Want Free Room & Board in a Gorgeous Mansion? Try House Sitting! by Susan Caba.

Babel

I am living the life of the rich and famous, although I am neither.

I’m following good weather and my whims around the country, moving from one luxury home to another. My accommodations last year have ranged from a mansion in Washington, D.C., around the corner from the home of former Senator John Glenn, to a woodsy retreat in Chapel Hill, N.C., to a sprawling Philadelphia condo with an exclusive Rittenhouse Square address.

At the moment, I’m living in a hillside house in Santa Barbara, Calif. The scarlet bougainvillea, attended by hummingbirds, competes for sunlight with the lavender blooms of jacaranda trees and spiky purple agapanthus in the garden. The Pacific is an indigo wedge on the horizon. I’ll swim a few lengths of the pool — no suit needed — before showering in a spa-like master bath with heated floors. For these two months, I’m driving a vintage white Mercedes nicknamed the Sugar Cube.

My cost for living in this Southern California splendor? Nothing. I tend three cats, feed a tank of fish and mist the Boston ferns in return for lodging. I’m a house sitter, part of a thriving network of full- or part-time vagabonds.

House-sitting is one more example of the upending of the travel industry by the combination of social networking and the sharing economy. The difference between house-sitting and companies like Couchsurfing — in which the person who owns the home is paid — is that no cash is exchanged. Neither I nor the homeowners I sit for spend any money.

I started house-sitting inadvertently, when an acquaintance in Santa Barbara wanted someone to mind her cats for two weeks. She had tapped out her family connections. I was already spending four to six weeks of every winter and summer — when the weather in St. Louis is either lethally cold or horrifically hot — in California, so I jumped at the chance. We’ve repeated the arrangement every year since, with the length of her vacations, and mine, gradually growing. That got me wondering about other house-sitting opportunities.

I listed my availability on Craigslist; no response. I considered contacting universities, looking for professors going on sabbatical, but that seemed like a lot of trouble. Eventually I Googled “house-sitting” and found several websites that registered ­homeowners and house sitters. They cost between $10 and $100 a year for membership, which gives you access to the listings.

Homeowners post descriptions of their homes and pets, as well as the dates they need a sitter, anywhere from a weekend to several months. Potential sitters provide a brief profile, any house-sitting experience, contact information and references. Reading the listings is like being addicted to gumdrops: Do I want three weeks in a house with a horse in Brittany, or a month in Costa ­Rica on an estate overlooking the Pacific Ocean?

After more research, I joined two sites: TrustedHouseSitters.com, a three-year-old organization based in Britain, and HouseCarers.com, based in Australia and in business since 2000. Both list house-sitting opportunities in the United States, Australia, Britain, Costa Rica, Continental Europe and, to a lesser extent, other places around the world.

Why, you may ask, would anyone entrust their home and possessions to strangers?

Some homeowners, especially those who will be gone a significant amount of time, just want their houses occupied as a security measure (statistically, an occupied house is safer than one left empty). That was the case for my stay in Washington. I arrived just after the last snowstorm, in April, and left before the onslaught of summer.

But pets are the reason for 80 percent of house-sitting arrangements, said Andy Peck, the founder of TrustedHouse­Sitters.com, who started out house-sitting on a multimillion-dollar estate in Spain.

“People want their pets to be comfortable, in their own environment,” he said. “From the sitter’s point of view, there are a lot of people who genuinely love looking after pets, especially while having a ‘staycation’ and enjoying luxury, sometimes decadent luxury, while living like a local in a fantastic place. It’s a win-win for both sides.”

So far, I’ve cared for cats, some fish and one dog. I get a lot of laughs reading the descriptions of required pet care, from clipping the nails of 13 indoor cats to nursing a diaper-wearing, diabetic dog through his final days while his owners jet off to Costa Rica. One homeowner sought care for “4 horses, 2 dogs, 8 cats and a pet pig who lives in the house, in addition to chickens and ducks and 2 very friendly goats.”

As for the trust issues, the websites don’t make any matches or vouch for the accuracy of the listings. It’s up to sitters and owners to find one another through the listings, then vet one another by exchanging emails, talking by Skype or telephone and, in some cases, meeting in person. The sites strongly encourage sitters to post references and even undergo police background checks. They provide sample agreements spelling out the responsibilities of both parties.

Retiring baby boomers and workers in the freelance economy who, like me, can do business anywhere with a laptop and a smartphone make up the primary supply of house sitters. Families looking to take interesting vacations during school holidays are another source. (Homeowners specify whether their property is suitable for children, and many encourage families.) The same groups are often looking for house sitters themselves.

There are risks on both sides of the arrangement. Besides theft or damage, there’s the possibility that sitters will cancel at the last minute, ruining expensive travel plans. Sitters, too, may face the unexpected. A friend of mine agreed to move into a Victorian house in Colorado for a month, only to find that one of the two dogs she’d be watching was a snarling hound of the Baskervilles.

My only mishap was being caught skinny-dipping — twice — in Santa Barbara. The Guatemalan pool guy unexpectedly changed his schedule so he could watch the World Cup. At least I was in the deep end.

Last year, I sold my house and unmoored myself from any one location, to indulge my wanderlust for a year. I’m already booked through February. I’ve had to pass on that house with the Pacific Ocean view in Costa Rica, a month in Boston’s Beacon Hill and a cottage in the Cotswolds. I’m beginning to think that a year might not be long enough.

“The Time for Courage is Now”: America’s Slide into Bankruptcy.

U.S. Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Ranking Member of the Senate Finance Committee, today issued the following statement on CBO’s new report entitled, “The 2014 Long-Term Budget Outlook,” which details how spending for Social Security and health care entitlements will cause deficits to rise over time.

“Today’s CBO report is a stark reminder of the urgent need for entitlement reform, because as CBO says, our current spending path is unsustainable,” Hatch said.  “It is my hope our friends on the other side of the aisle will abandon their misguided political opposition and heed this dire warning to work together to reform and strengthen the entitlement programs for our seniors and future generations. The time for courage is now.”

Findings of the CBO report include:

High and Unsustainable Debt:  Federal debt held by the public is on a course to exceed 100 percent of the size of our economy (the “gross domestic product,” or GDP) and on an unsustainable long-term trajectory.

Large Increase in Spending: Federal spending, under current law, is set to increase to 26 percent of the size of our economy by 2029, compared to 21 percent in 2015 and an average of 20.5 percent over the past 40 years.

Runaway Entitlements Drive Spending Growth: Federal spending for Social Security and the government’s major health care programs—Medicare, Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, and subsidies for health insurance purchased through the exchanges created by the Affordable Care Act—will “…rise sharply, to a total of 14 percent of the size of our economy by 2039, twice the 7 percent average seen over the past 40 years.”

Runaway Entitlements Will Increasingly Choke Off Discretionary Spending:  CBO’s data show the dire consequences of that runaway entitlement spending.  According to CBO: “…total spending on everything other than Social Security, the major health care programs, and net interest payments would decline to 7 percent of GDP by 2039—well below the 11 percent average of the past 40 years and a smaller share of the economy than at any time since the late 1930s.”  This means that runaway entitlements are choking off the federal government’s financial ability to fund infrastructure, education, defense, and a host of other “discretionary” spending programs.

Revenues Scheduled to Rise Above Historic Norms: Federal revenues would increase to 19½ percent of GDP [under current law], compared to an average of 17½ percent over the past four decades.

We Have a Spending Problem, Not a Revenue Problem: CBO’s message is clear:  Continuing on our current path, driven by unsustainable, runaway entitlements, federal spending rises sharply to outpace revenues, which themselves will rise well above the historic norm, driving our deficits and debt ever upward.

Surprise! Air Force Squanders $1 Billion of Taxpayer Money and No One Goes to Jail.

Washington, D.C. – U.S. Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Carl Levin (D-MI), Ranking Member and Chairman of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (PSI), have released a bipartisan report on the Air Force’s Expeditionary Combat Support System (ECSS) program that squandered over $1 billion in taxpayer funds on ECSS over eight years.

“The Air Force’s billion dollar ECSS failure is the most egregious example of mismanagement at the Department of Defense in recent memory,” said Senator McCain. “The Air Force did not have a clear idea of what it wanted ECSS to accomplish, and the lack of strong leadership, coupled with the Air Force’s cultural resistance to change, only exacerbated the program’s problems. Moving forward, we must apply the lessons learned from this debacle so that the Department of Defense’s current and future efforts to modernize those large business information technology systems that are vital to its strategy to becoming auditable and improving how it ‘does business’ do not face the same disastrous fate as ECSS.”

“The Air Force has acknowledged the poor decisions and unsound management practices that led to the waste of taxpayer money in the ECSS program,” said Senator Levin. “We must do all we can to make sure that these mistakes are not repeated in future programs.”

A summary of the report is below.

ECSS Report Summary 

–          The Air Force squandered over $1 billion in taxpayer funds on ECSS from 2004 to 2012 with no capability to show for it.

–          The DOD’s strong cultural resistance to change hinders the effective implementation of business process reengineering (BPR), which is vital to ensuring that enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems can be effectively integrated into relevant business units within the Department to achieve desired efficiencies.

–          The Air Force admitted that it did not understand what it needed to do to implement ECSS, which directly contradicts Congressional mandates. To help alleviate this issue, Senator McCain offered (and the Senate Armed Services Committee passed) in the fiscal year 2015 defense authorization bill an amendment that would require an understanding of the existing legacy systems before the DOD can procure any large new business system.

–          In the eight years ECSS was active, the Air Force transitioned six program managers (PMs) and five program executive officers (PEOs) leaving no one accountable for ECSS’s failure. To help alleviate this issue, an amendment was offered (and the Senate Armed Services Committee passed) in the FY15 NDAA markup to improve program management accountability by aligning their tenure with key decision points throughout the defense acquisition system.

ECSS Report Recommendations

–          Improve ERP systems outcomes by initiating BPR assessments earlier in the acquisition process.

–          Improve oversight to ensure DOD has a sufficient understanding of the existing business processes to be changed.

–          Ensure sound budget decision making by integrating the Investment Review Boards (IRB) at the beginning of the budget process.

–          Reduce duplicative reporting requirements by utilizing a single governance structure for the acquisition of ERP systems.

–          Improve accountability of personnel by aligning the tenure of program executives with key acquisition decision points.

–          Better resource verifications of self-reporting BPR certification from program offices.

 

 

Federal Workers to Get a HUGE Pay Raise in 2015.

How much of a raise are you getting at work?
How much of a raise are you getting at work?

Schatz, Cardin Introduce Bill To Give Federal Workers A Raise

Bill Would Ensure Federal Employees Receive Fair and Well-Deserved Compensation

Washington, DC – U.S. Senator Brian Schatz (D-Hawai‘i) introduced legislation in the Senate with U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (D-Md.), to provide a pay increase for federal employees who lost over a billion dollars in salary and benefits due to sequestration and a three-year pay freeze from January 2011 to December 2013.  The Federal Adjustment of Income Rates (FAIR) Act would provide a 3.3 percent pay raise to federal workers in calendar year 2015.

“Hawai‘i’s federal workers are dedicated public servants.  They deliver our mail, care for our veterans, protect our environment, and help keep us safe,” Senator Schatz said. “Our federal employees bore the brunt of the sequester, enduring furloughs and a three-year pay freeze.  Our bill would give these working families a raise they deserve.”

“The knowledge, expertise, skill, and commitment of our public sector workforce are some of America’s greatest assets.  No other nation can match our public workforce’s professionalism and level of accomplishment.  And yet, too often, public servants are disparaged and denigrated.  Too often, public servants bear the brunt of deficit reduction,” said Senator Cardin. “We need to strengthen and encourage our public workforce. In Maryland and across the nation, these public servants deserve recognition and thanks for their hard work and dedication.”

According to the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Economic Analysis, the federal civilian government was the only industry that experienced a decrease in earnings ($6.7 billion) in 2013.  The gap between public and private sector compensation is currently 35 percent.  More than a quarter of full-time permanent federal employees in Hawai‘i (and one-third nationally) are eligible to retire, and attracting and retaining top talent through competitive pay is key to maintaining an efficient and effective government.  The White House has proposed a one percent pay increase for next year.

The FAIR Act is supported by the National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU), the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association (NARFE), and the Federal-Postal Coalition (FPC).

National Treasury Employees Union President Colleen Kelley said, “After several years of pay freezes, unpaid furloughs and government shutdowns, it is time for federal employee pay to get back on track.  We appreciate Senator Schatz and Senator Cardin introducing this bill to provide a fair pay raise for federal employees in 2015 and will work to garner support for it.”

American Federation of Government Employees National President J. David Cox Sr. said, “Federal employees have seen their standard of living deteriorate in recent years due to a three-year pay freeze, unpaid furloughs, and higher retirement contributions for newer workers. This legislation by Sens. Schatz and Cardin would help federal employees recoup some of that lost income and ensure the government is able to recruit and retain the high caliber workers that taxpayers expect.”

National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association President Joseph Beaudoin said, “We appreciate Senators Schatz and Cardin’s strong support for the federal workforce.  Over the past four years, federal employees have contributed over $120 billion towards deficit reduction. It’s time we thank them for their service and sacrifice, rather than continue to devalue it.”

Federal Postal Coalition Chair Bruce Moyer said, “The Federal-Postal Coalition (FPC) – comprised of 31 national organizations that collectively represent five million middle-class federal and postal workers and retirees – applauds the introduction of legislation, the Federal Adjustment of Income Rates (FAIR) Act of 2014 by Senator Schatz, to provide federal employees with a 3.3 percent pay raise next year. While private sector wages have risen 6.5 percent in the last four years, federal employees had their pay frozen for three years and only received a 1 percent raise this year. Three years of frozen salaries caused the public-private sector pay gap to exceed 35 percent, with federal employees lagging behind. Instituting a raise of 3.3 percent, 2.3 percent higher than that proposed by the President, will allow the federal government to compete for top talent in the workplace.”

 

Our National Economy to Grow Dimmer!

Say good-bye to Reddy.
Say good-bye to Reddy.

U.S. Senator Mike Enzi Delivers Weekly Republican Address

‘If [the Obama Administration] succeeds in death by regulation, we’ll all be paying a lot more money for electricity – if we can get it. Our pocketbook will be lighter, but our country will be darker.’

 

WASHINGTON, D.C. – On the eve of next week’s expected announcement regarding President Obama’s proposed national energy tax, Sen. Mike Enzi of Wyoming says the Administration has set out to kill coal and its 800,000 jobs.     

 

“President Obama and those who control the Senate have been doing a lot of polling and focus groups and have come up with a proposal to take money from those they define as rich and give it to a few college graduates within a group who have student loan debt.

 

“The left is masterful at buying votes with other people’s money, but knocking a few dollars off the average monthly college loan payment does not make up for the policies they have enacted that make it harder for businesses to create jobs and Americans to make a living.

 

“There are better ways to help graduates and other Americans who want a better life. We need to rapidly expand the job market.

 

“Republicans know Americans deserve better from Washington. Republicans have proposals to help employers create more jobs and help students access a good education. We know when you give Americans new opportunities, they achieve far more than anyone could imagine.

 

“From what I’ve seen of the early versions of the Democratic student loan plan, it would not make college more affordable, it would not reduce the amount of money students will have to borrow, or do anything about the lack of jobs grads face in the Obama economy. The proposal would increase the federal debt (it’s already $17 trillion) it would increase it by $400 billion more. The only way to claim it wouldn’t is to use more phony accounting.

 

“The proposal would also set a dangerous precedent by making private debt into public debt, not to mention that it would enact a job-destroying tax that the Senate’s already rejected.

 

“Republicans have introduced bills designed to enable more high school students to attend a college of their choice while creating jobs, while eliminating regulations that don’t make a difference and forms required just for the sake of curiosity.

 

“The more involved the federal government becomes in something, the more it seems to cost. Health care is an example.

 

“In the early days of selling his health care plan, the President said it was going to bring health care prices down. I warned then that we would see massive increases in not only what patients pay, but also what the federal government has to pay.

 

”Now many people’s premiums are up and continuing to climb. The IRS prepares to collect heavy health care taxes. This may be the most expensive free lunch in our nation’s history.

 

“There are better ways to ensure more people have improved, affordable health care. GOP senators have introduced measures that would repair the damage. We would protect take-home pay by restoring the 40-hour work week. We would encourage businesses to hire more people without penalty.

 

“I want to repeal the ‘Unaffordable’ Health Care Act and replace it with common-sense, patient-centered reforms that let you keep your doctor, that let you choose your hospital, that reduces health care costs and increases access to affordable, high-quality care that you and your doctor agree on.

 

“We’ve introduced plans that would do that. The Administration and Senate majority favor costly government-centered mandates and regulations. They’re building a system that, as one health insurance executive puts it, would ‘break people away from the choice habit’ and ‘fixation on open access.’

 

“America was built on citizens having the freedom to make choices that best fit them as individuals. That’s what Republican education, Republican health care, and other proposals do.

 

“Energy is another key area where we need policy changes.

 

“The Administration has set out to kill coal and its 800,000 jobs. If it succeeds in death by regulation, we’ll all be paying a lot more money for electricity – if we can get it. Our pocketbook will be lighter, but our country will be darker.

 

“The Administration also slow walks approval of domestic oil and gas production. It’s death by delay for the Keystone XL Pipeline. We all want clean air and clean water. We don’t want costly regulations that make little or no difference, that are making things less affordable. Republicans want electricity and gas when you need it, at a price you can afford.

 

“Students, recent graduates and all of us don’t have to let ourselves be ruled by executive orders without basis in law, for agency mandates that cost without benefit and policies where only the federal government is smart enough to make your decisions.

 

“America works best when Americans are making their own choices.

 

“Americans are inventive. Let’s free our students with policies that provide opportunity. Don’t handcuff them with ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’ That kind of help will only hold them back.

 

“Quit holding Americans, particularly students, hostage to government gifts for which they will ultimately have to pay a high price.

 

Western States Fight Federal Coercion.

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Washington, D.C. – While the Senate debates an energy efficiency bill this week, U.S. Senator Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., wants to have a conversation about federal overreach and what can be done to return functions back to the states. He offered two amendments today that would let states have the final say on regional haze and collecting their own mineral royalties.

Enzi’s regional haze amendment would prohibit the EPA from rejecting or disapproving, in whole or in part, a state’s regional haze plan if the enforcement of the federal plan does not result in a statistically significant improvement in visibility to the state. His mineral royalty amendment would ensure that mineral revenue for natural resource development on public lands would be paid directly to those states it is owed and allow for states to collect their own royalties, which would eliminate the two percent fee the federal government charges for collection.

“All across the country, our governors and state legislatures are coming up with innovative ways to solve problems locally without federal coercion or mandates,” said Enzi. “What my amendments would do is return more control back to the states and once again allow the people closest to the resource to have a larger say in what goes on within their borders. The EPA doesn’t need to dictate how a state manages air quality and the BLM doesn’t need to be charging states a fee to collect revenue that the states can manage on their own.”

These are just a few of the latest examples of efforts by Enzi to return more power back to the states and restore state control of functions the federal government has assumed.

The current Senate majority, which controls the agenda, is likely to block all amendments to the energy efficiency bill, despite bipartisan solutions that could improve the legislation. The majority has only allowed votes on nine amendments from the minority since last July.

Identity Theft Now Costing American Citizens over $5 Billion a Year!

theft

Grassley Seeks IRS Answers on Inadequate Fraud Detection System

WASHINGTON – Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa is asking the IRS to account for an inadequate fraud detection system and delays in implementing a new system.

“Identity theft to commit tax fraud is already a $5 billion per year problem,” Grassley said.  “The IRS puts taxpayers at risk for fraud in using an inadequate system and delaying a better system.  This will be an even bigger concern if the new system isn’t in place by the time the number of people filing tax returns increases under Obamacare next year.”

Grassley wrote to IRS Commissioner John Koskinen, asking for an explanation of why the IRS continues to rely on the Electronic Fraud Detection System, which may not even be operable beyond this year, and has yet to finish a new system, called the Return Review Program (RPP).

Grassley said the precarious fraud detection system could become more acute under Obamacare, as the health care law allows for refundable credits, which are especially vulnerable to fraud, and many people will file tax returns for the first time beginning in 2015.  “This will result in an increase of millions of tax returns in January 2015,” Grassley wrote.  “If the RRP is not operational by then, the results could be disastrous.”

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