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January 13th, 2012:

Friday random ten: Themeless

No theme this week, just randomness…

1. Number Six Driver – Eddie From Ohio
2. Ida Red – Elena James
3. I Am Stretched On Your Grave – Sinead O’Connor
4. I Heard It Through The Grapevine – Creedence Clearwater Revival
5. Baby Mine – Bonnie Raitt with Was (Not Was)
6. Kid Charlemagne – Steely Dan
7. Vampires – Fastball
8. Pick Up The Pieces – Average White band
9. Everywhere I Go – Willie Nelson with Emmylou Harris
10. Home – Los Lonely Boys

“Baby Mine” is a song from the movie Dumbo, from the Disney music tribute album Stay Awake, which was one of the first LPs from my collection I ripped with the USB turntable. “Pick Up The Pieces” is another soundtrack song, from Swingers. “Everywhere I Go” is from one of the KBCO Studio C collections. “Ida Red” was from a live set that I found at archive.org – I also have the version that Elena James and Whit Smith did when they were two-thirds of the Hot Club Of Cowtown. That’s all I got – what are you listening to this week?

Brown v Rodriguez

I’ve been wondering how new Council Member Helena Brown’s style will play at Council meetings. I didn’t have to wait long to find out.

In this corner...

Councilwoman Helena Brown and Councilman James Rodriguez squared off publicly Wednesday in the kind of bare-knuckled politics usually deployed in a back room.

The outer layer of the onion had them disagreeing on whether the city should spend $2.3 million on a bike path along Sims Bayou in Rodriguez’s District I. Brown called it a “luxury” the city cannot afford in tough economic times.

Underneath that layer, though, Brown had violated an unspoken commandment of the council horseshoe: Thou shalt not question a project in another council member’s district.

And in this corner...

Rodriguez told Brown in no uncertain terms that his constituents support it. And, in so many words, to mind her own business.

“I think you’re going to find out real quick there’s a 16-1 answer to your question,” Rodriguez said. He was prophetic. Brown was the lone vote against the project.

Peeling further, Rodriguez may have a personal motive. After Rodriguez championed historic designation status for Glenbrook Valley, a neighborhood in his southeast Houston district, Leticia Ablaza, a resident of that district, ran against him in November. Rodriguez won handily. Brown, who represents northwest Houston’s District A, hired Ablaza as her chief of staff.

Here’s video of the exchange:

Note the exchange between CM Gonzalez and Mayor Parker about the flood mitigation aspect of the project, and the fact that the Parks Board is paying for the amenities. Which didn’t deter CM Brown, but I suspect she achieved her intended goals. I have to say, it’s just a wee bit disingenuous of Brown to talk about how Houston is paying for frivolities while its infrastructure crumbles, given that her entire campaign was built around opposition to Renew Houston; judging from the crowd that backed her, I’m sure she also opposed the water rate hike that ensured the city is adequately covering its costs of delivering that service. That’s the thing about infrastructure, you have to actually pay for it.

As for the territorial squabble, on a philosophical level I don’t actually have a problem with a Council member – or any other member of a legislative body – questioning a project in someone else’s district. If something is questionable, then it needs to be questioned. Obviously, I don’t agree with the substance of Brown’s remarks – I support building bike paths along the bayous, and again on a philosophical level, I disagree with Brown’s “we can’t afford that!” mindset – but I don’t consider her speaking out in this fashion to be a sin in and of itself. It was a violation of Council’s norms, however, and I’m certain it won’t be an isolated incident. If I were Sean Pendergast, I’d discuss the hypothetical Vegas odds of who Brown’s next mostly likely sparring partners will be, but I don’t quite have that in me. Feel free to speculate in the comments. Campos has more.

City budget outlook

Last year was a lousy budget year for the city of Houston. This year will be better, if only because it really can’t be much worse, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be good.

Kelly Dowe, the mayor’s finance director, has not yet estimated how big the problem is, but outside a City Council committee meeting this week he listed $47 million in increased expenses or decreased revenue that the city may have to make up for in the budget for the year that begins July 1.

Because sales tax revenue has been increasing in recent months and property tax revenue could be higher in the coming year, it is far from clear how big a budget hole might exist. It also is unclear whether increased employee health care costs and other expenses will add to the challenges. The squeeze, however, could divert money and attention away from some of the priorities Parker outlined in her inaugural address last week, such as assistance to small businesses, incentives to city departments to spend locally, and alleviating homelessness.

Most of the money Dowe identified is in increased pension costs. In fiscal year 2013 the city will owe its municipal employees’ pension fund $10 million more than it does this year. Its annual police pension bill will increase by $27 million. And it patched last year’s budget with a one-time windfall of $10 million by spinning off its convention department.

There’s only so much the city can do about those expenses right now, and most of those things involve can-kicking. There are some long term things that can be done, but I wouldn’t hold my breath for anything that requires legislative approval. On the revenue side, there are some long-term things we can do, though I don’t see much evidence we’re thinking that much about them. Let me take this opportunity again to exhort the Financial Management Task Force to think about growth strategies. However outlandish and unlikely they may be, they’re no more so than some of the austerity ideas being tossed around.

I suspect there are a couple of other one-time revenue items that can be deployed this year as well. Surely we didn’t sell off all the property we talked about selling last year, did we? And while it’s not much of a plan, there’s always hope, and by “hope” I mean increased sales tax revenues, which have been steadily improving at the state level. How does this translate to Houston? I sent the question to CM Stephen Costello’s office, as he is the Budget and Fiscal Affairs Chair, and got this response:

In FY2012 adopted budget, 29% of the city’s revenues are derived from sales tax ($518,912,000 in sales tax $1,762,966,000 in total revenue). In the November 2011 MFOR (the most recent financial report we have), the Controller projects sales tax revenue for FY2012 to be $519,794,000 and the Finance Department projects it to be $521,912,000. You are right, sales tax is trending upwards (positive growth over past four months) and we can only hope numbers will continue to improve, but I have no independent knowledge of specific or definite increases.

The Controller’s office uses Barton Smith’s latest growth estimate, discounted by his stated margin of error. I believe the Finance Department also incorporates Barton Smith’s estimate, but Finance Department projections are always higher.

The sunny view of this is that there’s a fair amount of room to be pleasantly surprised in the next few months and beyond. An increase of $10 million over what is now projected is less than 0.2% more, so it’s not a particularly wide margin. Obviously, this can work both ways, but at least the arrow is pointing in the right direction. Like I said, a little hope that things won’t be as bad, and may even be better, than we currently think.

Marathon weekend

I’m sure you know that this Sunday is the Chevron Houston Marathon, but did you realize that there’s some hot marathon action happening on Saturday, too?

The 2012 Marathon Trials course

Organizers for Saturday’s U.S. Olympic marathon trials arrived Tuesday to find a city and a race course doused by rainfall, cooled by a timely cold front and poised for what organizers describe as ideal conditions for Saturday’s stop on the road to the 2012 London Olympics.

Saturday’s trials, a prelude to the 40th annual Chevron Houston Marathon on Sunday, will feature an estimated 158 men and 223 women racing for the three spots available in each category for the 2012 Games.

And the weather, in contrast to the miserable conditions that have gripped Houston for months, could scarcely be better.

[…]

Saturday’s trials will take place over a course that may be unfamiliar to fans of the Chevron Houston Marathon, which celebrates its 40th anniversary with Sunday’s run, but is well-known to the tens of thousands who attend the city’s Fourth of July celebrations in the Buffalo Bayou greenbelt west of downtown.

After runners start from the Discovery Green area near the George R. Brown Convention Center with an initial loop through downtown, the 26.2-mile Olympic trials course will follow an eight-mile loop on either side of the bayou following Memorial Drive to South Shepherd to Allen Parkway.

Runners will travel the loop three times before hitting the finish line at the convention center.

Here’s the Marathon Trials website. The main thing you need to know, at least if you live in my neck of the woods, is that Studemont and Heights/Waugh will be closed off between Washington and Dallas. They’ve had marquee signs up advertising that since New Year’s Day. It confused me a bit at first, because I knew the 14th is a Saturday, and the Marathon is always on a Sunday. Now I know. Metro service will also be interrupted by this, so beware. You want to see some really skinny people run really fast for two hours, this is the place to do it.

“When all the ships come sailing into the arbor”

Want to do something for Houston? Plant a tree.

Houston’s battle against the relentless drought, thus far characterized by felling, dismembering and mulching dead trees, entered a new phase Friday as parks officials announced plans for an Arbor Day 2012 planting of 25,000 trees in four city parks.

I’m sure all of my regular readers already know this, but just in case there are any strays here today, Arbor Day is traditionally celebrated in the US on the last Friday in April, which this year will be April 27.

“Houston loves its green,” city Parks and Recreation Department Director Joe Turner said in calling for shovel-wielding volunteers to join in the Jan. 21 plant-in. The trees, ranging from adolescents like the one planted Friday to mere seedlings, will be installed in Memorial, Hermann, Mason and MacGregor parks.

City Forester Victor Cordova said the project will focus on seedlings – about 20,000 of them – because the junior trees are more adaptable to environmental conditions. Groups or companies sponsoring the planting of more mature trees must agree to keep them watered for two years.

Did I say April? Well, as Arbor Day is a public domain holiday, you can pretty much make any day you want be Arbor Day. Tradition, schmadition. If you want to take part in this Houston holiday, see the Parks and Rec website for details.