25 February 2011

NEW METRO authorizes spending on settlement, rail cars

The Examiner News posts this followup on the news it initially broke that NEW METRO has reached a settlement with Pauline Higgins:

As expected, Metro and Pauline Higgins settled their legal differences today with the transit agency's former general counsel receiving about $100,000 in legal expenses and an apology.

"The new Metro regrets and disapproves of the inaccurate statements made about Ms. Higgins in the media regarding her departure from Metro," Chairman Gilbert Garcia, said in a written statement this morning.


In addition to Higgins legal fees, Metro records show roughly $300,000 has gone toward defending the suit, split about 50-50 between attorneys for Metro and former CEO Frank Wilson, who was a co-defendant. (Michael Reed, Higgins 'proud' Metro apology didn't cost taxpayers more, Examiner News).

So, METRO treats employee Pauline Higgins badly, and taxpayers get off relatively lightly (although it's still more money flushed down the drain). Employee Frank Wilson treats METRO (and customers and taxpayers) badly, and gets a golden severance package (more money flushed down the drain). Interesting moves by NEW METRO.

In other news, NEW METRO hopes to use 2009 shovel-ready-stimulus funds to purchase some additional trams from Utah (which may be available for use by end 2012 -- "shovel-ready" and "stimulus" being VERY elusive terms to define!). Here's a blurb from KUHF's story:

METRO plans to buy the 19 cars from Siemans [sic] for no more than $83 million dollars. The cars would come off an order placed by a Utah transit agency, which ended up not needing them....

METRO says eighty percent of the cost of the cars will be paid with stimulus funds. But to get the money, the cars must be delivered by 2015. Greanias says METRO expects the first light rail car to ship by October 2012. But METRO critic Paul Magaziner thinks buying the cars is more about making sure the agency gets the stimulus money in time than about needing more cars on Main Street.

"METRO once again is signing a contract for $83 million, hoping and praying that the $64 million dollars from the 2009 shovel ready stimulus money will still be available to METRO in 2013." (Wendy Siegel, METRO Plans to Add Nearly 20 Cars to Main Street Line, KUHF-88.7 News)

The Chronicle and METRO's expensive blogger offer their perspectives on the purchase (oh, did we mess up those links? Hard to differentiate the new METRO reporter's perspective from the NEW METRO PRblogger's perspective).

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 02/25/11 09:55 AM |

24 February 2011

It depends on your definition of "visual blight"

A southeast Houston neighborhood has complained to the city about a gigantic pile of trash in front of one property. Apparently fed up with the city's lack of interest, residents called KTRK-13 for some help, and when Jessica Willey called to inquire, the city couldn't get an inspector out there fast enough (in his cute little city "green" car, of course):

Not even an hour after we called the city, an inspector was on-site taking pictures and posting a citation notice.

"The city not going to pick all that up because it's more than what's supposed to be out there," said city inspector Emmett Walker.

Oh. Okay.

But that $200 fine will surely get the property owner's attention!

You know how residents could have gotten the city interested sooner? If they had put a giant, inflatable gorilla on top of the trash pile.

Posted by Anne Linehan @ 02/24/11 09:21 AM |

23 February 2011

A poo poo in the bayou update

It's going to cost $7 million to repair last November's sewage leaks:

Public Works Spokesman Alvin Wright said he did not know exactly how much sludge entered the bayou in that incident, which happened near the bayou’s intersection with Lockwood Drive in northeast Houston.

The following month, a separate leak nearby dumped about 100,000 gallons of sewage into the bayou.

Both leaks have been plugged, but Wright says more permanent repairs are needed.

You know what would really sell this repair project? If the Houston Arts Alliance uses tax dollars to put some art up around the wastewater treatment facility. There's precedent!

Posted by Anne Linehan @ 02/23/11 08:45 AM |

21 February 2011

Examiner News: NEW METRO writes off $168 million of your money (updated)

As we've come to expect, Michael Reed has broken another story for the Examiner News on METRO's absolute financial disarray courtesy of the White/Wolff/Wilson years.

Here are some key excerpts:

When Metro board members take a look at the transit agency's annual audit, headed to the finance committee next month, the total assets portion of the ledger will be about $168 million less than it is today.

That is the staggering amount President George Greanias told the Finance Committee on Wednesday that Metro needs to write off its books as recorded capital assets "you couldn't connect to anything we have of value."


Perhaps coming as something of a surprise, though, was the cost related to design work for the abandoned intermodal terminal project, Burnett Plaza, once planned for north of the UH-Downtown business school — a whopping $41 million to be written off.

Rendering of "Grand Central Station" Intermodal Terminal
Describing the plans for the terminal as "grandiose" and "unachievable," Greanias said land purchased for the project remained as an asset, valued separately at $21 million.

"I'm not quite sure how it got to this point," he said of the Burnett plans. "They are lovely drawings."


At least as odd, $26 million in labor costs had been listed as a capital asset, rather than an operating expense. Not discussed at the meeting: whether Metro would have restate any of its audited financial statements from 2004-‘09 as a result (Michael Reed, Metro writing off $168 million in worthless assets, Examiner News).

We normally do not excerpt so heavily (and there are still more details in Reed's story, which should be read in its entirety), but we wanted to capture the severity of the financial irregularities at the White/Wolff/Wilson-era METRO. We would like to remind readers that taxpayers still provided Frank Wilson a wonderful severance package and picked up his legal bills. We would also note that Houtopians have reacted poorly in the past to our having a good laugh at their pie-in-the-sky drawings and METRO-dreaming. We can't help but wonder if Mr. Greanias provokes a similar reaction. Do be sure and click over to the architect site to have a look at some of the pretty drawings your tax dollars purchased (one of which we posted above), since that's all you're going to be getting out of this effort.

While we're strolling down memory lane, here's a look back at the Chron coverage of METRO's proposed intermodal terminal in 2006:

"The issue is if we are going to do this, we want to enhance the community and make a real landmark," Metro board chairman David Wolff said.

Metro officials envision the station becoming the hub for many of Metro's services, serving as the starting and ending point for bus routes, rail lines, bus rapid-transit lines and commuter rail. Riders could transfer and catch a bus or train to their ultimate destination.


The center could become Houston's version of "Grand Central Station," said board member Gerald Smith. "This will be a real focal point for the city."

Not a critical voice was to be found in this story, although some of us in the blogosphere had a good time with it. Others -- some of whom are now on the METRO board -- gave it the usual Houtopian treatment over time (replete with lovely drawings!).

For good measure, here's a related snippet from METRO's expensive blogger in 2007:

METRO's decision yesterday to build light rail on all five lines, instead of Bus Rapid Transit with a later conversion to light rail, represents a hugely ambitious goal.

We've said we would deliver all that by the end of 2012 - along with an Intermodal Terminal.

So how do we plan to do that?

Through a strategy called design/build. "Design/build, also called a hybrid delivery system, allows us to engineer and design a project while we're beginning construction," said Russ Frank, director of government affairs.

More PR BS. On the taxpayer's dime, of course.

The rail system as described in the 2003 referendum will not be completed by the end of 2012 (or likely ever). There won't be a "Grand Central Station" or an intermodal terminal. There won't be a 50% increase in bus service (remember, that is one of the promises to voters in the 2003 referendum that has also effectively been "written off"). Instead, millions upon millions of taxpayer dollars will have literally been thrown away (to developers, to consultants, to friends of Frank Wilson, to Frank Wilson's attorneys, to a bloated PR department, etc), area transit system utilization will have declined significantly (relative to massive population gains), and some folks apparently are going to be SHOCKED when an austerity-minded Congress actually cuts funding for boondoggles of this nature.

Blogger luncheon PR gambits during the workday are all well and good, but this blogger remains much more interested in METRO's actions. The agency deserves some credit for trying to be more transparent than it was during the White/Wolff/Wilson era (and for trying to unwind some of that era's goofier financial decisions). But its actions in coming to grips with its own dire financial situation, a flawed plan loosely based on the 2003 referendum that is becoming increasingly unworkable (not to mention bad decisions to lay rail down busy streets), and a changing City of Houston and METRO service area are of much greater interest. We don't envy Messrs. Greanias and Garcia, who surely received their posts from Mayor Annise Parker with some understanding they were to "save" Houston's rail plan -- as bright and capable as they are, they are likely going to have to inform the mayor at some point that it's just really not workable any longer, given all the missteps and squandered resources.

Then it will be time to begin working on a transit plan that makes more sense for METRO's service area and METRO's actual resources.

UPDATE (02/22/2011): Reed and the Examiner News posted this important story on Saturday. The Chronicle has posted its version of the story today (Tuesday). Better to follow others than never to report it, we suppose (or worse, the Mike Snyder/Lisa Falkenberg approach to critical METRO reporting).

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 02/21/11 08:04 PM |

Bramanti questions seemingly carefree METRO expenditures

On the one hand, it's good that METRO is posting more -- and more detailed -- financial info online. Transparent financial behavior should be the norm at taxpayer-supported organizations. On the other hand, some of the transactions suggest an approach to using the public's money that is a bit too carefree.

Retired blogger and all-around smart accounting guy Matt Bramanti emailed a few things he discovered recently poking around METRO's financials, and agreed to let us post his email (below). If you see any other interesting expenditures in the online records, feel free to add them in the comments.

* * * *

This is maddening. Some choice items:

$1,483 worth of custom-blended frozen raw dog food.

$1,300 for "iPad supplies," whatever that is. Plus another $68 for iPad software. Words with Friends isn't just gonna play itself, you know.

$600 for parts and labor to repair a pool table. A pool table!

$38 for a Franklin Covey organizer refill. You'd think they could just use the iPads.

$249 to buy a "red bow for 100th shelter." Must have been some bow.

$5,816 to Liberty Cab Company.

$1,862 worth of Ozarka Water.

$45 for a cell phone charger.

This isn't fraud or anything, but it's apparent that they just don't care what stuff costs. Nobody buys a $45 phone charger or a $90 bag of dog food or $460 worth of iPad styluses when they're spending their own money. And this is just the credit cards! It doesn't even touch what they're writing checks for, like $23,448 to Fiesta Cab or the $9,000/month coffee habit.

-- Matt Bramanti

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 02/21/11 07:43 AM |

20 February 2011

Area census data released; greater Houston area continues to grow

On Friday, various news outlets reported on the release of the 2010 Census info, which documents the area's significant population growth.

There's so much information to wade through that we'd like to hear reader thoughts on what you've seen so far.

A couple of tidbits caught our eye. First, Cory Crow tweeted an interesting observation about population changes inside the loop as depicted by the graphic that ran with the Houston Chronicle story (apparently, that graphic had errors, but a new graphic was posted here).

Second, we were somewhat amused by this tidbit related to Houston:

The city charter requires that two more single member districts be created when the city's population hits 2.1 million. The figures are in, and the 2010 Census pegs us at...2,099,451.

Short by 549. But fear not.

"I am quite surprised by the numbers because all indications were that we had already reached a population of 2.1 million residents," Mayor Annise Parker said.

We always suspected that the last administration manipulated their population estimates upwards slightly to make per-capita crime statistics look a little better, so we were not "quite surprised" by these official census numbers. As Mayor Parker indicates, however, the process to add council districts, already underway, will continue.

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 02/20/11 08:36 AM |

We're #1!

In speed traps:

Drivers note on Speedtrap.org that there are traps set at the Houston city limits and near attractions like the Astrodome. And, the speed limit can change rapidly and dramatically. One motorist wrote that entering the city on Highway 59 North, the speed limit dropped suddenly to 55 from 70. Just as the motorist noticed the speed-limit change on his GPS, BAM! There was a speed trap.

The number of tickets was even more staggering when the economy was bad: In March of last year, KTRK Channel 13 found that Houston police officers wrote about 3,000 tickets per day, or 147 an hour!

Which reminded me of when a Chronicle reporter encouraged drivers to speed:

It’s not your job to enforce the speed limits, which are kept below the normal speed of traffic because of poorly conceived environmental rules and the government’s greedy desire to collect revenue from fines. Also, freeways are designed for very fast speeds; the design speed is usually higher than the legal limit.

A city's gotta make money somehow, you know.

Posted by Anne Linehan @ 02/20/11 08:12 AM |

18 February 2011

Unca Darrell pans Chron's editorial voice (one last time)

For several weeks now, we've noticed that Unca Darrell's semi-regular critiques of the output of the Houston Chronicle's editorialists have been... missing.

This week, Unca Darrell revealed that he's retired from that sort of blogging, and why:

Why I have stopped reading the Houston Chronicle

BECAUSE I CAN no longer stomach . . .

. . . the editorial page or the local columnists.

I quit reading at the end of 2010 but waited to say anything because I wanted to write a careful and systematic indictment of the Chronicle's voice. After six weeks away, however, I no longer much wish to bother. There are better uses of time.

In the nearly 30 grafs that follow, Unca Darrell, learned gentleman that he is, couldn't quite pass up what, for most of us, would pass as a "careful and systematic indictment" of the Chronicle's editorial voice. Be sure to click over. It's a good read (and would be an even better read for Chron leadership, who probably won't be inclined to take it seriously).

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 02/18/11 07:21 AM |

15 February 2011

News and views roundup (02/15/2011 edition)

Time to clear out the blog cache and post some lunchtime links:

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 02/15/11 12:18 PM |

Billy Burge: Hurry up with Grand Parkway construction...

... because Exxon Mobil is counting on it.

That take is according to the Chron's Lisa Falkenberg, and it sounds like vintage Billy Burge:

This time, impetus for urgency appears to be Exxon Mobil. At a transportation commission meeting last month, Grand Parkway President William "Billy" Burge urged commissioners to hasten their approval in the project because Exxon planned in a couple of years to relocate its North American headquarters to a tract that falls within Segment F-2 of the parkway, between Texas 249 and I-45.
Path to more jobs?

Barton told me Monday that the parkway could help attract and retain 15,000 jobs, including some from Virginia.

Emphasis added.

What else can we try to ram down unwilling taxpayers' and residents' throats with the excuse that it "could help attract" [enter big corporation name]. If a company is considering moving here, is the make or break really whether or not wide swaths of the greater Houston area are bulldozed to build the Grand Parkway?

Posted by Anne Linehan @ 02/15/11 08:37 AM |

14 February 2011

Chron analyzes Houston gang activity

Sunday's Chronicle ran an interesting analytical piece by Yang Wang on Houston gang activity (hat tip to Jason for the link to the belated Chron.com version). Here is some of the hard data from the story (which was supplied a rather weak headline):

The Chronicle analysis found more than 11,000 criminal activities were identified by Houston police as gang-related from 2007 to September 2010.

More than 1,400 people were assaulted, and more than 2,000 families and businesses were ripped off by thugs in the city.

The cost in property loss: $29 million, according to the data. (Yang Wang, The innocent pay a toll in gang crime, Houston Chronicle)

The glance at Houston gang activity (even "longer" articles in the ever-shrinking Chronicle are a glance, when compared to longer articles that appear in grownup newspapers) is a welcome one, since the Chronicle along with other media have tended to downplay Houston gang activity or ignore it outright in their coverage. One of the best long-form articles on the topic remains the one that Skip Hollandsworth did for Texas Monthly in 2006.

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 02/14/11 06:30 PM |

12 February 2011

All's still fine at the Sports Authority. No, really!

Sports Authority Chairman J. Kent Friedman in October, 2009:

While it may make for good headlines or be politically beneficial to be critical of transactions structured 10 years ago that have been affected by the current credit crisis on Wall Street, the taxpayers of Houston and Harris County should know that the promises made regarding the sports venues have not been broken. Taxpayers will not be asked to “bail out” the sports authority or foot the bill in any way.

And in November, 2010:

Sports Authority board chairman J. Kent Friedman described the problem as a short-term "cash-flow crunch."
"That's why we have the reserve, to deal with stuff like this. It doesn't cause me any concern at all," he said.

Today we find out that it's now time for the Sports Authority to begin repaying a loan Harris County extended ten years ago when the Authority had to repay Bob McNair for money he loaned the agency. And the Sports Authority is asking Commissioners Court for some leniency:

The payment relief was on Tuesday's Commissioners Court agenda, but was withdrawn after questions from County Judge Ed Emmett.

"We will repropose it" before the next payment is due in August, Schmees said. The Sports Authority will make its full payment this month.

"They are, for all intents and purposes, facing bankruptcy in a few years if they don't adjust their cash flow, and it wasn't even their fault," Emmett said. "They will come back at some point and start talking about how do they get themselves out of the financial jam."

No quote from the unconcerned J. Kent Friedman. The Sports Authority should have been shuttered as soon as its financial problems came to light years ago.

Posted by Anne Linehan @ 02/12/11 04:01 PM |

09 February 2011

News and views roundup (02/09/2011 edition)

It's a midweek roundup of news and views:

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 02/09/11 10:05 PM |

08 February 2011

METRO: New, highly compensated PR staffer with little experience "a bargain"

We never commented on a Chronicle story from the weekend that looked at METRO's latest prized edition to its bloated and expensive PR department. Here are a few key grafs:

Next week, Jerome Gray, a former TV anchor with no background in public transit, is scheduled to start work as chief spokesman for Metro, earning $170,000 annually.


Among counterparts at more than 15 local public agencies surveyed by the Houston Chronicle, Gray is the highest paid.


"When you look at Jerome's credentials, his resume and his market worth, Metro's getting a bargain," Greanias said.

Somehow, we think Mr. Greanias's idea of a bargain (for someone without much experience in PR for a transit agency) isn't the average taxpayer's idea of a bargain.

But we can understand NEW METRO's thinking. Despite the best efforts of pro-METRO Chron cheerleaders temporary media critics Lisa Falkenberg and Mike Snyder, Mark Greenblatt's TV pieces did a lot of damage to OLD METRO (or, more accurately, brought to light the damage done to OLD METRO by its horrible leadership). And before that, METRO's Raequel Roberts did not distinguish herself in TV appearances in which she compared the threat of stray current damage to a 9-volt battery. Having a former TV anchor in your hip pocket when you need to make a TV appearance or deal with a pesky TV news reporter is not a bad strategy. Every bloated PR department of a public agency surely needs a TV anchor who's out of work! (Maybe two -- Mike Barajas could be available before long!).

In addition to how Gray's salary compares with other local public agencies, we'd like to know how METRO's PR department compares to other PR departments of major metro transit agencies nationwide (in terms of numbers of staffers and their salaries). Maybe they all suffer from bloat.

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 02/08/11 08:30 PM |

07 February 2011

News and views roundup (02/07/2011 edition)

Here are some Monday morning links, to get your week rolling:

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 02/07/11 08:07 AM |

04 February 2011

If you don't need to be out and about...

It's probably a good idea to stay off the roads.

Here is a Transtar image of the problems this morning:

Transtar -- 4 February 2011

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 02/04/11 10:13 AM |

02 February 2011

News and views roundup (02/02/2011 edition)

It's time for a link roundup to clear out all the stuff we never quite got around to blogging about:

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 02/02/11 09:29 PM |

01 February 2011

Chron: City to contribute another $3 million to soccer stadium

Further details have emerged on how much more taxpayer support will be going towards the soccer stadium that isn't going to cost taxpayers anything:

The city is poised to strike a 30-year deal giving back $3 million in projected sales tax to the Houston Dynamo as they prepare to construct their $60 million stadium.

City officials say the tax rebate always has been a part of the deal that kept the team from leaving Houston, one that will make the city and county owners of a new sports stadium for which they did not have to pay (Bradley Olson, "Dynamo stadium deal packs $3 million kick," Houston Chronicle)

The story's amusing data point comes from Councilmember Mike Sullivan, who is shocked (!) to learn of these details even though city officials now say they were part of the deal the whole time.

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 02/01/11 10:50 PM |


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