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June 21st, 2007:

Pension deal reached

I was wondering about this when I saw the story about the city budget being adopted earlier today. It was just a matter of time, I guess.

The city and its largest pension fund have reached a tentative agreement on benefit changes for new employees designed to reduce the system’s more than $1 billion unfunded liability, Mayor Bill White’s office announced this morning.

The agreement still needs approval of the Houston Municipal Employees Pension System trustees, scheduled to meet today, and City Council, which convenes again Wednesday.

In addition to the benefit changes, which don’t affect current workers, the deal also sets a four-year financing schedule that had been the subject of contention in recent weeks between White and the fund’s executive director, David Long.

If the deal is approved, the city would be allowed to contribute to the fund what the mayor proposed for the next fiscal year: about $75 million. That annual contribution would gradually increase over the next few years, but remain at a percentage of employee payroll that city officials believe is more manageable.

So the initial take appears to be that the Mayor won this particular staredown. I presume we’ll see more details tomorrow, at which point we can better judge how good or bad this deal is for the city as a whole. Given the nature of these things, I’ll bet that acceptance by HMEPS and City Council is a formality – you’d have to be a fool to announce a deal more than a week ahead of deadline if you aren’t real sure that it’ll be ratified by those who have to vote on it. Mayor White ain’t a fool.

Matt Stiles has more. Getting back to the budget for a sec, I’d like to know more about this:

Among the changes, which didn’t alter the mayor’s plan significantly, was the elimination of a controversial proposed waste-reduction fee creating a dedicated fund that would guarantee money for solid waste services such as recycling, composting and heavy trash collection.

So what’s going to happen to recycling, composting, and heavy trash? Keep doing what we’re doing, make the changes suggested but take the money from general revenue as before, or cut back on some or all of them? I suppose Council still has action items regarding this. I look forward to hearing more.

Congestion pricing? What congestion pricing?

Well, that was fast.

County Judge Ed Emmett announced today that the county will not double fees during peak hours on the Westpark Tollway, backing off a decision made two days earlier that was assailed by many tollway drivers and area residents.

“We will cancel the Westpark (peak-hours) increase,” he said.

Member of Commissioners Court, especially Commissioner Steve Radack, have received phone calls and e-mails from residents criticizing the court’s decision Tuesday to raise Westpark fees from $1 to $2.50 per transaction during peak hours.

Rescinding Tuesday’s unanimous vote by the court “was certainly influenced by the public’s reaction,” Emmett said.

Boy, when was the last time public opinion had any effect on Commissioners Court? I guess even kings and czarinas have to be concerned about the rabble once in awhile.

So-called “congestion pricing” was intended to reduce gridlock on the tollway during the morning and evening commutes. But after voting for peak-hour pricing, court members became concerned that doubling the fees would force some drivers onto just-as-congested nearby roads.

Gosh, where might they have gotten that idea? Let’s be real here: What the Court – in particular, Judge Emmett – became concerned about was the specter of Charles Bacarisse and David Mincberg rubbing their hands and cackling with glee at the juicy electoral issue that just dropped into their laps. Will people forgive and forget, or will they think he’s a flipflopper as well as a chiseler? Look for the hit pieces in your mailbox, any day now.

Backlash on Westpark Toll Road fees

Looks like there’s a little commissioner’s remorse over the upcoming toll road fee hikes.

Several Commissioners Court members received calls and e-mail criticizing their decision Tuesday to double tollway fees during peak hours.

“My initial thought was to implement these changes and then review them,” said County Judge Ed Emmett. “But my view may be changing on that.”

But unless the court revisits the issue, the Harris County Toll Road Authority plans to move forward with the new fee schedule in September, said Peter Key, the authority’s deputy director. The authority would study whether the peak-hour fees should be lower or higher after they go into effect, he said.

[…]

The court authorized the toll road authority to set peak-hour pricing from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. inbound and 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. outbound.

Toll transactions along the main part of the tollway now cost $1. That fee will rise to $1.25 per transaction during nonpeak hours. And the rate during peak hours will be $2.50 per transaction.

“I don’t think we need three hours in the morning and three hours in the afternoon,” Radack said.

The problem with all this is that the higher toll fee isn’t going to adjust people’s behaviors in a constructive way. It will just move them from a crowded freeway to crowded surface roads. I don’t see what good might come out of that.

Congestion pricing is used elsewhere in the country to keep traffic flowing. It hasn’t been tried before in Texas, but the future Katy Freeway toll lanes are expected to have peak-hour pricing. “What’s going on in Houston will be a model for what people around the state can look forward to,” said Christopher Poe, director of the Center on Tolling Research at Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M University.

The peak-hour prices on the tollway would raise the toll rate during regular hours from about 18 cents per mile to about 20 cents. The peak-hour rate would be about 42 cents.

Some rates are much higher in other parts of the country.

During peak hours on Friday afternoons, motorists on State Route 91 in the Los Angeles area pay nearly $1 per mile, or $9.50 for a 10-mile trip.

“The idea is not to discourage use,” Poe said. “It’s to get people to change their schedules to reduce the demand at peak hours.”

That’s a fine idea, and one I generally support, but the implementation here sucks. If the goal is to discourage people from driving during those times – or to find alternatives to driving – you have to at least help them understand what their options are, if not actually help create some new ones. Most people can’t adjust their workdays to avoid the 6-9 and 4-7 time periods, which is the only choice they’re being given besides “Let them eat cake drive on Richmond”. Maybe Commissioners Court could have done something with Metro to expand park-and-ride options to include service to the Beltway 8 area, or something like that. Maybe that’s not realistic either, I don’t know, but almost anything has to be better than what was done.

Of course, according to this clueless letter writer, it’s all actually Metro’s fault.

Refund due to rightful owners

The punishing 150 percent toll increase on the Westpark Tollway proves that the Metropolitan Transit Authority was negligent when it decided to build a highway that was obsolete at the moment of conception.

This latest fiasco underscores the very urgent need to do away with Metro altogether and return the billions of tax dollars it wastes to their rightful owners.

DAVID YANNONE
Fulshear

HCTRA, METRO, it’s all the same to him. I just hope he doesn’t vote in the next referendum election, whenever that might be. And is it just me, or does anyone else think that if the Chron is going to choose to print a dumb letter like this, they owe their readers the courtesy of an editorial footnote to explain that the writer has his facts completely wrong? Houstonist has a much better rant about this.

One more thing: How much of the current Westpark woes do you think are cause by the construction on I-10? Seems to me Commissioners Court could have chosen to wait to implement congestion pricing after some of the excess traffic on Westpark had migrated north. Maybe they’d have found it’s not that bad after all.

Give platelets

J. Fred Duckett, the longtime stadium announcer for the Rice Owls and the originator of the phrase “It’s a great day for outdoor football!”, is suffering from leukemia and in need of platelet donations. From the Owl fan forum, posted on Monday the 18th:

Hello all. I just spoke to Fred and, among other things, he said that he is need of platelets and blood. For those not familiar with platelets, they are necessary for blood to clot, they are often needed by leukemia patients on a daily basis and they have a very short shelf life (something like 48 hours). The process takes about two (2) hours and there are many things that are much more enjoyable than giving platelets, but nothing that is as important as giving for Fred. I called the Methodist Hospital Blood Center @ 713.441.3415 and made an appointment to give both platelets & blood on Wednesday of this week. As I said, platelets have a short shelf life, and we need to get people lined up to give platelets on a daily basis for as long as necessary (could be weeks depending on his treatment).

For this to be effective, there needs to be a schedule of donors. I am scheduled for Wednesday — we now need Tues (tomorrow) if possible, Thurs and Friday of this week and Mon-Friday next week, etc, etc. Email me and I’ll put you on the schedule on a first come, first served basis. As soon as I confirms your date, call the Methodist Blood Center @ 713.441.3415 and make your appointment — be sure to tell them you are donating specifically for Fred. Then call Fred and tell him what you are doing because he will have to provide some kind of written authorization since the platelets are specifically for him. I have done this before for patients at MDACC and it works, but we need commitments and help to get this coordinated and on track. It will then pretty much run on its own for as long as necessary. Please do your part to help Fred and volunteer now.

Fred’s blood type is A+, but platelets do not have to match based on blood type (ie, platelets from any blood type will do for Fred). Blood can be given something like every 8-10 weeks, but platelets can be given much more often like weekly. On Wednesday, I will give my platelets and O- blood. I will not be able to give blood again for 8-10 weeks, but I will be able to give platelets again in a few days (next week for sure). Because of the short shelf life of platelets, those that I give on Wed will have to be used on Thurs or Friday. That is the reason why a daily schedule of platelet donors is so critically important.

I can’t do this myself, because I did a double red blood cell donation back in March, which as noted here means I’m on the bench till July. Those of you who can, especially those of you in the Rice community, please click on the first link for more information, and please help if you can. Thanks very much.

Independent at last!

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg changes tack.

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg announced Tuesday that he was dropping his Republican affiliation, a step that could clear the way for him to make an independent bid for the presidency.

[…]

Until he ran for mayor in 2001, Mr. Bloomberg was a lifelong Democrat, and his success in New York reflected his ability to draw Democratic votes: he is for abortion rights, gay rights and gun control.

I hereby make a solemn vow to you, my readers: If Michael Bloomberg gets into the Presidential race as an independent, I will refer to him forevermore as “Michael Bloomberg Keeton Strayhorn”. And I will start a petition to demand that he be referred to as “Grandpa” on the ballot. It’s just the right thing to do.

Don’t stop downloadin’

Of all the things to come out of the Sopranos finale, I’d have to say this was the least expected. To me, anyway.

The Sopranos is over, but the last song featured on the show, Don’t Stop Believin’ which the band Journey released in 1981, keeps going as its lyrics say, “on and on and on and on.”

According to Legacy Recordings, a division of Sony BMG Music Entertainment, downloads of the song from iTunes went from about 1,000 on the day before the episode to 6,531 the day after. For the week, the song climbed to No. 17 in popularity on iTunes, while the band’s Greatest Hits also cracked the Top 20.

On the radio, airplay of Don’t Stop Believin’ increased 192 percent Monday through Thursday over the first four days of the previous week, according to Nielsen BDS, which tracks airplay.

It was not the first time the band had television to thank for a royalties windfall. In 2005, after Don’t Stop Believin’ was featured on the season premiere of MTV’s Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County, it ranked in the top 10 on iTunes.

The song also enjoyed a 150 percent increase in downloads the week after it was featured in an episode of Family Guy on Fox in 2005, according to Nielsen.

While song downloads were not tracked in 2003, when Don’t Stop Believin’ was featured in NBC’s Scrubs, overall retail sales of Journey’s Greatest Hits increased 51 percent in the first full week after the show aired, according to Nielsen.

Who knew?

And for what it’s worth, I forget where I saw this, but someone suggested the reason why Tony played that particular song is that the B-side to it in the little jukebox was Any Way You Want It, which is apparently the real message from David Chase about what actually happened when the screen went blank. Makes as much sense as anything else I’ve heard.

Farmers Branch and Hazelton

At last, we have an official injunction against the anti-immigrant ordinance in Farmers Branch, to replace the existing temporary restraining order.

Agreeing with lawyers for residents and apartment owners who sued, U.S. District Judge Sam Lindsay wrote that the measure is “based upon a scheme that does not adopt federal immigration standards” and is too vague for landlords to apply.

The ordinance, which voters approved by a 2-to-1 margin last month, would require apartment managers to verify that tenants are U.S. citizens or legal immigrants, with some exceptions for the elderly and minors. Landlords who don’t comply would face fines of up to $500 per tenant per day.

Lindsay said the plaintiffs who challenged the measure proved they had a “substantial likelihood” of winning the case on its merits. His injunction blocks enforcement of the measure until a trial is completed, lawyers in the case said.

Lindsay declined the city’s request that he edit the ordinance to try to make it constitutionally acceptable. “Any attempt to rewrite the ordinance would require the court to legislate by creating an entirely new ordinance,” Lindsay wrote.

Marisol Perez, a staff attorney with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said, ” The judge is in line with what courts around the country are doing. They are not allowing cities to do this.”

Indeed. Via TalkLeft, I found out about the case of Hazelton, PA, where a similar ordinance was blocked by a federal judge pending the outcome of a lawsuit (there have been at least two lawsuits filed against this ordinance). As it happens, that trial concluded in May, with a ruling expected in the summer. You may want to stock up on earplugs now for when that sucker hits the presses.

Farmers Branch council member Tim O’Hare, who sponsored the measure, said, “I’m certainly disappointed the judge has chosen to ignore the overwhelming will of the people in our town, but I can’t say I’m totally surprised.”

Oh, cry me a river. The “will of the people” means nothing if what they want to do is illegal. What do you think would have happened if the city had passed a law decriminalizing heroin, as a for instance? There’s a reason civil rights legislation was done at a federal level.

By the way, if you haven’t read the Steve Murdock interview in the Observer, in which he talks about how the population of Texas is rapidly becoming non-Anglo, and that the Anglo population is aging, consider this snippet:

TO: As you go around the state, what kind of response are you getting to your presentations?

SM: Well, it’s changed a lot over the past 25 years that I’ve been talking about this. Twenty-five years ago a lot of people didn’t believe this was going to happen. Virtually no one will say today, “We’re not going to be diverse. We’re not getting older.” So I think there’s a lot more acceptance.

I think the reactions run somewhat to what you’d expect. That is, there’s some who look at it and say, “What should we do to address this?” There are some who say, “I’m going to wall myself off. I’ll find a place where I can live and forget about all this, I don’t want to deal with it.” Those are probably the two most common. And the third set really says, “I see what it is but you can’t do a thing about it. It’s going happen. What do we do?” In other words, they’re not as activated to look for alternatives to do things. They just feel like it’s overwhelming. I’d say those are the most frequent reactions these days. Twenty-five years ago many people said, “You’re just wrong.”

Certainly the number of people that are interested in doing something about it has increased over the years. They increasingly see their fate is tied. And one of the things that we try to show in our work–and this goes back to the individual versus the group phenomenon–is the extent to which all Texans’ fates are tied to the changes that occur and how we handle them.

By [20]23 or [20]24, we’re talking about three out of every four Texas workers being non-Anglo. I like to say, well, if I, as an aging Anglo, forget that the quality of services I’m going to have–fire, police, and other services–depend on how well primarily the working-age population is doing, I really do so to my own detriment. Our fates are intertwined and related. How well our non-Anglo citizens do in Texas is how well Texas will do.

As Texas goes in this matter, so goes the nation. It’s just a shame that places like Farmers Branch and Hazelton have chosen to respond to it by burying their heads in the sand.

Assessing the vetoes

Paul Burka takes a detailed look at many of the bills that were vetoed by Governor Perry here and here, and examines the justification he gave for each. As you might imagine, some are more justified than others. In a previous installment, he looked at the personalities involved, and how that may have colored some of Perry’s actions.

Meanwhile, Grits for Breakfast did similar work for criminal justice-related bills, and Dos Centavos looked at some education bills. Check them out.