in Houston, Texas
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.

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

Surprise: shoppers go out of their way to avoid ban on plastic grocery bags
Friday, Aug 17, 2012, 11:16AM CST
By Mark Lisheron
Plastic

Soaring on righteous fervor, the Austin City Council in March somehow neglected to make provision to punish citizens disloyal enough to shop outside of the limits of its ban on plastic grocery bags.

It seems, based on a new study by the National Center for Policy Analysis, that shoppers facing the inconvenience in Los Angeles County have for the last year been sneaking across the ban borders to shop.

Overall, sales at stores inside the Polyethylene Wall were down by 3.3 percent. Sales just outside the wall were up by 3.4 percent, according the survey of store managers in and out of Los Angeles County.

At nearly 80 percent of stores in the ban zone sales were off by nearly 6 percent. At 60 percent of the stores outside the zone sales were up by 9 percent.

Bag-ban managers in every store surveyed laid off at least one employee and staffing overall was down 10 percent, the study says. Employment at the outside stores was up, but by just 2.4 percent.

Add to that the amount of energy shoppers are expending to skirt the ban and you have what the Center’s study refers to as unintended consequences.

It might be good to establish at this point that National Center for Policy Analysis is a nonprofit organization in the business of questioning government regulation while promoting a competitive and entrepreneurial free market.

Not a likely candidate to be giving advice to a City Council that regularly ignored past warnings of  those unintended consequences and accepted as fact plastic bag cleanup costs that had been mistakenly inflated by 366 percent.

But having been prescient enough to make it a crime for stores to use plastic bags after March of 2013, it isn’t too late for the City Council to include penalties for people with the temerity to shop where they want to shop.

***

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 feed in your newsreader. We're also on MySpace, Digg, FriendFeed, NewsVine and tumblr.

Photo of Plastic by flickr user mtsofan, used via a Creative Commons license.

 

Austin City Council punts - for now - on question of grocery bags
Friday, Aug 05, 2011, 10:18AM CST
By Mark Lisheron
bag

An Austin City Council unanimous in their decision to do something about grocery bags is leaving it to city staff to decide what, exactly, the city ought to do.

While their effort began with a proposal by Mayor Lee Leffingwell to stop major retailers from dispensing plastic shopping bags, a ban on those bags alone poses legal and environmental questions.

The council, instead, directed the Solid Waste Services Department on Thursday to explore a ban on plastic bags, a ban on plastic and paper bags, or having retailers charge shoppers a fee for those bags with a portion of the fees collected turned over to the city of Austin, according to a story in the Austin American-Statesman.

The city manager has been asked to return to the City Council with a proposed ordinance sometime in November.

On Wednesday, council member Bill Spelman acknowledged the council was aware that plastic bag bans prompted lawsuits from plastic bag manufacturers, one of the cases making its way to the California Supreme Court.

Not only is targeting plastic bags discriminatory, but such bans ignore what several advocacy groups admit: that the manufacture and disposal of paper bags is a greater environmental burden than the plastic bags, Phil Rozenski, director of marketing for Hilex Poly, a plastic bag manufacturer with a plant in the Dallas area, told Texas Watchdog.

“We’ve talked to activist groups, and they’ve told us picking on plastic bags is just a start,” Rozenski said. “What these people are really trying to do is socially engineer public behavior.”

One of those activist groups, Texas Campaign for the Environment, came out Thursday in favor of a ban on both paper and plastic. Reusable bags, the group says, are better for the environment.

Council members have in the past expressed concerns about other costs of plastic bags. Solid Waste Services in a study released in January estimated that taxpayers pay $850,000 a year to handle plastic bags in the waste stream. The study estimated that retailers use 263 million plastic bags a year to move merchandise in Austin.

Rozenski said citizens who receive a utility bill are already being charged a fee to fight litter, which ought to more than offset the cost of handling plastic bags included in the study.

Should the city move forward charging retailers for every plastic and paper bag they use, any of those fees remitted to the city would be a selective tax, Rozenski said, and a regressive one at that.

“This is a regressive tax that hits low-income families disproportionately,” Rozenski said. “Whatever you charge for those bags is being taken out of the grocery carts of those families.”

Hilex Poly also made a case before the council that a ban on plastic bags would damage its business. Hilex employs about 9,000 people in Texas, Rozenski said.

A ban will also damage retail business within the Austin city limits, he said. “What we have found when cities enact these bans shoppers, if given a nearby option, will simply go someplace else to shop,” Rozenski said.
 
***
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 'BYOB' by flickr user catbagan, used via a Creative Commons license.
Paper or plastic? That could soon cost you in the city of Austin.
Thursday, Aug 04, 2011, 10:00AM CST
By Mark Lisheron
grocery bags

Concerned about lawsuits and a different and, perhaps, more expensive environmental problem, the Austin City Council is likely to call for charging grocery shoppers who ask for paper or plastic.

While much remains to  be decided in scope and detail, a vote today is likely to reflect a consensus reached by Mayor Lee Leffingwell and council members that the best way to reduce disposable bags in the waste stream is to put the burden on grocery stores and their customers.

“Something is definitely going to pass (Thursday), and I believe it will involve a fee of some sort,” council member Bill Spelman said Wednesday afternoon. “I think Bob Gedert (director of the city’s Solid Waste Services Department) has a clear sense of where the council wants to go with this.”

Where the council wanted to go with the resolution was, until the last 36 hours, not readily apparent to the public. Still posted along with the agenda for Thursday’s council meeting is a copy of an unnumbered resolution calling for the city manager to develop by November an ordinance phasing out plastic bags in Austin.

At a work session on Tuesday, however, council members expressed concerns about the fallout from banning only plastic bags. More than a dozen bans in California have been met by lawsuits filed by plastics companies, contending their product was being discriminated against. The California Supreme Court recently ruled that cities were within their rights to impose plastic bag prohibitions.

The City Council would rather avoid those legal difficulties altogether, Spelman said.

Banning plastic bags would also renew the debate over the environmental and cost impact in both the production and disposal of plastic as opposed to paper. Given no choice, a retail grocer would almost certainly pack groceries in paper, which retailers have long complained are more expensive than plastic. Spelman says he isn’t sure if paper bags don’t take a higher environmental toll.

The framework for the ordinance would allow Austin grocery stores to offer to their customers both paper and plastic bags but at a fee to offset the cost of their disposal. What the fee would be, how that fee might be collected by the city and what those fees would be used to offset have not been determined, Spelman said.

“I don’t want us to get bogged down right now by the details of the fee,” Spelman said. “I would prefer to solve the problems and, if we can, solve it fast and easy.”

The open-ended nature of the ordinance discussion has been unsettling for the members of the Texas Retailers Association, which include some of the largest grocery chains in Texas. Until Wednesday, association president Ronnie Volkening said he was not aware that paper bags had been added to ordinance consideration.

Retailers have been working with the city for several years to create voluntary recycling plans to reduce the number of plastic bags thrown away. In April of 2008 retailers agreed to reduce the number of plastic bags they used by 50 percent in 18 months. The city said retailers were able to reduce plastic bag use by only 20 percent.

Volkening countered, saying the city did not include in its calculations what he said was a 74 percent increase in the number of plastic bags recycled at designated spots in participating grocery stores.

“We find that a little frustrating, but we take responsibility for the retailers not doing as good a job as they should telling the public about our recycling programs,” Volkening said. “We need to encourage the secondary use of these bags.”

Without their removal from the waste stream, Solid Waste Services estimated the city spends $850,000 a year on plastic bag removal alone, according to a report Gedert made to the city in January.

By extrapolating from a U.S. International Trade Commission report from 2009, Gedert estimated Austin shoppers need 263 million plastic bags for their goods every year. The cost to create a curbside collection program for plastic bags alone would cost between $1.8 million and $2.7 million a year, the report says.

Should Austin go forward, it would be the first Texas city to include paper bags as a way of getting at the plastic bag problem. Brownsville, the first city to enact a plastic bag ban, charges customers without reusable bags $1 to have their groceries bagged in plastic.

Fort Stockton’s ban on plastic bags will kick in in September, and South Padre Island will impose its ban in January of 2012.

San Francisco and Portland are among the roughly two dozen communities nationwide with bans on plastic bags. Statewide bans in California and Oregon, however, have failed in their respective legislatures.
 
***
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 grocery bags by flickr user sbluerock, used via a Creative Commons license.
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