well-loved musicians. The performers are chosen for their talents and for the creativity they bring to such role-playing, regardless of whether their gender, race, age, ethnicity or sexual preference/orientation matches that of the musicians they choose to imitate.
TRANSPERFORMANCE is a humorous musical celebration of the diversity of our population and an acknowledgment of the profound influences various artists have had on each other and on the rest of our society. The Northampton Arts Council, who also shared in the profits from the past Transperformances, has been able to use the money raised to provide a second round of funding for local artists. These rounds of funding support the work of many, many artists and performing groups.
The Arts Council does many other programs over the year. Coming up is 4 Sundays in February and a Kids film festival.

Department of Recreation

We got a quick run-through from Ann-Marie Moggio, the Director of the Northampton Department of Recreation. We unfortunately were running out of time, just as I am running out of my time to write this. (Here, I must confess, that I'm about a week behind in telling you about City School.)

The Department does a lot of obvious things, mostly programming. It is located at Smith Vocational High School, employs 7 staff members, and has a $150K budget. It handles the town pool, built 11 years ago at JFK Middle School. A few years ago, they opened a skate park (for skateboarding, not ice-skating) which was about 10 years in the making. They run programs, manage the city community gardens and are overseen by a 9 member commission. During a typical year, they also employee 100-120 part time staff (think lifeguards), receive 2,600 hours in volunteer labor, run 3,700 practices and games on our ball fields.

Of course this is Northampton, so due to some weird history, the Department Of Recreation does not run our two largest parks. These parks, Look Park and Childs Park, are not run by the city at all. In fact, I'm told that the Childs Park is by name an oxymoron, since you cannot play frisbee or barbeque there. Childs Park is worth a stroll or a quiet picnic, and Look Park is worth a visit for a number of reasons.

The Rec Department does much more than I can list here. It has many programs going on this month. And more still this summer.


In the middle of the evening, Ann-Marie led us in a round of Northampton Jeopardy, where the topics were related to the subjects you have just learned about and the answers were created by each of the presenters. Prizes were old Department of Recreation swag. I won two plastic cups and a Dept of Rec mug from an event a few years back. Fun.

Next time, we shall visit the Northampton Senior Center and learn about agencies within our city to deal with special populations.