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Your Mission, Commander Cooke, is to Explore Exploris
Since our cover story a week ago (Exploris Under Fire, July 3), another log's been put on the stack its critics are building beneath the Raleigh museum: As Todd Cohen, editor of the online Philanthropy Journal, reports, Exploris President Anne Bryan is "officially" an employee of the state Department of Commerce and has been since 1994. Exploris, a nonprofit corporation, reimburses the state for her salary, currently $87,926. But state taxpayers will pay her pension. And since Bryan previously had 22 years in as an employee of the state Department of Public Instruction, she's now within two months of fully vesting her pension plan at 30 years total.

Make what you will of that: Nonprofits take money where they can get it, and the state's already contributed $7.2 million in capital costs to Exploris, so what's a few years on a pension? Bryan and Exploris Board Chair Gordon Smith call it a way for the Commerce Department to participate in the museum's good works. However, Commerce Secretary Jim Fain says he didn't know a thing about it until Cohen told him.Fain is new since the Easley Administration, so maybe his ignorance of an old arrangement would be understandable except for one thing: He's also on the Exploris board of directors. Whether Exploris is in the early stages of becoming a great, first-of-its-kind "museum about the world," as Bryan and co-founder Gordon Smith maintain, or is "a philanthropic sinkhole" (Cohen) that should be closed for good, or is something in between, is a question that doesn't lend itself to instant analysis--but it's also one that, in the public interest, ought to be addressed ASAP. The reason: Taxpayers are hearing the debate; they're also footing much of the bill, and they're starting to wonder whether they're getting taken. And stuff like Bryan's circuitous salary and the secrecy surrounding it doesn't help build confidence in her judgment or Smith's.

It wasn't good judgment, either, for them to employ Anne Bryan's sister as a fundraising consultant (for $115,000 over two years). Smith's justification: She's good at it, had been helping Exploris for free, and stepped in at a critical time following the resignation of the museum's development director. But again, what's OK for a nonprofit taking private money doesn't always look right when public funds are involved--which is why Julia Bryan got off the payroll after her arrangement came to light. But if Smith and the Bryans aren't looking good, neither are the Exploris "backers" who, according to Cohen's latest blast (available at www.philanthropyjournal.org), privately "bemoan its chronic problems" but don't have the guts to step forward and be quoted by name.

Whose responsibility is it to investigate the claims and counterclaims? Well, Wake County is Exploris' biggest backer: The county commissioners put $29.5 million into the buildings, and they continue to subsidize operations to the tune of $1.5 million last year, $1.45 million this year. Wake County Manager David Cooke agrees that an outside study is needed to get the facts, judge the results so far and, presumably, recommend whether Bryan and Smith should stay or go. But Cooke, last week, thought it was up to the Exploris board to initiate the study. (Cohen, on the other hand, thinks the board should be thrown out along with Smith and Brian.)

Our impression is that whatever the board might arrange would lack credibility with the public. One reason is that the members were hand-picked by Smith and Bryan. Another, which one member we talked to acknowledged privately, is that the board's lack of attention to what's going on at Exploris--good or bad--is part of the problem. Exhibit A: What Fain should have known, but did not.

Cooke had little or nothing to do with the county's decision to fund Exploris, but he is the one who's signing the checks today, which puts him in the best position of anyone to take responsibility: hire some experts, turn them loose and let the chips fall where they may. Exploris needs the public's money. It also needs the public's confidence.
--Bob Geary

Greensboro Peace Coalition wins hearts and prize on the Fourth
When the Greensboro Peace Coalition wanted to get the word out about the injustice of President Bush's War On Terrorism, they chose an unlikely venue: Greensboro's Fourth of July parade. And while members were concerned that the response from a flag-waving crowd immersed in a post-9/11 patriotic fervor could be ugly, the result was eye-opening: an award from the organizers and wide public support.Coalition members say their 50 marchers carrying a peace banner that read "Not in Our Name " were greeted with many more cheers than boos. And after the parade, they got a surprise when parade officials handed them the "Best Interpretation of Theme" award.

The folks at peace coalition say they learned a lesson. "If you scratch the surface of the poll numbers about Bush's and Ashcroft's overwhelming support, you get down to a lot of people with a lot of questions, a lot of concerns and a lot of fears," wrote Ed Whitfield, a coalition member. "What it takes to get (people) excited ... is to see someone standing up so that they will know they are not alone."

Perhaps more people are concerned about their potential loss of civil liberties than we've been led to believe.
--Brendan Ferriter

The Triangle Gets a Whiff of Environmentally Friendly Buses
Anne Tazewell walked around Durham's bus hub on July 8, offering sniffs of the future from a little glass vial."It smells like Wesson oil, doesn't it?" says Tazewell, coordinator of the Triangle Clean Cities Coalition.

Indeed, the fluid in the vial resembles not at all the one that emanates from a pump at a truck stop. "Biodiesel," made from vegetable oils and animal fats, is just one of the alternative fuels the coalition promotes in its efforts to reduce air pollution.

This month, the coalition brought hybrid-electric buses--powered in part by biodiesel--to Durham and Chapel Hill to demonstrate how new fuels and new technology could change public transportation. At the Festival for the Eno over the July Fourth weekend, "e-buses" carried about 3,000 volunteers around the fair, while public officials and public bus riders took test rides along Durham and Chapel Hill city bus routes the following week.

At the Durham Area Transit Authority (DATA) hub on Morgan Street on a "code orange" day, representatives from the e-bus manufacturer happily opened side panels and rear doors to explain how the combination of a "micro-turbine" engine, electric nickel-cadmium batteries (yes, the same kind that cell phones use, only bigger) and biodiesel run the bus with 30 percent more fuel efficiency and roughly half the toxic emissions of traditional gas-powered buses.

Several metropolitan areas in the U.S. are using hybrid-electric buses in their public transportation systems, including the California cities of Carpenteria, Santa Barbara and Anaheim. Atlanta has just ordered 15 buses for new routes through tony Buckhead, and Disney uses them for shuttles in its theme parks, according to company reps from Ebus Inc., the California manufacturer.

In the Triangle, several communities use various alternative fuels in their motor fleets and service vehicles. Chapel Hill, Raleigh and Garner use compressed natural gas for some of their municipal vehicles, and all of Raleigh's garbage trucks run on "B20"--a diesel fuel that's 20 percent biodiesel and 80 percent traditional diesel. Cary has just started using biodiesel as well, and the state Department of Transportation expects to consume 600,000 gallons of B20 this year, says Tazewell.

Despite the growing prevalence of alternative fuel usage, there has been some resistance to hybrid-electric vehicles for public transportation around here, she says. This month's demos are aimed at easing officials' fears.

"There's some currency in actually seeing the vehicles, feeling them drive down the road," she says.

In the Triangle, Durham is the first transit system to commit to hybrid-electric vehicles, with plans to buy five buses for its proposed "feeder" routes in the next couple of years. Those routes will collect riders from neighborhoods and take them to main bus lines, making them ideal for an initial trial of the hybrid buses, which are smaller, quieter and cleaner, meaning they will cause less noise and air pollution on residential streets, say DATA officials.

"This is the kind of world we're in today," said DATA transit planner Pierre Osei-Owusu as he prepared to board the e-bus for a test drive. "It's the future."
--Jennifer Strom

Bet On It: The Lottery Will Be A Destructive Tax, Not a Harmless Entertainment
Any day now, the N.C. House of Representatives is supposed to vote on the lottery issue. Not whether to have a lottery. No, the bill before the house is to ask us voters whether we want to have a lottery. For education.Which begs the question: What kind of lottery? Hearing that House Speaker Jim Black was pushing hard for his fellow Democrats to get behind a November ballot question, we dug out our copy of "13 Ways of Looking at a State Lottery," the 2000 study by the N.C. Center for Public Policy Research. Is the lottery a harmless entertainment? it asks. Or a destructive tax that falls disproportionately on the poor? What's clear from the report is, it depends. Some states with lotteries don't push 'em hard and don't make very much money from them. The state of Washington, for example, whose $14 billion annual budget (circa 1997) was about what North Carolina's is today, made just $94 million from its lottery, a mere 0.67% of the budget. Georgia, on the other hand, with a $13.7 billion budget, hauled in $558 million from its lottery, or 4.1% of the budget. Georgia, incidentally, promotes its lottery as a public-spirited enterprise that lets every student with a "B" average or better attend its public universities tuition-free. It's "for education," in other words. Lottery money isn't all from poor people, of course. According to the center, lotteries draw equally from all income categories--but that means low-wealth folks are paying a much higher percentage of their income for lottery tickets than the well-to-do are. Since that's the case, a "harmless entertainment" would limit itself to a little of everyone's money; a "destructive tax" would look to pile on. Using that standard, and the center's data, it seems that 11 states were "harmless," getting less than 1% of their revenues via the lottery route. Seven states were "destructive," with more than 3% of revenues from their lotteries. The rest--another 19 states then, 20 now with the addition of South Carolina--were in between.

With Gov. Mike Easley's office projecting revenues of $450 million a year, it's clear that he and the Democrats mean to be on the "destructive" side. To make that much, as the center's data also shows, North Carolina will have to advertise heavily, keep inventing "new, more exciting" ways for us to lose our money, and limit the part of the "take" it returns to the players as winnings. Washington, again for example, pays out 63% of what's wagered in prizes; Georgia, 51%. What's more, it seems inevitable that if North Carolina's gonna make real money down the line, it won't be in tired old lottery tickets. It'll be in video games, slot machines and other instant-gratification modes, especially if they can be placed in close proximity to alcohol. In other words, casinos.

Easley keeps pointing to the money lost when North Carolinians drive to Virginia and South Carolina to buy lottery tickets. But all he needs to stem that flow--and save us our gas money--is a "harmless entertainment," not a "destructive tax." The only justification for the latter is that if people of lesser means can be induced to pay more of education costs than they should, those of greater means can keep paying less.

None of this will be spelled out in advance, though. The Democrats want to get public approval first, and write the lottery bill second. Their polls show that putting a vague, pro-education lottery question on the ballot will boost voter turnout, especially in low-income communities where the lottery--guess what?--sounds like as good a chance as any to get rich. Why muddy the waters with an honest ballot question: Should the state of North Carolina enact (yet another) tax that falls disproportionately on the poor so the wealthy can keep paying less than their fair share for education?
--BG

"Catfish are hitting small bream, goldfish and big minnows on trotlines. White bass are hitting Roostertails."
--Excerpt from a fishing report from the Arkansas Game and Fish CommissionPlease send all tips, digs, cheers and fish recipes to: hart@indy week.com or call Richard Hart at 286-1972 ext. 154.

Trotline is illustrated by V.C. Rogers.

  • Exploris still under fire, enviro-friendly buses debut in Durham and the latest on a state lottery.

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