in Houston, Texas
Dazzled by promise of rail, Austin leaders still need to persuade public
Monday, Feb 04, 2013, 12:33PM CST
By Mark Lisheron
train

Having followed Texas Watchdog’s coverage of Austin’s rail rapture, you can be forgiven for assuming the movement remains earthbound awaiting only taxpayer billions and living, breathing commuters.

Not so. Like President Obama explaining the single failure of his first term, the brain trust behind Austin’s Central Texas and urban rail plans needs only to tell a better story, one that inspires the public to Choo-Choo Ch’ Boogie.

So says a new report from a working group headed by Greg Hull, president of the American Public Transportation Association, and development directors for transit systems in Dallas, Charlotte, Denver, Portland and Salt Lake City.

The working group lauded the overall planning for the high-ridership Central Texas Project Connect and the expansion of the much loved but chronically underused MetroRail commuter line now running from Leander to downtown Austin.

What the partnership of the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the City of Austin and Lone Star Rail District hasn’t done so well is tell people why they really, really need all this rail transportation, the report says.

It might also help, the working group suggested, if there were a “well defined, clearly understood, and agreed upon path for moving the projects forward.” The path could be blazed if the groups involved formed a real partnership and figured out individuals and businesses in the area that like the rail idea.

And, while you’re in the storytelling mood, it wouldn’t hurt to come up with a 20-year plan to explain to people how you plan to pay for this fantasia.

As Texas Watchdog has cheerfully pointed out for some time, they will be explaining that for 20 years almost all of the money will be coming from the people. While locomotive fanciers continue to float ideas about private investment in rail systems, no one has ponied up a dime in decades in Texas.

It isn’t any secret to area transit officials how cost effective the MetroRail has been, coming in wildly over budget, its cars half-full on the best days. A year ago, while losing millions of dollars a year on its weekly commuter run, MetroRail added weekend service.

Fares taken in on the weekends cover about 8 percent of the $1.85 million MetroRail spent running trains on the weekends this past year, the Austin American-Statesman reports today.

Not a whole lot better than the 5 cents commuters are contributing to every dollar it costs MetroRail to run the trains during the weekday rush hours.

Now, if there were only a better way to tell that story. Maybe with lots of pictures of big, old locomotives.

***
Contact Mark Lisheron at 512-299-2318 or mark@texaswatchdog.org or on Twitter at @marktxwatchdog.

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Photo of a MetroRail commuter train by flickr user xfile001, used via a Creative Commons license.

Austin officials escape charges in open meetings case, pledge to follow law in agreement with Travis County DA
Thursday, Oct 18, 2012, 12:42PM CST
By Curt Olson
Austin City Hall

Mayor Lee Leffingwell and Austin City Council members will avoid being charged with criminal violations of the Texas Open Meetings Act by agreeing to conditions of future behavior.

The move by some city leaders to sign a “compliance agreement” seeks to end the long investigation into accusations city officials violated the open meetings law. Leffingwell and Councilman Mike Martinez signed the agreement this week, and former Councilwoman Randi Shade signed it during the summer, the Austin American-Statesman reports.

Under the agreement, city leaders admit no wrongdoing. They will take open meetings classes and have pledged to follow open meetings laws.

“We said from the beginning that (council members) did not do anything sinister or improper. They are hardworking and have made every effort to be transparent, to go beyond what they think is required in the Open Meetings Act, because they all agree open government is a good thing,” Martinez’s attorney, Joe Turner, told the Statesman.

Austin resident Brian Rodgers filed a complaint with Travis County District Attorney David Escamilla in January 2011, contending council members routinely gathered in small groups to discuss city business prior to council meetings, the newspaper reported. A “walking quorum” is a violation of the state open meetings law.

As part of his investigation, Escamilla asked the officials to turn over notes and e-mail records. Media outlets including the Austin Bulldog, an investigative news website, did as well.

The Bulldog sued the city and council in March 2011, arguing officials failed to disclose all emails and other messages regarding city business sent on private accounts and mobile devices. That lawsuit is pending.

By June, the investigation had cost Austin taxpayers $344,000 to hire three separate Austin law firms to advise city officials on the investigation and open meetings issues, according to the newspaper.

***
Contact Curt Olson at curt@texaswatchdog.org or 512-557-3800. Follow him on Twitter @olson_curt.

Keep up with all the latest news from Texas Watchdog. Fan our page on Facebook, follow us on Twitter and Scribd, and fan us on YouTube. Join our network on de.licio.us, and put our RSS feeds in your newsreader. We're also on MySpace, Digg, FriendFeed, and tumblr.

Photo of Austin City Hall by flickr user Michael Connell, used via a Creative Commons license.

Austin residents give City Hall high marks in $36,000 survey
Friday, Oct 12, 2012, 10:26AM CST
By Mark Lisheron
Austin

Austin, we’re taking a stool at the counter, ordering a cup o’ joe and tucking the napkin in the front of our shirt for that double-wide slice of humble pie, and we don’t mean the band that rocked the Fillmore East so hard in 1971.

We’ve picked on you for everything from your cash-bleeding, hardly-anybody-toting $1.3 billion MetroRail, to your obsession with outlawing plastic grocery bags, to your scheme to turn private contractors into city employees with real living wages and bountiful pensions.

But even though you pay our police force more extravagantly than any other in Texas and secretly pine to put a solar panel in every pot, your residents think you’re doing fine. And not just fine, but really fine.

Go ahead and say it loud, Austin, “You like me. Right now, you like me.

And how do we know this? Because you paid $36,000 for roughly 1,300 Austinites to tell you, according to the Austin American-Statesman today.

With this city’s mania for buying local, we’re not sure why you brought in ETC Institute, a marketing survey outfit from Olathe, Kansas, but it sure came out all right, didn’t it?

Nearly 70 percent of the people surveyed found the customer service offered by city departments satisfactory or very satisfactory, the Statesman story says.

Most thought the city spending for city services was about right and could, maybe, be bumped up a little.

Overall, those surveyed thought just about everything about Austin was peachy. Except maybe its planning for growth, street maintenance and traffic.

Maybe nobody told them about MetroRail.

***
Contact Mark Lisheron at 512-299-2318 or mark@texaswatchdog.org or on Twitter at @marktxwatchdog.

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Photo of Austin skyline by flickr user treasuresthouhast, used via a Creative Commons license.

City of Austin official insists taxpayers not taken for a ride with purchase of Mercedes Benz vans
Thursday, Oct 11, 2012, 11:55AM CST
By Curt Olson
Mercedes Benz hood ornament

With an eye toward the environment, Austin officials have outfitted the city fleet with vans by luxury carmaker Mercedes Benz, KEYE TV reports.

The 2010 Mercedes Benz vans cost about $17,000 more than the comparable Ford and $5,000 more than the comparable Chevrolet. However, city of Austin officials say they expect to recoup $10,000 in fuel savings from the Benz vans, which run on biodiesel. City fleet manager Gerry Calk says when you factor the Benz’s higher resale value, the purchase makes sense.

The Mercedes Benz model still ends up being “slightly more expensive” over its lifetime than the similar model from Ford, but less expensive than the similar Chevrolet, KEYE reports.

The news came as a surprise to longtime Mercedes car owner Frank Muller, who pointed out that once the warranty on a Mercedes expires, the cost rises for repairs.

“Certainly a Mercedes is not something that I would think is appropriate,” Muller told the TV station.

However, Calk insists he’s not taking Austin taxpayers for a ride.

“My goal in life, if you will, is to make sure taxpayers get the best bang for their buck for every dollar we spend,” Calk tells KEYE.

***
Contact Curt Olson at curt@texaswatchdog.org or 512-557-3800. Follow him on Twitter @olson_curt.

Keep up with all the latest news from Texas Watchdog. Fan our page on Facebook, follow us on Twitter and Scribd, and fan us on YouTube. Join our network on de.licio.us, and put our RSS feeds in your newsreader. We're also on MySpace, Digg, FriendFeed, and tumblr.

Photo of Mercedes Benz hood ornament by flickr user JWSherman, used via a Creative Commons license.

City of Austin considers land sale to pay for cost overruns from water treatment plant project
Tuesday, Sep 11, 2012, 04:47PM CST
By Curt Olson
money

A massive Austin public works project that triggered political turmoil and second-guessing by City Council members now has top city leaders preparing for cost overruns.

City Hall staffers are seeking permission to sell 73 acres for as much as $11 million to pay for unexpected costs on the water-treatment plant under construction near Lake Travis in Northwest Austin, the Austin American-Statesman reports. City Manager Marc Ott and his senior leaders expect the most expensive project since construction of Austin-Bergstrom International Airport to exceed its $508 million budget.

Austin Water Utility Director Greg Meszaros downplays any cost overruns and believes they will amount to just 1 percent of the project — $5 million. Whatever the final cost-overrun dollar amount, the scope of the water-treatment plant has already been cut at least $12 million, the newspaper reported.

Meanwhile, crews constructing a shaft near the plant identified a leak in December, the Statesman reported. All that digging prompted talk of legal action by environmental groups, the Center for Biological Diversity and Save Our Springs Alliance, who say the project threatens the Jollyville Plateau salamander.

The costs have also been political. Former Council Member Randi Shade, who cast one of the four votes for the plant in October 2009, was defeated last year by Kathie Tovo, an opponent of the plant. Council also had a heated debate last year whether to stop the project but opted not to after learning it would have cost $100 million to $155 million to restart the project, the Statesman reported.

The talk of cost overruns has led to I-told-you-so refrains from project critics.

"I think this tells us the staff was grossly misleading the council about what sort of venture they were getting the city into," said Bill Bunch, executive director of the Save Our Springs Alliance, the Statesman reports.

***
Contact Curt Olson at curt@texaswatchdog.org or 512-557-3800. Follow him on Twitter @olson_curt.

Keep up with all the latest news from Texas Watchdog. Fan our page on Facebook, follow us on Twitter and Scribd, and fan us on YouTube. Join our network on de.licio.us, and put our RSS feeds in your newsreader. We're also on MySpace, Digg, FriendFeed, and tumblr.

Photo of money by flickr user 401(K) 2012, used via a Creative Commons license.

Austin-area homeowners won’t see tax break if bevy of government entities have their way
Tuesday, Aug 21, 2012, 04:47PM CST
By Curt Olson
broke

About 10,000 property owners in northeastern Travis County face the possibility over the next two years of five taxing jurisdictions raising tax rates in addition to possible higher electric rates and other fees from Austin utilities.

People with homes or businesses in the Pflugerville school district, Central Health, City of Austin, Travis County and Austin Community College could see a combined 14.67-cent rate increase per $100 of assessed value the next two years, the Austin American-Statesman reports.

Pflugerville’s increase to pay off debt and Central Health’s increase to fund some operations of a proposed medical school require voter approval while the others don’t.

Under unchanged tax rates and current decreased property values, the average property owner in this area would see an tax break of $129. Increasing tax rates change the personal finance dynamics and approval of Central Health’s plan would raise taxes $100 on certain taxpayers come January 2014, the Statesman reported. Meanwhile, the value of commercial property has risen 9.1 percent, to $2.8 million from $2.54 million, which will raise that tax burden even higher.

Tax rate hikes may be compounded by Austin Energy’s rate hike in October and other Austin utilities that serve these residents and businesses also hiking rates for water, sewer and trash removal.

The following are the planned tax rate increases per $100 of assessed valuation in question for these Austin area residents, as the Statesman reports:

  • Pflugerville school district’s 6 cents is on the ballot.
  • Central Health’s 5 cents is on the ballot for bills due January 2014.
  • Austin proposes 2.18 cents.
  • Travis County proposes 1.46 cents.
  • Austin Community College proposes 0.03 cents.

The $385 million bond issue on the ballot for libraries, roads, housing and other projects in Austin would not raise Austin’s debt portion of the tax rate, the Statesman reports.

The quintuple hit of taxes leaves some current residents considering their options.

"Talking with my friends in some of the nearby cities about all the taxes here in Austin makes me want to get out,” as the Statesman quoted Dan Repich, who lives in the area in question.

Odds are, he’s not alone.

***
Contact Curt Olson at curt@texaswatchdog.org or 512-557-3800. Follow him on Twitter @olson_curt.

Keep up with all the latest news from Texas Watchdog. Fan our page on Facebook, follow us onTwitterand Scribd, and fan us on YouTube. Join our network on de.licio.us, and put our RSS feed in your newsreader. We're also on MySpace, Digg, FriendFeed, NewsVine and tumblr.

Photo of 'Broke' by flickr user Phoney Nickle, used via a Creative Commons license.

Austin officials to see F1 racing in England; city taxpayers get $5,556 bill
Friday, Jun 29, 2012, 02:07PM CST
By Mark Lisheron
F1 car

Not crazy enough to let a perfectly good junket go to waste, Austin’s top city officials will be going to England courtesy of a Formula One racing company.

Oh, and city taxpayers, who will be picking up $5,556 to send four other city officials, in what has become a sprawling junket saga for the Austin American-Statesman.

Mayor Lee Leffingwell and City Manager Marc Ott, who are getting their travel and board paid for by Circuit of the Americas, whose offer to do the same for two Travis County officials was spurned the other day by the Commissioner’s Court.

The gracious, normally secretive Circuit folks are also paying to put up Police Chief Art Acevedo, Fire Chief Rhoda Mae Kerr and two other city officials, whose airfare taxpayers will be footing.

Calm down, you fiscal worrywarts out there. The tickets are coach.

Although the short notice was one of the reasons the county turned down the free trip, city officials are making time to spend July 5-9 at Silverstone, where racing entrepreneurs have crowned the lovely English countryside with a jagged 3.2-mile ring of asphalt.

As was the excuse proffered by county officials, Austin’s leaders are going to take an eyewitness look at how a Formula One event is staged. The $300 million Circuit of the Americas racetrack here is hosting racing Nov. 16-18.

City Council member Kathie Tovo, who had been alerted to the trip by the American-Statesman, said, “Public money should not be used to fund trips to England in support of the Formula One race. The City of Austin has many pressing needs, and it would be inappropriate to use our scarce dollars for this purpose.”

Tovo may or may not have been referring to the pressing need for $2.2 million to run the money-losing MetroRail trains on the weekends. Or the $2 million to give away reusable grocery bags to low-income Austinites. Or maybe the $1.2 million to make Austin Energy’s private cleaning service public.

Or maybe she was piqued not having been invited along on the Silverstone junket.

***
Contact Mark Lisheron at 512-299-2318 or mark@texaswatchdog.org or on Twitter at @marktxwatchdog.

Keep up with all the latest news from Texas Watchdog. Fan our page on Facebook, follow us on Twitter and Scribd, and fan us on YouTube. Join our network on de.licio.us, and put our RSS feeds in your newsreader. We're also on MySpace, Digg, FriendFeed, and tumblr.

Photo 'Formula 1: British Grand Prix' by flickr user Alex Basnett, used via a Creative Commons license.

Austin taxpayers footing six-figure bill to investigate possible open meetings violations, little to show for legal work so far
Monday, Jun 18, 2012, 12:01PM CST
By Mark Lisheron
money

After $344,000 in legal fees and the work of eight assistant county attorneys taxpayers are no closer to knowing whether Austin’s elected officials violated the Texas Open Meetings Act than they were when allegations were made 16 months ago.

Not to worry, Travis County Attorney David Escamilla told the Austin American-Statesman. While he wouldn’t say what has been done so far, why it has taken so long and what might yet be needed if a case is to be made, Escamilla says he is sure the citizens paying all the bills will be happy with the results.

While firmly not confirming it, Escamilla and his assistants have been mulling over a complaint made in February of 2011 by a city activist charging that private meetings of individual City Council members and Mayor Lee Leffingwell and individual e-mail exchanges violated the Open Meetings Act.

Local media followed with formal requests to see the e-mails exchanged among officials. To the shock and delight of the community, the e-mails revealed some of the same sort of backbiting and sneering you can hear on a middle school playground every day.

Elected officials then did what any good American would do under the circumstances: get good and lawyered up at taxpayer expense. The individuals named in the complaint got their own lawyers, just for good measure.

What followed was a case with a gestation period almost as long as the challenge to ObamaCare. The Supreme Court will almost certainly make its decision before Escamilla.

Maybe it’s just because Escamilla and his staff haven’t had the practice. A case against members of the State Board of Education, the only Open Meetings Act case that resulted in a prosecution in 10 years, took two years to investigate, the American-Statesman says.

And then there is the possible impact of an interminable case now in the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals brought by 15 elected municipal officials contending the Texas Open Meetings Act violates their freedom of speech.

Cost and time have not suppressed the public’s interest in knowing what its government is doing. Requests of Austin’s Public Information Office for public records jumped by 32.4 percent, to 11,621 requests filed in 2011 from 8,779 in 2010, the newspaper says.

Taxpayers can expect to pay that bill, too.

***
Contact Mark Lisheron at 512-299-2318 or mark@texaswatchdog.org or on Twitter at @marktxwatchdog.

Keep up with all the latest news from Texas Watchdog. Fan our page on Facebook, follow us on Twitter and Scribd, and fan us on YouTube. Join our network on de.licio.us, and put our RSS feeds in your newsreader. We're also on MySpace, Digg, FriendFeed, and tumblr.

Photo of money by flickr user thekmancom, used via a Creative Commons license.

Austin taxpayers could get dinged if city shifts from contractors to salaried employees
Monday, Apr 16, 2012, 10:51AM CST
By Mark Lisheron
money

Imagine, as the Austin Social Engineering Council does altogether too much of, how the quality of life in Das Kapital city would improve if taxpayers paid more for services performed by a new legion of city employees.

If you can’t imagine, and you’ll find you are in the company of many sane people who live outside the city limits, an Austin American-Statesman story is here to help.

A short time ago, city staff recommended the council extend the contract of a private cleaning service employed by Austin Energy at an estimated cost of $2.9 million for the next five years.

But why do that, the council reasoned, when you could create 10 new city janitor jobs and do the same work for $4.1 million over the same period?

Never mind. You should have been here for the extra $650 million they spent putting in the commuter rail system the vast majority of the public doesn’t use. And if you don’t flee to a suburb you’ll be here for the ban on plastic bags next March passed in spite of cleanup estimates inflated incorrectly by 366 percent.

At any rate, the council found its unanimity on the janitorial hiring spree so exhilarating it is asking city staff to calculate how much taxpayers could be dinged by replacing all outside service contracts with city employees.

What are tens of millions of dollars extracted annually from taxpayers in comparison to the general well being of a new generation of public workers buffered from life’s hardships by generous city retirement and health plans?

Sort of like they had in Rhode Island before the state nearly went bankrupt, or in Stockton, Calif., which doesn’t look to be so lucky.

But that would never happen in Austin, where solar energy is thought to be free and continues to run when the sun goes down solely on the power of the council’s biggest ideas.

***
Contact Mark Lisheron at 512-299-2318 or mark@texaswatchdog.org or on Twitter at @marktxwatchdog.

Keep up with all the latest news from Texas Watchdog. Fan our page on Facebook, follow us on Twitter and Scribd, and fan us on YouTube. Join our network on de.licio.us, and put our RSS feeds in your newsreader. We're also on MySpace, Digg, FriendFeed, and tumblr.

Photo of money by flickr user 401K, used via a Creative Commons license.

All aboard Austin’s Taxpayer Express. Unlimited seating available.
Wednesday, Feb 08, 2012, 03:22PM CST
By Mark Lisheron
train

Austin, where money is no object except for grocery shoppers and taxpayers, is offering weekend rides on its MetroRail train for just $2.2 million a year, according to a story today by the Austin American-Statesman.

For city residents used to this sort of thing and choo-choo aficionados no further explanation is necessary.

For the rest of you, climb aboard our zephyr, the Logic Is Limited, for a luxury excursion to the inscrutable nether reaches of rail transit.

Passing us in the window to your left is the MetroRail, finally up and running two years late and at $1.3 billion, twice the original estimated cost. You don’t see many passengers, as the Statesman has occasionally reported.

No, those sometimes empty cars on the 16.5-mile weekday run don’t come close to breaking even. Disappointing for what was sold to taxpayers as a commuter rail, but for transit advocates, beside the point.

But up ahead, ladies and gentlemen, are hourly runs in both directions Friday night and Saturday through midnight for MetroRail. Weekend test runs last March found the 108-seat trains full.

Full trains are money losers, too, just not as much. So the more runs you make the more you lose, only less than the money you lose on every run during the week. And if the losses are big enough they might justify asking taxpayers to buy more trains for the weekends.

As we pull into the station, let me assure you none of these are concerns of the Logic Is Limited.

Our rail service is founded on sound transit principles and a generous stimulus grant from funds sent back to Washington, D.C. by the states of Florida, Ohio and Wisconsin.

Please be careful stepping off.
 
***
Contact Mark Lisheron at 512-299-2318 or mark@texaswatchdog.org or on Twitter at @marktxwatchdog.

Keep up with all the latest news from Texas Watchdog. Fan our page on Facebook, follow us on Twitter and Scribd, and fan us on YouTube. Join our network on de.licio.us, and put our RSS feeds in your newsreader. We're also on MySpace, Digg, FriendFeed, and tumblr.

Photo of train by flickr user Sunfrog1, used via a Creative Commons license.
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VIDEO: KPRC 2 10pm newscast (1-24-99) ...
Update:3 years 1 month
Mike McGuff
Democrats actually thought Wendy Davis was a serious candidate? Hat tip to Willisms: VIDEO- Wendy Davis being Wendy Davis: https://t.co/SHq3ACGVDJ #txlege— Will Franklin (@WILLisms) January 24,...
Update:3 years 1 month
Rick Perry vs The World
Luke Bryan to sing National Anthem as part of Super Bowl LI on FOX ​ Country music superstar LUKE BRYAN will sing the National Anthem as part of Super Bowl LI pregame festivities at NRG Stadium in Houston...
Update:3 years 1 month
Mike McGuff
Tweets
Karen Townsend | 7 years 9 months
"Patrick F. Kennedy is a career foreign service officer" - http://t.co/GOrCe0IS
Peter Corbett ✈ | 7 years 9 months
I'm at McCarran International Airport (LAS) w/ @almacy http://t.co/KvmId07i
KERA Public Media | 7 years 9 months
TONIGHT at 7pm on KERA TV: Presidential Debate: Learn more at PBS NewsHour. http://t.co/Z9kYdun8
PBS MediaShift | 7 years 9 months
Tech Snafus Make Bill O'Reilly/Jon Stewart 'Rumble' More of a Stumble http://t.co/4OfeBlrG (@kegill | @pbsmediashift) #rumble2012
Will Sullivan | 7 years 9 months
Great addition, been burned too much by bad subs. "Google Play Announces Free Trials For In-App Subscription Services" http://t.co/TOLgRVak
TxDOT | 7 years 9 months
I-35W/North Tarrant Express #constantcontact http://t.co/QDzrQumu
keyetv | 7 years 9 months
Serial shotgun robbers suspects arrested. http://t.co/ka8T4U9B
Karen Townsend | 7 years 9 months
Aren't State Dept career people suppose to be non-partisan? Not the political appointees, the career people. #Libya
San Antonio Current | 7 years 9 months
Go ahead, chalk it up http://t.co/YMWpC5wM #satx #chalkitup
Caller.com | 7 years 9 months
Scanner: Bathroom on fire in 600 block of Virginia, CC fire dept. on the way
Ballotpedia | 7 years 9 months
Does your state offer early voting? Do you qualify? Find out! #election2012 http://t.co/eodxBYVD
Dallas Morning News | 7 years 9 months
Why a Dallas-area cycling coach believed Lance Armstrong was drug-free (video) http://t.co/gURdYkj1
Caller.com | 7 years 9 months
Dozens of illegal waste dumpers sentenced in Jim Wells Co.; others on the run: http://t.co/NgerCdsQ
Karen Townsend | 7 years 9 months
Consistently impressed w/raullabrador when I listen to him in Congressional hearings. #Libya
Cory Crow | 7 years 9 months
Diigo: United raises fares by up to $10 per round trip - Business - http://t.co/kWY8gwPV http://t.co/bw25JP5R
News 4 WOAI | 7 years 9 months
If you see news in or around San Antonio 'SEND IT' to @NEWS4WOAI here: http://t.co/uMqbMXQv OR email us at: NEWSDESK@WOAITV.COM
swamplot | 7 years 9 months
Mining Houston Garbage for Recycling and Compost Gold http://t.co/HMMBArMX
swamplot | 7 years 9 months
Daily Demolition Report: Tulane Highway http://t.co/JXmkSx11
KFDA NewsChannel10 | 7 years 9 months
Obama and Romney: Where they stand on the issues http://t.co/y3VrPfkM
Williamson County | 7 years 9 months
Mental Health Awareness Week FREE Webinar:"Understanding Depression-How to Help You or a Loved One" Thurs,Oct 11@1pm-https://t.co/YUWi19WY
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