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Thursday, January 31, 2008

Nine in the Afternoon

The blog look is getting a bit tired and so I'm going to be experimenting with some new Blogger features over the next week. I have to be sure that I can preserve all the posts before I start changing things around. In the meantime, I'm starting with a new posting engine to see whether there is anything useful or different to "Blogo" than with "MarsEdit", which is my former tool. I've been trying to extract some PERS news, but there simply is nothing to report. Even over on Oregon PERS Discussion Group the conversation has declined to a trickle. It is either nine in the afternoon, or it is the calm before the storm. You decide.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Speak No Evil

Several recent nice stories about OPRI. They *are* trying much harder. First, informants report that OPRI is very much on the ball in getting requested refunds back to claimants. Turnaround time seems to be days. Second, my own special request was handled quickly and efficiently. Vern Fisher emailed me and explained the problems involved in tracking down records for contributors. Nevertheless, he found one of my "missing" donations and will assist me in processing my refund. The record he found was one I have stored in an offsite location. He's saved me a trip into town to search through one of about 30 boxes of records stored when we moved last year. I really appreciate not having to visit that dusty facility. I'm hoping to leave that for my children to sort through :=>. In any case, after all my complaining about OPRI, it is nice to be able to report something quite positive for a change. Thanks Vern! I've also engaged in communications with several Board members and I'm optimistic that OPRI may finally be in for some positive change. Some of the older members may resist kicking and screaming, but I think we're finally poised for a culture change. Change is good.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Never Missin' A Beat

This picture says it all. The whores at the Oregonian just can't leave it alone. Stick it to PERS members. I was tempted to use another title from the same CD, but I resisted out of respect for the sensibilities of others. It was entitled "F**k Everyone". By the way, this wasn't from the version delivered at home. This came from a downtown newspaper rack and must have been the Saturday final. Can you say, slow news day? My response - lying f**kers!


Big Casino

This has been a pretty rocky month for most of us who invest in the stock market. After about four years of pretty good returns, the chickens are coming home to roost. There doesn't seem to be any refuge in foreign markets. I'm pretty impressed with the low-level french flunkie who managed to squander $7.2 billion from Societe Generale, perhaps triggering a big selloff on European markets. In short, no matter how diversified one is, there has been pretty much no refuge from the market's wild gyrations of the past few weeks. It truly has been like a giant casino, where the house almost always wins. Apropos of that, the Boregonian has a story in this morning's paper about how PERS has done during the past week. According to the report, PERS has lost about $5 billion of asset value during this month's swoon. Not to worry. The PERS fund is well-funded and remarkably well-managed. If any group of investors is prepared to weather this, the Oregon Investment Council seems especially magical when it comes to earning money in nearly any market. This may not be the banner year we'd hoped for, but there isn't much risk out there that the OIC can't mitigate. They're playing at the big casino, but they have the skill of a card counter without doing anything that pisses off the casino management. Keep the faith. I only wish I had my personal portfolio collectively invested in the way of the PERS Fund. I might be losing less money that way.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Way Down in the Hole

I love doing my taxes. It always puts me of mind of just how much the government takes from us and how remarkably little we get in return. I'm always feeling I'm way down in the hole. I started preparing my taxes as usual this year as all the little bits of paper start showing up in my mailbox. I've finally decided that all those deductions I've meticulously kept track of over the years - personal exemptions, medical expenses, state income taxes, property taxes, business expenses - aren't worth the paper they're printed on. Once you get into the AMT, where we've been now for about ten years - the government takes those away from you and you no longer get to deduct them. You can list them if you want, but you can watch the TurboTax calculator just stick in place as you start adding them. So I told myself last year that I would just shoebox them all this year and see what happens. We can't avoid listing the state income taxes withheld; they're part of the W-2 and 1099R forms. Thus, the moment they get entered (or downloaded this year), the AMT bell starts going gong, gong, gong. It announces that you've made to AMT territory and most deductions don't matter any more. Welcome to the twilight zone, to the parallel universe known as AMT hell. This is quite liberating actually. Of course I'd like to only have to pay my fair share of taxes, not my share plus the share of about ten other people. On the other hand, my taxes just got a whole less complicated, especially now that we don't have to bother with my wife's business expenses - medical licenses in three states, medical societies, continuing medical education, travel expenses, etc. It was a pain to keep track of all that. No more those. I just bend over and let the government extract what they can.

Speaking of taxes and government, I got my PERS 1099 statements yesterday. Note the plural. I got two tax statements from PERS. I had forgotten that the year between one's 59th and 60th birthday marks a special occasion in tax land. About half way through you turn 59.5 years old. That magic point marks the crossover point where you are no longer subject to the IRS's special hell for taking "early distributions" of retirement income. In PERS-land, this event is marked by getting two 1099 forms. One form has Box 7 marked with a "7", which means "normal distribution" (i.e. you've reached official IRS retirement age and you can withdraw without a penalty). The other 1099 has box 7 marked with a "2), which means that you were subject to "early distribution" rules. It hardly matters when one is taking a PERS pension plus an annuity, but the IRS keeps track of these sorts of things. So now I'm street legal; I am really old enough to retire. If you get two 1099R's from PERS this year, you might have turned 59.5 sometime during the year; otherwise, you may be getting a variable distribution. If you got two for any other reason, it might be that PERS just likes to play with your head. Have fun doing your taxes. I'm having a blast doing mine. The AMT has only cost me $7000 so far this year. If I'm lucky, I can keep it under $10,000. Way down in the hole.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Falling or Flying

The OPRI Board is whole again. Russ Gregory has joined the OPRI Board as the local school district employee representative. By my count there are now four members who retired in 2000 or later. That gives "window" retirees slight control over the decision-making process and future direction of the organization. I don't anticipate an immediate change in the current direction; it does take time to learn the ropes and organizational history. But, I think it fair to say that there are a significant number of recent retirees - many OPRI members - who aren't satisfied with many things about OPRI. OPRI seems very slow to act. OPRI doesn't communicate well with its members. Unless you know an OPRI Board member, OPRI may not communicate with you at all, especially if you have a question. OPRI is taking its direction from a paid lobbyist. OPRI should be setting its own agenda, not the lobbyist's agenda. I hope that with a more active Board, all of this will change. I hope that OPRI will become responsive to its membership. I hope that OPRI will become more active in trying to increase its membership ranks. Word of mouth isn't sufficient any more.

Many of these problems could be classed under the heading - better and more modern communications. From all the different sources I have, I understand that some on the Board still do not use email as a principal means of communication. In this day of cell phones, instant messaging, emails, text messaging, high gasoline prices, it astonishes me that people can't grasp just how important immediate communication can be in this rapidly changing world. I don't see how anything productive comes from having to mail out agendas, or to pick them up by driving to a central locations. I don't see how timely issues can be put on meeting agendas when communication is limited in this way. This was an issue Martha Sartain complained about, and was one of the reasons that Greg Scott volunteered to redo the OPRI web site. From my observations over the past year or so, not many of these things have changed dramatically. Few of us use OPRI as an information source. It's information is "so yesterday" by the time it gets posted on the OPRI website. And this is the point I don't get. OPRI is often the last to communicate this information to its members. Why shouldn't it be out front? You can't do this living in the 19th century. Queen Victoria's mail system and Henry Ford's transportation system no longer cut it. We're all living in Tim Berners-Lee's world and we expect and seek information instantaneously. OPRI needs to move way forward on this front if it expects to sustain itself over the next 10 - 15 years or longer.

I'm willing to cut the new Board some slack, give it time to get its act together, and start acting like it is in the latter part of the 20th century. There is no excuse for not modernizing this end of the organization. A majority of the Board *must* grasp this. Hopefully they can gently nudge the others on the Board to the modern world The new Board *must* emphasize that they want to connect with newer retirees by starting to act like they understand the wants and needs of more recent retirees. Most of us are willing to wait - a little while - to see whether the new board is falling or flying. Hopefully, we'll see some flying. We don't need any more falling. The other side is too sophisticated to afford us the luxury of terminal anachronism.

Note added later today: I actually had occasion to want to email OPRI today. I discovered that there is no email contact on their web site. I *can* email their lobbyist, but why is OPRI paying a lobbying firm to handle email? This is what I mean by an organization that just isn't nimble, that just isn't with it, and that actively seems to be trying to disengage with its own membership. They've got to try a whole lot harder than they're doing. A post office box and a lobbyist email address just aren't sufficient these days. Worse still, the lobbyist email address is a dead letter box. My emails just bounce back. Thus, except by sending snail mail, there seems to be no way to contact OPRI. This sucks.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Weird Fishes/Arpeggi

Those comics over at OPRI have made me laugh again. You know, the Oregon PERS Retirees Association. The group that begged us for money to fund the Sartain case to which many of us donated legal fees. Their legal defense fund, the OPLDF, received a fat check from PERS to settle up the PERS litigation. OPRI promised it would refund donations to the extent they were reimbursed. We now know that they were reimbursed at about 72 cents on the dollar and so they are offering refunds to donors at the rate of 72 cents on the dollar less a one dollar service charge. Fair enough. But the things that makes this whole thing distasteful are (a) I have to tell OPRI that I want a refund; otherwise they'll just keep my money and (b) I have to prove my donations to get a refund. Both of these are aggravating. Why should I have to tell OPRI I want a refund? Why can't they ask me if I want one? Second, why do I have to dig through *my* records, now some 3 to 5 years later, to prove how much I donated. Why can't OPRI dig through their records - they have to keep them by law? OPRI would be far more likely to win friends if they took the initiative here rather than expecting me to do their heavy lifting. Of course, it's my money and I want it back. You can be damn straight that I'll find the records. But I shouldn't have to be doing this. OPRI could make my workload a bit lighter. After all, that's what databases are for. There are some weird fishes down there in Salem (sorry to my Salem-resident friends. Not you, it's the folks who live at PO Box 12945, Salem, OR 97309).

Saturday, January 19, 2008

House of Cards

I spoke too soon in my post earlier today. The mail brought me PERS' form letter declining to share my wealth with me. They turned down my appeal. My appeal form looked suspiciously like a legal documents complete with all kinds of cool phrases like: "In the matter of the appeal of Marc Feldesman" and "Review Determination". The bottom line is the somewhat rude and unsurprising and unoriginal "Calculation Upheld." I stood open-mouthed in disbelief that they could actually turn down *my* appeal. The nerve of them. And here I thought that after writing mean things about them for a few years they might be sufficiently afraid that they'd treat me differently than all the other hundreds, possibly thousands, who have already appealed.

As I said this morning, I have a local attorney experienced in these matters who volunteered to take my case pro bono. I still haven't decided whether it is worth the time or effort. I suspect that once the attorney finds out how many stun guns PERS throws up in his face, he might rethink his offer. My guess is that he needs paying clients far worse than he needs this grief. It is probably better to wait for the horse to Kantor. Perhaps then the house of cards will finally start falling down.

I Write Sins Not Tragedies

I expect you were waiting for another PERS post. Alas, there is nothing new to report aside from the hundreds of people appealing their PERS benefit adjustments and getting turned down for the same reasons. From the looks of the letters, PERS doesn't even have enough respect for us that they can write these form letters on actual stationery. For all I know, they are pre-written and one paragraph is added just to make it look personalized. I myself haven't gotten my appeal response, although it is approaching the 45-day mark. I expect my form letter will arrive real soon now. I'm still debating whether a contested case would be a useful thing to do. At least one attorney friend of mine has volunteered to do it for me on a pro bono basis, but I'm still not sure I'll go through with. I have some slim hope that Judge Kantor will get off his duff and issue an opinion soon - maybe even before I file my income taxes for this year.

While I tend to share relatively little personal information on *this* site, I've been trying to reduce my carbon footprint a bit. I drive a big SUV that gets crummy gas mileage. We can't afford to get rid of the car because we still need it for travel and for hauling the dog around. But I've decided to buy a new toy that gets far better gas mileage - 32 combined MPG - without purchasing an ugly hybrid (sorry Prius owners, but those cars have no style and I'm a stylin' kind of guy). So, yesterday I took the plunge and bought myself a new Mini Cooper. If I can figure out how to use the MiniUSA site to capture the image of *my* car, as configured, I'll post it. Like any fuel-efficient car, Mini's are not exactly plentiful on the lots these days. Mine is on order and won't be here until late March. I drove one for hours yesterday and I've never been in a 118 hp car with so much power and is so much fun to drive. Of course, it will be an utter pain in the rear on the Sunset Highway (26) at about 5 pm, but while I'm creeping along, I'll take comfort in the fact that the miles per gallon is an underestimate and that I won't be spewing out hydrocarbons costing me $3.25 or more per gallon for 15 miles per gallon. I'll try to figure out how to post a picture in case anyone cares. My daughter - 16 in April - is already pissed at me because I bought a manual transmission and I'm not going to teach her how to drive it right away. She can drive the car we've saved for her, poor mistreated child. Here's my soon-to-be gas-sipperMy Mini.jpg

Friday, January 11, 2008

You Know I'm No Good

There is a penetrating and occasionally nasty commentary about Greg MacPherson's latest "Mac Report". You can read it on Jack Bog's Blog under the heading entitled "Macpherson Takes a Hard Left". As most readers know, I hold Macpherson accountable for much of the current PERS debacle and the assault on public employees and PERS retirees. Jack's analysis and the reader comments add much further dimension to my distaste for Macpherson and why I wouldn't want a pension lawyer being the state's top attorney. He's too one-dimensional to be qualified for the job. And, if you don't want to read the analysis, just keep in mind that Jack Bogdanski was a law partner with Greg Macpherson and John Kroger teaches with him at Lewis and Clark. Few others can claim that degree of knowledge of both candidates. I can't imagine any PERS member or retiree *willingly* voting for Macpherson, but in case you've been out of the loop for awhile, John Kroger is a far more qualified person for the job and he doesn't carry the PERS baggage that Macpherson does.

Think of it this way. If Kroger defeats Macpherson in the May primary, Macpherson not only doesn't get the AG's job, but he's also out of the Legislative pictures. It isn't too often that you get to kill two birds with one vote. Go Kroger.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Where Have All The Flowers Gone?

Here we are on January 1 in the year of our lord, 2008. We stand at the threshhold of the 40th anniversary of one of the most significant years in American History - 1968. Think about it. Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Johnson's decision not to run for re-election, the Chicago 7 and the Democratic National Convention, the Tet Offensive and the list goes on. It was one of the most difficult years of my life and in many ways formed the person who I am today. Well, enough ruminating. If you enjoy this history, I suggest reading Tom Brokaw's latest book "Boom" for a trip down memory lane. My wife bought it for me at Christmas and I've been dashing through it since. It is an amazing way to turn the spigot of time backwards - not always pleasant, but astonishing in retrospect.

I could maunder on all day about the distant past, but my post today is really a followup on a post a few weeks back entitled "Last of the True Believers". In that, I reported that Steve Delaney, who had been Associate Director of PERS, was leaving to become the Director of Orange County's Public Employee Retirement System. As we crossed over into the New Year I began to think about all of the past PERS luminaries who've left since the reform legislation, and the unfortunates left to carry out the task of being waterboys (and girls) for the current group of Gubernatorial lackeys (the PERS Board). I won't name all names, in part because I've lost track and in part because I don't want to reveal my own ignorance. But, it appears that the list of departures not only left a gigantic hole in the PERS institutional memory, it wiped out a gigantic swatch of intellectual firepower. We have David Bailey, who had been the Associate Director from the late 1990's to 2003, who is now the Director of the PERS System in San Mateo County (San Francisco and environs), Craig Stroud, who went back to his position with DAS, Steve Delaney who is the new Director in Orange County, Jim Voytko, who is now the president of a consulting group in Portland that helps Public Employee retirement systems in, at last count, 20 different states and hundreds of municipalities, and Marsha Bacon, former director of customer service at PERS, who was, at last sighting, working with Jim Voytko at his current employer. In addition, dozens of former customer services and second tier analysts have left PERS for other positions, or have retired and taken positions in the private sector.

So, I wanted to take this opportunity to congratulate the Legislature and the Governor, and Greg Macpherson, for achieving a number of things. First, they managed to drive out the largest wave of talent in the public sector at any time in history between early 2003 and the end of 2004. While all the agencies and districts have limped on, anyone visiting a public agency today will see the consequence of this exodus. Way to go Leg and Gov. Second, they managed to piss off the largest wave of retirees in Oregon history. And the anger is only building as the courts continue to drag their feet and PERS, in its current incarnation, continues its reckless and willful disregard of the law. They say that the lord works in mysterious ways. I suspect that the mystery will be cleared up during 2008 as a large number of incumbents in the legislature get their walking papers. I also suspect that their will be a very unpleasant backlash if the PERS Coalition wins at the Circuit Court level and the PERB continues to press for "summary judgement." Retirees aren't going to take all of this quietly, kindly, or lying down. This one certainly won't. And finally, the Legislature and Governor managed to drive away the largest collection of talent and experience INSIDE PERS itself, leaving the only the hardened, the inexperienced, the talentless, and the immobile group that today acts so maliciously and ruthlessly towards retirees. One often wonders whether this group behaves the way it does because they *can't* retire and are stuck in deadend jobs, or whether they are too stupid to realize the damage they're doing. I guess time will tell.

Where have all the flowers gone? Laughing all the way to the bank. Welcome to 2008 - a year of hope, of opportunity, and most of all, of justice.