Thursday, April 30, 2009

Jacksonville Air Quality: F

"The American Lung Association has given Duval County an "F" grade in air quality."

"Breaking it down, the city scores an "F" in both the number of high ozone days and in particle pollution."

"The worst air quality? It's Los Angeles. By comparison, the ozone data for Los Angeles indicates a weighted average of 96.5. A failing grade is anything over a 3.3. Jacksonville rates a 7.0."

School Cut By 45 Minutes For Thousands of Local Students

"The Duval County School Board reduced the amount of time middle and high school students will spend at school next year."

"In a 5-2 vote, the board voted to reduce the school day by 45 minutes."

"The district says it will save $13 million dollars, but 200 positions will be cut. Students will have three 90-minute classes and one 45-minute class."

Teach for (Some of) America

"If you've spent time on university campuses lately, you probably know the answer. Teach for America -- the privately funded program that sends college grads into America's poorest school districts for two years -- received 35,000 applications this year, up 42% from 2008. More than 11% of Ivy League seniors applied, including 35% of African-American seniors at Harvard. Teach for America has been gaining applicants since it was founded in 1990, but its popularity has exploded this year amid a tight job market."

"So poor urban and rural school districts must be rejoicing, right? Hardly. Union and bureaucratic opposition is so strong that Teach for America is allotted a mere 3,800 teaching slots nationwide, or a little more than one in 10 of this year's applicants. Districts place a cap on the number of Teach for America teachers they will accept, typically between 10% and 30% of new hires. In the Washington area, that number is about 25% to 30%, but in Chicago, former home of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, it is an embarrassing 10%."

"This is a tragic lost opportunity. Teach for America picks up the $20,000 tab for the recruitment and training of each teacher, which saves public money. More important, the program feeds high-energy, high-IQ talent into a teaching profession that desperately needs it. Unions claim the recent grads lack the proper experience and commitment to a teaching career. But the Urban Institute has studied the program and found that "TFA status more than offsets any experience effects. Disadvantaged secondary students would be better off with TFA teachers, especially in math and science, than with fully licensed in-field teachers with three or more years of experience."

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Obama Calls for an End to 'Abusive' Credit Card Lending

"Surrounded by some of the country's top credit card company executives, President Obama today called for an end to "unfair rate increases," "abusive fees" and "confusing terms and conditions" facing American consumers."

"I think there has to be strong and reliable protections for consumers -- protections that ban unfair rate increases and forbid abusive fees and penalties," Obama said. "The days of anytime, any-reason rate hikes and late fee traps have to end."

"In addition to limits on rate increases and late-term penalties, the president called for companies to disclose the terms and conditions of credit cards "in plain language" and "in plain sight." "No more fine print, no more confusing terms and conditions. We want clarity and transparency from here on out," he said."

"He also proposed that each card issuer might issue "a plain vanilla, easy-to-understand" credit card "that the average user can feel comfortable with." There should also be more accountability for card issuers, he said. Those who break the law, Obama said, "will feel the full weight of the law.""

House votes to increase Fla. graduation standards

"High school graduation standards would be tightened under a bill that's cleared the Florida House."

"The measure (HB 1293) passed Thursday on a 75-42 party line vote with Republicans for and Democrats against."

"It would increase math and science requirements and the score needed on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, or FCAT, to get a standard diploma."

Council members balk at Peyton's landfill deal

"In its initial vote on Mayor John Peyton’s Trail Ridge landfill proposal, Jacksonville’s City Council recommended to itself Thursday that the controversial plan be withdrawn."

"Meeting as a “committee of the whole,” council members voted 11-7 against allowing the city to extend its contract with Waste Management. At least two of those seven voted against the measure because they wanted more discussion, not necessarily because they supported the mayor’s plan."

"Peyton wants the council to waive procurement rules and allowed Waste Management to continue operating the landfill for the next 35 years or so, a deal worth an estimated $750 million. The recommendation for withdrawal will go before the full council for a final vote at Tuesday’s regularly scheduled meeting."

"How they voted
The Jacksonville City Council members, meeting as a “committee of the whole,” voted 11-7 Thursday to recommend to itself the withdrawal of the mayor’s proposal giving Waste Management a contract extension worth an estimated $750 million over the next 35 years. Here is how each member voted:"

Bill Bishop
Richard Clark
Michael Corrigan
Daniel Davis
Ronnie Fussell
Johnny Gaffney
Art Graham
Kevin Hyde
Glorious Johnson
Denise Lee
Jack Webb

Reggie Brown
John Crescimbeni
Ray Holt
Warren Jones
Stephen Joost
Don Redman
Clay Yarborough

Not present
Art Shad

You can run red lights, but you can't hide from cameras

"Cameras that automatically take pictures of motorists running red lights soon could be installed at intersections all over Florida."

"The Senate Ways and Means Committee on Tuesday passed a red-light camera bill (SB 2004) similar to one that received House committee approval Monday (HB 439)."

"If the chambers agree on a final version of the two bills, drivers caught on film would be fined $150 but would not have points assessed on their licenses, theoretically allowing them to avoid higher insurance bills."

"The big difference between the House and Senate bills is where money collected from the fines will go. Both versions would return $90 to the city or county where the cameras are mounted."

"The Senate bill directs $40 to general revenues — which can be spent on any state program — and $20 to hospital trauma centers; the House would send $30 to the state transportation trust fund — for roads and transit projects — and $30 to trauma centers."

Banned Techniques Yielded ‘High Value Information,’ Memo Says

"President Obama’s national intelligence director told colleagues in a private memo last week that the harsh interrogation techniques banned by the White House did produce significant information that helped the nation in its struggle with terrorists."

“High value information came from interrogations in which those methods were used and provided a deeper understanding of the al Qa’ida organization that was attacking this country,” Adm. Dennis C. Blair, the intelligence director, wrote in a memo to his staff last Thursday. "

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Mortgage industry changes throw new hurdles in borrowers' way

"Mortgage rates and house prices are down -- which sounds great for buyers and refinancers. But mortgage industry underwriting and appraisal changes taking effect this month are putting new hurdles in the way of borrowers and loan officers."

"Take Fannie Mae's and Freddie Mac's add-on fees for loans purchased after April 1. In some cases, applicants are being hit with extra fees of 3% to 5% because of the type of property they want to buy or refinance, their credit scores or the size of their down payment."

"Some major lenders who sell loans to Fannie and Freddie are going further -- tightening underwriting rules beyond what either corporation requires. For example, as of April 6, Wells Fargo, one of the country's largest mortgage originators, imposed a new minimum FICO credit score of 720 -- up from the previous 620 -- on all conventional loans purchased through its wholesale system that have less than a 20% down payment. It also began requiring a total debt-to-income ratio maximum of 41% -- down from the previous 45%."

"Fannie Mae now has a mandatory fee of three-quarters of a percentage point on all condominium loans, no matter how high the applicant's credit score. For a once-popular interest-only condo loan with a 20% down payment and a borrower credit score of 690, Fannie imposes the following ratcheted sequence of add-ons: one-quarter of a percentage point as an "adverse market" fee; 1.5% for the below-optimal credit score; three-quarters of a percentage point for the interest-only payment feature; and the same because the property is a condo. The total comes to 3.25% extra, which can be paid upfront or rolled into the loan."

"On top of these extra fees, borrowers are now starting to get hit with two sets of cost-raising appraisal rule changes. Fannie and Freddie have begun requiring all appraisers to complete an extra "market condition" report that includes detailed statistical analyses of local sales and pricing trends -- above and beyond the regular appraisal data. Many appraisers are charging an extra $45 to $50 for the time required to complete the form. Home buyers and refinancers can expect to pay the higher fees."

"On top of that, beginning May 1, Fannie and Freddie are refusing to fund loans with appraisals that do not follow a set of new rules known as the Home Valuation Code of Conduct. Among the procedural changes: Mortgage brokers no longer can order appraisals directly, but instead must allow lenders or investors to use third-party "appraisal management companies" to assign the job to appraisers in their networks."

"How does that affect the consumer? Consider the notification one Connecticut brokerage firm recently received from a major lending partner: Starting April 15, all good faith estimates provided to applicants must indicate a flat $455 charge for appraisals arranged through the appraisal management company. The broker previously charged $325. Consumers will now have to pay the appraisal fee upfront -- before any inspection or valuation is completed -- using a credit card, debit card or electronic fund transfer."

62 Trillion Spam E-mails = ?

"According to a report released this week by computer security company McAfee, spammers last year generated a whopping 62 trillion junk e-mails."

"What does that mean in terms of energy?"

"Instead of sending messages asking for money or marketing Viagra, the electricity used sending the e-mails could have powered 2.4 million homes for a year or driven a car around the planet 1.6 times, according to the report. "

"Spam-related emissions for all e-mail users around the world in 2008 totaled 17 million metric tons of CO2, according to ICF International, the consulting firm that partnered with McAfee on the study. That's .2 percent of the total global emissions."

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Decline in blacks in prison for drug crimes reverses 25-year trend

"For the first time in a quarter century, the number of African-Americans incarcerated for drug offenses in state prisons has declined more than 20 percent while the number of white imprisoned drug offenders has increased more than 40 percent."

"The decline took place over a six year period from 1999 to 2005 and reflects fundamental changes in the so-called "war on drugs" – how it's targeted and prosecuted – as well as the waning of the crack epidemic in predominantly minority urban areas and the increase in methamphetamine abuse in largely white rural neighborhoods. "

"According to the study, the number of blacks in state prisons on drug-related charges dropped from 144,700 in 1991 to 113,500 in 2005. The number of white drug-offenders in prison increased during the same time from 50,700 to 72,300."

"The majority of incarcerated drug offenders have been African-American – despite the fact that drug abuse rates are fairly equal across ethnic and racial lines – and that fed a widespread perception that law enforcement efforts were racially biased."

Florida Studies Reveal Huge Increase in Cost of Illegal Immigration and Widespread Voter Dissatisfaction

"A separate FAIR study, the Costs of Illegal Immigration to Floridians found that providing education and health care to illegal aliens and their families, and incarcerating criminal illegal aliens, costs state taxpayers more than $3.8 billion annually, more than double the costs measured in 2005."

"The Costs of Illegal Immigration to Floridians found that taxpayers spend:"

"-- $3.4 billion a year to educate illegal immigrant children and the U.S. born children of illegal immigrants. -- $290 million a year on unreimbursed health care for illegal aliens. -- $90 million a year to incarcerate criminal illegal aliens." Green Stimulus Money Costs More Jobs Than It Creates, Study Shows

"Every “green job” created with government money in Spain over the last eight years came at the cost of 2.2 regular jobs, and only one in 10 of the newly created green jobs became a permanent job, says a new study released this month. The study draws parallels with the green jobs programs of the Obama administration. "

"Spain’s experience (cited by President Obama as a model) reveals with high confidence, by two different methods, that the U.S. should expect a loss of at least 2.2 jobs on average, or about 9 jobs lost for every 4 created, to which we have to add those jobs that non-subsidized investments with the same resources would have created,” wrote Calzada in his report: Study of the Effects on Employment of Public Aid to Renewable Energy Sources."

Obama relaxes travel restrictions to Cuba

"President Barack Obama on Monday took a big step towards relaxing sanctions on Cuba, lifting all travel and remittance restrictions on Cuban-Americans and permitting US telecoms companies to offer services directly to the island."

"The end of the restrictions, which Mr Obama promised during his campaign, means Cuban-Americans will be able to travel to the island state when they like, as opposed to once a year, and send as much money as they want to relatives, as opposed to $75 a month. Mr Obama also said he would permit Cuban-Americans to pay for US-provided telecoms services to relatives living in Cuba."

Sunday, April 12, 2009

HUD's Dollar Homes falls short of mission

"Congress launched the program in 1998 to clear the Department of Housing and Urban Development's books of foreclosures and provide affordable housing. Local governments would buy the homes for $1, fix them up and resell them at a discount to poor families, who would get a chance to put down roots in the community."

"At least that's how it was supposed to work. A Times investigation has found that the Dollar Homes program has helped housing contractors and investors, but there is no evidence that it has provided any lasting benefit to people like the Ptaceks. The findings offer a cautionary tale as the Obama administration works to craft similar efforts to help communities ravaged by the housing slump."

"More than 2,300 homes have been sold by HUD for $1 each nationwide, with 326 in California. Nearly half of the homes in California were bought by companies or individuals who typically resold them at a much higher price. Only 15% were sold to nonprofit housing groups such as Habitat for Humanity, records show."

Obama requests $83.4 billion more for war spending

"President Obama is seeking an additional $83.4 billion for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, a request that will drive the cost of the two wars to nearly $1 trillion since 2001."

"The budget request, to cover operations for the remainder of 2009, comes on top of $67.2 billion approved last fall as a down payment for the year. However, the annual total, about $150 billion, is lower than the amount spent in 2008, after the conclusion of the U.S. troop "surge" in Iraq."

"The $83.4-billion request includes $75.8 billion for military operations. An additional $7.1 billion will go to diplomatic efforts and foreign aid, including $1.6 billion for Afghanistan, $1.4 billion for Pakistan and $700 million for Iraq."

"In February, the Obama administration estimated that it would need $75.5 billion. The extra money will be used in part for $400 million to increase security on the U.S.-Mexico border. The proposal also includes an additional $3.6 billion for Afghanistan's forces and $400 million to help fund counterinsurgency efforts in Pakistan."

Laid-off U.S. workers finding new jobs, less pay

"Half of U.S. workers laid off in the past year who were questioned in a survey released on Wednesday reported finding new jobs, but often with less pay and in a different field."

"The survey of 807 adults who lost full-time jobs in the past year showed that 49 percent had found new jobs but of those, 49 percent now earn less money."

"Of those with new jobs, 38 percent said they are now employed in a different field, the survey found. Eight percent reported finding part-time work."

Study Buoys Mortgage Modification

"Cutting financially troubled borrowers' monthly mortgage payments by more than 10% reduces the chances that they will fall behind again after their loan is modified, a study found."

"While modifications that result in lower payments are increasing, nearly half of all loan workouts still result in the same or higher payments, the study found."

"The report comes as a weak economy and falling home prices are creating problems for a number of borrowers, including many who previously had good credit. The biggest percentage jump in troubled loans was for prime mortgages, with 2.4% of these loans more than 60 days past due at the end of the fourth quarter, up from 1.1% at the end of the first quarter. The portion of subprime loans that were more than 60 days past due climbed to 16% from 11% during this same period. Overall, more than one in 10 loans were 60 days past due, the report found."

"Some borrowers fall behind again because of job loss or other problems, but whether or not the borrower gets payment relief also appears to play a role in the outcome. The redefault rate was just 26% after nine months when monthly payments were cut by more than 10%, compared with about 50% when the payment increased or remained the same."

"Servicers have stepped up their efforts to modify loans and reduce borrowers' payments in response to pressure to reduce foreclosures. The percentage of modifications that reduced loan payments by more than 10% increased to 37% in the fourth quarter from 26% in the third quarter. Still, roughly one in four borrowers saw their payments increase after their loan was modified."

"Mortgage servicers have been more successful modifying loans that are held on their own books than those that are owned by mortgage investors. Nearly half of investor loans were at least 60 days delinquent nine months after they were modified compared with about 30% of loans that are held in bank portfolios. Servicers said they have more flexibility to rework loan terms for mortgages they own than for those held by investors."

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Sex offender sentenced to 70 years

"A youthful-looking sex offender who posed as a 12-year-old boy to enroll in several Arizona schools was sentenced to more than 70 years in prison Tuesday."

"Neil Havens Rodreick II pleaded guilty last year to seven criminal charges. Most involved child pornography but two stemmed from the charade he pulled off for two years."

"Authorities didn't find any victims of sexual abuse at the schools Rodreick attended, but they found an extensive collection of child pornography at his home."

"Rodreick originally faced 28 counts, but pleaded guilty to only a quarter of them: four counts of sexual exploitation of a minor stemming from the pornography, and one count each of failure to register as a sex offender, fraud and simple assault. The assault charge involved an allegation that he grabbed a girl's buttocks at a school in Prescott Valley with the intent to injure, insult or provoke."

Fewer Bus Stops Part of School Transportation Changes

"More students in Duval County could be walking to school or seeing their parents give them a ride to a school so they can catch a magnet bus."

"The Duval County School Board is rethinking its transportation plan to save money in tight times. Several changes are being considered that would add up to nearly $5 million in savings to taxpayers."

"One proposal up for debate would cut some bus stops for students who attend magnet schools. This plan would have magnet students picked from their neighborhood school and then bused to their magnet school."

"Another transportation change would increase the distance from school where transportation is provided. At present, students are not afforded a bus ride if they live closer than 1.5 miles from their school. That distance could be increased to 2 miles, which is the state standard."

Sunday, April 5, 2009

$1T hit to pensions could cost taxpayers, workers

"Pensions need $270 billion in additional contributions over the next four years, and more than $100 billion annually for two decades hence, according to the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College."

"But as bad as the budget picture looks, it is dwarfed by the size of the gaps in states' pensions, which have collectively lost at least $1 trillion as financial markets swooned over the past year. Public pensions cover about 14 million state and local employees and paid out almost $163 billion to seven million retirees in 2006-2007, according to the Census Bureau."

1 in 5 Medicare patients readmitted within month

"One in five Medicare patients ends up back in the hospital within a month of discharge, a large study found, and that practice costs billions of dollars a year."

"The findings suggest patients aren't told enough about how to take care of themselves and stay healthy before they go home, the researchers said. A few simple things — like making a doctor's appointment for departing patients — can help, they said."

"The study found that a surprising half of the non-surgery patients who returned within a month hadn't even seen a doctor between hospital stays."

"About 10% of all readmissions were probably planned, such as putting in a stent, the researchers said. They estimated that unplanned return visits accounted for $17.4 billion of the $102.6 billion that Medicare paid hospitals in 2004."

9 Texans made nearly 2,700 ER visits

"Just nine people accounted for nearly 2,700 of the emergency room visits in the Austin area during the past six years at a cost of $3 million to taxpayers and others, according to a report."

"The patients went to hospital emergency rooms 2,678 times from 2003 through 2008, said the report from the non-profit Integrated Care Collaboration, a group of health care providers who care for low-income and uninsured patients."

GOP proposes big tax cuts, spending curbs

"Despite spending reductions, the plan projects permanent deficits exceeding $500 billion into the future, fueled largely by big tax cuts."

"The GOP plan would offer a dramatically simplified tax code in which couples would have the option of a 10 percent rate on the first $100,000 of income, with a 25 percent rate thereafter, with the first $25,000 of income exempt from taxation. Single filers could get a $12,500 exemption and a 10 percent rate on income up to $50,000."

"Taxpayers could also opt to remain in the current system. On Medicare, workers under the age of 55 would enroll in private plans and receive premium subsidies equal to the average Medicare benefit when they retire. Benefits would not be changed for people in the program or people 55 or older."

Florida to receive $168M to go green

"Florida will receive $168 million in federal stimulus money to pay for projects that reduce energy use, greenhouse gas emissions and improve energy efficiency."

"The money is being made available through the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant (EECBG) program, which was signed into law in 2007. However, the program was not funded until the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 was signed into law."

"The money will be allocated through grants to 17 counties ($74 million), 69 cities ($64 million), two tribal governments ($243,000) and the governor’s Energy Office ($30 million)."

"In addition, the Energy Office will distribute $18 million in sub-grants – 60 percent of its federal allocation to smaller cities and counties that are ineligible for direct formula grants."