Results of the Budget Amendments

June 20, 2012

Here is a list of all of the budget amendments and votes on each (the final ones will be updated once the archive video is online for me to view):

Amendment List (click here)


The Feeding Ordinance is Hard to Swallow

April 4, 2012

Houston City Council passed the feeding ordinance today despite the protests from many Houstonians. Although this ordinance is slightly better than the one originally proposed, Mayor Annise Parker severely failed on this one.  The ordinance that passed requires written permission from the property owner to feed five or more homeless people and gives the city parks director the authority to designate certain parks as legal feeding venues (see here).  The ordinance also asks for charitable organizations to voluntarily register with the city and agree to safety rules and the coordination of scheduling.  The penalty for violations is $500.

There are many, many things wrong with this ordinance, and I think many of the council members and others have done a great job explaining that.  So rather than reiterate the same reasons why this ordinance is so awful, here is my take on how they should fix the ordinance (IF they HAD to pass something at all – and at this point, I am not convinced of that):

The City of Houston could create a website that allows charitable organizations to sign up on a voluntary basis, similar to the current ordinance.  The website would allow charitable organizations to sign up on a calendar for a date, time, and location for where they are planning on feeding the homeless.  Owners of private land even put their location on the calendar to allow charitable organizations to sign up at their place too.  The difference between this and the current ordinance is that this plan wouldn’t prohibit other groups from feeding the homeless on the same day.  Rather, it would just allow groups to coordinate their efforts, and since the website could run on its own, it would cost very little for the city to help this coordination…. Again, only if the city really thinks that this “problem” is as necessary as they say.

Charities that feed the homeless have to work very hard for the monetary donations they receive.  I am sure that many charities would voluntarily sign up for this website to join efforts to make sure that they aren’t planning a big event to feed the homeless at the same time and place as another group.  Coordinating efforts is helpful and might be welcomed by groups.

This would completely do away with penalties and requiring written permission to feed five or more people.  Charities would be able to see many private locations that welcome their services.  If a private land owner is worried about loitering and littering, there are already laws on the books for them to follow.  We don’t need more!  Also, if a land owner has tried to remove the homeless from his or her land to no avail, they could put up a “no loitering” sign and another sign explaining that food is not allowed on the property.  Surely charities will listen and find another place to feed the homeless.  Charities aren’t here to make enemies!

There are many other cities that have similar ordinances such as Orlando, Dallas, and Las Vegas.  All of these cases ended with lawsuits and many unhappy people, and there is no concrete evidence that such ordinances have helped anyone concerned.  Mayor Parker should rethink the message this is sending to the city.  This ordinance will do little other than making Houstonians angry and criminals out of those who are here to help.

Thanks to the following council members who voted against the ordinance: Mike Sullivan, Helena Brown, Al Hoang, Oliver Pennington, C.O. Bradford and Jack Christie.

Council Members who voted in favor of the ordinance are: Jerry Davis, Ellen Cohen, Wanda Adams, Ed Gonzalez, James Rodriguez, Mike Laster, Larry Green, Stephen Costello, Andrew Burks, and Melissa Noriega.


Sparks Fly Over the Iron Curtain…. Of Houston

March 28, 2012

According to the Houston Chronicle, the proposed rate increase by Entergy for Kingwood-area customers was “not considered controversial.” … until allegations of communism were thrown around.

Entergy wants to increase the Kingwood area of Houston by $14.37/month because it is at the southern tip of their service area.  The city of Houston did a study of this proposal at the request of Council Member Mike Sullivan, who is the council member in Kingwood (District E). According to the study, “‘Entergy’s rate increase request is overstated and not supported by evidence.’”  In fact, the study showed that the rates are actually too high as it is.  When it came up for a vote, Council Member Helena Brown stated that she is in support of the rate increase “because it is justified” (you can view the video here – it is Item 30).  She went on to say the following:

“‘I understand my colleague Sullivan expressed the concerns of his constituents in the Kingwood area. But I also understand the folks in Kingwood are conservatives.  They do not believe in the regulation of rates of businesses. That’s communism.  I will be standing in support of this business and the need that they have” (see here).

To her comment, CM Sullivan said, “‘Truthfully, I don’t think you have a clue what Kingwood believes in.’” He went on to say that he is not a communist. Showing some levity about the whole situation, Council member James Rodriguez called CM Sullivan, “Comrade Sullivan” and slapped him on the shoulder.

There are just so many problems with this whole scenario. The first is CM Brown’s attempt to use an ordinance to highlight a bigger problem.  Entergy is essentially a monopoly.  There is no free market competition between companies.  Since government has made it into a monopoly, the government is the only form of checks and balances.  CM Brown clearly believes in electricity deregulation and wants the government to have no part in setting prices. I’m not going to get into whether or not she is correct in this belief because that could be a whole blog itself. Whether you agree with this concept or not, she is not going about it the best way.  If she doesn’t want the government to regulate prices, she should work on making it so.  However, until that happens, city council should be responsible to consider the merit of each proposed price increase.  By not considering the proposal at all just because she doesn’t believe the government should have a say, she is doing an injustice to all the Kingwood residents.

Next, CM Brown said,“We have a situation where as a city we just recently passed an increase on the taxicab rate, 13%. We also last year increased water rates by 40%. And now we’re talking about a small energy company, serving its clients well, wanting to do a 13% increase.” I’m really not sure what one thing has to do with another.  Is she really using two other rate increases (one of which, the taxicab increase, she voted against) as means to justify other rate increases? Somehow the government should get involved with taxicab rates but not Entergy rates?

Also, CM Brown said, “They [Entergy] will get the approval of this when they appeal to the Board [Public Utility Commission].  It will be approved, and so this is just delaying the inevitable.” Although CM Brown has been in office only since January, she has done more than her fair share of tagging. (Tagging is when a council member delays an ordinance’s vote for a week). When all council members and the mayor are in agreement except for her, isn’t she just delaying the inevitable by putting it off for a week?  You are supposed to vote yes or no on issues based on merit and not just to delay the inevitable of a future vote.

Next, CM Brown said that a rate increase is justified even though a study showed that it is not. Council Member Bradford made a good point by questioning if the study didn’t support this increase, what did the study show to be necessary? Apparently the study showed that no increase is justified and that rates should actually be reduced. If Council denies the increase, Entergy can take it to the Public Utility Commission.CM Brown said that the increase is justified based on what information? It is irresponsible to make an assertion like that without basing it on anything and basically saying that if the company believes it is necessary, it must be.

To add to the odd day, Council Member Jerry Davis wore a hoodie to highlight the Trayvon Martin case…. He also appeared to be chewing gum the whole time.  What a peculiar day for City Council when one of the most conservative members has to actually say the words, “I am not a communist by voting for this rate denial.”


New Committees​, New Power, Same Problems

January 11, 2012

Mayor Annise Parker announced the new City Council committees and their chairs and vice chairs (see below or here).  There are some interesting points to note about the new committees. 
 
First, Council Member Mike Sullivan is no longer the chair of the Ethics, Elections, and Council Governance Committee, and he is not the chair or vice chair of any committee.  While there are fewer committees this time, he is an experienced member who knows how to effectively run a committee. Although CM Sullivan is known as the conservative vote of “no”, Mayor Parker has picked conservatives to be in powerful positions before.  Council Member Anne Clutterbuck was picked to be the Mayor Pro-Tem by Parker, and Parker also chose her to be the chair of the Budget and Fiscal Affairs Committee. Clutterbuck later resigned as Mayor Pro-Tem, perhaps at the request of Parker?  Maybe that was a bit of foreshadowing for what was to come.
 
Other items to note: Council Member Stephen Costello is the new chair of the Budget and Fiscal Affairs Committee.  In general he might be a neutral pick – not too far to the left or the right.  Before I get hate mail on that comment, yes, I know he was the driving force behind Rebuild Houston.  What I mean is that in general terms, he doesn’t seem to side with one party or the other.  He appears to vote issue by issue.  This will be good in some situations and bad in others.  We will have to wait and see.  I am uneasy with him being on the TRANSPORTATION, TECHNOLOGY & INFRASTRUCTURE (TTI) Committee.  While he has valuable expertise with this subject, he should not be allowed to vote on anything in the committee that benefits his company.  Finally, Bradford isn’t the chair of the Public Safety Committee?  He used to be the Chief of Police, so his expertise might have been useful there, but at least he is on the committee. 

See anything else interesting about the committees?  Comment below, or send me an e-mail.
 
BUDGET AND FISCAL AFFAIRS (BFA)
Chair: Costello
Vice Chair: Bradford
Members: Brown, Davis, Cohen, Adams, Sullivan, Hoang, Pennington, Gonzalez, Rodriguez, Laster, Green, Burks, Noriega, Christie
Will Review: Finance, Human Resources, Office of Business Opportunity and Fleet Management Departments, TIRZ budgets. 
 
ETHICS, ELECTIONS AND COUNCIL GOVERNANCE (EECG)
Chair: Bradford
Vice Chair:
Members: Brown, Davis, Cohen, Adams, Sullivan, Hoang, Pennington, Gonzalez, Rodriguez, Laster, Green, Costello, Burks, Noriega, Christie
Ad Hoc Committee to Review: Chapter 18, Chapter 2 and any issues related to the conduct of local elections on an as needed basis.
 
HOUSING, SUSTAINABLE GROWTH AND DEVELOPMENT (HSGD)
Chair: Adams
Vice Chair: Laster
Members: Davis, Sullivan, Pennington, Gonzalez, Rodriguez, Green, Costello, Burks, Noriega, Christie
Will Review: Administration & Regulatory Affairs, Solid Waste Management, Housing & Community Development, Planning & Development Departments, Homeless Initiatives, Veteran’s Affairs and items related to both domestic and international economic development.
 
PUBLIC SAFETY (PS)
Chair: Gonzalez
Vice Chair: Cohen
Members: Brown, Davis, Adams, Hoang, Pennington, Laster, Costello, Bradford, Noriega, Christie
Will Review: Houston Police Department, Houston Fire Department, Houston Emergency Center, EMS, Mayor’s Office of Homeland Security, and Municipal Courts.
 
QUALITY OF LIFE (QoL)
Chair: Rodriguez
Vice Chair: Hoang
Members: Brown, Davis, Cohen, Adams, Sullivan, Pennington, Gonzalez, Green, Costello, Burks
Will Consider: Department of Neighborhoods, Parks and Recreation Department, Houston Public Library, Health and Human Services and items related to Houston’s local International Community and Cultural Affairs.
 
TRANSPORTATION, TECHNOLOGY & INFRASTRUCTURE (TTI)
Chair: Noriega
Vice Chair: Pennington
Members: Davis, Adams, Sullivan, Hoang, Gonzalez, Rodriguez, Laster, Green, Costello, Christie
Will Review: Information Technology, General Services, and Public Works and Engineering Departments, Rebuild Houston Water & Sewer, Rebuild Houston Streets & Drainage, and water resources and conservation.


Predictions for the November 2011 Election

November 4, 2011

Now that Election Day is right around the corner, here are my guesses as to who will win.  Keep in mind that this is not a list of who I want to win.  It is a list of who I think will win.

Mayor:
Kevin Simms
Amanda Ulman
Dave Wilson
Fernando Herrera
Annise D. Parker
Jack O’Connor

I think Mayor Parker will win reelection.  Although there are many people who will gladly vote for anyone else, there are still plenty of people who are excited to continue voting for Parker.  As of November 3rd, early voting was down by 23%.   This shows that people might not be as excited to rush out to vote for Parker, but it also shows that people aren’t excited to vote against her either.

District A:
Brenda Stardig
Helena Brown
Bob Schoellkopf

CM Stardig will likely win again.  Although Brown raised more money than a challenger to an incumbent is expected to, beating an incumbent is so difficult, and I don’t think Brown did enough.

District B:
Kenneth Perkins
Kathy Blueford-Daniels
Phillip “Paul” Bryant
Alvin Byrd
Jerry Davis
Charles A. Ingram
Bryan Smart

It is really difficult to predict who the front runners are in this one.  There will be a runoff, but I don’t think anyone can predict at this point who will be in that runoff.

District C:
Randy Locke
Josh Verde
Ellen Cohen
Karen Derr
Brian Cweren

I think Cohen pretty much has this one locked up.  The only thing standing in her way is the fact that she and Derr might split votes, causing a runoff between Cohen and Cweren.  Even with a runoff, I think Cohen will win.

District D:
Wanda Adams
Larry McKinzie

CM Adams will most likely win reelection. 

District E:
Mike Sullivan

District F:
Al Hoang
Hoc Thai Nguyen (Nguyen Thai Hoc)
Peter “Lyn” René

I predict CM Hoang will win.  Even if a District F resident is incensed with Hoang’s job (which many definitely are), the presence of two other candidates to choose from will render a splitting of votes, causing Hoang to win.

District G:
Clyde Bryan
Oliver Pennington

Although CM Pennington is an incumbent, many people in District G know Bryan.  Still I don’t think that enough people are upset with Pennington’s performance to change their vote.  Let’s not forget that Pennington beat four other people in 2009 and won with 59.10% of the vote.

District H:
Patricia Rodriguez
Edward “Ed” Gonzalez 

CM Gonzalez will likely win again. 

District I:
Leticia Gutierrez Ablaza
James Rodriguez 

CM Rodriguez will likely win again.

District J:
Mike Laster
Rodrigo Canedo
Criselda Romero

Laster raised the most money.  Although this district is considered a “Hispanic-Opportunity District,” with only 17 of registered voters with Hispanic surnames, I don’t think being Hispanic automatically predicts a win here.  I think Laster will win.

District K:
Pat Frazier
Larry Green
Alex Gonik

Simply, Green has the money and the endorsements.  While that doesn’t always predict a win, I think it will in this case.

At-Large 1:
Stephen C. Costello
James Partsch-Galvan
Scott Boates
Don Cook 

This is a hard one to say.  CM Costello is the one behind the Rebuild Houston drainage fee, and I think most voters know that by now.  Although many are angry about it, let’s not forget that it did pass by the voters in the last election.  Even when you take away the number of people who originally voted for it and are now against it, there are still many who support the fee and who support Costello.  Couple that with the fact that Boates recently stated that he “‘ joined both parties this year as part of this run for office.'”  It’s fine if someone is a moderate (actually that might not be a bad thing at all), but his poor choice of words and the fact that it will be difficult to make headway with either party might cause a clear opening for Costello to win again.  I am fairly confident in many of my predictions, but I really won’t be shocked if Costello loses. 

At-Large 2:
Kristi Thibaut
Elizabeth C. Pérez
Andrew C. Burks, Jr.
Gordon R. Goss
Bolivar “Bo” Fraga
Eric B. Dick
Jenifer Rene Pool
M. “Griff” Griffin
David W. Robinson
Roslyn “Rozzy” Shorter 

This is another one where it is really difficult to predict.  I think there will be a runoff that includes Thibaut, but I am not sure who will be in it with her.  Maybe Robinson, but then again, let’s not discount the fact that for the last couple of months you couldn’t drive anywhere in Houston without seeing an Eric Dick (illegal) sign.  In the end I think Thibaut will win. 

At-Large 3:
Melissa Noriega
Chris Carmona
J. Brad Batteau 

CM Noriega will likely win.  I think those who supported her last time still support her today. 

At-Large 4:
Louis Molnar
Amy Price
C. O. “Brad” Bradford 

I don’t see CM Bradford losing his seat.  He has lots of support from both sides of the aisle and hasn’t done anything that the majority of voters would find alarming. 

At-Large 5:
Laurie Robinson
Jolanda “Jo” Jones
Jack Christie
Bob Ryan 

I really think Christie will win this time.  I think enough people are mad an CM Jones and want her out.  With Christie as the clear front runner with Jones, I think it will end up being just a battle between them with Christie winning. 

City Controller:
Ronald Green


It’s $3 Million…Can you Hear Me Now?

July 24, 2011

In a city where we’ve had to look for new ways to collect taxes, increase fees, and decrease services, we have been told that every penny counts.  Then shouldn’t $3 million count considerably?? 

Mayor Parker recently barely secured enough votes to approve a new wireless contract that would save $3 million.  AT&T is the current provider for city cell phones and emergency communications.  Parker has been trying for a while now to switch the contract over to Sprint to save $3 million.

Sure, there are a few detriments to consider: Sprint is not a Texas company like AT&T, Sprint might not have the  infrastructure and personnel support needed during disasters like hurricanes as AT&T does, and Parker’s former campaign treasurer is a registered lobbyist for Sprint.

So with all of these items to think about before approving the new contract, what was the main concern with Sprint?  They are not a union like AT&T!  $3 million is on the table here, and that is what council members are concerned with?  Council members approve contracts for the city all the time, and I can’t remember a time where members tried to go with another company based only on whether or not they are a union.  It is time for them to wake up and hear from their constituents that we need to take a serious look at our finances and cut every place we can.

How the council members voted:
FOR (approving the change from AT&T to Sprint):
Anne Clutterbuck, Stephen Costello, Sue Lovell, Oliver Pennington, James Rodriguez, Brenda Stardig, and Mike Sullivan

AGAINST (voted to keep the AT&T contract):
Ed Gonzalez, Melissa Noriega, Wanda Adams, C.O. Bradford, Jarvis Johnson, and Jolanda Jones


Houston’s $4 Billion Budget

June 23, 2011

Houston City Council voted on the budget for the next fiscal year.  The general funds budget ended up being about $1.8 billion, and the overall budget is $4 billion ($2.2 billion is for the enterprise funds like airport and water utilities that usually generate their own revenues through user fees).  All members voted in favor of it except Mike Sullivan and Anne Clutterbuck.  Here are the highlights :
 
Items Cut:
–  Total of about $100 million less than the current fiscal year.
– Largest cuts were to HPD and HFD (Note: I’m sure no one wanted to do this, but most of the budget is allocated to these departments, so there was no way to significantly reduce the budget without touching these two departments.   No officers or firefighters were laid off).
– Mayor Parker cut eight pools and seven community centers, but private donations of $350,000 are keeping the pools open.
– Layoffs of 747 city workers.
– Reduction of library hours.
 
Amendments that Failed:
– Council Member Wanda Adams introduced an amendment to increase each council member’s office budget.  The current office yearly budget is $382,432, and CM Adams wanted to increase it to $392,222.  She said she is getting 67,000 more constituents after redistricting.  Council Member Jolanda Jones said that they are elected to be responsive to their constituents.  I agree, but many (not all) council offices seem to just push you to call 3-1-1 instead of their office.  Or if you do call their office, they just give your information to 3-1-1 to “handle” your concern.  My thought is start doing actual constituent casework, and then we’ll talk about budget increases.  Council Members Adams, Jarvis Johnson, and Jones voted in favor of the amendment, but it failed. 
– Council Member Stephen Costello introduced an amendment to look into the lack of grocery stores in poor communities.  The amendment called for an establishment of guidelines for loans or grants, giving priority to projects in underserved communities.  While this certainly is an important issue, especially for those living in these areas, there are bus stops by many grocery stores in Houston, so it’s not like there is absolutely no access.  Mayor Parker pointed out that state law covers development deals; however the city has been known for approving development deals with grocery stores before.  This usually happens with tax incentives and not loans.  I’m ok with tax incentives in some regards but not with giving loans to companies.  Do we want to become the federal government?  This amendment ended up being pulled by CM Costello.
 
Problems for the Future:
– The budget defers tens of millions of dollars.  A deal with the police pension board allows the city to put off $17 million in pension contributions for three years.  A deal with the firefighters union allows the city to put off about $10 million in lump-sum payments for firefighters who leave the department.  This will be paid over four years instead.
– The red light camera issue has not been resolved.  If the red light camera company sues to recoup their money, or even if they make a deal with the city, we are taking about millions and millions of dollars here.
 
The budget also calls for a Long-Range Financial Management Task Force to recommend how to address the unfunded liabilities, pensions, debt, and other obligations.  The task force will include two council members, an appointee by the mayor, and representatives from the finance department, labor unions, pension boards, and controller’s office.  I’m ok with this idea, but shouldn’t the council members, pension board, and controller’s office have already been working on how to address these problems??  I guess they haven’t, but at least they are now.  Also, the budget includes no property tax increases.  It also doesn’t tap into the reserve account nor does it borrow money to pay for pensions (like Bill White’s budget did).


Clear Lake Water Issue Becomes Murky

June 1, 2011

Clear Lake residents are outraged that they have to pay the new drainage fees but not for the same reasons that other Houstonians are upset. Clear Lake was annexed byHoustonin 1977, but its sewers and drainage facilities are still maintained and operated by the Clear Lake Water Authority, created by the state legislature in 1963. ClearLakeresidents don’t receive water benefits from the city, so they want to be exempt from paying this fee. 

Council Members Mike Sullivan and C.O. Bradford don’t believe those in Clear Lake should have to pay, and I agree; however, it’s not as simple as it may appear.  If ClearLakeresidents are exempt because they don’t benefit from Houston drainage services, can Houstonians who live in areas that don’t flood be exempt too?  Even with the additional $125 million a year for flooding/infrastructure projects, there are certain areas of Houstonthat will be last on the list to receive updated drainage equipment because they don’t flood as much as other areas.  So if it will be years before they see any benefit to this money, will they get to be exempt too? 

You pay money to your city, state, and federal government for a variety of services you may never use.  Does that mean you don’t have to pay the tax portion of your money that goes towards those areas?  We don’t get to pick and choose which items we want to pay for based on which services we use. 

My point is not to say that Clear Lake residents should have to pay because I actually think they have a valid point for being exempt.  Rather, I think this speaks to why this tax is not ideal.  When the city added this fee as a separate tax, it opened itself up to these types of problems and questions.  We do need a dedicated fund for infrastructure and drainage, but it needs to come out of the general fund or problems like these will continue to appear.


Houston Drainage Fee Drains Pockets

May 21, 2011

Sample water bills were sent out to homeowners so they could get an idea of how much they will owe next month when they have to pay for real.  Unfortunately, about 50 people sent in money to pay the bills, saying that the word “sample” written on the bill was too light to see. 
 
This sample bill also included a “refuse fee” that the city doesn’t even have.  Although it was corrected, how in the world did someone come up with that?  If there is no refuse fee, where did they get that number from?  Was it just made up?
 
Council Member Mike Sullivan said that it is a “‘waste of taxpayer money.  It’s bad management. It’s poor oversight. And frankly, I’m embarrassed as a council member that we did this to our constituents, and I want to publicly apologize to them.'”  I agree with his sentiment, but it is a new tax, and people should be prepared to know how much they need to be ready to pay next month. 
 
Furthermore, many homeowners have found that their fee is not accurate, and many are concerned that they will be paying much more than the $5 monthly fee they expected when they voted on Proposition 1.  As I said before, the $5/month was an estimate, and you have to expect that $5 will only go up and never down; however, I can see why people are upset.  They were told one thing and got another, and people are sick and tired of this being the case in government.
 
If you don’t think your bill is accurate, go to this website  and look at the information.  If you still feel like it is wrong, there is an appeal process online.  They won’t fix it unless you take the initiative.


Busy Day at City Council: Drainage Fee and Redistricting

April 6, 2011

Today Houston City Council voted on the controversial drainage fee and took a look at redistricting.  The drainage fee, voted on by Houstonians in the last election (Proposition 1), will now exempt current non-profit buildings such as public and charter schools, places of religious worship, and county owned properties – with the exception of county owned revenue generating venues (such as stadiums).  They also decided to keep the fee at roughly $5 a month/household as was originally proposed.  Interestingly, Mayor Parker said that not exempting buildings would have lowered the fee by more than 7%, which has me wondering if the original fee was calculated as if these buildings were going to be exempt in the first place.

Council members Jarvis Johnson, Mike Sullivan, and C.O. Bradford voted against this ordinance.  CM Bradford said that there are many unanswered questions, such as penalties for unpaid fees, and what to do about specific, pending infrastructure projects.

Council members also took a look at redistricting.  Here is a map of the current council boundaries and a map of proposed boundaries:

http://blogs.chron.com/houstonpolitics/2011/04/parker_administration_lays_out.html

More information to come with this map.  One thing to note right now is that supposedly Ellen Cohen will not be in District C if this map is adopted.  My guess is that she will run at large instead.

 


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