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.