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Alonzo Adams  

Baylor head coach Kim Mulkey coaches her team against Kansas State during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in the Big 12 women’s conference tournament in Oklahoma City, Sunday, March 10, 2019. (AP Photo/Alonzo Adams)

Trump expected to seek $8.6B for border wall in new budget

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump will seek $8.6 billion in his new budget to build the U.S.-Mexico border wall, two administration officials said Sunday, setting up another showdown with Congress, which has resisted giving him more money for his signature campaign promise.

The request would more than double the $8.1 billion already available to the president after he declared a national emergency at the border in order to circumvent Congress once lawmakers refused his funding demands. That standoff led to a 35-day partial government shutdown, the longest in U.S. history.

The officials confirmed that the request was part of Trump’s spending blueprint for the 2020 budget year that begins Oct. 1. That document, which sets the stage for negotiations ahead, proposes boosting to defense spending to $750 billion while reducing nondefense accounts by 5 percent, with cuts recommended to safety net programs used by many Americans. The plan sticks to budget caps that both parties have routinely broken in recent years and promises to come into balance in 15 years, relying in part on economic growth that may be uncertain.

The officials were not authorized to publicly discuss budget details before Monday’s release of the plan and spoke on condition of anonymity.

White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow said Trump’s budget “points a steady glide path” toward lower spending and borrowing as a share of the nation’s economy. He also told “Fox News Sunday” that there was no reason to “obsess” about deficits, and expressed confidence that economic growth would top 3 percent in 2019 and beyond. Others have predicted lower growth.

Budget proposals are merely a starting point, but leading Democrats immediately rejected this request.

“Congress refused to fund his wall and he was forced to admit defeat and reopen the government. The same thing will repeat itself if he tries this again,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer of New York. They said the money “would be better spent on rebuilding America.”

The budget arrives as the Senate readies to vote this week to terminate Trump’s national emergency declaration. The Democratic-led House already did so, and Trump’s Republican allies in the Senate, uneasy over his move, are expected to follow suit. Many lawmakers view the declaration as an overreach of executive power. Congress appears to have enough votes to reject Trump’s action, but not enough to overturn his pledged veto.

The new border wall request is coming on top of the money Trump already has access to after declaring a national emergency last month. Trump took that step after Congress approved nearly $1.4 billion for border barriers, far less than the $5.7 billion he wanted.

Through the national emergency, Trump can tap an additional $3.6 billion from military accounts and shift it to building the wall. That’s causing discomfort on Capitol Hill, where even the president’s Republican allies are protective of their power to decide how to allocate federal dollars. Lawmakers are trying to guard money that’s already been approved for military projects in their states — for base housing or other improvements — from being shifted to build the wall.

The wall with Mexico punctuated Trump’s campaign for the White House, and it’s expected to again be featured in his 2020 re-election effort. He used to say Mexico would pay for it, but Mexico has refused to do so.

Modern policing: Algorithm helps NYPD spot crime patterns

NEW YORK — When a syringe-wielding drill thief tried sticking up a Home Depot near Yankee Stadium, police figured out quickly that it wasn’t a one-off. A man had also used a syringe a few weeks earlier while stealing a drill at another Home Depot 7 miles south in Manhattan.

The match, though, wasn’t made by an officer looking through files. It was done by pattern-recognition computer software developed by the New York Police Department.

The software, dubbed Patternizr, allows crime analysts stationed in each of the department’s 77 precincts to compare robberies, larcenies and thefts to hundreds of thousands of crimes logged in the NYPD’s database, transforming their hunt for crime patterns with the click of a button.

It’s much faster than the old method, which involved analysts sifting through reports, racking their brains for key details about various crimes and deciding whether they fit into a pattern. It’s more comprehensive, too, with analysts able to spot patterns across the city instead of just in their precinct.

“Because Patternizr picked up those key details in the algorithm, it brought back complaints from other precincts that I wouldn’t have known,” said Bronx crime analyst Rebecca Shutt, who worked on the Home Depot case. “That was incredibly helpful. That could have been a pattern that wasn’t made.”

The software also found two other thefts committed with a syringe by the same suspect, who was eventually arrested and pleaded guilty to larceny and assault.

Evan Levine, the NYPD’s assistant commissioner of data analytics, and Alex Chohlas-Wood, the department’s former director of analytics, spent two years developing the software before rolling it out in December 2016.

The department disclosed its use of the technology only this month, with Levine and Chohlas-Wood detailing their work in the INFORMS Journal on Applied Analytics in an article alerting other departments how they could create similar software. Speaking about it with the news media for the first time, they told the Associated Press recently that theirs is the first police department in the country to use a pattern-recognition tool like this.

“The goal of Patternizr is, of course, to improve public safety,” said Levine, an astrophysicist by academic training. “The more easily that we can identify patterns in those crimes, the more quickly we can identify and apprehend perpetrators.”

Levine and Chohlas-Wood were inspired by the work of a New York University team that studied a similar approach to pattern recognition but never produced a workable version.

The two trained the program on 10 years of patterns that the department had manually identified. In testing, it accurately re-created old crime patterns one-third of the time and returned parts of patterns 80 percent of the time. The NYPD says the cost was minimal because the two developers were already on staff.

Like human crime analysts, the software compares factors such as method of entry, type of goods taken and the distance between crimes. Levin and Chohlas-Wood sought out the uniformed officers who had decades of experience identifying patterns using traditional methods.

“The real advantage of the tool is that we minimize the amount of leg work and busy work that analysts or detectives have to do and really allow them to leverage their expertise and their experience in going through a much smaller list of results,” said Chohlas-Wood, now the deputy director of the Stanford Computational Policy Lab at Stanford University.

In the past, analysts worked only with crimes in their precinct, making it difficult or even impossible for them to spot patterns in other parts of the city.

“Truthfully, it was inefficient,” Levine said. “It wasn’t a modern way to do these things.”

Even with crime rates falling sharply, there were still more than 68,000 robberies, burglaries and larcenies in New York City last year. Traditional techniques are still being used to identify other crime patterns, such as rapes and homicides.

To reduce possible racial biases, the Patternizr software doesn’t examine the race of crime suspects when it is looking for crime patterns.

The New York Civil Liberties Union said it had not reviewed Patternizr but urged caution as technology is increasingly incorporated into law enforcement.

“To ensure fairness the NYPD should be transparent about the technologies it deploys and allows independent researchers to audit these systems before they are tested on New Yorkers,” NYCLU legal director Christopher Dunn said in email.

As newspapers close, role of government watchdog disappears

One of the last investigations Jim Boren oversaw before he retired as executive editor of The Fresno Bee was a four-month examination of substandard housing in the city at the heart of California’s Central Valley.

The multimedia project revealed the living conditions imposed on many of the city’s low-income renters, many of them immigrants: apartments filled with mold, mice and cockroaches, to name some of the more glaring problems. Local housing advocates compared it to the tainted water crisis in Flint, Michigan.

The investigation got immediate results.

“We made people’s lives better. We changed laws,” said Boren, who retired in 2017 and is now director of the Institute for Media and Public Trust at Fresno State University.

Among other things, the city responded by requiring property owners to make repairs when it found violations, rather than just levy fines.

“Those are the kinds of things that journalists do,” Boren said.

It’s the kind of journalism — holding local government officials accountable for problems that affect the lives of real people — that is in danger of being lost in many communities around the country.

Newspapers are closing or being consolidated at an astounding rate, often leaving behind what researchers label as news deserts — towns and even entire counties that have no consistent local media coverage.

According to an Associated Press analysis of data compiled by the University of North Carolina, more than 1,400 cities in the U.S. have lost a newspaper over the past 15 years. Many of those are in rural and lower-income areas, often with an aging population.

The loss of a reliable local news source has many consequences for the community. One of them is the inability to watchdog the actions of government agencies and elected officials.

Newspapers typically have played the lead role in their communities in holding local officials accountable. That includes filing requests to get public records that shine a light on government action — or inaction — or even filing lawsuits to promote transparency.

“Strong newspapers have been good for democracy, and both educators and informers of a citizenry and its governing officials. They have been problem-solvers,” said Penelope Muse Abernathy, a University of North Carolina professor who studies news industry trends and oversaw the “news desert” report released last fall.

“That is what you are missing when you don’t have someone covering you and bringing transparency or sunlight onto government decisions and giving people a say in how those government decisions are made.”

The absence of a local newspaper playing a watchdog role also can translate into real costs to a community and its taxpayers.

Researchers from the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Notre Dame found that municipal borrowing costs increase after a newspaper ceases publication. They found the increase had nothing to do with the economy. Rather, the demise of a paper leaves readers in the dark and emboldens elected officials to sign off on higher wages, larger payrolls and ballooning budget deficits, their study found.

“Our evidence suggests that a local government is more likely to engage in wasteful spending when there is no local newspaper to report on that government,” said University of Illinois Chicago’s Dermot Murphy, one of the study’s authors. “Investors find it riskier to lend money to wasteful governments, and thus the costs of financing public infrastructure projects, such as schools, hospitals, and roadways, for a local government are higher.”

Stanford University’s James Hamilton applies a wider lens to the problem of newspaper closures, examining the benefits that come with investigative journalism — and what is lost when it disappears.

In his book “Democracy’s Detective,” he examined several case studies of newspaper investigations, including police shootings of civilians, and found that each dollar spent by the news organization generated hundreds of dollars in benefits to society.

“When investigative scrutiny declines, stories go untold, which means waste, fraud, and abuse will be less likely to be discovered,” said Hamilton, director of the Stanford Journalism Program. “News outlets will still have stories about a bad doctor, identified through court cases or patient complaints. The story about a bad hospital, which would require more resources and analysis to document, will be less likely to be told.”

editor's pick
Humble compost taking spotlight as spring gardening starts
 Carl Hoover  / 

Spring weather and preparation for planting may have many Waco-area gardeners looking down so plants will grow up.

The powerful but humble ingredient some of them see is compost, decomposed organic matter that boosters say provides nutrients, improves soil and encourages recycling in a way that few fertilizers or soil additives can match.

“Compost is one of the areas that everyone in agriculture can agree upon,” said Patrick Lillard, director of education for World Hunger Relief Inc., which maintains a small farm on Spring Lake Road. “It’s a multivitamin for the soil.”

Compost can solve a variety of soil issues, McLennan County Master Gardener Jim Seale said.

“Its advantages are it improves the soil,” Seale said. “If (the soil) is sandy, it helps it hold water. If it’s clayey, it can loosen it up and in a drought it can help hold water. Plants love compost. If you plant anything in compost, they love it.”

The drawbacks: Compost costs more than manure and some fertilizers and is bulky to move and apply. Making it requires attention to the proper mix of materials providing nitrogen, usually green plants; and carbon, brown and dry plants; temperature monitoring and occasional watering.

Bagged commercial compost can be found at most local garden centers, nurseries and big box stores, but Waco gardeners also can find locally produced compost at farmers markets, through community organizations, or, with minimal know-how and enough space, their own compost piles.

Urban Reap, Mission Waco Renewable Energy and Agriculture Project, runs an industrial composter behind the Jubilee Market grocery store off North 15th Street, recycling wilted or damaged produce from Jubilee Market and used coffee grounds from nearby World Cup Cafe as raw materials supplemented by food waste contributed by volunteers.

The machine can turn 160 to 200 pounds of compost at a time with the finished product sold at the grocery store and periodically at the Waco Downtown Farmers Market. It is also sold at a $20 annual subscription for volunteers who contribute food waste in collection buckets provided by Urban Reap.

While the end result aids growing, the program also seeks to make people more aware of wasteful food habits, Urban Reap director Dan Hiatt said. Discarded food being recycled into compost means less food dumped into the city landfill, Hiatt said.

World Hunger Relief once sold compost that it made on site, but changes in the farm’s operations have shifted to commercial organic compost and turkey litter made and sold by Clifton-based Dr. Gobbler, in quantities for large scale farming, Lillard said.

Using a rule of thumb of 3 inches of compost as ground cover translates into about 10 tons of compost per acre for the World Hunger Farm, with decomposition releasing half of the compost’s nutrients into the soil in the first year.

Fertilizers provide the nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous needed for crop growth, delivered faster than compost but requiring more frequent application. Compost is slower, but provides micronutrients that can help lead to more nutritious food, Lillard said.

Donna Nickerson, owner and manager Da’ Shack Farmers Market, grows her produce organically when she can and maintains a compost pile near Da’ Shack’s gardens, selling finished compost to her customers.

The leaves, stems, sticks and burrs left after cotton has its seeds removed find a second life in compost at the Birome Cotton Gin in Hill County. The gin, which services cotton growers in about a 60-mile radius, takes the litter left from ginning, piles it high and composts it, reselling the end product to landscapers and growers.

“We’re the only ones in this area that compost cotton,” manager Ryan Janek said.

Several gins near Lubbock, in the cotton-growing Panhandle, compost their leftovers from ginning, Janek said.

Each cotton season brings new material for composting, but it takes about six months to a year to decompose fully, he said.

Bonnie’s Greenhouse sells the Birome cotton compost locally, and Magnolia Market at the Silos previously used it in its gardens.

“There were some who didn’t think it fit the aesthetic over there,” Janek said. “It didn’t smell bad, but it did smell like compost.”

Local high schools have found Birome compost useful in past years, with Reicher Catholic High School fertilizing its football field with it while Midway High School ROTC selling bags of it as a fundraiser.

Keep Waco Beautiful sells compost, mulch and topsoil as an annual fundraiser, and its next sale is scheduled from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. April 6 near the Waco Downtown Farmers Market at Fifth Street and Washington Avenue. The organization recently changed its supplier to Living Earth, whose new plant at 2508 Marlin Highway outside Waco cut Keep Waco Beautiful’s material transportation costs considerably, director Ashley Millerd said.

Though Living Earth’s Waco location serves as a distribution point for the statewide gardening supply chain, it will eventually accept brush and other organic material for composting, site manager Cecil Daughtrey said.

Living Earth runs 26 locations across the state, manufacturing mulch, compost and landscaping materials in bulk and high-volume bag sales, often in custom blends, Daughtrey said. Composting centers outside Houston and Dallas create much of Living Earth’s compost, but the Waco site would accept brush and other organic material otherwise dumped as trash.

“Up until we got here, it was all going to the landfill,” he said.

Master Gardener Seale said he tends a 60-foot by 20-foot garden at his Hewitt home, complete with compost pile. But many gardeners prefer to buy compost rather than make it themselves.

“(Compost piles) usually are ugly, and people don’t want them,” he said.

Wherever the material comes from, growing with compost pays dividends, but it requires attention and a little sweat, Seale said.

“It’s going to be more work,” he said. “You can’t get around that.”