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.