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May 27, 2010


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The Mayor Quixotic

Like so many lousy summer blockbusters, the unfolding budget impasse between City Council and Mayor Michael Nutter feels rottenly familiar. It’s the same thing you’ve seen before. Again, the city faces a potential shortfall in funds. Again, libraries, fire and police departments are on the chopping block.

Conventional wisdom suggests the mayor’s threats to trim, including a reduction of more than 200 police officers, are more a negotiation tactic. There’s no real intent or wish on the mayor’s part to reduce the work force. And hitting police, fire and library personnel is the best way to alarm the public. No one would bat an eyelash for 200 L & I inspectors or records department file clerks.

So again, the Mayor armors up and mounts his horse to battle windmills, his head full of futile principles: to spend less than you earn, to reduce the high fructose intake with a soda levy and to save about 5 percent for a rainy (or snowy) day.

In the meantime, City Council seems prepared to take the city its own direction. Only Councilman Bill Green and Republican Brian O’Neill voted against council’s proposed budget, which the Mayor and Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Agency – the group that oversees Philly’s finances  – believe will leave the city with nothing in the bank by the end of the fiscal year.

PICA chairman Jim Eisenhower (who happens to be a Hill resident) voiced his concerns over City Council’s budget proposal to the Philadelphia Inquirer: “It’s cutting down to pretty much bare bones. As we’ve seen in the last two years, things tend to happen.”

Eisenhower also had concerns about Council’s proposed 9.9 percent property tax hike. Eisenhower pointed out the fact that no one has confidence in the city’s ability to assess property equitably and that raising taxes based on those assessments could be, well, problematic.

But regardless of the Mayor’s threats or Eisenhower’s concerns, it seems obvious that the city cannot skirt this budget impasse without a lot of pain. No matter what, it seems, services are going to have to be cut and taxes will have to be raised.

Something has to give, and council has decided that the giving should be handled by city property owners. Council could vote on a soda tax to raise more revenue, but they seem more concerned with the welfare of soda bottling plants than taxpayers.

While it’s easy to find fault with the Mayor for targeting city departments for the biggest political bang, he is right to draw a line – no matter how thin it might appear – on spending. Getting the same city services at a higher price is not going to appeal to many residents. Anyone on the decision–making edge about buying in the city has a new incentive to look elsewhere.

The summer budget showdown could have a surprise ending. The Mayor might quit tilting at windmills and propose some real program cuts and enact real savings. There are many more options than raising taxes and cutting policemen and library hours. That nothing else is on the table is equal parts embarrassing and depressing.

The opportunity is there for the Mayor to be a real knight in shining armor. Instead, I’m afraid we’re going to get little more than another Quixote: high on ideals, low on real accomplishments.

Pete Mazzaccaro

 

Commentary: First things first — a call for common sense


Our elected officials need to make a change. They need to learn to put loyalty to taxpaying citizens first and foremost ahead of patronage workers, inefficiency, entrenchment and city unions.

City council and Philadelphia mayors have collaborated ruinously for too long, acting like hostages of the public employees’ unions, raising salaries and pensions, adding needless agencies and spending citizen’s taxes with little intelligence or accountability, knowing it is far easier to cover up their own lack of leadership by taxing their own families, their own friends, their own neighborhoods and to let the next official figure it out later. 

The time has come for those officials to manage Philadelphia maturely and to distinguish between core city functions to be paid for, miscellaneous functions we cannot pay for and those that are much better done privately. There is no other responsible way to have a “new way and a new day.”

The following ideas have been on the table for years and need to be acted on to convince us of our politicians’ desire for a new way before raising any taxes and before ever seeking reelection:

Sell the Philadelphia Gas Works to private business; sell the airport, too. Stop protecting patronage jobs at the expense of managing core responsibilities for the hundreds of thousands of the rest of the citizens who live here.

Sell all Parking Authority garages and parking lots that are competing against private parking businesses. Sell and/or lease the whole parking meter business.

Sell the 10,000 acres of city-owned vacant land to private owners right now.

Seek competitive private contractors to take over numerous non-core city services, such as trash collection, much of the street work, all of the recreation department functions and much maintenance work. Be innovative and consider private managers to run the libraries, too.

Require all contracts to be open to merit shop, non-union companies immediately to save 30 to 35 percent on all such work and on all construction to end the unconscionable surcharge the monopoly of the unions adds to all public and private work in Philadelphia, (which they do not add to their bids outside the city.)

Why are Philadelphians so muddleheaded as to pay, year in and year out, 30 to 35 percent more of our own income and our taxes than the fair market value to anyone?

Reduce the lighting levels of all lighting the city taxpayers pay the electricity to provide. Turn off all night lighting at outside recreation facilities during this budget crisis.

Consolidate the overlapping housing agencies into one and eliminate the redundant ones. Sell most of the public housing properties to private managers to prevent the next sure cycle of blight.

Move most of the families now in public housing out of subsidized housing into better managed non-profit, charity and church managed housing to save tax money and to care more compassionately for those really in need.

Re-district and coordinate all police and firemen into geographical districts that are sensible and efficient for today to save money and better serve the citizens.

Shut down all agencies that are no more that the political-sop-of-the-moment and save millions spent on these things that are not core functions of government.

Stop approving all the “million-dollars-here-and-two-million-there” programs, such as city support for locals to go to college. That is not a core city government nor is it a city taxpayer’s responsibility to do that on top of the $3.2 billion in taxes already spent on the public schools. Stop all these giveaways that are bleeding the city with many million-dollar wounds.

 Let us be clear: the municipal unions have no source of revenue or power other than the taxes of citizens, therefore they work for the citizens. It is time the elected officials take firm control of running the city for the citizens and stop running the city for unions.

Convert 25 percent of our street intersections to European-designed traffic roundabouts to save energy costs. Roundabouts are designed to prevent head on and broadside collisions and they are designed to save gas, electricity and time.

Redesign the management structure in the mayor’s office so that the heads of city departments, who all report to the mayor, have the expertise a mayor needs so there is no reason to hire a redundant and expensive cabinet full of deputy mayors enrolled in the city pension and DROP systems. Advisors whose skills are still needed should be hired as consultants and not as staff.

City Council needs much reform to be responsive, to lead, for its members to not overstay their welcome in office and to be restrained from imposing their personal foibles on the citizens. Council needs to be reduced in size, reduced in expense and reduced in its present authority.

Much of council’s function is archaic, silly, a waste of time, irrelevant and ought to be handled by city departments and the 311 system. At best, council seats should be a part time job for well-educated, smart, board of director-like citizen-politicians.

Councilmanic privilege is a sophomoric abuse of power and is nothing if not feudal and uncharacteristic of our ideals of representative government.

Hard to know where to begin cutting costs with the chronic irresponsibility of the public school system that soaks up the other half of our citizen’s available taxes in an unrequited civic contract for the school district to provide an educated citizenry.

How can the schools be spending $3.2 billion with their feeble and unsuccessful attempt to teach only 200,000 children, while the city spends $3.8 billion to run our whole city of 1.45 million citizens? From mismanaging the oversight of charter schools, mismanaging most of the regular schools, to continuing to demand tuition to teach the 32,000 children who are not even in school and tuition for 50 perceny of all of the children who drop out at ninth grade and salaries to pay teachers who are truant, too…where does one start cutting a massive budget to rein in this financially and educationally abusive catastrophe imposed on taxpayers and on the children?

The easiest thing for politicians to do is to raise taxes against their own citizens again and again and again. Is that what officials are elected to do? Or were they elected to make leadership decisions to strengthen our city? No one in our local government is showing that they know anything about running, protecting, promoting or attracting businesses, from which all taxes come to run the city and the schools, so, it would be out of character for those in City Hall to make responsible decisions for our beloved city; but, hope is eternal, and they may yet see their way to make beneficial decisions for the citizens, instead of decisions against their own citizens, against their own families and against their own city.

This Nutter administration sang a song that it would lead “a new way and a new day” instead of the litany the last mayor sang so tediously, “I’m having a nice day”; yet, with a bold, brassy and brilliant about-face from its present course, we still could have a new day and a new way in Philadelphia.

 Mr. Mayor and Council members, this is your challenge: no new taxes, cut the fat and cut the non-core costs to the bone to strengthen our city and you just might be reelected.

Gardner A. Cadwalader is a Hill resident and an architect.


Breastfeeding: On-the-job training for new parents



One of the most vexing things in life is when something that appears to be simple turns out to be complicated. I enjoy watching the seemingly easy game of golf on TV, but then I’ll waste an afternoon shooting a score that would make a good I.Q.

My wife, Stephanie, will clip a recipe for brownies from a magazine, then sift, whip, and bake for hours, only to produce a pan of igneous rock.

Whether it is something as insignificant as bad golf or life-threatening brownies, or as important as parenting, we’re learning that what we thought was difficult isn’t, and what we assumed would be easy, can be really hard.

It’s not that we thought parenting would be easy, far from it, but there were aspects of having a baby that we thought would come naturally. We foolishly believed breastfeeding would be simple.

Before Henry was born, we tried to agree on certain parenting plans and styles. From what we read, researched and heard, we wanted to breastfeed. That was our choice, but I won’t make an argument for or against, because even though the practice has become more public and participatory through support groups, classes, and consultants, the decision to nurse or not should always be your own. We discussed it, decided to do it, and I, the mammary-glandless mammal in the marriage, looked at my wife and asked, “How hard can it be?”

We bought all the necessary nursing equipment, including, but not limited to, milk storage bags, a nursing smock that would allow Steph to breastfeed in public called the Hooter Hider, and a cushion that attaches around the torso for the baby to rest on while nursing called the Breast Friend (the lactation industry really knows how to “milk” a good pun … thank you thank you, I’ll be here for a dozen paragraphs or so).

Another essential item in breastfeeding is the pump, which I mistakenly thought was the baby. Breast pumps can be as basic as a bicycle or as loaded and expensive as a Ferrari. They all accomplish the same thing and from what I can tell they all make noise – a lot of noise. I would like to use this space to publicly implore James Dyson, genius inventor of the bagless vacuum cleaner and the bladeless oscillating fan to invent the noiseless breast pump. Please. I speak for many fathers who cannot escape that incessant whirr.

We were ready, both mentally and “equipmentally;” we just needed a baby. Henry, our son, spent his first night in the NICU at Pennsylvania Hospital for some minor issues that were the result of a difficult labor that resulted in an unexpected C-Section. Henry was given formula in the NICU, and when he was released, he had difficulty nursing.

We attended breastfeeding classes in the hospital, and an endless parade of kind, patient nurses and lactation consultants worked with us. Breastfeeding didn’t go really well those first few days, but we were sure that when we got home we would get the hang of it through practice and time.

During those first weeks, three actions seemed to occur simultaneously and constantly: Henry’s crying, Stephanie’s nursing, and my sitting on the couch offering useless advice. We breastfed exclusively, but we had no idea how much Henry was eating. Henry would sometimes fall asleep on the Breast Friend when he should have been eating, and when we stopped using the Breast Friend he would cry in the strange and uncomfortable holds.

Steph was frustrated and angry because nursing was taking hours and we didn’t know if we were doing it right. Surprisingly, my attempts to lighten the mood by making Mad Cow Disease jokes and asking her to wear the Hooter Hider at home did not go over – what’s the word – “well.”

We had the same terrible feeling that most new parents have in the first few weeks: that sickening uneasiness that you are not capable of successfully caring for your baby. Our hunch was confirmed during the second visit to the pediatrician. Henry, who had lost almost a pound in his first week (not unusual), had lost more weight the second week (not normal).

The pediatrician asked us about our breastfeeding schedule. To be sure there wasn’t an issue with Henry’s ability to suck, the doctor gave him a 3-ounce bottle of formula. Henry practically grabbed the bottle from his hand, unscrewed the nipple cap, and guzzled it down. We were mortified. Our fears were confirmed: We were the most incompetent parents in the universe and we had been starving our baby.

The one positive characteristic of our incompetence, however, is that it is a determined incompetence. We were going to make nursing work. Even though breastfeeding wasn’t easy, we had convinced ourselves that because it was hard, it was now paramount that we do it. The pediatrician coached us on the importance of finding a parenting/feeding approach that worked for all three of us. Taking this to heart, we naturally devised a plan that didn’t work for any of us.

To measure Henry’s weight down to the hundredth of an ounce, we rented a scale that I imagine is the same used by jewelers and drug dealers. We had a session with a lactation consultant who was so enthusiastic and supportive that even I briefly thought of strapping on the Breast Friend. We devised a feeding schedule that was arduous, but effective.

The schedule involved weighing, nursing, more weighing, more nursing, more weighing, bottle-feeding, pumping, storing the milk, cleaning the equipment, checking your watch, frowning, and repeat.

This process sometimes took over an hour and a half, and the results were inconsistent. One feeding, Henry would take three ounces total from nursing, and another, he would take less than one. We kept statistics and weight logs. We argued about when he should eat and for how long. I went from being a slightly annoying cheerleader to an even more annoying coach. We became obsessed with nursing and baby weight. Naturally, all three of us began to dread mealtimes.

My wife and I knew this approach wasn’t working. Henry was gaining weight but we hadn’t come up with a system that worked for us. We had a bigger baby but we were a stressed-out family. We gave it six weeks to see if it got easier, to see if Henry could eventually get sufficient nourishment from only nursing. The scale was our safety net, but we couldn’t keep the scale forever, and we couldn’t go back to the doctor with a malnourished baby.

Eventually, practicality and sanity won out. After eight weeks, we gave up nursing – Steph is now pumping and feeding Henry from a bottle. We’re all much happier, and our freezer is filled with bags of frozen breast milk (seriously, we could open the world’s worst Baskin Robbins franchise).

We know exactly how much Henry is taking from the bottle and the scale is long gone. My wife is not as stressed, my son is happily growing, and I get to help out by taking a few late night bottle shifts and keeping my jokes to myself. Technically, we’re still breastfeeding, but we’re no longer nursing.

We’ll keep this routine up as long as it works for us. I’m sure this will be one of many instances in which our prenatally conceived parenting plan will be abandoned for a more sensible “whatever works” approach. I guess as long as you’re willing to learn as you go and make adjustments, that’s the best parenting plan of all.

Let’s hope it is really that simple.

 

Make a commitment to zero waste in planning parties


In nature, there is no such thing as waste – the by-product of one system becomes the feedstock of another. Unfortunately, as humans, we have devised our own linear production system that extracts natural resources, turns it into stuff that we buy and then toss into a landfill or incinerate when we’re done with it. Using this system, we destroy the environment, contaminate our air, soil and water, and pay to throw away potentially valuable resources.

This throwaway economy is exacting its toll on us – pushing our health and the health of our planet to its limits. Most of our disposable products are made possible by the abundance of cheap oil, with one of the larger examples being plastic bottles.

According to the National Association for PET Container Resources (NAPCOR), of the 2.7 million tons of plastic PET bottles on U.S. shelves in 2006, four-fifths went to landfills. Plastic, in general, is not considered biodegradable because of its molecular stability, and it is not easily broken down into simpler components. Plastic bottles can take 450 to 1,000 years to break down, depending on type and size.            

Once oil is no longer cheap, alternatives to disposable items will have to be found. Most of us will no longer be able to afford the high cost of these convenience products. The good news is we really don’t have to look far for replacements. Many of these items arrived in stores within the last 20 to 30 years, so we only have to see what our parents and grandparents used. Here are just a few examples:

• Using cloth napkins instead of paper

• Using sealable storage containers rather than plastic wrap

• Reusing cardboard boxes, plastic bags and paper sacks

• Using a stainless steel water bottle

 

The high cost of oil isn’t the only problem. Landfills will be at capacity within a decade, basically bringing the throwaway economy to an end.

In my opinion, the use of convenience goods increases when there’s something big going on, like meetings, a party, festivals, etc, – whenever more than a couple people gather. There is no doubt that chucking dozens of paper plates, napkins, plastic cutlery, plastic drink cups, water and juice bottles into the trash is easier than washing plates, silverware and cups. It’s the reason these products appeared on the supermarket shelves in the first place, but there are costs associated with these items that have yet to be paid.

The seemingly reasonable price tags fail to account for huge environmental consequences future generations will incur. For the least environmental impact, the larger the venue, the more important it is to plan a zero waste event.

A zero waste system models itself after nature, keeping materials in the production cycle. In terms of event planning, it’s making choices by holding the ecological magnifying glass up to each product used and asking, “Where did it come from and where’s it going to end up?”

Is this recyclable and made from recycled materials? Is this biodegradable, compostable and made from renewable resources? Is it manufactured locally? Can it be reused or repurposed? It does seem daunting at first, but there are resources out there to help get you started to make the process easier.

The Miquon School decided this year that its annual Spring Fair would be a zero waste event. What is usually an event that overflows the dumpster, is now a concerted effort to divert most of the waste to compost and recycling. Alice Chan, Miquon parent and this year’s organizer, made the zero waste commitment.

“Last year we tried to recycle and had some difficulties,” she said, “so this year we changed our strategies and decided to add composting as well.”

Much of the day’s success was due to very specific signs on each of the bins. Lee Meinicke, president of Philly Compost, a local commercial composting company, said signs are extremely important, as well as placing trash, recycling and composting bins next to each other.

Miquon volunteers set up 10 stations throughout the campus, so the 400 festival goers could conveniently find the proper receptacle.

Was it successful? Chan thinks so.

“Trash was really minimal compared to the compost and recycling we collected,” she said “We made sure that we used all compostable products for the all the food and the drinks were only available in recyclable containers.”

Although there was still some cross contamination, 3rd and 4th—grade Green Ambassadors were on hand to make sure guests knew where to throw things. Another important reason for the success of the day was raising awareness ahead of time.

“We really tried to get the word out to parents prior to the fair, so they knew to look for the new bins,” Chan said.

The bins were borrowed from the Chestnut Hill Business Association and are available to other groups who would like to host zero waste events. Also available will be a checklist that Chan used to organize Miquon’s Fair and a list of suppliers of compostable products, examples of signage and a list of professional haulers such as Philly Compost.

As Chan says, “It really wasn’t that hard.”

“It’s difficult if you don’t have the right contacts,” he said, “but knowing where to find the bins, buy the compostables, etc., really helped. We are grateful to Philly Compost for both providing the signs and picking up the compost, and to Comsic Catering for supplying all the compostables at cost.”

There are several Web sites that can help with zero waste events. This one has lots of household items that are compostable: http://compostablegoods.com. More zero waste resources are listed at the Grass Roots Recycling Network, www.grrn.org. For more information on borrowing recycling and composting bins from the Chestnut Hill Business Association, call 215-247-6696. Philly Compost’s website is www.phillycom- post.com.

Many compostables are available at Whole Foods, and Weavers Way carries recycled napkins, paper towels and bio-bag trash bags. Locally, check out the Why Not Bob Store at www.whynotbobstore.net – you may have also seen them on Eco-Alley at the Garden Festival. And www.greenpartysupply.com has all kinds of compostable party goods, but they come all the way from California.

Next month Recycle Bank rolls out its incentive-based recycling here in Chestnut Hill. Be sure to sign up at the Web site, www.recyclebank.com, and get a sticker for your bin. Contact me at ecologic.chlocal@gmail.com.

 

 

 

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