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.

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