30 October 2011
Five years later, federal court denies City's effort to squeeze travel websites
City Hall and the local sports stadium authority can collect hotel room tax only on what hotels.com pays for a room, not on what the Web site’s customers pay it for booking the room, an appeals court has ruled.
The Fourteenth Court of Appeals ruling on Tuesday upholds a trial court ruling in City of Houston and Harris County-Houston Sports Authority vs. hotels.com and 10 other Internet travel booking sites.
Back when Bill White announced he was hiring outside legal counsel to pursue this revenue stream, we expressed skepticism about the wisdom of the mayor's gambit (and drew some criticism in the comments).
So one fairly important matter didn't find it into Chris Moran's blog post: Just how much did this failed legal effort cost taxpayers?
Dolcefino continues investigation of Precinct 6 Constable office
KTRK Undercover Man Wayne Dolcefino was back with more reports last week from his ongoing investigation into the Precinct 6 Constable's office:
The allegations in the first report are bad enough, but if government officials actually withheld and altered documents as the second report alleges, Dolcefino's going to be adding some more scalps to his collection.
19 October 2011
Activists narrowly head off HCDE stealth tax increase effort
- Harris County Department of Education votes against small tax hike after strong opposition - Miya Shay, KTRK-13 News
Whenever you talk about homes and their property taxes, emotions run high. At the Harris County Department of Education, board member Jim Henley was angry.
"I want to give a quality of education to our students, and I want to go against the grain of all that's been happening," Henley said.
Henley was among the board members who supported a small tax rate increase from the current rate of .006581 to .006804 per hundred-dollar valuation.
"What your tax money does is leverages dollars for school districts. That's why the Harris County Department of Education is a viable entity today," board president Angie Chestnut said.
Anti-tax advocate Barry Klein was determined to win this battle. After several speakers, and an hour of debate, the board voted 4-3 to not change the tax rate.
- Department of Education leaves tax rate the same - Mike Morris, Chron Houston Politics
HCDE board member Roy Morales had said the district’s goal in considering raising the rate was to collect the same amount of money with the new rates as it had with the old ones. Because property values have fallen, Morales had said, that meant the rate had to go up to collect the same revenue.
A number of small-government advocates spoke at the meeting against the proposed increase. Houston Property Rights Association president Barry Klein, one such attendee, credited county Tax Assessor-Collector Don Sumners with convincing the board to leave the rate untouched.
Sumners described his role as offering “friendly persuasion” against a tax hike. He said his success in that effort was simply a matter of presenting the data.
“With the latest numbers, they didn’t need to raise the rate at all to get the budgeted amount,” he said. In other words, the value of all county properties is such that the district still will bring in about $18 million in revenue with the same tax rate in place.
This stealth tax increase would probably have sailed right on through if not for the diligence of Barry Klein and the other activists who snapped to the fact that the Harris County Department of Education scheduled its "workshop" on the tax increase on the very same day it intended to vote on said tax increase.
It's probably worth looking at some of the various players quoted in these two stories. From the bottom up:
1) There's Roy Morales, alleged conservative who nonetheless seemed to be making the case -- in a building named for Ronald Reagan no less! -- to raise taxes. A true conservative ought to be making the case to disband this unneeded remnant of a different time, or at least to hold the line on taxes. Then there are "conservatives" like Roy Morales who are known to loan their political campaigns money at usurious interest rates. Make of all of this what you will.
2) There's Angie Chesnut (KTRK's story was not only slanted, but also got the name wrong), whose board bio indicates she owns a private "curriculum development and consulting firm." We imagine she has some interest indeed in leveraging dollars for school districts (and perhaps just a few for herself? Perhaps)!
3) There's Jim Henley, a name we hadn't really considered since he was running around becoming a minor fringe-left celebrity in his quixotic challenge to conservative Rep. John Culberson some years ago (he claimed all of 38% of the vote). Same old tax-and-spender, it would seem. And angry still, too!
We can't come up with good reasons the Harris County Department of Education (with its bloated non-education staff) even exists -- and exists to the tune of draining Harris County taxpayers of $18 million per year. The folks at Texas Trash Talk make a pretty good case for eliminating the entity. We encourage readers to check them out (and we thank them for their part in heading off this stealth tax increase effort).
17 October 2011
Montrose biz owners take aim at unaccountable, Houston Way taxing entity
The Montrose Management District, not yet a year old, may be facing extinction.
During a tense meeting of the district’s board Friday, members voted unanimously to begin the process of verifying signatures on a petition by commercial property owners seeking the district’s dissolution.
From the outset, a group of small business owners have opposed the district, appearing at board meetings to voice their objections. Many claim that they were unaware of the district’s formation until last fall, when they received mailed notices of a meeting to set the property assessment.
Ever since, they’ve vowed to collect the number of signatures from property owners required by state law -- equal to 75 percent of the assessed commercial property in the district -- to force the board to dissolve the district.
On Sept. 29, they presented a signature [sic] with 1,003 signatures, representing what they claim 78.56 percent of the assessed property, to the district’s executive director, David Hawes of the firm Hawes Hill Calderon LLP.
Kudos to the business owners who are determined to abolish this unaccountable, secretive taxing entity that serves no useful purpose for the general public and was created virtually under cover of darkness by elites to benefit elites.
On that last -- It is worth noting the role that liberal Democrat Ellen Cohen, then state representative and now City Council candidate, played in creating this new, largely unaccountable taxing entity that apparently only government elites (and connected cronies) wanted and that is opposed by an overwhelming majority of those being taxed (so much for the principle of no taxation without representation, hmm).
Oh, and guess who is on the management district's Board? Mayor Annise Parker's "life partner" Kathy Hubbard! Neat, huh?
And as Ken Fountain reports, the firm of David Hawes "manages" many more of these unaccountable entities (some 20 or so, word has it) that tax Houston businesses -- talk about local government of, by, and for elites!
Given all the hyperventilating we've seen from local Dem partybloggers and the Chron editorial board (wait, is there a distinction?) about Gov. Perry and "crony capitalism," I'm sure we'll shortly see a flurry of opinion pieces in support of Montrose business owners' efforts to stand up to local political elites and connected Houston Way cronies/leeches. Right?
There's more information on this important fight at StopDistrict11.org. We wish them good luck in their efforts to shut down this entity, and think it's well past time to start reining in so many of these unaccountable/undemocratic taxing entities. It would also be helpful to remember enablers like liberal Democrat Ellen Cohen when one is voting.
BACKGROUND: The growing "Special District" problem in Texas.
15 October 2011
Doing the job METRO won't
Beginning next spring, a new free shuttle service called Greenlink will connect the George R. Brown Convention Center to City Hall — and about 20 stops along the way.
MORE: Free downtown bus rides coming in spring (Houston Chronicle)
14 October 2011
Houston Way Accountability: Rebuild Houston "flood control" boondoggle to fund bike trails
It was passed by Houston voters as a tax to address the city’s decrepit drainage system and Third World streets. But $857,000 of the new Proposition 1 fund --- which Mayor Annise Parker pitched as a "lock box that can only be spent for street and drainage improvements" --- is slated for hike and bike trails.
The money will pay for "design, acquisition and construction" of trails as part of an overall plan to provide "an alternate route of travel for bicyclists and/or hikers away from street traffic," according to the city's latest capital improvement plan.
Shown the budget item, a chief proponent of Proposition 1 was baffled.
“The money was not supposed to go for hike and bike trails,” said Bob Jones, part of the successful Renew Houston effort. “This is not the intention for the money that we voted on.”
“With a fee and placing that in the city charter, we would be prohibited from spending this money on anything other than streets and drainage," Parker promised in an interview on the eve of the vote. "In an age of teabaggers and activism, this is forcing compliance from government.”
Apparently, this is how compliance and accountability look to the Parker Administration.
Just to recap...
Special interests (including a sitting councilmember) effectively constructed a new revenue stream (tax) for a slush fund to
benefit themselves address neglected drainage issues.
Along with those special interests, Mayor Parker misled the public about the true average monthly cost of the new tax.
And for good measure, Mayor Parker, while campaigning for this boondoggle, used a tired LibDem vulgarity to refer to Tea Party activists who have been demanding fiscal accountability from government.
So, how many readers are surprised by this development? Please chime in.
11 October 2011
HISD board prez, PR chief insist reporter stop asking questions of public figure
The following original reporting from Texas Watchdog is reproduced via their Creative Commons license.
Houston ISD's Paula Harris blocks Texas Watchdog reporter from her Twitter, Facebook feeds, calls reporter 'unethical'
BY MIKE CRONIN
The president of the Houston school board told a Texas Watchdog reporter on Monday that she hasn’t answered requests for comments about herself and her ties to district contractors for more than nine weeks because the reporter is unethical.
Paula Harris made the comments after Texas Watchdog sought her out after a school board agenda review meeting to ask why she had blocked the reporter from both her Twitter account, @HISDPaulaHarris, and her Facebook page, and about whether she had been involved in making a post about the Twitter-blocking disappear from the reporter's Facebook page.
An incumbent campaigning to keep her seat against challenger Davetta Daniels on Nov. 8, told the reporter that she had “a whole list of unethical things” she said the reporter had done. “That’s why I won’t talk to you,” Harris said.
She accused Texas Watchdog of trying to secretly record that conversation and a Houston Independent School District audit committee meeting in August, which Texas Watchdog says is not true.
“I’m very busy,” Harris said Monday night. “I don’t have time to talk to you right now.”
HISD spokesman Jason Spencer this morning sent a letter to Texas Watchdog's editors, saying that the district "respectfully request(s) that Mr. Cronin be instructed to respect Ms. Harris’ decision to not speak with him." Spencer also said Texas Watchdog had "crossed the line into bullying, intimidating, and unethical behavior with respect to Trustee Harris."
07 October 2011
SAFEclear struggling after Parker Administration tinkering
Tows for the city’s Safe Clear initiative have dropped by 60 percent and service times have tripled since the program was revamped this summer, the Houston Police Department confirmed.
Most drivers are refusing the tows since a mandatory fee of $50 was imposed on July 1.
Jeanette Rash manages Safe Clear. She said the tows are taking longer because wrecker operators have to educate stranded drivers about the $50 fee. But she insists the program can be saved.
Her critics think she has a virtual monopoly. She strongly disagrees, saying that dozens of other towing companies have Safe Clear contracts.
"Not every company can do congestion management,” she said. “It takes a different level of training and professionalism."
Let me translate Jeannette Rash's comments: What she means is that the folks who secured their deal with the City back when it was cushy (that is, paying for every single tow as quickly as the exclusive operator for a given zone could get 'em off the streets) REALLY liked that deal. Companies that have secured government-enforced monopolies usually are pretty happy with their competitive advantage.
Now that the City of Houston isn't coughing up the cash, and apparently stranded motorists aren't an automatic $50 dispenser either, the government-enforced monopolies suddenly aren't so keen to get cars off the road. Economics tells us incentives matter, so this shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone (except perhaps to the Parker Administration, which seems easily confused in its policymaking).
Now, I'm no fan of the original Bill White/Bicycle Bob Stein approach to paying for the program (part of the incentive was that tow operators could charge for storage and/or confiscate cars whose drivers couldn't pay the original fee). I wasn't all that bothered when SAFEclear was revised, and began using tax/METRO dollars to fund a program that arguably did improve mobility (unfortunately, METRO's light-rail obsession has left it in precarious financial straits, so it can no longer focus on broader mobility). And I was never a fan of the Houston Way approach to assigning certain tow operators to zones, rather than considering more economic/incentive-oriented approaches to getting stalls/accidents cleared in a timely manner; that seemed more like a way to pick/reward favorites than anything.
We'd encourage the Parker Administration to go back and reconsider that last part of the equation (but we won't be holding our collective breath).
05 October 2011
Mayor kicks off disability awareness month, days after disabled parking crackdown
Houston, TX-- In an effort to raise awareness about disability issues and promote positive perceptions about the diverse contributions and abilities of America's workers with disabilities, the City of Houston Department of Neighborhoods/Mayor's Office for People with Disabilities and community partners will host the 3rd Annual Disability Awareness Month Celebration on Friday, October 7, 2011, from 10:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. It will be held at the Metropolitan Multi-Service Center Auditorium, 1475 W. Gray, Houston, Texas 77019.
This year's (2011) campaign theme is, "Synergy for Inclusion." In addition to honoring outstanding individuals with disabilities, this event will acknowledge persons and agencies/organizations that have stepped up to the plate to level the playing field for disabled citizens by addressing and removing barriers; providing programs/services and offering employment opportunities.
“We believe everyone should be given the opportunity to participate fully in our economy," said Catherine Flowers, Director, City of Houston Department of Neighborhoods. "That is why we work to remove physical and attitudinal barriers for Houston’s residents."
Right! Well, except for the Parker Administration treating fraudulent and legitimate handicapped motorists parking downtown all the same, and restricting parking privileges previously enjoyed by the disabled (just a few days ago). There's that.
04 October 2011
Truck driver working on METROrail expansion takes out Danger Train; 15 injured (UPDATED)
Police said a dump truck driver disappeared after colliding with a METRO light rail car Tuesday, knocking it off the tracks in downtown Houston, Local 2 Investigates reported.
The driver was working as a subcontractor to build METRO's newest light rail lines a few blocks away when, police said, he ran a red light and was broadsided by the rail car at Main and Capitol around 9 a.m.
This idea of running light-rail trams down busy streets at grade is SO (third) world class. We should build more! (Oh wait, the driver who disappeared was doing just that).
Fifteen people were taken to the hospital, including the rail operator and the dump truck driver.
We wish everyone injured in this latest fiasco a speedy recovery. It's not their fault our transit organization thinks light-rail trams are a good mix on busy streets with Houston's horrible drivers.
METRO officials said the dump truck driver, Paniagua Prisciliano Espino of Espino Trucking in Fresno was taken to the hospital, but he took off before police could arrive to ask questions.
METRO said he left the hospital before he could be treated, and he wasn't seen again.
Hmm, now why do you suppose he would do that? Probably just confused (perhaps suffering from a concussion), right?
(10/05/2011 UPDATE) KPRC-2 now reports that the driver was NOT missing:
On Tuesday, police said that Espino had disappeared from the hospital because he was not there when they went to question him. On Wednesday, investigators said Espino was taken to different hospital than what they were told.
Espino left the hospital and went home after officers did not show up.
METRO police said Espino never tried to run or hide from them. There was simply a communication error.
Well, you'd think METRO's expensive communications operation might have gotten that important detail, but that shop seems to work about as well as the rest of the organization.
It's good that METRO has some lowly buses they can press into service when incidents like this shut down their prized light-rail-tram transit backbone (or rain does, or an electric short does, or smoke in a car does, or a pedestrian does, or... well, you all know the story by now).
Ed Hubbard reaches out to State Senator Dan Patrick
Better click over and read the whole thing. It may require more popcorn!
I guess the clear message we were to take from this lecture was that Judge Emmett and his supporters are hidden moderates in the shadows of our party, who are waiting for just the right moment to infect us all with their moderation. In the meantime, our Fearless Fosdick of a State Senator made it clear that he is here to protect us from the spread of this deadly virus.
Is there anyone out there who is as tired as I am of this bull—especially flowing from a State Senator with a radio license? I, for one, have had enough! So, Senator Fosdick, if it is a constant internal fight you want within the GOP to boost your radio ratings, let me lay a few markers down for you now:...
03 October 2011
Emmett cites "mature judgment" (not cool nickname) of commissioner pick
After a couple of weeks’ deliberation, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett on Monday named civil court Judge R. Jack Cagle as the new Precinct 4 commissioner.
Cagle, 50, will be sworn in at the Tuesday meeting of Commissioners Court.
Known as “Cactus Jack,” Cagle has served on the bench of Harris County Court-at-Law No. 1 since being elected in a special election in 2000. He was elected to full terms in 2002 and 2006.
At a press conference at the Harris County Administration Building, Emmett, said that he was looking for a candidate with “mature judgment” who put policy matters over political the “chit-chat” that he said “drives me crazy.”
We mainly wanted to blog this because we just don't get the opportunity to post many Cactus Jack references!
But here's a question for readers (especially our more active Republican types): What do you think about this appointment?
Texas Watchdog: HISD's communications shop under scrutiny
Be sure to read the entire Watchdog story.
Just two of Houston’s nine school board members have their own shows on the district’s television channel -- and both are trustees who have challengers at the polls this November.
Board President Paula Harris and Trustee Manuel Rodriguez, the board’s second-ranking officer, have shows airing on HISD TV, the Houston Independent School District’s channel, whose programs air via the Internet and public-access cable.
Meanwhile, three other Houston school board members said HISD staff members have ignored requests for their own shows. A fourth says he spoke with an HISD media department employee about creating programming at some schools, but the conversation went no further.
HISD's communications shop under Terry Grier sure does seem to wind up in the news a lot.
02 October 2011
News and views roundup (2 October 2011 edition)
I'm still playing catchup at work and elsewhere after being away two weeks, so regular blogging has suffered a bit. Hopefully we'll crank back up shortly with more frequent updates, but here's another linkpost of notable local news.
- Jerry Eversole, developer Mike Surface enter guilty pleas - KTRK-13 News
This saga began with aggressive watchdog reporting from Wayne Dolcefino and KTRK, although most local media will refrain from proper credit. County Judge Ed Emmett names the replacement on Monday.
- Developers revive Ashby high-rise - Nancy Sarnoff and Louis Casiano, Houston Chronicle
Excellent! Pass the popcorn.
- Harris County disputes city bill for park drainage - Mike Morris, Houston Chronicle
[Harris County Commissioner Steve] Radack called the offices of City Council members Stephen Costello, who led the campaign for the drainage fee, and Brenda Stardig, whose district includes the park, to express his displeasure.
In return, he got a letter saying the city was "reviewing" the bill and adding "no payment is due at this time." Public Works and Engineering Department spokesman Alvin Wright said that letter simply should have said the bill had been sent in error and that no money was due.
- Rivard ends 14-year run as E-N editor; Kyrie "MeMo" O'Connor is new interim editor - Jennifer Hiller, San Antonio Express-News
This promotion of sorts for the Chronicle's highly erratic features editor was shocking at first, since it was hard to imagine there wasn't a more capable internal candidate to take over on an interim basis. But it appears Hearst also eased out the #2 person on the news side. Given the extent to which the two Hearst newspapers have shared more and more features content in recent years, and ongoing rumors that another round of layoffs is on the way, this corporate decision isn't entirely shocking (if there are any staffers currently on maternity leave in San Antonio, it might be a good idea to update your resume now that Ms. O'Connor is in charge).
Kyrie O'Connor, senior editor of the Houston Chronicle, a sister paper of the Hearst-owned Express-News, will join the Express-News today as interim editor.