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Corpus Christi

Other counties also considering property tax rate hikes

I have four things to say about this.

A statewide property tax relief plan that takes effect next year is prompting hefty tax increases this fall in many of the biggest cities and counties in Texas, even in places that have historically kept rates flat or decreased them.

Elected officials in some cities and counties say they have no choice but to raise taxes as high as they can this year to brace for the implementation of property tax reforms that Republican Gov. Greg Abbott and the Texas Legislature called historic earlier this summer. The average effective tax rate for single-family homes in Texas was 2.18 percent in 2018, third-highest in the nation, according to a study by ATTOM Data Solutions.

Starting next year, cities and counties will be barred from increasing property tax collections more than 3.5 percent in any year without a vote of the public. Currently, the state has an 8-percent limit, called the rollback rate, that state lawmakers say has allowed cities and counties to overtax homeowners. The lack of a state income tax makes Texas municipalities especially reliant on property tax revenue.

A look around the state shows many counties and cities are pushing rates to the 8-percent rollback rate this year to bank money or, in a few cases, even to fund pay raises for themselves, in reaction to the new law. El Paso, Harris, Tarrant, Webb and Travis counties are among those pushing to the current rollback rate, or near it. And cities including El Paso, Arlington, Corpus Christi and Austin are similarly considering rates at or near the 8-percent limit.

“I think a lot of cities and counties know that we are putting them on a diet and they are going on one last bender before it happens,” said State Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, who was a key player in crafting the property tax reforms as the leader of the House Ways and Means Committee.

[…]

In Harris County, which hasn’t raised the tax rate in decades, county officials say the state’s new restrictions are forcing them to react by raising the tax rate by 2.26 cents per $100 of assessed value. County Judge Lina Hidalgo said the county needs to create a contingency fund to ensure it can pay for services, such as health care, transportation and flood control, once the state’s 3.5-percent cap goes into effect. The rate increase, if approved next month, would allow Harris County to collect more than $200 million extra in tax money than last year.

1. There are some extremely bitchy quotes in the story from Sen. Paul Bettencourt, who pushed the bill that led to this in the Senate. I may have rolled my eyes so hard that they will never unroll.

2. The counties and cities that are considering this are acting in what they believe is their best interest, and the best interest of their residents. Plenty of expenses that counties and cities face, from disaster relief to health care to salaries and pensions, aren’t subject to any kind of rate limit. HB3 radically changed their long term financial picture. They had no choice but to adjust.

3. Just as a reminder, there are plenty of things the Legislature could have done to improve our property tax system without putting the squeeze on local governments. The Lege could also greatly help counties on the expenditure side of the balance sheet by expanding Medicaid, which would do a lot to reduce the cost of health care on counties. The whining from the likes of Bettencourt on this is just beyond rich. All that is without even pointing out that having a property tax-based system, in which the main expense is completely disconnected from people’s annual incomes, instead of an income tax-based system, is always going to have problems like this.

4. The same voters who will be given the power to approve or reject future tax collection levels also have the power to approve or reject the local officials who may be raising tax rates now ahead of that. They also have that power over people like Paul Bettencourt and Dustin Burrows and Greg Abbott and so forth. Maybe some day that power will be exercised.

What will we do with the hardest hit schools?

The Houston area was inundated by floods during Harvey. As bad as that was and is, we weren’t affected by the wind. The coastal region is dealing with that, and it’s a very tough road they have ahead of them.

Hundreds of students languish at home, still out of school weeks after Hurricane Harvey made landfall in coastal Texas, sundering even sturdy school buildings. The storm sliced off rooftop air-conditioning units and ripped holes in roofs, allowing rainwater to gush inside. It felled trees, toppled stadium lights and turned hallways and science labs into lakes.

Five school districts north of Corpus Christi remain shuttered, and two of them are not expected to open until mid-October — or later, if contractors diagnose unanticipated damage or cannot find supplies.

The extended closures have raised concerns about how students will catch up as the state recovers from its worst natural disaster. Then there are money concerns: How will school districts fare when they confront the cost of rebuilding and the potential loss of state money if enrollment drops?

Children from some of the hardest-hit communities — Rockport, Aransas Pass and Port Aransas — streamed into schools in neighboring towns to register, anxious to get back into the classroom. But many of those schools are running out of room.

[…]

The Gregory-Portland district, which was spared the brunt of the storm, reopened within days. Since then, its enrollment has exploded from about 4,500 students to nearly 6,300 — a 40 percent increase. Most of those students came from Rockport, which was walloped by Harvey.

As the hurricane made landfall near Corpus Christi — where tourism and shrimping are mainstay industries — it packed winds of more than 100 mph. Streets once lined with lush oak trees are now filled with gnarled branches and debris. Mobile-home parks have been reduced to rubble. Many hotels and restaurants sit closed. The water tower in Aransas Pass came crashing to the ground.

Many of Aransas Pass’s school buildings lost rooftop air-conditioning units, peeled off by high winds. The air conditioners then stamped holes in the roof as they bounced to the ground. Drenching rain soaked carpets and ceiling tiles, ruined papers and spawned hazardous mold. At A.C. Blunt Junior High, the library collection that took generations to build was soaked and will have to be replaced.

“When this devastation came about — gosh, it hit us hard,” said Mark Kemp, superintendent of the Aransas Pass Independent School District, which will not open before Oct. 16. He has encouraged students to enroll elsewhere until he can reopen schools. “We are Panther nation,” he said. “We love our athletes. We love our academia. We love our community.”

Teachers have been displaced, too. Some returned to homes left uninhabitable and now live in campers in a nearby state park that offered a free place for the hurricane homeless to stay.

I don’t have any answers for this. I’d like to know what answers Greg Abbott and his recovery czar, John Sharp, have. An awful lot of students and their parents need to hear it.

Harvey, category 4

Holy moly.

As of 7:45 PM Friday, Hurricane Harvey has been officially upgraded by the National Hurricane Center to a category four storm with 130 mph maximum sustained winds. Port Aransas just gusted to 105 mph as the eyewall approaches. Should Harvey make landfall at its current intensity, it will be the strongest storm (by wind) to hit Texas since 1961’s Hurricane Carla (which came ashore just north of where Harvey should) and the strongest in the U.S. (by wind) since Charley hit Southwest Florida in 2004.

Coastal Texas from near Corpus Christi north to Matagorda are being absolutely pummeled by wind and squalls and they will continue to deal with this in the hours ahead. Few words needed to describe the situation there, and our thoughts are with folks that live in that region.

So far not much has happened in Houston, but it’s coming, beginning today and lasting several days beyond that. Forecasts are for up to 25 inches of rain, so you can imagine what the flooding may be like. Stay off the roads, and stay safe. We will get through this.

HISD cancels classes on Monday

Hello, Harvey.

Not that Harvey

All HISD campuses and administrative offices will be closed on Monday, Aug. 28 and all campus and district activities canceled due to the threat of inclement weather.

Classes are scheduled to resume on Tuesday, Aug. 29. However, the district will continue to monitor developing weather conditions and will determine whether classes can safely resume on Tuesday. The district will make that decision by noon on Sunday, Aug. 27.

All HISD campus-based activities and district events – including professional development and recruiting sessions – taking place after 2 p.m. are canceled for Friday, Aug. 25. In addition, the Houston ISD Athletic Department is canceling all athletic activities for Friday, Aug. 25 and Saturday, Aug. 26. This cancellation includes, practices, scrimmages and any scheduled games.

As a precaution, all non-essential employees at school campuses and central office will be dismissed by 2 p.m. Friday. Essential employees, including facility and transportation staff, will be released at a time determined by their department. HISD officials are monitoring the weather, and should it be necessary, the dismissal time will be updated to an earlier hour.

For additional updates, please monitor HoustonISD.org or call the HISD Inclement Weather Hotline at 713-556-9595. We also encourage HISD staff and parents to sign up for text alerts to receive the most up-to-date information on school closures or delays by texting YES to 68453. Please ensure your number is updated with your school. You can also follow the district on Twitter and Facebook: Twitter.com/HoustonISD and Facebook.com/HoustonISD.

I presume by now that you’ve figured out what your emergency supply needs are and where you can get information about Hurricane Harvey, so I’ll spare myself the work of posting a bunch of links. That said, Space City Weather is a great resource, and you should check it regularly. This thing has gotten pretty damn big, and it could be quite damaging to Corpus Christi and points nearby. Stay safe, and for crying out loud if you must be on the roads be careful and don’t drive into any high water. Don’t make the news for a bad reason, OK?

Abbott versus the cities

The continuing story.

If Gov. Greg Abbott has disdain for how local Texas officials govern their cities, it didn’t show in a Wednesday sit-down with three mayors who were among 18 who jointly requested a meeting to discuss legislation that aims to limit or override several municipal powers.

“Whether we changed anybody’s mind or not, you never know,” said Galveston Mayor Jim Yarbrough. “But I will say it was a healthy conversation.”

What also remained to be seen Wednesday: whether Abbott plans to meet with mayors from the state’s five largest cities — who were also among those who requested to meet with the governor. So far, Abbott hasn’t responded to the requests from the mayors of Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston and San Antonio.

[…]

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said at a press conference Wednesday that when he was a member of the Texas House, Republican lawmakers repeatedly complained about government growing and overstepping its bounds.

“And now we find that the state government is really reaching down and telling local governments what they can or cannot do and pretty much trying to treat all cities as if we are all the same,” Turner said.

During invited testimony to the House Urban Affairs committee on Tuesday, several city officials and at least one lawmaker denounced what they said were overreaching and undemocratic attempts to subvert local governance.

“If people don’t like what you’re doing, then there are things called elections. I don’t see it as our job to overreach and try to govern your city,” said State Rep. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston.

San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg testified that it felt like the state was waging a war on Texas cities.

“The fundamental truth about the whole debate over local control is that taking authority away from cities — preventing us from carrying out the wishes of our constituents — is subverting the will of the voter,” Nirenberg said.

At Wednesday’s meeting with Abbott, Yarbrough said he and his counterparts from Corpus Christi and San Marcos told the governor that local officials have a better finger on the pulse of city residents’ expectations and demands.

“We wanted to make sure we preserved the ability for local municipalities to be able to adjust and react to the needs of their community,” he said.

See here for some background. It’s mighty nice of Abbott to take a few minutes out of his busy schedule of threatening legislators to meet with these concerned constituents, but they shouldn’t have had to take time out of their busy schedules to try to persuade the Governor to leave over a century of accepted governance in place and butt out of their business. And not for nothing, but the cities whose Mayors Abbott has been ignoring are the reason he can make elaborate claims about how awesome the Texas economy is.

Let’s begin with population. The five counties that contain the state’s five largest cities have a combined 12,309,787 residents, which is 44 percent of the state’s total. If you want to talk about elections, the registered voters in those counties make up 42 percent of Texas’ electorate.

Those counties out-perform the rest of the state economically. Texas’ five biggest urban counties constitute 53.5 percent of total Texas employment. If you broaden it out to the metropolitan statistical areas, which include the suburbs as well, the proportion becomes 75.8 percent — and growth in those regions has outpaced growth in the state overall since the recession.

Not convinced Texas’ cities drive the state? Let’s look at gross domestic product: The state’s five biggest MSAs contribute 71 percent of the state’s economic output, a proportion that has increased by two percentage points over the past decade. Focusing just on counties again, workers in the ones that contain Texas’ largest cities earn 60 percent of the state’s wages.

If you look at the embedded chart in that story, you’ll see that the metro area that is doing the best economically is the Austin-Round Rock MSA, and it’s not close. It’s even more impressive when you take into account how busy the city of Austin has been systematically destroying Texas with its regulations and liberalness and what have you.

As I said in my previous post on this subject, quite a few of the Mayors that are pleading with Abbott to back off are themselves Republicans, and represent Republican turf. It’s good that they are trying to talk some sense into him, but I’d advise them to temper their expectations. Abbott and Dan Patrick and a squadron of Republican legislators, especially in the Senate, don’t seem to have any interest in listening. The one thing that will get their attention is losing some elections. What action do these Mayors plan to take next year when they will have a chance to deliver that message?

Law enforcement against the bathroom bill

Add another group to an ever-expanding list.

Police chiefs from three of the five biggest cities in the state gathered at the Texas Capitol on Tuesday to spurn proponents’ claims that such legislation is needed to protect privacy, arguing that proposals being considered by the Legislature are discriminatory, won’t keep people safe and would divert law enforcement resources.

“It may be great political theater,” said Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo, “but it is bad on public safety.”

The police chiefs were joined by public school officials, advocates for sexual assault survivors, representatives for the Harris County and El Paso sheriff’s offices, the Corpus Christi ISD chief of police and other members of the law enforcement community.

“If a bill like this were to be passed that would pull police officers’ time away from combating violent crime into enforcing a bathroom bill, it makes communities less safe,” said Austin Police Chief Brian Manley. “It is time not spent ensuring community safety.”

[…]

“I asked my department to go through the record. What we found is this: There were no known incidents of bathroom assaults performed by men posing as transgender women,” San Antonio Police Chief William McManus said Tuesday. “I am a believer that if you propose a bill to address a criminal justice concern, it is important to determine if there is an actual problem you are trying to solve.”

Corpus Christi ISD chief of police Kirby Warnke added: “School districts face multiple issues that the Legislature could help us with, but the bathroom bill is not one of them.”

As the story notes, this is the first time law enforcement has organized to speak out against the bill. I’m trying to think of any group that isn’t associated with professional conservatives who supports it, and I just can’t. In a sense, none of this matters, as the Senate went ahead and passed a bill that is basically identical to what they had passed in the regular session, by the same 21-10 vote as before (all Rs plus the insufferable Eddie Lucio), but that’s the wrong way to look at it. As I look at it, everyone who votes for this abomination is giving more and more people a good reason to vote against them next year, with a lot of those people being strongly motivated to see them get voted out. It’s also given a lot of people the chance to stand up and speak out for doing the right thing, which is always welcome. We’re going to lose battles along the way, but this is a fight we will win. The Press has more.

Mayors to Abbott: Don’t mess with our cities

Good luck getting through.

Less than 24 hours after Gov. Greg Abbott blasted local government restrictions like tree ordinances as a threat to the “Texas brand,” city government leaders statewide are seeking a meeting with the Republican leader.

“We would like the opportunity to meet with you to discuss the role cities play in attracting jobs and investments to support the prosperity of the State of Texas,” a letter signed by 18 mayors, including Houston mayor Sylvester Turner to Abbott states.

[…]

The letter from the mayors makes clear that they fear the Texas Legislature is overreaching and doing too much harm to local governments.

“Harmful proposals such as revenue and spending caps, limiting annexation authority, and other measures preempting local development ordinances directly harm our ability to plan for future growth and continue to serve as the economic engines of Texas,” the letter states.

The mayors on the letter include those from Houston, Amarillo, Arlington, Austin, Corpus Christi, Dallas, Denton, El Paso, Fort Worth, Frisco, Galveston, Irving, Lubbock, McKinney, Plano, San Antonio, San Marcos, and Sugar Land.

You can see the letter here. You might note that some of the cities in question are Republican suburban kind of places. It’s not just us smug urbanites that would like to have our current level of autonomy left alone. I’m going to say the same thing to these Mayors that I’ve been saying to the business folk that have been working to defeat the bathroom bill, and that’s that they are going to have to follow up all these words with actions, because Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick don’t care what they have to say. If you’re not working to elect better leadership in 2018, which in this case means leadership that is not actively undermining and degrading Texas’ cities, then you’re part of the problem too, and your words have no meaning. The Current and the Press have more.

“The Short, Tumultuous Tenure Of Corpus Christi Mayor Dan McQueen”

This is just amazing.

Dan McQueen

After just 37 days in office, Dan McQueen announced his resignation as the mayor of Corpus Christi via Facebook last Wednesday. “Consider this my resignation. I resign immediately,” he wrote in the Facebook post, according to the Corpus Christi Caller-Times. “The city can no longer deal with such differing views and divisiveness. I step down from my position as Mayor, in order to allow the council and city to regain focus on success. Sorry, they are now into my ex-wives and kids. Nothing good will come from that mess.”

The sudden resignation marked the end of a tumultuous, albeit short, tenure as mayor. McQueen, who ran as a political outsider and made promises to fix the city, encountered a clean water crisis less than two days after he came into power. In recent weeks, he took jabs at local media and members of the city council on Facebook, and found himself the subject of several investigative news reports that raised questions about the legitimacy of his educational background and the nature of his relationship with his chief of staff.

By the time McQueen officially tendered his resignation to the city secretary, he had clearly had enough of the intense public scrutiny that all high-ranking public officials inevitably must face. McQueen hinted at his intention to quit as early as last Monday, according to Corpus Christi’s local ABC affiliate KIII-TV, when he took to Facebook to criticize both the media and his constituents, all while drawing a tenuous link between himself and Martin Luther King, Jr.:

“On a Day of Unity, I find a City of Divisiveness. Dr. King and I both are graduates of Boston University, and I find my-self in a city named, “The Body of Christ” (IRONIC). However, in the past 35 Days, I have been attacked by council as being Sexist, Racist and continue to fight attacks from Media and the public. I just don’t see the VALUE in this fight for 600 more. I had such HOPE for our city. God Bless Corpus Christi!”

McQueen deactivated his Facebook page shortly after that post, then re-activated the account on Wednesday. Given his lack of experience in the public sector—during his campaign, McQueen branded himself as a “tech guy” who would apply his business and engineering background to the mayor’s office—it’s sort of understandable that McQueen felt a little shell-shocked by his busy first (and, as it would turn out, only) month leading the city. But it’s still surprising to see how quickly it all fell apart.

Read the whole thing, it’s something else. Basically, this guy was an outsider candidate, a businessman whose credentials turned out to be shaky, who was elected over an establishment politician because the people wanted “change”. It quickly became apparent that he was temperamentally unsuited for the job, and wound up spending a lot of time feuding with people on social media. I feel like I’ve heard this story before, I just can’t put my finger on where. At least in Corpus, there was a relatively painless resolution before any real damage was done. The rest of us should be so lucky.

GetMe waits in the wings

No matter what happens with the rideshare repeal referendum in Austin, there will be at least one vehicle for hire company in the capital city.

Early voting is underway in Austin on Proposition 1, where residents will decide which regulations the city should adopt for vehicle-for-hire companies like Uber and Lyft.

Both companies have pledged to leave the city if the proposed ordinance is not adopted — a claim they’ve made good on in three Texas cities this year. But at least one ride-hailing company insists it can fill the gap Uber and Lyft would leave behind.

“We’re not going to be the donkey or the elephant,” said Jonathan Laramy, the chief experience officer for Get Me LLC, which the company has stylized as getme. “We’re here to stay. Vote Prop. 1, vote Prop. 2 – we don’t care.”

[…]

Laramy said getme — which currently operates in Austin, Dallas, Houston and Las Vegas — is willing to adhere to any local regulations, as long as the process for obtaining fingerprint-based background checks is “fast, easy and cost effective.”

“We’re a good corporate citizen,” Laramy said, adding that the company is willing to collaborate with cities on their regulations.

While his company is still working out the specifics, Laramy said that “at some point, we will fingerprint all of our drivers” — even in cities without a requirement.

If Austin voters do not approve the proposed ordinance, Uber and Lyft have said they will leave the city — although The Daily Dot reported last week that Uber fully intends to stay, regardless of the outcome of the election. If the companies leave, Laramy said getme would be prepared to process a potential influx of driver applications.

“We have a platform where we could actually — and we already have this in place and ready to go — sign up conceivably 5,000 drivers in a month, if not more,” Laramy said. He would not elaborate on specifics of the plan, but he said it involved “using information that’s already been done and then verifying and showing us that.”

After starting up in Dallas in February 2015, getme recently relocated its headquarters to Austin. Laramy said it has more than 10,000 drivers across the four cities where it operates, more than 2,000 of whom are in Houston. The company boasts 6 corporate employees and a handful of contractors, making it a significantly smaller operation than ride-hailing giants Uber and Lyft.

Laramy says the company soon plans to offer services in Los Angeles, Denver, Chicago and Atlanta. In Texas, he said, the company is launching operations in Galveston next week and Corpus Christi this summer.

This follows Uber’s cessation of operations in Galveston and Corpus Christi earlier this year after both cities adopted fingerprint background check requirements. Laramy said getme’s interest in both cities was unrelated to Uber’s actions and that they had planned to launch in both locations well before Uber left.

“You can’t get home if you take a ride down there,” said Laramy, describing someone looking to travel between Houston and Galveston using getme. “It’s silly not to have both cities.”

See here and here for more on GetMe, which will likely get a little extra exposure here in Houston now as well. That Daily Dot report seems thinly sourced and contradicts everything we’ve heard so far, but who knows. Regardless of the outcome on May 7, I suspect there will be more than a few people in Austin looking for an alternative to Uber and Lyft, so whether they clear out or not, this is a smart move on GetMe’s part. Has anyone out there used them?

Lubbock to consider rideshare ordinance

You know what that means.

Uber

Uber drivers may soon be required to have background checks and operational permits in the city of Lubbock, a move that in the past has prompted the company to pull out of some Texas cities.

Uber is a technology company that provides a mobile phone app connecting riders with drivers. The company launched in Lubbock in late June 2014. With Uber’s app, riders can ask a driver to pick them up and take them where they need to go, with all transactions done over the phone.

Councilwoman Karen Gibson has been working with city staff to update the city code of ordinances to account for ride-sharing companies like Uber and Lyft, which she said have been operating illegally in the city since their inception.

It’s an issue officials at Lubbock Preston Smith International Airport say they also hope to tackle, as Uber drivers currently aren’t being asked to follow the same rules as licensed cab and limo services, said Kelly Campbell, administrative director at the airport.

After multiple discussions since stakeholders — including representatives from Uber, local taxi companies, police and city officials — first met in July 2014, Gibson said she intends to introduce an amending ordinance at the second City Council meeting in April that puts similar restrictions on transportation network companies as to those already placed on local taxi and limo companies.

“It’s more of a blanket ordinance that encompasses everybody. If they want to operate under that blanket, they will be able to operate here,” she said. “This is necessary for public safety. We live in a college town, we’ve got moms and dads in Dallas sending their daughter here and they expect us to make sure it’s safe.”

[…]

The city’s code states taxi and limo drivers must apply for an operator’s permit, furnish the city a sufficient performance bond, make sure the car is inspected, have a background check and minimum liability insurance of $50,000.

The amended ordinance will place transportation network companies like Uber and Lyft under the same guidelines as the other businesses.

“We’ve been following everything from coast to coast that’s been going on with these new market models,” Harris said. “We’re trying to find out a good way to address those types of industries within our code and allow them to operate, basically, legally.”

A spokesperson for Uber declined to comment to A-J Media until the company is able to review the ordinance.

But looking at cities that have passed similar regulations, Uber’s typical response has simply been to leave.

See here and here for more on the places Uber has recently abandoned. Of interest here is that the word “fingerprint” doesn’t appear anywhere in this story. That’s been a point of conflict in other cities, but it’s not the only one. In the first link from that previous sentence, I solicited a statement from Uber that said they had “made the difficult decision to cease operations in every city that has adopted new laws that require similarly​ duplicative r​egulations on drivers”, which was a reference to the Houston ordinance. They cited “Beaumont, San Marcos, College Station, and Abilene” as the cities they want others to emulate. That doesn’t sound like what Lubbock is doing, so we can expect Uber to respond as they have in cities like Corpus, which is to say they will close up shop. (Though now apparently COrpus is reconsidering.] We’ll see how it goes.

Uber to abandon Corpus Christi

Another one bites the dust.

Uber

In what has become a familiar move for Uber, the vehicle-for-hire company announced Wednesday it will cease operations in Corpus Christi, pointing to “unnecessary” regulations recently adopted by the city.

Corpus Christi’s City Council approved new regulations this week that would require app-based vehicle-for-hire drivers to undergo a fingerprint background check, a requirement Uber has resisted in most markets. The company plans to end services in Corpus Christi on Sunday, two hours before the new law goes into affect, according to the Corpus Christi Caller Times.

“The proposed ordinance would require drivers to complete unnecessary and duplicative steps that make it difficult for them to earn extra money and hurt our ability to ensure that riders have access to reliable and affordable transportation,” Sarfraz Maredia, Uber’s general manager in South and East Texas, wrote in a letter to Corpus Christi’s city council on March 4.

Corpus Christi will be the third city Uber has left this year in response to local laws. In February, the company ceased operations in Galveston and Midland after the cities voted to enact background-check requirements.

[…]

Despite Uber’s disdain for mandatory fingerprint-based background checks, the company has continued to operate in Houston, where drivers are required to undergo those background checks.

Corpus Christi Mayor Nelda Martinez said she feels Uber is more lax when it comes to accepting regulations in larger cities. Houston is Texas’ largest city with over 2 million residents. Corpus Christi, with a population of around 316,000, is the eighth largest city in Texas.

“It is unfortunate that they believe that comprehensive background checks with fingerprints and safety in smaller cities are less important,” she said Wednesday. “We have been working with them since the fall of 2014 and what makes me most sad about them leaving Corpus Christi is that they are leaving loyal customers and drivers who depend on them.”

Martinez said she would welcome the company back in the future, but would “absolutely not” consider softening the ordinance.

So the pattern is pretty clear here – your city can have fingerprint checks, or it can have Uber, but not both. Unless your city is Houston, apparently. But how long will that be the case? With that in mind, I sent the following questions to Uber spokesperson Debbee Hancock:

1. Is it now Uber’s policy to no longer operate in cities that require fingerprint checks?

2. Does this mean that Uber plans to pull out of Houston? if not, then how does Uber respond to Corpus Mayor Martinez’s statement that “Uber is more lax when it comes to accepting regulations in larger cities”?

And the answers I received:

We know from our experience in Houston that these rules can have a devastating impact on our ability to provide the experience that drivers and riders have come to love and expect. ​Since then, we have made the difficult decision to cease operations in every city that has adopted new laws that require similarly​ duplicative r​egulations on drivers.

We have also made a major shift in our expansion strategy.​ At the beginning of 2014, the only people in Texas that had access to Uber were the people of Dallas. With a goal of making transportation as reliable as running water, we rapidly expanded our operations across the state. Today, millions of Texans in more than a dozen cities can open the app to request a ride.​ ​

Most cities have rapidly embraced this innovative transportation option. In fact, multiple cities where we did not already operate, such as San Marcos and Beaumont, invited us to launch by​ proactively​ adopting pro-ridesharing regulations. We have limited our expansion plan to cities that adopt similar regulations as Beaumont, San Marcos, College Station, and Abilene.

We have been monitoring the impact these regulations are having on riders and drivers, and we’re concerned by the trends we see (barriers to entry for drivers, longer wait times, fewer available rides late at night when people need it most , etc.). It is no surprise that these regulations don’t work for ridesharing since they were designed for the taxicab industry long before this technology existed. It is our hope that we can work with the City to modernize the process so we can continue to operate in Houston.

So there you have it. I’m just speculating here, but if the Austin rideshare referendum passes, I won’t be surprised if we see some action in Houston afterward.

How many crimes does your police department solve?

Fewer than you think, unfortunately.

go_to_jail

Violent crime in America has been falling for two decades. That’s the good news. The bad news is, when crimes occur, they mostly go unpunished.

In fact, for most major crimes, police don’t even make an arrest or identify a suspect. That’s what police call “clearing” a crime; the “clearance rate” is the percentage of offenses cleared.

In 2013, the national clearance rate for homicide was 64 percent, and it’s far lower for other violent offenses and property crimes.

University of Maryland criminologist Charles Wellford says police have shifted priorities over the decades.

“In the ’60s and ’70s, no one thought that the police should be held responsible for how much crime there was,” Wellford says. Back then, he adds, police focused on calls for service and solving crimes.

In more recent years, he says, police have been pushed to focus more on prevention, which has taken precedence over solving crimes — especially non-violent offenses.

In short, the falling crime rate we’ve enjoyed may come at a cost: police indifference when you report your stereo was stolen.

I admit, that wouldn’t have occurred to me. I would have thought that with less crime, police departments would be more able to solve the crimes that were committed, since there would be less of a workload. I’m not a criminologist and I haven’t read any research on this, but my initial reaction here is to be a little skeptical. In what ways are police departments focused on crime prevention, and what evidence is there that those methods are working? My gut says that police departments these days – really, for the past thirty or so years – have concentrated on drug-related crimes. While I would agree that there’s some ancillary prevention benefit in that, we all know that this comes with a variety of costs. Maybe the national effort to decriminalize some drug offenses will have the benefit of allowing police departments to once again focus on solving the crimes that really do victimize the public.

The article comes with a utility to look up the crime clearance rates in your own community. Here’s what it showed for some of Texas’ biggest cities:

All violent crime Homicide Property crime City 2011 2012 2013 2011 2012 2013 2011 2012 2013 ====================================================================== Houston 46% 39% 37% 90% 70% 76% 13% 12% 11% Abilene 47% 49% 64% 80% 100% 100% 25% 22% 20% Amarillo 40% 45% 48% 60% 100% 44% 18% 19% 22% Austin 49% 49% 57% 93% 87% 100% 12% 12% 13% Beaumont 70% 70% 69% 100% 100% 75% 23% 28% 27% Corpus Christi 54% 53% 45% 67% 63% 100% 20% 23% 19% Dallas 38% 40% 37% 65% 58% 60% 13% 11% 11% El Paso 48% 47% 49% 88% 96% 80% 18% 20% 22% Fort Worth 36% 38% 39% 61% 80% 86% 14% 16% 17% Laredo 80% 80% 79% 64% 88% 100% 20% 24% 28% Lubbock 30% 32% 34% 50% 73% 100% 15% 15% 19% McAllen 56% 66% 38% 50% 100% 0% 20% 22% 16% Midland 66% 68% 59% 100% 75% 40% 22% 25% 27% Plano 54% 51% 47% 80% 100% 100% 22% 22% 19% San Antonio 48% 36% 37% 80% 70% 75% 12% 11% 12% Waco 56% 56% 55% 91% 67% 50% 23% 23% 26%

Note that these are all for the above-named cities’ municipal police departments. I limited myself to cities that I could think of that had a population of at least 100,000. (Galveston, in case you were wondering, has about 48,000 people.) “Violent crime” includes “Murder and non-negligent manslaughter”, which I characterize above as “Homicide”, “Robbery”, and “Aggravated assault”. “Property Crime” includes “Burglary”, “Larceny-theft”, “Motor vehicle theft”, and “Arson”.

Don’t be too mesmerized by the Homicide solve rates for smaller cities. The total annual number for these crimes in cities of, say, 100,000 to 200,000, is often in the single digits. McAllen, for example, had 4 homicides in 2011, one in 2012, and two in 2013. In a few cases, such as Beaumont for 2011 and 2012, the number of murders solved was greater than the number of murders. My guess is that the solved crimes included cold cases, but there was no explanation on the site. I just listed those as 100% to avoid weirdness.

What stands out to me in all this is that generally speaking the smaller cities had much better solve rates for property crimes than the big cities. In Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, and Austin, the solve rates for property crimes never topped 13%, but in the smaller cities it ranged from 18% to 28%. Fort Worth and Lubbock were the outliers there, on the low end. I’m not sure what to make of that, but it sure is interesting.

What application does this have to the 2015 Mayor’s race? (You knew I was going to get around to that, I’m sure.) Well, in addition to my wish that the candidates will eventually start to talk about public safety in a more comprehensive way, I’d think that a candidate who promised to have his police force concentrate on solving property crimes might be able to sway a voter or two. Lord knows, the Nextdoor discussion list for the greater Heights area spends a lot of time on break-ins and thefts and the like. Given how many of these crimes do go unsolved today, it seems to me there’s some traction to be gained on this issue. Just a thought.

Here comes the Uber and Lyft vote

Barring anything unexpected, today is the day that Houston City Council settles – for now, anyway – the Uber/Lyft issue. Houston is not the only place where transportation network companies are seeking to do business in Texas, of course. The Trib takes a look at the state of play around Texas.

“As the current city of Austin code is written, you still have to be a permitted ground transportation service to operate in the city of Austin,” said Samantha Alexander, a spokeswoman with the city of Austin’s Transportation Department. “As of right now, they are not permitted.”

Lyft and Uber drivers in Austin are at risk for a Class C misdemeanor ticket and possibly having their car impounded, Alexander said. She noted that in some cases, Austin police have ticketed Uber or Lyft drivers who were unaware that they were in violation of any city rules.

“Our big message right now is to make sure people aren’t breaking the law accidentally,” Alexander said.

Drivers have also been ticketed in Houston and San Antonio. In Corpus Christi, a 30-day grace period for Lyft and Uber drivers ends Tuesday, according to a recent statement from Corpus Christi Police Chief Floyd Simpson.

“There will be a dedicated enforcement effort following with intent to persuade compliance and ensure public safety,” Simpson said last month in an editorial for the Corpus Christi Caller-Times. Police officials did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

[…]

Texas cities are at varying stages of re-evaluating city regulations overseeing vehicle-for-hire services to see if there’s a way to allow the popular services to co-exist with traditional taxi services. In some cases, the debates have been hotly contested.

“Cities are recognizing they have to change, and that it’s a great thing if people have more options,” said Joseph Kopser, CEO of Austin-based RideScout, an app that provides real-time information about transportation services in different cities.

In Dallas, city officials drew howls of outrage last year after an interim city manager defied the usual protocol and placed an item on the City Council agenda without prior council discussion that would have effectively shut down Uber’s efforts in the city. The item was never approved and drew a city investigation.

In recent months, Dallas officials have been working with various stakeholders, including Uber and Lyft, to update their regulations. Next week, Councilwoman Sandy Greyson is planning to propose a new vehicle-for-hire regulation system that removes the current cap on taxi and limo licenses and allows companies to charge whatever fares they want. TNCs would have to abide by some new regulations, including paying for permits.

“What we’ve done is pretty much scrap all our current regulations and come up with an entirely new model where we will regulate all vehicle-for-hire providers the same way,” Greyson said. “This is a free-market proposal.”

[…]

Along with questions about safety and fees, equity issues are also drawing debate, such as whether companies like Uber and Lyft should be required to provide reliable taxi service to a city’s disabled residents. In many Texas cities, the city code requires traditional taxi fleets to include some wheelchair-accessible vehicles. Last week, a group of disabled people, including two in Houston and one in San Antonio, sued Uber and Lyft for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Greyson, the Dallas councilwoman, said her proposal will require that a certain portion of a provider’s fleet be handicap accessible.

Chris Nakutis, an Uber general manager who oversees its Texas market, said the company partners with a wheelchair-accessible taxi service in Chicago. He did not rule out the company partnering with such services in Texas, but he took issue with the idea that the company should be required to in every market.

“We don’t own any vehicles. We don’t hire any drivers,” Nakutis said. “To the extent that there are wheelchair-accessible vehicles, we partner with them. Even if we don’t have wheelchair-accessible vehicles in a community, those people have the exact same opportunities they had before we entered the market.”

In addition to all that, Sidecar is coming to Texas later this year as well, and Uber is looking for drivers in Amarillo, El Paso, Lubbock and Waco. So expect the stories we’ve heard before to repeat themselves elsewhere. Meanwhile, in Austin, there’s a stakeholder meeting to kick the discussion off there. One way or another, things are happening and I have to figure a year from now the landscape will look very different.

I had not heard about that ADA-related lawsuit before reading this story. A Google News search shows that it’s gotten exactly zero mainstream media coverage. Taxi companies filed a lawsuit in April over the newcomers’ business practices, but this is an entirely different issue. The negotiations in Houston have included a possible requirement for Uber and Lyft to have some percentage of their drivers be able to accommodate disabled riders. I’m very interested to see how this shakes out.

But today is for Houston. As I’ve said before, I don’t have a good feel for who stands where on this, and at this point we don’t know what exactly the final ordinance will look like. Yesterday was the usual Tuesday pop-off session at Council, so it was the last chance before today’s vote for people to give their feedback on the proposals. Lauren Barrash, the founder and CEO of The Wave and a vocal critic of Uber and Lyft, sent me a copy of what she said to Council:

Good afternoon. In preparation for today’s public comment I wanted to shed light on a few new concerns I have regarding the vote tomorrow to pass the new Chapter 46.

First- Last week the limousine stakeholders were not notified that the ordinance was on the agenda which is why they did not have a presence at City Hall for public comment. They were also not aware of the amendments we all found out about from the Houston Chronicle on Tuesday morning.

Second- We were all emailed a new draft ordinance on Friday, June 6th. In speaking with some of the Council staff, that was not sent to you all.

Third- I have been trying, with no avail, to add some jitney revisions, but have been told, “we will have to get to after this one passes”. As a law abiding tax paying stakeholder, my concerns and recommendations should be weighted as heavily as these illegal operators forcing us to rush through this process

Last & most important- I want you to ask the question to them today if they are willing to stand before you & say with all honesty, they will comply 100% with all requirements in the new Chapter 46 Ordinance no later than the date required. And if not, you need to consider harsh consequences- impoundment, criminal charges, tickets, insurance notification because they have already displayed their lack of concern if tickets are issued. And if they say they will comply, you need to make certain you have the ability to enforce those laws. You also need to ensure there are harsh consequences for violation of the ordinance & be able to enforce those.

I have several questions regarding certain line items both in the section pertaining to jitneys as well as some of the Ordinance applicable to all of us, but am not being heard and am not able to ask those questions to ARA because they are busy accommodating the likes of Uber & Lyft.

Nothing in life is free. Free enterprise is not about not having to pay to be in business. It is about an open market for business to come in & operate legally. The media is hearing one side of this, but I sincerely hope you all have heard all three sides. It is hard to hear the real message hear when you have a shiny marketing, PR, and outreach plan from an $18 Billion company.

I ask that you think if it were your business at stake, would you want them to be a stakeholder. Equate it to someone like Chili’s, who has TONS of money, coming into a market & opening hundreds of restaurants on every prime piece of real estate, but not getting permits, inspections, plans. You wouldn’t let that happen.

I’m not sure how well that analogy holds up once an ordinance is passed, but I can certainly appreciate the frustration in the interim, once the newcomers went rogue. The Chron notes this while urging passage of an overhaul to the vehicle for hire code.

Mandatory prices, minimum fleet sizes and required advanced reservations serve little public good, and have no place in laws regulating Town Cars and other vehicles-for-hire.

But then the lobbyists got involved. Over the past several months, policy has turned to personal politics, and what should have been an easy vote has become a municipal mud fight. Instead of discussing regulations, council members are talking about individual companies.

Do you support Yellow Cab? Do you support Uber, a car service software company that connects riders with drivers? What about other newcomers like Lyft or Sidecar?

Council members should leave that choice to consumers. City Hall’s job is to write policy that achieves goals of safety, predictability and healthy economics. Right now, Chapter 46, which covers vehicles-for-hire, fails to meet those ends.

Frankly, Uber’s antics have worn thin. The $18.2 billion company’s gleeful noncompliance with laws across the nation has begun to smack less of civil disobedience and more of corporate privilege run amok. We’re witnessing the values of a Silicon Valley where men think they’re kings because they learned how to code.

It is hubris matched only by Houston’s current taxi monopoly, which acts as if it is entitled to exist without competition and thinks itself a saint because it accepts Metro vouchers to pick up the handicapped – a rather profitable form of charity.

Instead of duking it out in City Hall, these companies should take their fight to the people.

I suspect they will get that chance. And I will say again, it would be a good idea to review what gets done today in another six or twelve months, since no one really knows what the effect of the changes will be.

Finally, the Times notes that cab drivers are beginning to think more broadly about how to respond.

As services like UberX, whose drivers often use their own vehicles to transport passengers, make inroads in city after city, traditional taxi drivers are facing a loss of clout and livelihood. Years of rising gas prices and, in many places, stagnant fares have contributed to lower incomes for many drivers.

Eager to reverse the trend, taxi drivers in Chicago and other cities are for the first time seeking to form a national taxi drivers’ union — not just to gain leverage against UberX but also to pressure city officials and taxi companies to heed their concerns. The powerful taxi drivers’ union in New York City, with 17,000 members, is spearheading this effort, bringing its organizing expertise to Chicago, where it is pushing to unionize thousands of drivers and to link up with drivers’ unions in Philadelphia, Miami, Houston, northern Maryland and Austin, Tex.

Here and elsewhere, drivers express similar grievances: low pay, high leasing fees, police who issue too many tickets and taxi companies that cheat them. Despite those common problems, forming a national union will be difficult, in part, because taxi drivers are an independent, disputatious group with roots in dozens of countries.

[…]

The A.F.L.-C.I.O. supports the idea of a national taxi drivers’ union as part of its broader strategy to reverse decades of decline in union membership and power. Labor groups are realizing that they can no longer afford to ignore sectors like the taxi industry that employ many immigrant workers, whom unions view as a vital source of potential membership growth. And taxi drivers, whether Ethiopian, Haitian or Pakistani, are often leaders in immigrant communities around the country.

One snag these unionization plans face is that taxi drivers are usually independent contractors who are barred by antitrust law from colluding to set prices (although they can lobby city officials to grant fare increases).

Drivers say that some organizing efforts have been paying off. For instance the 1,200-member drivers’ union in Philadelphia helped secure three fare increases, lower fines for violations like having bald tires and a reduction in the fee for accepting credit card payments to 5 percent of the fare, from 10 percent.

Ronald Blount, president of the Philadelphia union, sees benefits in going national. “We can learn from each other. We can see what forms of pressure worked in other cities,” he said.

Probably too late to have any effect in Houston, but we’ll see how it goes elsewhere.

Here comes I-69

Best have your tinfoil hat at the ready.

The first Houston-area piece of a trade corridor — debated for more than a decade and envisioned as one day linking Mexico to Canada — has been officially designated.

Motorists will soon notice new road signs naming a 35-mile stretch of existing U.S. 59, from the 610 Loop to FM 787 in Cleveland, as part of the new Interstate 69.

With little fanfare, the Texas Transportation Commission recently voted to put up the new signage while keeping the U.S. 59 designation.

The I-69 corridor, the so-called NAFTA Superhighway that is supposed to connect the Texas-Mexico border to America’s heartland, has been on the drawing board since at least 2002. Plans to make the corridor wide enough to include tollways, rail and utility lines were phased out in 2009 in favor of a more traditional corridor that will be built in small increments.

The project has met with opposition from farmers and ranchers championing private property rights and others who opposed a large toll-road component of the plan.

That’s one way of putting it. There’s already a seven-mile stretch of highway down by Corpus Christi that has the I-69 designation, and according to Wikipedia there are little bits of I-69 in other states as well. If you’re unsure what I mean by the “tinfoil hat” remark, I suggest you spend a few minutes Googling “NAFTA superhighway”; all will be abundantly clear. Or just spend a few minutes giggling like a schoolboy about the new name. Either way it’s not likely to make too much difference in your daily life, but at least now you know.

You should also plan to drive on I-69 sooner rather than later, because it’s gonna get crowded pretty quick.

As the transformation of U.S. 59 in Houston to Interstate 69 continues, projections show an increase in traffic of up to 150 percent by 2035. Experts say traffic will increase regardless of whether the so-called NAFTA Superhighway, envisioned two decades ago as a trade route from Mexico through Houston to Canada, is fully built.

[…]

Houston’s segment, which already experiences traffic pileups and is not scheduled for any expansion under the plan, would be hit with the largest increase in traffic volume on Texas’ interstate route.

“But that traffic is coming to us no matter what we do. We are going to see a huge increase in freight — more than 300 percent in a little over a decade,” said a committee member, Ashby Johnson, the Houston-Galveston Area Council’s deputy transportation director. “Some of it is coming from NAFTA and some of it’s from the widening of the Panama Canal.”

Imagine how nasty the northbound approach to I-45 will be by then. Naturally, there’s no plan to deal with it. If I’m still in the same office, I’ll definitely be taking the train to work by then. Thomas has more.

Corpus Christi discusses plastic bags

Add another city to the list of those seeking to reduce plastic bag usage and litter.

Skip the Plastic

[Corpus Christi] Mayor Joe Adame wants the community to work together on a solution within the next two to three months.

“The easy decision is to ban plastic bags,” he said. “We have got to figure out a unique way to change people’s behavior in the community.”

Some City Council members supported the idea of a plastic bag fee, while others said it’s not the government’s place to tell businesses what to do.

There was some consensus among the council, including an idea for public anti-litter campaign to put more teeth behind the city’s litter ordinance, and ramping up litter enforcement. Some council members said it might be effective to embarrass those caught littering by putting their faces in the newspaper or on TV.

[…]

Many who spoke during public comment supported the Coastal Bend Surfrider Foundation proposal for a city ordinance to assess a plastic shopping bag fee. The fee would encourage retail customers to bring their owns bags or pay $1 per transaction to use plastic bags.

Most of the money collected would pay for litter cleanups, education and more code enforcement officers. Some would go to retail stores to cover administrative costs.

The discussion about a plastic bag ban, which for the past two years remained at city committee level, recently gained momentum after the local Surfriders chapter took up a national initiative called Skip the Plastic. The initiative encourages people to bring reusable bags for shopping.

Here’s Skip the Plastic. Take a look at this picture for an idea of the scope of the issue. Of the ideas that various cities have come up with to deal with this issue, I like charging a fee for plastic bag usage the most. The $1 per transaction fee proposed for Corpus is higher than what I’ve seen elsewhere – a fee of five or ten cents per bag – but that’s OK. If nothing else, it would give some data about how elastic the demand for plastic bags is. If and when it takes action, Corpus Christi would join Austin, Midland, Pecos, Brownsville, South Padre Island, Fort Stockton, and possibly others by now – Eating Our Words mentions San Antonio and McAllen as possibilities. Sooner or later, I hope Houston will be on that list as well.

RIP, Farrah Fawcett

Not unexpected, but still sad.

Fawcett was voted “most beautiful” her sophomore, junior and senior years at Ray High School [in Corpus Christi]. Her freshman year at the University of Texas, where she was majoring in microbiology and minoring in art, Fawcett was voted one of the university’s 10 most beautiful coeds.

Back then, to local attorney and former state Rep. Bill Harrison and his group of friends, Farrah was just another girl hanging out with Harrison’s younger sister Kathy.

“We called her ‘Drippy (Fawcett),’” Harrison recalled. “She was just another little punk coming over to my sister’s house.”

When Fawcett was a sophomore and Harrison and his friends were seniors the boys took real notice.

Harrison introduced Fawcett to his best friend Gary Roberts, the guy she dated all the way through high school and into college.

Fawcett’s father thought that Roberts and his daughter were getting too serious so it was up to Bill Harrison to pick Fawcett up for dates, he said.

“He liked me because I was the son of a minister,” Bill Harrison recalled. “Gary would be sitting next to my date and I’d go pick up Farrah. And we’d go around the corner and Farrah would jump in the back with Gary and my date would get in the front.”

Roberts, now a Kerrville banker watched Fawcett evolve from a Catholic school girl into one of the world’s most renowned beauties.

She was more than that, of course. Her performance in The Burning Bed and Extremities proved she had acting chops. I’m not sure what happened to her career-wise after that, but whatever it was, she deserved better. Texas Monthly has more from their archives. Rest in peace, Farrah Fawcett.