Storm Surge

Distribution operator Stony Gillespie directs power flows on the central Virginia distribution grid.

by James A. Bacon

Jeffrey A. Hutchinson, manager of  Dominion Virginia Power’s central operations center, first took note of Hurricane Matthew a month ago when it was a storm forming off Africa. Keeping tabs through the company’s two meteorologists and subscription weather services, he tracked its progress across the Atlantic Ocean. He felt relieved when the storm seemed to be heading toward the Caribbean – Virginia would dodge another bullet. But then it took a hard-right turn, barreling north along the Florida coast.

The operations center, which coordinates Dominion’s response to major storms, needed to get ready. One way or another, Hutchinson knew, he and his team had a long week ahead.

“We went from thinking that Matthew wouldn’t impact us, to thinking that Florida would be impacted and we’d need to send help, to realizing that we’d need help,” says Robbie Wright, director of planning and system reliability.

When a big storm threatens, Dominion mobilizes with one aim in mind: to restore electric power to as many people as possible as quickly as possible. Over the years, the utility has developed a system for coping with catastrophe. The linemen comprise the visible, front-line force, clearing trees, patching power lines, and restoring substations. But they are backed by an extensive back-office staff that identifies issues and organizes a response. Everyone in the company from accountants to customer service reps has a designated support role, whether they’re patrolling power lines in the field or managing logistics in the operations center.

That system kicked in for Matthew. Even though the storm lost its hurricane force by the time it reached Dominion’s service territory in North Carolina and Virginia, it still packed a wallop. Gusts of wind reached 70 miles per hour in the Outer Banks. While the storm surge was mild, seven to ten inches of rain caused more flooding than anyone expected. According to spokesman Janell M. Hancock, Matthew was the 9th most destructive weather event in Dominion’s 100-plus-year history.

The high winds and heavy rain knocked out service to about 350,000 customers in Dominion’s eastern region and another 90,000 in the central region. Repair crews had to replace 285 poles, 870 cross arms, 2,100 insulators, 730 cutouts, 260 pole-mounted transformers and more than 22 miles of overhead wire.

One of Dominion’s top management priorities is reducing routine power outages and restoring power after major weather events as rapidly as possible. Preparations begin long before the bad weather hits. The company maintains a “portfolio” of programs geared to improving reliability year-round. Initiatives range from aggressive tree-trimming along power lines to upgrading sensitive equipment to stainless steel to protect against salt corrosion in coastal areas.

Dominion spends about $200 million a year reconditioning its distribution system (which steps down electricity from the high-powered transmission lines to lower-voltage lines serving homes and businesses), says Hutchinson. Some of that money goes to “hardening” infrastructure, some of it to installing sensors that detect power interruptions, and some of it to systems that allow control room operators to re-route electric flows.

Some of the biggest improvements have occurred out of sight, in Dominion’s three regional distribution operations centers. An extraordinary amount of information flows into these centers, allowing operators to quickly identify problems, set priorities and dispatch linemen into the field. “More and more, it’s about the data,” says Wright.

Lead analyst Wayne Williams coordinates efforts to get power restored, a particularly critical role during storm events.
Lead analyst Wayne Williams coordinates efforts to get power restored, a particularly critical role during storm events.

As Matthew approached Virginia and North Carolina, Hutchinson huddled with his staff to prepare for impact. Dominion belongs to a mutual-aid consortium of power companies that send crews to help one another during emergencies. As the storm track shifted, the power companies were in continual communication, conferring on who needed how much help and where it would come from. Dominion actually sent some of its contract crews down to assist the Florida clean-up; just as their work was finished there, they had to high-tail it back to Virginia.Continue reading

The Disintegration of Newspapers Accelerates

Woodward and Bernstein. The glory days of newspaper journalism are long gone.
Woodward and Bernstein. The glory days of newspaper journalism are long gone.

by James A. Bacon

The disintegration of the newspaper industry is accelerating. Even as the global advertising market is expected to grow 4% this year, spending on newspaper print ads is expected to decline 8.7% in 2016, according to estimates from GroupM, an ad-buying firm, as reported by the Wall Street Journal. That would be the biggest drop since the last recession. Leading newspaper brands like the New York Times and Wall Street Journal are getting clobbered just as hard as the smaller papers.

That decline appears to be matched by a decline in local newspaper advertising spending. I made a quick count of advertising pages in the T-D today. After excluding the non revenue-producing in-house ads and public service ads, the 38-page newspaper edition contained roughly six pages of display and classified advertising, plus a six-page advertorial insert. In the heyday of the newspaper industry, advertising comprised up to 50% of the newspaper lineage.

Newspapers are migrating as rapidly as they can to online advertising, and they are making gains. But they have much more competition in cyberspace, and the revenue yield per eyeball is lower than it is for print. Thus, while a full-page ad in a national paper might run $100 per 1,000 readers, the WSJ reports, prime-time TV ads run about $37. I haven’t checked online advertising recently, but as I recall the cost of banner ads runs around $1 or $2.

Readers of print ads are literally dying off, and so is the print-based business model that supports newsroom staffs that, though shrinking, are still substantial. What everyone needs to contemplate — and that includes Google, Facebook, and all the other technology-driven platforms that have extracted most of the economic value from online readership — is what happens when newspapers begin folding one by one. Who will report the news?

Look at all the online news aggregators — they feed off content created by others. They spend zero, zip, nada on creating content themselves. What happens when their reputable news content dries up? What will they have to aggregate? What will people have to comment upon? These entities will be exposed for the parasites they are.

I frequently chastise local newspapers for voids or failings in their coverage. But that coverage, as imperfect as it is, is vastly preferable to the information sources that would be available if there were no newsrooms. While in-depth investigating reporting is nearly dead in Virginia, reporters still cover important public hearings and other events. Without newspaper reporters, we would have almost no idea of what is happening. (I’m sorry, I don’t take TV news seriously. Local TV covers only the most controversial topics, and their format requires them to boil down complex stories to one- and two-minute snippets that skim the surface.)

Yes, newspapers’ framing of issues is biased (subtly on the part of local media, blatantly on the part of national media) by the values and worldviews of the journalists, who skew center-left. But the journalistic ethic tempers biases by fostering an ideal of objectivity that requires reporters (a) to check facts, and (b) to take note of differing points of view.

As local newsrooms shrink, there will be fewer journalists to cover a society that grows ever more complex. Reporters will know less and less about the topics they are writing about, and their coverage inevitably will become more and more shallow. At some point their value-add will be negligible. Then our main sources of information will be press releases, think tank studies, official presentations at public hearings, commentary, and bloggers unconstrained by journalistic ethics of any kind.

If you thought the state of public discourse in America couldn’t get any worse, think again.

Virginia K-12 Spending Down: No Cause for Dismay

Combined state and local school funding per student, % change, inflation adjusted between FY 2008 and FY 2014. Image credit: Washington Post
Combined state and local school funding per student, % change, inflation adjusted between FY 2008 and FY 2014. Image credit: Washington Post

Inflation-adjusted spending on K-12 education in 23 states, including Virginia, is less this school year than it was before the Great Recession in 2007-2008, reports the Washington Post, drawing from a new report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), a left-leaning think tank.

Michael Leachman, co-author of the report, viewed the spending cuts with alarm. In too many states, he said, “public investment in K-12 schools, which are crucial for communities to thrive and the U.S. economy to offer broad opportunity, has declined dramatically in recent years,”

“As common sense suggests — and academic research confirms — money matters for educational outcomes,” states the report.

Does money matter? Let’s see. Virginia has cut more than most states, an inflation-adjusted 10.2%, according to the CBPP study. By Leachman’s logic, we should see a commensurate decline in educational achievement.

Source: Virginia Department of Education

The graphs at left track reading and math proficiency in National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests for Virginia and U.S. 4th graders. As can be seen, the gap between Virginia and U.S. performance actually has widened since 2008. (Change in the Virginia/U.S. differential for 8th graders has been negligible.)

I have been critical of Virginia’s educational establishment, but looking at these numbers, I have to say this: It appears that Virginia’s teachers and administrators have learned to do more with less, at least in the lower grades. Certainly, they have done better than their peers in other states.

There are limits to how much schools can cut spending without harming educational achievement. But there is no evidence that spending cuts in Virginia have done any harm so far. Assessing our commitment to education purely in terms of dollars spent is foolish. Spending less for marginally better results is a good thing, not a cause for dismay.

Dueling Polls on the Pipeline Issue

pollsA month ago, the Chesapeake Climate Action Network (CCAN) published the results of a poll that found that 55% of Virginians opposed Governor Terry McAuliffe in his backing of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP) and the Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP). Only 28% of respondents endorsed the pipeline plans.

Yesterday the Virginia Chamber of Commerce released a poll showing almost diametrically opposite results; Virginians backed the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (making no mention of the MVP) by 55% and opposing it by 29%.

Has popular sentiment toward the controversial pipelines shifted dramatically in the last month? Or did the pollsters just ask different questions?

Here’s what the CCAN asked:

Governor McAuliffe supports building two long pipelines that would bring gas from West Virginia into Virginia and send it across the state. He says the pipelines will create jobs, lower bills, help manufacturing, and help the environment. This gas would be extracted through hydraulic fracturing drilling, or fracking. Opponents say these pipelines will allow energy corporations to take hundreds of miles of privately owned land from citizens for private corporate gain. Opponents also say the pipelines will harm Virginia farms, worsen pollution, and damage drinking water and local wells. Weighing the pros and cons, do you support the Governor’s efforts to build these pipelines for fracked gas across Virginia, or no?

Here’s what the Chamber asked:

There is a proposal to build an underground natural gas pipeline called the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. The pipeline would bring domestically produced natural gas to families and businesses in Virginia and North Carolina to meet energy and electricity needs. The pipeline would begin in West Virginia, travel across Virginia, and end in Eastern North Carolina.

Neither poll is entirely bias-free. The CCAN did mention positive aspects of the pipelines but heavily emphasized the negatives while using loaded language such as “fracking” and “private corporate gain”; the poll also dragged Governor McAuliffe into the picture, inviting partisan reactions. The Chamber avoided the use of loaded language but reminded respondents of a positive aspect of the pipeline — bringing gas to “families and businesses in Virginia” — without noting any of the controversy.

If I were constructing a poll, I would have asked first if respondents had heard of the pipeline proposals. Only if they had would I ask them, without any leading information, if they supported or opposed the projects, forcing them to rely upon their own knowledge.

Even then, I wouldn’t pay much attention to the results. The economic, environmental and legal issues swirling around the pipeline are so complex and nuanced that only a tiny fraction of the electorate — less than 1%, I’d guess — has an informed opinion on the subject. Hell, I’ve been writing about the pipelines for more than a year, and there are layers of the controversy that I have yet to peel back.

That’s why the United States is a representative form of government, not a pure democracy. We put very few issues to a popular vote. We elect politicians and appoint bureaucrats to study complex issues and make difficult trade-offs. It’s an imperfect system at best, but it’s less odious than the alternatives. I don’t see the polls adding anything to the useful store of knowledge.

Feds Spend $80 Billion a Year on IT to Maintain Status Quo

is_it_worth_itThe IT revolution has transformed the private sector with radical business models seen in companies as diverse as Amazon, Facebook and Uber. But government keeps plugging along, doing the same thing the same way, just a little more efficiently. Says a new report, “Transforming Government Through Technology” published by ACT-IAC and the Institute for Innovation:

Despite spending over $80 billion annually on information technology, most federal agencies have seen little change in how they perform their work or interact and transact with citizens, businesses, and other governments. Where change has happened, it has typically been the automation of current processes or providing information through websites. The lack of change is caused by federal laws, processes, and culture that inhibit or even penalize risk taking, change, and innovation.

Although there have been tentative efforts to open up state data for the private sector to do creative things with, I suspect that the critique applies equally to the Commonwealth of Virginia’s use of information technology.

The paper offers seven major recommendations: Allow agencies to attract a high-performance workforce; reward success; focus on the customer, not the agency; and deal seriously with cyber-security; among others. Sadly, the cultural transformation is too profound for anyone to think that these recommendations, as well meaning as they are, will go anywhere.


How Land Use Regulation Aggravates Income Inequality

This graph from the
This graph from the Shoag-Ganong study shows how states rank in two rankings of land use regulation: the Wharton Index of Regulation and the number of land use cases per capita. Regulation in Virginia, highlighted in red, was light-to-moderate compared to other states.

The thesis advanced by economists Daniel Shoag and Peter Ganong in their paper, “Why Has Personal Income Convergence in the U.S. Declined,” is not new. Market-oriented urbanists have made the same connections for years: that land use restrictions drive up the cost of housing, and that high housing costs aggravate income inequality by throttling the flow of lower-income households to wealthier regions offering greater economic opportunity. But Shoag and Ganong have tapped a new set of data to make that case more ironclad than ever.

The convergence of per capita incomes across U.S. states from 1880 to 1980 is “one of the most striking patterns in macroeconomics,” the authors state; for more than a century, incomes a rate of 1.8% per year. Then between 1990 to 2010, there was virtually no convergence at all. Prior to 1980, Americans were moving, on net, from poor places to richer places. Since then, higher-skill workers still have been moving but lower skill workers have tended to stay put.

Economic theory would suggest that in a free labor market, workers would tend to migrate to states and metropolitan regions offering better prospects for jobs and wages — as in fact occurred for more than a century. However, inter-state mobility has declined as housing prices have increased significantly more in high-income states than in low-income states, thus pricing lower-income workers out of expensive housing markets.

“Although skilled adults are still moving to high income locations, unskilled adults are actually weakly migrating away from these locations,” the authors find. “High housing prices in high nominal income areas have made these areas prohibitively costly for unskilled workers.”

Although the study was published in 2015, it has been getting increased exposure. Ganong presented the paper in a July Brookings Institute conference on municipal finance, and the Wall Street Journal highlighted the findings in an article today.

The driving force behind higher housing prices is land use regulation. Since 1977, they write, “it has been widely accepted that municipalities’ land use restrictions raise property values for incumbent homeowners. … Local variation in regulations is not randomly assigned; it is the product of substantial work by local governments and regulatory bodies.”

Hypothesizing that restrictive land use policies might explain the phenomenon, Shoag and Ganong devised a clever new measure — the frequency with which the phrase “land use” appeared in state appellate court cases over time. The number of land use court cases served as a proxy for the intensity of land use regulation in each state.

In conclusion:

A simple back of the envelope calculation … finds that cross-state convergence accounted for approximately 30% of the drop in hourly wage inequality from 1940 to 1980, and that had convergence continued apace through 2010, the increase in hourly wage inequality from 1980 to 2010 would have been approximately 10% smaller. The U.S. is increasingly characterized by segregation along economic dimensions, with limited access for most workers to America’s most productive cities and their amenities.

Bacon’s bottom line: Shoag and Ganong have documented one of the major drivers of income inequality in the country, and it has nothing to do with globalization, automation, illegal immigration or tax breaks for the rich. Sadly, the phenomenon is totally absent from our debased media commentary and presidential debate.

If anything, the authors understate the role of high housing prices because their database makes it possible to compare states only. If we look at migration patterns within Virginia, for instance, we would see the same trends at work. Thousands of unemployed and underemployed workers in Southside and Southwest Virginia find are discouraged from seeking superior work opportunities in high-wage Northern Virginia by Virginia’s strictest land use controls and the highest cost of housing.

There are legitimate reasons for some land use controls. New development should be required to mitigate its environmental impacts, such as erosion and sediment control. A case also can be made for limiting development in order to preserve unique historical or cultural attributes. But land use restrictions are far more typically put into place to restrict growth, with the goal of holding down increases by dampening the demand for schools, roads and other public amenities. But most restrictions create unintended consequences, of which the lofty price of housing is just the most visible.

Here’s One Easy Way to Clean Virginia Voter Rolls

... but only if you're a U.S. citizen.
… but only if you’re a U.S. citizen.

by James A. Bacon

Let’s pretend for a moment that Donald Trump did not create an uproar by claiming that the 2016 presidential elections are rigged. Let’s all take deep breaths, seek a meditative state of mind, and try to look dispassionately at the issue of voter fraud. Now let me advance a series of propositions.

First, we all can agree that only U.S. citizens should be allowed to vote in U.S. elections. A corollary to that proposition is that non-citizens should not be allowed to vote.

Second, we can agree that millions of non-citizens do live in the United States.

Third, we can agree that the National Voter Registration Act, which allows Americans to register while getting their drivers’ licenses, opened up a potential avenue for non-citizens to register illegally. Virginia requires no more proof from applicants than to check a box and affirm under penalty of perjury that they are citizens.

We do not know how often non-citizens register illegally, but the work of the Public Interest Legal Foundation (PILF) has identified 1,046 non-citizens in eight localities who did so. Those non-citizens are known to have cast more than 200 ballots.

PILF’s numbers reflect only registrants who were caught in recent years: removed from voter rolls because someone had determined that they were not U.S. citizens. Most were identified by accident or chance, such as, for example, when someone claimed to be a citizen when receiving a driver’s license and later indicated he or she was not a citizen when renewing the license. The actual number of illegal voters in all 125 Virginia localities is likely much higher.

Fourth, whether the number is of sufficient size to skew election results or not, we can agree that registering illegally is, well… illegal. Furthermore, we can agree that local registrars, whose job is to uphold the integrity of the voting rolls, should institute formal procedures to remove non-citizens from the voting rolls — especially if the process is not onerously expensive and does not accidentally delete people who are qualified to vote.

Fifth — and here I know I’m going out on a limb — we can agree that every Virginia locality should periodically cross-reference its voting rolls with the federally administered Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements (SAVE) database to detect ineligible alien registrants. If tools exist to keep voter rolls clean, then we should use them.

VCU Takes Lead on New Richmond Baseball Stadium

The Diamond. Real estate better dedicated to mixed-use development.
The Diamond. Real estate better dedicated to mixed-use development.

by James A. Bacon

The big news out of Richmond today is that Virginia Commonwealth University and the Richmond Flying Squirrels have committed to being “major contributors” to a baseball stadium near the location of the existing stadium, known as the Diamond. The memorandum of understanding was announced in a press release yesterday.

“This is a significant step forward for baseball in the Richmond region,” said Mayor Dwight C. Jones in the statement. Jones has spent the better part of his tenure as mayor trying to identify a location and financing for a stadium to replace the aging Diamond.

The announcement did not identify a site, although the Richmond Times-Dispatch cited sources as saying that officials are “still targeting” land occupied by an aging Virginia Department of Beverage Control warehouse. Nor did the press release say who would pay for the facility, although it did state that VCU would take the lead in efforts to develop the stadium.

Media accounts provided no details about the proposed site other than its location near the Diamond. While the McAuliffe administration probably can be counted on to be supportive of the project, it is unknown what issues might be encountered in making the ABC-warehouse property available. On the positive side, moving the stadium would open up 60 acres occupied by the Diamond and its parking lot to redevelopment. Located near the Boulevard interchange with Interstate 64 and the rapidly redeveloping Scotts Addition neighborhood, the property would be prime real estate. The prospect of adding to the tax base would make the initiative a winner for the city.

The bigger question is who will pay for the project. The Squirrels have indicated a willingness to pay a lease of about $1 million annually. That compares to annual financing costs (using very rough numbers and assuming the project is financed through 30-year municipal bonds) in the $2.5-million to $3-million-a-year range. Times-Dispatch sources indicated that the city and the counties of Chesterfield, Henrico and Hanover also would contribute to the project but gave no idea of how much.

Noting that the facility would be comparable in size and amenities to ballparks in Charlotte, N.C., and Allentown, Pa., the press release also said it could be used for concerts, festivals and other events, all of which could generate revenue as well.

To me, the biggest question is the role of VCU. How much of its own money will the university put into the project? How much exposure will the university have if the project falls short of financial expectations? And to what extent will VCU’s commitment to the ballpark crowd out its capacity to undertake other long-term capital projects? It’s far from clear, given the little we know, whether or not the project is a wise commitment by VCU.

Update: Mayoral candidate Joe Morrissey has declared that he would reject the use of public funds “no matter how camouflaged” to help build the baseball stadium. “The Diamond was built in 1985. The average public school in the City of Richmond was built in 1955,” he said in a press release today. “We need to focus on modernizing the schools before spending public money on a new baseball stadium.”

Yes, Virginia, There Is Voter Fraud

trumpby James A. Bacon

Donald Trump has dominated the news the past few days with charges that the election is “rigged” due to media bias and electoral fraud. His charges, which have been long on bluster and short on specifics, have inspired numerous rebuttals in the news media. The vast majority of commentary suggests that voter fraud is negligible — and certainly does not occur on a scale to affect election outcomes.

While media retorts tend to be more fact-based than Trump’s (whose motto could well be, “Proof? We don’t need no stinking proof!”), that doesn’t mean they tell the whole story. The rebuttal articles I have surveyed create an aura of verisimilitude by citing academic studies and quoting experts about the electoral process, but they ignore evidence that contradicts their views.

For instance, an essay by Philip Bump in the Washington Post this morning headlined, “Trump’s Claims about voter fraud are patently ridiculously,” omits mention of the recent report by the Public Interest Legal Foundation (PILF), “Alien Invasion in Virginia,” which uncovered evidence, naming names, of 1,046 non-citizens who were illegally registered to vote and had cast at least 200 ballots before being removed from voter rolls. (PILF had similar findings in Pennsylvania.)

The primary evidence that Bump cited was a study by Justin Levitt with the Loyola Law School who traced years’ worth of votes and found “only a few sporadic instances of possible — but not certain fraud. Specifically: 31 incidents out of 1 billion cast votes.” Wrote Bump: “There’s simply no credible evidence that in-person voter fraud happens with any regularity, much less at a scale that could affect a national race.” (My italics.)

Note the qualifier. No credible evidence of in-person voter fraud. Levitt focused on instances in which people showed up at the polls and voted using a false identity — a particular species of fraud targeted by Republican-initiated Voter ID laws. Levitt’s research found that that particular type of fraud was nearly non-existent. But it did not rule out other categories of voter fraud. As Levitt noted in a 2014 Washington Post piece:

These allegations do not include other forms of fraud … including absentee ballot fraud, vote buying, vote coercion, fraud in the tallying process, voter registration fraud, double voting, voting by noncitizens, voting by persons disenfranchised by conviction, or fraud in the petitioning process.

The commentators citing Levitt’s study to discredit Trump’s charges never mention that expansive caveat.

The Trump busters also cite the paucity of prosecutions as evidence that voter fraud is negligible. If fraud were widespread, they say, surely there would be evidence of it in the record of prosecutions and convictions. But that argument ignores the possibility that prosecutors may have no interest in tracking down voter fraud. As the PILF report demonstrated, registration among non-citizens in Virginia is endemic and hundreds of ballots were cast illegally, and that’s just based upon a sample of eight of Virginia’s 125 localities. These are not isolated instances — they are systemic, based upon the way the National Voter Registration Act is administered and enforced (or not enforced) across the state and probably the nation. Remarkably, PILF found no evidence that a single illegally registered voter uncovered in its Virginia investigation had been prosecuted.

PILF’s Noel J. Johnson said in testimony submitted last week to the House Privileges and Elections Committee:

Alexandria provided a list of 70 non-citizens who had been removed from their voter rolls in recent years. Each one of these registrants likely committed a felony when they registered to vote. Yet we received no records showing that any of these individuals had been referred to law enforcement for investigation or prosecution. …

Why have Virginia election officials not pursued criminal prosecutions of aliens registering and voting? …

Why has not a single instance of non-citizen registration and voting been prosecuted in Virginia that we could find?

The committee hearing turned into a bitter partisan fight as Republican lawmakers called for removal of Edgardo Cortes, commissioner of the Virginia Department of Elections, and Democrats accused Republicans of following Trump’s lead of casting doubt on the legitimacy of the upcoming election. (See the Richmond Times-Dispatch coverage here.)

Here’s what I have yet to see — a single mainstream media article about the PILF report. As a former member of mainstream media myself, I don’t believe in media conspiracies. But I can understand why the Trumpkins do. The media’s lack of interest in the allegations detailed by PILF is as astonishing as the allegations themselves. How can the media be so uninterested in charges that, at least on the face of it, seem well documented and go to the heart of our democratic process? Surely such accusations should be aired publicly and subjected to critical analysis. Ironically, the fact that the report is swept under the rug will only feed the conspiracy-mongering of Trump and his minions.

If Trump succeeds in undermining the legitimacy of the 2016 election, which he undoubtedly will lose, he will have had plenty of help from his antagonists in the media. Instapundit blogger Glenn Reynolds has popularized the phrase, “Think of [members of the press] as Democratic operatives with bylines and you won’t go far wrong.” At least half the population would agree.

Update: I just watched Chris Hayes on MSNBC citing Levitt’s figure of 31 incidents out of 1 billion votes as if it were representative of all forms of voting fraud. I wonder if Levitt takes issue with the way his study is being misconstrued in the press.

Update: I managed to contact Levitt, who is on leave from the Loyola Law School and now works for the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice. Unfortunately, he says he cannot comment on any topic not directly related to his DOJ work. “In the course of the year,”he writes, “I’ve seen my work (including but not limited to the piece you mentioned) cited quite a bit — some accurately, some not, some criticism, and some praise — but I’ve had to let the work itself do all of the talking on my behalf. ”

Update: Peter Galuszka takes issue with my statement that not a single mainstream media outlet has mentioned the PILF report. He wrote an opinion piece for the Washington Post’sAll Opinions Are Local” feature that minimized the significance of the report as the product of “two right-wing groups” that “hounded” registrars for data and uncovered some sloppiness in record keeping. “Even if all 1,046 cases the groups claim are valid,” he concluded, “they do not make their point, given that more than 2 million Virginians tend to vote in elections. That’s hardly massive voting fraud.”

This Is What a Fiscal Meltdown Looks Like, Part V: Big Legal Fees

quicksandAs creditors close in and the City of Petersburg struggles to avoid default, it is spending large sums on legal and consulting fees. In the latest litigation, the city has hired the Richmond-based law firm Sands Anderson to fight an Oct. 4 order by a Petersburg Circuit Court Judge appointing a special receiver to ensure that city residents’ wastewater payments are forwarded to the regional sewage treatment agency.

In his order, Circuit Court Judge Joseph M. Teefey Jr. appointed an attorney from Richmond-based LeClair Ryan as the receiver. Presumably, the city will be responsible for covering LeClair Ryan’s fees as well.

The city is in more than $1 million in arrears in its payments to the South Central Wastewater Authority because it diverted wastewater revenues to other uses. The appointment of a receiver could trigger a default in other obligations, including more than $10 million in water, sewer and stormwater revenue-backed bonds.

Those debts include clauses specifying that the appointment of a receiver automatically constitutes an “Event of Default,” reports the Progress-Index.

“If the receivership is not vacated and the multitude of bond defaults described herein are triggered, it is expected that any short-term or long-term debt restructuring to facilitate … cash-flow relief for the city … will be extremely difficult to obtain,” states the city’s motion.

Meanwhile, City Council also hired the Robert Bobb Group, a municipal turn-around group, to help the city work through its financial woes. The principal of the group, Robert Bobb, was city manager of Richmond from 1986 to 1997 and was instrumental in rooting out corruption and turning around the deficit-plagued Detroit school system. Sources have told WRIC News that the consulting fees could cost $300,000.

Bacon’s bottom line: It has to be galling for secretaries, police, fire fighters and other city employees to swallow pay cuts while the city is doling out funds for high-priced lawyers and consultants. But what is the alternative? Roll over and play dead? Sadly, the city is caught in legal quicksand now. The harder it struggles to stay afloat, the more it racks up big professional fees that it can’t afford. The moral of the story for everyone else: Don’t let yourself get caught in Petersburg’s situation.