29 June 2011

Fool me once... (updated)

Pension deal costs city $17 million more than budgeted - Chris Moran, Chron Houston Politics

The city of Houston has made a deal with its municipal employee union pension system to pay about $34.5 million less than it owes the system in the coming year. But it’s still $17 million more than the city planned to spend in the budget that passed last week.


Last week, the city budget approved by Council called for paying about $80 million to the pension. City officials have been negotiating with the pension system for about two months. City Attorney David Feldman said he settled on a figure of $98.5 million with the pension about six weeks ago and since then has been playing defense to ward off pension proposals to reduce the number of pension trustees appointed by the City Council.


There was no clear explanation from the dais as to how the city would cover the $17 million increase over what it had budgeted.

Last year, we noted that by passing unspecified spending cuts, the Mayor and her Council had effectively passed a sham budget (which indeed turned out to be the case at the end of the year, when various gimmicks were required to bring it into balance).

This year, the sham of a "balanced" budget seems only to have lasted one week. Granted, $17 million is almost a rounding error in a budget as large as Houston's, but still....

UPDATE (06/30/2011): City Council boosts pension payout - Chris Moran, Houston Chronicle

The city of Houston began overspending its 2012 budget before the new fiscal year even begins on Friday.

It was a day of confusion Wednesday in which the City Council approved a last-minute agreement to increase the city's pension payments by what it thought was $17 million more than called for in the budget approved last week.

In a memo sent to council members hours after the meeting, however, the city's finance director explained that he had pulled numbers from the wrong section of the budget in presenting a deal that Mayor Annise Parker's administration made with the Houston Municipal Employees Pension System.

The true increase, it turns out, was $6.5 million.

On just about everything but promoting whatever happens to be the mayor's latest green initiative, the Parker Administration increasingly comes off as incompetent, clueless, or asleep at the wheel (sometimes a combination of all three!).

Cory Crow wonders, "are they trying to make Lee P. look good by comparison?"

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 06/29/11 10:28 PM |

KTRH: VA cemetery director STILL censoring language during services

Texas Vets Told Not to Use 'God' During Services - Nik Rajkovic, KTRH News

A trio of Houston area veterans groups is suing Veterans Affairs and the director of the local National Cemetery claiming they're trying to censor religious freedom during funerals and other ceremonies.

This all started just before Memorial Day when a pastor giving the annual prayer at the National Cemetery was told he could not use Jesus' name. A federal judge blocked the VA's attempt to censor him and the two sides were back in court Tuesday.

Attorney Jeff Mateer represents the Liberty Institute; he says the cemetery director won't allow the use of "God" or "Jesus" unless the family submits the prayer in writing for her approval.

Why in the world is cemetery director Arlene Ocasio already back in the news (and back in court) over this issue?

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 06/29/11 10:17 PM |

28 June 2011

Chron: City works to minimize impact of budget cuts

City, county work to minimize visibility of budget cuts - Chris Moran and Mike Morris, Houston Chronicle

The city of Houston just cut spending by $100 million in the budget that begins next month. The average Houstonian may have to look really hard — hard enough to see parks' grass grow a little longer between mowings - to notice.

So, fiscal conservatives who insisted there was waste and bloat that could be cut from the city budget have largely been proven right.

That's a somewhat surprising lede. Kudos to the reporters for their candor.

Of course, at some point, the massive unfunded pension liability will have to be addressed, but for now this administration has chosen to put off addressing that problem.

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 06/28/11 10:36 PM |

Boondoggle Consulting 101: The right answer is the one the client wants!

Economic impact studies: instruments for political shenanigans - Eric Dexheimer, Austin American-Statesman

In the mid-1990s, the City of Galveston hired John Crompton to assess the economic benefit the city received from its Mardi Gras festival.

Located on a barrier island, the city has a single entry point, over a causeway. Crompton simply compared the number of people crossing the bridge on the weekends before and after the festival with the traffic count on the two Mardi Gras weekends. The difference came to about 80,000 visitors.

So he was surprised a few months later to read an article boasting that Mardi Gras lured 800,000 visitors to Galveston.

Unsatisfied with Crompton's numbers, the city apparently had hired another consultant willing to deliver better news by counting every car that crossed the bridge on the festival weekends, even though many were regular commuters.

If one consultant won't give you the analysis you want, just hire another one!

That's an important operating procedure to keep in mind in light of the recent news that local authorities have commissioned a $500,000 study to try to figure out what to do with the Astrodome.

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 06/28/11 10:22 PM |

27 June 2011

Probably not the best power to hand Houston officials...

Houston to acquire, re-sell blighted properties through eminent domain - Gabe Gutierrez, KHOU-11 News

Despite skepticism over increased government control, the Texas Legislature passed a bill that would make it easier for cities like Houston to seize blighted properties through eminent domain for the purpose of "economic development."

Mayor Annise Parker said it will allow the city to finally turn around the troubled Candlelight Trails condo complex in northwest Houston, as well as several other blighted properties throughout the city.

But some critics worry the measure could infringe on private property rights.

The problem isn't simply the possible infringement of private property rights (a concern, to be sure). Rather, in a city where major news organizations do not always show much interest in Houston Way dealings until after the fact, the bigger worry is shenanigans that might benefit connected elites at the expense of private property owners. We (citizens and journalists alike) would do well to monitor closely how the city uses its new powers.

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 06/27/11 10:19 PM |

26 June 2011

Harris County, others, commission $500k "study" on what to do with the Astrodome

Harris County, others paying $500,000 for another Dome study

"We have to make a decision" on the Dome, County Judge Ed Emmett said. "I wanted us to make our decision this year. They're going to look at every option there is and come back with the recommendation. It's about time we do that."

The county will contribute $50,000 toward a $500,000 study, bringing to $100,000 the total the county has spent in the past two years studying what to do with the aging Houston icon.

The remaining $450,000 for the latest study will be funded by the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau, Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo, Houston Texans, Harris County-Houston Sports Authority and Aramark Corp.

It's been obvious for years that it's time to demolish the Astrodome (which continues to cost us several millions dollars every year the decrepit building is standing). We've heard fantastic tales that it will be profitably converted to everything from a convention center hotel to movie studios to a planetarium. There has been nearly no limit to the absurdity of the proposed boondoggles -- none of which have come to fruition (or will come to fruition without the commitment of taxpayer millions).

Astute Dem consultant Marc Campos wrote this about the $500,000 study: "If it truly is an honest assessment, then tearing down the Dome will be the most likely option so stay tuned!"

The problem is, it will not be an honest assessment. You (you being government, and other interested parties) don't spend $500,000 on a study to tell you what is obvious. You spend $500,000 to tell you how to sell a boondoggle to a skeptical public. We fully expect the cost of demolishing the Astrodome to be exaggerated, and the boondoggle options to be heavily promoted in the final report.

So BH will offer this friendly wager to Campos -- we'll bet a nice lunch at the restaurant of your choice that the "best" option in the final report will not be tearing down the Dome.

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 06/26/11 09:54 PM |

23 June 2011

Trial balloon deflating: Second red-light-camera election losing favor

We're pleased to see local Democratic thinking on what to do about the red-light cameras coming around to blogHOUSTON's perspective.

Just a few days ago, Dem consultant Marc Campos was floating the notion that perhaps a second election should be held to see if voters really want to turn off the cameras:

According to the City Attorney, the City has three options. One: we can cancel the contract with the red light camera folks but that will cost us a few mil that we don’t have right now. Two: we can turn the red light cameras on but that will just p__s off over half the voters that don’t want them. It would be an F-you move that I don’t think they should risk. The Mayor and incumbent members of Council with just token opposition this November might see that token opposition turn into serious opposition. Three: we can call for an election where the voters get to pick one of the first two options.

Commentary is thinking that option three might be the best course to take.

And here's Dem blogger Charles Kuffner a few days ago:

Putting the question of reinstating the cameras or paying off ATS up for another vote strikes me as the least messy way forward at this point.

Banana republics are typically the sorts of regimes that schedule "do-over" elections when leaders don't like the outcome, so this never struck us as a viable option.

And apparently after a few days of reflection, it no longer strikes blogging Dems as a particularly good idea. Here's Campos now:

There is no easy way out on this deal. What you can’t do is to put further stress on the voter. A lot of them like Commentary are seeing their water bills go up. The roll out of the Rebuild Houston fee wasn’t pretty. They are seeing some city services reduced. Now you want to tell them that their vote didn’t count last November.

We have to do better than that so stay tuned!

That's moving in the right direction. And Kuffner's position has moved further:

I hate to say it, because I’d rather keep the cameras, but the best solution is likely to be a negotiated settlement with ATS.

Honoring the will of the voters is the best solution. Unfortunately, there will be some cost to do so (thanks to some too-clever pol getting rid of a reasonable opt-out provision in the contract with ATS).

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 06/23/11 10:20 PM |

22 June 2011

METRO's playwright-in-chief whacks a piñata

Metro strikes a blow for something or other. ¡Olé! - Michael Reed, YourHoustonNews.com

In truth, this particular photo, which arrived at our office last week, would probably fit best as part of some sort of contest — one in which you, our readers, submit humorous captions in an effort to win cash and valuable prizes....

Nonetheless, at first blush — second blush too, for that matter — this image left me puzzled. Initially, I assumed some enterprising photographer had snapped Metro CEO George Greanias taking a broomstick to some large, red rug, hanging inexplicably from the rafters of the transit agency’s Main Street offices.

Be sure to click over and check out the photo.

As any good METRO watcher knows, it's not a truly great promotion unless there are scratchoff cards and a mariachi band.

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 06/22/11 10:10 PM |

21 June 2011

Time to pop another trial balloon: The cameras must come down

Red-light camera company wants Houston to clear the air - James Pinkerton, Houston Chronicle

Houston Mayor Annise Parker, when asked if the city could afford to break its contract with ATS, said, "We believe that the absolute liability of the city may be capped, but I'm going to wait until we do all the legal analysis, and I have the opportunity to inform council members before I make that announcement."

City Councilwoman Ann [sic] Clutterbuck said the people's vote must be respected even though the process was nullified.

"It would be a violation of the will of the people to turn them back on," Clutterbuck said. "Even though I was a supporter of red light cameras and believe that they save lives, the people have spoken. But there's no doubt we'll be owing a lot of money for breach of contract."

Councilmember Anne Clutterbuck has it right: The people have spoken; the cameras must be turned off.

And yes, it's probably going to cost the city a decent sum to break the contract. Part of that cost can be attributed to the White Administration, which (as noted previously) removed a more favorable opt-out provision from the deal with ATS in an apparent effort to thwart expected legislation from the state legislature.

MORE: Federal judge overturns public vote in Houston - TheNewspaper.com

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 06/21/11 10:28 PM |

Trial balloon pops: HISD backs away from tax increase talk

HISD windfall has its share of winners, losers - Ericka Mellon, Houston Chronicle

Taxpayers in the Houston Independent School District can relax for now....

We'll just truncate the lede and call it a win.

We might be more sympathetic to the district's lament that it doesn't have many more millions of taxpayer dollars to spend if it showed more interest in cutting frivolous expenditures (like the ones Matt Bramanti fairly regularly points out on twitter). The individual expenditures may not seem like much, but the Dallas Morning News found that similarly questionable spending by the Dallas ISD totaled some $57 million over four years. An enterprising investigative journalist might find such an analysis worthwhile here.

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 06/21/11 09:55 PM |

20 June 2011

Chicago Tribune: More United/Continental jobs flowing to Chicago

United-Continental merger: United Airlines moving 1,300 jobs to Chicago - Wailin Wong and John Byrne, Chicago Tribune

United Airlines' merger with Continental Airlines is bringing 1,300 additional workers to Chicago by the end of 2012.


"Some are coming from Houston, some from San Francisco, some from other locations around our system," [Jeff] Smisek said. "They're principally operations-related jobs, technology jobs. These are good jobs. … The move was facilitated by the merger because we're headquartered here. But many of these jobs, certainly, for example the technology jobs, could be located anywhere, and we chose Chicago."


Incentives did not play a role, however, in bringing the additional 1,300 jobs to Chicago, Smisek said Friday.

"This is a city United Airlines believes in," he said.

It's really too bad Houston couldn't have made a stronger pitch for those jobs, but perhaps our mayor was too busy basking in her green-celebrity status for that. Rahm Emanuel, on the other hand....

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 06/20/11 09:43 PM |

Marathon, Conoco-Phillips help reopen closed city pools

Oil giants step in to save Houston pools - Miya Shay, KTRK-13 News

On Monday afternoon, [Congresswoman Sheila] Jackson Lee announced that Marathon Oil and Conoco-Phillips have agreed to step up and put $350,000 to reopen pools and community centers shuttered by budget cuts.

"This is living our values. This is neighbors needing help. This is an emergency. Our kids don't need be without a pool or elders without a community center in the hot summer," Marathon Oil Vice President Eileen Campbell said.

The funds mean eight city pools closed this summer will reopen July 1. The seven community centers closed will reopen a few days later.

Mayor Annise Parker says she's committed to keeping the centers open permanently.

A big tip of the hat to Marathon, Conoco-Phillips, and yes, even to the Congresswoman.

Perhaps going forward, there's room for even more public-private partnerships when it comes to sponsoring area amenities.

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 06/20/11 09:33 PM |

19 June 2011

Federal judge invalidates red-light camera referendum, lectures elected Councilmembers

Judge invalidates vote ending red-light cameras: Houston leaders consider their options - James Pinkerton and Chris Moran, Houston Chronicle

U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes ruled Friday that the referendum was improperly placed on the ballot last year, and the city cannot be forced to turn off the cameras.

Hughes said Houston's city charter requires that efforts to overturn ordinances by referendum must occur within 30 days of an ordinance's passage.

Opponents to the red-light ordinance, which passed in 2004, mounted the election challenge last year and got it on the ballot as a charter amendment, but Hughes said that was essentially the same as repealing it.

"Presented with this mislabeling, the council supinely ignored — over voices of some of its members — their responsibility and put the proposition to the voters as an amendment to the charter," Hughes wrote.

So, a federal judge has seen fit to substitute his opinion about a local referendum for the opinions of both elected councilmembers and voters.

That's rich.

Nevertheless, the federal judge can't make the outcome of the vote disappear into thin air. Voters were clear that they want the red-light cameras to go away.

Because a federal judge has substituted his opinion on the referendum for that of Council and voters, the cost of breaking the contract may well be substantial (thanks, Bill White, for handcuffing the City of Houston's ability to get out of the contract), but it's the choice that Mayor Annise Parker needs to make. Just a few days ago, Mayor Parker announced her latest revision to the Parker/Costello rain tax (to bring the average bill closer to what proponents of the rain tax promised), speaking of the need to keep faith with voters. Along the same lines, keeping faith with voters would seem to require the cameras to go.

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 06/19/11 09:11 PM |

Harris County is looking for a Breastfeeding Assistant

Michael Berry calls our attention to a real gem on the Harris County website. Your county government is apparently looking to hire a Breastfeeding Assistant:


JOB TITLE: Breastfeeding Assistant*

DEPARTMENT: Public Health & Environmental Services
Disease Control & Clinical Prevention – North Harris County

HOURS: 40 Hours Per Week
Some Evenings & Saturdays As Needed

SALARY: Will Be Discussed During Departmental Interview
Plus Mileage Reimbursement
Based on 26 Pay Periods

EDUCATION: High school diploma or G.E.D. equivalent is required. Medical Assistant Certification is preferred.

EXPERIENCE: Current or previous WIC (Women Infants and Children Nutrition) program participation experience is required. Must have successfully breastfed at least one baby.

JOB SKILLS: Must have a valid driver’s license and reliable transportation to attend training/meetings, and periodic travel among WIC locations, community outreach and potential home visits. The successful candidate must possess effective listening, counseling, communication and organizational skills; ability to work independently; must be comfortable with providing hands-on breastfeeding assistance. Bilingual in English and Spanish is preferred, but not required.

JOB DESCRIPTION: Provides information and promotes breastfeeding to WIC participants and the community. Evaluates client breast pump needs, and issues breast pumps according to policy. Provides information to clients on best practices for breast milk collection and storage. Conducts/assists group breastfeeding classes. Works with the Site Supervisor, Breastfeeding Coordinator and/or Lactation Consultant in development/implementation of promotional ideas. Completes required reports on breastfeeding promotion activities and submits data to site supervisor for review and/or action. Files the WIC Breastfeeding Assessment & Counseling forms; accurately documents pump issuance and/or retrieval according to policies/procedures. The Breastfeeding Assistant will receive at least 20 hours of initial training on breastfeeding promotion and continuous on-going breastfeeding training provided by the Breastfeeding Promotion Coordinator and Lactation Specialist. Attends/participates in regularly scheduled peer counselor meetings and shares information obtained with supervisor/clinic staff. Assists with orientation/coaching of new staff on breastfeeding skills, including peer counselors training in the WIC clinic. Successfully passes peer counselor competency evaluations and completes all required training modules within six months of employment. Performs other duties as assigned; including special tasks involved in responding to an emergency event.

This announcement has left me at a loss for words, so please help us out in the comments!

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 06/19/11 12:12 PM |

16 June 2011

The buffoon Congresswoman at work

Peter King smacks down Sheila Jackson Lee in prison radicalization hearing - The Right Scoop

One thing is clear from listening to the prison radicalization hearings held by Rep. Peter King this morning, that the Democrats want to try once again and suggest that Islamic Radicals are no different than gang members, other criminals, and in the case of Sheila Jackson-Lee, Christian militants who have bombed abortion clinics. In fact that is where Jackson Lee put much of her focus when it was her turn to ask questions.

Be sure to click over and watch the video of the Congresswoman in action. When she's not knocking aside bystanders who have the audacity to situate themselves between her and video cameras, this is apparently how she spends some of her time.

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 06/16/11 08:40 AM |

15 June 2011

COH: Mayor Parker to Announce Fair Drainage Fee Plan (updated)

  • Local customers get unwelcome surprise from new drainage fee - Ken Fountain, Examiner News
  • [Homeowner Dan] Harris said that when the Rebuild Houston program was first being discussed last year, he was an early supporter. But when he did the math based on the $5 figure, he said he “couldn’t square” how the city planned to raise the money it said it needed.

    Harris said he believes the Parker administration and Costello knew well before the election the figure was too low, and that’s why the “impervious area” was never clearly defined leading up to the vote.


    District C Councilwoman Anne Clutterbuck, who voted for the ordinance implementing Rebuild Houston, told The Examiner she doesn’t believe anything nefarious happened in the election.

    Pols purposely keeping details vague before a referendum and promoting to voters numbers that have turned out to be wildly inaccurate qualifies as nefarious enough for us. Your mileage may vary.

    Mayor Annise Parker has called a press conference tomorrow to announce her "improved and fair drainage fee plan."

    UPDATE (06/16/2011): KPRC-2 reporter Mary Benton tweets that Mayor Parker will announce a 1,000 square ft. exemption for all properties.

    UPDATE 2 (06/16/2011): Mayor Parker's latest and greatest revisions to the rain tax have been announced here.

    So, did anybody who voted for the Parker/Costello rain tax think this is what they were getting?

    Posted by Kevin Whited @ 06/15/11 09:51 PM |

    Super Sabado!

    METRO scratchoff!
    METRO is breaking out the scratch-off tickets this weekend to celebrate adding Saturday service to a bus route. Yes, I know you really want to know if there'll be mariachi bands, but, alas, the METRO press release doesn't mention entertainment. What prizes can be won? Who knows, but the imagination runs wild at the possibilities.

    All you have to do to get your FREE Super Saturday Loteria ticket is to board a bus on a participating route. If you are wondering how a scratch-off ticket can be called FREE if you have to board a (not free) bus to get one, well, I don't know. Maybe something got lost in translation, or maybe METRO is waiving bus fares this weekend. (That's how rumors get started, you know.)

    And there you have another winning promotion from METRO's bloated PR department!

    Scratchoff card via METRO website.

    Posted by Anne Linehan @ 06/15/11 07:09 PM |

    "According to a check of HISD’s job website today, district officials have 13 other principal openings to fill."

    So notes the Chron's Ericka Mellon. The comments to her blog post are fascinating -- sounds like fun times for Team HISD!

    RELATED: Fallout from Principal Exodus Continues (Houstonisdwatch.com)

    Posted by Anne Linehan @ 06/15/11 05:31 PM |

    14 June 2011

    HPOU supports anti-sanctuary-city legislation

    Houston Police Union Supports 'Sanctuary Cities' Bill - David Pitman, KUHF News

    The Houston Police Officers' Union is hoping the so-called "sanctuary cities" bill becomes law. The measure passed a state Senate committee yesterday. It would ban any prohibition on officers asking the immigration status of persons they detain. As David Pitman reports, the police union's position on the bill is the exact opposite of Houston Police Chief Charles McClelland.

    Although some urban police chiefs (and the pols who hired them) oppose this legislation, it obviously has more support among the rank and file (not to mention politicians and voters outside of urban areas across Texas).

    Houston could have used a debate long ago on the wisdom of the sanctuary directive from HPD's chief in 1992. Instead, that order may soon be nullified by legislative action.

    Posted by Kevin Whited @ 06/14/11 10:03 PM |

    13 June 2011

    CM Jolanda Jones faces ethics inquiry

    Because we've been remiss on linking to Councilmember Jolanda Jones's recent difficulties:

    Usually, it is not The Houston Way to air this much dirty laundry publicly. This could get even more interesting!

    Posted by Kevin Whited @ 06/13/11 10:06 PM |

    12 June 2011

    Incompetents on Incompetents: Chron editorial board reduces $180 million METRO writeoff to $12 million

    Use it or lose it: Metro's budget shuttle to the airport needs support from riders and stakeholders - Houston Chronicle

    Considering that Metro has a nearly billion dollar budget and just this April wrote off $12 million in wasted investments, a $1.9 million a year airport shuttle doesn't seem that extravagant.

    $12 million writeoff?

    Try $180 million ($168 million, as first reported by Mike Reed and the Examiner news -- and later updated to reflect a $180 million writeoff).

    Confusing a $180 million writeoff for $12 million is about what we'd expect from the same newspaper that saw fit to turn Mike Snyder and Lisa Falkenberg loose on a reporter actually doing watchdog journalism on METRO: Weak.

    Posted by Kevin Whited @ 06/12/11 08:42 PM |

    Grier's handpicked Apollo 20 chief leaves

    The Examiner's Charlotte Aguilar reported last week that the head of HISD's Apollo 20 program is exiting the district one year after being recruited by Superintendent Terry Grier:

    Jeremy Beard, the school improvement officer in charge of Houston ISD's Apollo 20 project, is leaving to take a job with the Harvard-based consultant who devised the school turnaround project, the Examiner learned Friday.

    Beard will become a regional vice president for Blueprint Schools Network, an extension of Harvard EdLabs founded by Harvard professor Dr. Roland Fryer.

    He reportedly indicated to staff he may still be working with Houston schools in his new capacity, while tackling national projects.

    The Chron's School Zone blog has Beard's internal HISD email which includes this:

    Watching the impact on student achievement that is happening, in a short time, in Houston, with our team, and the Apollo 20 Program has been an invaluable experience.

    At this time, Blueprint Network School(offshoot of Harvard EdLabs) is offering a VP of Regional Program position to me to help them build out this model nationally in order to help other school districts close the achievement gap across our nation. I feel this position is a once in a lifetime opportunity. I can continue to work with schools and principals in Houston via EdLabs and Blueprint, while impacting children nationwide.

    Sounds like HISD was a stepping stone on his career path.

    RELATED: Chronicle editorial gives Apollo 20 an "Incomplete" after first year

    Posted by Anne Linehan @ 06/12/11 03:46 PM |

    10 June 2011

    How to increase divorce, neck pain, and insomnia

    Write On METRO: Long Commutes Lead to Divorce, Neck Pain, Insomnia

    The solution, Mary Sit says, is to let METRO do the driving. However, we would encourage potential riders to proceed with caution.

    Posted by Anne Linehan @ 06/10/11 05:40 PM |

    09 June 2011

    Texas Watchdog investigates The Houston (ISD) Way

    Houston ISD trustees president Paula Harris voted on millions of dollars in contracts involving close friend's firms - Lynn Walsh, Texas Watchdog

    Those business contacts would suggest that [Nicole] West is a person of many interests and talents. Perhaps fittingly, a 2008 profile of West in a local magazine said she “ascribes her success to her ability to multi-task (and to) generate multiple streams of income.”

    But she's also one of the closest friends of the president of HISD's board of trustees, Paula Harris. Harris is the godmother of West's children.

    Harris has voted four times to approve millions of dollars in school district contracts involving Westco, a Texas Watchdog investigation has found.

    Be sure to read the entire investigative piece, and also check out some of the comments on the version that Chron.com posted under Texas Watchdog's Creative Commons license.

    The big question is why Paula Harris wouldn't simply recuse herself from some of these votes (it's not clear that the votes were particularly close). Of course, that leads us to wonder if the other trustees knew of the close relationship between the two women.

    Posted by Kevin Whited @ 06/09/11 09:33 PM |

    08 June 2011

    Mayor Annise Parker: Rain tax numbers provided to voters/council bogus

    Parker admits estimate wrong on drainage fee - Chris Moran, Houston Chronicle

    Mayor Annise Parker acknowledged Tuesday that her administration erred in telling voters that the average homeowner's monthly Proposition 1 drainage fee would be $5. It is actually closer to $8.25, she said.

    Parker said that among the options she will send to the Houston City Council to make up for the error is to lower homeowners' bills to the $5 average.


    "The typical example we used may have given the wrong impression to the voters and to Council," Parker said.

    Gee, ya think?

    The rain tax proposition narrowly passed, despite the fact that many property owners seemed to rely on the assertions of proponents (and "trusted" elected officials) that they'd be paying $5/month on average (of course, non-property owners probably were less concerned about those assertions). So voters were misled by their elected officials. This is EXACTLY why some of us suggested the proposal needed to be more specific (sadly, a majority ignored us).

    Even worse, citizens were misled by the former city controller, who was presumably thought to have some grasp of numbers by the voters who made her mayor.

    At least the mayor has finally owned up to the big deception. Just a few weeks ago, shortly after we raised the matter of the excessive rain tax assessments here (before any MSM outlets), the mayor's spokesperson told Texas Watchdog:

    "The $5 was based on 1,875 square feet," said Janice Evans, the mayor's spokeswoman. "I don’t know what Renew Houston was saying. She supported the ballot initiative, but they ran their own campaign."

    So what changed the administration's tune? Believe it or not, some rare watchdog reporting from the Houston Chronicle:

    Prompted by an opens records request from the Chronicle, Parker said, the city discovered that there were far more bills above $5 a month than below. As a result the city discovered its error.

    Remember, this is the former city controller who was presumably elected, in part, because voters trusted her with numbers. Whoops!

    Speaking of which, here's more from Moran's print story:

    Parker said lowering bills to home­owners enough to stay true to the $5 average would leave the city $10 million to $12 million short of what it needs to collect as decreed by the proposition. She said the city could borrow that money to get through fiscal year 2012.

    Tax, spend, borrow! Why not?

    There's one thing that we probably already knew but has been reported definitely -- this "glitch" (as the headline writer quaintly calls it) won't hold up the bills based on the Parker/Costello rain tax deception! Surely you didn't expect otherwise?

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

    07 June 2011

    Psychic sends law enforcement, media on wild goose chase

    Nothing Found After Psychic's Tip Leads To Search For Bodies - KPRC-2 News

    LIBERTY COUNTY, Texas -- Liberty County officials said Tuesday evening they found nothing after a tip from a psychic that dozens of bodies were in a rural area.


    Posted by Kevin Whited @ 06/07/11 10:06 PM |

    06 June 2011

    It's not a revenue problem, but a spending problem

    Controller issues warning on mayor’s budget - Chris Moran, Chron Houston Politics

    This fiscal year, for example, the city banked on taking in $40 million on real estate sales. The controller did not include that in his numbers, and he turned out to be closer to the mark than the administration.

    The city now plans to draw down the reserve fund by $28.6 million to close the books on the fiscal year that ends this month to cover unrealized real estate sales.

    But now that cushion is gone, so if Green is right again, the city can’t turn to reserves without risking its credit rating.

    We thought all along that the Mayor and her Council passed a sham budget because of its *ahem* overly optimistic assumptions. We hope Mr. Green continues to speak up on these matters, because making the same mistakes again will prove costly.

    Cash-strapped Houston paying for past bonds, tax cuts - Chris Moran, Houston Chronicle

    Actually, this headline is a poor one. The city is paying now not merely because of tax-rate cuts (tax revenues remained roughly the same, thanks to many years of significant appraisal creep), but because the last administration punted on really tough pension decisions, liked buying shiny trinkets, and wasn't interested in the sorts of spending cuts needed to put the city's financial house in better order (in fairness, the Brown Administration left many of those problems for Mr. White, who might have been a formidable statewide candidate if he had used his political capital to solve them).

    Councilmember Sullivan gets it right in the story:

    Councilman Mike Sullivan, who was in office to approve the last two tax cuts, said they were the right thing to do.

    The real culprit is increasing spending, not lowering taxes, he said.

    "Government has grown. The city of Houston itself as a government has grown. More employees, more departments, more programs," he said.

    During the White administration, the general fund budget increased by more than half a billion dollars a year - a 37 percent rise in six years.

    Houston has a spending problem, exacerbated by a pension bill that is coming due.

    Interestingly, this sort of assessment did not appear on the pages of the Houston Chronicle when Bill White was making his run for governor.

    Posted by Kevin Whited @ 06/06/11 09:15 PM |

    Five years later, thousands of rape kits sit in a property room, untested

    HPD's untested rape kits delay justice in assaults - Anita Hassan, Houston Chronicle

    Five years ago, when the troubled Houston Police Department crime lab resumed DNA testing, more than 4,000 sexual assault kits sat in a property room freezer awaiting testing.

    Today, much of that evidence — some dating to the 1990s — is still awaiting processing.

    So far, only 200 cases have been shaved off that backlog, according to lab officials who say the slow process is due to a lack of manpower.


    [State Sen. John] Whitmire said he is shocked that city and police officials have not more aggressively dealt with the crime lab backlog.

    It is hardly shocking that the current administration isn't prioritizing the rape kits given the current budget crisis that has been allowed to build over the last decade while mayors punted on the bigger problems (more on that in the next post), but it is shameful and disappointing considering what the last administration did prioritize.

    Posted by Kevin Whited @ 06/06/11 08:46 PM |

    02 June 2011

    Pardon the interruption...

    The blog will be taking a little break over the next few days.

    We may check in periodically, but do feel free to comment on any local news/developments in the forum.

    Posted by Kevin Whited @ 06/02/11 08:56 AM |

    01 June 2011

    Clear Lake: Parker/Costello rain tax shouldn't apply to us

    Clear Lake residents fighting Houston drainage fee - Christine Dobbyn, KTRK-13 News

    Clear Lake is a master-planned community in the Houston city limits. But since 1963, all waterworks, sewers and drainage facilities have been operated and maintained by the Clear Lake Water Authority.

    Folks who live there say they don't receive any of those benefits from the city of Houston, so they have a problem with paying the city of Houston.


    "Read the law, read the ordinances, it's pretty clear, so it should be an open and shut case, but unfortunately city politics isn't always like that," Clear Lake homeowner Greg Mitchell said.

    Not when it comes to money grabs like this one!

    Posted by Kevin Whited @ 06/01/11 07:24 AM |


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