Texas Watchdog Copyright (c) 2014 Texas Watchdog and Use Labs. All rights reserved. http://www.texaswatchdog.org/ local news Investigating government waste, fraud and abuse in Texas en-us Wed Apr 23 02:44:17 2014 CST 5 Texas Watchdog 435 98 http://www.texaswatchdog.org/ http://www.texaswatchdog.org/themes/twd/img/logo.gif Thank you for reading and for your support. We will miss you. http://www.texaswatchdog.org/2013/06/texas-watchdog-closing-thank-you-and-we-will-miss-you/1371479280.story 11610 world Mon Jun 17 10:28:00 2013 CST <div style="float:left; margin:8px; text-align:center"> <img alt="scale" src="http://www.texaswatchdog.org/files/goodbye-1.jpg" title="scale" width="240" /></div> <p class="p1"> <span style="font-size: 12px;">Regular readers to Texas Watchdog may have noticed there hasn&#39;t been much posted to the site over the past several months. The reason is simple: We&#39;ve run out of money to keep delivering our award-winning local journalism.</span></p> <p class="p1"> <span style="font-size: 12px;">We&rsquo;ve had many generous donors since we launched in the summer of 2008, but a key donor for our operation in 2012, the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, announced last year they would not be supporting independent journalism operations in 2013. We remain grateful for their support.&nbsp;</span></p> <p class="p1"> <span style="font-size: 12px;">We were unable to secure the funds we would need to continue operating as an independent journalism site on a meaningful level.&nbsp;</span></p> <p class="p1"> <span style="font-size: 12px;">Although closing down our site is quite sad, I look back at our time launching and growing Texas Watchdog as a bright point in Houston &mdash; and Texas &mdash; journalism.</span></p> <p class="p1"> <span style="font-size: 12px;">Texas newspapers, TV stations and websites regularly partnered with us and published our stories. We truly regret that we will no longer be able to continue to fulfill our mission of providing them with free, nonpartisan enterprise and investigative journalism with punch and impact.</span></p> <p class="p1"> <span style="font-size: 12px;">I&rsquo;m proud to say that the journalists whose bylines you&rsquo;ve gotten to know at Texas Watchdog have all landed on their feet. And you can continue reading their top-notch reporting:</span></p> <p class="p1"> <span style="font-size: 12px;">They include:&nbsp;</span></p> <p class="p2"> <span style="font-size: 12px;"><strong>Jennifer Peebles</strong>. Jennifer is managing editor of digital operations at the Washington Examiner. She continues to be active with the Society of Professional Journalists at the national level. On Twitter: </span><a href="https://twitter.com/jpeebles" style="font-size: 12px;">@jpeebles</a><span style="font-size: 12px;">.</span></p> <p class="p2"> <span style="font-size: 12px;"><strong>Steve Miller</strong>. Steve&rsquo;s new book,</span><a href="http://www.amazon.com/Detroit-Rock-City-Uncensored-ebook/dp/B00CGNPP9A/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&amp;ie=UTF8&amp;qid=1369965876&amp;sr=1-1&amp;keywords=detroit+rock+city" style="font-size: 12px;"> Detroit Rock City: The Uncensored History of Rock n&rsquo; Roll In America&rsquo;s Loudest City,</a><span style="font-size: 12px;"> hits stores June 25 and is available for pre-order at booksellers everywhere, including Amazon. He&rsquo;s written in recent weeks for the</span><a href="http://fcir.org/2013/05/19/in-florida-incentives-only-the-beginning-for-favored-companies/" style="font-size: 12px;"> Florida Center for Investigative Reporting</a><span style="font-size: 12px;"> and covered the Cleveland kidnappings for The Daily Beast. He writes a monthly column on transparency for</span><a href="http://www.mlive.com/news/index.ssf/2013/05/steve_miller_is_government_tra.html" style="font-size: 12px;"> MLive</a><span style="font-size: 12px;"> and the</span><a href="http://www.lansingcitypulse.com/lansing/" style="font-size: 12px;"> Lansing City Pulse</a><span style="font-size: 12px;">. &nbsp;His Web site is</span><a href="http://avalanche50.com/" style="font-size: 12px;"> Avalanche50.com</a><span style="font-size: 12px;">. On Twitter: </span><a href="https://twitter.com/penvengeance" style="font-size: 12px;">@penvengeance</a><span style="font-size: 12px;">.</span></p> <p class="p2"> <span style="font-size: 12px;"><strong>Mark Lisheron</strong>. Mark is a national reporter for Watchdog.org, a news site funded by the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. You can also catch his byline on American Journalism Review. On Twitter: </span><a href="https://twitter.com/marktxwatchdog" style="font-size: 12px;">@marktxwatchdog</a><span style="font-size: 12px;">.</span></p> <p class="p2"> <span style="font-size: 12px;"><strong>Lynn Walsh</strong>. Lynn is an investigative producer for WPTV, the NBC affiliate in West Palm Beach, Fla. She has been nominated for four Emmy awards and continues to be involved with both the Society of Professional Journalists and the Radio Television Digital News Association. On Twitter: </span><a href="https://twitter.com/lwalsh" style="font-size: 12px;">@lwalsh</a><span style="font-size: 12px;">.</span></p> <p class="p2"> <span style="font-size: 12px;"><strong>Mike Cronin</strong>. Mike is a reporter for</span><a href="http://americanpublicmedia.publicradio.org/programs/" style="font-size: 12px;"> American Public Media</a><span style="font-size: 12px;">&#39;s</span><a href="http://www.publicinsightnetwork.org/" style="font-size: 12px;"> Public Insight Network</a><span style="font-size: 12px;"> in St. Paul, Minn. On Twitter: </span><a href="https://twitter.com/michaelccronin" style="font-size: 12px;">@michaelccronin</a><span style="font-size: 12px;">.</span></p> <p class="p2"> <span style="font-size: 12px;"><strong>Lee Ann O&rsquo;Neal</strong>. Lee Ann crunches data for the &nbsp;</span><a href="http://www.utsandiego.com/" style="font-size: 12px;">U-T San Diego</a><span style="font-size: 12px;"> investigative unit and provides freelance computer assisted reporting for publications around the country. On Twitter:&nbsp;</span><a href="https://twitter.com/leeannoneal" style="font-size: 12px;">@leeannoneal</a><span style="font-size: 12px;">.</span></p> <p class="p2"> <span style="font-size: 12px;">On a personal note, it has been a great honor to work alongside all of them. Pound for pound, I believe we had the best enterprise journalism team in Texas.</span></p> <p class="p2"> <span style="font-size: 12px;">Thank you to all our readers and donors who made that possible!</span></p> <p class="p2"> <span style="font-size: 12px;">As for me, I am now a journalist for the the U-T San Diego Watchdog team and hope to bring some good ol&rsquo; Texas journalism to sunny southern California. My work email is </span><a href="mailto:trent.seibert@utsandiego.com" style="font-size: 12px;">trent.seibert@utsandiego.com</a><span style="font-size: 12px;"> and my personal email is </span><a href="mailto:seibert.trent@gmail.com" style="font-size: 12px;">seibert.trent@gmail.com</a><span style="font-size: 12px;">. On Twitter: </span><a href="https://twitter.com/trentseibert" style="font-size: 12px;">@trentseibert</a><span style="font-size: 12px;">.</span></p> <p class="p2"> <strong><span style="font-size: 12px;">Trent Seibert</span></strong></p> Publicly-funded gondolas a ‘viable transportation alternative’ for Round Rock, Texas? http://www.texaswatchdog.org/2013/02/gondolas-a-public-transportation-transit-alternative-round-rock-texas/1361304180.story 11607 world Tue Feb 19 15:03:00 2013 CST <div style="float:left; margin:8px; text-align:center"> <img alt="gondola" src="http://www.texaswatchdog.org/files/gondola.jpg" title="gondola" width="240" /></div> <p> <span>When one of the most innovative cities in America takes its first crack at mass transit you can bet it won&rsquo;t be buses, trains or streetcars.</span><br /> <br /> <span>No, Round Rock, Texas, elevation 709 feet, is thinking about a gondola system, like those crawling up and down the ski slopes of the world. </span><br /> <br /> <span>While the average mope on a Round Rock street might ask, &lsquo;Are you really serious?&rsquo; the mayor of the city, Alan McGraw, is quick with a reply. &ldquo;Why not?&rdquo;</span><br /> <br /> <span>&ldquo;The problem with government in general is the thinking is not very innovative,&rdquo; McGraw told Texas Watchdog. &ldquo;I am fascinated at this being a viable transportation alternative.&rdquo;</span><br /> <br /> <span>In keeping with the kind of thinking Forbes Magazine recognized when it named Round Rock the second most innovative city in America in 2010, McGraw said he got the idea a couple of years ago.</span><br /> <br /> <span>Every time McGraw turned around the city was faced with a right-of-way issue that, invariably, cost money and time. Wouldn&rsquo;t it be great, he thought, if you could plan over the top of everything already here?</span><br /> <br /> <span>The creative nucleus at </span><a href="http://www.frogdesign.com/contact/austin.html"><span>Frog Design</span></a><span> in downtown Austin were thinking about it, too. They put together a proposal for Austin. They couldn&rsquo;t get an audience in spite of ongoing transit troubles, in particular with the city&rsquo;s </span><a href="http://www.texaswatchdog.org/2012/02/all-aboard-austins-taxpayer-express-metrorail-weekend-service-capital-metro/1328736123.column"><span>little loved commuter train</span></a><span> to and from Leander.</span><br /> <br /> <span>Round Rock has no corresponding troubles because it has no bus system, no train, no entrenched transit union. But with a population of about 105,000, the city is one of the fastest growing in Texas.</span><br /> <br /> <span>And so McGraw welcomed Frog Design to City Hall last week for a </span><a href="http://www.roundrocktexas.gov/home/index.asp?page=10&amp;recordid=2997"><span>multimedia presentation</span></a><span> that had a lot of Austin and no Round Rock.</span></p> <div style="float:right; margin:8px; text-align:center"> <img alt="Alan McGraw" src="http://www.texaswatchdog.org/files/alanmcgraw.jpg" title="Alan McGraw" width="120" /><span style="display:block">Alan McGraw</span></div> <p> <span>No matter.</span><br /> <br /> <span>The presentation was a little light on specifics. After realizing most commuters would not be wearing ski clothes and would be scudding along in the Texas heat, Frog&rsquo;s factoring in of climate control for gondolas quadrupled its low-end estimated cost from $3 million to $12 million a mile.</span><br /> <br /> <span>That figure could go as high as $24 million a mile, a figure that compares favorably to the $100 million Austin is estimating it will cost to complete a mile of urban rail. Which doesn&rsquo;t compare favorably to much of anything.</span><br /> <br /> <span>At a top speed of 15 mph, the gondola system can be ruled out as a regional transportation alternative, McGraw said. At fewer than a dozen people to a gondola, dangling one behind another in a loop, there remain the problems of traffic density and of maximizing pickup and dropoff opportunities.</span><br /> <br /> <span>Michael McDaniel, the principal designer of what he likes to call &ldquo;The Wire,&rdquo; said Round Rock has a big advantage over Austin in that the city isn&rsquo;t saddled with the political baggage of existing mass transit.</span><br /> <br /> <span>&ldquo;We think it would be pretty hilarious that Austin, the city that likes to keep things weird, wouldn&rsquo;t do this, but Round Rock, the place that keeps things normal, would,&rdquo; McDaniel said.</span><br /> <br /> <span>Neither is McDaniel worried that the residents of a suburb in a state known for its individual vehicle culture would be reluctant to park their pickup trucks somewhere on the cable circuit and grab a gondola.</span><br /> <br /> <span>The designers have even toyed with an elaborate design allowing for door-to-door service, a sort of ski in and ski out system, he says.</span><br /> <br /> <span>&ldquo;It&rsquo;s really up to the city to decide what they want to do,&rdquo; McDaniel said. &ldquo;Round Rock would be starting fresh, from the ground up.&rdquo;</span><br /> <br /> <span>McGraw&rsquo;s undimmed enthusiasm begged the question, could there be an ulterior motive for considering an untried transit method with technical hurdles that threaten to make it costlier and less efficient than a bus or a train?</span><br /> <br /> <span>There is the coolness factor of having the only gondola system of its kind in the country, McGraw said. But he promised that wouldn&rsquo;t color any cost/benefit analysis the city would need to do.</span><br /> <br /> <span>Although the Frog presentation never mentions it, could the gondola system open the door to the state&rsquo;s first indoor skiing park? McGraw freely admitted he likes to ski. One of the planning team at Frog Design came up with the gondola concept, in part, because he is a ski bum, McGraw says.</span><br /> <br /> <span>There are stranger places to plan such a complex. In 2009, Snow Sport Entertainment Ltd. was all set to build </span><a href="http://activerain.com/blogsview/1179851/-70-million-dollar-project-snow-park-project-economic-peak-for-grapevine-tx"><span>Texas Alps</span></a><span>, a $70 million complex as part of a proposed $1.6 billion World Villages of Grapevine, right next to the Grapevine Mills Mall, when the world economy collapsed.</span><br /> <br /> <span>The investors, including former Texas Rangers hitting star Rafael Palmeiro, later filed for bankruptcy.</span><br /> <br /> <span>Could the Texas Alps arise from the gently rolling hills of Round Rock? Alec Sohmer, who headed the original Alps project, told Texas Watchdog his group had no plans for Texas, and a deal for a similar skiing complex in Georgia has stalled.</span><br /> <br /> <span>Sohmer wasn&rsquo;t aware that anyone else was moving ahead on a skiing village in Texas.</span><br /> <br /> <span>But are you sure, Watchdog asked McGraw. &ldquo;No, not at all,&rdquo; he said, amused at the question.</span><br /> <br /> <span>At the end of the presentation, McGraw told Frog Design the city&rsquo;s line of communication would be open, nothing formal, nothing set for an upcoming agenda. McGraw, he said, is always ready to listen.</span><br /> <br /> <span>&ldquo;It&rsquo;s open-ended. I like the idea of having another arrow,&rdquo; he said, mixing his skiing and archery metaphors, &ldquo;in our quiver of transportation.&rdquo;</span></p> <p> ***<br /> <em><span>Contact Mark Lisheron at 512-299-2318 or <a href="mailto:mark@texaswatchdog.org">mark@texaswatchdog.org</a> or on Twitter at </span><a href="http://twitter.com/marktxwatchdog"><span>@marktxwatchdog</span></a><span>.</span><br /> <br /> <span>Keep up with all the latest news from Texas Watchdog. </span><a href="http://www.facebook.com/home.php?ref=home#/pages/Texas-Watchdog/26245936414"><span>Fan our page on Facebook</span></a><span>, follow us on </span><a href="http://twitter.com/texaswatchdog"><span>Twitter</span></a><span> and </span><a href="http://www.scribd.com/texaswatchdog"><span>Scribd</span></a><span>, and fan us on </span><a href="http://www.youtube.com/user/texaswatchdog"><span>YouTube</span></a><span>. Join </span><a href="http://delicious.com/texaswatchdog"><span>our network on de.licio.us</span></a><span>, and put </span><a href="http://www.texaswatchdog.org/rss/list"><span>our RSS feeds</span></a><span> in your newsreader. We&#39;re also on </span><a href="http://www.myspace.com/530162070"><span>MySpace</span></a><span>, </span><a href="http://digg.com/users/texaswatchdog"><span>Digg</span></a><span>, </span><a href="http://friendfeed.com/texaswatchdog"><span>FriendFeed</span></a><span>, and </span><a href="http://texaswatchdog.tumblr.com/"><span>tumblr</span></a><span>.</span><br /> <br /> <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/tkellyphoto/2188160985/"><span>Photo of gondola by flickr user tomkellyphoto</span></a><span>, used via a Creative Commons license.</span></em></p> <p> <a href="http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/us/" rel="license"><img alt="Creative Commons License" src="http://i.creativecommons.org/l/by/3.0/us/88x31.png" style="border-width: 0pt;" /></a><br /> <em><span>Like this story? Then steal it. This report</span> by <a href="http://www.texaswatchdog.org" rel="cc:attributionURL" target="_blank">Texas Watchdog</a> is licensed under a <a href="http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/us/" rel="license" target="_blank">Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License</a>. That means bloggers, citizen-journalists, and journalists may republish the story on their sites with attribution and a link to Texas Watchdog. If you do re-use the story, e-mail <a href="mailto:news@texaswatchdog.org">news@texaswatchdog.org</a>.</em></p> Austin Energy customers foot bill – $2 a month per customer for 19 years – for idled biomass plant http://www.texaswatchdog.org/2013/02/austin-energy-customers-foot-bill-for-biomass-plant-east-texas/1360884396.story 11606 world Thu Feb 14 17:33:00 2013 CST <div style="float:left; margin:8px; text-align:center"> <img alt="Sam Houston National Forest" src="http://www.texaswatchdog.org/files/woods.jpg" title="Sam Houston National Forest" width="240" /></div> <p> <span>Around the clock, seven days a week, in a plant 233 miles away, a full complement of energy professionals stands at the ready to provide wood-fired power to Austin Energy customers.</span><br /> <br /> <span>The staff isn&rsquo;t sure when they will be needed next. The $128 million plant has produced electricity for less than two of the seven months it has been in operation.</span><br /> <br /> <span>But &nbsp;for the next 19 years a little less than $2 will be added every month to the bill of the average Austin Energy customer to pay for a plant that, when it does produce energy, produces energy too expensive for any energy company to want to buy.</span><br /> <br /> <span>&ldquo;It is one of the biggest boondoggles I&rsquo;ve seen in modern history,&rdquo; an obviously agitated Tony Bennett says. Bennett is the acting director of the Texas Forest Industries Council. &ldquo;Just thinking about how they pulled this off makes me mad.&rdquo;</span><br /> <br /> <span>Bennett was among those who tried to persuade </span><a href="http://www.austinenergy.com/"><span>Austin Energy</span></a><span> five years ago to think a little bit harder before trying to pull off building a new biomass-burning generating plant in the pine woods of East Texas.</span><br /> <br /> <span>The Council was part of a once-in-a lifetime coalition of consumer and good government advocates, environmental activists, and commercial and industrial interests who came together in 2008 to plead with the Austin City Council to reject the plan.</span><br /> <br /> <span>The City Council unanimously approved allowing Austin Energy to charge its customers to build the plant. The plan allowed for the energy company to enter into a guaranteed contract for 20 years for energy valued at the time at $2.3 billion.</span><br /> <br /> <span>&ldquo;What is the most disturbing thing to me was that they put this contract through in about two weeks, almost in secret,&rdquo; Bennett says. &ldquo;I can tell you it shocked the forest products community at the time, the way they hurried it along.&rdquo;</span><br /> <br /> <span>The reason for its urgency was that Roger Duncan, then head of Austin Energy, considered the plant a necessary component in his plan for Austin Energy to get 35 percent of all of its energy from renewable sources, spokesman Ed Clark says.</span><br /> <br /> <span>Unlike solar power and wind power, wood or biomass is a source of energy that could be called on in the dead calm of night, Clark says. </span><br /> <br /> <span>&ldquo;Roger wanted that renewable component that would allow us to have power to dispatch 24-7,&rdquo; he says.</span><br /> <br /> <span>Roger Duncan and Austin Energy could not at the time the contract was signed in 2008 have anticipated the explosion of hydraulic fracturing that created a buyer&rsquo;s market for a seemingly endless supply of cheap natural gas, Clark says.</span><br /> <br /> <span>They could have had they listened to several industry experts who were part of a </span><a href="http://www.cleanenergyforaustin.org/about.html"><span>generation plan task force</span></a><span> formed by former mayor Will Wynn in 2007, Trey Salinas, a spokesman for the Coalition for Clean Affordable Renewable Energy, says.</span><br /> <br /> <span>At least three of those experts who later helped form the coalition told the task force that most every reliable forecast predicted a protracted period of low natural gas prices driven by technological breakthroughs like hydraulic fracturing.</span><br /> <br /> <span>&ldquo;They can&rsquo;t say they couldn&rsquo;t know because they were told,&rdquo; Salinas says.</span><br /> <br /> <span>More than two years ago, while the plant was under construction, </span><a href="http://www.me.utexas.edu/directory/faculty/webber/michael/"><span>Michael Webber,</span></a><span> who supported the plant as associate director of the Center for International Energy &amp; Environmental Policy at the University of Texas, admitted to </span><a href="http://www.texastribune.org/2010/12/05/biomass-power-plants-rise-in-east-texas/"><span>Texas Tribune</span></a><span> the plant was controversial to begin with and no longer made economic sense.</span><br /> <br /> <span>In spite of the failure of additional federal tax breaks to materialize that would have made biomass more competitive, construction pushed on. Not long after the plant &nbsp;fired up for the first time this past summer Southern Power, a subsidiary of the </span><a href="http://www.southerncompany.com/"><span>Southern Company</span></a><span> in Atlanta, acquired it.</span><br /> <br /> <span>By agreement, Southern Power has the plant fully staffed around the clock, ready to serve Austin Energy&rsquo;s needs, spokesman Tim Leljedal says. In spite of the substantial lack of work, Leljedal confirmed that the company has not reduced staff nor has it been asked to by Austin Energy.</span><br /> <br /> <span>Leljedal declined to say - per the contract - how much Austin Energy customers were paying by the day, week or month when the plant is idle.</span><br /> <br /> <span>Clark confirmed Austin Energy is paying a capacity fee to Southern Power, but would not say what it was, per the contract. But the fee and the contract are little different from those signed with other renewable energy companies in generation arrangements that are increasingly&nbsp;</span><span>complicated. </span><br /> <br /> <span>At one time, Austin Energy envisioned the biomass plant running 90 percent of the time. Officials have downgraded the outlook to 75 percent and promised the plant would be firing on all burners by this summer, Clark says.</span><br /> <br /> <span>When asked if Austin Energy customers would be expected to cover the shortfall in the $2.3 billion contract, Clark says, &ldquo;We&rsquo;re not going to come close to that $2.3 billion figure.&rdquo;</span><br /> <br /> <span>The problem is, advocates have for five years been unsuccessful in getting Austin Energy to make the terms of the contract public. No one really knows what utility ratepayers are paying for.</span><br /> <br /> <span>&ldquo;CCARE (Coalition for Clean Affordable Renewable Energy) has always </span><span>strongly believed that Austin Energy should release the 2008 Biomass contract,&rdquo; Salinas </span><span>says. &ldquo;We do not feel there is a legitimate reason that a signed contract should be kept confidential and held from the public for over four years.&rdquo;</span><br /> <br /> <span>The Austin City Council is currently deciding on whether or not to hand oversight of Austin Energy over to an independent board.</span><br /> <br /> <span>&ldquo;We view this biomass plant decision as Exhibit A for why we need an independent board overseeing Austin Energy,&rdquo; Salinas says.</span></p> <p> ***<br /> <em><span>Contact Mark Lisheron at 512-299-2318 or </span><span><a href="mailto:mark@texaswatchdog.org">mark@texaswatchdog.org</a> or on Twitter at </span><a href="http://twitter.com/marktxwatchdog"><span>@marktxwatchdog</span></a><span>.</span><br /> <br /> <span>Keep up with all the latest news from Texas Watchdog. </span><a href="http://www.facebook.com/home.php?ref=home#/pages/Texas-Watchdog/26245936414"><span>Fan our page on Facebook</span></a><span>, follow us on </span><a href="http://twitter.com/texaswatchdog"><span>Twitter</span></a><span> and </span><a href="http://www.scribd.com/texaswatchdog"><span>Scribd</span></a><span>, and fan us on </span><a href="http://www.youtube.com/user/texaswatchdog"><span>YouTube</span></a><span>. Join </span><a href="http://delicious.com/texaswatchdog"><span>our network on de.licio.us</span></a><span>, and put </span><a href="http://www.texaswatchdog.org/rss/list"><span>our RSS feeds</span></a><span> in your newsreader. We&#39;re also on </span><a href="http://www.myspace.com/530162070"><span>MySpace</span></a><span>, </span><a href="http://digg.com/users/texaswatchdog"><span>Digg</span></a><span>, </span><a href="http://friendfeed.com/texaswatchdog"><span>FriendFeed</span></a><span>, and </span><a href="http://texaswatchdog.tumblr.com/"><span>tumblr</span></a><span>.</span><br /> <br /> <span><a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/barclaynix/8129204743/">Photo from the Sam Houston National Forest by flickr user NixBC</a>, used via a Creative Commons license.</span></em></p> <p> <a href="http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/us/" rel="license" style="font-size: 12px;"><img alt="Creative Commons License" src="http://i.creativecommons.org/l/by/3.0/us/88x31.png" style="border-width: 0pt;" /></a></p> <p> <em><span>Like this story? Then steal it. This report</span> by <a href="http://www.texaswatchdog.org" rel="cc:attributionURL" target="_blank">Texas Watchdog</a> is licensed under a <a href="http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/us/" rel="license" target="_blank">Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License</a>. That means bloggers, citizen-journalists, and journalists may republish the story on their sites with attribution and a link to Texas Watchdog. If you do re-use the story, e-mail <a href="mailto:news@texaswatchdog.org">news@texaswatchdog.org</a>.</em></p> Texas props up wind, solar with hundreds of millions of dollars per year, lawmakers cautious on more $ http://www.texaswatchdog.org/2013/01/texas-props-up-wind-solar-with-hundreds-of-millions-green-energy-subsidies/1358890149.story 11593 world Tue Jan 22 15:55:00 2013 CST <div style="float:left; margin:8px; text-align:center"> <img alt="wind turbines" src="http://www.texaswatchdog.org/files/windturbines.jpg" title="wind turbines" width="240" /></div> <p> <span>With a nearly $1 billion federal renewable energy tax credit in doubt, Texas Rep. Mark Strama delivered what to another audience would have been an odd message.</span><br /> <br /> <a href="http://www.house.state.tx.us/members/member-page/?district=50"><span>Strama, an Austin Democrat</span></a><span>, is an energy guy, a technology guy, whip smart and a little unpredictable. Invited to give the keynote address to the Texas Renewable Energy Industry Association on Dec. 12 at a resort hotel south of Austin, Strama drew a few gasps admitting he supports hydraulic fracturing. Safe and clean hydraulic fracturing, of course.</span></p> <div style="float:right; margin:8px; text-align:center"> <img alt="Mark Strama" src="http://www.texaswatchdog.org/files/markstrama.jpg" title="Mark Strama" width="120" /><span style="display:block">Mark Strama</span></div> <p> <span>But the product of that technology, abundant, inexpensive natural gas, was not necessarily a good thing, Strama told the group. Rather than pouring some of the windfall into new energy technology, utilities are providing a palliative, allowing millions of people to pocket their utility savings.</span><br /> <br /> <span>The not so simple truth, Strama said, is that after all of the billions of tax dollars that have been spent no one is any closer to knowing when the wind, solar and biofuels industries can survive without government subsidy.</span><br /> <br /> <span>What&rsquo;s more, Congress&rsquo; reluctant decision to extend the renewable energy tax credit, and for only one year, may be a signal that in an age of cheap natural gas there isn&rsquo;t the political will to ask ratepayers or taxpayers for more renewables support.</span><br /> <br /> <span>Renewable energy played almost no role in the presidential election dialogue. The energy tax credit passed with no outcry outside of the political class.</span><br /> <br /> <span>Of the roughly 600 bills filed through the end of the second week of the 83rd session of the Texas Legislature, just two contain the phrase renewable energy. One of them, a bill by Strama, is specific to the city of Pflugerville.</span><br /> <br /> <span>The other, </span><a href="http://www.legis.state.tx.us/tlodocs/83R/billtext/pdf/HB00303I.pdf#navpanes=0"><span>House Bill 303</span></a><span>, calls for the state to require utilities to get</span><span> 35 percent of their generating capacity from renewables, two percent of it from solar energy, by Jan. 1, 2020.</span><br /> <br /> <span>The bill, written by state </span><a href="http://www.house.state.tx.us/members/member-page/?district=51"><span>Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin</span></a><span>, like similar bills in the past two sessions, is likely to go nowhere. Rodriguez chose not to respond to calls and a list of several questions about the bill and renewable energy e-mailed to him by Texas Watchdog.</span><br /> <br /> <span>Strama won&rsquo;t be offering any major renewable subsidy bill in this session.</span><br /> <br /> <span>&ldquo;Honestly, a lot of the work I&rsquo;m going to be doing is to protect what we already have now,&rdquo; Strama said. &ldquo;This is just not a priority issue to most people right now.&rdquo;</span><br /> <br /> <span>Perhaps it isn&rsquo;t a priority to most people because, at least in the abstract, they </span><a href="http://www.sustainablebusiness.com/index.cfm/go/news.display/id/18737"><span>like the idea of supporting renewable energy</span></a><span>. In 2009 the </span><a href="http://cgmf.org/p/home.html"><span>Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation</span></a><span> in Austin surveyed 993 registered voters, 85 percent of whom thought Texas needed to increase production of wind and solar power. Nearly 80 percent, 73 percent who identified themselves as conservative, supported the idea of subsidies, loans and tax incentives to those energy businesses.</span><br /> <br /> <span>In November, a </span><a href="http://bush.tamu.edu/news/index.php/story/texas_am_energy_report"><span>national survey from the Texas A&amp;M Energy Institute and the Bush School of Government and Public Service </span></a><span>found 59 percent of the public for increasing renewable research and development funding and 60 percent supporting tax breaks for companies developing renewable energy technology.</span><br /> <br /> <span>But if all that funding and those tax breaks meant the price of gas going up at their local pump, the survey said nearly 70 percent would change their answer.</span><br /> <br /> <span>A public intolerant of an increase of a few pennies they can see is a public historically oblivious to its donation of billions of dollars it doesn&rsquo;t see. In November, the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank in Austin, estimated Texas would contribute $567 million a year on the renewable energy tax credit alone.</span><br /> <br /> <span>In their </span><a href="http://www.scribd.com/doc/121629311/The-Cost-of-the-Production-Tax-Credit-and-Renewable-Energy-Subsidies-in-Texas"><span>study,</span></a><span> </span><a href="http://www.texaspolicy.com/experts/josiah-neeley"><span>Josiah Neeley,</span></a><span> policy analyst with the Armstrong Center on Energy &amp; the Environment and </span><a href="http://www.texaspolicy.com/experts/bill-peacock-0"><span>Bill Peacock</span></a><span>, director of the Center for Economic Freedom for the Foundation, drilled deeper.</span><br /> <br /> <span>Overall, including federal funding through the </span><a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_Recovery_and_Reinvestment_Act_of_2009"><span>American Recovery and Reinvestment Act </span></a><span>of 2009, wind, solar and other alternative energy got $7.1 billion of taxpayer and ratepayer subsidies since 2006. </span><br /> <br /> <span>The </span><a href="http://www.texaswatchdog.org/2011/12/texas-public-utility-commission-pushes-for-7-billion/1323284341.column"><span>Public Utility Commission last year</span></a><span> made way for a nearly $7 billion project at utility ratepayer expense to run electricity transmission lines from West Texas wind farms to urban centers where the generation would be used.</span><br /> <br /> <span>Since 2006, $2.46 billion has supported development of wind farms in something called Competitive Renewable Energy Zones, the study says. The zones were made possible when the Legislature in 2001 passed the </span><a href="http://www.texasahead.org/reports/incentives/ch313.php"><span>Texas Economic Development Act</span></a><span>.</span><br /> <br /> <span>Federal grants have pumped another $1.65 billion into wind farms, $290 million from the stimulus for various energy programs, including </span><a href="http://www.texaswatchdog.org/2010/04/federal-stimulus-plan-for-solar-power-will-take-decades-to/1270438516.story"><span>$52 million for more than 30 solar projects,</span></a><span> several of them that will not pay for themselves for 50 or more years.</span><br /> <br /> <span>The cost of supporting the legal requirement that utilities purchase a percentage of renewable energy set by the </span><a href="http://stateimpact.npr.org/texas/tag/texas-renewable-energy-targets/"><span>Renewable Portfolio Standard</span></a><span> is estimated to have cost power users an extra $69 million this past year, Neeley and Peacock contend.</span><br /> <br /> <span>The Legislature created the Texas Emerging Technology Fund, which has since 2005 devoted $44 million to &nbsp;renewable energy-related projects, according to the </span><a href="http://www.governor.state.tx.us/files/ecodev/Renewable_Energy.pdf"><span>Governor&rsquo;s Renewable Energy Industry Report.</span></a><span> Two years earlier, lawmakers passed the Texas Enterprise Fund which has invested nearly $5 million in renewable energy projects.</span><br /> <br /> <span>Lucy Nashed, Gov. Rick Perry&rsquo;s spokeswoman, said, &ldquo;Here in Texas, we strive toward an all-of-the-above strategy to address our state&rsquo;s energy challenges and create a diverse and robust electric generating portfolio that uses a variety of sources, including traditional technologies such as natural gas, coal, nuclear, and newer technologies such as wind, clean coal and solar power.&rdquo;</span><br /> <br /> <span>However, Nashed says Perry favors weaning the entire energy industry off industry-specific credits and subsidies while lowering taxes on domestic energy producers.</span><br /> <br /> <span>The Texas Public Policy Foundation feels the same way, only more so.</span></p> <div style="float:left; margin:8px; text-align:center"> <img alt="Josiah Neeley" src="http://www.texaswatchdog.org/files/JosiahNeeley-300-web.jpg" title="Josiah Neeley" width="120" /><span style="display:block">Josiah Neeley</span></div> <p> <span>&ldquo;Our message has been very clear,&rdquo; Neeley said, &ldquo;we&rsquo;d like to see no government support for any energy industry and want to see no new energy supports. If natural gas or wind is doing well we&rsquo;d like it to be due to the work of the market, not the government.&rdquo;</span><br /> <br /> <span>The numbers suggest wind and solar still need the work of the government to have a hope in the market. With subsidies it currently costs $22 per megawatt hour to produce electricity with wind, 44 cents to produce it with fossil fuels, Neeley says.</span><br /> <br /> <span>Although power generation rates and costs are different for every utility, a customer with Austin Energy can choose to &ldquo;buy&rdquo; only renewable power through its </span><a href="http://www.austinenergy.com/energy%20efficiency/Programs/Green%20Choice/"><span>GreenChoice program</span></a><span> at a cost of 5.7 cents a kilowatt hour compared to the normal rate of 3.4 cents. </span><br /> <br /> <span>The average GreenChoice customer pays $23 more a month, Austin Energy says.</span><br /> <br /> <a href="http://www.texaswatchdog.org/2012/09/public-costs-of-wind-power-pile-up-as-industry-digs-in/1347648715.column"><span>Forecasts by the Electric Power Research Institute</span></a><span> show that while wind and solar are getting more competitive, they are unlikely to come close to natural gas at least through 2025. (Please see charts on pages 1-11 and 1-12 of its report </span><a href="http://www.scribd.com/doc/105913144/Electric-Power-Research-Institute"><span>here.</span></a><span>)</span></p> <div style="float:right; margin:8px; text-align:center"> <img alt="graphic1" src="http://www.texaswatchdog.org/files/energygraphic0122-colorfixed_0.jpg" title="plate" width="340" /></div> <p> <br /> <span>Further lost in the tangle at the intersection of commerce and government is what all the incentives, particularly in the wind industry, do to the pricing of energy.</span><br /> <br /> <span>Wind companies have at times been able to sell their energy below the market price, knowing it must be bought by somebody, and still make a profit, a practice decried both in </span><a href="http://www.hks.harvard.edu/hepg/Papers/2012/Negative_Electricity_Prices_and_the_Production_Tax_Credit_0912.pdf"><span>a study</span></a><span> by the consultant NorthBridge group and Donna Nelson, chairwoman of the Texas Public Utility Commission.</span><br /> <br /> <span>Advocates, including Strama, acknowledge the wind and solar industries would collapse without taxpayer and ratepayer subsidy but contend that coal, oil and gas have been subsidized for 100 years, renewable energy for a few decades.</span><br /> <br /> <span>Neeley says the </span><span>Energy Information Administration points out that in 2010 renewable energy generates less than 10 percent of the energy in the country but gobbles up 55 percent of the subsidies. Fossil fuels are responsible for 70 percent of the generation while taking 16 percent of all energy subsidies.</span><br /> <br /> <span>Neeley says the public ought to be concerned that in an energy market commanded by already low prices for natural gas, artificial pricing for renewable sources will cut further into profits.</span><br /> <br /> <span>&ldquo;In the long term there is a real threat to investment by the industry,&rdquo; Neeley says. &ldquo;If you can bid onto the grid at negative prices, nobody is making any money.&rdquo;</span><br /> <br /> <span>&ldquo;I don&rsquo;t think the public has a good grasp of what is in their energy bill,&rdquo; </span><a href="http://www.mccombs.utexas.edu/Centers/EMIC/Speakers-for-Conferences/Fred-Beach.aspx"><span>Fred Beach, with the Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy at the University of Texas</span></a><span>, says. &ldquo;They have a very poor appreciation of who pays for what in energy generation. There is a need for much greater transparency.&rdquo;</span><br /> <br /> <span>Beach refers to himself as a technologist, someone paid to examine the role of science and technology in energy policy. An opponent of direct government investment in renewable energy, Beach is, nonetheless, in favor of utilities meeting state standards for renewable energy use, however they do it.</span><br /> <br /> <span>Like Strama, Beach considers natural gas a low-cost bridge fuel to help consumers and the industry along while wind and solar technologies are improved.</span><br /> <span> </span><br /> <span>&ldquo;Right now, I think it&rsquo;s a bridge to nowhere, an opportunity being wasted,&rdquo; Beach says. &ldquo;The industry doesn&rsquo;t need that much more help. And I&rsquo;m not a big fan of the government spending yours and my tax money. I am in favor of regulation that says meet this standard. We don&rsquo;t care how you get there.&rdquo;</span><br /> <br /> <span>Beach said energy consumers are further hurt by renewable policies pushing large-scale development of wind and solar power with a power plant model developed for coal more than 100 years ago.</span><br /> <br /> <span>Wind technology is ideal for large-scale generation. Solar power, at least today, is best suited to individual arrays on top of homes and businesses, Beach says. </span><br /> <br /> <span>This hasn&rsquo;t stopped </span><a href="http://www.cpsenergy.com/About_CPS_Energy/News_Features/News/072312_OCI_Agreement_NR.asp"><span>CPS Energy in San Antonio</span></a><span> from going forward with a $1 billion, 400-megawatt solar development or Austin Energy considering a plan to have ratepayers underwrite </span><a href="http://www.texaswatchdog.org/2012/02/a-texas-tale-of-two-technologies-solar-natural-gas/1329345409.column"><span>$750 million</span></a><span> to increase the city&rsquo;s total solar power generation by 50 times by 2020.</span><br /> <br /> <span>San Antonio, with Democratic </span><span>Mayor Juli&aacute;n Castro&rsquo;s enthusiastic support, is resisting what Colin Meehan calls a &ldquo;sugar rush&rdquo; of low natural gas prices that cannot last.</span><br /> <br /> <span>Meehan, an energy analyst for the Environmental Defense Fund in Austin, objects to criticism of renewable energy development rooted in the present. Wind and solar power continue to get cheaper.</span><br /> <br /> <span>Nor is Meehan patient with the idea that the Legislature is incapable of big thinking when it comes to renewables. In 2009 the House and Senate passed a $500 million plan by former Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, to offer rebates to individuals and companies to install solar arrays.</span><br /> <br /> <span>The bill, however, </span><a href="http://blogs.wsj.com/environmentalcapital/2009/06/01/texas-kills-solar-bill-on-last-minute-motion/"><span>died over a procedural disagreement</span></a><span> as the session expired. No similar bill has been introduced since.</span><br /> <br /> <span>This fall, when the Environmental Defense Fund joined several other groups in asking that the Public Utility Commission on its own order utilities to increase their renewable percentages, the </span><a href="http://greenmountainsummit.com/2012/11/texas-puc-denies-rps-petition-from-the-environmental-renewable-groups/"><span>commission refused the petition.</span></a><br /> <br /> <span>Strama says he believes the window of opportunity to attract promising solar businesses has closed. Renewable energy industry leaders, </span><a href="http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887324595704578243830388986480.html"><span>in particular wind energy,</span></a><span> are predicting a very quiet 2013.</span><br /> <br /> <span>In recognition of the reduced circumstances, Strama says he intends to introduce a bill that would have ratepayers underwrite the construction of solar arrays on public school rooftops.</span><br /> <br /> <span>The same bill in the 2011 session never made it out of Calendars Committee.</span><br /> <br /> <span>In his speech to the Texas Renewables Energy Industry Association, Strama said he thought the Legislature was further from its renewable goals than five years ago. Still, he remained confident technology would eventually do the only thing that could sustain renewable energy: lower prices.</span><br /> <br /> <span>&ldquo;We&rsquo;ve been providing energy from coal on an enormous scale for 100 years,&rdquo; Strama said. &ldquo;Nothing you could say would convince me we won&rsquo;t someday be able to provide renewable energy on an enormous scale.</span><br /> <br /> <span>&ldquo;People are right to ask about a timetable. We don&rsquo;t have a timetable.&rdquo;</span></p> <p> ***<br /> <em><span>Contact Mark Lisheron at 512-299-2318 or </span><span><a href="mailto:mark@texaswatchdog.org">mark@texaswatchdog.org</a> or on Twitter at </span><a href="http://twitter.com/marktxwatchdog"><span>@marktxwatchdog</span></a><span>.</span><br /> <br /> <span>Keep up with all the latest news from Texas Watchdog. </span><a href="http://www.facebook.com/home.php?ref=home#/pages/Texas-Watchdog/26245936414"><span>Fan our page on Facebook</span></a><span>, follow us on </span><a href="http://twitter.com/texaswatchdog"><span>Twitter</span></a><span> and </span><a href="http://www.scribd.com/texaswatchdog"><span>Scribd</span></a><span>, and fan us on </span><a href="http://www.youtube.com/user/texaswatchdog"><span>YouTube</span></a><span>. Join </span><a href="http://delicious.com/texaswatchdog"><span>our network on de.licio.us</span></a><span>, and put </span><a href="http://www.texaswatchdog.org/rss/list"><span>our RSS feeds</span></a><span> in your newsreader. We&#39;re also on </span><a href="http://www.myspace.com/530162070"><span>MySpace</span></a><span>, </span><a href="http://digg.com/users/texaswatchdog"><span>Digg</span></a><span>, </span><a href="http://friendfeed.com/texaswatchdog"><span>FriendFeed</span></a><span>, and </span><a href="http://texaswatchdog.tumblr.com/"><span>tumblr</span></a><span>.</span><br /> <br /> <span><a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/pitmanra/504054475/">Photos of wind turbines by flickr users nikkorsnapper and</a>&nbsp;and <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/therussiansarehere/3349867013/">the russians are here,</a>&nbsp;</span><span>used via Creative Commons licenses.</span></em></p> Texas couple fit to be tied in red tape, stimulus weatherization cash more trouble than it was worth http://www.texaswatchdog.org/2012/12/texas-couple-fit-to-be-tied-in-red-tape-federal-stimulus-weatherization/1355173503.story 11576 world Tue Dec 11 09:49:00 2012 CST <div style="float:left; margin:8px; text-align:center"> <img alt="light bulb" src="http://www.texaswatchdog.org/files/lightbulb_1.jpg" title="light bulb" width="240" /></div> <p> <span>Viewed in one very particular way, carefully following the bureaucratic contours of a $327 million stimulus energy efficiency program, the weatherization of Brandi and Byron Hockaday&rsquo;s south Austin home is a success story.</span><br /> <br /> <span>Rules and guidelines were followed. Contractors and inspectors returned again and again to check the work. And when things weren&rsquo;t right Austin Energy made them right at its own expense. And none of it, or almost none of it, cost the Hockadays a dime.</span><br /> <br /> <span>And yet, after more than two years and well over $14,000 spent, no one involved, least of all the Hockadays, believes they should have gotten involved with the federal weatherization assistance program in the first place.</span><br /> <br /> <span>On Oct. 31, after the latest of dozens of complaints, Austin Energy customer service representative Ann Salerno put an official end to its relationship with the Hockadays.</span><br /> <br /> <span>&ldquo;For many months while assisting you, Austin Energy has exceeded its role as the involved electric utility,&rdquo; Salerno said in a letter, one of a fistful Brandi holds in her hand on the sofa in their living room. &ldquo;Austin Energy staff has gone above and beyond its obligations, and, at this point, there is nothing else Austin Energy can do to assist.&rdquo;</span><br /> <br /> <span>But what about the gas line left exposed and running right alongside the air conditioning line in the bedroom wall? The positive test for mold? And the incessant cycling of an air conditioning system that is supposed to be the best in the industry?</span><br /> <br /> <span>All of the contractor errors, the unexpected visits to fix things that never got fixed. The arguing that one time nearly led to a fistfight. The derision and condescension from at least one of the Austin Energy officials.</span><br /> <br /> <span>&ldquo;They damaged our house, they put our family in danger and they&rsquo;ve repeatedly said we need to be done with this,&rdquo; Byron says, unable to stay seated next to Brandi. &ldquo;That&rsquo;s what&rsquo;s flooring us here. We&rsquo;re tired of this shit.&rdquo;</span><br /> <br /> <span>Spend five minutes with the Hockadays, and you are convinced tired isn&rsquo;t at all the right word. They have painstakingly filed every document - paper and electronic - generated by their case. They recorded phone calls with workers, contracting supervisors and Austin Energy program leaders. They&rsquo;re already tag-teaming their latest contractor.</span><br /> <br /> <span>The Hockadays aren&rsquo;t tired by a long shot.</span><br /> <br /> <span>Pulling up to the Hockadays&rsquo; home in a neat, middle-class neighborhood, it is difficult to grasp how, indeed, they ever got involved in the program.</span><br /> <br /> <span>There is an older model, silver Jaguar in the Hockadays&rsquo; driveway of a nicely maintained 1,400-square-foot home.</span></p> <div style="float:right; margin:8px; text-align:center"> <img alt="Brandi and Byron Hockaday" src="http://www.texaswatchdog.org/files/hockadays.png" title="Brandi and Byron Hockaday" width="240" /><span style="display:block">Brandi and Byron Hockaday</span></div> <p> <span>The Hockadays built this house themselves in 1999. Both of them had good-paying jobs with a commercial printing company until day care costs for their two children made it more cost effective for one of them to stay home.</span><br /> <br /> <span>&ldquo;We flipped a coin, and I became Mr. Mom,&rdquo; Byron says. &ldquo;It worked out because I wanted to get my own mobile IT business started.&rdquo;</span><br /> <br /> <span>It worked out until June of 2010 when Brandi was laid off after 13 years with the company. In an economy that a congressional majority thought only a nearly $1 trillion stimulus could help, the Hockadays&rsquo; combined work experience came from an industry in decline.</span><br /> <br /> <span>Brandi started investigating and found that the family now qualified for food stamps. They enrolled the children in Medicaid for their health care. And when she went to the Austin Energy website she spotted a house ad for a &ldquo;Free Energy Program.&rdquo;</span><br /> <br /> <span>She filled out a two-page application sometime in late July.</span></p> <p> The program the ad referred to was part of the <a href="http://www1.eere.energy.gov/wip/wap.html">Weatherization Assistance Program</a>, the U.S. Department of Energy&#39;s $5 billion contribution to the $862 billion <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_Recovery_and_Reinvestment_Act_of_2009">American Recovery and Reinvestment Act</a> of 2009. The goal of the program was to help low-income Americans save money on their monthly bills by making their homes more energy efficient at no cost to them.</p> <p> <span>Joseph Guerrero, now the weatherization program coordinator</span><span> </span><span>for Austin Energy, says his company dispatched the inspector based, according to the program&rsquo;s guidelines, on little more than the Hockadays&rsquo; current combined income.</span><br /> <br /> <span>An interview with the Hockadays, a visit to the home, past earnings, the value of the home, even the Jaguar in the driveway was not part of the calculation, he says.</span><br /> <br /> <span>&ldquo;We had no authority to question any of it. It&rsquo;s not arbitrary,&rdquo; Guerrero says. &ldquo;Had we denied it for any of those reasons, you can bet TDHCA would have been notified.&rdquo;</span><br /> <br /> <span>On August 4 an inspector came to the Hockaday home and did a series of energy tests.</span><br /> <br /> <span>&ldquo;On his way out the door, he told us it was one of the nicest homes he had been in since he started doing the inspections,&rdquo; Brandi says. &ldquo;He said, if anything, we&rsquo;d probably be eligible for low-energy light bulbs.&rdquo;</span><br /> <br /> <span>Unknown to the Hockadays at the time, Austin Energy was under threat of having its $5.9 million stimulus grant yanked by the state Department of Housing and Community Affairs. </span><a href="http://www.texaswatchdog.org/2010/09/austin-energy-fixes-up-56-homes-in-18-months-since-start-of/1283968612.story"><span>Texas Watchdog reported</span></a><span> Austin Energy had managed to weatherize just 56 homes in the 18 months since the stimulus bill passed. Only four of the 44 agencies in the weatherization program had done fewer homes.</span><br /> <br /> <span>In the first year of the stimulus contractors statewide had spent $3.7 million, mostly on administrative costs, and had </span><a href="http://www.texaswatchdog.org/2010/01/--hed-47-homes-retrofitted-37-mill-spent-under-texas/1264958630.story"><span>weatherized a total of 47 houses.</span></a><span> Program directors from all over the state complained they were under tremendous pressure by Housing and Community Affairs to spend their stimulus grants.</span><br /> <br /> <span>&quot;Is time running out for this program? Absolutely,&quot; state program director Michael Gerber said of Austin Energy at the time. &quot;We will de-obligate funds before we let one penny of this funding go unspent.&quot;</span><br /> <br /> <span>Two months after the initial inspection, Robert Meredith, the owner of a second contractor, </span><a href="http://www.gogreensquads.com/"><span>Go Green Squads</span></a><span>, came to the Hockadays&rsquo; door with good news. The initial tests showed they qualified for a new air conditioning system.</span><br /> <br /> <span>The air conditioning system they had was working fine, Byron says. The inside unit had been replaced in 2008, and the outer unit had been repaired in the past couple of years, he said.</span><br /> <br /> <span>Meredith, Byron says, pressed them to decide. A new energy-efficient system would help them realize hundreds of dollars in savings.</span><br /> <br /> <span>&ldquo;He said we were about to lose this if we didn&rsquo;t decide and that we had to get this done,&rdquo; Byron says. &ldquo;My initial reaction,&rdquo; Brandi says, finishing his thought, &ldquo;was &lsquo;Wow. Awesome.&rsquo; Byron&rsquo;s reaction was, don&rsquo;t muck around with it. I love my AC. Byron gave in.&rdquo;</span><br /> <br /> <strong><span>A &lsquo;deceptively complex&rsquo; government program</span><br /> </strong></p> <div style="float:right; margin:8px; text-align:center"> <strong><iframe allowfullscreen="" frameborder="0" height="210" src="http://www.youtube.com/embed/b5PKuW_nlUA" width="280"></iframe></strong></div> <p> <span>The decision to install a new air conditioning system in the Hockaday home was based on calculations punched into thresholds set by the federal government, nothing more, Guerrero says.</span><br /> <br /> <span>At no time did Austin Energy officials issue a directive to speed up or increase spending on the units they were weatherizing, he says. </span><br /> <br /> <span>Susan Meredith, Meredith&rsquo;s wife and the company&rsquo;s co-owner, says Austin Energy gave the company 10 days from the time a work order was generated to start work. Never did Austin Energy call for spending over and above that recommended on the work orders, she says.</span><br /> <br /> <span>On Oct. 8, 2010, Go Green Squads installed an new air conditioning system and thermostats. The $2,433.27 in expenses was paid for by the federal program, which allowed for a maximum of $6,500 to be spent on each housing unit.</span><br /> <br /> <span>&ldquo;And for nine months we thought it was the best program in the world,&rdquo; Brandi says. &ldquo;We felt like we won the lottery.&rdquo;</span><br /> <br /> <span>Until the day Byron came home and felt warm. The Hockadays regularly set their thermostat at 75 degrees. The temperature read 77 degrees, and to get there the air conditioning unit was running for hours at a time without cycling off.</span><br /> <br /> <span>Thus began a series of calls and responses from contract workers. They did temperature readings. Had Byron seal and insulate his attic door. The ductwork was checked. The plenum, an air circulation chamber in the attic, was rebuilt. Several times.</span><br /> <br /> <span>During these months of trial and error, the Hockadays reported condensation on their vents and a musty smell in the house. </span><br /> <br /> <span>Around one of the openings in the attic, Byron found black soot he thought was mold. The contractors insisted it be referred to as a mold-like substance. In January of this year the Hockadays had tests done that determined the mold-like substance was mold.</span><br /> <br /> <span>At the same time, the Hockadays&rsquo; monthly utility bills were now exceeding the bills for the same months with their old air conditioning system.</span><br /> <br /> <span>In the absence of solutions, Byron offered troubleshooting suggestions like checking the coil that were routinely ignored, he says. It seemed as though the workmen were going through the same motions again and again. During one visit insults were exchanged and challenges made before Byron and a crew member could be calmed down.</span><br /> <br /> <span>&ldquo;They were coming here all the time, all different times of day. They&rsquo;d never call, they&rsquo;d just show up. Then they never did anything. It was like watching monkeys hump a football,&rdquo; Byron says.</span><br /> <br /> <span>From then on, Brandi systematically worked her way up alerting the chain of command at Austin Energy to their problems.</span><br /> <br /> <span>On Dec. 20, 2011, Austin Energy ordered another full inspection of the home and followed it with a systematic retracing of all the steps that had so far bedeviled the other contractors.</span><br /> <br /> <span>But not until March 20, 2012, did the company reach the conclusion that the air conditioning system installed by Go Green Squads needed to be replaced. The coil Byron had been pointing to was designed for a four-ton air conditioning system. It had been trying to cool the house in a three-ton system.</span><br /> <br /> <span>&ldquo;There definitely was a problem with the system,&rdquo; Susan Meredith says. &ldquo;And we were very committed to fixing their system. But there are so many different factors involved. That is why I say this is a deceptively complex program.&rdquo;</span><br /> <br /> <span>Austin Energy decided that it wouldn&rsquo;t be Go Green Systems but McCullough Heating and Air Conditioning that would install not only a new air conditioning system but a new furnace.</span><br /> <br /> <span>The cost, $8,604.81, was more than three times the first system. The company did some additional calculating and cut two checks to the Hockadays totalling $453.58, an estimate of the cost of the additional energy consumed by the old system.</span><br /> <br /> <span>In all, Austin Energy turned over just $3,000 in bills for the Hockaday work to Housing and Community Affairs for federal reimbursement. Austin Energy assumed the rest.</span><br /> <br /> <span>Guerrero said he didn&rsquo;t want the blot on a program he is proud of. </span><br /> <br /> <span>&ldquo;I thought it was in the interest of everyone involved that we change out the equipment for a new system,&rdquo; Guerrero says. &ldquo;Our goal was to satisfy a customer who had some extreme concerns. I think that by looking at the facts of the case alone, this was not a normal course of business for us.&rdquo;</span><br /> <br /> <span>By the overall standard of Austin Energy work, the Hockadays weren&rsquo;t normal business. Of the 1,886 units weatherized with stimulus funds, Austin Energy went over the $6,500 budget 13 times, a check of the records by Texas Watchdog showed.</span><br /> <br /> <span>Nine of the thirteen were total bills under $7,000, one of them over the limit by 83 cents. </span><br /> <br /> <span>Despite its slow start and by the decidedly low standard set by </span><span><a href="http://www.texaswatchdog.org/2010/12/fraud-concerns-surface-in-troubled-federal-stimulus-Texas-weatherization/1292285708.story">a program beset throughout</a>&nbsp;</span><span>with administrative incompetence, poor workmanship and allegations of fraud Austin Energy was a solid performer.</span><br /> <br /> <span>(You can track the program&rsquo;s performance and that of all the other local programs in the Weatherization Assistance Program in </span><a href="http://www.scribd.com/doc/115490605/Weekly-Weatherization-Reports"><span>charts provided here.</span></a><span>)</span><br /> <br /> <span>Once threatened with a loss of funding, Housing and Community Affairs eventually shifted more than $3 million more from laggard programs to Austin Energy. The program spent all but $1,100 of its $9.2 million, Guerrero says.</span><br /> <br /> <span>And while Texas Watchdog tracked a rather dismal record of </span><a href="http://www.texaswatchdog.org/2010/09/high-costs-low-production-substandard-workmanship-dog/1285007554.story"><span>workmanship problems statewide,</span></a><span> Austin Energy performed better than most. (You can examine the results of eight spot inspections of contractor work done by the Department of Housing and Community Affairs did over two years </span><a href="http://www.scribd.com/doc/115467864/Inspection-Reports"><span>here.</span></a><span>)</span><br /> <br /> <span>&ldquo;One house out of all those we worked on is a pretty good record, I think,&rdquo; Guerrero says.</span></p> <p> <strong>Utility: Responsibilities fulfilled</strong></p> <p> <span>But what of the record at that one house?</span><br /> <br /> <span>In the weeks that followed, the Hockadays discovered a water buildup in a garage ceiling that showered water and sopping drywall on computer hardware Byron had stored there. Negotiation with the contractor for reimbursement came to an impasse when the Hockadays wouldn&rsquo;t surrender the hard drives for replacement.</span><br /> <br /> <span>McCullough tracked the moisture problem and in July rebuilt the plenum, return and filter system.</span><br /> <br /> <span>The installation of the air conditioning system, Byron says, has juxtaposed an air line unsafely with a gas line running to the new furnace. The Hockadays have demanded an inspection. McCullough insists they already deemed the parallel lines safe.</span><br /> <br /> <span>The Hockaday home gets cool, with digital thermostats festooning the house to prove it. But Byron swears this new, top-of-the-line energy efficient air conditioner still cycles for hours.</span><br /> <br /> <span>It is December, and in the cool weather the Hockadays can&rsquo;t be sure, but all of that cycling, Byron says, isn&rsquo;t going to save them any money come summer.</span><br /> <br /> <span>And if something more should go wrong, Austin Energy has said it won&rsquo;t be coming around any more.</span><br /> <br /> <span>In the hundreds of units done by Go Green Squads as one of the six contractors used by Austin Energy, Susan Meredith says she never experienced anything like the Hockadays. </span><br /> <br /> <span>Understanding the cold calculating of eligibility and rehabilitation, Meredith still wonders if this program ought to have been serving a family like the Hockadays. She thinks the couple knew what they were doing, that they &ldquo;gamed the system.&rdquo;</span><br /> <br /> <span>Austin Energy and its contractors, she says, were caught in the classic quandary: Was there too much government or not enough government?</span><br /> <br /> <span>&ldquo;In hindsight we shouldn&rsquo;t have bent over backwards,&rdquo; she says. &ldquo;We spent so many hundreds of dollars we didn&rsquo;t bill for trying to make them happy. All we did was create a bigger problem.&rdquo;</span><br /> <br /> <span>The weatherization assistance program, at least at the start, would not allow anyone to walk away from the Hockadays, Guerrero says. Austin Energy, he says, has more than fulfilled its responsibilities.</span><br /> <br /> <span>The Hockadays do not believe that. It takes them nearly three hours on the sofa to tell their story, and only because they are forced to leave out all sorts of details. The Hockadays are consumed by the details.</span><br /> <br /> <span>Brandi is working again, at home and as a virtual assistant at a fraction of her old salary, she says. Byron is still working to make a go of his business. Their combined income, Brandi says, would easily make them eligible for the Weatherization Assistance Program if it were available today.</span><br /> <br /> <span>Knowing what they know now, the Hockadays say they would have never applied. But having done it, having gone through it, they aren&rsquo;t about to give up.</span><br /> <br /> <span>&ldquo;From the time we applied, all we expected them to do is do their job right,&rdquo; Byron says. &ldquo;That&rsquo;s all we asked all along. I don&rsquo;t think that&rsquo;s too much to expect. Do you?&rdquo;</span></p> <p> ***<br /> <em><span>Contact Mark Lisheron at 512-299-2318 or </span><a href="mailto:mark@texaswatchdog.org"><span>mark@texaswatchdog.org</span></a><span> or on Twitter at </span><a href="http://twitter.com/marktxwatchdog"><span>@marktxwatchdog</span></a><span>.</span><br /> <br /> <span>Keep up with all the latest news from Texas Watchdog. </span><a href="http://www.facebook.com/home.php?ref=home#/pages/Texas-Watchdog/26245936414"><span>Fan our page on Facebook</span></a><span>, follow us on </span><a href="http://twitter.com/texaswatchdog"><span>Twitter</span></a><span> and </span><a href="http://www.scribd.com/texaswatchdog"><span>Scribd</span></a><span>, and fan us on </span><a href="http://www.youtube.com/user/texaswatchdog"><span>YouTube</span></a><span>. 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Photo and video of the Hockadays by Mark Lisheron.</span></em></p> <p> <a href="http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/us/" rel="license"><img alt="Creative Commons License" src="http://i.creativecommons.org/l/by/3.0/us/88x31.png" style="border-width: 0pt;" /></a><br /> <em><span>Like this story? Then steal it. This report</span> by <a href="http://www.texaswatchdog.org" rel="cc:attributionURL" target="_blank">Texas Watchdog</a> is licensed under a <a href="http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/us/" rel="license" target="_blank">Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License</a>. That means bloggers, citizen-journalists, and journalists may republish the story on their sites with attribution and a link to Texas Watchdog. If you do re-use the story, e-mail <a href="mailto:news@texaswatchdog.org">news@texaswatchdog.org</a>.</em></p> Special districts, special favors: An insider network of favors surrounds these proliferating governments in Texas http://www.texaswatchdog.org/2012/10/insider-network-surrounds-special-texas-government-districts-texas/1350577204.story 11536 world Mon Oct 29 09:13:00 2012 CST <div style="float:left; margin:8px; text-align:center"> <img alt="money" src="http://www.texaswatchdog.org/files/money_20.jpeg" title="money" width="240" /></div> <p> For decades, Texans have relied on special districts for services that local municipalities can&rsquo;t provide. Water to an isolated settlement. Crime prevention in a region that can&rsquo;t afford full-service cops. Flood control in susceptible areas.<br /> <br /> <span>But the web of special districts is at times marked by self-dealing and relationships greased with campaign cash, which passes from the firms and developers who make a living off the districts to the lawmakers who authorize them.</span><br /> <br /> <span>These deals result in government that is not always for the people by the people, but instead is driven by special interests --- lawyers, lobbyists, and management firms --- that make huge profits on the backs of residents.</span><br /> <br /> <span>For example:</span></p> <ul> <li> <span>A consultancy for special districts, Municipal Accounts and Consulting,&nbsp;</span><a href="http://www.scribd.com/doc/108846223"><span>is owned</span></a><span> by attorney&nbsp;</span><a href="http://www.sphllp.com/_Joseph_Schwartz.html"><span>Joe Schwartz</span></a><span>, whose law firm Schwartz Page &amp; Harding handles the elections and management of several special districts, which give their business to Municipal Accounts.</span></li> </ul> <p style="margin-left: 40px; "> <span>Schwartz&rsquo;s office said he sold the limited partnership to Mark Burton, a&nbsp;</span><a href="http://www.mburtoncpa.com/"><span>certified public accountant</span></a><span> who was the registered agent of the operation when it began in 2002. Texas Watchdog was unable to locate any state records confirming the sale. The company has an address of 1300 Post Oak Blvd, Suite 1600, in Houston. Schwartz&rsquo;s law firm occupies the 14th floor.</span></p> <ul> <li> <span>For years, developers aspired to turn some prime acreage north of Arlington into some Rodney Dangerfield-in-Caddyshack living -- &quot;<a href="http://www.subzin.com/quotes/Caddyshack/Condos+over+there!+Plenty+of+parking">Condos over there! Plenty of parking</a>.&quot;</span></li> </ul> <p style="margin-left: 40px; "> <span>In 2007, Huffines Communities landed the big fish in the form of Viridian Municipal Management District, which sold bonds for millions of dollars in roads and infrastructure and has </span><a href="http://www.txheadlines.com/index.php/public_notices/article/VIRIDIAN-MUNICIPAL-MANAGEMENT-DISTRICT-NOTICE-OF-PUBLIC-HEARING-NOTICE-IS-H/"><span>broad taxing powers to build everything from playgrounds and amphitheaters to signs and monuments.</span></a><br /> <br /> <span>The legislation creating the district was sponsored by state Rep. Paula Hightower Pierson, D-Arlington, in April 2007. Eight months later, Hightower-Pierson received a campaign donation of $5,000 from Robert Kempel, president of Huffines, the first of three donations he would make to her through 2010. One&nbsp;</span><a href="http://www.dmagazine.com/Home/D_CEO/2011/September/Why_Huffines_Communities_is_Betting_on_Arlington.aspx"><span>fawning story</span></a><span> pegs the total public &ldquo;contribution&rdquo; at $337 million, &ldquo;if all goes as planned.&rdquo;</span></p> <ul> <li> <span>In late 2006, </span><a href="http://hubertvo.com/"><span>state Rep. Hubert Vo</span></a><span>, D-Houston, received campaign donations of $500 each from Hawes Hill Calderon and Allen Boone Humphries Robinson. Four months later, in March 2007, Vo and state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, carried a bill creating the International Management District, which would become a client for both firms. Hawes Hill manages the district, and Allen Boone is a mega law and lobbying firm which handles legal affairs for districts across the state including International.</span></li> </ul> <p style="margin-left: 40px; "> <span>After the 2007 session, Vo received additional donations, $2,500 in August from Hawes Hill and $500 in September from Allen Boone.</span><br /> <br /> <span>Vo has since received one donation from Hawes Hill, $1,000 in May.</span></p> <p> <span>Perhaps even more cozy is the building on Bellaire in Houston that houses the offices of the International Management District; records show that it is owned by&nbsp;</span><a href="http://www.scribd.com/doc/109530926"><span>ERA Investment</span></a><span>, a company registered in 1997 by Vo and his wife, Kathy.</span></p> <div style="float:left; margin:8px; text-align:center"> <img alt="David Hawes" src="http://www.texaswatchdog.org/files/davidhawes-cropped.jpg" title="David Hawes" width="120" /><span style="display:block">David Hawes</span></div> <p> <span>David Hawes, of Hawes Hill Calderon, said the space for the district is donated by Vo, saving the district the $600 a month it was previously paying in rent.</span><br /> <br /> <span>The building was purchased in 2004 by Vo&rsquo;s company although his&nbsp;</span><a href="http://records.texastribune.org/personal-finance/hubert-vo-2007-financials-00054795-364464.pdf"><span>financial disclosure for 2007</span></a><span> does not state his interest in the building at 11360 Bellaire. Vo did not return a call asking for a comment.</span><br /> <br /> <span>One of the largest district management firms in the state, Hawes Hill Calderon has been a major player in the explosion of special districts in the state. The Houston-based firm is an efficient and effective team of professionals, handling everything from security to graffiti removal for businesses often located in tough neighborhoods.</span><br /> <br /> <span>&ldquo;Cities do what they can, but they can&rsquo;t do everything,&rdquo; Hawes said. &ldquo;If I can provide security to drive into these district centers and help, it&rsquo;s a service to the commercial community.&rdquo;</span><br /> <br /> <span>Hawes said that in one district, they were able to cut burglaries of businesses by up to 70 percent in a given period.</span><br /> <br /> <span>For graffiti abatement, the city often cites a business if it does not clean up the spray paint in a given time period.</span><br /> <br /> <span>&ldquo;As a business owner, if you have someone managing the removal, you avoid a fine.&rdquo;</span><br /> <br /> <span>At the same time, Hawes Hill has contributed to</span><span> the campaign funds of lawmakers and elected officials who authorize the districts.</span><br /> <br /> <span>&ldquo;It&rsquo;s become a cottage industry. There are people making their entire living off these special districts,&rdquo; said Martha Wong, a former Republican state lawmaker from Houston.</span><br /> <br /> <span>She pointed to Hawes Hill, which wanted her to support a special district in the Montrose area to provide extra publicly-funded services such as police patrol and litter pickup.</span><br /> <br /> <span>&ldquo;They wanted to me introduce legislation for their management district, but I found out there was a big resistance to it,&rdquo; Wong said. &ldquo;My goal was to have 75 percent of the landowners approve it and to make sure every land owner in that area was notified.&rdquo;</span></p> <div style="float:right; margin:8px; text-align:center"> <img alt="Martha Wong" src="http://www.texaswatchdog.org/files/marthawong.jpg" title="Martha Wong" width="120" /><span style="display:block">Martha Wong</span></div> <p> <span>Wong refused to carry the bill because of the overwhelming opposition.</span><br /> <br /> <span>&ldquo;When you work it out and the neighborhood agrees, I&rsquo;ll carry it,&rdquo; Wong recalled telling the district organizers.</span><br /> <br /> <span>The organizers got a more sympathetic hearing from Ellen Cohen, Wong&rsquo;s successor in the House, who sponsored the bill creating the Montrose Management District in 2009.</span><br /> <br /> <span>Today, that district is&nbsp;</span><a href="http://www.texaswatchdog.org/2012/04/lawsuit-seeks-to-overturn-montrose-management-district/1335208961.column"><span>being sued by landowners</span></a><span> who claim they submitted a lawful petition to dissolve the district&rsquo;s mayor-approved board, but the board denied the petition&rsquo;s validity.</span><br /> <br /> <span>Wong said special districts are &ldquo;good for specific projects, but that&rsquo;s all they really need to be used for.&rdquo;</span><br /> <br /> <span>Yet the districts continue to bill residents and business owners for web services, landscaping, advertising; it&rsquo;s a potpourri of services that often border on questionable, like the&nbsp;</span><a href="http://www.texaswatchdog.org/2012/07/do-the-kids-really-need-management-district-branded-jump-ropes/1343052420.column"><span>branded jump ropes</span></a><span> the folks in Brays Oaks Management District ponied up for last year.</span><br /> <br /> <span>Residents of Brays Oaks</span><span> </span><span>in June 2011 also paid&nbsp;</span><a href="http://www.scribd.com/doc/108740816"><span>$5,000 down on the &nbsp;$20,000 lobbying bill for Allen Boone Humphries</span></a><span> during the legislative session.</span><br /> <br /> <span>The number of lobbyists for special districts exploded in the early 2000s, jumping from&nbsp;</span><a href="http://www.scribd.com/doc/109391465"><span>412 in 1999</span></a><span> to</span><a href="http://www.scribd.com/doc/109391510"><span> </span><span>2,271 in 2004</span></a><span>. The number has since fallen, to </span><a href="http://www.scribd.com/doc/110118913"><span>610 in 2012</span></a><span>.</span><br /> <br /> <span>Trey Lary, uber-lobbyist to special districts and a lawyer with Allen Boone Humphries, received between $50,000 and $99,999.99 for his services to Hawes Hill Calderon in 2005, </span><a href="http://www.scribd.com/doc/109392373"><span>records show</span></a><span>. Three other Allen Boone lawyers worked for Hawes Hill that year, including Joe Allen. All made in the $50,000 to $99,999.99 range.</span><br /> <br /> <span>That year the Legislature created the Greater Sharpstown Management District. The contract to manage it went to Hawes Hill.</span><br /> <br /> <span>Hawes, himself a lobbyist, </span><a href="http://www.texastribune.org/library/data/lobbying/lobbyist/65556/hawes-david-w/"><span>in 2009</span></a><span> represented the Harris County Improvement District #10B and Harris County Improvement District</span><span> </span><span>#6 -- later known as the Five Corners and </span><a href="http://cbtcws.cityofhouston.gov/BoardsCommApplicationForm/BoardDesc.aspx?boardid=286"><span>Montrose management districts</span></a><span> -- as well as some investment groups.</span><br /> <br /> <span>Hawes also lobbied for INCAP Financial Group, which was in the final stages of creating the Dallas North Oak Cliff Municipal Management District in Dallas. Hawes Hill is the manager of that district.</span><br /> <br /> <span>Right now, there are lobbyists working on special district issues for the upcoming session, which begins in January.</span><br /> <br /> <a href="http://www.texastribune.org/library/data/lobbying/lobbyist/13336/richardson-jody/"><span>Jody Richardson</span></a><span>, a veteran lobbyist with Allen Boone Humphries, has helped create special districts since 1982. She has spent time every month this year since February lobbying for special districts, according to her filings with the Texas Ethics Commission.</span></p> <div style="float:right; margin:8px; text-align:center"> <img alt="special district webs of influence" src="http://www.texaswatchdog.org/files/specialdgraphicfinal.jpg" title="plate" width="380" /></div> <p> <span>She attributes the increase in special districts in Texas, </span><a href="http://www.texaswatchdog.org/2011/02/growing-governments-how-special-districts-spread-across-Texas-power-to-tax/1297796531.story"><span>up 25 percent in the last 30 years</span></a><span>, to land development becoming more &ldquo;sophisticated.&rdquo;</span><br /> <br /> <span>&ldquo;The consuming public wants stuff,&rdquo; Richardson said. &ldquo;They don&rsquo;t just want a house. They want a house in a master planned community, with hike-and-bike trails and amenities. All of that costs the developers money. And they need to put them in place to attract homebuyers.&rdquo;</span><br /> <br /> <span>As far as the campaign donations from district firms to lawmakers, Richardson said looking at it as trading favors is &ldquo;simplistic.&rdquo;</span><br /> <br /> <span>&ldquo;The reason those lawmakers carry those bills is because that land is in their district,&rdquo; she said. &ldquo;If you think a senator or a representative is going to sell his soul for $500 or $1,000 or $2,000, then you must not respect your government very much.&rdquo;</span><br /> <br /> <span>Richardson sees only a &ldquo;network of specialists&rdquo; that cater to the needs of a demanding district system, businesses that are filling a market demand.</span><br /> <br /> <a href="http://murfee.com/about/phillip-savoy"><span>Phillip Savoy</span></a><span>, of Austin-based Murfee Engineering Co., said in a hearing regarding districts last year that his group has &ldquo;built an entire engineering business on putting together the process to create these districts. We have found a mechanism to allow communities to expand their infrastructure. Without putting the tax burden on the whole community, it goes to the people who live in the [municipal utility district].&rdquo;</span><br /> <br /> <span>* * *</span></p> <p> <span>Perhaps the granddaddy of special district largesse is state. Rep. Jim </span><span>Murphy, who earns a six-figure salary to manage Westchase District in Houston. </span><a href="http://www.westchasedistrict.com/contact.htm"><span>His deal as general manager</span></a><span> calls for a monthly fee of $22,491 in addition to other payments for consultancy and an upfront payment of $7,711.</span><br /> <br /> <span>He was first </span><a href="http://www.chron.com/news/article/Westchase-District-president-to-go-to-Austin-1879079.php"><span>elected to the statehouse in 2006</span></a><span>, a Republican from the Houston area and the owner of</span><a href="http://www.dms-us.com/"><span> </span><span>District Management Services</span></a><span>, a sort of one-stop company that manages the affairs of special districts much the same way as Hawes Hill.</span><br /> <br /> <span>But instead of relying on lobbyists to advocate for Westchase, Murphy, who was voted out in 2008, handled the job himself.</span><br /> <br /> <span>In April 2009, state Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, carried a bill to give broader powers to Westchase, such as the ability to receive money from tax increment finance zones. It authorized the board of the district to change the number of voting directors, &ldquo;provided the board determines that the change is in the best interest of the district.&rdquo;</span><br /> <br /> <span>It also gave the district broader powers to tax for services, including infrastructure.</span><br /> <br /> <span>When it came time to hear testimony before the House Ways and Means Committee, there was&nbsp;</span><a href="http://www.scribd.com/doc/109386406"><span>one witness to testify for the bill</span></a><span>: Jim Murphy, who was now a registered lobbyist for special districts and authorities. The bill was signed by the governor in June 2009.</span><br /> <br /> <span>Murphy was re-elected in 2010. In April, as Murphy struggled to retain his seat in the primary against challenger Ann Witt, the district became an issue.</span><br /> <br /> <span>The Witt campaign unveiled a web site and sent out </span><span><a href="http://www.voteannwitt.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/How-to-Succeed-in-Government-Without-Really-Trying.pdf">a mailer</a>&nbsp;</span><span>outlining the numerous Westchase contracts handed out to Murphy donors, including Rehak Creative Services, whose owner, Robert Rehak, has donated at least &nbsp;$7,000 to Murphy&rsquo;s campaigns since 2005.</span><br /> <br /> <span>Other contract-holding contributors include Phonoscope, BMS Management and Brown &amp; Gay Engineers.</span><br /> <br /> <span>&ldquo;Double Dipping. Skirting the Law. Bilking Taxpayers. Rewarding Cronies,&rdquo; a banner at the bottom of one page of the mailer claimed in fairly standard attack ad format.</span><br /> <br /> <span>Murphy did not return a call for comment.</span><br /> <br /> <span>Rehak sued Witt for defamation, claiming Witt&rsquo;s connecting of dots</span><span> </span><span>constituted an unlawful act. A district court judge in Harris County quickly dismissed the case, granting attorney&rsquo;s fees to Witt. The decision is on appeal.</span><br /> <br /> <span>Witt&rsquo;s daughter, Ellen Witt, was managing the campaign and felt she had found a wedge issue that would boost her mother&rsquo;s chances of winning.</span><br /> <br /> <span>It didn&rsquo;t work. Ann Witt lost 59 percent to 41 percent.</span><br /> <br /> <span>***</span><br /> <br /> <span>Ellen Witt, former deputy attorney general for legal counsel in the Office of the Attorney General of Texas, feels people aren&rsquo;t aware of the power of special districts.</span><br /> <br /> <span>The districts often do a poor job of posting their public meetings, she said, and usually use a .com URL rather than the .gov that is used with other taxpayer-funded operations.</span><br /> <br /> <span>For example, for a district outside Denton,&nbsp;</span><a href="http://newsgatheringblog.dentonrc.com/2012/02/meeting-notices-for-wellington.html/"><span>public meeting notices are posted to a fence post</span></a><span>.</span><br /> <br /> <span>&ldquo;People don&rsquo;t understand that these are government entities,&rdquo; Witt said. &ldquo;For people to hold government accountable, they need to know that a group is a government entity to begin with. Many of these are operating under the radar. And they don&rsquo;t seem to want the public to know they exist.&rdquo;</span><br /> <br /> <span>Indeed, even though taxpayers in a municipal utility district in North Texas had paid off the district&rsquo;s debt in 2010,&nbsp;</span><a href="http://www.texaswatchdog.org/2012/09/special-districts-corinth-texas-mud-give-houston-residents-roadmap/1347040024.story"><span>the board continued to meet and tax residents.</span></a><span> It took a court order and an election to undo the district, which, as far as some residents were concerned, had done nothing to let the public know of its existence.</span><br /> <br /> <span>&ldquo;We had no idea there was a board that met every month,&rdquo; said Mary Arceneaux, a resident of the district in Corinth, near Denton. &ldquo;They had meetings, they were spending our money, they had elections, and we never did find out. That&rsquo;s how they kept the same people in there on the board for 15 to 20 years.&rdquo;</span><br /> <br /> <span>Most legislation creating districts names the initial board members. Those members sometimes remain in place for years due to a&nbsp;</span><a href="http://www.texaswatchdog.org/2012/02/property-owners-fail-to-win-seats-on-houston-management-district/1330528093.column"><span>power structure that can leave little room for new voices</span></a><span>.</span><br /> <br /> <span>In the Montrose Management District, two-thirds of the board members&nbsp;</span><a href="http://www.texaswatchdog.org/2011/11/montrose-management-district-board-have-ties-to-mayor-annise-parker/1322506348.story"><span>are donors or supporters of Mayor Annise Parker</span></a><span>, who presides over the City Council, which in turn approves board members.</span><br /> <br /> <span>Once the districts are created, they&rsquo;re hard to rein in.</span><br /> <br /> <span>Not even the governor could stop a move in 2007 to change the power structure of the Buffalo Bayou district in Houston. Democratic state reps. Garnet Coleman and Ellen Cohen co-authored legislation that reduced the number of board members from 31 to 9. The measure passed, but Gov. Perry vetoed it,&nbsp;</span><a href="http://www.lrl.state.tx.us/scanned/vetoes/80/hb4113.pdf#navpanes=0"><span>pointing out</span></a><span> that the amendment would not only decrease the number of board members but also name nine directors &ldquo;without the approval of the local governing body.&rdquo; Today,&nbsp;</span><a href="http://cbtcws.cityofhouston.gov/BoardsCommApplicationForm/BoardDesc.aspx?boardid=265"><span>the board has nine members, anyway</span></a><span>; three of those named in the vetoed legislation are among them. The other 22 spots are left vacant. </span><br /> <br /> <span>Over the years, lawmakers have reviewed internal, mostly academic reports on special districts that have confirmed their majority view that districts are a good thing. The most&nbsp;</span><a href="http://www.senate.state.tx.us/75r/senate/commit/c520/Downloads/IGRReport.pdf"><span>this 2002 Senate committee report</span></a><span> could muster is that &ldquo;there was not adequate oversight regarding certain activities by certain special districts &hellip; specifically, the ability to divide or convert to another type of district.&rdquo;</span><br /> <br /> <span>A&nbsp;</span><a href="http://ir.lawnet.fordham.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=4286&amp;context=flr&amp;sei-redir=1&amp;referer=http://www.google.com/url%3Fsa%3Dt%26rct%3Dj%26q%3Dtexas%20commission%20on%20environments%20quality%20special%20districts%26source%3Dweb%26cd%3D4%26ved%3D0CDoQFj#search="><span>critical, geeky analysis in 2007</span></a><span> from Fordham Law Review</span><span> </span><span>offered a candid look at the problems of districts.</span><br /> <br /> <a href="http://www.senate.state.tx.us/src/pdf/SL-SpPurposeDistricts.pdf"><span>This 2008 assessment</span></a><span> by the Texas Senate Research Center offers a dry, academic look at districts, posing few questions but conceding they are an &ldquo;invisible&rdquo; layer of government.</span><br /> <br /> <span>A 2001 series in the </span><em><span>Dallas Morning News</span></em><span>, Government by Developer, exposed a number of questionable elements of the districts. Among them: The moving of money between developers and the lawmakers that author bills creating districts, the relationship between lawyers, lawmakers and developers and the practice of hiring voters to elect a board that suits the power structure of the district.</span><br /> <br /> <span>All three strategies are still rampant. For the third, one need only look as recently as 2010, when a 30-something entrepreneur, Alan</span><span> John Lesselyong, moved into </span><a href="http://www.texaswatchdog.org/2012/09/election-laws-voters-in-texas-claim-unconventional-residences-which-cases/1348009205.story"><span>a FEMA trailer</span></a><span> to elect officers and approve $400 million in bonds for a Denton County district.</span><br /> <br /> <span>Lesselyong was the sole voter in the district. He was de facto election judge, from the polling place set up behind the trailer.</span><br /> <br /> <span>Legislators have vowed to look into possible problems with the system of special districts, but so far, done nothing. </span><br /> <br /> <span>State Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton,&nbsp;</span><a href="http://www.texaswatchdog.org/2010/02/voter-law-loophole-tarrant-voters-registered-to-federal-office/1266986096.story"><span>claimed in 2010</span></a><span> that the voter residency laws were &ldquo;something that needs to be looked at.&rdquo; Addressing residency laws could make it more difficult for some districts to be assembled.</span><br /> <br /> <span>But when pressed last month about it, Bonnen said he was going to be busy with other things in the upcoming session.</span><br /> <br /> <span>State Sen. Jane Nelson in 2011 tried to convince her colleagues to address the hiring of voters for special districts, giving a half-hearted plea in a hearing.</span><br /> <br /> <span>In 2001, though, Nelson, R-Flower Mound, had&nbsp;</span><a href="http://www.capitol.state.tx.us/BillLookup/History.aspx?LegSess=77R&amp;Bill=SB1782"><span>co-authored a bill</span></a><span> creating the Frisco Square Management District in what has become one of the ritziest of north Dallas suburbs.</span><br /> <br /> <span>Nelson declined to speak to Texas Watchdog.</span></p> <div style="float:left; margin:8px; text-align:center"> <img alt="Susan Combs" src="http://www.texaswatchdog.org/files/susancombs.jpeg" title="Susan Combs" width="120" /><span style="display:block">Susan Combs</span></div> <p> <span>State Comptroller Susan Combs, eyeing a higher office bid and with great fanfare,&nbsp;</span><a href="http://www.star-telegram.com/2012/08/23/4202652/special-taxing-districts-cost.html"><span>recently announced</span></a><span> a&nbsp;</span><a href="https://ourcpa.cpa.state.tx.us/atj/addresslookup.jsp"><span>new web site</span></a><span> that allows residents to track the taxing entities in and around their area, including districts. The site was applauded by the conservative </span><a href="http://americansforprosperity.org/texas/newsroom/comptroller-susan-combs-unveils-transparency-website/"><span>Americans For Prosperity</span></a><span> group.</span><br /> <br /> <span>Combs considered in March lobbying for a moratorium on the creation of special districts, although she has little jurisdiction in that regard. Nonetheless, she told the</span><em><span> Fort Worth Star-Telegram</span></em><span> last month that she now favors a more political - albeit likely results-free - path of talking with lawmakers.</span><br /> <br /> <span>Combs declined to talk with Texas Watchdog.</span><br /> <br /> <span>Wong, the former state legislator from Houston, said the whole special district process needs to be addressed in the legislature. &ldquo;People have tweaked the rules&rdquo; over the last few years, making it easier to create districts.</span><br /> <br /> <span>Austin is the only place that can change the situation that some feel has gotten out of hand, making taxpayers pony up millions that used to be part of the risk taken by an entrepreneur, a developer, even a lawyer.</span><br /> <br /> <span>&ldquo;Legislators need to do a better job of letting people know that these are government entities,&rdquo; added Ellen Witt, the former AG&rsquo;s office lawyer. &ldquo;I don&rsquo;t know why more people haven&rsquo;t raised this issue with their representatives. &ldquo;</span><br /> <br /> <span>***</span><br /> <em><span>Contact Steve Miller at 832-303-9420 or&nbsp;</span><a href="mailto:stevemiller@texaswatchdog.org"><span>stevemiller@texaswatchdog.org</span></a><span>.</span><br /> <br /> <span>Keep up with all the latest news from Texas Watchdog.&nbsp;</span><a href="http://www.facebook.com/home.php?ref=home#/pages/Texas-Watchdog/26245936414"><span>Fan our page on Facebook</span></a><span>, follow us on&nbsp;</span><a href="http://twitter.com/texaswatchdog"><span>Twitter</span></a><span>&nbsp;and&nbsp;</span><a href="http://www.scribd.com/texaswatchdog"><span>Scribd</span></a><span>, and fan us on&nbsp;</span><a href="http://www.youtube.com/user/texaswatchdog"><span>YouTube</span></a><span>. 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We&#39;re also on&nbsp;</span><a href="http://www.myspace.com/530162070"><span>MySpace</span></a><span>,&nbsp;</span><a href="http://digg.com/users/texaswatchdog"><span>Digg</span></a><span>,&nbsp;</span><a href="http://friendfeed.com/texaswatchdog"><span>FriendFeed</span></a><span>,&nbsp;and&nbsp;</span><a href="http://texaswatchdog.tumblr.com/"><span>tumblr</span></a><span>.</span><br /> <br /> <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/amagill/3366720659/"><span>Photo of money by flickr user AMagill</span></a><span>, used via a Creative Commons license.</span></em></p> <p> <a href="http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/us/" rel="license"><img alt="Creative Commons License" src="http://i.creativecommons.org/l/by/3.0/us/88x31.png" style="border-width: 0pt;" /></a><br /> <em><span>Like this story? Then steal it. This report</span> by <a href="http://www.texaswatchdog.org" rel="cc:attributionURL" target="_blank">Texas Watchdog</a> is licensed under a <a href="http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/us/" rel="license" target="_blank">Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License</a>. That means bloggers, citizen-journalists, and journalists may republish the story on their sites with attribution and a link to Texas Watchdog. If you do re-use the story, e-mail <a href="mailto:news@texaswatchdog.org">news@texaswatchdog.org</a>.</em></p> Real estate insiders on board approving $37 million in development tax breaks for downtown Houston http://www.texaswatchdog.org/2012/09/real-estate-insiders-on-houston-downtown-management-district-approving-tax-breaks/1348237813.story 11502 world Mon Sep 24 09:04:00 2012 CST <div style="float:left; margin:8px; text-align:center"> <img alt="Houston skyline" src="http://www.texaswatchdog.org/files/houstonskyline.jpeg" title="Houston skyline" width="240" /></div> <p> <span>The Houston management district board that approves $37 million in property development tax breaks is packed with insiders from the local real estate community, including two people connected to major developer&nbsp;</span><a href="http://www.hines.com/home/default.aspx"><span>Hines</span></a><span> as well as at least two who are already city vendors.</span><br /> <br /> <span>The city council <a href="http://www.chron.com/news/houston-texas/article/Taxpayer-funded-incentives-to-be-doled-out-by-3811422.php">voted last month to allow the Downtown Management District to decide</a> who can receive tax breaks for developing inner-city living spaces.</span><br /> <br /> <span>Of the 27 board members on the </span><a href="http://www.downtowndistrict.org/Home/"><span>Downtown Management District</span></a><span>, which was created legislatively in 1995, </span><a href="https://docs.google.com/document/pub?id=1_2PolD5aPsQMFofs5tbwCOSI9IcxRFnT451_tpnzo6E"><span>12 have real estate ties</span></a><span>, and a company operated by board member Kenny Meyer</span><span> </span><span>owns property in the district.</span><br /> <br /> <span>Others with ties include Leslie Ashby of Ashby LLP, whose firm </span><span><a href="http://ashby-llp.com/practice.htm">handles real estate litigation</a>;&nbsp;</span><span>Frank Staats, a vice president with Moon Acquisition Holdings, a national development and real estate holding company; and Paul Layne, whose former employer, Brookfield Properties, was paid $7,218 by the city of Houston in February, </span><a href="http://blog.chron.com/primeproperty/2012/04/real-estate-exec-leaves-downtown-for-the-burbs/"><span>shortly before he left Brookfield</span></a><span>.</span><br /> <br /> <span>Meyer manages a number of properties downtown within the district boundaries. He had&nbsp;</span><a href="http://www.bizjournals.com/houston/stories/2007/04/09/story2.html?page=all"><span>expressed interest</span></a><span> in the area a few years ago before he was on the board, with buildings owned by one of his other companies, FKM Partnership, searching for tenants.</span><br /> <br /> <span>John Mooz is </span><a href="http://www.hines.com/contact/offices/southwest.aspx"><span>an executive with Hines</span></a><span>, one of the area&rsquo;s largest developers. Stewart O. Robinson, </span><a href="http://www.chron.com/business/real-estate/article/Moneymakers-Real-estate-broker-Robinson-believes-1535312.php"><span>a real estate fixture in Houston</span></a><span>,</span><a href="http://www.chron.com/business/real-estate/article/Moneymakers-Real-estate-broker-Robinson-believes-1535312.php"><span> </span></a><a href="http://www.bizjournals.com/houston/blog/2011/02/stewart-robinson-leaves-hines.html"><span>left Hines in</span></a><span> December 2010 and now runs SOR Real Estate Advisors. The city paid Hines Reit 2800 Post Oak, on offshoot Hines company, $67,000 between June 2010 and June 2012, records show.</span></p> <div style="float:right; margin:8px; text-align:center"> <img alt="Mike Sullivan" src="http://www.texaswatchdog.org/files/2008/09/mikesullivan.jpg" title="Mike Sullivan" width="120" /><span style="display:block">Mike Sullivan</span></div> <p> <span>The ties between board members and the industry receiving tax breaks &ldquo;underscores my opposition to this,&rdquo; said Mike Sullivan, the lone city council member to oppose handing the tax break process over to the district.</span><br /> <br /> <span>The city council&nbsp;</span><a href="http://www.chron.com/news/houston-texas/article/Taxpayer-funded-incentives-to-be-doled-out-by-3811422.php"><span>voted in August</span></a><span> to allow the board to deliver up to a $15,000-per-unit tax rebate to developers of 2,500 residential units within a specified zone. The rebate will be paid from future property taxes and assessments. See the outline of the arrangement&nbsp;</span><a href="http://www.scribd.com/doc/104415574"><span>here</span></a><span> and information from the district&rsquo;s site </span><a href="http://downtownhouston.org/site_media/uploads/attachments/2012-08-30/DLI_Final_Application_Materials.pdf"><span>here</span></a><span>. </span><br /> <br /> <span>&ldquo;These are tax dollars that will be rebated,&rdquo; Sullivan said. &ldquo;There are better uses for $37 million.&rdquo;</span></p> <p> <span>The district takes in </span><a href="https://docs.google.com/spreadsheet/pub?key=0AqoAg7PhXY5UdEhTNjZ1RWFTT1F1R3M1X1pSZjlsQlE&amp;output=html"><span>more than 2,000 properties</span></a><span> appraised at more than $7.6 billion.</span></p> <p> <span>Bob Eury, the Downtown Management District&#39;s executive director, said that the process for selecting developers who may receive the rebate is &ldquo;tightly prescribed. &hellip; Obviously, this is really first come, first serve, and we have conflict-of-interest policies, so obviously the board members can&rsquo;t participate in anything that they will directly benefit from.&rdquo;</span><br /> <br /> <span>Anyone receiving the benefit of a public money abatement will have to &ldquo;meet the critera defined by the city council,&rdquo; added Andrew Icken, chief development officer for the city. </span><br /> <br /> <span>The plan was crafted under</span><a href="http://www.tml.org/legal_pdf/Chapter380-Local-GovCode.pdf"><span> </span><span>Chapter 380</span></a><span> of the Texas Local Government Code, which permits municipalities to pay for economic development. It was </span><a href="http://bit.ly/SWcs1M"><span>created in 1989</span></a><span>, when the state, with 16 million people, was about 36 percent smaller than today&rsquo;s 25 million. A 1987 statewide vote that allowed the creation of economic development programs allowed the legislation.</span><br /> <br /> <span>In Fort Worth, this type of arrangement is considered anathema: &ldquo;This incentive may only be used as a gap financing tool of last resort,&rdquo;</span><a href="http://fortworthtexas.gov/hed/business/default.aspx?id=3488"><span> </span><span>reads that city&rsquo;s assessment of Chapter 380 arrangements.</span></a><span> &ldquo;The use of this incentive is for projects facing extraordinary impediments to development and offering significant positive impact to the community and surrounding neighborhood where the project is located. Limitations on how this incentive is used are predicated on the source of the funds and terms and conditions of the award to the City and the project.&rdquo;</span><br /> <br /> <span>The city of Arlington&nbsp;</span><a href="http://www.arlingtontx.gov/business/pdf/chapter380.pdf"><span>uses a checklist of benefits for the city</span></a><span> and administers the program itself.</span><br /> <br /> <span>The city of Austin&nbsp;</span><a href="http://www.kvue.com/news/Incentives-to-bring-thousands-of-jobs-to-Austin-149630885.html"><span>handed tech giant Apple an $8.6 million tax incentive</span></a><span> earlier this year under a&nbsp;</span><a href="http://austintexas.gov/sites/default/files/files/Redevelopment/CH_380_Agreements/Apple_Agreement_and_Exhibits_FINAL_3.9.12.pdf"><span>lengthy 380 agreement</span></a><span>. The city lists its 380 beneficiaries&nbsp;</span><a href="http://www.austintexas.gov/department/economic-development-agreements"><span>here</span></a><span>.</span><br /> <br /> <span>Dallas used a 380 to lure, well,&nbsp;</span><em><a href="http://www.parkcitiespeople.com/2012/06/13/dallas-gets-1-2-million-of-dallas-money/"><span>Dallas</span></a></em><span>. </span><br /> <br /> <span>The city of Houston in 2010&nbsp;</span><a href="http://www.houstontx.gov/fiscalresp/documents/2010econdev.pdf"><span>granted three companies</span></a><span> 380 agreements: Ainbinder Heights, for</span><a href="http://www.khou.com/news/Houston-City-Council-approves-tax-breaks-for-new-Walmart-near-the-Heights-103531799.html"><span> </span><span>development in the Washington Avenue area</span></a><span>, InTown Homes for Memorial area development, and Dean Foods.</span><br /> <br /> <span>Icken said that the city has executed 14 such contracts now, and contends that Houston&rsquo;s are among the more stringent. View the list </span><a href="http://www.houstontx.gov/ecodev/380.html"><span>here</span></a><span>.</span><br /> <br /> <span>&ldquo;Some cities give money up front or simply give grants through this program,&rdquo; he said. <br class="kix-line-break" /> </span><br /> <span>The 380 deal with Ainbinder </span><a href="http://offthekuff.com/wp/?p=40668"><span>turned into a protracted legal battle</span></a><span> after a nonprofit filed a lawsuit against the city and Ainbinder. The action attempted to halt any 380 agreements by the city, claiming the city was &ldquo;failing to provide sufficient controls to ensure that 380 agreements are not abused as either an end run around bond finance procedures or as political favors returned to well connected developers.&rdquo;</span><br /> <br /> <span>The city prevailed.</span><br /> <br /> <span>Under the arrangement between the city and the Downtown Management District, the district will enter into agreements with the developers, calculate the funding to be remitted to the developers and send those calculations to the city for payment.</span><br /> <br /> <span>Sullivan pointed out that the original use of the 380 provision in the state was to spur development in areas that need a boost, &ldquo;but the downtown has historically done well.&rdquo;</span></p> <div style="float:left; margin:8px; text-align:center"> <img alt="Bob Eury" src="http://www.texaswatchdog.org/files/bobeury.jpeg" title="Bob Eury" width="120" /><span style="display:block">Bob Eury</span></div> <p> <span>Eury contends that the city of Fort Worth&rsquo;s definition of the 380 agreement &nbsp;- &ldquo;extraordinary impediments&rdquo; - fits perfectly in the affected area around the George R. Brown Convention Center.</span><br /> <br /> <span>&ldquo;It&rsquo;s expensive land,&rdquo; Eury said. &ldquo;The whole way it is designed is to stimulate this area. It&rsquo;s a front door for Houston.&rdquo;</span><br /> <br /> <span>&ldquo;Extraordinary impediments&rdquo; to Ickens as well? </span><br /> <br /> <span>&ldquo;I would not choose those words,&rdquo; he said.</span><br /> <br /> <span>Among the locations on the district&rsquo;s&nbsp;</span><a href="http://www.downtowndistrict.org/Home/Development/ProjectList/"><span>development project list</span></a><span> are a city-owned warehouse at 1002 Washington, which was purchased by the city in January 2011 to be converted to its permit headquarters. The list, though, shows no indication that the interests of its board members are being appeased.</span><br /> <br /> <span>***</span><br /> <em><span>Contact Steve Miller at 832-303-9420 or&nbsp;</span><a href="mailto:stevemiller@texaswatchdog.org"><span>stevemiller@texaswatchdog.org</span></a><span>.</span><br /> <br /> <span>Keep up with all the latest news from Texas Watchdog. </span><a href="http://www.facebook.com/home.php?ref=home#/pages/Texas-Watchdog/26245936414"><span>Fan our page on Facebook</span></a><span>, follow us on </span><a href="http://twitter.com/texaswatchdog"><span>Twitter</span></a><span> and </span><a href="http://www.scribd.com/texaswatchdog"><span>Scribd</span></a><span>, and fan us on </span><a href="http://www.youtube.com/user/texaswatchdog"><span>YouTube</span></a><span>. 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We&#39;re also on </span><a href="http://www.myspace.com/530162070"><span>MySpace</span></a><span>, </span><a href="http://digg.com/users/texaswatchdog"><span>Digg</span></a><span>, </span><a href="http://friendfeed.com/texaswatchdog"><span>FriendFeed</span></a><span>, and </span><a href="http://texaswatchdog.tumblr.com/"><span>tumblr</span></a><span>.</span><br /> <br /> <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/danielray/3295930533/"><span>Photo of downtown Houston by flickr user Daniel Ray</span></a><span>, used via a Creative Commons license.</span></em></p> <p> <a href="http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/us/" rel="license"><img alt="Creative Commons License" src="http://i.creativecommons.org/l/by/3.0/us/88x31.png" style="border-width: 0pt;" /></a><br /> <em><span>Like this story? Then steal it. This report</span> by <a href="http://www.texaswatchdog.org" rel="cc:attributionURL" target="_blank">Texas Watchdog</a> is licensed under a <a href="http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/us/" rel="license" target="_blank">Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License</a>. That means bloggers, citizen-journalists, and journalists may republish the story on their sites with attribution and a link to Texas Watchdog. If you do re-use the story, e-mail <a href="mailto:news@texaswatchdog.org">news@texaswatchdog.org</a>.</em></p> Texas' screwy election laws: Voters in Texas claim unconventional residences; which cases amount to fraud? http://www.texaswatchdog.org/2012/09/election-laws-voters-in-texas-claim-unconventional-residences-which-cases/1348009205.story 11498 world Wed Sep 19 11:32:00 2012 CST <div style="float:left; margin:8px; text-align:center"> <img alt="polling place" src="http://www.texaswatchdog.org/files/pollingplace_0.jpeg" title="polling place" width="240" /></div> <p> <span>In early 2010, Alan John Lesselyong moved from his Dallas apartment to a FEMA trailer in the middle of 1,000 undeveloped acres in Denton County.</span><br /> <br /> <span>He did so at the behest of a group of developers to&nbsp;</span><a href="http://elections.dentoncounty.com/20100508/Results/Total/45/Cumulative/DC%20MUD%207/cumulative.pdf"><span>establish a board and approve $400 million in bonds</span></a><span> that will be paid off by future residents, a hefty responsibility for Lesselyong, the sole voter in Denton County Municipal Utility District #7.</span><br /> <br /> <span>Lesselyong&rsquo;s&nbsp;</span><a href="http://www.scribd.com/doc/105944329/Lesselyong-Voter-Reg"><span>voter registration</span></a><span> today shows the same address in Pilot Point, and he says he goes to the property frequently, though the trailer is long gone. His voting address is an empty lot, but he lives, he said, in the downtown Dallas apartment.</span><br /> <br /> <span>His case highlights the range of interpretation of Texas&rsquo; residency law, </span><a href="http://www.scribd.com/doc/27351239/State-of-Texas-Voting-Code"><span>which defines &ldquo;residence&rdquo; as a place</span></a><span> &ldquo;to which one intends to return after any temporary absence.&rdquo; While Lesselyong has never been challenged about his registration, seven Woodlands voters, who also moved temporarily into a utility district for voting purposes, are under indictment by the state&rsquo;s top lawyer for voter fraud.</span><br /> <br /> <span>Lesselyong registered to vote April 28 and 10 days later, on May 8, </span><a href="http://www.scribd.com/doc/106172346"><span>he served as election judge</span></a><span> at a polling place behind his trailer.</span><br /> <br /> <span>&ldquo;I opened the place in the morning and was there all day,&rdquo; said the 33-year-old Lesselyong. &ldquo;I got the equipment, followed the instructions and when the polls were open, I voted.&rdquo;</span><br /> <br /> <span>No one else came by because Lesselyong was the only person registered in the precinct. By a landslide vote of 1-0, every ballot measure under consideration was approved. By the same margin, each of the board candidates swept into office.</span><br /> <br /> All the district needed was a tenant.</p> <p> <span>&ldquo;I met the directors at a dinner they held for us all,&rdquo; Lesselyong said.</span><br /> <br /> <span>A few months after the election, two people &ndash; an 18-year-old woman and a 24-year old man &ndash; moved into a trailer not far from the one Lesselyong used to set up their own district.&nbsp;</span><a href="http://www.scribd.com/doc/106172777"><span>The two voters</span></a><span> in the Denton County Municipal Utility District #7, renamed the Four Seasons Municipal Ranch Utility District, approved $292 million in bonds for roads and water infrastructure.</span><br /> <br /> <span>While Lesselyong was holding a one-person election behind his FEMA trailer, a group of 10 Woodlands voters were also getting ready to vote, </span><a href="http://www.texaswatchdog.org/2010/05/voters-claim-hotel-as-residence-use-election-law-loophole/1273521892.column"><span>encamped at a hotel</span></a><span> inside the boundaries of their utility district. The Woodlands voters said they were frustrated that the board members had not been challenged in an election for a decade. </span><br /> <br /> <span>The Woodlands voters initially prevailed, electing a slate of new board members. The results were later overturned in court.</span><br /> <br /> <span>Seven of the voters have been&nbsp;</span><a href="http://www.texaswatchdog.org/2012/03/woodlands-residents-who-registered-to-motel-grand-jury-voter-fraud/1331067469.column"><span>charged with voter fraud</span></a><span> by the state Attorney General&rsquo;s office. Some of them say they believe that the charges stem from a well-connected cabal of influencers, beginning with state Sen. Tommy Williams, who aided lawyers </span><a href="http://www.texaswatchdog.org/2012/08/texas-state-sen-tommy-williams-aided-lawyers-filing-voter-fraud-woodlands/1345648840.story"><span>filing the fraud complaint against the accused</span></a><span>.</span><br /> <br /> <span>The state&rsquo;s case is based on residency: &ldquo;Defendant voted in the May 8, 2010 Woodlands Road Utility District Board of Directors election, when he knew he did not reside in the precinct in which he voted,&rdquo; the indictment states.</span><br /> <br /> <span>The ringleader of the group, Adrian Heath, has said he got the idea from reading about </span><a href="http://www.texaswatchdog.org/2010/02/voter-law-loophole-tarrant-voters-registered-to-federal-office/1266986096.story"><span>nine Tarrant County voters</span></a><span> who were registered to an office building, figuring that if an office building could work for voting purposes in the eyes of the state, so could a hotel. The Tarrant voters were registered to the Drug Enforcement Agency&rsquo;s address at Alliance Airport, although they did not live there full-time. Three of the nine had homes in other parts of Tarrant and Denton County.</span><br /> <br /> <span>When the matter was called to the attention of the Secretary of State&rsquo;s voting division, a spokesman said the residency requirement can be determined &ldquo;by the voter.&rdquo;</span><br /> <br /> <span>Lesselyong was in full compliance with the law as were the DEA-registered voters. He paid rent to live in the trailer.</span><br /> <br /> <span>Recent efforts to change the state&rsquo;s residency law have stalled.</span></p> <div style="float:right; margin:8px; text-align:center"> <img alt="Jane Nelson" src="http://www.texaswatchdog.org/files/janenelson.jpeg" title="Jane Nelson" width="120" /><span style="display:block">Jane Nelson</span></div> <p> <span>In April 2011, state Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, filed&nbsp;</span><a href="http://www.legis.state.tx.us/tlodocs/82R/billtext/html/SB00437I.htm"><span>a bill</span></a><span> to address residency requirements in municipal utility districts, requiring a one-year residency before being eligible to vote.</span><br /> <br /> <span>In a hearing, Nelson looked with exasperation to her fellow lawmakers for some relief.</span><br /> <br /> <span>&ldquo;You understand the problem,&rdquo; she said in a hearing of the&nbsp;</span><a href="http://www.legis.state.tx.us/Committees/MembershipCmte.aspx?LegSess=82R&amp;CmteCode=C520"><span>Senate Committee on Intergovernmental Relations</span></a><span>. &ldquo;The people I represent are very discouraged. They think all of this is being done behind curtains. I want more transparency, and I don&rsquo;t know how to do that. &ldquo;</span><br /> <br /> <span>Joe Allen, of</span><span> </span><span>Allen Boone Humphries Robinson, a mega law firm that represents numerous special districts in the state, called Nelson&rsquo;s legislation &ldquo;a very damaging bill.&rdquo;</span><br /> <br /> <span>He said developers are buying undeveloped land, &ldquo;and there are no residents, and you simply have to have some initial votes to meet the constitutional requirement to have an election in order to vote these bonds,&rdquo; Allen said at the hearing. &ldquo;There&rsquo;s no political subdivision in the state that are more scrutinized than these districts.&rdquo;</span><br /> <br /> <span>He said any changes to the laws, including voting residency requirements, &ldquo;will hinder home builders and prices in the state.&rdquo;</span><br /> <br /> <span>The bill died quickly.</span></p> <p dir="ltr" style="text-align: justify; margin-top: 0pt; margin-bottom: 0pt; "> <span>State Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, said in 2010 that residency laws and voting were &ldquo;something that needs to be looked at.&rdquo;</span></p> <p dir="ltr" style="text-align: justify; margin-top: 0pt; margin-bottom: 0pt; "> &nbsp;</p> <p dir="ltr" style="text-align: justify; margin-top: 0pt; margin-bottom: 0pt; "> <span>&ldquo;This is an issue that needs to be resolved, and I hope it doesn&rsquo;t get politicized if anyone tries,&rdquo; Bonnen said at the time.</span></p> <p> <span>This week, Bonnen said he was finalizing his legislative goals for the coming session.</span><br /> <br /> <span>&ldquo;But to be candid, I&rsquo;m a little limited this session,&rdquo; he said, as he is wrapping up an appointment as chair of the Sunset Advisory Commission and has a number of other issues before him.&nbsp;</span></p> <p> <em><span>***</span><br /> <span>Contact Steve Miller at 832-303-9420 or </span><a href="mailto:stevemiller@texaswatchdog.org"><span>stevemiller@texaswatchdog.org</span></a><span>.</span><br /> <br /> <span>Keep up with all the latest news from Texas Watchdog. </span><a href="http://www.facebook.com/home.php?ref=home#/pages/Texas-Watchdog/26245936414"><span>Fan our page on Facebook</span></a><span>, follow us on </span><a href="http://twitter.com/texaswatchdog"><span>Twitter</span></a><span> and </span><a href="http://www.scribd.com/texaswatchdog"><span>Scribd</span></a><span>, and fan us on </span><a href="http://www.youtube.com/user/texaswatchdog"><span>YouTube</span></a><span>. Join </span><a href="http://delicious.com/texaswatchdog"><span>our network on de.licio.us</span></a><span>, and put </span><a href="http://www.texaswatchdog.org/rss/list"><span>our RSS feeds</span></a><span> in your newsreader. We&#39;re also on </span><a href="http://www.myspace.com/530162070"><span>MySpace</span></a><span>, </span><a href="http://digg.com/users/texaswatchdog"><span>Digg</span></a><span>, </span><a href="http://friendfeed.com/texaswatchdog"><span>FriendFeed</span></a><span>, and </span><a href="http://texaswatchdog.tumblr.com/"><span>tumblr</span></a><span>.</span><br /> <br /> <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/tychay/3003354677/"><span>Photo of polling place sign by flickr user tychay</span></a><span>, used via a Creative Commons license.</span></em></p> Overweight? Smoke? Uncle Sam wants to help. Wellness programs started under 2009 federal stimulus persist, getting fatter with $1 billion in health care law http://www.texaswatchdog.org/2012/09/wellness-programs-started-with-stimulus-get-fatter-in-health-care-law/1347549446.story 11487 world Mon Sep 17 10:29:00 2012 CST <div style="float:left; margin:8px; text-align:center"> <img alt="scale" src="http://www.texaswatchdog.org/files/scale.jpeg" title="scale" width="240" /></div> <p> <span>Months after the grant that brought it to life ran out, Live Tobacco-Free Austin lives on.</span><br /> <br /> <span>Like many of the wellness programs started with $372.8 million in stimulus funding, Live Tobacco-Free Austin secured a new federal grant before the old one had run out and retained most of the staff hired to run the program.</span><br /> <br /> <span>Contrary to the billing of the $862 billion </span><a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_Recovery_and_Reinvestment_Act_of_2009"><span>American Recovery and Reinvestment Act</span></a><span> as a one-time infusion, the smoking and obesity programs branded Communities Putting Prevention to Work were never meant to be orphaned.</span><br /> <br /> <span>While hundreds of new hires were spending hundreds of millions in advance of a March 2012 spending deadline, advocates were busy embedding promises for billions more in something called the </span><a href="http://www.governing.com/blogs/fedwatch/gov-report-aca-prevention-fund-at-work-in-state-and-local-public-health.html"><span>Prevention and Public Health Fund</span></a><span> created with the passage of the </span><a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Patient_Protection_and_Affordable_Care_Act"><span>Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act</span></a><span>, Obamacare.</span><br /> <br /> <span>The fund is expected to spread $1 billion around to wellness programs this year and increasing every year after to $2 billion by 2016.</span><br /> <br /> <span>To augment that, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began the </span><a href="http://www.cdc.gov/communitytransformation/pdf/ctg-factsheet.pdf"><span>Community Transformation Grant program</span></a><span>, pouring $103 million into wellness programs, several, including $1 million for Austin&rsquo;s smoking program, started through Communities Putting Prevention to Work. </span><br /> <br /> <span>The Texas Department of State Health Services received a $10 million Transformation Grant for its wellness programs.</span></p> <div style="float:right; margin:8px; text-align:center"> <img alt="Michael Marlow" src="http://www.texaswatchdog.org/files/michaelmarlow.jpeg" title="Michael Marlow" width="120" /><span style="display:block">Michael Marlow</span></div> <p> <span>Michael Marlow, a California Polytechnic State University economics professor who has written critically on </span><a href="http://www.cato.org/pubs/regulation/regv35n2/v35n2-2.pdf"><span>obesity</span></a><span> and </span><a href="http://www.cato.org/pubs/regulation/regv33n2/regv33n2-4.pdf"><span>smoking</span></a><span> crusades for the Cato Institute, says this sort of government paternalism is meant to be self-perpetuating.</span><br /> <br /> <span>&ldquo;You have a one-size-fits-all approach to multi-faceted problems,&rdquo; </span><a href="http://www.cob.calpoly.edu/faculty/michael-marlow/"><span>Marlow</span></a><span> says. &ldquo;There is no such thing as a temporary solution, just more money for more solutions.&rdquo;</span><br /> <br /> <span>In the early part of 2010, about a year after the stimulus bill was passed, the Austin/Travis County Health and Human Services Department filed two of what would be 263 applications for Putting Prevention to Work through the Centers for Disease Control.</span><br /> <br /> <span>The </span><a href="http://www.cdc.gov/chronicdisease/recovery/PDF/HHS_CPPW_CommunityFactSheet.pdf"><span>CDC made 44 awards,</span></a><span> including $7.5 million for a smoking program for Austin, rejecting its application for an equal amount for an obesity program. The San Antonio Metropolitan Health District was the only other Texas agency to get a grant, $15.6 million to combat obesity.</span><br /> <br /> <span>Los Angeles County got the largest grants, for smoking and obesity programs, $32.1 million; New York City got $31.1 million; Seattle/King County got $25.5 million; and Philadelphia, $25.4 million.</span><br /> <br /> <span>Cassandra Deleon had been working for the Texas Department of Health and Human Services when she applied for and was hired, along with eight others, to manage the Austin smoking program.</span><br /> <br /> <span>The grant was the largest of its kind secured by Austin/Travis County, and Deleon says staff saw in it a tremendous opportunity to change the social norms around smoking.</span><br /> <br /> <span>There was one problem. For years tobacco was a potent political issue in Austin, but with the passage of what was, in 2005, one of the strongest local anti-smoking ordinances in the country a kind of exhaustion set in.</span><br /> <br /> <span>Austin spent about $1 million incorporating tobacco use data into the medical records of its hospital and clinic partners, Deleon says.The program set up the Live Tobacco-Free Austin website. The Ash Trailer - a vintage Airstream covered entirely with ash trays - was designed for public service appearances, she says.</span><br /> <br /> <span>Most of the funding, about $3 million, went into a radio, television and billboard campaign touting the benefits of living tobacco-free.</span><br /> <br /> <span>Deleon says she is pleased with how they deployed the grant money. The community transformation grant is testimony to the commitment to fight smoking, she says.</span><br /> <br /> <span>But this kind of program, she says, resists efforts to correlate spending with fewer people using tobacco. &ldquo;We&rsquo;re in the process of collecting data and, of course, were hoping for a reduction in tobacco use across the board,&rdquo; Deleon says. &ldquo;It&rsquo;s more like that what we&rsquo;ll be able to track is awareness of our live tobacco-free message.&rdquo;</span><br /> <br /> <span>This is an example of the diminishing return on the money spent getting people to give up tobacco, Marlow says. After billions in federal, state and local subsidies, hundreds of thousands of tobacco-related deaths, punitive ordinances and prohibitive taxes on cigarettes, more than 45 million adults choose to continue to smoke, according to </span><a href="http://www.cdc.gov/vitalsigns/AdultSmoking/index.html"><span>CDC figures</span></a><span>.</span><br /> <br /> <span>&ldquo;After all that&rsquo;s been done, people who smoke know it&rsquo;s unhealthy,&rdquo; Marlow says. &ldquo;Continuing to tell them that is not giving them any new information. But that isn&rsquo;t going to stop the paternalists from spending money on what is no longer effective.&rdquo;</span><br /> <br /> <span>There is evidence that smoking cessation programs will have to fight for funding with obesity, the new darling of federal wellness. The CDC made $230 million in obesity grants, compared to $142.8 million for smoking through the Communities Putting Prevention to Work program.</span><br /> <br /> <span>San Antonio, which has found itself on several of those </span><a href="http://www.menshealth.com/fattestcities2010/"><span>much anticipated lists</span></a><span> of the nation&rsquo;s fattest cities, was an ideal candidate for its obesity grant, by far the largest single grant ever awarded to the Health Department, Christine Rutherford-Stuart, assistant director for the Community Health Division, says.</span><br /> <br /> <span>Unlike Austin, San Antonio&rsquo;s bid for a Community Transformation grant was turned down. After an extension runs out and the $15.6 million is spent, the last of 13 people hired through the stimulus will be let go, Rutherford-Stuart says.</span><br /> <br /> <span>Assuming the one-time windfall wouldn&rsquo;t come again, San Antonio spent nearly half of its money on bike and walking lanes and outdoor fitness equipment for parks and libraries, infrastructure that could be maintained in the future by other municipal departments, she says.</span><br /> <br /> <span>A full quarter of the funding went to physical activity programs. Among them is Siclovia, an annual bicycling event modeled after a popular rally in Bogot&aacute;,</span><span> </span><span>Columbia. More than 15,000 people participated in the first Siclovia, 40,000 last year and 60,000 people are expected on Oct. 7, Rutherford-Stuart says.</span><br /> <br /> <span>Another 20 percent of the grant went into nutrition and health plans, including the installation of salad bars in 108 public and charter schools in the city.</span><br /> <br /> <span>Rutherford-Stuart says the YMCA, its partner for Siclovia, has agreed to continue funding the event in coming years. The Health Department is relying on partnerships to continue exercise, fitness and nutrition programs in the absence of the stimulus money, she says,</span><br /> <br /> <span>Having put all of this in place, Rutherford-Stuart says her department will be hard pressed to find proof of actual improvement in public health. Through questionnaires the department hopes it might be able to track changes in behavior.</span><br /> <br /> <span>&ldquo;We&rsquo;re happy for the opportunity to use the grant money, but it will be a huge challenge going forward.,&rdquo; she says. &ldquo;It took decades to get where we are in San Antonio and in this country with obesity. It&rsquo;s going to take decades to alleviate the problem.&rdquo;</span></p> <div style="float:right; margin:8px; text-align:center"> <img alt="obesity by state" src="http://www.texaswatchdog.org/files/obesitychart.jpg" title="obesity by state" width="340" /><span style="display:block">Source: CDC</span></div> <p> <span>Data from the CDC suggests what has been done at the federal level since the turn of this century has not worked. The current obesity rate of 35 percent - meaning nearly 110 million Americans are obese - is the nation&rsquo;s highest ever.</span><br /> <br /> <span>In 2000, no state had an obesity rate greater than 25 percent. Today, two dozen have rates between 25 and 30 percent and a dozen top 30 percent, the CDC says. In 2000, 27 states could claim obesity rates of less than 20 percent. In 2010, none could make the claim.</span><br /> <br /> <span>The federal response to this failure is to redouble its efforts and its funding, making it clear to what were once pilot Communities Putting Prevention to Work programs that money will be made available to do further battle with fatty foods.</span><br /> <br /> <span>After exhausting its stimulus grant, Los Angeles County got another $9.8 million from the Community Transformation fund. San Diego County spent its $16.1million stimulus grant on obesity and got another $3 million in transformational funds. Philadelphia, too, got another $1.5 million after spending $15 million on obesity and $10.4 million on smoking.</span><br /> <br /> <span>Amanda Dudley, spokesman for the CDC&rsquo;s National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, says the CDC has no intention of continuing the Communities Putting Prevention to Work as a national program.</span><br /> <br /> <span>The agency, however, refers to the grant money available through the </span><a href="http://www.cdc.gov/chronicdisease/recovery/pdf/cppw_aca_communities_summary_document_09-03-2010.pdf"><span>Affordable Care Act as CPPW Phase Two</span></a><span> funding.</span><br /> <br /> <span>And although one of the primary goals of all stimulus programs was to create or retain jobs, Dudley was unable to say how many of those jobs CPPW created or retained or offer a generalized assessment of the impact the program had on government hiring.</span><br /> <br /> <span>Trying to count the jobs, she said, would be misleading because of the way <a href="http://recovery.gov">Recovery.gov</a>, the stimulus website tracking spending and job creation, collected the data.</span><br /> <br /> <span>Having also failed to negotiate <a href="http://recovery.gov">Recovery.gov</a>, Texas Watchdog contacted the recipients of the 10 largest CPPW smoking and obesity grants. Los Angeles County flatly declined to answer questions. Philadelphia officials said they were still analyzing what they had done with their grants. Four agencies did not respond to our inquiry.</span><br /> <br /> <span>What is clear from the four that responded - the Miami-Dade County Health Department, San Diego Health &amp; Human Services Agency, the Seattle &ndash; King County Department of Public Health</span><span> </span><span>and the</span><span> </span><span>Southern Nevada Health District - was a commitment to continue on as long as the funding continued to come in.</span><br /> <br /> <span>Although almost all of its grant had been spent by July of this year, San Diego County hung onto all 13.7 full time equivalent positions, spokesman Michael Workman says.</span><br /> <br /> <span>A package of Community Transformation, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education and other grants and some county money has kept 6.7 jobs alive in a program that has been renamed </span><a href="http://www.sdcounty.ca.gov/hhsa/programs/phs/chronic_disease_health_disparities/CPPW.html"><span>Healthy Works.</span></a><span> </span><br /> <br /> <span>&ldquo;The program is considered a cornerstone of the County of San Diego&rsquo;s </span><span>Live Well, San Diego!</span><span>, a 10-year initiative to improve the lives of San Diegans through healthy, safe, and thriving communities,&rdquo; Workman says.</span><br /> <br /> <span>The other seven CPPW employees were re-assigned to other jobs on the county payroll, Workman says.</span><br /> <br /> <span>By </span><a href="http://www.kingcounty.gov/healthservices/health.aspx"><span>Seattle-King County&rsquo;s</span></a><span> calculation, its grant paid the salaries for 134 jobs in the Public Health Department and with the community partners who participated in the obesity and smoking programs, spokeswoman Kathryn Ross says.</span><br /> <br /> <span>Roughly two-thirds of the Public Health employees brought on with CPPW money are staying, Ross says, through a combination of federal grants, some foundation funds and the reallocation of money in the department budget.</span><br /> <br /> <span>A good share of the work will involve developing a plan to make the one-time grant program sustainable, she says.</span><br /> <br /> <span>Of the 12 people hired by the </span><a href="http://www.dadehealth.org/cppw/CPPWintro.asp"><span>Miami-Dade County Health Department</span></a><span> funding had been found to hold onto more employees, although spokeswoman Rosa Oses-Prealoni says they are hoping to find more funding to keep several others.</span><br /> <br /> <span>The work will continue through other entities funded at least in part through federal, state and local taxes, Miami-Dade County, the Miami-Dade County School Board, the City of Miami, and the City of North Miami and the Consortium for a Healthier Miami-Dade.</span><br /> <br /> <span>Only in the </span><a href="http://www.gethealthyclarkcounty.org/phn/speakers-bureau.php"><span>Southern Nevada Health District,</span></a><span> which kept its hiring to one person, was there an effort to make sure the CPPW money was spent on programs carried out largely by people already on staff, according to spokeswoman Jennifer Sizemore.</span><br /> <br /> <span>Regardless of the inability to account for or measure the effectiveness of these federal programs, which Marlow insists is dubious, the perception of crisis, in smoking and in obesity, creates an inertia difficult to halt.</span><br /> <span> </span><br /> <span>&ldquo;It&rsquo;s a bottomless pit,&rdquo; Marlow says, &ldquo;and it will never stop.&rdquo;</span></p> <p> ***<br /> <em><span>Contact Mark Lisheron at 512-299-2318 or </span><span><a href="mailto:mark@texaswatchdog.org">mark@texaswatchdog.org</a> or on Twitter at </span><a href="http://twitter.com/marktxwatchdog"><span>@marktxwatchdog</span></a><span>.</span><br /> <br /> <span>Keep up with all the latest news from Texas Watchdog. </span><a href="http://www.facebook.com/home.php?ref=home#/pages/Texas-Watchdog/26245936414"><span>Fan our page on Facebook</span></a><span>, follow us on </span><a href="http://twitter.com/texaswatchdog"><span>Twitter</span></a><span> and </span><a href="http://www.scribd.com/texaswatchdog"><span>Scribd</span></a><span>, and fan us on </span><a href="http://www.youtube.com/user/texaswatchdog"><span>YouTube</span></a><span>. Join </span><a href="http://delicious.com/texaswatchdog"><span>our network on de.licio.us</span></a><span>, and put </span><a href="http://www.texaswatchdog.org/rss/list"><span>our RSS feeds</span></a><span> in your newsreader. We&#39;re also on </span><a href="http://www.myspace.com/530162070"><span>MySpace</span></a><span>, </span><a href="http://digg.com/users/texaswatchdog"><span>Digg</span></a><span>, </span><a href="http://friendfeed.com/texaswatchdog"><span>FriendFeed</span></a><span>, and </span><a href="http://texaswatchdog.tumblr.com/"><span>tumblr</span></a><span>.</span><br /> <br /> <span>Follow Texas Health Care Report </span><a href="http://twitter.com/txrxreport"><span>on Twitter</span></a><span>, and </span><a href="https://www.facebook.com/pages/Texas-Health-Care-Report/213810468638561"><span>fan us on Facebook.</span></a><span> Texas Health Care Report is a project of</span><a href="http://texaswatchdog.org/"><span> </span><span>Texas Watchdog</span></a><span>.</span><br /> <br /> <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/auntnanny/91765921/"><span>Photo of money by flickr user auntnanny</span></a><span>, used via a Creative Commons license.</span></em></p> Tornillo ISD should beef up financial controls, guard against more ‘reckless’ spending by superintendent Paul Vranish: TEA http://www.texaswatchdog.org/2012/09/tornillo-isd-should-beef-up-financial-controls-guard/1347403037.story 11484 world Thu Sep 13 08:00:00 2012 CST <div style="float:left; margin:8px; text-align:center"> <img alt="money" src="http://www.texaswatchdog.org/files/money_14.jpeg" title="money" width="240" /></div> <p> The superintendent of the Tornillo Independent School District,&nbsp;<a href="http://www.tisd.us/docs/Paul%20Short%20Resume.pdf">Paul Vranish</a>, benefitted by using his position to approve purchase of items that were not sanctioned by his contract, spent public money in a &ldquo;reckless manner,&rdquo; and submitted the same hotel invoice twice for reimbursement, according to a state audit.</p> <p dir="ltr" style="margin-right: 4.5pt; margin-top: 0pt; margin-bottom: 0pt; "> <span>The&nbsp;</span><a href="http://www.scribd.com/doc/105591037?secret_password=1qq1znx4kvfo5l1k4pgf"><span>final investigative report</span></a><span> from the Texas Education Agency notes financial lapses at the district and suggests at several points that Vranish may have violated </span><span>numerous </span><span>codes and laws.</span></p> <p dir="ltr" style="margin-right: 4.5pt; margin-top: 0pt; margin-bottom: 0pt; "> &nbsp;</p> <p dir="ltr" style="margin-right: 4.5pt; margin-top: 0pt; margin-bottom: 0pt; "> <span>The state agency examined $117,394 in reimbursements to Vranish and his wife, also employed by the district, in the 2011 fiscal year, finding $47,909 in questionable costs.</span></p> <p dir="ltr" style="margin-right: 4.5pt; margin-top: 0pt; margin-bottom: 0pt; "> &nbsp;</p> <p dir="ltr" style="margin-right: 4.5pt; margin-top: 0pt; margin-bottom: 0pt; "> <span>Several members of the district&rsquo;s board of trustees and school system&rsquo;s lawyer refute the state&rsquo;s assertions.</span></p> <p dir="ltr" style="margin-right: 4.5pt; margin-top: 0pt; margin-bottom: 0pt; "> &nbsp;</p> <p dir="ltr" style="margin-right: 4.5pt; margin-top: 0pt; margin-bottom: 0pt; "> &quot;We are giving them feedback and expect everything to go away,&quot; said Jim Darnell, the attorney representing Vranish.</p> <p dir="ltr" style="margin-right: 4.5pt; margin-top: 0pt; margin-bottom: 0pt; "> &nbsp;</p> <p dir="ltr" style="margin-right: 4.5pt; margin-top: 0pt; margin-bottom: 0pt; "> <span>According to the state, which issued its final report Aug. 31, Vranish used travel for the district to earn frequent flier mileage points, then used those points for district travel.</span></p> <p dir="ltr" style="margin-right: 4.5pt; margin-top: 0pt; margin-bottom: 0pt; "> &nbsp;</p> <p dir="ltr" style="margin-right: 4.5pt; margin-top: 0pt; margin-bottom: 0pt; "> <span>&ldquo;He then requests reimbursement for the miles used by submitting documents that show what that flight would have cost if the district had paid for a regular airline ticket, as well as the associated fees charged to use the frequent flier miles,&rdquo; the report states. &ldquo;Because the superintendent is charged with protecting the district&rsquo;s assets and using them for the benefit of the district&rsquo;s students, but instead used them in a reckless manner, he may be in violation&rdquo; of several articles of the Texas Constitution.</span></p> <div style="float:right; margin:8px; text-align:center"> <img alt="Paul Vranish" src="http://www.texaswatchdog.org/files/paulvranish_0.jpg" title="Paul Vranish" width="120" /><span style="display:block">Paul Vranish</span></div> <p dir="ltr" style="margin-right: 4.5pt; margin-top: 0pt; margin-bottom: 0pt; "> &nbsp;</p> <p dir="ltr" style="margin-right: 4.5pt; margin-top: 0pt; margin-bottom: 0pt; "> <span>Vranish declined to comment.</span></p> <p dir="ltr" style="margin-right: 4.5pt; margin-top: 0pt; margin-bottom: 0pt; "> &nbsp;</p> <p dir="ltr" style="margin-right: 4.5pt; margin-top: 0pt; margin-bottom: 0pt; "> <span>Among the other findings:</span></p> <ul> <li> <span>&ldquo;PMV Services sold a 50&rsquo; DLP HDTV to (the Tornillo school district) for $1,200 in June 2007. The superintendent provided additional documentation regarding the self-dealing but this transaction is still questionable because it does not appear to be an arm&rsquo;s length transaction.&rdquo;&nbsp;</span><a href="http://www.manta.com/g/mmlmgj9/paul-vranish"><span>PMV Services</span></a><span> is a company owned by Vranish. In an interview with Texas Watchdog earlier this year, Vranish explained he operates it part-time as a certified board trainer for school districts.</span></li> </ul> <ul> <li> <span>Vranish &ldquo;authorized a purchase order to purchase a cell phone for himself.&rdquo; His contract provides that the district pay for his service, not his cell phone. Vranish also purchased a number of other tech items without the proper purchase authorization.</span></li> </ul> <ul> <li> Vranish submitted two parking tickets for reimbursement, one at Houston&rsquo;s Hobby Airport and the other at the El Paso airport. The tickets were issued in relation to a Texas Association of School Boards convention in which all travelers, including Vranish, rode together in a rental car. &ldquo;<a href="http://www.scribd.com/doc/105604887?secret_password=1i0y7x1itfnliaxs0p0o">Therefore, the reimbursement is questionable,&rdquo; the report notes</a>.</li> </ul> <ul> <li> On several occasions, purchase orders were authorized after a purchase had already been made. Numerous items were shipped to Vranish&rsquo;s home rather than his office, the report states.</li> </ul> <ul> <li> Several trips were taken without an explanation of what they were for, and trips were reimbursed before they were taken.</li> </ul> <ul> <li> Vranish charged the district $154 for camera repairs, an expense which &quot;<a href="http://www.scribd.com/doc/105623092/Camera-Repair?secret_password=1f21cc4oa1kd19wr33ic">appears to be personal in nature</a>.&rdquo;</li> </ul> <p dir="ltr" style="margin-right: 4.5pt; margin-top: 0pt; margin-bottom: 0pt; "> <span>See TEA&rsquo;s analysis of expenses </span><a href="http://www.scribd.com/doc/105622569?secret_password=13o7770tr71juvvm6axu"><span>here</span></a><span>.</span></p> <p dir="ltr" style="margin-right: 4.5pt; margin-top: 0pt; margin-bottom: 0pt; "> &nbsp;</p> <p dir="ltr" style="margin-right: 4.5pt; margin-top: 0pt; margin-bottom: 0pt; "> <span>TEA concludes the report by demanding new policies at the school district outside El Paso on the state&rsquo;s western border. Among them, that the district implement new financial controls. The district must hire a forensic auditor to examine the district&rsquo;s reimbursements to Vranish and his wife, Marla, for the years 2006 through 2011. The district must implement new measures to ensure Vranish reimburses the district for all expenses and ceases using his personal credit card for district-related expenses.</span></p> <p dir="ltr" style="margin-right: 4.5pt; margin-top: 0pt; margin-bottom: 0pt; "> &nbsp;</p> <p dir="ltr" style="margin-right: 4.5pt; margin-top: 0pt; margin-bottom: 0pt; "> <span>Records obtained by Texas Watchdog show the district has continued to defend Vranish. Several trustees in a </span><a href="http://www.scribd.com/doc/105625804?secret_password=25zwkjf8p7vm7j4kt0ie"><span>March 9 letter</span></a><span> claimed Vranish&rsquo;s use of a personal credit card &ldquo;was well known to everyone.&rdquo;</span></p> <p dir="ltr" style="margin-right: 4.5pt; margin-top: 0pt; margin-bottom: 0pt; "> &nbsp;</p> <p dir="ltr" style="margin-right: 4.5pt; margin-top: 0pt; margin-bottom: 0pt; "> <span>&ldquo;&hellip;Every year, auditors make a call to a trustee, private from the superintendent, to ask about board member knowledge of operations and possible fraud problems,&rdquo; states the letter, which is not signed by the entire board but includes several past members.</span></p> <p dir="ltr" style="margin-right: 4.5pt; margin-top: 0pt; margin-bottom: 0pt; "> &nbsp;</p> <p dir="ltr" style="margin-right: 4.5pt; margin-top: 0pt; margin-bottom: 0pt; "> <span>Texas Watchdog reviewed a&nbsp;</span><a href="http://www.scribd.com/doc/105589368?secret_password=28et6zi6ddul9zmowg0t"><span>letter</span></a><span> from Douglas Little, of the local accounting firm Little, Roberts and Company, refuting many of the TEA findings. The letter was written at the request of Darnell, Vranish&rsquo;s lawyer.</span></p> <p dir="ltr" style="margin-right: 4.5pt; margin-top: 0pt; margin-bottom: 0pt; "> &nbsp;</p> <p dir="ltr" style="margin-right: 4.5pt; margin-top: 0pt; margin-bottom: 0pt; "> <span>Darnell</span><span> calls the investigation and its reports &ldquo;a crock of baloney.&rdquo;</span></p> <p dir="ltr" style="margin-right: 4.5pt; margin-top: 0pt; margin-bottom: 0pt; "> &nbsp;</p> <p dir="ltr" style="margin-right: 4.5pt; margin-top: 0pt; margin-bottom: 0pt; "> &quot;I had a CPA go through the report, and he responds to every single one of the allegations,&quot; Darnell said. &quot;We&#39;ve got responses to every single one of the things they found. The report is sloppy to the point of incompentent.&quot;</p> <p dir="ltr" style="margin-right: 4.5pt; margin-top: 0pt; margin-bottom: 0pt; "> &nbsp;</p> <p dir="ltr" style="margin-right: 4.5pt; margin-top: 0pt; margin-bottom: 0pt; "> <span>In the April 23 letter</span><span>, Little disputes the charges for the cell phone, saying the auditors &lsquo;offer no argument why these items are inappropriate for Mr. Vranish&rsquo;s job duties.&rdquo;</span></p> <p dir="ltr" style="margin-right: 4.5pt; margin-top: 0pt; margin-bottom: 0pt; "> &nbsp;</p> <p dir="ltr" style="margin-right: 4.5pt; margin-top: 0pt; margin-bottom: 0pt; "> <span>He calls the auditor&#39;s questions about money Vranish spent to </span><a href="http://www.scribd.com/doc/105589218?secret_password=2n3kbyfg9khgc5f43rdt"><span>repair a snowmobile</span></a><span>&nbsp;an &ldquo;egregious overreach by the auditor&rdquo; and says that a snowmobile &ndash; a 2007 Polaris - was damaged during a 2008 school trip to Colorado and that a repaid bill of $1,210.33 was put on Vranish&rsquo;s expense report.</span></p> <p dir="ltr" style="margin-right: 4.5pt; margin-top: 0pt; margin-bottom: 0pt; "> &nbsp;</p> <p dir="ltr" style="margin-right: 4.5pt; margin-top: 0pt; margin-bottom: 0pt; "> <span>&ldquo;Mr. Vranish owns two snowmobiles, a 1992 and a 1993 model which clearly do not match the description on the repair receipts,&rdquo; he writes.</span></p> <p dir="ltr" style="margin-right: 4.5pt; margin-top: 0pt; margin-bottom: 0pt; "> &nbsp;</p> <p dir="ltr" style="margin-right: 4.5pt; margin-top: 0pt; margin-bottom: 0pt; "> <span>The school district&rsquo;s lawyer, S. Anthony Safi, argued&nbsp;</span><a href="http://www.scribd.com/doc/105589541?secret_password=1bv4gaww896ev9tquklw"><span>in an April 23 letter to the TEA</span></a><span> that the selling of frequent flier tickets for district-related travel &nbsp;&ldquo;actually resulted in savings to the district.&rdquo;</span></p> <p dir="ltr" style="margin-right: 4.5pt; margin-top: 0pt; margin-bottom: 0pt; "> &nbsp;</p> <p dir="ltr" style="margin-right: 4.5pt; margin-top: 0pt; margin-bottom: 0pt; "> <span>Safi also questioned the necessity of a forensic audit, calling it a &ldquo;very significant, unbudgeted expense&rdquo; that &ldquo;should be left to the discretion of the school board.&rdquo;</span></p> <p dir="ltr" style="margin-right: 4.5pt; margin-top: 0pt; margin-bottom: 0pt; "> &nbsp;</p> <p dir="ltr" style="margin-right: 4.5pt; margin-top: 0pt; margin-bottom: 0pt; "> <span>Safi did not return a call. Rachel Avila, president of the Tornillo shcool district board, did not return an email.</span></p> <p dir="ltr" style="margin-right: 4.5pt; margin-top: 0pt; margin-bottom: 0pt; "> &nbsp;</p> <p dir="ltr" style="margin-right: 4.5pt; margin-top: 0pt; margin-bottom: 0pt; "> <span>The TEA ordered the audit earlier this year after receiving complaints from several members of the school board, which is divided 3-3 in its support of Vranish.</span></p> <p dir="ltr" style="margin-right: 4.5pt; margin-top: 0pt; margin-bottom: 0pt; "> &nbsp;</p> <p dir="ltr" style="margin-right: 4.5pt; margin-top: 0pt; margin-bottom: 0pt; "> <span>Vranish resigned in January shortly after the news of the audit broke and received a $276,000 payout, which one report&nbsp;</span><a href="http://www.kvia.com/news/30767124/detail.html"><span>attributed to his contractual arrangement with the district</span></a><span>. He&rsquo;s still running the district, though, since he specified his last day would be June 28, 2013.</span></p> <p dir="ltr" style="margin-right: 4.5pt; margin-top: 0pt; margin-bottom: 0pt; "> &nbsp;</p> <p dir="ltr" style="margin-right: 4.5pt; margin-top: 0pt; margin-bottom: 0pt; "> <span>Vranish has previously left a top job with a school district amid controversy over expenses. He </span><a href="http://www.texaswatchdog.org/2012/05/troubles-swirling-around-tornillo-isd-superintendent-echo-his-past/1337812802.story"><span>resigned in 1999 from the Lone Oak Independent School District in East Texas</span></a><span> after&nbsp;</span><a href="http://www.scribd.com/doc/94361516/Lone-Oak3"><span>an investigation questioning the district&rsquo;s financial practices</span></a><span>.</span></p> <p dir="ltr" style="margin-right: 4.5pt; margin-top: 0pt; margin-bottom: 0pt; "> &nbsp;</p> <p dir="ltr" style="margin-right: 4.5pt; margin-top: 0pt; margin-bottom: 0pt; "> <span>*** </span></p> <p dir="ltr" style="margin-right: 4.5pt; margin-top: 0pt; margin-bottom: 0pt; "> <em><span>Contact Steve Miller at 832-303-9420 or <a href="mailto:stevemiller@texaswatchdog.org">stevemiller@texaswatchdog.org</a>.</span></em></p> <p dir="ltr" style="margin-right: 4.5pt; margin-top: 0pt; margin-bottom: 0pt; "> <em><br /> </em></p> <p dir="ltr" style="margin-right: 4.5pt; margin-top: 0pt; margin-bottom: 0pt; "> <em><span>Keep up with all the latest news from Texas Watchdog. </span><a href="http://www.facebook.com/home.php?ref=home#/pages/Texas-Watchdog/26245936414"><span>Fan our page on Facebook</span></a><span>, follow us on </span><a href="http://twitter.com/texaswatchdog"><span>Twitter</span></a><span> and </span><a href="http://www.scribd.com/texaswatchdog"><span>Scribd</span></a><span>, and fan us on </span><a href="http://www.youtube.com/user/texaswatchdog"><span>YouTube</span></a><span>. Join </span><a href="http://delicious.com/texaswatchdog"><span>our network on de.licio.us</span></a><span>, and put </span><a href="http://www.texaswatchdog.org/rss/list"><span>our RSS feeds</span></a><span> in your newsreader. We&#39;re also on </span><a href="http://www.myspace.com/530162070"><span>MySpace</span></a><span>, </span><a href="http://digg.com/users/texaswatchdog"><span>Digg</span></a><span>, </span><a href="http://friendfeed.com/texaswatchdog"><span>FriendFeed</span></a><span>, and </span><a href="http://texaswatchdog.tumblr.com/"><span>tumblr</span></a><span>.</span></em></p> <p> <em><a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/76657755@N04/7408506410/"><span>Photo of money by flickr user Tax Credits</span></a><span>, used via a Creative Commons license.</span></em></p>