March 25, 2010

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The big squeeze on taxpayers

It’s hard to believe that the debate over tax plans in Philadelphia City Hall is real.

One of the leading ideas floated by the Mayor’s office has been a tax on soda. “A what?” you might ask. A sugary soda tax. Yup. That’s a real idea. $.02 per ounce.

In a story on the issue in the Philadelphia Inquirer last week, City Councilman Bill Greenlee questioned Philadelphia Health Commissioner Donald Schwartz, M.D.

“Why target one particular industry?” Greenlee asked.

According to the Inquirer, Schwartz responded that sugared beverages don’t fill stomachs the way solid food does, theoretically meaning that people will take in a lot of sugar with no dietary benefit. Schwartz added some facts about diabetes and the effects on the city’s children.

“Isn’t the real problem inactivity?” Greenlee asked. “How about a tax on video games?”

Not to take away from Greenlee – his questions were appropriate given the circumstances – but it’s those circumstances that are hard to believe. Call me crazy, but when a city’s tax strategy begins to sound like a high school health class, we have problems.

Mayor Michael Nutter’s proposals to raise revenues to plug a multi-million dollar hole in his spending plans – including the soda tax and a $300 trash collection fee – are budgetary soft drinks. They’re canned confections that will not satisfy once swallowed.

While we’re on food analogies, what Philadelphia needs is a cheesesteak-worthy plan – one that will not fail to satisfy a population that is getting tired of feeling squeezed by City Hall to fund a government that many don’t believe accomplishes very much.

City Council’s counter is a tax plan that is far more conventional but no less unappetizing: a 10 to 13 percent increase in property taxes. You may remember, if you’ve read a paper in the last year, that the Board of Revision of Taxes, the body responsible for setting home values, on which property taxes are based, was revealed to be a reservoir of patronage and general incompetence. So struck was the Mayor by the mess that he issued a moratorium on reassessments.

Given those circumstances, barring a public demonstration that the BRT is now competent (how is that accomplished?), I can’t imagine Philadelphians will be ready to shoulder the burden of a 10 percent tax hike. Particularly when they’re not getting anything for the money.

What most Philadelphians continue to wonder is this: When will talk of reducing city government to a size that taxpayers can afford become a reality? One of the most compelling cases two-time Republican mayoral candidate Sam Katz made regarding city government – it was one he would repeat often – was that while Philadelphia’s population had dwindled by more than 25 percent between the ‘50s and today, the size of city government did not.

Instead, for the last 10 years, Philadelphia mayors have simply haggled with city labor unions and proposed goofball fixes like the soda tax. It’s time for the Mayor and City Council to stop with half-measures and stopgaps. The real problem is apparent and well defined (and has been for more than a decade). Cutting city government will not be easy, but a quick if painful trim will be a lot better than letting the city slowly waste away.

Forget the soda tax. It’s not the city’s sweet-tooths who need to trim the fat.

Pete Mazzaccaro


In search of ‘Quispy Queme’ and a good Twain book

Although I usually try to eat health-promoting foods, I do allow myself the occasional foray into the world of culinary self-abuse.           

Once a year, for example, I cut loose and eat one genuine Philadelphia-style hoagie, followed by one Tastykake lemon pie. And after I’ve let my body recuperate for six months, I follow up that first indulgence with a maniacal rampage through the world of Kripsy Kreme doughnuts.

Ever since I first bit into one of those critters, I realized I’d just stepped on a weak beam and was falling through to the pigsty. Something they put in those confections prevents me from ever eating just one. Three is my minimum number, six my ideal, a dozen my destiny. Urp.

Or so it used to be. A few weeks ago I looked up from reading the newspaper and said to my wife, “Janet, it’s been a while – next time you see a Krispy Kreme display at the supermarket, would you buy some for me, please?”

“They’ve been out of business for about three years now, dear.”

“What? Are you sure?”

“They closed the last store, up around Franklin Mills, I think.”

“Oh, I think I knew that, but don’t they still sell them in little supermarket displays ... you know, like they used to do with Horn and Hardart?”

“I’m afraid not.”

“Harumph.” I put down the newspaper and flipped open my mighty laptop, like Popeye reaching for a tin of spinach.

I Googled here and Googled there and then Googled over yonder a little bit, and this is what I found: plenty of Web sites list Krispy Kreme stores in Philadelphia, but those Web sites are what I call “ghostings.” There must be a term for abandoned Web sites that linger on the Internet like deserted storefronts. (Please tell me, if you know.) I know my old bookstore is still listed, three years after I closed it.

By now, it was nearing 9 p.m., but the deeply-embedded thought of Krispy Kreme doughnuts was stoking my salivary glands so fiercely I was ready to drive cross-city to get one, or two (heh heh).

I telephoned a store listed under “Krispy Kreme, Philadelphia.”             

“The number you have dialed is no longer in service. Please check the listing and dial again.”

I dialed six more closed franchises before I accepted the wretched truth of what my wife had told me. They’d slipped off in the night, like the Colts out of Baltimore. What should I do? The Krispy Kreme corporate home page is still inviting people to purchase franchises. Surely they must make some doughnuts, somewhere. I expanded my search to “Krispy Kreme, Pennsylvania.”

Plenty of listings. I began calling. Out of business, out of business, out of business. Then: Hooray: Altoona answered the phone.

“Hello,” I said, my voice trying to conceal my relief, “are you still open?”

“Huh? Yeah. We’re here every night till eleven.” Like, What kind of jerk is this, calling?

I hung up. Nine-fifteen p.m. Hmmm.

“Hon, how long’s it take to get to Altoona from here?”

“You won’t make it. And then you’ll have to stay up there overnight, waiting for them to open in the morning.”

She was right, as usual, darn it. But then I got a good idea. We were going to Florida next week, taking the train from Philadelphia to Tampa. I Googled “Krispy Kreme, Florida.” Voila! Those folks down South know how to live the good life, nutrition-wise. I verified the Internet listings by calling a half-dozen places in southern Florida. Three of them were still in business. Then I thought, Go ahead, be daring. I looked for “Krispy Kreme, Tampa.”

Dang! One of them was on the 3000 block of West Kennedy Boulevard, and my car rental agency was on the 1000 block of that same street. I called. Open every night till 11 p.m. How sweet the thought.

Amtrak’s Silver Service leaves Philadelphia at 12:30 p.m. and arrives in Tampa at the same time the next day. What could make a 24-hour train ride more delightful than the thought that we’d all be eating gen-u-ine Krispy Kremes within a half-hour of arriving. Land sakes alive!

Oh, yes, now that I’d dealt with my bodily cravings, I needed to address my mental hunger. What should I read on the train? Not an easy decision, finding the perfect book, or books, for vacation. Some folks choose escapist literature – others see the trip as an opportunity to tackle something significant and enriching. I couldn’t make up my mind.

One thing for sure – it’s no fun to carry dead weight on vacation. I would not take any of the terrific library books I had beside my bed. I wanted good books bought cheaply so I could leave them for fellow travelers when I’d finished reading them. In the good old days I’d have gone to Borders up the street to find something. This time, I hurried over to the Chestnut Hill Free Library’s sale table. So many good books, so little time. Trying to decide is a fearful experience for me. What if I pick a clunker that I don’t like?

After some fussing, I chose “The Croquet Player” by H.G. Wells (1938). As a general rule in life I live by the idea that even an obscure title by a great writer is worth reading and will probably lead me to all kinds of new ideas. I didn’t know if the book was fiction or nonfiction, but I bought it for a dollar.

I had already set aside, “Flashback” by Nevada Barr, as my emergency book. I read very few mystery writers, but Nevada Barr is so unusual I find her irresistible. Barr has a background in the National Park Service, and each of her Anna Pigeon mysteries is set in a different national park.

Written from the point of view of park rangers, or scientific research teams, each book provides a unique behind-the-scenes entry to the world hidden from tourists. “Flashback,” is set in the Dry Tortugas National Park, about 70 miles off the west coast of Key West.

The park has long fascinated me for two reasons. First, it is a famous site for birders, being a place where various seagoing birds, like the Magnificent Frigatebird and Blue-footed Booby (yes, I’m serious) can be easily seen. Second, the Dry Tortugas are the site of Fort Jefferson, where the famous Doctor Samuel Mudd was imprisoned as punishment for having mended John Wilkes Booth’s broken leg after Booth assassinated President Abraham Lincoln.

I read and enjoyed both books. I donated Barr to the Sanibel Island Public Library and left Wells between the seat cushions of a chair in the Ybor City (Tampa) Hilton. (I knew my wife, a woman prone to good intentions, would otherwise find it and tuck it safely back in my suitcase, thinking: men are so forgetful.)

For the ride back I bought Rudolph Wurlitzer’s “Quake” (1995, originally 1972) at Mac Intosh Books on Sanibel Island. This was a weird, unpleasant, somewhat ingenious book set in the aftershocks of a cataclysmic earthquake in Southern California. I bought this book because it is part of the “Midnight Classics” noir fiction reprint series, published by Serpent’s Tail.

I read everything noir I can find. It’s probably one of the reasons I stutter when I meet educated, sensitive women who read Booker-nominated novels and ask me what I’ve read that they might enjoy.

There. Having discharged my books and reading obligation, I’ll return to what you want to know: Did I get to Krispy Kreme? I did. I pulled out of the car rental lot and drove directly there. They couldn’t hardly believe me when I told them how hard we have it up here.

“You mean the three feet of snow on the ground up there?”

“No, we can’t get KrispyKrack no more.”

I had a glazed sour cream, a glazed blueberry and a “traditional cake” (inter alia).

Yes, it was worth it. And it’s so comforting to know that only a 24-hour train ride stands between me and my next fix.


The Buzz on Bees: Beekeeping revival in the city

There’s been a lot of talk recently about urban beekeeping. New York City, this past week, overturned a long-standing, but rarely enforced, ban on beekeeping within city limits, and Michelle Obama now has one on the South Lawn of the White House.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, worker bees pollinate 80 percent of our flowering crops, which constitute one-third of everything we eat. Since the recent phenomenon of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) in 2006, where bees leave their hive and never return, U.S. beekeepers have lost one-fourth of their colonies, five times the normal average. Essentially, our ecosystem and survival rests on their survival.

Whether it’s concern about CCD, better crop pollination or a love of honey, one thing is clear, beekeeping is making a comeback in Philadelphia.

Philadelphia has the singular distinction of being the “cradle” of modern beekeeping, according to Suzanne Matlock, executive board member of the Philadelphia Beekeepers Guild (PBG), co-organizer of this year’s Honey Festival in September, and self-proclaimed bee-vangelist.

“The inventor of the modern-day hive style, Rev. Lorenzo L. Langstroth (LLL for short),” says Matlock, “is a Philadelphian! We’re celebrating his 200th birthday this year, because we really couldn’t do all that we do with and for the bees without the hive he designed.”

The Langstroth hive, patented in 1852, has removable frames so that the bees can be observed and honey extracted without destroying the colony.

Forty of these hive kits were ordered by the PBG last weekend for new and expanding beekeepers to assemble together at the Green on Greene Building in Mt. Airy. Their motto for the event was “Come with a hammer, leave with a hive.”

Kiameshia McPherson, of West Philadelphia, attended a guild workshop several weeks before and is now about to build her first hive.

 “I got interested in permaculture, and bees are a natural part of that,” McPherson said.

When asked about her expectations for this year she said, “I really just wanted to try it – I want to keep them alive and hopefully they’ll come back!”            

Along with 50 to 100 lbs. of honey a year, one hive will also produce beeswax, royal jelly, propolis and bee pollen.

This is one of many events along with monthly meetings that the guild has planned to help and encourage new beekeepers. If there’s enough interest, they will have another of these hive-building workshops on April 10.

“Most people start off with one,” said Dave Harrod, head of the guild’s equipment committee. Harrod, who lives in Mt. Airy, has been raising bees for four years and now has sixteen hives between him and a friend. Most guild members, according to Harrod, are from Germantown and Mt. Airy, with a few from Center City and West Philadelphia.

Since the start of the guild last fall by its president, Joel Eckel, with help from Nicole Juday, Wyck’s horticulturalist, membership has grown steadily. At the last meeting, held on the third Thursday of each month at Wyck, the room was crowded with more than 30 attendees, some sitting on the floor and standing in the doorway.

You can join the Philadelphia Beekeepers Guild for $25 for a household membership. Visit its Web site at www.phillybeekeeper-, or just come to one of their meetings. Wyck House is at 6026 Germantown Ave. in Germantown.

Also, Penn State Cooperative Extension is pleased to announce a Beginner Beekeeping online program. Tom Butzler, beekeeper and horticulture educator, along with Don Woodring, master beekeeper and extension educator will be presenting a series of bi-monthly sessions. Go to www.pastatebeekeep-

The Honey Festival will be held September 10-12 and will feature citywide activities, both educational and enjoyable. More information on the festival can be found on the PBG website.

You can purchase or request a screening of a film on Colony Collapse Disorder called, Nicotine Bees, at Contact me at ecologic.chlocal@-


Diabetes and your heart: risk factors
by Claresa Levetan, M.D.
After a long, cold winter full of blankets, wooly sweaters and comfort food, spring is almost here, and it’s time to shed those bulky layers and extra pounds. Since March is National Nutrition Month, we should also focus on good eating habits for good health.

Maintaining a healthy weight can reduce your risk of diabetes and, in turn, protect your heart. Just like smoking, high blood pressure and high cholesterol, diabetes is a serious risk factor for heart disease.

People with diabetes have a greater risk of developing heart disease, and a diagnosis of diabetes brings a host of additional risk factors for your heart. Ongoing research indicates that diabetes and other chronic health conditions, such as obesity, damage the structure and function of the heart.

For example, people with diabetes may develop heart disease at a younger age than those without diabetes – as early as age 30. They also may have a more severe form of heart disease than those who have not been diagnosed with diabetes. In fact, having Type 2 diabetes elevates the risk of heart attack or heart disease to the equivalent risk level of a person who has already suffered a heart attack.

Heart disease that develops in people with diabetes is referred to as diabetic heart disease (DHD). People with diabetes are two to four times as likely to have a heart attack or stroke. According to the American Heart Association, about three-quarters of people with diabetes die of some form of heart or blood vessel disease. The higher a person’s blood sugar, the higher the risk level for DHD.

Typically, individuals with DHD will develop coronary artery disease, heart failure or diabetic cardiomyopathy, which damages the structure and function of the heart. Coronary artery disease involves the build-up of plaque inside the arteries, which reduces the flow of blood to the heart and increases the likelihood of blood clots. Coronary artery disease can cause angina (chest pain or discomfort), arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat), heart attack or death.

Heart failure, another consequence of diabetes, refers to the weakening of the heart muscle over time, until the heart cannot work efficiently and pump enough blood for the body’s needs. Symptoms of heart failure include chronic tiredness and insufficient energy to participate in certain physical activities – a vicious cycle for a diabetic patient needing to stay active and lose weight.

Diabetes not only increases the risk of heart conditions, but also makes such conditions more difficult to treat. Certain heart disease treatments, such as a coronary bypass or angioplasty, are less successful in people with DHD.

Patients with diabetes can work with their physician to lower their risk of developing DHD through lifestyle changes and medications. Good lifestyle choices, such as a healthy diet and regular exercise, can control a number of risk factors – weight, blood pressure and cholesterol – all of which can reduce the risk of developing heart disease.

If you already have diabetes, work with your physician to monitor and control your blood pressure (a reading below 130/80 mm Hg is desirable), cholesterol (an LDL or “bad cholesterol” reading below 100 is optimal) and blood sugar. One tool to help you measure how well you’re controlling your blood sugar is by measuring your hemoglobin A1c. This measurement estimates your average concentration of sugar in your blood over the past four months (120 days). The American Diabetes Association recommends a goal hemoglobin A1c of 7 percent or less for individuals with diabetes.

Your doctor may recommend an electrocardiogram while you walk on a treadmill, also called a stress test, which reveals the electrical activity of the heart while it is working. These tests can uncover abnormal rhythms and evidence of the lack of sufficient oxygen going to the heart muscle, which may suggest a heart problem. These signs include chest pain, your heart pounding, racing or fluttering, problems breathing, a persistent feeling of weakness or tiredness, or unusual sounds when your doctor listens to your heartbeat. Your physician may order other tests, such as a stress echocardiogram, which uses sound waves to produce an image of the heart during a stress test.

It’s also a good idea to have regular cholesterol and blood pressure readings. The National Cholesterol Education Panel recommends cholesterol screenings for all adults over age 20 at least every five years, and more often (every 1-2 years) if you have high cholesterol or other risk factors for heart disease. Blood pressure readings are generally included as a standard part of your annual check-up.

Learn more about your risk for diabetes and the preventive steps you can take, or, if you already have diabetes, the steps you can take to minimize its health consequences.

Dr. Levetan, an endocrinologistwho is in practice at Chestnut Hill Endocrinology, Diabetes and Metabolic Associates, is a nationally and internationally recognized authority on the treatment and care of patients with diabetes. 





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