Monday, April 23, 2007

The Tallgrass - Westowne Water Tower Controversy

Last month an issue--the building of a new Waukesha water tower in the area surrounding the UWW campus--boiled into a short-lived, but intense, controversy.

There are two subdivisions in the University area on the northwest side of Waukesha: one abuts the eastern edge of campus, the other hugs the western edge. Westowne (to the east) comprises about four hundred fifty lots (small, with typical dimensions of 50 ft X 125 ft, just east of the campus. It's a working class neighborhood, has been there since 1924. [full disclosure: I live in Westowne, have for 16 years; and I love it.] Not so long ago it was out-in-the-country, beyond the western boundary of the City of Waukesha. Now it is viewed as inner-city.

In another world entirely is the Siepmann-developed Tallgrass experience. It was platted and offered for sale in 1995--and almost immediately built-out--following a pattern that had been quite successful, both economically and esthetically, for Siepmann in the 70s when the nearby Pebble Valley was developed. Siepmann's idea has been to place residences on relatively small parcels, but provide an extensive meandering greensward of unifying common space.

Tallgrass, by comparison, has seemed like too much of a good thing. The houses are gigantic, averaging almost double the size of those in Pebble Valley. Tallgrass is out-of-scale. The tract mansions seem crowded; trees will take many decades to grow to a size proportionate with the dwellings. Pebble Valley, in contrast, has matured nicely. Its neighborhoods are appealing and much desired by conservative homebuyers.

Because of all the burgeoning subdivisions--Tallgrass for one--being annexed to the City, water pressure in the northwest pressure zone has been deemed insufficient. There has been, since 1991, on the boundary between UWW and Tallgrass (and the cornfield that preceded Tallgrass), a 65 ft standpipe (a type of comparatively short, squat water tower that resembles a silo rather than a mushroom). It was there, on high ground, looming over several properties in Tallgrass from the beginning. Most in Tallgrass couldn't see the standpipe; those lots that were close were said to have sold last and at a discount.

But the replacement tower is to be huge, over a hundred feet tall, with the bulk of the water storage in the upper half of a more typical balloon-on-a-stick water tower. It is going to be visible from most of the houses in Tallgrass.

The Tallgrassers (at least some of them) weren't happy. They pouted. They did a lot of homework and came forward with a lengthy and detailed jeremiad backed up by sixteen pages of topographical, geological, aerial photographical, economical, taxical and obtusely analytical argumentation. It was all very reminiscent of the famous Officer Obie report: "...twenty seven color, glossy photographs, with circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one," the backbone of his airtight case against Arlo and the gang from Alice's Restaurant.

Their demand: Move that water tower over to the edge of that working class subdivision.

And why? We pay more taxes than they do.

Here's the page from their proposal with the rationale.

(reader: kindly forgive the inability of this blogger to get an inserted page up to readable size. The highlighted line is: "Tallgrass Subdivision Seemingly Pays nearly 2 1/2 times more taxes than University Meadows"

It is a corrosive and particularly ugly assertion.

We have by virtue of the size and location and valuation of our residences an a priori entitlement to extra consideration, preferential treatment, extraordinary deference.

Where do these people get such distorted notions?

Well, recently, they've come from members of the Waukesha City Council:

Alderman James Connors, October, 2005: "A lot of my constituents have assessments of over $360 thousand and they don't think they are getting their money's worth."

Connors, again, in October 2006: "My constituents are paying more than their fair share."

Alderman Rick Tortomasi, December 19, 2006, in a Waukesha Freeman guest opinion: "The west side is expanding even further west with the addition of of hundreds of new homes well above the Medium [sic] -priced home in this city. That means they are taxed higher than the average city taxpayer."

This attitude and belief is corroding a fundamental understanding.

The owner of each home in Waukesha pays at exactly the same rate of taxation.

Eighteen and seven hundred seventy seven thousand, eight hundred sixty seven millionths of a dollar/per thousand dollars of assessed valuation. $18.77 per thousand, for short. (Honest, look at a tax bill. The tax rate is precisely computed to six decimal places). Each of us has his or her own multiplier--the value of our property. Anyone who doesn't like the size of the multiplier is in complete control of that variable.

If you cannot afford the taxes, you've got too much house. Don't moan about how some--at the high end--are taxed higher than the rest, or that they are paying more than a fair share. And, if you're a politician, don't encourage that kind of thinking.

Note : My wife, my children, and I know a number families and individuals who live in Tallgrass. Wonderful, decent, modest, generous people. It is clear that not every one of the residents of that nearby neighborhood stood behind (or even knew about) the statements made by the vocal group. Doubly a shame, because they may get tarred with the same brush. But not by me--A special thank you to those Tallgrass residents who apologized for the ugliness of the whiners.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Waukesha Water Utility pushes "aggressive" (their word) conservation pricing plan. It is a lightweight, lackluster attempt.

The monthly meeting of the Waukesha Water Utility was held this afternoon.

News: Tortomasi is out. Bull is in. Rick Tortomasi was appointed as Common Council member, less than a year ago. It made little sense to put him on the Utility Commission a year ago, as he had just been elected, didn't know his way around. Nelson also put him on the Finance Committee, as a greenhorn. He was clearly in way over his head. No word on why he's out. So, a year of orientation is wasted.

Peggy Bull--appointed Alderman a year ago, ran for her seat unopposed last month--is the newest greenhorn alderman, who will need months to get up to speed. Probably for the best, though. Tortomasi contributed little. Bull is bright and in touch with the broad issues.

"Seldom-seen" Commissioner, Gerald Couri was absent AGAIN. Mayor also absent, so a quorum of three did business.

In the midst of a long list of routine approvals of contracts and consultants came the unveiling of the "ascending block" pricing of water to residential customers.

In the past in Waukesha, and universally throughout Wisconsin, water utilities have had "descending block" pricing schemes. Under pressure to demonstrate aggressive conservation measures as a condition of tapping Lake Michigan water, the Utility has turned the system on its head. Presently, customers pay $1.69 per thousand gallons of water--up to 75 thousand. Gallons used beyond 75K cost $1.46 per thousand gallons. The price keeps descending in blocks, thus the name. The more you use, the cheaper it gets. Not exactly a formula for conservation.

It is not actually a new idea; this blogger--long before the word "blog" was in the vocabulary--urged the Commission to go to an effective ascending block pricing scheme. What the Commision is backing is a weak attempt, weak to the point of being little more than symbolic.

Peggy Steeno, the Commission's Administrative Services Manager--an accountant with an extremely sharp pencil and a refreshing air of competence--is often the only one in the room willing to cut through the BS. After outlining the new pricing scheme:

First 30,000 Gal. --- $1.69 per thousand gallons
Next 10,000 Gal. --- $1.92 per thousand gallons
Over 40,000 Gal. --- $2.24 per thousand gallons

She announced the actual effect on customers. Words to the effect that "This will only apply to people for whom it doesn't matter". What's the problem? Hardly anyone among the utility customers gets into the second block. They have the brackets all wrong. Good concept, bad execution.

All that straining to present this scheme as revolutionary (My pop, God rest him, a lefty to his core, always warned me to be wary of suburbanites announcing that they are in the vanguard of this-or-that revolution) and they have produced a weak-kneed Potemkin Village of a plan. It has been crafted to have minimum effect on the water usage behavior of the customers and to keep revenues up. The current rate case (including this bogus ascending block element) before the Public Service Commission wants an increase of 17%.

And they already have projected another rate increase of 17% in January, 2009--19 months away.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Henry, why are you here...? Waldo, why are you not here?

This exchange of e-mail with my son in Bangkok (a recent graduate, working an internship in Thailand) is an attempt to fulfill an obligation incumbent on all civil disobedients--public declaration and acknowledgement of consequences.

On 4/13/07, Jim Bouman wrote: [from Waukesha]
It is 6:45 Friday evening here, a really nice day. We'll grill some chicken in a little while, then watch a movie.

Mom and I talked something over and made a decision. We'll probably owe about $6,000 (in four quarterly chunks) in federal taxes on the 16th of April [see April 17 update below]. We are going to send in the tax form with that number on the bottom line.

We will be sending a letter instead of a check, explaining that we refuse to pay this first installment. If they want it, they'll be doing what they did the last time we did this--in the 1970s. They came and took my check, our savings, mom's check. One day they even came to the house on Madison Street and threatened to impound our car to cover the taxes and penalties we had incurred. Those were the days.

And we're back to doing it. This war is so ugly. It is a crime committed by this generation, that will be hung on you and your children to pay for.

I'll start the grill now.
Talk to you soon. Sunday early would be a good to time to Skype.


On 4/14/07, jesse bouman wrote: [from Bangkok]
I don't understand what withholding taxes actually does. Does it make you feel better, that you are doing something against the war? Is it productive in any way? Are there any real benefits that come from this decision? I don't see the benefits outweighing the costs and I think there are more practical ways to voicing your opinion. You are living in an age where technology gives anyone the ability to voice their opinion. You have a blog, use it. National publications quote blogs as sources now; you know this. Something like [blogging] can incite actual change. I don't agree with withholding taxes....

It's your life, your money, and your decision.


On April 15, Jim Bouman wrote [from Waukesha]:
Thoreau called it: "...the Duty of Civil Disobedience".

Thoreau objected, to the very core of his being, to the Mexican War--perhaps the most unjust war in earlier American history)--in 1847. There were a number of taxes citizen Thoreau was obligated to pay, including a poll tax, road tax and others, but no income tax. Refusal to pay the poll tax carried more weight than mere words. To be sure and he and others had written and spoken many words on the Mexican War--all to little effect in ending it. He went to jail for that refusal. While he was in jail, his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson came to visit and said: "Henry, why are you here?". To which Thoreau responded: "Waldo, why are you not here?".

Refusing to pay a portion of taxes that are specifically required for carrying out war was his--and now my--way of speaking with greater force and urgency.

One cannot be a tax evader--one who tries to get away with non-payment of taxes. The refusal must be public, intentional, principled, carefully-thought-out, and with the aim of stopping something that has not been stoppable by the ordinary constitutionally-protected means --public statements, organizing, working together in groups, blogging.

This war has now gone on for 49 months. The cost in lives and treasure and suffering is beyond imagining for most of us. More than 650,000 Iraqi lives (the vast majority of them civilian non-combatants), more than $416 billion, four million refugees, 3,300 American lives. And the President is arguing that his Iraq project needs $92 billion more, right now, and demanding that Congress appropriate that money right now.

And these April 16 taxes we intend to refuse to pay are to be part of that wad that will be spent. Sending in the money is assent; it says that we are doing our part

We pay--cheerfully--for Head Start and cops and streetlights and Universities and research and foreign aid, and school bands and orchestras--most everything else that is governmental. And since 1975 we have always paid, cheerfully, on-time, all the taxes we owed, Federal State and Local.

And we always, always vote.

At this moment, though, we think that these things are not enough.

We are going to do it publicly; we'll be urging others to do it, as well (punishable as conspiracy). And, perhaps, like a snowball rolling down hill, it will gather the weight and mass necessary to become a roadblock to more of this war, more of any war.

A story: In 1970, mom and I joined the war tax resistance and refused to pay a portion of income tax, as well as a little-known excise tax that had been identified as being specifically necessary to pay for war. It was the 10% telephone excise tax on long distance phone service. Eventually about 50 thousand Americans began refusing each month to pay this phone tax. The way we did it was to send in payment for phone service to the phone company and deduct the 28 cents or 41 cents (some piddling amount) that was listed as Fed. Tax. The phone company simply reported to the IRS that the customer had refused the tax. Didn't hurt Ma Bell. The phone companies, in fact, hated being the unwilling tax collector.

People laughed at this ineffectual, chickenshit, approach to bringing the war machine to a halt. Johnson, then Nixon, just kept on escalating the Vietnam War, despite growing revulsion toward what we were doing in that far-off country.

But the kicker: years after Nixon was gone--resigned in disgrace for other war-related criminal activity, (it wasn't the crime, it was the cover-up) his White House/Oval Office taping system that had secretly recorded years of presidential conversations was released, a few tapes at a time, by the National Archives.

There, in the Oval Office, at just the moment he was preoccupied with the heat coming down and impending impeachment, Nixon is heard complaining loud and bitterly to Haldemann to "Get something done about those damned telephone tax protesters".

Drip, drip, drip. Twenty eight cents a month multiplied by 50 thousand. It clearly got under the skin of the guy--sleazy, lowlife, quack-Quaker that he was--we were sending a message to.


Update: Our extremely competent and and conscientious tax accountant informs us that we actually overpaid 2006 taxes by about $3000--a combination of lack of coordination between quarterly estimated tax payments and withholding on withdrawals from IRAs.

I'm torn beween "Drat!" and "Cool"! The refusal will have to wait until July estimated payment is due (drat). The unexpected refund will go to paying off the school debts of our two--a recent graduate (that's you) and a soon-to-graduate (that's Daisy).
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Of the biblical allotment of three score and ten I have lived only three of them more than a bicycle ride from one of the Great Lakes. I grew up ten blocks from Lake Erie in the (once Irish/Italian ghetto, now newly-hip) "Near West Side" of Cleveland. I can still cycle to the Milwaukee lakefront in an hour and a half; but, a round-trip has always been more than I would (noror ever did) attempt. -0- I'm a "...somewhat combative pacifist and fairly cooperative anarchist," after the example of Grace Paley (1922-2007). -0- I'm always cheerful when I pay my taxes (having refused--when necessary--to pay that portion of them dedicated to war). -0- And I always, always vote.