Wednesday, December 28, 2011


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Friday, December 23, 2011

Way More Than You Ever Wanted To Know About Sugar

It started with this coupon Lillian gave me a couple of weeks ago when I was on my way to the grocery store—75 cents off if you buy two, two-pound packages of C&H dark brown sugar. As often happens on really good deals, at Central Market in Bismarck, the store I regularly go to on Geezer Day (Thursday, when senior citizens get 5 per cent off), they didn’t have any of that, so I stuffed the coupon in my jacket pocket. The next time I went to Dan’s in Bismarck, I checked the sugar section, and sure enough, they didn’t have it either. But what struck me about the sugar section at Dan’s was this huge long shelf of Dan’s store-brand white sugar, Flavorite. And the conspicuous absence of the sugar I’ve been eating all my life, when I eat sugar, which these days isn’t often: Crystal Sugar, with its trademark round red,white and blue logo.

Well, I didn’t give that much thought until I went to a second Dan’s store a few days later, and once again went to look for dark brown sugar. Nope. But I again noticed the absence of Crystal Sugar. I was standing there puzzling over that when the store manager, who I know in passing, walked by and asked me if I needed help finding something. I asked about Crystal Sugar. He said they did not carry it, except once in a while when there’s a special promotion. Hadn’t had one of those for quite a while. I asked if the absence of Crystal from his shelves had anything to do with the labor dispute over in the Red River Valley. He said no, they just don’t carry it.

And so, over the next few weeks, as I shopped (I do most of the grocery shopping at our house) I looked at the sugar sections of Bismarck stores. Here’s what I found.

You can almost always buy Crystal sugar at Central Market, and sometimes at Cash Wise. Its price is generally competitive with other products on the shelves in those stores—a few cents more per pound in the four-pound package, a few cents less in the ten-pound package (more about those four-pound packages later).

Dan’s three Bismarck stores, Wal-Mart’s two Bismarck stores, and Target don’t carry Crystal Sugar.

You probably know about the management-labor dispute at Crystal. In August, management locked the doors on union workers after the workers and management failed to agree on a new contract. Subsequent attempts to reach agreement have failed. The dispute is now in its fifth month. Workers are sitting at home while the company has hired scabs to do the work the union members formerly did. There’s no end in sight.

Now, I’ve always been kind of a union supporter, ever since one of my teachers in junior high explained that it was the organized labor movement that gave us a middle class in America. Those men (mostly) who built Henry Ford’s cars earned a decent wage, enough to allow them to afford to buy one of Henry Ford’s cars. Voila, houses with garages for working families, a car in every garage, and sugar in every cupboard. And America became a great country. But that’s neither here nor there.

American Crystal Sugar is one of the largest employers in the Red River Valley—around 1.300 employees I think. It’s a cooperative, owned by the farmers who grow the sugar beets which make the sugar. It’s also one of the few large unionized companies in the Valley. And that’s been good for everyone—the farmers, the workers and the managers. Until now. I spoke this fall with one of those farmers, and asked him for his take on this dispute. He said he didn’t understand the workers not wanting to accept the company’s offer—after all, they make more than $50,000 a year and have good benefits. He’s a friend, and I didn’t want to get into an argument, so I didn’t ask him how much he made last year, or how he feels about his board paying some of the managers a million dollars a year. I just replied that I was glad the workers were getting a good wage and good benefits.

And I guess if all this was not going on, and if I was not generally sympathetic to the workers, I wouldn’t have even noticed the Crystal Sugar missing from the shelves. Or cared about it. But now that I do, I’ve decided to forego my 5 per cent discount on Thursdays at Central Market and start shopping at Dan’s. Just because, by chance or a good business decision, they don’t sell Crystal Sugar.

Normally, I’d probably patronize a business that chooses, when it has a choice, to sell a North Dakota-produced product rather than a company brand produced somewhere else. But right now, I guess I think the growers and the Crystal managers are wrong, and so I’m going to show my support for the workers, who are facing a bleak Christmas, having not had a paycheck for nearly 5 months, with this little gesture.

Oh, and about that four pound bag of sugar. We don’t eat much sugar at our house, so we don’t buy it often. And when we do, we buy the smallest bag available. Generally, that’s the 5-pound bag. Or used to be. We just grab a bag when the sugar bin in the cupboard gets low and throw it in the cart. But sometime in the last five years or so, when the price of raw sugar started going up, most of the sugar companies switched from 5-pound bags to 4-pound bags. There was no big announcement. And while they shrunk the package, they did not shrink the price. In essence, they dropped a 20 per cent price increase on us, and I, for one, (okay, I guess it’s possible I’m the only one, but I hardly think so) never really noticed. Until last week. I was comparing prices when I was checking to see which stores sold Crystal, and something wasn’t making sense. The price of the 10-pound bag was more than twice that of the 5-pound bag. And I couldn’t figure out why. Until I looked at a bag very carefully and realized that the traditional 5-pound bag now weighed only 4 pounds. So I made another quick trip around to the grocery stores to see if that was the case everywhere. Here’s what I found.

Wal-Mart sells a 5-pound bag of Great Value Sugar for $2.84, and a 4-pound bag of C&H for $2.82. So people like me who weren’t paying attention were grabbing the name brand, C&H, and saving two cents to boot. Except we were getting a pound less sugar.

Target sells 5-pound bags too. Market Pantry is $2.79, and C&H is $2.89. (C&H is one of the few companies that still packages both 4 and 5 pound bags, to accommodate their retailers.)

But Central Market sells only 4-pound bags: Our Family for $2.78 and Crystal for $2.99. Cash-Wise is also selling only 4-pound bags too: Valu Time for $2.68, Food Club for $2.88, C&H for $2.98 and Crystal for $3.18. Dan’s was the priciest, selling 4 pounds of Flavorite for $3.19.

I checked a couple websites, too, and I found an interesting little note from the folks at C&H from back in 2009:

As many of our fans have noticed, the price of sugar has recently increased. In an effort to alleviate some of the confusion and frustration about this change, we wanted to formally address it here. As you may be aware, the price of sugar on the world market has nearly doubled since the end of 2008. In order to offset our cost increases, we have had to increase our price per pound of sugar.

In order to keep the cost per bag of sugar down, many retailers converted their store brand product from a 5-pound to a 4-pound bag. In an effort to maintain affordability we decided to do the same with our C&H® brand sugar. The reduction in size, however, is not enough to offset the cost increase in the remaining four pounds of the product. That’s why you’re seeing the price go up and the size go down at the same time. We understand the frustration and we assure you we are doing everything we can to maintain the value and affordability that our consumers expect from our brand.

I just LOVE their logic in the first sentence of the second paragraph: We’re keeping the cost per bag down. Now THERE’S a company with a great public relations arm, and I LOVE good public relations campaigns. We’re keeping that bag of sugar affordable. Never mind that the bag has 20 per cent less sugar. The cost of the bag will stay the same. You’ll figure out later—or perhaps you won’t even realize it—that you’ll have to come back for another bag sooner than you would have otherwise.

Well, anyway, matters at hand. I prefer to shop at a locally-owned grocery store, so I generally bypass Target and Wal-Mart. And Cash-Wise is a long ways from my house, so I hardly ever go there. Besides I hate to bag my own groceries. And since now that I know Dan’s is the only one not selling Crystal, I guess I’ll just go there for a while. Even though their sugar is the most expensive.

See, I don’t need to buy sugar for a while. I just checked the pantry downstairs. There’s a 4-pound bag of Crystal down there. Been there a good long while I’d say, but no expiration date on the bag. And at the rate we use sugar—for baking, and not much else–I’m probably good for another year or so. I think, though, that I won’t open it until Crystal unlocks its doors to its workers and brings them back to work.

Oh, and there is one good side to that 4-pound bag versus the 5-pounder. Every time I buy one, I’m buying 20 per cent fewer calories. Gee, I’m surprised the C&H people didn’t put that in their press statement. Hmmm, maybe there’s a job waiting for me there . . .

Merry Christmas, from our house to yours. And now, I’m going to go eat a couple Christmas sugar cookies.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Best Of Ardell Tharaldson

We said good-bye yesterday to a strong North Dakota voice at a remembrance service for Ardell Tharaldson. Cancer claimed my longtime friend last week, freeing him at last from a body that multiple sclerosis long ago confined to a wheelchair. But it never stilled his mind, which plotted and schemed scenarios for liberal takeovers of the universe until the day he died.

A better-than-amateur historian, and an incredible repository of information on North Dakota’s past, especially its political traditions and the Nonpartisan League, Ardell will leave the biggest void in our ability to remember our North Dakota past since the death of his friend, state historian Larry Remele, more than two decades ago.

What Ardell did leave us is a collection of anecdotes about his past, collected on a blog entitled Political Prairie Fire, the title a paean to his love of the Nonpartisan League. Yesterday at his memorial service, I read a few excerpts from his past blog entries. I’ll share some of them here. Because he was such a good writer and an interesting man, I encourage you to go to his blog and read more.

November 2007: About Norman Mailer

“I should write something about the passing of Norman Mailer. He certainly was one of the profound influences over me and my generation. Reading his 'Armies of the Night' or 'Miami and the Siege of Chicago' or watching him in the movie/documentary 'When We Were Kings' about Mohammed Ali fighting George Foreman in Zaire will lift your mind and heart.

“At the same time, like Bob Dylan, he would do some things that would make you shake your head and think “what in the hell is that guy doing?” Goodbye Norman, wherever you are."

April 2007: Kurt Vonnegut and the McGovern campaign

“Kurt Vonnegut died this week. I feel as though I should say something.

“Like millions of others, my college roommate and I went through a Vonnegut period when we both read everything published by him. Many of his ideas and words worked their way into our lexicon where they remain.

“I crossed Kurt Vonnegut’s path in Kentucky in 1972. I was working for George McGovern’s Presidential campaign national office in Washington. I was sent to Kentucky for a couple weeks. Kentucky was not a primary state so we had to attempt to organize delegate attendance to caucuses at the district level to get yourself elected as a McGovern delegate to the state convention.

“A group of college kids who were organizing for McGovern had a function at the college in a town the name of which I no longer remember. Vonnegut was the person who came to speak in support of McGovern. When he walked into the room he was one of those guys that you just felt there was something special about. I have only had this feeling of being in the presence of something special a couple of other times. Once when I met the Berrigan brothers and once when I met Cesar Chavez.

“I remember how tall he was and how he chain-smoked. As I think back, his talk is sadly and remarkably relevant. He spoke about how the leadership at the time was not interested so much in spreading democracy as they were in spreading colonial power.

“I learned about institutional power in that state. The Governor of the state was a Humphrey supporter (emphasis added). I’m driving all over Kentucky having tea and crumpets with the League of Women Voters in one town, talking about human redemption with a group of ministers in another town, college kids all over, and a few rural black supporters organized by the local small-town powerbroker who was usually the local mortician for the black community. So I’m driving all over the state doing these little things attempting to convince people to attend the caucuses and vote for McGovern delegates.

“The caucuses were scheduled over a noon hour, which in retrospect should have been an instruction to me (emphasis added again). In all events, I’m in whatever town I ended up in on the day of the caucus. I’m sitting at the meeting, hopeful that all my delegate attendance work pays off, when at noon state trucks, road graders, caterpillars, and an assortment of other kinds of state vehicles pull up. Hundreds of men walked into the caucus meeting. Everyone is asked to vote for their choice of delegates. All of these Kentucky state employees vote for a Humphrey slate. The McGovern people are flat wiped off the map in terms of electing any delegates. This takes about 20 minutes. As soon as it’s over the state employees climbed back into their vehicles and drove away for their lunch.

“That was that.”

August 2009: About Ted Kennedy

“No social thing that I felt was good happened in the past 40 years without Ted’s hand.”

February 2009: About Howard Zinn

“You lived a good life Howard and you taught me I was just taking up space, if I wasn’t trying to help people who needed it.”

Ardell worked on a couple of American Indian Movement cases in the 1970’s. In one of them he got Russell Means and Dickie Poor Bear acquitted by Judge Van Sickle. Here’s a bit of what he wrote about that in May, 2007.

At night I usually sat in the bar with the A.I.M. guys. One night Dickie came up to me and asked for a 'chillum' which was Lakota for cigarette. I was smoking Marlboro Reds at the time. I gave him one. He said it was the only good trade the Indian ever made with the White Man–a liver for a lung.

“One day I was driving Russell back to the hotel after the trial. We passed concrete after concrete after concrete and fast food place after fast food place and one synthetic human construction after another. He looked at me and said 'And you think we should leave the reservation for this?'

“The last I heard about Poor Bear he was a cop in Porcupine South Dakota. Russell Means has gone on to an acting career. By the way he could never remember my name during the trial, so he simply called me ‘Little Custer.’”

April 2007: Working for Senator Burdick

“Decades ago I worked for United States Senator Quentin Burdick of North Dakota one summer in his Washington, DC, office. Many years before 9/11 and the Homeland Security Act. One of the “Summers of Love.”

“Back then the Capitol Hill cops were still under the patronage of Congress. The lawns around all of the Congressional office buildings were filled with young college kids with growing hair whose fathers were connected to a Congressman or Senator so they had a summer job wearing a cheesy police shirt, badge and shorts. One of the kids with a southern accent whose every day workplace was around a fountain was a guy you could always buy pot from.

“At this time the appointment of Postmasters in every city in America was under the patronage control of the United States Senate. A bill was introduced to take this power away from the United States Senate and put selection of Postmasters under Federal Civil Service control.

“The bill was sent to a subcommittee of which Senator Burdick was chairman. I went with the Senator for the floor action. During the floor debate Senator Burdick gave about as passionate of a speech as he was capable of giving, in which he railed against the bill for taking away Postmaster appointment patronage from the United States Senate.

“I remember Senator Burdick as being about the only vote against making the Postmasters job part of the Civil Service System.

“After the vote I rode back from the Senate floor with Senator Burdick to the office. We rode on the little trolley that connected the Capitol to the Old Senate Office Building. During the ride Burdick expressed satisfaction that at least we got the Postmaster appointments out of our hair. I expressed surprise, saying that it was big patronage power giving United States Senators the right to appoint Postmasters in every town in the United States, which I thought was a big deal.

“We rode on silently for a little while, then he said ‘Yeah, for each appointment, I made 1 friend and 10 enemies.’”

February 2008: Another McGovern Campaign Story

“In 1971, I went to work for the George McGovern for President campaign. Charlie Tighe persuaded me to manage the McGovern campaign in North Dakota for the fall election even though it would be a hopeless effort without much money. We did it because of our feelings about the war in Vietnam. Charles was the Lieutenant Governor during one of Bill Guy’s terms as Governor. He and his wife Dorothy did not have children and he loaned (gave) me money for college. I will always appreciate them for doing that.

Phil Jackson was still playing for the New York Knicks at this time. He came to North Dakota for a few days to stump for McGovern. Dr. Levine had loaned the campaign the use of his old Volkswagen. His wife Beryl later went to law school and became a North Dakota Supreme Court judge. The Volkswagen’s battery did not work at first so we had to push and pop the clutch in order to start it. My friend Scott pushed and I drove to the Fargo airport to pick up Phil. We squished him in the back seat and drove him to the hotel. Along the way, he didn’t like what was on the radio so without moving, he reached the dashboard radio from the back seat and changed the station. I will always remember his arm slinking forward from the backseat between the front seats and grabbing the tuner knob on the radio. We got him some good smoke so he was happy even though he sometimes had to push.”

Basin Electric and Jim Grahl:

“I had my share of disagreements with Jim Grahl during my political activism and environmentalism in the early 70’s, to be sure. I was in his office one morning. He was complaining and expressing frustration. He told me I and other environmentalists made him feel like he was a track high hurdler. He said every time the bar is set up and he gets over it, we raise the bar. I told him he wants Basin Electric to receive special treatment from us because it’s a co-op but, sulfur dioxide coming out of a smokestack owned by a private utility or one owned by a public cooperative is just as toxic and dangerous to public health. He kicked me out of his office. As I was walking out, I went by the desk of his secretary, who was the sister of a friend of mine. She said that Jim didn’t do well with meetings held in the morning and said I should schedule any further meetings for afternoons.” (Note: This is a very short excerpt from a great piece on Basin Electric and the power cooperatives in North Dakota.)

Well, that’s just a sample of Ardell’s excellent writing. Ardell wrote Some Of The Best Things Ever Written About North Dakota. To read more---lots more—go to his blog, which will remain on the Internet for a while so folks can read more by—and about—this remarkable man.

Requiescant In Pace, my friend. We will miss you.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Who Owns YOUR Post Office?

Where I grew up, in Hettinger in southwestern North Dakota, the big brick Post Office building sat at the most prominent corner in town, the intersection of Main Street and U.S. Highway 12. Still does. A federal building, owned now by either the United States Government or the U.S. Postal Service—I’m not sure which. When I moved away, first to Dickinson, then Mandan, then Bismarck, it was the same. The Post office was, well, the Post Office. So I never gave much thought to who actually owned the Post Office.

Until lately, when there has been much talk of closing small town Post Offices (and not just small towns—in Bismarck there’s talk of closing the downtown Post Office in the Federal Building and moving it to the mail handling facility out on the Expressway, just down the road from the scrap iron yard) and stories are being written about towns like Grassy Butte and Mandaree losing their Post Offices.

Which got me to thinking, “What’s going to happen to all those Post Office buildings in all those small towns when they close them up?” Which led to “Hey, who owns those buildings, anyway?” So I started checking. What I found was pretty interesting.

Lawrence Magdovitz, a country lawyer in Clarksville, Mississippi, owns 850 post offices around the United States. John Hamilton, a dentist in Williston, North Dakota owns fewer than that, maybe a couple hundred, but still a lot. The two of them, plus a few other wise investors and a host of small town non-profits and local development organizations, probably own more post offices than the United States Postal Service. Huh?

That’s right. Because all over America, especially in small towns, the Postal Service has to rent property to house its United States Post Offices. In most small towns in North Dakota, as well as across the country, the Postal Service does not own a building. Instead it rents a building from a local owner.

Now the Postal Service is in big financial trouble. They’re running short of cash and may not be able to make some loan payments. The “B” word is floating in and out of news stories. Not that we will ever allow the Postal Service to go bankrupt, but some serious things are going to have to happen to keep our mail coming. You’ve read the stories. The Postal Service is looking at 3,500 small town Post Offices in the United States—76 of them in North Dakota—to see if they can justify keeping them open.

There’s a very nice man in Minneapolis named Pete Nowacki who gets paid to answer questions about the process here in the Midwest. He has a thankless job, but he does it with seriousness and aplomb. You can hear the sympathy in his voice for the people of Fingal, North Dakota, who might be told in the next few months that their post office is going away.

Pete told me recently that the process is underway across the state to look at the business being done at each of those 76 post offices, which will result in a determination of their future status. Each is getting personal attention. Each town will have public meetings at which community citizens can come forward and provide their input. Each town will go through a series of 30 and 60 day waiting periods while more public comments are sought. This is not a process being taken lightly by the Postal Service.

In the end, each of the 76 Post Offices being studied (out of a total of slightly more than 300 in the state) will receive an “Open” or “Close” determination. For those who receive the “Close” notice, another building will sit empty in another small North Dakota town. And it’s those buildings that caught my attention this fall. Because in North Dakota, the Postal Service rents about 295 of them. It rents all 76 of the buildings on the “hit list.” That’s 76 small-town landlords who are threatened with losing their occupants. Well, not quite that many, because a few folks own more than one. But not many. And in most of those towns, it’s going to be pretty tough to find someone who wants to rent—or buy—a used Post Office.

So I asked Pete who owns these Post Office buildings. He was kind enough to send me to a website that lists the owners of every Post Office in America, except those owned by the Government or the Postal Service itself.

Well, I learned, here in North Dakota, Dr. John Hamilton, the Williston dentist, owns 44 of them. Eleven of them, in Dodge, Fingal, Golden Valley, Kathryn, McGregor, Meckinock, Pettibone, Roseglen, Rutland, Sharton and Zap, are on the Postal Service’s list to be studied for closure. Magdovitz, the Mississippi Lawyer, owns 27 in North Dakota, with 10 threatened with closure.

I called Dr. Hamilton a few times, left messages and voice mails for him at his home, his office and on his cell phone, but he apparently doesn’t want to talk to me about this, because he never called back. Lawyer Magdovitz did, though, and it was a real treat. I could tell from our phone conversation he's just a good old boy, a country lawyer who one day happened to end up owning a building in which a Post Office was located, and saw the benefits of that, and, in 1980, started buying up buildings around the country which housed Post Offices. According to a little website for his real estate company, the Magdovitz Group, he owns 850 Post Office buildings in 42 states and Puerto Rico. Our phone conversation was brief, because he had someone on hold on another line, but I learned that he just started buying these buildings because they seemed like a good investment, and “because I don’t have any trouble collecting my rent.” He’s got a little staff that manages them for him, a toll-free maintenance hotline which local Postmasters can call when they have a problem with the building, a slug of local contractors who do the maintenance work, and a few Realtors who keep an eye out for properties about to come on the market for him. There are, apparently, Realtors who specialize in this kind of thing. I asked him what he thought about this plan to close a lot of the Post Offices in buildings he owns. He seemed unconcerned. “I’ve got good leases, and if they close, they have to pay the rent until the lease runs out,” he said. Most of the leases are for five years, he said.

Hamilton’s Post Office buildings are mostly in the Midwest. If the Postal Service follows through on its plan, he’ll lose about 25 per cent of his renters in North Dakota, and it looks like a similar number in other states.

While it’s fair to say that Hamilton and Magdovitz, and others like them, are making a nice tidy profit on their investments, it doesn’t appear that they are gouging the Postal Service. In Hamilton’s buildings, rents average about $8 per square foot per year, which doesn’t seem out of line for a small town in North Dakota. In Alexander, ND, for example, the Postal Service rents a 1,269 square foot building for $11,000 a year, at $8.67 per square foot. Over in Fingal, one of the Post Offices selected for closing, Hamilton gets $5,040 a year for a 502 square foot space, about 10 bucks a square foot. In Mekinock, the Post Office only occupies 355 square feet, and the Postal Service pays Hamilton $2,220 a year, or $6.25 per square foot. Looking for one you might recognize? Well, Hamilton owns that nice little brick building next to the Rough Riders Hotel in Medora, and rents it to the Postal Service for $8.12 per square foot per year, a total of $7,500 a year. Now that’s a bargain, I’d say. In all, Hamilton collects a little over $285,000 a year in rent from his North Dakota Post Offices. The Post Offices he owns on the target list are among the smallest in the state, so if all 11 Post Offices on the target list owned by Hamilton in North Dakota are closed, he stands to lose about $54,000 a year in rent. And probably without a lot of hope of finding a new tenant in most of those towns. I don’t know how good his leases are, or if he was as savvy as the country lawyer from Mississippi who claims his are “locked in.”

So who else owns the Post Offices targeted for closure in North Dakota? Well, the city governments of Granville, Hannaford, and Clifford, all towns whose Post Offices are on the hit list, own the Post Offices in their towns. Some other towns on the list: the Antler Rural Fire Department owns the Antler Post Office; in Cogswell, it’s the Cogswell Community Association; in Forest River, the Forest River Improvement Association; in Benedict, the American Legion Post. Those local owners are renting pretty cheap, it appears, to try to maintain postal services in their towns. But there is a sprinkling of out-of-state owners on the closure list too. In Egeland, the building is owned by the Nationwide Real Estate Company of Chicago, Illinois; in Columbus, it’s the Columbus Enterprise Group, of Portsmouth, Rhode Island; and in Bisbee, the Inga Westmeier Irrevocable Trust, of Sun City, Arizona. There are also owners of Post Offices on the target list here from Clinton, NC, Vail, CO, Indianapolis, IN, Fremont, CA, Tyler, TX, Woodbury, MN, Billings, MT, Memphis, TN, Lincoln, NE and Spearfish, SD and a smattering of local owners.

I’m not sure how the rents are negotiated, but the highest amounts per square foot I found being charged by private owners in North Dakota were Theodore and Shirley Mees getting $15.33 per square foot per year in Colfax, and the $14.74 per square foot Gordon Kessel was getting for his space in Amidon. The cheapest rent I found was just $360 per year---a nickel a square foot--that Dale Knutson was charging for his building over in Buchanan.

And so the process begins. Meetings have been held so far in Grassy Butte and Mandaree, that I know of, and decisions on closing them could come early next year. If you want to look at the list of who owns all the Post Offices in North Dakota—to see if one of your neighbors is a savvy investor, or to see who owns YOUR Post Office—you can go to the Postal Service’s website, here. It’s actually kind of a fun list, if you’re nosy like me. Meanwhile, here’s the list of Post Offices in North Dakota owned by Dr. Hamilton, with the annual rent being charged and the amount per square foot. The towns with an * are the ones being studied for closure.

Alexander: $11,000 ($8.67)

Ambrose: $4,500 ($6.82)

Belfield: $10,080 ($7.00)

Binford: $7,200, ($12.00)

Coleharbor: $5,616 ($6.61)

*Dodge: $3,600 ($8.22)

Dunn Center: $5,400 ($9.02)

Douglas: $4,390 (6.96)

Elgin: $9,828 ($7.00)

*Fingal: $5,040 ($10.04)

Fordville: $7,481 ($6.50)

Gladstone: $5,650 ($6.52)

Glenfield: $6,732 ($7.51)

*Golden Valley: $9,360 ($7.49)

Hurdsfield: $5,980 ($6.50)

*Kathryn: $6,000 ($7.95)

Keene: $2,800 ($6.41)

Killdeer: $8,035 ($6.22)

Lawton: $4,160 ($8.00)

Makoti: $6,216 (8.00)

Manning : $4,575 ($7.50)

McHenry: $6,000 ($6.52)

*McGregor: $4,380 ($6.52)

Medina: $5,160 ($5.64)

Medora : $7,500 ($8.12)

*Mekinock: $2,220 ($6.25)

Montpelier: $4,400 ($5.83)

New Town: $25,020 ($9.00)

*Pettibone: $4,404 ($7.00)

Pisek: $4,000 ($8.11)

Plaza: $7,164 ($8.00)

Reeder: $8,160 ($8.50)

*Roseglen: $3,600 ($7.50)

*Rutland: $4,933 ($6.50)

Sarles: $4,404 ($7.00)

*Sharon: $5,550 ($8.75)

Sheyenne: $7,894 ($7.15)

Stanton: $14,100 ($10.36)

Verona: $5,434 ($6.50)

Walhalla: $10,800 ($7.50)

Westhope: $10,500 ($7.87)

Ypsilanti: $4,500 ($7.99)

*Zap: $5,220 ($7.99)

Friday, November 18, 2011

Just Another Day In The Oil Patch

If you go to the Williston Herald website and click on “News” today, here is a partial list of what you will find. Just another day in the oil patch. Uffda.

Local News

Trenton woman dies of carbon monoxide poisoning
The name of a 49-year-old woman who died in Trenton Sunday has been released.

Parshall man dies in rollover
Police have released the name of a driver killed at 6:38 p.m. on Sunday east of Williston.

Williston pedestrian hit while crossing West Dakota Parkway
A pedestrian was struck by a pickup Monday.

2 people die in weekend car accidents
Two people were killed in car accidents this weekend, one a Williston resident.

3 hurt in McKenzie County rollover
Three people were injured in a single-vehicle rollover accident in McKenzie County early Tuesday morning.

Texas driver killed in weekend accident
A vehicle traveling eastbound on U.S. Highway 2 about six miles southeast of Tioga rolled Sunday, killing the driver, Matthew McQueen, 24, Texas. McQueen lost control of the Freightliner truck due to icy conditions and was ejected from the vehicle during the rollover. He wasn’t wearing a seat belt. McQueen and passenger Cody Lambert, 21, were both transported to Tioga Hospital.

Williston business owner arrested on drug charges
Two men, one the co-owner of a downtown Williston business, were arrested by narcotics officers on drug charges.

New man camp, Burke Lodge, opens Thursday
More than 100 new temporary housing beds will become available this week.

Bear Paw Lodge opens: Man camp features 590-beds, dining hall
The Bear Paw Lodge is now open for business.

County P&Z recommends denial for man camp
The Williams County Planning and Zoning Commission voted to recommend denial of a proposed man camp in Judson Township on Thursday evening.

County meets on new man camp guidelines
A county ad-hoc committee held its first meeting Tuesday to begin work on improved temporary housing guidelines in preparation for when, or if, a moratorium on such housing is lifted.

County P&Z to work on overhaul of zoning ordinance
The Williams County Planning and Zoning Commission voted in favor of beginning a review and rewriting the county’s zoning ordinance on Thursday evening.

County P&Z recommends denial of father-son requests
Williams County Planning and Zoning voted to recommend denial of requests from both a father and son on Thursday evening.

County Commission denies zone change for proposed subdivision
The Williams County Commission voted to deny a zone change for a proposed subdivision in Springbrook Township on Thursday morning.

County: Water project builders broke roads, didnt file permits
The Williams County Commission voted to have the company overseeing a new regional water project repair a stretch of road damaged during recent work.

County P&Z OKs refinery
After tabling the matter on two earlier occasions, the Williams County Planning and Zoning Commission voted to recommend approval of a proposed diesel refinery west of Trenton during its meeting Thursday evening.

City building permits top $275 million for year
The Williston Building Department reported strong permitting numbers in October, continuing to add on to an already record year.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Matters of Opinion?

Have you ever noticed that people who don’t have much to say often talk about the weather? It’s like they just need to be saying something, but there’s not much going on upstairs, so, let’s talk about cold, or hot, or snow, or wind. One of the ways this manifests itself frequently, I’ve noticed, is on the front page of the Bismarck Tribune. Whenever the front page photo is not a hard news photo, but rather a shot of a fall canopy of leaves, or a kid skateboarding, or a duck swimming on the river, the caption turns into a mini-weather report. “Freddy Skateboarder spent yesterday afternoon coasting downhill to his friend’s house on West Avenue C. The forecast for today is for more nice weather, but turning colder by next month . . .” It’s like, the copy editor had nothing else to say about Freddy, so he threw in the weather report. (Note: I wrote this last night, and damn near fell off my chair laughing this morning when I read the caption under the front page photo in today’s Tribune.)

Do you read North Dakota Outdoors, the magazine of our state’s Game and Fish Department? Inside the front cover, Game and Fish Director Terry Steinwand writes a column called “Matters of Opinion.” That’s what he calls it. But truth be told, there’s not much opinion there. Mostly it’s a weather report. At least it has been for the past year or so.

Now I’ve been reading North Dakota Outdoors for 40 or 50 years, I suppose. Not sure how long it’s been around, but I saw some 1955 copies laying on my North Dakota bookshelf the other day. Had a 15 cent price tag on the cover. About what the most recent issue is worth today, if “Matters of Opinion” is any indicator. (Don’t get me wrong—the price is still reasonable, just ten bucks a year. But you get what you pay for.) I chuckled over the March 1955 issue, which carried a note on page 2 from the Game and Fish Commissioner that read “This issue of North Dakota Outdoors does not have the make-up to which its readers are accustomed, but do not be disturbed as the change is only temporary. Carol Green, former editor, has left the Department, and until a replacement is found the magazine is being thrown together by Wilford L. Miller, Upland Game Research Leader.” Bet old Wilford liked that! Wilford only had to “throw it together” for a few more issues. A new editor was on board for the July issue. And Wilbur got a reward—he was bumped upstairs to Chief of the Game Management Division.

But I digress. What I really want to write about today is Terry Steinwand’s monthly weather report. My November issue arrived in the mail late last week. I was sitting at the table yesterday having a snack and reading the magazine. I read Steinwand’s “Matters of Opinion” for November and said a very bad word, very loudly. And then I said it again. Here’s why.

I’ve been hunting this fall. A lot of my friends have been hunting this fall. We’ve all noticed the same thing. Wildlife populations are down. We’re not complaining. Yet. This happens. Wildlife populations are cyclical. And yes, weather does have a lot to do with it. But I am sick and damn tired of the same old crap every month in Terry Steinwand’s “Matters of Opinion.” Here’s what he wrote this month that caused me to say a bad word:

As North Dakotans we tend to be pretty resilient and have tremendous endurance given the weather patterns we experience, especially over the last three years . . . Once again (in 2011) we experienced heavy snow that began at a somewhat normal time of the year, but didn’t seem to quit until much past normal . . . Wildlife and people on North Dakota’s landscape have had to endure three consecutive hard winters, and wildlife populations are down due to a number of factors. We’ll always have our challenges living on the Northern Plains, but it also makes us who we are. As the saying goes, “If it doesn’t kill you, it makes you stronger.”

Innocuous enough, but what pissed me off was that I had been reading the same thing over and over in his column, month after month. For the record, let’s review Terry Steinwand’s column, “Matters of Opinion,” in North Dakota Outdoors, for the last year. Excerpts:

  • October 2011

Around the mid-1980s, pheasant and sharp-tailed grouse started showing up on the landscape with more frequency. This was largely due to an increase in habitat, mainly Conservation Reserve Program acres, and some mild winters that provided good overwinter survival.

  • August-September 2011

2011 will go in the record books, and in the memories of all, as nothing short of incredible, and in some instances, disastrous. We endured a third consecutive severe winter . . .

  • July 2011

The worth of CRP as quality wildlife habitat is especially evident when, like the last three winters, cold and snow settle into the state in fall without a hint of leaving until spring.

  • June 2011

We have to continually monitor the habitat available and how it affects the resource, and ultimately how it affects everyone. The last few years of unbelievable wet conditions have influenced everything from fish to farmers.

  • May 2011

Two heavy snow events took place right in the middle of northern pike spawning efforts on Lake Oahe. Bad roads and icy temperatures didn’t stop the pike from their spawning run . . .

  • March-April 2011

Finally, winter is over. I’ve been around for quite a few years, living in North Dakota for most of them, and I can’t remember a winter that seemed so long. Maybe it was because of the snow that came during the November deer gun season and didn’t leave, or maybe the seemingly thousand times I had to remove snow from my driveway . . . The last few winters have been fairly difficult for people and wildlife alike.

  • February 2011

I know I’m not alone in saying that it’s already been a long winter, made so by almost daily accumulations of snow. While the weather wears us down, challenging our hardy Northern Plains’ attitudes, imagine how the deer, pheasants and other animals in the state feel . . . These animals are being challenged by the third harsh winter in a row.

  • January 2011

We’re again into the start of a new year and for the third consecutive winter we have more than our fair share of snow to contend with. I know we live on the Northern Plains and have learned to deal with these kinds of conditions, and in some situations have even come to relish them . . .

Okay, Terry, we get it. Three bad winters in a row is bad for wildlife. In fact, you’re so good at staying on message, I’d almost think you worked for John Hoeven. Oh, wait . . .

But here’s what got me so ticked off that I said a bad word: What else has been going on in North Dakota lately that might be affecting wildlife? What else? Only the biggest disruption of wildlife habitat since the homesteaders broke the native prairie to plant wheat. But worse. Never, ever, in our history has the North Dakota wildlife population faced the challenges it faces today from oil development.

But not once did the man responsible for protecting and enhancing wildlife in North Dakota mention that there’s an oil boom going on in our state. And it’s not just missing from his “Matters of Opinion” column. Nowhere in the last year’s issues of North Dakota Outdoors is there a mention of an oil boom. Not once. It’s like our Game and Fish Department has buried its collective head in the sand (or somewhere else). No time to deal with that. Too busy checking the weather, I guess.

Well, I’d like to know what Game and Fish is doing to deal with this huge threat to our wildlife. Outdoors seems like a logical place to keep us up to date.

Okay, this turned into more of a rant that I anticipated. But ever since the Game and Fish Department sat on their report on the impact oil development on wildlife for more than a year (see that story here), I’ve been fed up with their seeming inattention to what’s going on in western North Dakota. Winters happen. Winters come and go. I’m old enough to remember the years in the ‘60’s when we had no pheasant season because of harsh winters. We can’t do anything about winters (except write about them).

But we can react to man-made crises like oil booms. I’m not a biologist, so I can’t make specific recommendations. But the Game and Fish Department is awash in biologists, and here’s what they wrote in the report I just referred to:

“It should be understood by all North Dakotans that the jobs and revenue associated with the O/G industry could come with a very high cost to our quality of life; namely diminished hunting and outdoor recreational opportunities through the loss of habitat due to direct and indirect effects of O/G development.”

It has now been 17 months since those biologists gave their report to Director Steinwand. In their report, they made 14 recommendations for things that could be done to help alleviate the impacts of oil and gas development on wildlife in North Dakota, and five more things that could be done to offset impacts which cannot be avoided. Those are 19 things (if you click on the links and scroll down, you can read all 19) that are not going to happen unless Game and Fish takes the lead in making them happen. I’d like to know how many of those recommendations are being implemented, if any.

Seems to me that would be a good subject for the Game and Fish Department’s editors to address in their magazine. And for the Game and Fish Director to address in his “Matters of Opinion” column. And they could just leave the weather reports to the Bismarck Tribune.

Saturday, November 05, 2011

$10,000 - No Questions Asked

The Legislature is coming to town Monday, ostensibly to draw new Legislative district lines, but more urgently to fix some of the state’s problems that cannot wait until the regular Legislative session in 2013. One of them is flood relief. Probably the most important one.

For the record: I was not personally affected by the flood, except that I did not get to do any fishing last summer, which was a big disappointment. But I have friends who lost their homes, who are still not living in their homes, who are pondering what to do with what is left of their homes. I hope the Legislature decides to help them.

I’ve been to Minot and seen the devastation. Block after block of abandoned homes that had water to their rooflines last summer and will never be livable again. I’ve floated on the Missouri at Bismarck and seen homes ready to fall into the water, and homes ready for the wrecking ball. The devastation in Minot is more widespread, but the destruction in Bismarck is also very real. The major difference is, the people in Minot had no flood insurance.

And so, there are young families with hundred thousand dollar mortgages, on which they are still making payments, whose homes will never be inhabited again. There are seniors like me, on fixed incomes, with no mortgage, but also no budget for the rent they are paying now for temporary housing or the house payments they will have to make if they rebuild somewhere else. The situation in Minot is critical. There’s no place for a thousand or more families to live. Soon, they will start moving out, never to return. Seniors will move to Fargo to live with the kids. Young families will seek jobs elsewhere—there’s plenty of work in North Dakota right now, in towns with houses and apartment to live in. Minot’s population could take a big hit. There is hurt in Minot, very real hurt. And the Legislature can help. It can’t make these people whole, but it can offer hope. Here’s what I suggest.

I suggest the state of North Dakota start writing checks. I suggest the Legislature appropriate money to do that. Checks should be written to anyone with at least $5,000 in documented damage. I suppose the figure could be lower than that, but I’m thinking that people with less than $5,000 damage will get reimbursed by FEMA or can scrape up the cash to deal with that. And I’m trying to keep the paperwork down, so that we don’t have tens of thousands of small claims submitted. We want to help those with real problems. Those who lost their homes.

So I suggest that anyone with a $5,000 claim bring that claim to a state office, and they get a check. There needs to be an upper limit too, so I’d suggest $10,000. If you lost your house, bring some evidence and get a $10,000 check. Never mind about flood insurance, or FEMA, or anything else. If you had damages over $10,000, or you lost your house, you get $10,000. To help you get back on your feet again.

Ten thousand dollars will pay rent on an apartment for eight or ten months, at today’s rates. Or help make a down payment on a new home. But more, it will give a psychological boost to those suffering devastation, show them that the state cares about its residents.

And we can afford it. If 5,000 families submit the maximum claim of $10,000, that’s $50 million. That’s probably 5 per cent of what the state has in the bank right now.

Okay, now, I’m going to get a little bit political here. North Dakota is a Republican state right now. Republicans run state government. They are the party screaming about cutting federal government spending. And yet every response I’ve seen from every Republican is to put the flood cost burden on the federal government. At a time when the federal government is broke and North Dakota is rich. What hypocrisy!

It’s time for North Dakota Republicans to put their money where their mouth is. Step up and pay the bills. The Legislature is full of Republicans. Every single legislator from Bismarck and Minot is a Republican. They need to get the job done, or be thrown out of office next year.

Oh, and let’s not hear any whining from the east about this. The state has helped plenty with flooding in the east. We’re raising plenty of money out west here, and suffering the impact that goes with that.

If my suggestion—a $10,000 check, no questions asked, for everyone who lost their home, or is facing repair bills bigger than that—is not the right one, let’s see a better one. But let’s at least see something significant to help these people start putting their lives back together. This is the week the Legislature can do it. They better not go home without acting.