Archive for October, 2009

Ooops! Who’s really got their pants down?

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on October 27, 2009 by Jim Rosenberg

This item appears on the blog of WTAQ AM’s Jerry Bader today:

11:23 AM  STATEMENT FROM JERRY BADER CONCERNING THE BARBARA LAWTON STORY:

I HAVE LOST CONFIDENCE IN THE SOURCES THAT PROVIDED
INFORMATION YESTERDAY REGARDING LT. GOV BARBARA LAWTON.
THEREFORE I CANNOT STAND BY THE STORY POSTED YESTERDAY.

* * *

So what WAS the story, you may ask — since it’s no longer there?  Well, I didn’t READ it, but I listened to it and here’s the gist:  That Lieutenant Governor Barbara Lawton left the governor’s race under the duress of someone — who has photographic evidence, no less — threatening to expose a salacious affair.  Bader’s story included the idea that it was a poorly kept secret that Lawton had an “open marriage” and that she had multiple relationships with women.  Great stuff, huh?

Since I get over to Green Bay quite a bit, I’m familiar with WTAQ.  It’s a Midwest Communications radio station with a programming format that is pretty much the same as Wausau’s 550 AM, also a Midwest Communications station.  I don’t spend a lot of time listening to either one, but I will occasionally tune in just to see if things are still the same, which they always are.  

I’ve talked with and heard Barbara Lawton many times during her tenure and I’ve always felt she had a greatly underrated intellect.  Although I didn’t believe she was necessarily the strongest candidate that the Dems could field in next year’s governor’s race, I thought she was a solid and legitimate contender for people who took the time to get to know her views.  I didn’t know if she could have carried the state by next November.

When I heard the rumor, I didn’t pass it on.  Things like that need to be proven — (unless you’re Jerry Bader, I guess.)  But I’m happy to pass along the retraction and I hope that there is much more recompense involved in this little episode than simply a blog entry that says he’s ‘lost confidence’ in his sources and ‘can’t stand by’ the story.  How about a REAL  apology?

UPDATE: 6:30 p.m., October 28, 2009 — Here’s a good piece from Wispolitics on this situation:

http://wisopinion.com/index.iml?mdl=article.mdl&article=24321 

Note that WTAQ will be making an announcement on Bader’s status at 8:30 a.m. tomorrow morning.  If you have trouble listening to the audio link in the WAOW blog, here is another blog link — (albeit colorfully-worded) — that contains a written version of Bader’s audio report: 

http://tinyurl.com/yh7lyrq

* * *

UPDATE: October 29, 2009 – Jerry Bader was suspended for two weeks, beginning next Monday.   Lawton, speaking to WLUK TV in Green Bay this morning:  “I think it is a minimal first action on the part of their station and the station’s ownership. I have yet to receive an apology from Jerry Bader. A two-week suspension seems inadequate to me.”

Today’s cooking tip: brown it right!

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on October 24, 2009 by Jim Rosenberg

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Sure, I could be talking about the budgets, health care, Afghanistan or lots of other things.  But aren’t you sick of hearing about it?  I am, so I’m making a big batch of chili.  I’m not going to tell you how to make it because everybody thinks they already know (and a few actually do.)  But I will tell you how to make it better — and this applies not only to chili, but to a lot of other things that start out with browning ground beef or pork.

The thing is, most people see a recipe that says “Brown one pound of ground beef” and they think that’s just something you have to do in order to get to the real preparation.  They’ll throw it in the microwave, get someone else to do it or try  just about anything else to get that part of it over with so they can move things along.  That can be a mistake because you’re talking about one of the key ingredients in your recipe and doing an extra good job is one of the things that will allow you to move from mediocre to excellent.

I make big batches of chili with about four pounds of meat.  When I brown the meat, I do it with a covered pan and lots of chili spices.  The cover keeps the liquids in so the spices flow through the meat while it browns, infusing it with great flavor.  Having the meat add in extra flavor to your recipe this way instead of  having to draw it from the other ingredients fuses things together more effectively and it can make a big difference in the finished chili.  (Yes, you’ll end up with more liquid at the end of the process to pour off or strain out unless you finish it uncovered to steam some of it away.  Either way, it’s no big deal.)

If you haven’t been doing things this way for chili, pizza toppings and other dishes that call for browned ground meat, start giving it a shot and see if it doesn’t create a night and day difference in your finished product.

Time flies when you don’t have it!

Posted in Uncategorized on October 20, 2009 by Jim Rosenberg

Pardon the hiatus from blog entries, but October-November are crazy months.  In addition to the city and county budgets, this week also brings our fifth annual “downtowns conference” here in Wausau:

http://www.uwsp.edu/conted/conferences/downtown/ 

I’d love to tell you more, but that’s what brochures are for and you can read all about it when you click on the link.  Because things always take on a hamster wheel feel at this time of year, there is also one other thing I do to muck up the schedule before the holidays: take a vacation.   It will be more than welcome when it finally arrives. 

JR

Obama and the Nobel Peace Prize

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on October 9, 2009 by Jim Rosenberg

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Alfred Nobel died in 1896 and aside from the Nobel prizes that were established in his will, one of the most famous of the chemical engineer’s contributions to the world was the invention of dynamite. This morning’s announcement of Barack Obama as this year’s winner of the Nobel Peace Prize is nothing if not explosive, but it’s probable that many people who are offering negative takes on this selection understand neither the process nor the purpose of the recognition. It is a bit like a strict vegan’s review of Beef Bourguignon. Having to judge it without tasting it necessarily limits someone’s perspective.

The deadline for Nobel Peace Prize nominations was February 1. It is therefore not a review of Obama’s successes or shortcomings during the first year of his Administration. The committee that selects the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize is selected by the Norwegian Parliament. It should be abundantly clear that their take on who should be recognized is going to be a lot different than Rush Limbaugh’s, just as we would certainly have a different Pope if Shiite clerics had replaced the conclave of Cardinals in the Sistine Chapel in 2005.

As I write this within an hour of the selection’s announcement, I haven’t had the opportunity to hear the criticism that will be forthcoming, but I can guarantee you that it will be shrill and I can guess who a lot of it will come from: right wing U.S. nationalists. But nationalists are necessarily in an extremely poor position to see things from the perspective of the internationalists who bestow the award. They have a point of view that is, by definition, already largely contrary with the whole point and purpose of the Nobel Peace Prize. You can listen to what they have to say if you want to, but it has almost nothing to do with the Nobel Peace Prize and almost everything to do with advancing an agenda that is often completely at odds with it.

In the eight years of the Administration of George W. Bush, I traveled outside the U.S. more than three dozen times. I had the opportunity to see, firsthand, what happened to the perception of the U.S. outside of our borders. The standing of this country fell dramatically as a direct result of the manner in which President Bush viewed and pursued this country’s foreign and environmental policies. This is not only a matter of my opinion, but something that was clearly documented in many ways through objective measurements.

The Bush Administration took a huge reservoir of international support that was clearly evident on September 12, 2001 and turned it into a tide of contempt with unilateralism and ham-handed foreign policy initiatives that persisted through the end of 2008. The very same people who want you to know it every time President Obama’s favorability numbers fall in the polls wanted you to dismiss it when similar measuring tools were applied to their guy. They want you to remember Copenhagen and forget about Oslo.

The fact is that by just about any objective or subjective measure that you care to apply, U.S. international standing fell like a rock under Bush II. “Who cares what others think of us,” they thundered. But there is a good answer to that question. You should — and it really does matter.

So what did Barack Obama do to win the Nobel Peace Prize? Well, by the February 1 deadline, not all that much — except what was probably the most significant one-day positive turnaround in world opinion that the U.S. has ever experienced. He got elected President of the United States of America.  And the people who have a big problem with Obama winning the Nobel Peace Prize today weren’t any more enthusiastic about his accomplishment last November, either.

JR

Prime rib made simple

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on October 5, 2009 by Jim Rosenberg

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Ever wonder why prime rib shows up on the menus of so many places and often seems so incredibly consistent — even in establishments that don’t seem to do a lot of higher end offerings?  Well, it’s because you can buy it from restaurant food purveyors already cooked.  Yes, just like batter-fried anything or those long tubes of perfect, center slices of hard-boiled egg, prime rib is one of those things that is often brought to you through a little more elaborate process than you may think — and it’s all done with one goal in mind: to enable business people to operate successful restaurants without having the need for anyone on the staff who actually knows how to cook.  So no matter how high the turnover might be, the prime rib is always the same.

Hey, I’m not really knocking it.  Why trouble ourselves with inconsistency when the alternative is you risking your pride and your grocery budget on a hunk of meat that might typically run you anywhere from $35 to $60, while taking a few hours to prepare?  And if you own a modest to mid-range restaurant, can you really afford to be at the mercy of some temperamental artisan chef, who might head off to greener salad bars at the drop of toque?

Well, there are several reasons to do it yourself.  One is the entertainment and satisfaction of cooking.  There is substantial cost savings when you’re serving four to six people, (coupled with the fact that I only do it when standing rib roasts are on sale anyway.)  Finally, you can actually do a better job!  Your prime rib can provide the standard by which you will judge all others and you may well find it to be superior because it is more fresh, wholesome and flavorful than the stuff you’ve been going out for.

Prime Rib buried - 003

So anyway, here you go.  First, get yourself a standing rib roast.  (I found one on sale Friday for $5.99 a pound, which is a steal.)  Take it out of the refrigerator about two hours before you intend to cook it, so you can bring the meat up to room temperature.  (I’m assuming you didn’t freeze it.)

Alright, what you need to do this besides the rib roast is a large onion, four large carrots, a few stalks of celery, a MEAT THERMOMETER, some spices and a nice, cast iron pan or some other heavy, uncovered pot that you can put in the oven. 

As soon as I take the meat out of the fridge, I spray it down with cold pressed garlic juice.  Then slather on some Worchestershire sauce and then rub in some salt, pepper and any other seasonings you care to add.  (I throw in a little onion powder and celery salt, but it’s no biggee.)  Don’t be shy with the spicing since plenty of it will flow off as it cooks. 

Okay, now we’re going to peel the carrots and the onion and then chop them up really fine with the celery.  (A food processor works great for this or you can just chop them up with a chef knife, but we’re talking FINE.)  Now, brush a thin layer of olive oil on the bottom of your cooking pot and lay down a half inch of your finely chopped veggies.  

Preheat your oven to 450.

Stand the rib roast in the pan rib side down and cover it — and I mean COVER it — with your remaining chopped vegetable mix.  It won’t stick to the sides of the roast too well, but give it a whack anyway.  We’re going to encrust this rib roast with the veggies.  (The picture of this stage is a little blurry, but you get the point.)

Now, with your oven at 450, put the rib roast in, uncovered, for 20 minutes.  After 20 minutes, back the oven temperature off to 325 and give it about 90 minutes to a couple of hours — but after 75 minutes or so, start periodically checking it with your meat thermometer to make sure you’re not overcooking it (which depends on size, thickness, etc.)  For rare, you’re looking at 120 degrees.  I usually take it to around 130-135 for a more medium rare.  

Remember that the meat will continue to cook itself for awhile after you take it out of the oven.  I like to let it rest for about 20 minutes and then fillet it away from the rib bones with a sharp knife.  If all goes well, you should end up with something that looks like the picture on the top (if not better.)  The veggie mix gets tossed, along with the fat renderings that it has absorbed for you, while adding flavor and protecting the exterior during the cooking.) 

Okay, you’re ready for the next sale on standing rib roast.  A little red wine, some crusty bread and whatever else you would like to complete your meal and you’re all set.  Bon appetit!

City budget: simple answers aren’t always easy.

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on October 2, 2009 by Jim Rosenberg

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A funny thing happened on the way to putting together the City of Wausau’s 2010 budget. Actually, it’s not funny at all – but it’s fairly typical of what many businesses and families have been dealing with since late 2007. It’s called lower income.

Cities rely heavily on property taxes and while they’re not really popular, it’s the system we have and they tend to be a fairly stable revenue source. But property taxes are not a bottomless pit and it’s not just about politics. The overall increase in the city’s levy increase is capped for 2010 at three percent. In past years, the rapid growth of new construction has rendered the statutory cap moot because the growth brought on by new buildings has been greater than the cap and the city has thereby benefited from its success in economic development. But with the recession, new construction was down.

Unlike the federal government, the city doesn’t have the option of running a deficit (and it’s just as well.) The state is also required to have a balanced budget, but after years of accounting games and installing an incorrect revenue or cost assumption here or there, Wisconsin runs a structural deficit of several billion dollars annually.

The problem is that when you factor in things like reductions in state revenue sharing, lower income from permits, and other items, the impact is that a three percent increase in the tax levy will be outstripped by the other factors in play that increase costs. There is a year-over-year net decrease in revenue to the City of Wausau of nearly $700,000 – but even that number understates the problem. Health insurance premiums are currently set to rise more than 21 percent. There are union contracts calling for cost-of-living raises.

To make a long story short, the city’s obligations are greater next year and the amount of money to cover them is smaller. Something’s got to give.

The city’s situation stands in sharp contrast to that of the Wausau School District, which will be increasing its tax levy by $4 million, or more than 10 percent. I’m not offering a judgement on that course of action, but the truth is that when many people get their property tax bills, they look at the return address and blame everything on the city. But both the city and the county will be capped at three percent. Period.

Since payroll costs including benefits are the largest component of the city’s budget by far, some people legitimately ask how employees could be receiving raises and the city can eat all of the increases in health care premiums or retirement funding in such an environment. Unemployment in the community has essentially doubled in the past year or so. For those who remain employed, many are looking at no raises, shouldering a higher share of their benefit costs, paying for much or all of their own retirement, dealing with furlough days and weathering other things that have diminished their net incomes. Remember the old laments about living on a fixed income? Well, a fixed income is better than one that is falling and the city would be better off in 2010 with a fixed income, just like a lot of other people and businesses.

As for contract negotiations, the city doesn’t have the luxury of simply taking a hard line on pay and benefits with union employees and unilaterally saying that there will be no pay increases or that any rise in the increase of benefit costs will be taken on by the employees. Such a posture might seem politically popular at first, but it would surely send the union contracts to arbitration where the city would almost certainly lose.

Arbitration doesn’t allow for meeting somewhere in the middle. The arbitrator decides whether the union or the city’s final position is implemented, so it’s essentially an all-or-nothing game. I don’t believe the city could have negotiated a no-increase contract and higher cost sharing with the facts that were available at the time the talks were taking place. There may be opportunity to negotiate something different now, with the array of unpleasant choices that are now crystal clear.

To be most effective and cause the least amount of damage, the city needs union cooperation to navigate the difficult financial situation it is faced with. Pay freezes can be implemented with non-represented employees, but a large share of the municipal workforce is unionized and their participation in the solution is critical.

The situation is that if unions don’t forgo or severely temper receiving cost-of-living increases as provided for in their contracts, then there are going to be significantly less employees on the payroll next year to receive that extra money. It’s a question of either protecting some relatively modest pay increases or protecting a number of jobs because there would have to be significant job cuts to accommodate the increased payroll expenses in 2010.

There may still be some cuts or furloughing necessary even with a pay freeze or rollback in the increases, but the goal is to avoid or minimize this to the greatest possible extent. While it might seem like a no-brainer, that’s not necessarily the case. Union leaders have their own constituencies with their own interests and people need to appreciate the difficult situation it can place people in to turn down what they legitimately bargained for in good faith just a few months earlier (practical or not.)

And what of other cost items in the city budget, such as capital projects? In family budgets, paying for housing, making sure there are groceries and keeping the heat on are things that come before vacations, video games and movie tickets. Likewise, governments have to set budgets that reflect the highest priorities and address true needs as opposed to wants. We’re necessarily going to address safety before we buy new playground equipment.

It is almost certain that there will be some cuts and deferrals when it comes to city improvements in 2010. Still, it is important to understand that dumping a million dollars worth of capital projects does not translate into a million dollars worth of annual budget savings. In general, the cost reductions from such a move will be far less than $100,000 in a given budget year after the timing and funding factors associated with many capital projects are taken into account. Moreover, it is a bad long-term policy to defer maintenance and improvements because many of these projects tend to simply reappear later with greater urgency and higher price tags. Feeding ramping payroll increases with one-time savings on capital project cancellations or depleting the general fund for operating expenses promises only bigger and more costly problems later. It’s like running red lights. I can’t tell you that if you do it once, you’ll get into a crash — but it can just about be guaranteed to happen at some point if you make it a practice.

This isn’t about union busting. I’m not interested in bashing public employees or joining the chorus of people who say that they have it too good. From time to time, we find ourselves in economic conditions in which people understandably prize the security and stability that have traditionally accompanied public employment over the uncertainty and dynamic nature of the private sector. When people are getting five or 10 percent raises in the private sector, they don’t worry too much about someone else getting three percent. But when they face pay cuts, freezes, furloughs, benefit cost increases or layoffs, it’s only human nature to wonder how they can also be funding what looks like a parallel universe where few or none of these things seem to be happening.

Part of the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act was specifically designed to help prevent state and local governments from adding to the unemployment problem by slashing and burning their payrolls as income and sales tax revenue headed south. Placing additional stress on the economy that way carries the risk of turning a bad situation into something worse. Public employees provide critical services in our communities in terms of quality of life and sometimes, literally life and death. If positions are cut wholesale, it will be very difficult to restore them in the future and the quality of services will be negatively impacted. I’ve yet to have anyone tell me that we have too many police, their street is plowed too quickly, their parks are too clean or we should add 10 minutes to the response time on our firetrucks and ambulances.

There will be a lot of thorny choices over the next few months and probably a healthy dose of political posturing to go along with them. The truth is that our challenges, while significant, are far smaller than many of those faced by other governments, businesses and individuals in the difficult period from which we are hopefully already emerging. Glib slogans and finger pointing aren’t going to get the job done. Knocking insignificant amounts off of property tax bills while allowing infrastructure and services to decline in far more noticeable ways isn’t going to make this a better or more prosperous commuity. But with everyone working together, we should expect to emerge stronger, leaner and more responsive to people we are here to serve.

The answer for the 2010 budget seems pretty simple. It’s just not easy. There will be plenty of discussion between now and when the property tax bills go out in December. Pay attention, learn all you can and then talk to your representatives to let them know how you feel about the issues in play. It has never been more important than now.

JR