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)

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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.


Hobby Expansion Almost Ready for Take Off

May 23, 2012

Mayor Parker announced that Southwest Airlines (SWA) will pay for the $100 million Hobby Airport expansion, which is the first step to opening the airport up to commercial international flights.  The agreement made by Mayor Parker and SWA says that the city will own the improvements to the airport, but SWA “will have preferential scheduling rights and pay no rent for its use of four of the five new international gates, and will also pay no rent for its use of the customs facility. The fifth additional gate and the customs facility will be available for use by all other airlines at Hobby, but unlike SWA, the other airlines will pay rent.”  In addition, SWA must abide by the Hire Houston First policy to make sure that local workers get a chance at the construction jobs.   This agreement must be confirmed by City Council, likely to take place on May 30th.

With many groups, such as Greater Houston Partnership supporting the Hobby expansion, there has also been plenty of criticism. The most vocal critique was a so-called independent study that said that the expansion would add 10,000 jobs and bring $1.6 billion to the Houston economy.  Many council members said that the study was biased and should be thrown out.  United Airlines, the competitor which flies out of Bush Intercontinental, argued that the expansion would actually cost Bush Intercontinental thousands of jobs and lose $295 million in the local economy.  Of course, both competing companies have their own agendas that conflict with each other.  It seems likely that both studies are exaggerated.

There are so many different theories out there about whether having one central hub for major flights is better than having several options where essentially the city would “compete against itself” as United President and CEO Jeff Smisek says.  However, if companies want to compete, should the government really stand in the way of that?

So far council members supporting the expansion are: Helena Brown, Andrew Burks, Stephen Costello, Ed Gonzalez, Al Hoang, Melissa Noriega, Oliver Pennington, and James Rodriguez.  I would like to know whether the other members just have not made a decision yet or are actually against the proposal.  If they are against it, I am curious as to the reason, as there surely could be more items to consider.

So far it seems like this is a pretty good deal for Houston.  It requires a private company to cover the costs of something the city will have for years to come.  Ultimately even if Hobby does not see an increase in 20 more flights a day as predicted, there appears to be very little risk for the city, so I hope to see this expansion take off.


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.


Helena Brown v. Annise Parker

February 23, 2012

I try to give all new council members the benefit of the doubt for a while before being really critical of them.  After all, it takes time to understand how the city works, how to vote, and how to critically analyze ordinances.   With that being said, I cannot let this incident go without commenting on it because this situation didn’t seem to be just a matter of not understanding the process; rather this was a complete mishandling of what should have been a simple problem.  Yesterday, Council Member Helena Brown got into an altercation with Mayor Annise Parker over the appointment of a member to the Spring Branch Management District.  The way this process is supposed to work is Mayor Parker picks members for a board, and she gives this list to all council members.  They then have two weeks to vet the members and let Mayor Parker know if they see an issue or even make other recommendations to the mayor.  If there are no issues to be worked out, she will bring it before council, and they can vote to accept or decline the members.

In the council meeting yesterday, CM Brown tried to remove current Board member (who was up again for consideration), Victor Alvarez, and add another person, Randy Simms, in his place.  CM Brown commented that Simms would be better for the “Korean community.”  Here is how the rest of the meeting played out (or watch the video here  – Item 2 on the agenda):

– Mayor Parker explained that Brown can’t do this.
– CM Brown asked for clarification from the city attorney who ruled with the mayor.
– Long rigmarole of procedural questions.
– After much discussion, Mayor Parker said to CM Brown, “I’ve been attempting to schedule a meeting with you for about two and a half weeks now.  I’ve made multiple requests, and I have resorted to communicating with you by email in order to discuss a range of items. You have consistently refused to meet with me, and had you had the opportunity to meet with me we may have been able to deal with this privately.”
– CM Brown said, “Mayor, I will not be bullied. You have made a request via one of your assistants for a meeting two weeks ago for which I specifically asked for specifics so I can decide whether the meeting is to be merited. And I don’t appreciate you announcing what is supposed to be our business before the whole city of Houston.  I’m a duly elected council member, and I will not be bullied.”
-Mayor Parker said, “I certainly apologize if you feel in any way bullied by my request that you meet with me privately in my office.”
– After the vote, Mayor Parker’s nominees were confirmed.

There are many things wrong with the scenario that played out in the council meeting.  First, Victor Alvarez is a supporter of former Council Member Brenda Stardig.  In fact, he let her use his garage apartment for her campaign headquarters (see full story here).  Many may remember that CM Brown beat Stardig last year, and Mayor Parker was a big financial contributor to Stardig’s campaign.  CM Brown brought nothing to the council meeting to show why Alvarez shouldn’t be on the Board other than saying that he sent “negative communications” – whatever that means.  If she had really disconcerting evidence, she should have explained further.

Next, I am a little confused why CM  Brown would want to delay a vote where two weeks won’t make a difference, but in other circumstances, she will not delay a vote to hear her constituents out (see here).  In January, some of her constituents asked her to hold off on selling 8,840 square feet of land in the district for $41,990 to a body shop owner.  The constituents have been trying to have a park built in that location for a long time.  She could have tagged it for a week just to have time to discuss it with her constituents.  Maybe in the end the outcome would have been the same.  Regardless, she should have tagged that item, but she didn’t, and she never said why she refused.  Somehow that vote was not ok to delay, but this is?

Finally, CM Brown really should have met with Mayor Parker before this hearing.  The mayor doesn’t ask to meet with you so she can say, “ha ha.  Too bad that you disagree with me.”  She calls a meeting so she can get someone’s input and have a discussion.  Maybe in the end Mayor Parker would have still disagreed with CM Brown, but at least they could have discussed it.  CM Brown accused Mayor Parker of bullying her.  If anything, CM Brown is the bully in this scenario by bringing this up in front of everyone to make Parker look bad and telling everyone that Mayor Parker’s meeting may not have been merited.  ALL meetings with the mayor to explain your point of view is merited!  CM Brown should have met with Mayor Parker, and if Mayor Parker still didn’t agree, that’s when Brown should have informed the other council members about Alvarez’s “negative communications” within the two weeks they had to discuss it.  As Council Member Andrew Burks said, “Who is Randy Simms?  Is he in the room today? … How can I make an intelligent decision on this?  I can’t. If Victor Alvarez has some problems, I’d like to know.”  How did CM Brown expect the other council members to agree with her if they knew nothing about the situation?  Either she didn’t think this through, or she brought it up to serve some other purpose (maybe to make Mayor Parker look bad?)  Either way, she didn’t handle this in the right way.

Whether you agree or disagree in general with Mayor Parker, she is still the mayor, and being disagreeable is NOT the way to get the job done.  I understand being the voice of opposition and trying to shake things up in a system that isn’t ideal; however, this is not the way to do it.  The way to do it is to work within the system to get things done and then try to work within the system to change it.  Voting no EVERY time just because it was brought up by the mayor is just as bad as voting yes every time.  What disrespect to one’s constituents to not even give an ordinance the proper time and consideration just because of politics.  With a strong mayoral form of government, she is never going to get any of her items on the agenda.  She needs to vote no when a no is warranted (and vice versa), but she needs to be respectful.  The point is that she needs to learn how to be an effective council member, and so far I haven’t seen it from her.

Other notable quotes:

Council Member Melissa Noriega said, “Forgive me.  I must object strenuously to this.  I think that it has not been our practice to single out individual appointments, nor has it been our practice to hammer them out at the table.  It is a lot of work and a lot of exposure and a lot of things for folks to do these jobs, and I am both uncomfortable and in opposition to the idea that we are going to handle it this way.”

Council Member James Rodriguez called it “unprofessional” to call out someone who is not there to defend themself.  He also said, “To pin two different cultures against each other is unprofessional.  I’m not going to stand by it, and I’m not going to support the motion”


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


Where do Your Tax Dollars Go? There’s an App for that!

October 11, 2011

The city of Houston recently unveiled a new feature on its website that allows you to track where your money is spent on the city level.  Thank you to Mayor Parker and Council Member Noriega for putting this online app together.  We pay taxes, and we deserve to know where that money goes.

Now the program isn’t perfect of course, but it will give you a general idea.  You might be surprised by what you see.  Some people are aware that long-term debt constitutes roughly 12% (12.57% to be exact) of the budget, but it really hits home when you look at how much you actually pay towards that area.  If your home is appraised at $100,000 a year with a homestead exemption, you pay $64.21 to debt services and only $10.49 to Public Works.

Although this program is really interesting (and surely appreciated by many taxpayers), I think it also illustrates what I’ve said before in this blog and when I ran for City Council: we need to do a better job with the budget.  Although council members do get a better breakdown of the budget than this app shows, it is not nearly as extensive as it should be.  Put yourself in the place of a council member for a minute.  Look at the programs and the percentages of each category.  Where do you cut?  Where do you add?  You might be able to make a good guess, but really, how would you know for sure?  Houston’s government isn’t so big that they can’t break down each agency into small components to really analyze how money is being spent.

Regular readers of this blog know that my other solution to this is to have all major programs that are expendable (not police, fire, etc.) undergo a review.  Some would be yearly; some would be every other year (depending on the nature of the program).  It is based somewhat on the state’s sunset review program.  Too often items are voted on and then forgotten about until someone points out a problem.  For example, it was pointed out last year that the city’s take home vehicle program for city employees cost millions of dollars ($4 million in maintenance alone), and the vehicles were only being used for work purposes only 54% of the time.  Who knows how many years this was going on?  No one knows for sure, but if this was something analyzed yearly or even every few years, they could have put an end to it much faster.

Although it would cost some money initially to perform these audits, I believe it will save money in the long run – and if it doesn’t, it could be cut too.