Snoop from your home PC with Web databases

The best Web sites around provide unique databases, and some let you do a little snooping.

The Sacramento Bee caused a furor when it launched a database that lets you find out state salaries of high-ranking officials — but also your next door neighbor.

We have some good online databases in our own backyard too. MyNevadaCounty.com, our  award-winning county government’s Web site, provides a wealth of information.

One of my favorites allows you to search for deeds, liens, fictitious business names and other recorded documents in our county from the comfort of your home PC — informative in a recession. It’s here.

For example, type “Thomas J. Hastert” under “search recorded documents,” and you can research some of the same information that investigators did when they were looking into Hastert’s business dealings.

When it comes to fictious business names, you can type “Holbrooke LLC” to order information on the limited partnership that owns the Holbrooke, now major news with a threatened closure.

If you want more information, you can order any of the documents from the clerk-recorder’s office.

This is a valuable free online database for all citizens.

‘Musical’ lunch venues for our professional groups

images4The closure of some big restaurants with banquet rooms — due to the deepening recession — is making it harder for our service clubs and professional groups to find a place to hold lunch meetings.

Take the Nevada County Bar Association, for example.

The group used to hold its bi-monthly meetings at the Stonehouse Restaurant in Nevada City — until it abruptly closed.

A meeting planned for September, with a much-anticipated presentation on legal ethics, was postponed until January so another venue could be found.

The new venue: The Holbrooke Hotel in Grass Valley, which now is threatened with closure itself. Meetings also are planned in March, May, July and September.

As reported, the Grass Valley Rotary Club also meets weekly at the Holbrooke.

Let’s hope the Holbrooke can somehow remain open: The service and professional groups sure would appreciate it.

A plan “C” for the bar association could be Kane’s, where the Grass Valley Kiwanis Club now meets. This is no doubt a logistics headache for some poor souls.

(photo from holbrooke.com)

Will Stockton be next to file for bankruptcy?

thum4875People are talking much more openly about whether Stockton will declare bankruptcy.

The state’s 13th largest city, whose theme song is “someplace special,” is the poster child for the collapse of the sub-prime lending market, with one of the nation’s highest foreclosure rates.

“Is bankruptcy the best way out for Stockton?” the Stockton Record asked in an editorial on Monday. “That is the question officials are starting to ask as the city continues to choke on a $30 million deficit caused in large part by plummeting property and sales tax revenues.”

Vallejo is the most recent city to file for bankruptcy, last summer, but other California municipalities are expected to follow suit later this year.

Orange County declared bankruptcy in 1994 after risky investments went sour, a financial debacle I wrote about for the San Francisco Chronicle. Here’s a good book on the topic: “Big Bets Gone Bad.”

This time around, the “b” word risk among municipalities is more widespread — and the result of public policy gone amuck, not high-risk investments.

“The hoped-for benefit of bankruptcy, certainly a goal for Vallejo, was to be unchained from union contracts and pension plans that were eating an ever-increasing amount of the city’s budget,” the Record said. “Stockton faces the same problem, especially with its Police and Fire departments, which account for about 70 percent of the general fund budget.”

So do a lot of other municipalities. Watch out.

(photo from stocktongov.com)

How Main Street depends on Wall Street

It’s fashionable to rip the Wall Street fat cats, and often justified.

But here’s a “fun fact”: “The reduction in Wall Street bonuses alone will cost New York nearly $1 billion in personal income tax revenues,” as the Associated Press reports.

In “State’s budget woes will outlast the recession,” it adds: “Fewer jobs mean less income tax. . . . Losses for high earners add up fast due to progressive tax rates — a loss of $1 million in capital gains can hurt a state treasury more than dozens of workers losing $40,000-a-year jobs.”

As I blogged earlier, “big government” in California depends on tax receipts from stock options in Silicon Valley, which are deep underwater nowadays.

All this suggests it’s going to be bad for government coffers starting in April — but also at least until next April. No doubt about it.

At the same time, as reported Friday, we’re making more demands for “shovel projects.” I guess money does grow on trees.

Truckee, Downieville (not GV, NC) make Sunset!

You might not hear this from the myriad local chambers, but Truckee and Downieville made Sunset’s list for “The West’s top 20 small towns.” Neither Grass Valley nor Nevada City made the list, however.

We can learn much from this (if we care to): Both Downieville and Truckee were cited for their focus on the *outdoors*.

I’ve said this before: We don’t focus enough on the outdoors when it comes to promoting the benefits of our two historic Gold Rush-era cities.

Truckee also was cited for being “eco-friendly.” Around here, we’re still shouting at each other about whether global warming exists or the merits/attendance of the annual bike race in Nevada City. 

I hope this gets mentioned on Tuesday, when government and civic leaders and the public meets at 9 a.m. at the Board of Realtors to discuss whether to restructure the chambers.

Is a shakeup in order? Instead of the proverbial western Nevada County “whisper campaign,” let’s speak up. “Bawk! Bawk!”

What sells newspapers? Reporting the news

images1Downtown Nevada City was like a ghost town Saturday morning, but never mind that: We always shop locally, because it’s our hometown.

After eating breakfast at Pine Street Cafe ($30), my family and I walked around and visited some of the stores, including a favorite wine shop.

Instead of a big hello, I mostly got lectured on how all the news was “so negative.” While more “happy news” is needed for balance, it won’t change the reality of the worst recession in decades  — and the fallout.

More hand wringing showed up Sunday from the Sacramento Bee’s publisher Cheryl Dell: “What is our role in helping our region to be successful? We are a local business and, like all local businesses we need to help our community recover from these very difficult times.

“In our view, tough reporting on the powerful in the community is important to any community’s overall success, but should we be doing more? Do most readers understand that we can celebrate the success in the community and call people on bad behavior at the same time?” 

Yes, Cheryl, we understand. What we don’t like is messing with reality in the news pages of our newspaper — to satisfy advertisers or whomever. Just get more creative and help your ad staff sell some more ads.

Show them how they can grow market share in a downturn — Business 101.

We spent $160 at the Nevada City wine shop to replenish our wine rack for special occasions — putting some money where our mouth is and a smile on the owner’s face — at least I think so.

As we left, I told him I rely on newspapers to find out what is going on — the good, the bad and the ugly.

For pure entertainment, I told him I got a subscription to People magazine. It’s just $89 a year, less than most newspapers charge. I laughed at this one: “Jennifer Aniston chows on dog treats.”

(illustration from jworld.wordpress.com)

GV chocolatier becomes an ‘export’ business

0e61456I blogged earlier that Dorado Chocolates in downtown Grass Valley had opened a store in Reno,  a “scrumdiliumptious” economic bright spot.

Turns out Ken Kossoudi’s store is generating attention in the Reno media and doing well despite the deep recession. The Reno store also will sell chocolate gelato, and the original Grass Valley store will follow suit. Yum.

But that’s not all. Dorado also has an online store

Here’s a great example of a 6-year-old homegrown business that “gets” the Web and brick-and-mortar outlets and has learned to integrate the two. (You know, Apple Computer but for chocolates!)

I wish more of our local merchants would see the benefits of  this strategy. In most cases, it compliments, not cannibalizes, a retail store.

Here’s the Linked In profile for Dorado Chocolates President  Kossoudji, a former tech salesperson. He worked at KLA-Tencor in Silicon Valley, a firm I’m familiar with from working as an editor at CNET.

Go Ken!

(photo from Ken’s Linked In link)

Google, NYT targeting community newspapers

logoJust as traditional newspapers are struggling, a high-ranking Google executive is funding a venture called Patch, publishing “hyperlocal” online newspapers.

Tomorrow, the New York Times will strike back, announcing its own news sites called The Local in some of the same communities, setting the stage for fierce competition on the “chicken dinner” circuit.

The funding for Patch comes from Google’s SVP and sales chief Tim Armstrong and not Google itself, but it looks like “six degrees of separation” to me.

“We’re a community-specific news and information platform dedicated to providing comprehensive and trusted local coverage for individual towns and communities,” according to the Web site.

Some experienced journalists, as well as techies, are behind the effort. The first virtual papers are rolling out in suburban New Jersey neighborhoods, across the Hudson from Manhattan — as are The Times. But that’s just the start.

Here’s an example of the Maplewood, N.J., site from Patch. (My friend and former colleague at The Chronicle Herb Greenberg used to reside in Maplewood and commute to his job at thestreet.com, so I’m familiar with the market. It’s a good choice — more affluent demographics and weak local news).

The sleepy News-Record of Maplewood & South Orange is a 6,500 paid circ. paper that publishes on Thursdays and is owned by Worrall Community Newspapers.

The Maplewood paper has a free Web site, but it costs $6 per month to read the print version of the weekly online.

Patch is not the first such effort to create a free small-town online paper, using user-generated content. Most have failed. “Backfence” comes to mind.

But the timing is better and Patch depends on Google’s know-how, which offers cache. It also comes just as traditional newspapers are struggling and is a stark reminder of the major shakeup that lies ahead.

Here’s a writeup from a blog that I bookmark, “Silicon Alley” insider.

At least some newspapers, such as the Times, are being proactive. But challenges remain, such as how to monetize the small-town sites. Deep pockets will help too.

Nonprofits brace for Armageddon

Nonprofits are feeling the pinch of the deepening recession.

I routinely hear stories about it here, where we have one of the largest concentrations of nonprofits among rural counties — and much duplication.

Consolidation already is underway, among the area’s nonprofit senior centers, for example.

Sierra Christian, a nonprofit school in Nevada City that was deep in the red, has closed — a reminder that boards need to step up . Foothill Theatre has cut back its schedule of plays. The Lutz Center for seniors has closed.

This will continue later this year and next.

My biggest concern: the dearth of nonprofits dedicated to helping *people*  around here, compared with ones dedicated to the environment, animals or “things.” It’s disproportional.

At a time like this, we need to help our fellow humans first and foremost.

We’re not alone in facing this problem. This morning’s Chronicle has a sobering front-page article on the situation there, titled “Bay Area Nonprofits brace for 2010 Armageddon.”  The Bay Area has the largest concentration of nonprofits in the nation.

“Unlike recessions past, this one could permanently alter the nonprofit landscape, say nonprofit CEOs, forcing possible closures and mergers as the sector restructures to survive,” according to The Chronicle. “Funding is drying up on all fronts.”

The Web is all about databases, and a good one for nonprofits is www.taxexemptworld.com. Check it out.

“Pension spiking”: Is fox guarding the hen house?

imagesPension spiking is the proverbial *golden* spike.

It refers to cases where public sector workers get big raises in the years immediately before retirement to get larger pensions than otherwise.

“This inflates the pension payments to the retirees and, upon retirement of the ‘spikee,’ transfers the burden of making payments from the employee’s employer to a public pension fund,” as Wikipedia points out. “This practice is considered a significant contributor to the high cost of public sector pensions.”

Though some states have passed laws to make it more difficult, pension spiking still is commonplace.

Does it happen in our neck of the woods? You bet it does. In our case, a shrinking, small population — and tax base — make our share of the burden worse.

I worry about abuses of pension spiking because of the conflicts of interest inherent in a small town: People who are the “watchdogs” of other people also are their friends. Too often, arm’s length relationships are back slapping ones.

Unlike double dipping — drawing a government pension for one job while also working in the government at another — we can better control pension spiking without passing new laws.

This is all the more reason to have a citizen financial oversight group, such as the one that Nevada City is proposing to disband. With a lot of retired business people and CPAs around, the expertise can’t hurt.

It also could help City Hall continue to recoup from its reputation for being “asleep at the wheel,” which it was. All the meetings are public, and the council has the final word.

We need to work collectively to wring out the excesses of government. We can’t afford it.