Sunday, April 30, 2006
In the past year we have commented on most of the important local issues. Between the BLOG and the main conchoinfo.org website, we have tried to present complete information and analysis. I think we have done a pretty good job.
Time to celebrate, and start our next year on the BLOG.
We are surrounded by a virtual swarm of small towns that we are interdependent with. There is Carlsbad, which has the "San Angelo State School", a major regional employer. There is Eden, where many San Angelo residents commute for jobs at their prison. Brady, a little farther away, is our number one trading partner. There is Grape Creek, Wall, Christoval, Knickerbocker, Mertzon, Miles, Paintrock, Water Valley, and the list goes on. Add them all together, and you have a fairly large population. The Census estimates the 2003 population of San Angelo at 87,922. The population of Tom Green County not in San Angelo is 15,850. That's enough for a fair sized town. If you add in the populations of the seven counties we share a border with, that's 43,138 people we work with. If you take the 13 counties in the CVCOG region, that is equal to a city with a population of 59,041. If you add in all our local economic and trading partners it's probably closer to 100,000. There are lots of communities and people we can and must be working with. They depend on us and we depend on them.
Up until recently San Angelo's attitude has been that of a stand alone city. We did whatever we wanted and tried to bully our neighbors into falling in line. You need look no further than how we have dealt with water and water rights to see what I mean. If we hadn't stood alone as a bully, we wouldn't have had a water master forced on us, and we would have saved considerable money in legal fees.
We are doing much better lately, but still have a ways to go. We really don't have a choice. Roughly 10% of our retail sales are made to people from Brady. If their economy takes a hit, ours will feel it. One third of the sales tax money we used to build the Spur arena was paid by people that live in surrounding area. Without them, the arena could not have been built. Agriculture is one of the biggest business areas in San Angelo. Without the gins in the surrounding areas and the wool coops in places like Mertzon, our agriculture sector would suffer. We can't stand alone.
We don't have the convenience of a single partner or small group of partners we can deal with. We have to cooperate and negotiate and partner with lots of groups and people. It takes more work to do that and do it well, but in the long run we end up with strong region, not just a few cities doing okay. In the end, San Angelo doesn't need to be a stand alone city. We need to invite our neighbors to stand with us as friends and partners.
Saturday, April 29, 2006
We had no real problems with basic concept of this project. It doesn't take much to see that the prison system is not working. With the highest incarceration rate in the world, and a very high recidivism rate, it is obvious a new approach is needed. That was never in question.
There were really 2 questions that could never be properly answered First, could CCI deliver what they promised. Based on the lack of good financial data, and questions about what would happen in the event of a bankruptcy, the answer appears to be no.
The other question is whether a prison is something that is good for the area. I really think the answer to that one is also no. You can talk about the jobs it brings all you want, but the real world studies I have seen show that prisons tend to scare off other industries. I also think that the incarceration rate must come down. We are at about 5 times the rate of other industrialized countries. Our high crime rates show that imprisonment by itself doesn't solve crime. There are numerous studies and pilot programs out there that should cut the prison population signficantly. The bust may already be starting, as there are some new prisons that are sitting empty.
The reality is there are plenty of prisons. The justice system and communities need to be doing a better job of making them empty.
Friday, April 28, 2006
It seems we struck a nerve with our last posting about a tennis facility. We were reminded that tennis was not mentioned in the 1/2 cent sales tax ballot language, and the "official" city brochures didn't mention tennis, just sports facilities. There may have been ads, posters, files on web sites and even comments at public meetings and debates about a new tennis facility, but that was all done by a separate group called Citizens FOR San Angelo, not the city government.
This is all true. Still, there are people that feel the city promised to build a tennis facility. The following is a little, admittedly incomplete time line I have thrown together of some of the points of interest on the recent history of tennis in San Angelo. Much of the material I would like to have is no longer easily available or on the web. If there is a need or interest, additional materials will be hand added but I think these snapshots hit the high points and show the direction (or lack there of) tennis facilities were going.
In the Council Minutes of Sept. 16th 1997 The Council approved use of city leased land on Glenna for the CVTA to build a tennis Facility. For some reason, this project fell through.
It was reported in a news Story on July 16th 2003 The CVTA did an initial introduction of a plan for public tennis facility, asking city council to help secure a grant. The council seemed to be concerned that running the facility would require additional city personnel. They asked them to come back later after study which they apparently did according to a news Story on Sept. 18th 2003 where we have a report on the City Council passing a resolution in support of a public tennis facility which was by this time a joint project of the city, CVTA, and SAISD.
Just prior to the sales tax being put on the ballot, the Council Minutes of March 2004 describe the report of a consultant on the state of San Angelo's sports facilities. A number of shortcomings were noted and the consultant gave 3 options for improving our sports facilities. Option 2 was used by Citizens FOR San Angelo to promote the Sales tax. Option 2 was only a recommendation but it did seem to shape much of the debate from this time on.
At the July 6, 2004 city council meeting the sales tax was put on the ballot. Council was asked by a member of the public to keep tennis at the forefront.
At the January 18 2005 council meeting, the use of city owned property adjacent to the Heights Baptist Church as a tennis facility was discussed and rejected because of concerns over pollution as the site was formerly a landfill. It seems clear from the discussions that a new facility based on a partnership with the school system was what was being sought.
On Feb 1 2005 the council did a review of options for using the ½ cent sales tax for improving sports facilities. The consultants option 2 recommendation appears to be the basis of the discussion, and it is noted that changes in tournament complex eliminated the need for the proposed Southern Little League expenditures. It seems the option 2 proposal is the starting point for the planning, including tennis facilities.
At the March 1 2005 council meeting, Council Member Rainey was added to the committee exploring a joint tennis project with SAISD and CVTA. At the same meeting CVTA announced they had a $10,000 grant from USTA to help build a facility.
In a guest editorial on Sept. 5th 2005 Ms. Maddux reported on the progress towards the tennis facility. She seems to be under the impression that the $674,000 allocated from the sales tax for tennis is for a new facility.
At a COSADC on Sept. 14th 2005 there was a presentation by CVTA on plans for a new tennis facility with a pro shop. COSADC Acknowledges $674,000 of "voter approved sales tax money" for tennis. It was stated that the city council needed to see the plan and determine the direction.
In a Letter to Editor on September 20th 2005 Patsy Rainwater Maddux summarizes her feelings on the results of the half cent sales tax. She is concerned about the control that SAISD might have over a joint facility.
At the council meeting on Sept. 20th 2005 a very detailed presentation on sites and proposals on working with SAISD was given by Council Member Rainey, with lots of public discussion in the minutes. The tension is very evident.
At a COSADC meeting on Sept. 28th 2005 the discussion noted that the committee was to determine a location for a "new tennis facility".
Things were not going smoothly. According to a news story on Oct. 5th 2005 Patsy Rainwater Maddux resigned from the Recreation Advisory Board over disagreements on the direction the tennis facility is taking. This was discussed in an Editorial on Oct. 11th, 2005 that gave the papers opinion on the forced resignation of Ms. Maddux.
The meeting of the Rec Adv Board on Nov. 9th, 2005 showed that the "tennis task force" was still functioning. There was discussion of involving tennis pros in the search for a location for the new facility.
At the Rec Adv Board meeting Jan. 11th 2006 there was discussion of how the location of a site for the "tennis center" was narrowed down and how ASU was now interested in using its courts which are across from Glenn junior high to help with the project.
That's the story so far. Based on the history, what will the future of tennis in San Angelo be? My crystal ball crashed trying to find the answer, so we will have to wait and see.
Sunday, April 23, 2006
A cute “dog in the manger” move by outgoing Councilmen a couple years ago put any changes to City Charter off limits for two years. That will soon expire. We can expect a Charter measure dealing with appointing the police chief in some fashion, for real this time. There are serious rumors out there that we will see a Charter measure either strengthening the Mayor's position on Council with a “limited veto” or reaching all the way for a Strong Mayor form of city government.
As our webmaster and real world expert in such matters has been pointing out recently, we badly need to upgrade public safety communications, possibly even get it right this time. Key phrase here is “interoperability”, in whatever sort of crisis, the police should be able to talk to the firemen, hospitals, public works, let the imagination run free. We may be facing a tornado, a flood or a terrorist attack. Try to imagine who might be involved in responding to each. They need to be able to talk to one another, and forget cell phones, if the towers are up, you guys will wipe that out calling to see if Grandma's OK.
The city has spent over $5 million on long range water studies, and some of our water people helped in the now completed Region F Water Study Group report. To its credit, San Angelo seems to be gearing up to set policy and arrange for adequate supply 50 years or more out. Sure beats waiting for the crisis. Point is, now that all this data is in, which option will we choose? At a very rough guess, options could involve expenditures of anywhere between $50 and $150 million dollars. Once that kind of money has been committed, it will be too late to say “Oops!”.
On water, the recent debate over the prison made clear people still haven't grasped the new water paradigm. They look at lake levels and assume we are in a terrible shortage position. Ivie pipeline changed that. The continuing saga of the water rate debate came about largely because San Angelo did not sell enough water! Do the candidates understand that? Are they willing to look at solutions which do not lose sight of conservation?
Another byproduct of the prison episode was the creation of a Public Facilities Corporation to raise money through bonds while shielding the taxpayers from liability. Actually, had the project involved been anything but a prison, it would have been perfect. Let me set out the difference in concrete terms. If a Public Facilities project such as a sports complex goes bust, the worst we have is an unused bit of real estate. With a prison, someone has to feed the prisoners breakfast and convince their guards the paychecks won't bounce, and in light of that, another provision of Texas Statute trumps the Public Facilities law. In short, Texas law will allow an abandoned tennis court, but not starving prisoners, hardly an irrational distinction. There are desirable, but expensive projects that might be created through one or more Public Facilities Corporations, if the people desiring them want them badly enough to put their names, their honor on the line rather than direct tax money.
The departure of Taylor Publishing brings into question the use of 4B sales tax money. We have a long term pot of money that will be huge, probably in excess of $100 million. In the effort to secure voter approval for a twenty year term, we may have restricted our options moreso than is wise in the long term. State law allows a wide range of use of this tax, IF approved by voters. Any candidates have some ideas here? Buying jobs doesn't seem to be an unqualified success, perhaps we should explore options which will make San Angelo more attractive to business overall. In that I was a long time opponent of the sales tax, let me restate for the record, I for one will not make any attempt to turn a plebiscite on expanded authority into a question of the tax itself. I am satisfied that though they disagreed with my position, the voters made a well informed decision following a thorough public debate.
I think the voters would love to hear from the candidates. To be sure, this Blog would welcome any statement on these or any other issues by any candidate.
Thursday, April 20, 2006
The rate increase was very unpopular and contributed to some new council members being elected. The council looked at the water usage, rates, etc. and decided that they could do a refund as long as the balance would be completely healthy within 3 years. They also set in motion a twice yearly review process to determine if and how to give the rebate. In May the base rate will not be charged, which amounts to a rebate of about $350,000. If water sales continue like they have, expect another rebate like this toward the end of the year. It's good to see the city refunding the money beyond the cost of providing water to the users instead of quietly sticking it in the general fund. There is still a lot of work to be done, but it's a good start.
There was discussion about an additional discount for users of less than 3000 gallons of water a month. A 10% discount was on the table. It is proposed as an additional break on those low income/fixed income families. There are pro's and con's both ways.
The city already gives a break to the lowest water users. The rate for the first 2000 gallons is only $1.01, which is less than half of the $2.15 for the next 3000 gallons. That is quite a break. A person that uses only 3000 gallons a month pays $14.25 for the water and base rate. If water were charged at $2.15 for the first 2000 like it is the next 3000, the payment would be $16.53. Even with a 10% discount, the user would still pay $14.88 so the savings by the lower initial rate is 14% off the bill. It is even better for 2000 gallons or less where the savings is 16%.
So lets look again at the conservation discount of 10%. We are already giving more than a 10% discount to the low water users. If we tack on an additional 10% discount, we are giving the users under 3000 gallons an effective 22% discount. The question is how much discount do you give to the low water using customers? That question will be asked again at the next council meeting. The answer will be interesting.
Tuesday, April 18, 2006
Early in the planning for this project a partnership with either ASU or SAISD was suggested as a way to get a better bang for the buck. This plan has a lot going for it. The main advantage is that the amount of money needed from the sales tax is reduced, and the money spent by the other partners would be better used then if they were not involved. Sounds good so far.
The only negative I see is that there could be some limitations on the proposed pro shop. It has been stated that a successful pro shop could cover a large part of the basic operations and maintenance expense the facility would have. Limitations on the pro shop could increase the long term expenses to the taxpayers. I hope that the final plan balances any initial savings with the long term expenses. The ideal situation is a tennis facility that needs no tax payer support once it is fully operational.
No matter your feelings about cities subsidizing sports facilities, the city did promise this to the voters. They need to keep their promises in the way that makes the most long term sense.
Sunday, April 16, 2006
It would be easy to blame the loss on lack of an interstate and high fuel prices, which I am sure contributed to the decision. It's also tempting to think that maybe they would have stayed if we had only given them more "economic development" money from the sales tax. Realistically if that would have made a difference, the COSADC would have made it happen. In the end, Taylor came to the same conclusion that other companies have: Manufacturing as usual is not a good fit for San Angelo. That's not as bad as it sounds.
The world economy is changing. Business possibilities are growing and the older businesses make up less of the total economy. It has been that way in every economic change or revolution.
Primitive societies spent almost all their time searching for food, with the rest of their time spent on keeping from being food. The whole economy was based on just staying alive. With the invention of agriculture, food gathering took much less time. People could build permanent shelters and spend time developing tools. With the domestication of draft animals and invention of the wheel, people could easily move food and other goods from place to place. They could build toys, art, and even build massive cities and monuments such as the pyramids. With the invention of ocean going ships, goods could come from great distances. Every major economic change has been a combination of better, or at least cheaper, ways of doing old businesses and brand new types of businesses that no one had thought of before. Many of these new businesses grew out of combining old business products with new inventions and ideas to increase the total value. Paint and glazing increased the value of simple pottery. Ships allowed that pottery to be traded for exotic foods, cloth, and other items. The cycle continues today.
San Angelo and the Concho Valley needs to get creative. We have a lot of resources, but not those needed to grow the old "business as usual." Many businesses are moving offshore to places like China and India which have low wages and few regulations and taxes. We can't compete for basic manufacturing jobs with places like Bangalore, India or even Gary, Indiana. We need to add extra value to whatever we do.
We have excellent communications infrastructure. This gives us an edge in any business that is dependent on information. We have a good university that is trying to grow. With encouragement, support, and incentives, they could fuel innovative new business ideas. We might even get some manufacturing jobs here, but only if we can show that we can add more to the mix than low wages, cheap rent, and economic development bribes. Competing just on price is a losing strategy. The Surprise in Surprising San Angelo needs to be how much value we add to the businesses that are here.
Taylors move does leave us with an empty building on a thinly populated industrial park. It would be nice to fill it, but that needs to be a secondary priority. We need to build on our strengths and create and innovate to the point that our slogan can be "San Angelo - Because Nobody Does Business Better."
Friday, April 14, 2006
The current school board and administration has made strides towards more openness and better communication. They also made a good, common sense decision to appoint an interim superintendent. I hope this wasn't the only advice the consultants gave.
A major problem with previous searches seems to have been an over reliance on "the pro's from Dover." It does make sense to use a search firm to advertise the position widely and screen for qualifications and other issues. Getting a good pool of candidates will take work. After the pool of candidates is chosen, the real work will begin. There are no shortcuts.
It is tempting to try and turn the selection into a numbers game. Take years of experience, different positions held, number of degrees, etc.. Weight each of these factors, put into a spreadsheet and select the candidate with the biggest number. Simple, elegant and a guaranteed way to fail.
The selection process is at its core a communications process. It needs to be a detailed and two way process. Those involved in the selection process are doing more than just gathering information. They need to know how well the candidates fit in with the goals and aspirations of the school district and the community as a whole. At the same time, they are communicating to the candidate what the district and community needs and expects. Community involvement and transparency are key parts of this whole process. When the new superintendent takes his jobs there should be no major questions or secrets left.
This will be a tough process. Transparency needs to be balanced against the need to keep certain details private to protect those candidates that don't get selected. There is also a limit on how much time and other resources can be devoted to this.
This will be a chance for the school board to show how far they have really progressed in the last few years.
Thursday, April 06, 2006
Pay special attention to the section on wireless networks. These technologies can be used for a wide variety of purposes, including as a component of a comprehensive public safety communications system. They can also be used for a wide variety of commercial, business, education and routine government functions.
Wednesday, April 05, 2006
The Hoelscher recount was purely paper ballot. The process was tedious, but it is a matter of public court record that neither side objected to that result. The Cardenas court case centered on inaccurate election night early results generated by the software package used to count those ballots on that night but he never questioned the recount.
I have to object to the Standard-Times' reporting in that between the “hillbilly election” editorial comment, and Mr. Anthony's story on the topic, it sounds like we conducted a rolling FUBAR (if the acronym does not resonate, ask a vet. Trust me, it is not a compliment.) of an election.
First, I give high marks to everyone involved. The candidates and their supporters were there, and at no point did I catch a whiff of anything save a desire for an accurate, honest count
The newspaper's interest is in getting a final count on election eve in time for the morning deadline is understandable, but I hope secondary to accuracy of the count. We may have gotten international attention in the press, but Tom Green was not alone in having election day problems with the new machines.
More training would have been helpful, but before we lay that blame at Mike Benton's feet, consider the training offered. The primary four hour course my clerks and I attended was purely the mechanics of the system. At the end of that course, I directly asked the Hart Intercivic instructor, in the event of a recount, what exactly would anyone be counting. I was essentially blown off, referred to “that will be determined by the Secretary of State”.
In my experience, people in positions of authority fail to respond directly to direct questions due to one of three reasons: They are hiding something nefarious or dirty; not a factor I give credence here; they don't know the answer, but don't want to be on record as not knowing something they really should know; or, there really is not an adequate answer and they don't want to say that on record.
Problems came up on election day that clearly were unanticipated. I had a voter drop his paper ballot in the emergency-power-out slot, a problem I cured with a piece of duct tape. The problem was resolved, we are prepared for it in runoff, I am sure that that voters' ballot was counted, but this and other problems were dumped on us to resolve on site. I had a voter recovering from a stroke, who physically could not operate either the dial or breath tube option. I had a “curbside voter” who insisted on a paper ballot.
I have done this for a while, started in '94. We have accommodated blind voters, quadraplegic voters, and totally illiterate voters. Yes, one is still allowed,with witness, to “make his mark” on the sign-in sheet. Prodded by Mission Control in Houston, we were the first state to provide for voting from outer space in the event an astronaut is on mission come election day. Texas defaults to the “let'um vote” position on most questionable calls.
Could Tom Green have been better prepared for this election? Almost certainly, but we had a brand new administrator, given a brand new system, and in my opinion, less support from Hart than he should have had. My precinct was one where the E-Scan machines refused the close-out password. We were finally told at 8:30 to “unplug the machine.”
Texas Election Code is inclusive. The message to election workers is to allow, rather than exclude voters. In all honesty, I have signed in and handed a ballot to people I knew in my heart were illegal, but under law, if the documents are there, they vote. For example, if a person hits my desk with no ID, no driver's license, no birth certificate, but he has a water bill sent to the indicated address in his name, and that name is on the list, he votes.
We may have hit the jackpot on media coverage, but we were not alone in having problems and the implication most of this is the fault of a pack of inbred hillbilly local clerks is unfair. It strikes me that the newspaper primarily knows this was not Hart's fault because Hart told them so. Before we jump on this “no paper ballots” bandwagon, maybe we should at least wait until the Taylor County suit is resolved. Seems voters there are charging they were “disenfranchised” by being denied a paper ballot option.
In sum, there is plenty of blame to pass around. Clearly, election security will be a huge issue for the County Commissioners, with input from the city. Hart is trying, they have developed software upgrades, backed up by hardware improvements to give each voter a printed record of his ballot, that can add-on to existing hardware. The buzzword here is “voter verifiable”. There is no way to get this done by run-off, but voter verifiable systems could help overcome the voter “Angst” headlined in today's paper by giving voters essentially a receipt when they finish voting. Hart owes us better support, and we owe ourselves a system above suspicion, or “Angst”, if you will.
Suffice it to say, with 40% plus of my voters opting for paper instead of trying to master E-Vote, we would do a disservice to those voters, regardless of the Taylor County suit, were we to eliminate the familiar paper voting option. Personally, I saved my vote until election day and used the E-Slate to be positive I could assist any voter in my precinct past the confusion of a new system. I did not find it difficult, but lots of people have to wait until the grandkids come to visit before they can tie, say the new DVD player to the old TV.
Tuesday, April 04, 2006
Rumors are floating around that we need a strong mayor system for the City of San Angelo. I do not think that the Mayor’s position needs to be any stronger than what it is today. He is by the city charter the Chief Executive Officer of the city. We also have in place a Council and a Mayor that leads that Council in the goal setting, financial and operational decision-making. The City Council and the Mayor appoint the City Manager to run the day-to-day operations of the city and to report to the Mayor and City Council. What more do we need? Other cities have tried the Strong City Mayor approach and have failed. Do we need to follow that example or do we need to hold our City Council and Mayor to a higher standard and insure they are doing what they are elected to do? The Mayor is like the chairman of the board, and the Council Members are the board of directors - they need to be doing their job (start directing and get out of the day-to-day operations - let the City Manager and his/her staff do their jobs). If it is felt that the Mayor of San Angelo does not have the power needed to do the job, then take another look at it. He has more than enough power to do his work; he just needs to apply all areas of his office to work for him and the people that he has been elected to work for. There are many areas that we need to look at and re-think in the City Charter and have changed; however, a Strong Mayor approach to the City of San Angelo is not one of them. Take a stand and let your council members know that this is not the direction that you want the city to follow.
There is a tendency to do the same thing politically. The campaigns for city council have so far avoided genuinely new ideas. This is politically understandable, nobody has ever lost many votes by supporting an already proven concept.
In the upcoming races it will be up to us as voters to demand answers to the new problems the Council will have to deal with. If a candidate comes to us declaring general love of economic development, job creation, (unless they tell you which jobs, doing what at which new or existing company, for a wage of).... and cutting waste in public spending, he or she will be fighting the last war.
There will come up in this term of council new issues, and some of the decisions we make (or don't make, even scarier) will still be having effect past a time when I can reasonably expect to be worm food.
Now that the hold on it is expiring, we can expect to see the elected/appointed Police Chief issue as a Charter measure. It seems we will be presented with a strong-mayor form of city government. San Angelo may want to amend the limitations on economic development tax revenue to give COSADC more flexibility, or less. It is possible we can get Council to look at; dare I mention it, synchronizing traffic lights. The elephant in the room will be water. I will give you this much of a hint; If you ask a candidate about the Region F Water Study Group report and the response is “Huh?”, vote for the other guy. Public safety communications is in dire need of upgrading and needs to be done right.
In upcoming posts, we will be addressing these items separately, we at conchoinfo have already done considerable research on the issues. Www.conchoinfo.org does not endorse candidates directly, but we try to put forth the issues those candidates should be addressing and give pro/con options in plain English. It will be up to us as voters to demand straight answers from candidates to direct questions. Stay tuned, please.
Council has lost a lot of expertise by retirement. It may surprise the casual reader to hear that in particular I will miss Devin Bates and Jamie Rainey. My representative, Joe Holguin is retiring after 10 years' service. We did not agree on all topics, but these members were competent, usually well prepared and willing to look at new information. I personally thank them for their service and hope their seats are adequately filled.
Most voters value their independent spirit. They proudly proclaim they vote for the man, not the party. In far too many cases, though, there is really little choice. If only one candidate files, they automatically win. In many other cases the choice is hold your nose and vote for the candidate you hope will mess things up the least. I think one of the reasons we have such poor voter turn out is that many people feel they need a shower immediately after they vote. Voters are proud that they voted, but not often proud of who they had to vote for.
There is an answer to this problem. The perfect candidate: None Of The Above! In every election for a public office NOTA should be an explicit choice. Even if only one person files for that office, he should have to campaign against NOTA. If you don't care who wins, you can still leave the ballot blank in that area, but if you think that none of the candidates should win, vote NOTA. If NOTA wins, then a new election is held with a whole new set of candidates. Just think about it.
How many times in the last few elections have we had office holders that were never voted on because no one else ran. Aren't there a few you would have liked to vote against, where you think it would have been better if the office was vacant for a while instead of having them there. Wouldn't it be great if the candidates had to show that not only were they better than their opponent, they were better than nobody? Shouldn't every single candidate for an office have to show that he was better than NOTA?
I think that if we tried this, and voters could actually say "wait a minute, lets try this again with some real candidates", voter participation would sky rocket.
I doubt this will happen. For all their problems, those in power are realists in this area of politics. I am sure that many of them, especially those running for national office realize they couldn't win against NOTA, the perfect candidate.