Friday, February 6, 2015

Maybe we should rethink Christian missions trips

It's no secret that I've written about the church leadership at the First Congregational Church of Hamilton directly in the past, and I have blogged about them in roman à clef as well. You may peruse the stories on this blog if you so desire. We disagree over whether it's OK for a pastor to have an affair with a woman and then place her into a position of leadership without that pastor receiving so much as a slap on the wrist. For what it is worth, you should know that the senior pastor, his staff, his board, and a particular lay lady in leadership don't think charitable thoughts of me -- at least from what I have read. And I have read quite a lot.

But all of that is water under the bridge.

I'm dipping a cautious toe in the water to write about Christian missions trips: are they relevant, are they needed, are they fruitful. I haven't written much about Hamilton Congregational lately, but this is the time of year that churches around the country are planning their annual missions trips, and with last year's FCCH Guatemala missions trip in mind, I think it is appropriate to raise these questions. I do not question the heart and compassion of churches, or anyone who has participated in a youth mission trip. The biblical imperative to support missions and raise up missionaries is unquestionable.

But only a small number of individuals who participate in a missions trip eventually become missionaries; a much larger number have no serious plans to become missionaries. And most missionaries, while they welcome the support and encouragement from local churches, will candidly admit that such trips often detract from their work. Safety concerns factor into any decision to send youth volunteers on a missions trip. Many churches treat missions trips as something of a Christian spring break or career day; however, they are neither, and many destinations are not safe.

Often compounding this problem, as was the case with Hamilton Congregational last July, is the fact that one organization raises money and sends workers while another organization handles the logistics and coordinates the event.  Lastly, there is the common argument that money spent on the trips would be better spent on the missionaries themselves. Numerous studies have shown that missions trips to not result in increased giving to missions afterwards.

I don't doubt that missions trips provide positive, lasting memories for the teens and young adults who participate in them. One or two of them may even become missionaries. Some will give regularly to missionaries, but they would have anyway. Many trips are to regions of the world where crime is rampant. Perhaps a wiser approach would be for churches to choose two or three individuals who have expressed a serious desire to become missionaries and send them instead of a larger group of youths.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Saving the US Postal Service

Last year, the U.S. Postal service reported a $5 billion operating loss -- the seventh year in a row that the postal service reported a loss.  The service has made some progress in righting the ship: the postal service reported revenue gains in spite of the operating loss, and the yearly loss is a far cry less than the $15 billion the service lost in 2012.

The U.S. Postal service has implemented a number of cost-cutting measures to close the revenue-expense gap, including restructuring the Postal Service health care plan, lowering future FERS payment amounts to those required, adjusting delivery frequency to six-day packages/five-day mail, streamlining the governance model, moving to a defined contribution retirement system for future Postal Service employees, and reforming Workers’ Compensation.  Each of these steps have proven effective.

The  U.S. Postal Service has closed post offices, and may continue to do so in the future.  The Postal Service's customer facing-retail storefronts account for a large portion of its operating costs.  But rather than making the painful choice of deciding which offices to close and which to keep open, the Postal Service might want to consider abandoning its storefront service altogether and focus on the part of the service that is profitable: pickup and delivery.

The problem with the storefront service is that transaction costs are high and there is little opportunity to lower them.  Those operations can, and probably should, be outsourced to private companies, as countries such as Germany, New Zealand, Sweden, and the Netherlands now do.  But there is great opportunity for the Postal Service to streamline its pickup and delivery service.  Thomas Frey has written a thought-provoking blog on ways that the Postal Service can leverage the Internet and innovative technology to improve service while cutting costs.  In his blog, Frey writes, "In much the same way homeowners cover the costs for specialty trash containers that match the semi-automated trash trucks on the road today, homeowners could easily be required to install next-generation mailboxes designed to work with automated postal pickup and delivery machines."

Frey suggests that the Postal Service upgrade its existing system of mailboxes with an automated delivery box called the SmartBox. It's actually a decade's old patented technology; however, it is a technology that was ahead of its time, until now.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Saving the MBTA

I originally wrote this in another blog back in the fall of 2012, but it is still relevant today.  The MBTA holds more debt than any other public transit authority in the country.  Back in 2012, public transit riders revolted when the MBTA announced that it would institute sweeping rate hikes and cuts in service to balance its fiscal budget.  The public outcry led the State House to a one-time infusion of $51 million to help the MBTA balance its fiscal year 2013 budget, the so-called "MBTA Bailout bill."  This funding helped the MBTA meet its mandatory debt service obligations and avoided extensive rate hikes and cuts in service, but it is not a long-term fix.

The MBTA carries nearly $9 billion in public debt, and it spends nearly a third of its operating budget just servicing that existing debt.  The MBTA’s debt comes from three sources — $1.85 billion from spending since the 2000 start of forward funding, $1.65 billion that was transferred to the MBTA under forward funding and was related to previous transit projects, and $1.7 billion in funding for projects mandated under a Big Dig-related agreement.  Much has been made over whether the latter debt rightly belongs to the MBTA.  The term “Big Dig Debt” can be misleading, as it refers to transit projects funded as part of a side agreement to the Big Dig (and not funding of projects related to the roadway itself).  These projects included extending the commuter rail on the South Shore and to Worcester, adding parking spaces, building out the Fairmount Line.  They came about as a result of an agreement that had to be signed in order for the environmental permitting around the Big Dig to take place.  But these projects were not projects to improve roadways and, certainly, not part of the Big Dig. 

Moving the debt off of the MBTA and back onto the Commonwealth is a zero sum game.  While it may relieve some of the fiscal strain on the MBTA, it, too, does not settle the real problem: the transit system itself is not operationally viable.  It has incurred almost $3 billion in operating debt since 2000.  The MBTA will not balance its operating budget simply by shifting its debt to Massachusetts taxpayers.  Instead, it needs to explore innovative solutions that will sustain the system without exponential raises in fares or cuts in service.

The MBTA holds a lot of debt.  It also owns a lot of land.  In fact, it is the second-largest land owner in the Commonwealth.  The MBTA loses money by providing service to low density routes, but one may to make those routes profitabile is to develop joint business ventures with towns and business leaders.  Building apartments, shopping centers, industrial offices on MBTA property on low-density routes would increase rider traffic and make those routes profitable.  Forming partnerships with the city's private universities in exchange for implementing a UPass program with those universities could lower the funding gap by another $60 million.  Those two steps alone would balance the MBTA's budget without any fare hikes or cuts in service.  Transferring ownership of the Silverline to Massport would save an additional $50 million.  Alternatively, the MBTA could retain a portion of the Silverline airport fare revenue.  Either solution helps to close the funding gap.

The MBTA can and should also operate more like a business. Adopting a business model and service policies for its RIDE program could increase the revenue/spending gap by as much as $60 million per year. Combined with the joint business partnerships and UPass program, these solutions shift the funding gap by nearly $200 million per year.  The MBTA may have been born broke, but it has the capital and resources to sustain itself without burdening taxpayers or riders.