Conflict of interest? Maybe?

WAKE UP MINNETRISTA
Wake up Minnetrista!

CONFLICT OF INTEREST? Ya think? Do you think this guy should be advising the city of Minnetrista on our Comprehensive Plan and the Met Council’s GreenStep cities program? Do you think, maybe, that WSB, the city’s contract engineering firm, might be the company to manage the “best practices” projects recommended by this “green new deal” effort led by unelected officials? Wake up Minnetrista.

consultant linkedin

Minnetrista: $$$ Vote Tuesday!

You wouldn’t buy a car from merely reading the manufacturer’s ads would you? If you live in Minnetrista in either the Mound Westonka or Watertown school district there is a very important vote on Tuesday: $Millions of dollars in school referendums that will impact you and your community for the next decade and beyond. I urge everyone to get information from sources other than the school districts promoting the referendums.  These referendums are intentionally held in non-election years counting on low voter turnouts. Here is where you can vote on Tuesday, November 5:

WhereToVote

Misuse of statistics manipulate Minnetrista

“There are three types of lies – lies, damn lies, and statistics.” – Benjamin Disrael

Local governments want more of your money but they want you to hand it over without a fight so they pull out statistics to convince taxpayers to open their wallets. Here are just a few things to look for to see if you’re being manipulated by the numbers.

dwarf_PNG76Omissions: Leaving out something significant that, if known, would lead the reader to a different conclusion from the data presented:

  1. When a city, in an attempt to waylay fears of a tax increase, says their tax rate has stayed the same or is lower than it was before but neglects to reveal that your property valuation has increased substantially and, therefore, the amount you pay is going up.
  2. When the city tells you residents are willing to accept a property tax increase for road maintenance without telling you that 64% of Minnetrista residents indicated they opposed any property tax increase for roads in the community survey (see below).

Using percentages from a small sample size: When a survey uses an insignificant sample size, percentages will always be misleading:

Minnetrista’s community survey asks respondents if they would favor or oppose an increase in property taxes for city street repair/maintenance and 64% said they’d oppose an increase. A very small number (128 people out of 7,000 city residents) indicated they’d favor an increase. That subset of respondents (128 people) was questioned to see how much more they’d be willing to pay. When they indicated various amounts ($5-$30/mo) it was then repeated over and over again that, according to the community survey, the majority of people (which was actually just 118 people: 92% of the 128) are willing to accept an increase in their city property taxes for roads, when, in fact, 64% surveyed said they were opposed. Starting to get the picture of how this works?

Faulty polling: How questions are phrased can influence responses dramatically. A deceptive polling strategy is to precede a question with a narrative designed to prejudice the response or to omit (see above) important data qualifiers. The examples below use a combination of both omission and faulty polling strategies:

  1. Minnetrista’s community survey precedes a question (#49) about whether or not the city should build a gun range saying “there is an unfinished gun range” and “if finished” it would be used by residents. Communicating something as “unfinished” implies that it has been started (which it has not) but not completed and influences a positive response since people generally are averse to leaving things “unfinished”. The truth of the matter is there is empty space with nothing in it that could be built out as a gun range. This survey question also omitted the fact there would be significant, ongoing annual operational and maintenance costs that will increase residents’ taxes over and above the build out costs. Had that been revealed and the phrasing less biased, the responses would likely have been much different. Even so there was little support to use tax dollars to fund the build out, and one would assume no support for tax dollars to fund the maintenance (if they had been aware of it).
  2. This one is my favorite: This survey question precedes another (74) regarding the approval rating of the Mayor and Council with a question that reveals the majority of respondents know “very little” to “nothing at all” about the work of the Mayor and Council but then goes on to ask if they approve or disapprove of the job the Mayor and Council are doing. Remember that next time you hear about the council’s 80% approval rating. Apparently ignorance is bliss.

Community surveys are merely vehicles designed to justify tax increases and reelect incumbents that support them.

Preliminary tax levy increased 5.87% and 2040 Comp Plan to come back for study

Monday was a long night for the city council with a full and challenging agenda. Unfortunately for Minnetrista taxpayers the council chose to adopt (4 to 1) the highest increase (5.87%) presented by staff for the 2020 preliminary tax levy, despite having hundreds of thousands of dollars that have been sitting in unused special funds for years with no foreseeable liabilities against them. We continue to raise taxes and debt special fundswhile cannibalizing our fund reserves, all the while having access to these public funds which, in my opinion, belong in our general fund reserves to give an accurate view of the city’s balance sheet. If the city needs to buy trees we can budget for them. If the city needs to purchase additional emergency sirens we can budget for them. Setting up “special funds” keeps this money out of the public’s view and, more importantly, out of the general fund and gives a distorted view of the city’s finances, which is used to justify tax increases year after year.

The preliminary levy increase may be lowered before the final levy adoption in December but it cannot increase any higher. December 2, 2019 was the date set last night for public comment on the 2020 final levy adoption. You’ll hear some council members defend their votes citing that the preliminary increase was reduced last year before the final levy was adopted. What you won’t be told is that it was done without cutting a single penny of spending and irresponsibly dipping into our general fund reserves.

The city’s 2040 Comprehensive Plan was on the agenda for final approval Monday night. I had some serious concerns about it noted here having to do with private wells, GreenStep Cities, inaccurate numbers projecting future water demand, and making commitments to revise or adopt future ordinances without the council having access to the wording of these ordinances. Council agreed to bring the plan back to a work session in October for discussion.

 

Community Solar Gardens – Good intentions/bad consequences

Thank you Corcoran Councilor Jon Bottema for digging into this important topic. It is relevant for all cities. Corcoran is lucky to have a council member that cares enough about his community to do his homework.

This letter was sent to the Crow River News
by Jon Bottema, Corcoran City Council member.

I read in this paper a week ago that a solar farm company is asking St. Michael to re-allow community solar gardens into their town, and it would add another to our region. I became more interested in the topic when Corcoran was given an application for a community solar garden a couple years ago.

As a Corcoran City Councilman, I felt compelled to look into it.

I wanted to be thorough, so I   began by reading the community solar proposals presented to other cities in Minnesota. I read thousands of pages of documents, and I watched hundreds of their city council minutes. Every solar company had the same pitch. So many red flags kept coming up! I was losing sleep, staying up till early In the morning trying to figure this out. I am not an authority on this topic; however, as a financial analyst, I could see that some things did not add up.

solar gardensAs part of the application process, a community considering incorporating a solar garden also gets a decommissioning plan: what happens if the solar farm goes bankrupt or ceases to function. The decommissioning plan submitted to us had Corcoran MAKING money if the company went out of business. I wondered how that could even be possible. Many towns have put themselves in financial danger, finding out too late that this it is NOT. Therefore, I would like to present to you some truths I discovered about this and other myths perpetuated by the Met Council, The League of Minnesota Cities, and especially the solar companies themselves before anyone makes a decision about community solar gardens.

Myth #1. The solar panels are recyclable.  Solar panels used in community solar gardens are NOT RECYCLABLE according to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) and the International Energy Agency. Though these organizations are actually advocates for solar energy, within their own documents they speak of “recycling in the future” and the “need for recycling plants.” The US, Germany, and China are the biggest users of solar panels, and none of us have figured out how to recycle them. The solar companies say that “most of the materials in solar panels are recyclable.” That is true. The non-recyclable materials make up about one percent of the weight of the panels. However, the non-recyclables are intertwined with the recyclables, and there is no technology to separate the materials. So, by weight, a majority of the panel is made of recyclable materials; however, none of the panel is recyclable because they can’t separate the non-recyclable heavy metals imbedded throughout.  It’s like saying a nuclear warhead is recyclable because it is made mostly of steel, copper and aluminum. We all know that that cannot be true. Ironically, a nuclear warhead is actually more recyclable than a solar panel because you CAN actually separate the nuclear components from the non-nuclear components.

Myth #2. Solar panels are landfill friendly. Even the solar companies’ internal publications. say they are not. I called every landfill within 100 miles of Corcoran, and all of them said flat out that they would not take them. Hennepin County works with many haulers, and they said they did not know what to do with the panels.  I spoke with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA), which I learned controls everything that can and cannot go into a landfill. Before things can be determined ‘landfill friendly,’ they must pass a ‘leach test;’ the material is ground into a million pieces (similar to how it would be handled in a landfill), wet down, then checked to see if any hazardous material seeps out. The big solar panels have not been leach tested in Minnesota. The panels are, in fact, hazardous waste and would have to be buried in a hazardous waste landfill. There aren’t any in Minnesota, but there is one in Wisconsin and one in North Dakota. They will take them, but it typically costs over a dollar a pound to bury things there. Most community solar gardens contain over a million pounds of that sort of material. In some proposals, solar companies state that their panels have undergone a leach test. This is a little deceiving because what they have undergone is a ‘standing leach test,’ which is significantly different than the leach test described above. The panels are left intact and sprayed with water, and then the water is tested for hazardous materials. The standing leech test actually has no bearing on if the material is landfill friendly. The panels must be subjected to actual landfill conditions, replicated in the leach test, and, again, these panels have not, so the solar companies have no way of knowing If their panels are landfill friendly.

Myth #3. Used Solar panels can be resold. Some solar companies include in their figures a resale value of the solar panels.  In the case of decommissioning a solar farm, the solar company leads the city to believe that it can sell the used solar panels and make money on them. Most decommissioning plans include an engineering company’s analysis of what the solar panels will be worth in about five years.  For a couple of reasons, the panels are not worth much in five years. Technology is constantly advancing, so who would want five-year-old solar panels? That would be like buying a five-year-old iPhone. And- this is a big one- there actually isn’t a market for used solar panels.  They are not bought and sold in any public fashion.  One engineering firm that has been included in many solar companies’ proposals stated that they got the resale value of the used panels from the solar company; another said they hoped a secondary market would develop for the panels.  I asked both if they would stand by their numbers if asked.  Both said no.

Myth #4. The industry is safe. Solar gardens are very new, and the players change all the time. The industry is heavily subsidized and requires these subsidies to stay afloat. There have already been bankruptcies in the leading solar manufacturers and solar companies; in the case of a bankruptcy, it’s important to know that our town is number seven in line for any claims from a bankrupt company. We come after:

  1. Secured Claims;
  2. Administrative Expenses;
  3. Post-petition Unsecured Claims;
  4. Wages;
  5. Employee Benefits; and
  6. Tax Claims.
  7. Bottom line: we would not see a penny from them.

Most presentations give the town the impression of some sort of protection by saying things like, “We are a wholly owned subsidiary of XYZ company; they have a huge balance sheet and have been around for 100 years.” Keep in mind that bankruptcies of a company that is a wholly owned subsidiary do not travel up to the parent company’s balance sheet.  Essentially, the statement means nothing and offers no protection to our towns.

I could go on.

I own many solar devices, so this is not a blanket indictment on the industry or harvesting the sun’s energy.  It’s hard not to get excited about the idea of saving the planet. When I read these solar companies’ proposals, though, it sounded too good to be true. The fact is, it is. The fact is that solar companies are deceiving small towns into picking up a liability that they may not be prepared to handle.  The fact is that solar farming can cost the city a lot of money. The fact is that it’s hard to find the time to dig deep into some of these issues, but let this be a starting point. Do your own research, and encourage others to do the same.  Make an informed decision.

Jon Bottema
Corcoran City Council in Minnesota

The art of twisting tales

The Laker Pioneer has this down almost as well as their artistry in burying stories that are damaging to the public officials they protect. Their July 20 article covering Minnetrista’s July 15 council meeting is blatantly misleading when it says the Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH) found “no criminal activity took place” on the part of the Minnetrista-gate Respondents. Someone needs to tell the Laker that the OAH is a civil court and can’t rule or convict anyone criminally. The evidence of criminal activity found during the discovery phase of the civil trial was not even heard by the OAH. It has, however, been submitted to the county Sheriff’s office and county attorney. That is a fact, not a rumor as the Laker asserts.

twisted talesThe Laker, in their predictable “unbiased” fashion, quoted only supporters of the mayor and council member Respondents. Not one of the many people that spoke demanding their resignations was quoted in the story. 

It then goes on to say the mayor “promised that there would be no debate,” ostensibly to seem fair since one of the sitting council members was the Complainant in the case, but then [unilaterally] went on to give “corrections to some of what was said” and made an “attempt to put to rest certain rumors…” And people wonder why I blog.

A gentleman was quoted in the story saying we shouldn’t continue “to beat a 5-year-old dead horse.” I’m sure the reporter knows these violations were from the 2018 election which wasn’t even a year ago. Violations from 2014 were litigated as well because the role of Our Minnetrista was concealed and prevented their discovery back then.

“We take ownership of this error,” the mayor is quoted as saying and elsewhere the violations are referred to as an “administrative error.” Translation: “We are unapologetic and do not admit to any wrongdoing whatsoever and never will.” The OAH doesn’t impose a $5,000 fine because of an “error”. The council candidate which the “Our Minnetrista” member, Jane Norling, spoke of that evening (which the story conveniently leaves out) who was fined for an inadvertent contribution limit “error” last year was only fined $250, hardly comparable to the seriousness of these violations the judges said gave “an unfair advantage” to Mayor Whalen and Councilors Mortenson and Tschumperlin. They cheated to win and see nothing wrong with it.

Did anyone notice the headline typeface on this slanted piece was twice the size of the ones used on the buried stories about the original allegations and the judgments handed down in June? Intentional? I’m sure it was just an “administrative error.”

If there is a remnant of professional journalism left in America it certainly won’t be found at the Laker-Pioneer.

Related Post: There’s an art to burying a story

“Minnetristagate” Update

MinnetristagateI’ve received a lot of inquiries about the status of the Minnetrista campaign finance violations alleged against Minnetrista’s mayor, 2 sitting and one past councilmember and leaders of the “Our Minnetrista” organization. A three judge panel heard testimony by all the Respondents and Complainant during an evidentiary hearing that lasted two days (May 7 & 8, 2019) at the Minnesota Office of Administrative Hearings in Saint Paul. Closing statements are due today, Friday, June 7, 2019, and a judgement will follow within two weeks.