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.

Bored with boards

There is a lot of talk lately about boards and commissions. State of the Division has posted a couple articles that are critical of the board member selection process and the Animal Shelter Advisory Committee. I have to agree with much of what he says. I also think I understand what's at the root of the problem with boards.

It's hard for the city government to create effective boards when they're not clear on why we have boards in the first place. Here are some of the main reasons I think we need them.

The first reason we have boards is to connect the citizens with the city government. It's important that the city government not be isolated from the community as a whole. Governments need constant feedback. Feedback is need to prevent and correct errors and identify problems.  With a properly functioning board the city government and the community will connect on issues and work together to shared, supportable goals and avoid a significant number of problems. This helps reducee the "us vs. them" mindset that is so common.

The second reason to have a board is to bring a fresh perspective from outside the walls of City Hall. This is in reality a part of the first reason but it's purpose is to keep the government from being isolated. Far too often there is a traditional, legalistic, governmental rule book way of dealing with issues. A government staff that isn't connected to the community will also act defensively. A good board is a balance to traditions and power centers in City Hall. You have to balance the inside with the outside.

Another reason you need boards is to act as representatives of the city council at the working level so council has an independent view of what is going in city hall from a citizens perspective. Council can't be everywhere. That's why we have boards.

 The last reason you need a good board is you need groups that can take a long view independent of the day to day operations. City governments get in trouble when all the solutions are tied to short-term goals with little longer than an election cycle. We've had some local progress such as a capital budget we put in the charter to force planning for some stuff at least 5 years into the future. City officials still have problems thinking beyond a budget cycle or the next election. A good board has the luxury to think long range. What will our grand kids be doing? What will happen to San Angelo in a hundred or thousand years? Will it be a thriving community or just an archaeological dig? That should be part of the mission of every board.
.
Right now we have many boards that are probably unnecessary. We have many boards where attendance is so low they have a hard time making a quorum. Some only meet a couple times a year and really they don't have much work to do. Many have vacancies that haven't been filled for years. Many of the board members I've talked to don't know what's expected of them or what they can do or what role they play in the city government.

Four years ago I submitted a plan to the City Council. They looked at it. They voted on and approved it and then promptly forgot about it. They did make changes to the boards and commissions some of the changes were actually steps backwards. The council pretty much abandoned the selection process to city staff who does all live review and screening. It's tough for anyone with fresh perspective or a different opinion from staff to even get before Council unless they can convince a council member or the Mayor to push for them.even though or just post to be picked and selected by city council and serve at the pleasure of City Council. Boards are not staff. They don't do day to day operations. They are there to advise council and staff on policy and the future. 

Things need to change. Here are my recommendations.
1. Every board and commission should should face a review every 2 years. This review should happen at a joint session where the board should be able to tell the council why it should continue and what it has done for the past few years. Council should give feedback on how useful the board has been and what it expects in the future. Special requirements and qualifications for membership should be part of the review. If the board needs expertise, they need to have a plan on how to get it. A list of future goals should also be part of the review. At the end of the session, the council should either say "Good job. Keep it up.", "Here are changes we expect from you in the future." or "Thanks but we don't really need this board anymore."

 2. Every application for board membership should be forwarded to the appropriate council member. Staff should verify that the applicant meets the requirements for the position. If the applicant meets the requirements, the packet should go forward. If there are any staff considerations besides qualifications, those should be forwarded as part of the packet but if the person meets the qualifications their name should forwarded. The decision is for the council, not staff, to make.

3. Attendance should be monitored and reported to the council, probably at least quarterly. Any meeting that is canceled because of lack of quorum should be brought before council at the next meeting it can be put on the agenda, probably during public comments and made part of the public record.

4. Every board should have a clear, action oriented mission statement. One I particularly like is this one from the Airport Advisory Board: "The board shall act as an advisory board to the airport manager, and the city council, and is expressly directed and empowered to make a complete study of all phases of the airport operations and make recommendations from time to time for the most efficient operation of said airport." Not perfect but not bad. We need similar mission statements for all the boards. And they need to be taken seriously.

5.  Board members don't work for staff, they work for council. They do, of course, have to work with staff and and they should be supporting, not fighting staff. That being said, one of the most important functions board members should do is as a devils advocate. They should ask tough questions and not be just an echo chamber for staff. They need to have an unfiltered connection to council. They should be self governing and independent from staff in decisions and questioning.

6. A properly functioning could be part of the hiring process, especially for liaisons. They should work closely enough with staff and be knowledgeable enough in their area they can offer independent advice up the supervisory chain. They might be able to serve part of a screening committee during a job search. They should be another a set of  eyes that know the city's needs. Not sure any of them are ready for that yet but in the future I could see the water advisory board giving advice on hiring a water utilities director or engineer.

These are our thoughts today. You can see they haven't changed much over the last few years. Hope to see some of the changes soon.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Engage

You probably have noticed that the city government is going to try to encourage citizens to be more engaged with their city government. They've announced programs they are calling COSA university, Citizens 101, and lunch and learn. Looks like they will be spending lots of time of on what city government does and how it does it. This is good and probably necessary. The stated goals are to train people for membership on the various boards and commissions the city has and to "cultivate some well informed community ambassadors for municipal government." I think they are overlooking something very critical to achieving these goals. Why should citizens even bother to engage?

I could get very long winded here but the simple answer is that people engage with the city government because of beliefs, values, and feelings. They engage because they are emotional, even passionate about community beliefs and values. They engage because they feel it's the right thing to do. They believe they can make a difference. Frequently, it's not very logical. It takes time, energy, and resources to be engaged. It won't pay the bills or put food on the table. Without an emotional connection it's hard for someone to justify the tradeoffs necessary to get engaged and stay engaged. Why be on a board or commission instead of working extra hours, going back to school, or volunteering in church?  People engage where they feel they can make a difference. They engage with others they trust to achieve shared goals.

Right now I think the city government has a couple problems getting citizens engaged. First off, they don't do a very good job explaining the why of most decisions. They will have slides and spreadsheets and dollars and cents comparisons. They will explain what they want to do and how they plan to do it often in great detail. They have problems when they try to explain the why. The why is what connects the what and how to community beliefs and values. That creates trust, which is key to engagement.

Our city government needs to work on building trust. They haven't been very good at it lately. We could start with the lack of transparency on "furnituregate." Yes, an internal investigation was done and it was finally sort of  made public but it hasn't been publicly discussed or explained. It falls far short of what was promised. Throw in how the Hickory Aquifer project, especially radiation and cost concerns, has been handled. Add in the hiccoughs with the new "smart" water meters. We could mention recent budget workshops which have had council and senior staff backs to citizens/observers. What about the budget workshop that was taken completely out of the county and no video recording was made. The public information office routinely records meetings, like CIP hearings etc., for broadcast later so why not this budget session?  I've heard it said this was because the citizens could be distracting. Truth is the citizens aren't a distraction, they are the reason you are there to do the budget. What about the disconnect between the planning and zoning process and the concerns of the residents close to Lamar elementary. The real issue was not zoning. It was growth and its affect on traffic and safety. And do we need to go into how the bidding and review process on the landfill contract damaged public trust? Do I need to say that failure to answer basic, obvious questions (like what are our current costs/expenses) that would not have given any side a competitive advantage made it look like the city was trying to hide something? I could go on but I don't need to because this is just a list of missed opportunities for the city government to build trust and connect with the citizens of San Angelo. There will be plenty more where these came from.

I know I said I wasn't going to get long winded. Sorry. Could have been worse. In the end I welcome the city managers attempt to get citizens engaged. Hope he and the rest of the city government will do what it takes to get positive citizen engagement. Frankly, I'm not optimistic. If I was a betting man like my friend Jim Ryan, I would probably place the odds at 10 to 1.



Saturday, June 28, 2014

Historical Perspective Thought for the Weekend.

As we relax this weekend and get ready for the 4th of July, I feel a little time travel thought experiment might be fun.

In a thousand years, will San Angelo be a healthy community with a continuous historic connection back through today to Ft. Concho, etc. or will it be just another archeological site being studied for why it failed to survive and thrive?

Sunday, June 01, 2014

Taking it to the Streets

We're in the middle of the budget cycle right now and for the next several months when the City Council isn't talking about water they're going to be talking about streets. It's an important issues and it's overdue.

There is no doubt about it. Many (most?)  of our streets are in terrible shape. There will be lots of talk about how they got in this shape. Bad decisions were made on maintenance philosophy and priorities. We need to understand how we got here to prevent this from happening again and again. The reality is that many cities are facing the same problem with aging streets and infrastructure. It's hard to do good planning for something with a 25 year or longer life span when your only on the job for two years at a stretch. It.s easy to get hung up on finger pointing and trying to place blame. That won't fix the streets. 

It will take time, commitment, resources, and money to fix this problem. And this is where we need to pay close attention. How do we pay for these repairs. We're already hearing a lot of talk about this. City staff gave a presentation at the last City Council meeting about how to pay for this. It was really more complex than it needed to be. Here are simple basics that need to be kept in mind during this discussion.

These road repairs will be paid for by tax dollars. That's a given but it's easy to forget. It will come out of property tax, sales tax, grants from the state or federal government which are just returned tax dollars, etc.. The money can be money that's already being collected or it can be from a tax increase but fixing the roads will be your tax dollars at work.

If we use money that's already being collected we will have to spend less tax money on something else that the city is doing. Real priorities would have to be made. Some services might have to be scaled back or eliminated and roads would have to be seen as one of the basic function of our city government that they really are. I don't expect to see much of this because I doubt that many on council or staff are ready to admit that some of their pet projects don't perform as expected and shouldn't be held to the same priority as basic city services and infrastructure. They will still want to spend big bucks on things like streetscapes when the streets are bad.
 
The other way to get the money to fix the roads is to raise taxes. A lot of the presentation that staff gave was really about how do we raise taxes without actually calling it a tax increase. The slight of hand is you call the tax a fee. The one that seemed to be most favored was a "Street Maintenance User Fee" and would likely be set at a rate to collect between 2 and 3 million dollars a year. At the current tax rate, that's between 6 and 9 cents of property tax. If implemented like it's been proposed, it will also be a very regressive tax. It will be an add on to the current utility (aka water) bill and will have no real relationship to how much wear and tear you put on the roads. If you have a water bill, you will pay about $5/month even if you don't own a car while big, multimillion dollar companies with fleets of trucks that put the most wear and tear on roads will be subsidized because they will not be paying based on the damage they do to roads but how big their water meter is.

Over the past 10 or so years the City council has lowered property taxes by about $.10. They snuck in a tax increase a few years ago by adding on a storm water fee that's about equal to $.08 in property tax. They justified calling it a fee because it is somewhat tied to the amount of storm water clean up property might create because of it's impermeable surface like buildings, parking lots, and driveways. It's still a tax but at least it's somewhat based on what's causing the problem. Adding $5.00 onto the utility bill is a pure and simple tax. There is no real connection having a water bill and how much damage is done to the roads. We might have on the books a $.10 reduction in property tax but the reality we will end up with a $.05 to $.10 increase in real taxes.

San Angelo still  has one of the highest tax loads in the state, especially as a proportion of individual or family income.  Any method of paying for road repairs should do three things. It should focus on the real basic functions of the city government and recognize that some popular things need to be put lower into their proper priority. Any tax increase should designed in such a way that the people putting the hardest use on the road pay the biggest share of fixing the roads. And when taxes do go up, have the guts to call it a tax instead of hiding it behind a label of "FEE". Seems more truthful that way.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Radical

Been doing some house cleaning in emails, etc. and ran across something I wrote to a friend of mine that has some very different ideas on politics. Think it's time to share it with more people.

You asked me an interesting question the other day: Do I consider you to be radical? You seemed disappointed when I answered yes. I did tell you I didn't consider that a bad thing, but I want to give you a more complete answer.

I would be terribly disappointed in you if you weren't a radical. I
could bring up the fact that every one of our revered founding fathers
and the framers of our republic were radicals but you already know that.
I could point to countless mythical heroes and the founders of most
great religions and state that they were also radicals, at least for
their day and age. Lots of examples to show that it's okay to be
radical. Of course it's okay. That's not even the point. The question is
why be "radical?"
It's really simple. Progress doesn't happen in the middle. Growth and
change and innovation happen at the edges. Meaningful change is always
radical. You and I both want positive change for a better world. Radical
comes with the territory. We will seldom agree politically but don't
ever stop being radical. It's how we make a difference. It's how we
change the world.
Guess it's time to be radical.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Memorial Day Thoughts and PBR

It's memorial day and every news outlet, social media site, and most blogs rightly have something to say about the true meaning that so often gets forgotten on this weekend of Bar-B-Que and the Indie 500. It is a time to reflect on duty, honor, and country. And it's been said in many ways and many places far better than I can say it here. So I'm just going to share a memory. A thought, feeling or meme if you will from my own life.

The least expensive beer 6 packs that Wal Mart had this weekend were for PBR. It's been on sale there for a little while and I picked some up. It seemed fitting to me for this weekend.

Forty years ago I was almost finished with my tour in Okinawa. Most troops had already been withdrawn from Vietnam. Ground troops were "officially" gone. Pallets of Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer that were originally destined to support forces in Vietnam ended up in Okinawa instead. The EM club on Torrii Station where I worked and lived had a lot of specials on PBR. A cheap way to party with comrades in what I now know was a special place and time. My PBR this weekend helps me  remember the people I worked, lived, and partied with for just over 20 years. We share a common bond of an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic. There's a lot more I could say here but really it's already been said, and in most cases much better than I possibly could.

So today I will drink my PBR and remember those I drank with back then. And the only thing I can add is my sincere thanks.

Friday, May 09, 2014

A pause for a look back

It's been almost a year since the last election. It seems fitting that we should review the speech that Mayor Morrison gave after he was sworn in. He made a very strong case for what needed to happen as the city moved forward during his administration. At around 3:12 in the video he emphasized the need for all decisions to be made openly and transparently before the public in the council meetings, not behind closed doors. At about 4:00 he charges staff to present complete and accurate information and be prepared to answer tough questions. At 6:34 he expresses the need for a united city to address many issues and at 9:26 he observes that there are problems that the city government doesn't have the answers to and asks for public support.

With another city election coming to an end and the half way mark of Mayor Morrison's first term fast approaching I think it is time for the citizens of San Angelo to review how well his goals and aspirations have been met. I, as my previous post probably make clear, have an opinion but this is not about my opinion. I think now is a good time for you, my friends and neighbors and your friends and neighbors to review in your own mind and your own way how well this city and its government are carrying out the vision expressed in our Mayor's speech.