St. Louis Post Dispatch, Sept. 21
Combination of Corps, Congress have failed America's great rivers
John Paul Woodley, the former assistant secretary of the Army, once said there were three things the Army Corps of Engineers can't do.
The first is make it rain. The second is stop the rain. And the third?
"The third thing the Corps of Engineers cannot do is make everybody happy, and I'm beginning to think we can't make anybody happy," Mr. Woodley told Post-Dispatch reporter Bill Lambrecht for his 2005 book "Big Muddy Blues."
Last Sunday, Mr. Lambrecht's reporting added perhaps a fourth thing the Corps of Engineers can't do: finish the overpriced, mismanaged lock-and-dam project on the Ohio River near Olmsted, Ill.
In 1988, Congress first authorized spending $775 million on the project, at the busiest inland shipping hub in America, 17 miles from the Mississippi River.
Because of bad construction management decisions by the corps, including depending on a risky building technique, inconsistent funding decisions made by Congress and an open-ended agreement with the contractor, the costs of the lock-and-dam project have ballooned to more than $3.1 billion, with no realistic end in sight.
How does this happen?
The answers are as easy as they are numerous: Corps mismanagement. Lack of congressional oversight. Greedy contractors. Lawmakers more interested in local projects than efficient spending. ...
Travel down the Ohio from Olmsted to its confluence with the Mississippi and you come to Cairo, Ill., the once-thriving river town that exists today only because during the 2011 floods of the Missouri, Ohio and Mississippi rivers, corps officials blew up the Birds Point Levee to release a wall of water into the New Madrid Floodway.
It was a wise decision, but that didn't stop southeast Missouri farmers, and Missouri politicians, from criticizing the corps' decision.
One of those politicians, U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., is now pushing the corps to construct the ultimate in boondoggles, a new levee that would completely block off the New Madrid Floodway. That would mean an even bigger disaster the next time a big flood comes.
It's madness, of course, but so is everything about the nation's river and management policy.
Take a look at the great American Bottom, on the Illinois side of the Mississippi just across from St. Louis. There a series of levees, some managed locally, some by the corps, protect about 156,000 residents of the Metro East from floods. Taxpayers in Madison, St. Clair and Monroe counties raised about $175 million in sales taxes to bring levees up to standards demanded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. But the corps says it doesn't have the money to do the repairs necessary on the 8,000-foot segment under its control. When you're spending $3 billion on a dam project that is 20 years behind schedule, it's easy to see why.
When it comes to river management, the only thing that is working is the blame game.
Farmers blame environmentalists, who blame barge operators, who blame the corps, who blame members of Congress, who then point the finger at each other. ...
The reality today is that the Missouri, the Mississippi, the Ohio and the Illinois rivers still lack a single, strong entity to make sure that boondoggles like the Olmsted dam project don't happen. ...
The Springfield News-Leader, Sept. 21
On July 4, 2010, Table Rock Dam opened for tours for the first time since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in 2001. But if you want to get an inside look at the dam, completed in 1959, you had better do it quick.
Opening the dam back up to tours after the nine-year shutdown was made possible by the hard work of employees and volunteers with the Ozarks Rivers Heritage Foundation, a nonprofit agency established that same year. The foundation supports the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Table Rock Project Office with marketing, educational endeavors and any other way. Since 2010, the foundation has also maintained the gift shop at the Dewey Short Visitor Center and managed seven Table Rock Lake campgrounds, and the popular Moonshine Beach.
Closing the dam tours — and likely the other areas managed by the foundation — is the result of a decision by the Corps that the original agreement with the foundation and other such nonprofit agencies around the country was not within the Corps' authority. Apparently, taking a closer look at the arrangement, Corps lawyers decided that the user fees collected at the locations could not be used by the foundation to fund its work there. Instead, user fees must go to the U.S. Treasury and then be redistributed.
That is a clear example of government bureaucracy at its most dysfunctional.
The Corps originally came up with a workable solution to its own difficulties in managing the lake facilities. The agencies that signed the five-year lease agreements in 2011 believed they were legal and binding and they set about to work under that assumption. The Corps' same legal team had apparently vetted those agreements at the time and found them to be legal.
The park user fees collected by the foundation were used on property projects around the lake, which have added more than $1.5 million in value to the Corps' Table Rock Lake property. The work done at the parks has also focused on customer service, allowing the Corps to focus on its primary job — engineering.
But, without the fees to pay for services and some parks employees, the foundation cannot continue to do its job.
Over the past three years, the foundation has made a big impact on the lake and tourism. Besides all the manpower and hours put into the efforts, the foundation has worked with other vendors to provide welcome and needed services — from umbrella rentals to food — to visitors at Moonshine Beach. This action will make that arrangement unworkable.
All that hard work brought more and more tourists, who gladly paid the fees that support the operations.
Everyone has been happy. No one was complaining. No one was threatening a lawsuit.
So, why has any of this happened?
One Corps bigwig has promised a clearer answer to that question, and the Corps has promised to work with the foundation and other agencies to arrange for a new lease agreement.
One example of the confusion surrounding this action became clear when Brig. Gen. Tom Kula announced the immediate cancellation of Table Rock Dam tours, while Sheila Thomas, president of Ozarks Rivers Heritage Foundation, said she got a confirmation from the Corps that the tours could continue while a new agreement was being negotiated.
Thankfully, two senators from opposite sides of the aisle have begun to push to allow the foundation to continue its management and ensure there are no changes to services at the parks. Sens. Roy Blunt, a Republican, and Claire McCaskill, a Democrat, have issued a bipartisan release urging the Corps to avoid the changes.
"Army Corps leadership should be embarrassed by this, and it's up to them to find a solution that protects folks in this area from service disruptions..." the release says, in part.
We agree wholeheartedly.
St. Joseph News-Press, Sept. 20
Crime fight gets personal
Four days of meetings in Missouri's two biggest cities, and for now we know only what might help tamp down violent urban crime.
This is because what works other places may or may not transfer easily to Kansas City and St. Louis. Still, you can't help but be hopeful when our urban areas facing a serious threat to public safety seem determined to keep working to find an effective response.
This summit, convened by state Attorney General Chris Koster, produced a number of helpful recommendations — some that can be adopted right now, others that will require approval of lawmakers in Jefferson City. Among the best ideas:
—Put a priority on aggressive prosecution of crimes involving a gun. Set higher, cash-only bonds for these crimes. Ensure gun cases don't languish on court dockets. Hand out longer sentences for convictions.
—Place special focus on young offenders involved with guns and gangs. Rethink giving second and third chances that too often simply put violent offenders back on the streets to commit new crimes.
—Use technology such as cameras to monitor high-crime areas, but always in partnership with community groups that trust in the officers and their motives.
—Focus enforcement in areas with the most violent crimes — but also emphasize one-to-one mentoring and other proven strategies for redirecting would-be offenders.
—Try "custom notification," a form of in-home visit by law enforcement to people considered active in criminal networks. The visits can come with legal ramifications if the criminal activities continue.
Or, try this: Write a letter.
A gang expert spoke of this — a formal letter sent to parents documenting what law enforcement officers have observed — as a simple but effective tool.
Officers can use this to help open the eyes of parents and guardians who may not be aware or want to believe their young person is running with known drug dealers, flashing gang signs and likely to be headed into deeper trouble.
This low-tech approach to crime-fighting is but one commonsense idea offered at the summit. These might have been big-city police wrestling with big-city problems, but there is something here for every community seeking to improve public safety.
The Kansas City Star, Sept. 19
Show-Me state needs to see new tactics from Obama
Although America's economy remains disturbingly fragile, part of President Barack Obama's job is to be a cheerleader for its comeback since the Great Recession.
So when he speaks at the newly expanded Ford Claycomo plant today, Obama will have good reasons to emphasize some encouraging figures. The national unemployment rate is down, the stock market is at an all-time high and household income levels are finally rising again.
The Kansas City area has shared in that upward trend, particularly with increased investments in the car industry at the Claycomo plant on the Missouri side and General Motors' Fairfax plant in Kansas. New census figures show local residents also are, finally, regaining some lost purchasing power.
However, part of Obama's job also is to work with Congress to govern responsibly. And that's not happening, with blame spread around to include not just the president but also the particularly obstinate Republican House and Senate members.
The black cloud of concerns include these looming battles:
—Will the U.S. government default on its financial obligations by not raising the debt ceiling in the next month?
Frankly, it's amazing to think this could even occur. It would cause incalculable damage to America's economy, with ripple effects around the world. Yet a new poll this week shows 43 percent of American people, while recognizing the problems default could cause, actually favor it. ...
—Will sequestration continue?
These irresponsible across-the-board cuts have slashed programs that provide social services for millions of low-income Americans, forced furloughs in federal agencies that provide everything from taxpayer assistance at the Internal Revenue Service to law enforcement in the U.S. attorneys' offices, and cut back on Defense Department spending in a haphazard manner.
Obama and most Democrats opposed sequestration precisely because they knew it was not the best way to reduce federal spending. But, once again, House Republicans have dug in to defend sequestration, despite all its faults. ...
—Will House Republicans finally stop wasting precious time trying to defund the Affordable Care Act?
As the insurance exchanges open up in the next few weeks, millions of Americans will finally be able to get access to medical care. Millions are not going to be denied coverage because of pre-existing conditions. Millions will find out their health insurance doesn't have to be tied to where they work, forcing them to keep a job they don't want.
In other words, all of the good things that polls show Americans consistently want from improved health care coverage will be accessible to them.
What the Republicans have harped on in several dozen failed attempts to derail Obamacare is that Americans don't understand all of its ins and outs. And yes, there have been some complications and it is unfortunate that parts of the overall program have not rolled out as smoothly as promoters once promised.
But part of that is because some states, most notably Missouri, have actually tried to make it difficult for their citizens to benefit from a program that could improve their health care coverage. ...