Category Archives: Planning

Could Surry Be an 80-Year Nuke?

Surry1By Peter Galuszka

Here’s a new twist on the carbon emission debate: Dominion Virginia Power is considering seeking federal approval run its 40-plus year-old Surry nuclear power station for another 40 or so years.

The arguments in favor are that keeping the two-units at Surry (1,600 megawatts) going would be a lot cheaper than building a brand new plant. Nukes do not contribute much at all to greenhouse gases and climate change compared to coal or natural gas plants.

The huge issue, however, is safety. Can you really expect a nuke whose design dates back to the 1960s to run until 2054? Surry’s plants near Jamestown were once the most heavily fined in the nation because of their repeated safety problems. Constant use can affect any number of crucial components such as making reactor metal brittle, pulverizing concrete and becoming more susceptible to earthquakes and storms.

According to the New York Times, Dominion hasn’t decided whether to apply to extend Surry’s life span. Other possible extended life reactors are Duke’s three Oconee units near Seneca, S.C. and Exelon’s Peach Bottom not that far from Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania.

Dominion is also pushing ahead with a third new unit at North Anna, but the price tag for that apparently would be many times what extending Surry would be. But there are no hard figures about the cost of the new nuke ($10 billion to $14 billion, maybe) or how much Surry would cost.

The news is curious coming just as the staff of the State Corporation Commission came out with a curious report slamming proposal EPA rules on cutting carbon emissions. Although the SCC’s opinions are murky and badly-documented, it raises fears that a bunch of coal-fired generation in Virginia will be shut down due to EPA regs. Hot flash: a bunch was going to be shut down anyway because it dates back to the 1940s and 1950s.

I don’t know enough about the current Surry operation to know what and how extending its life would proceed and whether it would be safe.

That said, I refer to my own reporting past – the 1979 when I was a reporter at The Virginian-Pilot. Another reporter and I spent weeks at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s archives in Bethesda, Md. poring over safety documents. This was back when newspapers had the money to do that kind of reporting.

Our result was a big investigative piece that made banner headlines on the front page one Sunday with two full pages inside. I’d include the cite since it is too old to have one. We found a multitude of issues at Surry ranging from faulty radiation monitoring for workers to faulty snubbers which are rod-like shock absorbers to mitigate earthquake-like movements.

Dominion, then Vepco, hated the story and tried to tear it down. But Vepco was undergoing a corporate sea-change away from its institutional arrogance related to some extent by the former Navy submarine officers were not used to being questioned by outsiders. Vepco was getting hit by Wall Street because its sloppy nuclear program resulted in extended outages. They ended up hiring a ringer engineer who cleaned up their act and later the company transformed into something more modern.

Even so, a decade after we did our story, there were still plenty of concerns about safety at Surry.

The big question is how can you keep a car designed in the 1960s going strong nearly 100 years later? Maybe they have the answers in Havana.

Petersburg’s Renaissance

PetersburgBy Peter Galuszka

Petersburg has been a special place for me.

Years ago, when I’d pass through, I always felt I were driving onto the set of a 1950s or 1960s movie set in the South such as “Cape Fear” starring Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum. A somnambulant ease pervades the place as does the down-home friendliness you don’t get in pretentious Richmond 30 miles to the north up Interstate 95.

I got to know Petersburg a lot better when my two daughters went going to high school there at the Appomattox Regional Governors School for the Arts and Technology. Drawing from localities from Richmond to Isle of Wight and Franklin, the school body was bright, diverse and creative.

Driving my children if they missed the bus from Chesterfield was a pain but the effort was worth it since they had some fine teachers and avoided the White Toast trap of entitlement one gets into in more affluent suburban schools.

That’s when I was introduced to Petersburg’s nascent arts community. I went to plenty of “Fridays for the Arts” celebration and hung out at Sycamore Street with the kids.

Returning again recently, I found that the arts scene is really taking off. They  seem to be at a sustainable critical mass.

It is due primarily to the city’s policy of remaking itself by setting up an arts district that is nationally recognized as historic and offering tax credits and abatements for newcomers to renovate properties they buy from the city. The big expansion at the Fort Lee military base in 2005 really helped (although it’s due for a cut).

I wrote about it in a cover story in Style Weekly. The heroes and heroines are far-sighted city officials, arts willing to risk a lot remaking some truly historic buildings and the next wave, restaurants that aren’t owned by franchises, coming in.

Not everything is wonderful. Petersburg still has a weak public school system and a poverty rate of 28 percent, a point higher than Richmond’s. But it also doesn’t have the in-fighting among powerful interest groups that far bigger Richmond does. There’s no endless debate over building a baseball stadium in Shockoe Bottom (to line pockets of developers) or keeping it at the Boulevard.

There’s no high level brinksmanship about where to put a Children’s Hospital.

In Richmond, you see, ball fans and sick children are the last ones to be worried about. What matters is Mayor Dwight Jones, Bill Goodwin, Michael Rao, the Timmons Group and the editors of the Richmond Times Dispatch. They are important and you are not.

You don’t get that in Petersburg. The little city (population 32,000) that has a historical richness than rivals Richmond’s doesn’t think it is better than anyone else.

McAuliffe Dodges Mandatory Renewable Energy

coal plant burnsBy Peter Galuszka

It seems like two steps forward and one step back. That’s about the best I can come up with for Governor Terry McAuliffe’s new energy plan for Virginia.

On the two steps forward side, McAuliffe is pushing for more wind power and relaxing regulations to make it easier to back solar, such as allowing towns to create their own solar panel farms near their city limits.

The one step back is the usual commitment to energy sources of days before, such as a nuclear, offshore drilling for oil, coal and natural gas. That’s what former Governo Bob McDonnell wanted with his pipe dream of making Virginia “The Energy Capital of the East Coast.”

The biggest problem with the McAuliffe plan is that it dodges the issue of making Virginia’s Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS) mandatory. I asked Brian Coy, his press spokesman about this, and he said that the governor sees that as something for the future.

Maybe better late than never, but the fact that Virginia has always bowed to the power of Big Energy and declined to make mandatory the conversion of a certain amount of electricity generation to renewable sources such as wind, solar, geothermal and hydroelectric.

Plain and simple, that is why Virginia gets an embarrassingly low six percent of its power from renewables and is far behind states like Maryland and North Carolina that have mandatory standards. One wonders why Virginia seems so exceptional. The only answer that I can come up with is that Old Energy firms such as utility Dominion and coal baron Alpha Natural Resources are huge contributors to political candidates of both stripes.

Dominion praised the governor’s efforts and the Sierra Club had lukewarm approval.

The problem with shifting to renewables is that not making it mandatory by law gives Big Fossil and Nuclear an immediate price advantage. Coal is deadly, messy and is a major contributor to climate change. A few years ago, there might have been a greater push towards wind and solar to replace it. But hydraulic fracking came along, bringing a big boost to natural gas from hard-to-reach geologic formations.

Thus, gas pushed out coal (although conservative Big Fossil types claim it is Barack Obama’s over-regulation but that just ain’t so) on economic terms. It has probably delayed advanced nuclear technology and most certainly has delayed solar and wind. They are expensive now but won’t be in the future, so fracked gas’s great advantages won’t last forever.

Don’t believe me? Check out historical data on gas prices.

McAuliffe, meanwhile, is pushing such dubious projects as a 550-mile-long gas pipeline running over the tops of pristine and sensitive mountaintops and through lots of small towns that don’t have big corporate clout to change pipeline routes.

One more step back.

Tobacco Commission Needs Huge Makeover

tobacco leafBy Peter Galuszka

One more glaring example of mass corruption in Virginia is the grandly named Virginia Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission formed 14 years ago to dole out Virginia’s share of a $206 billion settlement among 45 other states with cigarette makers.

I’ve been writing for years about how millions of dollars are doled out with little oversight to economic development projects supposedly helpful to the former tobacco-growing parts of the state from the bright leaf belt around Dinwiddie out west to the burley leaf land of the mountains.

There have been no-strings giveaways to absentee tobacco quota holders, a board member sent to prison for siphoning off grant money and the shenanigans of the extended Kilgore family which is very politically powerful in those parts. The commission even figured in the McDonnell corruption trial starring the former and now convicted governor and back-slapping witnesses for the prosecution, entrepreneur and tobacco-believer Jonnie R. Williams Sr.

I revisit the issue in Sunday’s Washington Post and I ask the obvious question of why no one seems to watching the commission. I raise broader ones, too, such as why the commission  serves only people in the tobacco belt. That doesn’t seem fair since the Attorney General’s office represented all of the state in the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement against four major tobacco firms. People in Hampton Roads, Arlington, Onancock and Winchester should be benefit but get nothing from the settlement. They didn’t  because tobacco road legislators pulled a fast one back in 1999 when they set things up.

There needs to be a thorough disassembling of the commission’s current governance structure with many more people far from Tobacco Road included. There’s far too much family and friend back-scratching as it is. It is like watching a vintage episode of the Andy Griffith show but it really isn’t funny.

(Hat tip to James A. Bacon Jr. who spotted the commission as a great story back in the year 2000 when he was publisher of Virginia Business).

So, please read on.

The Huge Controversy Over Gas Pipelines

atlantic coast pipeline demonstratorsBy Peter Galuszka

Just a few years ago, Gov. Terry McAuliffe seemed to be a reasonable advocate of a healthy mix of energy sources. He boosted renewables and opposed offshore oil and gas drilling. He was suspicious of dangerous, dirty coal.

Then he started to change. During the campaign last year, he suddenly found offshore drilling OK, which got the green community worried. But there’s no doubt about his shifts with his wholehearted approval of the 550-mile Atlantic Coast Pipeline proposed by Duke Energy, Piedmont Natural Gas and AGL Resources, along with Richmond-based Dominion, one of McAuliffe’s biggest campaign donors.

The $5 billion Atlantic Coast Pipeline is part of a new phenomenon – bringing natural gas from the booming Marcellus Shale fields of Pennsylvania, Ohio and northern West Virginia towards busy utility markets in the Upper South states of Virginia, North Carolina and parts ones even farther south. Utilities like gas because it is cheap, easy to use, releases about half the carbon dioxide as coal, which is notorious for labor fatalities, disease, injuries and global warming.

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline would originate at Clarksburg, W.Va. (one of my home towns) and shoot southeast over the Appalachians, reaching heights of 4,000 feet among rare mountain plants in the George Washington National Forest, and then scoot through Nelson, Buckingham Nottoway Counties to North Carolina. At the border, one leg would move east to Portsmouth and the Tidewater port complex perhaps for export (although no one has mentioned that yet). The main line would then jog into Carolina roughly following the path of Interstate 95.

It’s not the only pipeline McAuliffe likes. An even newer proposal is the Mountain Valley Pipeline that would originate in southern West Virginia and move south of Roanoke to Chatham County. It also faces strong local opposition.

atlantic_coast_pipeline mapThe proposals have blindsided many in the environmental community who have shifted some of their efforts from opposing coal and mountaintop removal to going after hydraulic fracking which uses chemicals under high pressure and horizontal drilling to get previously inaccessible gas from shale formations. The Marcellus formation in Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio and West Virginia, the birthplace of the American oil and gas industry, has been a treasure trove of new gas.

The fracked gas boom has been a huge benefit to the U.S. economy. It is making the country energy independent and has jump started older industries in steel, pipe making and the like. By replacing coal, it is making coal’s contribution to the national energy mix drop from about 50 percent to less than 40 percent and is cutting carbon dioxide emissions that help make for climate change.

That at least, is what the industry proponents will tell you and much of it is accurate. But there are big problems with natural gas (I’ll get to the pipelines later). Here’s Bill McKibben, a Middlebury College professor and nationally known environmentalist writing in Mother Jones:

Methane—CH4—is a rarer gas, but it’s even more effective at trapping heat. And methane is another word for natural gas. So: When you frack, some of that gas leaks out into the atmosphere. If enough of it leaks out before you can get it to a power plant and burn it, then it’s no better, in climate terms, than burning coal. If enough of it leaks, America’s substitution of gas for coal is in fact not slowing global warming.

Howarth’s (He is a biogeochemist) question, then, was: How much methane does escape? ‘It’s a hard physical task to keep it from leaking—that was my starting point,’ he says. ‘Gas is inherently slippery stuff. I’ve done a lot of gas chromatography over the years, where we compress hydrogen and other gases to run the equipment, and it’s just plain impossible to suppress all the leaks. And my wife, who was the supervisor of our little town here, figured out that 20 percent of the town’s water was leaking away through various holes. It turns out that’s true of most towns. That’s because fluids are hard to keep under control, and gases are leakier than water by a large margin.

Continue reading

The Emerging Exurban Dead Zone

Hope Plantation, Bertie County, N.C., circa 1800. The McMansion of its day.

Hope Plantation, Bertie County, N.C., circa 1800. The McMansion of its day.

by James A. Bacon

The Northern Virginia exurbs, like exurbs across the country, are cruising for a bruising. EM Risse would never express himself so inelegantly or imprecisely but that’s the thrust, in colloquial terms, of a new essay, “The Great Submergence,” he has posted on his website.

The United States economy, argues Risse, a former Bacon’s Rebellion contributor, is in the midst of a profound shift — what he calls the U Turn — away from the scattered, low-density pattern of growth widely referred to as “suburban sprawl” (a label he avoids as a “core confusing word”) toward infill and re-development of the nation’s urban cores. This trend, which is taking place for reasons amply documented on this blog, has profound implications for homeowners and political jurisdictions on the metropolitan edge where landowners, developers and speculators valued land with the expectation that it would be developed some day into shopping centers, office parks and residential subdivisions.

Given the cost of providing transportation, utilities and municipal services, the logical limit for development in the Washington metropolitan region is about 20 to 35 miles from the metropolitan center in Washington, D.C., Risse writes. Land beyond that limit, he contends, is experiencing collapsing demand as people seek to live closer to the metropolitan core, closer to jobs and amenities in walkable communities with more transportation options. That collapse he calls “the Great Submergence.”

Some clusters of development may adapt and survive but others will be economically unsustainable and wilt away. Another phrase for “wilt away” would be “dry up and blow away,” just like western mining towns when the claims ran dry, just like Great Plains farming towns during the Dust Bowl and Depression. Risse’s home town of Warrenton, he warns, is the “bulls eye of the danger zone.”

As demand evaporates for single-family dwellings on large lots in remote locations, land and housing prices will fall. Every new single-family dwelling built in Greater Warrenton-Fauquier (and other communities situated more 25 to 30 miles from the metropolitan center) will serve to drive down the value of existing properties. Writes Risse:

The downward trend will be exacerbated by the fact that there are dwellings selling BELOW their replacement cost. Further, there will be many scattered Units that have not been maintained, which will further deflate the market via assessment / appraisal “comparables.”

Declining land and improvement values, he says, will have a devastating impact on municipal tax bases in this exurban dead zone as well as household net worth, much of which is composed of housing equity.

Bacon’s bottom line: I’m in 95% agreement with Risse. The reason I hesitate to say 100% is that there are powerful forces at work to sustain “sprawl,” the most important of which is the slow pace, due to zoning restrictions, at which urbanized jurisdictions close to the Washington metropolitan core can free more land for more compact, higher-density development. If demand for housing exceeds supply in Washington’s urban core, growth will default to exurban communities (beyond the 25-mile radius) planned and approved in the 2000s simply because there is nowhere else to build.

With that caveat aside, I share Risse’s larger concern. A dozen or more exurban counties on the metropolitan fringe of Washington, Richmond and Hampton Roads are likely to experience deflating land values, shrinking real estate property revenues and chronic fiscal stress. Their scattered, low-density settlement patterns have high embedded costs and local governments will be hard-pressed to maintain the supporting services and infrastructure. Once the newness wears off and depreciation sets in, these places will become worn, shabby and dilapidated.

Driving back from vacation on the North Carolina coast a couple of weeks ago, I passed through a dozen hamlets and crossroads in farming communities. I was shocked to see so many boarded up and tumble-down buildings that property owners had simply abandoned. The knowledge economy has passed these inland communities by. Sure, the real estate is cheap but no one wants to live there anymore. The houses don’t even have for-sale signs on them. The price of better houses is so low that it’s not even worth patching up the decaying ones. Virginia’s exurbs have not reached that stage yet. But give them time. Let the shiny newness wear off. In 20 years, we could see the same thing.

Those who miss Risse’s writing on Bacon’s Rebellion should check out the “Current Perspectives” on his website.

Update: Ed Risse has responded to Larry Gross’ comments on this post in the form of an essay, “Blogging, Geographical Illiteracy and the Great Submergence.”

Maureen McDonnell and Sexism

maureen_and_bob(1)By Peter Galuszka

Sitting for hours listening to former Gov. Robert F. McDonnell testify in his federal corruption trial makes one wonder exactly what his values are, especially as they relate to women.

His entire legal strategy is to “Throw Maureen Under the Bus” – namely his lawyers and those of his co-defendant wife Maureen are portraying Ms. McDonnell as a “basket case” who set up a lot of funny meetings with snake oil salesman Jonnie Ray Williams Sr., accepted expensive gifts from him with promptly telling her husband, and communicated with him 1,200 times in about a year and a half (one day it was 52 text messages.)

She is bad and deceptive. He is good and didn’t know much about her messy friendship with Williams. She is guilty. He is innocent (or so it goes).

Gov. Bob, helmet hair perfect as usual, took the jurors through a horrible litany of his long-decaying marriage to college sweetheart Maureen. While she was screaming and intimidating her staff, he was slogging through “the business of governing” for endless hours every day.

When she approached Ann Romney, wife of Republican presidential candidate on the campaign trail in 2012 and offered the woman who suffers from MS some “Anatabloc,” Williams’ miracle pills, Bob overhead it and was “embarrassed.”

There is something deeply disturbing, however, about McDonnell and his attitudes. He seems to have come from a bygone era when men worked long hours, held major responsibilities and answered to the most important thing in their lives – their overweening ambition.

The husband was ordained by God to do great things, be a Boy Scout, and write his name in history books. His wife was to stay barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen knitting socks or selling silly vials of creams.

McDonnell has since disowned this little passage he wrote at Regent University (Pat Robertson’s school) back in 1989 when he was a graduate student, but it seems strangely relevant. He tried to create some kind of conservative, faith-based government paradigm that would cut taxes, open charter schools and the like. He wrote:

“Further expenditures would be used to subsidize a dynamic new trend of working women and feminists that is ultimately detrimental to the family by entrenching status-quo of nonparental primary nurture of children.” The kicker is his view that feminism is one of the “real enemies of the traditional family.”

Well, a hell of lot of good that thinking has done since he has steadily, deliberately humiliated his wife in a bid to avoid jail time. A parade of defense witnesses, mostly McDonnell cronies, have humiliated Ms. McDonnell as a grabby, irrational, fashion-mad bimbo who just didn’t get it when Bob patiently told her that the stock she held in Star Scientific, Williams’ firm, had lost half their value and were a bad investment.

There are other giveaways that paint McDonnell as a self-important, entitled, superior little prig. Maureen had an apparently successful home-based business selling nutraceuticals like face creams. The Bob that may have sounded so pointlessly “womanish” but it is a big business. When he ran for statewide offices, he told Maureen to nix the biz.

Now wait a minute. Why should he tell his wife that she can’t run her own business she built up because his mission as a conservative political savior is just too important? Why does he get to decide?

One reason has roots in a kind of mid- 20th century philosophy that one used to see in black and white movies and television shows. There has been a deluge of testimony about the Virginia suburbs of DC roots of the McDonnells. Lots of military, conservative, family values, do-goodism, ticket punching (making colonel or the appropriate GS level position) having some silly affection for the Redskins or golf club bags with your school logo and so on. But the most obnoxious attitude is that the self-pride that one is doing something very important for his country and fellow citizens.

If you are male, you get to wear this cloak. If you are a woman, your first and foremost goal is to mind the kids and support your man and be a handmaiden to HIS career and ambitions. Watch the 1950s “Strategic Air Command” film” with Jimmy Stewart as a ballplayer pilot and his dutiful wife June Allyson. He makes the big decisions and flies the big bombers. She’s always waiting at the air base fence for him to come home so she can cook him fried eggs.

But McDonnell has a bigger problem than just this over-the-top sense of duty. By his own testimony, McDonnell is seriously addicted to political ambition. It is his oxycodone. His heroin. He gets a real kick by planning the next stage (vice president? president?) Maureen is left by herself and her screaming fits. Bob just tunes her out and spends as much time traveling and in his office as he can.

As he testified, McDonnell got a buzz from being a state legate and an even bigger buzz by running for attorney general and governor. One woman who seemed to be cheering him every step of the way was Janet Kelly, who ended up being Secretary of the Commonwealth when he became governor. She testified that when he wanted her for that spot, she told him flat out she could not work with Maureen. She didn’t.

Family values, anyone?

Is Pretentious Richmond Really Hooterville?

green acresBy Peter Galuszka

Is Richmond really Hooterville?

By golly gosh, that’s the impression that one might come away with after 14 days of testimony at the corruption trial of former Gov. Robert F. and Ms. Maureen McDonnell.

Pretentious Richmond likes to see itself as a genteel and sophisticated historic relic with a Southern snob appeal rivaling Charleston, S.C.; an architecture and culture that worship the English (although the best of the Brit lot didn’t always end up here); and basic unfriendliness. At the upper levels, people whose can’t trace their families back several generations are not really welcome unless they have lots of money, which bespeaks Richmond’s more honest background as a service and industrial town.

“RVA” as its promoters like to now brand it, is supposed to be a tourism and great restaurant destination with professional service (that’s a laugh). Residents are supposed to enjoy a high life that goes well beyond a burg of 1.25 million trapped in the distant shadows of Washington, D.C.

To be sure, some younger Richmonders are thankfully well beyond these handcuffs. So are a passel of “come heres” who have brought the town more sophistication from Germany, Japan or Croatia or even from  even from such Deeper South spots as Charlotte and Atlanta — Charleston being little more than a tourist trap and shipping center. Richmond does have nice museums, art galleries and a popular baseball team that they’re trying to ruin by moving it to a congested, politically orchestrated spot.

But you’ve got to wonder. In recent trial testimony, the story was told of Jonnie R. Williams, star witness for the prosecution, who tried to court (among many others) Dr. George Vetrovec, a researcher at Virginia Commonwealth University. Williams was trying to get VCU’s and the University of Virginia’s imprimatur on Anatabloc, Williams’ over-the-counter anti-inflammatory so questionable it has just been pulled off the shelves nationally. The former used car salesman also dotted doctors’ meetings with props from Johns Hopkins University as if they were supposed to impress the supposedly lower-tier Virginia folks. To their credit, many state officials didn’t bite.

Dr. Vetrovec thought he was going with Williams to the Executive Mansion to sample some of Ms. McDonnell’s cookies which are supposed to be delicious. Instead, it was a reception for dynamite director Steve Spielberg, in town to film “Lincoln” in October 2011.

Wowie! Zowie! THE Spielberg! “This is the most unusual event you can ever imagine,” the doctor said. As readers can see from the link, Vetrovec’s statements were reprinted in the London media, giving Richmond a somewhat laughable reputation.

Huh? Where the hell are we? “Green Acres?” Go to any city that Richmond aspires to be like Atlanta, D.C. or New York. No one would go nutty over Spielberg-spotting. Movie stars and directors are like so, so what? But Richmond was mad about “Lincoln” and was chock-a-block with all the local stand-ins they hired. You couldn’t walk downtown without tripping over the beard of an extra that he might have waxed with bacon grease to give it an 1865 look and aroma.

My own sister was an extra in “The Exorcist” in Georgetown back in the 70s but she never regarded it as the high point of her life. It was more an amusing anecdote to be shared over a glass of wine. When I worked in Moscow in friendlier times in the 1990s, I was driving downtown near a hotel. I was amazed since it was covered in bullet holes – even more so that I didn’t hear the shots although I lived nearby. Turned out it had been a prop for a Val Kilmer movie and they hadn’t cleaned it up yet. Muscovites did not gush. They walked silently by.

So are Richmonders really that impressionable? Is it a deep sense of being second rate? Is it an over-sized turnip truck? Why were the McDonnells so impressed with Williams’ Ferrari that they had 25 pictures of them with it? Had they never seen a Ferrari before?

There’s the $5,000 bottle of Louis XIII cognac in New York’s Four Seasons hotel. Later, Williams spent something like $36,000 for a four-day getaway for six people including the McDonnells at a posh Cape Cod resort. The six tippled 16 glasses of Louis XIII for something like $125 a snifter. Their dinner menus included lobster, duck, steak and fish – all on Williams’ tab.

And on it goes – the Rolex, Louis Vuitton, Oscar de la Renta, the golf clubs and so on.

The obvious corruption is worrisome and hopefully the  federal (not state)  court will address it.The extra blow is that Richmond doesn’t just look bad, it looks ridiculous. It seems like a Third World capital, perhaps Jakarta, where traders and investors used to bring special goodies for Mrs. Suharto (a.k.a. “Mrs. Ten Percent.”)

Will Richmond be regarded as too simple to handle business, culture, science and education in  a much more interconnected and increasingly sophisticated world? Will foreign business scouts show up at RIC with suitcases full of cash, or maybe fake gold trinkets? Could it be that the McDonnells have it right — Richmond is really Hicksville after all?

The Chuck and Joe Traveling Municipal Salvation Show

The Joe and Chuck Traveling Municipal Salvation Show

Joe Minicozzi (left) and Chuck Marohn

Chuck Marohn and Joe Minicozzi, principals with Strong Towns and Urban3 respectively, travel the country telling cities, towns and counties how to build better communities while remaining fiscally solvent. I have borrowed heavily from both Chuck and Joe in my writing about land use, transportation and community building, and it’s reassuring to see that as their own thinking evolves, it has moved in concert with mine.

Most recently, Chuck has blogged about the paucity of useful information cities have to guide them in make zoning and capital spending decisions. He makes many of the same points I did in my recent post, “How Planners Can Rescue Virginia from the Fiscal Abyss.Writes Chuck:

Despite running corporations (most cities are “incorporated” municipalities) that have billions of dollars in assets and liabilities and annual cash flows in the tens, and sometimes hundreds, of millions of dollars, few ever ponder some shockingly simple questions.

  • What are our total assets, the value of the tax base that constitutes our community’s wealth?
  • What are the long term obligations for infrastructure maintenance associated with sustaining those assets?
  • In terms of geography, what parts of our community have a positive Net Present Value (cash from long term assets minus the cost of long term liabilities) and which have a negative Net Present Value?

The answers to these questions constitute a community’s balance sheet, the most basic of accounting requirements for any family or business but one which cities largely ignore. …

Since we don’t know the answer to these basic questions, we can’t even begin to ponder some more sophisticated, but obvious, things that all cities face.

  • How does that tax base change in response to certain policy decisions?
  • What types of land use patterns create the most wealth for the community?
  • What types of land use patterns experience the greatest degree of volatility?
  • How does a park impact Net Present Value? How far from the park does that effect extend?
  • How does a stroad impact Net Present Value? How far from the stroad does that effect extend?
  • Where can we deploy limited resources to have the greatest overall impact?

Keep up the good work, Chuck and Joe!

– JAB

State Workers: GiftGate’s Unsung Heroes

mcD.pixBy Peter Galuszka

The McDonnell corruption trial, now going into its third week, is an enormously sad and tawdry affair bringing shame on the defendants and the prosecution’s key witness, businessman Jonnie R. Williams Sr.

Yet there are heroes — state employees. A number of them have testified over the past week that they sensed that something stunk with the way Williams, who has no formal science training, relentlessly pushed his questionable product and maneuvered to get the state’s prestigious universities to put their imprimatur on it so it could move from being a low margin neutraceutical to a real and profitable pharmaceutical.

“Perhaps the only gratifying aspect of the trial last week was the extraordinary professionalism of the Virginia bureaucracy,” Richmond political analyst Bob Holsworth told the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

He’s spot on. One reads so many attacks on government workers among more conservative writers who see public workers as slow-minded except when it comes to tying business up with regulations — the theory goes. Private workers build wealth and create products. Public workers live off the taxpayer’s dime and should be fired in droves, one theory goes.

Not true in the McDonnells’ case. Tae Health and Human Resources Secretary William Hazel. Former Gov. Bob McDonnell pushed him, including with late night-emails, to set up meetings to promote Williams and his Anatabloc product.

Hazel responded with not only brave professionalism but common sense. “I wouldn’t put the stuff in my mouth,” he testified. When Williams gave him samples, he didn’t put it down in his disclosure forms because “I didn’t think it had any value.”

Hazel is a serious doctor of medicine, honed by science and reason. Someone like that just isn’t going to be swayed by a business hustler with a private jet, Ferrari, various vacation homes and a gigantic credit limits on his cards.

Other heroes and heroines appear to be some of McDonnell’s staff such as Sarah Scarbrough, former director of the Executive Mansion, who worried about Maureen McDonnell’s “mental capacity” and campaign manager Phil Cox who was upset when Ms. McDonnell pushed Williams’ little pills on Ann Romney, the wife of the GOP’s 2012 presidential candidate.

Somewhat less impressive are other witnesses from Star Scientific, Williams’ former company. Former Chairman Paul Perito claimed that he had no idea just what Williams had given the McDonnells and how deeply he had gotten into  the muck with them.

Last summer, I was spending a lot of time reporting on Star and admit that I could never figure it out. Williams’ seemed like money-losing huckster — someone so over-the-top that he could be easily seen through. Yet the other officers and directors at Star, like Harvard-trained Perito, seemed solid.

Perito nixed McDonnell’s campaign to become a paid board member of Star (she’s hardly qualified) and he seemed stunned when Williams’ told him in 2013 that he’d been interviewed by the FBI and state police. It raises questions about Perito that he didn’t know of all of this much sooner.

Still, many Virginia workers caught up in this farcical mess deserve credit for sticking to their guns and professionalism. Hats off to them.