Saturday, December 26, 2009

Crystal Ball Time

ConchoInfo has been up and operational for just over 5 years. At this time of year we seem to have too much time on our hands and attend too many festivities so we have a habit of firing up the crystal balls to see what we can see from the past and maybe the future.

Five years ago, water rates and sources were definitely major concerns. Water rates were going up. No way to stop it. Luckily, the City Council managed to eliminate a roughly $1,000,000 drain from the water fund to the general fund called Pilot. They also implemented a tiered meter fee which more equitably spread the cost across all the users. The major search for long term water was still in the future, but one of the few justifiable parts of the half cent sales tax was money for a long term water source. Water has been pretty constantly in the news since then and will continue to be as far as we can see in the future. We have started a capital improvement plan that prevented a recent 16” main break from being a major catastrophe like it was in 2006. This time instead of killing 2/3rds of the city's water and the majority of retail businesses, we mostly heard complaints that a mostly precautionary boil notice wasn't seen by absolutely everyone in the area. The outage was confined to a smaller area for about half a day. Infrastructure is still a major problem, and the city still needs to improve, but we are much better today than we were 3 years ago. Our city will have to keep spending major money to fix our infrastructure. Besides water, most of the utility services in the city, including those of private utilities, need work. Lots of work.

Our searches for water sources have made major progress in the last few years. Probably a million dollars of sales tax money has been spent testing various well fields and possible drilling sites. The ones west of here are not usable so far. Everyone expected the water to be brackish (i.e. salty) but no one expected the very fine sand/silt that makes pumping this water in any volume infeasible today. We are moving forward with the Hickory field but I don't see this a complete long term solution. Hickory already has a number of other users and is likely being lusted after by San Antonio. In addition, the recharge rate of Hickory is not all that fast. Hickory is a good resource but not a complete solution. We need to keep looking. We also need to work on area partnerships. Water is not just a San Angelo problem. All of our neighbors are in the same boat, and if they are hurt by water shortages so are we.

Elections have changed a lot in the last few years. In 2006 we got a new elections administrator and new equipment. Problems started early and continued for the rest of the year. After some bad international publicity over a poorly run election and recount, the election administrator resigned under fire. The new one, Vona McKerley started with basically a clean slate and a new year. She provided leadership and sought outside help from a number of citizens of all parties and political persuasions. The improvements have been steady, impressive, and largely taken for granted. She has recruited a wonderful staff, improved procedures for all election workers, and recruited a citizens committee that grew up to be the Tom Green County Elections Support Association, a one of a kind advisory committee with members of all political persuasions that work together for great elections. The process is now working so well and people are working so hard that from the outsides the elections look easy. I have heard several reporters praising the fact they could get the results in time for the 10:00pm New broadcasts. The last complaint I heard was that the early results cut the election night party too short. Watch closely or you won't notice the incremental upgrades that are being made to the system. In the future expect to be able to cast your vote at any polling place.

The lack of problems in the election system has been made up for by recent elections themselves. Voters turned down the first school bond in the history of the city. Wasn't even close. The boards campaign that focused on maintenance failures was the best campaign material the opposition could have hoped for. The major shift from the beloved downtown campus to a southern site that no one seemed to like or understand. It took about a year to get a plan that the voters could support, and even there only one of the two issues passed. I will have much more to say on this in the future but quite frankly I have been frustrated by the current board. I'm waiting for some new blood to show up, but it will likely be a long wait.

We had a successful charter review and most of the needed changes were passed. The appointed chief proposal was defeated again and I am happy with that result. The previous attempt at an appointed chief hadn't even been pushed by the people that put it on the ballot. It was, in reality, a maneuver to delay charter review. After we presented the information to the voters on the various needed changes they made their decisions with much better information than was available before, including a televised debate. There was an unintentional side effect of one of the defeated measures that council members lost insurance coverage but for the most part we passed needed updates to the charter. Best part: We made capital improvements a permanent part of the budget process. They can still ignore capital maintenance, but it will be much harder now.

The last chiefs election was very interesting. If you like politics as theater, then this was your election. There were a large number of candidates, strong language, flame wars on the Standard Times readers comments, and various hints of scandal including one minor ethics violation fine. In the end, Chief Vasquez won the race without needing a recount. A case for study in grass roots politcs.

The last Mayors race continued the trend. The election itself was almost a non-event with neither of his opponents a serious threat. The count was done early, the process was going along smoothly until JW resigned from Mexico instead of showing up to take the oath of office. Still don't understand what he was thinking, but the special election it caused gave us the longest, most expensive Mayors race this city has ever had. Thankfully we will be able to start the new year with a full council. We will wait and see how this Christmas present to the city plays out in the long run.

Public safety has been in constant motion over the past few years. When ConchoInfo started, a faith based prison was being proposed. We still think that Faith Based programs and Prison Industry have a significant place programs that reduce recidivism and prison crowding. We still don't understand why we have the highest incarceration rate on the planet. On the other hand we were smart not to buy into the snake oil that was being peddled by CCI. Our community is better off for dodging that bullet.

There is one trend in public safety we need to take a close look at. Tom Green County had 9 murders in 2009, up from 5 in 2008 and 1 in 2007. I have to agree with Chief Vasquez: this is not a failure of law enforcement and the police department. There little the police could do except cleanup the mess after the fact and help bring the guilty to justice. At the same time, these crimes are the canaries in the coal mine. There is something problematic in the social atmosphere. Most were senseless acts. There were warnings of a sort for some of the cases. A history of erratic or nasty behavior that wasn't seen as more than annoying and slightly crazy. Nothing that police or courts could act on. It's not illegal to be crazy, thank God. Still, we need to really stop and sample the community atmosphere. There is something in the air. We need to find out what it is.


There is much more on the Crystal Ball, but the low battery signal is flashing so I need to stop here. These are my observations for this time of year. Jim Ryans are already up as well. We both agree that it will be an interesting future and San Angelo is a great place to spend it.

Sundry Solstice Subjects

I hope you had a good Christmas. Myself, I got my best present early, Dec. 17th. Animal Services Board finally voted unanimously to forward to Council an amendment to ordinance limiting a city property to one mature rooster. Should Council agree, and I believe they will, my rude neighbor's fighting cock factory will have to be moved out of town. Or eaten, I really don't care, so long as I don't hear it at 3:00 AM.

San Angelo has 20-some advisory Boards and Commissions. These bodies of unpaid citizen volunteers look at specific areas of interest, ranging from animals to parks to the airport, to historic downtown, etc. Functioning properly, they serve to advise Council of problems, either existing or potential, and suggest appropriate action to avert or correct such problems.

I really don't want to be hard on Animal Services Board. I caught them at a time of flux, we had a new Shelter Director and a new Chair of the Board. That said, a fairly simple bit of work took 4 months. I would hate to discourage volunteers to advisory committees, but if one does volunteer, one should take the time to learn the job. Oh yeah, and showing up for meetings, that helps too.

Councilman Morrison has given me a new nickname of Rooster Ryan, and congratulated me on my patience. Mr. Turner and I will be suggesting a Board review process. If approved, this would have Council taking by turns each Board, one at a time, to be "audited" by Council, so that each comes before Council about every 18 months. What I discovered was that I had individually had more communication with Council and city staff than the Animal Services Board had bothered with.

In a similar vein, I have been at this long enough to pre-date internet access. San Angelo is really very good on this, and improving all the time. Information I'd have had to take the day off to dig up in the mid-90s, I can now get at 3:00 AM in bathrobe and slippers. I would suggest that each advisory Board include contact info for its members on its city website.

This holiday season is a good time to pass out some attaboys. We have as good a staff as I have ever dealt with. I don't agree with them all the time, heck I don't agree with ME all the time, but we do have truly competent people on staff. Mindy Ward as City Atty will be missed, but a well-deserved retirement and that office is in competent hands. Ditto Kathy Keane for Economic Development. Best wishes to both ladies.

The new Library is coming along nicely. Congratulations to everyone involved in making this a reality at minimal taxpayer expense. Ralph Hoelscher gets a special "feather-in-the-cap" for bringing city/county together to make this happen.

I have worked as election judge/alt. judge since 1992. Lots of changes in law and administrators over that time. Vona McKerly gets a special attaboy for dealing with extraordinary difficulties efficiently. From the poll-workers' point of view, the job has been simplified in the face of ever more complex legal requirements without busting the budget. Elections has gone from making national headlines over a seemingly interminable recount, to smooth results rendered promptly.

I see a bright future in troubled times for San Angelo. We are setting the mark for low unemployment, we have new construction and new jobs. I turned down a better paying job in Lubbock, I can't see leaving this town. Born here, and grown to love it.

I hope you had a great Christmas, may the New Year treat you well. Oh and "GO UT Longhorns" (but I wouldn't bet the farm on it).

Monday, December 14, 2009

Why?

Tomorrow is the runoff election that will decide who is our next mayor. We had a relatively strong turn out for the special election, and it looks like a good but much smaller turn out for the runoff. I would love to see an 80% to 95% turnout, but we will be lucky to get 15%. When the final tally is in, our next Mayor will have been elected by the minority of eligible voters that put out the effort to make a difference.

As some of you probably know, I have been involved with the TGC Election Support Association from its beginning. Greater voter turnout and participation is one of our major goals, and I have been doing a lot of reading, researching, and thinking on the problem. There are lots of theories and opinions on why people don't vote. If you look at it from an individual perspective with tools like game theory or cost benefit analysis, it's a wonder anyone votes at all. The question that needs to be answered is "Why do people vote?" As a society, we do need people to vote, but really why do individuals vote? I would really like your thoughts on this. It can be as simple as why you vote (or don't) or a broader philosophical answer or whatever you think might help. I would appreciate you ideas and input.

Tell me Why.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Onward Through the Fog

City, County and school taxes attract a lot of voter attention. City has managed to reduce its core ad valorem tax rate at least one cent a year five years running, County has held the line against costs and unfunded mandates, and SAISD had to try twice to get part of its bond proposal passed.

A recurring complaint is that "tax rates be damned, my bill is (same/higher) those nasty Appraisers keep pumping up my bill". Posters on the Standard-Times' e-site accuse the city and county of manipulating appraisals as a disguised tax increase. For sure, the Tom Green County Appraisal District is the least understood government entity in the county, and this is likely true statewide.

I'm going to try to de-mystify the District and its functions. For background, the statutory guide is primarily Chapter Six of the Texas Property Tax Code. I also interviewed Bill Benson, our Chief Appraiser. A most forthcoming gentleman, if anything he seemed tickled pink that someone was interested in his usually obscure office.

There is a Board of Directors and a Review Board, each composed of local citizens. Can you name one of them? December 15 is not only the run-off date for Mayor, it is election day for the Appraisal Board of Directors, I'm guessing you didn't know that. Don't feel ignorant, until State Constitutional Amendment Three spurred me to nose around, I didn't have a clue either.

As to the election, don't look for a ballot. The Directors are elected by the taxing entities in a county. In Tom Green, there are 5,000 votes divvied up between the city, county and school districts according to each entity's percentage of the "take". This year's election is based on last year's revenue, so SAISD does not yet get the increase from the bond they will vote next time. The ballots have already been sent, must be returned by Dec. 15. The votes are cast cumulatively by each body and there is no rule against getting together on voting strategy. the voting strength this year is as follows:

San Angelo Independent School District: 1,839 votes
City of San Angelo: 1,521 votes
Tom Green County: 1,180 votes
Wall Independent School District: 130 votes
Grape Creek Independent School District: 93 votes
Christoval Independent School District: 89 votes
Water Valley Independent School District: 84 votes
Veribest Independent School District: 48 votes
Miles Independent School District: 16 votes

Note that next election SAISD's bond issue will count. SAISD will get more votes, the others correspondingly fewer. Rough estimate depending on tax rates; SAISD will have nearly as many votes as City and County combined, increasing its plurality to 40%+. And yes, Miles is in Runnels County, but part of its school district takes in a small chunk of northeast Tom Green. Many years ago I lived north of Orient, my kids and my mail went to Miles. Similarly, Water Valley takes in a small part of Coke County.

OK, now we have a Board, what does that Board do? Ours typically meets 6-8 times a year at the call of the Chair, they must meet once a quarter. The Board hires the Chief Appraiser (who is a non-voting member of the Board); it sets the budget; it appoints the Review Board which rules on taxpayer appeals of evaluation; and every two years they develop and approve a written plan for periodic re-appraisal and approve said plan no later than Sept. 15 of each even-numbered year.

All meetimgs are subject to Open Meetings Act and are posted at the County Courthouse. Under 6.05(i), the biennial plan must follow a public hearing advertized in the local paper of record (Standard-Times). It really was posted, I suspect I paid it as much mind as everyone else, to wit: none.

There are a bunch more details, but I don't want to spend time parsing the difference between the second degree of affinity and the third degree of consanguinity as regards allowable employees.

What is of interest is the appraisal method selected, possibly demanded with Amendment Three. Tom Green uses "highest and best use". Not to wade too far in the weeds in accounting practises I don't follow, h&bu means a property can be valued not for existing use, but the value of the new business a block or two away. The real horror story example is a third generation home a couple blocks from the new Jerry Jones Tax-Payer Ripoff Stadium. {Full disclosure; I am a huge Cowboys fan, but Jerry has plenty of money, he needs mine because...?}

Amendment Two would cover it now, but a $60,000 home was re-valued at $600,000, a not unrealistic value as parking lot. Result: a loss of homestead similar to the infamous Kelo decision without the inconvenience of an eminent domain hearing; taxpayer could not afford a bill ten times higher, and loses property in foreclosure.

Now the "budget" is that of the Appraisal District, building lease, salaries, etc. Board has nothing to do with the budgets of the taxing authorities.

Frankly, I wish I had looked at Amendment Three more closely. I supported 3, which will set a single state-wide standard for appraisal accounting, but upon further review; No. I don't like "highest & best use", but I also realize, metro areas have different requirements than our more residential use property. A standard appropriate to a highly commercial district might over-charge a largely residential district. God's honest, I would prefer a system of gov't revenue that did not rely on "quit-rents" or property taxes, but tarrifs don't seem to be making a big comeback.

I tend to the Libertarian side of government. That is not so much reflexive anti-tax, as anti-gov't spending on silly stuff. Example; the money ($240,000) spent on skinny trees on the Bryant/Harte interchange might have bought synchronized traffic lights.

Really not the point: the Appraisal District is only responsible for raising money. As such it is easily characterized as the black-hooded fellow in the Hagar the Horrible comic strip. Truth is; services must be paid for. The Appraisal District is not the door to knock on for waste or fraud, it is solely charged with raising the money to fund that which we and our elected officials deem necessary.

I'm sure the next complainant about appraisals will have attended an Appraisal Board meeting. Just kidding, but... Also in Chapter Six; we are not only allowed, but once County hits 125,000 population, required to have a Taxpayer Liason officer whose job is making these mysteries public.

On the one hand, Appraisal Districts are the under-appreciated, necessary functionaries of revenue raising, and I have some sympathy for that view. Other hand, a rising view is rather than fight issues one by one, choke off the income and force the gov't to live within its means.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Allergic to the Drug War

It is that time of the year when my seasonal allergies ambush my body's immune system. For about two and a half months out of the year I live on benadryl and as my symptoms get severe, I have to add psuedophedrine to keep my nose from running like a faucet.

Turns out, some clever lads have discovered ways to transform my perfectly legal, over-the-counter medicine into a crude form of methamphetamine. As part of our War on Drugs, I do not just get my medicine off the rack and pay for it like any other. I get a card off the shelf, take it to the pharmcist (assuming one is on duty, if after hours, I'm out of luck), present photo ID, sign a lenghthy form swearing I will not divert my OTC Sudafed to illicit purposes and wait to see if the nanny-state has any further objections to my purchase.

About this time, with half my lunch hour gone, it occurs to me that if I were buying the meth everyone is afraid my allergy medicine might be turned into, I would already have that.

Understand, I am not making light of the meth problem; I've known people who have gone 'round the bend under influence of same. What I would like is a scintilla of evidence that my inconvenience has in any way served the public good.

Sad to say, all evidence says otherwise. We have tried long (and horribly expensive to taxpayer) prison terms; assett forfeiture, similar results. As we cut off the head of Druglord A, three underlings, B,C and D grow hydra-like from the body and after the formality of a turf war adds to the body count, the machine is soon running at peak efficiency again.

Two things are evident: my time wasted is real and; the effectiveness of the law wasting my time is zero. So far as what I hear, any meth tweaker looking for a fix can still find it in less time than I wait to get my legitimate medicine.

Also evident is there is little chance this nuisance law will be repealed. Good sense it might be, but good press, not so much. Any legislator proposing repeal would be labelled "soft on (drug) crime". Once in force, any law, especially any law related to drugs, has huge inertia to remain in place.

What we might learn from this example is to more carefully consider new legislation in any field.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Darby on the Proposed Constitutional Amendments

Texas State Representative Drew Darby on the proposed Constitutional Amendments from the Oct 14th forum.

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More information on the proposed amendments from the Texas Legislative Council can be found here.


Thursday, October 08, 2009

Mayor Forum 10-5-09 Question 5

Fifth question from the 10-5-09 Mayor candidates forum. How can you increase revenue from the outside and living wage jobs.
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Wednesday, October 07, 2009

The Un-Mayor Race

Thanks to Mr. Turner for the video of the Democrat Club sponsored Q&A from Monday. Despite going heads up against the highest rated Monday Night NFL game in history, an SRO audience attended. Tells me we have high interest in a very open special election to replace Mayor Lown.

I am referring here to the "Un-Mayor" portion of the Nov. 3 election, the State Constitutional Amendments. I can tell you, election clerks and judges regularly get more questions on these measures than nearly any other item on a ballot: by law, come election day, about all we can do is read what is on the ballot. FYI, while I still can, let me run these Amendments down by the numbers.

Amendment One will give cities with military bases the option to use bonds or tax increment zones to buy buffer land between the base and local development, cutting down on complaints. This would apply more to a base such as Dyess in Abliene with an active and noisy flight line. Goodfellow's training mission is quieter, we have residences cheerfully building right up to the perimeter fence. Our local effect is close to zero, but I will vote yes. It will help cities with a noise problem deal with that and keep good relations with the local base

Amendments 2,3 and 5 are related to property tax appraisals. I hear often from people who first read of an ad valorem reduction, as San Angelo has done five years in a row, but then find their tax bill has not gone down, or has even increased due to a higher appraisal of the property. Amendments Two and Three are on the same issue: On Two, current common standard is "highest and best use". In English, if you live near a commercial establishment with a high evaluation, the Appraial District can evaluate your property as though it were worth the same. Amendment Two will require the District to evaluate that residence property on its residential value. The companion Amendment Three will give State Comptrollers office authority to write a fairer standard than "highest and best use". Amendment Five allows appraisal review boards (equalization boards in ballot language) to consolidate as the appraisal districts have. Two and Three are crucial, Five is housekeeping with a possible lowering of expense. I vote "yea" on all three.

Amendment Four would create a National Research University Fund designed to help major Texas Universities become Tier One research institutions. Though ASU is not one of the seven named schools, we could see some local benefit to ASU through its affiliation with Texas Tech, which is specified in the measure.

Amendment Six will allow the Texas Veterans' Land Board to issue bonds if needed to assure our veterans the Land Board benefits of lower-interest loans for home buying. In the past, each bond request required separate voter approval, the last in 2001. I don't think voters have ever turned down a bond request. This program is self-funding, with a default rate under 0.5%. In a state with 2 million veterans and no cost to taxpayers, I see this as a solid "yes".

Amendment Seven adds the Texas State Guard to others exempt from the rule against "holding two paid civil offices". Many voters are unaware of the Texas State Guard. It is an all volunteer group, separate from the National Guard. Its function is to supplement the Texas National Guard if it is unable to respond due to say, deployment overseas. See hurricane Ike. If we could allow LBJ to run for Senate and VP on the same ballot, surely we can allow a State Guard reservist to be a Councilman or County Commissioner without resigning his/her State Guard position.

Amendment Eight is the diciest. It would allow the State to support and build VA hospitals. HB 2217 has already been passed, and there is valid debate whether Amendment Eight is truly needed to support 2217. I'm probably wouldn't have supported HB 2217. Slight digression here, but I have long supported laws that would eventually replace the separate VA Hospital system with cards/vouchers allowing vets to recieve the care we owe them at the same hospitals we use. Local care, gov't funded. This is going to be my "NO" vote in November.

Amendment Nine is called "Open Beaches". Obviously little local impact unless you vacation at our Texas beaches. Since 1959 the legal definition of Public Beach is the area between the water and the line of vegetation bordering the Gulf of Mexico. In short, if you choose to "build thy house on shifting sand", your property rights depend on the vagaries of aforementiond shifting sand. Even if you have the grandest house on the waterfront, you can't keep us commoners off the beach between your manse and the beach. Hurricane Ike again; some homeowners found their houses to be a "public beach" due to storm related erosion. I am not completely without sympathy, BUT...Homeowners knew they were building on sand. Nine merely gives Constitutional standing to a law that has been on the books since Eisenhower was President.

Amendment 10 is the sort of housekeeping another state would have had decided by Commissioner's court or some county review board. No local interest I know of, if I bother to vote it, I will vote in favor.

Amendment Eleven on eminent domain. It moves us in the right direction, post the infamous Kelo decision. I would have preferred stronger, more informed debate. With Gov. Perry backing the TTC and its huge appetite for eminent domain, it's hardly a secret he opposes this Amendment. That's OK Gov. Perry, I don't like Amendment 11 either. I think it should have been even stronger. Definite "yes" vote on this. It may not be perfect, but it's a step in the right direction.

There it is, my personal guide to the "un-mayor" issues. Regardless of how the gentle reader votes, I hope you will vote on the Amendments. I hope this helps make it an informed vote.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Mayor Forum 10-5-09 Question 4

Fourth question from the 10-5-09 Mayor candidates forum. How important is it to be a full time Mayor and do you have the time?

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Mayor Forum 10-5-09 Question 3

Third question from the 10-5-09 Mayor candidates forum. Why run for Mayor instead of council?


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Mayor Forum 10-5-09 Question 2

Second question from the 10-5-09 Mayor candidates forum. Should the Mayor and council take diversity training like the rest of the city staff is required to do.


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Mayor Forum 10-5-09 Question 1

First question from the 10-5-09 Mayor candidates forum. What can be done by the Mayor to help lower local electric rates?

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Mayor Forum 10-5-09 intro

Mayoral candidates introduce themselves at the Democrat Club Forum, 10/5/2009. Videos of the questions will follow soon.

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Monday, September 28, 2009

Monday Night Madness

Just got through sweating out the Cowboy's Monday night debut; by sheer luck they covered a Dallas and under parlay. Newman got lucky or Big D fails to cover the spread. Dallas defense better step up, or it's repeat of last year in a tough division.

I couldn't help but notice: the commentators mentioned several times the wonderful $1.3 Billion facility in Irving which has replaced the old Texas Stadium. They even mentioned the potential $50 million problem of a low scoreboard punters have no problem hitting. I have been a Cowboys' fan since before they started winning, but if I were a metroplex resident, I don't care if the resurrected ghost of Tom Landry were for it, I would have oppossed the use of tax money to build this sports palace.

OK, sports events stimulate spending. Problem is, most of that consumerism would be locally generated and locally spent anyway, just on other things. Perhaps the same family goes to Red Lobster and a movie instead of the game. I did not notice a huge contingent of the 105.000 faithful fans present who had travelled from Carolina. I'm sure there were some, but how far did their money on motel rooms and eats go towards covering a $1.3 Billion tab?

Jaws mentioned the stadium was employing about 7,000 people as ticket-takers and concessionaires. Let's see; 7,000x $7.50/hr/x 5hrs, throw in tips and slop, be generous and call it half a mil a game, the economic impact of the new stadium will pay for itself in roughly 2,000 years.

Folks, I am a big sports fan, but I also believe people should pay for their habits. Tennis fans should pay for tennis courts and lights. Hockey fans should pay for ice to play on. Verging on the heretical here, high school football fans should pay for the suits of armor our local players battle less than successfully in, not to mention their less than successful coaches salaries.

Old saying, slightly twisted, "Money's tight and times are hard, pay for your own kickoff card". Another old saying; "You want to play, you gotta pay".

Monday, September 21, 2009

Choke that Chicken! Updated

In my last missive, I mentioned at the end my concern over raising fighting cocks in town. Unfortunately, for me this is not hypothetical. I live Eastside, just off Bell St, a neighboorhood of quarter-acre lots. Mostly blue-collar, good working folk, pay the bills, mow the grass, responsible folks doing our best to take care of business, a little older demographic than the "late-night party" crowd.

Now comes one rudely inconsiderate bloke who thinks this is a fine venue in which to raise gamecocks. We are not talking here an egg-and-meat flock of mostly hens, but 14-16 fighting cocks. With Louisiana finally making chicken fights illegal, nowhere in the US is it legal to fight chickens for fun and profit, as it should be. As a nation, we take cruelty to animals seriously enough that a top rank quarterback in the NFL served over two years for fighting dogs.

At least the dogs, typically Pit Bulls, have another purpose than fighting. One neighbor has 4 Pits, but they are truly pets. I suspect his kids would revolt were he ever inclined to fight them, which he does not do.

As to gamecocks; they are born and bred for one purpose alone: to slaughter one another immediately anytime two roosters find themselves in reach of one another. At $50 to $150 each, they are not being raised for Sunday fried chicken dinner, and they sure don't lay eggs for breakfast.

What they do is, in frustration at being unable to fight the rooster in the adjoining cage, they indulge in crowing contests. All night long, every night. Perhaps the single rooster in a flock of hens might crow at dawn, but these rascals are at it 18 hours out of 24. Heat of the day they get in the shade and rest, so they can keep me up all night crowing at 3:30 in the AM. The 100 foot distance now in ordinance does nothing to alleviate the noise.

I have nothing against the egg & meat flock of hens, maybe A rooster to keep the flock self-sustaining. My grandmother raised chickens and quail when I was a kid, had an incubator and taught me the art of "candling" eggs to determine fertility. One of my chores was collecting eggs and plucking Sunday dinner sometimes. Frankly, the eggs ARE tastier than supermarket eggs, and the clucking of hens keeps no one disturbed at night, hens coop up and stay silent.

Over several months we have established that my rude neighbor cares not a whit for my inconvenience. SAPD kicks me over to Animal Control. Our noise ordinance gets enforced if an apartment-dweller cranks his stereo at 2:00 AM, but mention "birds" and SAPD backs off, tells me to call Animal Control, which has done all it can under current law. I'm not really chewing on SAPD here, our existing noise ordinance is loosely written, I can see not looking forward to making a rooster noise case in court.

Wednesday I will present to Animal Services Board a proposed new ordinance limiting roosters in town. Noon at the Convention Center. If you have a similar problem, or for that matter, wish to defend your right to keep your neighbors awake, be there. This is how things get done.

Update: It turns out the Wednesday meeting had to be canceled. Seems city staff forgot to post the agenda on the city hall bulletin board 72 hours before the meeting, as required by the Texas Open Meeting laws. They also failed to post it on the city website as required by the last city charter changes. This issue should be on the agenda for the next meeting which is currently scheduled for October 15th. Hopefully they will be ready next time.

I realize that there is some confusion now because they have a new health director, and they are losing the current animal services director, but this is not the first time that the ball has been dropped for this board. We finally have a board that is involved, active, and paying attention. They need to be better served by the city staff.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Labor Day Ups and Downs

Labor Day has an interesting history. While New York City celebrated the day as early as 1882, It became a national holiday in 1894 under one of my favorite Presidents, Grover Cleveland. The Pullman Strike had just ended. This rather ugly event had seen a number of deaths of strikers at the hands of police and even military personel. Cleveland was anxious to ease the discord with a growing labor movement and Congress was only too happy to go along, making it a national holiday in short order.

Had it not been for Chicago's Haymarket affair, Labor Day would probably have been set on May 1. At Haymarket, Chicago police were moving in to disperse a peaceful pro-labor rally when anarchists tossed bombs, killing 8 police, with a number of civilians shot in the ensuing gunfire from the surviving officers. Probably good fortune for American labor unions. Though it hadn't come to pass in the 1890s, Mayday would later become inextricably tied to the Communist celebration of that name.

Being in a good mood, let's start with good news. City Council last week passed a budget that gives us another one cent reduction in property tax rate. Staff turned in a really good piece of work here. They had been given two weeks from the prior Council meeting to come up with savings to permit at least a half-cent reduction. Frankly, I went to last week's meeting thinking perhaps that half-cent was all we would see, but they had managed to scrounge over $330,000 and permit another full cent. That makes five years running. Not that we want to get too comfy; our tax rate is still on the high end of Texas cities. For instance, Tyler, a city about our size, has been at this since the mid-90s and with some creative use of its 4B sales tax has a rate of about 25 cents, I believe the lowest for a city above 25k in the state. Still, we didn't get here overnight, we can't undo it overnight, but we are steadily moving in the right direction. I hope Staff and Manager Dominguez are enjoying this fine day off, you guys earned it.

Nice rains across the Concho Valley. Save the applause, but I'll take credit for that thank you. See, I finally broke down and spent all night last week soaking my thirsty pecan trees. Donations to cover the water bill I will be afraid to open...Ah well, it was for the good of the community.

It wasn't such a good week for SAISD. They did pass a reasonable budget, but then came the now infamous Obama speech decision. Board member Max Parker was right, there simply was not time to convene a Board meeting, which might have allowed for a more thoughtful response. Not to be unduly harsh, indeed, overall I am still glad we have Bonds as Superintendent, but it looks as though in this case, she allowed a small vocal group to sway the decision not to air the President's comments where possible.

I do not recall a topic that generated the volume of posts on the Standard Times gosangelo site, overwhelmingly against the call. Even arch-conservative Charles Krauthammer of Fox News was saying that with the essay assignment, "How I can Help the President" struck from the package, he had no problem with having our first black President give American students a "Stay in school and study hard" message. You never know, it might actually help some of the kids.

It's hardly a secret that I did not vote for Obama, BUT..I've seen his short prime-time ad on the "stay-in-school" message, and it is just that. Nothing partisan, it isn't "stay-in-school-and-learn-how-to-be-a-good-Democrat", just stay in school and learn. I would be very surprised if this TV address is anything other than that message expanded. If even a small percentage of kids, especially disadvantaged kids react well to hearing that message from the man who proved even black children can grow up to be President, that will be a positive.

It is a fact of political life that the negative side of any topic will be expressed more quickly and noisily than the positive, thus the one-sided e-mails and calls the Superintendent fielded at first. For all the complaints about "negative campaigns" they are still widely used for one reason only: they work. Pure fact, a campaigner is more likely to stir an otherwise complacent voter off his duff to vote against something than to vote for something.

I dissent from Trustee Tim Archer's comment that this is not a "big deal". True, it will not be dominant in the context of a full year's education. Still, the symbolism, especially in the minority community that did vote heavily for the President, the symbolism is huge, and it will be remembered like a thorn in the side or a burr in the saddle. I have dabbled in matters political long enough to know, politically, symbolism IS reality. 'Nuff said on that.

Overall, I see a pretty good Labor Day for San Angelo. Economy is a bit down, sales tax revenues show that. Not quite boom time, but San Angelo has fared better than much of the country. We still have new construction going up, not the least the joint Martifer/Hirschfeld wind turbine tower plant.

I am thrilled about the turnout for the Mayor's race. Whatever one may think of him, J. W. Lown proved that though the Mayor is just one vote on Council, if someone is willing to work full time at this basically unpaid job (we need to correct that BTW) and build a city-wide coalition of support, the position can be quite effective. Conchoinfo does not, will not endorse candidates, but... I know some of the candidates, I intend to get to know the rest. I can say, we have a good field of qualified people running, the best I can recall. My thanks to all who have been willing to step up to the plate and run.

I will go this far out on a limb: I will not support any candidate who thinks people ought to raise fighting cocks in town. Another topic for another day.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Storm over storm water rates

Tuesday's Council meeting was a long day, much of it taken up with the storm water program rate structure. I have been following this as closely as I can since the public meetings last March. It ain't perfect, but I like what we have now a whole lot better than what I was looking at in March. I like it better than what was first presented Tuesday morning.

First let me explain "tiers". The original back in March was going to go by straight square footage, each property paying flat 15 cents per. The tiers group properties by size, for instance, tier three commercial is 15001-50,000sq ft. It has right at a quarter of all commercial lots. They use Dairy Queen on Sherwood as an example. There are 4 residential tiers and six non-residential tiers.

On residential, the highest rate will be $5/month, for houses with over 3,000 sq. ft. OF ROOF. In fact if you have a 3200 Sq ft two story and get a tier 4 $5 billing, call and tell them. They have a Google-like system and can check that from the desk and adjust your tier. Over 55% of residences will be in tiers 1 or 2, at $2 and $3 respectively. The bill will go to the owner, it will not be a tack-on to residential water bills. If you rent a house, as I do, the owner gets the bill. Unlike property taxes, this will apply to non-profits, churches, it will apply to vacant buildings, virtually everything except the federal building downtown. Yes, as usual the feds exempt themselves from that which they impose on us. Apartments are in "non-residential", which sounds absurd and accounts for my preference for the term "commercial".

In the commercial tiers, the first three contain 87% of all affected properties. The tier 3 rate is $30/month, pretty close to the average for that tier. Likewise tiers 4 and 5 are very close to the average for their tiers. Then we come to tier 6 over 500,000 sq. ft.: the $500/mo is nowhere close to the average of $1400 they would pay in straight sq. footage billing. How can this be?

Well frankly, tiers 1 and 2 at $7.50 and $15 respectively are getting hosed. Any business at the low end of the first 5 tiers is getting hosed a bit too. How can this be fair? Best answer I can give you is; it really isn't.

Let me fall back to the public hearings in March. I had made comment that there were unmandated capital projects we could live without and in fact, those projects have been scaled back some. As we were walking out I ended up talking to, well, one of the major car dealers in town. He had already computed his sq footage times 15 cents and I was talking to a genuinely frightened man. He told me bluntly that if he got hit with the full sq. footage charge contemplated then, he was out of business. Given the state of the auto industry, I don't think he was exaggerating at all.

There are only 22 tier 6 properties. They include the asphalt intensive businesses of car dealers and Sunset Mall for instance. The city website uses Wal-Mart Supercenter West as an example, and they could probably pay full freight and only marginally raise prices on each of the tens of thousands of items they sell. The sense of Council, was that the tier 6 full freight fee could break a good many tier 6 businesses, with accompanying loss of jobs. Other hand, the higher-than-sq-footage fees for the lower 3 tiers were unlikely to break businesses.

Some public comment before the lunch break, including yours truly, suggested the presented fees for the lower three tiers, the $10, $20, and $50 was too much burden and too much subsidy. After the break, 5 and 6 had gone up, and the first four down. The $10, $20 and $50 ended up as $7.50, $15 and $30. Still a subsidy package, which does not tickle my libertarian soul, but neither does higher unemployment.

The city website has all the numbers, if you care to look. Opening page click Stormwater information, next page click, rate facts and stormwater facts.

Understand, this is not yet a done deal. The $500 for tier 6 is not only way under the average, it is below the minimum in real sq footage for that tier. If you think this is out of line, show up and stand on your hind legs and say so, but time is short.

It has been said, and I would agree, this should have been started many years ago. Now think back 5, 10 years. How many voters would have howled at the moon about unnecessary taxes? Fiscally responsible, yes; but I don't believe it would have been politically possible. Reality now is, we are staring at a short deadline. If we don't have something going by the New Year, it's likely TCEQ and EPA will move us from 305B (watch list) to 303B. Then they just walk in and tell us "You will do X, Y, and Z". They might let us decide how to pay for it. If they're in a good mood, but they seldom are. If you have a better plan, share it with us quickly.

Budget Question (updated)

The City government is in the middle of its annual budget process and this one continues the tradition of a long, drawn out affair that is entertaining to some political junkies. It looks like the final tax rate will be down by about $.005 per hundred after all the smoke clears, which will still leave us with one of the highest tax rates in the state of Texas (Ft. Worth is still ahead of us, not sure if anyone else is.) The city website has the proposed budget online, and it is full of good information such as 52% of the budget is for public safety, and 74% of the city government expenditures are for personnel. You can go through the 50 pages and quibble about this expenditure and that revenue source and who should pay for utilities at the golf course, but we really need to get to the most fundamental question to be answered for taxpayers and stakeholders of San Angelo. San Angelo's property tax rate is currently $.8275 per $100 (about a $.04 in the last 4 years.) Compare this to $.6854 for Abilene, $.4464 for Lubbock, $.4859 for Midland, $.56229 for Odessa, and $.65 for Victoria. Forget about Tyler, which has a tax rate of $.204. The question that needs to be answered is “Why is our tax rate in the top 5 Texas wide?”

I have some ideas, but I am waiting for answers.

An updated P.S. When you add in the storm water fee, it gets even worse. When you look at the impact on the local economy and community, every dollar of revenue the city collects whether it's sales tax, property tax, a permit fee, utility fee, etc. it amounts to a tax. This new storm water fee is no different. Using the numbers I have heard at the last few council meetings during the budget discussions, a one cent difference in the property tax rate is about $330,000. They tell us the new storm water fee must collect $2.9million so we can meet federal mandates. That is equivalent to about an 8.8 cent increase in the property tax rate. I'm sure it's necessary. I know there are not a lot of choices out there, but this amounts to pretty much the same as an over 10% increase in city property taxes on property owners in San Angelo. When we include the storm water requirements in the total tax bill we could well be the highest taxed city in the state. Do we really want to be number one?

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Longterm Water

Water was on the city council agenda again last Tuesday. We have been covering the local water issues and made information available here since we started about 5 years ago. Water has been an issue for San Angelo and the surrounding area from the beginning. Fort Concho was built at its present location because of the junction of the various Concho River junctions. San Angelo became the county seat of Tom Green county because water, in the form of a flood, destroyed Ben Ficklin, the former county seat. Water gave San Angelo its start. San Angelo has needed a water strategy from the start.

The Standard times gave a pretty good history of the City's long term water strategy back in 2008 but a few additional points need to be made. First, we need to remember how all this is going to get paid for. In 2001, an increase to the water rate lasting 25 years was added to pay for 4 projects with an estimated total of $156 million. It has already paid for 2” main replacement, treatment plant upgrades, and the Twin Buttes gate repairs, with roughly $116 million remaining to pay for developing a long term water supply. In addition, $20 million from the last ½ cent sales tax was promised to aid development of a long term water source. The sales tax money has paid for most of the testing and development carried out so far. There have been attempts to get some grants and other aid, but the reality is that most of this project is going to be paid for by sales tax money and our water bill. There really aren't a lot of choices. This project is far enough along that we probably should take a good look at how we are using our 4B sales tax money and put more of it into developing water sources instead of projects that are much less critical to the health and survival of our community. We need to back to the voters and ask them if they want us to extend the sales tax to help complete this project. Spend more of the sales tax money on fundamentals.

The other point we need to keep in mind is that water is a regional problem. San Angelo's economy is very dependent on the health of the surrounding economies. Whether it's agriculture, oil, ASU, Goodfellow, or just retail sales, most of our trade is local. If the Eden, El Dorado, or Ozona economies have the sniffles, San Angelo's economy will catch a cold. If we are serious about having a healthy economy, we need to help our neighbors keep their economies healthy, and water is a key factor in the economic health of the region. More than that, San Angelo needs to be a good regional neighbor. Not that long ago, San Angelo was seen as a water bully. Some questionable tactics were used to try and get water rights. This led to expensive law suits, and the introduction of a water master to the area. The policy at that time amounted to “water for San Angelo, no matter what happens to anyone else.” We have outgrown that policy, but the bad memories linger on.

There are even more fundamental reasons to make our water system part of a regional solution. First, from a purely economic perspective, the cost per gallon of water can go down. Our current treatment plant can handle 2 to 3 times our current demand. Spread the fixed costs of a system to more customers, and the cost per customer goes down. There could be other savings because of volume buying and economies of scale. Additionally, a regional system can also increase the long term stability and reliability of the entire water system. We are already getting most of our water from O. H. Ivie, which is almost 50 miles away. The Hickory well field will require at least 60 miles of pipe. Our local lakes would have trouble supplying us with the roughly 15,000 acre feet we currently use each year. In 50 years, we will probably need double that amount of water, which will be close to the capacity of all the water sources we are currently developing. Our neighbors will be in the same situation. If we are part of a regional solution that has access to the water within at least 100 miles, all of us, including our neighbors, should still be in good shape.

It's good to see city government doing some long term thinking about something as important as water. More needs to be done, and they need to expand that into regional thinking.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Notes on the Tea Party

Some thoughts on today's TEA Party: let me throw in some observastions and I will declare openly; I have been a Republican as long as I remember, but I have never been embarrassed to call my Party out when it errs.

I will say, today's TEA Party was a huge difference from the last. It can actually be described as somewhat non-partisan, where the last was, honest, a thinly disguised Republican cheerleading session. Mind you, nothing wrong with a little turn-out-the vote cheeerleading, but do me the favor of not lying to me about it. I am confident that the T-Party people are NOT lying, I had long discussions with them today. They went out of their way to change that from last time, I do not doubt the sincerity. Frankly some of these folks are rookies, they got co-opted by pros before they saw it coming. As the rock band WHO said, "We Won't Get Fooled Again".

I am not the only long-term Republican looking at other options. I am not going to "out" anyone without express permission, but there are some local Republican heavy hitters who are at least listening to the Libertarians or whomever.

Now, to what I wanted to say today but the Mike time was limited: those of us of my age will remember Senator Everett Dirksen of Illinois, Republican. When LBJ wanted the Civil Rights Act of 1965 he, who had been mentored by another Texan, Sam Rayburn, counted the votes and thought "Oops". The solid South, then all Democrat was absolute 22-24 segregationist votes. LBJ called in Dirksen to do the heavy lifting in the Senate, and Dirksen agreed, not for credit, but because he was a true believer. And the two of them got it done

And people think Texas is a redneck state! Hah! I have my personal copy of election code, I will put our election laws against those of any state in the union and win that debate. I've been an election judge since 1992, I DEFY any state to show me a more fair, more open, more accessible election system. Been there, done that, on this I know whereof I speak.

The other thing Dirksen was famous for was a quote we still hear from time to time, "A billion here, a billion there, pretty soon, we're talking serious money". Drop the "B" insert a TR, and that's what we are doing today.

Long have I toiled in the Republican vineyard, but the second Bush term left me feeling betrayed. Amongst the political trivia I collect; the last Clinton budget proposal presented to the House (and Constitutionally all spending bills MUST originate in the House; of course the White House has input, but the formal bill MUST originate in the House) originally had the usual Congressional Budget Office analysis of the numbers. Not that bad, for that year, BUT: it was redacted and I only saw it due to a Freedom of Information Act Request. At that time, CBO, and these are bean counters whose jobs are bullet-proof (unless they start behaving like Congressman, Senators and Governors and having affairs with foreign ladies or gentlemen at state expense), these people said in a three page addendum that at current projections, given entitlement spending (Medicaid, Soc Security, etc) by 2030 the average working stiff would be paying 87% income tax.

That is not a misprint. Eighty percent tax is not a fair tax, it is not really a tax. It is chattel wage-slavery, and is politically unsupportable. We would be well into pitchforks and torches time, and if I am still alive, I hope to have the local pitchfork-sharpening and torch-fuel concession.

Nothing in the last two years has improved that forecast. The best numbers I have show an increase of federal deficit of about $14.5 TRILLION in either direct debt or actuarilly anticipated incumbrance. Total national deficit, roughly $22 TRILLION. Our grandchildren will be paying this off and that is if we take the advice of the late William F Buckley and stand athwart history and holler "STOP!"! Oh, and I forgot Health Care, Gee another $10 Trillion that our grandchildrens' grandchildren will be paying

Do y'all remember the collapse of the USSR? We did not defeat them militarily, Reagan's wiseacre comment notwithstanding, we did not bomb Moscow; they went broke. Countries can go bankrupt: it's nasty and it hurts more people than Bernie Madoff dreamed of but it happens. Break this down to personal. When USSR went belly up, they had millions of workers who had been promised pensions, usually 150 or so Rubles a month. Nothing grand, but it would pay the rent on a chintzy apt and buy food. The new Russia has not defaulted on that obligation. What they did is called "Monetizing the debt". You still get the 150 Rubles, paid to the Kopeck: unfortunately, the Ruble has been devalued and that sum now buys one about a loaf of bread a month. And Vladimir Putin doesn't care which bridge you live under, he's busy hunting tigers or something. This has implications beyond what I have stated: Russia has the lowest life expectancy in the industrial world, they claim 66 years and I think they are lying.

Canned food: canned food and ammo to protect it and a hole to hide it all in. To quote the Addams Family Philosopher, young Wendy; be afraid, be very afraid.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Father's Day Free-for-All

My focus today will be a review of city accomplishments (and goofs), but first some Just-for-fun items.

Happy Father's Day. In particular, kudos to my own Father for forbearing to justifiably kill me before I turned 21. Also, my thanks to those Fathers who are spending this day apart from their families halfway around the world in service to our country. With conscription off the board, you are all heroes.

We are all appreciative of the recent rains. I drive for a living and one item I cannot help notice; on rainy days about half the driving population is breaking the law. Early 90s, east of Knoxville Tennessee, a heavy fog and rain settled in resulting in a 70-some vehicle pileup on I-40. Over a hundred injuries and a couple dozen dead, some burned alive, trapped in this mass of twisted metal. Tennessee passed a law that if the windshield wipers were on, the headlights had to be on. A number of states, Texas included found this to be a good idea.

I couldn't help noticing (again) that in the rain, especially certain color cars might as well be in camouflage. On this, it is not some nit-pick nanny-state rule, it is plain good sense. It's a lot easier for me dodge you if I can SEE you, I promise to try. I haven't been in a collision in 30 years, but I've had some close ones. If my truck and your car tangle, you lose. I might feel bad and lose sleep over it, but you might not ever wake up. Lights on even on cloudy days, please.

Another Juneteenth, a day perhaps made more significant with our first black President in office. It is also my Uncle Harold's birthday. It reminds me that San Angelo has a long history of (relative) tolerance. Our school system was I think the first, certainly one of the first in Texas to desegregate. I was in North Carolina public schools back then. I did not actually have a black classmate until 8th grade, or 1965. For those too young to remember, the '56 Brown decision did not end segregation over night, it just gave the good guys a solid legal ground from which to contend. It was the beginning of what in some places was a long, and too often mortal, struggle. It is worth remembering, San Angelo skipped over most of that resistance. Von Brunn, the Holocaust Museum shooter, (and how the hell did he get a "long gun" through the front door?) reminds us we are not quite "post-racial", but we really have "come a long way".

On to the main topic, San Angelo City Government has also "come a long way, baby". For context, a majority of these things happened while J. W. Lown was Mayor. He didn't accomplish them single-handed, in fact he made some substantial mis-steps along the way, but this sets a time frame for an effort involving a whole herd of people.

Water issues are a good start. First we had the elimination of "PILOT", or "payment in lieu of taxes". This was a thinly disguised transfer of water revenues to the general fund. By pretending the Water Dept. owed "taxes" to the city, it let the Council have more money for pet projects without directly raising property tax, but it also starved the water system. Later, but in the same line, we finally got a re-designed water (pardon me, "utility") bill. Yep, your water bill went up. I am paying $55 for what was $35 four years ago, BUT; look at that bill. I am now confident my water/sewer/trash money is going to the indicated systems, not to a tennis court I'll never use. We also adopted a "tiered" billing; families with modest, responsible use, pay a lower rate than than the 25,000 gallon a month Yard of the Month irrigator. As it should be.

This came about too late, the Christmas failure of the 27" main valve, the Honey Creek fire with no water to the hydrant, the multiple "geysers" from lesser lines 20 years past reasonable life expectancy, the sewer line collapse, all these things were the result of short-sighted diversion of water money from infrastructure maintenance and repair. People in those departments had been telling me we were approaching meltdown for years, and like Dorian Grey's wagon, the pieces seemed to fall apart just about the same time.

The overdue repairs are underway, they appear to be well prioritized. It has been a while since some 1945 main turned into a fountain with local flooding. Considering they are playing 20 years of catch-up, city staff has done a really good job here.

Hey, they are even re-doing Bell Street south of the river. This is one I used to remind them of every chance I got. City comes in, about '02 as I recall, repaves Bell Street, good idea, long overdue. Then the water department comes in, does two inch main replacement every block, digging up this smooth-as-a-baby's-butt pavement and turning South Bell into a 4 wheel drive test track again. I don't think they will do that again. Inter-departmental communication seems to be the word of the day.

Back to the water bill: when the new bill came out, it was mailed with a ten day due date. People with bi-weekly paychecks got caught between pay periods and assessed late fees. That was corrected, we are on 21 day billing, as it should be.

Capital improvements has been a thorn in the budgetary process for decades. First Council moved to make that component, with a separate set of public hearings, the first part of the annual budget, with a five year projection on prioritizing needs. The last was a good example. We started with almost $500 million of cap improvements on the "wish list". Obviously, not all of them will get done this year on a $100 million budget, but now we have a rational process to say "We NEED these, we really, really want these, and these can be set back to next year, three years from now, and some of these, maybe go pound sand or raise private money, we can live without it". Then we go to overall budget. This is a simplification, but it will serve, and it is an improvement over the "who yells the loudest at this Council meeting" process we used to have.

Then Council moved for a major City Charter update. I was one member of the Charter Review Committee. The voters approved the bulk of the revisions, meaning another Council a few years down the road cannot overturn those rules without the voters approving them.

On transportation; our city buses are now included in a regional public transportation system. They really are working to make the set-up more user-friendly. By setting up transfer points outside the main terminal, one no longer has to ride a whole hour route to transfer to the bus which actually goes where one needs to go. Sometimes. A lot of work left to be done here, but people are trying.

When ASU Pres. Rallo declared he was going to close Johnson St. he did us an unintended favor. The uproar moved the parties to share the cost of a traffic study for all of Ave. N. Rallo has since backed down, turns out we were not slaughtering students crossing the street. Upside, City identified five really overdue intersection re-alignments, which will be done. If Rallo succeeds in making ASU a 10,000 student campus, traffic will greatly increase. My time at UNC, students learned early, leave the car parked. Big campus, small town. Use the bus, walk, the parking permit was a hunting license, not a reserved parking spot, only tenured Profs got those, and not all of them. ASU is a highly vehicular campus, and I don't see that changing. Of course Lord Rallo could decree "no student vehicles", but he won't or he will never see 10,000 willing students. This is West Texas, not Chapel Hill. Make the parking spaces wide, lots of pickup trucks.

Economic Development has worked better than I expected. In that we successfully beat it three times at the polls I suppose that is self-evident. Really, a few mis-steps, but no one wins every investment. ED in San Angelo is not solely "corporate bribery". Oh, we do that, as needed, but it is not the end all. We have good standards for incentives, and companies have had claw-back imposed if they fail to meet standards. SADC has coordinated with the Small Business Development project at ASU, and they have welcomed the idea of "economic gardening". Economic gardening means, not so much writing checks, as preparing the soil, making us a more attractive site for a new business to move to and stay in, or a local business to expand in, and getting the word out that we have those advantages.

An instructive example would be the empty Taylor Publishing building in our "industrial park". That was corporate bribery, and the results are self-evident. The day Taylor fulfilled its contract, it started packing. Compare and contrast, as my English teacher used to say, with the DCS/ACT deal. Both companies in debt collection, specialty, student loans. DCS got here first, we wrote them a check. ACT came up, same business, wanted the same check. Uh-oh, ACT didn't get it. Guess what? They are here anyway. I hear, just as a rumor, that DCS also might well have been here, check or no. Why? We have a nice town, reasonable wage-scale (a top producer at these companies can drag down 80k, which ain't small change in this town) and a willing, competent labor force. Seems we have a lot of bilingual people who are not opposed to being well paid to sit in a chair and talk on a phone all day. No, that is NOT a cut at the workers. There is personal stress, most defaulters are not thieves, they are in all sorts of bad situations, and the job involves wringing blood from turnips. At least turnips don't cry on the phone to you.

The best break we've caught in a while is the Martifer deal. The partnership with Hirschfield nails it down, this is going to happen. This is probably the single best deal SADC has done. Huge plant, possible expansion, and we finagled the RR improvement bucks out of the federal "stimulus package". Ever see all those RR ties stacked up every couple miles between here and Coleman along Hwy 67? For one thing, it speaks well of the honesty of West Texans. If those piles of creosoted ties had been in other places I have lived, they would not still be there six years later, they'd have been in gardens and landscapes all over the country. All the RR needs is the money to put those ties under those rails, straighten out the rails, and do that one bridge.

I have questioned "secondary benefits" on other issues, but on this one, they are if anything, understated. After the towers are built, many of them will go up in our area. A Turbine maintenance person has x number of towers he is responsible for and knocks down 40k or better. They are going to want to live where they work; families, housing, shopping, connected service industry, so long as the Feds are providing that magical two cents a KWH subsidy for wind, we get a big chunk of income tax back here in the local economy.

On to "goofs". The most recent has to be the set of "animal control ordinances". Best I can tell, the "chaining" ordinance has been used once, at the insistence of a neighbor. Zero breeder permits, zero multi-animal permits, and quite sensibly, zero aggressive enforcement of same. The nasty case from last year resulted in a year sentence for the woman, her husband is likely looking at the same, and neither results from the new ordinances. Very few of us would have to walk more than a block to see violations of one of the three new laws, chaining in particular. There are only 8000+ registered dogs in San Angelo. Does anyone believe this represents the true number of animals? We euthanized more dogs last year than were registered. We need to encourage people to register and vaccinate, not discourage. If we could magically transport all unregistered dogs to the "pound", what in God's name would Leslie Hart Turney do with them?

I caught the story about putting off the RR crossing at Knickerbocker until after the boat race. My question is, why is that a priority crossing? I drive for a living, I cross there several times a week. Compared to Main St, Harris St. or the two at Hughes/Culwell, why is this smooth crossing on Knickerbocker top of the list? I got on the wrong side of the Culwell crossing a few years back and fractured an idler arm. Is this a city/TxDOT problem? (State roads are TxDOT, otherwise, city).

Final news item: Thursday's paper, section C; "Grillers question gas prices". The gas grill bottle exchange racks you see all over town, usually Amerigas or Blue Rhino, are quietly raping you with your pants on. The DOT cylinder is designed to hold 20 pounds of propane. If you look closely at the plastic wrap label on the new bottle you are paying $20 for, it will plainly say "contents 15 pounds". They used to be generous and give you 17 pounds, but propane went up with other fuels, they dropped it to 15 to keep a steady price. Now that propane is down, have they given back the gas they reduced it to? Well, not exactly.

If you are buying convenience over price, so be it. If you want value for money, go to any local propane dealer to fill that bottle. They will charge you $10-12 for 20 pounds (4.27 gallons). I know because I am a local propane dealer. This soapbox is not for my personal profit, I won't identify by company. You want to spend $8 for convenience, so be it. You want what you pay for, come see one of us, we live here, spend our money here, and will be honest with you.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Great Scott!

I risk going a bit astray from our local emphasis, but I think this matters locally.

Three stories I caught over the last couple days: Rick Scott; Dave and Mary Jones; and Liberty University. The common thread to my ear is; is this what the First Amendment has come to?

A little background on each. Liberty University is the Jerry Falwell founded institution of higher learning, privately owned and funded. They recently told the on campus "Young Democrats Club" they could no longer use school facilities for meetings. Now don't ask me why a Young Democrat would opt for a University that will teach them early man rode saddled dinosaurs. Point is, is the point of higher education to broaden the mind or to propagandize it? OK, private facility, if one is silly enough to enroll, one gets what they hand out. Keep toilet paper and handwipes handy.

The Jones case, far more troubling. Orange County tried to prevent them from holding Bible study sessions, about 15 people a session, in their home, seems they had not applied for a "major use permit". This bit of nonsense might have passed with little notice except the County had not come down on Tupperware parties, poker parties, or gatherings to watch sports events. It was especially surprising since San Diego is the most reliably conservative enclave in California. The County has backed down, issuing only a "warning" to the Jones household.

Now to Rick Scott. Scott is a paid lobbyist for groups who oppose nationalizing health care. I take no position on that issue here. I had barely heard of the man until yesterday. Seems the people behind him came up with the money to buy a 30 minute "infomercial" following NBCs Meet the Press program this Sunday.

Being the resident political junkie, I am one of maybe 2.5 million viewers of the Sunday morning news shows, most of you go to church or sleep in or go fishing.

No matter, the opposition is feeling its Wheaties, and coming out strong. The Daily Kos (read George Soros), and the Service Employees International Union are lobbying to have NBC pull the airtime, and threatening that the FCC will sanction the network if they don't pull it!

The justification is that Scott "has a record of deceit". I don't know, maybe he does. The very notion that a paid loobyist would "spin" an issue shocks me to my socks. And the people selling magic fat-burners and herbal Viagra don't? If you have the wit to read this, you probably react to infommercials the way I do; changing the channel. Jeez, I've only got 250 of them now.

My point is concern for the First Amendment. I truly don't care what a person is saying or selling, if we are to have a "marketplace of ideas" it has to allow all ideas access. If David Duke can pony up the money, let him spend it. I'll change the channel.

Friends, Freedom of Speech does not equal freedom of access. If you are out in the wings, you are free to stand on a soapbox on public property and pontificate (within normal hours of business of course. Try it at 2:00AM on my block, if you're lucky I'll call a cop). You are not free to make anyone passing by slow down and listen. The other side of this is, if you don't like what the man on the soapbaox is selling, you are free to walk on by, but you can't call the FCC (or County, or Virginia) cops to shut him up because you don't like the message.

This is a thorny issue that has engaged better minds than mine for two centuries. John Adams helped craft the First Amendment and then used the "Alien and Sedition" acts to toss dissenting publishers in jail during his Presidency. The Supreme Court of that day quite properly spanked him and released Peter Zengler and other bothersome noisy people.

I stir the pot from time to time, sort of a hobby of mine. I would hate to see the day that my point of view could be ruled to be "deceptive" by some bureaucrat and banned from distribution.

National Flood Insurance: a National Disaster

{This posting was published in the San Angelo Standard-Times Thursday, May 28. It was written some time before, but the S-T has first publication rights.}

Have you noticed that every hurricane/flood season sets new records for property damage? No, it is not due to global warming and stronger storms, nor are the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers rising higher than anticipated. The inevitable Law of Unintended Consequences has come home to roost. I recall Biblical advice that one should not “build thy house on shifting sand”. We now encourage and insure people to pursue precisely that activity at our neighbors' expense.

When I was a sprout living in east Carolina, the Outer Banks was a cheap&easy vacation. Surf casting
for flounder, the Wright Bros. Tower at Kitty Hawk, shell hunting at dawn, for a twelve-year old kid, it was heaven on earth. A few houses on stilts on the beach, but not many. Beachfront building was a toy for the wealthy, they built at their own risk

Mother Nature has no pity, she favors neither rich, poor, or ethnic concerns, the wind blows where it will and the rain falls where it does. I place in play the idea that the primary cause of ever- increasing property damage is the National Flood Insurance Program itself.

I go to a 2005 Congressional Research Service study. It runs 45 pages I will try to render readable. The CRS paper uses the term “actuarial” several times but then guts the word of anything meaningful. Page 14, “there is no individual risk analysis to determine the likelihood of a future loss, and individual loss experience is not used as a rating criterion. The sole criterion is that the insured property is located in a community that participates in NFIP”. If that bureaucratese escapes you, try this hypothetical from a car insurance company; “We will cheerfully insure a repeat DWI offender at the same rate as a person with a perfect driving record, so long as the state mandates all drivers be in the insurance pool”. I don't think we will hear that from the GEICO gekko anytime soon.

Under the original language from 1968, amended 4 times since, NFIP is authorized to borrow from the Treasury $1.5 Billion each year, but must repay that with interest. NFIP has lost money every year since its creation, that's why we keep amending it. NFIP does repay with interest, I've checked the financials. So the question arises, how can they do that when they routinely pay out more in losses than they take in as premiums?

Not a problem. Unlike free market insurers who have to attract customers of their free will, NFIP is legally empowered to tell you that you are a customer by designating your property as a “flood zone”. By roping in mandated “customers”, NFIP forces homeowners who haven't see flood water since Noah cruised by to contribute to the risk pool whether they are at any real risk or not.

Go to the city website, this is top of the home page. There are a multitude of maps, very confusing, but I commend to your attention the map 340. NFIP claims it uses hydrologic, and elevation based data to draw its lines. On map 340, one sees a line running along Cauley Ln to Grape Creek Rd, then angling 45 degrees northeast towards FM 2105. Just to be sure, I cruised that area this weekend. There is not a 10 foot high berm on the south side of Cauley, no elevation difference, no rational distinction between the northside homeowner and the one on the south side of the street except; NFIP wants income from the north side. I guess they are saving the southside for later.

I must emphasize, a genuine hydrologic map will have the same curving contours as any topographic map. If you see a straight line, such as Cauley Ln. or a county line, unless there is a man-made dam under that line, somebody is blowing smoke up your skirt.

The CRS study I mentioned addresses Repetitive Loss Problem. NFIP has 4.5 million policy payers. RLPs, people who really live in God's honest flood plains are 17% of policy holders. They account for over 30% of payouts. A real insurance company would have booted out a lot of RLPs, maybe suggested they should rebuild elsewhere on higher ground. Under the Substantial Damage rule of NFIP, theRLP property owner is not even required to upgrade to local code compliance unless the payout is over 50% of the property value We subsidize propertries that have been rebuilt four and five times on the same vulnerable site! Why should they learn from mistakes, we write the checks.

Insurance, properly run, performs two functions. The one we are all familiar with is pooling risk and paying claims when unfortunate events impact us. The second, equally important function is actuarially based risk avoidance. Go back to my early days on the Outer Banks.

If you had the money and wanted to build a house-on-stilts on the beach, fine it's a free world. No one is going to underwrite the mortgage without insuring the collateral, and since you are building where devastating storms can be anticipated every 15-20 years, no rational insurer will write you a policy for much less than the cost of the insured property. People with money to spare did build anyway, but they did so at their own risk, and took the loss when the inevitable hurricane came through.There were a lot fewer houses-on-stilts, today it's wall to wall, houses waiting to be knocked down by the next storm and paid for by me and thee.

Under the tender rules of NFIP, people can get insurance, subsidized by the premiums paid by the folk on Cauley Ln. who have virtually zero risk of damage. The Outer Banks, or Texas' own barrier islands, or river front property on the banks of the mighty Mississip are built up beyond anything rational because idiots can get insurance we help pay for to cover their foreseeable, inevitable losses.

Unfortunately, there isn't much we can do locally except pay up. I haven't heard our Congresscritter Conaway say anything on this topic. There is a “public comment” window, but given the history, I doubt it will accomplish much save “venting”. Thanks for allowing me to “vent”.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Selecting the next Mayor

The City Council held a special meeting today to discuss how to select a replacement for JW Lown who resigned unexpectedly last week. The city charter is clear and direct on the procedure we must go through to select his replacement. Add in the State constitution and election law, we are left with a two step process. First, the council is supposed to try to pick an replacement unanimously. If they can't do that within 30 days (which ends June 19th,) they are to call a special election. Recent changes to election law limit us to the next available regular election date, November 3rd, unless there is an emergency need or some other special circumstance applies, which seems unlikely at this time. Some council members seem to feel that no mayor appointed by the city council will be acceptable and we should immediately start planning for the November election.

We will be discussing this issue in more detail such as how our local problem compares to such situations as replacing a president who can no longer serve (we have done it 9 times so far) or what provisions other city make for this situation in later articles. For now I have a poll up on the side to get some feedback from you our readers. Please take a minute and let us know how you would prefer to have the next mayor selected. I will be ending this poll just before the City Council meeting on June 12th, and hope to bring them some good feedback based on the results and your comments. I have been having some problems with spam and trolls so all comments will be more tightly moderated, but unless the violate our rules to keep on topic, no advertising, and no personal or ad-hominum attacks they will make it up here as quickly as they can be cleared. Your comments are valued. Please be patient.