Watchdog Nation Alert: Don’t use the outdoor mailboxes at post offices anymore

The station manager at the post office told me there was no theft. The box went in for maintenance. I offered to show him the police report and pulled out my camera and showed him this photo of the pry marks I took outside his station moments before.

The station manager at the post office told me there was no theft. The box went in for maintenance. I offered to show him the police report and pulled out my camera and showed him this photo of the pry marks I took outside his station moments before.

Watchdog Nation warns you: Stop using those big blue collection boxes outside post offices — the ones often paired with drive-through lanes.

Mail theft from these collection boxes is common these days.

And the worst part?

If your mailing is stolen from one of these mailboxes, you may never know about it. The United States Postal Service nor its Inspections Service division do not always announce it. Nor do the local police.

As I first reported in the Dave Lieber column in the January 17, 2010 Fort Worth Star-Telegram, I discovered two nearby cities that handled recent mailbox thefts completely differently.

Both were hit by mail bandits on a Saturday night who used a crowbar or similar tool to pry open the mailboxes and steal the mail.

In Keller, Texas, the crime was handled very publicly. Residents were notified by Keller police on their Web site. And there was a news story in the Keller Citizen which reported the theft. Residents were asked to file a report if they believe their mail was stolen.

Several have done so, and Keller police say they now have leads.

It’s a different story in Haltom City, Texas, where police say a Jan. 3 incident was never reported as a theft by the post office. Because of that, the case is not listed as a mail theft (postal authorities can’t prove any mail was stolen) but as a criminal-mischief case.

Haltom City police say the case is already listed as inactive.

Don't use these mailboxes anymore. Mail gets stolen from them, and authorities might not tell you.

Don't use these mailboxes anymore. Mail gets stolen from them, and authorities might not tell you.

The secrecy behind the Haltom City break-in angers town resident Dee Taylor. She has been trying for two weeks to learn whether a letter she mailed hours before the break-in was stolen. No one will tell her.

Taylor knows about the theft because her husband, Delbert Cantrell, discovered the break-in when he went to mail a bill that Sunday morning. He found the box wide-open and empty.

Since then, Taylor has questioned postal employees about the incident, but no one will tell her anything, she says.

Taylor alerted Watchdog Nation to the unpublicized Haltom City mailbox break-in. Previously, I saw the police tape at the crime scene of the compromised Keller collection box. (Watchdog Nation uses that postal address.) So I knew something was up.

I called the U.S. Postal Service and the Postal Inspection Service, which is responsible for investigating mail theft. A postal inspector told me there have been other box break-ins outside area post offices. But nobody will tell me where and when those incidents occurred.

That means that residents elsewhere who mailed letters, bills or gifts might be theft victims and would never know.

In Haltom City, after Cantrell noticed the emptied box, the couple later saw that the box had been removed. When it was returned, it had a front grille at the entry point that makes it harder to pull mail back out through the slot. But pry marks were still visible on the back.

I visited the Haltom City post office and spoke with Station Manager Carlos Avelar. Taylor had previously questioned him without success.

“I got a call about the break-in Sunday,” I said.

“It was not a break-in,” Avelar said.

“What was it?” I asked.

“It was taken in for maintenance.”

I pulled out my camera and showed him a photo, taken minutes before, of what looked like crowbar marks.

He referred me to a higher-up, who told me she could not comment.

But after I told the postal inspector about the visible damage, the box was removed a second time and repaired again.

A Haltom City police report says police visited the post office to answer an alarm at 7:20 a.m. that Sunday. They found nothing amiss.

They returned an hour later after someone called about a box break-in. The outdoor box was open. They found two letters inside, which they carried into the post office and dropped in an inside slot.

“Mail may have been removed from the box, but I was unable to tell at this time,” officer R.A. Beshirs wrote. “It appeared that the perpetrator(s) used some type of unknown pry device to make the entry into the box.”

Haltom City police Sgt. Eric Peters said: “The case is inactive right now because we haven’t had anybody call us and tell us something was stolen, and we have no suspects in the case.

“Until we know for sure that there was mail taken out of there, our hands are pretty tied.”

He said those who believe that their mail was stolen from the Haltom City post office box around Jan. 2 or 3 should report it to police.

In Keller, where the public was notified and complaints came in, police Lt. Brenda Slovak called the theft “a big deal.”

“That was a lot of mail. That’s a lot of people’s bills that aren’t getting paid,” she said. “The economy’s bad enough without them having to make a late payment or pay extra fines or fees.”

Fort Worth Postal Inspector Tim Vasquez said he regretted that he couldn’t release any more information about mailboxes that were hit.

“While I do agree that disclosure is a good idea for the citizens, we have to watch that we don’t do anything to jeopardize the investigation. So we’re not going to give out any of the locations.”

Let me know of any mail thefts from area post office boxes. Postal authorities won’t share the information, but after verifying your tip with police and postal officials, I’ll share.

How else will you know to check whether your mail was stolen?

Reporting mail theft

-Call your local police department.

-Call the U.S. Postal Inspection Service at 877-876-2455 and ask to speak to a division mail theft inspector for your geographic area.

-Or visit

* * *

Dave Lieber, The Watchdog columnist for The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, is the founder of Watchdog Nation. The new 2010 edition of his book, Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong, is out. Revised and expanded, the book won two national book awards in 2009 for social change. Twitter @DaveLieber

More Americans apply for Social Security Disability Insurance — and wait

Ray Shuga, a retired truck driver, twiddled his thumbs for about two years between the time he applied for Social Security Disability Insurance and the arrival of his first security logo

“There are so many people applying for disability, they are just way, way backed up,” he says.

So he and his wife waited while the federal government tried to catch up with demand. Or at least catch up with them.

“We were counting pennies left and right,” Shuga says. “We couldn’t buy anything, couldn’t do anything. My pickup had problems. My wife’s car had problems. But we got by.”

As first reported in the Dec. 18, 2009 Dave Lieber column in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, across America, hundreds of thousands of people are waiting to hear back about their initial application to get SSDI benefits, paid to people who are under retirement age but can no longer work because of a disability.

That number of applicants almost doubled in one year, the Social Security Administration says.

If statistics hold true, about two-thirds of them will be denied and go on to appeal that initial decision.

While they wait, many of those folks are probably counting pennies like Ray Shuga.

The numbers are growing because, in addition to aging baby boomers, more Americans are applying for disability in a poor economy. A monthly payment can be $1,000 or more.

Even though SSA says the wait is declining, any wait of a year or more can send some applicants into near-poverty. While they wait, they can’t work and receive little or no income. Some lose their house and their health insurance. Many deplete their savings.

“Even when it’s getting better, it’s still too long for people to wait for an appeal,” says Ethel Zelenske, director of government affairs for the National Organization of Social Security Claimants’ Representatives.

“They planned for baby boomers getting old, but who could plan for the economy going into such a tailspin? That’s really thrown people off. And Congress is aware and giving the agency more money to deal with it. But that’s a really difficult situation.”

Zelenske said many workers don’t apply for benefits if they become impaired as long as they can keep working. That’s why the recession has brought a surge in applications.

“If they lose their job, it’s not likely they will find a job somewhere else,” she said. “There really are no options for them. What’s available to them is filing for benefits.”

With unemployment hovering at a high level, the expected influx of applicants — from 2.6 million in 2008 to 3.3 million next year — will cause a greater backlog for hearings, she predicts.

Last month, Social Security Administration Commissioner Michael J. Astrue told Congress that the process is improving because people can now apply electronically.

The agency received $500 million in stimulus funds this year to help process the backlog. Some 8,600 employees were quickly hired. “We also maximized the use of overtime across the agency,” Astrue said.

For some, he said, the wait has been 1,000 days. Two years ago, there were 65,000 cases pending for that length of time. But the number is dropping.

“No one should have to wait years for a decision on their benefit claim,” he said.

Social Security Administration Inspector General Patrick O’Carroll told Congress last month that requesting a hearing before an administrative law judge can still mean “a wait of over 800 days.”

CTWatchdog was alerted to the SSDI backlog by a representative of Allsup Inc., a third-party company that helps Americans file claims and in return takes a percentage of the initial retroactive payment if an applicant is successful.

Spokesman Dan Allsup says the Belleville, Ill., company has a 99 percent success rate when applicants stick with Allsup through the entire process. (For its efforts, the company gets paid 25 percent of any retroactive benefits with a cap of $6,000.)

Allsup says many applicants need help because questions on the application must be answered properly.

He explains: “A typical question is ‘Can you go shopping?’ The typical applicant will say, ‘Well, yeah, I can go shopping.’ But we go into it much deeper. We find out he has to have a neighbor take him to the store. Once in the store, he uses a motorized scooter. And he has to ask an employee to get items off a high shelf for him.

“These questions need to be answered in full,” Allsup says.

Ray Shuga says when he finally won his case, Allsup was paid $5,300 out of the initial $32,000 check. But he says it was worth it.

“We were so far behind in bills and everything, but we got caught up,” he says.

The Social Security Administration’s position on third-party companies helping applicants fight the backlog?

A Social Security spokesman tells me that’s “entirely up to the person applying for benefits.”

Watchdog Nation says: Give ’em hell, Victor!

If you hate toll roads, this little story is for you.

Often, when government staff presents a proposal to elected or appointed boards of directors, approval is a slam dunk.

Perhaps that’s what the fellows at the North Texas Tollway Authority hoped when they stood before directors the other day and presented two proposals.tollways

The first was a staff decision to avoid addressing in a major way the  erosion of confidence many North Texans have about the NTTA’s inequitable and confusing toll collection policies.

Put simply: A $1 toll can escalate to $500 in fines, fees and other ridiculous costs.

The second proposal involved hiring a politically-connected law firm, Linebarger, Goggan, Blair & Sampson, to be the authority’s collection muscle.

Things didn’t work out as planned.

Here’s the way I told the story in the Dec. 11, 2009 Dave Lieber column in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram:

# # #

At least there’s one representative on the North Texas Tollway Authority fighting for fairness in fees, fines and penalties.

Victor Vandergriff, an Arlington businessman who serves as the board’s vice chairman, gave top authority staffers a tongue-lashing this week.

Victor Vandergriff

Victor Vandergriff

Faced with public anger about a collection process that can turn a $1 toll fee into $500 in fines, penalties and other costs, the authority had postponed any public discussion of what to do about it until Monday’s finance committee meeting in Plano.

There, Vandergriff let it rip:

“I have significant concerns about the level of detail provided here today,” he said after hearing two staff reports on the collections process. “We’ve been waiting for this for months, and this is what we get?

“I’m not a happy camper. To be honest with you, your presentations were lacking in detail here.”

He complained that the authority’s staffers gave him copies of their report on fees and collections only a few days before the meeting. “I want to request getting information in a more timely manner,” he said.

He complained that even before that, staffers were slow to answer the “hue and cry” of the public about perceived inequities in collections procedures. “It’s taken us way too long to get before this body,” he said. “We need to avoid that in the future and do things more promptly.”

He complained that the authority’s budget may be too strongly based on collecting penalty fees.

“That budget, I believe, contains, as a serious component of it, [income from] administrative fines, fees and penalties. That puts pressure on this agency to basically balance this on the back” of the collection process. “That concerns me a great deal.”

Rather, he said, the budget should be based on “a reasonable and fair collection cost.”

The tollway authority staff conducted a survey of 21 tolling agencies and found that 15 assess roughly the same late fees and penalties, three were higher and three were lower.

Staffers concluded that the North Texas authority’s fee structure is fair.

Their proposal to the board? “Staff recommends formalizing the new invoice process.” Wow. That should make everyone happy.

Led by Vandergriff, the board decided not to go along with that. The problems are far more complex.

“I’d like to understand in writing precise collections costs,” he said testily.

Minutes later, staffers tried to get the board’s blessing on a second proposal — to hire as its outside collection agency the Austin-based law firm of Linebarger, Goggan, Blair & Sampson L.L.P.

Linebarger also does delinquent-tax collection for Arlington, Fort Worth and Tarrant County. It has offices in Texas and 12 other states.

The Star-Telegram has reported that Linebarger collects about $1 billion in delinquent taxes each year for more than 2,000 government entities, according to the firm.

But the firm has been accused of using unnecessary muscle to secure contracts.

In 2004, a former partner in the firm pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit bribery in a scandal that also involved a former San Antonio councilman. Locally, a $2,000 Linebarger campaign contribution to then-Mayor Barton Scott prompted the Mansfield City Council to deem the donation inappropriate and fire the firm.

Vandergriff complained that it made no sense to hire a collections firm when the authority hasn’t figured out how to run its collection process.

“Pretty serious stuff,” he said of the proposed Linebarger hiring. Yet the only the information Vandergriff said he was given was “nine pages of PowerPoint, not a lot of data, and you’re asking us to approve this today? Is that what I’m understanding?”

“I don’t understand the logic to this,” he added.tollway 1

Pam Hicks of Arlington has complained to The Watchdog that a tollway authority customer service representative told her that if she didn’t pay $82, “I would be subject to arrest.”

She said this about Vandergriff: “I’m very glad that someone is standing up for what’s right. I don’t know how far he can hold them accountable, but at least he’s not letting them off the hook and saying they can continue to do business as they are.”

* * *

Dave Lieber, The Watchdog columnist for The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, is the founder of Watchdog Nation. His book, Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong, won two national book awards in 2009 for social change.

Watchdog Nation alert: State Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, is collecting your stories, ideas and comments to help battle the authority’s policies. Her e-mail is Her U.S. mail address is Senator Jane Nelson, P.O. Box 12086, Austin, TX 78711.

A closer look Number of invoices mailed for payment by the North Texas Tollway Authority:

2006: 500,000

2007: 1 million

2008: 2 million

2009: 3 million

Source: NTTA

In cases of life and death, civil servants deserve a break

Is it OK to close a government office when an employee dies?

A woman visited a local courthouse office to renew her car license plates. But the tax assessor-collector’s office was closed.

Allison Davis photo

Allison Davis, a former courthouse employee

A note on the front door stated: “We are saddened by the loss of our fellow employee, Allison Davis, who suddenly passed away on the 28th. We regret the inconvenience, but we will be closed for Allison’s memorial service this day.”

The notice referred visitors to other locations — there are seven other offices in the county — and the office’s Web site, which accepts payments for everything but vehicle title transfers.

Frustrated, the woman tried to get in touch with Tarrant County, Texas Tax Assessor-Collector Betsy Price, finally reaching her on the phone after five tries. Price said she closed the office so Davis’ co-workers could attend the funeral.

The woman was not satisfied.

“Who is your boss?” she asked Price.

“You are. If you live in Tarrant County, you are,” Price replied.

That day, the woman wrote to The Watchdog, “As a taxpayer, I am concerned about the use of our tax money in closing for a day.”

When I called, she said: “We can’t just shut an office. In a school, even if a principal or a teacher dies, they don’t close the school.”

I called Price. As first told in the Dec. 6, 2009 Dave Lieber Watchdog column in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. here’s the rest of the story:

Davis, 38, was a 10-year employee of Tarrant County known for her wonderful customer service skills. “She loved people,” Price said. And “everybody loved Allison.”

On Oct. 27, Davis told her supervisor that she felt sick. She was pale and sweaty. The supervisor called Davis’ husband, Matt, and asked him to pick her up.

Matt Davis thought she had the flu. But the next morning, her lips were blue. He rushed her to the doctor, who sent her to an emergency room. From there, she took a CareFlite helicopter ride to Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital Fort Worth, where she was born. She was placed in intensive care.

But 23 hours after she first complained to her boss, Allison Davis was dead.

Matt Davis told me that he is awaiting autopsy results but that doctors think his wife died of blood poisoning.

The weekend before, his wife threw a surprise birthday party for her mother. On her last night, Matt Davis said, they were going to celebrate Halloween, a few nights away, with a “scary movie and takeout food” — a date night, he called it.

“That was my best friend,” Matt Davis said. “We were still honeymooning.” They were married for nine years.

He said he admired her devotion to her job. “She went above and beyond,” he said. She used to take government forms to people who needed them rather than have them come to the office to pick up the forms.

“She always had a bright smile,” he said. “She was not your typical civil servant. Allison would greet you: ‘Hey, darling. How are you doing? I haven’t seen you. Come up here.’?”

She handled vehicle title transfers, renewals and property tax collection.

“She was a sweet and funny lady,” one woman wrote in Davis’ memorial book linked to her obituary. Then the ultimate compliment: “She made it worth waiting in line.”

The day after Davis died, Price brought a chaplain to the office to talk to employees. “It’s a very tight office,” Price said.

Under civil service rules, county employees may use four hours of emergency time to attend a funeral. They can take off the rest of the day as vacation time.

The employees in Price’s office spent the morning together before the funeral; they took vacation time, Price said.

“We’ve never had a death of an employee,” Price said of her 10 years in office. She decided to let the Granbury Road office staff and one or two senior people from each of the seven other offices attend the funeral. As an elected county official, Price runs her department as she sees fit. While she follows civil service guidelines for employee rules, any decisions about office operations are up to her.

“It was a tough decision,” Price said. “I had never closed an office before. But this was one of those rare exceptions.”

Agreed. In extraordinary circumstances, especially those involving life and death, public officials deserve a break.

What do you think?

Note: The author of this report, Dave Lieber, is The Watchdog columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. His new book — Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation — won two national book awards for social change in 2009.

Beware of helicopter ambulances: You might get a big bill!

Abuse of air medical ambulances — helicopters — goes on every day in this country. Many ambulance services are for-profit businesses. They take a patient when called by paramedics. But the injured party can later get a bill of $15,000 or more. And insurance companies, more than ever, are loathe to pay these bills, especially when they find that the trips were unnecessary. That happened to Dana Strittmatter. Here’s her story.

She was boiling water in her kitchen when it spilled on her leg. After paramedics arrived, they called for a medical helicopter from PHI Air Medical, a for-profit company that operates in Dallas-Fort Worth and elsewhere.

PHI Air Medical flew her to Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas. She was treated and released in an hour, according to her husband, Larry. She had second-degree burns.phi air medical logo

But at the hospital, a doctor and others were angry that she had been transported by helicopter, Larry Strittmatter said.

One doctor told him that abuse of medical helicopters is a growing problem. The hospital expected her to arrive by ambulance.

“They were shocked when the helicopter pilot radioed in announcing his arrival,” he said.

The final bill was $17,500.

The couple’s insurance company, UniCare, paid $3,500, saying the situation did not warrant a helicopter ride because the injury was not life-threatening, Larry Strittmatter said.

PHI Air Medical sent them a bill for $14,000 with a cheerful “Thank you for allowing us to be of service!”

“A tough pill to swallow,” Larry Strittmatter said.

As I first reported in the Dec. 4, 2009 Dave Lieber Watchdog column in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, on my suggestion, he complained to the Texas Department of Insurance, but that wasn’t right. The agency doesn’t regulate pricing. Nor does any other part of state government — or the federal government, either.

There are no rules about when a helicopter should be dispatched and which service should get the call. There’s no regional dispatch system, either.

With three competing services — PHI, CareFlite and Air Evac Lifeteam — the region has more medical helicopters than most cities.

Yet abuse of medical helicopters “goes on every day in this country,” said Dr. Bryan Bledsoe, an emergency room physician in Midlothian and a vocal critic of the air ambulance industry.

Recently, Bledsoe said, a patient was brought by helicopter to his emergency room with a sore throat.

“The doctor thought it was an abscess, but it wasn’t,” he said. “We treated the patient and sent her home.”

Without regulation, the only hope for the Strittmatters is that PHI won’t aggressively collect the entire amount.

“Some operators are very aggressive about filing lawsuits and using liens to collect payments,” Bledsoe said.

The air ambulance companies court the paramedics who make the decisions about whether to use a helicopter. Some companies, he said, offer paramedics small gifts such as pizza dinners, baseball caps or coffee mugs.

But some patients are getting wise, Bledsoe said.

“We’re hearing more stories about people refusing helicopter service,” he said.

It’s one more piece of the health insurance puzzle that people should pay attention to, according to the Texas Department of Insurance.

Larry Strittmatter said he doesn’t recall being asked to give consent for the helicopter ride. His wife, he said, “was drugged and could not have answered coherently.”

A spokeswoman for UniCare, the insurance company that would pay only part of the cost, told me: “You’re doing a good story because we see cases like this quite a bit.”

An executive with PHI Air Medical, based in Phoenix, who asked not to be named because he wasn’t authorized to speak publicly, told me: “It’s easy to look at the case after the fact. The reality is the paramedic is on the scene and must make a split-second decision. They’re driven by what’s in the patient’s best interest.”

Here’s the background on this: Dr. Roy Yamada is the North Texas medical director for PHI Air Medical. At the same time, he has served as medical director for several North Texas cities amd also Dallas/Fort Worth Airport.

In 2007, Danny Robbins, then an investigative reporter at my newspaper, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, reported that many cities where Yamada trained the EMS crews also called PHI Air Medical for emergency transports.

The newspaper also reported that, in 2007, a man was flown by PHI Air Medical to Parkland, even though PHI was not the closest air ambulance.

The PHI Air Medical executive said Yamada had nothing to do with the Strittmatter case and has no relationship with Benbrook.

When I called Yamada, he said: “I’m over here at one of the fire departments now giving an exam. So I won’t be able to talk to you. Call corporate on that.”

The PHI executive told me that the Strittmatters can still seek a negotiated settlement with the company.

“PHI is more than willing to talk directly with the patient,” he told me.

Larry Strittmatter sent a certified letter to the company last month asking for help.

Note: The author of this report, Dave Lieber, is The Watchdog columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. His new book — Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation — won two national book awards for social change in 2009.

When communicating becomes a chore

How large organizations communicate and provide customer service both internally and externally is always of interest to Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation.

Inefficient systems, especially those funded by taxpayers, waste scarce dollars.

When the education of children is involved, efficiency is doubly important.

I want to show you the new communications flow chart being used by the school district to which I pay taxes each year.

Click here for a closer look.

The Keller school district communication chart

The Keller school district communication chart

How to send an e-mail in the Keller school district/Courtesy of R.I.C.H. via Flickr

How to send an e-mail in the Keller school district/Courtesy of R.I.C.H. via Flickr

This is obviously the mother of all Rube Goldberg contraptions for e-mail and verbal communications.

If you are a teacher in the Keller, Texas school district, you can no longer go directly to the administrator with the answer to your question or problem. Instead, the teacher must notify the principal, who then must notify the director of education at the administration building. That director is then supposed to notify the actual administrator in charge for an answer or solution.

This involves everything from missing textbooks to questions about field trips. Really, it involves everything in the school district.

Instead of the ding-ding (problem holder to problem solver) of normal communication, communication bounces like a pinball: ding  > ding  > ding > ding.

Superintendent James Veiteinheimer explained in my Nov. 22, 2009 Star-Telegram Dave Lieber column that he wants to collect data so he can anticipate problems before they grow widespread.

If there’s a textbook shortage or continued questions about field trips, he wants to know so his deputies can streamline the answer process.

“We’re trying to create the processes that get the answers back faster, more accurate and more consistent in a system that has doubled in size,” Veitenheimer says.

His goal is to collect data on problems “before something really dramatic happens.”

Like what?

Superintendent James Veitenheimer

Superintendent James Veitenheimer

“Before the system implodes on a person or a department or something like that. All of a sudden the phone is ringing off the hook and you can never get through because everybody’s calling.”

He says the system is working. Calls are being handled within 24 hours of the request to a principal.

I wonder if that’s true. I’m no fan of anonymous comments, but ConcernedTeacher posted this on the Web site after my original report appeared.

“We get a response within 24 hours?! NOT! I know of teachers that have sent an e-mail with their question to the principal (which is what we were told to do in our building) days ago and still have no response!!!! They were then told to wait 24 hours and send another one if there was no response. If no response, wait 24 hours and then send another one,etc. REALLY!!!!! How many times are we to do this when BEFORE all we needed to do was make ONE phone call!!!! Principals don’t have time to take care of all of those questions!!!! It is just crazy!!!!!”

Spend a little time examining the communications flow chart. It’s fascinating. And get this: The district never released the plan with a detailed memo. The chart was shared with top administrators who then filtered it verbally to their underlings.

It caused a lot of confusion.

United Educators Association rep Larry West says, “”Effective communication doesn’t really filter well through layers. These are human beings, not machines. Machines are linear.”

Cara Jacocks, an instructor in organizational communication at Texas Christian University, says of the Keller plan: “They’ve bureaucratized communication.”

She adds, “In a large school system like this, it might be more beneficial to give the teachers more decision-making power as opposed to ‘I can’t make a decision now. I have to talk to this person and this person has to talk to that person.’ “

Please post comments about effective communication techniques that work for your school or place of business.

Let’s communicate about communicating!

Dave Lieber, The Watchdog columnist for The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, is the founder of Watchdog Nation. His book, Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong, won two national book awards in 2009 for social change.

Red-light cameras coming to an intersection near you

Have you gotten a traffic ticket in the mail from a red-light camera yet?

At first, you go into denial.

How could it be? I don’t do that!

Dave Lieber column

Then the letter gives you a Web site to visit where you can watch the video of your vehicle rolling through the intersection.

That’s $75 bucks, pal.

Some call this the latest municipal racket.

What bothers Watchdog Nation is that this is the latest government responsibility outsourced to private companies. If you have a problem with your ticket, such as a billing issue, and you call your city, often enough you get directed to the private company.

Maybe your credit card was charged twice because you pushed the payment button twice on the company’s Web site. Or in several cases, as I’ve found, the camera company’s Web site doesn’t record your payment correctly.

As first reported in the Dave Lieber column in the Oct. 18, 2009 Fort Worth Star-Telegram, that’s what happened to Thom Lake and Kristin Engels.

Both admit their guilt. How could they not? Video taken by the camera proves it beyond a reasonable doubt. The issue here is what came next.

Lake paid the fine along with a $4 service charge. When he found out he had been double-charged, he called the city and was told to print and send in a refund form from the city Web site. He did, and he got his $75 back. So far, so good.

But there was a second $4 service charge. He wanted that refunded, too. He called the city but was told to call the vendor, American Traffic Solutions, in Arizona. He left three voice mail messages before he heard back.

The rep wouldn’t budge on a refund until Lake threatened to protest at a City Council meeting.

Almost two months after paying online, he received his $4 refund from ATS in a FedEx envelope. His city, Fort Worth, Texas, “didn’t make too much of an effort to help me out,” Lake says. “I’m the one that had to make the long-distance calls to chase it down. Nobody was rude, but nobody made the effort.

“I had to push it. A lot of people would just blow it off, and that’s where they would generate more money because of people that don’t have time to pursue this.”

Fort Worth city traffic engineer Randy Burkett says: “Sometimes when a person makes a payment, they hit the payment twice. We’re trying to work with our vendor to make it more user-friendly so that we can reduce these additional costs to everyone.”

Karen Edwards-Fisher, traffic enforcement coordinator, says she can mail a refund a week after she receives the refund form. But only the vendor can refund service charges.

Josh Weiss, spokesman for American Traffic Solutions, says the problem occurs when the payment Web site “may take a little bit to refresh and get confirmation.”

“Starting this summer, they have a new screen that pops up in Fort Worth,” he said. “It cautions against somebody accidentally doing that kind of double payment.”

The new screen alerts a user that a payment was recently made and asks whether the user wants to continue.

Weiss says the best way to get the $4 refund is to dispute the charge with the credit card company. During the investigation, ATS will see the double payment and agree to a quick adjustment.

Fort Worth reports that it collected $1.2 million in fines last year. After expenses, $220,000 went to the state. The city used a similar amount to pay for repairs of traffic devices and the installation of temporary sidewalks to schools.

In a nearby city, North Richland Hills, Texas, Kristin Engels struggled with the Web site for Redflex Traffic Systems, also based in Arizona. The site, her husband Robert said, “would error out without giving any confirmation information. This was done a total of five times before she was able to get a confirmation number.”

When the family called North Richland Hills for four refunds totaling $300, they were told to call Redflex.

Redflex gave three refunds, but the fourth took a month longer.

“Redflex kept insisting that I provide evidence that I overpaid,” Robert Engel says. “It seemed odd. They didn’t have a record, but I had a record. I had to keep nagging them to follow up. It was annoying to me. I would call them almost on a daily basis. It took me pestering them quite a bit to get it resolved.”

Redflex spokeswoman Shoba Vaitheeswaran says: “We apologize if that’s the case. We try our best. …There’s a high volume of calls that come in.”

Forth Worth is about ten times larger than its neighbor North Richland Hills, but the latter, which has red-light cameras at many intersections along one of its major north-south arteries, reports that $1 million was collected in the past 12 months. That’s the same amount collected by its neighbor, Fort Worth, the 17th largest city in the nation.

In Texas, after the vendor is paid its cut, half of the remainder goes to the state and the rest can be used for city traffic improvements.

Do you have a red-light camera horror story?

Please use the comments to let me know.


Watchdog tip:  The best way to avoid a red-light camera on a right-turn-on-red, which is the way most people get them, is to come to a complete stop before turning. And make sure the front of your vehicle is behind the white cross bar at the intersection.

If the camera photographs and videotapes your vehicle in the intersection, a police officer who reviews the data before approving citations will see that you stopped. You shouldn’t get a ticket.

And of course, when paying online, hit the enter key just once.


Last laugh: While researching this, the funniest thing that I found is this blog post about how American Traffic Solutions CEO James Tuton was booed by his fellow citizens at an awards banquet when they figured out who he was.

Watch your money: Some U.S. savings bonds paying ZERO interest

Did you know that some U.S. savings bonds are paying ZERO interest?

A lot of folks are surprised to hear that. You don’t expect something like that. That’s not what the show-pride-in-America campaigns that fueled bonds sales since World War II savings bonds

But here we are. Watchdog Nation learned about this from Stansel Harvey, a retired hospital chief executive. Watchdog Nation also heard from a dozen other I Bond holders who didn’t know about this. I Bonds have a combination fixed rate and variable rate. Learn more here.

Part of being your own watchdog is, of course, watching your money. But savings bonds, well, they are almost created to be forgotten. They aren’t like stocks that go up and down every day in a mini-drama perfect for TV. (The drama of the closing bell!) No, bonds are boring, but then again, they’re supposed to be. That’s why people invest in them. Bonds get left in a bank safe deposit box and promptly forgotten.

Harvey says he feels burned by U.S. savings bonds he bought a decade ago. He takes it personally because when the government began issuing Series I bonds, he was a member of a committee that traveled the region promoting them. He recalls marketing the new bonds as a way to beat inflation.

Inflation, yeah. Deflation, no.

Who would think that if inflation ever dropped to less than zero, it would reduce the bond’s earning rate to less than its fixed rate?

Last year, when energy prices collapsed with the economy and the consumer price index dropped below zero, I bonds dropped to zero for the first time since they were issued in 1998.

Harvey is so teed off that he accuses the federal government of “a deceptive trade practice.” He adds, “In fact, if a bank marketed a bond the way they marketed these bonds, they would be called into question.”

The government, of course, vehemently disagrees. But since the government decides who is guilty of deceptive trade practices, what do you think will come of this?

Joyce Harris of the Bureau of Public Debt told me that the lack of inflation “sort of wipes out that fixed rate.” She explained that the lack of inflation pulled down both rates on the bonds to zero.

She denied any government deception.

“It’s quite transparent,” she said. “It’s just a matter of understanding what you’re buying in any investment… I can honestly tell you that we’re not trying to be deceptive. We’re trying to be transparent in all of our Treasury securities.”

I did a much more detailed study of this in the Oct. 16, 2009 Fort Worth Star-Telegram by Dave Lieber. Check it out here.

This is a fine example of what Watchdog Nation is all about. Knowing what you are doing. Keeping track. Remembering to check the status of your holdings.

If you don’t look out for yourself, nobody else will.

Get better TV reception on old TV before spending money

If this guy holds my TV antenna, I bet I’d get a better picture.

We took this photo in San Francisco a long time ago. Silver Man wore clothing flecked with aluminum. Now we wish he could come to world headquarters of Watchdog Nation and stand and hold the antenna on the one remaining analog TV in our office suite that doesn’t pick up good reception after the analog-to-digital debacle.

All the words we read and wrote ourselves in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram about the digital TV debacle never took into account one little cure for some of  the upcoming TV problems.

Aluminum foil.

Why spend $50 for a more powerful digital TV antenna to add to the already stupid little black box that converts the signals when you can wrap some aluminum foil around the top of your old antenna, rescan the converter box and say a little prayer?

As we first reported in the Star-Telegram, we were so close to spending $50 at Radio Shack for a new antenna. But the Shack was out of product because everyone else  was spending the $50.

Then we heard about the aluminum foil trick.

We grabbed a sheet, wrapped it around the antenna ears, and voila! The two remaining major network channels we weren’t  receiving suddenly reappeared.

Remember: aluminum foil.

The government never told you about it because it is embarrassed.

As well it should be.

It’s the 1950s all over again.

Postscript: The aluminum foil still works, but the TV just broke.

U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter changes web site after Watchdog reports on it

U.S. Senator Arlen Specter, D-Pennsylvania, has changed his Web site after Star-Telegram Watchdog columnist Dave Lieber first reported in his May 3rd column “Investigate Before You Donate”that it might lead visitors to wrongly believe he was raising money to cure fatal diseases – rather than the truth. The site actually raises cash for his reelection campaign.

The matter was brought to his attention by Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a non-profit that is the nation’s leading analyzer of political donations.

The item was picked up by the Star-Telegram’s popular political PoliTex blog and then by Politico and Talking Points Memo.

Then an alert blogger, Adam Green at OpenLeft, reported Saturday that Specter’s campaign has altered the site so it is much clearer where the money is actually going.

What’s important here to political donors is the advice from Krumholz: Donors to political campaigns ought to first do smart research before donating. That applies to political donations as it should to any charitable donation – and indeed, any major purchase. Don’t take anything for granted. Don’t make assumptions about where the money is going to go.