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 Dictionary.com, 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 ConchoInfo.org 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.

Sunday, November 06, 2016

When you vote.

On election day we need to remember we don't elect a debate or platform or survey or an issue. We elect a person. Hopefully a person that shares our beliefs and values. A person that understands and exercises leadership. A person we can trust. Remember that when you cast your votes. Vote for the person not the noise of the campaign.

Saturday, November 05, 2016

Overdue post on what matters.



Black lives matter. Blue lives matter. Black and blue coverage. What really matters? Freedom matters. Love matters. I matter. You matter. Truth matters. Drones matter. Dogs and cats matter. We’re all red on the inside. Beer matters

These are some of the thoughts that have been dukeing it out in my head lately. This was a long, hot summer. Temperatures were high. Tempers short. Too hot to think. Too much to drink. Too much time in the sun, not enough light on the important things. Solutions matter

We are at several transition points. Cross roads to keep it simple. Top down is turning to network. Centralized is being distributed. Diversified trying to consolidate.  Robots replacing workers fixing robots. Mr. roboto asks “do you want fries with that?” Siri will answer. Robots and replicators and 3d printers Oh My. Purpose matters.

This summer was a series of personal transition points. My Mom went home to be with my Dad. My family is not the one I was born into but it’s family. Family matters.

One of my best friends passed away this summer. More than just a friend he was a partner in politics and blogging and other such acts of rebellion. Jim Ryan, Barkeep is gone but he left finger prints all over San Angelo. He donated his body to science so he keeps on contributing. Not bad for a truck driver and barkeep. He made a difference. Lifes matter.

Friends don’t hurt friends. Family protects family. Community protects members. The river of life keeps on flowing. And nothing else matters.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Overdue posting on the appointed chief issues.


I was on the charter review committee in 2007 and this current committee. We covered the appointment options several times and in detail. Over at the Conchoinfo blog ( http://conchoinfo.blogspot.com/search?q=civil+service ), we have been covering the appointed chief and how state civil service law affects it since 2006. San Angelo is a Texas Civil Service city. It's been one since the voters decided on it in 1948. Local government code (http://www.statutes.legis.state.tx.us/Docs/…/htm/LG.143.htm… ) spells out both the allowed selection procedures and the minimum qualifications for an appointed chief. We did a Q&A at conchoinfo before the 2007 charter election (http://conchoinfo.blogspot.com/2007/09/chief-concerns.html ). Nothing has really changed there except in the 2007 charter election, where we clarified the city managers authority as the CEO of the city, we copied from the U.S. Constitution the process that all city manager appointments of senior officials (assistant city managers, city attorneys, department heads, fire chiefs, etc.) would be with the advice and consent of city council. How that would be formally implemented was and is up to the city council but it is in the city charter ( http://z2codes.franklinlegal.net/franklin/DocViewer.jsp…...). That was put there to make sure the city council was kept in the loop (and hopefully the citizens of San Angelo) on all senior appointment. That is where the city councils authority to be involved in the appointment process of the police chief comes from. The city council can't appoint the police chief (or the fire chief, city attorney, finance director, etc..) They can advise the city manager not to hire, and withhold their consent (approval) but the appointment is by the authority of the city manager. Any firing decisions are also only those of the city manager. The city council gets no vote or input once a chief has been hired. If they want to fire a chief or department head, they have to replace the city manager with one that will do that for them. They can't do it directly. That's also what the city charter currently says, and that won't be changed. We've covered that at many of the charter review committee meetings. It was brought out during the forums. I wasn't there to personally state that at the last few council meetings but I didn't expect the ball to get dropped like it was. Hope this clears up some of the confusion.I was on the charter review committee in 2007 and this current committee. We covered the appointment options several times and in detail. Over at the Conchoinfo blog ( http://conchoinfo.blogspot.com/search?q=civil+service ), we have been covering the appointed chief and how state civil service law affects it since 2006. San Angelo is a Texas Civil Service city. It's been one since the voters decided on it in 1948. Local government code (http://www.statutes.legis.state.tx.us/Docs/LG/htm/LG.143.htm#143.013 ) spells out both the allowed selection procedures and the minimum qualifications for an appointed chief. We did a Q&A at conchoinfo before the 2007 charter election (http://conchoinfo.blogspot.com/2007/09/chief-concerns.html ). Nothing has really changed there except in the 2007 charter election, where we clarified the city managers authority as the CEO of the city, we copied from the U.S. Constitution the process that all city manager appointments of senior officials (assistant city managers, city attorneys, department heads, fire chiefs, etc.) would be with the advice and consent of city council. How that would be formally implemented was and is up to the city council but it is in the city charter ( http://z2codes.franklinlegal.net/franklin/DocViewer.jsp?showset=sanangel...). That was put there to make sure the city council was kept in the loop (and hopefully the citizens of San Angelo) on all senior appointment. That is where the city councils authority to be involved in the appointment process of the police chief comes from. The city council can't appoint the police chief (or the fire chief, city attorney, finance director, etc..) They can advise the city manager not to hire, and withhold their consent (approval) but the appointment is by the authority of the city manager. Any firing decisions are also only those of the city manager. The city council gets no vote or input once a chief has been hired. If they want to fire a chief or department head, they have to replace the city manager with one that will do that for them. They can't do it directly. That's also what the city charter currently says, and that won't be changed. We've covered that at many of the charter review committee meetings. It was brought out during the forums. I wasn't there to personally state that at the last few council meetings but I didn't expect the ball to get dropped like it was. Hope this clears up some of the confusion.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Welcome to the Party

I received an email from the San Angelo Tea Party recently that you can see on this weblink. They have finally discovered that  San Angelo has the second highest property tax in Texas. Welcome to the party. We've been following property and other tax rates for years. San Angelo has been the second highest property tax city in Texas for aboutt two decades and property tax doesn't even come close to showing the total tax load. We have the 4b 1/2 cent sales tax that was added back in the late nineties. There are also stealth taxes like the storm water fee which is really property tax in disguise. It's to pay for unfunded federal storm water mandates and it collects about the equivalent of 6 cents in property tax every year. Add in various other taxes and fees, etc. and San Angelo citizens pay a lot in taxes.

It seems that this video from Public Information got some peoples attention. I think that's great. Of course, there's nothing new in that video. During the last several budget sessions, this same information has been presented during one of the budget sessions or rate hearings by the city manager and staff. This high tax rate has been an issue in several local elections, especially those around sales tax and school bonds. Before our current boom, it was frequently brought up as one of the factors hurting job growth and economic development. No surprises here. The only things different this year than last is that the Council didn't lower the property tax at all, instead choosing to fix roads, and we have a video that only half way explains the problem.

The thing to remember about our tax rate is that it is driven by spending. San Angelo, like every other city in Texas and unlike the Feds, must have a balanced budget. There are several core functions, like street and water main maintenance, that need to be done and it costs about the same to fix a mile of road in San Angelo as it does in Midland, Odessa, or Wichita Falls. There are also several other areas the city spends money on that are not quite as essential, and several that many would consider luxuries. Most years the budget is set by looking at how much was spent the last year or two, adjusting for things like fuel increases and some pay raises while keeping the tax rate within a range where it doesn't have to go before the voters. 

For the last 10 years, the council has managed to drop property tax rate. That's a good thing. There have been cuts in some programs, and some services such as facility rentals have raised rates to help pay their own way. Still, there is more that needs to be done. 

Up until we started the Capital Improvement Plan and put that in the City Charter 7 years ago, planning for capital projects and maintenance was an after thought. That would probably have never happened if not for a water main break that left much of the south part of town without water right before Christmas. Finally figured out that water pipes don't last forever and they will get your attention whether you like it or not. We are still having pipes break but they are not as common and they don't have the devastating impact the Christmas break had. This council has finally gotten serious about addressing roads. 

Before he left, city engineer Bailey presented a partial list of roads that needed major work. Think it started at just over $100 million was the best estimate on how much money it would take to fix the current problems. In prior years the city was only spending about $1.5 million per year on roads. Don't have to be a math genius to see that these projects wouldn't be finished before our grand kids reached retirement age when we could start all over again. Throw in the fact that major roads only last about 20 to 30 years without major maintenance and the problem gets even clearer. This year the increased revenue is going into road maintenance. It's even more critical because the oil boom is wearing out the roads faster than normal. While the increased revenue is there they need to catch up on the long neglected infrastructure maintenance. At some point, there will be an oil bust. When that happens, they will probably stop fixing the roads again.

Making the high tax load even worse is the pay scale in San Angelo. Last time I checked, individual income in San Angelo was about 17% lower than the average for Texas. The cost of living here is at least as high as our benchmark cities. We used to get a break on housing costs but that has pretty much vanished with the current oil boom. Jobs are plentiful but the pay still lags the rest of the state.  Makes the weight of a $685  tax payment heavier on a San Angelo worker than one in Abilene.

I agree that San Angelo taxes are too high. Thing is, you can't just cut taxes. The city government has to fix spending. They can't tolerate little things like $100,000 unauthorized furniture expenditures. Have to clamp down on cost over runs. Cut back on programs that are non-essential. They must be open and honest about the complete cost of all projects from beginning to end. Must have public safety. Need to fix roads and water and sewer. Not too sure about some of the other expenses. There will be tough, unpopular choices. Stop with the candy store until the basics are taken care of. Get the spending right and the taxes will be easy to take care of. Take a look at the proposed budget. Almost $150 million. 40 pages. There are opportunities for savings in there. I do think we are certainly taxed enough already. We have to be careful while we cut spending enough.