Sunday, December 30, 2007

Crystal Ball Time

For the third time, we will try to fire up the old crystal ball. You might enjoy looking at our previous prognostications here and here.

Infrastructure will be in the news frequently in the coming year. There will be continuing work on the water and sewer systems, and the roads might get the first serious traffic studies in decades. The city might even bring the traffic signals up to late 20th century standards. Expect heated discussions about the need for infrastructure improvements and its impact on private property and businesses. The inclusion of the Capital Budget in the city charter makes this an easy prediction.

Public safety will be a hot topic. First, we have both Chief of Police and the Sheriff up for election. All candidates will promise to "do something." It remains to be seen whether these will be new, creative ideas or just more of the same old same old. There will be heated discussions on introducing technologies that intrude on privacy in the name of public safety and security. Hopefully we will be able to have realistic and effective limits, checks, and balances in place. This won't happen if we don't get more private citizen involvement. This will have to come from all stakeholders (ie. citizens) in the city. Youth involvement will be especially critical. All aspects of public safety and the criminal justice system will have tough questions asked. I am cautiously optimistic that we can come up with some good answers, but it will take a lot of work.

One of the most critical youth issues, Education, is likely to show little positive progress. The problems that were there during the last bond election are still there, only worse. Inflation has increased the cost of all potential projects, but realistically money was not what caused the failure of the last bond election. Poor communication and bad information lost the last election. There has been no improvement there. If anything it has gotten worse. With all the fanfare of Dr. Bonds soliciting input and covering her office walls, there has been little real output. Poorly communicated management methods such as "sweeps" will add to the problems the school district has selling any bond package. The comments and discussions on Sweeps have not shown the openness or communications skills needed to sell anything to the voters. The slow pace of progress also makes it likely that the School Board will delay the bond issue till the November ballot. Unless they have a very compelling package and an excellent sales plan, they will not fare very well in the heavy voter turnout of a presidential election. If they don't have a package ready by May, they can probably forget a bond.

ASU will have a very good year. There will be lots of cussin' and discussion about Johnson street and traffic in the area, but in the end there will be the start of a plan to fix a long overlooked problem. With its first endowed chair, and an expanding curriculum, they will be on track for the growth they want. They will have to address space problems and that will be a long term challenge. Repairing bridges to the community will also have to be a top priority.

Business and economic development trends will not change very much. There will be a slow down in retail building, and some of the growth will move away for the southwest part of town. The TIRZ zone and the new Supercenter will both draw retail growth, but it will take a while to get any momentum. There will be new industries coming, but these will put the quality of our workforce to the test. The days of good paying jobs for unskilled labor are gone. If you happen to be looking for a job, be prepared to get training. We will start to see some upward movement of the average income. Expect major changes in grants and handouts to businesses. Expect the focus to shift more to homegrown, local businesses.

Expect changes in the cities approach to parks and recreation facilities. The candy store approach will not disappear, but expect to see changes. More creative involvement by all the groups concerned will be required to get anything positive done. Look for more multi-use facilities.

Energy will also start to have more of an impact on the local economy. The wind farms in the area will have spin off and positive collateral impacts. The cost of fuel will keep oil in the area booming, but will have a negative affect on other growth. The greatest impact will be on those with the lowest paying jobs.

Last prediction is that our election office and election workers will continue to do an outstanding job in the coming year. There will be some problems and issues, but they will be minor.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Traffic, Transportation, Studies and Plans

There are two real hot button issues out there right now: The future of Johnson Street, and red light cameras. These issues share two major components. They both show the need for realistic, thorough and comprehensive traffic studies, and they both should be addressed by the San Angelo Metropolitan Planning Organization.

According to their website, "SAMPO is the transportation planning body for the City of San Angelo and adjacent areas." They are responsible for the long range Master Traffic Plan and they are where all the different local groups working on transportation and traffic are supposed to come together to get things done. While I browsed the site recently, I noticed a couple of interesting things. First off, ASU is not represented in SAMPO, even by a non-voting member. This oversight is probably one of the reasons that Johnson Street is such a major issue right now. There has been no effort to coordinate the SAMPO Master Traffic Plan with ASU's Centennial Master Plan. SAMPO is still planning on routing 13,000 vehicles a day down a street that ASU is planning to close. A definite failure to communicate.

The second thing I noticed is that we are in the public comments period for revisions to the various plans that SAMPO uses. It is time to get in touch with them at by email or phone them at (325)657-4210. Do it quickly. The comment period ends on January 19th.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Red Light (Camera) District

The best thing that can be said of SB1119, the statute on red light cameras, is that it at least regulates what had been a wide open race for the easy money. City Manager Harold Dominguez relates that various vendors had been beating a path to his door, trying to get San Angelo to rush into this before Sept. 1, when this statute took effect. A system adopted before that may well get a grandfathered escape from such regulation as Chap. 707 puts into law. Thanks for that, Harold.

Some of the provisions of Chap. 707 mandate that the city actually studies any intersection where they propose to install these money generators. They must include data for 18 months prior, they must study alternatives, specifically intersection design, synchronization of traffic signals, and perhaps most importantly, lengthening the yellow phase of the signal. The city must appoint a citizens committee, one appointee per Council member, and this committee shall study the question and alternatives.

The best thing that might come out of this proposal could be that the city will be forced to make an honest attempt to synchronize signals, something any driver knows we now rate an "F" on.

Key to the statute is designating the result of a red light camera as a civil matter. On the one hand, it allows the authority installing the cameras to sidestep some of those pesky "rights" granted to any criminal defendant. On the other hand, it means a camera generated "ticket" will not go on one's driving record, presumably would not affect insurance rates, but the bill leaves that to the discretion of your insurer. One cannot be arrested for failure to pay the "civil liability", but just to encourage payment, you won't be allowed to renew vehicle registration with an unpaid ticket, pardon me, "civil liability" out there.

One can contest such "notice of civil liability", but the deck is neatly stacked in the camera's favor. The city has to appoint a hearing officer to take up such contests, but they are free to designate as that officer an employee of the vendor operating the cameras. In such a hearing "Liability" (note: it is civil; guilt/innocence are irrelevant terms.) is established by the more lax "preponderance of evidence" common to civil cases rather than the "clear and convincing evidence" rule used in criminal matters. Reliability of the cameras is all but a given, may be established by "affidavit", said affidavit given by the vendor who probably employs one's hearing officer. The presumption that the owner was the driver is enshrined in statute, unless of course the "owner" is a rental/lease firm, or a car lot letting a driver take it for a spin, in which case they are compelled to rat you out.

From there, the "suspect" can appeal to municipal court, if one is willing to pre-pay costs of the court and take another day off work. With the charge limited to a $75 "liability" (remember, this is civil, "fine" is also an irrelevant term.) with a $25 late fee cap, the encouragement is going to be to just pay the damned thing and get it out of the way.

Looking at what is available in the way of "studies", can be confusing. As the Standard-Times notes, the National Motorists Association's lead guy on the topic, Greg Mauz lives just down the road in Christoval, I'm sure our citizens' committee will hear him, but NMA's bias is clear. Similarly, the Federal Highway Administration has embraced these devices as a matter of policy, so their data is similarly suspect. It's kind of like listening to a debate on global warming between Al Gore and the American Coal Council.

One thing that is crystal clear, safety issues are in dispute, but these suckers are one money generating machine. No debate about that at all. Under Chap 707, the money is split between the city and a regional trauma account, most of that half helps pay for uncompensated ER expenses. The city's half is limited to more or less traffic related use, but money is fungible, budget dollars replaced by red light camera income can be spent as the city pleases.

One provision of Chap. 707 requires any entity adopting these cameras to make annual reports to Texas DOT, which must publish same by Dec. 1 of each year. I submit, that San Angelo has lived without these things this long, we can hold off for a year until we have a relatively clean data base of real world use to judge them by.

To be honest, my opinion is similar to Councilman Morrison's, and the term "Big Brother" comes to mind. My impression is of a cash cow wearing a little "public safety lipstick". Whatever one's opinion, I do believe we ought at least wait on some less polluted data which will be available next year.