Sunday, July 23, 2017

Some thoughts for the New Council

The elections are over and we finally have the full council seated and I think we have some great people on council. Still, this is basically a new City Council. Lucy Gonzales now has the longest current service with just over 2 years and Tommy Hiebert has the most council experience, having served 6 years in the early 1990’s. The majority of the council is just starting to learn the job.

There will be an adjustment period as the council and city hall culture come to grips with each other. They will both be changed. This is challenging enough but is made even more challenging because we are also in the middle of the budget cycle. New council members have to hit the ground running and deal with policies and decisions handed down by their predecessors. The draft budget online currently sits at 42 pages. By the end of September that will grow to over 300 pages of dry, boring tables and numbers and descriptions. They will have to rely on city staff and staff will do the bulk of the leg work on the budget. At the same time they will have to deal with all the little (and not so little) issues and problems that make a council persons life uniquely interesting. And they will have to learn who and what they can trust, and build that trust both inside and outside City Hall.
Most of the councils job will be balancing the wants, needs, and goals of City Hall with the community that is the City of San Angelo. The community needs to economically strong and healthy. City hall should be frugal and efficient. The community needs to grow and thrive and be livable and be a community. City hall needs to be able to support and sustain the changes that happen within the city. The city as a whole needs to be resilient. It needs to be able to adapt to those unknown events that can break a fragile community. 
City council and city hall can’t do that on their own but they have to do their part and they have to keep these broad, but seldom stated, goals in their focus. All of these goals and objectives need to be balanced so that a healthy community can be passed on to future generations. San Angelo sprang up shortly after Ft. Concho was established roughly 150 years ago. It would be wonderful if in another 150 years our descendants were living here in a prosperous, comfortable thriving community, and this is not some archaeological site where college students are busy writing papers on what went wrong.
I will expand on these thoughts more in the future. For now, I just want to welcome the new (and not quite as new) members to the city council. You’re in for quite a ride. Good luck. You’ll need it.

Tuesday, July 04, 2017

Independence Day ramble

Happy Independence day. The 241st anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. An important document for a number of reasons. It was, of course, a declaration of war. Or more accurately an acknowledgment and justification of the state of rebellion that existed. But it was more than just a declaration of war. It was a brief explanation of why we have government, what the purpose of government is, why the then current government was unacceptable, and what should be done.

Right off the bat, it states that governments are created (instituted is the term they use) by mankind. They are an invention of man, not a gift from the creator. They were created for a purpose -- protection of rights. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness among other rights. And they expressed the radical idea that these fundamental rights were an integral part of being human by the act of creation, not something that could be granted or taken away on a whim. In the end, governments are only legitimate if they protect fundamental rights with the consent of the governed. From there, they declare that when a government is destructive of this end, the governed have the right to change the government or to start over with a new one that meets these requirements.

Then they submitted a list of then current problems as they saw them. To put just a few of them in more modern terms, the King and parliament removed many functions from local control. They created an unbearable amount of bureaucracy. They stationed an armed force that was above the law among us.They protected this armed force with mock trials. They imposed taxes without consent. They deprived us of the right of trial by jury. And the list goes on.

This declaration not only justified the war for independence, it supplied a vision of what a government should look like after the war. We won the war and started to build on that vision. Got off to a rocky start with the Articles of Confederation. Major progress with the Constitution in 1789 but there were still rough edges like slavery. Civil war brought about major changes to the character of our government. Some good, some bad. There have been many additional changes brought on by the work of activists, courts, the results of war, etc. that keep redefining our government. On the one hand, we are still a great country that has made remarkable progress towards that historic vision of better life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. More equal protection regardless of race, color, creed, sex, gender, religion or national origin. On the other hand, some of the grievances on that historic document are with us today and need to be dealt with. The vision was declared in 1776 but the work is not done. There is still a lot of clean up, heavy lifting, and fine tuning needed today.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Controling Deja Vu

As I mentioned in my last post, last weeks council meeting seemed like a case of Deja Vu.

Animal control is once again on the radar. The stated reason is  that Animal control can't keep straight what to call their officers in court or before a judge. I guess it can be hard to keep the less than half a dozen titles straight so they can actually show that the person that issued a citation can legally do it. We expect city employees to remember a lot and they're just asking council to make their life easier. The reality is probably something different. There is a lot of turbulence in animal control. Always has been. At the last council meeting it was mentioned that there are 6 control officers in the city government. 3 are fully qualified, 2 are in training, and 1, who didn't get qualified within the allotted time after training is doing a "work around."  Think about that for a second. In 2006, council was told that a minimum of 9 officers were needed for a city our size. Here it is 11 years later, and we only have 6 on the payroll of which only 3 have certification and we've grown enough we need 10. This is the real problem.

There are still two big problems that were the same in 2006. First off, the animal enforcement is understaffed and under performing. New laws and ordinance changes won't make much difference. They haven't in the past.  You have to have enough experienced people on board to do the job right. And you have to verify they are doing it.

Another problem is that the Animal Shelter Advisory Committee needs to be put in the game. I and other observers have noticed no real input from the advisory committee on the recent issues brought before council. The minutes of the meetings seem to focus an extraordinary amount of time on feral cat's and not much time on issues like the recent distemper outbreak. Of course it's hard to tell because only four agendas and one set of minutes are on the cities web site. The bylaws are on the website, as well as a set of goals and objectives that look to be very expensive to implement. Still, not much information is there to suggest any solutions beyond an expensive new centrally located building. It's not on the Capital Improvement Plan yet but they have it on their goals to be there by 2021. Instead of the 285,000 listed in they  CIP for the next 5 years, it seems they want to go with a multi-million bond issue right in the middle of tackling all the basic infrastructure problems the city is already paying for. And personally, I think I'd much rather have a quality affordable  shelter on the edge of town than pay the much higher price for a "centrally located" (is that downtown or out by the mall?) with poor parking that takes valuable property off the tax roles.

Today, as it was in 2006, dogs and cats out number people in this city. Less that half (probably less than a quarter) of pet owners have them licensed/registered. Few have them spayed or neutered.  Many, like me are still trying to figure out why we need to pay for both a micro-chip and a metal tag. Most pet owners have little use for Animal Control/Services. They mostly ignore the laws unless they are adopting from the animal shelter or a rescue group. I have seen nothing to indicate that breeders or multi-pet owners permits have done anything positive for the health and safety of San Angelo or the quality of life of pets and their families. The same core laws and regulations we had in 2005 are still the ones that work best when applied in the field. New laws have had little affect. The formula today is the same as it has been.

Hire enough good people. Train them well. Lead them well. Provide them with the tools they need. Connect them to the public. Don't try to make their job a revenue stream or nothing but control issues. Respect the rights and freedoms of those living in the city. Fix the problems, don't make excuses or pass the buck.. Again, get the basics right and don't worry about image or popularity. Put health and safety first and leave the frills and self promotion for later.

A bit of Deja Vu

After you’ve been blogging long enough, stories start to repeat themselves. You sit down to write and it strikes you. Last weeks City Council meeting was Deja Vu all over again

We at ConchoInfo started covering animal issues from the start of the blog. Back in 2006 there was a lot to write about because of a puppy mill in one of the better neighborhoods in the city. It was mostly just a nuisance but the local news had a field day and City Hall went in to defense mode. We blogged about it here. First that happened was All kinds of new laws were proposed, especially restrictions on the number  of animals that could be owned and couple of new license requirements such as breeder permits and multi pet owner permits. The animal control statute was revised in 2007 but no new licenses or numbers were added. The main point made during all the discussions were that there were plenty of existing laws to deal with these issues if they would just be properly enforced (brought up by Judge Gilbert), and there were not nearly enough Animal Control officers available to do the job. It was pointed out at that time by the health director that a city should normally have  one officer per 10,000 people which meant that San Angelo needed 9 officers back in 2006. They were only authorized 3, which council then upped to 5 and said let’s see how this works. Throughout this bit of drama almost nothing was said about the animal services board. You know, the councils representatives that are supposed to provide policy guidance and oversight to the animal shelter and control operations.

In 2009, another puppy mill and a worse case than the one 3 years before. More pictures on the local news and abuse was front page. We blogged about it here. This time they passed an ordinance with breeding and mult-pet restrictions. Spay and neuter, etc. etc. etc.. At this time they had never had all 5 of the control officer positions filled. Looking at the quality of enforcement, not sure that would have really made a difference but the truth is that in a city our size 5 officers weren't going to be able to handle the job. And the Animal services board was still mostly missing in action. They did manage to get some very committed people on the commission for a while but little progress was made. I attended a few ASB meetings and they had some good recommendations but many of them never made it to the city council. Those few that did get before council were often not even close to what the board recommended.

It was during this time that city council and staff started looking at why, when, and how to use the numerous boards & commissions in the city. Animal Service board was rename and give a new ordinance and bylaws as the Animal Shelter Advisory committee and staff congratulated themselves on solving that problem.

Some things have changed in the last 11 years and there really has been some progress but last weeks council meeting seemed like a kind of mashed up replay from 8 to 12 years ago. As I will make clearer in my next post, things have changed but far too many are still stuck over a decade ago. Like I said, Deja Vu all over again.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Memorial Day Memories

Three years ago I shared a memory with you about a memorial day past. I haven’t been very active here lately but I would like to share some thoughts and history on Memorial Day, what it means to me, and ideas on how to truly honor those who have served and gave their last full measure.

Let me start with a couple memories. Forty years ago I was at Ft. Devens, Massachusetts for some advanced training. The Vietnam war was officially over for us but the world was still a dangerous place. All the U.S. military services were adjusting to the different realities of the changed cold war. The draft had been over for several years but the adjustments to an all volunteer force were still a challenge. Retention was a problem after the draft and with the end of the draft, more military occupations and positions were opened to women. The training center had basically transitioned from an old boys club to an army green college campus. That year at Ft Devens, I tasted the worst beer I ever had. Strohs was actually pretty good beer but if you leave it out in a trailer in the sun and let it get hot for several hours, it will turn bad. Seems some young NCO’s hadn’t learned that. After training at Ft Devens, I was off to South Korea. Tensions with North Korea were high when I got there. The prior year there was an incident I remember being called world war tree. Two American officers were killed at the DMZ while they were removing a tree that blocked part of the view from UN observation posts. There was fear that this had been just a warm up to test our resolve. There were also rumors that President Carter, who in his first year of office, was planning on withdrawing all U.S. forces from Korea. The world was still a dangerous place and soldiers were still dying while serving.

On Memorial Day ten years later, I was about half way through a tour in Berlin. Had some of the best and worst beers in the world there. I sure hope they’ve improved Berliner Kindle but most of the beer there was up to the German world class reputation. Tensions were very high. A year earlier terrorists blew up Le Belles disco. They chose it because it was a popular off duty hang out for American soldiers and officials. Two servicemen were killed and 79 injured out of 3 dead and 230 injured. Our section NCOIC was among the injured with damaged hearing from the blast. He had been out showing some visiting contractors Berlin nightlife. He received a purple heart because he was injured in a hostile action. He tried to turn it down but was ordered to accept it because that was the rules. The Libyans were said to be responsible so we retaliated and did an air strike. They retaliated by blowing up Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. I left Berlin almost exactly one year later. There were a lot of nervous people on that flight and no one complained about the delays caused by the extra tight security. The world was still a very dangerous place and soldiers were still dying in service to their country.

Today writers across the country will write volumes about what today means. They will tell us it’s about more than Barbecue and the Indie 500 and the start of summer. Most will write about how the service of the fallen demands this policy or is dishonored by that policy. Too many of these eulogies and stories will be politics as usual screaming into an echo chamber to amplify their agendas and confirm their bias. We really don’t need that and their memory doesn’t deserve that.

The way I see it, they all gave their all to protect and defend the Constitution, the principles behind it and the country that produced it. Their brothers (and sisters) in arms are out there today doing the same. Ready to give their all. But we need to guard that our military doesn’t become just a continuation of politics by other means.

Have a great weekend but don’t forget to stop and offer a prayer and drink a toast to those who can’t be here. They helped make this day possible.

Saturday, April 08, 2017

To Fee or not to Fee

It's April, so taxes are on many peoples minds. Two key events are happening very soon and I'm overdue for a look at local taxes. Everyone is familiar with the April 15th (actually 17th this year) deadline for filing Income Taxes. With the popularity of electronic filing and tax return loans about the only people that will be filing at the deadline are those that owe taxes. There is another special tax event that also happens this time of year - Tax Freedom Day. That is the day that you have earned enough money to pay all the taxes you will have to pay for the year. Up until then you are really working for the government. This day will obviously vary on a personal basis. On average, most Americans will have earned enough to pay their yearly tax load by April 24th. Texas gets a little break here as Texans on the whole will be off the hook by April 17th. San Angeloens, which are among the highest taxed Texans, probably can't really celebrate until the end of the month. Using the Tax Freedom figures, we work between a quarter and a third of each year just to pay for all the government we're getting. Well almost all of it anyway. Time to look closer.

First off, we need to be clear about I mean by tax. According to, a tax is "a sum of money demanded by a government for its support or for specific facilities or services, levied upon incomes, property, sales, etc." This includes taxes that masquerade as fees, penalties, and surcharges. A good local example is the  Stormwater Fee. In 2016 the budget says they collected $2,620,000 in Stormwater Fees. By the standard definition that is still a tax. It is a tax on property that is roughly equal to 9 cents of property tax. It's a tax on hard surface area, not property values, and will hit businesses harder than residences but it is still a tax burden on property. It is just a stealth property tax. These types of fees are often ignored when figuring tax burden or when tax freedom day happens but they are real taxes that must be paid and they come out of the same pocket as income tax, property tax, gasoline tax, sales tax and every other tax. At the end of the year, your average tax payer will have worked over a third of the year to pay his "fair share" of taxes. And there is a reason I put fair share in quotes. The tax burden is not equal or fair across the population. There is an ongoing debate on what would be a fair way of taxing people but the bottom line is that taxes are high and mostly paid by the middle, working, productive class.

So why am I focusing on taxes today? There are good local reasons. We have a very big city election coming up in just a short while. Up to 5 seats will change in this May's election. The Makeup and character of the council will be very different. And taxes need to be a top election issue. Every other issue is either directly or indirectly tied to taxes. And we need to maker sure that the candidates talk about everything that is truly a tax. In the past dozen years  or so the City Council has reduced the city property tax by about 10 cents. In that same time frame they introduced the Storm Water Fee, a stealth tax on property that is equivalent to about 9 cents of that property tax reduction. They have increased several fees which shifts about 1 cent of property tax to businesses. And the businesses then have to pass the extra tax expenses on to their customers. We haven't even gotten to the murky area of utility bills and the new trash contract. The local tax load on paper has dropped over the last few years and it looks good. On paper. The truth is that San Angelo citizens still have one of the highest tax burdens in the state and even though what City Hall calls taxes have went down, our community is paying a higher percentage of its take home pay to run the city government then it did a decade ago. 

This election, ask the candidates the tough questions and elect candidates that will reduce the total costs, the real taxes on our community, not just the ones labeled taxes in their press releases.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Do we have a free press?

There is a lot of discussion about what is a free press and what it's role is in society. It's been that way since before the founding of our country. It's a concept that is often misunderstood. One of the things to keep in mind when dealing with a free press or news media, is that there are two definitions of free at work here. There is free as in free speech and free as in free lunch. These types of free are continually at play determining what type of news and information is available from both the mainstream and independent media.

Most people expect the news to based on free speech. They expect, and often assume reporting that's not influenced by politics, religion, money, etc., at least from their trusted sources. They want reporting that's unbiased and based on a complete reporting of the facts and by the end of the report they want find truth. Anything else is dismissed as fake news. Sounds good but the truth is that's a bit of a fairy tale that even those in the media often believe. One of the problems with this ideal is the free lunch problem.

Robert Heinlein popularized the saying "There ain't no such thing as a free lunch", frequently abbreviated as TANSTAAFL. Just because you didn't pay for it doesn't mean nobody did. The truth is that advertising pays the bulk of the cost for news. Some of you might object to that. You subscribe to the print edition of your favorite news outlets so you are paying for the news you that you can trust. Hate to break it to you but your paid subscription barely pays for the cost to deliver the ink on dead trees to your home. Even paid online subscriptions do little more than pay to keep the lights on. In the world of news and information it's an economic reality that the advertiser is the customer, and you (or at least a small bit of your attention) are the product.

So far I've ignored an elephant in the room. That's the impact of the government. All levels of government spend a fortune on advertising. Whether it's public service, military recruiting, job advertisements, etc. governments at all levels advertise a lot. In addition, governments use laws, regulations, and the courts to set boundaries. We have radio and TV news because how the federal government interprets the public good of each license issued to use the public airwaves. Add in the news releases, official notices, etc. and you get the idea of how much influence the government has on the news media.

So what we end up with is a world full of news and information sources that are seldom as free as we think they are. There will seldom be direct control but the visible and often invisible influences are there that in the end shape what we see as news. What makes news and reporting free to the extent it is comes from the competition of all these different sources paying for our free press. We need to remember that when we try to separate out the fake news.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Quick thoughts on the Meet & Confer negotiations.

As most of my regular reader know (both of you know who you are) I've been following issues like Police officer wages, benefits, etc. for quite a while on this blog and website. Real wages and compensation have been slowly creeping up to where they reasonably should be. I don't really know of any City employee that's over paid (ok, maybe a couple but we won't go there yet) but the Police wages are in the spot light because they can and are negotiating an updated contract with the city. A major sticking point has been why isn't a one time lump sum stipend payment as good as a raise. Lots of time was spent on that point. Several speakers, including myself spent lots of time trying to explain the difference. In the end, the council approved going for the raise instead of the onetime payment.

All this is a lead up to something that actually seems to happen quite frequently. After the meeting was over, and votes were cast I thought of the perfect metaphor for this whole debate.

A lump sum stipend is how you treat a one night stand. A raise shows commitment.

Nuff said.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Trashy Thoughts on Government and Journalism

I’ve been thinking a lot about the current trash contract. People are still upset about the whole process. Most people I talk to feel that there is or at least should be a great deal more to the story. They feel that the citizens of this city were not given adequate information on how the selection process was handled. They wonder how there can be consistent over billing and unauthorized fees on a contract for at least 10 years without someone in city hall catching them. They wonder where reports, audits, investigations, etc. that should be readily available just don’t seem to be there. After almost 3 years, this should be old news but every time I’m recognized in public someone asks me “What’s up with the trash contract and why don’t I have real answers to my questions.” It’s going to take a while but this is my attempt to answer my friends, neighbors and fellow citizen of San Angelo as I see it.

Just to keep the record straight, I’m not a professional journalist. Never claimed to be. I have written a few articles that might qualify as journalism. They were unpaid submissions and therefore technically not professional. No one is paying me to write about any of this. I’m a blogger. Have been since 2004 when we first put online as a forum on the Sales Tax Election. After that election, and reviewing the results, my friend Jim Ryan and I decided to keep Conchoinfo up and online and use it to put out our best effort at analysis and opinion on local issues such as taxes, water, bond elections, etc. We were both lucky we had the time available to do  the basic but often hard research on issues, and we developed a bit of a following, a certain amount of credibility, and have been a part of creating change here in the Concho Valley. Conchoinfo has slowed down on posting over the last few years. I have a new job and a house full of people living with me. Takes up more of my time than I anticipated. And we lost Jim Ryan last year. He is greatly missed. So the output has been small and often through other outlets as comments on stories there. I’m interested in getting information, analysis, and even my opinion out there but receiving credit is not why I do this.

I am putting this on Conchoinfo because there is probably no one  involved in this that I’m not  going to irritate. The way I see it City Hall has made numerous mistakes, but so have the reporters and news organizations and media and the companies involved in the contracts, etc.. And some of these mistakes have been and are still being made by people I respect and hope to still call friends when I’ve finished posting what I have to say. Still, one thing I’ve learned on my journey through life so far, even the best people make misteaks.

It’s going to take awhile to write this all out. You and I will both need to come up for air sometimes. I’m going stop here with some links that might come in handy to help us communicate. Comments will be allowed. Encouraged even, but they will be moderated as well. Respect the people that participate on this blog and we’ll be fine. I am also posting this on facebook and the same applies there.And I'm adding some links here that might be useful. These deal references and terms that are spread all over this issue. This not to accuse anyone of anything. This is so that when someone is accused of something, you;ll have an accurate idea of what they are being accused of.

More in a couple days. 

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

The election is over

Well, the people have spoken. Will take us at least 4 years to understand what they truly said.