Tuesday, July 17, 2012

A long run

Conchoinfo.org has been online for quite a while. On August 7th it will be 8 years since conchoinfo.org started life as the website against the first extension of the 4B, 1/2 cent sales tax. In December of 2004 Conchoinfo was rebuilt and redirected towards a more informational and local issue oriented focus. We've achieved some successes and had some failures. We've had an impact. This August the domain name and hosting contract for conchoinfo.org is up for renewal again. It's not a major expense but it's a personal expense shared among a very few contributors. I'm wondering if I should keep the domain name and site up or just let it go.

Even if we let the domain name lapse, the blog will still be here. We have had a little presence on facebook but I'm thinking of taking that down. A lot of the other ideas I had for conchoinfo have never had enough time, money, people, or other resources to come about. It's never become the information resource I hoped for and can't unless things change. Conchoinfo.org is at a real crossroads. It either needs to grow, which I don't have the time, resources, etc. to do on my own, or it needs to just fade away to become just another footnote in history and a few entries in the archive.org wayback machine. I will probably pay for another year of the domain name and hosting but unless something changes this will be the last year for the domain. ConchoInfo.org. There's not enough me (and a few others) to do it anymore.

The blog will stay here. Blogger hosting is free. I might still get worked up enough to do some posting and we can be sure Barkeep (Jim Ryan) will. That's not enough.

Ideas and feedback wanted

Jim Turner

Monday, July 16, 2012

Control Yourself

The June 19th council meeting was interesting and entertaining. Some council members were offended that people were saying that the lawn parking nuisance ordinance was really all about control. I can understand why they got upset. In their heart and mind their motives were pure. They were striving mightily to protect local property values and control was the furthest thing from their minds. And they were right, but that isn't the complete picture. Let's take a step down from the council platform and into the ground level where the rest of the citizens, the political observers, and I sit and watch and participate in this whole government process.

At its most fundamental governments at all levels are about control. They may call it laws or ordinances or regulation and use fees and taxes and people with guns for enforcement but governments work by controlling certain types of behavior. They protect rights by trying to control those that would infringe them. Governments don't really build things. They don't grow things. They manage the shared resources of communities which is another way of saying they control things. So at a very fundamental level being in government is about control. It's why they were created. It's what they do. If you're in government, controlling is a major part of what you do.

By now the offended council members are likely thinking “That may be true but that's not why we are looking at lawn parking. True, we are trying to control a nuisance but our goal, our motivation is to protect property values and property owners investments.” Fair enough. So lets look at this whole lawn parking thing from down at the citizen level.

This ordinance is supposed to be about protecting property values and investments. That's a common problem so I did what I usually do and looked at how other cities are dealing with issue. Many cities, in fact most that I looked at, ignore parking on lawns. They leave it up to Home Owners Associations and deed restrictions and neighbors working with neighbors to deal with issues such as cars in the yard and ugly landscaping and paint jobs. Other cities, like Abilene declare “Vehicles in the yard of any residence excluding improved parking surfaces, or areas screened from the public view by an opaque fence” a nuisance. No exceptions. These policies apply to all residences on all streets. No exceptions. There are cities that leave it up to the neighborhood. They have an opt-in mechanism. Get 75% or 80% of the residences on a block or in a neighborhood to petition city hall and your neighborhood will have car free lawns. You and your neighborhood decides, not city hall. Lets compare that with what our city council is looking at.

The proposed ordinance starts out protecting property values by not allowing parking on unimproved surfaces. Then it goes on to add 7 exceptions to this “protection”. The city won't protect your property value if your street is 36' or narrower. No protection if the vehicle has a handicapped plate or mirror hanger. Three exceptions if your neighbors house doesn't have an "improved surface" to park on. In the end, code enforcement will have to have a 100' tape measure, a square or protractor, and probably a copy of the thoroughfare plan to determine whether or not they can write a citation to protect your property values from the nuisances caused by your neighbors. The ordinance as proposed shows an attempt at a fine grained control which in the end protects newer neighborhoods with wide streets while leaving older neighborhoods with narrow streets and dirt parking areas to fend for themselves. And it will still cause unnecessary expenses for residences with a one car curb cut and two car wide compacted dirt parking areas. In the end this ordinance creates a two tier level of “protection.” It will protect and increase the value of protected residences while likely hurting the values of those homes left unprotected. Those citizens who spoke in favor of this ordinance last time need to go check their properties closely. That investment property just might not be protected. Those new homes in the targeted neighborhoods? How wide are those streets again? They just might not be protected as well. Real estate investors? Don't bother looking on these streets. The city doesn't protect the values there. Maybe the property and investment values of all the houses with exceptions will not only not be protected, their values will be damaged as an unintended consequence.

Sitting down here in the peanut gallery it's easy to get confused when the protection is applied unevenly but the control is applied across the entire city. It's really no wonder that many people would think that it's really not about protecting the value of some residences, it's about control.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Revving up Revenue

I almost skipped the recent budget workshop. They are normally boring with few surprises. Still, I haven't missed one in several years and old habits are hard to break. I'm glad I went.

Staff is digging hard to find new revenue sources. Three of them really caught my eye. I've already blogged about the proposed use of water and sewer capital fund money to fix roads. To summarize I still think that the money you pay on your water and sewer bill should go towards those services, not fixing roads. There are two other revenue proposals that really stood out and need to be addressed.

I found it hard to believe they suggested bringing back parking meters. They estimated that after all the expenses of installation, etc. they could still bring in $340k for the first year of operation. That's assuming anyone still bothers to shop downtown after they install parking meters again. Parking meters helped kill off downtown’s across the country. Why pay to park and shop when at the mall or big box store you can park for free? There would be sometimes when you have to go downtown for example business at city hall, but this would discourage people from shopping or eating downtown. We're spending truck loads of time and money trying to revitalize downtown and then discourage people from doing business there by installing parking meters. Seems a bit silly to me.

The next revenue source they suggested was red light cameras. They suggested that they would bring in $100,000 per year. There is so much wrong with this proposal it's hard to know where to begin. First off, red light cameras in Texas are governed by chapter 707.003 of the Transportation code. This sets a limit of $75 on the civil penalty that can be charged and a max $25 for a late charge. It also requires that 50% of the money collected and left over from the expenses of installing, maintaining, and operating the system and collecting the penalties be paid to the credit of the regional trauma account. That means after the system had collected enough to start getting revenue, they would have to issue 2,666 notices of civil penalties to collect $100,000. That's a lot of red light tickets. Then you run into the little problem of chapter 707.008(2) which says “(2)  deposit the remainder of the revenue in a special account in the local authority's treasury that may be used only to fund traffic safety programs, including pedestrian safety programs, public safety programs, intersection improvements, and traffic enforcement.” Kind of limits what you can use the red light camera money for. It's no longer the general revenue source it was when this issue was first brought before council in 2007 and the money wouldn't be useable for very many projects the city needs to be doing. There is also a lot of red tape involved including the requirement to establish a citizens committee on the cameras, the need for a full engineering study before installation and annual reports to the state. The money certainly can't be used to fix streets or other urgent capital projects. It seems that staff really didn't do their homework on red light cameras.

At the end of the budget workshop I had to wonder why these three possible revenue sources were even mentioned. They all have serious flaws. Surprises like this are why I try to make all council meetings. Still, I expected better from staff.

Pilot Program

Several years ago your water bill paid for more than just water. First off, the city was transferring about three quarters of a million dollars a year from the water fund to the general fund. They called it PILOT, and it was basically the city charging water customers for the property tax that the water department would have paid if were a separate, for profit company. Starting in 2005 when a significant rate increase was enacted, we started fighting for the elimination of “PILOT”. First off, it's a bit silly for the city to be charging itself property tax. At the time they tried to justify it by saying that the water department should be paying for services like police and fire protection. Didn't make much sense since at the time the water department paid for their own Lake and Park police department which not only handled issues at the lake but all the city parks. And without the water department what kind of fire protection could really be offered. The water department was already paying for regular services the city provide such as legal, engineering, and finance personnel, etc. through whats called cost allocation. For example, the water department pays a percentage of the city attorneys salary based on how much of the city attorneys time is spent dealing with water department issues in an average years. If it's 25%, then the water department pays 25% of the city attorneys salary. The process is repeated for the rest of the functions the water department uses and that money is paid into the general fund for the services the water department receives. In addition the water department should be paying franchise fees just like any other utility. This is to help pay for the maintenance of the right of ways that the water department uses just like the gas, electric, cable, and phone utilities do. Those two payments should cover any regular expenses the water department causes the city. We have made great progress and what most of you pay on your water and sewer bills actually pays for water and sewer services. Yes, the water bill still pays for stuff like the upkeep of the lake parks and the Pecan Creek Pavilion, but those have at least some connection to water, and they do bring in a little rental revenue. Still, we've made remarkable progress.

City staff put out a proposal at the budget workshop to take $2 million a year from the water and sewer capital funds and use it to fix our streets. I can sympathize. Our streets need lots of work, and at the current rate of spending we'll never catch up. We do need to get on top of this. Still, since 2005 every council has agreed that the water fund and the water bill should be going to furnish water to the customers and nothing else. Water here is a scarce, precious commodity. It is so necessary that the sunset was removed from the 4B sales tax so that the majority of that ½ cent money could be used to subsidize the development of long term water sources. Now staff has suggested taking money that you are paying for water and spending it on roads. Mr. Morrison has asked staff in the past to rebate any excess money in all the water funds back to the customers and was told by staff that it was essential to keep the capital fund money in the fund because it would be needed to pay for identified capital needs and possible emergency needs. If the needs are so big and urgent we can't give it back to the customers then we can't justify using it to fix roads.

We need to fix our roads. There is no doubt about that. There are lots of options such as a street maintenance sales tax, cutting more unnecessary services, etc.. Taking money from our water customers is not the way to do it.

Sunday, July 08, 2012

What a lucky man

It comes to me, I don't mean to be a compliainant all the time. Yes, I pick at Council, yes, I try to call them down when I see them exceeding the bounds of what my Libertarian soul sees as proper governance.

That said, it came to me that I am an incredibly lucky man. I do have to work, they keep selling me defective Lotto tickets, BUT: I get to live in a very nice house, in a decent neighborhood. The fact I can scribe this says everything needs be said on internet access. I might dissent from Council, but I can access government douments online at my convenience, and that I promise you has not always been the case.

The AC works, the water runs, the trash goes away. I can listen to great music at the touch of a button, more TV channels than I can follow or wish to. I have a lifestyle at under 30k net income that Kings and Royals of old would have envied. Yes them castles were imposing, but the fireplace didn't always keep up with the weather AC didn't exist, and the cable connection...

Point is, we are at a place in history where I can live comfortably, have the spare time to chime in on politics, and not be at risk of being literally burned at the stake for offending the powers that be. That is a recent, within my lifetime, evolution of political power.

Back when I was actually tending bar, one of my standards was someone would start beefing about this or that, get noisey enough to irritate the other patrons: I'd inquire, "did you vote last election?" Thought so. While you were busy not bothering to vote, I was taking the day off to be a precinct election judge.

We can make changes, yes, just thee and me. I have seen such change in my lifetime, BUT you got to get off your ass and make it happen. Serious now did the Civil Rights Act just trip over LBJs knee? No, Martin Luther King rattled cages that had never been rattled. Kind of hard to ignore a million or so people on the Capitol mall. I promise you this, locally a dozen citizens present and heard on any issue would blow Council's hair back!

Getting back to the Title: Yes I do consider myself an extremely lucky man.

Leave me A Lawn

Good morning and a happy July 4 to all. Among the surpises, San Angelo is not the national hot spot. Not even close, and God willing, we might get rain today. The heat and rainfall we can only pray for and hope. By the way, saw my first Cardinal of this year this morning, and I mean the red bird, not the Catholic in the funny hat. Not being disrespectful, one of my aunts is a nun, but the bird really caught my eye

On to matters we can control, let's begin with City Council and the parking ordinance. As approved last time, with some amendments, parking vehicles on unimproved surfaces would be prohibited. Last meeting of Council we saw some changes, I'm not sure anyone has specific language yet. Is the street 36 feet or 32 feet, is the parking area 90 degrees (perpindicular to, though some time was spent defining perpindicular, do we teach geometry anymore?) from the street, how many cars, etc.

Just for fun, I am including some snapshots of my block in Northeast Angelo. When I moved here twenty years ago this block had myself, a widow, one self- employed fellow, a retiree, and two dope dealers. The widow died, the retired guy sold his house to a good family, and at least one of the drug-peddlers got busted. Folks, it's a really nice neighborhood, I don't lose sleep if I forget to lock the truck.

Now look at the snapshots. The nice family is multi-generational, when everyone is home at the same time, they have 7 cars. OK, the block in general looks like a used car lot.

What I want Council to understand is they are writing law for all of San Angelo. Not Bentwood or Paseo de Vaca, but all of us paycheck-to-paycheck rednecks in north-east Angelo. OK I will drop the dreaded word, "Lakeview". I hope to live long enough that becomes a distant memory.

On my block, having a parking problem is a sign of prospertity, something to be celebrated, "Hey Carlos, I see the kid I used to buy school candy from worked hard enough to buy a car". Sometimes we do well not to park in one another's driveway or block the mailman. Yes, Neanderthals that we are, we have on street mailboxes and 50 foot frontage. One vehicle or nasty notes from the mailman. We deal with this without help from Council.

As I understand what is coming up for second reading, MY driveway will be illegal. Same drive that was here twenty years before I moved in and the twenty years since, but a 12 foot single car curb cut, Jan or I will have to decide who rides the bus, and who sells the car. Ain't gonna happen. Jan isn't giving up her car, and I'm not walking to work! Paul I'm not putting you down, but don't ignore us. We don't have the choices available to you.

One of my closing comments last time was "If this passes, maybe we can hope it is as aggresively enforced as doggie limits or garage sales, in which case it will actually bother no one". That wisecrack BTW, really pissed some folk in the room.

We have I think 8,000+ open warrants, Sheriff deputies, Warrant officers, SAPD, they are not ignorant of this but Jeez Louise, we have so many people and so much time; which side of the pile you want us to start on, and feel free to grab a shovel. Oh and do we put the current domestic abuse call on hold while we chase down a three year old open warrant?

Here is my problem with this "Cars-on-the-Lawn" ordinance. It is an open door to selective enforcement. Does it cover the boat and trailer; how about the RV one might see parked by a home? A lot of people have limited space for their "stuff". Yes, my Libertarian instinct reacts negatively to any cheese-eating ordinance we can live without. You want a good "nuisance ordinance" I want one forbidding lazy people from pulling up and honking the horn instead of getting off their duff and knocking on the door.

Here we are talking property rights, the "home as a castle" rights, and I am reluctant to give any of that power to anyone. Am I allowed to tell my neighbor "Hey, you have too much furniture on the front porch, it looks tacky and might diminish my property value if I choose to sell. Which I'm not, but I'd like to control your property, just in case". If that sounds like an improbable stretch of logic it is probably because it is. What if I choose to paint my house the color of Pepto-Bismol, or Irish green? Does City Council own my house or do I?