Saturday, December 25, 2010

A Christmas Carrel

Merry Christmas all. All told, it has been a good year. Personally, I count myself fortunate to be if anything, over-employed. It's been two weeks since I saw my house in daylight during the work week. While I had the misfortune to break my arm and lose 3 months work, I had the good fortune to find work as soon as I was able. Still paying off some of that "vacation", but at least I am able to do so.

Thanks to OT and the NFL, I was able to do some Christmas shopping yesterday, modest, I don't think my contribution will turn the economy around, but I did my part.

One gift I bought myself and my brother-in-law was a 12 volt air compressor/tire inflator. I was encouraged to choose this gift by my first "Scrooge Award" winner; Town and Country stores under the new Stripes management. A couple months ago I left work and quickly noticed I had a low tire. pulled into the handy T&C to discover they no longer had air hoses at the pumps. I had to pump 3 quarters into a box at the edge of the parking lot to get three minutes worth of air pump. Same problem last week, only now it is $1 for 4 minutes! Stripes, if you wonder why you see my smiling face in your check-out line less often, there it is. Not to mention, Bell north and Bryant south T&C are the closest Angelo offers to a truck stop and this quarter-sucker device is worthless to an 18 wheeler with 100PSI tires.

Comes to mind, I had one of the bar-owners affected by the smoking ban ask me about challenging that rule as an illegal "takings", or imposed reduction of property value. I told her that after extensive research, I had yet to find a smoke ban overturned by the courts. The courts have so far (correctly in my opinion) ruled that cities have wide latitude to do all sorts of silly, progressive, or just plain "out-of-the-box" things and see how they work.

May I suggest a new ordinance? Any business with more than three gas pumps must provide tire inflating air, free, at the pumps stations. Ya' know, just like a more friendly T&C used to.

Something else I found while shopping yesterday: Angelo has a good many mentally challenged drivers and another cadre of plain rude ones. I have driven on a CDL for a living for over 30 years with no accidents and one (60 in a 55) violation. I do this by defensive driving. I assume the "other guy" is going to do the stupidest thing possible, and I am too seldom disappointed. Parking lots scare me more than streets and highways. I am healthy, I've taken to parking WAY out at the edge and walking. Safe bet: I get in the store and out of the lot more quickly than the fellow who hunts for the close spot and then has to wait on traffic to get out. I'm halfway home before he gets out of the HEB lot.

Brings me to my second Scrooge Award. Even out at the edges, I must have seen a dozen new vehicles parked across 2-3 spots, presumably to prevent door dings on the precious new truck. Being filled with the spirit of Christmas (OK, also a healthy fear of security cameras) I resisted the urge to "key" these hogs. Folks, if it's too pretty to put into traffic, encase the thing in lucite in your yard and admire it twice a day. I remember a friend in NC, bought his first "new" car in 10 years. I watched him take a small ball peen hammer, wrap it in burlap, and gently rap the driver's door under the handle. SAY What!? says I. He told me "now I don't have to get mad, cry, or lose sleep over the first dingbat that opens their door into mine. Upon reflection, a sensible attitude. We allow civilian volunteers (or used to) after training to issue valid tickets for illegal parking in handicap spaces. I volunteer to ticket vehicles taking up two or more spaces, excepting trailers of course. That would be more fun than vandalism.

A third Scrooge Award, this one to any company, credit cards especially, which imposes penalties for late pay on weekends/holidays. I first came on this with a Bank of America Card payment. Due on a Sunday. I went to the local branch, put my over-minimum payment in the mitt of a BOA employee on Saturday. The rest of the week I work to make sure that check is good. Imagine my surprise when BOA assessed me a $35 late pay fee next month since I had not paid them by noon Friday (while I was busy earning the money to pay them). Ran into this again this week, a Chase bill due on Sunday the day after Christmas. No local branch, so I had someone deposit the money Thursday and used Chase's automated pay-by-phone to authorize an account draft Friday. This will cost me $15, just because they can.

Gov't agencies, even courts, even the IRS fadaluvagawd, set back due dates falling when they aren't open to the next business day. If it's good enough for the IRS, it should be good enough for the mega-banks thee and me spent a $Trillion or so bailing out. Where's our late fee, and it ought to be a hell of lot more than $35!

I do have a fourth Scrooge Award, but this one I hold for my next missive to the Standard-Times.

Shifting gears without a segue here, I tripped over another gift most of us can give; body donation. Grave robbing has gone out of fashion, but medical schools and legitimate research facilities desparately need our bodies when we have "shuffled off this mortal coil". I have arranged for Texas Tech to receive mine. Get past the ghoulish, it is a win/win. My poor estate will not be hit with a 5 figure burial cost. Tech pays for pick up, paperwork, even returns at least a symbolic portion of cremated remains of whatever is left. So long as they make sure I'm really, really dead first, it matters not a whit to me if the students get me before the worms do.

I understand some religions place value on interring the complete body, I would never try to talk someone into violating a religious principle. Otherwise, think on it in the spirit of Christmas. Death is a real part of our lives. My gift, or yours, might give the gift of a new doctor or medical advance to the next generations.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Christmas Surprise

There is an interesting item being brought back on next weeks City Council agenda. It's a letter of intent with Siemens to “design and implement a land fill gas project.”

I'm a bit concerned this is an attempt to resurrect a project that was tabled indefinitely in 2007. In 2006, Siemens brought a proposal to build a waste to energy gasification plant at our landfill. There are similar projects all over the world. Some seem to be successful, some have been dangerous failures. By 2007, a number of questions were raised about the safety, true operational costs, etc. and the item was “ tabled indefinitely.” Now, the last meeting of the year on a date that was changed when everyone is busy with Christmas and travel plans and the end of the year, etc. this is put on the agenda with almost no real public discussion for several years.

It could be this is not the gasification project proposed in 2006. It might just be a way to capture the natural methane the landfill produces and then do something useful with it. That could be a good thing, but shouldn't a project such as that be put out for competitive bid? When was the RFQ put on the street? How many bids were received? Did we go to Siemens about this or did they come to us. Would be nice to know if good background information is in the agenda packet, but that didn't make it to the city website yet so who knows.

This issue needs public input and discussion. Sneaking it in the last agenda of the year is not the way to do it.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Another Sunday Ramble

Lakeview has, again, gotten the fuzzy end of the lollipop on the Northside Park closing. Now, I understand, there are problems with the site that would make it good policy to relocate from the old caliche pit; my opinion, Council acted in haste and a replacement park should have been built or at least budgeted before closing Northside. There are vacant properties reasonably close to Northside.

It seemed to me Council was "nudged" by the emotional appeal of Gloria Griffin, whose 9 year old son drowned there 23 years ago. I cannot claim to "feel" her pain, my closest would be the death of my Mother this year, but Mother was 83 and in poor health. It was the anticipated order of things, parents precede children in death. The loss of a child is a much harder thing to bear.

Still, in the 23 years since her son's drowning, no one else has died in this allegedly deadly park. Then we find that the City has two churches contesting for a lease on the property to be used as: a park. Now that may turn out to be a good budgetary move by the city, but it kind of undercuts the safety issue don't ya' think?

If we were to apply the same standard to other city owned properties (no deaths in 23 years) we would close half our streets, the thoroughfares might remain as they are TXDOT roads, but streets, sidewalks and fadaluvagod erect a tall fence around Lake Nasworthy, cut off all public access, maybe drain it: it's an absolute deathtrap, especially now that "everybody knows" it has an alligator.

On this I have to agree with Councilman Morrison, it was a "stupid, stupid thing".

Now shifting gears without a segue; I would not usually pick on a particular business, but an exception I am making. Eyemart, should I find myself needing new spectacles and you have exactly what I need for half the price of X, I will go to X.
I have a longstanding exception to my normal practice; Sunday morning, I read the comics first. I have all day to catch up on the news, it is one of life's little luxuries with which I indulge myself. Before I can do that, I have to tear off your half-page perforated ad. Yes, a minor item, yes that is great ad placement in that it guarantees I will see it, but in that it mildly honks me off every time I see it, it is not, in this household, a plus for your business.

I have resisted the urge to comment on the smoking ordinance. Terms such as "carpetbagger" and "nanny" might offend, so I won't use them. I am glad that Council seems willing to amend the ordinance to allow the Colonel's Pipe and Cigar shop. Entirely appropriate, I cannot imagine either an employee or customer who found smoke offensive wanting to walk in the door of a tobacco shop.

Now we see bar owners coming before Council requesting an exemption. Sorry guys, in the face of a 60/40 vote, Council isn't going there, at least not until some businesses have actually closed, by which time it will be too late for them. I've got to ask; owners, where were you when I was asking for support as treasurer of the opposition? We got outspent at least 5/1, over half of that money from the Austin American Cancer Society. I could give better numbers, but Smoke-Free has not filed a campaign finance report covering the 10 days prior to election. Speak Out San Angelo's is posted online at city's website.

I think this is an unfortunate intrusion on the rights of property owners, but it was approved by a large majority of voters in a large turnout election. My "barkeep" handle aside, it has been several years since I was personally involved in the trade. I don't have "a dog in this hunt", I drink at home where the smoking law doesn't reach (yet).

A final note, you make the call if it is connected. On this day in history, Utah, home of the teetotalling Mormons, became the 36th state to approve the XXI amendment to the Constitution, repealing Prohibition. Hmmm.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Animals, Boards, Commissions, and Communications

I was pleasantly surprised Friday to find that once again, the city website has the agenda packet online and usable. Last meetings packet is also still up. Progress. Thanks Alicia and the staff that helped you get this done. It's appreciated. 

A quick scan of the packet shows a couple of items that really interest me. They are revising the Animal Services Board ordinance, and they are discussing city boards and commissions again, hopefully so we can have the first review in the near future.

We've known for a while that the Animal Services Board ordinance, 2.3800, and the ASB Bylaws were in need of revision. At the minimum, they were out of sync with each other. There questions about how well it tracked Texas Health and Safety code chapter 823, which governs animal shelter advisory commissions, which is one of the major functions of the ASB. There were questions about whether health director and animal services director should be voting members. The Bylaws were last approved in 2000, while the Ordinance was last updated in 2007.

A workshop was held by the ASB on March 10th 2010 to address these issues. I was invited to that workshop (which was, of course, an open meeting) to help with the discussion. It was requested that City Legal have a representative at the meeting, but none were present. The meeting lasted a couple hours, and at the end, they had a good revised set of documents the hoped were ready to go before City Council. Just needed legal review and possibly some tweaking before becoming an ordinance.

That was 7 months ago. Tuesday a new ordinance is finally on the agenda. Unfortunately, this is a mostly new ordinance to replace the one we currently have. First off, it changes the name to Animal Shelter Advisory Commission (although the new 2.3810 still uses “members of the animal service board”.) Then it reduces the number of members from 9 to 5*, all of which now have to be involved in some animal related business or activity. No plain citizen or property owners are on the board. It requires 2 veterinarians even though we've had trouble getting even one to serve. It limits the scope of the commission to just the animal shelter, ignoring the larger question of animal welfare throughout the city.

I have a number of problems with this. First, why did it take 7months for this to come before council. As far as I knew, outside of some minor tweaking, the only open question was whether or not the staff members on the board should be voting members. The proposed ordinance doesn't make it any clearer. Next, this is a very major change to the duties and the responsibilities of the board/commission members. Staff, in their briefing to council in the agenda packet, states that the ASB has "historically been called upon to provide advice beyond  the scope of the law authorizing their creation and duties." If they are referring to the Health Code, section 823, then that might be the case. The ASB was not created by section 823, but to be in compliance with section 823. It was created by a city ordinance that gives them the animal shelter advisory role as just one of its duties. A review of several other Texas cities animal commissions finds that several of them use their commission for general animal issue advice. Lubbock specifically requires their ASAC to "advise on the city's animal services program." Midland requires their Animal Control Advisory Commission to "advise on animal control issues referred by council." This pattern is common.

The proposed ordinance changes the make up of this board/commission significantly. Any change this large should be addressed as part of the board and commission review process that has still to get off the ground. At the minimum, it should be done during a joint session.

This brings us to a problem that goes to the fundamental reason we have boards and commissions. Boards and commissions work for the City Council, not city staff. They are appointed and removed by Council. They are accountable to Council. They are subject to Council guidance and limitations. They are supposed to be the expert advisers to Council, and in many cases they are councils representatives. They are an extension of City Council into many areas because there just aren't enough council people to be everywhere. They are not just auxiliary, unpaid staff.

Unfortunately, our boards and commissions are being used and treated like low level staff. They are isolated from council, their boss, by staff. With the exception of statutory appeal boards like the planning commission and the zoning board of adjustments, you never hear about a boards input on an item before council. Many board members, especially on the animal services board, don't know who appointed them. Start and end dates for their term in office are often unclear. Boards have almost no contact with the council, and are often left to fend for themselves on critical issues. What guidance they get doesn't come directly from council. Instead, it's filtered through several layers of staff. Some times staff does a great job of getting the word down to boards. More often than not, it's like the old game of telephone where the message to the boards bears little resemblance to the guidance from the council.

Boards and commissions need to have good, unfiltered lines of communication with the city council. Their recommendations should be heard unedited by the council. Staff needs to be in the loop, and the staff representative needs to make sure that the council is given staffs input on the issues. The city legal department need to be in the loop to make sure that the city stays in compliance with the law, but that is no reason to delay input to the council by half a year. If nothing else, all board decisions should be presented to the city council for discussion as a draft work in process. Even if staff has concerns, and needs to do further research the council should always know when a board votes to send something forward. That's just basic communication.

The board and commission review process the council adopted last spring will help address these problems. I think it is very premature to do a major restructuring of a state required commission before the council has done a fair review of that commission using the process they approved.

*Made a mistake on the number earlier. Was caught by a sharp eyed reader.  Sorry for the error.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

More on the Hickory Article

There was whole slew of rebuttals from city representatives and other interested parties, suggesting that I misrepresented the facts in regard to the Hickory project and WCID a few weeks ago, so I just want to clarify a few things. The Standard Times will not allow me to give a response, claiming they "don't get into back and forth rebuttals"…
First of all, I never said that WCID used 25,000 acre feet directly from Twin Buttes. I said they use twice as much water as the city of San Angelo. That would include both waste water and water taken directly from the reservoirs. I based that on a claim they made at a hearing in Washington DC that “normal” usage would be 22,000 acre feet but that they would really need 20-30% more than that to make up for evaporation. (And to address Ted’s aside, recycling waste water doesn’t necessarily mean that we would have to drink it - we could use it on golf courses, city parks, and lawns the way many communities in other arid regions do for instance…)
So, those were the numbers I was working with, even though some had suggested to me that the district actually used much more. How the water usage is actually monitored is still unclear to me since TCEQ told me that the city utilities director just tells them over the phone when they are going to release water into the canal and how much. If some one would like to provide some records on this matter that would be great. I’m just trying to get that information to the surface. 20,000 acre feet of water would cover the entire 10,000 acre district in 2 feet of water. My point was, and is, I’m not sure that this is the kind of farming that our arid region can reasonably support in our water starved world, and this is certainly quite a lot more water than most irrigating operations in this area even use. I have been told that wells are also used within the district as well, which would add additional acre feet to that estimation of annual water usage.
Tom Massey, the attorney that has represented the city in their lawsuits, said that there would be no Twin Buttes if not for WCID. I’m not an attorney, I could be wrong, but I do not think that is an accurate statement. The dam was built for flood control. Everything I wrote in my article concerning the conception of this project with the Bureau of Reclamation came from the Bureau of Reclamation’s own documentation. A Department of the Interior’s report states, and I add my emphasis: “The project provides for the integrated operation of Twin Buttes Reservoir with the existing Nasworthy Reservoir to meet the municipal water requirements of San Angelo; and permits irrigation of the project lands, provides flood protection, recreation, and fish and wildlife benefits… The Bureau of Reclamation initiated investigations for developing an irrigation plan for using Concho River water in excess of the municipal and industrial needs of the area. The reservoir would yield sufficient water to meet all foreseeable municipal requirements … with irrigation releases made from Twin Buttes Reservoir only when the water in storage exceeds 50,000 acre-feet.” Those are the Bureau of Reclamation’s words, they certainly seem to suggest that the irrigation districts needs are secondary to the city's, and those are the words I used as the basis for that part of my article.
What Massey has said about the Hickory wells only supports the concern I have expressed over the Hickory project. “We have the deepest wells …we’re not going to run out.” I never said we would run out. I did say we may begin to see shallow wells dry up with municipal pumping in the deeper areas. What about the people who live above the aquifer and get their water from shallow wells who can’t afford to drill deeper? San Angelo will be the largest user of Hickory water, yet will not have to abide by the same rules as others who have used the Aquifer for years. The permitting language states that the Conservation Board may review, revise, recall, cancel, reallocate or change, in whole or part, any permits with wells contributing to a cumulative net water-level decline. But the settlement agreement exempts San Angelo from this rule. It also states that San Angelo cannot sell any of the water from the Hickory or from our surface waters, which seems to interfere with the city’s plans to become a regional water supplier. On these issues I see the potential for future litigation.
The availability rates were changed DRASTICALLY by the state as of this year, as our city manager noted in his article. Rather than just supply a newly formulated chain of data that seems to be subject to change whenever the political agendas change, I was interested in giving readers a picture of the history behind the Hickory aquifer project that would illustrate the concerns of the people living above and relying upon the Hickory, the purpose of the Conservation District, and their reaction to being sued by a distant municipality who claimed the Conservation District had no right to regulate them. All of the information I supplied in that regard came directly from the Hickory Underground Water Conservation District’s documents.
As for the cost of the Hickory project I did say that the 120 million was to build the pipeline, and that was a mistake. But, Hutch Musallam of Carollo Engineers, the firm working with the city on the project stated in the Standard Times: “The first phase is estimated to cost $120 million...” That statement does seem to imply that there will be additional funds needed to complete the project. And not one of the dissenters has addressed how much it would cost to maintain this project, to pump, treat, and monitor the radioactive water.
The irrigation district has falsely stated on their web-sight that I am a member of the Concho River Conservancy Group, an alliance suing the city, which I have NEVER been involved in. If I supported that effort, you can be sure I would have spoken out about it long ago. I think that issue could, and should, be resolved out of court. If not, as I understand it, the city could be spending many more millions (of our tax dollars) defending themselves in the Supreme Court. I do not believe ANYONE should irrigate farmland from our rivers. The resources are too scarce. I have some ideas on a solution that I think would be agreeable to all parties in that situation, if only both sides would be willing to listen and consider that a change is due. Now is the time for co-operation. More on that later.
I live on the Concho River down stream from San Angelo. I have seen it reduced to hot puddles of mud. I was told by members of the Conservancy group that the WCID had refused to release the names of the members in their irrigation district or provide reliable information regarding their water usage. I did attempt to confirm that via e-mail on 3 occasions and never received a response. Perhaps I should have made additional efforts, but I am not a professional journalist, I am a mother of four, and considered instead to write my article based information that could be obtained through documents available to any one online, day or night, from the Bureau of Reclamation, The Hickory Underground Water Conservation District, the WCID’s web-sight, the City of San Angelo, public record related to House Resolution 4910, and the Standard Times.
I think there are valid concerns that a conflict of interest could exist between the WCID and members of the city staff. A release of the names of the farmers in this irrigation district and records of the amounts of water that each member has used from Twin Buttes and the city treatment plant for the past 10 years should clear all that up.
My interest in this subject is a matter of just governance, fiscal responsibility, and the environmental integrity of our riparian area. I am firm believer in Aldo Leopold’s Land Ethic, which states that: "A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise." Whether we get our water from the tap, a well, a river, or a rooftop, we will all have to begin thinking and acting holistically, and partner together to conserve and protect this precious resource.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Openness Followup

My last post was on the cities website and agenda packets. Time to do a followup. First, the city clerk is trying to work out a solution to this issue. Not all of this is under the city's control. They are using an outside service to host the website. What was a good, forward looking solution just a few years ago is now difficult to use and too limited for what the the city needs. One of the limits is how the space is allocated on the website. There is also an issue with uploading large files. As a temporary patch, they will be putting the agenda packets online in pieces. This will mean some internal links will not work but all the information will be there. You will just have to manually search for it. A reasonable trade off until a better system can be put in place.

It is time for the city to look at a different approach and different system for their website. Based on my experience they can have a better website with more flexibility and fewer limitations at a better (i.e. lower) price than what they have today. We will see what it looks like in a year. I'm hopeful.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Openness and modern technology

If you've been following us any time at all, you know we have been after the city government to put some additional information on their website. We have been very persistent about getting the agenda packets, which we consider an essential part of the agenda and minutes, online. They have recently been putting agenda packets up sometime the day before the council meeting recently, and taking the old one down before putting the new one up. There have also been a few problems with some of the packets not reading properly. Thought we were making some small progress towards more openness.

This weekend, I saw this notice in small print under a heading called 'New Feature' in its original type size

"As a courtesy to our citizens and the media, Agenda Packets are posted along with the respective agenda.  Due to limited space on our website, the packets are only available for that particular meeting and will remain on the website until replaced.  Every and all attempts will be made to post the packet in a timely manner before the actual meeting; however, due to the size of the packets and any related technical difficulties, we cannot guarantee this service for all meetings.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

What's at stake

There is only one sales tax measure on the ballot in November but it encompasses several major issues and concerns for San Angelo. It is first and foremost a referendum on local tax policy. Does San Angelo really need one of the several optional sales taxes that are available in Texas? Should it be a 4B economic development tax or would a street maintenance sales tax be better, or maybe a sales tax to reduce property tax? Maybe a mixture of these taxes or even none of the above? Can't at least some of these projects pay there own way? How did they decide, and is it time to rethink the decision.

This is a vote on a strategy for meeting the water needs of San Angelo and the Concho Valley for the long term. Is the Hickory Aquifer the best available option? How much will have to be added to the water bill to pay for the pipeline and to pump and process the water? Are we using our local water resources wisely? What about conservation and reuse efforts?

The vote in November will also affect our efforts to clean up the river. No doubt the river needs critical attention, but is this how we should do it? Is this about what's best for San Angelo, or just an attempt to mimic San Antonio?

This will be a referendum on how we do economic development and create jobs. Is the current use of incentives bringing us real value for the money spent? Are we spending to little or too much. Are we, perhaps, wasting time hunting snipe with handouts and industrial parks when we should be doing more to support existing businesses with strategies like Economic Gardening and Business Facilitation.

In addition, this will be a referendum on how we select, prioritize, and develop special projects. Besides water, the river, and job creation there are six special projects that aren't critical to the cities future like water, and that will never create good paying jobs. You might call them quality of life projects, but how were they selected? I don't remember any town hall meetings or recent polling on these projects like we had before the last sales tax election. I can't find where they were recommended or even looked at by any of the numerous citizen advisory boards the city has available. What was SADC's involvement? Out of the dozens of projects that have been discussed in the past and are in plans like RUDAT and the Strategic Plan, how did they decide on these?

Lastly, this will be a vote on the openness of our city government, the effectiveness of its communication, and the quality of the connections city hall has with the citizens of San Angelo. Isn't it interesting that we have been completing sales tax projects all over town for the last nine years but it wasn't until just before a new election on the sales tax that we are finally seeing signs in front of these projects telling us about it? Is this the type of communication we want with our city government? Is this openness or just an attempt to market taxes and services like hamburgers and corn flakes?

I will be writing more on all of these issues before the election, but I wanted to give you an early glimpse into where I'm going and what I see as the points that need to be covered. Lots to think about, and I may miss something so give me your feedback and ideas. I want the critical questions about the sales tax answered before we vote in November. This is an important election. The future of our city is at stake.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Sales Tax Election 2010

One of the two local measures on the November election is a re-authorization of the current 1/2 cent 4B sales tax for economic development. We plan on publishing a series of articles where we look at the issues surrounding this measure in depth and get some little known and critical facts before the public. We will try to fill in some of the missing numbers to help create context and clarify real impact. We will cover subjects like what's at stake in this election, what is a 4B sales tax and what can it be used for, local water history, local tax history, the Hickory Aquifer and alternative long term water possibilities, the impact of this proposal on our water bill, and a look at the special projects that are part of the measure we will vote on in November.

A disclaimer is needed here. I actively campaigned against the previous 2 sales tax propositions. Conchoinfo grew out of the last sales tax campaign. I am not automatically against optional sales taxes such as the 4B sales tax we have today. They can be useful and do have their place. Still, I have some serious concerns about what is being put before the voters, and I keep finding problems with the Hickory Aquifer and how they are trying to fit it into a dependable long term water supply for San Angelo and the Concho valley. I will try to make it clear what is fact, what is analysis, and what is just my opinion. I also welcome your feedback, analysis, and opinions. Just keep it relevant to the topic of the post, and don't make it personal.

In my opinion, you seldom get a good election result without good information and discussion of all the issues. This isn't about selling a position to the voters. The long term water supply and economic health of our community shouldn't be marketed like just a fancy box of Cracker Jacks.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Labor Day Thoughts

I have neglected this site recently; been a little busy catching up from a 3 month lay-off due to a broken right arm. Darn the luck, didn't even happen on job, no benefits there, pretty much drew my resources to the bottom of the well. As I told one of our Councilmembers, another two weeks, you'd have seen me on a promising intersection with a sign reading "Will write ordinance amendments or editorials for food"!

I speak from experience, I'm a long-time gambler, if Boise St pulls out a one point game,I will have made a perfect week on football. That Karnak Turban, which I shamelessly stole from Johnny Carson also goes to real issues. BTW, after a break Boise St pulled a minor miracle, Karnak Rules! Karnak made more money on college ball than he did working last week.

Well that was all fun, but seriously we are talking long range water problems. I think we have a focus on Hickory that has a dubious return on investment. Hickory is not our only water option. We have an investment there and it is not to be discounted. That does not leave Hickory as our only option. Have we explored Lake Brownwood? Have we looked at deep water saline wells, below the sanded shallow wells west of here?

Yep, the shallow test wells didn't show much promise, but there are tons of production oil wells west of here yielding a barrel of oil for 10 barrels of old Permian Sea saline water. What the geologist calls a "reef" has nothing to do with photogeneic brain coral and pretty fish, but it's real as Dallas and involves a LOT of water!

Depending on one's belief, maybe it got laid down while Cowboy Bob and Barney Flintstone rode a Brontosaurus to work, or maybe a few (million) years before that, but a whole lot of the old Permian Sea is still trapped in West Texas. Desalination is getting cheaper every year, ask anyone in the Navy.

It's late, I'm tired, but think on these things. I fear Council and staff have a mind-lock on Hickory to the exclusion of all alternatives.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Thoughts for when I'm on the Jury

Because of jury duty, it's unlikely that I will be able to be at Tuesday's City Council Meeting. If I'm not selected, I will be at the meeting but the selection starts at 9:00am. These are some of the issues I would like to address to council if I were there.

First, during the public comments, I would like to know when the Board and Commission review process will start. The process was adopted in March, and here it is half past August and we have yet to do any of the boards or commissions. This was seen as very important by the council at the time, and was supposed to start shortly after the election. I realize that there have been some complex problems surface since then, such as problems with the Anti-Smoking initiative, and a $2.3 million budget short fall that has since been addressed. Still, this is important and needs to be started very soon.

I would also take back an atta boy we gave the city in May for putting agenda packets online. They still don't have it quite right. First, they only leave the agenda packets up until the next council meeting, second they have missed getting some of the packets online. Third, some of the packets are not readable with the free Adobe reader. They are somehow getting corrupted. Last, but not least they are not put up in a timely manner. They should be there on Friday the same time as the agenda is. This is something the School Board does much better.

I am sure I would have some comments on the discussion on Hillside Drive/Gun Club road pedestrian use. There needs to be a balance of all traffic needs whether pedestrian or motorized. At the same time, the regulations need to be limited to only those necessary for the safe flow of traffic, public safety, and protection of property owners rights. We need to be careful not to go overboard.

There are 16 deals for easements for the Hickory Pipeline. Total $75,546.00 if my spreadsheet is right. Not an outrageous amount of money, but this looks like this is most of the easements in Tom Green and Concho Counties. Somehow I got the impression from earlier council meetings that most of these easements were already acquired. I guess we will have to wait for more information, but it makes me want to go Hmmm.

We follow this with easements for the 50 th street extension project. This project started shortly after the last ½ cent sales tax election in 2004, with the actual full plan approved about 2 years ago. We need to be very careful that construction doesn't end up going on during the main money making months for the Fair Grounds and Colosseum complex. Bull riding through road construction is not an approved rodeo event. Why did it take this long to get here?

Next, the old Edgewater Inn property is being bought by the city. What are they buying it for? What is the reason we are taking it off the tax roles? What kind of project do they have in mind, and is it likely the master developer will agree? Inquiring minds want to know.

Getting to the end of the agenda, we come to the final hearing and adoption on the two special elections for November. There is nothing more to talk about on the Smoke Free Initiative. The process was extremely rocky and not handled very well, but the initiative will be on the ballot in the form Smoke Free San Angelo put before the petition signers. It will be an interesting campaign. Vote for Freedom - Speak Out San Angelo.

At last we come to an item I wish I could support – the extension of the 4B sales tax. I really wish I could support this. In truth, there are parts of it I do. I support using the sales tax money to spread out the burden of developing long term water resources. I can support using it to finish cleaning up the Concho River, which should be the jewel of this city. When done right, the job creation projects have shown their worth. Don't need to waste more money on the industrial park but there have been more successes than failures. The affordable housing projects are off to a good start, and the cost is minimal and support probably should be continued till the program is self supporting. If the extension only authorized these uses, I could support it. Unfortunately, it doesn't stop there.

There are 5 additional projects included in the 4B sales tax extension. At the last council meeting, I critiqued the process by which these additional projects were selected. In response, the Mayor made the following assertions. First, he stated that these projects complied with or were in the comprehensive plan. To some extent, that's true. The comprehensive plan, and its updates in the strategic plan, is 123 pages of long range goals for twenty years in the future. It is a view from orbit of what we would like the city to look like in 2030. Dozens of projects and possibilities are in the comprehensive plan, including, in a very broad and inclusive sense, these. There is no ranking or priorities of projects there. There are almost no specifics. It is, for the most part, guidance on land use so that you have balanced communities, a strong economy, and a high quality of life. The first line of the Vision Statement from the current plan states “By the year 2027, San Angelo will be acknowledged as the most livable mid-sized city in Texas.” A wonderful goal, but the plan is very general and takes a very broad, long view. It talks about the types of projects and the areas where they would be suitable. It does not give guidance or sufficient detail to select between projects such as the City Auditorium or the Texas Theater or a water park or a new recreation center. Any tax funded project should fit in within the framework of the comprehensive plan, but that framework is pretty broad and hundreds of projects could fit the plan. It can't be used to get us down to these 5. Any process or plan that can fairly and objectively decide between the multiple quality of life projects this city deserves needs to come down from orbit and do a real comparison at ground level. We need a criteria based rating and planning process like we are using for capital projects. Which brings me to the next statement the Mayor made.

It was stated that these projects were in the CIP. Looking over the proposed CIP and the CIP's from the beginning these projects for the most part aren't covered. None of them are in the ½ cent sales tax section, although you might be able to say that the little league field improvements fall under “ sports consolidation”. There are plenty of projects for Ft. Concho listed but all of them are listed under general fund. There are no additional projects listed for the City Hall or Auditorium Plaza beyond those currently funded and under construction. Phase 3 fairground projects don't exist at all in the CIP. And no airport projects show no projects that fit the description of the proposed airport project. The Mayor is right that they will have to go on a future CIP, but they aren't there today, so the CIP can't be used to justify them.

Much was made of the fact that some of these projects could be seen as continuations of existing projects, and that does have at least some merit. Still you have to ask at least three questions. First, aren't some of these projects really new projects next to old projects? Second aren't some of the projects that we are “continuing” at a natural break point where they have met the original project goals and we should see if there aren't other projects that might be better? And last, aren't there other, probably better ways we can pay for some of theses projects instead of using tax dollars? Isn't the fairgrounds complex successful enough that at least part of phase 3 can be paid for out of gate receipts and merchandising? Isn't there potential for a revenue stream there that could pay for most, if not all, of several of these projects?

One last point that the Mayor made causes me great concern. He stated that some of these projects may have been impacted because some of them are related to executive discussions about real estate. Real estate considerations for any QoL type project, as in most projects, should come after the basics of the project have already been discussed, priorities assigned and the project given the go ahead. It should not interfere with those project discussions not dealing directly with acquiring real estate for the project. I trust that the Mayor misspoke or I misunderstood, but I would hate to think that the city in executive session proposed a project just to support a land deal. The city already owns a lot of land that it has no use for. We need to be very careful here. We have been getting better at transparency and openness.

So if we take everything that was said in response to my comments, I still see no process here. We need to have a Quality of life project planning, prioritizing, and selection process that is comparable to the CIP. Until then, I will wait for them to bring back a better sales tax extension proposal. The next election opportunity is in May. Maybe they'll be ready by then.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Jury Duty

Next week starting on the 17th, I am scheduled for jury duty. I never look forward to it but don't try to avoid it either. It is something that must be done and done the best I can.

The only real down side is that I won't be able to be at the city council meeting on Tuesday and probably not the Election office open house on Thursday.

Will have more later.

Practicing being fair and impartial.


Tuesday, July 27, 2010

What about the Sales Tax

If you have been following me on FaceBook lately, you probably noticed that I don't favor the approach presented at the last council meeting for removing the end date on the ½ cent 4B economic development sales tax. I have even called it pandering pork barrel politics as usual. It's time for me to explain this in more detail.

Some of you may remember I was part of the opposition to the 4B sales tax for a long time. I worked against its passage in 1999, and started the site that became as part of the campaign against the 2004 proposal. In the end we ended up with a much better sales tax than what was originally proposed and they have done a better than expected job of sticking to what they promised the voters. Some parts have not worked out well, but it has been a useful tool in at least a few cases. We have made better use of this economic development tax than the average city does.

One of my main objections to this type of sales tax is how it frequently becomes a “ candy store”. Projects are proposed and handed out on the basis of political factors such as getting the proposal passed or returning favors instead of what is good for economic development and community needs. It frequently amounts to pandering to local special interests in exchange for support and donations. The current projects added to the proposed extension come across that way to me.

The core reason for an economic development sales tax is to aid in the creation and retention of long term good paying jobs. Without an adequate water supply, jobs will not be created or retained, and paying for all the development costs out of property taxes or the water bill is also going to hurt economic and community development. The 4B sales tax is a good way to pay for at least part of that. In those cases where primary jobs that pay above average wages are created or retained, the city has good guidelines and procedures in place for using these 4B funds. Still needs work, and needs more local focus on stage 2 companies, but overall the city has seen benefit from these economic development investments.

There are uses authorized under a 4B tax that do not create primary jobs or high paying jobs. These include sports facilities, open space development, affordable housing, and some related retail developments and infrastructure projects. These don't create good paying or primary jobs. I can see that some projects of this type should be done, but these projects need to be prioritized so that the community as a whole gets the benefits where needed. And truthfully, many of these projects could and should become self sustaining or at least help pay their way. We should look at creating a public facilities corporation to help make that possible.

Looking long term, there are legitimate uses for the 4B sales tax besides developing water resources and creating high paying primary jobs. The short term goal of picking a couple projects to help get it passed does a disservice to the voters and our community. I'm not saying these projects are unworthy of consideration. Instead these projects need to compete against other similar projects on a level playing field based on the long term benefits they bring to the community as a whole. We should fund projects that can show benefit to the city for the long term. We need to think further than just until the next election cycle.

Friday, July 09, 2010

Speak Out

It's final and official. The original language for the smoking ban is what will be on the ballot in November. They decided not to correct any of the faults of the original including addressing the petition to a non-existent City Commission.

The opposition is getting organized and has formed an SPAC called Speak Out San Angelo. Speak Out Amarillo defeated basically the same petition in Amarillo twice (2005 & 2008) and we need to continue the success here.

More information can be found on the Speak Out San Angelo blog and on their facebook group. They can really use your support.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Stray thoughts

It came to me while I am severely under-employed due to a broken right arm, San Angelo needs to create a new position:rainmaker!

Over the past week or so, all I've had to do is start a lawnmower and here comes the rain. Sometimes I only need to look at the mower hard! Obviouly by the Latin phrase "post hoc, ergo propter hoc", (really loose translation, That which happened first must have caused that which followed it regardless of cause and effect). I must be responsible for the rain, every dryland farmer in three counties owes me at least 1% of gross for my rainmaking, it's cheaper than cloudseeding and a dang sight more effective!

OK we're having fun, but it goes to a more real topic. I have seen things where spending public money actually created more wealth than was spent by the taxpayers. I have seen an albino deer in the wild, but I have seen one about as often as the other.

Folks, I've been at this a while. I wish I could tell you there was some spending/taxation mix we could live with and not put a 40% tax burden on our children and grandchildren. I also wish I could win the lottery. By any statistical projection, I will win the lottery first. Twice.

Smoke-Free, forget them until September unless of course they continue to violate Election Code. Meanwhile we have a highly compressed Capital Improvements Process where, as usual, people are asking for about 5 times as much money as the City will actually have in budget.

Let me make that concrete. Four out of five projects, nearly all of which are well-intentioned, will simply die, at least for this year. A hefty portion of the 20% of projects that survive might see the funding moved 3-5 years down the road, partly depending on the economy. Unlike the feds, City cannot create money from nothing. City has one, and really, grants included, only one source of money: OAP, I call it, Our Ass Pocket.

That is why Charter Review made it a lengthy process with several public hearings. We are getting a late start this year, but in defense of staff 1) the process is fairly new, everyone is still learning it; and 2) we had a tough job bringing a $2.3 million deficit real close to even without eliminating basic services. That was NOT an easy job!

BTW, had to take a break just now to talk to a Speak Out San Angelo contributor. Small sum, but it will all help. More importantly, he promised to speak to friends, neighbors and co-workers on the issue. As I have pointed out before, the absolute Gold Standard of politics is one-on-one conversation. Not some fellow with a strange accent on a phone bank, I mean people who know one another talking to one another. That you cannot buy, you cannot fake, it either happens or it doesn't. Therein lies the fate of our November 2 smoking election. Turn out, or lose, and that applies to either side.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Get involved

I have written on this before, but Independence Day brings it up again.

I spoke to the Tea Party group Saturday, following a lady who suggested going to Council or County Commissioners or SAISD meetings. As a "been there done that" person, I reminded the audience, ALL these bodies are open meetings. Anyone can address them in favor of or in opposition to whatever is on the agenda, in fact if your topic is not on agenda, there is a "Public Comment" opening where any citizen can suggest a new topic for the next meeting.

Texas may still have a "redneck" image, but it is perhaps the most open state in the Union. Things that twenty years ago I would have had to take a day off, physically walk from office to office, file Freedom of Information forms and wait for the beauracracy to find a reason to deny my request: I get that now at 3:00 AM in my bathrobe and slippers: literally.

You need to look at an ordinance or city Charter? Online, two clicks of a mouse. You want Texas Statutes, same thing. You want Federal Statutes, well it may take a while to download unless you have the bill number handy, but it's there. A Supreme Court decision you heard about, it's there. Maybe you don't trust the press as it reports the new Arizona immigration statute; it's there.

Recently, San Angelo even started posting what is called the "Agenda Packet", in short, all that stuff the Councilmembers have on their laptops, you can have it too, before the meeting. It's a lot of reading, tomorrow's is 360 pages+, last week was only 297 pages, BUT if you want it, it's there. Someone, I suspect Alicia Ramirez, went in to put that up today on a holiday, it was not there yesterday.

I mentioned to our Tea Party crowd, San Angelo has at least 20 Boards and Commissions advising Council and they are all open to the public. Some of them are so seldom used they might be slightly shocked to see an actual citizen, but they will also give you a hearing, probably feel complimented someone bothered to show up!

Last but not least, check any agenda lately for Council. There are ALWAYS open spots on advisory boards. Doesn't pay anything, some of them buy you lunch, but toward bottom of agenda we always have "appointment of soandso to board xyz" which in my memory is always unanimously approved.

Don't sit and bitch, get in there and make your case. You won't always win, God knows I haven't, but if you don't play you sure won't win.

Me, in a world full of wolves, I'd rather be a shepherd than a sheep.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Whole New World

As a side issue to the smoking petition, I mentioned that the Council Agenda Packet had been posted before the Tuesday meeting. As a part of open government, this is HUGE! It means that everything a Council member has before them is also public record; me, thee, and the rest of the world can read it prior to meeting. OK, not a lot of people are going to read 297 pages of "stuff", but it's there if you want it!

My friend Jim Turner did a bit of online research: best he can tell, we are one of 4 or 5 cities in Texas that have this info posted!

I have never been bashful about calling staff down when I thought they had let us down. The flip side of that, when they go "above and beyond the call", I should be equally free with a pat on the back and a public "attaboy"

My opinion, staff has a great big "attaboy" due, and I'm happy to give it.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Street Sales Tax

Among the things that come with summer, we have the start of the annual City budget process. At an overflow meeting of the Animal Services Board, City Manager Dominguez stated that we are looking at a $2.3 million shortfall this year. Unlike the feds, the city isn't allowed to "print" money. Some combination of new revenue and/or spending cuts will be required.

This Blog began as a site in opposition to the City's half-cent sales tax. In over a decade of opposing the tax, it was defeated three times, then approved by voters twice, last time for a twenty year term with specific projects part of what voters approved. At that time, we agreed it had changed from a multimillion open "slush fund" to a voter approved tax with satisfactory legal limits. We have not opposed the tax itself since.

It has been mentioned our existing authorization by voters is getting short enough to have an impact on our ability to issue bonds backed by the 4b tax. If Council wants to we can have something besides smoking on November's ballot.

Section 327 Tax Code allows us, if the voters approve, to designate one eighth cent of the tax we already pay to a Street Maintenance Tax. Even with a lower sales tax gross, this is about a million bucks a year. It might put off already approved projects a year or so. It would not solve our shortfall, but it could help.

A Street Maintenance tax can be part of a single ballot measure reducing the existing 4b tax by the same amount; we are maxed out, cannot simply add one-eighth cent. Regardless of the length of time we add to 4b in general, the Street tax part expires in 4 years. If we look at it in 4 years, we can reauthorize it; if it didn't work so well, we just let it die.

This special provision does not allow for construction of new streets, only maintenance of what we have. Council and staff have come close to pulling rabbits out of the budget hat to reduce ad valorem tax by a cent a year five years in a row. I will use an argument from the old days: putting some of street maintenance on sales tax will get revenue from people who use the streets but don't live here. It won't increase the tax paid by anyone, but it would give us about a million a year for pot-hole money.

Strikes me as worth a thought. The initiative for this must come from Council, not a petition. Voters still get the final say. If we don't at least give it a look, we are passing up an opportunity.

Memorial Day Reflections

When this blog started in 2005, I posted an article with a link to Why smart people defend bad ideas. We need to keep that in mind while we honor those who have served and sacrificed and continue to serve and sacrifice in defense of freedom and our country.

We need to remember that the best and the brightest are not the only source of bad ideas. Sometimes these bad ideas are from a tyranny of the masses. History is full of examples where the majority has unfairly and unjustly taken advantage of or oppressed a minority. Much of our constitution is there to help guard against such tyranny. It is , unfortunately, still a problem at all levels of government and society.

We must guard against bad ideas, even those from very smart people or those that are popular with the majority of people. We need to do this so that those we honor today will not have served in vain.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Principled Smoking Debate

Now that we have overcome some technical details of the Smoke Free petition and are at least all arguing the same ordinance, it is evident there is some mis-understanding as to what it is we ARE arguing. To clarify at least our points here at Conchoinfo, we present the following as basic principles.

1) We agree smoking is hazardous to one's health.

2) Second hand smoke is a recognized health risk. No one should be involuntarily subjected to second hand smoke.

3) City government offices and publically accessible facilities should be smoke-free with reasonable exceptions for open air: golf courses, open parks and such to be determined by City Manager so as to limit incidental exposure to smoking fumes.

4) Businesses allowing smoking shall provide prominent signage and notification so non-smokers can easily avoid smoking establishments. Absent warning signage to the contrary, publicly accessible businesses shall be assumed to be non-smoking.

5) Businesses which allow entrance to and serve children shall not expose them to smoking or second hand smoke. Should such a business provide a smoking section, that area shall be constructed such that tobacco smoke shall not infiltrate the non-smoking section allowing children.

It is our opinion that so long as tobacco is a legal product and its use is legal, businesses catering to adults who freely choose to indulge in this less-than-healthy habit should be allowed to provide a premise comfortable to that customer base, IF such a business makes reasonable effort to assure the non-smoking majority is not offended unawares.

We agree that there are limits to property rights, but we think with reasonable accomodation, smokers and businesses catering to them can be allowed without "asaulting" the senses of non-smokers.

No one I know is in favor of unrestricted smoking anywhere, anytime. Some of the anti-smoking rhetoric strikes me the same way as though someone walked past all the signs, paid the "cover charge" at a, ahem, "gentleman's club" and then decided to be offended at the sight of tits on display.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Smoking Ordinance and Civility

I need to apologize for my post of yesterday. I was hasty in ascribing motives to what was likely a mistake. I forgot an old adage, "Never assume a conspiracy when mere stupidity will suffice as a cause".

By this afternoon cooler heads prevailed. The proposal one now finds on the City website is the correct, original petition. City issued a press release and the valid language will be published the next two Sundays. At least next time Council meets, we will all be on the same page(es). Well, it is rather long.

In retrospect, I can think of a number of ways this substitution came about accidentally. Likely as any: I've been in a political campaign or three and it is not uncommon to have two, three "draft proposals" floating about. It's entirely possible someone inadvertantly e-mailed the wrong draft to City, one that had been considered, but rejected by the initiating committee.

Between length, time pressure and tiny type, no one catches it until the comments last Tuesday start to digress from the original language I was familiar with. When I look, sure as God made little green apples, the language published as a legal notice April 18 was at substantial variance from that originally submitted. As I say, likely came about by innocent mistake, I have been called a nitpicker by more than one person, BUT...

At least we caught this while it was correctible error. Let's suppose no one caught it, the initiative moves on and passes in November. The first person given a citation under the new ordinance has a sharp-eyed lawyer who catches this technical, but legally valid violation of Election Code. Not only does the accused walk out of the ticket, the whole ordinance gets tossed and all this effort has been for naught.

Far more important legislation has been tossed for far smaller "nits". As it was, City staff members, to their credit, reacted quickly and effectively and I'm sure great attention will be paid to the details as this moves on.

Make no mistake: I oppose this measure, I sincerely hope to either amend with exemptions or defeat it if it goes to vote as written. I withdraw my comments as to motivation on the part of Smoke Free, but I withdraw none of my objections that it is an assault on property rights. Let us move on to honest debate and a clean process.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Smoking Follies

Tuesday Council meeting was the Smoke-free Initiative and Referendum "no smoking" ordinance roll-out. The Smoke-free co-chair Lisa Burger opened, as expected. She promised not to be too long, "I know we have others wanting to speak. I don't know if we'll take comment from, uh the other side". Mayor New hastened to point out that we would hear from the public, even those of us so unenlightened as to disagree with our betters.

Later during comment, Burger responded to a hotelier's complaint about the restrictions on rooms he would be allowed to designate as smoking. She assurred him he could keep 20% of rooms smoking. I tried to get recognition to protest that percentage was destined to expire in 4 years, but I had already spoken, did not get the mike.

Almost glad I didn't. Silly me, that 4 year expiration was in the OLD Smoke-free proposal, the one this group filed and collected 4,500 signatures with. For convenience I will call it SmokenannieI. I went home that evening, I'm going to write about the meeting, but just for fun, I check the City of San Angelo website, they have a handy link front and center of homepage.

I must digress here; also Tuesday we got a State Comptrollers award for open records tranparency, my opinion overdue. I've been looking at City business for a long time, and the improvement on this front is awesome thanks to a lot of hard work by staff. Without that transparency, I might not have found what I was able to.

When I checked the site, imagine my surprise at discovering we had a whole NEW Smoke-free ordinance posted, I will call this changeling child SmokenannieII. Oh, it still had to do with regulating smoking in San Angelo, it still didn't cut bars any slack, but there ends the similarity. Many definitions changed, some places (tobacco shops, hotels) had restrictions removed, bars and restaurants now find even their outdoor seating "prohibited", other "modifications" which Mr. Turner put together in a convenient comparison found [here].

In short, Smoke-free "sold" a product to 4,500 signers and then felt free to substitute a substantially different product to bring before Council.

It really wasn't that hard. I'd be surprised if 1% of those signers actually read all of SmokenannieI. I confess, when the legal document was published April 18 in tiny agate type, I did not grab the magnifying glass my aging eyes would have required to read it, I just noted "OK, they complied"; after all, I had already read it. What was published was SmokenannieII, and if anyone caught it then, I haven't heard about it. SmokenannieII had been submitted e-mail, I understand to facilitate publication.

For those unfamiliar, I started sending copies of my editorial submissions e-mail a good while back. It saves the editor the labor of re-typing hard copy. It's a time-saving courtesy. In this case, someone from Smoke-free used it to substitute a whole new document and given the length, it understandably slipped by proofreading by City or Standard-Times staff or me, or anyone.

What makes this all the shabbier, once the thing hits Council and Council inevitably makes amendments, the five members of the initiating committee have full authority to accept, reject, counter-propose and generally horsetrade on behalf of the signers they represent. It's not as though they can call 4,500 people and consult on every amendment. What I do NOT find in Charter Sec 47 is the authority to collect signatures on one document and then gut and rebuild that before Council ever sees it!

Folks, there's no other way for me to put this: Smoke-free cheated, blatantly, and they almost got away with it. I'm not an attorney or a cop, I can't say (yet) if they violated law, but they certainly violated the spirit of Initiative and Referendum. It appears they violated 277.0023 of Texas Election Code, but penalty for that is not specific.I will be advising Council to rescind its acceptance of a tainted petition and tell the players to come back when they can play by the rules.

I know for sure, there are some mighty unhappy people downtown, people who gave this supposedly high-minded, well-intentioned group the benefit of trust and are feeling betrayed. Myself, until today, I disagreed with them, was prepared for an open battle of words and will, but I respected their position and intentions. I cannot say that now.

(Original ordinance, updated ordinance, changes)

Monday, May 17, 2010

Smoking, "Rights" and Wrongs

Tuesday will see first presentation of the submitted-by-petition no-smoking ordinance. This will be interesting on two counts: we have two new members of Council; and it opens a possibility a lot of signators didn't know existed.

The no-smoke crowd got a lot of attention when their run at the May 8 election failed to make it in time. The signatures got approved (honestly, should have), so now they are on the Nov ballot Or: They get to put a penny in the electoral fusebox and Council approves as put forth, 13 pages of new ordinance that goes a lot further than "Thou shalt not smoke", tobacco cigarettes, left-handed cigarettes, or even possibly BBQ grills!

I speak from some experience, I have successfully sponsored in ten years, two amendments to animal control; Ed the pig, all of four words, and the rooster limit, a short paragraph. Both were discussed and amended before being adopted by Council.

My never-to-be-humble opinion, the anti-smokers have over-reached. Most of what they seek is already in practise; One cannot smoke in any gov't office, school, hospital, any building a person MUST enter.

Council will have two new members, but this is paycheck-to-pickle betting; should Council be favorably inclined, it is not going to adopt this entire thing unamended.

IF Council amends so much as a semicolon, it kicks back to the "initiating committee" and a majority of those 5 people have 20 days to agree or say "See you in November".

When this first came up the local forum was full of comments about smokers' or non-smokers' "rights". I took the point that the issue was primarily property rights. My view, this decision properly belongs to the business owner, the person who pays the taxes, buys the inventory and makes the payroll week to week. That person is best positioned to judge the customers' wishes, and presuming he/she wants to continue to be a business owner, will promptly respond to the customers' preference on any given rule.

Reality, the 13 pages boil down to this: restaurants and especially bars, will have this decision imposed on them and their customers. Matters not a whit to them if owners, employees, and customers ALL prefer to smoke, the smoke-nannies know what's good for us and they want their good intentions codified into ordinance.

Hope you aren't a fan of live music. Since Austin passed a no smoking law, theme song in the East Sixth St. district might be Stevie Ray Vaughn's "The Sky is Crying"; if cash registers had tears they would be crying. Many former employees are not troubled with tolerating second hand smoke, their concern is paying bills while unemployed. The smoking crowd that used to fill the tip jar is fed up with stepping outside and getting hasseled for a public intox charge. Dumb enough to smoke they may be, stupid they ain't. Word gets around, they stay home and listen to the stereo, smoke in their own back yard. Meanwhile the health nuts who passed the law are neglecting to flood into the smoke-free premises and help pay the bills.

A lot of human behavior is unhealthy. A lot of it escaped public attention until we started living long enough for the bad habits to catch up with us. Too much salt is bad for some: me, I put salt on a slice of salt-cured ham and have a BP of 115/78. Fried food, fast food, high fat diet, very bad, cholesterol will kill you. Again, my last test, 170. Smoked for 40 years, recently won a $50 bar bet, stuck my head in a bucket of water and held my breath for 3 minutes.

Yeah, I'm lucky. I will die of something, someday, but it won't be the government's business! When we have bought the last powerchair for some morbidly obese person; when we have airbagged and side-panelled our shrunken, fuel efficient cars to the point we can't cram two people and a week's worth of groceries in them; when we all are dutifully reporting for our thrice-weekly mandatory exercize sessions and the last two fast food joints are struggling to stay open selling lo-cal salads: When that glorious healthy day arrives, maybe a few of us will still be here to look wistfully back on the days when free people were allowed to associate of our own free will with our own kind and enjoy a cigarette or two while listening to some kick-ass blues band.

I have climbed to the mountaintop and I have seen the future, and the free man in me does not like it. William Buckley was right; from time to time we must stand athwart history and shout "STOP!".

An enjoyable digression and rant. My suggestion to Council is reject this for the moment. I further suggest the anti-smokers sit with us and we both come back to Council with an amendment both sides can live with. That would save me the trouble of generating a counter-petition for a more moderated ordinance. Which I am quite willing to do.

City code 8.400 could use some clarification. The practise is no smoking in city buildings, but 8.400 makes exceptions for "fully enclosed offices". I don't know anyone that high in the food chain who does smoke, but that could allow say Mr. Dominguez to shut the door and set out the ashtrays. Other particulars haven't been looked at since '93 and are internally contradictory. This sort of detail could be cleaned up without mandating policy for every tavern in town.

Unlike today's petitioners, I have read City Charter. Several times. I know the timeline; if a counter-petition is our only option, I will have to walk out of Alicia's office with it by end of month. I'll do it, but I would prefer to sit and compromise.

(Added by the Editor: The official notice is on the City Website.)

Sunday, April 25, 2010

A Truck's Eye View of Trash

I had a short spell of under-employment between a construction job and the new one. Always thought "little money better than no money", so I hired out with Labor Ready for day work until I got a "regular" job. Among other adventures, I went out three times riding the back of a Trashaway/Republic residential trash collection truck. A genuine eye-opener.

Before I say anything else, kudos to the guys who do this every day. It is hard, physical labor and these guys are far from over-paid. I did routes from Lakeview to Southwest Blvd, just in time for first lawn-mowing. A few customers will leave bottles of chilled water or sport drinks, you know who you are and the gesture is greatly appreciated. Also, those of you who bag the trash so we don't have to pick up the can, both the American plastics industry and we on the back of the truck salute you.

Note for the record, based on my "back-of-the-truck" survey, Lakeview survives on a diet of Dominos pizza and Keystone Light. Southwest, I saw more Pizza Hut boxes, more wine bottles than beer cans. (Sorry Papa Johns, I call'em like I see'em).

Now I have been putting household trash in a friend's commercial dumpster for years, we had a trash-strewing dog in the neighborhood and I got tired of picking up my trash from the length of the alley. Might be a waste of the $8.90 a month on my utility bill, but it's neater. It's also why I never gave this much thought until I actually rode the route.

Now to the fun part; City ordinance v complaints. Just for fun and boredom avoidance, I got a copy of the contract between City and Republic Waste Services. Then I went to City Ordinance, where Sec 11.400 describes "Duties of Customers" Speaking of residences, you ARE a "customer". Businesses may opt for another qualified carrier, but for residences, you are a Republic customer. Your bill, like mine is on your water bill.

One customer duty is to provide an appropriate container with a "close fitting" lid (to keep out varmints and feral cats). A common complaint is "I put the bags in the can, use the lid, after pickup my can is tossed back, the lid is never put back".

That was my lesson one. First stop, I picked up the cans, dumped'em and I'm putting the cans back upright with the lids back on. My full-time counterpart hollers at me, "Forget that, keep it moving, that's not our job!". Another stop, there's loose milk jugs and cereal boxes around, but not in the cans. Again I'm told, "Not our job! Keep it moving".

Now I will say, anything in a bag in the vicinity of the can, we picked up. My gig here was just in time for first lawn mowing of the season. We had a couple of stops that had 20 or more bags of lawn clippings. Wet, heavy and they don't compress worth a hoot, but we picked them all up. From magazines to dead pets, if it's in a bag, it gets picked up. There is a limit on weight (60 lbs) and size, but that was rarely enforced. For instance, if you set out a 55 gallon steel drum with no handles and fill it with rocks, nope, they ain't gonna throw out their back even trying, nor should they.

I mentioned "duties of customers", how about duties of collectors? In ordinance that's Sec. 11.403. The parts of that that matter are; twice a week collection, some holidays excepted; and "systematic, efficient manner to keep the entire city in a clean and sanitary condition". In the contract we have II(2.1.1) "Contractor agrees to maintain a high standard of service for the protection of the health and welfare of the public and in performance of this Agreement, will use the number of trucks and personnel as required by the amount of solid waste it is required to collect".

I'm bothering with this because we fall short of the "keep the entire city in a clean and sanitary condition" standard expressed in Sec 11.403. Part of this is Republic keeping its employees at a dead run, but a BIG part of it is sloppy residents. If you sort of loosely toss the remnants of Sunday's BBQ over the fence in the general direction of the can rack, don't be surprised if the underpaid guy on the back of the truck leaves it. Other side of that, customers who do their part deserve to see the trash can put back where it was, with a lid and it would have killed ya' to pick up the cereal box that missed the can?

Something I found in Sec. 11.406; the person who ought to be fielding these calls would be the City Sanitation Inspector. That person shall "regularly inspect the streets and alleys" and has authority to issue citations up to $2,000. It would make sense for this Sanitation Inspector to be the same person who will be looking for alley parking violations (as recently directed by Council). Under 11.406 the City Manager shall appoint this Sanitation Inspector, but after bouncing from Legal to Manager's office to Health and finally to Code Enforcement this morning, this seems to have fallen through the cracks. Best I have found, we have not had such an Inspector since Mike Loving departed city employment.

From the back of the truck I can say we have some fairly rancid alleys. Trashaway could spend a little more time on its runs, but honestly, most of the blame goes to sloppy residents. I doubt the situation or the smell will improve much until City has someone patrolling and issuing warnings backed up by threat of a pricey ticket. As summer brings hotter days some of these pits are going to start seriously reeking if they aren't cleaned up.

Of course ordinance doesn't say WHO city manager shall appoint. Until my arm heals enough to shift gears, I'm at loose ends, but I can still drive an automatic. Gas money and cheap pay, I'll troll for parking and sanitation, pass out tickets by the ream! Yeah well, we really do need somebody doing this and right now, it ain't getting done.

Meantime, if it crosses your mind to leave the trash guys 3 soda pops or brownies, I can promise it will be appreciated. These folks work hard, rain, shine, hot or cold, kinda like the mailman but a lot less pay and the ones I met try hard to do a good job.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Just for Fun Friday

I normally speak to local issues, that is our charter here. I've been out of work due to a broken arm and spend more time than usual 'crawling the web". I give you a selection of items I have found amusing. Warning: this is what can happen when you simply has too much time on your hands.

No matter how stupid you may feel over some recent goof; there is someone dumber. Today in Norfolk Virginia 11 Somalis were charged with piracy and are subject to mandatory life sentences. Somali piracy in the Gulf of Aden has become a cottage industry and too often a profitable one, most shipping companies end up paying the ransom to get crews and cargoes returned. This case involves two separate, but similar incidents. Both cases, these homebrewed pirates, small craft, handheld weapons up to RPGs took on US Naval warcraft, in one case the frigate USS Nicholas, the other an amphibious landing ship USS Ashland.

I've seen pictures of both US ships and they look like just what they are; about 650' of heavily armed, well-crewed warships. The story of the ambitious ant crawling up an elephant's leg with rape as his intent comes to mind.

As long as we are on Naval issues, Sec. of the Navy Ray Mabus announced today that the next San Antonio class Amphibious Transport Ship will be the USS John P Murtha. San Antonio class ships are more modern cousins of the Ashland mentioned above. Such ships are designed to deliver up to 700 Marines and supplies with air coverage and transport capability to wherever in the world.

It is customary at this point to include language about "mean no disrespect for the dead", but in this case, I cannot do even that. The recently deceased Murtha was a king of the "earmark" second only to Robert Byrd, Murtha was well known in Pennsylvania for plastering his name on anything that would stand still long enough for the paint to dry. More to the point, Murtha had accused the Marine Corps of systemic abuse and war crimes against Iraqi civilians, a charge he had to withdraw for lack of evidence. To say the Corps is unhappy with the naming is a huge understatement and it was a tone-deaf move on Mabus' part. A popular suggestion in the blogoshere is to name a Naval "head" after Murtha, which I guess would be the John john. Or dedicate the USS Murtha to hauling supplies of pork. Three of the ships in this class are the USS New York, Arlington and Somerset, each named for a 9/11 crash site.

On to a topic just quivering of its weightiness, an Islamic cleric, one Hojatolesam Kazem Sedighi has announced that recent earthquakes have been caused by women who go about (in his opinion) indecently dressed. A Purdue University senior, one Jennifer McCreight, has taken issue with both the politics and the physics of the cleric's allegation and is inviting women around the world to protest by going about next Monday more um, skimpily attired than usual. Now this is "community activism" I can support! I hope we see full coverage of the uncoverage on the cable news channels. If the house falls in due to earthquake Tuesday, I retract all of the above, and Jan will start wearing a veil.

As serious as it has been for air travel, the story of the Iceland volcano has provided some amusement. The name of the volcano is Eyjafjallokull. Care to try to say that out loud? Don't bother, I've seen a phonetic rendering of it, unless you are Icelandic you will get it wrong. I caught a montage of brave but foolish local newscasters trying to wrap their English tongues around this name.

Anyone remember Gary Gilmore (Let's do it) the famous Utah death penalty inmate who insisted on death by firing squad? We got another one, Ronnie Lee Gardner who killed an attorney in an escape attempt, 1977. Utah has changed the law, now does lethal injection, but Gardner's case pre-dates the change, he is still allowed to choose. This will be a predictable media circus.

On to sports, some still claim baseball is the American passtime. Facts seem to argue otherwise. Last night the opening round of the NFL draft outdrew NBA playoff games. NOT a football game, but live broadcast of the draft! Me, I read it this AM, I'd as soon watched grass grow, but there it is. Also yesterday, Yankees/Bosox, A-Rod initiated the first triple play for the Yankees in 40 years! And the Yankees managed to lose the game! When I was a kid, this would have been front-page, above-the-fold headlines.

Don't know if they still do, but science teachers in my day (about Paleolithic it seems) would take a helium balloon, have one of us breathe it and then speak in a high-pitched, squeaky voice. Object was to demonstrate the higher velocity of lighter gasses. Judge Matthew Sciarrino has cleared the Manhatten DA (think Jack McCoy on Law & Order) to proceed with prosecution of a ballon seller outside Madison Square Gardens at a Phish concert for "distribution of a noxious substance". Seems the arresting officer observed "unnamed, unarrested persons" inhaling a balloon, I'm guessing doing the same amusing thing my science teacher did 40 years ago. Officer Nosy then busted the vendor. Texans should feel insulted, the field out of Amarillo is America's only natural source of helium. If helium was the most "noxious" substance at a Phish concert the kids of today just ain't trying.

OK, just a few selections from the dream factory. One note, this Sunday WTOS will present a candidates' forum, 3:00 PM at St Paul's church, N MLK, another chance to see who's running May 8. Later this weekend I'll be going through our trash from the truck's point of view.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Soil and Codes

The city council has soil testing on the agenda next Tuesday. They will decide if soil testing will be the policy for all new subdivisions. This is a needed step in the right direction, but still doesn't completely address the failure at 3008 Clearview. There are still a lot of unanswered questions.

First off, we already had a soil test that said this location had expansive soils which means R403.1.8 of the International Residential Code applies. That sends us to section 1805.8 of the International Building Code. When you get over to Section 1805.8 of the International Building Code list four methods to design foundations for expansive soil. The key word here is “ designed” ie there must be design documents showing that the proposed foundation is suitable for the soil. Documents from someone trained to design foundations as in an engineer.

Bottom line is someone in the city government had to approve the plans for the foundation and that foundation was not suitable for the soil and the area. This should have been caught before the building permit was issued. A foundation designed by a professional engineer should have been required. The proposed policy change is a step in the right direction but needs some fine tuning.

We do have to be careful. We don't want to deal with building codes and related issues in a piecemeal manner. The different codes the city has adopted amount to a few thousand pages that are filled with technical and legal jargon and expansive soil is covered in less than 10. There are lots of potential problems where engineers, architects, and other experts should be involved. The city manager said at the last council meeting “there are things we know and things we don't know”, and that's true but that means they need to get better at doing the research, investigations, reviews, and inspections so they know enough to prevent or at least mitigate problems such as these. The policy should be if in doubt, find out. That's just part of protecting our citizens.

One last point needs to be emphasized: just because a home was properly designed and built for expansive soils doesn't mean there won't be issues in the future. My research has shown that buildings on expansive soil require special attention and handling throughout their life. Simple things like improper lawn watering can shorten the life of a foundation and improper installation and use of irrigation systems, swimming pools, gardens, and guttering can lead to major problems with the foundation and eventual building failure. The city needs to make sure that homeowners know if they are living on expansive soil, and they need to make information available on what to do (and not to do) when dealing with expansive soils.

Monday, April 12, 2010

3008 Clearview Part 2

This is the rest of the discussion at last weeks council meeting. You might want to watch the video in the previous post first.

There is additional information here on the Homeowners of Texas site. Bottom line, this home site required special handling because it has expansive soil. This type of soil is very sensitive to moisture content and will swell and shrink as the water content varies. This puts a great deal of stress on a foundation and can lead to early failure. The International Residential Code and International Building code, which our city and the state of Texas have adopted as the baseline building code require special handling for expansive soils. Copies of these codes as adopted by various states can be downloaded here but be warned: these are several hundred pages.

Bottom line, the city can make a case that testing was not specifically required at this site. After all, it had already been done in 2004. They can't get by the fact that these building codes require special handling for foundations in areas of known expansive soil. They dropped the ball and didn't do that.

There is not much we can do for the Montgomeries now but we need to get on top of this because there are many homes in the city that are potentially at risk. Living in a home built on expansive soils requires special care. Simple things like where you plant a garden or how a swimming pool is built or how you water the lawn or use gutters and down spouts all impact expansive soils and the foundation of a home. We need to alert homeowners to the potential problems they face.

3008 Clearview Part 1

At last weeks City Council meeting, there was a long discussion of the problems at 3008 Clearview and what the city. This is a house that didn't last a year from sale to condemnation. The Montgomeries, who had planned on making this their retirement home, have so far lost over $600,000 on this debacle. This is the city staff presentation and ends just before public comment.

The rest of the discussion, starting with the Montgomeries presentation, will be in the next post.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Stormwater Surprise(s)

I recently got my first water bill with the stormwater fee included. That was a surprise in itself, I was at a few of the public hearings held prior to passing the ordinances, and I recall hearing the fee would be assessed on property owners. As it was finally passed, that is true for commercial properties, but on the residential side, the fee goes to whomever has the water meter at the property.

Take my case as one example: the property I rent (since '92) includes a detached garage/storage building I do not rent, owner uses it exclusively. The building I do NOT rent moves me from Tier Two to Tier Three based on footage of roof area.

The first thing I discover, when I called the "customer service number" on the utility bill, I was told all stormwater questions had to go to another number. I call it, and get a recorded menu and first try, I end up back with the water clerk who couldn't answer my questions to begin with. I navigate the robo-menu, get a recorded invitation to leave a message. I finally end up talking to the City Engineer, Clinton Bailey, who it turns out is the first line and only line of response to stormwater questions. Minor point I suppose, but if we are going to include the fee on the water bill, shouldn't customers be able to get answers to at least basic questions from someone at the phone number printed on the bill? If nothing else, is having Mr. Bailey as first-and-only first response a good use of the City Engineer's time? I have come to respect the man as a competent employee, but surely he has better things to do.

Here I need to digress into the enabling ordinances. These coincidentally appeared online about the time I'm getting the bill, but they are now up online. Sec. 8.1900 sets the fee itself and the different residential/commercial Tiers system of setting fees. Of more interest to the rate-payer is Sec. 11.800 which has to do with collections and billing.

Under 11.807 "Appeals" I find that all appeals will go through [cut a lot of verbiage] Clinton Bailey, and as he pointed out, burden of proof is on the rate-payer. If I appeal, and do not like his ruling, I find under 11.807(d) "any landowner..may appeal to City Council". I had to point out the landowner language to Bailey, but it's there. In short,I am priviledged to pay the bill, but have no right of appeal to Council as I rent.

In fairness, this sounds like a leftover from when City intended to bill owners. If unintentional it needs amending; if intentional it is outrageous and probably unconstitutional.

If I were to convince my landlord to appeal (why should she, it would increase her bill) the result would be the total revenue to City would go from $4/month to $5, as my bill would drop $1, but the lowest Tier is $2, her share. I will not do any such absurd thing, I'll pay the $4/month, but it is an unintended result of the ordinance.

That brings to mind billing for duplex/triplex rentals. If the renters have separate meters, how is the impervious surface divvied up? Do $4 properties end up paying $6?

One thing I recall well from the public meetings was one session where staff actually showed us overhead images of properties. It wasn't GoggleEarth, but something similar with more up to date images. These were to be used as the stormwater assessment is based on "impervious surface". Especially for residential properties roof footage is the major component. A two story house with 3,500 sqft would likely fall in the 1-2,000 Tier for stormwater purposes. Unless the city is relying completely on Tax Appraisal District records, which do not state one/two/three story. Which the City apparantly does now. What happened to the overhead views? Again, burden of proof on the rate-payer.

While I'm looking into this, one person added a concern on the commercial side. Here we change to billing the owner. Regardless of whether individual businesses in a multi-use property have meters or the whole building is on one water meter, bill goes to the owner. Many owners are now being "stuck" with $100-$500/month fees they cannot pass along to long-term lease holders.

One other beef I have with 11.800: Let's say you have an appeal, filed and in process. In the interim, you pay the rest of the utility bill, but withhold the stormwater fee. This is commonly allowed in property tax cases without foreclosure. Under Sec. 11.808 "Failure to pay promptly shall subject such user to discontinuance of any utility service". Well, it's certainly a hammer, but I would prefer to see such actions move through a Municipal Court action brought by the City against the landowner.

I have to give points to someone for dividing the ordinances. It would be a hard sell to reopen the Tiers structure addressed in Sec 8.1900, don't see that happening. However, there are inequities in the 11.800 language, I suspect unintentional, that can be addressed and amended, and they should be.

I'm not by nature a fan of unfunded mandates, and this is the "poster child" definition for that term. Reality, City has no viable option save to comply. That is covered in Sec 8.1900, I leave quibbles over fairness of the Tiers for the review down the road. The inequities of the billing portion in Sec 11.800 can be re-examined without disturbing the core issue of City's compliance with State and Federal Regulations. It should be.

San Angelo has been surprisingly tolerant of the capital improvements addition to the water bill. People assign responsibility to different sources, but after the Christmas Debacle and a few geysers around town, we are willing to pay for dependable service. A couple of things that helped acceptance was selling people the idea there was a "new sheriff in town", we would manage and maintain the system better, AND the additional billing would have some semblance of fairness to it.

While not free, (there is staff time to consider), tweaking an ordinance by amendment is an inexpensive option compared to losing trust with rate-payers. The Monday Standard-Times article (which dropped off the radar in record time) mentioned there had been about 1,000 calls on the issue. Aside from eating up the City Engineer's time, that's a lot of people with questions, and doesn't count those who shrug in resignation and write the check, mumbling imprecations under their breath. Fairness in billing is essential to trust. Council should look at amending Sec. 11.800.