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!

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