Thursday, April 26, 2007
Texas has some fairly strong open government laws. They have specific requirements about how meetings must be conducted, what records must and can be kept. There are laws and rules about what must be disclosed to the public and how. They are an attempt to implement a government that is open to public inspection, and where the information is accurate and complete. This is called accountability.
The school district has been recording some sessions of the school board meetings for a number of years. They are then broadcast on channel 4 so that people that didn't make the meeting can see what happened. The implication is that this is a complete and accurate record of what happened at the meeting. The only expected gaps would be those for breaks or executive sessions. Everything else should be a complete and accurate, unedited record.
The government code in section 551.021 states in part that "The minutes and tape recordings of an open meeting are public records". There is an expectation that as public records, they will be accurate, complete, and available. They can't be arbitrarily edited just to avoid an embarrassing dialog. The public has a right to a complete record of what goes on in making policy for them and spending their money, not some sanitized feel good version that some administrator would like it to be. It is especially disturbing when the editing was done to keep information that might be embarrassing on a complicated and controversial bond issue obscured from the public view.
I have heard some comments saying that they should have at least labeled the tape as an edited version. I agree that it should have been labeled as an edited version, but it should not have even been aired. The broadcast on cable is there to give information about the workings of our elected school board officials and our hired administrators. It is a necessary closeup of the decision making process that we expect them to be accountable for. This broadcast shouldn't be a year book picture where you get to look your best. This should be a candid picture with no makeup and all the pimples and blemishes should be clearly visible. Open meetings are there so that citizens actually know how and why decisions are made, especially the tough ones. Any attempt to edit out the blemishes and put forward a false unified happy face is deceptive and violates at least the spirit if not the letter of all the laws relating to open government.
I have been told that the school board and staff have already had their mandatory open government training this year. I hope that next years training will have a better, more lasting affect.
Tuesday, April 24, 2007
Before I cast any vote for for Mayor I would like to ask the candidates to use this forum to address a few issues. So, J.W. and the rest, please jump in...
First, where do you stand on the Siemens gasification deal? What has become of the $400,000 that the city has already invested in this very poorly thought out trash inceneration scheme? Why have we heard nothing more about it after handing Siemens the cash? Why did the city make no public response to the concerns of citizens?
It seems to me this move was more about pleasing some influential factions in Austin than for the good of San Angelo. Why were you not interested in surveying the public before moving ahead with this plan, as you did with the prison scam in the months prior? These two issues are very similar: shady and risky multi million dollar investments in foreign and undesirable industries slated for the same part of town... So why the two totally different responses?
Secondly, some members of the council have claimed the city (and county) has had discussions with Toshiba about building a nuclear power plant in San Angelo. Can you address this as well?
These two possible projects are each more massive in terms of investment and risk than anything our city has ever faced before. It is very much of concern that the public has been totally bypassed in regard to these issues. We need to hear where the city stands.
Here's a recap on the gasification issue:
In the area of economics this project does not add up. The extreme expense and environmental risks involved with this technology have prevented it from becoming established as an energy resource in
A hand out provided at the only public meeting regarding this project declared that “Thermal Gasification Is Not Incineration;” however, the EPA's own data show that gasification units produce more dioxins, furans, nitrogen oxides, the same amount of lead, mercury and cadmium. Some of the chemicals such as carbon monoxide and sulfur dioxide, are reduced, but not eliminated. Other countries do classify gasification as incineration.
Supporters of this resurrected technology, such as Michael Williams, Texas Railroad Commissioner who has appeared in the paper touting this technology, and who is a member of the National Coal Council, (an important conflict of interest) has been taking advantage of semantic tricks that have been made possible by the EPA, using terms such as “zero emissions,” and “renewable energy” when referring to gasification. Clean up for these plants always adds hefty operational expenses (which creates a powerful disincentive to invest in adequate safety equipment, backup systems and procedures) and is never fail safe or complete. In addition, whatever toxins they can “remove” from the air, are still produced and must be disposed of or reintroduced into the environment somewhere. Most of the toxins that are diverted from the air will end up in the landfill but should be classified and treated as hazardous waste.
Methane is not toxic... Hydrogen sulfide and cyanide, nitrogen oxide, dioxins, furans, mercury and lead are without doubt produced by gasification and without doubt, top the official list of the most toxic, cancer causing, potentially lethal, substances known to science and man...
This hand out that our city saw as sufficient to inform the public was a 2 page excerpt taken from a 200 page report from and investigation into gasification by Alameda Power and Telecom, the public power agency of the city of
We should ask: who among those supporting this proposal in our community has engaged in any serious inquiry into the risks involved and where are their findings???
City manager Harold Dominguez claimed at the public meeting that he had been to
Some are claiming that burning trash is the solution to reducing the methane building up in the landfill. But as the space opens up, the city plans to charge other towns to bring their trash to the
If we look at the trends in waste management of some of the most progressive areas of the world, such as Japan, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, the EU and some states in America like California, Washington and Colorado, we can conclude that this muli million dollar investment will be obsolete in about 20 years – just about the time the city expects to pay off the debt and start making their money. Many in these areas also conclude that gasification is not a Green Technology but an incineration “make-over,” which is just as hazardous, and counter-productive to real solutions.
We need our leaders to recognize how far behind a gasification plant could leave us in the decades to come. This project will put us years behind where we already stand on recycling, not to mention the ramifications of the hazardous waste build up in our community. We do not need to create more problems that will cost us again, in many ways, in the long run. We need leaders to promote “developments” with health, safety, quality of life, economic responsibility, and foresight in mind. All the theoretical cash generating projects should be secondary to this principle.
Here is one of the exclusions, passed by EPA in 2002 that that makes it possible for the industry to claim that this gasification is a “Green,” nonpolluting technology:
The EPA is proposing revisions to the RCRA hazardous waste program to allow a conditional exclusion from the definition of solid waste. This exclusion would be for hazardous oil-bearing secondary materials generated by the petroleum refinery industry when these materials are processed in a gasification system to produce synthesis gas fuel and other non-fuel chemical by-products.
Other loopholes are inherent the air emission standards themselves. In addition, the few records available regarding the testing of emissions on these plants have been done while the facilities were operating with controlled and reduced inputs, and often data collection begins subsequent to the initial start up period when most of the toxins are released.
While it has been said that the residual waste products we will be left with will be “inert” and disposed of in the landfill, this is also a conclusion drawn with the utilization of semantic and logistical tricks. The following is an except taken from a report by the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League on the impacts of waste gasification on the environment and public health:
A national controversy about ash toxicity erupted in 1995 when then-EPA Administrator Carol Browner allowed incinerator operators to mix bottom ash and fly ash together prior to toxicity testing. Fly ash raises the pH of the ash, reducing the reliability of the tests. But citizens who gathered samples of ash from incinerators which had passed the EPA’s tests found very high levels of toxic metals. Gasification units produce both bottom ash and fly ash. The toxicity of gasification combustor ash would be no different than incinerator ash because the source, municipal solid waste, is the same.
Other countries treat bi-products produced from waste gasification as a concentrated hazardous waste, and are recognizing gasification as incineration, an old technology that has already wreaked havoc the world over…
Honest leaders with primary concerns for the health and well being of all should look very critically into EVERY angle of everything they do in the name of the public good. We cannot always rely on the biased “experts” to supply us with the information we need. Especially when looking at extremely costly and risky endeavors that require huge investments of money, time, and intellectual capital.
We have a methane problem at our landfill, just like every other city with a landfill. But responsible solutions do not involve burning trash.
The city of
Around 15 % of Austin Energy’s 665,000,000 GreenChoice kWh subscriptions come from electricity generated from landfill methane gas.
The Goddard Space Flight Center landfill gas project is the culmination of a successful public-private partnership between
A similar project is utilized in
Why doesn’t the city consider harvesting the methane from both the landfill and the water treatment plant and using this clean burning fuel for something more innovative and less hazardous than burning trash to create a dirty, low energy gas?
A landfill gas to energy project costs about $1 million per mega watt, compared to the sketchy prospects of this waste to energy plant, which at best, theoretically translate into a cost of 2.5 – 10 million per megawatt. Some gasification attempts have closed due to their failure to generate sufficient energy. These initial efficiency estimates made by the city for this project will likely be much lower as we factor for the loss of chemical energy associated with materials that have been diverted away during the pre-treatment process, for the energy consumed by the pretreatment process, for the energy required to transport the trash from the landfill, and the for energy wasted in the destruction of recyclable materials lost to the gasification process.
If this technology is so “clean” and “green” then we should be wondering why none of the top 10 “Green” cities in the
If this proposal is everything the proponents say it will be then the burden of proof is upon them. They need to make an attempt to show something substantial before they start building anything. The city has hastily indebted us for $400,000. That was a mistake. But, losing $400,000 is better than losing millions, and our peace of mind, as some other communities have on this technology. In the money department it is usually the corporation that loses the money when these deals go sour. In this case, we have been duped into assuming the financial risk along with the other risks.
It is obvious that this project has a great potential to cause harm in the future, retard our community’s development toward sustainable waste management strategies, and cause another economic disaster for the city. Though it is not always clearly evident, the most crucial battles for freedom and liberty are occurring at the local level across the nation. This is one of those battles.
For more on the issue check out the related links on the Conchoinfo websight.
Saturday, April 21, 2007
When the Central was opened in the late 1950's, All the I beams were intact and freshly painted. The restrooms were all spotless and fresh smelling. The lighting was modern and the floor and ceiling materials used fire retardant materials for increased student safety. The gymnasium was an innovative design. The campus style layout was seen as having many advantages. The centralized heating and cooling plant was both efficient to operate and forward thinking, allowing the buildings to be used year round.
Fifty years later, rust and corrosion are everywhere. Drains have trouble draining. Asbestos that was used for fire proofing is now recognized as a possible health hazard and makes such simple tasks as installing new light fixtures a challenge. The restrooms in many buildings have an unwelcome distinctive aroma. Most doors and restrooms are too small for wheel chair accessibility. Add it all up, and you get a bond election.
Some problems, such as the problems with asbestos, couldn't have been foreseen when the high school was built. Some, like classroom sizes, are based on changing ideas in education and would require major construction. Most of these problems really have one thing in common: Maintenance, or more accurately the lack there of.
To keep a facility in good condition requires a commitment to maintenance. It has to start before construction, with maintainability a key part of the design process. The tunnels under the campus were joked about in the tour, but they are a key part of the maintainability of the campus. Some of the problems we were shown, such as those in shower rooms and restrooms, showed the original design didn't include maintenance access to in some key areas. This is expensive to add after the fact. Another part of maintainability is material selection. Take floors for example. The cost of routine cleaning and other maintenance will surpass the installation cost very early in the life of a floor. Cleaning and replacing a cheap floor could easily cost several times what a better floor would cost over the life of the floor. The same applies to the rest of the building materials. All of these factor determine the long term or life cycle cost. One common estimate is that the maintenance costs over 30 years will be about 3 times construction costs, not accounting for inflation. That means we should spend on average about $1million per year for maintenance on a new Central if it is built. I expect we should be spending roughly that amount on the the current campus.
So now we come to my real question. How much have we spent and are we spending on facility maintenance per campus? The SAISD 2006-2007 budget book includes just over $11million for plant maintenance and operations. Is that enough, and is it being used wisely? The maintenance problems I saw on the tour of the Central campus indicate otherwise. Is this a case of treating buildings as throw away items? Are we doing maintenance by bond election?
Sunday, April 15, 2007
As always, you comments are welcome. When you comment on these issues, you can add you opinion of where you think a candidate falls on a particular issue. That is welcome and encouraged. Just keep it tied to the issue. Don't just say "candidate x is the best on y". Tell us why you think X is the best on issue Y, with as much support and reason as you can. Quotes from campaign ads are probably not good supporting material though.
Try to keep comments to what can be verified, and don't try to embarrass the candidates. I am sure they are all fully capable of doing that themselves.
There are lots of charts out there. Some, such as billboard, track sales by the major labels. Others track the sales and air time of bands that haven't signed with a major label. A local singer, Darren Morrison, has made it to the top of one of the charts. Take a look and listen.
Saturday, April 14, 2007
Long forgotten by most folks, including me, the UIL was formed in 1909 by a group of high school debate coaches who wanted to formalize interdistrict debate competition and grant recognition and trophies to better teams. It wasn't until 1913 that some high school football coaches woke up to what the eggheads were up to and thought, “Hey, we need to get on board this train”. Looking at the public attendance at debate matches vs football games, it was then utterly predictable that sports rapidly became the tail that now wags the UIL dog.
Bear with me, there is relevance to the local school bond election. This week I requested from the SAISD-Huckabee website a breakdown of the project costs for the proposed new Central High, particularly how much of the $100 million was dedicated to athletics. The response, is illuminating as to the mindset. For openers, “our intent is to build a fully equipped 5A high school.” Folks, 5A is a UIL designation having exactly nothing to do with academic proficiency, graduation or drop-out rates or anything except the level of athletic competition.
As I have mentioned on this Blog and at the March 3 Board meeting, one concern I have with the entire planning process behind this bond issue is the extent to which options were limited in pursuit of a desire to assure San Angelo keeps a sole 5A football team. Now anyone who knows me can tell you, I am a football freak. In season, I can usually give you current spread and over/under off the top of my head for any NFL game on the board. My biggest beef with the cable/KLST showdown last year was that I missed the college hoops “March Madness” for the first time in years. I love sports, support them to the level my budget allows. What I do not do is ask the public to subsidize my hobby.
The response I got from the bond website indicates that a substantial, but undefined, part of the money we are being asked to pony up is going for non-academic use. Towards the end I was told, “It is very difficult to remove the cost of athletic facilities because they are not solely used for athletics.” Come on, guys, are you asking us to believe the Trig class meets on the softball field on sunny days? As reported in the Standard-Times Feb 28 under the headline “Proposal appeals to the athletes” the new Central includes; a jv field, a softball and baseball field, two practice infields, three practice fields for football and soccer, a 10 court tennis facility, an outdoor fieldhouse, a gymnastics building, and a swimming pool. I don't think the average reasonable viewer (also called “voter”) has much difficulty designating the aformentioned facilities as “athletic”.
To what extent were the options considered on this bond limited by “our intent to build a fully equipped 5A high school”? I have heard discussion over the last decade since our last bond of: making our two high schools more equal in capacity and shifting attendance zones (Heaven forfend, Central and Lakeview would have to play each other); or building a smaller third high school in southwest Angelo and evening out attendance zones to come up with three 4A schools. Maybe good, maybe not, might have been cheaper, we'll never know because these ideas were never on the table due our dedication to build a fully equipped 5A high school. We deserve to know to at how much expense is the athletic tail wagging our school bond dog.
It appears likely that state EDA will continue, and this bond will qualify for EDA support at some yet undefined level. This is not to say I have been converted to a pro-bond position, and my incorrect read of the EDA legislation was not a core factor in my opposition to the bond proposal. An important factor in public debate is credibility of the debating parties. I will not intentionally mislead readers on any issue.
Friday, April 13, 2007
If one looks at the Texas Association of School Boards' “Funding School Facilities” report, the rate without the EDA appears to be the rate taxpayers should bear in mind on May 12. In order even to be eligible, a district (read SAISD) “must have made a payment on the bonds on or before August 31 prior to the start of a new biennium in order to receive EDA funding”. Go to the “Issues” section of the same 3 page report, and we are at the edge of a formula for funding.
Actually, EDA is a state program started in 1999 intended to assist low-wealth districts with EXISTING debt. It was not started to encourage extravagant bond issues, but to help low income districts which had fallen on hard times after passing a bond. We barely qualify for the low wealth side, and unlike a district having difficulty paying off a bond from better years, we are proposing to pass a brand new indebtedness and slough off part of it to the state, assuming the legislature rolls over EDA this term.
I quote from the TASB's own Issues analysis, “School districts hope for, but cannot be certain of, the extension of EDA funding for another biennium. Uncertainty makes school district fiscal planning and clear communication to the public difficult.” I have asked the saisd.huckabee.com website for a rendering of approved/unapproved applications for EDA, with a breakdown by dollar amounts. This could give us a ballpark range of our odds of winning the “EDA lottery”. I hope that as the hired gun pros on this bond business Huckabee might have handy the information I have not found...yet. I have discovered that Paris, Texas is getting very nervous about its EDA hopes on a $35 million bond scheduled for a May 12 election. In short, failing to pass the bond in May and make a first payment by August 31 would mean we have no chance for state EDA money this biennium, but passing the bond in May by no means assures we WILL get EDA funding. Also, should we tell the Board “no, you wish for too much”, and end up passing a slimmed down version in November, next session we can apply for help with our then existing debt, if indeed our circumstances qualify and EDA is again rolled over.
My advice to the voter now is, if you think the issues in this bond are worth an effective SAISD tax increase of roughly 35 cents, so be it, but do not bet the ranch on a state funded EDA bailout. I further advise the voter that in considering this bond as the recommendation of a three year Facilities Advisory Committee we should keep in mind, this is the first of three shoes to drop. The Long Range Facilities Plan envisions two more bonds of similar size to complete its proposal. The Board is reluctant to speak to this three phase plan, but voters should force them to acknowledge this reality of their own making. Long term, we are not discussing a $130 million bond, but phase one of a package that, with debt service, will cost taxpayers half a billion over thirty years or so.
For comparison, Midland ISD is putting a two part, $37 million bond before voters in a district with a growing enrollment. Their package adds to and renovates, the second part separates athletics from classroom building, and their superintendent assures voters this bond will serve Midland's needs “for the next 50 years”. How can that Be?! By SAISD standards, under which buildings start to crumble after 40 years, Midland (and presumably we) will be totally rebuilding in less than that 50 years.
On another posting on this Blog we offered an old post-completion 12 page booklet on Central titled “America's First Ageless, Campus Style High School”. A couple things are clear from it. The Central campus was designed to be flexible of use, but also to stand, with anything like reasonable maintenance, for a long time. Also, a great deal of planning and thought went into the design before the Board of that day approached a drought-stricken, hard times electorate. Today's Board makes much of the three year Facilities task Force work, but at the same meeting the Board voted formally to put the bond on the ballot, they flushed a couple of critical items from the Task Force's work. Only this week, barely a month before the election, are voters finally given a peek at some crude, rough draft concept drawings of what the new schools might actually look like if approved by an infrastructure-stricken, overtaxed already electorate. Compared to the Central proposal of the 50's with a clearly defined, truly visionary concept put forth, this last minute, back-of-the-envelope sketch is insulting to our intelligence. It amounts to “Give us a pot full of money and we'll build you, oh something with it, and if we're lucky, all this will actually be built before we hit you up with the next bond.”
SAISD does need a bond issue for very real building and renovation items. Like it not, and I don't, schools typically do “maintenance by bond” and our schools have physical plant needs, some left over from promises made but not kept in the '96 bond. SAISD does NOT need this bond, and the voters are justified in saying “NO” loudly enough to get the Board's attention. Then they can go back, and like any home or business owner on a budget, figure what they really need as opposed to the unaffordable McMansion on the hill they wished for on our nickel.
Thursday, April 05, 2007
I happened to see an article in the Standard Times written by the president of the Texas Alliance of Energy Producers, Alex Mills, and was motivated to respond to this clearly deceptive propaganda piece.
The article implied that interest in renewable energy (i.e wind, solar, etc.) is a waste of time, that any funding to this sector of the industry was a waste of tax dollars, and that we should just stick to the old tried and true standards, oil and gas. Whereas the allocation of tax revenue to corporate interests has the tendency to inspire a ceaseless chain of corrupt activity, I would argue that the government should not steal ANY money from taxpayers to maintain corporate welfare; whether it be for wind farms, for nuclear power plants owned by foreign companies, or handouts to the oil and gas industry.
Here are some of the major components of THE 2005 ENERGY BILL as it relates to the oil and gas industry:
Allows “geological and geophysical” costs associated with oil exploration to be written off faster than present law, costing taxpayers over $1.266 billion from 2007-2015. Record-high oil prices should provide a sufficient incentive for oil companies like ExxonMobil to drill for more oil without this huge new tax break.
Allows owners of oil refineries to expense 50% of the costs of equipment used to increase the refinery’s capacity by at least 5%, costing taxpayers $842 million from 2006-11 (the estimate claims the provision will actually raise $436 million from 2012-15).
Allows natural gas companies to save $1.035 billion by depreciating their property at a much faster rate. This tax break makes no economic sense, as natural gas prices remain at record high levels, and these high prices—not tax breaks—should be all the incentive the industry needs to invest in gathering and distribution lines.
Allows oil companies drilling on public land to pay taxpayers in oil rather than in cash.
Waives royalty payments for drilling for some natural gas in the
Waives royalty payments for drilling in offshore
Waives royalty payments for gas hydrate extraction on the Outer Continental Shelf and public land in
Title IX, Subtitle J
This section would provide $1.5 billion in direct payments to oil and natural gas corporations to drill in deepwater wells. This section is a pet project of Texas Republican and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. It would designate a private entity, Sugar Land-based
This is an enormous and unseen liability of the oil and gas industry that we must start paying attention to. An oilman might argue that there are all kinds of permits required for them to do business, but what is not mentioned is that these permits are virtually NEVER denied. If you have concerns about our future water supply, PLEASE investigate further here: http://salon.glenrose.net/searchresults.asp?test=%22injection%22
So, rather than creating an illusion of a free market -the smoke and mirrors of federal subsidies-wouldn't it be best to put an end to ALL handouts to energy producers and allow the consumer and taxpayer really decide where to get their power?
If the playing field truly were leveled we would likely begin to see many consumers absolving themselves from the tyranny of the energy cartels and producing their own energy...
This is where wind and solar do become a viable option. These technologies may not be practical, or even desirable, solutions for huge commercial producers (this is the real problem for the energy corporations). Renewables work best on a small scale. But (especially in
Most importantly, let’s be aware of the grand illusion is created in the media when these issues are polarized and we believe that the Democrats are going to save the earth with green technology or the Republicans are going to save humanity by wiping out the middle east and stealing their oil.
It’s high time we realize that none of these "leaders" are working for you or me - and whether it's a wind farm or an oil well, the same people are making most of the money.
Yes, Cheveron owns a whole bunch of those wind farms... When they make money on wind, the kickbacks go to the Democrats, and when they make money on oil, the kickbacks go to the Republicans!
It is clear to any attentive observer that the emergence of solar, wind, geothermal, biomass, and all technologies falling under the current "green" trend is being carefully controlled in the market place. As we watch this drama unfold please be aware that solar power was invented over 5 decades ago, the original Tesla car over 70 years ago, and my great grandmother ran her ice box off an old windmill and some golf cart batteries. So, come on, why are we going backwards here? How much longer will we allow ourselves to be duped?
This thread is for general comments about anything that could be covered here. Just keep it clean, not personal attacks, and no advertising. If it relates to San Angelo or the Concho Valley, it's welcome. Anonymous is also okay, but names add credibility.