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July 9th, 2008:

HouStoned is becoming Hair Balls

Those of you who are fans of the Houston Press’ Rich Connelly, take note:

As of July 14, 2008, Hair Balls becomes Web-based.

On the Web, it will be expanded, it will be updated constantly, it will become a destination for all who point and click and want to experience the sweat-drenched mystery that is Houston.
We won’t completely abandon our print roots for pixels. The hard-copy edition of the Houston Press each week will include a roundup of items from the blog. But you, as a savvy user of -cutting-edge technology, will have already seen what those poor, benighted readers who stick to print have been anxiously awaiting every Thursday.

[…]

If you are a dedicated follower of some subspecies of Houstoniana — whether it’s politics, education, the local arts scene or whatever — and you think you might have what it takes to be a regular contributor, let us know.

Yes, they’re looking for a few good co-bloggers. If you’re at all familiar with Connelly’s Hair Balls column, you probably have a good idea if you might be a decent fit. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you’re probably not. Those of you in the first group, follow that link if you think you’ve got what it takes.

How much overtime is too much?

I have two questions regarding this front page story that says “Understaffing costs Houston taxpayers $150 million in overtime”.

Local governmental agencies spent large sums on overtime last year, in part to compensate for their understaffed police forces, according to interviews and an analysis of payroll data.

Combined, the agencies spent about $150 million on overtime in 2007, or about 5 percent of their payrolls, according to a database of payroll records from the city, county and Houston schools, among other agencies.

The spending kept more police officers and sheriff’s deputies patrolling streets and guarding jails, officials say, but it also has raised concerns about employee fatigue and morale.

[…]

The Houston Chronicle compiled detailed electronic payroll data on 81,000 employees at the Metropolitan Transit Authority, city of Houston, Harris County, Port of Houston Authority, Harris County Department of Education, Houston Community College and Houston Independent School District.

The records detail overtime, car allowances, bonuses and total annual pay. The data were collected under the Texas Public Information Act from the agencies, all of which receive property tax revenue from Harris County homeowners.

The Sheriff’s Office, for example, spent more than $31 million on overtime, second only to the Houston Police Department, which has dealt with its own staffing shortages.

Dozens of deputies earned more than $50,000 in overtime last year, often doubling their salaries. Two who were paid $92,000 and $87,000 in overtime, respectively, worked 16-hour shifts five days a week. One got paid for a few 24-hour shifts, records show.

The HPD, which has placed a heavy focus on recruiting to increase the ranks, spent about $45 million on overtime, records show. Officials there plan to spend about $51 million over the next 12 months.

Much of the department’s spending is funded by state and federal grants. The grants also boost traffic enforcement and extra policing in high-crime areas, police say.

“Unlike the private sector, the public sector has to leverage its limited work force by extending it through the use of overtime,” said Joe Fenninger, HPD’s deputy director for finance.

The Houston Fire Department and Houston ISD trailed the HPD and Sheriff’s Office in overtime spending, with about $19 million and $10 million, respectively.

Reporter Matt Stiles also blogged about this story here. My first question is this: How much would these agencies be spending on overtime costs if they were all staffed at ideal levels? To say that overtime “costs Houston taxpayers $150 million” suggests to me that the “right” amount to spend on overtime is nothing, and I don’t think that’s realistic. Even at full staff, there will be circumstances that will require certain public employees to work extra hours. Is there a basis for comparison – say, a time in the past when staffing levels were higher across the board, or some other cities in America that are fully staffed – that can give us some idea what this baseline overtime budget might be? It would be nice to have a more realistic expecation of what we “should” be spending on this.

Point two is that if we were fully staffed across the board, and thus spending the minimum anount on overtime, we’d have higher payroll costs. How much more would the Sheriff, HPD, HFD, HISD, and so on be spending on salaries, benefits, and whatnot if they all had as many employees as they think they need and thus could cut overtime down as much as possible? It’s quite possible that if we staffed up to drive down overtime costs, we might wind up spending more overall. If that’s the case, then wbich would you prefer: Full staffing with minimal overtime, or less staff but more overtime? Is the goal to minimize costs no matter what, or just to minimize overtime? I’m not sure which is the right answer, but it’s something we ought to think about. The right course of action to take from here isn’t clear.

The Feds inspect the jails

It’s inspection time for the Harris County jails.

The U.S. Department of Justice on Tuesday launched what is expected to be a five-day inspection of the Harris County Jail facilities downtown, part of a federal probe to determine whether the jail is operating under lawful conditions.

While federal authorities have declined to say what specifically prompted their investigation, the Harris County Jail has come under scrutiny in recent months for inmate deaths.

The facility has also been criticized for overcrowding, poor sanitation and questionable access to medical treatment and prescription drugs.

Though the state inspects the county jail each April, this marks the first time federal authorities have toured the facilities, said Chief Deputy Mike Smith, who supervises detention operations for the Harris County Sheriff’s Office.

“To my knowledge, they’ve never done an inspection of us,” Smith said Tuesday.

No, but we knew back in March that they’d be coming, thanks to the continued high level of inmate deaths at the jails. The jails passed the state inspection back in April, though the jails have failed to meet state standards because of prisoner crowding several times in recent years. (I’m pointing to the Google cache of my posts on these topics because my archives are currently in a state of transition.)

Federal authorities conducted a similar investigation and inspection of the Dallas County Jail, which exposed deficiencies in that facility’s environmental conditions and its medical and mental health care.

The inspection team, consisting of around nine people, told the Harris County Sheriff’s Office they would be on site through Saturday, Smith said.

They will inspect all facets of detention operations, including the jails at 1200 Baker, 1307 Baker, 701 San Jacinto, 711 San Jacinto, and the booking-processing center at 1201 Commerce.

[…]

If the investigation finds violations, federal officials will suggest ways to improve jail conditions.

If those recommendations are not met, however, federal law allows the attorney general to sue the county.

And that’s where things would get very interesting. As I said before, it’s hard to imagine we could have had this problem for so long without there being some kind of code violations. I just hope that whatever improvements that need to be made are already in progress, and that we don’t have to be forced, kicking and screaming, into doing the right thing.

Using less gas

Yes, even in Texas, people are using less gas as the price has skyrocketed.

State gasoline tax collections reported in June indicated taxes fell for two months in a row after a streak of gains earlier this year even as prices inched toward $4 a gallon, according to data from the Texas Comptroller’s office.

While state officials and others note that a number of factors figure in gasoline demand, the recent downturn suggests higher fuel prices are beginning to weigh more heavily on Texas drivers.

“It definitely seems like people are very aware now about the price of gasoline,” said John Heleman, the state’s chief revenue estimator.

[…]

State officials caution against reading too much into gas tax figures. They said the downturn could be a sign that Texans are driving less but may also reflect a gradual shift toward more fuel-efficient vehicles.

“I would like to see a couple more months,” Heleman said. “Let’s get through the summer, see how those months play out and see if we don’t start to see some sort of trend.”

If gasoline prices remain high, Texas could see gas tax collections stay flat or decline slightly for the state’s 2008 fiscal year, he said. The last time that happened was 2006, when prices rose above $3 for an extended period.

There are obvious budgetary implications to this. Gas tax revenues contribute to education funding, for one thing, so a decline here will result in yet more pressure on school financing, which in turn would likely be another arrow in the quiver of those who favor expanded gambling. This will also be cited by toll-road proponents who insist that the gas tax is inadequate for Texas’ growing transportation needs. That argument would be a lot more convincing to me if we didn’t have the same tax rate as we did in 1992, something the tollers never seem to mention, but I guarantee this point will be raised. If this trend continues, keep an eye on the gamesmanship that will follow. There will be a lot riding in the next Lege on it.

Believe Texas

Among the many signs of Democratic resurgence this year is the increase in Democratic fundraising. Groups like Blue Texas and TexBlog PAC have emerged on the scene to help Democratic challengers gain ground in the Legislature and elsewhere. One person who has done a lot this year to help out Democratic candidates for all kinds of offices, from Congress to State Senate to State House to the judiciary, is Barbara Radnofsky, who’s been tirelessly hosting events at her house. There’s now an ActBlue page for her Believe Texas PAC, so if you’ve been receiving her email invitations for these events and want to help out even when you can’t attend in person, now you can do so. Every little bit helps, especially when there are so many opportunities to move forward. Stace has more.

New Hot Bagel Shop coming

Those of you who regularly stop for a bagel at the Hot Bagel Shop on Shepherd might have noticed that some of the other tenants in that little strip center where it resides have been moving out. There’s a reason for that – the place is going to be demolished and rebuilt. But don’t worry, the Hot Bagel Shop isn’t going away. It’s just moving down the street a bit:

That picture was taken a little more than week ago and it’s already out of date. Here’s a new view from a couple of days later:

I hadn’t realized it was going to encompass the Shoe Hospital until I saw that. The location, in case you can’t tell, is just south of Fairview, on the west side of the street, next to the Arby’s. That’s a wee bit north of the current location, and much more convenient for me, as it means I no longer have to make left turns during rush hour traffic for my morning bagel fix as I drive to work. My understanding, from talking to the proprietors, is that they’ll be moving in September or so. I just hope no one crashes any cars into the new building.

The Texas Blue interviews Diane Trautman

Missed this when it first appeared: The Texas Blue has a nice interview with Harris Count Tax Assessor candidate Diane Trautman. They’ve got a player embedded in the post so you can listen there, or you can download the MP3 if you prefer.