Saturday, July 31, 2010

Outsourcing City Services

Cities all over the country are outsourcing in order to stay afloat.  Tight budgets are forcing local governments to cut staff, hire private contractors or seek help from nearby cities and counties.  One city in California, Maywood, is so broke, they can't pay health insurance for their police force. The city let the officers go, despite a union fight, and contracted with the county sheriff.  If any of you live in the county, you know that sheriff services are already stretched thin, and this happens to be Los Angeles County, which already has a huge population.

Cities in Texas and the State government are facing budget cuts, but luckily were are no where near the dire straights faced by many cities in California, Illinois and New York are in.  I'm glad I live in Texas!

Friday, July 30, 2010

Texas Cities, the Shape of the Future

Joel Kotkin, an urban geographer and Forbes contributor, wrote an article back in March about the remarkable growth of Texas cities in the midst of the Great Recession.  He sees the Texas city as the urban landscape of the 21st Century.

Texas cities tend to sprawl out, have multi-modal business centers and aggressive annexation policies.  OK, so what does all this mean?  Well, I'm sure all of you have noticed that San Antonio covers a large area, so much so that it is hard to convey to children that even though you've traveled for 20 miles, you are still in San Antonio.  Multi-modal business centers are kind of like mini-downtowns, the Medical Center, the 281 corridor and the IH-35 corridors each have their own business culture, and many times people who work in these areas live near them as well.  

So what does aggressive annexation have to do with all this?  Annexation is the process cities use to extend their boundaries.  In Bexar County there is a lot of unincorporated (hasn't chartered as a town or city) land area.  The city government absorbs this land mass in two ways.  First it extends the city limits down a major thoroughfare or highway, such as IH-10 or FM 471.  This is called a finger, because it's long and skinny.  All of the land within a 5 mile radius is considered to be in the ETJ or Extra Territorial Jurisdiciton of the city.   All property within the ETJ is subject to City of San Antonio zoning and development ordinances, so the city controls how the land will be used.  Once the surrounding property meets a certain population density, the city annexes the area by extending the city limits around it.  Then the area is subject to San Antonio property taxes.  By extending the city boundaries the city expands its tax base and it's population.  This is why even though San Antonio's population is quite large compared to a city like Boston, it's surrounding area (all of the little towns around it) is actually quite a bit less populated.

Kotkin says that

To reshape a city in a sustainable way, you need to have a growing population, a solid and expanding job base and a relatively efficient city administration.
So, Texas cities increase their population not only through annexation but through job growth.  Of the four largest cities in Texas, San Antonio is the slowest job generator, but we still out perform places like Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco. 

OK, I know a lot of you think our city is run inefficiently, but look at our government compared to say Chicago.
The New Yorker, for example, recently published a lavish tribute to the city and its mayor, Richard Daley. But as long-time Chicago observer Steve Bartin points out, the story missed--or simply ignored--many critical facts. Mistaking Daley's multi-term tenure as proof of effectiveness, it failed to recognize the region's continued loss of jobs, decaying infrastructure, rampant corruption and continued out-migration of the area's beleaguered middle class.
Not to mention the fact that Chicago is in financial distress. The pension funds for city employees is severely underfunded, and just 2 days ago their bond rating (the rate at which the city borrows money) was downgraded.  In an earlier post, I talked about San Antonio receiving the highest bond rating based on the savings cushion instituted by City Manager Sheryl Sculley.   Not only is the city of Chicago losing population, the towns surrounding it have declined as well. 

They're headin' south.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Rick Perry Walking the Tight Rope

Governor Perry has been walking a tight rope lately.  According to the the San Antonio Express-News, to  keep the party faithful happy he rails about the need for protection on the border, but he also needs to depend on part of the hispanic electorate, so he told a gathering of La Raza members that the Arizona law would not be a good fit for Texas.

But I think their reasoning is too simplistic.  Texas and Mexico are bound together by ties of history, geography and commerce that Arizona does not share.

On July 2, 2010 Texas Public Radio's Texas Matters broadcast a show honoring former Texas governor Dolph Briscoe.  Part of the show played some tape from an interview with Briscoe in 2004.  During the interview, host David Martin Davies asked Briscoe what he thought of the proposed Border Fence.  He said he didn't think it would work and it sends a negative psycholigical message: we're fencing you off we don't want you. 

Texas has always been closely tied to Mexico, at one time Texas was actually part of Mexico.  Texas also has a longer border with Mexico than any other state.  The Secretary of State is the Governor's chief liaison for Mexico and border affairs.  According to a speech given by Secretary of State Geoff Conner in 2003

The length of the Texas-Mexico border is around 2/3 of the total U.S.-Mexico border. Over half of all crossing points between the two nations are here in Texas. Mexico is our largest trading partner, accounting for almost half of Texas exports.
Not only do more than half of the border crossings exist on the Texas border, some very large Mexican cities also sit on or near our border.

Monterrey, just 2 hours from Laredo, Texas is the 3rd largest city in Mexico with almost 4 million residents. Ciudad Juarez (1.4 million pop) abuts El Paso (563,000 pop) and is the 8th largest city in Mexico. Nuevo Laredo with a population of 718,000 sits across form Laredo (221,000 pop) on the Texas side. Reynosa has 498,000 people and sits across from McAllen (106,000 pop), Matamoros with 422,000 residents, meets Brownsville (140,000 pop), Ciudad Acuna (145,000 pop) across from Del Rio (37,000 pop), and Piedras Negras (140,000 pop) across from Eagle Pass (22,000 pop).  In every case the city on the Mexican side is at least 2/3 bigger than its sister city on the Texas side.  The three Largest Mexican cities on Arizona border are miniscule by comparison: San Luis Rio (157,000) Nogales (193,000) Agua Prieta (68,000).

I saw a question on Quora asking why there were so many people crossing into the US when they saw the pictures of the bridges over the flooded Rio Grande in Laredo.  My answer, TO SHOP.  Ever since the passage of NAFTA, Mexicans have been able to bring more goods back home, because they were no longer considered contraband.  All of the Texas border towns and most of the cities in south Texas, probably in most of Texas, rely on Mexican Nationals to keep their retail economies running.  Free buses run continuously on the Mexico side to bring shoppers across the border to visit malls on the US side.  And if you shop in San Antonio, you run into Mexican Nationals everywhere talking on their cell phones and walkie-talkies, saying "hey Mom, I'm at Macys and they have a great sale", or "meet me at Marshalls in ten minutes."  If you work retail in SA and you don't speak Spanish, you are at a huge disadvantage.

We also have issues with Mexico over water rights.  Both the Falcon Resevoir and Lake Amistad lie astride the border pretty much half in Texas and half in Mexico.  The Falcon Resevoir runs about 30 miles along the border. During the flooding caused by Hurricane Alex, the release of the Amistad and Falcon dams was a joint decision by the US Parks and Fisheries, Texas Parks and Wildlife and the Mexican government.

I agree with the late Governor Briscoe, Texas does not want to send messages to Mexico saying we don't want them.  It would be bad for our economy and our way of life.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Where do Your Property Taxes Go? School Districts in SA

Now we come to the government entity that receives the lion's share, or about half of your property taxes, your local school district.  There are 13 different school districts that lie within or partially within Bexar County. (There are three military school districts but these are supported by the U.S. Government.) Each district has its own taxing rate.

Alamo Heights ISD                            1.162
East Central ISD                                1.3195
Edgewood ISD                                  1.42
Harlandale ISD                                  1.479
Judson ISD                                        1.463
North East ISD                                  1.4029
Northside ISD                                   1.3375
San Antonio ISD                               1.2497
Schertz-Ciobolo-Universal City ISD   1.42
Somerset ISD                                   1.228     
South San Antonio ISD                     1.4338
Southside ISD                                   1.3689
Southwest ISD                                  1.2432

How do they figure your taxes?  Take the appraised value of your home as determined by the appraisal district then subtract any exemptions you may have (homestead, over 65) to arrive at the taxable value of your property. Next move the decimal place on the tax rate of your school district two places (i.e. change 1.162 to .01162, the tax rate is a percentage) and then multiply it by the taxable value.  If you don't want to go through all this rigmarole visit the Bexar Appraisal Website.  Type in your name, last name first and click search.  To find out information about your tax bill click View Details. You can find out your approximate tax bill by clicking on the taxing jurisdicition tab.

You may wonder how Alamo Heights can get away with such a low tax rate.  It has some of the highest appraised property in the city and it's a small district.   Also, why there is such a diversity in the size of districts?  Back in 1949, Bexar County was split up into independent school districts, mostly by population.  Nowadays Northside is the 4th largest district in student population in the state and has housing property values that range from the mid $30,000s to millions of dollars, but back in 1949 it was in the boonies where very few people lived, in fact the population was so sparse that part of the district extends into Bandera and Medina Counties.  But now Northside is growing so fast because of its desirability as a school distrtict, the varying property values and the large availability of vacant land for housing.

You probably can figure out some of the places your tax dollar goes: teacher and administrative salaries, new schools, new classrooms, technology, science equipment, gym and sports equipment and school books.  You might also want to add in security.  Most large school districts have their own police force to protect the students and to control drug use and violence.

Along with property tax money, school districts also receive federal assistance, usually based on the number of low income students they have.  Usually, the poorer the district, the more federal assistance they recieve.

School Financing in Texas has had a checkered history.  Probably the most fought over legislation was the Robin Hood Plan, or robbing the rich school districts to give money to the poor ones.
On May 28, 1993, the legislature passed a multi-option plan for reforming school finance. Under the plan, each school district would help to equalize funding through one of five methods: (1) merging its tax base with a poorer district, (2) sending money to the state to help pay for students in poorer districts, (3) contracting to educate students in other districts, (4) consolidating voluntarily with one or more other districts, or (5) transferring some of its commercial taxable property to another district's tax rolls. If a district did not choose one of these options, the state would order the transfer of taxable property; if this measure failed to reduce the district's property wealth to $280,000 per student, the state would force a consolidation. This plan was signed into law by Governor Richards on May 31, 1993, and was accepted by Judge McCown. The action guaranteed that schools would receive funding for the 1993–94 academic year. Many poorer school districts still challenged the constitutionality of the new law, however, and Judge McCown set September 1, 1993, as the deadline for them to file their complaints. In January 1995 the Texas Supreme Court ruled that the options plan was constitutional but that the legislature still needed to work on equalizing and improving school facilities throughout the state.
So, everything you always wanted to know about property taxes, but were afraid to ask.  My next series will explain everything you always wanted to know about Zoning.

Friday, July 23, 2010

A Tale of Two Salaries

In Texas you better have a good day job if you want to be a politician.

State legislators are paid meager salaries. Senators and representatives alike earn only $7,200 per year, or $14,400 for a two-year legislative period. Some may consider this salary generous, since after all legislators work only for 140 days over two years. However, this salary equals just slightly over $100 per day. Even if our legislators worked only eight hours per day, this would equal only $12.86 per hour for the people who make our state laws and conduct oversight of executive branch offices.

The San Antonio City Council makes even less.  According to the City of San Antonio Frequently Asked Questions page
Per Sections 6 and 9 of the City Charter, the Mayor receives as compensation of fifty dollars ($50.00) for each meeting attended while members of Council receive twenty dollars ($20.00) as compensation for each meeting attended.
But in Bell, California, a small blue collar town with a population of maybe 40,000 it pays to be a politician.  Each of their 5 council members is paid close to $100,000 a year for part time work.

Bell is one of the smallest towns in the country at only 2.5 square miles and 17% of its residents live in poverty.  So how did this tiny town end up with such well paid council members?  Most of them didn't vote.

In 2005 an election was held to set up a city charter, according to the Los Angeles Times, only 400 people voted (probably the city employees, the equivalent to our city manager makes over $700,000, almost twice as much as Sheryl Sculley.)
The highly paid members of the Bell City Council were able to exempt themselves from state salary limits by placing a city charter on the ballot in a little-noticed special election that attracted fewer than 400 voters.
This is why it's important to pay attention to all elections, not just the biggies.

Now I have to put a little plug in for paying legislators in Texas a higher salary.

  1. They work much more than just during the legislative session.
  2. Only wealthy people can afford to be legislators.
  3. If a politician isn't wealthy, he/she will be attractive bait for well endowed special interest groups.
It pays to pay attention and vote.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Changing City Scape: The Green Future

Here are some interesting green ideas being tried by municipalities throughout the country:

  • Braddock PA's Mayor John Fetterman is working to revitalize the  rustbelt town by repurposing abandaned buildings, and encouraging carbon caps and green technology.
  • Seattle WA uses goats to clear away berries and bushes that are toxic to other animals around hydroelectric plants.
  • San Francisco CA Mayor Newsom's administration has established edible gardens throughout the city, including the City Hall front lawn.
  • Portland OR started community bicycling in 1994, which I'm proud to say San Antonio is in the process of implementing.  Hopefully the San Antonio operation will work well enough to prevent theft and vandalism.
  • Boston MA is collecting and turning leaves and yard clippings into power and fertilizer.  San Antonio already turns brush into mulch and raw sewage into into gas for turbines, but Boston is going a step further by using anaerobic bacteria to break down the organic waste for power.  They eventually want to create power from all household garbage.
  • Chicago IL has more than 2.5 million feet of roof top gardens, more than all other American cities combined.
  • Fort Collins CO provides zero interest loans for sustainability minded home improvements such as solar heating, water efficiency upgrades and more efficient washing machines.
  • Anchorage AK during the winter dims the light because they can see by the light of the moon.
  • Oakland CA is slowly replacing its bus fleet with hydrogen-powered models.  Each new bus will save 130 tons of CO2 emissions annually.
  • New York NY is testing tidal turbines to harness the power of the ocean for electricity.
It's good to see that cities are taking the lead in the green revolution.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

City Government Apps

About ten months ago the City of San Francisco set up a new website.  Mayor Gavin Newsom announced the launch of
This new web site is designed to improve transparency in government, increase access to City data, and  engage our highly skilled workforce to create apps from that data.

What a cool idea, I especially like the fact that they allow citizens to use the data to make their own apps.  In case you are a little lost here, apps are small programs used by smart phones like the I-phone and Droid.

But wait it gets better
After the kick off there was a discussion about next steps for Gov 2.0 in San Francisco with Tim O’Reilly, Matt Mullenweg and other technology innovators. One idea was to create a City App Store to highlight and centralize programs created from City data. This has worked for Apple and Facebook, at last check; there are 60,000 apps available in the Apple App store and more than 350,000 different Facebook apps. Why not create a government app store as well?
So the city launched the DataSF App Showcase.  It has all kinds of Apps, from finding out where to recycle things, health inspection ratings for restaurants, Mom Maps that help you find kid friendly places in San Francisco, and an app that helps you find parking.   Some of the apps are available on Itunes, so you could put them on your Ipod as well.  You can also use them from a blackberry or a plain old fashioned computer.  Some of the apps have a small charge for download ($0.99 to $3.99). 

I think this would be a great idea for San Antonio, especially with all the tourists walking around lost out there.  If you like this idea, share it!

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Where do Your Property Taxes Go? Military Affairs

A Recap of City of San Antonio revenues and spending. So $1,074.42 of your property taxes goes to the City of San Antonio.

The City of San Antonio receives revenues from several sources: Property taxes (25%), Charges and fees (20%), Revenues from Utilities (17%), Grants (usually federal) (15%), Sales Tax (14%), Hotel/Motel Tax (4%), Other Taxes (Short Term Rental Tax, Bingo Tax, etc) (2%), Fines (Library Fines, Traffic Tickets) (1%), Miscellaneous (1%), Intergovernment (0.6%), Permits/Licenses (0.4%)

The 2010 Budget for the City divides general fund expenditures in the following ways: Police (36%), Fire/EMS (26%), other services (Aviation, Community Initiatives, Historic Preservation, Solid Waste Management, Military Affairs, etc) (11%), Convention, Tourism and Culture (9%), Streets and Infrastructure (7%), Environmental (5%), Parks & Recreation (6%), Agencies (4%), Library (3%), Health (1%), Municipal Courts (1%), Neighborhood Services (1%), Economic Development (0.5%), Animal Care (0.5%). I will take you through each of these items in separate posts. If you feel that you have a better way to spend the money you can post your suggestions on the online Budget suggestion box for the 2011 budget.
(For links to all items in the CSA budget, see past posts.)

What do you know, almost done with the City of San Antonio.  There are other areas where money is spent but these are the largest budget items.

So, Military Affairs coordinates and facilitates the city's support for BRAC or the Base Realignment and Closure.  If you want to get a contract to work on the realignment, this is the place to go.  Military Affairs also helps military families relocate to San Antonio.

When military bases close, military assets are moved to other bases in the area to increase efficiency and reduce expenses.  In SA Fort Sam is the beneficiary of most of the assets and construction is taking place on the base to accomdate them.

Many of the former bases have been converted to civilian use for municipal airports (Bergstrom in Austin), housing developments, office parks and industrial parks.  Kelly AFB is now known as Port San Antonio.
As I talked about in an earlier post, the Port San Antonio airport will be used to handle industrial flights.  It also has a Railport for train traffic, existing buildings for office space, lots of land to build new office buildings, warehouses and even assembly buildings.

The entire former AFB (1900 acres) is designated as a Foreign Trade Zone which gives companies the ability to bring foreign parts into the base, destroy damaged peices, and assemble them and then pay the duty on the assembled parts once they leave the port.  Often the duties are lowered on an assembled product than its parts and no duty is paid on the damaged pieces.   

There is also a Commission on Veterans Affairs.
The Commission's mission is to serve the City Council in an advisory capacity on issues affecting the City's military population, both active and retired. It serves as the community's liaison and advocate for veterans' affairs; advises the City Council on issues affecting San Antonio veterans and their families; and makes recommendations for improving services.
The City of San Antonio has a long standing relationship with the military.  It is the largest employer in the city and the city works hard to keep them here.

Monday, July 19, 2010

What Makes a Government Website Great?

In 2006

The National Policy Research Council (NPRC --, a nonprofit think tank, examined the Web presence of the 50 states and all 38,987 counties, municipalities and townships in the U.S. An exhaustive search found 11,227 official state and local government Web sites. Trained NPRC reviewers visited each Web site to assess points for 25 features in seven categories: usability, citizen responsiveness, accessibility for disabled visitors, information tools, online procurement, job opportunities, and interactive permits and payments.

Out of all those websites they chose Montgomery County, Maryland's website as the best for counties over 500,000 residents and City of Fresno, California's website as the best city website with a population over 500,000.  This year Montgomery County, Maryland was named the best county website by the Digital Counties Survey sponsored by eRepublic and the National Association of Counties.

The NPRC generally gave the best scores to
Web sites on which a wide range of services could easily be found on the home page instead of being buried several pages deep, said Robert McArthur, the NPRC’s e-government project director.
 According to McArthur, one problem with many government Web sites is that they’re organized by department, whereas most users want to accomplish a task — like paying a water bill — without necessarily knowing which department is involved. “The best Web sites offered on the home page a menu of all government services regardless of department,” he said.

Another problem uncovered by the NPRC study is outdated information on official government Web sites. “Either maintain its currency and accuracy, or shut it down,” McArthur said. “Bad information is worse than no information.”

The best websites also have suggestion boxes that allow users to propose fixes to improve the government site.  Response time to citizen requests was another factor in how much the site was actually used.

So how does the City of San Antonio's website stack up? It's pretty good,  the main page has this drop down menu

I want to...

 To get a list of the entire services offered, users can click on Request Help With... Other Services for a quick reference guide that overall is written in fairly plain language.  There are a few links that require some explanation, I don't even know what they mean, so I'm pretty sure the average citizen wouldn't know.  Both CRAG and Brownfields take you to the Housing and Neighborhood services page but there is no reference to either one once you reach that page. 

Another problem I noticed under Find/Learn About was when I clicked the link to Boards & Commision Agendas the link page said I was unauthorized to view the page.  If this list of links is meant for the general public then a restricted link should not be on it.

Yes I know, boring old me I checked all the links to see if they worked.  Under Pay For... the Municipal Court Payments doesn't always work, sometimes I get a page load error and sometimes I get an invalid security certificate warning.  There is a link to make suggestions for the budget on the scrolling link but no suggestion box for users of the website, in fact under contact us you can send an email for technical problems only.

The department links are somewhat spotty, some are better are than others, and there are some dead links that need to be cleaned up.  Response time for online 311 (complaints for dumping, junk cars, drainage problems, etc.)  is good, two of the city engineers came out the same day I posted a complaint about drainage problems.

In 2007 the Culture and Policy Institute at UTSA conducted a Community Survey.  They found that
City-wide, many participants had no opinion about the City's web-based payment services (40% no opinion), ease of obtaining garage sale permits (53% no opinion), obtaining other permits (61% no opinion), and the City's job training programs (46%). This suggests that many residents are either unaware of the existence of, or have had no experience with, these services.
There's no visitor counter on the main page, so it's hard to know how much traffic the website receives now, but the city has Facebook and Twitter feeds that may help to raise community awareness.  If you ever use the city website, write me a comment about your experience.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Why are there duplicate names for streets in cities?

I recently began participating in a massive user-created question-and-answer site called Quora.  It was designed by former Facebook CTO Adam D'Angelo and has a similar feel to the social networking site.  I picked some topics I was interested in and they show up on a feed similar to the wall.

The other day one of the users asked

Who ensures that cities don't duplicate street names?

There were already two answers that claimed that no one in city government approves street names, because there are lots of duplicate street names in cities like New York.

Well, actually there is an arm of city government that approves street names, the department that approves plats and development does this.  However, I do agree that there are lots of duplicate street names and the reasons why are somewhat complicated. 

The problem is that some streets are developed on a piece meal basis.  In San Antonio if a developer wants to open up a piece of land for development, in order to have access to the land he/she is also required to build a road to connect it to an existing street.  The city has a Major Thoroughfare Plan that maps out where the city wants major streets to extend, so if a developer is building a road that matches the plan it will be called by the name on the plan.  But the developer is only building a part of this road and it may not extend all the way to the existing roadway with the same name.  Eventually the road will connect, but not until the property in between has been developed. 

Another problem is older cities, like New York and San Antonio were built before city planning was invented.  Cities just grew organically with no rhyme or reason.  In San Antonio many downtown streets were former cattle trails and are very disorganized.  In order to change a cattle trail into a street with a grid pattern the streets have to jog at right angles, thus causing a street to end at one point, jog a few streets over and then start up again.

Street names also get duplicated when an incorporated area is surrounded by the city limits of a larger city.  The smaller incorporated town has its own jurisdiction and platting approval mechanism. The larger city may have some influence over street names but sometimes relationships are contentious.  The other possibility is that the smaller town existed long before the larger city surrounded it and the street names were already in place.

An addendum to the question popped up a day later asking

Why don't cities correct duplication of street names?

It is very expensive to rename an existing street.  Not only is there a cost to the city for signage, plat changes and legal fees, it affects a lot of private businesses and citizens as well.  Anything with the current address has to be changed, maps have to be changed, all contacts who are aware of the old address have to be advised of the change, etc.  And then of course, there are the streets that exist in incorporated towns surrounded by the larger city that can do as they please.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Where do Your Property Taxes Go? Solid Waste Management

A Recap of City of San Antonio revenues and spending. So $1,074.42 of your property taxes goes to the City of San Antonio.

The City of San Antonio receives revenues from several sources: Property taxes (25%), Charges and fees (20%), Revenues from Utilities (17%), Grants (usually federal) (15%), Sales Tax (14%), Hotel/Motel Tax (4%), Other Taxes (Short Term Rental Tax, Bingo Tax, etc) (2%), Fines (Library Fines, Traffic Tickets) (1%), Miscellaneous (1%), Intergovernment (0.6%), Permits/Licenses (0.4%)

The 2010 Budget for the City divides general fund expenditures in the following ways: Police (36%), Fire/EMS (26%), other services (Aviation, Community Initiatives, Historic Preservation, Solid Waste Management, Military Affairs, etc) (11%), Convention, Tourism and Culture (9%), Streets and Infrastructure (7%), Environmental (5%), Parks & Recreation (6%), Agencies (4%), Library (3%), Health (1%), Municipal Courts (1%), Neighborhood Services (1%), Economic Development (0.5%), Animal Care (0.5%). I will take you through each of these items in separate posts. If you feel that you have a better way to spend the money you can post your suggestions on the online Budget suggestion box for the 2011 budget.
(For links to all items in the CSA budget, see past posts.)

I know, who cares about trash. But just as protection is a fundamental function of government, without trash removal, a city wouldn't be able to function.  Not long ago the city of Naples, Italy was dealing with an all out war over garbage.  Garbage was piling up in the streets for weeks because their landfills were overflowing and they had no modern incinerators to burn it.  People were protesting in the streets and the military had to come in to remove the garbage because the sanitation workers were on strike.  Not only is trash unsightly and smelly, streets overflowing with trash is a public health hazard.  When it rains the rotting sewage gets into the water table and can cause all kinds of lovely diseases from dysentery to cholera. This is particularly sad because even the ancient Roman generals knew that in order to keep their soldiers healthy they needed to keep their camps clean.

The Solid Waste Management Department collects all types of solid waste from trash, to hazardous waste, to recyclables, to large bulk items.  With the new Mission Verde initiative the city has tasked the Department with a goal of recycling 60 percent of all solid waste by the end of 2020.  Right now if you have one of those handy dandy blue recycling cans you can recycle from 60 to 80 percent of your garbage, all types of paper, metal and glass food containers, all plastics with those triangle recycle labels, cardboard and food boxes.  For a full list of what can be recycled check here.

The Mission Verde initiative has also tasked Solid Waste Management with encouraging plastic bag recycling, using reuseable bags for shopping and composting.  Composting is another way to recycle, but you do it at home and it's a great way to make cheap fertilizer for your garden.  If you have too much brush to put in your compost bin you can take it to the Brush Recycling Center.  There is a small fee and don't forget your CPS bill and ID.  The Brush Recycling Center also sells mulch for 3 cents a pound.

Household hazardous waste can be dropped off at the permanent site at 7030 Culebra on Fridays and Saturdays.  Be sure to bring your CPS bill and a photo ID.  For a list of items they collect look here.  They also have a seasonal center at 1800 E Bitters that is open 4 days a year, check here for dates and times.

Brush and large item pickups at your home are done twice a year.  Check here for your next brush collection and how to prepare it for pickup.  Fleamarket regulars follow the brush schedule, so don't be surprised if you put out a couch or a TV and it's gone before the pickup.  That's fine with me, after all it's recycling.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Improving Digital Government

I just added some new blogs that help governments improve their digital presence on the web.  They discuss everything from effectively using social media to website security.  Scroll down below the San Antonio Blogs to check them out.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Is Spending Stimulus funds on Fitness Initiatives Irresponsible?

Mayor Julian Castro recently announced that the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District had just received
$15.6 million in stimulus funds to improve fitness and reduce obesity in SA.  The funds are part of the Health and Wellness initiative backed by First Lady Michelle Obama and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.  There were 44 grants in all.  San Antonio's proposal is

To improve opportunities for physical activity, nutrition, and active living, the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District will work with community partners to expand the number of public facilities, including schools that are available for after-hours use for physical activity. San Antonio also will encourage city development projects to improve protection for vulnerable users, in accordance with Complete Streets recommendations. The project also will implement voluntary healthy food and beverage guidelines for local restaurants and will conduct trainings for education leaders to improve physical activity and the availability of healthy foods in schools.
This sounds good, but as my fellow blogger Albatross at Strange in San Antonio points out you can bring a horse to water but you can't make him drink.  As far as he is concerned this is a waste of taxpayer money.  If people really want to lose weight they can go outside and exercise and eat healthy food.  Everyone knows this, but many people don't chose to follow the recommendations.  His other complaint is how are these funds going to stimulate the economy.

So first, let's look at the facts.

On average the poorer the city the higher the obesity rate.  Slightly more than 18% of the population and 26.7% of children live in poverty in San Antonio, which means the poverty rate in SA is 1% higher than the state of Texas as a whole and 5% higher than the US poverty rate of 13%.  Poverty is associated with obesity because poor people usually live in areas where fast food is abundant but grocery stores are scarce (otherwise known as food deserts), fatty foods are less expensive and more energy dense (and tasty) than fresh produce and lean meats, school playgrounds either have no playground equipment or the playgrounds are surrounded by chain link fences, and playing or walking outdoors is discouraged because of safety issues, poor or no sidewalks and few if any nearby parks.  San Antonio has the added bonus of hot weather for about 5 months out of the year.   And a personal observation of my own, lots of people across all socioeconomic levels don't cook, either because they don't know how, they don't like doing it or they don't have time.

Here is a local example.  I was on Fresno at Blanco yesterday. The census tract for this area has an urban residential population of 7,619 and has lots of impervious ground cover that contributes to higher temperatures in cities. Today's temperature, (as of 1:19 pm taken at Thunderbird Hills about 5 miles away) is 97.5 degrees, the highest temperature listed on Weather Underground for SA. The persons living below the poverty level in this area is estimated to be about 24.2 % and the median household income for the area is just above $30,000.  (the US poverty threshold for a family of 4 is just over $22,000)

There are several fast food chains represented on the corner of Blanco and Fresno (MacDonald's, Tink-a-Tako, Burger King, Las Palapas) and a Culebra Meat Market that sells fresh meat, a little bit of produce and lots of packaged food.  Down the street about 1/2 mile is a La Fiesta grocery store.  In this week's ad, chicken drum sticks cost the same per pound as fresh peaches, and plums cost 20 cents more per pound.  Tomatoes and jalepeno peppers are 10 cents more per pound than the drum sticks.  There is also an HEB about 1/2 mile away in the opposite direction.  It's ad has similar pricing for produce and lots of processed food on special.

The nearest park is Kenwood Park, about 1/2 mile away, it has a pool, 2 playgrounds, athletic fields, basketball court, and a hard-surface trail.  The nearest elementary school, Rogers in SAISD, has no visible playground.  All of it's open space seems to be taken up by parking lots and portable buildings.  The nearest indoor recreation facility, Indoor Soccer Club, is about 3 miles away and costs $600 for men, and $450 for women and children to join a team, plus referee fees and the cost of an ISC approved team uniform.  So it appears that access healthy food and recreational activities is somewhat limited in this area.

The national Food Stamp program does make special provisions to use WIC funds to buy fresh produce, but this is only for pregnant women and children under 5.  The free lunch program also makes sure to include fresh produce, but as most moms will tell you, most kids would rather eat cereal (a daily item on the breakfast menu at South Side ISD) than an apple or an orange.

But wait, the HEALTHY study, sponsored by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, found that
a school-based program can help lower obesity and certain risk factors for type 2 diabetes in youth at high risk for the disease,” said Griffin P. Rodgers, M.D., director of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK).
The intervention significantly lowered the obesity rate among children whose body mass index, or BMI, was initially at the 85th percentile or more. 

Researchers were surprised to find that the number of overweight and obese students had declined in comparison schools as well as program schools. “The decline in the number of overweight and obese children in comparison schools was a welcome but unexpected finding,” said study chair and lead author Gary D. Foster, Ph.D., of Temple University, Philadelphia.  “Future analyses will try to clarify the reasons for the improvement in these schools.  For example, we’ll look at the comparison schools to see if they made healthy changes to the school environment because of increased awareness about the problem of childhood obesity.”
So interventions in schools do work (six middle schools in SAISD participated in the study) , but families have to be involved as well. Right now San Antonio Sports is sponsoring the Fit Family Challenge.  They are trying to get 10,000 people involved in the free program and are offering prizes such as family vacations, $1000 in cash, free gym memberships, and free athletic shoes as incentives.  They also have free fitness events occuring throughtout the city.  The challenge started at the beginning of May and they are still accepting applications, but there's no data on how many people are actually participating.
But what about economic stimulus?

According to the Texas Comptroller's office, obesity cost Texas employers about $3.3 billion in 2005, and obesity levels have risen since then.  Health care, absenteeism, decreased productivity and disability all contributed to these expenses.  So, first off, if you save employers money, then they will have more money to hire workers.  Also healthier workers lead to higher production which also contributes to the bottom line.  So it appears that making people healthier will be good for the economy.

Many companies have started programs to increase fitness levels among their employees, switching their health benefits to encourage fitness programs.  This is great for people who work for these companies and have health insurance, but wait a minute, obesity rates are highest in low income areas where people are less likely to have health insurance.

But obesity doesn't just effect employer pocket books, it effects all tax payers.   According to the Texas Comptroller's office
an analysis of data from the 1998-2000 BRFSS found that, while 20 percent of the total U.S. adult population was obese, the adult Medicare and Medicaid populations were 20.7 percent and 29.6 percent obese, respectively. During the same period, 22 percent of all Texas adults were obese, while 20.7 percent of the state’s Medicare population and 35.8 percent of its Medicaid population were.
Medicaid, then, has a more obese population, and Medicaid costs for obesity, as a percentage of all Medicaid costs, are greater than for Medicare recipients or the total population. The percentage of Texas’ 2003 health care expenditures attributable to adult obesity in Medicaid (11.8 percent) was 73.5 percent higher than for Medicare (6.8 percent) and 93.4 percent greater than for the total population (6.1 percent).
In all, about half of the health care costs attributable to obesity fell under Medicare and Medicaid in 2003. Medicare and Medicaid recipients in the U.S. accounted for 52.0 percent of all obesity health care costs; in Texas, they accounted for 44.7 percent of all obesity health care costs.

So, is spending stimulus funds on obesity a irresponsible?

Reducing obesity rates would definitely improve our economy. Better access to healthy food, recreational activities, sports activities parks, bike routes and sidewalks could encourage physical activity and lower obesity rates, but here again motivation is key.

Remember back in the 1960's when it seemed like just about every adult smoked?  The government enlisted us kids to stop the smoking.  I remember being very anti-smoking in elementary school, to the point of throwing away cigarettes (and getting into trouble for it.)  And now the smoking rate among men is 30% lower.  (of course there was some legislation thrown in too.)  So what's the key to motivation:  youth indoctrination, better access to a healthy life style, and yes, probably some legislation (like the NYC transfat law) will probably all have to be used to get the obesity epidemic under control.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Viable Solar Energy

The biggest problem with solar energy is the amount of space that would need to be covered with solar panels in order to collect enough energy to power a city.  Not only would the panels be ugly, they would take up a lot of countryside and unsightly power lines would criss-cross formerly pristine open spaces.  Also transfer of energy from the sun-rich south west to other areas of the country would be extremely costly, close to being impossible.

But what if the solar panels were actually part of something that already exists, like a road?  This is the brain child of Scott Brusaw, engineer and president of Solar Roadways, who has already invented a prototype road panel that can withstand the pressures of traffic.  His goal is to get the price down to $10,000 per panel, more expensive than asphalt, but built to last three times longer (the average asphalt road lasts ten years.)  Roadways and parking lots are already responsible for increasing temperatures within cities, why not make that sun ray absorption work for us.

Just imagine covering an existing resource (3.9 million miles of public roadway) that covers the entire country.  We would have more electricity than we need.  Also, because of the access to public roads in all cities, towns and rural areas in the country the electrical grid would be decentralized, thus eliminating problems with current electrical grids that are prone to failures and vulnerable to attacks.  If a panel fails or is destroyed it can be easily replaced.

Solar Roadways is green in more ways than one,  recycled materials such as water bottles, tires and other trash are used to make the middle layer of the panel.  There are also lots of other applications that the panels could be used for, such as traffic management, National security by tracking trucks with hazardous cargo, road illumination, electric vehicle charging stations at rest stops, water management by relocating roadway storm water runoff, and snow and ice mananagement.

Putting in solar roadways throughout the country would take time and would have to be phased in over several years, somewhat like the national higway building program started by President Eisenhower.  But as more and more cities like San Antonio make committments to go green, I can see this type of technology take hold.

Monday, July 12, 2010

The Gulf Project

I am a believer in sound scientific approaches to problems.  The biggest problem with the BP oil spill is that they never really expected a drill failure, so they have no tested way of dealing with it.  All of the fixes being tried in the gulf right now are experimental, and in a way are a good testing ground for new approaches, but at what a terrible cost. 

I don't always agree with Governor Perry on his policies, but I think the Gulf Project is a great idea.  Perry has enlisted scientists, engineers, policy experts, researchers, and other state officials from NASA, Rice, Texas Tech, U of H, A&M, and other agencies to research and develop safer oil drilling techniques and to come up with a more effective response strategy to future oil spills.  Oil is a big industry in Texas and Perry is right on target to protect the industry in this proactive approach.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Responsible Government

It's nice to know that in the middle of a recession, with many cities on the brink of bankruptcy, that the city of San Antonio and Bexar County are in such great financial shape.  San Antonio recently received the best rating for bond issues and now Bexar County has just received a AAA bond rating for the $155 million in bonds it's getting ready to sell.  Top bond ratings mean much lower interest rates for repayment, which lowers government costs considerably when dealing with millions of dollars in debt service.

According to the San Antonio Business Journal the county is planning on using the bonds to finance
public safety, park, parking and street improvements. In addition, the county is planning to issue up to $680 million in certificates of obligation over a 10-year period for drainage improvements planned in conjunction with the City of San Antonio, the San Antonio River Authority and other regional partners.
I also just discovered that the city recently approved a Green Events Certification Ordinance that requires medium and large scale events (1000+ participants) or events that have city contracts, like right of way privileges such as parades, or that take place on city property (La Villita, the convention center, the River Walk, etc) to complete a  Green Events Checklist.  The checklist would include provisions made for recycling at the event for workers and participants, the use of recycleble untensils, containers and plates at food booths, and using the VIA park and ride system for large events.  They haven't started talking about carbon foot prints and carbon trading yet, but some forward thinking events, like Earth Day will probably start doing that on their own.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Where do Your Property Taxes Go? Historic Preservation in SA

A Recap of City of San Antonio revenues and spending. So $1,074.42 of your property taxes goes to the City of San Antonio.

The City of San Antonio receives revenues from several sources: Property taxes (25%), Charges and fees (20%), Revenues from Utilities (17%), Grants (usually federal) (15%), Sales Tax (14%), Hotel/Motel Tax (4%), Other Taxes (Short Term Rental Tax, Bingo Tax, etc) (2%), Fines (Library Fines, Traffic Tickets) (1%), Miscellaneous (1%), Intergovernment (0.6%), Permits/Licenses (0.4%)

The 2010 Budget for the City divides general fund expenditures in the following ways: Police (36%), Fire/EMS (26%), other services (Aviation, Community Initiatives, Historic Preservation, Solid Waste Management, Military Affairs, etc) (11%), Convention, Tourism and Culture (9%), Streets and Infrastructure (7%), Environmental (5%), Parks & Recreation (6%), Agencies (4%), Library (3%), Health (1%), Municipal Courts (1%), Neighborhood Services (1%), Economic Development (0.5%), Animal Care (0.5%). I will take you through each of these items in separate posts. If you feel that you have a better way to spend the money you can post your suggestions on the online Budget suggestion box for the 2011 budget.
(For links to all items in the CSA budget, see past posts.)

The citizens of the city of San Antonio were some of the first to realize the importance of historic preservation.  Check out this blog post at Wandering Off about an historical marker at the Alamo.  The marker memorializes probably one of the first sit-ins, long before the hippies thought of it. In 1893 Adina De Zavala barracaded herself into one of the long barracks on the side of the Alamo for three days to keep it from being demolished. 

The San Antonio Conservation Society, founded in 1924, is one of the oldest such organizations in the U.S.  This group of ladies were instrumental in saving most of the tourist spots we have in SA today, including the River Walk, The Witte Museum, the King William district, the Missions, La Villita and many others. 

With such a strong backing for historic preservation the city needed to come up with ways of protecting these areas.  The Historic Preservation department protects historical, cultural, architectural, and archaeological resources that make San Antonio unique through the creation of historic districts.  There are 26 historic districts in San Antonio that are regulated by the Historic Design and Review Board.  The board only reviews external changes to properties within an historic district, so interior changes are up to the owner, although you do have to apply for permits for any type of construction, fence changes and accessory buildings larger than 100 sq.ft. with the Development Services Department

If you live in an historic district, complying with the Historic Design and Review Board can be a pain, but SA's historic areas greatly contribute to the character and uniqueness of the city.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Where do Your Property Taxes Go? Community Initiative in SA

A Recap of City of San Antonio revenues and spending. So $1,074.42 of your property taxes goes to the City of San Antonio.

The City of San Antonio receives revenues from several sources: Property taxes (25%), Charges and fees (20%), Revenues from Utilities (17%), Grants (usually federal) (15%), Sales Tax (14%), Hotel/Motel Tax (4%), Other Taxes (Short Term Rental Tax, Bingo Tax, etc) (2%), Fines (Library Fines, Traffic Tickets) (1%), Miscellaneous (1%), Intergovernment (0.6%), Permits/Licenses (0.4%)

The 2010 Budget for the City divides general fund expenditures in the following ways: Police (36%), Fire/EMS (26%), other services (Aviation, Community Initiatives, Historic Preservation, Solid Waste Management, Military Affairs, etc) (11%), Convention, Tourism and Culture (9%), Streets and Infrastructure (7%), Environmental (5%), Parks & Recreation (6%), Agencies (4%), Library (3%), Health (1%), Municipal Courts (1%), Neighborhood Services (1%), Economic Development (0.5%), Animal Care (0.5%). I will take you through each of these items in separate posts. If you feel that you have a better way to spend the money you can post your suggestions on the online Budget suggestion box for the 2011 budget.
(For links to all items in the CSA budget, see past posts.)

The Community Initiatives department is responsible for helping to form government-community agency partnerships to promote economic self-sufficiency, stonger families and to enhance the quality of life for children, families and seniors.  Community Initiatives promotes programs like Project Cool that provides fans for senior citizens, Making Connections, an Annie E. Casey foundation program that helps to improve the lives of children on the west side, Haven for Hope, the new homeless shelter campus that also provides job training and medical and dental services to help the homeless to become economically independent, and free smoke detectors

Community Initiatives also keeps tabs on agencies using government funds to make sure the money is being used properly.  If you represent a nonprofit agency that would like to partner with the city fill out the delegate agency form that applies to your mission.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Expecting Too Much From Government?

We live in a complex world, but for some reason we expect our government to be able to keep up with and respond to every new issue or disaster that comes along with the speed and efficiency of a quantum computer on hyperdrive. 

Richard Posner a lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School who writes for the Becker-Posner Blog points this out very eloquently.
The reaction to the latest accident has been surprising. Oil spills and underwater drilling accidents are common, and despite the media hype it is too soon to tell whether this one will prove to be the biggest yet. The amount of oil leaked so far is substantially less than the amount spilled or leaked in previous accidents, including at least one in the Gulf of Mexico.
It is also surprising that so much criticism has been directed at the Obama Administration, and indeed against Obama personally. Most of the criticism is absurd—his failure to react emotionally, and his inability to “just plug the hole,” are not personal or professional failings. The Minerals Management Service in the Department of Interior does seem to have been asleep at the switch, but Obama unlike his immediate predecessor cannot be criticized as being hostile to regulation—if anything, he has too much faith in it. MMS is a small and obscure agency far below the horizon of a president’s supervision. No president can eliminate all pockets of incompetence in the vast federal government.

It is possible that the number of recent disasters has created a public sense that something is wrong with government: that it ought to be able to prevent all disasters. But this is an unrealistic expectation. Everything conspires against a government’s being able to protect its people against disasters, whether natural or man-made. A factor that retards prevention of man-made disasters is the rapid and relentless advance of technology. Regulation lags innovation. The Federal Reserve, Treasury Department, and SEC were no more able to keep abreast of advances in financial engineering than MMS was to keep abreast of advances in drilling for oil at very great depths under water. Slack regulation encourages private companies to adopt a high-risk business model. Risk and return tend to be positively correlated, in finance because risky loans command higher interest rates and in underwater drilling because risk abatement is costly. Business is particularly reluctant to take preventive measures against unlikely disasters because they do not pose a serious near-term threat. If there is a 1 percent annual probability of a disastrous drilling accident or financial collapse, the probability that the disaster will occur any time in the next 10 years is only 10 percent. Business managers have finite planning horizons just like politicians.
T.R. Ferenbach, columnist for the San Antonio Express-News thinks there is plenty of blame to go around.  In his article Overly Demanding Voters Share Blame for Government Budget Disasters says
Sure, governments have spent too much and borrowed too much to do it [offer generous pensions and entitlement programs], deranging national and world financial structures. But why? Is this a run of collective insanity, or a case of simpletons in government screwing up that elusive concept, money?

I believe that the underlying problem is voting by people who do not understand democracy. They rush from dreams of omnipotence to the dregs of apathy. Democratic government cannot supply people with everything they want simply because they vote for it. The ballot does not create either wealth or jobs. Democratic government requires working out reasonable compromises between classes, regions, factions, which means no one is likely to get everything he thinks he deserves, all within what is possible, which means within a polity's means.
 Now in Texas many of us don't want our governments borrowing lots of money and spending it on entitlements.  We hate it so much we only allow balanced budgets.  But at the same time we also expect an awful lot of our local governments, or as the saying goes, we expect juice from a turnip.

As far as most Texans are concerned, we pay way too much money in taxes.  But wait a minute, Texas is 43rd in the nation in tax burden.  The states that have lower tax burdens than we do have no state sales tax.  We actually have a pretty good deal when it come to taxes.  The tax rate in San Antonio actually dropped between 1991 and 2008.  So not only are we paying less money based on the tax rate, we are also paying less based on inflation ($1.00 in 1991 cost $1.56 in 2008).  San Antonio is a growing city (over 600,000 new residents from 1991 to 2008) which adds to the tax base, but also adds to the number of roads that have to be maintained, the amount of fresh water that needs to be supplied, the changes to the landscape that effect flooding, the snarled traffic that needs to be addressed, etc, etc. A tight budget means that the city does what it can, so we have to be reasonable, the city is playing catch up, it may not be running as fast as we wished it would, but it's running as fast as it can.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Smoking Ban, Racist?

Is the Smoking ban proposed by the San Antonio city council racist?  Well, let's take a look at the facts.

According to the Surgeon General's report on health consequences of involuntary exposure to tobacco smoke
it increases the risk of serious respiratory problems in children, such as a greater number and severity of asthma attacks and lower respiratory tract infections, and increases the risk for middle ear infections.
Inhaling secondhand smoke [also] causes lung cancer and coronary heart disease in nonsmoking adults.
According to the National Institutes of Health

Levels of environmental tobacco smoke in bars were found to be approximately 3.9 to 6.1 times higher than in office workplaces and 4.4 to 4.5 times higher than in residences. (Siegel 1993)
So if you work in a bar and you don't smoke, you might as well start because you are in just about as much danger of contracting cancer as a smoker.

But hold on a minute, the Restaurant and bar industry studies say the economic impact  to their establishments would be devastating and cause huge economic losses because smokers would go to bars in other jurisdictions. Now we have to take these studies with a grain of salt because some of them are sponsored by the Tobacco industry, which would definetly suffer economic damage from smoking bans.

But there have been numerous independent studies showing that smoking bans actually have a positive economic impact on bars and restaurants. A government study done in New South Wales, Australia found that
weekly pub attendance rose from 21 per cent of New South Wales adults to 26 per cent since the new regulations were introduced.
According to a review of several studies done by Michael Eriksen ScD at the Institute of Public Health at the University of Georgia and Frank Chaloupka PhD at the Health Policy Center at the University of Illinois Chicago
numerous studies using objective measures of economic activity have been done over the past 10+ years looking at the impact of local, state, or national smoke-free policies on restaurants, bars, and tourism. From small towns such as West Lake Hills, Texas, to large cities like New York, in states as diverse as Arkansas, Oregon, and Texas, the vast majority of studies find that there is no negative economic impact of clean indoor air policies, with many finding that there may be some positive effects on local businesses.
Some studies have even found that smoking bans lower the incidence of teen smoking. According to a study done by Michael Siegel at Boston University
Bans don't make teenagers less likely to try cigarettes, but seem to stop them making it a habit, perhaps due to less contact with smokers or because smoking seems less socially acceptable.
But smokers still feel discrimination.  Acording to a Gallup poll conducted in July 2007
The proportion of smokers who feel unjustly discriminated against because of restrictions on smoking in public places is significantly higher today than six years ago. Over the same period, Gallup has seen an increase in public demand for restrictions on smoking in certain public locales, especially workplaces where a majority of Americans now support a full ban.
In San Antonio local advertising executive and political activist, Lionel Sosa, has called the proposed smoking ban economically discriminatory against hispanics.
"The proposed ordinance is economically discriminatory to members of the Hispanic community," Sosa will tell council, according to a text of his letter obtained by 1200 WOAI news. "When you look at the population of the small area bars, poll halls, and VFW halls that populate our community, you will see the overwhelming majority of those that will see their freedom of choice stripped from them by this ordinance are Hispanic-owned businesses."
Sosa's stance is somewhat mindboggling because he is a board member of the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas.  But he apparently feels that it is more a matter of free choice.  

I believe in free choice, but what about the free choice of the nonsmoking employee of a bar?

Part of the reason why LULAC and the NAACP oppose the new stricter ban is because it would exempt cigar bars which are seen as catering to the well-to-do, leaving lower income individuals with no place to publically smoke and socialize.  I can sort of see their point, but cigarettes are an extremely expensive habit as well.  According to this article if you pay $5.45 per pack for cigarettes, plus buy a new lighter every month, that's about $2,000 a year, not counting health costs, which are much higher.  If you are interested in finding out what your smoking habit costs you, try this smoking calculator.

So is the stricter smoking ban racist?  I guess it depends on your point of view.  I'm not a smoker and don't particularly appreciate being around smokers, but I don't go to bars very often and don't really know many smokers, so I'm really not exposed to second hand smoke.  But I do feel sorry for the nonsmoking bartenders and waitresses who have to put up with it.  Just remember about 80% of the US public are nonsmokers.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Where do Your Property Taxes Go? Aviation in SA

A Recap of City of San Antonio revenues and spending. So $1,074.42 of your property taxes goes to the City of San Antonio.

The City of San Antonio receives revenues from several sources: Property taxes (25%), Charges and fees (20%), Revenues from Utilities (17%), Grants (usually federal) (15%), Sales Tax (14%), Hotel/Motel Tax (4%), Other Taxes (Short Term Rental Tax, Bingo Tax, etc) (2%), Fines (Library Fines, Traffic Tickets) (1%), Miscellaneous (1%), Intergovernment (0.6%), Permits/Licenses (0.4%)

The 2010 Budget for the City divides general fund expenditures in the following ways: Police (36%), Fire/EMS (26%), other services (Aviation, Community Initiatives, Historic Preservation, Solid Waste Management, Military Affairs, etc) (11%), Convention, Tourism and Culture (9%), Streets and Infrastructure (7%), Environmental (5%), Parks & Recreation (6%), Agencies (4%), Library (3%), Health (1%), Municipal Courts (1%), Neighborhood Services (1%), Economic Development (0.5%), Animal Care (0.5%). I will take you through each of these items in separate posts. If you feel that you have a better way to spend the money you can post your suggestions on the online Budget suggestion box for the 2011 budget.
(For links to all items in the CSA budget, see past posts.)

The city of San Antonio operates two airports, San Antonio International Airport and Stinson Municipal Airport.  While most flights that the general air traveler will take will go through San Antonio International, Stinson Field caters to operators of light craft, individuals with their own planes and private aviation companies.

Stinson Field is the second oldest airfield in continuous operation in the US.  Not many people know that San Antonio was very important in the early days of aviation.  Stinson was opened in 1915 as a flying school for barnstormers.  In 1909, Fort Sam Houston was the first US Military base to have government owned aircraft and the home of the First Aero Squadron making San Antonio the birthplace of Military Aviation.

Airports are very important to the economic life of a city because many businesses won't open shop in a city unless it has good access to business and economic centers in other cities.  San Antonio's International Airport is sometimes faulted for it's inner city location, making it difficult to expand runways for more air traffic.   The planned expansion of the airport has dealt with this problem by moving the aerospace industrial complex, with its warehouse space, logistics/distribution center and business/office space to Kelly AFB thus freeing up more space for passenger airline traffic.  The airport's inner city location is a major plus for business and leisure travelers who don't want to spend a lot of time getting to their destination.

In the recent past it was actually cheaper to fly from Austin to major destinations but in the past year ticket prices for traveling from SA have dropped, showing that the city is once again in the mainstream of airline travel.

Noise is another problem that goes along with an inner city airport.  Just recently the FAA authorized the city to start the Residential Acoustical Treatment Program.  The city has assigned an Acoustical Treatment Consultant to prioritize neighborhoods that qualify for the program.  Acoustical retrofitting will then begin and continue in a rolling schedule similar to public works projects. If your residence qualifies, you can have your house acoustically treated to lower airplane traffic noise.  In the meantime if you have a problem now fill out the noise complaint form.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Strange in Texas

This story could easily go in the Strange in San Antonio blog.  Governor Perry, who loves to thwart the federal government, has been outmaneuvered by the US House of Representatives.  While approving an appropriations bill for the war in Afghanistan, they tacked on a rider to force Perry to use federal funds to hire new teachers. 

Seems back in 2009, Perry accepted federal funds for education, but then cut an equal amount of state funding for school districts, pocketing the money for state coffers.  Wonder if he used some of the money to pay for his rental mansion?  School districts in San Antonio are planning on cutting way back in hiring new teachers, could it have something to do with Perry's stinginess?

The $820 million dollars that will go directly into school district coffers is contingent on Perry signing off on not cutting state funding and not cutting the education portion of the state budget more than any other item.  Unfortunenatly I think the House just slapped Perry in the face with a white glove.  It's duelling time.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Where do Your Property Taxes Go? Economic Development in SA

A recap of the City of San Antonio budget.

The City of San Antonio receives revenues from several sources: Property taxes (25%), Charges and fees (20%), Revenues from Utilities (17%), Grants (usually federal) (15%), Sales Tax (14%), Hotel/Motel Tax (4%), Other Taxes (Short Term Rental Tax, Bingo Tax, etc) (2%), Fines (Library Fines, Traffic Tickets) (1%), Miscellaneous (1%), Intergovernment (0.6%), Permits/Licenses (0.4%)

The 2010 Budget for the City divides general fund expenditures in the following ways: Police (36%), Fire/EMS (26%), other services (Aviation, Community Initiatives, Historic Preservation, Solid Waste Management, Military Affairs, etc) (11%), Convention, Tourism and Culture (9%), Streets and Infrastructure (7%), Environmental (5%), Parks & Recreation (6%), Agencies (4%), Library (3%), Health (1%), Municipal Courts (1%), Neighborhood Services (1%), Economic Development (0.5%), Animal Care (0.5%). I will take you through each of these items in separate posts. If you feel that you have a better way to spend the money you can post your suggestions on the online Budget suggestion box for the 2011 budget.
(For links to all items in the CSA budget, see past posts.)

The city's Economic Development Department's job is to promote SA to out of town businesses and to be a booster of existing businesses.  The department does this by offering incentives to businesses to encourage employment growth.  Incentives come in a number of forms, tax abatements (lower taxes for a certain period), enterprize zone designation (recieve benefits for hiring 25% economically disadvantaged persons), industrial development bonds, health facility bonds, higher education facilities bonds, empowerment zone bonds, a Foriegn Trade Zone (allows manufacturers to import assembly parts free of duty and assemble them in the zone, and to reexport with no duties), Freeport Exemption (SAISD and Judson ISD exempt businesses from paying personal property taxes if they are dealing with goods-in-transit or inventories used in manufacturing) and Historically Underutilized Business Zones (assist businesses in the zones to win federal contracts). 

 Economic Development also assists small businesses in forming contracts with the city to complete the $550 million in bond improvement projects approved in 2007.  It also offers continuing education for small business owners and helps fund the South Texas Women's Business Center and the South Texas Business Fund.  The funds offer low interest loans to small businesses in SA. 

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Camp bullis Under Siege

Camp Bullis is surrounded but don't worry the Cavalry is coming to its aid.

Back in 1977 when the camp was first built it was out in the boonies, 1604 was still a two lane farm road with no night time lighting.  Its remote location in the past made it a quiet, low light area perfect for night maneuvers and far enough away from housing developments to keep from bothering residents with loud noise during the day. But now the base is beset by development on all sides.  There are housing lots in the most expensive parts of the Dominion that abut the barbed wire fence that sets off the reservation.  You can't even get a cell phone signal on those streets.  Why anyone would want to build a $1 million+ house next to an army reservation where they practice shooting small arms at 23 ranges and do night time training maneuvers for military police is beyond me.

Camp Bullis' mission was in jeopardy, and could possibly have been closed in the base realignments.  But now thanks to new state laws and city ordinances the base is protected.  Sixty-five recommendations made by the Camp Bullis Joint Land Use Study were used to craft the new legislation. Most importantly, in order to perform nightime training, future construction must use "dark sky" lighting to reduce ambient light interference   and a military sound attenuation overlay which requires buildings to have sound proofing built into them.   Also a disclosure notice to homebuyers posted on the city website warning of noise from the 23 small-arms practice ranges on the base.

The military is the largest employer in SA, making them happy makes sense.