Sunday, June 19, 2005

Voices: More on the Faith Based Prison

Judge Brown was on the radio this morning promoting the prison project. We have been following and analyzing this project for some time. I think it is fair to say that he just repeated some old mantras that are not completely supported by facts. He started off with the noble goal of reducing recidivism. He then moved on to how Tom Green county was selected. Economic benifits were covered next. Recidivism was addressed again from the economic impact that the criminal justice system has on communities. Site selection was next, and the low likelyhood of escapes. The prison industry was mentioned. Some things need to be clarified.

First, the jury is still out on the effectiveness of faith based programs on reducing recidivism. The studies so far are not all that conclusive either way. As pointed out in the analysis of one study, many of the studies mix apples and oranges. The secret seems to be that real help is needed for prisoners to adjust to the choices and demands of freedom for an extended period of time after they are released. The current practice of just dumping prisoners back into society under supervision of a Parole Officer that is overworked and whose main tool is the threat of more prison time just is not working. With these prisoners being from potentially anywhere, it is hard to see how this follow on program can be managed and coordinated. That part needs lots of attention.

Next issue that needs to be addressed is economic impact. It is one thing, as Judge Brown suggested, to talk to judges in counties with prisons. That is necessary, but it doesn't really give an accurate picture of the impacts of a prison. Study after study of the results show that there is little positive impact from building a prison, and that having a prison in town historically has discouraged other business development. One common theme in most studies based on historical data is that though prisons do create a stable set of long term jobs, towns with prisons lag towns without prisons in economic growth. These are also not high paying jobs with a future. These are stressful, demanding, skilled jobs that pay little more than a clerk or sales manager would make.

Then there is the issue of the prison industry that would come here. There are many problems with this area. They have proposed having a call center as a prison industry, which would compete directly with Sitel and DCS - two of San Angelos major employers. Light electronic or mechanical assembly has been mentioned, which pits the prison against some small local companies and has the prison competing with the goals of the economic development corporation. This ignores existing Texas and federal laws that restrict the use and sale of prison produced goods. There were reasons that prison industry was severly restricted in the late 1800's and early 1900's. Have they secured an exemption from the current laws that restrict sales of prison produced goods to government entities?

The last point: Judge Brown stated that he has talked to officials in counties with prisons. That is good but we can't find any evidence that he has talked to officials in counties where this project was proposed and rejected. We, at conchoinfo, have talked to officials in counties like Coleman, where it appears that Mr Robinson just abandoned the project. We have talked to Red River county, where Mr Robinson was running a project in the county jail. Waxahachie in Ellis county where the project was rejected after it was noted that even with a seperate public facilities corporation the counties bond rating could be adversely affected (not to mention the vocal citizens opposition). We are still contacting people. The interesting thing is that in talking to these judges, sherriffs, attorneys, etc. we have been told we are the first to call from Tom Green County. We have only heard of one other person from here contacting anyone we talked to and that was another private citizen.

Hope this helps add to the information on this issue. The more I see the less I like this project.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Water Supply Options

The studies commissioned on our long-term water options are finally coming in. I have the latest Stephens interim report on Hickory Underground water and the Guyton report on Brackish water. I have had my doubts on the Hickory option for some time, but I did not choose to jump in until good data was available.

We have known for a long time there was a problem with naturally occuring radioactive decay products far exceeding federal and state limits in the Hickory field. I want to stress here, I am personally not nearly as nuclear-phobic as the country as a whole. If I lived there, I would cheerfully drink well water with 20 to 40 picocuries per liter. There is at least one very thorough study showing zero health problems at this level.

That said, we live in a country where 200,000 people fled screaming into the night after the Three Mile Island incident, a "disaster" which created a maximum civilian exposure lower than that one encounters naturally by moving from sea level to Denver. We haven't evacuated Denver yet, but I'm not sure the EPA wouldn't, given its druthers. As Shakespeare pointed out 450 years ago, "the law and reason keep little company these days."

The current standard is 5 PCL, and the Stephens report gives us several options to achieve this level. Diluting the tainted water with other water is far the cheapest, but therein lies a host of problems. To save the cost of building a separate 70 mile pipeline at at least a million dollars a mile, we could connect to the CRMWD Ivie pipeline and simultaneously dilute and ship the Hickory water. There is one tiny problem, any customer on the pipeline has unilateral veto power over introducing water from any other source. I am more than skeptical, I will wager large sums of money Midland is not going to say, "Sure, go right ahead and add some radioactivity to our water, our voters won't mind a bit."

There is also the problem of how much Hickory water we can take in a given year. We have been paying for 1,500 acre/ft a year we have yet to use, and those rights are theoretically bankable. A clause in that contract states our rights cannot be limited except in the event of a drought. Well, DUH! we aren't likely to want to pay for pumping, mixing, monitoring and treatment if we are sitting here with full lakes. Translation; we can have all the water legally coming to us unless the weather is such that we actually need it.

Throw in the fact that contract be damned, either the feds or the state can shut us off anytime the aquifer level starts to noticeably drop. San Antonio runs into this problem every few years. Never having built resevoir storage, San Antonio frequently has to go to emergency conservation measures anytime area springs start to dry up and threaten some endangered fresh water shrimp.

As I write this, the Supreme Court has just ruled 6 to 3 in support of denying an Austin area Wal-Mart lest it somehow threaten some obscure species of cave crickets. The difficulties of the current 5 PCL limit are bad enough, what happens when EPA decides to move to a 0.5 PCL, ten times as strict? I pose this as a "when" because just that proposal was on the table when Bush came in and put it on hold. Let us suppose the EPA is emboldened by this SCOTUS decision or just cut loose by a new administration that owes the environmental lobby big time. That 0.5PCL could become law overnight, leaving us a $100 million dollar pipeline to NOTHING!

There are parts of the Hickory aquifer with little or no radionucleotides. The question there is whether drawing water in those sections will cause adjoining contaminated water to flow into those wells. According to the study, the answer is "We don't know." For another $350,000, we can run some pump tests and find out.

Considering the uncertain, but all too likely future regulations we face vs the high investment, I have to recommend against any further investment in this option. There are other problems I lack space to go into now, but this could all too easily turn into a high dollar dry hole.

I would not be so quick to abandon this potential source if we were truly against the wall and without options. The Ivie water is nice, we have actually used it almost exclusively of late, but the lake could get low enough to be a reduced supply. Fortunately there is the brackish water option. There is nothing experimental here, desalination has a long history and a steadily declining cost. A recent example was one of our first relief measures to the tsunami disaster, we put several naval vessels with onboard desal capacity to provide all the clean water we could transport to the victims. It is still more expensive than lake water, but not ruinously so. It gets cheaper as we ramp up volume, and salt is an inexpensive by-product to dispose of compared to radioactive waste.

Any oilfield hand can tell you there is lots of it. The consultants do want some test wells to locate the highest yielding fields, but we have punched enough holes in the ground looking for oil and finding brackish water to know for certain we have plenty of supply in our own back yard.

One hint to our city fathers if we go this route: Once we find it, negotiate with the lanowners as good neighbors, do not send people out throwing around terms like "imminent domain" and honking off possible allies. Then maybe it won't take special legslation to keep from paying an arm and a leg for a special watermaster.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Traffic Control by Happenstance

In the nuts and bolts area of city services the one item always good for coffee shop beefing session is traffic lights and signage. An example I run into daily is the stretch of Harris from Main through MLK/Randolph. Sitting at Main heading west one can watch every light in the string turn green at the same instant. Without going into drag race mode, there is no way to make three lights in a row, and I don't even count the pedestrian light at Shannon. Since Magdalen has been closed on the north, why is there even a regular light there? Sequence the change about 15-20 seconds apart and we get traffic flow instead of vroom screech, vroom screech.

There is more to this than mere irritation. At one time in the mid 90's when it was mostly frontage road, the Houston Harte frontage road lights were sequenced by TXDOT. I can tell you from experience, it worked well. When lights are properly sequenced, drivers quickly learn there is no point in exceeding the speed limit, you just get to a red light quicker and get to watch Grandpa slide by at a steady 40 about the time you get to peel out again. There is a lot less temptation to run a fresh red light when drivers can hit a reasonably long sequence just by obeying the speed limit.

The single most dangerous accident in city traffic is a T-bone with a car entering the intersection being hit at 40 mph by a light runner. The target car is being hit at a vehicle's weakest point and the driver or passenger is the second energy absorption unit after the door. Another of life's little inequities, modern cars have lots of built in protection against head-ons, so the guy who floored it and ran the light has a big edge on survivability over the poor person he hits.

We have useless signals and we have none where one is needed. Why is there a light at Main and Koberlin? All I've ever done there is wonder if the light would last long enough to get a hot dog at Hudman Drugs, almost never cross traffic. My guess is it is there from when Winn-Dixie was in the shopping center and actually generated some traffic on to Koberlin from the parking lot looking to turn on Main. For sure, there is precious little use for it now.

Were I a bit more paranoid, I'd think the tire shops at Irving and Concho pay off traffic control, it seems like I always get to stop and admire that intersection moving on Concho.

Then we have the ever popular unmarked intersection, usually residential. I have avoided several accidents by always making a near stop regardless of right of way rules. I don't know how many Angelo drivers know the rule on unmarked intersections, but it is surely a minority. (by the way, yield to traffic approaching from your right, but count on the other guy knowing that at your own risk, and I'll lay odds the bozo who hits you will be uninsured.)

I just point out a few examples, but this one in particular, we would love reader input. Go to comments and tell us your own favorites. I will check them out, bundle them up, and present the package to Signals and/or City Council.

Friday, June 03, 2005

Hemphill-Wells; Putting a White Elephant to Work

The term white elephant comes to us from Thai history. A regional royal who honked off the king was liable to find himself receiving from the King the gift of a rare white elephant. All involved had to act as though a great favor had been conferred, but realistically, the gift could bankrupt a vulnerable lordling. The sacred creature could not be put to any useful work, but had to be maintained in pampered style at great expense lest King and country take offense with potentially fatal consequence.

The "emergency" purchase of the Hemphill-Wells Bldg. by the city under Mayor Fender has so far proved to be a white elephant. We got stuck with the cost of asbestos remediation and have, to date, received nothing of value.

This Tuesday, June 7, the City Council and County Commissioners will, as part of the regular Council meeting at the covention Center, hold a joint work session on the idea of putting the building to work. The ideas proposed center on moving the library to the HW site. One motivation is the need for expanding both city and county records retention space and giving the library room to grow.

When Council originally bought the building I suggested HW as a Library site, to have the idea summarily dismissed. HW was not originally built with that load factor in mind. This problem can be addressed in a number of ways. Spread out the stacks with reading tables between, load is reduced. Reinforce the steel on the first floor. Put most of the truly heavy stacks in the basement, essentially resting them on bedrock. On top of this, the 21st Century Library will be steadily moving away from the heavy, ink-on-dead- trees format to electronic information storage and retrieval where weight is inconsequential.

We will see a presentation of a proposal using basement and first floor of HW for library, adding support to the street level floor, with a mezzanine level built around the exterior walls, leaving a large atrium effect from that to the first floor. This would leave a large amount of space in HW for either city/county offices or some other fuction, several have been mentioned. This would leave the entire basement and half the street level of Ed Keyes building open to stack records as closely as access to them allows, load is not a problem there.

There is much left to do here, this will require some serious beating of the bushes for grants and contributions. Estimates run as high as $6-7 million cost. My opinion, this city has come up with more money for sillier ideas. I think this would fill up a great big empty in the middle of downtown. A concept drawing will be presented Tuesday, but the details are not carved in stone. The purpose of the work session is to bounce ideas back and forth.

If you would like to see our white elephant put to some good use, a show of public support would help encourage our representatives to give it real support. As always, comments and fresh ideas are welcome on this site.

Faith-Based Prison; Based on Faith Alone?

The debate on the proposed Faith- Based Prison continues to heat up. It is at least getting some public attention and discussion, if a bit late in the game. I was given a heads-up early on, before most people knew the idea was being kicked around, and we have been doing some digging into the principal actors since then. That research is far from complete, but one thing has become clear; Both sides of the issue are advancing their respective positions with a remarkable lack of actual facts.

If either city or county was considering hiring someone for a really important position, say cutting the grass for instance, there would be a request for information on work history and qualifications. Have you done this work before? Who employed you? May we contact them and ask for a work evaluation? Are you physically capable of the job you are applying for? What sort of work are you doing now? Questions such as these would be expected by any job applicant as stage one of the hiring process.

The prison as envisioned is a mere 624 bed, $27 million project, with three additional stages totalling over 2,000 inmates with attendant industries to employ most of them at profitable labor, so the supporters seem to think the process endured by our hypothetical grass-cutter is superfluous.

If this sounds absurd, well, it is. Corrections Concepts Inc. the non-profit coming to us with this uh, concept, has been promoting this idea in several different venues in Texas since 1985. Two of the most recent were in Waxahatchie and Coleman, both in 2003, each giving the idea consideration and due diligence over a period of several months. One turned it down, the other is wondering when they will get a call from CCI. I have talked to the people involved at both those sites, among others. As far as they recall, there has been exactly one other inquiry from Tom Green County and that by another private individual, not any elected official.

So far as I have been able to find, CCI has never yet built a single cell or housed and fed an inmate. Understand, this is not in itself a disqualification. Every journey starts somewhere with a single step.

My position, at this moment, is neither for or against. It is cautious, and I am curious why the power players who have signed on to the project have not exercised the "due diligence" I am trying to accomplish. This project will involve substantial expenditures of public money for utility infrastructure, law enforcement planning and land aquisition aside from the actual construction cost, which is to be raised by bond sales. I doubt any of the successful businessmen on the local steering committee would put seven figures of their money on a project until they had a pretty complete background on the potential contractor, but it seems this idea sounds so good they will cheerfully pass resolutions and make promises of public support without being so rude as to ask CCI the sort of questions we would want the lawnmower to answer.

I still have plenty of information coming down the pipeline, and I want to see it before forming an informed opinion. It takes an unofficial individual longer to perform the due diligence contacts government staff should have done, but I am working at it. As I am able to get solid facts and confirm same, I will be presenting them here. Check in and stay tuned, it's your money.