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Archive for July 2011

29
Jul

Traveling east? Be ready for detours

I drove to South Dakota yesterday and was wholly unprepared for the fact that Interstate 680 and Interstate 29 were both detoured — meaning I got to drive through Omaha and on a 26-mile journey east of Omaha before doubling back to get back on track.

Yes, I know the Might Mo is flooding all over the Midwest — but you have to drive it to realize how many roads and bridges are under and impassable. It is incredible.

Here’s an example of what the intersection of I-29 and Highway 2 looked like a month ago, and the last week of July:

The Wendy's and a hotel near the intersection of highway 2 and Interstate 29 in early June.


The same intersection today.


The same intersection this week. (Photo courtesy Daniel Thompson.)

26
Jul

Dear God, Please don’t let my son die in a cornfield today

Alec (left) and Jacob (right) manage to muster a smile after returning from a long day of detassling.

How many Moms are so proud of their kids for doing a job that they take pictures of them after their shift ends?

Probably not many. But I often see Moms with cameras when the big yellow school bus rolls up to the church in southwest Lincoln carrying a load of young teenagers coming in from the cornfields after a day of detassling. Including my 14-year-old son, Jacob.

I’d never heard of detasseling until I moved to Nebraska, but it seems to be a rite of passage for many teens around here. To create hybrid corn seed, machines pull tassels off the cornstalks, and ambitious teenage Nebraskans pull off the ones that are missed for about three weeks in July.

It’s one of the few ways a young teenager can make a lot of money in just a few weeks. Somehow, the boy who often asks me to fetch him a drink of water decided he wanted to do it this summer.

His friends sold it as a fun adventure or some kind of get-rich-quick scheme. He cut off the footies on a pair of soccer socks, put them on his arms, pulled on a white T-shirt, shorts and long baseball socks, and off to the fields he went. He wears a bandana around his neck, and one of those net hats like beekeepers.

He has asthma and allergies, and I was afraid he’d die of an asthma attack out there in a cornfield. I briefly considered riding the bus with him and supervising his every move, but his allergy doctor said to give him a Zyrtec every day and send his inhaler along with him, and he’d be fine. I still think I should have gone with him, just in case.

The night before his first day in the field, we returned to Lincoln from a vacation in Texas and it was so humid here that the windows in my sunroom were fogged up. Someone told me the heat index was like 112 degrees that night.

What a great way to start the detassling season! I sent him on his way at 5:15 a.m. and prayed many times that day that he would live. That he would not have an asthma attack. That the heat wouldn’t overcome his 105-pound body. That he’d remember to hydrate, hydrate, hydrate.

I’ve never been so happy to get a text message from my son, saying the bus was on its way back to Lincoln. He was ALIVE! He got off the bus dirty from head to toe — with mud caked on the bottom of those $90 Nikes he just HAD to have a mere year ago. I think he realized his friends’ idea of “fun” was not the same as his.

Rain doesn’t stop the detasslers, who sometimes wear garbage bags over their clothes when it’s wet or dewy. Some days start out cold, like after a stormy night, and then suddenly turn hot. The kids often wear high-top shoes because it’s hard to balance and not twist ankles in the ridged rows as they reach for tassels, pop them off and throw them down. Over and over and over.

The jug full of ice melts to warm water within a few hours in the field where the heat index has regularly soared past 100 degrees this summer. And wherever the corn pokes through the clothing, he develops a nice little “corn rash.” And all of this for minimum wage.

In the paper today a Wahoo crop consultant said in all his years of checking out cornfields, he’s never seen it so hot in “the corn canopy.” Some parents make their kids detassle, to teach them to work. My son said one of those forced laborers simply laid down in the middle of the field one day and said, “I quit.”

I’ve picked rock and weeded gravel and pulled a garden full of weeds that were taller than I was for $5 — and my first real job was washing dishes in junior high — but I know I’ve never worked as hard as my son is out in the cornfields between here and York. I am quite certain that if you sent me out in a cornfield in the weather we’ve been having, I’d lay down and quit within an hour. Maybe sooner. And I’m not known for being a slacker.

I don’t know if it’s peer pressure or if he inherited my stubbornness or what, but he keeps going back, day after 100-degree day. After two weeks, he finally said, “Mom, I want to quit.” I said it was up to him, but he could take a day off. You don’t get a bonus if you miss a day, and he wanted that bonus. But he needed a break.

I told him no matter what he does from this point on, he’ll always look back on this job as the toughest job he ever had. When he’s the CEO of a Fortune 500 company some day, and Newsweek comes to interview him (more likely newsweek.com) he’ll talk about those days in the cornfield, where he learned how to work.

He took a day off. Then another day, because he had a baseball tournament. And on Monday morning, he went back to the fields for more.

My little detassler, after a day in the field.

I’m proud of him, but sometimes I cannot believe it’s legal to send those kids out into the fields when it’s this hot (although they start very early and quit early in the afternoon, escaping the brunt of the heat). A part of me fears one of those kids is gonna die out there. My friend makes her son do it and won’t let him skip a day. My mechanic thinks it outta be illegal.

And then I hear stories of “the old days” when Nebraska kids detassled without shirts on and without strict regulations and supervision or roving nurses.

So I tell myself to stop worrying so much. The season is almost over. The text saying “We’ll be home in an hour” will come. And it’ll be time to empty the cooler, wash it and fill it with tomorrow’s lunch.

And ice. Lots of ice.

26
Jul

Lead of the week

Only reporter Art Hovey could draw me into a corn pollination story with a lead like this in today’s Journal Star:

When it gets really hot during the pollination phase, the plant sex in the cornfield is not so hot.

25
Jul

Libraries haven’t collected late fees since May

While city hall is trying to figure out how to come up with nearly $10 million to bridge a budget gap, the city’s libraries have not been able to collect an estimated $29,000 in library fines since early May due to a computer snafu.

A Lincoln woman told me twice this summer she tried to pay her late fees, and twice was told the library couldn’t take her payment due to computer problems.

“Here I am willing to pay late charges for a service that I have used… and a city service who has been crying for years that it doesn’t have enough funding is not even using the systems set in place to legitimately generate revenue,” the woman said in an email. “I wonder how much work it is to fix the ‘computer problem’ and what revenue could be gained if the simple system of library overdue charges was being managed properly.”

So I asked the head of the library system, Pat Leach, what was going on, and she said all of Lincoln’s libraries moved to a “new automated system” on May 4. However, the city wasn’t able to install the software that notifies people by phone that they owe late fees, and library officials didn’t feel it was fair to assess charges before notifying people first, so fines were not assessed for items returned late during that time — and apparently will never be collected, Leach said.

“The process of that installation took a remarkable number of twists and turns, but should be installed this week,” Leach said recently in an email. “We hadn’t expected this to take so long. In the meantime, we felt it unfair to charge our customers when we weren’t able to notify them of overdues. As soon as the system is installed, you can be sure that we will be charging again.”

On Thursday, Leach said she expected to have the phone notification system “up and running within a few days.”

22
Jul

Journal Star owner axes 52 jobs in Arizona


The company that owns the Lincoln Journal Star made big layoffs this week at one of its large newspapers, the Arizona Daily Star.

According to the Tucson Sentinel, the Daily Star laid off 52 people on Thursday in what one former employee called a “a major bloodletting” for a paper with about 400 employees.

The Tucson paper reported that the company that owns Lincoln’s newspaper, Lee Enterprises,

is widely thought to be on the verge of bankruptcy. The decline in newspaper circulation in recent years, and the company’s crushing $1.1 billion debt from its purchase of the Pulitzer chain (which brought it the Star), have pushed Lee to cut costs.

After the Tucson Sentinel was reporting on the layoffs all day Thursday, the Arizona Daily Star finally reported briefly that it had eliminated some vacant positions and “realigned” its workforce.

“These actions, precipitated by the ongoing weakness in the economy and adjustments to our business model, made for a tough day,” said John M. Humenik, president and publisher of the Star.

21
Jul

Mayor urges supporters to write letters supporting his budget

I Tweeted a question earlier this week: “Does anybody else smell a letter-writing campaign?”

Lincoln Mayor Chris Beutler

And one of my readers responded: Yes, indeed, he’d received an e-mail on July 11 from Lancaster County Democrats and the mayor himself, asking him to support Mayor Chris Beutler’s budget by writing a letter to the editor of the paper, or the mayor (waa?) and the City Council.

I figured a little campaign was underway when I saw a letter to the editor from the mayor’s own chief of staff (Rick Hoppe), and the Democratic Party’s No. 1 fan, Phil Montag (who did campaign work for the Dems and Beutler during the last campaign) and still other letters from people practically begging Beutler to raise their taxes.

One woman even brought a petition to the City Council from people saying, “Raise my taxes!”

Now there’s nothing like a good ol’ grassroots effort to sway city hall — but these organized letter-writing campaigns are a sham, and it’s too bad the Journal Star doesn’t always recognize when it’s being played.

Here’s what Beutler’s letter to his fellow Dems said, in part:

Show your support for a budget that reduces the size of City Hall while keeping our families safe and preserving libraries, parks, pools, and senior citizen services. Write a letter to the editor by clicking HERE, email my office at mayor@lincoln.ne.gov and the City Council at council@lincoln.ne.gov. Make your voice heard at the upcoming public hearing on the budget August 8th.

So the mayor basically asked people to swamp the newspaper and city hall with letters and people on public hearing day. That’s old-fashioned politicking and maybe shouldn’t surprise anyone. I just thought you should know that when you see letters to the editor, they’re not always random people who suddenly were inspired to write a letter in support of the mayor and his tax increases. Sometimes, it’s just politics.

20
Jul

Woman calls police because McDonalds pop tasted “funny”

No I am not making this up. Why would you think that?

I have a police report to prove it: A 30-year-old Lincoln woman called the police Monday night to report that a Diet Coke she’d purchased at the McDonalds at 27th and Pine Lake Road tasted “funny” — that it tasted like rum was added to it.

“The McDonald’s manager concluded the syrup was low and fixed the problem,” Lincoln police spokeswoman Katie Flood said via e-mail. “No citations issued.”

Personally, I think they should have issued a citation: The pop at Lincoln McDonalds always tastes funny to me, and I’ve long suspected they just aren’t adding as much syrup as they’re supposed to. But what to cite them with? Syruptitious behavior?

20
Jul

Will wheel tax dollars continue pouring into Antelope Valley?

The mayor wants to increase the city's wheel tax on cars and trucks -- but will the money continue going toward the Antelope Valley project?


That’s my question, upon hearing that Mayor Chris Beutler is proposing to increase the wheel tax by $20 for cars (more for trucks) over the next three years.

One thing I learned while I was following the money being spent on the Antelope Valley Project a few years ago is that the city began diverting lots of wheel tax revenue to the project.

As of 2008, more than $12 million in wheel tax dollars had been funneled into the project — which irritated those who could see infrastructure elsewhere being neglected.

New roads were built in Antelope Valley, but other roads that were promised were not. When the wheel tax was bumped up $15 in 1995, city officials said they would widen Old Cheney Road from 70th to 84th streets, 56th Street from Old Cheney Road to Pine Lake Road and Pine Lake from 56th to Nebraska 2.

That never happened.

And before the Antelope Valley Project began, the city engineer promised it wouldn’t raid money from other street projects. Of course, it did.

And the city’s infrastructure shortfall grew — in 2008 city officials themselves said they had a $56 million shortfall of street work waiting to be done within the city limits. From 2004 to 2008, only one stretch of arterial street was resurfaced. Of course, now we’re finally seeing road work around town, in large part thanks to Obama’s stimulus dollars for shovel-ready projects.

So I guess if I were on the City Council and considering whether to grant Beutler this wheel tax increase, the question I’d ask is: Will any of the money go to Antelope Valley? Should it?

19
Jul

Fire station has few calls, but no rent, either


Have you been following the uproar over the mayor’s proposal to close down the fire station in Air Park, near the airport?

The city has tried to move station No. 11 since at least 2002, when Lincoln voters rejected a bond issue that would have relocated the station, which is now housed in an airport operations building owned by the Lincoln Airport Authority.

You may remember when in 2006 I wrote about a scurrilous attempt by someone in Mayor Coleen Seng’s administration to pull a fast one and get a new station built by claiming — falsely — that the Airport Authority was kicking the fire station out. They weren’t; the council changed it’s mind and wasn’t too happy about being misled.

Now, the issue is back on the front burner. It’s true, the station doesn’t see much action — averaging one call per day (even less back in 2006) — so workers there do a lot of other things. But it would also cost at least a million bucks to build a new station. And you’ve got to assume population is only going to grow in northwest Lincoln, isn’t it?

Interesting debate.

15
Jul

Arena board terminates program manager, and does other stuff


The three-member board overseeing Lincoln’s construction of a new arena in a railyard west of downtown cut loose the company that has been in charge of the whole deal up to now.

Read the background story here.

The Joint Public Agency:

• Ended its contract with a Virginia company that had been serving as program manager for the whole $340 million arena project, SAIC. Marvin and the mayor said SAIC was terminated because they decided the management structure was just too top-heavy and this is a way to save money on management. Mayor Chris Beutler thanked SAIC for their services and said a “good-sized engineering consortium,” city engineers and SAIC’s subcontractor, PC Sports, can handle things. Then the JPA approved a new contract with PC Sports that makes it the interim program manager while the city negotiates a permanent contract with the company.

• Was told that the last in a series of three bonds to finance the arena project — $100 million in tax-exempt bonds — will likely be issued on Aug. 9. The city’s investment advisor expects the JPA will pay a little higher interest rate than on the first two issuances, at 4.5 percent, compared to 3.25 and 3.75 percent. The City Council votes on the issuance on July 25.

• Approved a new one-year management contract with former Councilman Dan Marvin – who is the city’s arena go-to guy – that gives him a 4 percent raise to $88,150 per year.

• Was asked to approve the purchase of the Watson-Brickson lumber yard for $481,000 plus $314,000 in moving costs and $121,000 for racking expenses. However, JPA board member Tim Clare, a UNL regent, refused to approve the purchase agreement because the figures were wrong on his copy. The closing is scheduled for July 19.

Clare said this has happened before – documents are incomplete or have errors – and he has said “I’m not gonna do it.”

“I’m happy to stay here until midnight if that’s what it takes,” he said. Eventually, the paperwork was put in order and approved.

So the JPA continued on with its agenda and then went into recess while officials scurried to get the paperwork in order for his approval.

• Approved a $24,000 change order for work on the 10th and Salt Creek Roadway double roundabouts, and a $589,000 change order because the city is unable to get to the fill it had planned to use to bring the arena pad up to grade, because BNSF won’t let trucks drive over its temporary crossing because it could be damaged.

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