Perpetual care cemetery owner busted

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WTOK

via Perpetual care cemetery owner busted, clarionledger.com

PDF: The_Clarion-Ledger_State_20160708_A002_1

“Forever” is a long time, but it seems that it’s harder than you might imagine to get a place where your remains can remain undisturbed that long. Many churches and old community cemeteries throughout Mississippi provide peaceful resting spots that have been maintained for generations, but even these may eventually be lost to the years as current generations die out and new ones emerge.

While in reality, management of any cemetery carries with it the obligations of maintaining it for an unlimited term into the future, many people have been for years trusting in “perpetual-care” cemeteries. When you agree to purchase a burial plot, you should be reasonably confident the grounds will be well-kept, roads and infrastructure maintained, and markers maintained and repaired as needed. In fact, all new cemeteries built after 2009 (except those operated by churches, religious societies, governments and those in a few other categories) must be considered “perpetual care” cemeteries, and subject to the law.

Here in Mississippi, perpetual-care cemeteries are required by state law to hold back 15 percent of all ground burial sales and five percent of mausoleum and niche sales to a special account called a perpetual-care trust. The fund is then to be used to defray the expenses involved in maintaining the cemetery. They’re required to file a report every year with the secretary of state’s office to include —among other things — how much money is in the trust fund and how funds have been spent.

But occasionally, the secretary of state takes action against cemetery operators for alleged failure to adhere to the law. Last week, Secretary of State Delbert Hosemannfiled an action against the operators of Magnolia Cemetery and Meridian Memorial Park, and the owner of the cemeteries, William E. Arlinghaus, in Lauderdale County Chancery Court. In a statement from Hosemann’s office, he noted the cemeteries house the remains of former U.S. Rep. G.V. “Sonny” Montgomery and “numerous Meridian families.”

In the complaint, Hosemann asked the court to appoint a receiver for the properties, which will take over the assets and ensure compliance with state law. “Upon obtaining ownership of both Magnolia Cemetery and Meridian National Park in November 2011,” noted Hosemann in the release, “William Arlinghaus has completely failed to remit to trust the collections for his sales for ground burials (15 percent) and mausoleum/niche sales (5 percent).  After examinations were conducted by the Regulation and Enforcement Division of the Secretary of State’s Office, Mr. Arlinghaus failed to trust a total of $33,349.83 through October 2015.” Hosemann also noted several consumer complaints had been received, alleging “maintenance neglect” and failure to deliver markers that had been purchased by families or estates.

Hosemann’s office also applied for a temporary restraining order preventing Arlinghaus from continuing to sell pre-need policies to consumers. “Care of the final resting place of our families is critical to us as a society,” says Secretary Hosemann.  “Citizens need to know the funds they place in trust today will provide their care in perpetuity.”

To find out more about buying funeral and related services, the Federal Trade Commission has a special series on the topic, entitled Shopping for Funeral Services, at http://1.usa.gov/1ox8byi.

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‘Slack filling’ may mean you pay more to get less

via Moak: ‘Slack filling’ may mean you pay more to get less, clarionledger.com, 12/15/2015

PDF: Slack Filling

Upon opening a box of cereal the other day, I noticed that the cereal only filled about two-thirds of the box. The rest of the box was filled by air trapped inside the liner bag. That didn’t surprise me; it’s a rare occasion when you find a package is filled to the brim. It’s actually somewhat defensible — because we know that some products actually do “settle” inside a package. Just about all potato chip bags contain the disclaimer: “Package is sold by weight, not by volume.”

But what is catching a lot of American consumers off-guard is that while packages may look the same from the outside, in many cases there is less product in the container than before. Adding to consumer anger is you and I are likely to be paying the same or even more for the same size — but lighter — box of goods.

This practice is known as “slack-filling,” and it’s caught a lot of attention in recent years. A recent class-action lawsuit by three plaintiffs against consumer-products behemoth Procter & Gamble (which makes Tide laundry detergent) accused the company of routinely employing “deceptive packaging containing excessive empty space to mislead customers into believing that they were receiving more laundry detergent than they actually were.” Additionally, notes class-action website Topclassactions.com, the Tide lawsuit alleges “the larger packaging used in Tide products gives P&G more shelf space for their products, giving their product an advantage in grocery stores.”

“In addition to the allegations of oversized packaging,” noted Topclassactions.com, “the plaintiffs also took issue with other aspects of the products’ packaging design. The plaintiffs allege “the bottom of the integrated pour spout ends well below the rim required for the screw in cap.” They illustrated their point with photographs, noting, “There is simply no reason, even with the spigot apparatus, why the liquid detergent could not be filled to the top of the bottle.”

Also discussed was the transparent strip alongside the handle, which indicates how much product is left. By strategically placing the strip lower down the bottle, consumers can’t see that the product doesn’t even come close to filling the bottle. “This is a conscious effort intended to mislead the consumer,” Topclassactions.com noted, “as the Defendants knowingly and deliberately chose to add a transparent strip that would not allow consumers to see the significant amount of empty space toward the top of the container.”

If you don’t think it affects a company’s bottom line to reduce the amount of laundry detergent by a few ounces, think again. When dealing with the huge volumes of consumer-products, even a tiny change can mean profit or loss. In this intensely competitive environment, many companies so fear raising prices that they have sought to save money however they can. But some advocates claim they’ve crossed the line when they engage in slack-filling practices.

P&G settled an $850,000 lawsuit earlier this year in California in which consumers accused the company of using false bottoms in their jars of Olay moisturizer to make it appear there was more product in the jar than there actually was. P&G is not alone when it comes to this issue, however; previously, advocates have accused numerous companies of similar tactics, including The Clorox Co., Unilever and McCormick & Co. Inc.

Drugstore chain CVS paid a $225,000 fine last year for alleged violations of California slack-fill laws.

In a June story headlined “How Do Companies Quietly Raise Prices? They Do This,” the Wall Street Journal noted, for example, that 4-ounce boxes of McCormick’s Black Pepper were quietly replaced with 3-ounce boxes, which looked nearly identical. (That’s 25 percent less product for about the same price.)

Usually, when a company is accused of such nefarious practices, they will argue (often convincingly) that slack fill is necessary to protect the products inside; to deter theft (that’s why CDs are sold with those infuriating plastic frames); or to allow for proper use of the product. For example, microwave popcorn packages must have extra space to accommodate the expansion of the popcorn once it’s heated. These explanations make it difficult for regulators to go after companies for using the “slack-fill” tactic. In fact, the federal regulations concerning slack-filling give six exceptions which would exclude a company from being called deceptive; some states are even more lenient.

But while this battle rages on among industries, regulators and armies of lawyers, consumers may feel they’ve been left in the cold when trying to make the wisest use of their dollars. So, here are a few ways you can make sure you’re not being led down the primrose path:

  1. Compare unit prices. Unit pricing (when done honestly) allows you to compare products by weight, by number or by some characteristic shared among brands. For example, toilet paper might have a unit price per sheet; bags of dog food have a unit price per pound. That way, you’re comparing apples to apples. Most retailers have a unit price on the shelf, allowing you to make a fair comparison.
  2. Pay attention to weights and volumes. We’re all creatures of habit, and some of us are intensely brand-loyal when it comes to certain things. We’re more likely to just grab that familiar jar of peanut butter and less likely to notice the weight on the jar has decreased.
  3. Use store brands. Of course, many of us wouldn’t dream of using a store-brand peanut butter or soft drinks. But often, they are virtually indistinguishable from the branded product. And, without the expense required to maintain a brand in the marketplace, it’s a better deal for you. Of course (as we saw with the CVS lawsuit), it’s not a total solution; still, you’re likely to be paying less in the first place.

New conflict-of-interest rules proposed for retirement financial planners

Originally published in the Clarion-Ledger print edition on 4/18/2015.

PDF: Financial Planners face new regulations

Under a new set of guidelines proposed by the U.S. Department of Labor this week, people who give advice to people about retirement planning would be subject to more stringent rules about potential conflicts of interest.

We’ve been in the midst of Baby-Boomer retirement for the past decade or so, and while the last of the Boomers still have a few years before reaching the age where they can draw Social Security, we have already seen unprecedented numbers of Americans taking their retirement. Since there’s lots of money to made (some estimates suggest holders of 401(k)s, IRAs and other retirement assets will be investing more than $7 trillion by 2016) in helping seniors figure out how to make the most of their retirement savings, services to seniors are skyrocketing as well.

But what happens after the transaction may not be clear to investors, particularly when and how agents are compensated from commissions, or whether their products are actually in the best interest of their clients. For example, if an adviser is incentivized to sell products which generate higher commissions — but which don’t necessarily suit your needs — that could be considered a conflict of interest.

The new proposed regulations, while far from a done deal (many predict a battle of epic proportions looms over the issue), would cause profound changes to 40-year-old rules. The intent is to close loopholes which could allow broker-dealers, insurance agents and other financial planners for 401(k) and IRAs to receive payments from mutual fund companies or similar interests, without informing their customers.

“A White House Council of Economic Advisers (CEA) analysis found that conflicts of interest result in annual losses of about 1 percentage point for affected retirement savers — or about $17 billion per year in total,” noted an article on the Department of Labor’s website. “To demonstrate how small differences can add up: A 1 percentage point lower return could reduce your savings by more than a quarter over 35 years. In other words, instead of a $10,000 retirement investment growing to more than $38,000 over that period after adjusting for inflation, it would be just over $27,500.”

A key provision of the proposed rules would require that financial advisers act as a fiduciary, who has legal and ethical obligations to look after the client’s own interest first.

“This boils down to a very simple concept: if someone is paid to give you retirement investment advice, that person should be working in your best interest,” said Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez. “As commonsense as this may be, laws to protect consumers and ensure that financial advisers are giving the best advice in a complex market have not kept pace. Our proposed rule would change that. Under the proposed rule, retirement advisers can be paid in various ways, as long as they are willing to put their customers’ best interest first.”

A number of industry groups have already voiced their opposition, saying that the proposed rules would hamper the ability of middle- to low-income consumers to get advice without paying for it up-front. Often, advisers are paid commissions on the sale of investment products. Still others are waiting to study the proposed rules before they voice their opinion.

One group, the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association (SIFMA), wasted no time in voicing their determination to analyze the rule. SIFMA and other groups have vigorously opposed previous attempts to address the issue.

“This is a voluminous rule where the fine print matters,” said SIFMA president and CEO Kenneth E. Bentsen, Jr. We want to ensure it protects investor choice and doesn’t unnecessarily reduce access to education or raise costs, particularly for low and middle income savers. With so much at stake, we will thoroughly review the rule and its impact on investors, and express our views in the public comment period.”

Least Common Denominator

As I sit here on the eve of a new year, I’ve been thinking about a lot of things – my own life, my personal challenges, and the challenges which face us as a society. I am quite worried about our culture here in America. It dawned on me recently that we have become a nation that does “just enough.” We have become a nation who does just what it takes to finish what we’re doing so we can go back to our everyday lives. As a cub reporter, I had a friend and co-worker named Mike Stout who was a few years ahead of me, and often had advice for me as I honed my journalistic skills. Mike was always ready with a quick and witty response to just about any situation. He would often lighten the mood with a joke. Once, when he had helped me with a story, I thanked him. He said, “It’s the least I can do…and as you know, I always do the least I can do.”

He was joking, of course; his self-deprecating quality was one of the things that I liked about him. But I have often thought about that. Are we satisfied with doing the least that we can, and no more? Take our credit-based economy, for example. We have an entire economic sector based on borrowing. (I’m not preaching here – like millions of Americans, I too feed the plastic monster each month.) One of the things that makes credit so attractive is that you can make that low minimum payment. Presto, you don’t even have to worry about that looming pile of debt out there…you can just write your check for the month, then forget about it until the next one. How about the interest-only loan? Some really bright person thought this one up, and they’ve certainly made millions from it. What if you could borrow huge amounts of money, and never paid off the principal, until some date off in the murky future? You only pay the interest on the money. Wow! Debt consolidation is another one. (I’ve done this on several occasions.) What if you could borrow money to pay off money you borrowed before? You emerge from the bank with a smile, because you’ve bought yourself more time, and if you’re lucky, a lower interest rate. Unfortunately, all of these things are poor bricks with which to construct an economy, even poorer ones upon which to build a life.

What kind of message are we teaching our kids here? It’s OK to exceed your means, because there is really no accounting – no time when you have to pay the piper.

How about the idea of the tithe? Yes, we are taught to give 10% to help do God’s work. That is our reasonable service. But what rewards would we have available to us if we sought out ways to do more? What if, instead of doing our bit part and going home, that we looked for things to do?

Copyright 2010, by William D. Moak

Whom Can You Trust?

Recently, the Washington Post carried a column about the passing of who is arguably the most famous TV newsman in history, Walter Cronkite. This iconic figure defined TV news for a generation, and his trademark signoff, “…and that’s the way it is” became synonymous with trust. People trusted this humble dentist’s son from the heart of America so much, that in tumultuous 1972, he was named the “most trusted man in America” by a prestigious polling organization.

What was it about this man that made him – in the eyes of the public, at least – so trustworthy? I was never fortunate enough to know him personally, so I can’t vouch for his character; but plenty of others did and can. Many disagreed with his politics, but you have to respect his thoughtful consideration of the issues. Although the true state of any man’s heart is known only to God, there are a few signs along the way of his life. Perhaps we can learn a few things about trust from his example.

First, he was consistent. This is evidenced by his lifelong commitment to his wife, Betsy. He stayed by her side for 65 years, until her death in 2005. If there ever was a litmus test of a man’s character, it’s his commitment to his mate. His consistency apparently permeated all areas of his public life. Consistency is a characteristic of relationships that include trust.

Second, he was there. Call it doing his job or whatever, but there wasn’t a single major news story during his 31-year tenure at CBS News that America didn’t hear his familiar voice. The Cuban Missile Crisis, Vietnam, Watergate. Nearly losing his composure, he broke the news about the assassination of President Kennedy. At an uncharacteristic (but understandable) loss for words, he put a human face on the story when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon. Being accessible helps nurture trust by reassuring others.

Third, he was accessible. How many times have you had trust be broken by someone who either isn’t there at all, or communicates in circles? Cronkite didn’t have that problem. Part of it was technical. It’s been reported that he trained himself to speak at a maximum of 124 words per minute, to make himself more understandable. The average person speaks at about 165 words per minute, with fast speakers humming along at 200 words per minute! But his accessibility transcended the technical; he made himself available to students and others. Ultimately, the Journalism school at Arizona State University was renamed in his honor.

Finally, he was authentic. Cronkite was (by most accounts), pretty much the same person in private as he was in public. People believed him at a time when trust in public figures was being shattered all around. In the caustic environment of the cold war, Watergate and Vietnam, he was believable because people thought they could relate to him. It doesn’t mean that he was perfect, or that people even thought he was. Like any of us, he made mistakes, he probably had skeletons in his closet – he was admittedly human. Perhaps that’s the thing that made him the most trustworthy.

History has yet to issue its verdict on the life and career of Walter Cronkite. It’s dangerous to emulate mere mortals. But if we are to establish trust, we need to find out what that means. What makes you trustworthy? Who are the people you trust, and why? We will continue to explore just what that means. Meanwhile, perhaps we can learn a few things from a life well-lived.

(c) 2010 by William D. Moak

Caring for the Environment: A Christian’s Concern

As I have watched the debate over the recent climate change conference in Copenhagen, like many Americans I have a gnawing sense that (yet again) we are witnessing the politicization of issues that are of great importance to us as a people. The recent revelation of emails which were stolen from a British database just add more fuel to the fire that is quickly devouring the credibility of scientific claims about climate change. The emails in question (though obtained through nefarious means) expose alleged manipulation of scientific data to make the data support certain political views.

All of the discussion and controversy tends to muddy the waters of reason, as political agendas are thrown by those on all sides of this debate. As an individual, I have to wonder: So is there climate change or not? If so, is all or part of it caused by man? What are the potential consequences for the future? Only God knows the real answer to any of these questions; beware of any who claim to have all the answers. There are just too many “unknowns” here.

Regardless of where one stands on the issues of global warming, climate change or environmental degradation, there is one question that I have not seen explored seriously by the Christian community. That is, what is the role of the Christian here? Through the years, I have noticed that the cause of environmental responsibility has largely been abdicated by the Christian community; in fact, the very term “environmentalist” has been comandeered by the left. Secular groups like Ducks Unlimited have played a major and positive roles in conservation and environmental protection. But for some inexplicable reason, there is a real vacuum of leadership from the Christian community in this area. Why?

Scripture is full of reminders from God reminding man of his role in creation. In Genesis 1:26: Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth and over all the creatures that move along the ground. How about in Ezekiel 34:17-18: As for you, my flock… Is it not enough for you to feed on good pasture? Must you also trample the rest of your pasture with your feet? Is it not enough for you to drink clear water? Must you also muddy the rest with your feet?

From this scripture and many others, it’s apparent to me that caring for the environment is my responsibility, both as a follower of Christ and as a child of my Creator. I take this seriously; I take part in recycling efforts, and I don’t litter. I feel strongly about things like overfishing and am concerned about the loss of habitat for animals. I think all the time about the impact I am having on the environment around me. Although politically you could call me a conservative, the environment is high on my list of concerns.

So, you may ask, what makes me (as well as like-minded Christians) different from “tree huggers”, those who blow up dams, or those clamoring for draconian “Cap and Trade” legislation? The difference is one of motivation. My care for the environment stems largely from the fact that God told me (as he told all mankind) that the world is my responsibility. It’s not my primary responsibility as a Christian, but it’s among them.

Frankly, I am distressed that we as Christians have not taken the issue of care for the environment as our own. I believe the Christian perspective needs to be prominent in the current debates. There are increasing efforts within the Christian community, and within our own denomination, to embrace environmental stewardship. Regardless of what your personal political beliefs may be, the decisions now being formed and legislation now being crafted will affect all of us.

In practice, I believe that most Christians try to do the right thing, whether it’s “stashing our trash” and not littering our highways, responsible stewardship of land we own, or making a decision that our businesses are going to use less energy. As with most things in life, we can make a big difference by doing a lot of little things right. It’s not only the right thing to do; it’s part of being a Christian.

(c) 2010 by William D. Moak