31 March 2011

News and views roundup (03/31/2011 edition)

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 03/31/11 09:18 PM |

30 March 2011

Mayor to HFD: Decide between job cuts or pension plan underfunding

Mayor Annise Parker, who was not shy during the last mayoral campaign about criticizing what she strongly suggested were unsustainable fiscal policies by her predecessor (and in fact probably won because she convinced voters she was the most fiscally sound candidate in a weak field), has now decided that some unsustainable fiscal policies aren't so bad after all.

According to a report by Chris Moran in today's Chronicle, Mayor Parker hopes to fund police and fire pensions by some $14 million less than the city's obligation to the plans. The administration contends that the savings could also help the city avoid layoffs of hundreds of firefighters at HFD next year.

Moran included some good observations from a local expert on public pensions:

Paying less than the actuarially determined commitment is a recipe for future disaster, warned John Diamond, a public finance expert at the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University who blogs about pensions and other fiscal matters.

"If you don't pay it now, you're just going to have to pay more later. Basically, they are kicking the can down the road so politically they look good," Diamond said.

Parker is trying to honor a commitment to public safety while looking for massive cuts in a $1.9 billion budget, nearly two-thirds of which is spent on the police and fire departments.

Diamond acknowledged the second-year mayor had inherited a problem that's "too hard … for someone to solve without dooming their political careers."

Generally, it seems that Dem leaders are the ones having the most trouble making these hard choices. Republican governors in Wisconsin, Ohio, and New Jersey have seemed willing to tackle these sorts of problems. (UPDATE: Gov. Cuomo seems a refreshing exception).

Ultimately, the state of Texas may have to deal with the public pension problems as municipalities continue to kick the can down the road (as Diamond put it). In the state of California, a strong move is afoot to put significant state/local pension reform before voters (UPDATE: More on this from the WSJ's excellent columnist Daniel Henninger). As underfunded local and state pension obligations become more problematic here, Texas may have to consider similar measures.

UPDATE: See Professor Diamond's most recent post on muni pension problems.

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 03/30/11 10:04 PM |

29 March 2011

News and views roundup (03/29/2011 edition)

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 03/29/11 09:57 PM |

28 March 2011

News and views roundup (03/28/2011 edition)

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 03/28/11 09:57 PM |

27 March 2011

Repeat: Channel 2 finds MAP workers not working while on the clock

FIve months after catching METRO MAP workers not working, KPRC-2's Stephen Dean decided to revisit the issue, and AGAIN found MAP workers not working:

METRO Motorist Assistance Program employees started arriving to shoot pool, play dominoes, watch television and socialize while rush hour was under way as Local 2 Investigates tracked them over the past three weeks.

Some workers arrived before 6 p.m. on some evenings, and the entire group avoided helping a single stranded motorist for the entire time until their shift ended at 9 p.m.

"Unacceptable," said METRO Chief Executive Officer George Greanias upon learning of the nightly routine from Local 2 Investigates. "The fact that some employees, based on your news report at least, seem to feel that on duty time is to be spent recreating, when in fact that's not the case, is extremely troubling."

These revelations don't even shock anymore. We expect them. It's a given that METRO wastes our money. It's taxpayer money and there's so much of of it floating around, who cares if a few MAP employees don't work their entire shift?

METRO was dysfunctional and arrogant under Frank "Procurement Disaster" Wilson. The roots are still the same even as George Greanias fights an uphill battle to change the OLD METRO. An integrity-less culture festered for so many years, it's just standard operating procedure at METRO.

Here's one employee's response to KPRC when asked about it: ""We always come in and turn our paperwork in at this time," he said.

And here's the response of another employee: "Well, that's the way we do it, close the lane at 8 o'clock and 9 o'clock you go back home. That's it."

That's the way we've always done it. The mantra of every successful company, right?

And Greanias' reaction?

He insisted that action was taken after the Local 2 Investigates report in October to keep closer watch over MAP workers, but he admitted it may not have gone far enough. "I'm not going to commit a ton more of METRO resources to policing people, when what I want are adults who will do the job that they tell us they're committed to do," said Greanias.

There are a couple of glaring problems here (besides Greanias' misdirected irritation). First, does METRO have a clear job expectation? Because the MAP employees think it's a part of their job to knock off working a few hours early. If the job expectation IS clear, then METRO has a problem with the MAP employees, and the supervisors who are allowing this to happen. And if the supervisors are allowing this to happen, then Greanias should also look further up the food chain. Who knows what other stink bombs are just waiting to explode?

By the way, METRO's MAP page says, "It's safe!

Don't worry about who will assist you. M.A.P. vehicles are staffed with experienced uniformed METRO Police officers and Harris County Sheriff's Department deputies."

But in Stephen Dean's story last fall we learned:

Police officers are no longer manning the MAP vehicles at METRO. Lambert said he decided two years ago to move those officers to patrol duties where they are badly needed. Employees of other METRO departments, such as wrecker drivers, were moved into the MAP jobs, and Lambert said he is not rethinking that decision.

METRO's bloated PR department should update that page.

It was Tom Lambert who removed security personnel from Park and Rides and turned them into Park and Pillages. We can see why METRO promoted him!

Posted by Anne Linehan @ 03/27/11 09:33 AM |

25 March 2011

SafeClear morphing back into $afeClear

One of Bill White's crowning achievements as mayor, the SafeClear program, is in the news again, and it looks as if it will be heading back in its original direction: making money!

The city's 6-year-old free towing service on local freeways will start costing motorists $50 per car under a plan expected to come before City Council soon.


"We can no longer afford to pay for this program," said Councilwoman Sue Lovell, who chairs council's transportation committee and helped work out the new arrangement with city-contracted towing companies.

Then can the program. Citizens can't afford it either. Remember the real intent of the revenue generating program when it was concocted? Repair referral$ on the west-side, and revenue from selling impounded cars on the east-side. And remember what happened when it was enacted?

Woman dies trying to stop towing of her car

Eyewitnesses say a driver lost her life Monday night because she didn't want to have to pay for a Safe Clear tow off the East Freeway.

Panic is what happened.

Here's Councilmember Sue Lovell: "We don't want your cousin coming. We don't want someone who's not trained coming," Lovell said.

Councilmember Lovell has the means to ensure that she can pay the $50 break-down tax which means her car wouldn't end up in an impound lot racking up fees before being auctioned off.

Here's Councilmember Melissa Noriega: "It was free originally we were making people do this, and we can't do it anymore. But we have a tow that's far below market value," said City Council Member Melissa Noriega.

No, it was not free originally. It cost citizens $75 when former Mayor Bill White and Houston Bicyclist Bob Stein rolled it out.

And remember what proponents of the original revenue-generating program said in defense of it when began: If you don't have a perfectly functioning car that never breaks down, then you should not be driving on the freeways, because you are inconveniencing more well-off folks. Stick to the feeder roads.

Posted by Anne Linehan @ 03/25/11 05:13 AM |

24 March 2011

Do you blog and Facebook for free? Sucker!

You may have seen the latest outrageous government revelation: The Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs is looking for someone to handle the Interior Department's Facebook page. What might the going rate be for a Facebook Updater? $115,000/year! Yowza!

We can't quite top that, but closer to home, we do have METRO's blogger (er, Communications Weblog Specialist), who four years ago was making a measly $76,000 a year. Since it's government work, she probably gets regular raises, and no doubt, the NEW METRO's George Greanias would tell local taxpayers that with her grueling work load, she's worth every penny.

Posted by Anne Linehan @ 03/24/11 06:32 PM |

23 March 2011

News and views roundup (03/23/2011 edition)

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 03/23/11 06:46 PM |

Shutter the Chron editorial board (cont'd)

You'd think the editorial board at the area newspaper of record could manage to craft a persuasive piece on why a retired space shuttle belongs in the Houston area permanently.

Alas, you'd be wrong. Matt Bramanti explains in the comments on the editorial:

"The Discovery, the orbiter that flew first and furthest"

Discovery is the oldest surviving space-capable orbiter, but it was not the first to fly. Enterprise was the first to fly in the atmosphere; Columbia was the first to fly in space.

"when the shuttle fleet is decommissioned after two final flights this summer"

The next flight is scheduled for April, not the summer.

"The primary reason Houston became Space City was that a Texan, Lyndon Baines Johnson, occupied the White House at the time."

Wrong again, guys. Johnson's efforts as a Senator put the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston. (The site was selected in 1961, when Kennedy occupied the White House.)

Factual errors like those would be irritating in any newspaper; they're inexcusable in a Houston rag.

Yes. To repeat ourselves: Shutter the thing. Redeploy the resources to news coverage.

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 03/23/11 10:06 AM |

21 March 2011

News and views roundup (03/21/2010 edition)

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 03/21/11 07:50 AM |

20 March 2011

Just remember, the Grand Parkway is NOT about development

Or for developers. Nope:

Meanwhile, an 1800-acre tract of land west of I-45 and north of the Hardy Toll Road in Harris County will soon become the “nature-inspired, mixed-use” community of Springwoods Village.


Springwoods Village developer CDC Houston is hesitant to comment about Exxon, but loves the progress of the Grand Parkway.

Of course. And while CDC Houston plans to build upwards of 5,000 homes near the planned F-2 segment of the Grand Parkway, other existing homes will have to be bulldozed to make way for it.

Posted by Anne Linehan @ 03/20/11 08:29 AM |

18 March 2011

News and views roundup (03/18/2011 edition)

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 03/18/11 08:40 AM |

17 March 2011

News and views roundup (03/17/2011 edition)

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 03/17/11 09:38 AM |

16 March 2011

News and views roundup (03/16/2011 edition)

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 03/16/11 09:32 AM |

15 March 2011

News and views roundup (03/15/2011 edition)

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 03/15/11 07:41 AM |

14 March 2011

News and views roundup (03/14/2011 edition)

Time to spring forward with some links:

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 03/14/11 07:41 AM |

09 March 2011

News and views roundup (03/09/2011 editon)

It's a slim version of news and views today...

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 03/09/11 10:31 PM |

08 March 2011

News and views roundup (03/08/2011 edition)

Time to clear out a few links:

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 03/08/11 09:14 AM |

07 March 2011

Astrodome Nostalgia Syndrome (ANS) continues to bleed taxpayers

The push to continue to waste taxpayer money on the decrepit Astrodome was joined last week by none other than Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, who came out in favor of a "minimalist" plan to maintain the structure (which has cost taxpayers millions of dollars to maintain as a useless eyesore) as an events venue (of no real need, especially). From the Chronicle's reporting:

Emmett said he favors a "minimalist" approach that would see the Dome's roof replaced, its seats removed, its shell intact, and grass laid down. He did not have a cost estimate for the idea.

"Anything we do to or with the Dome is going to be expensive, but it really is time to move forward," he said during the annual State of the County speech to roughly 1,100 people at the Hilton Americas-Houston Hotel. "I think we owe it to future generations to preserve the Dome as a gathering place for special events.

"The taxpayers have to be engaged early in the process, for it is their Dome," he continued, "but now's the time to make a decision."

Houston's major festivals could be held at the Dome, he said, rather than in a less-than-ideal spot around downtown's City Hall, where property is hard to secure at night.

"I think people would flock to it," Emmett said (Mike Morris, Emmett: Dome should be saved as festival venue, Houston Chronicle).

Why? When the Houston International Festival left its downtown home for a run out among the concrete on the outer fringes of the city core, the results were not good (and the festival shortly returned to downtown, where it belonged).

Unfortunately for taxpayers who will be asked to fund any Astrodome rehab boondoggle, this unbelievable figure made it into the area's newspaper of record:

An estimate last year put the cost of razing the structure at $128 million.

Not really. It was one of several estimates designed to fool taxpayers into thinking rehabbing the Dome wouldn't cost much more than razing it.

So let's inject a dose of reality into the cost discussion: The Dallas Morning News (that area's newspaper of record) put the bill for demolishing another venerable stadium in our state (Texas Stadium, where the Cowboys played for many years) at just under $6 million.

Are we really to believe that demolishing the Astrodome will cost roughly 21 times more than demolishing Texas Stadium?

Only if you don't think much about it.

Unfortunately, when the area newspaper of record spreads these unbelievable numbers, they take on the appearance of reality, leading sources like CultureMap to do their usual thing with grownup topics:

Consider these options:

* It would cost about $128 million to tear it down — that's $128 million of public funding (which includes the existing $40 million bond debt that has to be satisfied no matter what is done).
* To repair the Dome just enough to become habitable (and able to produce at least some revenue), the Sports and Convention Corp says it would cost $30 million (though some reports say less).

Hmmm …$128 million to end up with nothing versus $30 million to stop the bleeding and still have an historic building with both revenue and jobs potential.

See how that works -- a $30 million rehab proposal suddenly looks much more reasonable than spending four times as much on demolition!

Except we've seen no compelling reason to think that the demolition should cost more than the $6 million it took to demolish Texas Stadium. Incidentally, it costs taxpayers roughly $2 million per year to maintain the Astrodome as an eyesore, which means the thing could have been torn down years ago, saving taxpayers a considerable amount of money.

Back to Judge Emmett's speech from last week, via Village Voice Houston:

"Every time I drive by the corner of Main and Holcombe," he told the crowd at the Hilton Americas, "I shake my head in wonder that the Shamrock Hotel is no longer there. I hope not to do the same as an old man at the spot where the Astrodome once stood."

We understand Harris County budgets are tight right now, but we are beginning to think the County may need to authorize emergency appropriations for mental health in our area -- allocated for treatment of those afflicted with Astrodome Nostalgia Syndrome (especially those entrusted with spending our tax dollars)!

In all seriousness -- we generally appreciate Judge Emmett's leadership, but on this one, we would encourage him to take the lead as a private investor if he's so nostalgic about preserving the Astrodome. The taxpayers have already thrown enough money down that hole. It's time to pony up the cost of demolition and stop the bleeding. It was time years ago.

BLOGVERSATION: Swamplot, Campos Communications.

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 03/07/11 08:25 AM |

06 March 2011

Take Two: A downtown train-traffic-pedestrian-infrastructure adventure only METRO could love!

Nearly two years ago, we drew on a number of obscure, little-read documents on METRO's downtown light-rail plans to post some thoughts on downtown's coming traffic/train/pedestrian mobility nightmare (needless to say, we did not buy into the rosy conclusions of some of the documents, especially when drilling down into those documents raised concerns that have still not really been addressed).

There was little public followup on the concerns raised in the documents, although rumor has it that some of downtown's power brokers were then and are now concerned about the potential impact of METRO's light-rail follies on downtown mobility (especially downtown parking garage access, since the goofy at-grade rail system will be gobbling lanes and affecting traffic in/out of many garages).

The City of Houston recently got into the action, producing its own "study" of the planned Capitol/Rusk light-rail alignment on four downtown parking garages. Their (unbelievable) conclusion: The Capitol/Rusk light-rail alignment will have no appreciable impact on the operation of those four parking garages.

The document in question was produced by the City of Houston Public Works & Engineering department in December 2010. We have posted the public's document to scribd for broader public access (for some reason, these sorts of documents frequently require some effort on the part of the public to obtain; just ask Tom Bazan about difficulties obtaining documents related to METRO's light-rail adventurism).

We would like to encourage readers to have a read, and then to come back and discuss.

After a quick survey, a number of items stood out for us:

In all honesty, we didn't find this study particularly compelling or helpful. The parameters seemed to be narrowly confined so as to produce the preferred political outcome (we know the current mayor is in favor of the light-rail plan crafted by OLD METRO, and we know that public works grew increasingly political in the last administration). And the public remains largely in the dark as to the impact of running at-grade rail down the important Capitol/Rusk corridor.

What have we missed? Gotten wrong? Gotten right? Please leave your thoughts in the comment thread.

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 03/06/11 08:51 PM |

04 March 2011

METRO's blogger: We're too big to handle our maintenance problems

So if you're stuck on the wrong side of a malfunctioning gate in a Park and Pillage, Mary Sit advises you to have METRO's maintenance phone number on speed dial:

If you're a regular commuter, it's a good idea to enter this number and e-mail in your cell phone directory. The phone number is staffed Monday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. And of course, there's voice mail after hours.

METRO's service area extends beyond Houston and spans some 1,285 square miles. That includes more than 30 million square feet of properties.

"Due to the size of the service area, and the large portfolio of properties, it is almost impossible for us to be completely on top of all the day-to-day issues that come up on our sites," explains Rocky Marrero, vice president of facilities maintenance. "For this reason, we rely heavily on the reports of bus operators, and more importantly, our patrons, who help us by reporting their observations directly to our work request line. "

Remember, METRO also admits it can't handle security because its service area is too large. Patrons are advised to manage their own security. By contrast, METRO's bloated PR department is fully staffed and at the ready to handle any PR emergency.

Since METRO admits its service area is too big, maybe the taxpayer-funded, quasi-governmental transportation monopoly should be broken up.

Posted by Anne Linehan @ 03/04/11 10:06 AM |

02 March 2011

Daily Caller: Queen Sheila treats her staffers badly. Very badly

The Daily Caller posted a detailed report today about Queen Sheila Jackson Lee's horrible treatment of staffers. It's a pretty interesting read (profanities and all).

How one treats subordinates and service workers is often a good reflection of character (or lack thereof), so this latest report on the Queen won't really come as a shock to any locals.

The voters who keep re-electing her year after year after year don't seem to mind, though.

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 03/02/11 05:46 PM |

01 March 2011

Dolcefino checks out the BAT vans

KTRK-13's Undercover Man Wayne Dolcefino takes a look at HPD's BAT vans:

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 03/01/11 09:07 PM |


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