Sunday, December 28, 2008

Another Year Done, Another Year Coming

Well, it has been an interesting year, I'm still in no danger of dying from boredom. In a continuing tradition of personal contrarianism, while much of the economic news seems to be of the sackcloth and ashes variety, I have recently landed the best job I've ever had. Back in the propane business with West Texas Gas (pardon the wee plug) making good money with actual insurance and everything.

Actually, San Angelo appears to be well positioned to weather this storm relatively well. We never really saw the huge housing "bubble" and don't appear to be seeing the collapse so many parts of the country are experiencing. With Martifer coming in to jump on the wind power boom, we may have a prosperous New Year. While it had nothing to do with my support of the recently passed school bond, that work will take up a good bit of slack in the construction trades for a few years. The announcement of the Loop 306 project won't hurt, that road ain't gonna build itself.

The past year has seen City Gov't continue to improve its online accessibilty, with an exception or two I will return to. There is some talk of the County Commissioners using the public access channel to televise its proceedings. I encourage them to look at this again, I think they are overestimating the cost, which seems to be the main sticking point. As we demonstrated here with the recordings of police chief debates/forums, this sort of thing can be done on the cheap, Conchoinfo for sure is not rolling in money.

We have a few things on the horizon.

The City Stormwater Plan is available online, first page of their site. If you missed the public meetings on this, take a look at it. About half of the cost of this is one of those infamous "unfunded mandates". True, it's been out there for a long time, but it only recently wound its way from federal to state to now-we-have-a-deadline. The other half consists of related projects from an impoundment pond near North Bell to various street projects designed to do away with the street flooding we see during one of our infrequent, but inevitable monsoons. The funding mechanism will be a levy on the renamed utility bill (think water bill) based on square footage of roofs and parking lots, different rates for residential and commercial. I will say this for staff, the projects, should we decide we can afford this second half, are well prioritized.

All this was initially trotted out before the economic crisis hit, so let me introduce a couple of thoughts. If we could get this on the "shovel-ready" infrastructure stimulus package President-elect Obama is promising, the non-mandated projects could be an additional economic boon for the city, but Texas may have voted for the wrong guy. On the other hand, if we were to be funding this out of local money, it would be a heck of a hit on precisely the two sectors of the economy that are taking a hit here: automobiles and retail stores. All that parking lot acreage would turn into a huge liability for an already ailing business.

Speaking of that utility bill! Now that I get paid every two weeks, I have started noticing, the average time between my receipt of the bill and the due date is right at ten days. When the bill hits right after one paycheck, it is due before I get another check. That hasn't been a problem for me, but I understand now what some of my friends are beefing about. The water bill has already gone up enough to be a good piece of some folks' income, and we will see a substantial increase from this stormwater proposal, whether we do all of it or just the mandate.

One of the few items in the federal response to the crisis designed for us common folk has been a credit card reform measure. Among the items in it is a requirement that card companies bill at least 21 days prior to due date, turns out some companies had shortened that billing cycle seemingly to generate more late fees and penalty interest rates. I know, it's hard to believe such a financial institution would do such a thing, but... Actually, not that many do. I have a mittful of cards, I went trolling through my files, and sure enough, all mine already do the 21 day deal.

Now the city has no power to mandate pay periods, I'm not sure I'd want them to. The city can alleviate this inconvenience by extending the due date. Nearly all utility bills get one or two day delivery, I don't see where this would be a major expense to the city.

Another item on the city radar is the dog limits ordinance redux. This thing keeps coming back like Harold Stassen for President. Most recently, Council ran into a bit of a buzzsaw and kicked it down the road to the Animal Services Board for further public comment and study. Returning briefly to that online accessibility I mentioned, Animal Services is one of the exceptions. I'm not pointing fingers as to who might have dropped the ball, but ASB's site is singularly uninformative. Early on I suggested they might consider an evening meeting to allow public comment to be made without the public having to take time off work to comment. No word on that, but if they hold to the regular schedule, the next meeting will be noon at the animal shelter on Jan. 15. This will expand to a column on the limit idea itself later, sufficient for now, I think it is a quick fix idea with negative unanticipated consequences and will not address the real issues, namely nuisance and sanitation. I personally don't care how many dogs my neighbor has so long as I don't smell 'em or stay up at night listening to them howl at the moon.

Segueing neatly to another instance of minding one's own business, we have another nanny state notion coming up in the State Legislature this biennium. Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) and Representative Myra Crownover (R-Denton) apparantly have too much time on their hands. They have announced their intention to try and make Texas smoke-free, including bars and restaurants. They do not seem inclined to exempt San Angelo, or for that matter, ask San Angelo's opinion. Folks, my handle on the Gosanangelo site is barkeep, and I do have considerable experience in that field.

San Angelo has looked at such an ordinance and turned it down. I know that smokers are down to about 20% of adults. That is reflected in the fact that smoking is already locally banned in all government buildings, nearly all retail stores, certainly all the large ones. As to restaurants, no one will have a problem finding a smoke-free place to eat. Others have separate areas, with varying degrees of effectiveness.

As to bars, I spent twenty years in two states doing that. The 20% figure I cited very nearly reverses in that environment. I have never seen a smoke-free beer joint make it financially unless all the competition had been forced to be smoke-free. Think I'm wrong, fine, spend your money, get a license, stock the place and hire people. Don't worry about being trampled by the rushing horde of patrons. Now Ellis and Crownover will shed crocodile tears over the poor non-smoking employees of bars "forced" to endure the health hazards of second hand smoke. People, bartending has its good points, but it ain't the top of the economic food chain. If you don't like smoke, FIND ANOTHER JOB! Rep. Crownover, I'll make a deal with you. I promise not to come to your house and stink it up with cigarette smoke if you will just leave my bar the hell alone.
I know it may sound radical in today's Nanny State, but I have this axiomatic belief that the person who owns a business, pays the taxes and employees, and presumably knows his customer base should decide which legal activity he chooses to allow in his business. What a concept!

OK, ranting done. I hope you had a wonderful Christmas, and I wish you all a happy and prosperous New Year.

Monday, December 22, 2008

At it again

The San Angelo Independent School District did it again. Years ago another Board made a decision to save money by cutting the maintenance staff by 50%. History shows that was a mistake! A hefty percentage of the bond money we just approved will be spent making up for that mistake.

SAISD is up to its normal thinking again. Not too long ago, the Board approved cutting the trades program because of low attendance and funding. Now they tell us they are going to pay for this new fieldhouse from the designated fund balance. This is money generated by parking money in interest bearing accounts until it is actually spent. The state recommends districts keep 2-3 months worth of operating expense in this contingency fund. SAISD did have $29 million+, or about three and a half months. In an unstable economy the Board should think carefully before “raiding the piggy bank”.

SAISD Board has been elected to insure that ALL of our children not only receive the best education possible, but have a safe environment in which to receive it. The Board needs to spend tax dollars wisely and to the benefit of ALL students, and not worry about bringing theoretical “economic development” to town. The City Council, the Chamber of Commerce, and SADC have that responsibility-not SAISD. Once again, SAISD pushed through something on their agenda without taking it to the voters to see what they might think was top priority for the educational community.

Jim Turner and Jim Ryan tried to present this to the Board last Monday, but their advice fell on deaf ears. Board voted 6-0 (Hernandez absent) to approve this expenditure from the contingency fund. What educational value will be found in a $6 million+ fieldhouse? All I heard was how proud we would be when visiting teams came to town, or how embarrassed our football players are now. This fieldhouse does NOT improve the educational system for “everyone”.

Had Board done a little better job of selling Prop 2, which failed by only 600 votes, the fieldhouse would only need be 22,000 square feet instead of the 29,000 approved Monday. The fieldhouse will have space for coaches' offices and an expanded weight training room. Central also has a weight training room, making that duplicative and adding to maintenance costs.

Since ASU will be using the fieldhouse facility, how much are they contributing? Clearly from letters in the Standard-Times there is disagreement as to ASU's contribution, requests for services and even its long-term commitment to play at the stadium. Board should have nailed down this “detail” before committing tax money to this project.

Is there any hope for the SAISD Board to find out what is really important to the school system and what ALL THE CHILDREN need-not just a few? What economic impact will the fieldhouse have on the city beyond the companies hired for the construction?

It is appalling that we can pay $450,000 to have the building designed and another $6 million or so in construction while at the same time not having all the programs that are needed up to the level where they should be; at the same time not paying our teachers what they should be getting paid. WHERE IS THE COMMON SENSE (an unfortunately uncommon commodity) in this undertaking with the fieldhouse? Where are the privately funded contributions to this fieldhouse we were promised four years ago?

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Political Numerology

I have been following issues on this blog for a while and have come to the conclusion there is a connection between politics and numerology- a mystical belief in the power of numbers. I have observed many cases of the belief that just picking the right numbers is all that's needed to solve a difficult problem. Our school system provided a good example.

Early in the discussion on the last bond, there seemed to be a belief that a $99mil bond would pass no matter what was in the package. A package tailored to that exact amount was the initial proposal. Toward the end of the decision making cycle, it was felt that two was a better number of propositions than one so a second proposition based on major new main building at Central was added. They were careful not to disturb the magic $99mil of the first proposition.. A necessary, last minute recalculation of construction costs and inflation estimates raised the cost of both propositions. They made the decision to keep prop 1 the same despite the price now being $117mil.. Prop 2 was another story. The new price was felt to be too high. Rather than completely abandon the power of the number two, prop 2 was completely redone. Prop 1 had coherence, and the original prop 2 had a vision of a much revitalized central campus. The new prop 2 had neither of these characteristics. It had little in the way of coherence or vision – coming across as a mixture of unrelated leftovers. In the end, the numerology didn't work and prop 2 failed.

Numerology seemed to drive at least part of the decision making process. One of the first items the new facilities committee announced was the $99mil figure. This was well before they announced the schools or projects involved. Prop 2 was added toward the end of process because it was felt that 2 bonds might have a better chance of success. The second proposition was kept even when the original vision no longer applied. In the end it seems the mystique of magic numbers drove a large part of decision making process, if only at a subconscious level.

There are many more examples where just picking the right number is counted on to solve a problem. Forget the studies, logic, analysis, etc.. The magic number will solve the problem. Mandatory minimums aren't working? We just need a better number. Teen drunk driving a problem? Pick a number. Economy collapsing? A few magic interest numbers will save the day. Puppy mills a problem? Just choose a number of dogs. Don't worry about studies or history or precedent or inconvenient evidence. The power of numerology will magically provide the solution and if the resulting solution doesn't work, don't worry. Forget studies. Just pick another number.

In January, a proposal for a numerical limit on dogs will be back before Animal Services Board. It will be put before the City Council in early February. We need to make sure this doesn't end up being just another case of political numerology.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Open Government 101

Open Government is a term being bandied about quite a bit lately. Add in terms like transparency, Freedom of Information, Open Source Government, etc. and you have quite a bit of noise. Hopefully, this and future articles will help cut through the noise and get to the core of what open government is, where it's going, and why it's important.

For much of human history, most rulers thought like Bismarck "... that laws are like sausages - the less you know about how they are made the more respect you have for them." People were kept in the dark about how government worked, laws were made, and often even what the laws were. Eventually, ancient rulers figured out that a set of standard laws was useful in keeping the rabble in line so we see the emergence sets of laws like the Ten Commandments and Hammurabi's code. Government and religion were tightly interwoven at this time, so these laws were said to be divinely inspired (whether they were or not), and as such were beyond question. In reality, most people knew that laws and government had less to do with divine inspiration than power, greed, patronage, and control. Still, it was several millennia before it was safe to question how government functioned. You had the beginnings of the democratic process in ancient Greece, and republican representation in Rome, but the "divine right" of rulers wasn't really challenged until the renaissance. The sausage making process was carefully hidden from view.

By the time of our countries founding, there was a fledgling movement for more openness in government. Our founders felt that an informed electorate was necessary for a representative government to function properly. Many of them still felt the electorate should be limited to educated property owners, and that many parts of government just shouldn't be discussed in polite company. The smoke filled rooms, machine politics and patronage systems needed to be hidden from view to thrive and reach the level of power they eventually had. Scandals occurred frequently and various reforms were tried, but opening up government processes to outside scrutiny didn't really catch on until the dawn of the information age. We see the Freedom of Information Act in 1966, and a number of state laws at about the same time, that made it easier to obtain information and at least get a glimpse into the sausage factory. Add in the emergence of investigative reporting like that on Watergate and media sources like Cspan and you start to get access to the way government works. Government was getting more open. The idea of open government was in its infancy. It still needed two developments.

The whole idea of Open Government was changed forever with the birth of the internet. Not only can information be shared quickly and easily, the cost of doing so is remarkably low. Internet access is everywhere. Few businesses don't have it. Most libraries and schools do have it, and basic dial up service can be had for as low as $10 per month. You can get basic internet functions on a prepaid cell phone. There are many projects out there to make sure the poor and disadvantaged don't get left on the wrong side of an insurmountable digital divide. The potential for information exchange is tremendous and the amount of information available on the government and its day to day operation is huge. It's to the point that many are arguing that there is too much information and we need to limit the openness of government to prevent information overload, which brings us to an important development made possible by the internet: Open Source.

The term Open Source was originally coined to describe a particular way of developing and distributing software. In the earliest days of computers, software and the source code (plan) to create it was shared openly. Eventually some companies figured out that keeping their code secret and selling or licensing the resulting software might be a good way to make money and today companies like Microsoft that are making more money than automobile manufacturers. The idea of sharing software and related ideas didn't disappear, it changed and adapted. It was kept alive in universities and large computer users groups. Free projects such as Linux grew around the concept that free access to software and its source code could develop great software. They were right. The code was produced relatively quickly and remarkably bug free. This was ascribed to the " thousands of eyeballs" that could look at the code and find errors. It seems that " given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow." Pretty soon, people started thinking that maybe this might apply to government.

Open government advocates are realizing that not only should government be open and transparent, but information flow should be in both directions.

We are still in the early stages of truly open government, but I have great expectations. In the future, I will be commenting on how open government is working locally. Personally, I like being able to watch sausage being made. It may be a bit disgusting but at the same time you end up with fewer cigarette butts and floor sweepings in you sausage. I find the same thing true with government and laws.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Signs of our times

The discussion of the cities future sign ordinance yesterday was longer than most council meetings, but it was a good example of how governments should function. The city staff had done a lot of work trying to improve the sign ordinance but there were still some significant issues with their proposals.

San Angelo's sign ordinance has needed major work for a long time. The kindest descriptions I've heard are confusing and anti-business. It was self contradictory and inconsistent with current state law. To their credit, the city government had put a moratorium on enforcement for the last year or so while the ordinance was overhauled. After much work and some meetings with the public, staffs recommendations were officially revealed at yesterdays meeting. The bulk of the ordinance was simplified, consolidated, and brought into compliance with state law. There were three sections, though, that caused heartburn with the public and local businesses and that the council rejected.

The first bone of contention was on the sandwich-board style of signs. The staff had originally recommended that they only be allowed in the downtown area. There were a number of reasons, such as high foot traffic, zero lot lines and historical use given for allowing their use down town. There were no convincing reasons given why they shouldn't be allowed in other non-residential areas as long as they don't interfere with foot traffic and were not left out at night. It was pointed out that there are many other areas in town that already have or are trying to increase foot traffic. It was also pointed out that many businesses on Chadbourne, both north and south, have zero lot lines and could definitely make use of sandwich-board signs. The council saw no good reason to restrict them to downtown area.

Next up was the issue of the new generation of electronic signs. There are already state laws and TxDOT rules that govern some of them when they are along a state highway such as Bryant or Sherwood Way. Signs not advertising the business on the property are limited to text only animation and no flashing. There are also limits on how fast the message should change and how long it should be displayed. There are good reasons why flashing should not be allowed but no compelling reason was given for why animation should not be allowed on signs not covered by TxDOT. The possible distraction argument put forward by staff didn't have enough evidence to convince council to ban animation.

The last, and hottest, bone of contention was banners. Staff made three proposals that were universally disliked. First, they wanted a permit fee for banners. Next they wanted a 180 day per year limit on their use. Finally they wanted a 60 sq. ft. maximum on size, no matter what the size of the building or property. These proposals show a serious disconnect between planning and the business community.

Banners are a very inexpensive and flexible form of advertising. They are also very fast to produce. A banner may be free from the a manufacturer as part of a promotional deal, or it may cost as little as $50 so it doesn't make sense to spend $20 on a permit fee and another $20 or so dollars on gas and man hours to get the permit. If a business wants to use banners for weekly or monthly sales or promotions, the fees add up pretty fast. Of course, if the business wants to do promotions using banners they run smack dab into the staffs recommended time limits.

It seems that staff has a very narrow view of how banners should be used by businesses. They seem to think banners are okay for promoting a small number of special events, but most of the time businesses should be banner free. They don't seem to have heard of all the different uses banners can be put to. Then again, it might be their idea of aesthetics.

Staff recommended a flat 60 sq. ft. limit on banners, instead of the current 25% of wall space. This number was seen as unrealistic and arbitrary. On a large building or one set back a distance from the road, such a limit makes a banner useless. A business on a corner would be at a disadvantage, as the 60 sq ft would have to be divided up between the two sides facing the streets. They also wanted the requirement that it had to be attached to a building when all that is really needed is attachment to a stable structure. As was pointed out by one of the businesses an RV can be a stable structure.

In the end, council concluded that the biggest problem with banners, and signs in general was maintenance and serviceability. Banners should not be allowed to used when tattered and torn, but that should apply to any sign. There are signs that are eyesores in our city of all different types. There has been an enforcement moratorium so this should be expected, but it does show where the enforcement effort needs to focus.

Next council meeting, we will get to see how well councils direction is followed by staff. Philosophically, I agree with Councilman Morrison that we don't really need a sign ordinance beyond what is already in state law. Odessa seems to be doing fine without one. Realistically, what council told staff to bring back will be the least restrictive sign ordinance around and is probably the best we can get. The result is good but I have some problems with how we got here.

First off, public involvement was not what it should have been. They had a chart that showed a number of meetings on this issue, most with remarkably low turnout. This indicates there is a problem with how the meeting notifications were carried out. Granted, these meetings were not subject to the open meetings act, and there was no requirement for 72 hour posting etc., but many of the people I talked to after the discussion complained of short or no notice. Some even thought it might have been an attempt by staff to limit public input. I seriously doubt that was the case, but the perception is there and will linger a while.

Next, I was a bit disappointed that some bureaucratic slight of hand was used to make the banner restrictions look not quite so bad. For example, if you take a flimsy banner and attaches it to a frame (most likely of flimsy, fragile wood), it is no longer a banner and is now a permanent sign which requires no permit (although it now falls under other restrictions.) Or take your banner, turn it vertical and attach it top and bottom to a light pole and instantly it is no longer a banner and needs no permit. Attach to a pole at one end and it might just be a flag. Ignore the fact that all the objections to banners still apply, it has been magically transformed into something else. For some reason, this made staffs case weaker.

Staff further attempted to strengthen their case by stating that tighter regulations would be good for economic development. I have been looking at studies on economic development, especially with respect to small business for years and have never found a case where restrictive sign ordinances helped business. On the contrary, there are many studies showing overly restrictive ordinances hamper the growth of small businesses. You know, those businesses that provide the bulk of our jobs and economic growth.

My last point is that contrary to what staff may believe, this is not a question of council preferring commerce over aesthetics. It is very much a case of council deciding where to draw the line on governments interference in aesthetics. Councilman Morrison and others, including myself stated that the government should not be dictating aesthetics. Mr. Lewis rightly pointed out that the city already regulates litter, junk, etc. and that dictates aesthetics. We should have been clearer: Governments should NOT dictate aesthetics for aesthetics sake. The regulations he mentioned all have other goals such as public health. He also said it's a quality of life issue. Council decided that the citizens and businesses of this town should get to decide what they consider quality of life. In the end, the council decided that once basic safety and housekeeping is done, the citizens and businesses of San Angelo should be making the decisions on aesthetics and quality of life, not bureaucrats. To my way of thinking, that's how government should work.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Fieldhouse Followup

After my last post on the Fieldhouse, I received two responses from Board members calling me down for my characterization of the executive session of Nov. 10 as a "snout-counting". Upon review, as they say in the NFL, they are quite right, and I owe the Board an apology.

For one thing, I was venturing an unsubstantiated opinion as to "appearances". I had not then, nor do I have now, any actual knowledge of what transpired in that meeting. By putting my unsubstantiated opinion out there, I unfairly put the members in a position of being unable to defend themselves without breaking oath as to keeping executive sessions private.

Aside from my unprofessional and unfair characterization of the executive session, I would take back that whole section of last week's article if I could because it was really irrelevant to my primary point. What's done is done, all I can do at this point is offer my sincere apology, and I do. SAISD trustees serve without pay, they mostly show up prepared, to be sure, we have seen worse Boards than we have today.

That out of the way, back to the fieldhouse funding. To the extent the two responses addressed that point, they pointed out that the existing fieldhouse is in terrible shape, no disagreement there, it is in sad shape. Then both put forth the idea it was a valid investment in "economic development".

Here is the first point we diverge on. We have a few entities dedicated to economic development, Chamber of Commerce, COSADC half cent sales tax Corp., the hotel occupancy tax, as well as private groups representing restaurants and retail stores. ASU has a vested interest in both the fieldhouse and economic development in general, a healthy economy adds to the luster Rallo needs to attract a 10,000 student body. The interest of these bodies in contributing to the fieldhouse fund has been somewhere between zip and diddly.

Sports-related "economic development" schemes are finally coming under close scrutiny nationwide, and it ought to here. Grant the best assumptions, and I don't in this economy, who gets these travelers' dollars? Hotels, restaurants, retail stores, maybe the hawkers selling Cokes and snacks in the stands. We really want to build our economic future on the strength of jobs as retail clerks, waiters and hotel housekeepers? Nothing wrong with those jobs, I've done two of them, but solid investment in a strong local economy? It is to laugh. To be fair, neither correspondent made economic devlopment the primary reason to support this expenditure.

As one of my Board respondents reminded me, this private fundraising effort actually goes back four years rather than two. Timing was bad, it butted heads with the Library effort, and a lot of philanthropic money went to books instead. Unfortunate, but perhaps people with money rank books above athletics. Whodathunkit in West Texas, but there it is.

As far as I can determine, this $6.5 million fieldhouse is the largest single infrastructure project SAISD has funded outside a bond subject to voter approval in, at least recent history. I think it would be the largest such ever. Compared to the items on the bond we approved, only two elementary schools received more money, Goliad and Crockett, and they were near total renovations/new construction.

The members talking to me expressed a) the need for repairs; and b) had this fieldhouse been on the ballot, the bond as a whole would have failed. I agree with both points. Prop Two failed by less than 600 votes, and it is taken as given that the "competition gym" component sank it. It is possible that everything, collapsed into one bond might have squeaked by, but had we further burdened it with a fieldhouse, I don't believe voters would have gone that stretch.

I know, because I hear from them, voters feel this fieldhouse appropriation is "inappropriate", if not a betrayal of their "yes" vote on the bond.

I sympathize with the urge to do this project before costs escalate further, cost has already doubled in 4 years. That does not mean there is not something on the spectrum between total, first-class rebuild and flat make-the-plumbing-work short-term repair.

I know Jeff Bright scrambled to come up with the funding SAISD is proposing. I might even be talked into the notion that long-term, purely economically, this expenditure now is the better route. It would take some tall talking, but possible. I also know that as a political reality, the voters will see it as breaking faith with them this soon after a close bond election, and that breach of faith, long-term, will come back to bite us next time we go to the bond issue well.

The proposed fundraising efforts are laudable, borrowing some from the Library effort. I promise to support that with a personal check and my support. As I said last week, this fieldhouse funding got lost in the noise of the bond items. SAISD needs to make a better effort at persuasion of donors before they undercut the expressed will of the voters.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Fieldhouse Follies

Last Monday the SAISD Board had another "workshop" session. Everyone, myself included, took a deep breath of relief that the major portion of the bond passed, and the sentiment seemed clear to move forward with it so as to use the money while it was still worth something. On that topic, thank you voters. I did not support the bond and the tax levy it required lightly. This was money the district needs.

Now that we have had a week to bask in success, I have one word to discomfit all: Fieldhouse!

We've all watched as the new library progressed from a vague idea to a reality at little cost to taxpayers. Grants, bequests, donations, this is going to become a reality with the only significant public "expense" being the gift of the building itself. In that the city had discovered it had no real use for it, that cost us nothing.

Now compare this to the Bobcat Stadium Fieldhouse. Granted, the existing facility is in need of repair, BUT...

We were told this could be accomplished with a relatively minor contribution from SAISD, matching grants, donations, etc. Then the donations fell short, SAISD ponied up some more money to get the matching grant. Then the cost inflated, but keeping the eye on the ball, SAISD decided to pick up a little more of the tab, all for a good cause, of course.

Now I confess, I was concentrating on the bond, some of this slipped by me. Cut to the chase, SAISD is on the verge of deciding to spend something on the order of $5-6 million on a fieldhouse.

We are being told this has huge potential for "economic development", a shiny new fieldhouse will bring in so many sports events we will be hard put to count the money. Folks, I am a football fan from hell, I love the game, but I learned long ago to cast a gimlet eye on public finance of sports stadiums. Much as I am a Cowboys fan, had I lived in the Metroplex, I'd have fought public finance of their new facility tooth and nail.

If this project is really going to bring in all this money, where are the people who will directly benefit? Assuming all this fever dream comes to pass, the direct beneficiaries would be hotels, restaurants and retail stores. The contribution from the hotel occupancy tax? ZERO! The contribution from local retailers? ZERO! The voluntary donations from local sports fans? Not quite, but close enough to zero as to make no difference. The interest shown by our local half cent sales tax development corporation, decidedly ZERO!

ASU, which also uses our high school stadium, is in way better shape financially than SAISD. They currently get use of the facility for $25k a year. By any standard, this is a sweetheart deal for ASU. Their contribution to the fieldhouse fund? Not to overuse a trite term, but, ZERO!

Folks, I was happy to spend my time and effort in support of the bond. Virtually all of that money will be spent on projects necessary to good education. Much as I love the game, in times when people are sweating the next paycheck, I don't really care if high school football is played by the lights of the fans' car headlights on a cow pasture. If the fans want better, send Stormy Kimry a check. That's what library "fans" did.

This whole sloppy exercise brings to light some glaring deficiencies in SAISD process. First we have this idea of every other meeting being a "pre-agenda" workshop. One result is that we only have one meeting a month that actually "counts". Seems SAISD believes only the "real" meetings have to be recorded for the public access channel. They are wrong, but Conchoinfo will attempt to correct that, and offer our record online.

Had last Monday's "workshop" been available, the early call for an "executive session" would be available to the public. Early on the agenda was the purchase of a property on Cottonwood adjacent to Central. Now mind you, I support the decision to buy it, this is a good property at a reasonable price. After a motion had been made to approve it {Wait a minute; I thought this was a "pre-agenda workshop", why is real business being effectively moved?} Trustee Archer requested an executive session. President Layman was reluctant, the owners were in attendance, we don't want to keep them waiting. Archer insisted; he agreed, the purchase was a done deal, but he wanted to make sure everyone was on the same page. A brief executive session was called.

The intent of the legislation allowing executive sessions for carefully defined puposes was to allow a gov't body private negotiation room before bringing a final deal up to a public vote. The executive session exception to open meetings rules was NOT to have a private snout-counting session and avoid the possible embarrassment of a rogue member actually dissenting.

I have seen this pursuit of unanimity more often than I am comfortable with. Something close to this, a requirement for a second before a Trustee could put an item on the agenda, led to Terry Bader's resignation. Where is it written that an overriding concern of a governing body should be unanimity? City Council manages to rock along with 5/2, even 4/3 decisions, they are still decisions. It is almost as if SAISD has adopted a circle-the-wagons, us against them attitude. Why I don't know. The voters may have turned down the last bond issue, but the last Board election was cancelled due to lack of opposition.

I hold that a governing body's motivation should be transparency of process. It is easier to get the voter's consent when they are convinced everything is open and above board. Editing recordings and casual resort to closed sessions is not the best path to voter trust.

This digression into process aside, we deserve a better rationale for an athletic expenditure of this amount than has been provided. This is a larger sum than most individual campuses will receive from the bond. "Bobcat Pride" can take a back seat to economic reality in my never-to-be-humble opinion. If our economic development prospects from this are all that rosy, go sell stock in it to those who will benefit from it, don't dump another load on the taxpayers.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Walking around town

San Angelo has been shaken awake recently. There have been two pedestrian fatalities. This caused the issue of sidewalks to be brought back before the City Council with little notice or citizen input. This issue had been very much overwhelmed by issues such as the storm water mandates, and hadn't been looked at much for almost 2 years. The council and staff are quite open about how this happened.

At the last council meeting, the staff brought the council some ideas on a sidewalk ordinance for new developments. The discussion went on about sidewalks, and old neighborhoods, and commercial districts, etc. until someone finally reminded them that the real issue here is not just sidewalks. This is about transportation and safety.

For years (pretty much since WWII), transportation has been reduced to motorized transportation. Cars, truck, trains and planes: That was the only transportation that mattered. We were in love with our cars. Mom and the kids would hop into the station wagon and drive the half block to the neighborhood store. Neighborhood stores vanished from many neighborhoods, and by the 90's, the mall, an island of stores in a sea of parking spaces, was the new hunting ground for the SUV and the family. Entire neighborhoods were built where the front door was only used to get the mail or for special occasions. People drove out of their privacy fence protected garages onto alleys that were only usable as extended driveways. Neighbors had to make an effort to see each other outside of their cars. This is far different than the neighborhoods of the early 1900's, when towns were laid out so that everyone could walk to work, and sidewalks were a luxury to keep mud off shoppers feet. Many towns had sidewalks before paved streets, at least down town, because foot traffic was the major form of transportation.

Times are changing again. People are becoming health conscious, and realize that riding everywhere contributes to obesity. They have realized that using the SUV for a quick trip to the convenience store wastes a lot of money when gas prices are as high as they were (and will be again.) People are starting to think that polluting less by driving less might not be such a bad idea. Many neighborhoods actually like it that their kids can walk to school. Just look at the results of the last 2 bond elections for confirmation. And some people are actually discovering that when they walk through their neighborhood, they have time to actually meet and talk to their neighbors. They get to participate in that friendliness that west Texas is famous for.

With all this new found interest in non-motorized transportation, problems are showing up in many areas of the city. San Angelo is not a very walkable city. Ideally, you should be able to walk from any place in the city to any other place in the city safely. Throw in public transportation (buses primarily) and you should be able to shop and conduct most business without a car, provided you have enough time. This is currently not the case. Not even close. Just for fun, try to get to the CVCOG office (just off loop 306) or the SAISD administration building by walking and using the bus. It can be done, but it won't be an excellent adventure.

We need a new approach to transportation and transportation planning that includes non-motorized, non-vehicular transportation as a major component. When a plan for a new development is submitted, it should account for pedestrian and bicycle traffic, as well as cars and trash and emergency vehicles. That may mean sidewalks or pedestrian lanes, crosswalks, tunnels, overpasses, etc.. New development plans should show more than just how cars leave the area. They should show foot paths to schools, shopping, parks, churches, etc.. When neighborhoods are revitalized, all forms of traffic need to be addressed. We need sidewalks on some streets, such as 19th and 29th, but we also need a plan so people can safely walk to those sidewalks. Sounds like one of the first challenges for our traffic engineer once he is on board.

Let me make one thing clear: the city hasn't been ignoring this problem. They have done a fairly comprehensive bicycle and pedestrian plan in the SAMPO. It is a good starting point. The problem is that it is currently not part of regular, day to day transportation planning. That is one of the goals of the plan, but the reality is that we're not close yet. One only had to listen to the discussion at the last council meeting to see that. It is obvious that we haven't brought developers on board yet. The city has also a number of projects competing for limited engineering resources so when the storm water wheel squeaked, it got the priority.

Transportation in our city is changing. We must become more pedestrian and bicycle friendly, or at least less dangerous and hostile. We need a plan that in addition to pedistrian districts, includes pedestrian feeders, connectors, and arteries, just like we have for motor vehicle traffic. We need an integrated plan where pedestrians are not an afterthought or footnote. Sidewalks will be a part of any pedestrian planning, but they are just a tool like crosswalks and signs and lanes, etc.. Pedestrian safety won't be achieved until from start to finish, pedestrians are as much a part of any transportation and traffic planning as automobiles.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Election Day's Daze

This Blog does not endorse candidates. That does not exclude commentary on the election process. It is already evident this election will break records for voter turnout. Before I get into anything else, kudos to Vona McKerley for getting the election office up to speed. It hasn't been that long ago this office was an international joke of how NOT to conduct an election, or God forbid, a recount. Karnak predicts that there will be a storm of ill-prepared voting districts nationwide next Tuesday and they will be part of the reason political junkies stay up all night, BUT... if anything, Tom Green County will stand out as having dealt with a record turnout well. We have already, more early voters than recent "hot" local elections had as total.

This is of interest to me because I will be one of the people processing voters this Tuesday. I have been doing this for 14 years, my precinct will have veteran workers, but elections are always short of help. The job does pay, but most clerks are taking a cut in pay to be there. Please understand this as you wait to vote, if there is a delay, one reason is your precinct workers are trying hard to make sure all qualified voters get to vote.

A couple of things to remember. The polls are open from 7:00 AM to 7:00 PM. If you are in line at 7:00 PM but have not gotten in, by law, you will be allowed to vote, however long it takes your precinct to process your vote. You don't have to be signed in, you don't have to be in the door by 7:00 PM, if you are on premise and in line by closing time, you are allowed to vote.

If there is a problem with your registration, change of address, whatever, at worst you can insist on a provisional ballot. I confess, as a pollworker, this is a real pain, I've been fortunate not to have had many, but we will do them. It involves a still secret ballot and a conditional vote envelope, but if it turns out you were qualified, your vote will count.

Texas law allows one thing others might not. The first box one comes to is "straight party", ie all Democrat or all Republican, top to bottom. Should you incline mostly to one party, but you have one little exception, say for dog-catcher, you are allowed to mark that exception. All your other votes will go to the Party you prefer, but the exception will be counted.

This Blog is far more interested in honest elections than partisan advice. We have a very good process in place in Tom Green County, better than most.

One reform we support, but for future elections: Add one candidate to each office, to wit "None of the Above". The old saying about voting for the lesser of two evils, well, there is truth in that, and personally I've done it more often than I care to admit. None of the Above is for those 'lesser of two evils ' races where not even the clothespin on the nose works, both candidates stink at skunk level.

Should NOTA actually win due to voter disgust (and I would expect such wins to be rare), the jurisdiction for that office applies whatever rules would apply in the event of the death of an incumbent. A caretaker either assumes office or is appointed, pending a special election to fill the office None of the Above has just won. Optional provision I advise; in that event, none of the candidates having lost to NOTA is eligible to run again in the special election.

Just a stray pre-election thought. If we are lucky, most races will go definitively one way or the other next week. I've done two recounts, I could die a happy man if I never do another, it's a tedious pain in the a**. Based on the polling going on, I may not get this wish, but I am allowed to hope.

Final point: Texas is one of the states that allows convicted felons to vote AFTER they have "paid their debt to society". A felon has to have completed any term and any probation/parole imposed by the court, but once that is done said person is allowed the franchise. I helped a lady who served a short prison term many years ago register for this election. She is so excited, I told her about early vote, but no, that wouldn't do. She insists on coming to her precinct, on election day and casting her ballot. I'm sure some of you disagree, I've heard the arguement, but I have to believe reintegrating people into the "real world" helps rehabilitate those who care to be helped.

If you have not already voted, please, VOTE! I am not going to tell you (here) how to vote, just vote. My trade name of "barkeep" is real, I did that for a while. When a patron would get noisy about politics, my standard question was "Did you vote?" Often as not they hadn't for one or another shabby excuse, at which point I would tell them "Shut up then. Voting is your license to bitch, and you ain't got a license". Go out Tuesday and if nothing else, get your "License to Bitch".

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Is the Board on board with the Bond?

Open letter to SAISD Board:

Is this Board on board the good ship School Bond? I'm seriously starting to wonder.

When I was in opposition to the last bond, I always 'fessed up, I knew the district needed that amount of money, but I could not go along with the direction of that bond. Closing, consolidating and moving elementary schools out of their neighbohoods, moving Central across town, I knew that was not what the voters wanted. The voters agreed with that assessment, 2/1.

I suggested, and offered published material from people who had more experience than any of us, that a critical element to passing a school bond was "polling, polling, and polling". in short, before we formulate a package, find out what the community wants and how much the voters will be willing to spend. Then track response and either amend the bond or target voters as needed. As I reminded Board, most of whom were not on deck for the last sucessful bond in '96, that bond had to be amended between presentation and passage.

Then, again referring to those successful bonds, select an election date where your bond is the headliner. Last November, with no candidates running would have been great. Last May, even with a hot Police Chief race, the bond would have gotten at least second billing.

As it is, the bond is almost lost in the political noise. Every office from tax assessor to President is up, we are so awash in political ads the voters start to tune them out, vast sums are being spent and one has to scream to be heard at all. The SAISD response; not nearly what was put out for the failed bond. No newspaper insert, a few 5x10 newspaper ads, a little radio from the PAC, I'm told there is some TV, but I haven't seen it, and I am a solid political junkie.

Most voters assume this is the last bond with a fresh coat of paint. The message that this bond is 180 degrees from the last is not getting out there. I was discussing election preparations with my Democrat compatriot in this precinct and the bond came up. This is someone with enough political motivation to serve on election days, and she was under the impression we were selling the same Edsel we put out 18 months ago! It only took me 10 minutes to convince her to vote for the bond, and talk to her friends, but she had been under the misapprehension this was the last bond redux.

There is no polling, but my political antennae tell me we are at this moment going to lose by over 10%, possibly a replay of last bond. The promised "media blitz" is underwhelming to say the least. More effort was put into the last bond at this point in the election run-up than has been this time, and we are lost in the background noise this time. Last bond, the only competition for attention was a mayoral race so pre-determined that Lown won every precinct in town, his challenger's neighborhood included.

Another bit of my advice the Board discounted; If we are to have a good chance, get the message out before early voting. THIS IS NOT THE LAST BOND! It is a dead-lock certainty this election will set turnout records. IF SAISD gets its message on high enough volume to be heard, over 2,000 voters have already voted and can't change their minds. I'm holding with a turnout over/under of 36,000, 40% of whom will have already voted by Nov. 4.

It pains me to say this, but this bond is all but dead. Without a serious effort by SAISD and the PAC, I could safely order a funeral wreath without fear of wasting the money. I have shown up and offered my promotion as a former opponent to as many presentations as my job allowed. I wouldn't use all the fingers on one hand to count the Board members I have seen at these meetings.

If there is any prayer of passage, it will be in your collective AND individual full-throated support to every elective demographic you have a connection to. Inflation has already reduced the physical results of a $150 million bond by at least 10% from last Nov., and that figure isn't going to improve as it ages.

The last bond that failed was the first ever to go down in SAISD. The voters are not uncaring, but at least on this bond, too many are un-informed or mis-informed They confuse this bond with the failed measure and most of the fault for that lies with SAISD Board. Last bond, SAISD pushed the envelope as to "informational" advertizing. Well, we don't have to fret that this time, nobody is likely to accuse you of crossing the line in your enthuisasm.

Editorial letters and comments of late show that many voters do not understand that A) SAISD and City of San Angelo are distinct governmental entities; and B) this bond is diametrically opposite of that which we defeated 18 months ago. A&B are points that must be made to the voters. Quickly folks, we are "burning daylight".

That 18 month gap between losing and new issue is regrettable and expensive. A point that I have tried to hammer home, this bond is not just "for the children", a trite phrase too many politicians have used. We cannot have a first-rate city with a second-rate school system. Quality schools are every bit as important to a city's prospects as the streets you drive on or the pipes your water comes through.

This is truly a "pay me now or pay me later" moment, and paying later will not be the less expensive option.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Brush fires & Economics

The more I read and hear about our current economic problems, the more the forest analogy fits.

We are seeing articles such as this one that compare our economy to our forest management. Prior to the settling of this country, forest and brush fires were a frequent part of forest ecosystems. Every few years, lightning would start a fire that normally burned a few hundred acres before dying out. Because they happened relatively frequently there was little dead brush to fuel real intense fires, and the indigenous animals had developed successful survival strategies. The ash returned nutrients to the soil, and the fires cleared out plants and insects that were a threat to the long term health of the forest. We started meddling in these ecosystems that we poorly understand and the results have been massive changes in the character of these forests. We can't prevent all forest fires, so when one happens now, there are huge amounts of dead brush to fuel them, which results in massively devastating fires that can span several states. After these fires, it takes years for anything resembling a forest to reappear, and even then, the makeup is very different than previous forests. We are getting better, with controlled burn strategies replacing no burn mandates. We still put too much faith in a bureaucrats ability to second guess nature.

We do much the same thing with economic policies. In a functioning free market ecosystem, you don't have a build up of highly volatile loans and securities. Most of the time, they won't take root, and if they do, they get burned off in small, localized bankruptcies and foreclosures. Values go up and down. Not everyone succeeds. Failure is as much a part of the economy as success. We get in trouble when the government tries to pick winners and prevent losers. They have tried to prevent loan failures in parts of the housing markets. They have tried to eliminate any drop in real estate values. They have encouraged the pooling of volatile loans into complex structures in companies so big they are too big to be allowed to fail. They practice a brand of political numerology in which if they can just find the right numbers, everything will magically come out right.

Recently we have had some lightning. The economic forest is burning. We may be able to protect some parts of the economy, but just like the major brush fires we are see frequently in the west, a change in the weather with lower winds, etc. is really what it will take to put it out. Until then, we need to work on some fire breaks.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Bailouts, Commons and Muntzing the Economy

I, like most people I know, have been following the progress of the Bailout package as it went through various changes before final passage. Needless to say I'm not happy. In the end, though I think Chris Gibbons summed up the situation in the analogy posted in an economic gardening message group on Yahoo.

" This one might be called the Irresponsible Forest Owner.  If I live in the forest together with my neighbor and he is very careless about fire - what is my response when he sets fire to his property?  My instincts are "You need to live and learn from your own mistakes.  If your house burns to the ground, perhaps you will be more careful next time.  This is the natural consequence of your actions."

But then I watch the fire getting ready to spread into the rest of the forest including my property and so I reluctantly go to his rescue. I am angry, I have violated my principles of self responsibility but my only other choice was to watch the entire forest go up in flames.

I sense the great majority of Americans are against the bail-out. But I also sense that the great majority of Americans don't believe that the "fire" has any possibility of spreading to them.

So ultimately it gets down to whether a person believes credit will dry up because of the fear created by this sleazy affair. Let me relate a conversation I had the other day with our local banker who chaired my advisory committee. He said simply--people are pulling their money out and taking it home. He is a profitable bank but now he is less liquid and less able to meet his legal requirements. He doesn't want to but now he cannot make as many future loans and is starting to call in current loans. Did the far away fire on Wall Street spread to his property simply through fear?
He goes on with some more observations but this captures the essence of the problem in a very understandable way.

We all share this vast economic forest which has grown over the centuries until it covers the earth. As it has grown, certain fire breaks, barriers, and supports were added to help stop the spread of dangerous conflagrations. Recently, there has been a lot of tinkering with these safety mechanisms. Some of this has been necessitated by new technologies like computers and instant communications. Some is a desire to "increase efficiency." Much of it is just old fashioned greed. Most of this tinkering appears to be random and inconsistent. The more I read about it, the more I had a strange sense of De Ja Vu.

In the early days of commercial television, there was a self taught engineer by the name of Earl Muntz who was the first to offer a TV for under $100. He did this by using a technique that is now called Muntzing. He would take a standard, working TV and start clipping out components until it stopped working. He would put that component back in and move on to another section, and keep this up until nothing else could be removed. He would then make copies of that TV and sell them for budget prices. His televisions were cheap, but they were also unstable, insensitive, and had a hard time lasting to the end of the warranty. All those components put in there to keep the TV working as components aged or the voltage varied had been removed, so Muntz's sets were frequently operating on the verge of failure. Because everything was operating right on the edge, when something broke in a Muntz TV, lots of components went out and the TV was not worth repairing.

We have been Muntzing the economy for decades. Pull a regulation here. Change an accounting requirement there. Favor a special interest over there. Muntz the interest rates. Muntz the reserve requirements. Muntz business models. Muntz the risk analysis. Clip and tweak economic components hither and yon until something breaks and maybe put that back. This random, uncoordinated, poorly planned tinkering has left us with with a system that is always on the edge of being unstable.

We have been lucky. Economies are remarkably self correcting over the long term. That is unless someone is in there Muntzing them.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

School Board Bond Blitz

A week after the Bond facilities committee finally formed up and promised a "blitz" of informtion to encourage voters to vote "yes", and BTW, 37 days from election Tuesday, we finally see the opener: a quarter page ad, page A-8 of the Standard-Times. Excuse me if I am underwhelmed.

Whichever version of God one believes in, He must have a strong sense of irony. Directly above the SAISD quarter-page ad for the bond is a picture of Board member Art Hernandez selling funeral plots/tombstones. One can hope this accidental confluence of events is not predictive.

This week's economic news does not bode well for any tax increase. I have a record of opposing new taxes, including a decade-long losing battle against the half-cent sales tax. Ironically, after three wins, I lost the last round of that fight to Dr. Brian May, head cheerleader for this bond. Dr. May, I'm on your side this time, feel free to chime in at your convenience.

This bond is a tax increase I can, indeed must, embrace, and it has been many years since my kids were in the system. Last time, SAISD deserved to lose, as they did, for the first time in San Angelo's history. It took them too long, but they really have digested that loss and gone 180 degrees from that bond. Long-term maintenance still needs firming up, but it is vastly better than the system that helped defeat the last bond. Kudos here to people I criticized last bond, Steve Van Hoozer and James Elson have done more with less in a shorter time than I would have believed three years ago.

I know we are in a time of economic uncertainty, but we have seen worse and lived to prosper. The original Central High bond was passed during hard times and drought. It turned into a model school that school systems followed nationwide. We are not putting forth that degree of vision now, we are looking to maintain a basically good system.

If you think we have been poorly served by past or existing school boards, get out and un-elect them. I am asking you now, this November, to give our students the basics. This is not a Taj Mahal bond, it is a down to the nuts and bolts needed bond.

We have spent this summer almost $10 million in addition to regular upkeep, I have personally seen a lot done. We are still WAY behind on ADA (disabled) compliance, something a court could order at any moment. I am talking to teachers who tell me about, shall we say "aromatic" bathrooms that incline one to look for a nearby tree, heat and AC that makes "climate control" a rude joke, and sidewalks or other access that make it difficult for disabled students to overcome.

This bond is NOT bells and whistles. It is basic to a functional system, and honestly, less than the system needs to get back to first-rate. Please, find it in your hearts to provide our kids a decent place in which to learn.

I know you get the tax bill as a combination of city/county/SAISD, but don't confuse the items. School tax, as in most places is top, but schools are expensive enterprises, private or public. I remember an 8th grade class in NC with 65 students and that was the "gifted&talented" appropriation.

Let me give you my vision of good schools. The buildings should be at least adequate, class size down to something that allows personal interaction between student and teacher, and access to the net that almost replaces the library. I say almost, because I am old enough to remember and hold to the love of holding a printed book and reading it at my convenience.

Ballinger, Ballinger for the love of God, is giving its high school students laptops. No, I am not denigrating the fine town of Ballinger, I am praising them. You want an incentive to stay in school and graduate (and a possible reduction in textbook cost, that is currently being adjudicated), give each freshman a laptop, if they graduate, it's theirs to keep and upgrade. Rough cost, $2 million a year, not that big in a $100 million budget, and hardware cost is rapidly declining. The social cost of drop-out students is demonstrably higher.

Frankly, as tight-fisted as San Angelo voters claim to be, they have paid little attention to the high item on their tax bill. We finally have a superintendent I honestly believe has more interest in the district than the next job or San Diego football games. Carol Bonds walked into a mis-directed bond she had no input to, and no choice but to support. The Board has been dragged, kicking and screaming, into an entirely different bond from that which failed. A lot of people have worked hard to present this bond, credit especially to Lorenzo Lasater. Please, overlook the speedbumps and vote "yes" Nov. 4.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Sunday Shopping Notes

In my progress from "barkeep" and a bit of a rake to a homebody on the trembling verge of old fartdom, I still notice some details. Allow me to distill a few observations from my last trip across town.

First, I have to go across town because East Angelo has "limited" shopping venues. Nothing conspiratorial there, if I were investing in a large retail box, I would put my money where the money is.

OK, I start on Harris heading west. The traffic lights give me pause to admire downtown at Main, then Chadbourne, then lest I have missed our magnificent courthouse, again at Randolph/ MLK. I'm sure someone can tell me why the southern three blocks of Randolph are still Randoph instead of Martin Luther King . From there west, Sherwood Way lights are pretty well co-ordinated, but downtown, traffic control has a homework assignment. Yes, I know there are only two of you, but earn those big bucks

Being Sunday, I pause at the park with the lilly pads. It really is worth a look. Mr. Landon has done a literally "world-class" job there. One's love for aquatic flora aside, this park seems designed to inspire introspection. My never-to-be-humble opinion, the lilly pads come closer to that than the rusty pile of junk labelled "art" to the south.

Now I merge into Sherwood by the Texas Bank. Hey, guys I remember the "flying saucer", it's still obvious in the interior, which design weenie decided it had to be disguised?

Finally get to HEB. As is too common with grocery stores, about the time I have all the aisles and products memorized, you got to change them! Not really a beef here, the expansion will be good for customers. Please promise me one thing; get it right and then LEAVE IT BE!

Pardon this ellipse into policy, but at checkout I bump into one of these serendipitous moments. It takes a while, the lady in front of me has loaded up two carts with $293 worth of goods. She swipes a Lone Star card for $262 of eligible groceries, then a few dollars more for WIC. My first reaction is, I'm price-shopping, getting house brands if they work, this lady is buying name brand all the way.

As chance would have it, when I get to my truck, she is two spaces down from me, and still unloading stuff: into a spanking new Honda X-Terra. I load my paltry puchase and leave while she is still packing crap I helped pay for.

If I sound reactionary, miffed, or even slap-ass PO'd, well, I was. I drive about in a 30 year old beater that gets me where I need to go. I promise you, should the day come that I have to rely on the gov't "safety net" , well I am not so reactionary as to hold there should not BE a net BUT...

Before I dip into my fellow citizens' hard-earned wallets, I will have traded the Honda for a reliable cheap car; I will not live in a better house than the neighbors whose wallets I am raiding; if I ever get there, I will buy, with your generous money , the cheapest goods on the market.

Done ranting. Talked to my parents in south Fl. Ike gave them a pass, lined up for us, then hit shore and took a hard right Limbaugh would be proud of. They stole our hurricane, again! Keep faith and pray for one good lake-filler of a hurricane rain out. If we can fill Twin Buttes and Ivie, OC Fisher just to make it official, the plaintiffs in this water suit will have that much further to reach.

A huge "attaboy" for the economic development board as to the wind power Martifer deal. This is what "economic development" is supposed to be about. Now we hear upkeep on the railroad is a problem? Drive east on 67 , from here to Ballinger there are stacks of new RR ties every half mile or so. At this time, those stacks have provided landscaping "midnight suppliers" with nice new lumber. This is not the time to get bogged down in a turf war over who maintains what. I was born on Old Ballinger Highway when it was THE road into town. I remember mile-long trains going by, once, twice a day. Whatever it takes, put those ties under the rails, beg, borrow or steal the money to rebuild that one bridge, but getterdoneson, Martifer is the best deal we've seen, or are likely to see for a while.

One final thought; this historic election seems to inspire voters on either side. I have worked elections since '94, I will be there this Nov. 4. In the past, my undervoting precinct has been such that I bring a book to read; a long book. I'm not endorsing anyone here, but I am asking you VOTE DAMMIT! Vote either way, vote for Engleburt Humperdink if it pleases you, but vote. (An aside to the younger set; there really WAS an Engleburt Humperdink. The 60s; you had to be there.) Going back to my literal "Barkeep" days, yes politics gets discussed in bars, but I used to put a plug in some mouths by asking, "Did you vote?" A surprising number of mouthy patrons had to admit not. (Anyone can access records of WHO voted- not for whom they voted, but whether or not they bothered). My line from the barkeep side shut down a lot of arguments: if you didn't vote, you didn't earn your license to bitch.

There are still huge swaths of the world where voting, at least voting against the Party in power, is literally a "bet your life" deal. No excuse for it here, if election day is a problem, we have two weeks of early vote, one Sunday, and if by chance you are going to be an astronaut, Texas Election Code has THAT covered!

School Daze and Dollars

Note: This was published in the Friday edition of the Standard- Times. With permission, I replay it here.

In May of '07, I was the S-Pac treasurer for a group in opposition to that school bond. Prior to that, I had supported the '96 bond.

I will go straight to the point here, forget the flowery language: the school bond on November's ballot is crucial to San Angelo's future. People, we have high fuel prices, we have a substantial bump in water rates, we have something still out there on stormwater unfunded mandates, Yes, it seems like every time we turn around, the government is dipping its hand in our wallet.

I know this. I am not easily persuaded to any tax hike. I am a long time from having a child in the system. I did not oppose the last bond on money, but the direction of the money. Where it would have closed, moved, and consolidated students into mega-schools, this bond preserves and improves existing campuses.

“Portables”, ie trailers, will be replaced by permanent buildings, existing buildings will be brought up to ADA requirements, we will have enough lab space to comply with state mandates for science curriculum. This is not the last bond with “lipstick on the pig”, it is 180 degrees from it. Your elementary kids (Holiman, San Jacinto Crockett etc.) will still be able to walk to school.

One does not have to love the SAISD board to vote “yea”. I have been out in front pointing out policy and tactical errors. This bond would have had better odds had it been presented last Nov. with less competion for public attention. Had it been passed then, it would have bought 15% more real improvement for the dollar, a figure that gets worse by the day. The best I can say here is that the Board finally took to heart a devastating defeat and decided to listen to the voters. In the words of Mark Twain, “First God made idiots; that was for practise. Then He made school boards”.

That is a bit unfair, I have come to know members, and they care, they have been misdirected. Part of that is our fault; we the voters did not make our voices heard until it was too late. San Angelo has never been stingy when it comes to education. We passed the visionary Central High in times of drought and hard money. The last bond was the first time in history local voters turned down a school bond.

I know we are flying in the face of tax payer fatigue. We don't have many chances to stand athwart history and say “NO”. I am telling you, I have kept up with SAISD issues, I am begging you, anyone who gave me credibility on the last bond election, please, trust me, this is not a good time for a taxpayer rebellion.

A dozen years ago, I wrote here supporting the '96 bond and responding to a Cookie Roberts column in opposition to that bond. Stealing a line from my column of 12 years ago, this a “Pay me now, or pay me later” moment, and paying later will not be cheaper. Had Ms. Roberts' view prevailed in '96, Lincoln students would be attending in a building older than I am, and God only knows where we might be cramming in 700 Lamar students.

Locally, realitistically, this bond vote is as important as any decision we will make Nov. 4. Conaway will be our Congresscritter, Texas' electoral votes will go to McCain, that decision will be made in Michigan or Florida, or somewhere, but this bond vote will be ours, and ours alone.
Our childrens' education is as important a part of the city's infrastructure as streets and pipes, long term, possibly moreso. Right now, with all the other items on the ballot, this gambler puts the odds about 20% against. Please prove me wrong.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Control Freaking

Animal control, especially dog limits, is still a hot topic. At the end of the last council meeting, they directed the Animal Services board to consider an enhanced Spay and Neuter ordinance, a possible breeders ordinance, and a look at zoning, but left limits on the table. There are better alternatives to limits.

There was some misinformation at the last council meeting, especially on zoning. It was stated that the zoning ordinance made breeding and selling dogs in a residential neighborhood illegal. This is not quite correct. Animal kennels are illegal which "includes any structure or premises where animals ordinarily considered household pets are kept, boarded, bred or trained, for commercial gain." Those are limited to commercial districts.

This is talking about when the primary use of a structure is a kennel. What about when someones pet just happens to have pups in a residence and the owner sells some? Residences fall under a category called household living. Among the allowed accessory uses are "raising of pets, hobbies, home occupations." It also states "Allowed home occupations include, but are not limited to" and gives a list. The few occupations specifically not allowed in a residential area are "Hair cutting or styling shops, nail salons or other beauty or cosmetic-related business. Tattoo parlors. Pet grooming. Any form of repair shop." No mention of breeding. There are restrictions on auxiliary buildings, traffic, etc. but those apply to any home business. It appears that small scale breeding is legal unless you violate other laws such as nuisance, public health or animal cruelty. If we want to do more about breeding with zoning, we must redo the zoning ordinance. We must define when breeding crosses the line into a business that is not suitable for residences. Change the spay and neuter laws and develop a breeders permit. Until then we must use existing tools effectively.

Texas and San Angelo laws make it illegal to "transport or confine an animal in a cruel manner." There are federal guidelines on space requirements, especially for commercial operations and laboratories. There must be adequate space for "freedom of movement and normal postural adjustment." The space must allow a dog "to turn about freely, to sit, stand and lie in a comfortable manner, to walk in a normal manner." The department of agriculture even has a formula and procedure to calculate this space based on an animals size, and whether or not there are pups. The space available for adequate housing puts a maximum limit on the number of dogs that can be properly cared for on the property. This also takes care of the case where animals are jammed into small cages, as was evidently happening in the puppy mill.

This leads into another important point. Violations of zoning and nuisance laws only allow for fines and maybe contempt of court charges. Animal cruelty laws allow for the seizure of dogs, and possible jail time for the owners. Cruelty laws need to be used more effectively. The limit should be space per dog, not the dogs per person.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Animal Limit City Council Timeline

The following is a time line of City Council meetings where a dog limit and changes to the animal control ordinance have been discussed since the first mention of limits on the number of animals in 2006.

June 20, 2006
First discussion of Animal limits.
November 7, 2006
Further discussion of Animal control issues. First discussion of a possible breeders
February 6, 2007
Further discussion of animal control, with discussion of breeders license fees and other related fees. Ross(sic) Jacoby spoke against breeders licenses or permits, and suggested using existing laws. It was noted that only 33% of owners license pets.
March 20, 2007
Discussion of draft ordinance on animal limits submitted. Motion to bring back ordinance limiting total dogs to 6 passed 4-3. Motion prohibiting sale, trade, or transfer of animals on public property passed 5-3
April 3, 2007
First public hearing to limit number of dogs to 6 failed by a 3-4 vote.

Judge Gilbert stated there were existing laws that would address the issues presented, and commented on the lengthy process to address such a complaint.

Staff was directed to bring back a comprehensive rewrite of the animal control ordinances.
July 17,2007
Revisions to the animal control ordinances were approved to be put in ordinance form for a future council meeting. This included the increasing the number of animal control officers from 3 to 5.

Mike Loving reiterated the issues are in the enforcement of the ordinances, not the number of animals.
September 4, 2007
First public hearing of a comprehensive amendment of the animal services ordinance is held and passed unanimously. No limit on the number of animals is included.
September 18, 2007
Second public hearing on the animal services ordinance amendments passes unanimously as part of the consent agenda.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Government Theater

If you pay much attention to government in action, you get to see a lot of what is called Theater. These are actions and laws done mostly for show and to make people feel a problem is being handled. Close inspection shows they are ineffective, and often make the problem they were supposed to solve worse. Security theater is probably the most common example..

The City Council will have a bit of theater on the agenda on 19th. There is a proposed ordinance to limit the number of dogs one can have on a residential property. They are proposing a limit of 6 dogs, with exemptions for "recognized rescuers" (who can have up to 9 altered dogs), and one litter for 12 weeks. This is classic Government theater. This is not the first time this has been before council. We have followed this since 2006. This started because there are inconsiderate people that don't know how to care for dogs and think that a small residential yard is the proper place to have a puppy mill.

These people are already violating noise and public nuisance ordinances. There are probably health code violations. There may be zoning violations (incompatible business), etc..

When this was brought up the first time, we did some research and found very little support for dog number limits. The AVMA, in its model ordinance, does recommend special permits for breeders and similar businesses, but recommends no hard limits for private ownership. The key part of the ordinance is under owner responsibility and says "No dog or cat shall be allowed to cause a nuisance. The owner of every dog or cat shall be held responsible for every behavior of such dog or cat under the provisions of this ordinance." There are similar recommendations from the AKC, SFSPCA, and most other animal welfare groups. If you look at the discussions on and nokillnow, there are cases where fixed limits have been found to be un-constitutional limits on property and due process. The city does have a legitimate right to regulate nuisances, but other cases have shown that a certain number of dogs does not necessarily create a nuisance.

Now we come to the heart of the matter, the problem this theater is supposed to address. There are people that are being denied the peaceful enjoyment of their homes because some people refuse to properly care for their animals. In some cases, it is an inconsiderate breeder just trying to make some easy money. In other cases, it is one dog that is allowed to destroy property, strew trash and garbage, and generally create havoc because the owner is lazy and irresponsible. The people that are being irresponsible and creating nuisances today will not suddenly comply with a new law. We are not effectively enforcing what's on the books today so why will that change with an additional law we still don't have the manpower to enforce. In the end, it is all for show. It's just a case of Government Theater.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Budget Machinations

I am glad I withheld my initial reaction to the July 15 Council meeting When Chief Vasquez dropped his "20% pay raise" budget bombshell. Let me say before anything else, I am glad the officers got the raise. In a comment that day, I predicted they would get 7, maybe 10%, deservedly so. Where do I keep misplacing that Karnak turban?

The process was ugly, no two ways about it. I have spoken to most of Council since, I can reliably report "stunned" would be an understatement. This was not a reasoned negotiation, this was a parliamentary mugging. Only the Mayor and Councilmembers Farmer and Silvas spoke that day. Farmer took the time to do the math and state a dollar amount and expressed her shock that Chief Vasquez seemed to expect Council to act that day absent any prior notice. Mr. Silvas, the "new kid on the block" went into a statement which, while trying to offend no one, he agreed really boiled down to, "Why the heck am I hearing about this for the first time today?". Other members told me they had stayed silent because they were so angry at this "ambush" they did not trust themselves not to say something they would later regret.

It is a safe consensus, our public safety personnel got this raise in spite of, not because of, the Vasquez presentation.

I have watched the video of that meeting several times. Jerry Sea, of the WTOS and NAACP spoke for the raise, but mentioned "This is the best City Council we have ever had". I wholeheartedly agree, 30 years of seeing them come and go, some tried, some flat lied to us, and current Council is dealing with problems unfairly dumped on them. This I state plainly: Council AND staff (we also, in my opinion, have the best City Manager we've ever had) passed a small miracle in this new budget.

Council, by ordinance and Charter change, has made the budget process more responsible and transparent than ever before. This Council did not deserve the ambush Vasquez set for them. It is to Council's credit that they overlooked the political insult and gave our officers what they rated.

Understand, we have a significant change in local government. I was in the trenches against the "ol' boy club". Folks, that is done. The oldest "rats in the barn" are Mayor Lown and Councilman Morrison, each starting their third. They are part of the cats who ran the rats OUT of the barn.

Capital Improvements is one such; we moved this, with approval of the voters, from ordinance and procedure, to required by Charter. It is new, as is the SAPD "Meet and Confer" process. In the process, some time will be lost as the bureaucrats set rules by which they play. I am inclined to give all parties, City Manager, Police Chief, City Council, a good amount of latitude for the mechanics of making reforms effective.

All that said, the cops got a raise, the Council dodged a bullet, this is as good a chance as Council will ever have to say "OK, Rookie mistakes get a pass BUT...never again". God's honest, a lot of people spent a lot of time and trouble making these budget reforms come to pass. Not picking on SAPD's somewhat unique position with an elected Chief, EVERY city department needs to be put on notice, get your requests in on time, with numbers to support them, or you will be SOL until the next year's budget.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

The Fourth, Fireworks, and Freedom

I have been remiss in posting here. My Holiday weekend was not quite the leisure time I hoped for, between plumbing, reprogramming the household Dish and my favorite, electrical shorts in my ancient pickup, I have not had much time. Lord, give me a simple bolt-turning head gasket any day over chasing electrical "ghosts in the machine". Yes, I got it, but try finding a schematic for a 77 F-150. And it lies to you, keep a test light handy.

I'm getting old and impatient, I stayed home and watched the Macy's, then the Boston Pops fireworks. As much as I love this most ephemeral of art forms, I just wasn't up to the traffic this year. Nice surprise, just as the Pops was winding down, I stepped outside. The distant thunder from Nasworthy alerted me, and by gosh, I got to see at least the high shells from my roof. Congratulations to everybody who helped make it happen, very impressive. Made me wish I'd gone to the trouble, there is no way the best plasma screen captures the bass vibration of a live show. In 1976, I spent all day securing a very crowded spot for the Bicentennial fireworks in DC, base of the Washington Monument. BTW, on the Boston Pops, I couldn't help but think: I hope there is an especially warm seat reserved in the after-life for the ad exec who assured that no one in my generation will ever, so long as we live, be able to hear the "1812 Overture" without thinking of breakfast cereal. If you are young enough not to know what I'm talking about, you don't want to know.

The question of "patriotism" is much in the news. I am an American patriot. I am not a "My country, right or wrong" patriot, and I don't think basic patriotism has a damned thing to do with lapel flag pins. As I do every year, I reviewed our Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. The latter is a grand total of four pages of sheepskin, plus Amendments. It is an astounding document and has resulted in an astounding Republic.

We are far from perfect, and maintaining the vision requires our continual attention. As Franklin was quoted, "we have given you a Republic; if you can keep it". (OK, Franklin was an inveterate self-promoter, may have made that up post-facto, but it's still a good line and at the time, he set the type and paid for the ink.)

In comparison to any other government, given the choice, I pick America. Proof being in the pudding, so do millions of immigrants, legal or otherwise. Going to my heritage, almost 50 million Americans check "Irish" as their ethnic identity on the census. Did you know that Ireland, even post-"Troubles" is still the 3rd largest source of "undocumented" aliens? All our faults, we must be doing something right.

Shifting gears from the grandiose to the mundane and coming back to a local focus: The Standard-Times has afforded ink to two people, State Rep Crownover and one Dr. Fazen in favor of making the entire state of Texas "non-smoking". Our Police Chief has proposed, and Council is considering, an ordinance to force gasoline retailers to mandate "pre-pay" to avoid gasoline drive-off theft.

I, for one, think it ironic that these two mandates on business decisions come on the eve of Independence Day and a celebration of freedom.

As to the first, smoking: San Angelo already has a ban on smoking in all gov't buildings. My rough estimate, over 90% of businesses ban smoking, one assumes in deference to their customers' wishes. About the only commercial establishments to allow smoking are some restaraunts, and all beer-joints, again, one assumes, in deference to their client's wishes. My S-T handle of "barkeep" is not an affectation, I have worked that trade many years. I invite Rep. Crownover and Dr. Fazen to this challenge: Put up your own money in any jurisdiction allowing smoking in bars and open a non-smoking bar. Pay the license and taxes, hire the best band in town, advertize it in every outlet available and wait for your non-smoking customers. And wait, and wait. I have NEVER seen a non-smoking bar make it financially unless all the competitors were forced to go non-smoking by law.

A stronger case could be made if non-smokers could point to a single place they could not avoid of their own choice and not have to suffer the evil fumes. Freedom includes implicitly the freedom to make foolish choices; or not.

Gas drive-offs: Yes, it is theft, outright theft. And that makes it an ordinance issue how? Chief Vasquez "estimates" between $9,000 and $18,000 annually in "staffing "costs to deal with (his figures) 284 offenses since Jan. First, it would be nice if the ballpark pricetag had less than 100% wiggle room, makes it sound like a top-of-the-head guess. Second, that figure at the high end is a negligible less than one tenth of a percent of SAPD budget. Third, police departments everywhere prioritize resources. A bank robbery or homicide, everybody turns out. A misdemeanor, class B or otherwise, sometimes that's "Hey, we'll get to it when we get to it". At least that's the way the very reasonable, sympathetic, but realistic officer described it to me last time I reported a home burglary.

Seems to me, SAPD doesn't have to roll out "Code Blue" every time a convenience store has a drive-off, and maybe if they didn't, the retailer might rethink his own security measures instead of using SAPD as a private "collection agency".

I'm with Councilman Morrison on this one: Pre-pay or not should be a business decision, made by the business owner. Frankly, if it were my business, I would make the decision case by case. Some locations are inherently more easy to drive off from. Investments in cameras, extra clerks and policy ought be left to the business owner, and the consequences as well.

I try to avoid conspiracy theories. I don't own a tin-foil hat and I have no idea who may have been on the grassy knoll. This one does sniff as though there were perhaps a major local gas retailer(s) who would like to go "pre-pay" without suffering any disadvantage from another, more trusting or better prepared competitor. If the City Council can be hornswoggled into doing the dirty work, the retailers get to hang out a sign apologetically blaming the pre-pay two-step on Council without suffering any adverse competition. After all, it would only affect those lower class customers without the "plastic" option, and they don't really count in the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Oops, almost forgot, they still get to vote, don't they? Every May, best I recall. Recall, a word Councilmembers are well advised to keep in mind.

Hope you had a better Fourth than mine, but I can't really beef about it. The toilet flushes, the truck runs, and I still live in the greatest nation in history.