Friday, January 25, 2008

1 2 3 Red Light

Lubbock is giving us some interesting insights on how many cities view red light cameras. They recently received a report on the first 6 months of operation. The results are so bad, the committee charged with overseeing the program is recommending it be discontinued. It is apparent that the cameras are not really improving public safety. Accidents at intersections with cameras are up by 52% while accidents at other intersections are down by 2.7%. The number of injuries is down, but one commenter on the study said that could be due to a number of factors, including the number of passengers in each vehicle. Right out of the gate, their program seems to be failing, and deserves to be discontinued. The problem is that they will discontinue it for the wrong reasons.

It was obvious from the start that Lubbock did it for the money. They ignored re-engineering an intersection (which includes adjusting yellow light timing) as an option. When they found that only 4 of the 14 most dangerous intersections would have the needed 20 citations per day to be profitable, they looked at 12 additional intersections with no real history of accidents. This was put on hold after it was found out that 8 of the twelve intersections had yellow lights shorter than they should be, with one being shorter than legal minimums. Recent changes in Texas law derailed Lubbock's original plans.

With 7300 citations per intersection a year needed to be profitable, I have to wonder what the costs of installation and operation for such a system must be. At the State mandated maximum of $75 per citation, that means each intersection would generate a gross revenue of $547,500.00 per year. With 14 "profitable"intersections, that is a total revenue of $7.66 million per year. Lubbock anticipated a net revenue of $2 million per year, which meant that $5.66 million a year were needed to run the operation and pay the vendor $3.3 million in five years.

Update: After reading some of this material again, I find that the 20 citations/day may not be per intersection, but the total break even point, where the city isn't making money yet. With the cities goal of $2 million in "revenue" (i.e. profits), that is still around 36,000 citations per year, or roughly 7 per intersection at 14 intersections. That still amounts to a $2.5 million a year hidden tax. This is basically the old speed trap dressed up in high tech and automated.

I hope we can avoid Lubbock's approach to public safety and revenue. So far, our city council hasn't been swayed by the prospect of easy money. We need to keep vigilant to make sure it never happens.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Another Sunday Rambling

Well, the Cowboys are out, Al Gore let me down on Global Warming, no suntan today, I might as well pass on a few thoughts while I casually watch my NFL investments.

It has been an interesting week. Last week at their "this one doesn't really count" pre-agenda meeting, SAISD reviewed Superintendent Bonds' performance, but more importantly, we heard our first inkling of what might lie in store for us as relates to a bond issue. Last year, I served as treasurer for the SPAC opposing the last bond. As I later said in both the Standard-Times and here, our involvement was not truly necessary to the defeat of that bond. A city which had never befrore declined to support school bonds kicked this one back by over 2 to 1.

Last week, Trustee Gallegos opined again that he felt the bond failed due to lack of voter education. Others have claimed it failed due to "low" turnout. In fact, for this type election the turnout was unexpectedly high. Voters understood the bond all too well, they just plain did not like it. Hiring a better salesman is not going to sell bagged ice to the Eskimos.

Our SPAC agreed the district needs money, and by law, school districts can only raise major infrastructure money by a voter-approved bond issue. I told the Board we could sell a bond for the amount of the last one, maybe a bit higher, IF a proposal were put forth in line with what voters want. I don't second guess the decision not to hire another consultant firm. I do have concern about the charge given the new citizens' advisory committee. If the S-T is accurate, they "will study the same information a larger facilities task force used" last time. A point we raised last time was the relatively subjective standards used by Huckabee to evaluate facilities. In that Huckabee only got the big payday if the bond sold, they had about 7.5 million reasons to exaggerate structural problems and lobby for new construction as opposed to refurbish/remodel. Is the Huckabee evaluation going to serve as a base for this committee's deliberations?

Will the new advisory committee look at all options? With new population growth going southwest, does it make sense to lock into existing attendance districts? Will this committee at least peek at a three 4A high school model? Are the meetings of this committee open to the public? The City Charter Committee I served on was.

From a purely political strategy view, SAISD has already burned too much daylight. A "hot" Presidential election guarantees a high turnout, especially in the precise demographic one does not want for school spending; lots of older voters with less involvement in schools and a high interest in keeping their often fixed incomes safe from any additional levys. I still believe SAISD can sell a bond in the $130-140 million range, I'd love to be able to help support a good bond for our future, but it had best be a bond pitched at what the buyer (taxpayer) has in mind for policy.
I will be on hand Tuesday evening, join me if you can.

On the really good news front, the new library finally got close enough to full funding to approve actual construction. After all the wrangling, the old Hemphill-Wells Bldg. will finally get a new start as the jewel in the crown of downtown revitalization, and do so at minimal taxpayer cost. Kudos to Ralph Hoelscher for sheer dogged determination on this issue. I take a wee bit of pride remembering when Mayor Fender chided me for being unrealistic, "Don't you know the H-W Bldg is structurally unsuitable for a library? Do your homework before you waste our time." Thanks Fender, seems Ralph didn't know it either.

There's been a lot of flack over the "new" $25 fire inspection fee. This is more a problem of failure to communicate than actual money. Pretty much all the public representation stuck with this $25 bit, and that is misleading at best. Most businesses will pay at least $50-$100, some $300, plus whatever upgrades the inspection mandates. The new ordinance, Sec. 12.100 does gather fees from all over the code into one place, a legitimate housekeeping function. There really is an upside, if the more aggressive inspections result in raising the city's ISO compliance, we could see lower, or at least not higher, insurance rates and deductibles.

Problem is, these inspections have not been aggressive in the past, they were not well communicated to the businesses affected, and in some particulars, it appears the fees target "who can pay" more than the actual cost of inspection. For instance, Alcoholic Beverages Licensed Establishments (this includes the corner grocery selling beer as well as bars) gets a $100 fee. Expolsives; Hazardous Materials: Flammable and combustible liquids; etc. get a $50 fee. I didn't know beer was that big a fire hazard, in fact at least once in my life I have used a well shaken beer as an emergency fire extinguisher. One neighborhood retailer I know got hit for $1,800 total costs, and the way it was presented to him, I can see why he feels as if he has been blind-sided.

This is one more aspect of a long standing peeve I have with the city's relations to small business. We tax ourselves for economic development, but the business too small to appear on COSADC's radar gets flack from the inspections/permits instead of help. From amusement parks to new retail, the prospective entrepaneur gets hoops to jump through. City should set this up such that a new business gets one person, one number to call, one helpful person to guide it through the thicket of regulation and ordinances. This is not to say give in on every point, but the entrepanuer should be able to get a clear answer as to what they need to do, what they can do, or even what they cannot do without spending all day on hold or playing "telephone tag". This is not just businesses, how long did we have to scrap for the right to build carports in a hail prone area? Have you tried to build a fence or get a driveway curb cut lately?

All too often, it doesn't matter if no neighbors object, or even are responding favorably to an idea, planning seems to take the attitude if they didn't think of it first, it can't be a good idea, burden of proof on the property owner.

Other news, the Police Chief race is plenty hot with 6 candidates. We may see a couple drop out, but it will decidedly be the headliner come May. With Councilman Cardenas electing to go for the better paying job of Precinct One Commissioner, SMD 3 Council seat is wide open, SMD 1 &5 are also up, but with incumbents. As mentioned, last May's election was high turnout. The November election on Charter Amendments, San Angelo had the highest percentage turnout for a city our size in the state of Texas. With a new elections administrator (congratulations Vona)and new faith in our voting system itself, I expect this high involvement to continue through the March primaries and the May city elections.

God knows, with the writers' strike going on, we won't be much distracted by the boob toob. This week I was treated to ads for a new "reality show", "Parking Wars", which promises to enthrall us with the travails of the meter maid as she goes about chalking tires and writing tickets. I am not making this up. I lack the imagination to make this up. Maybe that's why I drive a dump truck and do plumbing for a living and someone else gets rich on meter maids. Wait a minute; "Crack Wars; Plumbers at Work": how about it Hollywood?

Never mind, I'll settle for watching the Presidential silly season. Who knows? They may finally get around to actually examining what any of these candidates hold as policy instead of the "process" matters of who leads in which poll.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

2008; Hope It's Great

For the third time, my offer of the year in review and prognostications for '08. Again, as last year, I first reviewed the same offering from last January. Football and oil prices aside, once again in utter lack of false modesty, sometimes I amaze myself. Where is that Karnak the Magnificent turban?

In this space a year ago I was glad to see a Charter Review Committee formed, had no idea I would be part of it. To be honest, I was second choice. True, there was much controversy, primarily on the elected police chief issue, but overall, we did well. By "we", I mean everybody; our committee, City Council, and above all, the record setting turnout of 11,000 who bothered to get out and decide the issues. For a city our size, that was the highest turnout in Texas by percentage. We passed 26 out of 29, not a shabby batting average. Notable here, there was, for a welcome change, no controversy concerning the election process or vote count. Well deserved congratulations to our new administrator, Vona McKerley. First prediction, the electorate having been stimulated, voters will continue to turn out for this year's elections.

Of those Charter issues, the one I am proudest of was the Capital Improvements Amendment. By forcing future Councils to follow the lead of the current one and look at infrastructure first, we should be able to avoid the collapse of water and streets we find ourselves digging out of now.

We didn't do nearly as much as I would have liked last year on traffic lights. I am a great fan of serendipity, and we are almost certainly going to see some in this area this year. ASU's proposal to close Johnson St. triggered a jointly funded traffic study of that part of town. Add the proposal for "red light cameras", which under a new state law requires its own set of studies, we may come out of this year with better data to work with than the city has had in, roughly, forever. Mind you, traffic flow and street quality is realistically an irritant here, not nearly a crisis. Think not? Try getting anywhere in the Metroplex at 5:00 PM.

Last year, I ventured that our serving City Council was as good as we have seen in my memory. No apologies for that. They took a daunting, to say the least, water crisis, and managed to come out with a reasonable funding plan that did not increase ad valorum taxes. Before you go ballistic over the new water bill, consider this; this year San Angelo will spend more money on pipes and streets than the entire ad valorem budget. Hint, hint, my Councilman, Daniel Cardenas has filed for County Commissioner, City SMD 3 is wide open.

Education: my webmaster beat me to this, but it is hard to say enough here. Last year's bond defeat was the first time San Angelo voters ever turned down a bond request. We were part of an opposition group, but even we agreed SAISD really needs a large bond infusion, just not the plan that was soundly trounced last May. I was not shocked to see the Board defer a new bond past the November election. What is astonishing is that no one seems to have woken up over on University Drive. The Board is still rollicking along with their only-every-other-meeting-really-counts format. We still have not seen so much as a rough sketch of a revised bond proposal. The school system not only still needs a ton of money, with escalating construction costs, they now probably need two tons of money. Dr. Bonds' wall of comments notwithstanding, SAISD should have had a genuine poll out there last spring to determine what voters will or will not support. Meanwhile, the board is bogged down deciding how to continue the practice of awarding contracts to the high bidder, and by how much higher, and we seem to have a big problem just how to do reasonable teacher evaluations. A hint on the latter, SAISD: your own bond committee's defection contributed big-time to the last loss, don't put another bond out without a united front.

One hopes all this is a result of mere incompetence rather than a plan to beggar the system into such penury voters will eventually pass whatever is before them, but this "one" is not sure anymore. I do hope the voter involvement I bragged on as to city elections will carry over to the school board, we desperately need new faces there, Cookie Roberts is bound to be feeling lonesome on the left end of the dias. Remember, SAISD spends more tax dollars than city and county combined.

Almost forgot, an issue I have been pushing for years; reform the zoning and permits section of City Hall. As much money as we spend on economic development and trying to attract new business, the single most common gripe I hear is how difficult the city makes it to open a new business. It is one thing to keep rendering plants out of residential neighborhoods, but when no one in the community objects, why should the city set up flaming hoops for entrepanuers to jump through? From car lots to amusement parks to retail outlets, zoning seems to take the position that if they didn't think of it first, it must be an inappropriate use, burden of proof on the landowner. Matter of fact, that mindset carries over to residential use. How long did we fight over carports to protect most families' second largest investment in a hail-prone area? Have you tried to build a fence or get a driveway curb-cut lately?

Let me say again, we should have an office in city hall where a small business start-up can go, detail the nature of their business, and get ASSISTANCE in making it happen, not bureaucratic flak trying to shoot it down. That hopeful capitalist should have one name, one phone number, one contact familiar with his plan to call every time a problem comes up. Not to say that person gives them everything they want, but they should be able to get a clear answer as to what needs to be done or even what can or cannot be done, without spending all day on "hold".

While on the subject of economic development, I don't look for the "candy store" mentality to vanish, but the concept of "economic gardening" was well received here. I hold out hope that long term, this could do us more good than all the corporate bribery we could finance. It boils down to nothing more complex than realistically assessing our strong points, forget about wishing for an interstate we will not see in my lifetime, throw in a little fertilizer (our Small Business Center for example) and move on from there. The signs are good.

One kudo to hand out; thanks to the dogged determination of Commissioner Ralph Hoelscher, we seem to have found a great use for the Hemphill-Wells Bldg. as a new library. At very little taxpayer expense this is about to become the jewel in the crown of downtown development.

Almost forgot football. New England withstood a great effort by the Giants to go undefeated. They have a much harder row to hoe to the Superbowl than Miami did, all due respect to that great team. There are at least five Superbowl quality teams this year; Colts, Green Bay, Dallas, San Diego, even Jacksonville, and who knows, the Giants may keep it up today. On this, I make no pretence of an unbiased view, GO COWBOYS!

Thursday, January 03, 2008

New Addition to ConchoInfo

I have a late Christmas present for the readers of this blog. ConchoInfo now has Forums online. This is a bit different than this BLOG, as it groups posts under discussion boards and topics. I have added Water Issues, Public Safety, and Traffic & Transportation discussion boards and Water Quality, Water Sources & Distribution, and Red Light Cameras as starting topics. You can read anything in the forums, but must register to reply. I will be adding some forum admins as we go along as well. Enjoy.