30 November 2011
Texas Watchdog meetup Saturday
Texas Watchdog is hosting a meetup on Saturday at the Stag's Head Pub.
In addition to their crew, they'll be featuring media blogger extraordinaire Mike McGuff.
By 2pm, the Cougars surely will have this CUSA Championship/BCS thing locked up, right?
27 November 2011
Occupy Houston vignettes
That was the case today as Joe Roche of the Occupy Houston movement’s Political Action Volunteer Work Group appeared to ask for “diplomacy.” He wanted the court to show a little down-home hospitality and invite Occupy protesters nationwide to balmy Harris County.
“As colder months now approach, keep in mind there are other Occupy movements in all 50 states. As elected officials, be diplomats and invite the other Occupy movements down here to Harris County,” Roche said.
Though Roche made sure to note the group’s broad concerns (“gross inequality of wealth in our society, in our country, and corporate corruption in our democracy”) his pitch to the commissioners focused on economic development...
Hey, if Mayor Annise Parker is going to allow vagrants to crowd out the taxpaying public in a park they pay for AND provide the vagrants free electricity, why the heck not? That's a pretty good deal.
Here's an amusing snippet from the Occupy Houston's first newsletter that a friend passed along:
Where are all those folks? They are probably out hard at work trying to create their own breaks in our city of opportunity!
Next up was a report on finances. The person giving the report stated that the financial picture was not good – they had $22 left in their cash fund and that cash donations keep disappearing. She proposed that if someone missed three consecutive finance meetings that their access to keys for the cashbox be removed.
Petty theft is an improvement on the sort of violent crime that has occurred within other Occupy encampments, so give yourself a pat on the back Houston.
Do be sure to read all of David Jennings' post. It's compelling citizen-journalism. This political scientist was entertained by the group's unknowing embrace of John C. Calhoun's concurrent majority!
Just as there is no list of demands, there is no typical protestor either -- just a shared sense of frustration that dreams are just out of reach.
In a promo for this piece, Oberg tweeted that YOU likely have more in common than you realize with the Occupy Houston vagrants; commenters on Oberg's story mostly disagreed (maybe it would have been worthwhile to talk to a least ONE person like that for the story, hmm?). What say you, blogHOUSTON readers?
Chron: Salaries soar at Harris County Housing Authority
Why should anyone be surprised that when there is big government, unaccountable quasi-governmental bureaucrats want (and usually take) their turn at the trough too? It doesn't much matter whether the program in question is aimed at helping the poor, or the elderly, the children, or whatever group.
Harris County Housing Authority leaders have received steep salary increases and staggering bonuses in recent years, nearly tripling some executives' pay since 2004.
As CEO, Guy Rankin's salary has gone from $99,507 when he took over in July 2004 to $263,965 three years ago. That included a $60,000 bonus, dubbed "equalization pay" in authority records. This year, while not scheduled to receive a bonus, he stands to make $242,008.
The authority's second-in-command, David Gunter, was making $74,256 as a senior accountant when Rankin became CEO. He since has been promoted three times, to chief administrative officer, and will receive $220,001 this year. That includes a $55,000 bonus. His pay exceeds that of all housing authority CEOs in Texas, as well as those of some of the nation's largest housing authorities.
Executive bonuses at the county agency ranged up to $84,000, sometimes approaching and, in one case, exceeding an employee's annual salary. Most lower-level workers also consistently got bonuses, from $1,000 to more than $10,000.
Stories like this one (and the upcoming federal grant for METRO to continue building its trams and cutting bus service) suggest that the D.C. conversation about federal budget "cutting" is really more political theater for those not paying much attention than anything.
24 November 2011
Have a great Thanksgiving, and thanks for reading blogHOUSTON!
23 November 2011
Empower Texans takes aim at Harris County Department of Education
Conservative Texas advocacy group Empower Texans recently concluded a four-part series on the Harris County Department of Education, which is obsolete yet continues to suck up taxpayer dollars. Here are the links and brief excerpts. Be sure to click over.
- Part One: Duplicating Government in Harris County - Empower Texans
Harris County taxpayers have been unwittingly paying for the same service from different governmental entities for years. On top of paying taxes for their local school district, they’ve been funding $16 million in taxes to the Harris County Department of Education (HCDE) for nothing more than a duplication of services already provided by other entities.
- Part Two: The Obsolete Operations of the HCDE - Empower Texans
The Harris County Department of Education (HCDE) represents exactly the kind of obsolete and financially inefficient government entity that has plagued our public education system for years. It’s one of only two departments of its kind left in Texas, providing only redundant services our current system of independent school districts are already set up to handle.
Just how long will a government entity last after it’s outlived it’s usefulness? The HCDE has been obsolete for decades, and will continue to leech off Harris County taxpayers indefinitely if something isn’t done about it.
- Part Three: HCDE So Inefficient, It Should Be Unconstitutional - Empower Texans
How much did you spend on food and drinks in a four-month span? The Harris County Department of Education spent about $72,000 in taxpayer funded “Restaurant/Refreshment” purchases from August to December last year, a microcosm of waste so bad that many would consider it unconstitutional.
- Part Four: Venturing Capital With Taxpayer Money - Empower Texans
Since the Harris County Department of Education hasn’t been in charge of managing public schools for over 90 years, it’s had to find another way to spend its taxpayer funds: investing in for-profit businesses. Apparently, venture capitalism is one of the many all-important duties a department of education is meant to tackle.
It's well past time to shutter this wasteful, obsolete quasi-governmental agency.
HISD tries again to set the stage for future tax increases
“There’s not a lot of fat left on the bone around here,” observed Superintendent Terry Grier near the meeting’s conclusion.
What a disappointing piece from the usually excellent Texas Watchdog crew.
We're accustomed to establishment-oriented journalism in Texas, which usually reflects the reliable complaint from the reporter's institutional sources (read: mostly well-compensated bureaucrats) that voters and/or pols aren't giving them enough money. Rarely if ever is the taxpayer/voter perspective represented fairly in this sort of journalism.
Texas Watchdog has been refreshing because their focus on fraud, waste, and accountability frequently is of interest to the folks footing the bills of "public" services (read: taxpayers). Yet there's no such taxpayer voice in this story challenging Terry Grier's assertion that there's no fat left on the HISD bone. There's no reference to previous stories Texas Watchdog has done that suggest taxpayers may not be getting full value from, say, HISD's buddy-buddy bidding procedures. There's no followup on Matt Bramanti's occasional looks at the HISD check register (which shows large outlays for catering with regularity, apparently an ESSENTIAL function of educating the children in a cut-to-the-bone school district).
Let's hope this piece was just an anomaly. There's enough bad reporting reflecting the views of Texas education bureaucrats out there already.
Chron Eye for the Convicted Muslim Terror Guy?
The Texan convicted last week of attempting to aid al-Qaida wasn't on any most-wanted lists and was not in possession of bomb-making materials. He was by no means a major player in global terrorism.
As noted over on Texas Iconoclast, doesn't the part of the lede I've bolded pretty much negate all the speculation and complaining that followed?
CultureMap instant classic: "He's dead. Ask Chris to clarify this in the copy"
Composer, painter, writer, self-described anarchist and mushroom connoisseur John Cage turns 100 in 2012 and all sorts of events are underway to mark the occasion. (Editor's note: He's dead. Ask Chris to clarify this in the copy.)
Reader's note: Editors should probably remove notes to their writers prior to publication. (Thanks to @DeanBetz for the spot)
17 November 2011
Candidate Jones rallies with muni workers; Pension costs ballooning
The city will pay $243 million into the city's three public employee pensions this fiscal year. The city's annual pension bill is projected to rise to $368 million in four years.
Neal Meyer points out that in four years, the pension contribution will be consuming some 40% of property tax revenue.
Let's hope Mayor 50.2% is talking to some really sharp municipal finance wizards on her junket in Israel!
16 November 2011
United pilots go to US Airways playbook, break out the safety card
In the airline industry, it's the equivalent of the nuclear option.
I've covered a lot of airline contract talks and even strikes over the years, and while they can be acrimonious and messy, one issue was always off-limits: safety.
Management never publicly threatened that union demands could compromise it, and unions never implied that management was willing to skimp on it to save money.
Apparently, Steffy missed the full page ad that US Airways pilots took out this summer alleging that management practices were endangering passenger safety (also see the US Airways pilots' website).
For someone who touts his expertise in covering such matters, it's even more surprising Steffy has missed the ongoing labor acrimony at US Airways, since it's a possible sign of things to come at United/Continental if Jeff Smisek can't prove more successful in combining his labor force than US Airways has been at combining the legacy US and America West pilots.
Compare and contrast: Two pieces on "overpopulation"
It is true there is a finite limit to the human population the planet can support and maintain a health [sic] biological diversity.
At some point the balance between people and the environment is going to get tipped against forests, animals and nature. Thomas Malthus was famously wrong two centuries ago when he said it was happening. Paul Ehrlich was also wrong last century.
Is 7 billion the magic number? Tough to say.
What taboo? The left has been complaining about "overpopulation" for quite some time, so it's not surprising that it would make an appearance on the left-leaning SciGuy's blog. Even better that a little Global Warmism is part of the mix!
Here's the sort of perspective that one won't ever find on SciGuy's blog, on the other hand:
Sure, 7 billion is a big number. But most serious demographers, economists and population specialists rarely use the term "overpopulation" - because there is no clear demographic definition.
For instance, is Haiti, with an annual population growth rate of 1.3 percent, overpopulated? If it is, then was the United States overpopulated in 1790, when the new country was growing at more than 3 percent per year? And if population density is the correct yardstick, then Monaco, with more than 16,000 people per square kilometer, has a far greater problem than, say, Bangladesh and its 1,000 people per square kilometer.
Back in the 1970s, some scholars tried to estimate the "optimum population" for particular countries, but most gave up. There were too many uncertainties (how much food would the world produce with future technologies?) and too many value judgments (how much parkland is ideal?)
Even considering resource scarcity isn't all that helpful. During the 20th century's population explosion - when we went from 1.6 billion people to more than 6 billion - real prices for rice, corn and wheat fell radically, and despite recent spikes, real prices for food are lower than 100 years ago. Prices, of course, are meant to reflect scarcity; by such reasoning, the world would be less overpopulated today than a century ago, not more.
Eberstadt's piece is a good read (as is most of his work).
15 November 2011
Houston Fire Department helps Occupy Houston squatters steal electric safely
Today, the HFD Fire Marshal and organizers of the “Occupy Houston” protest group met to find a resolution to safety hazard concerns in Tranquility Park along Bagby Street.
Inspectors found electrical cords under water, overload of electrical outlets, and covers taken off night lights in the park exposing live wires.
Inspectors and organizers worked together to insure all safety hazards were addressed and no code violations exist. A compromise was reached to allow the organizers to use six plugs for appliances, however, extension cords would no longer be used. These resolutions are in compliance with the fire code.
So here is a followup question to yesterday's question: Why has the Parker Administration just now discovered that the free electricity it's providing combined with water and the Occupy Houston squatters is a potentially dangerous mix? Perhaps readers have some additional questions.
14 November 2011
KHOU: Parker Administration provides free electricity to Occupy Houston squatters
The protesters, by their own count numbering about 150, now have their own makeshift library, large containers to grow vegetables and a full-size refrigerator powered by extension cords plugged into public outlets inside the park.
Can someone explain to me why the Parker Administration is paying for these squatters to have electricity for their full-size refrigerator while the same Parker Administration is squeezing every last penny out of the 53% (fee increases, water rate increases, rain tax)?
13 November 2011
KHOU takes closer look at Quannel the Tenth (updated)
Quannel the Tenth seems to enjoy a lifestyle a bit more lavish than the average "community activist," yet local media for years have been disinclined to look into his operation. Kudos to KHOU-11 for taking a closer look.
UPDATE (11/15/2011): Quannel the Tenth now claims the KHOU stories are all part of a conspiracy to kill him (really).
Sheriff Garcia whines to Chron about funding; Bloggers offer different perspective
Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia attributes the backlog to a lack of staff, funding and a county hiring freeze that not only prevents him from hiring new employees, but also from replacing any who leave.
This guy CONSTANTLY seems to be whining about a lack of funding.
Here's a slightly different perspective on the whining:
But wait, [Sheriff Adrian Garcia] is the guy who got around the hiring freeze to add multiple Democrat political hacks to his payroll after the 2010 election turned one out of office and cost the others their jobs when a Republican won a supposedly safe Democrat seat on the Harris County Commissioners Court. Add to that the fact that Garcia couldn't find any fat to cut in his budget and in fact had no staff furloughed or laid off under the 2011 budget and had a budget increase. Besides -- the hiring freeze was lifted in April AND Sheriff Garcia got more hiring authorized last month.
Maybe Adrian Garcia can put his political hires, such as former Harris County District Clerk Loren Jackson and former Precinct 2 Commissioner Sylvia Garcia's former staffers, to wok entering warrants in order to justify their inflated salaries.
And here's a bit of media criticism:
While the Chron.com piece offers zero feedback from anyone other than the HCSO spin-doctors (Garcia himself), [Rhymes with Right] provides some much needed context and a little history lesson in Garcia's hiring practices.
Balanced, professional journalism is hard.
20% of hotel tax still being funneled to "arts"
[T]here is one area where arts and commerce converge that gets far less exposure than grants and exhibitions. And it's one that Ortale and the convention and visitors bureau are currently bringing to Houston's attention. This past week, they launched a local awareness campaign to highlight the little-known, but hugely significant, fact that 19.3 percent of the hotel tax, which constitutes 7 percent of the cost of a room, goes to support the arts in Houston.
Minnette Boesel, Mayor Annise Parker's assistant for cultural affairs, told the Chronicle that for fiscal year 2011, the local arts' share of that tax was $11 million. Almost 40 percent of that went to the Houston Arts Alliance, for grants and programs for about 250 organizations and individuals, with the rest going to the Theater District and Museum District associations and the Miller Theatre Advisory Board.
That's an impressive chunk of change. But as Ortale told the Chronicle, "Our biggest problem has been a lack of awareness. People remember the Houston of 20, 30 years ago. They don't know this Houston - vibrant and green and leading the country in clean energy consumption …
Where to start with this editorial that ran last weekend?
First, it's worth keeping in mind that yes, a whopping 19.3% of the hotel tax is directed to luxuries. Whatever one's opinion of the arts, a government that can direct roughly 20% of a revenue source to nonessential activities is a government that is not as strapped as "sky is falling!" pols and bureaucrats would have you believe. Definitely keep that in mind next time they are crying over the next fiscal calamity.
Second, what in the world do "green" and "clean energy" have to do with the arts, or this significant allocation of tax resources? Nothing. It's a non-sequitur.
Finally, Tom Bazan took up this topic over at his My Houston News site, Boondoggles (inexplicably, the pseudo-blogs over there do not seem to allow hyperlinks).
12 November 2011
Gattis on Houston and opportunity urbanism
The following video is a very interesting presentation by local blogger Tory Gattis on Houston and opportunity urbanism:
Gattis has posted supplemental material on his blog.
It's always good to see a principled defense of Houston's entrepreneurial spirit and foundation (and their role in Houston's growth and vibrancy), whether it's coming from Tory Gattis or Unca Darrell.
Rah rah: KTRK lauds soccer stadium "business boom"
Houston's East End will see an economic boost thanks to a brand new soccer stadium.
The stadium is still months away from actually hosting a game, but it's already making an impact.
Two well-located businesses think the soccer stadium will help them, and this gets a mindless rah-rah cheerleader piece from KTRK?
"Houston's News Leader" has been exercising some strange editorial judgment of late.
Fleck retiring from Houston Chronicle
The Tim Fleck Retirement Get Together, Part I was held last night at The Roundtable. The usual suspects showed up including the Harris County DA and CM James Rodriguez. It was a nice crowd for sure.
As for Fleck, his old political gossip column in the Houston Press was always an entertaining read. The Chron editorial board's output, on the other hand, has not met the standards one expects of a major daily newspaper for quite some time.
God complex: METRO Playwright in Chief vows personally to "move people"
Smart service also looks at the entire trip - not just time on a vehicle. That means good sidewalks that offer access to bus stops, and shelters at those stops. Greanias says he tell his staff to be "mode agnostic."
"I do not care what we use to move you. There will be cases when a 40-foot bus will be exactly right. There will be areas when...light-rail would be appropriate. It may be a trolley or a tram," said [METRO CEO and Playwright in Chief George] Greanias, roaming between luncheon tables as he spoke with sleeves rolled up. "METRO is oriented to do whatever works. Whether it's a bus, a train, a taxicab or God forbid, a yak, I will move people across this town."
The talk about buses and shelters and such sounds great, aside from the fact that a transit organization bankrupted by an expensive light-rail buildout (to benefit relatively few users) can't afford to take care of the rest of the transit system (hence the ongoing decline in overall system utilization, even as our population grows). Unfortunately, New METRO's "mode agnostic" rhetoric doesn't really match Same Old METRO's behavior.
As an aside, the reference to yaks is just creepy coming from the deviant who views adolescent gay porn using METRO resources.
08 November 2011
"Journalism deserts" and "mobility deserts" also problems in Houston!
Myrtha Billups has a pantry full of food, but no easy way to get it.
"The grocery stores are terrible around here," Billups said.
She's lived in Houston's Third Ward for more than 50 years and, while it wasn't always this way, it's tough for her to get to a grocery store without a ride from her daughter.
"In Houston, food deserts are a big problem. We have more food deserts than other metropolitan cities in the U.S.," Laura Spanjian with the City of Houston Office of Sustainability said.
This is a really disappointing piece coming from Ted Oberg, whose "In Focus" selections usually bring balance and some degree of depth (at least for TV news) to the issues he chooses to cover.
In this piece, what viewers/readers got instead was a long editorial that never truly defined the "problem" of "food deserts," but merely ran with the complaints of a Third Ward resident about the lack of grocery stores in an economically challenged neighborhood, and the assertions of a city bureaucrat whose job depends upon (so far as we can tell) drawing attention to these sorts of "problems" and sucking up taxpayer resources to address them.
Not much balance or curiosity to that reporting -- indeed, it's a veritable Journalism Desert!
Now, squandering taxpayer resources to bribe grocery stores to build in problem neighborhoods doesn't strike us as a legitimate function of municipal government in the first place.
But here's a question Oberg might have addressed if he'd done something more than turn his camera (and Houston's top rated newscast) over to a self-serving city bureaucrat: Why in the world can't residents of poor neighborhoods depend upon public transit to do routine tasks like grocery shopping?
Answer: Because even as METRO is more in debt than ever before, all that red ink is being squandered on light-rail projects of the sort favored by the local world-class Houtopia set at the expense of bus and METROlift services that are more geared towards providing mobility for less affluent residents of our city. In effect, METRO has created Mobility Deserts through its light-rail madness. Too bad no self-serving bureaucrats are out in front of the cameras championing remedies to that problem.
06 November 2011
A tale of two newsblog posts: HISD trustee's campaign flyer draws criticism
- Houston ISD Trustee Manuel Rodriguez under fire for campaign flyer called 'homophobic' - Mike Cronin, Texas Watchdog
- Gay rights group condemns HISD trustee’s ad - Ericka Mellon, School Zone/Chron.com
First, a media note, and second, a substantive note for discussion.
First, of the two "news blog" posts, it's interesting that the first actually uses tools of new media (hyperlinks, scribd, etc.) to tell the story, and the second... reads like old media (the reporter interprets the flyer in question but doesn't hyperlink or otherwise reproduce it for readers). So many years into the age of new media, it's still kind of interesting to see old media struggling so much with the concept. But hey, the Chron has an iPad app now, as many Chronsters have proclaimed on twitter, so there's that!
Second... I don't have kids, and if I did I'd try my best to avoid HISD, so I'm not inclined to use too many pixels to lecture parents on how they should evaluate candidates for school board. If candidate Rodriguez thinks candidate Fonseca's lifestyle is an issue for voters to evaluate, even though some arbiters of what Just Can't Be Said disagree, then I suppose that's his prerogative (at least, I think the First Amendment still spells out as much, unless Mr. Justice Kennedy has changed his mind lately and I've missed the decision). It doesn't strike me as the most important issue facing a struggling school district with any number of problems, though. What does the BH community think?