Thursday, January 25, 2007

School Survey Results

The results of the SAISD bond survey are in. We have them and they are available for your viewing pleasure here. The results are not terribly surprising, but some of the questions are very interesting in what they imply.

Section 15 and 16 try to make some interesting impressions. Section 15 implies that a new grade alignment requires new construction. It implies that letting buildings deteriorate to the point they need to be torn down and replaced is being pro-active in planning for the future. Section 16 implies that a school building should be replaced just because it is old. It implies that the most up to date technology can only be put in a new building.

There are similar implications in the rest of the survey. Read the questions and results for yourself and let us know what you think. Might want to let the school board know as well

Karnak at the Council

Back in the day when this author was one of the more vocal opponents of the 4B half-cent tax, one of the arguments I used through five campaigns was to point out an inevitable downside, namely the predictable howls of outrage when the Development Corp. gave a (grant, subsidy, bribe, pick your term) to a new business which would be directly competing with an established firm.

Well, just that played out in Council meeting today, in four part harmony. Diversified Collection Services got a package of incentives in 2002, has created 400 some jobs, and has since come under new ownership. COSADC had negotiated a similar, but larger package for Account Control Technologies, which also specializes in student loan collections. Jon Shaver, owner of DCS cut no slack in letting Council know his company felt betrayed and that this move would kill a 200 job expansion DCS had planned. If he was peeved that ACT was to get a more generous package than had DCS, that beef was soft-pedaled in an hour long protest by Shaver and several DCS employees.

As I predicted over 10 years ago, it was far from pretty. DCS won this scrimmage, ACT threatened to pick up their marbles and go home. Meanwhile Council accused COSADC of leaving Council in the dark during the process, and COSADC's feeling were hurt, after all, you told us to go bribe companies boss, Whassamata now? Matt Lewis told a reporter we need a new mayor, but declined to run himself. A kiss-and-make-up joint meeting of Council and COSADC is scheduled, but at Council meeting Tuesday Jon Shaver and employees owned the only happy faces in the house. Chalk one up for my Karnak the Magnificent file.

Interestingly, ACT relented and announced, with a slight backhand to Mayor and Council, that they would be coming to Angelo anyway. Seems debt collector is a hard job to fill and our pool of workers, including former DCS employees is hard to find. Allow me to don the Karnak turban: ACT will be here longer and will create more jobs at higher pay than say, Taylor Publishing. Not unlike a romantic relationship. If you court and woo a lady, convince her your interests coincide, you might end up with a wife. If you short circuit the process with cash, you get what you pay for and they don't respect you in the morning.

In other action, Council approved, as expected, the tennis courts deal. I seem to have gotten their attention by appealing, tongue in cheek, for funds to provide the San Angelo Billiards Association, of which I am a member, a central pool hall with say, 24 regulation size tables. Discussing this later with individual members, I was surprised that almost none seemed to have considered the possibility of creating a Facilities Corp. to deal with the now inevitable requests from every sports group in town. “If tennis gets money, why can't (curling, archery, paintball, pick your pet)”, will be the litany. Tennis got a rather substantial sum, by the way, $750,000 total. With that precedent, I can promise you other sports enthusiasts will be appearing before Council, hat in hand, asking that said hat be filled with public money.

I was surprised at the lack of consideration of a facilities Corp. as it played so large a part in the Faith-based Prison issue. Actually, the only reason it would not have worked for the prison was that other laws would reasonably not allow us abandon a few hundred human inmates post-default. If a group of sports enthusiasts raises money for their idea under the facilities umbrella, the money is entirely between them and the bondholders, worst the city gets is a padlocked playground.
There will be more detail on the Facilities Corp. idea here, especially as other groups come forward . I can tell you, that of the members I was able to personally speak to on this, the initial reaction to the rough sketch of the concept was favorable.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Charter Member

The city council is looking at revising the City Charter. You can find the official version here, and a pdf version with some suggestions highlighted here.

There are a number of places that need to be reviewed. Sections 60 through 64 on the chief of police will get some review. Not sure if they are ready to try an appointed chief yet, but there is probably some clean up needed to bring it current with state law.

There are many changes needed to adjust for inflation. As unpopular as it might be, the maximum fine in section 5 is probably too low. Section 10, which sets compensation for the Mayor and Council members, needs some serious consideration. If these are paid positions, then lets at least get them up to minimum wage levels. They shouldn't be getting rich from being on council but the pay should be reasonable.

They need to look at Section 36, the Lake Nasworthy trust fund . Additional flexibility to use that fund for projects around Lake Nasworthy would help solve some long standing problems.

Section 65, on the parks commission, should be reviewed. At a minimum we probably need more than 3 park commissioners. The size of the city and the number of parks has grown significantly since the commission was formed. The small size of the board causes problems because of the open meetings act. We also need to see if the section on it's financing should be changed.

There is section 66, a Board of City Development, which was used before we had the Chamber of Commerce. Probably needs to be removed because it is no longer being used.

There is also a need to put the Cities stance on eminent domain in the charter.

These are just the highlights. Take a look at the charter, and give us input. The charter commission will be forming soon, and it would be good to have things ready for a November election.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Tennis Thoughts

There has been a lot of criticism of the councils decision not to fund the tennis complex. Criticism is deserved, but not for the reasons I hear the most. I really feel the council made the right decision, but for the wrong reasons.

Tennis is a popular sport around the country. Locally, there are a number of tennis players that play at country clubs, at school or on various free courts such as those at the recreation centers. The following is not as large as football, baseball or soccer, but there are a number of people that play. I support them having quality facilities that are open to the public. That is not where I have a problem.

I have a problem with what the ½ cent sales tax is degenerating into. Watching and following the debate on the tennis facility is like watching kids in a candy store complaining because someone got more chocolates or peanuts or peppermint than they did and its just not fair. Realistically, candy has been distributed pretty broadly with various sales tax projects in all the cities districts. When we have to get out scales or tape measures or balance sheets to make sure the split is "fair", there is a problem.

I have a problem with the continual justification of these projects for their economic impact. Last time I looked at a breakdown of San Angelo's jobs, two things jumped out at me. First, the travel, tourism, food service, and leisure business areas which are where the sports facilities create jobs, are among the lowest paid jobs we have. Second, I notice that San Angelo's median income is about 20% below that of Texas as a whole. This is in spite of the fact that our cost of living has caught up with other cities our size. One of the reasons for this gap is the number of jobs in the industries I have just mentioned. One quarter of the sales tax is required to be used to attract or support jobs close to the average wage of San Angelo. Much of the rest of the tax money supports projects that only create jobs at the lowest pay scale. I have a problem calling that economic development.

Finally, I have a problem with government at any level promoting sports and deciding what sports should be subsidized with free money. Tennis is a wonderful sport. It is one of 35 sports currently in the Olympics. That doesn't include the sports recognized by the Olympics and the International Sports Federations, popular sports such as bowling and billiards, or up and coming sports such as skate boarding and paintball. Many of these sports are at least as popular as tennis so what do we do when they ask for a public facility of their own? There are alternatives to tax handouts to build sports facilities. We need to look at them closely. There are also opportunities for multi-use facilities that can react to changing public tastes, and can have strong, popular sports help support new sports as they get established.

In the end, I hope that a tennis facility, hopefully as part of a flexible multi use facility gets built. At the same time, I believe that tax dollars should be used to provide a healthy economic diet before supporting candy store projects. That will take some political courage and voter approved changes to the sales tax, but I don't see a better solution.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Crystal Ball 2007

It is once again crystal ball time, when pundits traditionally test their powers of foresight with New Year's predictions. I dug up my comments from last year here (comment on JWT's Jan 1 offering). Overall, in utter lack of modesty, I did pretty good.

Starting with my true area of expertise, I predicted the Texas/USC match would be “one of the best bowl games in recent memory, nod to Texas.” This year's championship should go to the favorite, but I doubt Ohio St will cover an 8 point spread.

The prediction I am most pleased with is that the faith-based prison would crater, probably over money. When that project began getting notice, one of the Commissioners told me that though he opposed it, “The votes are there, I don't think we can stop it.” Thanks to the untiring efforts of many, many active citizens, this huge potential hole in the county's budget was finally plugged. Sadly, I note the death of one of these activists, Christine Vines. She and her surviving husband Lonnie were central to the opposition. RIP Mrs. Vines, our prayers are with you.

I suggested a quick start on a Charter Review Committee. Better late than never, but we now have one forming, and two items that I think it will address are the elected/appointed police chief and city limits on eminent domain, among others.

A sound local economy, stable oil prices, progress on the new library, negligible impact of the local Klan (anybody even remember that nut's name?), all in the plus column for this amateur Karnak. A brief $3.00 spike notwithstanding, gas is about where it was a year ago, and the all time high in inflation adjusted dollars is still 1980. We didn't do much on traffic lights, but that came in behind obviously critical water system problems as a matter of interest. It was noted in Council and looked at. One can hope for this year.

Water brings up a good point at which to segue into predictions. It will require an election, probably next November, but now is an excellent time to start considering alternatives which would allow us to move some of our half-cent sales tax revenue and free up money for pipes and valves, lots of valves. My favorite at this time is a Street and Bridge quarter cent, which would generate $2-2.5 million for that purpose, freeing that amount of the city budget. Money is fungible, and a few days without a shower seems to have moved tennis courts and corporate bribery onto the back burner in the voters' minds. More details later, but this discussion is going to take place, and I predict voters will approve a logical shift in that spending.

Both locally and nationally, election reform will be a hot issue. San Angelo has been a microcosm of everything questionable about E-voting, especially as relates to recounts. In full disclosure, I have toiled long in the Republican vineyard with our newly appointed elections administrator, Vona McKerly and her husband Dennis. I can certainly understand the concerns of our new Democrat chair, Linda Shoemaker. Unfortunately, one is unlikely to take up the minutiae of election code and election mechanics as a hobby without having a political interest to encourage that mastery. Vona is as well qualified as anyone I am aware of locally, and I know her to be a person who understands an oath. She has a daunting task in restoring the voters' trust in this crucial office. Godspeed on this task, Vona. Faith in the election process is central to faith in government. As problems continue to be documented by hundreds nationally, more and more people will question the decision to rid elections of those pesky, but imminently recountable, bits of paper.

The school board will be asking for a major bond issue. Too little information is available to make a call yet, but if the polling went as I suspect it did, we are likely to see significant revisions before this gets on the ballot. I supported the last one, but it is too early to call this one. I suspect proponents will have to give up the notion that school buildings automatically disintegrate at age 40.

I still hold that our current City Council and management team are the best we have had in a long time. To be sure, they have some critical issues to deal with, but it is quite unfair to lay the blame for decades of neglect on the shoulders of a largely new batch of officeholders. As the billboard points out, San Angelo is already the second highest taxed city in Texas. Making necessary repairs without claiming undisputed number one status will require our best efforts, but things have already been done which will help. The water fund is fiscally healthy, there are funding sources, and we just might be able to have streets, lights and pipes that work without raising rates.

A safe prediction is that more regular people will take a personal interest in local issues. On this I say, come on in, the water's fine. There has never been a better, easier time for voter involvement. Information that once required hours searching the dusty stacks is now available online, in the bathrobe and slippers if one wishes. My only cautionary note; do get the information, take the time to know the facts. Few things in life are more embarrassing than rising to make an impassioned plea before a public body, only to discover the factual basis of one's argument is built of moonbeams and pixie-dust.

All in all, we are poised to make very real and lasting improvements to a city I have come to like very much. Life is never without problems, but problems most often offer opportunities, if we can only find and seize them. I look to a good year in 2007.