Does Chapter 42 Build us up or Tear us Down?

April 17, 2013

As you may have heard, the City of Houston is looking to revise Chapter 42 to extend the “urban” area from the 610 loop to Beltway 8.  Currently the city defines “urban” as the area inside the 610 loop and “suburban” as outside the 610 loop.  This change would allow developers within Beltway 8 (used to be Loop 610) to subdivide lots to build smaller homes. Developers have been able to do this inside Loop 610 since 1999.  Here is a summary of the proposed changes from Houston’s website.

As I have said before, I would only favor this kind of change as long as existing neighborhoods can be exempt (unless they don’t want to be) and as long as new development is done responsibly – only when the existing roads and drainage systems can support the new developments (or if the developer is willing to put in additional funds to make the existing infrastructure able to support the development).

Houston needs to bring in new development often to increase our tax base.  To be clear, I did NOT say that we need to increase our taxes.  We need to increase our tax base (i.e. more people paying in to the system) with more homes and businesses.  As we have seen recently with cities like Detroit, Pittsburg, and Cleveland, when you increase services without increase your tax base, you go bankrupt (very simply put, of course).

There are many blighted apartment complexes and buildings in Houston.  Developers don’t often want to incur the costs to tear down the existing building because it’s not worth their time and money if they can only replace it with X number of houses.  If they are now able to build more houses per lot, we might see more developers willing to take on projects like these.  As long as the infrastructure can support this, I think a lot of people would prefer to look out their window to see many townhomes rather than a building that was falling down, collecting rodents, debris, and crime.

One of the aspects of this proposal that makes me so mad is the city’s response to the Super Neighborhood Alliance’s comments.  In case you aren’t familiar, a super neighborhood is a “geographically designated area where residents, civic organizations, institutions and businesses work together to identify, plan, and set priorities to address the needs and concerns of their community.”  They are the eyes and ears of the community and are a valuable resource for council members.  The Super Neighborhood Alliance is the group that combines all super neighborhoods.

The Alliance submitted comments to Mayor Parker about the proposed changes.  You can read them here.  They have really great points that should be considered; however, the cavalier response by the city makes it seem like they are not even taking their comments into account.  The answer to many of the questions is that Chapter 42 doesn’t address your concerns because it falls “outside the scope of Chapter 42.”  For example, the Alliance wanted to make sure that as these changes were taking place that the city adopts “modern urban street standards, or ‘complete streets,’ designed for all users.”  The answer by the city was that, while “the Administration agrees with the concept of a more walkable street, Chapter 42 is not the correct vehicle.”

Yes, they are correct that this would need to be addressed in a different chapter in the Code of Ordinances, but why can’t they work on everything at once?  Must they really deal with only one chapter at a time?  This is one of the many reasons why there is such a huge disconnect on the city level.  They don’t often see the bigger picture when reviewing a new ordinance.  Years later, they will review this and realize that they should have implemented certain aspects all at once, but it will be too late by then, and they will be forced to grandfather in streets that didn’t comply.

If the proposed changes to Chapter 42 are passed, it will mean big modifications in the city.  Until they can look at the bigger picture and work on all aspects at once, there will always be a disconnect rather than a smooth transition process every time overarching changes like these are passed.

Update:
I just want to clear up any confusion there might be about my stance on Chapter 42.  I only support the change in very unique circumstances where the current infrastructure can support increasing the density (or if a developer is willing to pay to get the infrastructure to where it can support the density).  This probably wouldn’t apply to much of District A at all.  I could see this applying in unique circumstances where there is a large building that needs to be torn down.  If the developer tears it down and builds townhomes that ultimately don’t add a larger concrete footprint than the existing structure, then it becomes a positive for the area.  I support responsible growth in Houston, and we need to make sure that infrastructure can support any new structure, whether it is in 610 or outside of it.  This includes making sure that an additional building doesn’t disperse water to another area because of its footprint.


Hobby Airport Expansion Update: United Eliminates Jobs

May 30, 2012

Houston City Council voted 16-1 today to allow Southwest Airlines to pay $100 million to build international facilities at Hobby Airport.  Council Member Jerry Davis voted against the proposal because Bush Airport is in his district, and he has many constituents who work there.

Hours after the vote, United announced that it will eliminate 1,300 jobs as “a direct result of the Mayor’s and Council’s action.”  This is nothing more than retaliation by United.  The international facilities at Hobby haven’t even been built yet.  Part of the delay in the project in the first place was the fact that no one could really predict what might happen to United if the expansion went through.  To guess that it will cost them 1,300 jobs isn’t just a poor business move on their part.  Thousands of their employees have to go home today not knowing if their job will be one of those eliminated because United is trying to make a point.  It sounds to me like the only point they are making is that they don’t think they can compete with another company.


$4.54 Billion Budget Proposal

May 15, 2012

Mayor Annise Parker unveiled a $4.54 billion proposed budget, including $2.08 for the General Fund (see her press release here).  The General Fund is where most of the city operations are funded.  Mayor Parker said about the budget that “Houston’s economy is doing much better than it was a year ago. Our job growth continues to be the envy of the rest of the nation, property values are improving, and consumer spending is on the rise. Challenges remain, but we will continue to meet them head on, making the right decisions even when they are tough.”

Let’s take a look at what we know so far:

Positive Aspects:

–          Over two-thirds of the General Fund will continue to be allocated to public safety.
–          Does not include a property tax increase (maintains the existing property tax rate of 63.875 cents per $100 of taxable value).
–          No fee increases.
–          No layoffs/furloughs/ service cuts.
–          Does not borrow money to pay for the pensions.
–          For the most part, it is a flat budget with “with funding levels for all departments at essentially the same levels as last year – with the exception of contractual increases for pensions and increases in health benefits, fuel, electricity, and information technology costs.”
–          The budget replenishes the Rainy Day Fund.

Negative Aspects:

–          Restoring night and weekend hours to the 311 assistance line is a waste of money.  There are so many problems associated with this department.  Calling 311 is often a nightmare for Houstonians.  You have to call several times, and you usually have to get your neighbors to call too before anything is done.  Since nothing will get done no matter what time you call, I see no need to pay for additional hours for this service until this department is more accountable to us.
–          While it is definitely positive that the budget hasn’t increased this year, how do we really know if we are spending the right amount of money in the right areas?  We need a better system to review and automatically remove wasteful spending and unnecessary programs.  Until we have this in place, passing any budget is irresponsible.  Right now it is just a guessing game.

These are just a few items that jumped out at me from reading Mayor Parker’s press release.  I am sure that there will be much more to say about this in the weeks to come as the budget is scrutinized further.  Unfortunately, I have a feeling that the “negative aspects” column will start to grow bigger and bigger… as will the budget once all the council members try to add more to it.


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.”


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”


Red Light on Red Light Cameras

January 25, 2012

It looks like the Houston red light camera ordeal has finally come to a…red light.  American Traffic Solution (ATS), the company that the city contracted with to administer the lights looks like it will get a total of $4.8 million ($2.3 million up front), a cut of collections from delinquent fines, and $240,000 for technical assistance – if City Council approves.  This will be in exchange for dropping the breach of contract claim and taking down the 50 cameras that are still up (but not issuing tickets) within 60 days.
 
City Attorney David Feldman said, “‘This settlement is going to be funded by the people who ran the red lights… We would not agree to any settlement that would result in the taxpayers generally having to bear the burden.  It had to come from the violations themselves.'”
 
Don’t get too excited about that though.  His statement is only sort of true.  If the city doesn’t collect any more money from delinquent fines, the city will still have to pay the $2.3 million (over three years) out of general fund.  Considering many people know that nothing happens to them if they don’t pay the fine, I doubt we will see many citizens stepping up to pay.
 
Houston City Council tagged this item on the agenda, so the vote will be delayed for two weeks.  I hope that this will be a lesson for City Council when making contracts in the future so this doesn’t happen again.


Looming Pension Problems in Houston

January 12, 2012

Although some Houstonians were relieved after the last budget cycle that the city seemed to bounce back, it looks like the new budget shortfall will be worse than ever – perhaps $47 million (although with increasing sales taxes and property tax revenue, it might be slightly less).

Mayor Annise Parker has done about as much as she can do when it comes to making cuts across the board.  It is now time to dig deeper and find real places to cut and evaluate every penny in each department.  Doing so will surely find many areas to cut, do away with, and maybe even places where money has been lacking.  We just don’t know until we do a thorough analysis.

With that being said, there are problems looming around the corner that need to be addressed.  Public safety accounts for roughly 60% of the budget.  That probably will never be cut, and I’m not advocating for that.  Public safety, in my opinion, should be the number one priority of the city government.  So with the exception of probably much needed reevaluation and reallocation of the public safety budget, it’s not going anywhere and for a good reason.  

This leads to the next problem.  If public safety accounts for 60% of the budget, that means that we only have 40% of the budget to do EVERYTHING else.  This includes the huge, looming fiasco called the city pension.  Houston’s pension is broken up into three areas: Police, Fire, and all other municipal employees.  Year after year, the city does not put as much money into the pensions as they are supposed to because they don’t have the money.  If this is the case, clearly some changes need to be made to the system as a whole.

Politicians don’t usually like touching the pensions because it is such a heated topic among just about everyone, and both political parties have strong opinions and even differ within the party on how to solve the problem.  Right now the pension issue is just an agitation that manages to get stifled each budget cycle.  Until it becomes a real dilemma, getting anyone to try to solve the problem will be difficult to say the least.

Parker has attempted to start looking into it and making changes, but she still has a very long way to go.  State law mandates defined-benefit plans as well as many other requirements.  Although the city usually has autonomy on many cases, this is one where Parker is going to have to work with the state to have more leeway because this system will become unsupportable very quickly.

One solution that needs serious consideration is completely changing the system for all NEW employees.  To be very clear, anyone who is a current employee or retiree should get exactly what they were promised.  To guarantee something and then take it away is unquestionably dishonest.  While there are surely changes that can be made to the current plan, anything promised needs to remain.  However, anyone new coming in to the system needs a completely different plan that is comparable to the private sector.  Otherwise we are just being dishonest with the next generation.  We can’t continue to make promises we know we can’t keep.