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Renewable Energy Cooperatives

6222_logo1Gatineau         George Brown is the Ottawa ACORN pro bono lawyer, which is how I came to meet him and find myself in an interesting chat on a wide range of subjects in the lobby of the Best Western hotel in Gatineau across the river from the national capital in Ottawa in the shadow of Parliament Hill.  George is of course much more than a general in ACORN’s volunteer army.  He is also a former city councilor in Ottawa and the nominee of the New Democratic Party in the federal election in south Ottawa against a longtime incumbent.  He has been a key architect in putting together teams of law students to represent our members in the housing tribunal mediating disputes between landlords and tenants. Having said all of that it turned out that he has been a veteran of numerous microfinance, social enterprise, and cooperative endeavors both as an attorney and as a sparkplug.  He caught my attention, given my recent dip into the energy and power wars between coal and renewable energy sources, by telling me about the Ottawa Renewable Energy Cooperative or OREC, where he had helped do the legal work on a number of their projects.

OREC hasn’t been around but a couple of years and its cluster of projects are therefore still modest in scale but its basic organizing and business model is fascinating and speaks to great success to come.  First, it’s a cooperative, meaning that individual members own the operation and democratically are empowered to govern the business through their elected board and employed staff.  Each share costs $100 and the only qualifications are pretty much an Ottawa address and being over 16 years old.  Secondly, you also have the opportunity to invest in their projects as they come on the drawing board and ripen for financing.  The minimum investment is essentially $2500 with a lifetime limit of $100,000 to keep everyone on an even keel, because this is a good deal.  Thanks to a piece of provincial legislation in Ontario the local electric utility, or hydro as they call it in Ottawa, has to purchase 20 years’ worth of the electricity generated through such renewable projects at a set rate per kilowatt hour that pretty much guarantees the investor a 5% dividend yield for the first five years and then larger participation shares through the 20-year term of the investment.  Since the numbers are based on firm contracts the yield is certain, though by law they can’t formally “guarantee” the rate in case hell freezes over, which is becoming more unlikely every day with climate change.  No surprise that the cooperative was able to raise $3.5 million in its offerings so far.  Sweet!  The only surprise is that they only have about 150 members so far on their 500 member goal.  I’m shocked they don’t have lines in front of their door!

And, what do they do with that money?  They lease for a 20-year term land or roof space for their solar panels.  Many of their leases are with nonprofit or cooperative housing developments in Ottawa who are mission driven as well and love the fact that they are helping produce their own electricity.  Here’s what they say:

OREC currently has 7 solar rooftop projects, including five 10 kilowatt (kW) solar power projects on the rooftops of non-profit or co-op housing buildings across Ottawa, a 75 kW project on the roof of Samuel Genest School, and 50% of a 250kW solar rooftop project on a storage facility in the Dunrobin area. We lease roof space from the respective property owners for the solar systems and our investors benefit from the revenue received from the sale of power.

George is right.  OREC’s model – and of course the law that allows it! – are dynamite opportunities.  These are the kinds of ideas that we need to spread, and try for ourselves as well!

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Dick Gaughan “Handful of Earth”

Vancouver Rent Bank

rent bankGatineau, Canada       There may have been snow on the ground and freezing temperatures, but the ACORN Canada staff’s spring planning and training meeting was in full bloom in Gatineau, Quebec, the sister city across the river from Ottawa, Ontario.  Several of the ACORN British Columbia organizers in their reports to start the sessions mentioned in Surrey and Burnaby, working class suburbs of the unaffordable, “executive” city of Vancouver, they were demanding a “rent bank.”

I asked Marcos Gomez, ace BC organizer sitting next to me, what is a rent bank.  He whispered that there was one in Vancouver, and they wanted it in other cities.

Interesting, so here’s what I found.

The Vancouver Rent Bank is essentially an emergency relief fund operated in a partnership between the City of Vancouver and various foundations and cooperatives in the area, like Van City, the giant credit union who handles some of the administrative functions.  There is an application process of course and a repayment plan, but the basic program is designed as a preventive measure to prevent evictions and therefore homelessness.

The Rent Bank handles only three situations:  security deposits to help people afford to get apartments, utility bills to keep people in apartments, and rent payments to prevent evictions.  If approved an individual can get a check made out to landlord or hydro for up to $1300 and if it’s a family $1800.  The standards are reasonable high for eligibility, like $28,000 for a family of one and over $50,000 for a family of four.   The money is given as no-interest loan with a two-year repayment plan, like a micro-loan of sorts.  Looking at the application process, it reads like it might be easier to get a home loan.  The list was daunting and an applicant needed to be able to produce the paperwork to back it up.  It included:

  • Currently a resident or will be a resident of the City of Vancouver
  • Are low-income (see chart below)
  • Are nineteen years of age or older
  • Have a bank account or are on income assistance
  • Have (will have) a concrete, consistent source of income
  • Have two pieces of ID
  • Can provide proof of tenancy
  • Not be in the process of bankruptcy
  • Have no un-discharged bankruptcies
  • Have a sincere reason for any delinquency in payments
  • Are not able to access any other form of government financial assistance
  • Have/ will have long term, safe housing
  • Have rental costs that do not exceed an ongoing ability to pay  rent
  • Be experiencing temporary financial crisis
  • Owe no more than two months rental arrears

Once I read “sincere reason,” my heart fell a bit.  This was obviously a very small Band-Aid over a huge gaping wound.  And, in fact the reports that were touted on the first year of the program indicated that they only gave out $124000 with administrative costs that were higher than the loan totals.  228 families were assisted that included 39 children. All good, but obviously not sustainable and hardly real relief.

The press reports mentioned that there was a program like the Vancouver Rent Bank in New York City.  Following that trail led to Homebase, a program begun in 2004 which has assisted 65000 over a decade, including 12,000 in 2014 in preventing homelessness.  The program is part of the city welfare and housing budget, so it seems a permanent commitment.

It’s easy to understand why ACORN members would want such programs in their cities.  With the cutbacks in welfare that have eliminated emergency relief programs, it’s better to have something than nothing. For the donors, for a cheap price they get some place they can all refer people, even while knowing few will benefit.

This is what changing “welfare as we know it” leads to sadly.

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Slaid Cleaves “Welding Burns”

Getting a Low Power FM Radio License in New Orleans

on-air-sign-ccOttawa     Over the years with an army of volunteers from supporters to DJs to radio engineers with gentle spirits, hard heads, and generous souls, working with AM/FM, the Affiliated Media Foundation Movement, we’ve put big radio stations on the air first in Tampa (WMNF), then revived and put one back on the air in Dallas (KNON, formerly KCHU), and finally in Little Rock with the 100,000 watt KABF at 88.3 FM broadcasting throughout a huge doughnut hole of almost all of Arkansas.  These stations have been big operations with big ambitions and loud voices, so why are we so excited when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) sent us an email announcing that AM/FM has won a license for a Low Power FM station at 90.3 on the dial in New Orleans at a baby 100 watts?

Well, on one hand it was a relief to have a resting point after a long journey.  When the FCC opened up the application process for frequencies several decades ago, AM/FM, working with ACORN and local communities, helped file almost one-hundred applications around the country to broaden access to the airwaves for low-and-moderate income families.  At the end of that process we emerged with a handful of situations with competing approvals where the FCC essentially said, “good luck if you can work it out.”  This meant time sharing agreements, which at best are kiss-your-cousin kind of situations that never really work well, are economically unsustainable, and wildly confuse the listeners, since invariably these are sharing arrangements with religious broadcasters.  It was also a case where whoever had the deepest pockets would win, and that was never our team, so the end result has been a drought of almost thirty years since we had the opportunity to put another “voice of the people” station on the air.

This time the FCC moved quickly and affirmatively to allow the awards to be made on the low power frequencies, and though they are small, they have one signal advantage, which is that they create the opportunity of being truly “community” radio stations.  A 100-watt signal is bigger than you might imagine, especially in a pancake flat area like New Orleans where we are celebrating being a new licensee.  Our engineering indicates that we will be able to broadcast throughout the entire city limits with a strong signal, and likely the metro area, heard by perhaps one-million people or more.  With a 100,000 watt station your community is Little Rock or Dallas but it is also hundreds of neighborhoods, small towns, and other cities as different as Fort Worth and Pine Bluff.  It’s a good message, but a diverse one that speaks to the strengths and weaknesses of “block” programming on noncommercial radio where there’s something for everyone, but you need to find the time slot where you can be happy.  With low power we can have tremendous diversity, access, and many voices, but they can all have a New Orleans accent, vibe and sensibility speaking the language of small and larger communities within the city.

And, then there is just the fact that having a studio and broadcast ability right at hand provides a huge resource.  We have been dying to try some experiments in broadcasting through live streaming on the internet in the midnight hours with the languages and content of where ACORN International organizes in Hindi, Spanish, French, and whatever.  Trying to triangulate the overnight signal from foreign lands to Little Rock to wheel it around is hard.  Walking down the hall is easier.  Add all this to the fact that the studio will be in the mezzanine of our building in New Orleans on St. Claude and Elysian Fields at the intersection of Marigny, the Bywater, St. Roch, Treme, and the French Quarter, and that April 1stwe open the second location of Fair Grinds Coffeehouse on St. Claude, so that we can fuel this operation 24/7, 365 days a year into a community and global hotspot of fair trade, great music, and intense commentary, and it all just seems not only important, but just plain fun and exciting to be part of it.

The license is only the key that opens this door, so there’s time and hard work, as we well know, in taking it from here to cars, phones, and homes, but the first step is a giant one!

Uneven Results in North Carolina Indicate that New Nonprofit Hospital Rule Might Work

316261297889322-xlNew Orleans   A combination of factors has curbed some, but not all, of the appetite for nonprofit hospitals’ frenzy of legal actions against lower income families in North Carolina, giving hope that the new Affordable Care Act restrictions against draconian collection practices might actually be effective.

We have been following closely whether or not nonprofit hospitals are modifying their behavior around the country in the wake of the final IRS and Department of Treasury rules that will require them to be much more effective in allowing lower income families to access charity care at the peril of their own tax exemptions.  Much of what we have seen while examining IRS form 990s, which the hospitals are required to file annually with the IRS, has not been encouraging given that all of these institutions have known this was coming since 2010 when Obamacare became law.  The leisurely four years until the rules became finalized at the end of 2014 should have allowed mountains to be moved in normal behavior and now that we are entering the penalty phase, the battle lines are being formed.

North Carolina may become one of the more interesting ones.  The passage of the Act and its amendments involving charity care prompted an investigation in 2012 by the states big newspapers, including the Charlotte Observer, in the biggest city uncovered 40,000 lawsuits that the state’s nonprofit hospital has filed to collect debts.  The headlines led to a happy confluence of forces with the legislature passing a law restricting emergency collection practices much like the language in the federal statute.   An updated review of the court records by the newspapers indicates that some hospitals have attempted to comply, others are scofflaws, and some cleaned up their act completely.  On the whole that’s good news and a potential harbinger of good things to come for the rest of the country as well.

A recent story by Ames Anderson and David Raynor in the Charlotte Observer,

…found that lawsuits by the state’s hospitals dropped by more than 45 percent from 2010 through 2014 – from about 6,000 to 3,200. At Carolinas HealthCare System, the state’s largest hospital system, the drop has been even sharper. The Charlotte-based hospital system filed about 1,400 lawsuits against patients last year – roughly half the number it filed in 2010.  One hospital, Iredell Memorial in Statesville, has stopped filing lawsuits against patients. In 2013, it was one of the state’s most litigious hospitals, filing about 270 bill-collection lawsuits. Last year, it filed none.   Lawsuits have also slowed to a trickle at two other hospitals: High Point Regional Hospital, which has recently joined UNC Health Care, and Lexington Medical Center, owned by Wake Forest Baptist Health.

More than 3000 cases is still a lot, and 1400 in one year from the Carolinas HealthCare System is outrageous, but progress is progress, and now with a powerful stick coming into the hand of advocates and organizations in North Carolina that could threaten and remove the hospitals’ tax exempt status, we might see more hospitals devoting themselves to their nonprofit mission like Iredell Memorial.

This is clearly a fight, but seems increasingly like one that we can win.

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Please enjoy Hurricane by Blues Traveler, Thanks to KABF.

Tax Preparers Refund Anticipation Loans are Out of Control – Again!

AP_Tax_Refund_Advances_t_w600_h3000New Orleans         After years of campaigns by ACORN and agreements with the major tax preparers, H&R Block, Jackson-Hewitt, and Liberty Tax Services, to rein in the abuses and predatory pricing of “refund anticipation loans” or RALs, as they are known in the industry, it appears that the rats will play “while the cat is away.”  Nina Olson, the IRS’ national taxpayer advocate was quoted in an AP story calling the situation now the “wild, Wild West” and “called the level of risk for abuse in pricing and quality of service unprecedented.”  What the heck?!?

It seemed just yesterday that the tide was going the other way and that the earlier ACORN victories were being to be set in concrete.  The IRS had announced that they were promulgating rules to restrict the use of RALs – finally.  The IRS was finally going to create some rules of the road, including licensing at some level or something to assure a degree of competency by tax preparers.  Major banks like HSBC and others had refused to continue to offer the lines of credit to the preparers for such products for “reputational” reasons.  The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau had announced that it was on the case as well and strict rules were coming.   And, now it’s the wild West?

Refund anticipation have soared 17% to 21.6 million taxpayers in 2014 compared to 2011 according to IRS data given to the Associated Press.  Worse the big prep companies are hooked on this drug.  RALs and prepaid cards loaded with anticipation refunds make up 10% of H&R Block’s gross sales now, and the even more bottom feeding, Liberty Tax Services, is sucking up 20% of its revenues through such pure and simple exploitation.

Drive through any low-and-moderate income area and the tax payers are housed cheek to jowl along the main thoroughfares.  When you see the young people dressed in atrociously green Statute of Liberty costumes dancing with arrow signs to lure you into fast service at a Liberty storefront, don’t laugh, because the bait is luring victims into the trap.  Make no mistake about where the predators are feeding.  The IRS data reveals that “about half the purchasers are EITC recipients.”  The Earned Income Tax Credit touted by Presidents of both parties as their major anti-poverty program for low income, working families is only available for such families as a way to get ahead and survive, but those are the pockets being picked.  Of all victims of these high interest loans charging usurious rates between 250 and 400%, 84% are low-income.  There’s no question about what’s going on here.

The IRS is whining because they lost a court appeal on their licensing effort for tax preparers, but what happened to their efforts to rein in the RALS.  They have tools a plenty.  The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau now claims they are close to having something written up, but their scope seems limited to more transparency, and looks good, but has little practical impact on the predation.  ACORN got all of the companies to make posters with the rates that preparers would show at their desks and on their computer screens, but that was just the toll people had to pay to get on the faster highway to get their money.

The IRS and other agencies of government are essentially allowing an income transfer from the federal government intended for lower income families to become a direct remittance to private companies’ bank accounts, because they are unwilling to either put their foot down on the practice or step up and move all or part of the refunds to families more quickly themselves or through preferential preparation sites.

This ought to be a scandal, and, if intent counted, it’s a crime.  Without a doubt it’s a government approved swindle.

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Street Dogs – Unions and the Law (Alt Version)

Hospitals Cutting Costs by Helping the Poor

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANew Orleans       We’ve all heard the sayings before.  A stitch in time saves nine.  An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.  Now it seems that with some incentives being provided to hospitals through the Affordable Care Act, some of them are learning these old lessons, perhaps for the first time with feeling.

The real moral of these pilot programs is that if you deal directly with poverty, people will have better health.  Amazing that we need a bunch of pilot programs to prove the obvious, but in this case attention is being paid because hospitals actually can save money by dealing with the issues of poor people before they end up in the emergency room.

The New York Times Quotation of the Day came from someone the reporter interviewed in Minneapolis which is running one of the pilots.  Ross Owens, a hospital official there, said, “We had this forehead-smacking realization that poverty has all of these expensive consequences in healthcare.  We’d pay to amputate a diabetic’s foot, but not for a warm pair of winter boots.”  Good news for the poor people of Minneapolis that this realization came better late than never, now if we could get have reality slap more than a score of Republican governors up the side of the head who are standing at the hospital door blocking the expansion of Medicaid to more of the poor through the Affordable Care Act, that would really be something!

Here’s how the pilot worked in Minneapolis:  “The hospital, Hennepin County Medical Center…would be paid a fixed amount per patient and it would get to keep the money even if patients did not show up, or used less medical care than was paid for.  The pilot program would work on caring for patients in places outside the hospital that are cheaper.”  Since 2012 the medical costs at the hospital have fallen by 11%.  And, here’s another kicker, “Some of the biggest cost reductions were among the more than 250 patients who were placed into permanent housing.”    Obviously, this is a public hospital so perhaps they were committed to trying to break away from the business model of paying for every procedure to look at healthcare more holistically and finding rewards there in their communities and at their bottom line.

Other pilots saved by creating a separate space for sobering up rather than the hospital.  In Portland they used community outreach workers, helped with obtaining driver’s licenses, “bus tickets, blankets, calendars and adult diapers.”  In New York they tried to stop evictions and trained staff, according to the Times to deal with evictions like medical emergencies.  In Philly they did shopping.   Essentially in the name of public health many of these pilot communities linked their health department and their social services department and focused on super-users and the most vulnerable parts of the population including the homeless, alcoholics, and drug users, and by applying an ounce of prevention won a pound of cure and their own lottery of huge financial savings.

Kinder and gentler is working as public policy compared to recycling people from the hospitals to the streets.  Now, lesson learned, what will it take to get the dogmatic ideologues in other parts of the government to learn some simple truths from these important experiments linking better health with poverty interventions?

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Strawbs – Part of the Union 1973