Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Houston Leadership Vacuum: Struggling to connect the dots.

Reading the Houston media coverage of Houston's looming fiscal Apocalypse(!) it's clear that two themes are emerging that no-one has the political courage to discuss.

Easing revenue cap won't solve city budget gap, official says. Katherine Driessen, ($)

(They leave the content of most interest to Houstonians behind the pay-wall.  Same drill: Short quotes, please go read the entire thing if you can)

But projections put the revenue lost to the cap at just 12 percent, or $17 million, of the deficit next fiscal year, which begins July 1, 2015.


Some council members said they wanted a clearer understanding of how the city ended up in such a bind.

To the first point.  $17 Million is just 10% of the projected fiscal shortfall in 2015. It's less than that for 2018 projections.  What this means is that, in addition to getting the cap revoked, the City is also going to need to raise taxes.

At this point your thought might be that the City would do something, anything really, to alter pensions and reduce the cap even further.  Maybe they'd even consider (gasp!) reducing some services? (As Council member CO Bradford suggests in the article)

If you've been following this for any serious period of time the answer to those questions are pretty clear.

Of course they won't.

How we got here is fairly simple.  In 2001, then Mayor Lee P. Brown went ahead with a fiscally unsustainable hike in pension benefits despite being advised to the contrary.  Brown had political cronies to pay off, and he did so.

In 2004-2005, then-Mayor Bill White (who, it should be said, is suddenly trying to morph into a deficit, debt hawk) exacerbated the problem, with the full consent of now-Mayor Parker, by adding to the debt load and placing a Band-Aid on the cancer by transferring the downtown hotel into the fund to mask the damage.

At the time those of a progressive political financial persuasion suggested that all of this was just fine, that Houston was doing what it needed to do to be a "World Class City" and that increased pension benefits were necessary to allow the City to be competitive with the private sector in hiring. This thinking was silly of course, because the City will never truly get the best and brightest and public-sector unions being what they are, don't really have any good options to eliminate employees who are not performing up to par.

Meanwhile, what passes for leadership in Houston continues to dither and make vague threats of staff lay-offs and furloughs.  Yes, this might happen in a crunch, but we've heard all of this wailing and gnashing of teeth before regarding Houston's pension system.

The real problem is there's no true political will to change city pensions. At best, these are campaign promises as either term-limited officials with visions of higher office or non-term limited officers trying to keep their nose in the trough trumpet how "tough" they're going to be on pensions. That none of them seem to have an understanding (even now) of how the City got in this position tells you just how much trouble Houston is in.

When you cannot even connect the dots (as politicians love to do) then you cannot understand the root cause of the issue which is that the City has a spending problem.  Houston is like a college student with their first credit card and everything in the candy aisle is 10% off. They just cannot help themselves.

Given this, I would place the odds at 20/1 that any meaningful reform in spending will be accomplished here.  I'm sorry Houston, but the favorite in the paddock at 2/1 is that there will be a full-court press to release the City from the padded hand-cuffs of the pillow-soft Proposition 1 cap and then follow that up with massive increases in taxes and fees.

For progressives, this will be greeted as a good thing provided two things:  1. That the City increases taxes on businesses that they don't like and 2. That the brunt of the tax increases are felt by those people making just a little bit more than they.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Houston Leadership Vacuum: Socialized Trash

In today's story regarding Houston's Solid Waste Management and the proposed garbage fee there's one option that I can't help notice is missing from the conversation:

Facing budget gap, City may consider garbage fee. Mike Morris, ($)

(Pay-walled [again] by the Chronicle, please go read the entire article)

Stein said garbage fee foes typically are low- to moderate-income households, adding the timing is not ideal following only a few years after the imposition of a drainage fee. However, Stein said, many of the people moving to Houston want more services.

"It doesn't look very attractive. It's a tax increase," he said. "But do any of these council members have any other ideas? Tell me the other choices they have to raise that money."

Here's one choice:  Don't raise the money at all.

Garbage service in Houston has a lot of competition and rates can be very cheap, depending on recycling etc. through the private sector.  Also, these companies do a good job, have good safety records and typically, because they own the landfills, can provide the service for a cheaper cost.  They also already have existing service in, and around, Houston so expansion would not be all that difficult or expensive. I would be very surprised if private trash haulers couldn't perform the service at a level cheaper than the city.

The idea that services such as trash are part of the city's core charge is a little bit ridiculous. While I can see the argument for items such as water, and I'm even sympathetic to the regulation of utilities such as gas and electricity, I don't view trash collection as on-par with any of those. For one, there is no common infrastructure that must be maintained at city expense. Another reason is that, unlike a power grid, trucks and landfills are, for the most part, private investments rather than public/private partnerships.

An additional benefit to allowing neighborhoods to contract with private operators is that they are then free to tailor service to their communities needs/income. It also can be easily written, into existing neighborhood by-laws that trash service is mandatory. The city can enforce this by tying funding for some projects to the existence of these by-laws.  This way residents are forced to maintain their homes up to community standards.

IF the City decides that a trash fee is needed than I would think the $20/month fee is the way to go. By charging the lesser fee the City is still going to have to place a large burden on the general fund to subsidize trash collection. If they do decide to go with the cheaper fee then I'm afraid Houston is going to impose on its citizens both the fee AND a property tax increase as Mayor Parker will have no choice but to push for the repeal of the Proposition 1 revenue cap.

While I realize that privatizing any service runs counter to those of the increase taxes persuasion there are cases where it makes sense. I believe trash service to be one of those areas. Of course, I also believe that whether or not, and to what level you recycle is something best decided by neighborhoods not progressive elites who don't take the poor into consideration when making their policy decisions. When you consider the new-urbanist ideal is to relocate the poor to the outlying areas it could be said that a garbage fee is just another in a series of moves to make living within the city core less affordable.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Looking to November (2016): How fast the #TLSPM flies.

No sooner had Rick Perry found an issue and some positive buzz on immigration did the Texas Lockstep Political Media come scurrying out to try and throw some water on the smoke that might, accidentally, become a fire.....

Texas Governor's Start-Up Fund not all it Seems. Paul J. Weber,

Texas Gov. Rick Perry has distributed $205 million in taxpayer money to scores of technology startups using a pet program designed to bring high-paying jobs and innovation to the nation's second most-populous state.

But a closer look at the Texas Emerging Technology Fund, one of Perry's signature initiatives in his 14 years as governor, reveals that some of the businesses that received money are not all they seem. One actually operates in California. Some have stagnated trying to find more capital. Others have listed out-of-state employees and short-term hires as being among the jobs they created.

First, it is important to note that I am not in favor of political slush-funds such as the TETF or the Governor's Texas Enterprise Fund(TEF). If you're ideologically opposed to Obama's form of crony capitalism including the scandal surrounding Solyndra then you probably stand in opposition to Perry's brand as well.  One of the reasons I support Greg Abbott is that he has come out strongly in favor of eliminating both funds while Wendy! Davis has expressed no such desire, only wanting to "audit" the funds in what one presumes will become a political witch-hunt.

That said, it's very important to realize that the TLSPM is running a little fast and loose with the facts through the sin of omission.  First, this fund is not solely subject to the whims of the Governor when it comes to distributing funds. There is a set of standards that each company seeking funds has to meet as well as a 17 member advisory committee that must first vet any company, before it goes to the office of the Governor for approval.

One of the big weaknesses of this advisory firm, however, is that they are all appointed by the Governor and while they ostensibly operate under a code of ethics it is unclear who is the impartial Ombudsman, if one exists, ensuring the advisory board's compliance.  In short, oversight is weak. That's no excuse for the media to omit all of this however. Nor should they be given a free-pass to act as if the fund is simply operated by one man (Perry) with no other input.

The bigger issue is that this entire article smells like an oppo-dump. You know that Texas Democratic operatives (if they're worth anything at all) have been sitting on this information waiting to feed it to secretarial journalists who will dutifully reproduce it, uncritically, at the sniff of a Perry rise in the polls. What better way to ensure that you have something in the hopper to counteract any good news that might percolate up against a political figure you've been unable to beat for 20 years now?

During his last Presidential run, the TLSPM took a little bit too much joy in Perry's foibles. It was almost as if two decades of frustration were being purged with every video-snippet or paragraph written about "Oops."  Paul Burka and Wayne Slater were so giddy you could hear them laughing behind their monitors as you read their stories.

Now, before you jump up and down and scream "Democrat Bias!" let me remind you that they were equally happy to do this for Jerry Patterson in the Dan (Goeb) Patrick/Lieutenant Governor's race. It just so happens that King Dan is one who the media dislikes very much. All of this suggests that Lockstep's reporting on most races is more based on personality (and possibly, how much attention the Kings pay to the Courtiers) than it is actual issues-based.

This has long been a problem with the TLSPM and it's led to bad Democratic candidates being given a pass, bad Republican candidates who might be nice persons being given a pass, and it's lowered the bar for "good" in almost all Texas political contests.

This is not to suggest that the TLSPM is entirely to blame. Both parties are headed by leaders and activists who exhibit a "look at me" mentality and a tendency to view any political success/defeat as some kind of personal watershed. When you tie a political party's win/loss percentage to your personal worth you've gone way, way off the track. Unfortunately, there are many who have done that in Texas, both in the TLSPM and among the party activists.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Houston's Former Newspaper of Record: Officially abdicating the throne.

News that the Houston Chronicle has decided to leave their offices downtown in favor of the old Houston Post building at the 59/610 interchange has led to some pretty funny material from chron.commenters.  Sure there are a lot of quips about "adding a state-of-the-art journalism department" and possibly changing the leadership and rightfully so. Today's more closely resembles a teen-entertainment site than one dedicated to hard news. On the rare occasion they do involve themselves in journalism their reporting is more secretarial, rather than investigative, in nature.

Leaving their Downtown offices feels a bit like two things: 1. This is the Chronicle officially announcing that they are no longer willing to act as the hub of Houston media and 2. That their calls for higher property taxes in Houston have started to bite in the manner of the law of unintended consequences.

It's been noticed, for some time now, that is more interested in publishing click-bait than they are publishing actual news Houstonians can use and, on the rare occasion they do publish something interesting, it's hidden behind a pay-wall suggesting that they wish to limit the number of people who view it. This is odd behavior for a publication that claims to be a "news reporting" organization. Not so odd for a publication that is actually a "news gathering" organization with very little old-fashioned journalism taking place. 

The thing is, there are still a handful of competent, professional reporters hanging around the Chronicle offices but they're typically buried under an avalanche of self-obsessed columnists with a naive view of local issues a host of unquestioning secretarial reporters who do little more than regurgitate information fed to them by institutional sources and a lot of slide-shows  frequently compiled by a web-staff who appear to have very little real-world experience. Think this is bad enough?  There's still the editorial board who have never met a tax-increase on others they didn't like nor a chance to advocate for regulatory overreach that they didn't take and an editorial cartoon writer who is forced to label all of his drawings so people can figure out what he's on about. Clearly, at the Chronicle offices, the ship be sinking.

Now we have empirical evidence of this, as the Chronicle all but admits that they cannot continue to be profitable given the increased property tax burden their Downtown address is placing on them. To their credit, they're making a responsible business decision and not crying out to the city for some property tax break for which they've argued against (for others) for quite some time. It is to their credit that they didn't ask for a break on some silly grounds of "the public good" or some such that hasn't been factually accurate, in regards to the media, for just about ever.

While I respect the traditional role the media has and agree that they should never, ever be muzzled by the government at any level, there is the reality that today's media is either a for-profit enterprise or a non-profit with strong partisan designs.  The traditional media role, especially in television media, has been flipped on its head as "reporting the news" has been replaced with sensationalist, shock journalism which leads to reporters viewing it as "their duty" to track down grieving members of some victim's family and get the tear-filled interview money shot.

For newspapers the problem has been two-fold. First, they've lost the trust of almost everyone. Republicans think the newspapers have a Democratic bias while Democrats constantly refer to the "corporate media" who are hell-bent on destroying the rights of the common man.  There is no truth to either of these charges, as the reality is much more nuanced.

In truth, most newspapers do have a liberal bias on social issues. It's hard to find a newspaper who's not going to refer to tea-party, pro-life or anti-LBGT groups in an even manner. This can be argued against, but not successfully if you look at the historical record of stories.

On other political issues the results are a mixed bag.  Most newspapers have an institutional bias, choosing to try and protect their access over reporting truth to power at the expense of being excluded from the party. Today's journalists are modern-day courtiers, trying desperately to get a moment's mention from the royals who view them as useful tools for propaganda but little else.

Ironically, it's the media's inability to acknowledge these issues that has led to America's distrust in them, and which has led publications such as the Chronicle down the road to financial difficulty.

The slow-spiraling downfall of the Chronicle is (in part) of their own making. With the rise of the Internet newspapers never discovered a way to keep the revenue train rolling, nor did they learn what it was that differentiated them from entertainment media outlets. Instead of trying to focus on hyper-local, watchdog reporting the Chronicle tried, in vain, to become an infotainment outlet. Never realizing that this is already being done, better, at other outlets.

Are we watching the final throes of a company near the end of it's life-cycle?  Time will tell.  But if the only change they're undergoing is a change of address and they don't fundamentally change their business direction there's no evidence to suggest that things will turn around.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Houston Leadership Vacuum: Elected officials and local media blinded by shiny trinkets.

Lost in Monday's story on the sale of the Texas Tile Manufacturing property was something that would cause concern to a real leader, but isn't even ruffling the feathers of Houston's there-for-show peacock team, or those who tell us that Houston is failing because "it doesn't have a plan".

Tile plant sale fits redevelopment pattern. Nancy Sarnoff, ($)

(Mysteriously, the chiefs at the Chron don't appear to want people to read this. Why else hide it behind a pay-wall?  One small quote then, and the typical request for you to go read the entire thing.)

Other properties have been trading hands in this area, most often as longtime industrial users sell out to retail and residential developers. Upscale apartments and big-box retailers have replaced sprawling industrial sites along Interstate 10.

One thing is for sure, the current team of peacocks residing in City Hall are fascinated with 'upscale' townhomes and apartments. I'm reminded of several penguins all moving their heads back and forth as a light is moved around on a wall above them. One thing that they're not noticing while distracted by that dot is the city's rapidly eroding industrial base.

While I understand that it's "neat" to attend ribbon-cuttings for 'parklets' which make Houston something entirely unlike San Francisco, it just might be of importance for someone in the peacock flock to take a look around at Houston's rapidly shrinking jobs diversity.

I understand that there are plenty of jobs in Houston, mainly due to the surging oil & gas industry and the Texas Medical Center however, those jobs are typically quite specialized and, in many cases, require either specialized education or a degree. What Houston is seeing leave the city in droves are manufacturing jobs that can provide lower-middle class wages to families whose primary care-giver might not have a degree. In short, blue-collar jobs not related to the oil-patch.

While I freely admit that a tile factory, or almost any other factory for that matter, doesn't have the curb appeal of luxury apartments inside a multi-use, walkable facility whose energy is derived primarily from the sweat of those in the fitness center, the jobs they provide are much, much higher paying than that of a towel attendant in the pool changing lounge. On the one hand, the peacocks are dismissing the value of the retail/service sector while actively promoting policy that increases these low paying jobs.

To further the problem, the biggest of the peacocks (Mayor Parker, Peter Brown and the do-nothings at Houston Tomorrow) also promote policies that make it impossible for this growing number of low-wage workers to live close to their jobs in the walkable communities that they are advocating for so strongly.

This is not by accident. I've said it on this (and other) blogs many times before, the goal of new-urbanists is to displace the poor and allow the relatively affluent to populate the city-center. Those who provide a service to this new elite are forced, via supply, to move outside the city core, with all of its amenities, and live on the periphery where access to the central city is also limited. This planning means that the poor 'need not apply' when discussions of great new goings-on in Houston are discussed. They are simply not part of the vision.

Soon they won't be an active part of the economy either, nor part of the city's cultural fabric. Right now Houston runs the risk of becoming a soulless expanse of luxury apartments and multi-use retail centers which will end up just slightly better than the suburban strip-centers that the new-urbanists hate so.  It was never the sameness of the suburbs that the new-urbanists took exception to,  after all, they argue against everything in Houston that's unique and not a copy of some city they say is doing it better, it was the fact that the same-ness was the same-ness of the poor and working class, which they, with their starched white collars and thick-rimmed reading glasses, cannot handle being around.

Unless said poor are in uniform, pouring them drinks, the new-urbanist elite would prefer that they know their place.  That's the type of interaction they want to have most.  It keeps them feeling superior without requiring them to leave their hermetically sealed luxury bubbles. Let's build s'more.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Houston Leadership Vacuum: Worsening the coming fiscal apocalypse.

For a group that keeps reminding us that Houston's fiscal doom is nigh, Houston's City Council and Mayor Parker sure aren't governing like it.

Super TIRZ will be City's largest Economic Development Zone. Katherine Driessen,$)
(You know the drill by now, pay-wall, very small quote, go read the entire piece if you can)

Amounting to something of a super TIRZ, the "Greater Houston Zone" spans more than 7,000 non-contiguous acres of two distinct areas: The business-heavy eastern tip of downtown's central business district and an infrastructure-deprived area to the south, near NRG Park, bounded roughly by Old Spanish Trail, Almeda Genoa, Highway 288 and Main Street.

In summary, this is a HUGE area from which the city derives a LOT of tax money.

And therein lies the problem.  Now, with this passage, in a time of explosive growth within the City the tax revenues are "capped" at existing levels while any growth is going to be automatically shunted into "infrastructure improvements and projects and economic development projects" limited to the area itself.

What this means is that there are going to be LESS money in the future to pay-off Houston's ballooning pension obligations and debt, that there will be LESS money in the general fund to address infrastructure maintenance for the rest of the city.  There will be LESS money to pay for staff, workers and all of the things that Mayor Parker has said we need and which makes it a requirement for Houston to either make (In Parker's view) either draconian cuts or pass a referendum which removes the revenue cap and allows for massive tax increases at the mayor's discretion.

To quote Ed Emmett, this is a "silly" plan given the financial restrictions under which the city currently finds itself.

A larger problem is that the leadership vacuum in Houston is all-encompassing and growing. Right now there are 3, maybe 4 Councilmembers who seem to have an understanding of how dire these things are going to be and that's it.  The Mayor is fiddling while Houston burns money and her only strategy seems to be whining that this has been unfairly foisted on her despite evidence that she was a key architect in it's design.

In other words, this mess is a place.  A place called Houston which is filled with many smart people, none of whom seem to choose careers in City government.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Houston Leadership Vacuum: Stalling Dome Progress in an effort to burnish one man's perceived legacy.

There has been a whole lot in the debate over the future of the Astrodome that has been silly.  From ideas ranging from movie studios to butterfly houses, to arguments that a building less than a decade old is as historically important as the pyramid's of Giza the only thing sure about this discussion is that it's very clear that what's lacking is not only vision, but leadership.  As an example:

Emmett calls Dome demo plan "silly". Kiah Collier,

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett on Thursday called a proposal by the Houston Texans and the Rodeo to demolish the Astrodome and replace it with a park-like green space "a silly plan" and pleaded with members of the Hotel & Lodging Association of Greater Houston to give a repurposing of the iconic structure a second chance.

Emmett told the group that he did a "poor job" last fall of selling a $217 million plan by the Harris County Sports & Convention Corp. to turn the Dome into an events center. Voters rejected the plan last November.

Emmett calls Dome proposal a silly idea. Kiah Collier, ($)
(Again, since the Chronicle doesn't want you to see their journalism I'll just quote a quote and encourage you to go read the rest, if you can. If not, this story is just an expanded version of the story on the pay-site anyway so you're not missing much.)

"The Astrodome is the only building in the world that's 350,000 square feet of column-free space," he told a luncheon crowd at the Four Seasons Hotel downtown. "There are a lot of creative people in the world who would love to figure out ways to use the space if we just keep it and make it an option for them."

Ms. Collier goes on to say that Judge Emmett is "not advocating for any specific plan" which means that he's advocating doing nothing until someone, anyone I'm guessing, with vision and leadership actually emerges with a working plan. In the interim, Houston is just supposed to wait it out as the cat-piss filled hulking mess continues to deteriorate.

Both articles continue to insinuate that the County's options for the Astrodome are subject to the whims of one man who's not primarily concerned with finding the correct outcome, but with ensuring that his legacy doesn't read that he was in charge when the Dome came down.  In terms of leadership, that's certainly not up there with the risks taken by great leaders of the past is it?

All of this continues to highlight the current leadership vacuum that is pervasive throughout the entire Houston region.  Houston has a Mayor and City Council who won't (or can't) lead, a city Controller who's been mysteriously silent since the run-up to the election, and just lost another public works director as a result of the horribly designed and implemented Rain Tax.  Harris County has a County Commissioner and Court who seem hell-bent on just sitting back and making pretty speeches about "getting things done" while the population booms and they sit by idly.  Ooooh...look, they had a ribbon cutting at a dog park, or a parklet.

With Emmett however the problem is worse.  Mayor Parker, for all of her faults, didn't really stress her leadership abilities when running.  She rode the local economy (for which she can really take no credit) and stressed her "competence" which is nothing more than suggesting that we be grateful she hasn't messed everything up at Mayor Brown levels. (Of course, after entering her lame duck term she then has proceeded to mess everything up at the level of Mayor Brown so....)  Judge Emmett ran specifically on his perceived leadership ability.  He positioned himself as a "conservative" man who gets things done, a man who can look down the barrel of a crisis, laugh in the face of danger and come out as cool as the Most Interesting Man in Harris County.  Reality has shown this to not be true.

In fact, Emmett has emerged as something of a hollow shell. He calls for the end of redundancies in local government under the flag of conservatism while chastising those who would like to place "artificial limits" on the size and scope of government. He opposes the plan for the Astrodome that's been forwarded by the two entities with first refusal rights despite presenting no viable option himself. In short, he's becoming exactly what conservative activists said he was when he was appointed to the position initially, a member of the local establishment who's primary constituency is not the citizens of Harris County but the businesses that petition to the Commissioner's Court.

Term limits will ensure that Mayor Parker is shown the door, it's time to ask ourselves if the ballot box shouldn't ensure that Emmett is as well the next time around.  At some point the leadership vacuum in the Houston region needs to be filled.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Shutter the Chron Editorial Board: The Chron's Blind Spot on the NDO

Since it's passage there has been more cacophony surrounding the Houston NDO than there has been reasonable discussion. You expect silliness and half-truths from ideologues on either side of the issue but, in an ideal world, one would expect the editorial board for what used to be a major city's newspaper of record to take a measured view of the situation. Sadly, what Houston is seeing from Mrs. White (the Houston Chronicle Editorial Board for those not paying attention) is exactly the opposite.

Non-controversial NDO, Mrs. White,

On its face, there is nothing controversial in the NDO. One could even claim that it is rather conservative, in the sense that this policy has been tested elsewhere time and again. The ordinance prohibits discrimination on the basis of categories already covered by federal law. It also extends protections to gay and transgender residents, following nondiscrimination laws that other cities and states have had on the books for years. Religious organizations and small businesses are exempted, and the maximum fine is $5,000.

Unpopular Referendum. Mrs. White,

At first glance, 50,000 signatures is an impressive number, but the manner in which they were collected puts that number into doubt. City Hall is double-checking the information submitted, and LGBT groups plan on independently running their own verifications. We hope they run the signatures through a fine-toothed comb. Houston should not be a place that snatches away dignity because of a mistake.

Of course, dipping one's toes into the deep water of LBGT issues is fraught with danger. There's very little reason being applied to this issue and a whole lot of emotion. If you doubt that, take a look at the comments of the two editorials.  Go ahead, we'll wait.

The thing is, Mayor Parker's pay-back legislation to her long-time friends in the LBGT lobby was sold poorly and, to my way of thinking, actually hurts their cause more than it helps.  And I say this as someone who is on the record as being in favor of LBGT marriage, equal protection etc.

In the first editorial it's very clear that Mrs. White is floundering around searching for page-hits. To claim, counter-intuitively, that the NDO is "non-controversial" requires one to ignore all of the controversy surrounding it.  Never mind that the notorious "bathroom clause" was pulled out of the bill during the Grand Urinal Bargain of 2014, the issue is still implicit within the ordinance with enforcement being tasked to the Houston Police Department. No matter where you stand on the ordinance this should send a small shudder down some spines when the ramifications are considered.

In most cases, complaints of this nature are going to be "he/she said, he/she said" which is going to put the responding officer in the impossible position of determining the party's thoughts. Unless you're the Great Karnac and have mental abilities beyond those of a normal human being that task is impossible. On top of that, might there be a chance that the HPD rolls up on an emotionally charged situation?  Do we really want stun-guns deployed because a man in a dress was denied access to the women's restroom?

In their second Editorial Mrs. White tries, unsuccessfully, to make a case for representative democracy over full democracy by trying to bring California's flawed ballot referendum into play and, oddly enough, some quotes from James Madison. You know, to bring an air of authority to the argument.  The problem with Mrs. White's logic is that it's exclusionary to one side.

In Mrs. White's world, it's OK for "LGBT groups" to interject into the process by running their own (unbiased I'm sure) verification project on the signatures but beyond-the-pale to think that people might, possibly, have the opportunity to petition for relief from an ordinance that they find runs counter to their idea of community standards.  If Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel then cognitive dissonance is the last refuge of the dim-witted.

In order to buy Mrs. White's argument that the religious objectors stay out of the scrum then you also have to call for the LGBT supporters to remove themselves as well. IF Democracy is best-served by the diktat of our ruling-class betters then it has to be considered to be best-served for the interest of both parties.  If the ordinance is good, then the verification-process must be good as well. You cannot have your cake and eat it too when it comes to these matters.

All of this highlights a bigger problem that has wormed itself into the heart of the Statist movement. The idea that the banning, regulating or outlawing of things they don't like is exempt from public review or criticism removes all credibility when Mrs. White and her fellow travelers decide the ruling class is attacking something they like. These arguments frequently end up with calls for the total exclusion of the opposite side from the political process.

The heart of most Mrs. White arguments is that they do not like when people take exception to things that they want done. Any objection to "the greater good" is treated as a pox on the sensibilities of a community rather than an honest attempt of the dissenters to have a say in an issue where they were given little input. In fact, the denial of NDO opponents speaking time, in favor of NDO supporters, on the day of passage was more horrendous than is the current attempt at referendum.

In the end, you get the sneaking feeling that all of this is much ado about nothing. The social conservative majority in the Houston area lives outside of the city limits and therefore has little say on what the City chooses to do. I've a feeling that, should the referendum make it to the ballot, it has a better than average change of passing. However, the ideas of Mayor Parker, Mrs. White and others that one side should have special privilege to conduct their own review of signatures is troubling, as is the idea that those doing the review are not disinterested third-parties but will be committed activists appointed by a Mayor who has admitted that this referendum is more of a personal quest than good government policy.

I think there is a way to ensure that Houston's GLBT population receives equal protection under the law. I do not think that the current Houston NDO is the correct way to do this. Reading the language of the law I think it is divisive, hurtful and possibly discriminatory to those who might conscientiously object.

It goes without saying that a real leader would understand this and could disassociate the personal from the political. A strong editorial board worried about the health of the community would understand this as well.  Unfortunately, Houston currently has neither. Since Mrs. White is incapable of performing their job in a professional manner the only conclusion is that their time has passed and the Ed Board should be shuttered while the newly freed resources are redeployed to local news coverage.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Houston Leadership Vacuum: Please provide them with a list of any and all future unplanned events.

The Houston Chronicle is reporting that the group currently playing the role of "leaders" in Houston voted to approve filing a lawsuit against the actuarial company which provided what turned out to be incorrect predictions regarding the financial state of Houston's pension funds.

Council votes to sue firm over inaccurate predictions. Mike Morris,

Houston City Council on Wednesday paved the way for city attorneys to sue an actuarial firm the city claims gave inaccurate pension estimates that spurred costly changes to firefighters’ retirement benefits in 2001.

The story continues on to say that only two City Councilmembers voted against the plan, and their no votes were based on concerns that the contractor not be required to follow city diversity standards.  In fact, nowhere in the story does it appear that what passes for leadership in Houston these days has even a basic understanding of sound financial practice. Nor do they seem to grasp the consequences of their actions.

This is not to suggest that the company in question is not at fault, this will be determined during discovery and during trial. For all I know the actuarial company could have performed shoddy, weak analysis relying on the incompetence of the Lee P. Brown administration to let it slide through. Or, they could have performed quality analysis that was turned on it's head due to the collapse of certain stocks (in which the City was highly leveraged) shortly following 9/11/2001.  There could be several reasons to explain this:

Houston’s contribution rate to the fire pension skyrocketed soon after the changes were approved, despite an actuarial report from Towers Perrin, now Towers Watson, that predicted the payment rate would remain flat for a decade.

To my way of thinking, the question at hand is not with the predictions one company, hired by the funds themselves, made that turned out to be wrong, it's why did the City, under then-Mayor Lee P. Brown, not perform it's fiduciary duty to the taxpayers and do further research?

City may sue firm over 2001 pension estimates. Mike Morris,$)

(In keeping with the spirit of the Chron's pay wall, which seems to be designed to prevent people from reading the news on their website, I'm only quoting a very small blurb from this article and ask you to go read the entire thing if you can.)

Both reports were commissioned by the employee- and retiree-controlled pension boards; the city did not seek second opinions. 

The emphasis on the quoted text is mine.

As an accountant, I find it amazing then-Mayor Brown's staff and advisors did not suggest obtaining a 2nd opinion. If they did suggest this, and the Mayor shot the idea down, then Mayor Brown would be the person most liable for this situation.

My thought is that we're dealing with some situation that's in the middle.  The projections were released and only a few questioned them and their concerns were swept under the rug because the vast majority came into this situation with the expressed goal of making the pension plan much more lucrative for city employees.

Never mind that this flies in the face of conservatism.  And I'm not talking about Conservatism as a political ideology but conservatism as a financial practice which more deals with the assessment of potential risk, risk tolerance and what progressives like to call "good governance".  I would argue that EVERY level of government has a fiduciary duty to the taxpayers to use conservatism when making financial decisions. This means that if Mayor Brown and his staff failed in these duties when they chose to not perform proper due diligence by selecting a 2nd estimate, then they didn't properly evaluate the risk which started Houston down the path it is currently traveling.

As stated before, Mayors White and Parker hold their share of the blame for this mess as well. In 2004 & 2005 when they voted to kick the can down the road through the hotel asset transfer and the issuance of pension bonds they effectively broke the link between conservatism and fiscal policy. Instead of positioning the city for long-term success, they failed the taxpayers and pushed the burden back to today.

So now it's getting nigh time that Houston pay the fiscal piper and the Parker administration has decided to distract from the issue with trinkets.  She's going to use issues like the pension lawsuit and the coming fiscal Apocalypse to distract the public from the fact that the City is still wasting money hand over fist, idly watching as City Council raids dedicated funds due to her administrations incompetence in allocating them, and adding "your trash" alongside "your bathroom habits" to the list of things they're going to obsess over. If it wasn't of such serious importance it would qualify as a Greek comedy.

Houston has been saddled with a generation of Mayors who have abandoned the fiscal concept of conservatism in the name of trinket governance and as a means to reward political friends for votes and campaign donations with favorable ordinance. While the suburban areas are thriving, the central core is slowly rotting from within both fiscally and in terms of infrastructure.

The answer to this is always presented in terms of "more money". This line of thinking has given us the Rain Tax, higher fees for conducting business with the City in almost every area, a regulatory structure that is both nonsensical and hard on small businesses, a city ordinance procedure that is nothing more than a favor to politically connected groups and is going to be used as a cudgel to beat voters over the head as simpletons who are perceived as incapable of understanding the financial requirements of running Houston or too incompetent to have a say in just how much tax income the city receives.  If Parker's attitude toward the citizenry can be summed up in one phrase it's: "Just shut up and do as you're told."

The real answer should be that the voters require their leaders to reacquaint themselves with the fiscal concept of conservatism.  Mayor Parker constantly likes to remind people that she is "The CEO of a Five Billion Dollar Corporation."  To tell the truth, she's pretty lucky that she's not.  If Houston were a real corporation she'd be voted out on the street by a board of directors who actually do understand finance and realize that she's not positioning the city for long term growth.

Friday, July 11, 2014

The Astrodome Follies: This would qualify as the climax.

Regardless of your hopes and dreams for the Astrodome, turning it into a movie studio, a cool shopping mall, the worlds biggest shopping mall/parking garage/casino, or even something as insipid as The "New" Dome Experience, nothing was ever realistically going to happen until the Rodeo and Texans weighed in. they have.

Rodeo, Texans have $66 Million plan to demolish Dome. Kiah Collier,

The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo and the NFL's Houston Texans have devised a $66 million plan to demolish the vacant Astrodome and turn the site into an outdoor green space that is reminiscent of downtown's Discovery Green and also pays tribute to the historic stadium.
The project, titled the "Astrodome Hall of Fame," would be completed in time for the 2017 Super Bowl at NRG Stadium, according to a 37-page proposal obtained by the Houston Chronicle.
As you can imagine, the chron.commenters are having a field day with this. One commenter even compared the centuries-old Pyramids of Giza to the not-yet-century-old Dome. That's just wrong in many ways. For one, the Pyramids have held up better.  Another commenter spoke about the "Annual Animal Abuse" event which I presume means the Houston World Series of Dog Shows.  What this means is that this particular chron.commenter is probably a member of PeTA.  No one should ever listen to a member of PeTA, they should be patted on the head, be given an ear of corn and be reminded to stay at least 100 yards away from any Llamas.

Given those comments it's probably a good thing those of a more progressive persuasion are kept far away from the planning for the Dome, leaving it to people who actually have a financial stake in the mess anyway.

What we do know right now, is that former fiscal conservative Ed Emmett is is making noise that he he is quite content to continue wasting taxpayer money on this issue and that he'll stand against this plan.  Curious fiscal stances of this type have become commonplace with Emmett, especially in respect to the Dome, as has allowing his personal quest to not be in charge when the Dome is demolished.

Given that Emmett has abdicated his leadership role in this matter and Houston Mayor Annise Parker is too focused on the restroom habits of her constituency it's going to ultimately fall to the Texans and Rodeo to do the heavy lifting.  I believe this plan is the start of this movement, as both groups are growing tired of watching the Houston Region's leadership vacuum suck up yet another public issue.

At some point the voters are going to get tired of this one would think but local politics are infamous for letting bad leaders remain in their positions despite dropping the ball on many issues.  Right now Houston's leadership is failing at almost all levels. The Astrodome kerfuffle is just another log on the fire.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Houston Leadership Vacuum: Of Parklets and S'MORES!

(Note: I found this while looking at the Pinboard feed of PubliusTX)

So this is a real thing:

Houston's first official "parklet" is now resting outside 19th St mattress store.

Picture courtesy of Newliving
Apparently, the Parker administration has lowered the bar for ribbon cuttings to include things resembling something hastily thrown together by a 3rd graders parents in an effort to earn a "C" grade for that gardening project due tomorrow the child neglected to tell them about.

What you're seeing in the picture above (from Swamplot via New Living, please go read their entire article) is apparently not a late-arriving April Fool's joke.  This is a thing in Houston and it's called a parklet.

Now, before going any further, I've been to Europe, Asia, and visited many cities across the US of A and I'm familiar with the concept of placing a barrier of plants between parked cars and sidewalks in front of bars/restaurants which allow for patio dining and, in many cases, they are a good idea. They are (usually) tastefully done in a stone planter and placed just on the edge of the curb.

What I've never seen in ANY city is something that looks like a make-shift dumpster or construction staging area for greenery given the land-mark treatment and the full rigmarole that's being afforded this eyesore. To suggest that this was "designed" is an insult to design, to suggest that it represents a gigantic leap forward in the aesthetics of Houston borderlines on the ridiculous. That Houston's lame-duck Mayor is going to have a celebration and ribbon-cutting ceremony for this is just more than a little bit sad.

On top of that, Mayor Parker's Chief Policy Officer/Director of Communications Janice Evans shares with us that S'mores are being provided at the site. This brings to mind several questions.  For one, given that it's now illegal under Annise Antoinnete's regime for charity organizations to feed the homeless unless they are operating out of a certified kitchen, has Mr. S'more been cleared by the Houston Department of Health to distribute said sticky-sweet food items? After all, we live in a world where the City now decides who can provide a chicken sandwich to the most needy among us, should not that same standard also apply to who can provide sweets to folks who live in refurbished bungalows?

I enjoy a good S'more just as much as the next person.  But I have to wonder if we're not on the verge of the great marshmallow controversy here judging by the picture. I mean, I don't seen any evidence that established food safety protocols are being followed. No gloves, no hair nets. No refrigeration.

Certainly I would have no problem partaking in one of the proffered sweets but shouldn't the City, given their penchant under Parker for sticking their nose where it doesn't belong, step in and do something about this?

Or is this just another case where city ordinances and bothersome things such as food safety rules are "for thee and not for me"?  Because this is something that Mayor Parker likes, that she's rolling this out as the first step in Houston's transformation into San Francisco, all the bothersome things that restrict the freedoms of the citizenry are heretofore waived and considered null and void, provided you put a shoddy box full of plants in front of your property.

Of course, there is another possibility regarding this "parklet".  Could it be that underneath there's a gaping pothole that Annise Antionnete has no designs on fixing? She could then tout this as something new under the Sun to burnish her green credentials for a future State-wide run.

Coming soon to the middle of a road near you: Parklets! A San Francisco treat!

We might want to make sure the S'mores makers invest in those day-glo traffic vests, especially if operating near the Danger Train.

In arguing for at-grade light rail, Mrs. White makes the case against at-grade light rail

The primary reason that old axioms have a shelf-life long enough to become old axioms is that, on some level, they contain nuggets of truth that are so big they cannot be ignored.  I'm reminded of one old axiom when reading today's Mrs. White editorial regarding the Danger Train and the boondoggle that's shaping up over the Harrisburg under er...overpass:  "The definition of insanity is continuing to perform the same actions while expecting differing results."

Mrs. White it seems, fully embraces the insanity that has become Houston Metro's fractured transit-backbone.*

Overpass obstinacy. Mrs. White,

There is a certain irony to a light rail route that is lined with auto repair shops and tire stores, but that's what you will see along Metro's nearly completed East End line, which follows Harrisburg from downtown to the Magnolia Park Transit Center. It is a reminder that despite this mass transit investment, car is still king in Houston. With this automotive dominance, Metro and City Hall's refusal to work together to build an overpass for this line that accommodates not only rail, but also cars and pedestrians, seems both short-sighted and spiteful.

The argument of many anti-light rail (NOT anti public transit. There is a difference except in the minds of those who refuse to accept fact) advocates has always been that in a car-centric city such as Houston, taking away miles and miles of vehicular lanes to accommodate a glorified toy train that doesn't do anything to promote mobility is counterproductive to transit needs.

To this end, Mrs. White continues in the next paragraph...

It usually doesn't make sense to prioritize roads in what should be a walkable, multi-modal corridor. Anyone who has tried to drive down Main Street knows that. 

The lack of logic in this statement, when combined with the talking points in the opening paragraph, is stunning.  First, as Mrs. White acknowledges, Houston is still (despite Critical Mass' arguments to the contrary) a car-based city. From that perspective it makes little sense to turn roads in one of the regions largest employment centers into no-car zones.

The fact is, downtown Houston is a driving mess these days.  Even now, when car/DangerTrain collisions have finally shown signs of diminishing, it's still tough to navigate and there are now roads that just end. For a city based on the concept of the car, this makes zero sense. It also raises the question as to why grade separation, argued for by DangerTrain critics but fought against by its supporters, is suddenly a "no-brainer" around Harrisburg but was considered necessary in one of the busiest traffic corridors within the City?

Additionally, you can add the Harrisburg overpass to another in the long list of promises to the community broken by Metro's insistence that the great-white whale be rammed down people's throats at all costs.

Despite these problems, an underpass has remained part of the conversation because it is what the community wanted, and what City Hall promised in 2010. Yet, further study has only demonstrated what City Hall and Metro already knew - an underpass is expensive and risky.

If City Hall and Metro both knew that an underpass was "expensive and risky" then one has to question why it was promised to the residents around Harrisburg in the first place?  Could it have been to garner support for a project on false pretense?

Houstonians were promised many things upon passing the MetroSolutions referendum, a 50% increase in bus service (when, in fact, bus service has decreased over time), a specific route plan (which Metro apparently never intended to follow) and now an underpass which neither Metro or the City ever intended to build.

Predictably Mrs. White, following the charge laid out long ago in her rail memo, is advocating a solution in line with Metro wishes but which still flies in the face of citizen wants. This should not surprise you because Mrs. White has not operated as a citizen's advocate for a very long time. Instead, she beats every institutional drum loudly and often. That the public occasionally gains a benefit is seen more as a happy accident rather than a sign of good governance.

At this risk of continuing to beat a dead horse, Mrs. White's advocacy for Metro's wishes is doing more to hurt the poor than any of the imagined ills of private business against which she rails frequently. At the least, the business community is employing people and providing end-of-a-gun funding for the things New Urbanists like.  At minimum, CM Rodriguez is attempting to keep the wishes of his constituents (customers) in mind. That's more that can be said for Metro and Mrs. White.

To Mrs. White, siding with the rank-and-file against the ruling class is something akin to City treason.  If she weren't such a staunch supporter of gun control I would suggest that the editorial calling for dissenters to be taken out behind George R. Brown and shot wouldn't be too long in coming.

With editorials such as this the only logical conclusion should be that Houston would be better off without this group of institutional shills and that the Houston Chronicle Editorial Board should be disbanded with the resources re-deployed to the news desks. Quasi-governmental factions of the Houston institution already employ many former journalists in their PR departments, let's let them earn their keep.

*In honor of our Brazilian friends, I suggest we call the Light Rail system Neymar III

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Houston Leadership Vacuum: Don't believe that the current administration holds no blame for the pension fund mess.

News today that the City of Houston is considering bringing a lawsuit against the firm that provided the analysis that lead to the 2001 changes in the HFD system by then Mayor Brown is just another case of Mayor Parker trying to wash her hands of the blame on an issue where she has had plenty of input.

City may sue firm over 2001 pension estimates. Mike Morris, ($)

What's amazing to me is that, in the linked story above, the reporter is continuing to run under the preferred (by the Parker administration) theory that Mayor Parker is dutifully working to bring herself up to speed on a situation with which she has little history.  You see the word "blindsided" thrown around a lot when referring to Parker's role in this.

In a recent story, Mike Morris again parroted the city line that Mayor Parker is an unwilling victim in all of this mess.

Parker's 'good government' approach could cause budget pain. Mike Morris, ($)

(In the interest of respecting the Chron's pay-wall I'm just going to pull a quote from the story and suggest, if you can, that you go read it all)

"I'm trying to change the game. At some point, one of us has to say, 'We are going to change the rules because that's not going to continue to work,' " Parker said. "It means that we have a strain now and there's things we could be doing that we're not doing, but three mayors back did it to me. I'm not going to do it three mayors forward."

The emphasis in the above quote is mine.  Because the idea that this was "done" to Mayor Parker, and that she didn't have a hand in the issue, requires ignoring her own words and other matters which have long been part of the public record.

To whit:

Labor in the news. AFLCIO (May 19th, 2004)

Archiving a Houston Chronicle story:
City employees would work longer, pay more and get less under a new retirement package proposed Tuesday by Mayor Bill White to slash the $1.9 billion shortfall in Houston's main municipal pension fund.
White's proposal, which must be negotiated with the pension board, is much like the plan the city had in 2001 before more generous pension benefits went into effect. Those benefits have proved unaffordable.
White also proposes to add the city-owned Hilton Americas-Houston hotel to the pension fund's assets to generate more revenue.
City Controller Annise Parker said she has a lot of questions about such a deal.
"I'm not quite sure of the legality," she said. "If I were a pension board member and they offered this asset, I would demand control. I think it would be hard for the city to give that up."

City puts hotel deeper in debt to bolster bloated City pension system. Jenna Colley, Houston Business Journal

"A $300 million reduction in the pension's unfunded liability is a big chunk out of way without the city having to put any cash out," says Parker. "We don't actually transfer the title of the hotel." Under the deal, the city will give up its lien on the hotel to the pension system.
The pension system board will have no control over the actual hotel, which is managed and operated by Hilton Hotels Corp.
As part of the deal, the city will have to pay at least 8.5 percent or about $26 million annually in interest on the $300 million. Under the deal, however, the pension system has the option of brokering that note to third parties.  
At some point in this process, then Controller Parker's "concerns" went away and she became a staunch supporter of the Hotel asset plan.  She also supported borrowing to pay pension obligations before she threw her predecessors under the bus for it.

Here's how to fix the city's pension mess. Annise Parker, (May 9, 2004)

In the short term, the city may need to issue pension obligation bonds. This amounts to taking on new debt to pay an existing debt. It is similar to taking out a home equity loan to meet your everyday expenses. It's not a good idea. However, given the city's current financial difficulties, its an idea that may have to be considered to get through the immediate crisis.
Emphasis mine.

Later on she used the hotel asset swap and touted her role in adding to the entire mess as campaign fodder.

InsideOut at City Hall: First Year. Annise Parker, Outsmart. (Jan 2005)

As the city’s chief financial officer, my office provided the mayor and council with assessments of Propositions 1 and 2 and the pension crisis. I also presented the council’s only written analysis of the complicated Hilton Americas hotel transfer, a critical component of the mayor’s pension proposal.
Still up in the air is my proposal to have the controller or a representative serve on the pension board. It’s a perfect fit with the controller’s responsibility as the city’s financial watchdog and a way to bring some independent oversight to the pension fund’s investing policies. There would be no conflict of interest because I have no vote at the council table.
In addition, she later turned on Mayor Bill White, with whom (in her own words) she worked "closely" with on the pension situation.

Houston paying now for past bonds, tax cuts.

The city of Houston's budget crisis that has resulted in 747 employees getting pink slips last month and likely will close pools and community centers did not happen overnight.

It has been brewing for the better part of a decade, the result of, among other things, spending more while taxing less, borrowing to pay bills, raiding its piggy bank and channeling ever more payroll dollars into funds for retirees. A public hearing on the coming year's budget is scheduled for June 14.

Mayor Annise Parker inherited a city that she said last year had been spending more than it had taken in "for years." Parker, who served as controller or councilwoman since the 1990s, has refused to second-guess her predecessor, Bill White.

However, she has distanced herself by highlighting that this year's budget would not use pension obligation bonds to meet the city's commitment to retirees — a signature feature of White's budgets. The city borrowed $245 million to pay pension benefits during the White years. The money spent, the city now has to pay $34 million in principal and interest in the coming fiscal year.

"One of the side-effects of term limits is mayors push bills down the line, and Parker happens to be at the point in the line where the bills are coming due," said Nancy Sims, a University of Houston adjunct professor of political science.

In a recent op-ed article in the Houston Chronicle, White wrote that the city would not have been able to obtain reductions in employee pension benefits without relying on some borrowing to make the pension funds more secure. He also cited a 2004 Chronicle op-ed piece by then-Controller Parker in which she wrote, "In the short term, the city may need to issue pension obligation bonds."
Clearly Mayor Parker's current assumption that she was "shocked" by the state of Houston's finances upon becoming Mayor ring hollow. It's very clear, through a reading of the public record, including Parker's own words, that she was intimately involved in putting the city in the current financial hole.

This is not to say that Parker's current plans lack merit, or that her refusal to continue covering the current pension debt with additional borrowing is not a good idea. Quite the contrary. It could be argued that cuts, as painful as they may be, NEED to be made and made immediately.

However, the ingestion of the public line by secretarial journalists runs counter to the fact-based public record that suggests the Mayor is has been a willing accomplice, during her time as City Controller, in making this situation.

The public record also suggests that Houston's leadership vacuum has been present for years. Despite all of the glowing press given to Mayor's Brown and White by the Houston Chronicle, this issue has been simmering below the surface, unnoticed and unreported, for years now. At least since 2001. That it's just now coming to light reveals a blind spot in local media that needs to be corrected.

Of course, the Chronicle will point out that they have been running a series of Bill King warnings on this issue but none of them have made it into their hard news reporting and currently, King has been taking part in the same revisionist history as he ramps up for what many believe is a planned run for the Mayoral office.

Houston's taxpayers deserve better than the shoddy fiscal management that's been provided by their elected officials and the secretarial reporting by their media outlets which have allowed these problems to fester under the surface for years now.

Monday, July 07, 2014

Katy Catches Houston Financial Derangement Syndrome.

Early last week couple of stories were published that attracted little attention from the Inner-Loop centric courtiers who typically obsess over news of this sort but revealed a growing problem in local governments, especially those of the quasi-governmental, unelected type, that should be a growing concern and of upmost importance in local elections.

The first story involved the City of Katy, an Exburb City on the far Western reaches of the Houston region who it seems has caught a fever with the only cure being more cowbell hotel.

Katy plans convention center, hotel. Jenny Aldridge, Houston Business Journal

The estimated $10 million project will be anchored by an 80-acre retention pond south of Kingsland Boulevard and will include a 50,000 to 60,000-square-foot convention center. The city is currently in negotiations with Houston-based Simpkins Group to purchase the 10 to 15 acres for the project, and hopes to have a deal inked by September, according to Kayce Reina, director of tourism and marketing for the city.

Plans also include a 4- to 5-star hotel, with several well-known hotel brands showing interest. Officials declined to disclose what hotel brands expressed interest.

The first issue here is obvious.  When you think of the great boardwalks of America you think of Coney Island or Atlantic City. Being generous (very) we'll remain in Texas and say Kemah and the Pleasure Pier are examples of the type.  All of these share an important geographical feature. Namely, they are situated on a natural coast line.

You are not going to find, across the world, any great boardwalk built on the banks of an 80-foot retention pond. And while supporters might look up to the Woodlands and say "but wait, their waterway is man-made" I would counter that it's also surrounded by a master-planned community that took decades to construct and develop to the point that the waterway made sense. It would also be prudent to mention that the Woodlands is known more for it's golf than it is for giving good boardwalk.

It also mentions, in the same story, that Sugar Land is considering the building of a convention center, which I'm sure will be anchored by a taxpayer-subsidized hotel.

Then we have the story of Dublin Texas, who is continuing to beat the great white whale of tourism to death despite all evidence to the contrary.

Is there life after Dr. Pepper? Dublin wonders. Emily Schmall, AP via

But Dublin without Dr Pepper is turning out to be a hard sell. At the annual summer festival in June — the first since 1980 in which Dr Pepper's birthday was not celebrated — the town saw how far its largest tourism event had fallen.

Five line dancers in tap shoes performed to a near-empty set of bleachers. The bicycle race was canceled after the organizers failed to show. An arts and crafts fair included only two stands. Food options were also slim: the Surfing Cowboy's Cajun shrimp on a stick or a Mexican taco truck.

Let's be clear here. "Tourism" development is NOT, nor has it ever been, about that murky cure-all for bad policy known as economic development. The arguments that convention centers and public-subsidized events create Billions in economic benefit are hazy constructions built on fuzzy math. They have about as much basis in reality as do estimations of public attendance at rallies and un-ticketed events.

The only reason these unelected tourism bureaus create playpens are to justify their (to quote Mel Brooks) "phony baloney jobs". They have been given a charge to increase tourism so they follow the play-books of other small and mid-size townships the only way they know how. In many cases what they seek to replicate (a boardwalk) is something that they've either seen in the news or to places that they've recently visited. Make no mistake that the Houston push for a more "walkable, livable central core" is nothing more than Euro-yearning by a group of people who recently obtained a passport and realized that the world's great cities are so for a reason. Amazingly, these same sycophants rail against the homogenization of the American suburb while trying to attain the same thing in American cities.

Want to see something sad?  Go to Santa Barbara, California and walk around downtown. It has the feel of Europe, but sanitized, as if a great US corporation came in and tidied up all of the rough edges, took away anything that might be offensive to the creative class, and plopped it right back down in the middle of an area who only had to sell it's soul in return.

This is the big problem with Houston Financial Derangement Syndrome. It's a disease that sucks the soul and uniqueness out of a community in exchange for a Stepford Wives version of something vaguely touristy. Unfortunately, the business of soul-sucking is expensive and is always paid for by the people who can afford it the least.  In return for these faux-palaces of authentic fakery the public is left with little money in the public coffers to do things such as pave roads and maintain parks.

In other words, they're left with something closely resembling Houston.

TLSPM Follies: The Great University of Texas-Austin Passion Play

Pity poor William Powers. Set up as a Messianic figure by the TLSPM in an effort to get at Wallace Hall and, by extension, Rick Perry (whom the TLSPM have been unable to scathe, not for lack of trying) it's all starting to come apart for the man as issues of influence peddling and legislative complicity are coming to the fore.

Sources: Whistleblower forcing out UT President. Michael Quinn Sullivan, Breitbart Texas

Earlier this week, as an investigation was being launched into allegations that under-qualified students were being admitted into Texas’ flagship institution based on their political ties and relationships, the director of admissions announced she was leaving her job. This new investigation by Cigarroa comes on the heels of a cursory review by the UT System which found examples of  inappropriate swaying the admissions process at the Austin campus.

After months of defending Powers as the victim of a witch-hunt led by shadowy right-wing forces, even the TLSPM has decided the latest allegations are too much to ignore.

Cagarroa tells Powers to resign or be fired. Reeve Hamilton, The Texas Tribune

SOME of the TLSPM that is, whereas BadMedia outlets like the Houston Chronicle have decided to double down:

Supporters rally behind UT-Austin President. Benjamin Wermund, Houston Chronicle

Wemund takes the usual path. Find a former Republican politicians who was well liked by the establishment and quote them as being on-board with the current GOP leadership.  He also included this little bit of oratory from Houston area trough-feeder State Rep. Carol Alvarado...

"I'm just kind of taken aback by the fact that we've had to remind them a couple of times about not making personnel changes," Alvarado said. "I'm curious if Cigarroa is just having selective memory issues, or if he's completely dissing our request."

Alvarado said working with the UT system has been a "tug-of-war," but that Powers' ultimatum is "the climax of the insubordination." She said whether UT officials could be punished for ignoring the committee is "worth looking into." 

The "insubordination" that Alvarado thinks is "worth looking into" is only important if you choose to ignore the very serious alleged admissions issues that have arisen from internal e-mails and now whistleblowers. For those politicians who seemingly are constantly worried about what's "fair" it's amazing that, suddenly, fairness in admissions to Texas' flagship institution is placed so readily on the back-burner.

All in the name of fealty one guesses.  Fealty to what I'll leave up to you.

No matter where this story ends up the one thing that is certain is that the Texas Lock Step Political Media has done Texas voters and citizens another disservice by failing to report truly and faithfully on an issue that could be of great importance. If the playing field for admissions to Tier One universities in Texas truly is imbalanced and rigged by powerful members of the political class then it's the poor and unconnected who will suffer the most.  This disadvantage is currently being swept under the rug only to be replaced by a system-wide vendetta against a Governor who has out-foxed and out-smarted them repeatedly over the course of his term.

If anything, the total whiff on this story should lead to some TLSPM soul-searching and perhaps a refreshing of the roster.  Might it be suggested that someone with the ability for independent thought be considered?

As it currently stands, the mess at UT-Austin is only exceeded by the mess in the Austin bureaus of pretty much every Texas news outlet.  Media, professional political media, in Texas is now more about egos and grudges than it ever has been and the public is suffering for it.

Thursday, July 03, 2014

Looking to November: When the news cycle slows down, bad media publications get desperate.

The recent story regarding disclosure by private government's and government agencies of hazardous chemical stockpiles is interesting for a couple of reasons.

Abbott says companies must release chemical info but state does not. Lauren McGaughy, ($)

Confusing headline notwithstanding the story is pretty straight-forward. Abbott has ruled that there are differing standards for private entities in regards to disclosure of hazardous material than there are for state agencies. Private entities, per Abbott, must disclose this information while state agencies need not.

While this sounds vicious and ominous it follows a pattern of law that sets different legal standards for government and private industry in almost all areas.  What's troubling is that Abbott is trying to use public safety in the form of keeping information from terrorists as the primary reason for the state exemption. If public safety really were the primary concern then no entity would be required to disclose this information to an un-credentialed member of the public. Private sector ammonium nitrate is just as dangerous as ammonium nitrate held in government hands after all.

The rest of the story reads like a children's playground exchange with "then sue me" actually being a phrase written by a public official in Texas.  You also have the Wendy! Davis campaign desperately making a mountain out of a molehill and advocacy groups friendly to her campaign trying to suggest that this issue is a campaign killer for Attorney General Abbott.  It's not, and a vast majority of voters are likely to not even care, but it's worth about 24 hours in a news cycle and then it will go away.

Of course, the Davis campaign would like for this to very much not go away and I'm sure that they'll continue to push this as hard as possible as they desperately try to gain some traction before school starts back up and people get distracted by their daily lives.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Houston Leadership Vacuum: $1.7MM to solve an undefined problem.

Even after reading today's story on Houston's $1.7MM donation to a private business in order to build a grocery store I have no idea what a food desert is.  What I do know is that the city is now in the business of giving large amounts of cash to businesses that are high risk.  This during a time when the roads are rapidly descending into moonscape territory and it's almost a flip of a coin whether or not your fire, crime or medical emergency will be responded to in a timely manner, or at all.

In the run-up to the passing of the last city budget Mayor Parker moaned often and loudly about $1MM in spending by City Councilmembers who set up a slush-fund to reward pet-projects in their districts. Apparently it wasn't the amount of spending that Parker had an issue with but that it didn't go to one of her primary priorities: doing things that polish her resume for a planned state wide run.

Here's the area in question via Google Maps, with locations that (admittedly) are loosely considered grocery stores marked:
As near as I can tell, there's an HEB (with fresh produce) around 5000 feet (just under a mile) from the current location, and a Fiesta food mart about 2 miles away.  There's also an organic market, and several small produce sellers approximately 2 miles away.

On the other side of 288 (not pictured) there's a fairly large Kroger as well.  Again, this Kroger is about a mile away from the new store. 

By means of comparison, I compared roughly the same geographical area in two relatively well-off areas of Houston and found the following:

In Copperfield, a suburb to the Northwest of Houston, there were even fewer traditional "grocery stores" within approximately the same geographical area.  Just to the South there is a Sprouts, and there's a Kroger to the North. 

Then we get to the Heights:
Again you see just about the same distribution of grocery-type stores as you find in South Union.

One would guess that the argument is that residents in Copperfield and the Heights are more likely to have vehicles that can make the grocery run for them.  OK, I'll give you that but, this doesn't mean there's a food desert as much as it means Metro is creating transit deserts that aren't allowing residents of these areas to commute to grocery stores and buy the healthy produce they need.

What's not being discussed by what currently passes for leadership in Houston is that Metro is on the verge of making these transit deserts worse. Anytime you create a plan to reduce coverage but increase ridership, as Metro is currently doing, then you're admitting that there are going to be increasingly large areas of the region with massively reduced coverage.  In areas such as Copperfield and the Heights, this would be more of a nuisance than an actual problem. In poor areas such as South Union, this is potentially very harmful.

Look how much the connecting service is reduced from the old system:
To the new:

Before we go on spending $1.7MM to rid ourselves of a problem that seemingly doesn't exist, let's focus on a problem that does. Namely, a group of New Urbanist devotees doing their level best to make it harder for the poor to use transit (that they are dependent upon most) to run chores, buy groceries, get to employment centers in favor of allowing the wealthy to use the transit system as a plaything.

We've been told for years that Houston having a workable light-rail system is needed for us to be World Class(y). There's nothing world class about hanging the poorest among us out to dry so that the so-called creative class can feel good about themselves (seeing as they don't have to interact with the rabble) as they listen to their music on iPads, iPhones and iPods, riding trains and buses on their way to the coffee shop.

A real leader would understand how this all works together, and would promote policies that make sense when viewed as a whole. In Houston's current leadership vacuum we're given political pay-offs masked as solutions while the administration obsesses over our bathroom habits.