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August 11th, 2012:

Saturday video break: Thing Called Love

Song #56 on the Popdose Top 100 Covers list is “Thing Called Love”, originally by John Hiatt and covered by Bonnie Raitt. Here’s the original:

That’s not the original recording – the original is a straight-ahead rocker – but come on, how could I resist that one? I’ve noted quite a few songs on this list that I hadn’t known were covers, but this is not one of them. I have Hiatt’s “Bring the Family” on vinyl, and had the pleasure of seeing him open for Jackson Browne in the Woodlands back in the day. I’d have gone to see that show just for him. Anyway, here’s the much better known Bonnie Raitt cover:

A little gratuitous Dennis Quaid in there, but what the hell. Raitt’s version is basically the same as the original, just the voice and guitar style are different. And just to bring things full circle, here’s Raitt performing the song alongside Hiatt:

That was at a Farm Aid concert. Not sure why it cut off at the end, but whatever. It’s cool enough to withstand the loss of a few seconds.

HISD board approves its bond package

In the end, it wasn’t a close vote.

The school board voted 8-1 to seek a $1.9 billion bond issue that would rebuild or renovate most of the district’s aging high schools, remodel several elementary and middle schools, and upgrade campus technology. The plan calls for phasing in a tax rate increase expected to cost the owner of a $200,000 home an extra $70 a year in 2017.

Trustee Greg Meyes was lone no vote.

Trustees now must work to rally voters after some on the board have joined other elected officials in casting doubt on HISD Superintendent Terry Grier’s proposal over the last two months.

[…]

During the meeting, a last-minute change was disclosed in the expected impact on the property tax rate. HISD’s chief financial officer, Melinda Garrett, who earlier estimated that the bond package would cause a 7-cent increase, said Thursday that the amount could decrease to 5 cents if property values increase.

Grier has said the bond program has the potential to transform Houston, remodeling some of the oldest high schools in some of the poorest neighborhoods and rebuilding some of the most prestigious magnet schools.

Given that a majority of the trustees were publicly uncommitted to vote for the package as recently as the day before the vote, the final tally is a fairly strong statement and a bit of vindication for Terry Grier. The revelation that the resulting tax increase might be smaller than initially projected is good news as well. The total size of the package may seem intimidating and will likely be attacked in and of itself (as if the usual suspects would be less critical of a smaller number), but the flip side to that is that it has something to offer for a lot of people.

The drawn-out questioning could make it more difficult to win voter approval on Nov. 6, said Rice University political science professor Bob Stein, who has polled voters about the bond proposal on behalf of HISD.

“I think it has undermined voters’ confidence in adoption of the bond,” Stein said.

A poll conducted before Grier rolled out his plan in late June found that 48 percent supported a $1.8 billion bond issue and 28 percent opposed it. At that time, Stein said he thought HISD had a good chance of passing a package.

Now, with the city and Houston Community College planning bond referendums, he has this message for HISD officials: “They have to work very hard. They have to put on a big campaign.”

I agree that everyone needs to pull together on this, but I’m less sure that the process so far has damaged the bonds’ prospects for passage. Whatever concerns they may have had before, they must have been sufficiently addressed to get everyone but the same naysayer as 2007 to vote Yes, and that to me is what matters. Frankly, from what I recall of the 2007 referendum, this one has not been nearly as contentious. Sure, it’s still early – it’s not clear yet if Rep. Sylvester Turner will go full bore against it, and bring others with him if he does, and there was that Chron op-ed from the day of the board vote expressing their concerns – but so far it seems pretty muted. I think overall HISD is in a better position starting out than they were five years ago. Sure, don’t take anything for granted, and they should work hard not just on their own issue but with the other entities pushing theirs, but I feel pretty good about where things stand.

Finally, on a personal note, I really don’t think you can overstate how much top quality facilities can mean. I went to one of the best high schools in the country, but at the time I was a student it was a dilapidated 80-year-old building that was overcrowded and underequipped for its population. By the time I went back for my 10-year reunion, they had moved into a fantastic state-of-the-art building that completely blew me away when I visited. It wasn’t just the jealousy I felt at how vastly better the students’ daily lives must be in a place like that, it was the realization of how much more I could have gotten from my high school experience if I had had all of what this lovely, enticing building had to offer. I understand that just because we build it doesn’t mean anyone will choose to attend these new schools that will result from the bond package. What goes on inside the buildings matters, and there’s still a lot of room to do better there. But nobody wants to send their kids to run-down schools that clearly can’t meet their kids’ needs and may be unsafe to boot. You can have a great school without a great facility, but you’re needlessly handicapping yourself by doing so. This is a big step in the right direction and we’d be fools not to take it. This email from Trustee Paula Harris has a ton of details, and Stace has more.

The Radack way

You have to admire the single-minded focus, I’ll say that much for the man.

Allen Watson may have figured his role as a member of Metro’s board of directors occasionally would dent his political capital, but a vote he cast last Friday may cost his company cash.

Watson was one of five city of Houston appointees who approved a November ballot proposal that would give tens of millions of dollars more to Houston for roadwork at the expense of Harris County and most of the 14 small cities in Metro’s service area.

Tuesday morning, Harris County officials pulled a contract with Watson’s engineering firm, Cobb, Fendley & Associates, off Commissioners Court’s agenda.

“If somebody that wants to work for Harris County goes out and figures out a way to deprive Harris County’s unincorporated area out of tens of millions of dollars in Metro funding, I really don’t think they need to be doing business with the county,” said Commissioner Steve Radack. “Is it reasonable for him to say, ‘Well, by the way, I continue to want to get millions of dollars of work at the county?’ Is that reasonable?”

If he pulls a knife, you pull a gun. If he sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue.” I can’t be the only one who thought of this, can I?

Of course, Steve Radack isn’t anything like Sean Connery. He’s a petty little man who likes to throw his weight around, and unfortunately he has a lot of it to throw. What this comes down to is a simple question: If the Metro General Mobility proposal truly is a “cash grab” for the city, then is it the case that the current arrangement is fair to the city, and to all other parties? Or is the case, as Christof Spieler has suggested, that the city of Houston has been getting screwed by the GMP all along, to the benefit of Harris County and the small cities? If the latter is the case, then how are the complaints by Radack and Hedwig Village et al anything but the whining of those about to lose a privilege they didn’t deserve? I don’t really expect an answer to that question, but there is an answer for Radack’s problem, and that’s for him and anyone who feels the same way as him to vote against the Metro referendum, which will end the GMP as we now know it and give Gilbert Garcia and the Metro board the opportunity to redesign the program in a way that would be fairer to everyone. Simple enough solution if you ask me. Campos has more.

Janitors win new contract

I’m very glad for them.

Janitors who clean some of the largest office buildings in Houston have reached a tentative agreement with six of the city’s largest cleaning companies, a union representative said late Wednesday.

The deal is expected to bring an end to a heated labor dispute that began after the janitors’ last contract expired on May 31.

“We made progress here in Houston, and the janitors’ victory brings hope to security officers, airport workers and others trapped by poverty wages,” Tom Balanoff, president of Service Employees International Union, Local 1 in Chicago, which represents the 3,200 Houston janitors, said in a statement. “Our economy is broken, and unless we do something to turn low-wage jobs into good jobs, the middle class will be the great disappearing act of the 21st century.”

The Houston Area Contractors Association, meanwhile, distributed to cleaning companies and affected building owners and tenants a notice that the tentative agreement would give the janitors a 25-cent-per-hour raise each year for the next four years.

The janitors and the SEIU have been fighting for a raise for a long time now, and I’m happy they were finally able to get a breakthrough on that. But a dollar an hour raise phased in over four years, to $9.35 an hour? That works out to an annual salary of $19,448 – assuming a 40-hour work week, which may not be the case; the janitors were also seeking more hours but didn’t get them – which isn’t a total anyone can really live on. Houston janitors are still paid less than their counterparts in other cities, and they fell short of the $10 an hour goal they wanted. This is a step forward for them, and I’m sure the members will ratify the agreement when they vote today, but they still have a long way to go. They deserve a lot better than this. A statement from the janitors is beneath the fold, and The Observer has more.

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Galveston passenger rail back on track

Sorry about the pun, they can be hard to avoid when writing these titles. Anyway, the on-again, off-again Houston to Galveston rail line is apparently on again.

A Houston-to-Galveston passenger rail line postponed indefinitely after the economy hit bottom in 2009 is getting another chance, but it could be a decade or more before the first spike is driven.

The original plan called for a passenger line carrying 1,000 to 2,000 people per day to be in operation as early as this year, but a series of events starting with Hurricane Ike and the stock market crash in 2008 stalled the project.

“The impact of the economic downturn has taken its toll in so many ways,” said Barry Goodman, whose consulting firm, Goodman Corp., is doing the planning. Goodman said the recession affected the rail project more than the storm.

The price tag had risen from an estimated $415 million in 2007 to $650 million, and local governments were unable to provide the 40 to 50 percent contribution typical for such projects, Goodman said.

Enthusiasm remains high for the plan among officials and residents in Galveston County’s 13 cities, so Goodman Corp. is redrawing the plans to accommodate the new financial reality, said John Carrara, senior vice president.

The revamped plan calls for starting more modestly with expanded park-and-ride and express bus services in the Houston-Galveston corridor.

The more measured approach could provide immediate benefits, said Alan Clark, transportation planning director for the Houston-Galveston Area Council.

The council, which coordinates planning for local governments in the region, will consider making the Goodman Corp. plan part of the regional transportation plan, Clark said.

I’m not sure why the story refers to this as “passenger rail”, which sounds like something that tourists would take, and not “commuter rail”, which is sure what it sounds like. The last updates I have on this is a story from 2011 about the project being off track (with a letter to the editor following a few days later disputing some of the points in the story); a 2010 story about the formation of a Galveston County transportation district; and a 2009 story about (what else?) a political dispute over who would do what for this rail line if it ever got off the ground. Who knows what will happen from here or more importantly when it will happen, but I do want to note that we are approaching the ten-year anniversary of the first Galveston rail-related blog post I ever wrote, which of course also prominently features a quote from Barry Goodman. Some things really do never change.