Friday, April 29, 2005

Hillary Actually Meant To Say, "… THE Village"

Can we even imagine the excitement that Hillary Rodham felt when she made her first contact with Eleanor Roosevelt?  Our cute little First-Lady-To-Be, that darling blonde wonder from the Chicago suburbs, that dreamer of building villages must have shivered with joy when the Grande Dame of Hyde Park appeared in her bedroom on that dark and stormy night!

This was Hillary’s chance to learn of such phenomena as immortality and the magic of transforming a doll house into a living, breathing community.  Little Hillary was raised in a Republican household and she had tired of lifeless, conservative-minded, rag dolls.  If only she could learn how to cast Eleanor’s magic spell, then Hillary knew she could make her dollhouse come to life.

So fanciful was she of her hoped-for séance with Eleanor that little Hillary wrote in her diary of her belief in immortality (although one transcription service derived the word as "immorality.")  Though raised in a conservative household that disdained communicating with dead liberals, Hillary’s parents nonetheless allowed her flights of fancy.  Hillary recalled how her mother had told her, "You were named after Sir Edmund Hillary, the conqueror of Mt. Everest!"  That Tenzing Norgay dragged Edmund Hillary uphill for six miles in 1953 made no difference to the blonde child born in 1947.  She took her given name, and her given immor[t]ality, to heart.

Eleanor had transformed her dollhouse into many villages during her physical life.  But Arthurdale, the West Virginia commune, was the Grand Dame’s most magical village of all.  And that night in Hillary’s bedroom, Eleanor revealed the secret that made it so.

"You have to find a way to be the First Lady; even if that means marrying your cousin!" Eleanor beamed.  "With that position, you wield the power of the federal purse-a power so great that the down-and-out’s will move into your village."

But Hillary yearned for more than mere fealty from her subjects.  She had read enough fairy tales by then to know that the peasants obeyed the king but always loved their princess.  So she inquired of the matronly spirit, "How would I make the villagers love me?"

"That’s the least of your worries, child." Eleanor bespoke.  "Give them government checks, and they’ll do the rest."

As you know, Hillary (Norgay, in Nepalese) Rodham grew up to be a First Lady.  But in a subsequent séance in 1993, Eleanor Roosevelt advised her thusly: "Why don’t you just write up your village plan for now.  Then you can get yourself elected president and turn the whole continent into a village!"

It was a no-brainer and Hillary soon after hired a ghostwriter.

Well, she should have waited a few years in my opinion.  She should have hired M. Night Shyamalan, the writer/director of "The Village."  If you have seen the movie, then you’d know that Hillary would never have mentioned the "vast, right-wing conspiracy."  No, she would have referred to the vast, right-wing conspiracy as "Those we do not speak of."

At the outset, The Village appears to be a nineteenth century haven in rural Pennsylvania.  There are no telephones, no electric poles, and no running water.  In short, it’s the perfect village plan for the blonde executive who doesn’t want to be bothered with trifling complications like infrastructure.  The denizens of The Village are not consumed by questions like: "Does water run uphill or downhill?"

As perfect as it is, The Village does have a one ghastly drawback-the neighbors.  Ogres live in the woods surrounding the enclave and venturing into the woods means certain death.  As evil and ugly as the ogres are, they still serve the idyllic hamlet with a needed purpose.  True evil lives in "the towns" that lie beyond the forest and the ogre-patrolled forest keeps the evil of the towns at bay.  Utopia, we learn, does come with a price-learnéd ignorance.

The Villagers are not living in the nineteenth century as we initially believe.  They are modern-day denizens who have sought to escape the forces of Darwin that wreak havoc on Philadelphia.  Each villager has a tale of horror and their elder, played convincingly by William Hurt, has engineered their retreat from society.  His village is not financed by Uncle Sam but by the next best thing-inheritance of his father’s billions.

The movie’s ending is intriguing.  "The Village" does indeed have a village idiot, Noah, who stabs his friend, Lucius, in a jealous rage.  To save Lucius’ life, his blind fiancé volunteers to enter the woods and travel to the towns to procure medicine.  As she stumbles through the forest, Noah attacks her but he is killed in a fall.

William Hurt then immortalizes Noah.  He forgives Noah of his murderous attempts and declares that Noah’s masquerade as an ogre has given realism to "Those we do not speak of."  He tells the other elders that Noah’s acts will allow The Villagers to continue on with their isolation and beliefs.

Imagine that-giving a full pardon to the evildoer in the closing moments of the drama.  I wonder where M. Night Shyamalan got that idea?

Friday, April 1, 2005

Running Government As A Business

Bob Graham, Executive Director of the Wyoming County Council on Aging, made headlines last year when his lucrative compensation package was revealed.  The snorts of moral indignation could be heard everywhere and echoes are still bouncing off the hills.  And the question still being asked is how could Bob Graham earn nearly $500,000 in a poor little place like Wyoming County ?

The answer to that question is simple-he had an employment contract.  It was spelled out-in English.

What is amazing, to me at least, is that Bob Graham could manage all of the programs under his control with such economy that he could pay himself in Enron dollars instead of West Virginia dollars.  From what I have read, Mr. Graham earned $460,000 in 2003 and the agencies under his control took in combined revenues of $5.3 million.  His compensation package, then, was close to 9% of gross revenue.  $4.3 million of that revenue came from Medicaid.  Yet we repeatedly hear from health care experts that Medicaid reimbursements don’t cover the cost of service.  Go figure.

Wyoming County ’s revelation leads me to believe that there are some significant efficiencies yet to be discovered in running senior centers and home health programs.  Even if Mr. Graham had been paid $100,000, then that still leaves almost 7% of gross revenue which could have been shaved from the budget.  Applying a 7% reduction to senior programs in all 55 counties would certainly add up to a big savings.  And our seniors in the other 54 counties would be able to lounge in hot tubs just like Wyoming County seniors do!

If I were dictator of this state, I’d hire Bob Graham as a consultant.  He can milk cows better than the Amish.  (As talented as he is, though, he should not have milked sacred cows outside of Hindu territory.)

I’d pay Bombay Bob $1 million a year and give him 20% of all the money he’d save the state during years one and two of his contract.  I’d bet that he could save the taxpayers tenfold or more over what he charged.

As your dictator, I’d also consider hiring former Randolph County Clerk Rose Lloyd as a consultant.  Ms. Lloyd recently resigned her office over accounting irregularities.  She’s agreed to make restitution to the county in the amount of $48,000 over five years.

Given her years of experience in county government, I think Ms. Lloyd could make a valuable investigator with the State Tax Department.  Ms. Lloyd would not be relegated to adding columns of numbers.  Her contribution would be in recommending tighter financial and accounting controls.  She knows how the system works and where the weaknesses are.  In that regard, her experience, although tainted, is invaluable.

What I have just suggested might sound like heresy.  It is.  But on Scout’s honor, I promise that I would be a benevolent dictator!

All kidding aside, the rerouting of public money by Mr. Graham and Ms. Lloyd is nothing new.  These two culprits just happen to be the names in the news right now.

Government financial systems are ripe for finagling.  Across the state, there are thousands upon thousands of accounts and funds which receive and disburse tax money and few of them ever get as much as a cursory audit.  Using the case of the Randolph County Clerk’s office as an example, the state’s auditor discovered some $13,000 missing over a three-month period.  The $48,000 settlement to which Ms. Lloyd agreed was a number pulled out of thin air.  Auditors have not thoroughly examined Randolph County financial records to determine the actual embezzlement.  For all we know, ten million dollars could be missing.

Each government grant is supposed to be accounted for as well.  But as we recently learned in Hampshire County, education grant money was misdirected-deliberately, no less.

Gov. Joe Manchin has taken the first step toward improving financial accounting in West Virginia.  He deserves a commendation for his initiatives to modernize the State Tax Department’s computer system.  But this first step, as big as it is, is not going to solve all of the problems.

Whether it’s county governments, boards of education, councils on aging, or the myriad of other entities that receive and spend taxpayer money, the state needs to rein in their ability to operate as personal fiefdoms.  Giving a checkbook to every Tom, Dick, and Boss Hogg is what causes these problems in the first place.

Gov. Manchin is doing his best to apply good business practices to running state government.  That said, we should consider requiring each and every government spending unit to provide us, the shareholders, with audited financial statements.  And along the lines of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, we should get serious about holding the chefs who cook the books liable for their acts.