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May 23rd, 2014:

Friday random ten – A my name is Aaron

Remember how I did that list last week of artists whose names began with the letter I, and I mused that it might be a good idea to go through the alphabet like that? Yeah, so that’s a thing now.

1. Don’t Take Away My Heaven – Aaron Neville
2. Winner Takes It All – ABBA
3. Shoot To Thrill – AC/DC
4. Outer Space – Ace Frehley
5. Whenever You’re Near Me – Ace of Base
6. The Chanukah Song – Adam Sandler
7. Dream On – Aerosmith
8. Little Tornado – Aimee Mann
9. Let’s Stay Together – Al Green
10. Ukulele Anthem – Amanda Palmer & The Grand Theft Orchestra

Amazingly, I have way more than enough A-named bands and artists to not need to reference my two favorites, the Austin Lounge Lizards and the Asylum Street Spankers. Variety, and all that. Who are your favorite A artists?

Some grassroots action on the unfairness of commercial property valuation

From the inbox:

Parents, homeowners, teachers, and community members from Houston gathered at the park in front of Nathaniel Q Henderson Elementary School to kick off local efforts in a statewide campaign called Real Values for Texas to fix the state’s broken property tax system.

“Our broken property tax system works against kids, homeowners, and schools,” said Reverend James Caldwell of the Houston Coalition of Community Organizations. “When big building owners manipulate property tax law, they deprive schools and neighborhoods of much-needed funds.”

In Houston, most large commercial property owners exploit loopholes in property tax law that allow them to lower their property tax bills by an average of 40 percent each year. As a result, Houston schools and local communities have lost an estimated $1.4 billion over the past five years. Schools have been hit the hardest, with losses of at least $730 million.

“It troubles me that, unless we change property tax law, kids in pre-kindergarten like my daughter will face obstacles to their education every year because of funding cuts,” said Tarah Taylor, a parent of an HISD student. “Even though she is just 4 years old, my daughter is already fundraising for musical instruments at her school.”

“My students pay the price when large commercial property owners get huge discounts on their property taxes,” said Daniel Santos, an HISD teacher. “From bigger class sizes to limited supplies, each year it gets harder to give students the full attention and resources they need to succeed.”

For homeowners, the impact has been equally significant. Since 2000, the property tax burden on homeowners grew from 45 percent to 54 percent while the share that commercial and industrial property owners paid dropped to less than 20 percent, according to the Associated Press.

“I do my part and pay my property taxes each year, and it’s unfair that homeowners like me have to make up for what big commercial property owners are not paying,” said Guadalupe Avila, a homeowner from Houston’s Northside. “It’s time for a fair system where big commercial property owners pay property taxes on the real market values of their properties.”

Local public officials have also shown support for a fair property tax system.

“Property tax fairness is a simple issue,” said Houston City Council Member Jerry Davis of District B. “It is about fixing the law to ensure that children have a quality education, our streets are safe, and homeowners are not overburdened.”

In April, supporters of Real Values for Texas in San Antonio rallied in front of the Homewood Suites-Riverwalk to call on large commercial property owners to stop exploiting loopholes and to pay property taxes on the real market value of their buildings.

In El Paso, Real Values for Texas supporters are engaging the local community around the connection between property tax manipulation and the proposed budget cuts by the El Paso Independent School District.

You know how I feel about this. Real Values For Texas is a newcomer on the scene, but they’re starting to get some attention, in the Trib and the DMN, which last month had its own big story on the unequal playing field for commercial property owners plus an editorial that called for fixing it. We all know the first step in solving a problem is admitting that you have one. The second step is getting organized. That’s what Real Values For Texas is about, so check them out.

Hackathon II: Son Of Hackathon

From the inbox:

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

Houston Mayor Annise Parker today announced the City of Houston will host its second annual “Open Innovation Hackathon” on May 31-June 1 at the Houston Technology Center. This year’s Hackathon is also part of the National Civic Day of Hacking series of civic innovation events being hosted across the globe during the weekend. A hackathon is an event in which software developers, designers, and data analysts collaborate intensively on data and software projects. Over the course of the weekend, Houston’s “civic hackers” will pitch ideas, form teams and develop innovative new websites, mobile apps, and insightful data visualizations to address community and city problems.

“Last year’s inaugural Hackathon attracted over 200 attendees, reinforcing why Houston leads the nation in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) job growth,” Mayor Parker said. “The City is not only interested in sharing our data to help entrepreneurs and the community, but we also look forward to seeing high-impact projects that we can implement within city government to solve our problems and better serve the citizens.”

The City has identified nearly 20 “weekend projects” that a team of software developers, designers, analysts and others could reasonably complete, ranging from an Adopt-a-Hydrant app that allows citizens to adopt city infrastructure to a project to better share restaurant inspection information with the public. To help participants prepare for these projects, datasets have been made available on an interim open data portal. Participants can also work on their own project ideas at this free Hackathon event and submit their work for review by judges on Sunday.

“Last year’s Hackathon demonstrated how creating a dialogue between City officials and the region’s technology and start-up communities can create success both inside and outside City government,” said City Council Member and Hackathon Co-Chair Ed Gonzalez. “That success has been really important to how we’re thinking about technology inside the City of Houston and in the community.”

The City has implemented two projects through its civic innovation efforts – Budget Bootcamp and the 311 Performance Dashboards – and its IT staff has also benefited from the exposure to new technologies and different development techniques. Last year’s Open Innovation Hackathon featured over 200 attendees and over 20 team project submissions. Citizens interested in learning more about the event are encourage to view last year’s recap video.

Further information about the City of Houston Open Innovation Hackathon, as well as registration information, is available at: http://www.houstonhackathon.com/.

See here and here for the background. The Hackathon site notes that you don’t need to be a developer – designers and graphic artists are needed, too – you don’t have to have a team put together – they can hook you up if you would like that – and you don’t even need your own idea – they have plenty of samples to choose from. The Open Data Portal is here, so go check that out as well to see what datasets are available to you. Some cool ideas came out of this last year, and there’s plenty more to do, so go give it a try. See here for more on how last year’s Hackathon went down.

The Observer on the high-speed rail line

Some contemplation about the prospects for success of this unique project.

Ross Capon, president of the National Association for Railroad Passengers, a national Washington D.C.-based non-profit promoting the development of rail, supports Texas Central Railways’ proposal but says it could be difficult to pull off. Mass transit systems, he points out, have always relied on public funds.

“If they can do it, more power to them,” Capon says. “That is a very steep hill to climb because infrastructure is almost always publicly owned and is the result of public investment.”

All other forms of transportation receive some kind of government subsidies. Even major airlines would be unprofitable if not for public financing of airports. Amtrak relies heavily on federal funding to just stay afloat, and the government builds and maintains roads for buses.

It’s often cheaper to build with subsidies. A private company would not only have to swallow the full costs of building the railway but expect to turn enough revenue to be profitable.

Andy Kunz, president of the U.S. High Speed Rail Association, says high-speed rail is different from other types of transit like planes and conventional trains in that it is potentially profitable, but it also comes with huge capital costs.

“It takes some deep pockets to get them off the ground,” says Kunz. “And that’s why you usually need government because government is better set up to lay out that kind of money up front.”

[…]

Tarrant County Commissioner Gary Fickes says Japan Central Railways—the Japanese high-speed rail company that Texas Central Railways has partnered with—doesn’t want the strings that may come attached to federal funds. Such requirements include the possibility of having to unionize all construction workers and buy all American-made materials. He says these requirements could mean higher building costs and could translate into even higher fares.

But the for-profit approach could also translate into high fares. The company will need to start turning a profit on the project fast. [Tom Schieffer, former U.S. ambassador to Japan and the senior advisor to the project] refuses to pinpoint a fare but says it would be “somewhat less” than a plane ticket between North Texas and Houston.

See here for previous Texas Central Railway blogging. As I’ve noted before, the TCR folks recognize that their project is unusually well-suited for the approach they’re taking. Future extensions to this line, or connections to it, may not follow the same path. As far as pricing goes, I took a quick check on United’s website for roundtrip fares between Houston and Dallas. The ones I looked at ranged from $149 to $330, with most around $250; these were all advance fares, ones for same day departures began at about $450 roundtrip. These don’t include any baggage fees, so the actual total will be a bit higher. This suggests to me that the sweet spot for competitiveness will be in the $100-$125 range for one way. They can probably go a little higher than that and compete on other aspects of the service – leg room! free WiFi! no TSA lines! better food and drink choices! – but I’d guess that $150 for one way is about as high as they can go. I’m hardly an expert on this and I have no inside knowledge, so take my wild guess with a heaping tablespoon of salt. But we’ll see how accurate I am when they get closer to being in business.

On “potty water”

I have three things to say about this.

Wastewater reuse in Wichita Falls has been in the works for years and would have happened with or without the drought. It was fast-tracked as the city deals with reservoirs that are only 25 percent full today. In addition, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality — not known for being a particularly strict regulating agency — is currently on the defensive for delaying the city’s project by asking for more testing.

Several other Texas cities — San Antonio, Austin and Fort Worth among them — have been looking at such water reuse projects for decades, and some are hoping the plans might come to fruition in the coming years. Across Texas, treated wastewater is being used for everything from watering golf courses to making silicon chips.

Yet judging by the headlines on news reports about the Wichita Falls project, the city’s residents could be in for some sort of disgusting surprise.

“Brushing Teeth With Sewer Water Next Step as Texas Faces Drought,” read a Bloomberg News headline. National Public Radio wrote, “Drought-Stricken Texas Town Turns To Toilets For Water.” Most recently, NBC’s Today Show tackled the topic, with a reporter noting, “Some residents think it’s just plain gross.”

Bloomberg News noted that many people are concerned about water contamination, comparing the Wichita Falls project to the example of Oregon water officials flushing 38 million gallons from a reservoir after a teenager urinated into it. “We’re not drought-stricken Texas,” an official there noted.

On that note, remember all the people guzzling beer and floating in the water out on Lakes Travis and Buchanan, which supply Austin’s drinking water. No one is suggesting flushing those bodies of water or implying that residents of the capital city are brushing their teeth with sewer water.

1. Maybe I’m the weirdo, but I always assumed that much of our drinking water came from treated wastewater. I mean, wastewater has to go somewhere, and one way or another it’s going to wind up back in whatever river or lake or reservoir we use for potable water. Maybe it’s the number of steps between the two that makes the difference for some people, but I figure it’s all the same water anyway, so what’s the fuss about?

2. Of course, if the thought of drinking treated wastewater wigs you out, maybe we can talk about using it for agricultural or industrial purposes, or even just for watering your lawn. It really doesn’t make sense to dump almost a hundred billion gallons of drinkable water on grass and plants.

3. Besides, all of our water has been inside a dinosaur at some point, so why be squeamish about it now?