George Boardman: Relying on the work of amateur weather forecasters, and a missing link | TheUnion.com

George Boardman: Relying on the work of amateur weather forecasters, and a missing link

George Boardman
Columnist

People like to make jokes about the inability of meteorologists to make accurate weather forecasts, but it's no laughing matter when homeless residents of western Nevada County have to rely on some amateur weather forecasters to decide when it's time to open shelters.

The ability to figure out when we're going to get at least three consecutive days of rains apparently influences the decision of Sierra Roots to open a homeless shelter at either the Nevada City Veteran's Memorial Building or Seaman's Lodge for one of the 20 nights contracted by Nevada County and Nevada City.

How this three-day period is defined became a topic of debate when the first major storm of the season moved into the area the day before Thanksgiving. The homeless had little to be thankful for, as the people who run this program sounded more like corporate lawyers arguing over minutia in a contract than service providers.

Homeless advocates say the Memorandum of Understanding that guides the process requires the opening of a shelter when three or more days of rain is predicted. But Nevada City City Manager Catrina Olson said the MOU requires opening the shelter when the conditions are met — not predicted.

"Nowhere does it say with three days of rain, we need to open the first day," she told The Union. "I will follow the MOU to the letter, when those conditions are met."

Olson also expressed concern over past instances when shelters were opened based on the prediction of rain that never materialized. "That's not the way we're doing it," she said.

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Janice O'Brien, founder of Sierra Roots, was even more specific. "We would wait for two days of hard rain, pouring rain," she said. "It has to be full-on days of rain. If it looks like it will rain another two days, then yes, we would open."

Mike Dent, director of county Child Support, Collections, Housing and Community Services, was supportive of their decision. "They were predicting a lot of rain, but we have to weigh a lot of factors," he said. "This is a wet but mild storm."

Of course, "mild storm" is in the eye of the beholder. The National Weather Service predicted the Thanksgiving week storm would drop 5 to 7 inches of rain in the area. The final total was 5.57 inches. Granted, we didn't have "two days of hard rain, pouring rain," but it wasn't one of those false alarms that concern Olson either.

But if you're stuck outside, you could get very sick before the conditions outlined by Olson, O'Brien and Dent are met and the doors are opened. Then the homeless can get shelter in a much more expensive hospital bed.

Missing link

Suddenlink Communications had a good reputation for dependability and customer service in the South County before it was acquired by Altice in 2015. Since then it has become a missing link, as in missing in action when it comes to providing the service customers pay for.

The latest instance of Suddenlink failing to deliver what it promises occurred Thanksgiving night, when Lake of the Pines residents lost power shortly after 6 p.m., a time when many of them were just sitting down to dinner. PG&E restored power about three hours later, but there was no television, internet or phone service from Suddenlink.

We got our television and internet service back about 48 hours later, but not the phone service. A cell phone call that lasted more than 20 minutes finally connected my wife with an actual human being, who told her what she already knew: "There has been a disruption in service, and we don't know when it will be restored."

Alta Sierra residents had a worse experience in March, when a snow storm knocked down a Suddenlink line and left some subscribers without service for as long as a week. The cable was still sitting in the roadway four days after it went down, and residents complained about a lack of communication from their service provider — like, there wasn't any.

Suddenlink used to have an office on Streeter Road, where you could actually come face-to-face with company employees. Since Altice took over, the office has been closed and the nearest customer service office is in Truckee.

Altice is a Netherlands-based telecommunications conglomerate that has used debt to fuel a large buying spree over the last decade. When the company bought a 70 percent share of Suddenlink in 2015 for $9.1 billion, it financed the deal with some cash and $7.2 billion in debt. A second acquisition in the U.S. brought its total corporate debt to about $50 billion — more than three times its market capitalization.

Big investors who had been cheering Altice's rapid growth suddenly got nervous, and the company's stock lost almost 50 percent of its value in 2017. That prompted the company's founder, French billionaire Patrick Drahi, to institute a new austerity program to cut costs, improve cash flow and reduce debt.

That means taking steps like closing local offices, staffing all operations at minimum levels, and raising prices. The quality of service Suddenlink offers its customers? Let them complain because they have few alternatives. By monopolizing a market, they can also squeeze content providers and cable network operators to lower their prices — savings that aren't passed on to customers.

None of this seems to bother the Federal Communications Commission or the antitrust division of the Department of Justice, which are allowing a consolidation of the industry to proceed with little regard for the impact of these deals on customers.

But if they aren't going to enforce the antitrust laws, regulators can at least throw a bone to consumers by imposing a stress test on acquisitions similar to those imposed on banks since the great crash of 2008.

The test would be fairly straightforward: If the acquisition of a cable company involves the issuance of debt that would impose excessive stress on the surviving company, the deal can't go through. That wouldn't guarantee that current service levels would be maintained, but it would make it less likely that service would be cut to the bone at a time when a large number of people are dropping their cable providers.

As for Altice, I suggest it lighten its debt load by selling Suddenlink to a company that can actually afford the deal.

George Boardman lives at Lake of the Pines. His column is published Mondays by The Union. Write to him at ag101board@aol.com.

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