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.