Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Animal Farm

The Classics Book Club at the Ingalls Memorial Library in Rindge is reading George Orwell's 1946 classic, Animal Farm.
Last night, at the "Save Our Town" meeting at the Rindge Meeting House, a couple of us talked about the book while waiting for the meeting to start.  I was just to the part where the neighboring farmer, Frederick, blows up the wind mill.  My friend had finished the book and wanted to know who I thought the main characters represented.  "Was Napoleon a caricature of Stalin?"
I suppose...but the thing about a classic is that it transcends the circumstances of it's time to remain relevant today.  It matters little to me whether Napoleon was Orwell's picture of Stalin...or Truman, for that matter.  What does it mean today?
The "lower animals" as Farmer Pilkington refers to them at the end of the book, seem to reflect all the characters we see among, "We the People," who are not in charge and running things, but get a vote and are expected to work toward our community's success.
I identified with Boxer...and a little bit with Benjamin, the old donkey.  I really liked them both as "people," but I think they also let their fellow creatures down.  I feel a bit like, "Clover," seeing that some things are wrong, but accepting that I probably missed the meeting where those decisions were made...or misremember them. Truth is, at various stages of my life, I have been the cat and Mollie too.
Snowball, Benjamin and Muriel could all read, but only Snowball tried to use that talent in service to the community.  If Snowball hadn't been run off, would the others have learned to read as he intended?  Would the power have been shared more equally?  Or would his successes have gone to his head and turned him into a greedy pig like Napoleon?
Was it inevitable that Napoleon would use his wits and authority to find a way to drive Snowball off or kill him?   What made Napoleon so exploitative?  Was it jealousy of Snowball's vision and willingness to live among the others in full equality?  Was Snowball doomed the moment Napoleon raised an army of dogs conditioned to obey him blindly?
The others not only allowed Snowball to be driven off by the dogs, but they soon forgot Snowball.  Those who stayed loyal and tried to help were executed or committed suicide after admitting complicity.  The animals were then treated to an alternate version of history where the windmill plan was created by Napoleon and where Snowball's bullet wounds became bites from Napoleon.  Rather than being a hero of the Battle of Cowshed, Snowball is reported to be a traitor who was fighting on the side of Farmer Jones and his men.  Only Napoleon's attack on Snowball saved the day in the latest version of history as told by Squealer.
Do the pigs represent all government and elected officials?  I think it is more like the 1% versus the 99%.  If you are rich, or gifted with talent, your life will resemble that of the pigs.  You will not have to labor or serve so much as "think" or "plan."  Once you separate the young pigs from the other young animals, you will erase any sense of compassion or fellowship in the young pigs for any but each other.  Napoleon used brilliant strategy.
Should we then be opposed to thinking and planning because it so often turns out to benefit no one but the pigs?  
No.  Just the opposite.  We all need to get educated and pay attention to local issues.  We do not need a Snowball to turn things around in this country.  We need to see the "Snowball" in each of us, protect it, encourage it and keep it in play.
Planning is good.  We should all participate, not shut it down because it is inconvenient for us to show up at meetings.   The Plan NH Charrette invited everyone's participation.
Let me take one example from last night's presentation to present another side of their argument.  Ken Eyring pointed to the media firm identified in the list of Plan NH participants.  He talked about how shocking it is that a firm was hired at all and for so much money!!!  What do they need with that if this is supposed to be a grassroots effort???
The people at the "Save Our Town" meeting last night were recipients of a direct mailing that cost over $500.  That is what media firms do.  I left some of the postcards that Plan NH sent out inviting participation in Granite State Future on the table last night.  There is no nefarious plan at work in hiring a media firm.  You have a goal of getting the widest possible participation and you use the tools available to you.
I am always suspicious of people who spend much of their time in arguing for a position by demonizing or dehumanizing the opposition.  Now, after reading Animal Farm, I understand why.  It reminds me of Napoleon and Squealer, constantly telling stories and lies about someone who isn't there to counter them.
I believe in healthy debate.  I don't think bullying people by telling them to "move back to Massachusetts" or shouting them down at meetings is a sign of a reasoned discussion. 
I hope the people who came to Ken Eyring's presentation will come hear Roger Hawke and Ben Frost tonight as well.  Otherwise it's just "Four legs good.  Two legs bad." ~ the sheep Animal Farm

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Published in the Monadnock Ledger Transcript on 10/29/13

Is HUD a threat to your community?
I might as well start with the case of Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino and his battle with HUD.  This is the case that people opposing the use of HUD grants cite as an example of how HUD “attaches strings” to grants and “changes the rules” forcing you to accept affordable housing, even when it violates local zoning laws.
Well, it so happens, I do know something about Westchester County and what happened there.  Westchester County accepted HUD funding to attract developers to build affordable housing.  One of the restrictions of that funding is that once a certain level of affordable housing is reached in a given town, you can build more affordable housing, but you are not eligible for HUD funds to help you build them.  Why would they make a rule like that?
Well, if you were a resident of New Rochelle, you would probably be pretty upset to find out that your County government was trying to load your town up with all the affordable housing for the County.  HUD has no interest in being a party to that.  So, if the developers can justify the cost, they are free to build there, but the County government will not be getting any infrastructure help from HUD to do so.
When Mr. Astorino talks about being sued by HUD, he is actually referring to the fact that the County attempted to get HUD funding for neighborhoods that already exceeded affordable housing goals.  HUD wants that money back. Alternatively, the County can apply those funds to affordable units in other towns.  The problem is, many of those other towns have restrictive or “snob” zoning that prohibits affordable housing and they don’t want to change their zoning.  HUD’s reaction is “Okay.  Then just give the money back.”   This is the “suit” they keep talking about. 
At the October 16  Rindge Board of Selectman’s meeting it was mentioned that in building Payson Village, an affordable senior housing project, people believed the contract SHOULD HAVE BEEN between the developer and HUD; not the town.  In the first place, this type of HUD funding, known as a Community Development Block Grant (CDBG), can never go directly to a developer and in the second place, the agreement between HUD and the town means that the town has adequately considered the project and agrees that it is acceptable to the town.  Would anyone prefer that the town NOT be required to give permission in such a situation? 
Payson Village wasn’t sprung on the Rindge taxpayers overnight.  There were three separate town meetings over a period of ten years asking for the vote and will of the people.  It wasn’t even close.  The voters wanted affordable senior housing so that we could keep some of our most precious resources (our senior citizens) in town for many more years.  It has been a great addition to the town and the property was well-constructed and is beautifully maintained.
HUD funding made the project affordable for the developers by tackling a water availability problem that had plagued the town center for many years.  The HUD/CDBG funding amounted to $500,000.  The developer raised over $3 Million.  One of the restrictions of the HUD/CDBG funds is that it must be spent on infrastructure (mostly site work or utilities).  In this case, the town kept ownership of the land and most of the $500,000 went into developing a Community Well system on that land.  It is estimated that the well yield could supply water to over 1000 homes, if necessary.  It’s a tremendous potential asset for the town.  
At the Rindge Planning Board meeting on October 15, a resident suggested that Rindge not accept any more grants because there are always “strings attached.”  And, he’s right.  Whenever you accept a grant, you will be asked to sign a contract stating that you will not break any federal, state, or local laws and will uphold the terms of the contract.   Not all grants are a good deal for a town, but like anything else, you need to do your research and insist on complete transparency. 
Rindge gets a lot of grant money because our employees and volunteers work really hard and try to find ways to relieve the tax burden by getting grant funding.  Taking initiative like that should be applauded; not treated with suspicion and anger. 
So what happens if our town stops accepting grant money?  Either our tax rate will go up substantially, or as the resident at the Planning Board meeting suggested, we will have to find “some other way” of raising money.  I am not sure if he was suggesting we hold bake sales?
The question on the table is, “Should Rindge return a $24K HUD planning grant and end our relationship with HUD?”   I can’t find anything in the HUD contract which stipulates that returning the planning grant money will sever all obligations.  In fact, the contract states that even if one condition of the contract is deemed to be in default, all other conditions are still in force.  I believe Rindge will be required to finish the planning project whether or not the money is returned. 
I encourage the residents of Rindge to request the Board of Selectmen invite Ben Frost of NH Housing to attend a meeting to answer their questions about HUD funding.  I won’t speculate on the motives of the people spreading misinformation about how HUD operates, but I’m pretty sure that asking the taxpayers to return $24K or $524K would have no legal impact of any kind.