Sunday, March 28, 2010

Villa Heights Voice delivers nearby news, partnering with The Charlotte Observer

Leaders in the nearby Villa Heights community have started a neighborhood news site, “Villa Heights Voice,” as part of a partnership with The Charlotte Observer.

It’s a great place to check for nearby news you won’t get anywhere else. It’s also part of a national trend of big, traditional news organizations partnering with smaller sites to provide local information. Other sites working with The Observer include Ballantyne Scoop,, QCityMetro, and Tega Cay Talk, all through a program of J-Lab at American University.

But Villa Heights shares some interests with Merry Oaks: a focus on the Eastway division of the Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Department, the same zoning inspector for residential concerns (unless staffing changes affect assignments), the same city council representative (Patsy Kinsey) and a focus on the availability and concentration of affordable housing.

They also write often about nearby Cordelia Park and efforts to create an EcoDistrict with their nearby neighborhoods, Belmont and Optimist Park.

The neighborhood is roughly north of Parkwood Avenue and east of North Davidson Street, over to Matheson and The Plaza. It includes the yummy Amelie’s Bakery and is close to the NoDa neighborhood.

Some other recent sites also focus on events and businesses in NoDa itself:, from the NoDa Business Organization, and a closed site for the NoDa neighborhood, which occasionally opens pages for events, like a scavenger hunt planned for May.

I’m adding Villa Heights and Noda to the “Connections” list here. Check them out.

A disclaimer and a promotional note: I was paid to give the Villa Heights organization some journalism lessons. If you or your organization want similar coaching, feel free to contact me with the form at the bottom left.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Mecklenburg residents look at how government spends money and find interesting numbers

As news of closings and layoffs because of budget woes hits staffers and users of schools and libraries in Mecklenburg County, reporter April Bethea of The Charlotte Observer wrote a post asking residents to help cut money elsewhere.

This money talk on the surface is not sexy stuff, but money for everyone will continue to tighten in the next fiscal year, endangering county services and the employment of some of our neighbors into 2011 and beyond.

As of Wednesday morning, Bethea had about 45 responses, and some provided surprising details. Commenter JAT, who appears to be Jeff Taylor of the conservative Meck Deck blog, shared some shocking numbers of money paid to cab services for transportation for the Department of Social Services in the previous fiscal year. He provided a PDF link to one document, from Fiscal Year 2008-09, that showed two cab companies getting $4.5 million combined in reimbursements. The DSS spending document, a detailed 1,311 pages, is available now on Google Docs.

And yes, $4.5 million:
$2,302,372 for Crown Cab Co.
$2,249,903 for AA Prestige Taxi Service,
in Fiscal Year 2008-2009.

One line item for AA Prestige shows a bill dated Oct. 6, 2008, for Medicaid transportation services for trips from Sept. 22 to Sept. 28, seven days, at a cost of $35,376.71, or about $5,000 per day.

Many of those payments, however, were attributed to Medicaid and the N.C. Department of Transportation’s ROAP, which I think is the Rural Operating Assistance Program, funded by federal money passed through the state.

That federal Medicaid transportation money is supposed to be managed at the county level, according to one state document available on Google Docs. This document, a report by the Department of Health and Human Services, shared an examination of Medicaid management by North Carolina and suggested “areas of vulnerability,” in December 2008, during the same period of the high payments to the two cab companies.

One area of vulnerability: “Not adequately conducting oversight of the NEMT program.” NEMT is non-emergency medical transportation program.

The document says that each county in North Carolina is responsible for its own NEMT program, but oversight could be better:

“DMA (the N.C. Division of Medical Assistance) has advised that they have not consistently checked on whether the counties verify delivery of services, check for exclusions, and request disclosures regarding owners and managing employees."

Total state NEMT payments during Fiscal year 2007 were more than $33 million, which was offset against each county’s share of Medicaid reimbursement, the document says, and a review examined one month of services in 60 counties for 2002 to 2007. The review showed $38,380 in billing inconsistencies during that month and numerous procedural issues.

The report recommended consistent oversight of the NEMT program, including guidance to the counties to verify the delivery of services billed, recover overpayments identified in the state’s review and return the federal share. The document also calls for a statewide audit.

So the large numbers in the local DSS budget paid to cab companies in Mecklenburg County likely are mostly federal dollars, and are merely documented on Mecklenburg County’s social services budget. Scrutiny of them won’t save library and school jobs.

But Bethea’s smart call for ideas and the responses from readers have unearthed some interesting hints of other ways tax money could be spent more wisely. Her method also shows a way that county residents can sort through information overload to help keep an eye on government spending. Jeff Taylor of the Meck Deck deserves credit for examining the document and raising the issue.

N.C. Gov. Bev Perdue has plans for a press conference today to announce a plan to oversee Medicaid spending, according to a Twitter feed from her office. Some details of the Medicaid plan are available at WRAL.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

East Charlotte's Eastland Mall: It's not quite dead, yet

Here's a quick slideshow of Eastland Mall, with photos taken March 17, just a few days before one of the largest remaining anchors, Burlington Coat Factory, was scheduled to close. In some pockets, the mall still has life.

Monday, March 22, 2010

How did U.S. Rep. Larry Kissell vote on health care?

U.S. Rep. Larry Kissell, who represents Merry Oaks and the 8th District, voted against the health care measure on Sunday evening.

Links for more information: The Charlotte Observer
Kissell’s words, in The Fayetteville Observer
Background at UnderOak

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Opinion: Focus on the numbers as emotional budget woes hit Charlotte hard

Thursday’s county budget drama focused on libraries, with the news that about half the Charlotte library branches will close in two weeks and 140 people will be laid off. The branch closest to Merry Oaks, Plaza Midwood, has been spared, but the ripple effects of layoffs will affect us all.

Outrage from book lovers on Twitter ran strong, and library staffers immediately pointed reading fans to a donation site and a Facebook fan page. At this point, it’s unclear whether those donations will prevent branch closings.

A few people remained skeptical, though, about the emotional appeal. Those who have watched budget talks over the years in Mecklenburg County have seen proposed cuts targeted at our county’s most valued institutions. The drama seems designed to soften up the largest number of employees, friends and family to be open to the idea of raising taxes.

But in this Great Recession year, I suggest some caution. Raising taxes can endanger struggling families as much as the ripple effect of county layoffs. And buried deep in budget documents are places where cuts can be made with less impact on the community.

Digging into the budget documents, however, takes time and effort by individuals and county employees, and often the numbers are quite unclear.

The budget document for last fiscal year was a book, 613 pages long and 24.7 megs of PDF download, printed in full color with photos and promotional information as well as numbers (at a cost of what?). Very few Mecklenburg residents, or perhaps even county commissioners, can dig through that book and find the hidden corners where money could be cut without affecting county residents as much as libraries or schools. A more filtered, clear presentation of the numbers might give residents and commissioners an easier way of finding other money to cut.

Yet to come: A likely crisis and emotional appeal to save our schools from similar budget cuts. Last year’s problem caused teachers to be laid off and then asked to return two months later when federal money arrived. Many teachers chose to avoid the drama and move into other opportunities. Let’s hope this year doesn’t include a repeat.

Throughout the drama, some numbers remain clear: This recession hits lower-paid employees harder than those with higher salaries, and the ripple effect of that pattern affects everyone. That pattern has been common in private industry; it doesn’t have to be the pattern in our local government.

Links for digging deeper:

Salaries for county, city and school employees, from The Charlotte Observer.

Current budget documents from Mecklenburg County.

2009-2010 budget document, (the big one of 24.7 megs. It’ll take you two hours to skim through.)

2008-2009 budget documents, (a svelte 10 megs).

Donation page for the library.

Crossroads Charlotte job discussion report, with tips and noting the disparities of who is affected most by unemployment.

Image: Cover of the 24.7 meg, 613-page budget book for 2009-2010

Monday, March 15, 2010

U.S. Rep. Larry Kissell’s vote on health care

The battle for the health care vote for U.S. Rep. Larry Kissell, who represents Merry Oaks and the sprawling 8th District, still seems up in the air.

Television ads from the Employers for a Health Economy are airing regularly during evening newscasts asking people to call Kissell’s office and urge a vote against the health care bill, and emails from Democratic organizations continue to hit inboxes., a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, gives some context to the television ad.

For updates, you can also check BlueNC, which is publishing open letters from constituents, and you can also check stories from reporter Jim Morrill at The Charlotte Observer about the 8th District primary and election.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Make your Merry Oaks dog a star

In Merry Oaks, we love our dogs and dog neighbors.

So here’s a chance to win a year’s supply of dog food from Pedigree and Food Lion, a gift basket, a painting and unending fame for your four-legged companions.

Send a photo of your dog and $12 to Mecklenburg County’s Top Dog contest, and your pet could become the grand marshal of the parade at Bark in the Park, a dog festival on April 24 at Metrolina Expo, 7100 Statesville Road. Your dog could also become the logo for the event.

Here are details on the dog contest from Mecklenburg County.

Three top dogs will be announced on March 31, 2010, and the public will get to vote on the winner from April 1 to April 16.

Park and Rec also seeks volunteers to help with Bark in the Park. Interested? Call Lori Saylor at 704-336-5478 or email her.

Good luck. I hear some cats are lobbying for equal time.

Photo: Lulu the Wonderdog, a neighbor’s loyal, sweet partial Rottweiler, in 2007.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Charlotte neighborhoods petition to support trees

Now circulating through the center-city neighborhood email groups:
A petition supporting Charlotte’s street trees.

The petition asks city council members to put a line item of $500,000 in next year’s budget to fund street-tree maintenance and replanting.

Charlotte used to be called “The City of Trees,” and apparently some residents still want it that way.

Discussions about strengthening the city’s tree ordinance are under way, and developers talked at a recent city council public hearing about their increased costs if the rules tighten. Read Mary Newsom’s Naked City for more details. And see the tree ordinance background from Susan Stabley of the Charlotte Business Journal.

Now back to the tree email.

From Debra Glennon of the Dilworth Neighborhood Environment Committee:
“We're planning give a presentation to City Council at their March 22 meeting, and give them the signed petition and letters from neighborhood associations. Only if we get a strong show of support will we get the council's attention for this very important issue.”

Chantilly Neighborhood Association members are also circulating the request.

Suggestion, if you want to sign the petition: Include your real name and your ZIP code. Anonymous signings won’t help.

U.S. Rep. Larry Kissell faces pressure on health care vote

U.S. Rep. Larry Kissell, who represents Merry Oaks and other areas in the 8th District of North Carolina, was one of a few Democrats who in November voted against a House bill to change health care.

As the health-care issue hits prime time this week, it’s possible Kissell will vote against it again, writes Jim Morrill of The Charlotte Observer.

Kissell faces one Democratic challenger in the May 4 primary, Nancy Shakir, who backs the House reform bill. All six Republican candidates for the seat oppose Democratic health care proposals, according to Morrill. One Libertarian candidate, Thomas Hill, has also filed for the seat.

According to a Talking Points Memo story in early January, few voters knew he opposed the earlier form of the bill, and his "no" did not hurt him in the polls at the time.

Background links, including donation information, from November 2009.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Design Help: 5 Cents (an update)

Here’s an updated photo of Booth 3651 created by Civic By Design for the Southern Spring Home and Garden Show. at the nearby Park Expo and Conference Center (formerly the Charlotte Merchandise Mart).

About 20 architects, landscape architects, interior designers, construction designers and a graphic designer plan to staff the booth during the show, which starts Wednesday (today!). The show lasts through March 9 (Tuesday).

Said Tom Low of Civic By Design in an email update: "We plan to add a short explanation with a plaque on the counter - 'Meet a Design Profession, Ask a Question, donate a Nickel,' with some other details, and center the booth in the space."

Anyone can ask a designer a question for a nickel. Proceeds will go to Friendship Trays, a local nonprofit.
Go here for more on the effort to help underemployed designers.

Photo from Civic By Design.

Free booth space for designers at Charlotte's Southern Spring Show

Designers who are unemployed or underemployed are invited to sign up for a free booth at the Southern Spring Home and Garden Show from March 3 through March 9 at the nearby Park Expo and Conference Center (formerly the Charlotte Merchandise Mart).
The idea arose from a discussion in early February at the Civic By Design Forum in Charlotte. Discussion was spurred by a story of an unemployed Seattle architect who set up a booth at a farmers’ market to promote himself. The sign on the booth read, "Architecture 5¢."
At the show, anyone can ask a designer a question for a nickel. Proceeds will go to Friendship Trays, a local nonprofit. “Design” is defined loosely, including architecture, garden design, commercial interiors, graphic design or community projects.
Designers can bring marketing materials, business cards, and working materials, which can be put on easels during a shift, but must be removed after the shift.
Interested? Email Brenda Campbell at with your time availability. Or just look for the booth when you’re at the show.
Civic By Design thanks Corrugated Container Corporation for their sponsorship of “Design Help 5¢.” The photo is a prototype of the booth at a Corrugated Container facility. The photo is provided by Civic By Design.

Architect, or Whatever, from The New York Times
When life gives lemons, architects may have answers, from The Charlotte Observer