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Tuesday, August 1, 2017

The Hi Line

Day Four of our road trip.  We left Grand Rapids, Minnesota this morning.  Made it as far as Grand Banks, North Dakota, before stopping for priority spa services.  I am sitting on a mall bench, understanding why Amazon Prime has been a success.

We are running the Hi-Line from Michigan to Libby, though we may have to swerve towards Great Falls to find a place to stay.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Transition

While we long planned to leave for an Airstream safari this summer, life intervened.  Our oldest daughter will give birth to our first grandchild next month (August).  Due to the terrible market, we have not sold our house and we've had other issues related to taking a healthy slice of early retirement.

Because our grandson will only be in the DC area for four years (the length of our son-in-law's) tour of duty at the Pentagon, we decided to stay close to home.  I have accepted a position as the county administrator of Caroline County.  My wife will look for teaching jobs on Maryland's Eastern Shore... and we will try to sell this darn house.  As for the Airstream, it's time to make a bit more progress.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Stand by for the "Bay Tax" - Advocate Editorial

Stand by for the “Bay Tax.”  You won’t hear it called by that name or “Son of Flush Tax,” but make no mistake.  It’s coming.

There is a new regulatory push by the EPA to clean up the Chesapeake Bay.  One of the biggest targets is “stormwater,” the naturally-occurring runoff from rain.  The biggest expense is building and retrofitting “stormwater management facilities.”   These are the storm drains, inlets, pipes and ponds that carry or hold runoff.

When you listen to federal or state officials talking about this, it’s like hearing someone read a bowl of “Alpha-Bits” cereal aloud.  If you can get through the endless acronyms like “TMDL,” “WIP” and “MS4” it becomes apparent that this is really about “CASH.”

Because the federal and state governments are broke, they are turning to counties and municipalities to fund a massive new program.  I crunched some numbers for the Town of Hampstead and estimate a cost of between $150,000 and $200,000 a year to retrofit older stormwater management facilities.  These are just capital expenses and do not include the insane amount of paperwork involved with any federal or state mandate.

Let’s put this in perspective.  In Hampstead, a one cent increase in property taxes (the only revenue source the Town controls) generates about $50,000.  This means it would take a three to four cent increase to cover just the capital costs.  Put another way, this would be a 15 to 20 percent increase in the local property tax rate.

Even in a good economy, this would be crushing.  Unfortunately, we’re mired in the Great Recession.  Hampstead’s annual revenues are down about $500,000 from two years ago.  This 20 percent drop is due mostly to cuts by the state—the same people who want us pay for the Bay.

What’s maddening isn’t just the “double tap” of budget cuts and unfunded mandates.  It’s that small towns like Hampstead and Manchester have done more good environmental work “pound-for-pound” than bloated state or federal bureaucracies.  Without mandates or regulations, we have adopted pragmatic strategies like recycling, water conservation and pollution prevention.  We have a problem with dumping alright—the feds and state dumping a flawed program with huge costs on us.

We are broke - Advocate Editorial

We are broke.  Social security is running in the red.  Our publicly-held national debt is over $9 trillion.  Even under the best of circumstances, this is likely to double to $18 trillion in a decade.  As succinctly observed by the German magazine Der Spiegel last year, “…only four areas consume almost all government revenues: defense, social programs, health care and interest on debt. Americans must pay for everything else with new debt.”

The situation isn’t much better at the state level.  The cumulative unfunded liability of state retirement pensions (nationwide) is more than $1 trillion.  In Maryland, the state’s “balanced budget” is mostly smoke-and-mirrors.  Short-sighted maneuvers like raiding the transportation trust fund will cost taxpayers billions in additional costs over the long run.  The influx of billions of federal stimulus did nothing to rebuild Maryland’s infrastructure as promised.

People old enough to remember the economic malaises of the 70s and 80s have heard “the end is near” before.  Despite the dire divinations of doomsayers, the American economy always recovered.  What is different this time is the magnitude of debt and budget deficits.

Ballooning public debt creates numerous problems.  Interest payments become an increasingly large percentage of government budgets.  Public borrowing crowds out private investment making it harder to buy a house or finance a business.  As investors become more nervous about the United States’ solvency, interest rates will rise.  At some point, foreign investors (holding about half of the country’s publicly held debt) may decide they want a better deal.

Even the ambitious budget plan recently forwarded by Representative Paul Ryan falls trillions of dollars short of putting America’s financial house in order.  The Ryan plan also depends on estimates of future employment best described as starry-eyed.  Put simply, the most serious proposal for dealing with federal spending and borrowing on the table really isn’t very serious at all. 

Why does this matter to the North Carroll area?  As evidenced by the local housing market and empty storefronts on Main Street, our area is directly influenced by the national economy.  The Great Recession is slumping into the Great Stagnation (a title of a recent book by Tyler Cowen).  While local budget decisions may make the news this spring, they won’t make a real difference.  The fate of our national economy rests with admitting we’re broke and doing something about it.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Ken and Lis moment


This is our youngest daughter, Lis, and me.  Lis made a cake--I think it was for Father's Day--using fondant.  I'm not sure exactly what happened but the fondant hardened to a point where it was indistinguishable from concrete.  Lis began rapping the cake with her plastic knife and started giggling uncontrollably.  I added to the moment with my faux frown.

Every so often, it's good to look back at the beginning.  This is the Overlander on "Day One."

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Hope

I find I'm so excited I can barely sit still or hold a thought in my head. I think it is the excitement only a free man can feel, a free man at the start of a long journey whose conclusion is uncertain. I hope I can make it across the border. I hope to see my friend, and shake his hand. I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams. I hope.

Red, "The Shawshank Redemption"

The TrailerWorks saga

Note: This post was moved from my Yahoo 360 (now defunct) blog:

TrailerWorks, LLC
Eric Drugge, Owner
10F Burton Hill Road
Beaufort, SC 29906
http://www.trailerworks.biz/
(843) 470-5005

We dropped off our 1967 Airstream Overlander in late November at TrailerWorks in Beaufort, SC. Owner Eric Drugge was not able to meet us at drop off due to a travel commitment. We left the trailer and keys with an employee who seemed a bit confused by our presence. While we were told to expect a call on December 3, we didn’t hear anything until mid December. When we connected via email, he told us he was swamped until the end of the year. We mutually agreed that he would call on January 3. He missed making the call, but we did receive an email on January 6. Apparently, he was taking what he felt was some “well deserved” rest having finished a number of end-of-the-year projects.

After we spoke with Eric in mid-January, a month passed with no word. My wife (the diplomat) sensed I was growing a bit frustrated, so she wrote an email to Eric on the 17 th . Eric responded via email the next day explaining that our Overlander was “out of storage” and in the shop. We had a brief email exchange in mid February. While Eric thought the axles were in fairly good shape, I decided to go with new running gear. I sensed that Eric took my decision rather personally. My feeling was confirmed when Eric mentioned this in a later conversation.

My wife send a reminder email on March 16. Eric responded the next day, apologizing for the delay and explaining he was now busy with his “spring rush.” According to Eric, the Overlander was scheduled to “go to the welder” the following week. Eric also mentioned that he thought we were close to using up our initial deposit. I sent an email asking for an invoice on the work completed thus far. I also asked for pictures of the frame pre- and post-repair.

After no response for a couple of weeks, my wife sent an email requesting the invoice again. Eric sent an email to my wife explaining that he had “been away” and that he would post photographs and send us an invoice “in the next few days.” Additionally, Eric said he expected to talk to us during the week of March 30. I also left a voicemail requesting a return call. He did not call.

By this point, I was becoming both unhappy and a bit nervous. I had written and spoken with Eric. My wife had done the same. The guy had our cherished Overlander and a nice chunk of our money. We had a couple of picture of the coach posted on his website.

From the beginning of the process, I wanted to post progress reports on the Airforums. Carl Deitz (corrected) helped us find the Overlander. We had received tons of support and encouragement from forum members. I decided our best leverage was to tell Eric we were going to share our less than positive experience thus far with the Airstream community. While I was annoyed enought to post, Becky and Gene Crawford of the Airforums convinced me that simply sending a draft was far less confrontational.

I expected one of two responses. Eric might realize that we felt jerked around and prioritize the work on our trailer. Actually, it was really always less about the work and more about the level of communication. Early on in the process, Eric promised "whatever level of communication you need." I would have been happy with a periodic email updating us, even if only a line or two.

The other possible response was for Eric to feel we were strong-arming him and resent us. You can guess what happened. Eric allegedly sent an email from his Blackberry expressing his unhappiness with what he characterized as a “blackmail” attempt. While unhappy, he did finally decide to make the time to call us.

When Eric and I spoke, my wife was in the room listening to the conversation. Normally a very low-key and reasonable woman, she nearly demanded the phone from me because Eric would not let me finish a sentence. He was rude, abrupt and essentially took no responsibility for the delays or the lack of responsiveness.

Eric said that he should never have accepted our project because his shop doesn’t do “this kind of work” (as if that was somehow our fault). Ours was a relatively simple frame-and-floor renovation. Apparently, he prefers turn-key projects where a client leaves a trailer and then picks it up completely finished. Unfortunately, we had emails from Eric telling us how excited he was to have our project and how all of his customers leave happy. I feel like what we got from Eric was the standard "sales" approach rather than just open and honest communication.

After the phone call, there were follow up emails. Eric was willing to install the axles and windows he ordered, but he wanted additional payment in advance. My wife was not happy, but I didn’t want to stick the guy with the axles and windows because he ordered them on our behalf. I also did not want to pay in advance. I emailed Eric saying we still wanted an invoice on the work completed and a detailed estimate on the cost to install the axles, the windows and repair the frame. Despite the earlier “the welding is scheduled for next week,” nothing had been done on the frame. The rear bath had been removed. The coach had been acid washed. That was it.

A couple of weeks passed with no response. I eventually received a response from Eric on May 4. His story was that the factory shipped the wrong axles. He promised a written invoice soon. I decided it was time to cut our losses. I asked Eric to make the Overlander ready for hauling and called Rocky Wade of BRV Transport to arrange pickup. I asked TrailerWorks to draw money from our account and pay the hauler in cash. They declined saying they needed a check for their records. Having requested an invoice for a couple of months for our records, my wife was particularly unimpressed. All I wanted was for Eric to button the trailer up for the hauler.

Rocky’s driver picked up the Overlander. On May 11 I received an email from Rocky Wade. “Ken… the back end of your trailer fell off. The driver strapped it back on.” After the paramedics revived me, I realized it was probably just the rear belly pan. (It was.) Since it needs to be replaced anyway, no big loss. While there's no way of proving why the pan fell off, I can't escape the feeling that Eric or his staff just slapped the thing on.

I think Eric (or his assistant Phyllis) gave the driver a check.. since Rocky hasn't called asking for any money. On that note, Rocky was great and I'd use him again in a heartbeat. After the trailer was delivered to another shop, I emailed TrailerWorks and asked when we might expect our final invoice and a refund of the unspent portion of our deposit. It is May 20 and I hace received no response.

When I wrote my draft post for the Airforums back in March, this was my final paragraph:

“I’m not quite unhappy enough to drive to Beaufort and pick up the Overlander. As a quintessentially “nice guy,” I’m want to give Eric the benefit of the doubt. On the other hand, I don’t want the next few months to unfold like the last four. Hopefully posting this interim review of TrailerWorks will prompt a decision. Eric may choose to take this in spirit intended, greatly improve the communication level and work closely with us to finish our project on time and on budget. If that happens, the interim grades of incomplete will rise to “A’s” and “B’s.” Behind “Door Number Two,” Eric and/or we will decide to part ways. We’ll pick up the trailer from Beaufort, find another shop to do the work and the incomplete grades will become final. In any event, we will share our experience—positive or negative—with the vintage travel trailer community. Thanks for reading and wish us luck!”

After careful thought, I don't really want to create a flame war on the Airforums. I'm sure Eric has some happy customers. I'm not going to tell them they had a bad experience; I hope they don't try to tell me we imagined everything. I think the best place for this is on my blog. If Eric reads this, I'm sure he'll think I've been unfair and that I have only done this as "payback." That's not my intent. I know Eric's firm has done some nice projects... but if another Airstream owner me if I would recommend TrailerWorks for a partial renovation, my answer would be, "No." I would further say Eric's level of communication and responsiveness just didn't meet our needs... and we're not high maintenance folks.

The good news is that while we have lost some time and money, we still have the Overlander and a dream. We're hoping that the next stage of our journey goes more smoothly and that we'll have the Airstream back in Maryland this fall at the latest.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Borrow Pit Adventures

In engineering terms, the "borrow pit" of a road is what most people think of as... the ditch.  The term "borrow" refers to the earth excavated from along a road.  (Think of it as a permanent loan.)  In the slouching accent of Montana, it sounds a bit like "barra pet."

My wife coined the phrase for our "hiatus" web site.  Unfortunately, and due to circumstances beyond our immediate control, it looks like our Overlander safari may be postponed.  Still, I had meant to do something along the lines of a website and "blogger.com" is certainly popular with local political pundits who suffer from "irritable blog syndrome."

The real impetus was a minor annoyance on the Airforums, a site dedicated to Airstreams and moderated by very conscientious people who don't want anything resembling disagreement to suddenly break out.  I had added a couple of posts regarding TrailerWorks of Beaufort, South Carolina.  For the sake of posterity, I'll post our entire TrailerWorks saga online here.

This isn't about having an axe to grind with Eric Drugge and his company, but more providing a fair warning to others.  And based on the reponses from the Airforums crowd, we're not the only people to walk away from the fair city of Beaufort (and TrailerWorks) less than happy.

I'm not one of those folks who will cluck about "censorship" on a private web forum.  The folks at Airforums have a right to "moderate" with or without moderation.  The small incident simply reminded me that I owe it to myself to secure a small corner of the seemingly endless Internet where I can post without parsing my words to satisfy some group of anonymous gatekeepers.