Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Hate and Terror

I was surprised to read the letter in the Standard Times today complaining about Hate Terrorist groups, and complaining "there ought to be a law" against them. I was even more surprised when I saw it was from an elected law enforcement official, a constable, who really ought to be more familiar with the law of the land and the concept of rights.

First, he seems to forget there are already laws against terrorist actions. In addition to the myriad laws against murder, assault, arson, burglary, vandalism, conspiracy to commit criminal acts, racketeering, etc., there is the patriot act which is currently under review and revision. Being a terrorist, or terrorist group has never been legal, and the laws are on the books to deal with that.

The problem comes in when you lump hate groups in with terrorist groups. Like it or not there is a constitutional right to hate. Remember the first amendment? There is a constitutional right to get together with like minded people and hate as a social group, as long as no laws are broken or advocated to be broken. That is the right of assembly from the same amendment. Just because a group advocates a position that we interpret as hateful doesn't make the group illegal.

The small, sad, ignorant group here called the KKK has a right to be as stupid and hate filled as it wants as long as its actions remain within the law. No additional laws are required if they cross the line and become a terrorist group. We don't need more laws, we just need elected and government officials that understand these laws and wisely use and enforce them.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Sundry Solstice Thoughts

The last two weeks I have mostly lived in a truck, had lots of time to listen to radio, and sometimes even think. Turning of the year may be characterised as arbitrary, but at least in this hemisphere there is a certain tug in the direction of the solstice, so a few random thoughts with the turning of the calendar.

There has been a lot of commentary on the proposal to build a physical wall along the Mexican border. This is of limited local impact, save for the INS dumping OTM illegals at our bus station, but it did give me reason to reflect on one of my simplistic axioms. I do not intend to pronounce for or against what is really a national issue, but one radio guy caught my ear when he wondered how the party which virtually worships Reagan could embrace a wall, when one of Reagan's most famous quotes was, “Tear down this wall, Mr. Gorbachev!” My theory has always been that the freedom quotient of a country with a border fence could be measured by one simple fact: is the fence designed to keep reluctant citizens in, or too many aspiring citizens out. On that basis, we rank as one of the most free nations on Earth. Keeping us that way will always be an ongoing task, but our comparative status is worth a Christmas toast.

Speaking of Christmas, another highblown radio controversy is the “War on Christmas”. I think it speaks well of San Angelo's generally tolerant people that we have, as usual, a predominately religious display on the courthouse lawn, and no one has ever called in the ACLU to move or abolish it. My fundamentalist church gives no theological significance to Christmas, but I cannot imagine trying to rain on the parade of those who still think the holiday primarily religious rather than commercial. Being raised Church of Christ with an aunt who was a Catholic nun might have broadened my perspective.

Actually, I find San Angelo, compared to other places, very broadminded, and not just among the educationally advantaged. The change from the early 70's is dramatic. Today, even in blue-collar beer joints, the revelation that so-and-so is gay is most often met with “and your point is?” Racism and related “isms” definitely still exists, but it just as definitely does not rule a city with a freely elected Mexican-American police chief and a popular city manager of the same ethnicity. Look at how hard the paper had to work to get a quote from our supposed local klansman. Another Christmas toast to our city.

I believe we have the best city government in living memory. There are still factional issues, council representatives are elected to represent their specific precincts, but this Council seems to have more willingness to look at the city as a whole than I can remember.

On that thought, let me move to Christmas wish list. On the positive side, Council reacted to the deplorable Kelo decision on imminent domain by declaring that San Angelo would not engage in such takings for private use. It would be preferable to have this as a City Charter measure than a more easily reversed ordinance, but our last Council saw fit to take Charter elections off the table for two years with an appointed polce chief measure no one took seriously.

I would hope that Council would appoint a board to look forward to next year when Charter measures can be put to a vote. As this Blog has pointed out, there is some housekeeping to be done before a change in selecting a police chief can be properly put forth if at all. I hope the next eligible election puts imminent domain limits in the Charter on the ballot. As the lamentably retired Jack Cowan pointed out recently, we could try to synchronise traffic lights, something Mr. Turner has past experience with. We should consider allowing the Economic Development Board a little leeway to deal with changing needs. We can pray that a faith-based prison, if built at all, gets built elsewhere, on somebody else's nickel.

Overall, San Angelo is doing well. Employment is high, if still less well paid than we might like. The Art Museum just got an exceptional recognition for a community our size. We are about to turn a sow's ear into a silk purse with the Library project. We are an unusally generous city, while others worry about “cuts” to say, Meals on Wheels, a federally funded program, we have Meals for the Elderly, a totally voluntarily funded local program. The seemingly bottomless well of qualified volunteers to pitch in and work on local solutions to our problems continues to astonish me.

Problems we have, as does any city. What I do want to do at this season of reflection on the past year, is to acknowledge the good, celebrate the things and the people that make San Angelo such a nice place to live. A Merry Christmas, Happy Hannukah, and an even better New Year to all.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Problems with the Faith Based Prison Project

  1. Economic impact is overstated.
    1. Initial impact is unlikely to be as large as anticipated (see here and here).
    2. Long term impact is likely to be slower growth (see here).
  2. County must contract for prisoners (see here and here).
    1. Government agencies outside of Texas can't contract directly with a private prison in Texas.
    2. Any problem between these other government agencies and the facility will leave the county in the middle.
  3. County sheriff's department must inspect prison and ensure it meets standards (see here).
    1. The sheriff will need additional resources to inspect the prison if he is not to short other duties.
  4. County government will still be involved in the prison industry program (see here).
    1. The state has so far expressed no official interest in a program with no Texas prisoners.
    2. Even with the states involvement, the county will have supervisory responsibilities as they will be part of the contract.
  5. Lost tax revenues compared to other businesses because it will be not for profit.
    1. On a $30,000,000 facility, there is more than a $450,000 loss of school taxes.
    2. A state or federal prison will pay for this lost tax revenue with a direct payment in lieu of the lost taxes where a private, non-profit prison won't.
  6. Impact on the court system is largely ignored.
    1. Prisoners are notorious for filing lawsuits. It is unlikely that this Faith Based facility will be significantly different.
    2. How will the current system handle the increased case load and added security requirements.
  7. Impact on city facilities such as police and fire departments is ignored.
    1. What additional training will be required for our police officers and fire fighters?
    2. What provisions are being made for security during medical transport and emergencies. The proposed medical care will be at Community hospital, which will require transporting the prisoners clear across town, the shortest route being approximately 10 miles.
    3. Who will provide the guards for hospitalized prisoners? The facility? The sheriffs department? The police?
    4. Who will be providing EMS service to the facility? If our firefighters, what training will they be given on how to handle such an emergency?
  8. County government responsibilities and liabilities when the prison is operational is under estimated, if acknowledged at all (see here).
    1. It has been ignored that Texas Government Code requires the county to be prepared to purchase and operate the facility in the event of bankruptcy. Considering the fact that this is a new approach by an untried company, the likelihood of bankruptcy is high.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Jewel in the Crown

New Library: A Jewel in the Crown
A little history is in order here. The original purchase of the Hemphill-Wells Building was pushed through as a matter too urgent to allow for study and reflection. The city absolutely needed this space right now. I contended we could afford to look at other options, or at least further inspect the H-W Bldg. as to its suitability for our needs. I recall suggesting H-W would make a lovely library and open Ed Keyes for office space. Mayor Fender informed me the building was structurally incompatible with a library, the votes were in hand, and the purchase was approved forthwith.

I signed on with a move to petition for recall of the Council members voting in favor, one of the dumber things I've done. The public focus moved from the purchase itself to the recall, which went nowhere. In retrospect, at least for many years, neither did San Angelo's new acquisition. The city got to pay for asbestos abatement and has received use of the street level windows for posting signs and such. The lesson for politically active people; being right is not enough, if one opts for stupid tactics, one still loses.

Fortunately for San Angelo, wiser and cooler heads prevailed, and it appears the transformation of the Hemphill-Wells into a library is well on its way. This effort took a lot of people working together, and I don't wish to slight any of them. I do think a special attaboy needs to go out to Ralph Hoelscher. With polite, but dogged persistance, he got this on the agenda, got City and County governments to sit down together, and kept it on the table until a consensus was worked out. Another big attaboy to Steve and Pollyanna Stephens for a two million dollar contribution to the cause to bring it to the realizable stage.

As planned now, we will get a much larger library with a surrounding balcony, use the basement for really dense stacks, with room left over for government offices, possibly some compatible commercial use. We have invested a great deal of effort and money in downtown revitalization, if this gets done as planned, it will be the jewel in the crown of downtown.

The San Angelo Area Foundation has agreed with the county to act as Fund Administrator, accepting donations for the library project. We will need to raise about $9.5 million for the capital fund. The official fundraising effort will begin in January, but the Foundation is ready to accept donations now. Donations will be tax deductible and donations made prior to Dec. 31, 2005 will be deductible on 2005 tax returns. Checks should be payable to San Angelo Area Foundation, with “Beacon to the Future Fund” on the memo line. The address is

Beacon To The Future Fund
San Angelo Area Foundation
2201 Sherwood Way, Suite 205
San Angelo, Texas 76901

My check is on the way. This is a chance to help bring about something that will be an asset to San Angelo long after we are gone. No tax increase, only the willing need apply, this is how free people make good things happen.

School Board Business

The School Board meeting yesterday (Dec. 12th) was interesting. There was a lot of ground to cover. There were a number of reports that were presented, but not covered in depth, which is a good thing. For example, one report on the Academic Excellence Indicator System is 296 pages long. (Can be found by searching here on the TEA site if you are interested.) They also covered the calendar for next year, and boundry changes which were proposed to improve safety of school routes. This information is available on the districts website at SAISD.org.

During one of the breaks I talked to Mr. Layman. He was disappointed in the controversy about the meetings, as he felt that the board was more open and forthcoming with information than in the past. With the amount of information and discussion required for this meeting it is easy to see how having two sessions to cover the material would be a plus. He also reassured me that minutes were being kept for all the meetings, and the public is invited to all the meetings, including the workshops, except for executive sessions. He also stated that they would probably review the current procedures after everyone has completed mandatory Open Meetings and Public Records training early next year.

Hopefully we can now concentrate on the important issues affecting local schools such as academic performance, facilities and upgrades, taxes, and bond issues.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Faith Based Prison, again

The Commissioners court is going to look at the private prison project again. They have added it onto the agenda for the 13th. This project is still full of problems and unanswered questions.

They still don't have a location. As more is known about this project, the opposition to the original locatation has grown from a "not in my back yard" group to a more fundamental questioning of the project.

They have no idea where they are going to get the prisoners from. They have not been able to bring the Texas Prison Industries on board yet. They still haven't been able to get Born Again Corporation in good standing with the state yet. They are still worrying more about making money off of out of state prisoners rather than addressing crime problems here. I hope the voters of Tom Green County think about this in the upcoming elections, and remember which commissioners are pushing this project and which ones are listening.

These issues have been brought up here, on the ConchoInfo website, and Concho-Online.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

School Board Redux

The school board made the news again. The sad thing is that most of the news is about how the meetings are scheduled and conducted. There are some real concerns about keeping the public involved and informed. We have covered it previously here and here.

There have been some improvements since the first time I looked at this issue. The Board Book, an online agenda management tool, seems to be working now when it was just a link to the company page the first time I looked. It is on the SAISD Meeting dates and Agendas page. Some points stand out looking over the history of the board meetings. The first workshop session of 2005 was in September, and it was apparently a presentation on how school boards and superintendents should work together, with no action items or resolutions required. Strictly information and training. Pretty much similar to what you find in workshops held by other government entities. An open meeting where the public is welcome to observe, but normally of little interest unless someone is looking for a cure for insomnia.

In October the board started doing monthly "workshops" on the agenda of the next regular meeting. They also stopped video taping the workshops, although they are still open to the public and printed minutes are being maintained as required. In these workshops, they apparently go over the same items that will be presented in the regular, televised meeting. There is apparently some discussion at these sessions. One of the goals seems to be to get the discussion out of the way so that the reports and presentations can be moved along quickly and in a set amount of time. Almost comes across as a rehearsal for the SAISD TV show.

Truthfully, there is a lot of ground that needs to be covered by the school board. The proposed agenda for the next (Dec 12) meeting has 31 items and the total agenda packet is 91 pages. Many of these items, such as recognition of specific teachers, etc. with no money involved don't need to be discussed at 2 board meetings. There are other items, such as beverage contracts and the scope of work of architects, that deserve the fullest public involvement and disclosure.

In the end, I see some problems. First, this is not a very time efficient way of handling the meetings. All the reports and background information have to be presented twice. Why not handle a report or item completely at one time, and only have it on the next agenda if there are changes or further discussion required. Second it appears on the surface that a large part of the serious discussion will be done in the workshop and a dressed up, professional image will be made ready to be presented to the TV camera and the public. Last, on major issues it will require concerned citizens to attend twice as many meetings just so they can actually see and be involved in all the discussions. It means that in order to see the full discussion, you will have to attend the workshops, instead of being able to watch the proceedings on the ISD channel.

It would be easy to say that this method of conducting business was a deliberate attempt to keep part of discussion obscured from the public at large and increase the difficulty of public involvement. I don't believe it was deliberate but the net effect is the same and in the end the effect is more important than the motivation.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Taking Issues

To kick off the political season, I thought I would start a list of the issues that are likely to be part of the upcoming elections. This is just a starting point. As the list grows, these issues will get their own articles.

1. Taxes.
2. Education.
3. Public Safety.
4. Jobs and industry.
5. Water.
6. Traffic Lights.

Lets keep the list growing. Add your favorite (or most irritating) issues.

Tis the season

Thanksgiving is behind us and we are in the middle of the biggest shopping season of the year. At a less materialistic level, this is a season of good tidings and great joy. A season of preparation for new beginnings.

There is a season that is starting that we will be paying more attention to as time goes on: Election Season. Candidates are registering for offices at all levels. Soon, the campaigns will make us wonder what happened to all that good will to men.

Here at conchoinfo, we hope to highlight the real issues for the elections, especially the local ones. We will not endorse any candidate, but will post information about them when appropriate and we will tie this to issues. That will stay our primary focus.

Your opinions on candidates are, of course, welcome. We ask that you tie your opinions to issues. Don't just say that one candidate is the best unless you can say why. This forum strives to be a source of information. Add yours to the mix.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Education ruling

The Texas Supreme Court released its ruling on education funding today. At 117 pages, it will take a while to digest, but wanted to have the link online so everyone can have access.

More Economics

There some interesting articles at Wired magazine and Cnet news.com about a new wrinkle in the whole outsourcing model they are calling "homeshoring". A company called Rural Sourcing is contracting high tech, computer related jobs to rural areas. Might be worth our local leaders looking at. Maybe the Chamber could contact them and send them a brochure. Don't forget to include information on the facilities at ASU.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Rambling Thoughts from a Rambling Job

I have been conspicuous in my absence from local functions I regularly attended. Primarily, I have a new job, oilfield service, chemically treating wells. The hours prevent my attendance at many functions, but the job has some side benefits worth mentioning.

The wells go where the oil is and I go where the wells are, and in the process I regularly travel areas as far off the roads as one can get. The fellow bleating in the paper about “spawl” reaching unabated to the border needs to get out more. Trust me, we still have plenty of “miles and miles of miles and miles” as someone put it. We have lots of spectacularly beautiful country within a 100 mile radius of San Angelo.

The job has also shown me up close the value of looking to desalination of brackish water for a long term source. I use the stuff every day and as far as I can tell, it is everywhere around us. The quality and content vary, and one thing we will be doing is locating the most abundant fields and water that needs the least remediation, but as far as availability in general, we have hundreds of years' of supply close at hand, we just need to combine source and the right technology to get the lowest cost of high quality end product.

While we avoid anything like endorsing candidates for office, credit where it is due, Scott Campbell started early and got us to the top of the list for the joint San Angelo/UCRA pilot project with a $300,000 grant from the state. The timing is excellent. We have plenty of time to evaluate this project. As noted in an earlier posting, San Angelo is way short of using our Ivie Pipeline allocation, we are not tapping our local resevoirs, we have several years to tinker with this idea and perfect it as a backup to our existing supply.

A totally separate issue, one of the things common on the back country rambles is coming on virtual trailer parks in the middle of nowhere, anything from beat-up pups to rock star sized Winebagos, clumped together. They are not Katrina refugee sites, they are deer hunter camps. My comment, good luck to you all, and bagging the limit should be easy. Let the slaughter commence and fill them freezers.

Seriously, I am surprised the bag limits have not been raised if not removed this year. Two good wet years have resulted in a population explosion. The roadkill exceeds anything I have ever seen, and once I get backcountry, the deer seem to have bred like Australian bunnies. I could have nearly bagged my limit running into them with the truck. There are some leases where I will go a couple of hours and never be out of visual contact with at least a couple of deer. Many of them are almost fearless. I have a picture of three does standing about fifty yards from where I am noisily pumping flush water. They are placidly gazing at me in mild curiosity as they munch on grass and salt cedar. Gunshot hell, I could have thrown rocks and hit them!

No, I don't hate Bambi, but there are simply too many of them. The next bad year for rangeland will have deer starving by tens of thousands and in the process eating farmers' crops to a nub and creating a really nasty road hazard as they move to right-of-way grass. So far, most of the animals still appear well fed, but as winter gets harsh, or if next year is dry, we will literally have deer eating lawns and shrubbery all over San Angelo.

I don't know yet how quickly such things can be done, but we seriously need changes in hunting regulations, at least in this part of Texas. The season ought to be extended, and the limit raised. One idea I like from other states, hunters have to “earn” bucks by taking does. Hunting for horns does nothing to reduce population growth.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Good Neighbors and the Klan

There have been some recent stories that the headquarters of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan of Texas is claimed to be in San Angelo. The Man who claims to be the "grand dragon" of the group, Steven Edwards, is most likely a newcomer to the area. On the main AWKKKK website he is listed as the Imperial Kludd (supposedly "pastor"). Sounds like he got a promotion from his post in the Georgia group.

As has been reported in the Standard Times and on other websites, the Klan has never had much luck in this area. That doesn't mean they won't have an impact, but the reality is their hate message designed to spread fear, uncertainty and doubt under a thin veneer of distorted "religion", misguided patriotism and made up history isn't taken seriously here. They are likely to be a pest on the same level as flies. A nuisance that can be taken care of best by not giving them anything to breed in.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Pedestrians, Sidewalks, and Hazards

One of the most heated discussions in the last city council meeting was about sidewalks. Mr. Morrison was hot when the council was told that sidewalks promised for Lincoln last April won't be installed until NEXT May at the earliest because the grant paper hadn't be properly processed yet. He was tired of waiting and wanted to take money from the general fund and get it done now instead of waiting till the end of school. There was a tie vote, so the item will be put on a future agenda.

Some background might be useful. The sidewalk problem around the schools is the result of decisions made for years by prior city governments. They have had the authority to require sidewalks as part of the planning and zoning rules for years. They have almost automatically waved the sidewalk requirements in school routes. Combine that with the narrow roads around many schools, and there are obvious hazards. So what can be done?

Section 201.614 (corrected link) of the Traffic Code is where the city can get grant money from. It directs TXDOT to use the Safe Routes to Schools program to distribute Federal money under the Hazard Elimination program for projects such as sidewalks, crosswalks, etc.. This program, which appears to have started in 2001, is where the city is trying to get the outside funds from. Note that this is not limited to just school grounds.

If this wasn't a school, the city could also assess the property owner for the price of a sidewalk. The cost would become a tax lien against the property. School districts don't pay property tax, they collect it, and even if there is a lien, it is paid when the property is sold or transfered which seldom happens with a school. (All the schools recently closed by SAISD are still owned, maintained, and sometimes used by SAISD.) So if there is no grant, the cities only choice if sidewalks are needed is to build the sidewalks on the school grounds with general fund money and hope they can sweet talk the School Board into putting money into the pot.

Interviews and Review Boards

During the last city council meeting a report was given by the San Angelo task force on race relations. There was considerable discussion as the highlights of the information were presented. One of the biggest areas of concern was hiring practices used by the city, especially "oral review boards." These were seen as a problem, mostly because of abuses in the past when these boards were used as a backdoor way to circumvent civil rights and equal employment laws.

The representative from the police department (I must apologize for not getting his name) stated that an interview is required by the Texas Administrative Code, and that the department, since Chief Vasquez had taken the reigns, was using the interview primarily to give the applicant the chance to explain any potential problems from the background check.

Being the curious type that I am, I checked out the reference cited and sure enough, in the section covering licensing and the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement Officer Standards and Education, section 217.1(a)(10) it does require an interview. It specifically says under standards for issuing a license:

"10) has been subjected to a background investigation and has been interviewed prior to appointment by representatives of the appointing authority"

There is a requirement for the interview for law enforcement officers to get licensed. It appears, though, that the interview is intended to be used as an integral part of the background investigation process. A chance for an applicant to explain items that tend to pop up during a detailed investigation. This is a necessary part of a background investigation. As long as the department does interviews primarily for this purpose, they can be a positive, useful tool. That will depend on high leadership standards in the police and fire departments now and continuing into the future.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Economic Development Flexibility

It's no secret that I opposed the economic development sales tax, but that is not my point here. The last election was a thorough airing of the issues, and I defer to the judgement of the electorate. While some results have been mixed, overall we have seen a passing grade on use of the fund. Matt Lewis has to have donated six figures of his time to administering the fund, and If Kathy Keane does as well running this as she did running the City Clerk's office, we will be blessed.

The law authorizing the tax requires that we use the fund as it was put to us on the ballot. The proponents were quite specific on ballot wording, thinking that would help pass the measure, and it probably did help. I now find myself arguing the case that we need greater flexibility.

The twenty year term was a bit of a surprise, and was argued pro and con even amongst the tax proponents. My thought is that since we did approve the tax for that term, we need a new plebiscite to allow greater flexibility in its use. Families do not “carve in stone” the family budget twenty years ahead, businesses have at best a general target twenty years out, in the real world changes beyond our control come to pass and we react to them.

I argued at the time the best thing San Angelo could do to attract business and industry in general was to lower our property tax rate, for years one of the highest in the state. This year we saw a small decrease in that rate, the first in a long time.

During and after the tax vote, Jim Turner and I have pointed out some things being done in Tyler, Texas, a city roughly our size in east Texas. Some particulars of their plan have interested City Council already. In sum, what Tyler has done is to use its economic development tax more for pay-as-you-go infrastucture improvements, lowering the burden on property tax. They have funded all sorts of nuts and bolts projects out of the development fund. In the process, over about ten years their ad valorem tax has declined from 55 cents to under 25 cents, currently the lowest in the state according to the Texas Municipal League.

Details of Tyler's plan are available at www.cityoftyler.org/ then click to “blueprint”. They are justifiably proud of what they have done and eager to share it for the asking. There are differences in our cities, for instance, being a stone's throw from an Interstate is something we cannot unilaterally do anything about. Tyler is demographically younger. Water is more a flooding problem than a supply problem for Tyler. I'm not saying we can take Tyler's “blueprint” off the shelf and apply it across the board, but their results certainly argue in favor of giving it a close look.

As an example, the single most common beef from taxpayers I hear is water rates. I suggested using part of this hundred million dollar fund to pay for the new water tower, an allowable use, IF approved by voters. That has come and gone, but it is an example of using the fund for infrastucture costs that would take items “off budget” and possibly let us reduce water rates and property taxes. The portion of the sales tax revenue dedicated to water conservation might be re-allocated, conservation has been so successful it is driving rates up. (See Regional Solutions, this Blog). We might use a small part of the fund to synchronize traffic lights, another chronic pain. State law allows use for infrastucture, not operating costs. Were we to approve it, big ticket items could move off the regular city budget, still get done, and leave room in the budget for reducing our high ad valorem rate.

If we start looking at possibilities now, we could put the question to the voters on an election coming up for very little cost. I hold that using the development tax to reduce ad valorem rates would favor long-term economic development.

I am not calling for a vote on the tax itself, that is to me a settled issue. I propose that as long as we have this half-cent tax, we give ourselves latitude to use it wisely.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Molly Taylor: Fond Farewell

Molly Taylor: Our Best to You
The Tom Green County election administrator, Molly Taylor will retire after the Nov. 8 Texas Constitutional election. I could not let this pass without acknowledging her outstanding service to Tom Green County. I have been either precinct judge or alternate (depends on the precinct winner in the last governor's race) since '94 and Taylor has been a Godsend to the county in her 7 years. I have over my voting life lived under good, bad, and indictable in that position in three states, so I have some background for comparison.
I will put it as simply as I can; over the years of her service, I have many times talked to Molly about specific questions of election law and procedure. To this day, I cannot tell you if she is Democrat or Republican. To my mind, no higher compliment can be paid to an election official.
The court case involving the precinct one race between Danny Cardenas and Ralph Hoelscher was an unfortunate outcome to a closely fought race, but really a shining moment for Taylor. I was part of the recount process acting for Hoelscher as a watcher. I do not, in retrospect, blame Cardenas for questioning the election night results, as it developed, there was a problem with the counting software, and the early reporting results made for a lot of confusion. Had I been Danny, I would have called for a recount if not the court challenge.
As it developed in court, the election night results aside, no one questioned either ballot security from election night to recount day, or the recount itself, a process which had counters counting counters and watchers watching the counters with both candidates present and allowed unfettered observation of the counting tables.
I have seen too many close races across the country end up with people in doubt due to the political affiliation of the person in charge. Thanks to Molly Taylor's professionalism, that was not the case here.
Taylor's replacement will be up to a committee and has not at this time been announced. I hope we stay with the primary qualification being competency and knowledge of election law.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Fire protection

Fire protection for housing developments outside the city is a special problem. Areas like Highland Range Estates have some very nice, expensive (by San Angelo standards) homes. They are close enough to the city that city fire protection makes sense. They are probably inside what is called the cities extraterritorial jurisdiction. Response time from the city would be much faster than from the closest volunteer fire department. There are some problems though.

One Big problem is that the residents of these developments outside of town aren't paying the city for fire service. That is a major expense. Listening to the property owners and residents of these developments, such as Max Sanders at the last council meeting, I am sure they would be more than willing to pay for the service, but there is no mechanism currently in place so they can. The next problem is a concern of liability for what the fire department does when outside the city limits. Annexation is a possible solution for some of these developments, but it is not suitable for all of them.

There does appear to be a solution: an Emergency Services District. This is authorized by the Health and Safety code chapters 775 and 776, with some further considerations addressed in the Local Government code chapter 344. Under these laws, a special district could be formed after a special election. This district would have taxing authority to pay for emergency services, would have the authority to contract and pay for emergency services, including fire protection. They would be able to extend the same liability protection that the city has, if the contract is in place.

The ball is now in the court of the residents of these developments. They are the ones that will have to petition the county to create the required emergency service districts. I do hope that when the city attorney drafts the resolution on fire protection for consideration at the next council meeting, she includes consideration of a possible contract with future emergency services districts.

These emergency services districts and related contracts might be another good way for San Angelo to continue being a good regional neighbor.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Open Government training to avoid a Train Wreck

It appears the School Board is not the only government agency that has problems with the Open Government and Public Information laws. To quote from the AG's website;

"Attorney General Greg Abbott called on the 79th Texas Legislature to enact legislation to require public officials to obtain open government training in an effort to promote openness and increase compliance with our "Sunshine laws." The Legislature responded by passing Senate Bill 286, which requires public officials to receive training in the requirements of the Open Meetings Act and Public Information Act. This bill was signed into law by Governor Perry on May 20, 2005 and will take effect January 1, 2006."

Starting in January, all elected and appointed officials will have to attend training. Details available on the Texas AG website. Will be interesting to see how well this goes in ALL of our local government organizations. I also hope the public is invited to attend some of the classes. I would very much like to attend.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Regional Water Solutions: Part II

San Angelo has finished another fiscal year in the water department. We came close, but still had a slight deficit. As I pointed out in an earlier piece on this topic, We are victims of our own successful conservation measures. From the 22,000 acre feet we used about the time the Ivie Pipeline went online, we are now at 12,500. The city estimates 13,000 as our break-even point, with water sales above that putting money into the water fund. We pay for 15,000 acre feet from Ivie, use it or lose it. We will start pumping the difference between use and that 15,000 figure into O C Fisher, at least getting recreational value if nothing else. The idea is to actually move that balance due water during the winter months when evaporation loss will be lowest. It still won't be gallons sold, so it will not help financially.
We also now have the water studies the city commissioned in hand. These studies examined the feasibility of different long term water sources and were to look ahead 50 years and more. We also have the most recent State commissioned Region F Water Planning Group study. We have available right now a wealth of information and solid fact far beyond anything we have ever had. San Angelo will be digesting this material and making decisions that will determine our water availibilty, cost, and quality down to our grandchildrens' time. It is likely the choices we make in the next year or so will eventually cost between one and two hundred million dollars. Best we make wise decisions now, at that price a “do-over” if we flub it would be terribly expensive.
The Stephens study for the city and the Region F report are sufficient to convince me that Hickory Aquifer will never be a viable option, at least with current technology. If in the future we are blessed with an affordable product like “Nukeaway” that could change, but nothing of the sort is on the horizon. It can be argued that our current regulatory stance on allowable radionucleotides is phobic beyond reason, in fact I would argue just that. In this case facts are irrelevant, the political reality is that the regulatory view of radiological contamination is more likely to become even more severe than to recede. The Region 4 report is available at www.twdb.state.tx.us/rwpg/main-docs/IPP-index.htm , see chapter 4 for Hickory Aquifer info. The Hickory users group has its site at www.hickoryuwcd.org/ and has a lot of useful info as well as their point of view concerning the as yet unused contract San Angelo has there. The Stephens study is available from the city, should be on the web soon, but I do not have a url for that if it is up now.
I will not make the whole case here, but let me put it this way: if someone comes to you touting a pipeline to Hickory water for San Angelo, Smile reassuringly, tuck your thumb over your wallet, and slowly back away. To cut to the chase, after 20 pages of examining options for small water districts in the Hickory Aquifer area, the Region 4 recommendation, at least under temporary waiver, BOTTLED WATER!
The Region F report identifies nine water utilities affected by radionuclides, ranging in size from Brady to the like of Lohn WSC, Melvin and subdivisions most of us would have trouble finding on a map. Their problem is they are too small to afford the infrastructure needed to comply. I believe it is quite possible that looked at regionally, their problem can become part of San Angelo's solution, if we are willing to explore a regional water plan. San Angelo can and of necessity, will afford supply and treatment hardware to provide clean water in excess of our needs. If we can interest these smaller communities east of us in a supply contract, we can then move to looking at cost effective distribution. This might initially involve trucking potable water to the “bottled water” distribution points recommended in the Region F study. Ideally, our long view would be a piped water system.
I have heard the suggestion from proponents of the Hickory supply suggest we could save construction costs by running a line from the Hickory supply to the Ivie line. They are dreaming, no hallucinating. This was forseen when the Ivie users group was formed, and that contract allows any single partner veto power over any partner's use of the line to transport any water other than Ivie. That clause was put in specifically addressing our contract for Hickory water. There is not a prayer that Midland is suddenly going to say, “Aw heck yeah, what's a little radiation between friends? Y'all go right ahead and mix your radioactive water in with ours, our voters won't mind a bit.”
On the other hand, if we are branching off Ivie to sell some of our surplus to these smaller communities, that objection would vanish. It is possible that a distribution arrangement could be agreed to with the Millersview/Doole water utility. When Millersview district completes its 3MGD treatment plant, they intend to abandon their use of Hickory wells. If agreement could be reached, incorporating that 50 mile reach of existing piping into a regional system would save everyone involved tons of money long term.
Remember, we are trying to plan for the next two generations. If we can get acceptance of mutually beneficial agreements and show that we will not use our size to bully about our smaller partners it is quite conceivable San Angelo could become the supplier and processor of clean water for a large multi county area, saving small communities money by being able utilize economies of scale unavailable to a tiny population. Grape Creek, Mertzon, MUD's such as Quail Valley might find it advantageous to join in.
At the very least, as we stand at a historic crossroad of water policy, we owe it to ourselves to seriously explore this possibility. The most important thing we will have to do is make a cooperative rather than combative approach. The mess we are just untangling ourselves from over water rights holders and the watermaster cannot be repeated. We need a new face and a new voice for water policy. I do not dispute Stephen Brown's contribution to San Angelo, Twin Buttes is to a big extent his baby. Still, no one who has argued water rights with him will mistake the man for a diplomat. This negotiation, if we decide to pursue it, will require a diplomat, not a hammer.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Economics - The rest of the story

There is some good economic news in this story from the Standard Times. It shows we have a growing job market, ranking 10th in those cities with less than 50,000 non-farm workers. Most of the information in the story is based on an article from the bizjournals.com website. This is good news but not quite complete. Time for more of the story.

First, it appears San Angelo's job market is recovering from the losses it suffered in the late 1990's. Looking at this market report, we lost over 2000 jobs from 1998 to 1999. The current growth is good news, but it is still not as good as it looks at first glance.

If you look at the job growth in San Angelo, the bulk of it has recently been in 2 areas: Government and Natural Resources, Mining, & Construction. In 2004 we lost ground in every other area of employment. I don't expect that trend to change for a while. Some of this growth is from the increased activity in the Petroleum industry. Far too much is probably from a construction bubble as the big box stores expand into this market area. Most of the "growth" from the big-box stores is just moving business from long established local companies to out of town chains.

Another part of the story is wages. According to the BLS our mean annual wage is $27,580. This is only 80% of the Texas wage of $34,870, or 75% of the national wage of $37,020.There are other similar sized towns with wages this low, but the low wage is probably the main factor leading to our flat growth rate. Until the wages start to rise, the city won't grow. Might be time to really look at the jobs we are trying to create.

So that's the story so far. Not time to break out the champagne yet. A beer might be appropriate though.

What do you think?

Friday, October 21, 2005

Open Government up to the Minutes

As promised, I have followed up on the written minutes of the SAISD Board meeting. I picked up copies of the October agendas and minutes (still draft, as they need to be approved at a November meeting), scanned them in, and posted them as PDF's here on my conchoinfo.org website. Contrary to what I was told, the October 10th minutes were more than just start and stop times and a list of attendees. There was a description of action, which consisted of

"2. Review Agenda Proposed For October 17, 2005 Board Meeting (attached) Presenter: Dr. Pugh

The Board reviewed and discussed the proposed agenda for October 17, 2005.

Item number 18 will be moved from an action item to a report item for the regular meeting on October 17, 2005."

This might have been fine, except the October 17th agenda was not included when I asked for the October 10th minutes, even though it is listed as an attachment and should be supplied as part of the minutes.

I also found the October 10th agenda very light, just listing a review of an as yet unposted agenda as the only item. Even the agendas listed on the SAISD website didn't list all 20 items listed on the agenda.

After reading the agendas and minutes, I am concerned that the agendas and minutes for the October 10th workshop meeting probably don't meet the requirements of the open meetings act. To quote for the Texas AG's Open Records Made Easy site: "The Open Meetings Act requires that the posted notice of an open meeting contain the date, hour, place and a description of each subject to be discussed at the meeting. Texas courts have interpreted this to mean that the notice must be sufficient to alert the public, in general terms, of the subjects that will be considered in the meeting. Descriptions such as "old business," "new business," "personnel matters," and "litigation matters" are usually not sufficiently detailed to meet the requirements of the Act." The agenda and the minutes of the October 10th meeting don't meet this requirement without an additional document. They should be complete without the need for the October 17th agenda being supplied.

So it appears that the information required by the open meetings act is being kept and available, but it probably doesn't meet the requirements that the agendas and minutes contain sufficient detail within themselves. The October 17th agenda should have been included in the body of the October 10th agenda, and should have been included and anotated in the body of the October 10th minutes. It is obvious that there are some changes that need to be made by the SAISD School Board to really comply with the open meetings act.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Open Government

I just finished reading the Standard Times story about the last SAISD school board workshop. Makes you wonder what the board members were thinking. It seems they need to take a look at the Texas Attorney General's site on open government, and look at the section called Open Meeting Laws Made Easy. They might want to get the publications available for free as well. Here are some highlights that the board needs to look at.

First, any time a quorum of a governmental body is present and discusses public business, the open meetings laws apply. According to information on the OAG site, the authority to hold off the record staff briefings and similar workshops was repealed by a change in the law in 1999. That law limits which meetings can be closed, and lays out the requirements for notification and recording.

Next there is the question of recording the meeting. According to the state law, all meetings subject to the open meetings law must either have minutes or a tape recording. No exceptions, even for closed or executive sessions. The only time that the minutes or recording stop is when the body is consulting with an attorney, and attorney client privilege is involved. There are limits on how the record of a closed session can be distributed, but there must be an official record.

Last, there is the question of notification of meetings. The law is simple. The notice must be posted in a place readily accessible to the general public at all times for at least 72 hours before the scheduled time of the meeting, with a few exceptions for emergencies and state legislature activities. I am not sure if the door of the school board building meets this criteria but will check it out when I get a chance. The Boards posting on the internet might also suffice, but the notice and content organization leave something to be desired.

After this quick review, you have to wonder why the School Board ended up in this situation. I am sure they weren't trying to pull a fast one. Still, this is something that shouldn't happen again. Additionally, this is a wake up call to watch the organizations that should be having open meetings. The "Government Body" referenced in the law also includes certain non-profits that can receive federal funds or that deal with water. Good government requires open government. Citizens do have a right to know what's going on.

Keep checking comments for updates.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Thoughts on Economic Development

There is an interesting conversation going on over at Concho-Online about the growth over on Sherwoood way. The consensus over there is that the building of all these big-box chain stores is not really economic growth. It brings no new money to town. It just changes where it is getting spent.

Economic growth requires businesses that generate or bring in new money. Traditionally, for San Angelo, that has been oil and agriculture. We have some traditional manufacturing, but growth in that area is limited by poor heavy transportation. We need industries where transportation is not a major negative factor. We have good telecommunications infrastructure. The success of companies like Sitel and DCS show this clearly.

So what else is holding back economic growth? High taxes are a problem. Having one of the highest combined property and sales tax rates in the state makes for a tough sell.

These are my initial thoughts, but questions still remain. Why is it that San Angelo is not growing economically? What else are we doing that hurts growth, and what are we not doing to help?

You can leave an anonymous comment on this or any of our other topics. Just click where it says comments below.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Good Neighbors and Regional Solutions

We have talked about regional solutions here before. I see it as just an extension of being a good Texas neighbor. Today, in the city council meeting, I saw indications that the city is moving to a more regional, neighborly, approach. First, there was a report on how successful the cities health clinic has been. This facility, which has saved the city, and in turn the taxpayers, considerable money has recently been expanded to include county employees. They also went over the life insurance plan where a better rate was had because of the joint buying power of the city and county together. This is a significant achievement that already is helping in the taxpayers.

Later in the session, the Texas Midwest Community Network made a presentation. This is a regional organization that the city has recently joined. They focus on regional development and awareness. There are, with the addition of San Angelo, 47 cities in this network. This is an organization that San Angelo probably wouldn't have joined in the past. In this network they have no more control than any other member of the network: One city, one member, one vote. It is refreshing to see the city joining an effort to approach economic development and tourism from a much broader perspective. The potential benefits are enormous for the entire region.

The last positive sign is the Hemphill-Wells library project. First, it is probably the best public use the building could be put to. Next it shows a new level of cooperation between the city and county. Add to this the funds and grants, many of them private, that have already been secured and you see an uncommon level of community involvement and enthusiasm. At the rate they are going, the tax dollars required for this project will be remarkably low. An encouraging extension of this is that some leaders in the project are looking at what it would take to expand this to a regional system such as the West Texas Library System.

These are encouraging signs. To be fair, the citizens of San Angelo have historically been good neighbors. It is, however, a sad fact that many times the actions of the city government have not been all that neighborly. It is good that in at least a few cases the government is starting to be as neighborly as the citizens it works for and represents. It's a good start. I am hopeful this will continue into the future.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

More Impact

A lot has happened since my last post. We are seeing the economic impact from Katrina and Rita. The commissioners court approved the RFP for the prison. For some strange reason the congruence of all these events started me thinking about Bastiats essay "That which is seen and that which is not seen." There is a danger that the rebuilding of the hurricane ravaged areas is turning into an extreme case of his broken window fallacy. The evidence of dreams lost or put on hold is everywhere. Still, there are so called economic reporters out there touting how good this will be for the economy. It is easy to see all the jobs needed for rebuilding and construction in the affected areas. We must remember that we can't see the projects that weren't started, the schooling delayed, the new businesses that will never be opened as a result. Billions will be spent to try and get peoples lives back on track. Just don't believe any of the self-serving commentators that try to spin this into an economic good thing. You might even want to suggest that next time they take a class in economics, they actually show up, stay awake and pay attention.

The hurricane connection is pretty obvious, but what about the prison? What's the connection? It will be easy to see the prison. It will be easy to see the guards and the bus loads of prisoners when they arrive. The money paid to the county will be seen in the annual budget. There a number of things, though, that will not be seen. Study after study after study say that prisons in towns make it unlikely for them to see significant other industries moving in. We have the highest incarceration rate in the world. We don't see the real impact of our failing criminal justice system. When you take 2 million people out of the work force, it is hard to see the total impact. We also don't see that the European Union, Australia, and Japan all have incarceration rates at 1/5th of ours or lower, and low crime rates without mandatory sentencing and Faith Based rehabilitation programs. We don't see that China, even with its notorious prison industry, still has a lower prisoner population and incarceration rate than we do. Prisons, at the present time, are an unfortunately necessary thing, a necessary evil. Never be deceived into believing that having a prison is ever a truly good thing.

When we are looking around us and listening to the news and seeing all the rosy predictions, we need to remember what is not seen, as sometimes that is the most important.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Sports Impact

Sports. They're an important part of our culture. We watch them for entertainment. We participate in them for health and enjoyment. We put our kids in them so they can have fun and to teach them lessons about life and team work. They have an impact on our lives.

Governments often get involved in sports. They take tax dollars and build fields and courts and arenas and coliseums. The reasons are as varied and complex, but in the end the arguments will revolve around money. It takes money collected as taxes to build a stadium or tennis court. To appear frugal and responsible, governments will trot out economic impact studies showing great, positive returns on their investments. Most of these studies are flawed. As the Sports Journal points out here and here and the University of Washington here, most economic impact studies end up being sales tools. The cost of building and maintaining a stadium, field, etc. is seldom recovered by the increased tax revenue before it needs replacing. The jobs created at the bottom end of the pay scale. Even the extra jobs needed to support the event are jobs like motel maid and convenience store clerk. Not high paid, high skill jobs.
So what's my point? If you try to reduce sports to tax receipts and put a dollar amount on it, you miss the point. Sports affects many qualities we expect in a good place to live. They can make people happy. They can keep our kids positively motivated and out of trouble. They can attract people here and make people want to stay here.

So why the interest in sports today? On yesterday's city council agenda were 3 items dealing with sports and tax dollars. They discussed the proposed new tennis facility, the use of 4b sales tax money for maintenance and operation of city owned sports facilities, and support for the Stampede arena football team. Too much of the debate ended up being about dollars. That's a very important factor, and getting bang for your buck needs to be a high priority, but there are other factors that need to be considered.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Bond Rating

A constant refrain in the debate on the local prison project is about the county's liability. The proponents keep telling us "Building this prison won't affect the county's bond rating." Hard to believe.

The county will have to do the contract with CCI for the prisoners. If New York, for example, wants to use the Habilitation house, they have to contract with the county and the county then sub contracts the care to CCI. The requirements for contracting with CCI are spelled out in the Local Government code starting at 351.101. This is not very interesting reading until you get to 351.103 paragraph (6) which says

" (6) if the contract includes operation or management of the facility by the private vendor, provide for a plan for the purchase and assumption of operations by the county in the event of the bankruptcy of the private vendor;"

So if the private vendor, CCI in this case, goes bankrupt then the county must have as part of it's contract a plan to purchase and assume operation of the facility.

Lets see. We have a company with a new, untested, plan and no track record running a prison. The company managing the records and prison industry is "not in good standing" with the comptroller. What is the likelyhood for failure?

They expect us to believe that lenders won't look at these risks when rating the county. How can they be so positive that operating this prison will not affect the counties bond rating?

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Political spectrum

At the last City Council meeting, I was asked why I was there and why we do Concho Info. I said I was there to gather information and insight, and then present information and analysis not done by the regular media. My questioner said "don't you mean the liberal media?" I said no, I meant what I said but before I could explain, council was called back into session. I think an explanation is needed here.

I don't think politics can be looked at a just left or right, liberal or conservative. A better approach is that taken with the Nolan chart as found at the Advocates for Self Government web site. It expands the field into social or personal and economic freedom. A strong case can be made that what we normally call liberal is a belief in personal freedom at the expense of economic freedom, and what we normally call conservative is a belief in economic freedom at the expense of personal freedom. This is still too simplistic, but it does emphasize that politics and the problems it addresses are not one dimensional. Trade offs happen all the time, but the current practice of trading one set of freedoms off against another, and then calling it liberal or conservative distorts the view. Kind of like looking at a map and only paying attention to the scale of miles at the bottom.

When you look at local reporting from a multi-dimensional perspective, you will see that it is all over the map. The map coverage just happens to be pretty thin. There are lots of reasons for that. Resources including time and people are limited. I understand why the local reporting businesses can't cover everything. They hit the high points on this map. I even understand why they don't cover somethings the way I would like. They have their reasons. What we at Concho Info are trying to do here is take some points we find interesting or important on this landscape, and draw circles and arrows to them on the map. Point out some rough terrain people didn't even know were on the map. Point out some trails out of box canyons. Highlight the cliffs before someone falls off.

That is why it's not us vs the "liberal media." These are not one dimensional issues, and we aren't after one dimensional solutions. Read what we have been writing, take the Worlds Smallest Political Quiz, and see if you don't agree.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Regional Solutions for a Regional Problem

San Angelo leaders will soon be focusing on long term water supply options. A lot of groundwork has already been done. The city commissioned three studies of our options, specifically looking at desalination of brackish groundwater, access to Hickory Aquifer water, and reuse of our own waste water for lawn and irrigation use.

In addition to these, the Region F Water Planning Group made their latest study available in late July. Reading the material made public so far, it is evident we need to adjust to some new water realities, some of which will seem to be 180 degrees from the water discipline we have taken for granted for a lifetime.

First among these realities is that for the first time in my lifetime, San Angelo is in a surplus position on water supply. Most city ratepayers felt justifiably betrayed when, after conserving water, as requested by City Council, they were rewarded with a 23% rate hike. What actually happened was, we did not sell enough water. Most people have not grasped that our connection to the Ivie Pipeline put us in a whole new world. We still anxiously watch the local lake levels and fret about running out of water.

Truth is, as nice as full lakes would be for skiers and fishermen, that which comes out of your tap has not come from local surface water since 1999. We contracted, take or pay, for 15,000 acre feet annually from the Ivie pipeline. When the deal was negotiated and we were using nearly 23,000 Ac/Ft, that seemed a very reasonable number. Since then, a number of factors have combined to drop our usage to a 2004 level of 12,500. Conservation measures from low-flow toilets to drip irrigation to two inch main replacement have reduced a lot of profligate use, and it is hard to argue that we should go back to wasting a precious resource.

The hard economics however, are that last year San Angelo paid for over 70 million gallons of water we never took delivery of or sold, and THAT is the primary cause for the water fund shortfall. Actually, 2000 was the last year we used the 15,000 Ac/Ft we buy. Add to that two unusually cool and wet summers, and water use is plummeting, an item which will be on tomorrow's Council agenda. I suspect our use is lower now than at this point last year. (By the way, temperatures in mid-August are staying in the high 80's, mid-90's range and I am off today due to being rained out with flood watches all over the Concho Valley. Got to be that there Global Warming.)

We know better than to count on a climatic fluctuation being a permanent feature of the water landscape. The long term decision we make will probably cost over $100 million and determine our access to clean water for at least 40 to 50 years. This is a time for careful study. While we no longer live or die on local surface water, the Ivie Pipeline is itself a surface water reservoir supply, subject to curtailment over a lengthy period of drought.

We have read the available studies and have suggestions to make based on them. The city spent over a million on its studies and the Region F work brings to the forefront the possibility of looking outside the city for long term solutions. We could help our smaller neighbors with their problems and in the process sell part of our current surplus. The advantage of the Region F study is its broader scope, looking at everybody from here to Brady as a regional group.

We are accustomed to looking at electric power as a grid system. There is merit in looking at water the same way. Imagine a regional distribution system with multiple sources and customers. I contend that if we do not invite our neighbors to sit with us in these deliberations on water, we will regret not having done so, maybe 10, 20 years down the road, but we will wish we had not missed this chance.

It will require, just for a start, a diplomacy new to us. San Angelo has an unfortunately well deserved reputation as a water bully. Had not Representative Campbell performed a minor miracle, we would be paying twice what we are for a watermaster.

In later posts, I will have more specific suggestions, but I urge in strongest terms that we approach water issues as a regional problem, one where we and our smaller neighbors share similar interests with possibilities for mutually beneficial solutions. When life gives you lemons, make lemonade and set up a stand.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Lakeview Chiefs: Endangered Species?

Last weeks news brought us a fine example of political correctness gone mad. The NCAA ruled that American Indian mascots would no longer be allowed, at least in post-season bowl games. At least 18 major colleges now use mascots the NCAA calls "hostile and abusive".

Perhaps the most famous, certainly the most sucessful of these is the Florida State Seminoles. It matters not a whit to to the mavens of manners at NCAA that Florida State went to the Seminole tribe and sought permission, or that the real Seminoles have stated it is a use of their image they are proud of.

If the Texas UIL were to follow the lead of NCAA, Lakeview would find itself in need of a new mascot and logo. I know a good many people in our area who proudly claim full or mixed Indian geneology, used to be married to one, but if there has been any local protest, I missed it. The visual representation used is that of a strong, proud, warrior Chief, anything but an insult.

Texas is full of strange, sometimes almost silly mascots. We have Horned Toads and Owls and Rams. I have always been puzzled by Steers, why one's rough, tough lads of the gridiron should be represented by an emasculated meat animal escapes me. Next act, PETA will demand all animal mascots be banned as "speciesist".

If UIL does go in this direction, what should Lakeview go with? The Lakeview Inclusionary Multiculturalists just doesn't trip lightly off the tongue, and besides a matching logo would be a real bitch. Can't say a particular image pops to mind. Still, it would show a lack of foresight for us not to prepare for such a ruling. I have a mental image involving a tombstone for the First Amendment, having trouble with a short mascot name though.

I leave this as an excersize for the reader. Feel free to reply by clicking on "comments". Suggestions will be forwarded to Lakeview and the winner (to be fairly judged me me) will receive two ataboys and a Grand Huzzah.

Friday, August 05, 2005

Why we are here

This weekend, Conchoinfo will be one year old. Over that time we have expanded beyond our original single political issue purpose. This site and BLOG strives to focus on the important issues of the Concho Valley. We try to provide information, analysis, and opinions from a variety sources including the internet, print media, and personal contact, research, and observations. So far this has been done mostly by Jim Ryan and me - Jim Turner. We have put a lot of time and resources into this site.

So why are we here? This site exists because we believe that truth is necessary for a man to be free. Having all the facts, and getting the truths behind them won't guarantee the best outcome, but without the truth and the facts to arrive there, we are all bound up in comfortable chains. I believe that you can't have good government unless the government process is open and the citizens informed. I believe that too little accurate information is available to our local citizens. Our purpose is to provide an information and knowledge source for the Concho Valley. It's a big task. Its so big, we need help.

We need additional information and writers for Concho Info. All public issues are welcome. Agreement with me or other writers here is not a requirement. There are some rules here, like keep it clean and no ad-hominem or personal attacks. Try to keep it accurate and factual. Keep it non-partisan. Don't get mad if someone disagrees.

So give us some input. Add comments on current articles (you can be anonymous.) Email me feedback, content or articles. Become a member of our publishing team (you do have to ask, but thats about it.) Help us make this an even more valuable resource for the Concho Valley

Jim Turner

Sunday, July 31, 2005

Planes, Property and Resolutions

The Dallas Morning News Saturday gave an editorial “miss” to American Airlines' effort to get smaller Texas cities to lobby in favor of retaining the Wright Amendment. Wright is a poorly hidden tax on Texas air travelers which forbids Southwest Airlines from flying coast to coast out of Love Field. It was an expensive protectionist measure designed to assure the profitability of DFW Airport when it was launched. DMN said of American's effort,”American swears it's not trying to threaten anyone. Would this at least qualify as intimidation?”

Let me put a personal face on the Wright Amendment. A few years ago, during a time when American Eagle was the only server at Mathis Field, I had to travel to Greensboro, N. C. Round trip, two weeks prior, one week stay. American was over $1,100 from Mathis. I checked around, got a flight out of Austin, no return restrictions, $349. Southwest out of Midland could have beaten that except I would have had to do the “Wright Amendment two-step” to finally get to Greensboro.

A writer in Sunday's Dallas paper points out that American followed the pattern at DFW when Delta's low fare competition vanished. American has not “been supportive” of San Angelo due to their love of our fair city. When they have a competitor, they match prices. When they don't, they rape us and any passenger with the time to do so drives to Midland.

I would prefer a resolution praising Continental for keeping these rascals honest. The Wright Amendment that Council has decided to support is an anti-competitive bit of specialized legislation creating a little monopoly just for DFW airport, with American being a subsidiary pig at the trough due to their position as largest carrier out of DFW. Nothing like it exists for any other area in the US, and it passed only due to Jim Wright's power in Congress at the time. Somehow the rest of the nation manages to maintain air service without such a law, nearly aways at lower prices.

So far San Angelo is the only smaller Texas city silly enough to bite American's bait. I called Congressman Conaway's office and let them know Council did not speak for me. This is economic blackmail, nothing less. If DFW cannot stand on its own two feet against mighty Love Field after 20 some years of Wright Amendment protection, turn it into the world's largest skate/bike park. Truth is, neither DFW or American is going to become an endangered species without Wright, they are scrapping for all they're worth to keep several hundred million in annual receipts they get under the Wright sanctioned monopoly. Cities all over America have two or more commercial airports which somehow coexist with each taking its own market niche.

If Council wants to get in the political lobbying game, as they have with the Wright Amendment, let me suggest an area Council has already opened, at least in discussion.

I wrote in an earlier piece about the Supreme Court US Kelo decision on eminent domain takings for economic development. Our own Scott Campbell co-sponsored with Frank Corte of San Antonio, HJR-19, for a Texas Constitutional Amendment prohibiting this in Texas. House and Senate could not agree on details in the limited time left last special session. There is overwhelming support in both houses for some form of HJR-19, but in a new session, Gov. Perry must again add it to the “call” before it can be considered, and he has not done so.

Council considered, spoke favorably of, and then tabled a resolution opposing such use of eminent domain until some legal technicalities were resolved. I fail to see such a resolution on an upcoming agenda. This is a no-brainer. Unlike the Wright Amendment, most voters grasp economic development takings and opposition polls at 70%+. People viscerally grasp the concept of having a three generation family home stolen from honest folk just because the local Donald Trump has use for the land. (No offense to Trump, I have no evidence he would ever be this crooked. It takes a lifetime of training in legal minutiae to honstly believe in so dishonest an interpretation of the Commerce Clause.)

To its credit, COSADC expressed its opposition to such takings, but nothing would prevent a different board ten years down the road from exercising such eminent domain absent a state Amendment. If Council wants to get in the political lobbying game, here is an issue with legs.

As an individual, you can, without waiting on Council, call the Governor's office at (512) 463-2000. Took me about ten minutes to get a real live, polite, if slightly harassed aide and have my opinion recorded. By the way, this past Tuesday yours truly was off for the day and I tuned in the Gordon Liddy radio show while waiting for the shuttle launch. Gordon opened with a monologue on Kelo, so just for fun I dialed up, not only got through, I was the first caller taken! Gave the run down of legislative efforts to do something here in Texas, got in plug for people to call in support and a nice attaboy from G-man. Never hurts to try. Call Perry, school finance is looking dubious, but maybe we can get something for our money this session. Be sure and insist on the Constitutional Amendment, not that watered down statute in SB62.

Prison Studies and Common Sense

My partner Mr. Turner, has done a good job of explaining PIECP as relates to the proposed prison. We have turned up some new goodies in that area, but some of our inquiries will not get answered until next week, we will update as we have more solid information.

I did get a copy of two economic impact studies commissioned by the Chamber of Commerce. Anyone who thinks that reading such material is dry, boring work just doesn't have the right attitude. Throw in a couple of adult beverages and my tour of these studies was a hoot. The one prepared for the State of Texas was a gas.

First, the cost of construction and equipment in the study lists at $17,780,000. Now the contract the Commissioners' Court is looking at specifies “cost of construction not to exceed [slightly under] $24 million”. I believe the last figure I saw in the Standard-Times was $31 million. Might be helpful if we had a clue what this “Pearl of the Concho” was going to cost.

In one of the tables, this study gives the total state sales tax revenue from workers as $162,408, and this is for a 2008 actual opening date. Sounds like they know, down to that last sack of Cheetos what these guards are going to buy three years from now.

On the construction phase the study has one table projecting, per worker, how much each worker will contribute to the state in tobacco tax, alcohol tax, and lottery tickets, $77, $75, and $187, respectively. Now it ain't hard to picture a herd of chain smoking, hard drinking, inept gamblers in hard hats, but then on page 23, the same table is repeated as an estimate for the guards at the prison once it's built. Sounds like a lot of backsliding gonna be going on amongst these exclusively born again Christian guards, but what the heck, prison guard is stressful work.

The job creation numbers are 153 at the prison, with 143 “indirect or induced” jobs. The 143 figure is slippery, these are the clerks (and presumably bartenders) who will be hired to accommodate the business brought in by the 153 real jobs. Now I might suspect that the nearby Town and Country store will have Louise stay over an extra half hour to help with the shift change rush instead of hiring a new hand, but then I do not have an MBA, so what do I know?

The line about “indirect and induced” reminded me of a phrase I caught in another study, this one a federal inquiry into drug use. Since the raw data was obtained by literally going door to door and saying “Hi, I'm from the government, do you use drugs?”, the pros would then “adjust for nonresponse by imputation”, seems they were unsure everyone would answer truthfully. In layman's terms this is called “making things up”. “Induced” is a red flag word in any study.

I really shouldn't be hard on this Impact DataSource company. Short of doing a very pricey direct survey, this guy did what is industry standard, he pulled a model from Dept. of Commerce, (in this case RIMS II) selected his multipliers and assumptions from a likely list, fed in the numbers provided by Chamber of Commerce and probably went for coffee while the machine hummed for a while and spit out the result. At the end of the study he freely gives a list of all this, nothing dishonest about it.

Unfortunately real people then take these results and make expensive decisions based on them, just as though they meant something real. The lesson here is, DO NOT take any “study” of anything as better than a slightly educated guess until you know the process by which the numbers were derived, and then keep several large grains of salt handy. When people get up and start throwing these numbers around, feel free to challenge them, they are next door to meaningless.

Friday, July 29, 2005

Population, Industry, and Water

One of the concerns voiced by the opponents of the private prison project is water. At the figures they were given of up to 115 gallons per prisoner per day, that is a water usage rate of 69,000 gallons per day or 2,5185,000 gallons per year for phase one, which is 600 prisoners. That's a lot of water, and should be looked at, but it must be looked at in terms of the overall size, economic health, and growth rate of the area.

San Angelo had a population of about 89,000 in the 2000 census. With the growth rate we had in the previous decade (a little over 5% per decade) we would be at about 91,500 today. If we have started growing at the rate of the rest of the state, we could be at about 98,000 today. According to the water department, people in San Angelo use about 150 gallons per person per day. Using the low estimate of 91,500 for the population that's 13,725,000 gallons per day or 5,009,625,000 per year. Normal growth for San Angelo should be in the 500 to 2000 people per year range.

San Angelo and the surrounding communities are trying to attract companies and jobs. They have given incentives to companies providing as few as 5 and as many as 2000 jobs. Most people realize that San Angelo must grow, both in population and in jobs. That means that the water system must be able to handle the growth. The City Council has been planning on this for a while. They have 2 water studies in progress to secure a stable long term water source that fits in with the hoped for growth of the area. If we can't absorb the water use of a 600 to 2000 bed prison, then we can't have any more growth at all. Regular growth will add the equivalent of a 600 bed prison every year.

I am not a fan of the prison project. I don't think it is good for the area. Like any other business, though, the issues need to be put in perspective. Realistically, we are not going to get a business of the size of the prison that uses less water. That's just part of any business.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Prison piece of the PIE

One area the County Commissioners Court has overlooked is the list of requirements for private industry to provide jobs in the prison. According to state and federal laws, no prison industry can exist without compliance with the Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program or PIE-CP. Without a certification under this program, no prison made goods or services can be sold except to certain government agencies, and no private company can contract for prison labor. There are 50 of these certifications available, and 38 of them have already been awarded.

There are three jurisdictions in Texas that have these certifications: Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Texas Youth Commission, and Red River County Jail. Not one of these agencies is involved, or even interested in the local prison project. That means that Tom Green County will have to get its own certification. It doesn't look like they have started that process yet. There are nine mandatory criteria that must be met before certification can be granted. These include certification that the prevailing wage will be paid, no local workers will be displaced, that local labor and industry groups have been consulted and satisfied, and that the program complies with the National Environmental Policy Act. There must even be a certification on a benefits package for the prisoners comparable to private-industry benefits, including workers compensation. This must be done by the county government, as this certification is not available to a private business or non-government organization.

So we have two problems here. First, it doesn't appear that the county has even started on getting this certification. This could be a long process, with no guarantee that the certification will be granted. Then the county has to be responsible for the private industry at the prison. They can use CCI or BAC as their agent but ultimately they will be held responsible for keeping the program in compliance with all necessary laws and regulations. Any problem with the private industry would leave the county and the tax payers on the hook for large sums of money.

In the end, the county will have to contract to supply the prisoners. The county will have to monitor the care and safety of the prisoners. The county will have to monitor the prison industry. The county will be responsible for problems in any of these areas. Tell me again about how local citizens and tax payers are protected in this private prison scheme?

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Message seen on a cheap crystal ball

Some time during my travels I acquired a cheap crystal ball. It was never very good, and the messages on it were mostly hazy and out of focus. I tripped across it recently and thought "what the heck", and put in a set of the latest NIMH batteries and fired it up.

This budget ball had never seen such power before, so the results were not what I expected. The images started out fuzzy, but soon I could see scenes of San Angelo from when I first arrived. Then it started flashing scenes like it was trying to catch up. It started flashing news paper headlines. Sales tax. Water meter surcharge. Sales tax Passes. Nasworthy Dredged. Twin Buttes leaks fixed. 9-11. Sales tax passes again. BRAC. Water rate debated, raised. Appointed chief proposed and defeated. Goodfellow spared and likely to grow. Water rated debated and adjusted.

Faster and faster they came. They became a blur. I saw headlines about prisons. Headlines about construction on the south-west and north-east corners of the town. Then the image froze on a headline that said "Growth causes changes in how local governments conduct business." Then the ball filled with smoke, cracked, and all the magic smoke leaked out.

This cheap ball, made before modern batteries, had done better than it ever had. Still, it didn't show anything unexpected. San Angelo has been growing over the last 16 years at an increasing rate. We are approaching two magic population numbers that will bring on major changes. San Angelo will likely break the 100,000 population mark and Tom Green County the 110,000 mark before the next census in 2010. Major commercial companies like Wal Mart, Circuit City, Best Buy, etc. have noticed that we are on the verge of becoming “metropolitan.” This is not just because of population numbers. When these two population milestones are passed, Texas law requires cities and counties with populations above these numbers to change how they do business. Election procedures change. Political candidates will have to report more. Changes will be required in court and Bail Bond procedures. Many changes will be required. These big businesses know this.

We have time to make these required changes mostly painless and transparent. We can do things like form a charter commission that will review the city charter and code of ordinances. We already know that some changes are needed from the appointed chief election. There are other changes needed even without those mandated by our growth. We need to look at all the changes needed now and in the near future and have a consolidated, coordinated, transition plan. We will likely have the chance for only two charter elections before mandated changes happen. There are choices that can be made on how we comply with the mandates. If we wait until the last minute, time pressures and big business lobbying can make good decisions difficult for our city and county to make. If we are proactive and start planning now, the transition will be painless, transparent, and will end up in the best interests of the city.

We don't need a crystal ball to see that we must start planning now for what is going to happen in the next five or six years. Still, I can hardly wait until the Best Buy opens. I've heard they carry a nice line of crystal balls.

Public (Ab)use Takings

This Blog is dedicated to issues concerning the Concho Valley. We leave national policy to other sites and avoid partisan issues. The U. S. Supreme Court decided to go out with a bang that resonates all the way down to City Hall, so I feel free to take up the issues raised in its last case, Kelo v New London. For benefit of anyone just returning from a vacation in Antarctica, the case allowed the city of New London to take by emminent domain property owned by Kelo, along with several hundred others. The properties in question were unblighted, functioning, tax paying tracts, both residential and commercial. New London had in mind a mega-project which it thought would generate more profitable, and more highly taxable use.

At its last meeting, City Council spoke unanimously in opposition to the decision. The members' hearts were in the right place, but they were at a loss to come up with an effective, immediate response. Fortunately, a special session of the Texas State Legislature had been called to deal with school finance. Our local Representative, Scott Campbell, co-authored and immediately introduced HJR19, a proposed State Constitutional Amendment, which would prohibit any Texas government, state, city, or county, from using emminent domain for economic development puposes.

This proposal had to be styled as a joint resolution, as no business not specifically authorized by the Governor can be considered by a special session. I am happy to report that as of Friday afternoon, Governor Perry added this issue to the call of the special session. In that both House and Senate resolutions on the issue have a sufficient number of co-sponsors to pass the amendment in each body, we can now comfortably predict this amendment will be added to the Nov. 8 ballot along with 9 other constitutional propositions.

I do not pretend to read the minds of others, so it is impossible to say whether the Governor was inspired to this by the literally hundreds of thousands of calls, letters, and e-mails his office received or by the fact that his primary opponent Carol Strayhorn was scheduled to hold a major media event late Friday and slap him upside the head with his reluctance to move on it, but either way, it worked. Now thee and me have a chance to correct the bad call by the High Court, at least in Texas.

I cannot overstate the importance of this amendment. Rep. Frank Corte of San Antonio and our own Scott Campbell introduced HJR19 as quickly as legally possible, but they were behind the city of Freeport, Texas. Within hours of the Supreme Court's decision, Freeport filed emminent domain against several property owners who had stood in the way of that city's waterfront development dream. When I say "This could happen to you", I mean it literally. The Institute for Justice has recorded over 10,000 such cases, many of which IJ defended for owners without deep pockets, and this was before Kelo really opened the door.

The Texas Municipal League has issued a statement that the decision "was good for Texas cities", it would let them manage economic development as the city fathers saw fit. The Texas Municipal League is a lobbying interest group which is supported by every city in Texas, San Angelo included.

What you as a voter can do is two-fold. First and foremost, plan to vote for the amendment (it does not yet have a name) in the Nov. election. If you are not registered, you must register at least 30 days prior to Nov. 8, or by October 7, a Friday. You can vote early for two weeks before election day in person at the office above the library, Sunday included. You can vote by mail, you can vote from jail (if uncovicted of a felony). If you happen to be aboard the space shuttle, Texas Election code 106.002 allows you to vote from outer space! Please don't tell me you can't find time to vote.

Second, call your City Council Member. If you are unsure which one is yours, call 659-6541 and a friendly elections clerk will tell you. Tell your member, one of the unanimous voices last Tuesday, that you want San Angelo to tell the Texas Municipal League it can reverse its stance on emminent domain or call San Angelo a former supporter.

If this sounds like I have digressed into a bit of civics 101 on how to cast a ballot, well, I have. I want this amendment approved by such a margin that every village in Texas will think three times before even uttering the term "emminent domain".

I also have a touch of personal pride here. The very last legal precedent cited by Justice O'Conner in her dissent refers to the, her words, the "infamous decision in Poletown", a Michigan case which allowed GM to bulldoze 28,000 residents out of the way of a plant GM wanted. I quote, "This is why economic development takings seriously jeopardize the security of all private property ownership. 304 NW 2nd at 465 (Judge Ryan, J., dissenting)". Guess it runs in the family.