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Looking Forward to 2008

Looking Forward to 2008: Doug Wieskopf

(Note: I have asked a variety of people to submit an essay to me to be posted during the month of December, to be called “Looking Forward to 2008”. This entry was written by Doug Wieskopf.)

My name is Doug Wieskopf and I work as a librarian for the City of Houston. I also help represent thousands of city workers in contract negotiations with city management as part of the Houston Organization of Public Employees (HOPE) bargaining team. My wish for 2008 is a simple one – a contract with the City of Houston that ensures a livable wage for every city worker and quality services for every Houston resident.

As many of you know, we’ve been locked in contract negotiations since last April. Even though we’re now huddling through the cold and damp of winter, some sunshine is beginning to shine down on our fight. Our pressure on the city has resulted in some city departments – like libraries and the police – raising the salaries of their lowest paid workers. And last month the city agreed with us that $10 an hour is the absolute minimum any city worker should make. These are hopeful signs, but this is not to say that spring has sprung, that everything is coming up roses and we have no fighting left to do.

Right now, roughly a thousand of my co-workers still make less than $9.83 an hour – the federal poverty rate for a family of four. And the city’s latest contract offer wouldn’t set a $10 an hour floor until 2010. Overall, Houston city workers make 21 percent less than municipal workers in other big Texas and U.S. cities – and we have the second worst pay among eight Texas governments surveyed by the city. Despite these dismal numbers (all of which come from city sources, by the way), Houston officials are offering an annual across-the-board raise of just 2 percent for the next four years – not even enough to keep pace with inflation.

The city administration likes to say that these tiny across-the-board raises will be supplemented with pay-for-performance raises. But the city’s performance pay system is broken. In the last four years, only 36 percent of city workers on average have received performance pay raises in a system vulnerable to favoritism. If we’re going to lift our workforce up to the standards of other cities, we need full and fair across-the-board raises.

As Jeff Caynon, the president of Houston’s firefighters, noted on Off the Kuff, the City of Houston has been trying to do too much for too little for too long. While the population of the city of Houston grew approximately 8.5 percent from 2000-2006, the number of city workers actually fell by 9 percent. It’s time for the city to make a serious investment in public services. All we need is a little foresight and some good will, and we can ensure 2008 marks a bright new future for everyone in Houston.

Doug Wieskopf is a Senior Library Services Specialist for the city and a member of the HOPE bargaining team. He’s been with the city for 29 years.

Looking Forward to 2008: Gus Allen

(Note: I have asked a variety of people to submit an essay to me to be posted during the month of December, to be called “Looking Forward to 2008”. This entry was written by Gus Allen.)

Houston real estate is gonna be so exciting in 2008!!! Here are just a few of the continuing trends Swamplot will be covering in the coming year:

  • Houston’s steady march away from the polluted, industrial East side, as the city center shifts further westward: past the Beltway, to Katy and beyond. Austin, here we come! Bonuses: more hills, lower humidity.
  • Thousands more acres of useless prairie, farmland, and wetland acreage at the outer reaches of the city — turned into affordable gated neighborhoods serving thousands of new commuters.
  • More headroom: Remember when builders sold new homes with silly 8- or 9-foot ceilings? What were they thinking? And just imagine, when we start selling real estate by the *cubic* foot, we’ll all make a killing!
  • In deed-restricted neighborhoods, more creative entries in the continuing competition to squeeze the most single-family square footage onto a plot of land. Expect innovations in the Memorial Maxi-size, Standard, and Towering Townhouse divisions.
  • More old malls recycled as far-more-convenient drive-up superstore parks.
  • Maybe we’ll finally get rid of the last of those one-off, prickly old Houston stores and restaurants that think they can substitute supposed “charm” and status as “local institutions” for the kinds of qualities that work in the broader market, like franchising and national ad campaigns. You know the kind of place: it’s been around for a while, and when it finally goes there’ll be some nostalgic newspaper article faux-mourning its passing. Already out: Kaplan’s Ben Hur, JMH Market, Greenway Theatre and Cactus Records (though the darn thing keeps popping up again!) Next up: Otto’s, the Proletariat, the River Oaks Theatre, and more!

    (This is probably wishful thinking, though. The more retail-and-dining deadweights that disappear, the more attachment soppy inner-loopers will feel to the second string of ragtag hangers-on that remain: When they finally kick the bucket, will we be forced to mourn Quarter Price Books and Zimm’s Wine Bar?)

  • More valet parking in strip-center parking lots. Head-in parking is a drag, anyway.
  • Of course, all this progress is at risk if Houston gets trapped in the broader national housing downturn.

There’s a whole lot more happening in Houston real estate: This is just the tip of the melting iceberg. At Swamplot, we’re trying to track as much of it as we can, but we need your help. What’s going on in your neighborhood? Send us your tips!

Gus Allen blogs about all aspects of Houston real estate at Swamplot.

Looking Forward to 2008: Jay Crossley

(Note: I have asked a variety of people to submit an essay to me to be posted during the month of December, to be called “Looking Forward to 2008”. This entry was written by Jay Crossley.)

Perhaps 2008 is the year that Houston begins to lose its pimples.

We are in a comparatively good position to address the future because we are such a young city. More than forty percent of our expected 2035 population will be born or will move here between now and then, and more than 50% of the built environment in 2035 will be built over that same time. We have options for laying out our fixed transit system and doing the final touches on our roadway system that other urban areas simply do not have because their built environment is already too laid out.

The METRO board voted in 2007 to build our 2012 transit system to reach the four largest employment centers in the City Region as well as our biggest colleges and universities. This is a strategy not pursued in Dallas, Los Angeles, Portland or any other major US city investing in light rail systems at this time. Our existing Main Street Line is the most efficient light rail line in the country in terms of boardings per mile of track, at 45,000 boardings per day on 7.5 miles of track. To some extent, this is a silly thing to say, considering Boston’s light rail system has 200,000 boardings a day and Toronto’s has 322,000. Yet we have a better start than any city in recent history, and the next five lines promise to be just as smart an investment.

If we prove successful in spreading this efficiency across a 32-mile system, we will set the bar for future transit development in growing urban regions. This will be just the beginning of building the most efficient regional transit system in the country, a crucial element in our goal to reach a state of sustainable prosperity for the entire region.

In 2008, when METRO begins the process of construction, there will be two key opportunities for Houston to shine that we cannot afford to pass up. The first is that METRO, the City of Houston, the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), and many other entities need to make the effort not only to mitigate the negative effects of construction but also lay the groundwork for 30 years of quality economic and community development around our urban transit system. Secondly, the codes that dictate the urban form of the City of Houston must be rewritten to provide a reasonable framework for the development of a city that will support a high quality of life for a large human population far beyond the next 30 years.

Everyone knows full well that business owners are worried, remembering torn up streets and closures in the wake of the construction of the Main Street Line. Those that wish to blame METRO for all of the problems associated with completely rebuilding the utility and street infrastructure of much of Downtown seem fairly unrealistic predictors of what we should expect during construction of the next 5 lines. METRO, along with the City and various other groups, did miss an opportunity for people-positive public policy. We can overcome this shortfall the second time around.

The METRO Board of Directors, the vast majority of whom were not sitting on that board at the time of the construction of the Main Street Line, have already committed considerable resources to having employees of the transit agency working full time in the communities that will be affected, getting to know businesses, understanding local heritage and culture, and using these contacts to guide METRO’s work.

METRO has apparently made offers of relocation assistance to those businesses that will be removed through eminent domain. Property owners will be fairly compensated for these takings. We must insist on no less. At the same time, METRO must avoid any inkling of improper valuations like that surrounding the sale of a city street to a private developer in the Village this year.

METRO is headed in the right direction with the opening of neighborhood storefronts for business owners and residents to voice their concerns and get answers about the coming light rail lines. Let’s hope they keep their minds wide open over the next several years in thinking of ways to better mitigate interruptions as well as ensure that transit is a positive element in the community.

Fair treatment for existing businesses and residents, as well as community and economic development, will require a tremendous wave of work from actors outside of METRO and the City of Houston. LISC, the Tax Increment Refinancing Zones, Neighborhood Centers, and others should now be considering economic development strategies, including community land trusts, business development and financial assistance, and even incentives for community-positive dense development around the light rail stations.

Neighborhood groups should fully understand what is coming and should mobilize their residents to participate in the development of streetscape standards and the investment in community resources such as pocket parks and community gardens. The City of Houston alone is expected to grow by perhaps 1 million new residents by 2035, a 50% increase. Each neighborhood should plan to shoulder its share of the growth. We cannot simply allow wealthy neighborhoods to push the growth to less wealthy ones.

The TIRZs should be making substantial investments in the commons to improve walkability and accessibility, and to add green enhancements. One of the most promising measures that the TIRZs could take would be to build shared parking facilities to decouple development decisions from the daunting challenge of building Houston style parking.

The City of Houston itself should plan for a dense urban zone to complement this major infrastructure investment, beginning with an additional investment in walkability. Each of the coming 52 rapid transit stations should be surrounded by at least a half-mile fabric of walkability. The City should commit to rebuilding all damaged sidewalks and filling in all holes in walking infrastructure within these areas in conjunction with the unveiling of new transit service in 2012, starting with the Main Street Line.

This effort should extend throughout the City, for the dual purpose of treating citizens across the city fairly and understanding the effect of walkability investments independent of transit investments. In conjunction with H-GAC’s livable centers program and TIRZs and neighborhood groups, the city should completely retrofit dense regions with good mixes of residents, jobs, and errands, with ADA compliant, pleasant, green, walkable sidewalks.

The extent to which METRO, the City, and these other organizations can fairly work with the business community and neighborhoods to bring about a livable urban environment will affect the future quality of life for millions.

The single greatest catalyst for change outside of METRO’s development of the transit system itself will come from the Urban Corridors project undertaken by the City of Houston and funded by METRO. This effort should bind the transit system to the surrounding communities and will determine the pleasantness and utility of the future urban fabric of the region.

Current city and county policies pervert the marketplace heavily towards suburban development in greenfields and a wasteful separation of uses, which greatly increases our dependence on auto travel. The City should first remove disincentives for positive urban growth and then develop new standards with community input that will allow balanced thriving neighborhoods all over town. The benefits of urban living should be accessible to Houstonians of all income levels. Survey after survey shows that huge amounts of Houstonians wish they lived closer to jobs, shopping, schools, and other people, but the current market, shaped by city policy, does not allow them this choice.

The code can, should, and will change. Houston can revolutionize urban governance by dedicating all city departments to the adoption of the Citizens’ Vision developed by Blueprint Houston.

To provide a true free market in 21st Century Houston region, I hope we will see the beginning of a real comprehensive plan for the City of Houston based on citizen values in 2008. City Council instructed the Planning Commission in the Summer of 2006 to develop a plan for how to undertake a comprehensive plan for the city, as called for in Houston city code. The Commission instead has decided to pursue something that they are referring to as a General plan, but which seems to be simply an automobile mobility study, a drainage study, and a neighborhood preservation study.

This will not address the major concerns of Houstonians, which have repeatedly been shown to include the following at the top:

Preservation of Green space
More walkability and access to jobs and retail closer to residences
Respect for the flood plains
Better air quality

The city can and must address its rampant unsustainability and can only do this by adopting the vision of its citizens and putting the ample, ready, and massive machinery of urban governance into gear to provide a major reduction in vehicle miles traveled, clean air and water, affordable accessible housing for all, a fair and open marketplace, and a cleaner environment over the next ten years. If we do less, we are letting the world down as well as future Houstonians.

A good life requires not only the freedom to live it, but the active community in which to live it. Both and Afton Oaks have recently shown the capacity of Houstonians to organize to provide greater public input, broaden the civic debate, and make issues clear and infrastructure choices relevant to every citizen. Should 2008 turn out to be the year that Houston loses its pimples, then we should expect Houston in 2018 to house a thriving marketplace of ideas with many strong organizations working and advocating for a variety of opposing views on the direction of our public policy and the further growth of our region.

The City of Houston has a major role to play in our nation’s attempt to address global climate change and Mayor White is already working hard for the city to accept this role. There are many things to do for many different actors, from harnessing the skill and ingenuity of our energy industry for innovation and efficiency to each of us making personal decisions that will decrease our carbon footprint. The successful implementation of our fixed transit system and the complementary development of many different dense urban cores with walkable, livable places is essential to fulfilling this responsibility.

The elections next year will change many things for the country and for the region as well. No matter what party wins Harris County, the winning candidates are going to be talking about green issues, development of livable town centers, tweaking government to allow access for all to the local and global economy, and improvements to our quality of life. And of course, some day, the Texas Legislature and Governor will wake up and realize that the majority of Texans are urban and that a green future for Texas is primarily contingent on our urban form. I don’t imagine this will happen in 2008, or the 2009 legislative session, but stranger things have happened. If the Dynamos threepeat in 2008, I’ll take that as a sign that we might just look forward to a green session in 2009.

Jay Blazek Crossley does program development and research at the Gulf Coast Institute, a nonprofit think tank whose mission is to improve the quality of life in the Houston region. He grew up in Montrose, is the son of Jody Blazek and David Crossley, and recently returned to Houston after ten years in Austin, where he earned both a B.A. in Liberal Arts and a Master in Public Affairs from the University of Texas.

Looking Forward to 2008: Martha Griffin

What am I looking forward to in 2008? Taking back the Texas State House!

I’m ready to have a legislature that cares about kitchen table issues – those things that make me wonder if it’s possible for families to have any forward progress in their financial situation – the cost of electricity, insurance, higher education and health care, to name some of the biggies.

The Republican leadership’s focus on TAX CUTS! TAX CUTS! TAX CUTS! are just starving the baby. Texans are being starved slowly of all of our infrastructure and ability to get ahead sort of like a frog in a boiling pot of water doesn’t realize he’s cooked until it is too late. Not to mention we are being literally choked by the quality of air in the state. The purposeful neglect of our environment and park system is appalling.

All this can change when we elect talented, reasonable, fiscally responsible law makers who care about Texas – our beautiful state and diverse families.

It wouldn’t be an end of year post without an End of Quarter mention. Yeah, today is the last day to contribute to campaigns and have it show up on the end of year financial report. I took a look around ActBlue today to see who is leading the online fundraising there. Here are the top ActBlue Texas House candidates by total fundraising:

1. HD-46 Challenger Brian Thompson: 88 donations, $10,095
2. HD-129 Challenger Sherrie Matula: 24 donations, $3010
3. HD-36 Challenger Sandra Rodriguez: 11 donations, $2200
4. HD-138 Challenger Virginia McDavid: 21 donations, $1885
5. HD-97 INCUMBENT Dan Barrett: 44 donations, $1684

Thompson and Rodriguez are challenging Craddick Ds (wave goodbye to Dukes and Flores). Barrett recently won a special election against an opponent who made a campaign issue of his pledge to vote for Craddick. Matula and McDavid are both challenging incumbent Republicans. Matula’s opponent, 5-term Republican incumbernt John Davis, has drawn a primary challenger, mostly due to Republican disgust over his ethics problems.

It’s not too late to help one of these worthy House candidates – or others equally worthy – by tossing some New Year’s Eve change their way. ActBlue link for the whole list: here.

This our time. Time to Turn Texas Blue.

Looking Forward to 2008: Paula Harris

(Note: I have asked a variety of people to submit an essay to me to be posted during the month of December, to be called “Looking Forward to 2008”. This entry was written by Paula Harris.)

New Year, New Adventure, New Learning opportunities – they all are cause for excitement and energy and the expectation of opportunity. This is the time of year I spend time canvassing my brain for the appropriate theme for the new year. One idea I have as I move forward into 2008 is the theme “BACK to the BASICS”. In these times of complicated problems and complex solutions, I just want to make sure that I examine and deduce everything in its most simplified manner. This will be a year of discovery and my learning curve is probably equivalent to that of an entering college freshmen. With that said, I will focus on uncovering the root cause and underlying issues as we look to identify and solve issues. This method will work in my personal, public service, spiritual and professional life. To further explore this theme, I engaged experts in simplification, a group of 7 year olds. I asked them as Charles Kuffner asked me “What are you looking forward to next year?”. The answers were simple, concise and all similar. They are looking forward to

1. Their birthdays.
2. Holidays (Christmas and Halloween ranking highest)
3. Doing well in school.
4. Summertime.

It’s that simple. I am going to take a page from their book because what I see and hear from them, in the simplest form, is

Another year of life
Valuable time with family, friends and God
Setting and achieving goals
Rest and time for self

With that said, I know that there will always be complex issues that need to be addressed, but as I approach the freshness and innocence of a new year that will be a completely new experience for me and my village I am headed “Back to the Basics” for 2008.

As the newest HISD Trustee that represents District 4 there is so much to look forward to. There are new relationships, new adventures, new goals and new achievements. We have a higher community focus on education that has not been experienced as of late. What makes this so exciting is the potential to have input, recommendations, solutions and volunteerism from a population that has not been engaged in our schools for this latest generation of inner city children. Our community leaders have indicated that they are ready and more than willing to take the challenge, roll up their sleeves and do the hard work that it is going to take to turn our schools and achievement levels around. The thrilling part of this equation is knowing that the extra commitment to our children will equate to higher student achievement. Gaining commitment from pastors, civic leaders, business leaders, parents and other stakeholders to engage on each campus through the campus “Shared Decision Making Committee” (SDMC) will be a monumental start. The SDMC is an educator and community group that sets school budget, policy, procedure and strategies for success. A strong SDMC can provide the support that our school leadership needs to begin the systematic positive change needed in our schools.

When I say “Back to the Basics”, I am also defining the pilgrimage back to our strong community driven solutions, championed by the people and organizations that can put an enormous amount of sweat equity into our children. Historically, the reason we as a community have invested in our children was not because they were birth children or relatives. We have traditionally invested using the village mentality, that all of them are ours and their success is our success and their failure is our community failure. Our schools need help and I am turning to the very people who made sure that I was successful in school. My success in 1970’s HISD classroom was not guaranteed by the governmental establishments, it was the community that made sure that the establishment provided the basics and the community made sure the tools were in place to take us to the next level. With that said, as the new school board member I will be depending on our community to be involved in our schools and to keep this high level of excitement, interest and alignment with our schools. My commitment is to work diligently to ensure that the programs, policies, strategies, resources and decisions made at the board level, positively affect student achievement in our community.

Let’s look forward to 2008 as a year to declare “if it’s to be, it’s up to me”. We have to heat things up, demand accountability from everyone who has access and decision making powers over our children and in turn our future. I not only welcome community involvement, our children need it and will depend on it.

Looking forward to 2008, the potential for positive change is great. If we take a page from the playbooks of our 7 year old advisors and remember to be excited about another year of life and the potential it brings, spend time with friends and family while you work for your community, set your goals and expectations high then work hard for success, and lastly never forget that in order to help others, you must take good care of yourself.

I have to say a special thank you to my esteemed panelist of advisors who are wise beyond their 7 years and I wish each and every one of you the best that the new fresh year has to offer.

Paula Harris is the newly-elected Trustee for HISD District 4.

Looking Forward to 2008: Maria Gonzalez

(Note: I have asked a variety of people to submit an essay to me to be posted during the month of December, to be called “Looking Forward to 2008”. This entry was written by Maria Gonzalez.)

As the vice president and chair of the PAC of the Houston GLBT Political Caucus, I am looking forward to 2008 with great anticipation. We will have a great opportunity to further establish our support for progressive and GLBT friendly candidates. Building upon our extraordinary success in 2007, which included being victorious in 16 of our 17 endorsed races, including the first group to endorse the HISD bond issue, the Caucus will continue to be one of the most active political groups in the city.

The Caucus will have a slate of endorsed candidates ready for the March primary. With a record number of individuals seeking our endorsements in their races, including the judicial primary races, the Caucus will be very busy in January interviewing candidates. Our general meeting in February should be very lively as we will discuss and vote upon our endorsements for the Primary. Once we endorse, we will make sure that our endorsed candidates names become available to our vast support base represented in our database of over 30,000 registered voters in Harris County.

Once the primaries are done, we will focus on our next efforts, to endorse in the November elections. We will begin screening in late June and most of July. The interviews with candidates provide some of the most direct means of assessing individual support for our GLBT community. We ask very direct questions about our issues like support for non-discrimination, but as a broad political group we will also being asking about quality of life and support for education. At our August meeting, the Caucus will vote on its endorsements. This will be followed by efforts to inform our supporters who we recommend for office this November.

We once again hope to reproduce our extraordinary success of 2007 when we nearly had 100% of our endorsed candidates and issues win. You don’t have to be GLBT to join the Caucus, just supportive of our community. The Caucus meets the first Wednesday of every month at the Havens Center, 1827 W. Alabama. We hope to see everyone there soon

Maria Gonzalez teaches American Literature at the University of Houston. She is the Vice President and chair of the PAC of the Houston GLBT Political Caucus.

Looking Forward to 2008: Stephanie Stradley

(Note: I have asked a variety of people to submit an essay to me to be posted during the month of December, to be called “Looking Forward to 2008”. This entry was written by Stephanie Stradley.)

The year 2007 will mark the first year that the Houston Texans were more entertaining to watch than not. The previous years, for me, were more about being fascinated in the do’s and don’ts of putting together a professional football team from scratch. It’s not something I’ve witnessed up close with any other team. A lot of people found that to be a hard brand of football to watch, but I see it a bit like watching your kids grow. You see them fail and succeed, though it is hard to watch the failures.

Houstonians tend to fall into two categories in the post-Oilers era: 1. Those who are waiting for the Texans to be worth watching; and 2. Those who despised being teamless in Houston, and appreciate the Texans in the never-take-NFL-football-for-granted way. I clearly ended up in the second category. Like in politics, it’s much more fun when you have someone or something you can support, instead of just rooting against someone or something awful.

So, what do I see for the Texans in 2008? Well, fortunately, this year I haven’t had to already study in depth the top 10 draft prospects in the upcoming draft. The Texans clearly still have many needs, but it’s encouraging to see how hard they are playing despite leading the league in players on injured reserve. (Getting killed by Indy in Indy is something that happens to a lot of teams, including some much better and healthier than the Texans). I think their hard play is due to the type of player the Texans have been drafting, and how much they respect and want to play for Gary Kubiak.

I’ve always been optimistic about the Texans as they have a top notch facility in a football loving town where professional athletes like to live. If you talk to any of the coaching staff, the one thing they will always mention is that owner Bob McNair is a great owner who gives them all the financial resources they need. I think with that combo, eventually the Texans will be seeing more success on the field.

In the meantime, the smartest thing the Texans have done is not just allowed tailgating (it was prohibited during the Oiler years), but they have encouraged it. This has created a fan community where little existed, and helped you endure some pretty ugly football at times. I think the New Orleans Saints fans’ motto is “Win or lose, we still booze.” I’m not sure that alcohol as a therapy for losing is a good idea, but I will say that some of the best barbeque I’ve eaten in my life has been at Texans tailgate parties.

If you would like to tailgate in the upcoming year but don’t know who to tailgate with, I suggest visiting the TexansTalk website and posting something in the tailgate section of their message board. Lots of personable, helpful people over there who love to welcome other Texans fans to tailgate culture.

Hope your holiday season has been terrific and your upcoming new year better. If you want a delicious extra present, please click this link.

Stephanie Stradley writes about the Texans and other sports topics for AOL Sports’ FanHouse and is a frequent sports talk radio guest. Last year, she was named the 2006 Ultimate Texan Fan.

Looking Forward to 2008: Matt Stiles

(Note: I have asked a variety of people to submit an essay to me to be posted during the month of December, to be called “Looking Forward to 2008”. This entry was written by Matt Stiles.)

Next year will bring us a tale about a big port city, a place with aging infrastructure, schools facing challenges and a police department crunching crime statistics.

I should probably mention that there’s a politically ambitious mayor in this story, too.

You think I’m speaking of Houston, right?

Well, not exactly.

In 2008, with all its promise of historic political contests in Texas and across the nation, the thing I’m most looking forward to is a great American television show.

I’m talking about The Wire, HBO’s gritty urban drama set in Baltimore. Most people think the show is about organized crime, specifically the drug trade. It is, and isn’t.

Entering its fifth and final season next month, The Wire really is about public institutions, the places critical to our society — police departments, local political entities, public schools.

In The Wire, an impressively realistic and honest series that has never received the attention it deserves, these institutions get a critical look. And what we see isn’t pretty: police officers paralyzed by bureaucratic brass, politicians making short-sighted decisions — and schools (and the families that send their kids to them) often failing. It seems every institution also lacks the ambition to solve its problems.

This season, the show is tackling what some see as another troubled institution: the newspaper business. The show’s creator, David Simon, is a former Baltimore Sun reporter who has complained that “the media, which is supposed to be the assertive watchdog of the political and social culture, the last hope of reform — they’re not here anymore.”

As heartbreaking as it is entertaining, The Wire would be depressing without the characters, especially wily Officer James “Jimmy” McNulty (Dominic West). He, like others in the show, is flawed. He drinks, carouses and disregards the chain of command. But sometimes Jimmy and the others break through the roadblocks placed by the system. Those moments are magic.

Their triumphs, like ours, are often subtle, fleeting or incomplete. The show isn’t tidy. The Wire is as real as television gets, and it masterfully explores the complexities of the cities we live in (and write about).

That’s why I’m looking forward to 2008.

Matt Stiles is a reporter and blogger for the Houston Chronicle.

Looking Forward to 2008: Rep. Ellen Cohen

(Note: I have asked a variety of people to submit an essay to me to be posted during the month of December, to be called “Looking Forward to 2008”. This entry was written by Rep. Ellen Cohen.)

As I write this article, 2007 is coming to an end, and it would appear that the biggest event of 2008 will be the presidential election. That said, much can happen in 10 months, thrusting unknowns to the forefront and dramatically changing the landscape of predictions. Still, with whatever is in store for us, electing a President who will restore our country’s position of respect, compassion and integrity throughout the world is paramount. Someone who will bring us as a nation together while continuing to respect diversity in all aspects of our lives.

Clearly, the next President needs, on a national level, to focus on many of the same concerns we in the state legislature are facing: health care, including the children’s health insurance program, stem cell research, and mental health services. While recent research shows some very promising new forms of stem cell research, we can not and must not abandon the promise of what is being learned through adult and embryonic stem cell research. Regenerative medicine is vital to saving lives. Republicans and Democrats have voted in a very bipartisan manner to lift the bans set down by the present Administration that limits or stops research done on embryonic or early stem cells. All of this was brought home to me from both a very personal side regarding my late husband’s spinal cord cancer and a visit I received from twin 6 year old girls living in West University who shared with me how this research could help with their juvenile diabetes.

The next President needs to expand the State Children’s Health Insurance Program and, we in Texas need to do the same. Of the 9 million uninsured children in the United States, over 1.5 million live in Texas. CHIP is the program designed to help the children of working families. As President Clinton often said, these families are the ones who “are working hard and playing by the rules”. They are doing everything, but simply don’t make enough money to pay for health insurance coverage for their children without some assistance.

The next President, and we in Texas, need to focus on education. As a nation we are falling woefully behind in the areas of math and science. As a state, if we expect to have employees who can reason, who can analyze figures, who can articulate intelligently varying points of view, then we have an obligation to educate our children. We simply must invest in our young people if we expect them to succeed in Texas, across the Nation and throughout the world.

Finally, the next President must continue to preserve the value of “separation of church and state”. I spent a decade of my life working for the American Jewish Committee and have great admiration for people of faith. I also accept and affirm the right of people to question the existence of a deity. We must look at issues in accordance with our Constitution, not a specific religious ideology. From textbook rejections and staff dismissals from NASA to the Texas Education Agency, we must realize and respect our religious believes as separate and apart from the lessons learned by scientific experiments and calculations. Our science and faith are NOT in conflict, only the agenda of our leaders.

This coming year presents us with a chance to compare where we are as a nation and a state and where new and innovative leadership can take us. We have a chance to restore our prestige as a nation and our leadership as a state. We must take advantage of this time in history to elect a President whose visionary leadership will secure the future, starting with the next generation.

Ellen Cohen is the State Representative for the 134th District in Harris County.

Looking Forward to 2008: Noel Freeman

(Note: I have asked a variety of people to submit an essay to me to be posted during the month of December, to be called “Looking Forward to 2008”. This entry was written by Noel Freeman.)

I always look forward to a new year, and 2008 is much the same … lose some weight, set new goals for my work with the City and community and build up my own business. What’s different is that I’m presenting a challenge to Mayor White and several new members of City Council who have the opportunity to learn about some issues that are very important to me and have taken up a large portion of my time and effort over the past year.

Probably the biggest issue I have concentrated on has been flooding and drainage. We all know how important this issue is to Houstonians, and it is vitally important that we resolve to do more to make a difference in the coming year. After Allison, we learned a huge lesson – that we were $2.5-3 billion (yes, that’s billion) behind on drainage infrastructure improvements. Mayor White has done a good job of increasing the budget for improvements, but sadly we are still budgeting less than $50 million per year (FY2008 was right around $45 million).

If you combine that with the $32-34 million we spend on maintenance and repairs, Houston still falls behind cities like Philadelphia, where the annual budget for similar programs and improvements is nearly $100 million. Nevermind that Philadelphia is physically about ¼ the size of Houston or that it has a half million fewer residents. At this rate, it will take 50 to 60 years just to bring our infrastructure up to today’s standards.

With this in mind, it is my hope that Mayor White and our new Council members will take the lead and accept a challenge – to set the budget for drainage infrastructure maintenance and improvements at no less than $100 million for FY2009 and to set a five year plan to increase that number to $150 million by FY2013. I think this number is realistic and attainable.

Further, the City needs to look at real solutions to address developments that place a large added burden on our drainage infrastructure, such as big-box stores with multi-acre parking lots and residential developments that provide very little pervious surface to absorb water. Development can still continue, but there are better ways that can make a real difference.

2007 also saw a related issue hit mainstream and highlight the real rock-and-a-hard-place situations we in the City often find ourselves in. That issue was development in the floodway. You may have seen some stories on the news or in the Chronicle about some floodplain maps that changed. It may not have hit close to home for most of you, but it sure did for several thousand people who now find their properties in the floodway. I was glad to see the City remove some provisions from the floodplain ordinance that offered variances because it showed that we were finally getting serious about the floodway and moving to limit future flood losses.

Unfortunately, there were some unforeseen side effects of that change that have had potentially adverse effects on residents. I would like to see Mayor White and Council move to establish a buyout program specifically for properties in the floodway and dedicate at least 5-10% of the drainage infrastructure budget mentioned above to do it.

The way I see it, 2008 is a great opportunity to make a real difference. I’ve got six months to educate Council members about these issues, and if they accept the challenge and do to the FY2009 budget what I’ve proposed, six more months to see how much better and safer it makes our communities. Here’s to 2008.

Noel Freeman works for the City of Houston’s Department of Public Works and Engineering and is a member of the Texas Floodplain Management Association. He was a previous candidate for City Council and is pursuing a Master’s degree in Public Administration from Norwich University.

Looking forward to 2008: Stace Medellin

(Note: I have asked a variety of people to submit an essay to me to be posted during the month of December, to be called “Looking Forward to 2008”. This entry was written by Stace Medellin.)

For Democrats, 2008 will be the longest year ever. We expect to win in November; however, many of us cannot wait to watch Bush hop on Air Force One for his final trip to Maine, Texas or wherever he decides to call home. There will be a Democrat in the White House, and I look forward to that change. More than anything, 2009 will determine if our Democratic victories in 2008 will amount to everything we want them to be.

As we get ready for our Harris County Democratic primaries, I look forward to an increase in Democratic activism and excitement. Much like Party stalwarts boast about the best list of presidential hopefuls ever, local Dems are very proud of the judicial line-up, as well as the countywide candidates, that we will be supporting. With new and almost-new folks in the running for Texas House seats in various corners of the County, there is no doubt that there is this sense of Democratic energy wafting about. How we take advantage of this great opportunity to turn Harris County blue will depend on how effective we are at turning out our various constituencies in November. Although I expect victory, I also expect our “safe” Texas House members to pull out all the stops, get their troops on the ground in their respective areas, and effect increased turnouts in those areas where turnout is nothing to boast about. Although I expect victory, I look forward to winning big and not barely.

At the personal level, it seems my life will be shaken up early in 2008. Although I’m sometimes known for DosCentavos, my dearest of Democratic friends and activists also know me because of my tight-knit family. Well, during first quarter of 2008, my middle sister and local attorney/professor Toni Medellin, her husband Ben Briseño, and my mom, Flora Medellin, will be moving to the Metroplex–location still to be decided. So, a big chunk of “The Cartel” is going to be gone, and I’m dreading it! During the last decade of living in the same area, we’ve grown quite close and we’ve enjoyed working together on most things progressive and political. Still, our friends will get to enjoy the fact that my other sis, Sylvia, and I will still be around and active (as if that’s any consolation for losing Toni, right?). In fact, both of us will end up somewhere inside the loop (or at least inside the Belt) early in 2008.

What is to come for myself in 2008? Well, continued blogging, of course. I also expect to expand my business once I get settled inside Houston. I hope to write another page of my great Mexican-American novel. And more than anything I look forward to expanding the DosCentavos family–guest writers, more readers, and more DC-based projects.

Happy Holidays from DosCentavos and the Medellin Family!

Stace Medellin is a political consultant, activist, and the founder of Dos Centavos.

Looking forward to 2008: Matt Glazer

(Note: I have asked a variety of people to submit an essay to me to be posted during the month of December, to be called “Looking Forward to 2008”. This entry was written by Matt Glazer.)

Carl Sandburg once said, “I’m an idealist. I don’t know where I’m going, but I’m on my way.” Looking into 2008, we know where we’re going. We know the way there. The path to making Texas a better place for our parents’ generation and our children’s generations both intersect on November 4, 2008, and I am idealistic.

The road to change started before me. It started when bold leaders like Martin Frost and our Representatives in Congress took on Tom DeLay and the Republican Party in Washington. Representatives Garnet Coleman, Pete Gallego, Jim Dunnam and many others led the House against Tom Craddick in both Texas and Oklahoma. Senators from across the state took their fight to David Dewhurst. The battle cries of “Remember Ardmore” inspired me to fight the good fight.

Here we are in 2007 on the edge of taking back the Texas House. State Senate candidates in Dallas and Galveston are looking to pick up victories in districts drawn to be Republican strongholds. Not since Ann Richards have Democrats been so optimistic about their statewide candidate, and now we have the chance to vote for Lt. Col. Rick Noriega.

While 2007 ushered in an era of hope, this year will bring change… real and meaningful change.

As we look over the horizon, I am excited by the things we have accomplished and the things we will accomplish. The online community is more organized than in any other election cycle. With more readers today than ever before and new tools like TexBlog PAC, the online community is going offline. If possible, we are ready to inspire others. El Paso, Dallas and Austin are blue and operative and activists are hungry to do the same in Houston and San Antonio. 2008 is a change election, and I look forward being a part of the Democratic revolution. I look forward to 2008.

Matt Glazer is the editor-in-chief of the and the chair of the board for the TexBlog PAC.

Looking forward to 2008: Ed Davis

(Note: I have asked a variety of people to submit an essay to me to be posted during the month of December, to be called “Looking Forward to 2008”. This entry was written by Ed Davis.)

In the interest of full disclosure, I want to say right off the bat that writing for OfftheKuff puts me in a somewhat awkward position. The company I work for, FrogDog Communications, provides strategic communication consulting to a variety of companies and organizations. My most high-profile project this year was helping The Center Serving Persons with Mental Retardation during its lease dispute with the City. My job is to convince reporters and editors to do positive stories about our clients. Therein lies my conundrum. I get paid for working behind the scenes to help clients communicate their messages, so I’m a bit self-conscious about publicly expressing my own opinions.

What am I looking forward to in 2008? That’s definitely not an easy question to answer. Do I write about how excited I am to help our clients achieve their goals? Do I reveal some of the cool things FrogDog Communications will be doing next year to increase its brand awareness? Do I wax poetic about what I hope to achieve personally? Or, do I offer some political observations–which obviously would fit right in with this blog?

As FrogDog Communications is not a political organization, I will tackle the first three options. I hope you find at least part of it useful and insightful.

Going into 2008, the dollar is weak, a mortgage crisis is pulling down markets, and the economic outlook is–at best–uncertain. So what level of resources should businesses and nonprofits put behind their marketing efforts next year? At FrogDog Communications, we are advising clients that now is great time to strategically invest in their brands through well thought out, targeted marketing campaigns.

Most organizations look to cut costs and batten down the hatches during times like this. Marketing budgets are often the first things to go. In fact, we have clients right now struggling with whether to maintain, reduce, or increase their marketing activities. However, history shows that organizations with the foresight and courage to ramp up their marketing communications during slow economic times come out way ahead of their competition when the economy once again gathers steam.

As noted by the brand valuation and research firm, Interbrand, during the 1988-1992 economic slowdown (recession is a dirty word even if you aren’t an economist or politician), Nike increased its marketing by more than 300 percent. Remember the Just Do It! campaign? As a result, Nike multiplied its profits times nine during this period. But the bigger point is that Nike stole market share by the handful from other shoe and sports apparel companies, and it set itself up for global brand dominance.

This increase-marketing-investment-in-a-down-economy mindset is supported by the Profit Impact of Market Strategy (PIMS) study of 1998, which found that companies that increased their marketing budgets during the recession of 1988-92 realized ROI of 4.3 percent. While that may not sound like much, it is tremendous when you compare it with the returns companies achieved when they maintained their budgets or even decreased them (0.6 percent and -0.8 percent respectively).

So, at FrogDog Communications we are advising clients to focus on strategic marketing. We are optimistic that organizations heeding this advice will be better positioned next year and in the future, and we look forward to our clients’ success in 2008 and beyond.

In fact, we are taking our own counsel and will ramp up our own marketing efforts. While I can’t reveal too much because my boss reads this blog as much as I do, I look forward to seeing our brand everywhere people find themselves in 2008.

And on a personal note, I am looking forward to several things in 2008: getting healthier, trying to find wisdom, and celebrating my two-year anniversary with FrogDog Communications. But most of all, I look forward to commemorating the 16th anniversary of meeting the person who changed my life–my wife.

From everyone at FrogDog Communications, we hope that your 2008 is bigger, better, and more prosperous than 2007.

Ed Davis is an account manager with FrogDog Communications. One of his accounts is The Center Serving Persons with Mental Retardation.

Looking Forward to 2008: David Baldwin

(Note: I have asked a variety of people to submit an essay to me to be posted during the month of December, to be called “Looking Forward to 2008”. This entry was written by David Baldwin.)

What a difference a year makes!

This time last year, The Center Serving Persons with Mental Retardation was keeping a low-profile, and its clients, staff, and supporters were worried about the future. Then our biggest challenge became our biggest opportunity.

The agreement we negotiated this year with the City of Houston to buy the land underlying The Center’s main campus completely changed our perspective on the future–and Houston’s perspective on The Center. We can now make plans to enhance our facilities and programs, and the tremendous exposure and support we received during our land negotiations laid the foundation for future growth.

We are already seeing results. Donations are up, and enrollment in The Center’s vocational and day activity programs has grown substantially. And some of our long-time partners have shown renewed interest in The Center. Eva Aguirre, The Center’s executive director, is working with social service organizations on ways to collaborate on staff training and to improve transportation services for Houston’s mentally and developmentally disabled citizens.

The events of 2007 set the stage for some fundamental changes we will initiate in 2008. As our new Foundation executive director Debra Collins recently observed, The Center has always adapted. Its founders had a vision for the services our clients would need, and The Center remains at the forefront of emerging trends.

With our land issue resolved, the Center’s board formed the 21st Century Committee to plot the best course for improving the lives of the people we serve. Of course, our top financial priority will be paying off the note on our land. But the committee also identified two areas of growing community need and demand: day programs and services for an aging client population.

When The Center was founded in the 1950s, life expectancy for our clients was about 35 to 40 years. Thanks to factors like improved health care, that life expectancy has almost doubled, while innovative programs like those offered at the Center have greatly improved quality of life and productivity for those we serve. Stop and think about that for a minute: The Center is now serving a population that essentially didn’t exist when it was founded. Many of the people who live in our Cullen Residence Hall moved in when it opened in 1974 and they were in their 20s and 30s. Their home now needs to be enhanced to serve their changing needs.

As life expectancy grows, some of our clients spend more years at home with family and others seek independent living options in the community. To serve the latter, the group home program we launched late this summer will expand in 2008 and beyond.

No matter where our clients choose to live, they need opportunities to grow, work, and become involved in the community. This is one reason we are seeing increased demand for our day programs, such as our Momentum Industries vocational program.

With these priorities in mind, Eva and her staff took the 21st Century Committee’s preliminary findings and are developing budgets and action plans. Our final development plan should be finished early in 2008 and will serve as a blueprint for years to come.

Those of us who manage and direct The Center’s programs are excited about the possibilities. So are our clients, especially the ones who live on our main campus. They know their home is safe, and they know it’s because Houstonians from all walks of life showed their support in 2007. In fact, 12,500 of you signed our on-line petition back in April, and many of you have reached out in other ways to show support.

From everyone at The Center, I offer sincerest thanks for that support. This organization might not have had a future without it.

David Baldwin is the President of the board of directors for the Foundation for the Retarded, which is the fundraising arm of The Center Serving Persons with Mental Retardation.

Looking forward to 2008: Rebecca White and Meggin Baxter

(Note: I have asked a variety of people to submit an essay to me to be posted during the month of December, to be called “Looking Forward to 2008”. This entry was written by Rebecca White and Meggin Baxter.)

What are we looking forward to in 2008? That’s an easy one — the election of a lifetime, of course! We’ve had seven years under an administration that’s openly hostile to women and families and, quite frankly, we believe that’s more than a lifetime’s worth. It seems like voters are starting to wake up and see what can happen when you don’t value women and families. But just in case you’ve missed them – here are just some of the highlights (or lowlights depending on your perspective) from our nation’s capital over the past year: birth control prices for college students sky rocketing nationwide; veto of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program that would have insured 4-6 million currently uninsured children; nomination of Susan Orr, an anti-birth control activist, to lead family-planning programs at the Department of Health and Human Services; and the administration continuing to waste taxpayers’ money funding for “abstinence-only-unless-married” sex education programs (so far over $1 billion nationwide and over $17 million in the Lone Star State). These highly expensive, but totally ineffective, programs are costing us more than taxpayer money – they’re costing us the health and safety of the nation’s youth, denying them accurate information on how to protect themselves against pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV. These programs are so bad even the President’s daughter, Jenna, is on record publicly opposing them.

But, we’re not discouraged. We’ve just seen some exciting polling results that confirm what we’ve been saying for a long time – a strong majority of voters are sick and tired of cynical politicians posturing on and arguing about divisive social issues. They’re sick of these ideologues who pontificate, but do nothing to address real problems. For example, polling shows that voters don’t see the problem as abortion – they see the problem as too many unintended pregnancies that result in too many unwanted, uncared for children. Voters understand that the best way to deal with unintended pregnancies is to prevent them in the first place by providing common-sense, preventive measures like comprehensive sex education and increased access to family planning services, not by placing additional restrictions on abortion. Basically, polls show that voters are more interested in putting prevention first and political rhetoric last.

In 2008, we’ll have the chance to take that message to our clients, to our supporters, and to the voting booth and that’s just what we plan to do. We’re looking forward to registering 5,000 new voters in our health centers and on college campuses across southeast Texas. We’re looking forward to making sure our voters turn out like never before to elect pragmatic politicians who understand the value of prevention and coming together to solve real problems that affect real people. Election 2008 is truly the election of a lifetime and we plan to show up and make a difference! Happy New Year! Happy Better Year! Happy 2008!

Rebecca White is the Political Director for Planned Parenthood of Houston & Southeast Texas Action Fund. Meggin Baxter is the Public Affairs Field Manager for Planned Parenthood of Houston & Southeast Texas.)

Looking forward to 2008: Christof Spieler

(Note: I have asked a variety of people to submit an essay to me to be posted during the month of December, to be called “Looking Forward to 2008”. This entry was written by Christof Spieler.)

In the world of transportation, 2008 will be familiar to anyone who experienced 2007. There will be light rail controversies, real or imagined. The Katy Freeway will still be under construction. The Heights and the Near North Side will continue to fight TxDOT on I-45. METRO will roll out the Q Card – again. And lots of people will think that they know a better way to operate Downtown traffic lights.

But the most important moment in Houston transportation in 2008 will likely be at the ballot box. And of all the races that matter – the President, the Senate and the House, the state legislature – perhaps the most important for our location transportation picture will be the county judge.

The county doesn’t get a lot of attention around here. But it’s a huge player. For every $3 a Houston resident sends to the city, they send $2 to the county (2006 tax rates: 0.645 city, 0.40239 county). That money buys a lot. The county’s yearly transportation budget – the Toll Road Authority, public infrastructure, and commissioners’ road spending – is somewhere around $800 million. The city’s budget is only $70 million; METRO’s current round of light rail expansion averages out to $150 million a year; even TxDOT, at around $800 million a year in the Houston region, doesn’t spend more than the county.

Yet the county doesn’t get nearly the public attention that the city, METRO, or the state do. Why?

The first reason is that the county’s elected officials essentially hold their jobs for life. Each of the four county commissioners (who, along with the County Judge, form the county’s governing body) represents over 950,000 people. That’s more people than live in Wyoming, Vermont, North Dakota, Alaska, Delaware, or Montana, so 12 U.S. senators – along with every member of the U.S. House of Representatives, and the Texas Legislature – represent fewer people than a Harris County commissioner. That means it’s very hard to vote a commissioner out of office: unlike a Houston district council member, a commissioner can afford to alienate a civic club or two.

The second reason is that the county commissioners run their own personal fiefdoms. 20% of the county’s budget goes directly to the commissioners, for them to spend more or less as they please. Each commissioner has their own road department and their own parks department. Even beyond that part of the budget, the commissioners tend to determine what happens in their districts. Thus, there are no public debates for the media to cover.

The third – and perhaps the most important – reason is that the people who lose most under the county’s regime are those who pay the least attention. Over half the county’s population is within the city of Houston, and since the county is funded by property taxes, the share of the county’s tax revenues that come from city residents is greater than that. Yet the city doesn’t get half the county’s spending. Some county functions – like the courts and the jail – do in fact benefit everyone in the county. But others don’t. The Harris County sheriff’s department conducts neighborhood patrols, funded by those taxes. But they patrol only outside city limits. Harris County spends $26 million a year on libraries – but none of those are in the city. City residents pay city taxes to fund police, libraries, and parks while their county taxes are going to fund police, library, and parks for others who do not pay city taxes. But when Houston residents complain about high taxes and inadequate services, they tend to complain to the city, not the county.

Back to transportation: the county’s transportation funding, like its parks and its libraries, is spent mostly outside of city limits. It also goes in support of specific agendas. Commissioner Steve Radack, for example, believes that the main purpose of road funding is to promote suburban development:

Without an infusion of bond money, Radack said he may delay building or widening major thoroughfares that would provide access to pasture land where subdivisions could be built, creating more taxpayers to pay for county services, Radack said.

“The more people you have in Harris County paying taxes lessens the burden on those already here,” he said.

To put it another way, in Precinct Three, road money is going not to help the taxpayers who live there already get around, but rather to benefit those who haven’t moved here yet. The county could be spending significant money on transit, sidewalks, livable centers, or dealing with congestion on urban arterials like Westheimer, but it’s not, and those priorities are helping determine how Houston grows. Anytime we spend transportation money, we are engaging in urban planning. The county, as one of the biggest transportation agencies in the area, does a lot of planning. And thus who we elect to county government does a lot to shape our city and our region.

In 2008, two county commissioners – Radack and El Franco Lee – will be up for re-election. It’s not clear whether either will be seriously challenged: there is a perennial candidate who has filed in Precinct 3, but that’s it so far, and the filing deadline is two weeks away. We will also see the most contested county judge race in a long time. Ed Emmett, who was appointed as the county’s chief executive when Robert Eckels quit almost immediately after being re-elected, will face Charles Bacarisse in the Republican primary. The two represent the two wings of the party: Emmett is low key, pro-growth, and pro-business. Bacarisse, by contrast, is ideological and confrontational: he’s campaigning on ending illegal immigration, fighting METRO, and cutting government. Whoever comes out of that primary will face David Mincberg, who hopes to take advantage of changing demographics to retake the county for the Democrats, which might (or might not) mean better cooperation between the city and the county.

Whoever wins these county races will have an extraordinary budget – and thus an extraordinary amount of power – to shape how Houston grows. The fact that the county does not get the attention that the city, METRO, or even TxDOT do simply means that power can be exercised quietly, and that the policies that guide its spending go undebated. That will change only when the taxpayers and voters start asking more questions and demanding better. Will 2008 be the year that happens?

Christof Spieler is an engineer with Matrix Structural, and is on the board of the Citizens Transportation Coalition. He blogs about (mostly) transportation issues at Intermodality.)

Looking Forward to 2008: Jay Aiyer

(Note: I have asked a variety of people to submit an essay to me to be posted during the month of December, to be called “Looking Forward to 2008”. This entry was written by Jay Aiyer.)

2008 will mark the beginning of a historic building boom for schools in our community. A few weeks ago, four of the largest school districts in our area passed massive bond projects to improve the physical infrastructure of local schools.

As we look forward to 2008, it’s a good time to discuss where we are in terms of education reform in general and here in Houston. What do we need to do and how do we truly improve public education if we are going to move forward? Here are a few thoughts I think we should consider. Some of them you may have heard me or others talk about before. Some may be new. I hope it helps start a conversation.

I am an unabashed advocate of smaller schools. I believe it is the best way to deliver education. The modern school needs to be smaller and more intimate to provide the kind of attention students, particularly younger ones need. That needs to be done two ways, small communities within existing schools, and the establishment of a maximum size for schools at each level: 500 elementary, 1000 middle school, 2000 High school, and align feeder patterns accordingly. Currently, there is a disproportionate distribution of children across schools within districts (particularly HISD). There are several theories as to exactly why this has occurred. Some argue depopulation of some historic communities is the real cause while others think its resource allocation that has driven people away from some neighborhood schools. Still others think negative reputations of schools build over time, and those can drive parents away from neighborhood schools. While no one knows for certain why this happens, I don’t think that really matters. The fact is it is a problem that threatens the stability of the school system. Uneven distribution of resources and more difficult management of mega-schools create a logistical nightmare and makes education delivery more difficult. Three high schools have over 3,000 students, while a few others have less than a thousand. Let’s establish a standard and end the fights. The answer isn’t to do away with district choice or magnet programs, but simply build more schools that are closer to an ideal size and enforce the size limitations. If people want to transfer out of the school–reconstitute the school and change it. Numerous studies have shown that performance improves for students in smaller environments. Smaller classes and smaller schools are simply better learning environments for students, particularly younger ones.

Speaking of reconstituting, let’s allow open public competition to reconstitute underperforming feeder patterns. One of the biggest frustrations is the tolerance of many to allow children in underperforming schools to suffer in a failing school. Let’s change that by being much more aggressive with underperforming schools and reconstitute it. Allow the 2 or 3 worst feeder patterns–to be laboratories for reform and let public and non-profit entities a chance to improve it. Focus more dollars on underperforming areas not less.

We also need to “incentivize” graduation at High School. School funding formulas are designed with a measurement system that allocates funds based on student attendance and standardized testing. Graduation and college preparedness or advancement is not enough of a factor. Make it one. By using that as a measure, schools will push for that. To avoid social promotion, continue end of course exams and national accepted tests for college preparedness like SAT and ACT to be a factor.

A few more thoughts….

Create Master teachers programs. Spend money to retain and attract high quality teachers by providing administrator level compensation for teachers. The highest paid employees at school districts should be teachers, not administrators.

Change the school day to correspond to work day. 7:45-3:10 for a school day is impractical. Parents work till at least 5 everyday and we have to change the antiquated school day to meet that reality. That time can be used to offer enrichment classes like art, music, etc and avoid latch-key issues.

Demand greater Parental involvement. The success of KIPP and YES can be directly attributed to 2 factors…longer school days, and a requirement for parental involvement. Adopt this same approach for all ISD students. Particularly at the Junior High and High School level where involvement is at its lowest.

Change ISD budget priorities to fully fund teacher salaries first and operational administrative functions second. The success of the Charter School (YES and KIPP) movement has shown that more efficient administrative functions can be achieved. Secondly, this approach provides greater transparency in what and where money is going.

Jay Aiyer served as a trustee for the Houston Community College System and is an attorney with Tindall and Foster. He has two children in HISD schools, and serves on the Regional Advocacy Council for Raise Your Hand Texas.

Looking forward to 2008: Jeff Balke

(Note: I have asked a variety of people to submit an essay to me to be posted during the month of December, to be called “Looking Forward to 2008”. This entry was written by Jeff Balke.)

I’m not greedy. Really, I’m not. Like anyone, I’d love to have enough money to never have to worry about bills again, be adored by millions and have all the good things in life fall gently at my feet. Is that so much to ask? Seriously.

But, since those wishes will end up on the “what I didn’t get for Christmas” list I’ve been keeping since I was 10 along with the entire Star Wars action figure collection and a real arcade version of Galaga (I’m still waiting on that one, St. Nick!), I’ll try to keep it simple.

No requests for an end to the war in Iraq or peace on earth from me. I know that those things are harder to come by than naked photos of Jessica Alba and, perhaps, less desirable. Instead, I’d like to list the things that would not necessarily give me fulfillment or bring meaning to life or open the doors to enlightenment, but rather just bring a little joy and a touch of convenience to my life in 2008.

Houston Rockets Win a Playoff Series
I’m a big Rockets fan and 10 years of playoff futility is, quite frankly, enough. I don’t care if they have to bring Tom Nissalke back to coach or pull Moses Malone out of the Fonde Rec Center (I bet he’d grab more rebounds than Yao). Maybe they can blind the opponents with one of Calvin Murphy’s suits. If nothing else, make a trade and get Robert Horry back. That guy doesn’t play for a team unless they win a title.

Fewer Social Networking Sites
Ever since I earned Nerd First Class when I bought a Commodore 64 back in my youth and dialed up bulletin boards with a modem straight out of War Games, I wanted to be connected. At this point, I’m ready to disconnect. With MySpace and Facebook and Twitter and 43 Things and Flickr and all the blogs I read, never mind write (here and here), I spend more time goofing around than I ever have, yet I rarely leave my desk. That can’t be good. If the powers that be (I’m looking at you Al Gore, creator of the interweb) won’t stop pushing sites through the series of tubes we know as the internet, maybe they’ll make a neural interface like that ship that hooked into Tom Paris on that episode of Star Trek Voyager. What? Stop looking at me like that. You know Seven of Nine was hot.

More Music, Less Business
As a musician, I love playing and writing music. Few things in life give me greater pleasure. And, as much as I love the new found independence we have as the record industry slowly falls apart, I’m exhausted from all the extra crap I have to do. Personal social networking is hard enough. Try doing the same stuff plus even more for your band. I don’t want to be an accountant, promoter, booking agent, manager, designer, etc. Can’t I just be a bass player?

People Not Thinking I’m A Pervert Just Because I Have a Camera
A very close second to music when it comes to joy in my life is taking photos. I’m very fortunate to have a father who shares the affliction and it gives us a chance to compare notes and talk shop regularly. But, hey, Houstonians, I’m not some weirdo who wants to take upskirt pictures of you and your children. When I’m at the park or downtown or in the women’s dressing rooms at the Galleria (ok, bad example), I’m just trying to get innocent, family-friendly images. I can promise you that I have no interest in stealing your identity or your children. Now, if you fear that having your picture taken will steal your soul, I can’t help you with that one.

A Little Houston Snow
Not a lot. Not the kind that freezes the streets and makes everyone in town go looney bin crazy because they think the best way to avoid skidding on ice is to slam on the brakes and whip the wheel violently from side to side. Just enough to remind us of how lovely winter can be and how glad we are we don’t have to shovel it every day in the winter.

Better Historic Preservation and More Parks for My City
Who are we kidding? Houston is bought and paid for by developers. If I have to deal with a stucco monstrosity on Heights Boulevard, the least the city can do is keep the River Oaks Theater from being torn down in favor of condos and build a few more parks so we can enjoy all the clean air. Oh, did I mention stiffer air pollution restrictions?

Flying Cars
Before you start with the, “Wait, didn’t you just say…” nonsense, hear me out. How long have we been talking about “the car of the future?” They were making cartoons about flying cars back in the 1940’s. You’d think by now Ford or Toyota or freaking Yugo could come up with a practical bubble car that flies through they air like they had on the Jetsons. Am I wrong?

But, mostly what I’d like this year is health, happiness and peace for all my friends on and off the internet and inside and outside of the blogosphere. As silly as I may get, I’m a big sap who cries at every Christmas special and still believes miracles can happen (hey, if Bill Murray’s Francis Cross character in Scrooged gets it…). Happy Holidays, everyone! All the best in 2008.

Jeff Balke is a musician, photographer, and two-fisted blogger.

Looking forward to 2008: Hale Stewart

(Note: I have asked a variety of people to submit an essay to me to be posted during the month of December, to be called “Looking Forward to 2008”. This entry was written by Hale Stewart.)

Kuff asked me to write a piece about what I was looking forward to for 2008. I told him I would love to write something like that, except the economy just isn’t shaping up to be a good story next year. So I told him that I wasn’t very optimistic about the economy and that’s about all I could write. He gave me the go ahead, so here I am.

Here’s the short version. Economically things just don’t look that good right now. My hope for the end of 2008 is the economy gets through with as little damage as possible. To highlight the problems out there, I’m going to reference several recent speeches from the Federal Reserve and Congressional Budget Office.

Let’s start with San Francisco Federal Reserve President Janet Yellen:

With these developments in mind, let me review the economic situation. By the time of the October meeting, the data indicated that the economy had turned in a very strong performance in the second and third quarters. However, the fourth quarter is sizing up to show only very meager growth. The current weakness probably reflects some payback for the strength earlier this year–in other words, just some quarter-to-quarter volatility due to business inventories and exports. But it may also reflect some impact of the financial turmoil on economic activity. If so, a more prolonged period of sluggishness in demand seems more likely. The timing of the slowdown certainly matches well with the financial turmoil explanation. Of course, much of the data that drove the third quarter strength cover the earlier part of that quarter, just the very beginnings of the turmoil in July and August, and therefore probably do not reflect its effects very much. However, the data for the end of the quarter–that is, for September–did come in on the soft side, and the data for the beginning of the fourth quarter in October have shown even more of a slowdown.

While correlation does not usually mean causation — that is, just because things happen at the same time does not mean one causes the other — her statement that, “The timing of the slowdown certainly matches well with the financial turmoil explanation” makes a great deal of sense. Credit is the life blood of the economy; when it’s harder to get, everybody suffers.

In addition, recent numbers have not been good. Personal consumption expenditures were weak, as were durable goods. Oil is a drag. Retail sales are fair but not great. In short, the numbers could be a lot better.

I’d like to go into this “story” in more detail. First, the on-going strains in mortgage finance markets seem to have intensified an already steep downturn in housing. Indeed, forward-looking indicators of conditions in housing markets are pointing lower. Housing permits and sales are dropping, and inventories of unsold homes are at very high levels. Moreover, rising foreclosures will likely add to the supply of houses on the market. It’s well known that foreclosures on subprime adjustable rate mortgages have increased sharply over the past couple of years. More recently, we’ve begun to see increases in foreclosures on subprime fixed-rate mortgages and even on prime ARMs. The bottom line is that housing construction will likely be quite weak well into next year before beginning to turn around.

Turning to house prices, many measures at the national level have fallen moderately, and the declines appear to be intensifying. Indeed, the ratio of house prices to rents, which is a kind of price-dividend ratio for housing, remains quite high by historical standards, suggesting that further price declines may be needed to bring housing markets into balance. This perspective is reinforced by futures markets for house prices, which indicate further–and even larger–declines in a number of metropolitan areas this year.

Here Yellen gives a great overview of the basic problems of the housing market. Excess supply = lower prices. Rising foreclosures = more supply for an already bloated market = lower prices.

In addition, with the credit market turmoil listed above, it’s harder for people to get loans to buy houses. That means demand is drying up.

In shorter version, here is a chart of the total existing homes available for sale:

And here is a chart of months of inventory available for sale at the current sales pace:

This weakness in house construction and prices is one of the factors that has led me to include a “rough patch” in my forecast for some time. More recently, however, the prospects for housing have actually worsened somewhat, as financial strains have intensified and housing demand appears to have fallen further.

I couldn’t have said it better myself. Bottom line: it’s getting worse.

Moreover, we face a risk that the problems in the housing market could spill over to personal consumption expenditures in a bigger way than has thus far been evident in the data. This is a significant risk since personal consumption accounts for about 70 percent of real GDP. These spillovers could occur through several channels. For example, with house prices falling, homeowners’ total wealth declines, and that could lead to a pullback in spending. At the same time, the fall in house prices may constrain consumer spending by changing the value of mortgage equity; less equity, for example, reduces the quantity of funds available for credit-constrained consumers to borrow through home equity loans or to withdraw through refinancing. Furthermore, in the new environment of higher rates and tighter terms on mortgages, we may see other negative impacts on consumer spending. The reduced availability of high loan-to-value ratio and piggyback loans may drive some would-be homeowners to pull back on consumption in order to save for a sizable down payment. In addition, credit-constrained consumers with adjustable-rate mortgages seem likely to curtail spending, as interest rates reset at higher levels and they find themselves with less disposable income.

Consumption spending was moderately above trend in the third quarter, and though I had built in some slowing for it in my October forecast, there are signs suggesting even more moderation over the next year or so. For example, although consumers will continue to receive support from gains in employment and personal income, they will also confront constraints because of the declines in the stock market and house prices, the tightening of lending terms at depository institutions, and higher energy prices.

First, note that Yellen admits the importance of mortgage equity withdrawal (MEW) for the current economy. In addition, she also admits the impact of declining wealth on personal consumption behavior which is negative. In short, the housing mess stands a chance of really hitting about 70% of the economy, and that’s a cause for serious concern.

Here is a chart of personal consumption expenditures from the latest GDP report.

Overall, PCEs were the same from July to August. But they have declined since then. The durable goods number is also cause for concern, as it has jumped around quite a bit.

Moreover, there are significant downside risks to this projection. Recent data on personal consumption expenditures and retail sales are not that encouraging. They have begun to show a significant deceleration–more than was expected–and consumer confidence has plummeted. Reinforcing these concerns, I have begun to hear a pattern of negative comments and stories from my business contacts, including members of our Head Office and Branch Boards of Directors. It is far too early to tell if we are in for a sustained period of sluggish growth in consumption spending, but recent developments do raise this possibility as a serious risk to the forecast.

Short version: Consumer spending is slowing and business leaders are worried. And well they should be.

Next up was Donald Kohn:

Central banks seek to promote financial stability while avoiding the creation of moral hazard. People should bear the consequences of their decisions about lending, borrowing, and managing their portfolios, both when those decisions turn out to be wise and when they turn out to be ill advised. At the same time, however, in my view, when the decisions do go poorly, innocent bystanders should not have to bear the cost.

In general, I think those dual objectives–promoting financial stability and avoiding the creation of moral hazard–are best reconciled by central banks’ focusing on the macroeconomic objectives of price stability and maximum employment. Asset prices will eventually find levels consistent with the economy producing at its potential, consumer prices remaining stable, and interest rates reflecting productivity and thrift. Such a strategy would not forestall the correction of asset prices that are out of line with fundamentals or prevent investors from sustaining significant losses. Losses were evident early in this decade in the case of many high-tech stocks, and they are in store for houses purchased at unsustainable prices and for mortgages made on the assumption that house prices would rise indefinitely.

To be sure, lowering interest rates to keep the economy on an even keel when adverse financial market developments occur will reduce the penalty incurred by some people who exercised poor judgment. But these people are still bearing the costs of their decisions and we should not hold the economy hostage to teach a small segment of the population a lesson.

I love this paragraph. While paying lip service to the idea of moral hazard, Kohn basically says, “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” (yes, I was a Trekkie). In other words, ignore what he said in the first paragraph and let the interest rate cuts begin.

Related developments in housing and mortgage markets are a root cause of the financial market turbulence. Expectations of ever-rising house prices along with increasingly lax lending standards, especially on subprime mortgages, created an unsustainable dynamic, which is now reversing. In that reversal, loss and fear of loss on mortgage credit have impaired the availability of new mortgage loans, which in turn has reduced the demand for housing and put downward pressures on house prices, which have further damped desires to lend. We are following this trajectory closely, but key questions for central banks, including the Federal Reserve, are, What is happening to credit for other uses, and how much restraint are financial market developments likely to exert on demands outside the housing sector?

Some broader repricing of risk is not surprising or unwelcome in the wake of unusually thin rewards for risk taking in several types of credit over recent years. And such a repricing in the form of wider spreads and tighter credit standards at banks and other lenders would make some types of credit more expensive and discourage some spending, developments that would require offsetting policy actions, other things being equal. Some restraint on demand from this process was a factor I took into account when I considered the economic outlook and the appropriate policy responses over the past few months.

An important issue now is whether concerns about losses on mortgages and some other instruments are inducing much greater restraint and thus constricting the flow of credit to a broad range of borrowers by more than seemed in train a month or two ago. In general, nonfinancial businesses have been in very good financial condition; outside of variable-rate mortgages, households are meeting their obligations with, to date, only a little increase in delinquency rates, which generally remain at low levels. Consequently, we might expect a moderate adjustment in the availability of credit to these key spending sectors. However, the increased turbulence of recent weeks partly reversed some of the improvement in market functioning over the late part of September and in October. Should the elevated turbulence persist, it would increase the possibility of further tightening in financial conditions for households and businesses. Heightened concerns about larger losses at financial institutions now reflected in various markets have depressed equity prices and could induce more intermediaries to adopt a more defensive posture in granting credit, not only for house purchases, but for other uses a well.

This is a really long-winded paragraph, isn’t it?

Here’s the short version:

1.) Everybody thought house prices would go up forever.

2.) Because everyone thought house prices would go up forever, lenders got really lax in their lending standards. If you had a pulse, you could get a loan (actually, both of my dogs were recently solicited for a mortgage)

3.) Oooops! Number 1 didn’t happen.

4.) That means number 2 was a really bad and stupid idea.

5.) Because of number 2, lenders are not really thrilled about making new loans right now.

6.) In fact, lenders are buttoning down their hatches right now.

7.) In fact, if you want to get a loan, lenders will actually look at things like your credit score and payment history, rather than if you have a pulse.

8.) In fact, even if you have a decent credit score, it’s still going to be harder to get a loan largely because the two largest mortgage purchasers (Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac) are bleeding pretty badly right now.

Central banks have been confronting several issues in the provision of liquidity and bank funding. When the turbulence deepened in early August, demands for liquidity and reserves pushed overnight rates in interbank markets above monetary policy targets. The aggressive provision of reserves by a number of central banks met those demands, and rates returned to targeted levels. In the United States, strong bids by foreign banks in the dollar-funding markets early in the day have complicated our management of this rate. And demands for reserves have been more variable and less flexible in an environment of heightened uncertainty, thereby adding to volatility. In addition, the Federal Reserve is limited in its ability to restrict the actual federal funds rate within a narrow band because we cannot, by law, pay interest on reserves for another four years.

At the same time, the term interbank funding markets have remained unsettled. This is evident in the much wider spread between term funding rates–like libor–and the expected path of the federal funds rate. This is not solely a dollar-funding phenomenon–it is being experienced in euro and sterling markets to different degrees. Many loans are priced off of these term funding rates, and the wider spreads are one development we have factored into our easing actions. Moreover, the behavior of these rates is symptomatic of caution among key marketmakers about taking and funding positions, and this is probably impeding the reestablishment of broader market trading liquidity. Conditions in term markets have deteriorated some in recent weeks. The deterioration partly reflects portfolio adjustments for the publication of year-end balance sheets. Our announcement on Monday of term open market operations was designed to alleviate some of the concerns about year-end pressures.

The underlying causes of the persistence of relatively wide-term funding spreads are not yet clear. Several factors probably have been contributing. One may be potential counterparty risk while the ultimate size and location of credit losses on subprime mortgages and other lending are yet to be determined. Another probably is balance sheet risk or capital risk–that is, caution about retaining greater control over the size of balance sheets and capital ratios given uncertainty about the ultimate demands for bank credit to meet liquidity backstop and other obligations. Favoring overnight or very short-term loans to other depositories and limiting term loans give banks the flexibility to reduce one type of asset if others grow or to reduce the entire size of the balance sheet to maintain capital leverage ratios if losses unexpectedly subtract from capital. Finally, banks may be worried about access to liquidity in turbulent markets. Such a concern would lead to increased demands and reduced supplies of term funding, which would put upward pressure on rates.

Boy, he’s a long-winded guy, isn’t he?

OK — here’s the short version.

1.) Financial institutions are hoarding cash right now. Why? Because a lot of them are taking big hits to their capital.

2.) Financial institutions aren’t thrilled about lending money to other financial institutions right now. Why? All of those write downs we’ve been hearing about indicate that a borrower might not be around in 90 days when a short-term loan comes due. This is called “counterparty risk above.”

3.) Financial institutions are really concerned about their own capital positions right now. Why? Because chances are they bought some of the sub-prime crap out there and they’ll have to write down their assets in the near future. Therefore, they’re hoarding cash. This is where the phrase “the ultimate size and location of credit losses on subprime mortgages and other lending are yet to be determined” comes into play.

4.) The Fed really can’t do much about this. Why? It doesn’t matter how much cash you have if you don’t want to lend it to somebody. But the Fed will try anyway by flooding the market with as many dollars as possible. Hey — at least it’s something, right?

And finally, we have Bernanke’s speech:

With respect to household spending, the data received over the past month have been on the soft side. The Committee will have considerable additional information on consumer purchases and sentiment to digest before its next meeting. I expect household income and spending to continue to grow, but the combination of higher gas prices, the weak housing market, tighter credit conditions, and declines in stock prices seem likely to create some headwinds for the consumer in the months ahead.

Core inflation–that is, inflation excluding the relatively more volatile prices of food and energy–has remained moderate. However, the price of crude oil has continued its rise over the past month, a rise that will be reflected in gasoline and heating oil prices and, of course, in the overall inflation rate in the near term. Moreover, increases in food prices and in the prices of some imported goods have the potential to put additional pressures on inflation and inflation expectations. The effectiveness of monetary policy depends critically on maintaining the public’s confidence that inflation will be well controlled. We are accordingly monitoring inflation developments closely.

The incoming data on economic activity and prices will help to shape the Committee’s outlook for the economy; however, the outlook has also been importantly affected over the past month by renewed turbulence in financial markets, which has partially reversed the improvement that occurred in September and October. Investors have focused on continued credit losses and write-downs across a number of financial institutions, prompted in many cases by credit-rating agencies’ downgrades of securities backed by residential mortgages. The fresh wave of investor concern has contributed in recent weeks to a decline in equity values, a widening of risk spreads for many credit products (not only those related to housing), and increased short-term funding pressures. These developments have resulted in a further tightening in financial conditions, which has the potential to impose additional restraint on activity in housing markets and in other credit-sensitive sectors. Needless to say, the Federal Reserve is following the evolution of financial conditions carefully, with particular attention to the question of how strains in financial markets might affect the broader economy.

OK — here’s the translation:

1.) People aren’t spending as much because food and gas prices are rising.

2.) The financial markets aren’t doing that well and people are noticing. That is adding downward pressure to the markets.

Let’s sum up all of these speeches.

1. All of the Federal Reserve governors highlighted the problems in the credit market which probably won’t go away soon. So long as there is a ton of sub-prime paper in various portfolios, lenders will be concerned that borrowers who hold the paper will blow-up – or at least announce a massive write-down — which will inhibit the borrower’s ability to repay the loan. Considering how many people own mortgage related sub-prime prime paper, that problem won’t go away any time soon.
2. The consumer is facing serious headwinds. High gas prices, declining home equity and a slowing job market are just some of the problems he faces. While the US consumer is resilient (to say the least) and therefore difficult to count out, the bottom line is there are some serious problems.
3. Housing isn’t going to look up until the end of 2008 at the earliest. There is a ton on inventory at the national level and the credit markets are tightening making it harder for consumers to get a loan. In short, we have excessive supply and declining demand. That means prices are headed lower.

As I mentioned at the beginning of the article, my main hope for 2008 is we get through these problems with as little damage as possible. Let’s hope we can.

Hale “Bonddad” Stewart is a former bond broker who is currently studying international and domestic taxation. He blogs at the Bonddad Blog and at the Huffington Post.

Looking Forward to 2008: Jeff Caynon

(Note: I have asked a variety of people to submit an essay to me to be posted during the month of December, to be called “Looking Forward to 2008”. This entry was written by Jeff Caynon.)

I have been a proud member of the Houston Fire Department and the Houston Professional Firefighters Association for nearly fourteen years. I am honored to lead the 3800 members of nation’s fourth largest firefighter’s union. As the newly elected President of the HPFFA I’m looking forward to 2008 as the beginning of a new era for Houston firefighters. Along with the Board of Directors, I have the good fortune to lead the men and women of HFD who are committed to serving the public. We are committed to improving our membership’s lives and working conditions.

The Houston Fire Department is the largest and busiest fire department in the state of Texas responding to well over 250,000 calls annually. We are the largest ISO rated “1” department in the world which results in lower insurance rates for every citizen and business owner in the city. We have one of the nation’s highest cardiac arrest survival rates (see this USA Today article). We have been partners in numerous medical studies including Dr. James Grotta’s recent stroke study. We are a model for fire-based EMS Systems. The HFD Arson division has a case closure rate above the national average. We have built a successful partnership between HFD, building managers, the Building Department in Triad, which has been touted as a national model. Recently we have been successful in passing a sprinkler retrofit ordinance.

I say all this to demonstrate that in every measurable way except for one HFD comes out ahead of our peers. The one indicator that is consistently out of line with the rest is SALARY. Fire House magazine ranks paid professional fire departments annually. In my fire department career HFD has never made it into the top 150.

In what will likely be the most important issue of this union’s administration, we are preparing for our next Collective Bargaining Agreement with the city. The current agreement was negotiated on the heels of six years without a pay increase under the Brown Administration. At the time both city administration and union leadership agreed that after all the years of neglect the city could not close the gap in the very first Collective Bargaining Agreement. It is time to repair the damage. We continue to slip behind our professional peers.

Another high priority issue we have is also a distressing safety concern. In partnership with Fire department administration, we intend to restore some important safety related staffing. A decision in 1989 that had more to do with saving money than lives caused Incident Command Technicians (formerly known as Chief’s Aides) to be cut from the fire department budget. Labor and management have agreed since that time on the importance of the positions for not only the safety of the public, but firefighters as well. We need to have the IC techs back as soon as possible.

We are looking forward to 2008 to take a step forward while righting some of the wrongs of the past.

Jeff Caynon is the President of the Houston Professional Firefighters Association.

Looking Forward to 2008: Barbara Radnofsky

(Note: I have asked a variety of people to submit an essay to me to be posted during the month of December, to be called “Looking Forward to 2008”. This entry was written by Barbara Radnofsky.)

I look forward to the day that the executive branch of the US Government is presided over by an individual who believes in the rule of law, respecting the Constitution. The November election will end an administration so filled with corruption, hypocrisy and incompetence that even short term historians recognize the Bush Administration as a low water mark.

I look forward to November 2008, when the incoming executive branch no longer justifies as “free market” a regulatory scheme providing a massive tax break for the country’s 25 richest hedge fund operators, instead of funding for education, health care and security. Then, we’ll look expectantly towards Congress to have the courage to do the right thing with our increasingly skewed tax policies and to have the courage to understand the need for a system of health care analagous to the single risk pool planned for the Veterans Administration, but strangled by the current Administration.

When we have a Chief Executive who respects military service, we’ll have a GI Bill of Rights for the 21st century.

When we have a Commander in Chief who will set a deadline and withdraw from our destabilizing occupation of Iraq, we’ll have the resources for the needs of this country.

When we have a President of the US nominating judges of judicial temperment and common sense and not slaves to disproven theories of strangulation of government and privatization, we’ll see a decline in boondoggling, incompetent privatized projects which increase costs to taxpayers and line only the pockets of greedy mercenaries and sweetheart deal holders.

When we have a leader of the free world who can handle herself in the rough and tumble world of diplomacy, abides by treaties we sign and observes the Geneva Accords, our service personnel, this nation and the world will be safer.

With the peaceful transition of power, we can work to regain the respect and leadership role once accorded the USA, its diplomats and armed forces. We’ve never lost the respect the rest of the world gives to our greatest ambassadors abroad: private US citizens. We can look forward to a healthy, educated citizenry to continue to be such ambassadors.

Barbara Radnofsky was the 2006 Democratic nominee for US Senate. She has since written two optimistic books on democratic prospects, “The Dancer’s Dead” and “Stepping Forward”. She is planning another run for statewide office in the future.

Looking Forward to 2008

Starting tomorrow and hopefully going through the end of the year, I’m going to run some guest posts, all on the subject “Looking Forward to 2008”. Basically, I’ve asked a variety of interesting people to write something on this topic for me, and the responses I’ve gotten so far have been a lot of fun to read. I’m still waiting to receive some of these, so the schedule and frequency of these postings may vary – ideally, it’ll be one a day, or perhaps one per weekday, through the 31st, but nothing is set in stone. Each entry will have an intro and a brief bio to tell you who the author is. At some point, I’ll post my own thoughts on this subject as well. I hope you’ll enjoy this little experiment in blog outsourcing. Tune in tomorrow for the first installment.