Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Texas Grows, but what about the budget?

Some preliminary population numbers are out from the Census Bureau and Texas has grown twice as fast as the rest of the nation.   This is good news if you want to be a Congressman.  Texas will get 4 new congressional districts.  But it also means the Texas budget has to grow to keep up.  Funding sources for the Texas budget have not grown and that's why Texas legislators face a big budget deficit in 2011.  There are two ways to deal with the deficit, raise taxes (ain't gonna happen) or cut spending.  In my next post about the Texas budget I'm going to talk about options for Medicaid, the second largest portion of the Texas budget. 

Friday, December 17, 2010

Will California Lead to Way to Cap and Trade?

California regulators just passed a new plan for a cap and trade market place to give monetary incentives to big polluters to clean up their act.  When I first read the article I was wondering, where are they going to get the money to do this.  Apparently the plan is to get the polluters to pay for it, first by getting permits to pollute and then when some are greener, selling their carbon permits to other companies that pollute more.  The regulators even claim polluters could make money, it would be a carbon emissions stock market. 

Of course it has its detractors, companies who say it will raise electricity prices because some of the biggest polluters are coal plants, and others who are worried the system can be cheated and not really lower pollution at all.  I guess we'll have to see.  It will certainly be a good test case to see if this kind of system can actually work.  Most innovative ideas come from states and if they become popular, then they are adopted by the Federal Government.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

I Wonder What Bexar Met's Bond Rating is Now?

Bexar Met General Manager Victor Mercado has just been indicted in Detroit on Racketeering charges.  I think that A bond rating for the utility may be sinking fast, just when they really need to borrow some money.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

How does the money get Spent? The Texas Budget: K through 12 Public Education

So what do we spend money on in the State of Texas?  The approved budget for the 2010-2011 biennium was $182 billion.  About 36% of that money comes from the federal government, 47% from general revenue funds (taxes, fees, etc) and about 16% from other sources. By state law the budget has to be balanced, no deficit spending allowed.  The chart below shows that the bulk of the budget is spent on K-12 Education, Health and Human Services, Higher Education, Business and Economic Development, and Public Safety and Criminal Justice.

Based on figures from the Fiscal Size Up done by the Legislative Budget Board (LBB)

By far, the biggest expense in the Texas budget is K-12 Education.   The state will receive $9.077 billion directly from the federal government and another $5.875 billion through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to help cover this expense.  The rest of the money ($37.77 billion) comes from the General Revenue Fund and other funds.  An interesting side note to all this is that even though expenditures for All Funds (Federal Funds, General Revenue Funds and Other Funds) has gone up by 24% since the 1996-97 biennium, General Revenue Funds expenditures, where our taxes and fees go, after being adjusted for population increases and inflation, has actually dropped by 1.4%.   Also, according to the Fiscal Size Up (by the LBB) even though spending on Education (Pubic and Higher Ed) has risen from $45 billion in 2000-01 to $75 billion in 2010-11, its share of the revenues has actually dropped 3.2% since 2000-01.

The Texas school population was predicted to rise by 14% by 2008 back in the late 1990s.  But in actuality, between the 1996-97 school year to the 2008-09 school year the number of students in Texas schools rose by 24%, from 3,838,975 in 1996-97 to 4,749,571 in 2008-09. So part of the dramatic rise in school spending is due to population increases.  But, according to the Financial Allocation Study for Texas (FAST) per pupil spending has also increased dramatically. In the 1998-99 school year, Texas spent an average of $7,095 per pupil, by 2008-09 an average of $11,564 was spent per student, a rise in per pupil spending of  63% over 10 years.  Inflation during this period would make $7095 in 1998 dollars be equivalent to $9331 in 2008, so even accounting for inflation school spending went up by over $2,000 per pupil ($1520.57 in 1998 dollars).

There are legislators who believe spending for Public Education needs to be cut.  They point to efficiencies that would lower costs and not hurt education.  Some, like Rep Warren Chisum R-Pampa, who is running to replace House Speaker Joe Strauss R-San Antonio, says that over the years we have doubled money spent on education and gotten poorer results.   But even though spending on public education went up by $15.3 billion between 2006 and 2009 to $75 billion (or 44% of the State budget) Texas still ranks 43rd in the nation in spending per student.  Also, according to the Texas Sunshine Review site, even though schools ranked academically unacceptable went up 4.4% between 2008 and 2009, the number of recognized schools went up by 10.4% and the number of exemplary ranked schools went up by 6%.

In order to evaluate public school spending and academic performance, the Texas Legislature commissioned the Comptroller (through HB 3) to 
identify school districts and campuses that use resource allocation practices that contribute to high academic achievement and cost-effective operations.

The Comptroller Office responded with the Financial Allocation Study for Texas (FAST).  Now of course, not all school districts spend the same amount of money per pupil, so the FAST study looked at each school district individually and scored them based on a three-year average of math and reading scores with a three year average of operating expenditures.  In order to determine the spending index for a school district 
  • Texas districts and campuses operate in a variety of “cost environments” —socioeconomic and geographic characteristics that influence the cost of education and are often beyond a school district’s control.
  • The research team evaluated financial data for each district and campus by comparing them to “fiscal peers” — districts and campuses that operate in similar cost environments, are of similar size and serve similar students.
  • To ensure the validity of financial comparisons, the research team employed a technique called propensity-score matching to identify up to 40 peers for each Texas school district and campus, based on common cost factors such as wages, school district size and geography and student demographics.
  • After a group of fiscal peers is identified for a school district, the district is then assigned a “spending index” based on its spending relative to its fiscal peers.
When spending was compared to academic achievement some school districts fared better than others.  In San Antonio, the highest scoring school district was North Side ISD with four stars for high academic acheivement and average spending.

The FAST study identified several strategies that school districts used to reduce spending.  Some reduced staffing (60% of most school budgets) through attrition and staff consolidations.  The FAST Study identified many efficiencies used by the highest rated school districts from online education classes, to refinancing bond debt, to transportation coops and facility sharing, to architectural prototypes for new schools and energy efficiencies.

Based on these efficiencies and other FAST Study findings, the Comptroller has made the following recommendations to the Texas Legislature and the Texas Education Agency:
  1. Eliminate the 22-student limit for each K-4 classroom and institute an average 22-student class size instead.
  2. Instead of rewarding teachers for years of service or advanced degrees, teacher salary schedules should reward teachers based on performance.
  3. The Legislature should amend state law to facilitate the dismissal of ineffective teachers.
  4. Study patterns in school district administrative staffing. From 1998-99 to 2008-09, the number of teachers in Texas rose from 256,276 to 325,809, a 27.1 percent increase. During the same period, the number of administrators rose from 18,531 to 25,130, a 35.6 percent increase.
  5. Ensure that teacher preparation programs produce high-quality teachers.
  6. Reduce barriers to on-line course work.
  7. Require book publishers to provide textbooks in a format compatible with common electronic reading devices.
  8. Standardize the reporting of campus financial data.
  9. Include questions in the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) that evaluate high-performing students.
  10. Integrate education and work force data into TEA's database.
  11. Allow school districts and other local governments to publish public notices on their websites instead of requiring newspaper advertisements.
  12. Assist school districts in placing their financial records and budgets on their websites to increase transparency.
  13. Continue to update the FAST study data and use it to identify school districts that deliver quality education in a cost effective manor and to target LBB school performance reviews. 
  14. Take advantage of the Comptroller's Purchasing Cooperative so that school districts get the best prices possible.
  15. Encourage shared-service arrangements.
  16. Create an efficient strategy for organizing transportation cooperatives.
  17. Use architectural prototypes in new construction.
  18. Maximize the use of school facilities.
  19. Take advantage of opportunities to manage energy costs more effectively.
Just the savings from going to an average class size, statewide, of 22 could save an estimated $557.5 million annually.

So, can we save money in K-12 Education?  Yes, but remember, Education is one of our most important resources.  If Texas wants to be The financial powerhouse of the 21st Century, it is imperative that we have a well educated workforce.  If the FAST findings are followed in an efficient, careful and unpolitical way, I believe we can achieve this goal and save some money at the same time.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Bexar County Gov 2.0

Bexar County has joined the 21st Century by launching the YourGOV application on it website. Similar to the City of San Antonio 311 reporting page, the YourGov site allows citizens of the county to report nonemergency  issues.
YourGOV can be used via the Web or your mobile phone.  By using YourGOV, the Citizen will be able to submit an issue and track its progress from submittal to completion via the Web. Issues are brought directly into the County’s Work Management solution where they can be forwarded on to the responsible department. By entering in an address or selecting a location on the map, the Citizen will be able to view where in Bexar County their issue is located. In addition, the Citizen will be able to view issues that have been submitted by other Citizens and track their status.
All you have to do is download the Microsoft Silverlight plug-in to your computer (available free at the YourGOV site) or the YourGov Iphone App to your smartphone.  To track your request, submit your email address and a password.  So if you see something that the county needs to address, such as graffitti, pot holes, missing or damaged signs, animal removal, dumping, etc, try out this new service today!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Who Cares if there's a New Speaker of the Texas House?

Back after reconstruction, when Texans were spitting mad at the radical Republicans for taking over their government, as soon as the Democrats had the chance they held a constitutional convention.  The participants wanted to weaken the government as much as possible.  So they split the Governor's powers across five different offices, gave the power of choosing just about all judges to the people through election, and made the legislative session so short it would be hard to pass many bills.  But there are two offices that still remain very powerful because of their power over the two presiding legislative bodies, the Lt. Governor, who presides over the Senate, and the Speaker of the House.

The Speaker of the House is one of the most powerful offices in Texas and it is the only one not directly chosen by the People.   The Speaker is chosen by his/her fellow legislators.

So why is the Speaker So Powerful??
The Speaker of the house chooses all of the committee chairmen for the various house committees.  These committees decide whether, and in what form, a bill makes it to the House floor or whether it dies in committee.  Because the Speaker chooses these chairmen he usually has a fair amount of control over them and can, in some cases, dictate what bills he wants to see on the floor.  Also, if a contentious bill makes it to the floor anyway, the Speaker can decide not to recognize legislators who want to debate the bill, or not even allow it to come up for a vote. 
The current Speaker is Joe Strauss R-San Antonio.  Joe Strauss has only been speaker for one session when he wrested the position from the autocratic Tom Craddick R-Midland.  According to Fred Hill R-Dallas
under Tom Craddick, the system was set up to do what Tom Craddick wanted to do, and he
exercised his power to pass legislation that he was in favor of. If he wasn’t in favor of it, he would kill it.
 Of course Democrats wanted to be rid of Craddick, but there were also Republicans who chafed under his rule, some even contending that he was abusing his power.
... the fight was about Craddick having consolidated power with lobbyists and having used campaign contributions to maintain control in the House: "This is about the convergence of money and power and influence," Cook [R-Corsicana] said.
Tom Craddick at first was able to maintain control by not recognizing Republicans who wanted to oust him.
House Speaker Tom Craddick shut down repeated efforts by House members to remove him from his post during a dramatic midnight coup attempt Friday, refusing to recognize them for a procedural move that would set off a vote to oust him.

In an extraordinary late-night exchange before a packed House gallery, with most House members seated quietly at their desk, Fred Hill, R-Richardson, asked that the chamber be allowed to vote on Mr. Craddick's fate.

It was the climax of discontent that had been building for weeks – but Mr. Craddick, R-Midland, stymied it with carefully worded parliamentary rulings.

"The speaker's power of recognition on any matter can not be appealed," he said.
Craddick managed to maintain his position until the 2009 legislative session when Democrats came close to splitting the chamber with the Republicans (74 Ds to 76 Rs), in part due to voter unhappiness with Craddick.

Now that the Republicans have a strong majority in the House once again, Joe Strauss is in trouble because he won the Speaker position partly due to overwhelming support by the Democrats.  Part of the deal Strauss made with Democrats for their support was the handing out of some committee chairmanships to Dems. But at the time the Republican majority was only by 2 members.  Now that the Republicans have almost a Super Majority in the House, it stands to reason that the chairmanships should change hands, even under Strauss. 

Many Conservatives say Strauss is a Democrat in Republican clothing.  Some Republicans claim Strauss supported Democratic Candidates and that he is Pro-Choice.  But as with most campaign rhetoric, you have to separate the wheat from the chaff.  According to the Texas Ethics Commission, campaign contributions made by Strauss were to fellow Republicans.
Campaign finance reports from January 1 through Election Day show the names Joe Straus, Joe R Straus, Speaker Joe Straus, Joe R Straus III, Joe Strauss, and Joe R. Strauss gave $716,550 to Republican candidates and political groups.
Straus defended his efforts as “completely legal,” helping to “bring about the largest gains in the history of our party.”

It is considered part of the House speaker’s job to support the House members, in both their efforts to effectively represent their districts and in their efforts to be re-elected. It is considered bad form for a speaker to actively campaign against incumbents, even if they are in the opposing party.

In fact, former Speaker Tom Craddick , R-Midland, Straus’ direct predecessor, raised more than $2.5 million in campaign contributions in the election years during his three terms in the post. Some of Craddick’s contributions were through his speaker PAC, Stars Over Texas, which was formed to support House Republicans in their election bids.
Strauss may have raised money for his fellow Republican supporters, but he didn't raise money for any Democrats.

It is hard to say what Strauss' position is on Abortion, because he didn't vote at all on any of the recent Pro-Life legislation (2005, 2007,2009). Joe Strauss isn't even on the NARAL Abortion Issues list.  Neither did he try to obstruct votes on Pro-Life bills.  Votes for 3 Pro-Life bills were held in the House during his tenure.  If he is guilty of anything, it is by being Neutral in this contentious issue.

Two very conservative Republicans are challenging Strauss for the Speaker position, Warren Chisum R-Pampa and Ken Paxton R-McKinney.  They feel the strong Tea Party showing in Texas has given them the mandate to challenge Strauss.  Strauss is an establishment Republican, and as we all know by the recent election, the Tea Party hates the establishment. 

But, no matter who the Speaker of the House is, he will have to deal with a budget shortfall some are estimating at as high as $25 billion, not a job I would want to have!

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Bexar Met, Financially Strong?

Bexar Met has been touting their "A" Bond rating, saying that Standard and Poors has found them financially fit.  However, Standard and Poors begs to differ.  They say the "A" rating was given along with a negative outlook.  Bexar Met is facing a bill in the legislature this legislative session that would dissolve the utility and eventually move its customers over to other more viable utilities such as SAWS.  Other utilities would be willing to take on Bexar Met debt because the utility has water rights to 90,000 acre feet of water but only uses half of it.

The Bexar Met board was definetely exaggerating its worth by claiming that all rate payers in the district would have to be compensated and it would make them instant millionaires.  But any utility that takes over Bexar Met will have to put in a large capital investment in order to upgrade facilities, some of which are in pretty bad shape.  Also the utility has been bleeding money and has a lot of debt, creditors would have to be paid off first.  More than likely rate payers would rather be guarenteed to have water than to have all the Bexar Met facilities sold off to the highest bidder.  So if you're in Bexar Met, don't expect to see any million dollar payouts.

Monday, December 6, 2010

SA2020--Your Chance to Shape the Future

The next SA2020 Forum, What Does Success Look Like, is this Wedsnesday, December 8, 2010 at St. Mary's Bill Greehey Arena.  Click here to register.  This is the fourth meeting and if you haven't had the chance to participate yet, now's your chance.  Let SA's leaders know what YOU want San Antonio to look like in 2020.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Smart Growth Around America

I'm still on jury duty, but I have time for a quick post.  I just added a new blog to the City Planning Blogs called Smart Growth Around America.  The title speaks for itself.  The blog was pointed out to me by an Urban Planner on Quora who pointed out that not only is regional planning for transportation mandated through the federal government through the Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) (an organization that exists in every urbanized area with 50,000 or more residents) but is also now being bolstered by a joint effort of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Department of Transportation (DOT).  HUD and DOT have come together to offer $68 million for HUD's Sustainable Communities Challenge Grants and DOT's TIGER II Planning Grants.  According to a post by Smart Growth Around America
HUD’s Sustainable Communities Challenge Grants and DOT’s TIGER II Planning Grants are the latest examples of interagency federal programs that aim to create economically robust and sustainable communities through better transportation, housing and development coordination – helping communities make themselves even stronger through a more thoughtful use of every available dollar for their local economy.

“The partnership between these agencies is good for communities and allows federal funds to achieve multiple goals simultaneously,” said Geoff Anderson, President and CEO of Smart Growth America. “By looking at housing and transportation together, HUD and DOT can help regions move farther and faster to strengthen their local economies and create jobs.”
Over 1,700 communities applied for the grant money, but of course there was only so much to go around.
The city of Dallas and the North Central Texas Council of Governments (Arlington) each received a grant together totaling more than $2.8 million.  I will be keeping an eye on these projects to see how they progress.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Civic Commons

I'm still on jury duty, but I have a little time to write a quick post.  I found out about a website this morning called Civic Commons.  Civic Commons wants to help government entities at all levels share their technology, eliminating redundancy, fostering innovation, and cutting costs.  Here's what they do

  • Facilitating the sharing of code among government entities, with an eye towards developing an “Open Civic Stack”
  • Connecting governments throughout all phases of technology procurement, and building systems for more transparent & informed technology choices
  • Developing and supporting Open Data and Open Standards as foundations of an “Open Civic API”
  • Spreading government technology best practices
  • Building a community of “civic hackers” and give them clear opportunities to assist in the development of government technology
An interesting idea that could save governments a lot of money.  I only see one draw back, security issues in dealing with open sourced software, but if the government entity is diligent in dealing with security, this shouldn't be a problem.  I'll post the site in my helpful website listings.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The VIA Express

Well, lucky me, I'm on jury duty, but it has given me the chance to try out the new VIA Express bus.  The first day I rode it, I barely made it.  I drove over to the Park & Ride at 1604 and IH 10 and there were two buses sitting at the stop, but as I got out of the car one of them (the 94) drove off, so I rushed over and jumped on the 93.  Both of these routes are express, but the 93 also stops at the Crossroads Center, while the 94 goes straight downtown.  There were about four other passengers on the 6:50am bus.  Check the VIA bus schedules for info on bus stops and travel times.  Click on the Adobe reader icons for the actual schedules.

While riding, I struck up a conversation with a regular rider.  She works for the county and rides the bus everyday from the Crossroads stop.  She told me that the Express is very popular with people selected for jury duty.  She said sometimes the bus is packed with jurors.  The day I rode, I was probably the only one, and the bus wasn't full.  It's pretty cool because they actually send you two free tickets (there and back) along with the jury summons.  Since I used the ticket the bus driver knew I was going to the justice center, and when we arrived at the center at about 7:12-7:15am (the bus stops directly in front of it) he announced which doors to enter and that the main jury room was in the basement.  So the ride to the Justice Center was extremely easy.  I took the 6:50am bus, because the next bus at 7:20am was not scheduled to arrive at the Justice Center until 7:47am, and I didn't want to chance it because I was supposed to be there at 8:00am.  Bus Schedules are not always on time because of traffic and that's when traffic is usually at its peak.

I got put on a panel for a judge who was determined to pick a jury that day so that the case could be concluded before the holidays, so he kept us until 6:30pm.  Luckily the Express for IH 10 runs until 10:00pm but if you are riding the 281 express, it only runs until 7:00pm. The other Express routes are route 6 for the 281 corridor to downtown, route 16 to Fort Sam Houston, route 48, the IH 35 South Express, and route 64, the Hwy 90 Express.  If you just want to do some sightseeing check out the Sightseer Special, route 7 which travels from the Botanical Garden to La Villita and back, with stops at the Witte, the Zoo/Brackenridge Park, the San Antonio Museum of Art and the Alamo.

So it was after dark when I walked out to the bus stop.  The nearest stop is a little creepy.  It's in front of the Payless Shoe store at Commerce and Soledad across from the newly refurbished Main Plaza.  Definitely be ready for some local characters, homeless people with shopping carts who talk to themselves, young women in very skimpy outfits with spiky high heels, some young men who probably are regularly refered to as Ese, and I think even a willowy transvestite.  The 94 bus came exactly at 7:10pm as scheduled, and I have to admit, I was a bit relieved.    The bus brought me back to the Park & Ride at about 7:25pm.

Well, I was lucky enough to be picked for a jury, so I'll be at the Justice Center every day for awhile.  Everyday a juror can go down to the main jury room and pick up a set of free bus tickets for the next day.  Since we got out so late, the office was closed, so I decided to drive the next day and park in the County Parking lot across from the Justice Center.  With a validated ticket, you can park there for $2.00 a day, but beware, there is no in and out, so if you move your car, you will have to pay more, and there is no guarentee that there will be any spaces left, because the garage fills up by 8:00am.  One of my fellow jurors arrived at 7:45am and had to park elsewhere.  So if you get picked for a jury and you don't have to be there at the crack of dawn, you might want to consider the Express Bus.  I don't have to be there until 9:30am today, so I'm definetely taking the bus!

Friday, November 12, 2010

Where does the money come from? The Texas Budget

The state of Texas receives money from several funding sources, with about half of its income (approximately $44 billion in 2010-2011) coming from the state sales and use tax rate of 6 1/4% (.0625).   City, county and transportation authorities can also collect sales taxes, but the combined tax can be no more than 8 1/4% (.0825). The Sales and Use tax is imposed on
all retail sales, leases and rentals of most goods, as well as taxable services.
Sales tax is highly dependent on consumption, luckily, Texans have been willing to spend money so revenue was actually up by 2.2% by June 2010.

Motor Vehicle Sales and Use taxes make up the second largest source of income for the state and the Texas Franchise Tax is the third largest source of general revenue.  This tax collects 0.5 to 1.0% of  the margin from all corporations, Limited Liability Companies, Partnerships (with exceptions), Professional Associations,Joint Ventures, Business Trusts, and Other legal entities chartered in the State of Texas.  But what the hell is Margin?
Margin equals the lowest of three calculations:
  • total revenue minus cost of goods sold;
  • total revenue minus compensation; or
  • total revenue times 70 percent.

Here is a table from the Window on Open Government that details the General Revenue fund sources.

 As you can see revenues from the general sales tax, the motor fuels tax and alcoholic beverages taxes are up slightly, but revenues from all other funding sources are down, with total tax collections down by 2.5% and non tax collections down by 4.7% lowering General Fund Revenue by about $9 billion, a hole Texas can't really afford right now.

Texas also receives money from the federal government, about $55.1 billion during the 2010-2011 biennium.  In 2005 (according to the latest figures available by the Tax Foundation) Texas received $0.94 per dollar of taxes paid by Texans to the federal government.  So Texas is getting most of its money back and only actually contributing $0.06 to federal programs. Looks like we are getting off pretty cheap, especially compared to states like California, that only received $0.78 per dollar paid in income taxes.

Texans as a general rule are allergic to taxes and raising tax limits is tantamount to political suicide, but can we really afford to keep taxes this low???  

My next post will detail where the tax money is spent in Texas.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Texas State Budget: How did we get that HUGE Shortfall???

Over and over in the news I see reports of budget shortfalls for states.  Estimates in newspapers for the Texas Budget shortfall range from $18 billion to $25 billion.  So I decided to write a new series of posts on the Texas Budget.

Then the confusion set in.  When I started to investigate the shortfall by going to websites where these things are actually calculated, like the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), which gathers data on all the states, and the Center for Public Policy Priorities (CPPP), which deals specifically with the State of Texas, I started finding a lot of discrepancies.  The CBPP which gets its numbers for Texas from the CPPP says the budget gap is $4.6 billion for 2011.  But the CPPP says
Texas needs to make significant public investments in infrastructure and services to ensure our prosperity. Unfortunately, Texas is a low-tax state with a structural deficit. In 2006, the state made its structural deficit worse by pledging to pay for a local school property tax cut. The "hole" or uncovered cost of that tax cut is now almost $10 billion per biennium. To add to the state's woes, just before the legislative session began in 2009, the country went into a severe economic recession that substantially reduced state tax revenues. Fortunately, the federal government stepped in with Recovery Act funding. Even so, many important projects and programs were left unfunded or inadequately funded.
Now, I guess you could figure that $10 billion per biennium has added up since 2006 to about $20 billion.  Not quite sure where the $4.6 billion figure comes from.  According to the Sunshine Review of the 2009-11 budget there was a projected amount of $9 billion in the Rainy Day Fund, which probably helps balance the budget out to the point that in 2010 the gap in the budget is $3.5 billion, with an added $1.3 billion in 2011, which adds up to $4.8 billion.  But usually, legistators hate touching the Rainy Day Fund.

In an article by Veronica Flores-Paniagua in the Express, she says the shortfall is about $25 billion, so if you add $20 billion for the last four years plus $4.6 billion from the CBPP, then it sort of makes sense.

Since the Texas legislature only meets every other year they have to come up with a budget that covers the government until the next legislative session in 2013, two more years, another $10 billion.  Public School Districts across Texas have been ordered to cut their budgets by 5-10%.  Now there is always fat in a large bureaucracy that can be trimmed, but if you are looking at $60 million for the next school year like Northside ISD, limiting paper use doesn't go very far, and hiring freezes can only work for a limited time in a fast growing school district.

Then to add to the pain, Perry refused to sign off on the latest school funding bill which would have given some relief to cash strapped districts.  The political wrangling on that bill was just plain STUPID in my opinion.  I blame both Perry and Lloyd Doggett for being pig-headed.  Lloyd Doggett basically drew a line in the sand by requiring Perry (the only governor required to do this) to pledge that federal funding would not replace state funding for schools (which apparently happened the last time Texas got federal school funding).  Perry, of course, refused to sign it, saying it was illegal for him to tie the legislature's hands for the future budget process, making him a Tea Party Darling.  Lloyd Doggett was trying to make Perry look bad, because he wasn't taking money for the schools, well that BACK FIRED, and now the school districts are paying the price.

Texas is 35th in the nation in per pupil spending.  Now if you are anti-taxes you probably think this is great and spending per student is not necessarily an indicator of how well students do in school.  But when budget cuts have to continue, because there is no money to make up for the gap in spending, after awhile it will effect student performance.  Can Texas afford to lower its student performance at a time when it is becoming the place for high tech and biomedical companies to locate, grow and proper?  Remember that old saying, you get what you pay for.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Making Bus Travel Easier and Faster

VIA's reimagined Express Service is now on line.  I got a door tag with two free ride coupons to advertise the new routes and buses.  The buses have WIFI, cargo racks, plush seats, reading lights and hybrid engines, making them a far cry from the Express bus I used to ride back in 1983.

But in a city with a lot of traffic, how do you make the bus go faster?  In about 2 years, VIA plans to have a gizmo that allows them to change red lights green, but that's a few years in the future.  Other ways to make buses faster are HOV lanes (a pretty inexpensive thing to do, and contrary to car commuter fears, doesn't slow down the rest of traffic, check out my post about them here.)  And in NYC they have put in bus ticket kiosks by the bus stops in order to take fare collection out of the picture, a process that slows down bus travel by 30%.  After adding light changing transponders and fare kiosks, bus ridership in New York went up by 20%, in a city where mass transit is highly used that's pretty phenomenal.  It's also the first time, that when polled, NYC bus riders were 98% satisfied with the bus service.

So will fancier, faster bus service catch on in SA, the jury is still out, but I think I'm going to try out my free bus rides.

Monday, November 1, 2010

I Want Change but not that kind of CHANGE

When President Obama was elected CHANGE was his mantra.  He won the election by 7 percentage points.  Not exactly a mandate, but certainly change from the previous administration.  Of course, Texas went for McCain, but only by 11 percent, not exactly a total blowout either.  But now, people are MAD because the Democrats took it for granted that the electorate wanted change.

But what exactly did the electorate mean by change.  Well, obviously the liberals wanted carbon trade legislation, strong environmental regulation, immigration reform, and universal, cheap, single payer health care.  They sort of got health care, not sure how cheap it's going to be though.  Conservatives wanted the economy to get back on track without spending money.  Well, the economy is still struggling after two years, and don't even get them started on the money.  The moderates, which I still believe there are a few of us left out there, wanted the economy to improve, and wanted modest changes in health care, immigration and environmental regulation. The independents, well I'm not really not really sure what they wanted because they aren't a cohesive group.  But probably the thing that everyone wanted was a decent job where they lived.

I think it's interesting that CHANGE caught so many voters imagination.   We humans don't particularly like change, we like things to stay the same, as long as everything is running relatively smoothly.  But, of course we all know that a few months before the election everything went to hell in a hand basket.  Blaming fingers started pointing in all directions and I think that all sides had their parts to play.

The biggest problem, in my humble opinion, was that everyone seemed to think that good economic times were here to stay and despite a few minor blips from time to time nothing was going to slow down.  When the stock market started showing weaknesses, people switched to real estate as the be all and end all.  I started getting queasy when I noticed large amounts of new housing stock being bought in blocks and put up for lease in neighborhoods throughout town.  I found out pension funds from California and other states were investing heavily in real estate.  Then the Adjustable Rate Mortgage reared its ugly head.  Back in the 80's this was the bugaboo that brought on the Savings and Loan Crisis.  Housing speculation became rampant, always a bad sign, but no one seemed to notice.  A coworker of mine had caught the fever and declared she wanted to flip a house.  I advised against it.  When everyone is flipping houses, its time to get out of real estate.  Well, I sort of changed that, Old Joe Kennedy decided to get out of the stock market when he found out his shoe shine boy was investing.

So what happened to bring on the Great Recession, relaxation of government regulation, by both the Democrats and the Republicans, and universal greed brought it on.  One thing we have to remember is it was called the Great Recession.  But unlike its name sake, the Great Depression, which took 10 long years plus a world war to recover from, we in our fast paced world expect the economy to recover overnight.  Well it's two years later and the economy is limping slowly towards recovery, largely due to the dreaded TARP legislation.  Everyone hates TARP, but actually it has been pretty successful.  Most of the banks that received the loans have paid the money back and GM is slowly starting to improve.  Also, if my memory serves me TARP was a bipartisan bill, everyone was on board.

Well, back to change, what kind of change would be GOOD Change?

The other day I was listening to an interview of Bill Hobby, the longest standing Lieutenant Governor in Texas.  The interviewer said that polls show that most voters don't want their legislators to compromise and he asked what Hobby thought of that.  Hobby laughed and said, "then they're CRAZY".  Because as the former LG knows, nothing gets done in the state house or congress without compromise.  There even has to be compromise between members of the same party.  It's also important to have civil dialogue.  If everyone is screaming at each other, nothing gets done.  The best legislation happens when all voices can be heard and are listened to respectfully with an OPEN mind.

The change I want to see, but I don't think is likely to happen anytime soon, especially after the vitriol spewed during this current election season, is CIVIL DIALOG and the willingness to LISTEN to other people's opinions with an OPEN MIND.  SA2020 has been a model of this type of behavior, it sure would be nice to see this happen in other venues.  And one more change that I would like to see is PATIENCE.  This is probably the hardest one of all, because I know people are suffering out there, but to misquote a Blood, Sweat and Tears song, "What goes down must come UP."

Friday, October 29, 2010

Have YOU Filled Out the Community Survey Yet?

SA2020 held it's second meeting last night at McCollum High School with an overflow crowd.  If you would like to see the meeting check out the recorded webcast here. If you didn't get to the meeting, you should check it out to see the word art formed by the surveys.  They are pretty remarkable.  At the meeting people were divided into groups to discuss each of the separate issues facing San Antonio to come up with a vision for the future. 

The next meeting will be on November 20, 2010.  You can sign up to go to the meeting on the SA2020 website.  If you can't make the meeting, like me last night, you can watch the live webcast and participate in the meeting on the chat moderated by NowCastSA, during the meeting. 

So far over 3,000 people have filled out the Community Survey and more than 65% of respondents were highly satisfied with Arts, Culture, Affordable Housing, Safety, Health Services, Sense of Community and the Quality of Public Service in San Antonio.  But we definitely have a lot of work to do.  Areas that received the least amount of satisfaction were Transportation/Traffic, the Ability of Regular Citizens to Influence Local Government, Opportunities to find Well Paying Jobs, the Quality of the Physical Infrastructure and Education.  These were the topics that were discussed at the meeting last night.

Ben Warner of JCCI, the facilatator of the meeting, puts together meetings like this in cities all over the country.  He said getting 1,000 survey responses is about a much as a city can expect.  Well, so far we have proved him wrong.  Have you filled out your survey yet? 

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Woe is me, I pay TOO much for taxes in Texas

After reading an article about a promised $2000 tax savings on property taxes that never materialized, and this quote from Tax Assessor/Collector Sylvia Romo who says
she routinely hears complaints about property taxes.
“I especially hear from out-of-state people — newcomers to San Antonio,” Romo said. “They are shocked because the property taxes are so high. Now they are paying in the thousands instead of hundreds” of dollars.
She added, “Welcome to Texas.”
I just felt that I needed to speak up.  Yes the article is correct that Perry's promise of a $2000 savings on property taxes never happened, but this last quote makes it sound like Texans pay high taxes.  Well our property taxes may be high in comparison to other states, BUT, we have no state income tax.

According to the Tax Foundation, Texas ranked 43rd with an 8.4% tax rate in State-Local tax burdens in 2008. The tax rate has gone up a whopping 0.3% since 1977.

Yes, I know, no one likes to pay taxes, but an awful lot of people like to complain about the things that government is not getting done.  Well, just remember, you get what you pay for.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

SA2020, Next Meeting

The next meeting to plan San Antonio's future is coming up October 28, 2010 from 6:30 to 8:30pm at Mccollum High School.  All are welcome to participate, just RSVP at   If you can't come (or even if you can), fill out the Community Survey to put your two cent in.  The survey isn't just for adults, here's a link to the Youth Survey.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Early Voting Starts TODAY!

Early voting starts today.  Check here for a list of locations.  Bring your voter's registration card, or a valid ID.  Check out this earlier post for all the information you'll need to know about voting and candidates.

And as Al Capone said  "vote early and vote often!" (I mean in different elections of course)

Thursday, October 14, 2010

A Consolidated School District for SA?

At the SA2020 kick off meeting, one of the participants suggested that the 15 independent school districts in the San Antonio area be consolidated into one district in order to increase efficiency and effectiveness. Surprisingly (to me, anyway) a lot of people in the room cheered.  Apparently State Rep. Roland Gutierrez, D-San Antonio, has been backing this, who know's maybe he was the guy who brought it up at the conference
First of all, could this even happen? Yes, there are 3 ways to do it.

  1. The Board of Trustees of the school districts involved can adopt a resolution to consolidate and then hold an election.
  2. Constituents of the districts can do it by petition, requesting an election to consolidate, signed by a required number of voters in the district.
  3. The Commissioner of the Texas Education Agency can force the consolidation of a wealthy district with a poor one, if the wealthy district cannot come to an agreement on wealth sharing with the poor district.
School districts have been able to consolidate since 1995, when Chapter 13 was added to the Texas Public Education Code. Forced consolidations, also allowed in 1995, are part of Chapter 41, the Equalization of Wealth Level provision of the Public Education Code, otherwise known as the "Robin Hood" legislation.

So it can be done, but is consolidation PRACTICAL??

If all the districts in SA were consolidated the student population would be:
  • Alamo Hts             4,762 growing
  • East Central           9,292 growing
  • Edgewood           12,392 growing
  • Harlandale           14,521 growing
  • Fort Sam               1,472 growing
  • Judson                 21,750 growing
  • Lackland                  936 stable
  • North East           65,498 growing
  • Northside            94,369 growing
  • Randolph Field      1,198 stable
  • San Antonio        55,327 growing
  • Somerset              3,726 growing
  • South San Antonio 9,974 stable
  • Southside               5,216 growing
  • Southwest            11,531 growing
                                    311,964 Total Students and GROWING

 The seventh largest school district in the US and the largest in Texas, Houston ISD, had an enrollment of 202,773 students during the 2009-10 school year.  Enrollment has been declining since 2006.  HISD had over 208,000 during the 2004-2005 school year (pre-Katrina, the HISD took in many students from New Orleans after the evacuations).  The district has also had many scandals and problems, such as doctored dropout rates, fraud allegations, failing teachers, and failing to meet federal standards for special education.

I'm guessing that school consolidation proponents think that having only one school district would equalize wealth, make schools across the district equal and the school population would be spread equally across all schools.  Well, let's take a look at Northside ISD.  It is a sprawling district that extends from Hwy 90 just inside Loop 410 north into Southern Bandera County and west to Medina County.  Back in 1949, when it was formed, this area had a low population so in order to have a similar population to other districts in the area it had to be this big.  Now though, NISD is in the most popular region of SA, population is booming. Even during the middle of the Great Recession, from 2007 to 2009, the district grew by 8.0%.  As of March 2009, when it's population was only 82,587, it was the 37th largest school district in the nation.
Credit: NISD Resource Planning

 All schools in NISD are required to teach the TEKS (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills), which all Texas schools are required to teach,  all teachers are required to meet the same standards, and several bond issues have been held to update older schools.  Magnet schools exist at Holmes HS(Business Careers) and Jay HS(Science Academy) to encourage students from other parts of the district to attend these schools. 

So, each school in NISD should be considered worthy and relatively equal, but public perception and actions say otherwise.  Growth in the city has been moving steadily north westward for the last twenty years, so now there are at least 10 elementary schools in NISD outside Loop 1604.  The average student body population for elementary schools gets larger the farther out the school is.

Average School Population
  • Inside 410--646 students 
  • between 410 and 1604--796 students 
  • outside 1604--898 students
There were 5 new schools opened for the 2010-11 school year. All, with the exception of Martin ES which is the first school built inside Loop 410 in 20 years, are outside Loop 1604. Martin ES is in the Canterbury subdivision, which is the only area in NISD inside Loop 410 to have much growth. Six of the proposed schools from the 2010 bond issue will also be built outside Loop 1604 (the seventh school's location has not yet been determined.)

NISD tries to spread some of the school population around by capping student population at over populated schools, and sending those students to cluster schools.  There are 13 cluster schools in the district, 3 inside Loop 410, the rest scattered across the district between 410 and 1604.

The table below shows a comparison between the elementary school populations inside Loop 410 and outside Loop 1604.  Housing in NISD inside Loop 410 has become less desirable over time, while outside 1604 is where most of the new housing is being built. I compared elementary schools because this is the foundation for growth in the district for the next ten years.

(sorry for the chopped off totals on the right, if I made the table any smaller, it would be unreadable)
Source:  NISD Resource Planning Enrollment Reports
Total school population in both areas is projected to increase, but what is really telling is the percent change in class sizes for the two areas.  Class size tends to drop off some after 1st grade, but the slide is much more dramatic (14.08% inside 410 versus 2.23% outside 1604) for the schools inside Loop 410.  This may indicate that families tend to move outside Loop 410 after 1st grade, to get their children into "better" schools.  What constitutes a better school in NISD, is all based on perception.  Lower income areas are assumed to have worse schools solely based on their location.

Proponents of school district consolidation, like State Rep. Roland Gutierrez, believe that a consolidated district administration would lead to effiencies that would lower costs. But Mike Falick, a trustee for Spring Branch ISD, says
I have yet to find any [empirical data] that would suggest consolidation in Texas would lead to greater efficiency or effectiveness in the delivery of education to Texas's 4.3 million students.  Indeed, the data I found from other states shows that efficiency and effectiveness are negative correlates to consolidation.
I am interested in any data that supports consolidation by showing improvements in the effectiveness and efficiency in the delivery of education. If you are aware of any such data, please email me or post a comment with the information.

The article was written in 2005, so far, no one has posted any comments.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

San Antonio Gettin' It's Chalk On

Who says you can't stop traffic to play in the street

Sidewalk Art in Progress

Political Ad

Peace around the Loop?
San Antonio always has lots of free events going on, such as ArtPace's Annual Chalk It Up Festival, on Houston Street.  Check out all the free fun at the Convention and Visitor Bureau's site and the Express-News Free Events site.

Monday, October 11, 2010

SA, 5th Fastest Growing City in North America

San Antonio made Joel Kotkin's list of North America's Fastest Growing Cities.  SA ranked 5th, after Raleigh/Durham NC, Austin, Salt Lake City, UT and Calgary, Alberta, Canada.  Yes, the ranking is for all the cities in North America, not just the US.

San Antonio, Texas

Last year this historic Texas metropolis--home to the Alamo--ranked second on our list "best cities for jobs" among larger cities. The region has been growing rapidly to well over 2.1 million. As the economy, particularly in Texas, recovers, an already strong health care sector will be joined by an expanding industrial base. One key factor in San Antonio's favor: stable house prices--even by Texas standards. PMI Mortgage Insurance Co.'s most recent risk index, which is a two-year measure, lists San Antonio as having the lowest risk from falling prices among large Texas cities.

Legislation, the Solution to Bullying in Schools?

Grits for Breakfast has a good post about this subject.  Check it out here.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

How much POWER does the Governor of Texas have?

The other day someone asked me if Bill White were elected Governor of Texas, would he be able to institute a state income tax.  The answer is a resounding NO.

The office of Governor is extremely weak in Texas. You can thank the Reconstruction Republican government after the Civil War (or as we southerner like to say, the "War Between the States") for that.  During Reconstruction the Radical Republicans took over the government in Texas and pretty much instituted Marshall Law.  The appointed governor at the time, Edmund J. Davis, was a Southern Unionist who fled Texas after it joined the Confederate States and eventually became a Union General.  A new constitution was written in 1869 that gave the Governor
power to appoint more than 9,000 offices, impinging on the independence of local government and the will of the people.
During elections in 1873, Democrats won back many elected offices, despite intimidation by the State Police.  The Governor's seat was won by Democrat Richard Coke, but quickly invalidated by the Texas Supreme Court (all Davis appointees).  Angry Texans refused to accept the decision and when General Grant ignored requests to send federal troops to help Davis, he reluctantly stepped down.  In 1876 a new Constitutional Convention was held, and devised a constitution that weakened the State Government to a shadow of it's former self.

Now the Governor's powers are limited to appointments to over 200 boards and commissions in Texas (approximately 3000 positions), mobilization of the Texas National Guard and Texas Rangers, and the line item veto.  Just about every other office besides the board and commissions are elected by the People. The Governor has to be a very good persuader to get the Legislature (the law making and budgetary authority) to do what he wants, but he has no formal power over them.

Most appointees have 6 year terms and have to be approved by 2/3 of the Texas Legislature.  Since a Governor's term only lasts for 4 years, if a new Governor is elected, he/she cannot appoint new commissioners,, until their terms have expired.  In this way, the former Governor continues his legacy.

Due to Perry's longevity in office (10 years, longer than any other Texas Governor), all of the boards and commissions are filled with his "Posse".  This is where Perry's strength lies.  He also knows how to game the system.  If an elected official leaves office before his term expires, such as a Texas Supreme Court Justice (he's appointed 5 of them), Perry can also make an appointment to these offices.  He also bent the Legislature to his will by vetoing 82 bills (more than any other Governor in a single session) in his first year in office, pretty much invalidating the entire session.

Other people have asked me why the Governor's office doesn't have term limits.  (Perry has served 2 elected terms plus 2 years of Governor Bush's term when he left office to become President.)  No other Texas Governor has completed 2 consecutive terms in office.  So up till now, there has been no need for term limits.  But, I have a feeling, that there soon will be calls for an amendment to the Texas Constitution to remedy this situation.

If Bill White gets elected, he will be starting from scratch, and may have to wait awhile before he can make any appointments.  Also, since he didn't come up through the Legislature, he doesn't have the knowledge of the ins and outs of the system that Perry has.  As a State Representative, Perry served on two of the most powerful committees in the legislature (Appropriations and Calendars) where he learned the importance of timing in the use of the veto.

So, if you want a super weak Governor, versus a semi-weak Governor, Bill White is your man.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Code For America: The Experiment

I have just added a Twitter Search for Code For America to follow their Open Cities Think Up experiment. 
Local governments are considered “laboratories of democracy” — the places where ideas are generated, tried, and evaluated. Instead of relying on just the one, decidedly tedious national government to generate new policy, the founders crafted a flexible federal structure, where the more numerous and more nimble states and cities could experiment on their own and see what works. Simply put, no institution would have a monopoly on good ideas. The best ideas from any government would bubble up and benefit every government. For that to happen, though, the knowledge and learnings from those experiments must be shared. That’s why today, with so many cities and states across the country currently experimenting with open government, today we’re launching our own experiment, and, in true democratic fashion, we need your help.
Tell us how technology is making a difference in your city; point us to good ideas, where they're happening, and the people and organizations behind them. Reply to any of the questions [on the feed] to deepen our collective understanding of how cities are becoming more open.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Solar Panels, Affordable?

A solar energy powered home has always been a dream of mine, but I always thought it would take years before the costs would come down enough to afford it.  So Saturday, my husband and I decided to visit a couple of homes on the Solar San Antonio 2010 Solar Tour just to get an idea of how outrageous the cost would be.  The tour was free and self-guided, and with a printable tour map we were on our way. Over twenty five homes and businesses participated in the tour, so it was pretty easy to find a house that would be somewhat similar to ours to look at.

In fact, there was one house in the subdivision right next door and another about a mile away.  At the first residence the owner had installed his panels over a two year period with the first installation in 2008. He saved $913.70 on electricity between August 2009 and August 2010.  Well that got our attention!  He also told us about the incentives offered by CPS and the federal government, a rebate for 50% of the cost up to $30,000 from CPS for the installation and a 30% tax credit on the remaining balance from the Feds.  What's really cool about the CPS rebate is you don't even have to worry about it, your solar contractor will deal with the paper work and CPS directly.

So how much would it cost you to install a solar system?  Well, here is a handy dandy Solar power energy calculator that estimates the impact of a solar energy system on your electricity bill and your pocket book.  Plug in your zip code, select your utility company and your average kilowatt hour usage per month, or your average monthly electrical bill.  Here's my calculation

System specifications for: San Antonio, TX
Utility: CPS Energy

Solar Radiance: 5.28 kWh/sq m/day
Avg. Monthly Usage: 1,620 kWh/month
System Size: 6.37 kW
Roof Size: 637 sq ft
Estimated Cost: $44,598.45
Post Incentive Cost: $20,515.29
Not exactly cheap, but definitely doable.  You can also get Solar Financing from San Antonio Credit Union for as low as 5.75%. 

From Solar San Antonio
Solar Radiance is the amount of solar energy received on a given surface area at a given time and varies based on the weather (cloudy or sunny) and the latitude of the location.  At just below the 29th degree parallel, San Antonio is at one of the closest latitudes to the equator in the US.  We get 300 sunny days a year on average.   

Here's another cool calculator that estimates your roof's solar potential by using Google satellite maps and your average monthly electricity bill.  This calculator tells you how much of your roof is usable to collect solar energy and gives you an average electrical bill per month after a solar installation.  The part of your roof that is on the southern exposure is the place you want to put solar panels.  Why south, you may ask?  Well it has to do with our latitude, or the angle that San Antonio faces the sun.  The southern exposure gets the most rays during the day as the sun moves overhead.

Now you may wonder why you would still have an electricity bill if you have a solar array.  Unfortunately, the sun doesn't shine 24/7 so during the times when the panels aren't being charged you have to have another source of energy.  You could go completely off the grid by installing a generator, but the homeowners we spoke to said that was a lot of hassle and rather expensive.  Instead they opted for Windtricity during solar down time.  That way all of the energy they use is renewable and doesn't produce CO2 emissions.

There are several contractors in town that install solar panels, check out this list.  Also, solar panels aren't the only way to go, you can opt to install solar powered appliances, like water heaters, pool heaters and attic fans.
Solar Water Heater System
So what's holding you back now?

Friday, October 1, 2010

Are we in Danger from our Gas Mains?

I've been waiting for three weeks for someone from CPS to come and change my gas meter to a smart meter.  The gas technician finally showed up yesterday, apparently changing meters is low priority.  It's lucky I work out of my house!

So I decided to take the opportunity to find out about the safety of the gas mains in San Antonio.  Well, first off, if you suspect you have a gas leak and you report it to CPS, you go to the top of the list, no waiting.
Lisa Krantz/Express News

When I asked the technician if SA was in danger of an explosion like the one that happened in San Bruno, California, he said that there are old gas mains in San Antonio, but the problem in San Bruno was lack of maintenance.  Gas mains in Texas are regulated by the Railroad Commission.  The name of the commission is confusing, in 1891 it was set up to regulate railroad pricing, but now its main function it to regulate oil and gas in Texas.  The commission's responsibilities range from well drilling permits to evaluating the work performance of the natural gas technician who came to my house yesterday.

Every year the Railroad Commission requires every natural gas utility in Texas to run tests of their gas mains using some pretty cool technology called a smart pig.  San Antonio was actually the testing ground for the prototype smart pig back in 1998.  So what the heck is a smart pig?  It's sort of like a torpedo that is sent through the gas mains.  As it travels it uses magnets to detect corrosion and ultrasound to find cracks and thinning metal.  When the pig identifies a problem it broadcasts a GPS signal back to the technicians so they know exactly where a main needs repair.
Calscan Smart Pig testing a pipeline

Now, you will probably say, but wait a minute I heard that there was a fire caused by a gas main rupture at Blanco and Huebner a few months ago. There was, but it was caused by a contractor digging in the the street and nicking the main.  In fact most gas main problems are caused by someone (contractor, home owner, etc) digging near a main and damaging it and then covering it back up and not informing CPS.  You see, there are fines involved, who wants to pay those.

So if you suspect you have a gas leak, notify CPS immediately (210-353-3333).  For tips on natural gas safety, check out the safety link on the CPS website. 

So, if you're out digging in the yard and you hit a pipe, don't cover it up, call CPS, after all the home that could blow up would be your own.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

HOV lanes, Not in my Backyard!

What exactly are HOV Lanes?  HOV or High Occupancy Vehicle lanes are lanes on a congested highway that are set aside either by a buffer or a barrier and are reserved for vehicles with usually 2 or more passengers.

Barrier HOV

Buffer HOV

HOV lanes mean you have to pay a toll to drive on the highway, right?  WRONG, an HOV lane is just a dedicated lane of a regular highway.

If they make it so one lane is only for carpools and buses, it's going to make traffic even worse! Well not according to a study done by the Texas Transportation Institute (TTI), part of the A&M University System, on the effectiveness of HOV lanes in Dallas. TTI found that

  • All five freeways with an HOV lanes have shown an 8 to 12 percent increase in average automobile occupancy, suggesting that motorists have formed carpools to gain the benefits of traveling in an HOV lane.
  • HOV lane speeds on all five facilities are significantly higher than the speeds on the adjacent general-purpose lanes.
  • General-purpose lane speeds have remained constant or have increased on all corridors since the opening of the HOV lanes.
  • Bus operating speeds have more than doubled since the opening of the HOV lanes on IH-30, IH-35E North, and IH-35E South during the AM and PM peak hours.
  • DART’s bus operating costs have been reduced by approximately $587,000 per year since the implementation of HOV lanes.
  • All HOV lane projects are cost-effective and have attained or are projected to attain a benefit-cost ratio greater than 1.0 within the first six years of operation.
But, light rail would be so much better than HOV lanes and buses.  Well apparently commuters in Austin don't agree.  Tory Gattis at says that
Austin bus riders are protesting the cancellation of existing commuter bus routes that parallel the new rail line.  Why?  Because the buses are *faster*.  This is one of the key arguments I've made against commuter rail in Houston: net-30mph commuter trains are much slower than 60mph express buses in HOV lanes, especially when considering the long walk or connection after getting off of the train vs. buses that can circulate around the job center to get you close to your building.
So, if HOV lanes increase the speeds on highways, make buses faster, help bus transit authorities save money, and are cost-effective (in other words, pretty inexpensive to install), WHY ARE YOU AGAINST THEM?????

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

That F@##%@# Tree Ordinance!

Developers hate being hindered by rules that limit the amount of property they can use for construction, it's easier to make a building plan for a blank sheet of paper, than for one with barriers, such as trees.
Most people would say, what's the big deal, whenever I fly into San Antonio it's a sea of trees. But the Urban Ecosystem Analysis of Greater San Antonio done by American Forests found that

  • In 1985, areas with heavy tree canopy (50% or greater treecover) covered 26% of the area (201,000 acres). By 2001, that number had fallen to 20% (156,000 acres)—a loss of over 22% of the densely forested areas. 
  • Areas with light tree canopy (less than 20% tree cover) expanded from 69% in 1985 (540,000 acres) to 77% in 2001 (605,000 acres). Though agricultural areas as well as urban areas fall under this category, the sharp increase in San Antonio’s population over the last decade (22.3% - Census Bureau) suggests that this increase in areas with little tree cover is largely the result of urban expansion.
  • While areas of medium density canopy (20-49%) had the most significant percentage change, the total number of acres affected were small in comparison to the heavy and light canopied areas. In 1985, 6% of the Greater San Antonio Area (47,000 acres) was covered by medium density canopy. Thisnumber fell to just 3% by 2001 (27,000 acres) a loss of approximately 43%. This trend suggests that as new development occurs, tree canopy is not being conserved.
In San Antonio trees are a special commodity.  It takes a long time for a tree to grow naturally in San Antonio.  Dr. Jerry Parsons at says that
In our alkaline, rocky, and caliche soils, several tree species that do excellent in other areas of Texas, do very poorly here. Our sudden temperature fluctuations in the spring and fall kill many non-adapted trees each year.
High temperatures, low rainfall and alkaline soils may deter other trees but the hardy Live Oak finds a way.
Live oak is fast-growing under optimal conditions. Seedlings may reach 1.2 m (4 feet) in height within the first year, but growth rates taper off as age of the tree increases (Harlow et al 1979; Haller 1992). 70 year old trees may have trunks that measure as much as 54 inches in diameter (Van Dersal 1938).
Around here under natural conditions, it takes a Live Oak or a Texas Red Oak, 10 years to grow into a nice shady tree.

 The city tree ordinance used to only protect 10" diameter(and larger) trees which didn't take into account smaller native trees.  But in 2006, the ordinance was strengthened to include other native trees besides heritage live oaks and fees were raised so the builders and developers wouldn't be as tempted to build the fines for cutting down trees into the cost of development.  However, developers have discovered other ways to get around the ordinance by using vested rights, and claiming other uses besides development (such as claims that the land will be used for ranching) to clear cut property.
``People get frustrated in the process,'' engineer Gene Dawson Jr. said. ``They get held up by the city arborist on a tree issue, so they just say, `Well heck, I'm going to get my property grandfathered and I'm going to go clear the whole (property).'
In one of the most egregious cases of clear cutting
The trees were bulldozed to make room for Encino Ridge, a dense neighborhood by national chain Pulte Homes, one of San Antonio's largest builders. The Michigan-based company took in a record $11.7 billion in gross revenue last year.
``They worked day and night out here,'' nearby resident Donna Biggs said. She stretched her arms to form a wide circle. ``There were oaks this big cut down.''
Encino Ridge from Citizens Tree Coalition
Pulte's local president, Bart Swider, said the company wanted to grade the hill to cut down on the cost of each home. But he admits the clearing was an environmental blunder -- one that city tree preservation ordinances might have prevented.
In San Antonio, the law encourages the development industry to blur the line between legitimate projects and outright land speculation, records show.
The Express-News review found that:
-- In a pattern repeated on at least three occasions since 1994, developers flooded City Hall with plat filings hours before council members approved new development rules, exempting thousands of acres from more stringent city codes.
-- Developers and lobbyists helped write rules such as the water quality ordinance. Those same insiders then shepherded scores of clients through the exemption process to avoid those rules.
-- The oldest permit ever used to trigger vested rights in San Antonio dates to the horse and buggy.
In May 2010 the City Council underlined its commitment to increase the tree canopy in San Antonio by doubling the cost of cutting down trees.
 The new ordinance doubles the mitigation costs — from $100 to $200 per inch in tree diameter for significant trees and from $300 to $600 per inch for heritage trees. That means cutting down an oak with a 24-inch diameter would cost $14,400, and a 30-inch-diameter tree would cost $18,000 to remove.
The council also voted to implement a citywide program to help meet the goal of a 40 percent tree canopy, using developers' mitigation fees to plant new trees.
The ordinance, which is supposed to close two loopholes that allowed for the clear-cutting of trees, doesn't apply to property that's already been developed.

So what does beefing up the Tree Ordinance mean for the ordinary property owner?  You are exempt from the Tree ordinance if your tree meets any of the following conditions:

A. Any tree(s), significant, or heritage or tree canopy determined to be diseased, dying or dead, by the city arborist.
B. Any tree(s), significant, or heritage or tree canopy determined to be causing a danger or be in hazardous condition as a result of a natural event such as tornado, storm, flood or other act of God that endangers the public health, welfare or safety and requires immediate removal.
C. Tree(s) or tree canopy located on property 0.5 acres or less on which construction of single-family, two-family or three-family residential dwelling units has been completed.
D. Tree(s) or tree canopy located in the clear vision area, as defined in the street improvement standards.
E. Tree(s) or tree canopy preventing the opening of reasonable and necessary vehicular traffic lanes in a street or alley.
Needless to say, residential developers are unhappy about this augmentation of the law and claim that it will cause them to pass the cost on to the consumer and may price some prospective buyers out of the market.  But most new housing being built today is outside of Loop 1604, there is still plenty of good pre-owned housing stock within 1604 with developed trees and yards that are affordable.  Personally,  I want trees in my yard, how about you?