Perhaps sensing some blood in the water over the lingering negotiations between the Indiana Department of Transportation and Corridor Capital, a private firm with a winning, $2.9 million bid to take over operations of the four-day-a-week service, Amtrak CEO Joe Boardman came calling, city to city.
Amtrak's current stint operating the Hoosier State schedule was extended when INDOT picked up an option to stretch the contract's end from Sept. 30 to Jan. 31. The state hoped that would give INDOT and Corridor Capital more time to work out details.
Boardman's message: Why bother? Amtrak's still here.
And he brought an 11th-hour goodie bag with him — WiFi on board, food service, business class accommodations. Those are the sorts of amenities communities along the line have been saying should be part of the passenger rail experience, but have been absent on the Hoosier State.
Amtrak didn't bid on a new package to keep the Hoosier State when a change in federal law forced states to find funding for routes of fewer than 750 miles. Instead, Amtrak's official stance was that the state could take the status quo service and start negotiating over the extras. INDOT, not too keen as it was on subsidizing what it considered to be an underperforming Hoosier State, essentially told Amtrak, thanks but no thanks, and started looking for private partners.
This amounts to a big staring match.
All of which might be fun to watch, if it weren't for that fact that local communities had to persuade the state to help save the Hoosier State by chipping in six-figure sums of their own.
Patience is wearing thin.
Where was Amtrak's Boardman more than a year ago, when the community was at the table, telling anyone who would listen that passengers wanted the sort of amenities the rail company now says it will provide for the next four months? Amtrak officials say an automatic, 3 percent increase written into its contract extension will cover the new extras. But why was Amtrak waiting until now to do more than the status quo when it was clear what communities said customers wanted? And how close is it to working out better access to clear rails and fewer delays as trains approach Chicago?
On the other side, how serious is INDOT about working out a deal to keep the Hoosier State running? That seems open to interpretation, at best.
Or are both sides simply satisfied by poking each other in the eye, expecting communities with huge, unbudgeted financial commitments to stand by and watch?
Both sides talk about building partnerships. But talk with little action is how we wound up with today's Hoosier State.
The Tribune, Seymour. Oct. 3, 2014.
Prevention best medicine for BMV
If confession is indeed good for the soul, then the Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles should be feeling a little better. But fixing the system in addition to admitting errors would be even better.
Late last month, the bureau admitted it had overcharged state residents for a second time in a little more than a year and said about 180,000 customers would share in $29 million in refunds. The errors date from 2004 and are the result of vehicles being improperly classified when they were registered, BMV officials said.
The announcement followed the settlement last year of a class-action lawsuit accusing the BMV of overcharging customers by $30 million. More than 4.5 million Indiana drivers were refunded $3.50 to $15 each as part of the settlement.
BMV Commissioner Don Snemis has said Gov. Mike Pence has authorized hiring an independent consulting firm to audit the agency.
"I don't want to discover any more errors after the damage has been done," Snemis told The Associated Press. "We want to have an independent consulting firm come in and be proactive about it and avoid these problems in the future."
The latest overcharge stems from how the BMV determines the excise tax on vehicles. Under Indiana law, vehicles are placed in a tax classification based on value determined by the price of the vehicle and adjusted for consumer price index data related to increases in new automobile prices. In some situations, the BMV's computer system did not apply the adjustment factor, which caused some vehicles to be misclassified.
The error was discovered while the BMV was manually entering the CPI data, Snemis said.
"When we started asking questions and looking into how the computer handled that whole system, we discovered that in some instances instead of using previous data it was using a zero adjustment factor instead, and that change was enough to cause some vehicles to be misclassified," he said.
The average error comes out to about $161, but Snemis said the bureau hadn't determined the range of payments that customers might receive.
He said the agency will work with the Indiana Department of Revenue to issue the refunds. He said people affected should receive a letter within a month.
Snemis said, "We're not shrinking from (the mistakes). We're taking responsibility for them. We're bringing them to light. We're going to make sure people are made whole through this program, and in the future we're going to do the same thing," he said.
The BMV did the right thing in quickly admitting its error and moving to rectify it. Waiting until a lawsuit is filed undermines public trust in the agency.
Now the bureau needs to take the next step and make sure similar incidents don't happen in the future.
Hoosiers should have confidence in the BMV, but not because of how it has handled its errors. Rather it should have the confidence that the agency is well run and reliable.
The Journal Gazette, Fort Wayne. Oct. 3, 2014.
Most Hoosiers will never find themselves victims of serious crime, fortunately, but nearly every resident is at risk for the consumer scams Attorney General Greg Zoeller is targeting with proposed legislation.
Efforts to crack down on unscrupulous home improvement contractors and to improve transparency by debt collectors are welcome responses to well-documented problems. The legislation Zoeller proposes deserves support from lawmakers in the General Assembly's 2015 session.
Home-improvement scams are a particularly noxious offense because they so often target older and more vulnerable Americans. They also morph into new and unimagined ways to cheat unsuspecting victims.
The Journal Gazette's Frank Gray wrote about one in 2012, when a contractor apparently stole the name of a reputable local company to bilk a senior citizen on a driveway resurfacing job. The scam artists approached the homeowner, misrepresenting themselves as employees of a local firm, and convinced him the cracks in his concrete driveway could be covered with asphalt that would turn white when it dried. Two of the men insisted on accompanying the man to his credit union to withdraw $3,500 in payment. Of course, the asphalt did not turn white. It never does.
When the homeowner's daughter contacted the local firm to complain, she learned the men had no connection to it. The company's owner confirmed that similar incidents happened several times a year. No reputable company would solicit business door to door, he said.
Of course, that's a tough lesson for some seniors, who grew up in an era when a handshake deal was as good as a contract.
"Bad actors are finding new ways to defraud, scam and victimize consumers every day," the attorney general said in explaining the need for new legislation.
Zoeller proposes a voluntary registration for home improvement contractors, with a requirement to post a bond to cover customers if the contractor violates state law. The registry would benefit consumers, who are protected by the bond requirement, and reputable business owners with what amounts to a seal of approval from the state.
The attorney general's other legislative initiative targets debt collection, an area where operators have been known to threaten consumers with arrest and jail time - in some cases when no debt exists. The proposed legislation would expand the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, requiring debt collectors to disclose details of the debt in the first communication with a consumer. Under federal law, a debt collector has five days following the initial contact to provide details of the debt.
In addition, Zoeller wants to require debt collectors to identify themselves immediately when contacting a consumer and to disclose from whom the debt was purchased, if applicable.
There's no question the tighter rules are needed. The state fielded nearly 1,000 complaints about home repair or construction problems last year and nearly 800 debt collection-related complaints. Tightening restrictions on those who target vulnerable Hoosiers is worth the effort to reduce those numbers. The legislature should follow through.
The Republic, Columbus. Oct. 1, 2014.
Teaching kids how to think critically offers lifelong benefits
One of the goals in educating children is to teach them how to solve problems. That starts early with simple math equations, such as 4+5. The intention is for students to gain critical thinking skills that ultimately will benefit them later in life.
Shane Del Bianco and Jacquelyn Fischvogt found another way to help develop students' critical thinking skills — one that uses a real-world process, which educators should consider implementing in ways appropriate for students of various grade levels.
Del Bianco, a Lean Sigma Black Belt with Columbus Regional Health, and Central Middle School teacher Jacquelyn Fischvogt collaborated on a project-based learning exercise that challenged students to improve the homework experience.
Lean/Six Sigma is a process often used by companies, such as Cummins Inc., that focuses on critical thinking to improve products and services. Columbus Signature Academy and Central Middle School embraces project-based learning and has students work in teams in technology-rich environments to solve real-world problems.
Fischvogt's seventh-grade students used a suggestion box to identify concerns about homework and challenges to completing assignments — a form of data collection. Insufficient time or resources to complete homework were common concerns.
The students also had to work together — such as in brainstorming sessions — to identify which challenges could be resolved and to develop solutions. Those solutions had to be researched and reasoned well — and presented to classmates in a town hall meeting.
Solutions ranged from allowing more time in class to do homework to teachers explaining assignments in a better way. The measurement of success will be if students are completing homework assignments in a more timely manner.
This project already has achieved a measure of success in that it challenged students to think deeply about a problem, collect and analyze related data and work in teams to arrive at solutions. In fact, that's what many people do on a regular basis — such as engineers trying to reduce the amount of carbon an engine emits, or hospital officials trying to deliver health care more efficiently and at a lower cost.
Critical thinking is important whether you are a supervisor of a team of 12 firefighters at a house fire, or commander of an Army battalion on the battlefield. When problems arise, you must know how to process available information to achieve a desired result.
Exposing Fischvogt's students to a real-world process such as Lean/Six Sigma was valuable because it challenged them to tackle a project in a different way, using methods that are considered critical and beneficial in professional settings.
That's a great head start on a vital skill that is needed to be successful in adulthood.