This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

September 30, 2010 - come out, come out, whoever you are

When I was 11 or 12 years old I rode my black Schwinn bicycle everywhere.

It was a lot of work, for two reasons.

First, all my favorite places - the library (of course), the Illinois Beach State Park, the YMCA - were miles apart.

Second, the aliens were after me. See, I was doing a lot of reading about UFOs. It seemed pretty clear to me that the people most interested in the phenomena were the ones most likely to be abducted. And probed, which didn't sound pleasant.

So when I was tearing around town, I took maximum advantage of tree cover. I dodged through parks and alleys. I made sudden and unexpected turns. I doubled back to take weird short cuts.

Crazy? you ask. Maybe. But consider this: They never got me.

And speaking of pursuit and concealment, I've been trying to puzzle out who is really behind Proposition 101, and Amendments 60 and 61. I started like this: Who actually benefits from these measures?

I can only come up with two candidates.

The first is economic development people in states other than Colorado. Private and public sector people both will certainly flee a state whose civic infrastructure is collapsing. That's not idle conjecture. See California.

The second prospect might be closer to home. The provisions of these initiatives allow property owners to vote anywhere they have land, and slash away at property taxes across the board.

Who wins from that arrangement? Nobody who actually lives in a community, and has to deal with the quality of roads, schools, and libraries, or the response of fire and police departments. You just need an insurance policy, right? And a steady stream of renters.

So here's another answer to the question of "who benefits?": Absentee landlords.

I justify this speculation because somebody had to pay for all the petition printing and gathering. We should know who is pushing for sweeping constitutional changes, right? Under the law, people who spend that kind of money on political measures are required to declare themselves.

Except they didn't.

Now it is true that several of the sponsors admitted to a federal judge that they got a lot of help from Doug Bruce, an absentee landlord who has pushed similar measures in the past. So a court asked Bruce to come in and answer some questions about what looked like a crime.

They tried, anyhow. Court officers attempted to deliver a summons. Thirty times. They left cards and notices at Bruce's residence in the morning, in the afternoon, at night. No one would answer the door.

Meanwhile, lights went on and off. Someone set out the garbage. The cards and notices disappeared.

You have to admire it. Doug Bruce is as wily as a tween on a bike. They couldn't catch him.

On the other hand, a judge did finally rule the proponents "evasive and unbelievable." And fined them.

I strive mightily to resist the pull of cynicism. But I have to ask: If you're trying to change the law, it's because you think people should follow the law, right? If the proponents are convinced that Amendments 60 and 61, and Proposition 101 are truly good for us, then they should stop sneaking around, and come out and debate it. What's to hide?

Unless - and this just occurred to me - there's a third possibility. It would explain everything. What if this is a conspiracy of ... aliens?


LaRue's Views are his own.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

September 23, 2010 - "it takes a village ...to eat the leftovers"

I can just hear it now. Cue exasperated parent: "What are you going to do with a degree in Spanish and Latin American Culture?" And then, later, "why on earth would anyone want to get a doctorate in anthropological linguistics?''

Answer (because it's so obvious): "I want to be a famous chef."

That would be Rick Bayless, best-selling author, award-winning restaurateur, TV show host, and once guest chef at the White House, where he prepared a state dinner honoring Mexico.

You never know where your studies are going to take you.

We've gotten quite a buzz about his coming to the library. Our "A Day with Rick Bayless" (Wednesday, October 13) is a busy one.

We sold out the exclusive lunch with him at the Old Blinking Light Restaurant in Highlands Ranch.

We also sold out the next event: at the Lone Tree Recreation Center, at 3 p.m., he'll do a cooking demo -- bacon-tomato guacamole and green herb ceviche, from his latest cookbook "Fiesta at Rick's: Fabulous Food for Great Times with Friends."

At 6 p.m. he'll show up at an author reception at the Wildlife Experience in Parker, followed by a special talk. (It's $60 for the reception, $30 for the talk.) You can even buy his latest book, at every one of the above events, courtesy of Tattered Cover.

We have a lot of sponsors for this one. I'm grateful to Chef Kevin Fitzgerald of Old Blinking Light, who will be cooking a Bayless tribute. I'm grateful to the Whole Foods Market, which is supplying ingredients for the Lone Tree cooking demo, and to Canon Catering/Taco Mojo for the equipment.

Other support has been provided by the Gay & Lesbian Fund for Colorado, Colorado Community Newspapers, the Wildlife Experience, Tattered Cover Bookstore, and Colorado Litho, Inc. A portion of proceeds will go to the Douglas County Libraries Foundation to support literacy activities.

It's not too late to join our sponsors. As part of a generous grant, the Gay & Lesbian Fund for Colorado will match new or increased donations made in 2010 or 2011 to Douglas County Libraries. Wanna put your money where your mouth is (so to speak)? Contact Katie Klossner at kklossner@dclibraries.org.

Want tickets to any of the above (except the ones that are sold out)? You can find tickets online at DouglasCountyLibraries.org, by phone at 303-791-7323, or in person at any Douglas County Libraries location.

We are very pleased to make this contribution to culture in Douglas County. And parents, next time, don't be so disparaging of your children's educational choices. They might just be a recipe for success.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Library Board to consider resolution on Amendments/Proposition

At its September 16, 2010 meeting (7 p.m., Philip S. Miller Library in Castle Rock), the Board of Trustees will consider a resolution concerning Amendments 60 and 61, and Proposition 101. If those measures are successful, the Board anticipates the layoff of more than half the library staff, the potential closure of libraries at Castle Pines, Louviers, and Roxboroughs, and the significant reduction of hours in the remaining locations. Public comment will be welcome at the meeting.

Monday, September 6, 2010

September 16, 2010 - old days not so good

How would you like to pay 25 cents a pound for rib roast?

Men, would you be willing to lay out $28 for a top-of-the-line suit? Ladies, could you afford $3.25 for a new woolen skirt?

Or maybe you've been hankering after a new car. Would you spend $826 for something right off the production line?

Or suppose you wanted to rent a modest 1,440 square foot house. Does $2 a week seem too steep for four rooms and a bath? Heck, buy it outright for just $4,101!

You might think that all sounds too good to be true. But that's what things cost back in 1919.

It may be nostalgia for the past that's behind Proposition 101, the third of the profoundly anti-government measures on the ballot this fall. (The other two are Amendments 60 and 61, considered in my previous two columns.)

Proposition 101 seeks to stoke the anger of people who saw their motor vehicle fees rise last year. Among its provisions is to "reduce vehicle ownership taxes over four years to nominal amounts." "Nominal" means $10 a year.

That's what it cost to register a car in 1919.

But Proposition 101 doesn't stop there. It also lowers the state income tax to 4.5%, then phases in a further reduction to 3.5%.

Anyone following the news over the past year knows that the state already cut over a billion dollars from its budget. If this goes through, the state will lose more than twice that. At the same time, if Amendment 60 goes through, the state will also have to backfill an additional $1.6 billion resulting from the drop in school property taxes.

As I noted in my last column, that leaves the state with the responsibility to give 99% of its money to local schools. No more roads. No more higher education. No more social services for children. And apparently, no more matching money for federal medical program payments, which may prove problematic for people who are not perfectly healthy.

But what does Proposition 101 mean for local governments? Let me give you an example closer to home.

Because motor vehicle fees are part of your property, the money is divvied up among various entities in your community that depend on property taxes. In 2009, the Douglas County Libraries, for instance, got $1.4 million. Once 101 is fully "phased in" that would drop to less than $10,000 a year. That's a 93% drop in revenue.

The same scale of reduction applies to the county, the school district, and every municipality, metro, fire, and water district.

Proponents of these measures describe them as "modest."

The best interpretation of this gleeful willfulness to slash government funding is that it is predicated on a profound civic ignorance. Government exists to perform functions we actually depend on - such as transportation systems, clean water, and an educated citizenry. Take away the investments that pay for those services, drive the revenue down below the costs, and your own life takes a dive.

Oh, and by the way, here's what nobody mentions when dreaming fondly of the good old days of 1919.

The average salary was $1,125. The life expectancy was 56.

Friday, September 3, 2010

September 9, 2010 - Amendment 61 reduces debt - and construction

Suppose you decide it's time to move out of your rented apartment. You have some money, but not enough to buy a house outright. So, like millions of other Americans, you start shopping for a mortgage.

You quickly learn that the longer the term of the loan, the more house you can buy. The payments are lower, although of course it takes more time to pay it off. With a shorter term, you can't afford as much house. It might not even be worth it.

But now suppose your employer informs you of two new rules. First, your banker, if he gives you a loan at all, can only offer a ten year mortgage.

Second, your employer tells you that once you do pay off your mortgage, he is going to cut your salary by the amount of your monthly mortgage payment because hey, you don't need it anymore, right?

That set of new rules, applied to government instead of to citizens, is Amendment 61.

Under this proposal, Colorado - alone among all the United States - won't be able to borrow money at all. Other governments (schools, fire and water districts, libraries) can ask their bankers (the public) to approve a loan. In fact, they must have an election in order to borrow. But they have to pay back the loan in ten years.

Oddly, there is no ten year bond market for public projects.

Of course, the increased annual cost of projects that must be paid off in ten years means that there won't be as many. Or they'll be much smaller. That means a big reduction in the public construction projects that employ contractors, engineers, concrete and manufacturing suppliers, and more.

Think about such projects as the Denver International Airport, which then spurred the construction of roads, which then sparked housing developments, schools, and retail developments. Growth means jobs.

But now, in the midst of a recession, we have a proposal to cut jobs.

Some governments have been paying mortgages by thoughtfully managing their cash flow. But if Amendment 61 passes, once their mortgages get paid off, they have to lower their property tax rates by the amount of their payments. To put it in personal terms again: when you look after your money intelligently, you should get a pay cut!

There are many other wrinkles. A big one for Colorado concerns what is now a routine matter for many Colorado schools. Tax money doesn't come in evenly. Mainly, it is collected during May, June, and July.

That doesn't match up to the fiscal year. Many schools now run year round. So they borrow money from the state to get through the winter and spring. They pay it back promptly. But under Amendment 61, that borrowing stops, too, unless there's an election every year. That's likely to affect the school calendar.

There's also a new provision for the percentage of debt a school district can carry. The Colorado Legislative Council estimates that 36 school districts - representing about half the students in the state - would be unable to build any new schools at all, for perhaps as long as a decade.

This has nothing to do with the need for new schools. It doesn't even have to do with the willingness of the public to pay for them. It's just not allowed.

Again, the full text of the amendment - a change in the state constitution on the ballot this fall - can be found, along with arguments for and against, by Googling "ballotpedia Colorado 2010."

Look it over.

And ask yourself: if you couldn't afford to get a mortgage anymore, if shared infrastructure were now so expensive that you just couldn't pay for it, if the big public works that help our economy suddenly ratcheted back by a third or more, who would that benefit?

September 2, 2010 - Amendment 60 kills jobs

09/02/2010 - amendment 60 kills jobs

Maybe you've heard this one. After a long and wicked life, Joe dies. He finds himself standing not at the pearly gates of heaven, but at the threshold of the underworld.

"Welcome to eternity!" says the devil. "And now, you have a choice on how to spend it."

He opens door number one. Three men are standing on their heads on a grassy lawn.

"What's behind door number two?" asks Joe. Three men are standing on their heads on concrete.

"Door number three?" asks Joe.

Three men stand up to their knees in human excrement. But they're drinking coffee. Joe thinks it through for a while, figures he would probably get used to the smell eventually, and at least he won't be thirsty.

"Door number 3," he decides.

As the door locks behind him, a voice comes over the loudspeaker. "Break's over. Back on your heads!"

Which leads me to this fall's ballot questions. Two of them are amendments to the state constitution (60 and 61). One of them is a proposition (101), which means it can be amended by the legislature.

All of them have a single purpose: to lower taxes.

Despite that simple summary, all of the measures are surprisingly complex. For a good, even-handed discussion of them, including arguments for and against, I highly recommend the Ballotpedia site (Google "ballotpedia colorado 2010").

This week, I'll focus primarily on Amendment 60. It has many provisions. I'll highlight just a few important ones:

* First, it overturns all local elections since 1992 that exempted local governments from Doug Bruce's TABOR restrictions. Those restrictions are restored.

* Second, any property tax increases that the voters approved during that time will be restated to the dollar amount specified in the original ballot question. So let's say the voters approved a mill levy increase of 2 mils in 1992. Back then, it generated $200,000 a year. But property values rose over the past 18 years. Let's say that last year, 2 mils equaled $1,000,000. Under Amendment 60, it goes back to $200,000.

* Third, it mandates the phased-in reduction of school property taxes by half, and requires the state to pick it up instead. The Colorado Legislative Council analysis says that this would require 99% of all state funding to go to local schools. It's not clear how it would pay for other mandated services.

As part of the library's budgeting process, we've tried to get a handle on just what these amendments, if approved by the state's voters (even if rejected by Douglas County), would mean for us.

I suspect that because these changes are so sweeping, they would likely be tied up in court for years to unravel all the implications. But the best analysis I can offer of the consequences of Amendment 60, for the library, is this:

* the first two provisions mentioned above would likely reduce our $21 million annual budget by over $11 million. That's a 52% cut.

* the library spends the bulk of its money on people. Currently, we employ 331 people to operate 7 libraries, most of them 7 days a week.

* to balance our budget, I would expect to lay off at least 172 people. Not because business is down, by the way. Libraries are busier than ever.

* with half as many people, it seems inevitable that all of our libraries would reduce their days and hours of operation. It seems likely that at least some of our libraries - the ones we rent rather than own - may close altogether.

People often say to government workers, "I pay your salary!" And if they're taxpayers, that's true. But they forget that we pay their salaries, too. Public employees go to the dentist, pay for kid's music lessons, buy car insurance, shop at the local grocery store, eat at local restaurants, pay for home repairs, and whittle away at their mortgages. Unless they don't have jobs.

In our economy, we're all connected. Eliminating an estimated 80,000 jobs statewide isn't likely to put more money in your pocket if fewer people can buy whatever you sell.

More about Amendment 61 and Proposition 101 next week. But for now, unlike old Joe, you might want to ask a few questions before your choose your future.