Is the City Controller AWOL?

For once a short article. Just asking a question: what happened to the Controller’s oversight duty?

Plans since Ron Green took over as the City Controller (remember, FY ends June 30 of the stated year):
FY2011 Plan: 14 audits planned.
FY2012 Plan: 8 audits + 2 carried over from prior year.
FY2013 Plan: 6 audits + 5 carried over, and three “alternates.”
FY2014 Plan: 5 audits + 6 carried over, and four alternates.
FY2015 plan: 5 audits + + carried over, and six alternates

It’s not unusual to have audits carry over — about 1/4 of each year’s total below is carried over, at least until 2010. Actual completions, going back before the Annise Parker era:
FY2002: 22 audits
FY2003: 26 audits
FY2004: 41 audits
FY2005: 37 audits
FY2006: 7 audits
FY2007: 14 audits
FY2008: 9 audits
FY2009: 29 audits
FY2010: 15 audits
FY2011: 6 audits
FY2012: 11 audits
FY2013: 9 audits
FY2014: 6 audits
FY2015(to date): 2 audits

The Controller’s job is to backstop the mayor and make sure that everything’s on the up-and-up financially. Well, that’s terribly oversimplified, but it seems obvious that there’s been a downward trend in attention to this duty. It’s enough to make you wonder why Bob Lemer, Bill King, and Bill Frazer are upset with the Controller’s office. Now my question is this… how come the Chronicle dumps news like this on the “back pages” of their website? I mean, just how important is the best lip colors of 2014?

My take on it in 2009.

Late Fee Follies (updated)

In the earlier article today, I referenced $25 million in overcharges. So how did the City manage that trick? Well, stupidity and arrogance, of course.

Back in 2012-2013, the City Controller’s (Ron Green’s) office did an audit of UCS’s Water Meters and Transmitters. Seeing as they’re not particularly technically adept, it was really an audit of policies and procedures, not the mechanicals, but it was prompted by years of complaints by the customers of inaccurate meters. (They’re not. As I’ve said for years, the problems are with the transmitters, and, as will be obvious here, the business processes.) The summary of issues found reads as follows:

Continue reading

Out of Time, Out of Water

Well, here we are after months with no post, and a half-hour just trying to remember my password to log in. I really haven’t been by here in way too long. Considered making a post back when the Greanias story broke last week, but settled for making a snarky comment. I would SO push for jury nullification, if I were called to serve. (Edit: Nullification of the poor sap being prosecuted for “falsifying a government document”; that is, a time card.)

But let’s face it, there are some things even more important that trying to get back control of our government from the perverts, hypocrites, and crooks with delusions of controlling our everyday lives.

Continue reading

Deja vu All Over Again

Everything old is new again…

An unpopular foriegn war going on, which the left sees as un-winnable.
The DOJ is being heavily politicized, ignoring friends of the president and punishing his foes.
High unemployment, low growth, and inflation is on the way up — stagflation.
The occupant of the White House is unpopular, spiteful, and operates (at best) on the borders of legality.
That president is dealing with a hostile congress that is trying to cripple his programs.
The vice-president is seen as a bumbling fool.
Foreign powers hostile to us don’t consider us credible, and our allies are wavering.

Sigh, how are we ever going to get Nixon out of the White House?

Oh wait, Dan Rather is in the president’s corner this time… well, that’s one change, not for the better.

Drainage, CIP. Make yourself heard.

Per the City of Houston, the drainage projects will be discussed at CIP meetings during February and March. Sorry for the formatting. Here’s the schedule. Note that it’s in order by council district,not date. Also note that none of the at-large council members are holding such meetings. Don’t see any reason to, or afraid to step on their district bretheren’s toes? Still it’s a shame they can’t do a better job of meeting their constituents.

These meetings are starting this MONDAY NIGHT 2/14.

2011 CIP Public Meetings Schedule

The City of Houston will conduct combined public meetings on the City’s FY2011 Annual Operating Budget Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) and 2011 Annual Consolidated Plan. Since 1984, the City has held public meetings to obtain citizen input before preparation of the operating budget and capital improvement plan. These meetings provide citizens the opportunity to participate in the budget process by contributing comments and suggestions about needed services and improvements.

DISTRICT / COUNCIL MEMBER 2011 DATE(S) LOCATION(S) / MAP(S) LINK (go here for the links and a better formatted verison)
A – Brenda Stardig Mon., Feb. 28 6:00 to 8:00 p.m. Spring Woods High School 2045 Gessner Drive

B – Jarvis Johnson Thu., Feb. 24 6:00 to 8:00 p.m. Kashmere Multi-Service Center 4802 Lockwood

C – Anne Clutterbuck Tue., Mar. 1 6:00 to 8:00 p.m. St. Vincent De Paul Catholic School 6802 Buffalo Speedway

D – Wanda Adams Tue., Feb. 15 6:00 to 8:00 p.m. Judson Robinson Jr. Community Center 2020 Hermann Drive

E – Mike Sullivan (2) Mon., Feb. 14 6:00 to 8:00 p.m. CLEAR LAKE J. Frank Dobie High School 10220 Blackhawk

Mon., Feb. 21 6:00 to 8:00 p.m.KINGWOOD Woodridge Baptist Church 5707 Kingwood Drive

F – Al Hoang Wed., Mar. 9 6:00 to 8:00 p.m. Sharpstown Community Center 6600 Harbor Town

G – Oliver Pennington Wed., Feb. 23 6:00 to 8:00 p.m. Tracy Gee Community Center 3599 Westcenter Drive

H – Ed Gonzalez Tue., Feb. 22 6:00 to 8:00 p.m. Jefferson Davis High School (Atrium) 1101 Quitman

I – James G. Rodriguez Wed., Feb. 16 6:00 to 8:00 p.m. E.B. Cape Center 4501 Leeland

I have a better idea

than furloughs.

How about we FIX. THE. PENSION. MESS.

Oh, and stop building toy trains, collect the money owed to the city by Metro (over $100m now), stop raising counterproductive taxes for things we don’t need (expensive drainage projects), building stadiums (stadii?) for rich team owners, end bilingual pay, diversity programs, the entire MWBE program & administration therof, sanctuary status, coddling of homeless people… I could go on for a while….

Too Damn Funny

I don’t normally post much on highly technical items, even national security subjects, but this one just couldn’t be allowed to pass. Aboutthe STUXNET worm that is attacking Iran, the poster NobodySpecial at Schneier.com said:

Can anyone think of another area of software development where you would say “my god this a work of breathtaking ingenuity and fiendish cunning – it could only have been written by a civil servant” !!

Heh. No, I can’t.

Oh, but if you want something more fun to think about, here’s something from the UK on those “smart meters” with pre-paid cards:

Criminals across the UK have hacked the new keycard system used to top up pre-payment energy meters and are going door-to-door, dressed as power company workers, selling illegal credit at knock-down prices.

The bad news? Eventually the system figures out it’s being had, and the customer has to pay for the electricity again — this time at the real rate.

New Director

The mayor just announced the new director of PW&E.

Moments ago the Mayor announced Mr. Krueger as the new Director of the Public Works and Engineering Department. Confirmation by City Council is anticipated as early as late July.

Very Respectfully, 

Daniel R. Menendez, P.E.
Deputy Director
Engineering & Construction Division

Menendez was the interim director for the last couple of days.

Frankly, the mayor should have announced a new ITD director. The website rollout is totally botched. As I write this, the city’s front page is HTV. I don’t mean it’s redirected there, I mean it is HTV.

Once again, ITD fubars a project. No surprises there.

So Long, and Thanks for all the… Grief? (Updated)

I have yet to see it on any news outlet in Houston, but the word at the office is that Director of Public Works and Engineering Michael Marcotte has tendered his resignation to Mayor Parker. The effective date is in two weeks. According to multiple sources, the Mayor was not happy with unspecified job performance issues and requested the Director vacate his position.

What prompted this action now? The City is embroiled in multiple controversies, as the new mayor puts her stamp on the city. A hefty water rate increase, a drainage “fee” initiative that has her tacit approval, upheavals at Metro; now would not seem to be the time to throw more fuel on the fire. All of those involve Public Works in some way. Yet the fact remains: Marcotte is out.

Several questions immediately occur:

  • Is Marcotte supposed to take the fall for the rate increase?
  • What was the mayor unhappy about?
  • Who else, if anyone, will be following, if the mayor is unhappy?
  • Did Marcotte balk at some demand involving the rates, cooperation with Metro, backing the initiative?

Taking the fall doesn’t make sense. There’s no way that Parker can shift the blame for needing the rate increase onto Marcotte; not while she was the controller and silently oversaw the vast expansion of debt funding from capital projects into everyday operations and maintenance. So what is going on?

Perhaps we’ll hear when the usual 3:48 pm Friday evening press release goes out, but I’m not holding my breath.

Update: My view of Marcotte is probably not that well informed; I don’t interact with him in any way. Still, my impression is that he’s an even-tempered administrator who doesn’t rush to judgment, isn’t prone to arrogance, and listens to his managers. He’s been a loyal soldier publicly, whatever he’s had to say privately. He’s tried, within budget constraints, to see to it that his employees are compensated as well as in the private sector.

If I had to take a wild guess, I’d say that the rift probably had to do with the rebate program, and/or contract administration and code enforcement. The latter areas have always given me a queasy feel when I’ve dealt with them; contract inspectors sometimes act like they’re working for the contractor, not the city. There’s nothing I can specifically point to as wrong-doing (or I’d be publishing it, screw OIG), but the creation of the rebate program risks letting the rot spread. Not to mention, it removes funding from the utility system and hands it to slumlords.

Who are these “Engineers” of whom you speak?

Well, I’ve said any number of times (though mostly not here) that the drainage fee was coming back. Sure enough, it has.. There were several things I thought were very interesting in today’s uncritical article.

  • The assumption that some of the metro sales tax (aka. “general mobility”) funds would be used for drainage and “infrastructure” improvements. In the first place, that assumes that the changing of the Metro guard means a resumption of those payments to COH. Second place, they’re talking about other than drainage if they’re using mobility funds. Third place, I hope they have that much left after paying for lawsuit settlements for breaking the law about open records. Just as Tom Bazan has hounded them about for years.
  • User fee is bullshit, it’s a property tax. Council Member Costello: “It’s a user fee!” Funny, I thought my property tax was a user fee. If I don’t pay it, I’m not going to have use of my land for very long.
  • Note the article’s reference to developer fees where such development “affects density.” In other words, they’re going to make it more expensive to develop inside the city– not only that, but they’ll penalize and discourage the very density growth that they claim to be encouraging (and needing) for MetroRail.
  • Who are these faceless “engineers” of whom the Chronicle speaks? The only one identified by name is the President of this relatively unheard-of “Renew Houston” That’s Edwin Friedrichs of Walter P. Moore, whose online bio reads:

He devises engineering solutions to help build better communities. Some of his signature projects include the Uptown Houston Transportation Master Plan and Streetscape Improvements Program, numerous roadways and facilities at the Texas Medical Center, Sam Houston Tollway Section VII-A, Minute Maid Park, Lake Texana State Park, BMC Software Headquarters, and the Michael E. DeBakey Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

Mr. Friedrichs works to find consensus, both in his professional work and his civic activities, with groups such as South Main Alliance, Rice Design Alliance, Greater Houston Partnership, Houston Achievement Place, and various City of Houston committees.

Well, I’d not expect an un-influential person to be heading this project.. Can you say “Front man”? I knew that you could.

Some other notes:

The $8 billion to improve drainage would come primarily from three sources. First, the “Stormwater User Fee” that is expected to amount to about $5 per month for an average homeowner and $90 a month for an average commercial property owner with 14 units per acre.

In other words, a property tax, by another name.

Second, a “Development Impact Fee” would set up a program by which developers have to pay for the degree to which their projects impact density.

Which will discourage it, as noted above.

Third, a “pay-as-you-go” plan that would take the estimated one-sixth of total city property tax revenues used now to pay for interest costs on debt that has financed infrastructure and drainage projects and apply it directly to new projects. In other words, the city would not incur additional debt to pay for infrastructure as part of the plan and as old debts are paid off, money used to make those payments would be put to drainage and infrastructure projects.

How about we use the money for Police and Fire protection, huh?

But that’s not all, not by a long shot. Other funding:

The city also would continue to use other sources of funds to pay for road and drainage improvements, such as “mobility funds,” or sales taxes, collected by the Metropolitan Transit Authority and redistributed to the city.

So Metro’s going to cough up the money at last? Wonder how that will affect their already documented inability to pay for their current plans?

The proposed referendum includes a provision that would continue the program for another 20 years after 2032 unless City Council votes to modify or cancel it.

Keep that gravy train rolling, baby, hundreds of millions a year in public spending. Construction and engineering companies are lining up!

Parker said she preferred that the referendum focus exclusively on drainage rather than “general infrastructure,” and she also is uncomfortable that the charter amendment would prohibit future mayors from leveraging the revenues to issue debt if such a course were needed.

What, she wants to pile on MORE DEBT? Well, she let Bill White pile on all he wanted while ignoring the warning signs. Personally, I’m also worried about the referendum being used as an end-run around Prop 1 and Prop 2, if not to just “accidentally” repeal them entirely. “Oh, we didn’t realize it said that, but since it does…”

Houston’s voters need to wake up and smell the arsenic. The “non-partisan” nature of city elections means that neither the Democratic nor Republican parties feel any need to score points off the other by, Heaven forbid, actually doing what the voters want, instead of treating them as particularly stupid sheep to be sheared.

Mayor Parker’s Message

Just in case anyone had the idea that a new mayor meant a change in “the Houston Way”, the following message was sent out via Citizen’s Net, an email list you can sign up for on the City’s website. (old messages are also archived at the link).

Dear Citizens of Houston,

Let me assure you that the State of the City is fundamentally strong. Even with the financial challenges facing Houston, I feel comfortable that we have a plan to move our city forward into an “Era of Innovation.”

Without raising property taxes, we will identify ways to streamline, modernize and reform the core functions of municipal government. We will audit city services to identify savings opportunities and I am implementing a Hire Houston First policy to encourage the use of local companies and hiring of local workers for city projects.

We are working with the business community and regional allies to attract and retain jobs as well as stimulate new international business development. Not only do we want to remain the oil and gas capital of the country, we also want to be the sustainable and renewal energy capital. And, work continues to save NASA’s manned space flight Constellation program.

I call upon all citizens to do their part and join Volunteer Houston, an initiative which will utilize citizen support in a variety of city functions. http://www.houstontx.gov/volunteer/index.html

It is a tough economic time, but just as my family persevered when the economy cost my parents their home and their business in the 1980s, I pledge that the City of Houston will balance our budget as we strive to maintain the full faith and credit of all of our citizens.

I respectfully ask for your help.

Annise Parker

Mayor

Read the entire text of the prepared 2010 State of the City address

Edit: Mayor Makes Minor Goof (via KHOU)

Comedy of Idiots

You just can’t write this stuff as fiction. Nobody would believe it.

[Metro VP] Skabowski said there was nothing glaring in the driver’s record to indicate she was a bad driver. Out of five accidents she’s had, Metro said she had only been at fault for one, though her record shows she has been disciplined for speeding, as well as turning right on red where it wasn’t allowed.

Really she’s got a very good record. Metro makes it look worse than it is. But then they charge their drivers for every little thing whether it’s their fault or not,” said David Gollinger, president of the Transport Workers Union of America Local 260.

Golinger argues Metro may, in fact, be too strict with its drivers.

Clearly, my distaste for the modern-day equivalent of a monopolistic medieval trade guild, a.k.a. public sector unions, is too narrowly focused. Equally, I need to start advocating the banning of management.

I’m Sure it Was Unintentional (Not)

As we’ve all been told time and again, red light cameras are ALLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLL about the safety, right? Well, KHOU reports that citizen Byron Schrimbeck found an odd safety violation near one camera, located at FM 518 and I-45 South, and decided to document it:

Texas law requires a light be yellow a certain length of time to safely give drivers time to react and stop.

Schirmbeck then called League City Police Chief Michael Jez and Jez asked The Texas Department of Transportation to investigate. TxDot found Schirmbeck was right about the yellow lights being short.

The eight-tenths of a second made a difference in more than 1,700 citations issued between October of last year and March.

Let’s read that again: The eight-tenths of a second made a difference in more than 1,700 citations. Now, this light was apparently supposed to be under the control of TxDOT. I guess that, since the article doesn’t tell us so. Nor does it tell us what the required minimum time is. But the important question is, who made out like bandits from this money-machine, for six months? Note that the article says refunds are being issued — but doesn’t say by whom. Follow the money, KHOU, follow the money. Doesn’t the state get a cut of it, these days? I’m sure League City gets the lion’s share.

One wonders if some bureaucratic tangle will “delay” the checks. Not that I have anything but total faith in the sincerity of our elected and unelected masters when they say “the check is in the mail.”

Rats, They Leave Sinking Ships…

Spotted on KHOU:

Shortly before KHOU broke the initial reports of document-shredding, Metro fired its general counsel, Pauline Higgins, as well as another staff attorney, Jakki Hansen. Another staff attorney voluntarily left the agency the same day KHOU’s first story aired. Metro said no other employees from the legal department have left the agency since February 1, 2010.

However, the exodus from the agency continues. A Metro spokesperson confirmed yet another senior manager has left the agency, just two days after it disclosed shredding had taken place. George Smalley confirmed in a written statement that David Feeley, the Senior Vice President of Operations at Metro, left the agency last Friday.

This is in an article, telling us that, surprise! Metro has never been in compliance with state law on recordkeeping.

Let me make this perfectly clear: Metro has NO excuse. All the information you need to know on how to comply with the requirements is available on the state’s websites. It took me a few hours research, and a half-day class on the city’s software and how to fill out the paperwork. To devise the program for Metro, which is far smaller than the city, should not have taken more than a week of work by a lawyer and any reasonable competent bureaucrat assigned to the work. I mean, hell, use the salary they’re wasting on Mary Sit’n’Spin’s blog to hire someone with some experience in the work — I’m available.

Fair warning, though: if you try to shred anything on my watch, you get fed to the shredder first.