Schulte, aghast that I didn't immediately understand his cryptic communication, patiently declaimed: "The meat. It's the meat. Winn-Dixie's wrappers only let you see 40 percent of the meat. The law says they're supposed to show you 75 percent of the steak or whatever."
"Oh," I said.
"Don't you care?" Schulte demanded.
"Well, uh, it's just ..."
"This is a big story!" he shouted. "You could win a Pulitzer. Winn-Dixie is breaking the law."
Something in Schulte's voice convinced me. He sounded solid. In this business, you get calls from the drooling crazies -- the UFO nuts, the Kennedy assassination crowd, the Republicans. But Schulte sounded sane.
So, I trekked with him to a Winn-Dixie to look at ribs, hamburger and the like. Florida's law (I had checked) did require "clear packaging" of meat, defined as 75 percent visible. Schulte was an engineer, a rumpled-seersucker-suit-with-pocket-protector-clad tech-head who had planned the production process for building giant airplanes. He had retired young and reincarnated himself as a gadfly.
"That's what I am," he happily chortled many, many times as government flunkies and corporate ne'er-do-wells fled from his calculator and note pad.
"I wear that distinction with honor," he once told another Herald scribe. "I wear it like a suit of armor."
The engineer in him had spotted the problem with Winn-Dixie's meat wrapping. The company at first harrumphed, and then did the right thing and changed its packaging. I won a minor prize for my story, not quite a Pulitzer. More importantly, I had learned the lesson that governments inevitably waste our money. And, if it wasn't for pestering critics such as Schulte, the bureaucrats would piss away a lot more.
Schulte wasn't the first to nail the malevolent foe of Big Government. But he did it with gleeful style over three decades. When he spied on his water bill a message that rates were going up "pennies a day," he whipped out his slide rule and determined the price hike was actually 150 percent. "Outrageous," he described the attempted snake oil deception.
He discovered that almost every cop in his Miami suburb of Coral Gables had a take-home police car. In fact, damn near every city employee had a car -- what Schulte dubbed the Great White Fleet. He spent hours pouring through the city's budget. He wondered at the high cost of a construction department -- and it turned out that the culprit was a city official transporting taxpayer-owned construction equipment to North Carolina to build a vacation home.
Schulte died three years ago. For more than a quarter century, he was a pain in the butt to government. His favorite target was Miami's bloated school system (sound familiar, Atlantans?). He called himself the school board's "personal Darth Vader." He became my brother-in-arms in the fight against rapacious government -- and we scored some victories, including torpedoing the Great White Fleet. The difference between us is that I get paid to be annoying; Schulte did it out of love for his fellow tax slaves.
They should erect a statute of Schulte somewhere in Miami. It could be solid gold -- and the value would be only a fraction of what he saved taxpayers. The legend on the statute could read: "He was a pain, but his numbers were always on target."
And that brings us to John Sherman, Atlanta's edition of Schulte and all the other gadflies who have pricked the bloated budgets and even more bloated egos of government louts.
School board members have been buying voodoo dolls with Sherman's name on them. Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin -- who at first seemed inclined to put the city on fat-reduction diet, but who now seems to have lapsed into gummint-as-usual gluttony -- ignores the programs Sherman champions.
In short, the official response to Sherman's nagging is either thunderous silence or rude dismissal.
But the public? That's a different story. In DeKalb County, homeowners are opening tax bills to find that their assessments have soared and, on modestly priced houses, the government's give-me is as much as $2,000 more than last year. The common folk know that Sherman is their champion.
Sherman has been busy pointing to some of the most egregious government excesses. For example, he has trumpeted that the Atlanta school system spends far more (almost $11,000 per pupil) than similar-size cities (which generally average about $6,500 per student).
The most casual glance at the school system, as with just about every other government service in the metro area, reveals rampant featherbedding, low productivity, insider dealing, self-serving wastefulness. It's a free-for-all orgy with your money. After all, the Atlanta school capos in 2001 gave Superintendent Beverly Hall a bonus of far more than most families earn -- $47,520 -- for not meeting her goals. God forbid that she had actually performed as her job required -- she'd have been rewarded with the deed to all of Georgia.
Wait did did you get the Christmas gifts or not yet? Writing about gun control…
Funny and interesting. Thanks.
"Stadium Love" - Metric
Ben Palmer is a funny dude. I'm saving up to buy his book someday.
Some call it poverty - others call it a simpler life.