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 , see chapter 4 for Hickory Aquifer info. The Hickory users group has its site at 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 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 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.