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February 25th, 2010:

Endorsement watch: Probate courts

We finally come to the end of judicial endorsements as the Chron makes recommendations for the probate courts.

In the Democratic primary for Probate Court No. 2, the Chronicle endorses veteran probate and estate planning attorney Joellen Snow, a University of Texas Law School graduate certified in probate law who has also served as an associate Houston municipal judge. “I think we need to stop the cronyism,” says Snow, who says it creates at least the appearance of impropriety and bias. She believes appointments should be spread among more lawyers “instead of a select few in each court who have given the maximum contributions to that judge.” She would advocate a uniform system similar to that used in the criminal district courts that would randomly draw from a list of qualified attorneys for appointments.

In the Democratic primary for Probate Court No. 3, the Chronicle recommends Mary Galligan, a 22-year certified probate law practitioner and adjunct professor at South Texas College of Law who has represented the broad range of cases heard in probate court. She says she decided to run for the judgeship because many of her clients had been expressing a fear of going to probate court because of the negative stories about favoritism and exorbitant costs. Galligan pledges not to accept campaign contributions from attorneys who practice in probate court and has returned several thousand dollars to donors for that reason.

The 2010 Elections page has been updated to reflect these recommendations. With that, and with the accompanying endorsements in the Republican primary for Supreme Court and 14th Court of Appeals, they’re done with judicial races. And now, with one whole day of early voting left, they can tackle all of the following:

– County Judge (Dem), County Clerk (Dem and GOP), Tax Assessor (GOP), and District Clerk (GOP)

– CD22 (Dem) and CD29 (GOP)

– HD146 (Dem), HD127 (GOP), HD134 (GOP), and HD148 (GOP)

Good luck with that. Maybe next time start a little sooner?

A county budget threefer

Three items of interest in the news that relate to the Harris County budget.

Contemplating cremation

Commissioners Court this morning discussed possibly changing to a cremate-first policy at Harris County’s public cemetery.

A report from the cemetery director projects that the county’s 18.7-acre cemetery will be full some time next year, necessitating the purchase of a 25-acre plot for $7 million.

Switching to cremation instead of burial would save the county about $60,000 a year in operations. It would also give the county five to seven years before it would have to purchase more land for another cemetery, county budget officer Dick Raycraft told the Court.

Makes sense to me. I might argue that this should be the default going forward, not just till more land can be acquired. What do you think?

The business of bail bonds. Beyond the likely uncollectable money that the county is owed, and the pathetic resources the county has to try anyway, the meat of the story is this:

Under tough policies adopted more than a decade ago, Harris County’s judges created a huge boom in the local bonding business by denying nearly all accused criminals’ requests for so-called personal bonds — even for many people accused of low-level crimes like drug possessions or misdemeanors, records show. Meanwhile, district judges also raised bond rates for low-level repeat drug offenders and for anyone suspected of living illegally in the United States.

Those judicial decisions forced more people to pay bail bondsmen nonrefundable fees of at least 10 percent to win release or simply stay in jail, where the number of pretrial prisoners has mushroomed, argues Gerald Wheeler, a Ph.D. researcher and retired Harris County pretrial services director who has studied the system.

Wheeler describes the county’s oversight of bonding as “inefficient and convoluted” and advocates a broad-based review and reform of the entire system.

The policy of denying personal bonds was advocated by Republican judicial candidates in the 1994 and 1996 elections, and implemented by them after they won. As Grits says, it’s time to go back to how it was before. Which brings us to the last story:

Harris County may look to reserves for Sheriff’s Office. As we know, the county hopes to save some money by spending less on the Sheriff’s department. This doesn’t represent a change in that thinking, it’s more a desire to be realistic about what the costs actually are and be up front about it. But it does connect very clearly to the previous story:

A growing jail population has fueled a 66 percent increase in sheriff’s spending during the past four years.

The sheriff has spent about $34 million this year alone on overtime, much of it to cover shifts at its understaffed jail. A consultant’s study in December concluded that the county has 342 fewer jailers than it needs.

“It begs the question as to whether or not the number of employees he has is enough,” said Precinct 2 Commissioner Sylvia Garcia. “If it’s not, then let’s hire the people with the same money we’re spending on overtime.”

[County Judge Ed] Emmett, too, suggested that hiring more deputies could actually save the Sheriff’s Office money.

It probably would. So would going back to personal bonds so that fewer people who don’t need to be in jail wind up there anyway. Has anyone heard anything from our jail czar lately?

Fixing flooding

I’m glad to see that the city is taking the issue of flooding and drainage seriously, as this is an increasingly urgent problem. It’s really one of infrastructure, which like everything else in this world eventually wears out and needs to be replaced. But as we know these things cost money, and some people don’t want to spend any.

The Department of Public Works and Engineering has estimated that the price tag on infrastructure improvements needed to control flooding in the next 20 years is in the neighborhood of $4 billion. Others say it is closer to $10 billion. Even spread over decades, that kind of money is not available amid sprawling budget problems that include unfunded pension liabilities, and a financially strapped Combined Utility System.

Beyond the high cost and policy ramifications, political pitfalls abound. Chief among them is a campaign that could be led by some of the very engineers who could benefit the most from the infrastructure boom a referendum would initiate.Other question marks include whether the proposal could be crowded out by another ballot proposition, or how voters would respond to what would almost certainly be a major tax increase.

“What a shock that an engineer or contractor would support a referendum for a bunch of infrastructure projects,” joked former City Councilman Bruce Tatro, a leading voice against a scuttled drainage fee plan during the Lee Brown administration.

Tatro said the central issue is not whether a bond referendum would be used to pay for infrastructure projects, but whether that referendum would lead to a tax increase.

“I think in this atmosphere, people would be very apprehensive to approve any amount of bond-letting that would require a tax increase,” he said.

Tatro’s non-responsive joke about engineers annoys me more than it should. He’s not claiming they’re wrong in their assessment, just that (heaven forfend!) some of them may stand to benefit from that assessment. Either this is in the public interest or it isn’t. If it is, then any self-interest on the part of the engineering community is a secondary concern. It’s still up to us to decide if this is something we want the city to do.

As for the concern that folks might not want to authorize bonds to deal with these problems because they might mean higher taxes, well, maybe, but what purpose does that kind of speculation serve? This won’t happen without a referendum, where people can express any reluctance they may have in the most direct manner possible, and before that there will plenty of opportunities for discussion and debate. Does Tatro, or anyone else, have a substantive criticism on the merits of the idea, or is this how it’s going to be? There are many things we need to be clear about. What, if anything, do we really need to be doing right now? What are the risks of doing nothing? What is the best way to pay for what we want to do? How do we prioritize our to-do list? The story does talk about some of the costs and hazards of the current situation, but we’re just scratching the surface right now. How people may feel about these things will depend to a large extent on how well they understand what needs to be done and why. Let’s please get on with that.

HD146 overview

Here’s the Chron on the one local Democratic legislative primary, Round Three of Al Edwards versus Borris Miles.

Edwards has represented District 146 since 1979 — except for 2006-08, when Miles won the heavily black district. It has some of Harris County’s poorest neighborhoods, including much of Third Ward.

The 71-year-old Edwards, a lay minister and real estate broker, is third in seniority in the Legislature. “There’s no comparison in terms of abilities and skills and experience,” he said of Miles.

“Seniority is only as good as the person whose hands it’s in,” Miles scoffed. “If my representative is so powerful on the House floor, we should be a land of milk and honey. We’re not.”

Not really much to say here. With Tom Craddick on the sidelines, this race has not had the high profile it had in 2006 or 2008. Edwards doesn’t have that much money, certainly not compared to those previous years, and what he has is mostly PAC money, plus $15,000 from Bob and Doylene Perry. Of course, Miles is a self-funder, it’s just that he just won’t have to go toe-to-toe with the big moneybags that kept Team Craddick in power. As you know, Miles is my preferred choice. I don’t have a good feel for how this is going to play out, but for what it’s worth, more Democratic early votes have been cast in HD146 – 3,001 between the Fiesta Mart and the Sunnyside MSC through Wednesday – than any other early vote location. We’ll see how it goes.

Seeing gold in green

Denying climate change and the adverse effects of carbon dioxide may be official policy of our Republican leaders, but word has apparently not filtered down to the business entrepreneurs whose capitalistic opportunism those Republicans usually lionize.

“Energy is the biggest opportunity Silicon Valley has ever seen,” declared T.J. Rodgers, the founder of Cypress Semiconductor and chairman of SunPower, a leading maker of photovoltaic panels to produce solar energy.

How big? Consider that the sum of America’s yearly utility bills, one component of the nation’s overall energy costs, exceeds $1 trillion — or nearly triple the annual global revenues of the semiconductor industry. The solar and wind energy markets, which totaled about $80 billion in 2008, are projected to nearly triple in size in 10 years, employing 2.6 million people worldwide, according to Clean Edge, a cleantech research group.

Leading venture capitalist John Doerr of Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield & Byers muses that Silicon Valley may someday be called Solar Valley, given that dozens of solar companies that have sprung up here in recent years.

But solar represents just one aspect of the cleantech revolution. Around the valley, some former e-commerce and software mavens are now busy trying to electrify the automobile industry while other techies are developing energy-efficient glass, drywall and cement. Still others are introducing cutting-edge information technology to the 20th-century electricity grid, working on biofuels and fuel cells, and pioneering new methods to recycle waste, protect air and water quality and enhance agriculture and aquaculture.

The payoff: progress toward a “low-carbon economy,” thousands of new jobs in the valley — and perhaps a new set of corporate titans.

I sure hope their optimism is well placed, because at this point they may be the only hope we’ve got for any real action on climate change.

More on streetcars in Fort Worth

The TCU Daily Skiff writes about Fort Worth’s plans for streetcars.

The city of Fort Worth plans to move forward with bringing in a nationally recognized consultant to finalize aspects of a modern streetcar system that would consist of an initial loop through downtown Fort Worth as early as 2014 and possibly connecting to campus in the future, a city official said.

David Gaspers, a senior planner in the city’s planning and development department, said plans for the modern streetcars began in 2008 when Mayor Mike Moncrief and the city council appointed an initial study committee to look at the feasibility of a streetcar system for central Fort Worth. The committee found the streetcar system to be a feasible option and recommended an initial route spanning from downtown, Gaspers said.

Even though the initial route would connect nearest to campus at the Cultural District, Gaspers said he did not see why the streetcar line would not connect to the campus in the future. Historically, streetcars connected downtown Fort Worth to campus during the 1920s, he said.

“It would make sense that many of the new lines that would go in place would follow lines that were there, the historic streetcar lines,” Gaspers said. “It is hard to tell at this point when that would happen.”

That’s the same basic idea as what they’re doing in San Antonio. I don’t know the geography of Fort Worth, but if their plan is anything like SA’s, then the area in question is likely still pretty walkable, and thus at least reasonably well-suited for this kind of transit. I wish them luck in getting it done. Via Houston Tomorrow.