Stamping out More Dollars for Food Stamps

October 31, 2012

The City of Houston voted today to pay $159,684.96 in grant money to hire people to work at the Houston Food Bank to enroll Houstonians on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP – more commonly referred to as “food stamps”). The Houston Food Bank will try to enroll about 1,400 more people in this federal program.

Many of the council members asked over and over again at the hearing today where the money came from and why they are paying for it out of the General Revenue Fund. The City of Houston was given this grant money for Katrina reimbursements. This money is currently in the Special Funds. No money can be distributed out of Special Funds to a particular group, so the money will be transferred from Special Funds to the General Revenue Fund and then to the Food Bank. It’s kind of like transferring money from your savings account to your checking account so that you can write a check.

Council Members Brown and Pennington voted against this measure. CM Pennington said that basically more research needs to be done on the matter and that there are housing improvement needs as well. Council Member Christie ultimately voted for this but inquired about people buying junk food with the Lone Star Card. This is a question I receive at work all the time, and it can be very confusing. The Lone Star Card (kind of like a debit card) may contain SNAP benefits and/or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) money. While the two programs are both handled by the federal government, they are separate, and it can be difficult to discern which program is being used for purchases at a store. SNAP funds are restricted to certain items. These items are usually pretty healthy with a few exceptions. What is confusing is that TANF funds have less specific restrictions. So if you see someone purchasing junk food at a store with a Lone Star Card, it might not be SNAP money. It could be TANF money. (Side note: if you want anything related to SNAP changed, contact your federal representative. SNAP is administered by the state, but any change must take place at the federal level.  The federal government regulates TANF as well).

The Food Research and Action Center released a report saying that only 60% of Houstonians who qualify for food stamp benefits actually receive them. While that may be true, I don’t believe that this number is quite as staggering as one might think. Many people who qualify for SNAP benefits don’t receive them because they choose not to. I’ve had countless people call my office and explain that they lost their job and don’t really want to go on food stamps and ask what other services are available instead. Maybe this doesn’t make up the other 40% of those not on food stamps, but it has to account for a considerable percentage. I really doubt that the majority of the 40% not receiving benefits (who qualify) don’t know that food stamps exist.  While some federal programs are obscure, I guarantee that SNAP doesn’t need a promoter.  Then when you take into account the people who the Houston Food Bank will never reach, it will be interesting to see how much they can actually increase that percentage.

A misconception about SNAP is that it is there to foot the bill for all of the recipients’ food.  Rather the program is in place to supplement the bill.  Many people who are already on food stamps go to the Food Bank to get the rest of the food that the SNAP didn’t cover.  Therefore it is likely that most people going to the Food bank are already on food stamps.

Just so everyone reading this is clear, I am completely in favor of helping people get food.  I’ve helped countless people in the Senate office with food stamps, and I will continue to help those in need.  I just believe that the money would have been better spent if they donated it to the Houston Food Bank for food purchases instead. At least that way you know for sure that your tax dollars are actually being used to feed the hungry.

Rather than questioning which account this is coming from, the question the council members should have asked is why we are spending tax dollars to get more people to spend tax dollars?  Trickle down government at its finest.

 

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Scandals at City Hall

August 23, 2012

What is happening at the City of Houston??  Elected officials are supposed to represent us, but with scandal after scandal, it seems like all they are doing is representing their own interests.

1. Controller Ronald Green – He acted as a character witness and asked a judge for probation for his friend, Dwayne K. Jordon, who has pleaded guilty to felony theft.  According to the Houston Chronicle, “Jordon pilfered 23 Houston properties from different owners and then duped unsuspecting buyers into purchasing homes built on stolen ground.”  Controller Green’s wife, Justice of the Peace Hilary Harmon Green, ordered the eviction of tenants on behalf of Jordon.  Surely this was a conflict of interest considering her personal ties to Jordon, but should Controller Green be kicked out of office at the next election for his role?  Elected officials walk a very fine line between their public and private life.  Did Controller Green ask for probation, or did Ronald Green?  It will be interesting to see if this will have any impact on the next election.

My guess is that it won’t carry that much weight considering the $120,000 he owes to the IRS didn’t really play a factor in his initial election in 2009.  This might actually be worse than the incident with Jordon.  The controller is the money manager of the city, and yet, he can’t handle his own finances.  Controller Green said that it was an “‘honest dispute’” and is working to get it resolved.  Apparently he still owes $112,000.  Disputes like this happen all the time, and we really don’t have all the facts, but people are often quick to jump on these types of issues.  Surprisingly, it wasn’t a huge issue in his 2009 race, but it has yet to be seen if this coupled with Jordon’s case will be enough for someone to run against him and win.

2. Council Member Larry Green – He left the nonprofit workforce training center, HousonWorks, with $1.7 million in unpaid bills after stepping down as its CEO to focus on city council.  Although the organization was in trouble before CM Green’s arrival, board president Howard Lederer said that CM Green held galas and golf tournaments that “turned out to be expensive events that did little more than pay for themselves.”  Furthermore, an audit by the Houston-Galveston Area Council (H-GAC) found “extensive mismanagement at the organization.  The report also resulted in the H-GAC deciding not to renew a long-standing multi-million dollar contact with HoustonWorks.”  It sounds like he completely mismanaged this program and made many poor choices.

3. Council Member Helena Brown – She hired a private attorney to sit in with her on public meetings and then tried to seek $850 in reimbursements from the city.  It is fine to consult an outside attorney, but it shouldn’t be paid for with tax dollars considering that council members are already given access to an attorney.  She also asked for $2,108 in reimbursements for gas money for her volunteer, William Park.  City policy does not reimburse volunteers.  Finally, her $3,000 purchase of 13,000 magnets is also being reviewed as to whether or not it constitutes political advertising.  CM Brown said that the magnets will be included in a mail out for a district convention to be held later this year.

4. Council Member James Rodriguez – Spent tax dollars for a trip to Disney World for a Latino elected officials’ conference.

5. Council Member Jack Christie – Spent tax dollars to visit Harvard for a leadership seminar.

6. Council Member Wanda Adams –  Spent tax dollars on a trade mission to Ghana as well as iPads.

7. Council Member Jerry Davis – Spent $3,500 from his budget to produce a PSA on illegal dumping and another $2,300 to air it on a radio station.  This one isn’t terrible, but how many people really heard that PSA?  I doubt it was worth the money.  It probably would have been better if he worked with the city for a city-wide campaign that would have cost less to produce and would have reached more people. He also spent $600 worth of brisket and sausage for an event promoting women’s health…. Because brisket and sausage are so healthy… and are typically loved by women…..


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)


Proposed Budget Amendments

June 13, 2012

Today’s city council meeting was packed with discussions about many different issues including amendments to the budget.  One that just cannot be overlooked is Council Member Helena Brown’s amendment for the city to stop paying into the pension systems.  Her solution to the pension problem is to just stop paying.  CM Brown’s amendment will “bring to question the state constitutionality of forcing a municipality into bankruptcy by obliging them to maintain an unsustainable pension plan” (see here).

CM Brown has a history of taking the easy way out, and this is no different.  A council member’s job is to critically consider every ordinance.  If a member already knows that he or she is voting “no” no matter what, that council member doesn’t have to take the time to fully consider anything.  There is a difference between making tough decisions and making no decision.  Also, rather than doing the hard work required to fix the pension situation, she is now saying that we should just stop funding it instead.  Unlike many other projects in the city, this is not one that can just be defunded.  City workers entered into a contract with the city, and the city has to hold up their end of the agreement.  Can you imagine what would happen if they don’t (the red light camera contract comes to mind)?  It is because of these types of situations that people have so little trust in our government.  Surely changes must be made with the pension system.  One idea might be to stop pensions for new employees, but pensions should still be paid to any current or former employee who presently qualifies for the pension and who we are contractually obligated to pay.  While I can appreciate her sentiment that the current pension program is expensive, her proposal just acts as a roadblock and makes real proposals more difficult to introduce.   Why propose ideas that have no chance of being implemented?

Other budget amendment Highlights:

Council Member Jack Christie – Proposed an amendment to require certain departments to fill all job vacancies with three months or forfeit the position.  Interesting idea, but I think CM Christie needs to look into this one a little further.  Departments such as Police and Fire might have vacancies because they are waiting to hire the best officers and firefighters for the jobs.  So this might be useful in some departments, but I think he should not extend this amendment to agencies across the board.

Council Member Ellen Cohen – Proposed a $5/person fee on adult entertainment establishments.  This is expected to generate about $3 million per year, and the money would go to help with the backlog of untested rape kits.  You may remember that when CM Cohen was a state house representative, she passed a similar tax on the state level (House Bill 1751 in the 80th Session) and received bipartisan but not unanimous support.  We will see how this pans out on the city level.

Council Member Andrew Burks – Proposed a ballot measure to change term limits from the current two-year term (up to three terms) to a four-year term (up to two terms).  So while this wouldn’t change the number of years members are in office, the change would allow members to serve longer terms and not have to campaign every other year.  This has been introduced in the past, but members failed to put it on the ballot.  While Mayor Parker supports this, it is not an issue she has pushed for.

Council Member Melissa Noriega – Proposed for an evaluation of cost savings to provide electronic documents for council meetings.  If it’s cost effective, I don’t see why they shouldn’t make this change.


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.


Home is Where the Hut Is

February 6, 2012

There is a group out of Atlanta called The Mad Housers that provides 6′ x 8′ x 10′ huts to the homeless, and Council member Jack Christie wants to bring this concept to Houston.

Before going any further, I need to clarify that I am NOT against helping the homeless.  In fact, I have helped negotiate for several people, who were facing foreclosure, to keep their homes so that they would not be homeless.  

In this case, however, I think this idea is ridiculous.  There are so many issues with these shacks that I almost don’t even know where to begin.  

1.  According to their website, Mad Housers doesn’t own the land to which they build the huts.  From their site:

  “Do you get permission to build at a site?

When we can. The issue of land ownership is very delicate.

We don’t create camps. We find existing camps and make improvements, namely shelters. If a camp has been at a site for a long time, then either:

  • the owner is either aware of their presence and okay with it;
  • the owner doesn’t know that they are there, or;
  • the ownership of the land is in dispute and homeless individuals are living there until things are straightened out (which could be years or decades).

So, do we ask? Only if there is an existing communication between the camp and the landowner. Otherwise, we might wind up getting a camp broken up, all with the best of intentions.”

So the first clear problem is where would these huts go in Houston?  Will it be city-owned land, or are we really going to allow a group to come in and start building things on land they don’t own?

2. Mad Housers basically builds the huts and then leaves.  There is no upkeep in anyway.

3. According to their website, “Each hut has a pitched roof, a sleeping/storage loft, a locking door, and a wood burning stove for both heating and cooking.”  So in the hot Houston summers, the homeless will still need to use a shelter to cool down.

4. It costs $400 (about 90% of that is the cost of lumber) to build one hut.  CM Christie mentioned that he didn’t see this money coming from the city.  He did not mention where the money is to come from nor did he mention why he wants this to be a city project if it appears to be both funded and handled from a non-profit group.

5. CM Christie said that these huts will be “less unsightly to the city” than current tents that many homeless use.  Look at a picture of one here.  I don’t see how this is less unsightly at all. 

So basically I am confused all around.  I just don’t see how this is helping anyone.  I know shelters in Houston are not idealized, but I just can’t see this being any better.  It seems like a better use of money to fix existing shelters, build new ones, and work with the homeless to find jobs, when available. 

As with all the new council members, I will give him the benefit of the doubt with this one for a little while until more details pan out.