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.