Monday, August 21, 2006

Picnics and Politics: What are they thinking?

Blaines San Angelo Picnic was back in the news after the City Councils recent decision on BYOB at ticketed events. Since that happened, I have been asked repeatedly: What were they thinking?

This really has little to do with the final decision. Blaines picnic was becoming a unique event that attracted tourists and benefited groups such as 4H, United Blood Services, etc.. At the same time the true economic impact was mostly extra work for bottom of the wage scale jobs like hotel maid, waitress, and convenience store clerk. Nobody can deny that there were problems. This years picnic was not what most people would call family friendly. Changes were necessary. What I find interesting is not the decision, but how it was eventually arrived at, and the perceptions that people are left with. I think it is important to highlight a number of the "what were they thinking?" moments that led up to the recent decision.

The problems at this years picnic were nothing new. Trash, arrests, rowdy conduct, drugs, etc. were at previous picnics but were not as noticeable because cleanup always happened the next day. Even the household furniture was not a problem because the cleanup crew either donated it to some group or disposed of it some other way. This worked well until this year. Someone had the bright idea that the city could get extra money by having Blaine pay the city for cleanup and using free prisoner labor to cleanup after the weekend. The resulting pictures of the trashed river stage area are definitely a "what were they thinking" moment. The answer is simple. The city government had done what governments and organizations at all levels do. They took a multi-dimensional problem and reduced it to a single dimension: Money. The page one photos of the aftermath did show that money was not the only, or even the most important, consideration but by that time the damage had been done. Blaines successful money making picnic was now an embarrassing problem that couldn't be ignored.

The aftermath of the picnic revealed another "“what were they thinking"” area. When the citizens outraged by the trash started digging, they discovered the public safety problems. There were numerous arrests during the picnic and as people were leaving. The descriptions of drug use, under age drinking, lewd conduct presented at the next council meeting were disturbing. There were problems, but not significantly more than in prior years. It's interesting that outside one letter to the editor last year, the biggest complaint had been the shortage of porta-potties. The security at this years picnic was also different with sheriff's deputies doing the security that was previously done by SAPD officers, mostly because they gave Blaine a better price. There have been attempts to say the deputies didn't do as good a job, but if the arrests reported for both events are accurate, then there was really little difference. Still it is one of those decisions that when a problem occurs make people ask "what were they thinking."

Now we come to the most amazing part of this whole process: how they came up with "the solution."” Once the trash made the news, the council put the picnic and river stage policies on the agenda. The May 16th meeting showed that city staff really had no good answers for the concerns raised. The fact that cleanup had been delayed to save money looked foolish next to the pictures of the area. The fact that arrests were not really much higher than previous years only made people ask why this wasn't fixed before. Then someone remembered that there is a civic events board that is supposed to set policies and regulations for city owned facilities like the river stage. So the problem was handed off to a different board for study and recommendation. The heat was off of the city council for a while, but there was still no solution.

The Civic Events Board is 9 advisors appointed by city council to develop policies and regulations that the council has to approve. Most of the time, they try to come up with ways the city facilities can be used more frequently and make more money. Policies that affected cleanup, furniture, and alcohol haven't changed for years. Most of the time, board membership is a part time, low risk, position. The only qualification is someone that wants to be involved and help the city. This group of well meaning volunteers was handed this hot potato. I was at the CEB's June 26th meeting, and by that time the problem of how to have a safe, family friendly picnic with quality live entertainment had transformed into how do we prevent under age and problem drinking. They already had a prepared plan that called for the elimination of BYOB at all ticketed events. There was discussion of alternative controls and rules, led mostly by the Mayor, but at the end of the meeting they put forward the proposal with a ban on BYOB at ticketed events. As the meeting broke up, most of the board members were confident they had "“solved the Blaine's Picnic Problem." The fact that Blaine had said he wouldn't put on a picnic that was not BYOB was met with "good riddance."” They had been embarrassed and weren't going to let that happen again.

Almost 2 months after the CEB meeting, their proposed rules were presented to the council. I thought that in that amount of time, supporters of the picnic could have organized themselves and presented an effective and workable alternative to a complete ban on BYOB. There were a number of supporters of a picnic that was BYOB but outside of various suggestions made by the Mayor and some supporters, there was no coherent or organized plan put forth except for the ban. No one effectively made the point that the ban wouldn't solve the problem, it would just move it to a different location. In the end, the council took the easy way out. The approved the advice of the board they had appointed specifically to advise them on such matters. I look back on what happened so far still have to ask "“what were they thinking?"

Blaine Martin has been conspicuously absent from this process. I couldn't understand this for a while, but this is really not his problem. What we have is people in the local government that finally woke up to a bad situation. They were embarrassed by the results of their habit of reducing all decisions to a question of money. They made sure that Blaine won't embarrass them at the River Stage next year. Any unintended consequences were never presented coherently enough to be considered

After eight successful picnics, Blaine will have no problem finding someone willing to host his picnic. We know that none of the larger west Texas cities has a wide open BYOB policy, but there are plenty of private sites just out of town that would be fine for a picnic like Blaine's. Instead of having the picnic in town where realistic rules can be applied, where both sheriffs department and police department resources can be used the picnic will likely be held at a location with little required security and from which drunks will drive back to town.

I am sure that by this time next year I won't be the only one asking "What Were They Thinking?"

What are they thinking? Bonds.

We have been doing some research here on the likely school bond issue. It is an important issue with major impact on the area both economically and culturally. After spending hours looking at the proposal and what is being suggested in the Long Range Facilities Plan I have a question: What are they thinking?

Lets look at our situation here. Enrollment for the past few years has had a steady downward trend. Our population hasn't grown in the last ten years, it has just gotten older. The local economy is still not very strong. There is no indication of a major influx of new students for the next several years.

This doesn't mean that nothing needs to be done. Many of our school buildings need major work There are compelling reasons to balance the enrollment more between the two high schools. This would require enlarging Lakeview. Many of our school buildings require some level of modernization to improve energy and operating efficiency, allow better use of technology, and increase accessibility, but that doesn't mean throwing away our current buildings and starting over.

A building should have a very long use life. With proper maintenance, they can be used for centuries (when did Michelangelo paint that ceiling?) Buildings can age gracefully. They can change with the times. They often become the focus of proud histories and traditions.

It is usually much better and less expensive to upgrade a building than to start from scratch with a new one. In our case, it makes more sense to fix and upgrade what we have, and wait before going for an expensive dose of new buildings. There may be some compelling reasons for major new construction, but I haven't seen any yet. If you know of any, please post them.

Sunday, August 13, 2006


Don't you just hate it when you miss an important date. Get busy and then you miss something. It happened here recently. is now 2 years old. We are still here being "aginers" and watch dogs, researchers and analysts with a dose of opinion thrown in.

Postings have been a bit slow lately. It's partly because the writers are busy. There is also a bit of a "what were they thinking" quality to some of the issues we are looking at, which really gives us pause to think. We are gathering information and energy to tackle some local issues that will affect the health of the area for a long time.

Time to finish the anniversary celebration and get back to the battles. There are windmills out there that we still haven't tilted against.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Pay Me now, or Pay Me Later

I drive a somewhat beat-up '77 Ford F-150. Friends who know I can afford (slightly) better sometines ask why I drive that old junker. My reply: when I turn the key, it goes "Vroom", and takes me where I need to go; it is on propane and I pay $1.80 for fuel; and most importantly, it is paid for!

When I read of the huge infrastructure costs looming, I try to put them in the context of my pickup.

The water line work is indisputable. Two downtown breaks, one involving a front page picture of workers up to their necks in water, then the tragic fire at Honey Creek with no effective water pressure and purely decorative fireplugs, Yeah, I've got to agree, we need to spend serious money on water mains, not just the two inch residential lines. This will have to be paid for, but so long as no one tries to hang a bunch of bells and whistles on the funding, you won't hear this conservative beef about it; this is by definition, the proper work of local government. The fine distinction between city and water dept. budgets I will leave for another day, the point is, we all have a problem that the city will have to fix, and we will all, in one way or another, pay for it.

The school report is a bit different. The totally unrealistic "needs" list comes up with a figure we cannot possibly afford, and I ask , "For what?' Bear in mind, last school bond, I wrote a guest column in the Standard-Times supporting the bond issue, tax increase and all. I had been shown the projects, and used the line in my column that these nearly all fell in the "Pay me now or pay me later" category used in a commercial of the time. Before we can really judge today's high dollar estimate, we need to know the criteria used to declare physical plant unusable.

Most of my primary education happened in a building completed in 1890. Granted, this was the late Paleolithic era and we were happy to be out of the smokey caves our grand-parents had attended. It was also an era when eighth graders were expected to be able to diagram sentences and derive square roots. The first art is totally lost today, even among faculty; the second, I doubt many faculty members could do if an EMP rendered calculators useless.

My point is, reasonably well built buildings do not automatically become obselete in 40 years. We are not now looking at the 17th Sistine Chapel with a Jackson Pollock abstract no one understands on the ceiling. If we need to spend another serious sum on maintainence and upgrades, that is one thing. To suggest that strictly based on age and overdue maintainence we need to start nearly from scratch and build a new school system for a declining enrollment sounds like someone is dreaming with someone else's dollars.

Now we move, as my Mother put it, from the sublime to the ridiculous. It is suggested, with a straight face, that San Angelo needs to spend $14 Million tax dollars (again, I skip over departmental budget details, but it IS public money) to build a convention center/hotel. From the location suggested, I suppose it is intended to relieve the economic blight endemic to Knickerbocker Rd. You see, the AV equipment at the convention center on Concho is outdated. "Golly gee honey, the motor went out on the rear window in the Caddy. Guess we ought to scrap that junker and get a new BMW!"

Let's ignore the huge available square footage of convention space normally unbooked in San Angelo. Forget the 50% average occupancy rate of existing hotels. Completely gloss over the inconvenience that the best-face-on-it figures assume a 70% occupancy of rooms 35% more expensive than similar vacant space in town for this taxpayer financed Taj Mahal to break even. Assume that the tooth fairy was going to leave behind each guest a gold doubloon and this fever dream was ever actually going to make a dime, someone tell me why the city should invest a plugged nickel in it. The city could take a mere $50,000, find a reliable bookie, and bet the Cubs to win the Series. The actuarial odds of making money are better with the bookie.

Back to Realityland. Some things absolutely need ground-up replacing, sooner the better. Other things, like the need for backup water supply ($50 to $150 million) are temporarily on the back burner. Schools probably do need a large sum for upgrades and maintainece, but overall they are in way better shape than the more recently and expensively constructed Boston "Big Dig".

We need to maintain what we have. Don't buy a new $50,000 dually when the '77 paid for Ford still works. Don't design for a 40 year life span to begin with. "Disposable" should be a term used for tissues and diapers, not buildings. I am old enough to remember an aphorism being common; "Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without". If that sounds a bit antiquated and overly frugal, compare it to coming up with roughly a Billion dollars we don't have.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Government and Maintenance Planning

Maintenance issues and planning have been in the news lately. Failures such as the main breaks and the low water pressure at the Honey Creek apartment fire have added urgency but the impression that this caught the city council or city workers by surprise is unfair.

Infrastructure and maintenance problems have been a frequent topic at current council meetings and workshops. A great deal of information had been presented over the last year. During the recent workshop, information on maintenance problems in all areas including water, roads, buildings, etc. was discussed. The one question that was continually is "How did we get in such bad shape?"

First off, maintenance is expensive. Maintenance is also necessary. Most people are familiar with regular, preventive maintenance on their car. Change the oil. Check and eventually change transmission fluid. Flush the radiator. A multipage checklist comes with each new car. With good regular maintenance a vehicle will last many years and miles. You can defer (put off) some maintenance, but if you put it off too long you will have a break down.

City maintenance works the same way but on a much larger scale. They have all the problems of your average home owner and business owner combined with some uniquely government problems. Managing maintenance on this scale requires planning and skilled, dedicated people. Some basics on this can be found here.

There is great political pressure to keep taxes and utility rates low. One way to do this is to cut and defer maintenance and hope that major problems won't occur on "their watch." This temptation has been yielded to in the past. The section that handled the inspection of hydrants and valves was eliminated in the 1990s and the water department had to try to keep up when other alligators weren't being wrestled. Similar cuts were made in road maintenance with the promise that outsourcing would make up the difference. Outsourcing can be useful but you have to be careful how far you go. I don't think I would do without a spare tire or jack just because I could outsource flats to some towing company.

Maintenance has an image problem. It isn't exciting. Buying a new car is much more fun than putting new tires on an old one. I've never anyone that thinks oil changes are sexy, but they still need to be done. Maintenance also has another problem: When it's done right, you hardly notice it.

We have a fairly accurate picture of the state of maintenance today. We need to keep that picture updated and accurate. We need to make sure that anytime a major project is proposed, we have answers to all the maintenance questions, including how much it will cost. We need a comprehensive maintenance management plan complete with maintenance indicators, schedules, and lines of responsibility. We need to make sure that these expensive projects that the politicians and voters love are taken care of after they are out of the headlines.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

License and this blog have been around long enough that it's time to clarify the copyright status on these sites. All original content is licensed under a Creative Commons 2.5 License. and the original authors still hold the original copyrights, but agree that these works can be used and shared, even for commercial use, as long as the author and/or the site is given proper credit and attribution. News media don't need to include a reference to this license for derivative works used in regular reporting.

If you scroll down to the bottom of the screen, you will see a link has been added to help make it clear.