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Houblog » Analysis

Archive for the ‘Analysis’ Category

City Controller’s Audit Plan, FY 2007

Wednesday, August 30th, 2006

Controller Anise Parker has posted the Fiscal Year 2007 audit plans on the city’s website. Notably missing from the list is any operations of the Housing and Community Development Department, which have proved to be so embarassing in the past, despite the evidence that little has changed. (Item #40)

Just as an aside, you know things are bad when the Federal Government thinks you’re wasting their money and starts cutting back on the money flow.

The City of Houston Housing and Community Development Department has decided to delay issuance of the Request for Proposals (RFP) for Neighborhood Facilities Renovation. The reason for this delay is that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has reduced the City’s Community Development Block Grant allocation by $3,630,000 for Fiscal Year 2006 (July 1, 2006 - June 30, 2007). The Department does plan to issue the RFP in December 2006 for funding in Fiscal Year 2007 (July 1, 2007 - June 30, 2008).

One would think that maybe the $750,000 in city funds that went to propping up Metro’s ridership figures buying bus passes for city employees would be audited, or LARA would be checked over, or maybe even someone would follow up to see if HOH has reimbursed HUD — but then again, the city would rather spend $200k and try to get out of it entirely (see item #48), so why bother?

What Ms. Parker auditing in FY 2007? A whole lot of “safe” things:

  • Some Aviation Dept construction contracts
  • HFD’s fleet maintenance
  • City - wide Purchase Card activity (Well, that was fun over at TSU, so who knows what we’ll find here?
  • PW&E’s Landscaping and Beautification projects
  • Vehicle Maintenance: Did you change the oil?

Exciting stuff, eh? Certainly nothing that’s going to cause problems for the mayor or the folks lined up at the trough labeled “Houston Development.” Well, there are three items on the list which might prove interesting:

  • Taser Acquisition, Distribution, & Use. I’m not holding my breath on that one; as most of the criticisms of the idea have to do with law enforcement issues, not cost effectiveness.
  • Long-Term Contract Relationships: An examination of whether the city is really saving money by skimping on hiring employees and contracting out jobs instead. Of course I would be interested in that. :)
  • Parking, Car Rentals, and Hotel Concession: Checking up behind the entertainment industry in this city to make sure they’ve remitted the taxes like they should have. Hmmmmm… see item #19.

There’s more; you may want to check it out, but my read of this is that in an election year (most of these will complete in the first half of 2007), Controller Parker isn’t going to risk causing any problems for Mayor White’s last re-election bid.

(cross-posted at blogHOUSTON.)

Pencils and Paychecks

Sunday, June 11th, 2006

That was, I think, the title of a fictional role-playing game being played by several medieval fantasy heroes sitting around a table, killing time between orc-killing expeditions, according to a comic in the original Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Dungeon Master’s Guide. They role-played clerks and managers in a fictional techonological society, which of course was a total inversion from what the player was doing.

As if I’m in a game of Pencils and Paychecks, I’ve often thought I should re-roll this character. I seem to be stuck in a rut, at say, third level.

Just how much of a rut got driven home to me recently, as I was cleaning out some old files at work. I ran across a lot of things I’d sooner forget: a recommendation for counseling due to “hostility towards management,” a reprimand for disrupting a (poorly organized) training session — don’t get me started on the policy that was the subject of the training itself, and the fact that the trainers had a key issue wrong…. I certainly have an up-and-down history: commendations and reprimands, high marks and low, evidence of keen insights and some things that just make me groan to look at today.

I don’t think they invented the saying about square pegs and round holes to describe me and bureaucracy, but I’m fairly sure it was polished up and saved for application to my case.

(more…)

Bargain Basement Law Enforcement

Saturday, June 3rd, 2006

The last few weeks have seen Mayor White’s latest brainstorm almost slip by unnoticed behind the controversy over supporting illegal immigration and using red-light cameras. Well, I was just going back through some old posts over at BlogHouston when I ran across this tidbit, quoted by Kevin from Jay Aiyer’s campaign blog last year:

Why have we not trained more new officers? Cost — it currently costs the city of Houston $2.8 million for a cadet class of 70. That number doubles when the overall cost of operations of the Police Academy is factored in. Fiscal reality makes any dramatic increase in training difficult under our current system.

Hm…. $1.5 mil for “35 to 40″ traffic-light repairmen and guys out there with batons waving traffic around? Or $5.6 mil for 70 real police we can send on any type of call? I know which one I think is the better buy — especially since, if we aren’t using the Police Academy to train police, we’re still paying for that half of the expense and under-utilizing it to boot.

And while we’re at it, how is a traffic-light repairman a law-enforcer? And why do we suddenly need a bunch more of them? Maybe the Mayor’s little traffic-light synchronization project is a little harder to keep running than he thought?

Evacuation Bottlenecks

Friday, June 2nd, 2006

KHOU points out that the construction on I-45 will make for serious bottlenecks during another evacuation, even if contraflow lanes are used.

Traffic bottlenecks at FM 1488, where construction begins. It is there where drivers fear traffic will come to a standstill should a hurricane evacuation be called.

“It’s probably going to happen like last time. It’s going to be backed up, ah, for days,? said Lt. Dennis DePaul with the Conroe Fire Department. That’s not good news for people heading north through 45, running from a storm.

“We don’t have wide shoulders to accommodate wide vehicles and so on. That does have an impact, so that means we have to heighten our awareness,? said Texas Department of Transportation’s Janelle Gbur.

I disagree with the importance they attach to this fact. It’s true that there’s no shoulders and lots of construction, but remember one thing: I-45 is always under construction. The real problem is that when it was constructed, it was largely created from the existing Hwy. 75. Unlike Hwy 90 and various coastal roads which parallel I-10, there simply is no other way to get from the northernost end of Houston (the end of the Hardy Toll Road) to Conroe itself. What little section of Hwy. 75 left in existance picks up at the southern end of town, runs through downtown Conroe and rejoins I-45 to the north.

Look at this map of Interstate 45 S & Fm 1488 Rd.

Judged strictly from the standpoint of evacuation, we would need to extend the toll road to Huntsville to do much good. The road net at that point would allow the traffic to spread out and take alternate routes. However, that would be incredibly expensive, and not justified based on everyday travel. Still, even 2-lane roads can carry a fair amount of traffic if utilized properly. The major problem, as I’ve said before, is that in the interests of an “orderly” evacuation, the bureaucrats running the show insist on channeling everyone from Galveston to Beaumont into five major corridors: Hwy 87, Hwy. 59, I-45, Hwy 290, I-10 West from Houston, I-10 East from Beaumont (assuming a strike between Victoria and Beaumont). This fails to take advantage of the many side roads available to bleed off excess traffic.

Are You Republican? Or a Jacksonian?

Thursday, June 1st, 2006

The prior article in this informal series was, in some ways, out of order, and it originally carried the same title that this one now does, as I changed directions on the fly, but didn’t catch the details. I discussed the general anger at both parties, but concentrated on the anger of the electorate with the Republican Party. In doing so, I referred time and again to a belief structure known as Jacksonianism. And while I’ve provided the links, not everyone wants to read a scholarly article of the length that Walter Russel Meade wrote. Nor does everyone have the time to read the nearly as lengthy (but thought provoking) writings of the first person to tell the two parties to take a flying leap. So, briefly, what makes a person a Jacksonian, then?

Well, never fear, because this article is here to summarize it for you.

Firstly, we’re warlike. I don’t mean that we’re war-mongers, or even like war. But we don’t shy away from smacking down someone (or spending 50 years standing guard) when it’s necessary.

An observer who thinks of American foreign policy only in terms of the commercial realism of the Hamiltonians, the crusading moralism of Wilsonian transcendentalists, and the supple pacifism of the principled but slippery Jeffersonians would be at a loss to account for American ruthlessness at war.

THOSE WHO prefer to believe that the present global hegemony of the United States emerged through a process of immaculate conception avert their eyes from many distressing moments in the American ascension. Yet students of American power cannot ignore one of the chief elements in American success. The United States over its history has consistently summoned the will and the means to compel its enemies to yield to its demands.

Secondly, while we like some federal programs, we really don’t like the government telling us what to do or how to raise our kids.

Suspicious of untrammeled federal power (Waco), skeptical about the prospects for domestic and foreign do-gooding (welfare at home, foreign aid abroad), opposed to federal taxes but obstinately fond of federal programs seen as primarily helping the middle class (Social Security and Medicare, mortgage interest subsidies), Jacksonians constitute a large political interest.

Lately, even that liking of Social Security has wavered, dragged down in part by the Medicare boondogle. A Jacksonian might feel guilty, having a relative on the “Plan D” prescription benefit, but knows in his or her heart that much of the problem is caused by one’s own failure to plan for retirement, since “social security will take care of it.” This is why some of the plans floated to end SS involve a graduated ending; reducing the benefits for people who are under 30 today until the whole program goes away. As Jacksonians don’t shy away from fights, it’s likely that pragmatic (as opposed to draconian) proposals along that line will resurface if a Jacksonian revolt takes place. These will, of course, be demonized by the existing parties.

Thirdly, Jacksonians see the Second Amendment, the right to bear arms, as the citadel of liberty. Every member of the NRA is, in some respects (if not many of those given here), a Jacksonian.

Fourthly, Jacksonians believe you can go to hell if you want to. It’s none of our business if you want to worship some other version of God, or Allah, or Budda, or even funky aliens. We believe in our own version, you worship yours, and we’ll both mind our own business. That works best. Now, we’ll draw the line if your religion involves sexual explotation, assault/murder, terrorism, or any other asocial activity that is a physical (or financial) threat to others, but by and large, we don’t give a damn if you want to do the nasty with your own sex or six of the opposite, or even change your own. It may seem creepy to some of us, but it’s your life. Gay marriage? Enh, marriage needs to be divorced from religion. Problem solved. Whomever you are and however you want to live your life, just don’t expect your hijinks to be held up as a positive example for our kids, ok? Or even respected, for that matter. (Yes, I’m talking to you Brittney. And you, Madonna. And… oh hell, half of the entertainment industry.) Your right to be an ass doesn’t preclude or prevent my right to criticize you. It’s this distinction that the press often always fails to note. But this sort of belief isn’t just domestic, it applies to foriegn policy as well.

Jacksonian chairs of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee are the despair of high-minded people everywhere, as they hold up adhesion to the Kyoto Protocol, starve the UN and the IMF, cut foreign aid, and ban the use of U.S. funds for population control programs abroad.

So why, if this resonates with you, and if you believe that you’re actually in the “silent majority,” do the Jacksonians not have a greater say in our government today? Simple. We haven’t had any well-known leaders in the media.

A principal explanation of why Jacksonian politics are so poorly understood is that Jacksonianism is less an intellectual or political movement than an expression of the social, cultural and religious values of a large portion of the American public. And it is doubly obscure because it happens to be rooted in one of the portions of the public least represented in the media and the professoriat.

But in the ’90’s, the “right” started being represented by talk radio, and now the internet is here. The only reason the right (including the Jacksonians) doesn’t have an influential bunch of lunatics like the DU’ers or Kossacks acting as a tail wagging the dog is that we’re a bunch of fiercely opinionated and independant people, who have yet to find their own rallying point. And one can be sure, if and when such a point appears, the media and professoriat will do their level best to discredit it/him/her. (Paging Juan Cole! Paging Juan Cole!) We can count on it.

Where do Jacksonians come from? To reach the fifth point, this must be examined. Jacksonianism started as a culutral meme of the rural Scots-Irish, a hardy people forged from a millenia of war. From there, it spread all across the demographics of America. It even ensnares people of other nations who come here because this nation reflects their beliefs, not just their opportunity. Such people are American in heart and soul even before they set foot on our soil.

Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, among others, has said that the United States is unlike other nations because it is based on an idea rather than on a community of national experience.

Times have changed and the Scots-Irish were long ago outnumbered by other immigrants, but the belief hasn’t changed. Instead, it spread:

The new Jacksonianism is no longer rural and exclusively nativist. Frontier Jacksonianism may have taken the homesteading farmer and the log cabin as its emblems, but today’s Crabgrass Jacksonianism sees the homeowner on his modest suburban lawn as the hero of the American story.

To use a current controversy for a demonstration: It isn’t fear of immigration that drives Jacksonian opposition; it’s fear that the pace of immigration, the reason, and belief structures of illegal immigrants threaten the ability, already seriously endangered by the government and existing political parties, to hold on to that modest suburban lawn. Is it a vaild worry? In a word, yes. Because by entering illegally, the alien has challenged one of the core beliefs adopted from the Scots-Irish.

It’s one that hasn’t changed; one that’s key to the whole structure, and embodied in a word you don’t see much used anymore outside the military (a place Jacksonians are heavily overrepresented, unsurprisingly) and not at all in politics: Honor.

So, Fifthly: Jacksonians believe in honor and integrity. Your word is your bond and all that, so be careful about giving it on important things–like marriage. It includes things like following the rules, even if you don’t like them, not flauting them and then asking for special treatment. Honor is a life value to a Jacksonian, even if he or she professes not to understand the word in those terms.

The first principle of this code is self-reliance. That’s a polite way of saying those that won’t help themselves should be left to rot instead of sucking down our tax dollars, used by one or the other of the political parties to buy support. Give them adequate schools and a way out, but if they won’t take it, the hell with giving them my money to sit on their butts.

Real Americans, many Americans feel, are people who make their own way in the world. They may get a helping hand from friends and family, but they hold their places in the world through honest work. They don’t slide by on welfare, and they don’t rely on inherited wealth or connections. Those who won’t work and are therefore poor, or those who don’t need to work due to family money, are viewed with suspicion.

The second principle, Respect, builds on the first.

We give respect to those who earn it, either through ability, deed, or sometimes simply age (with wisdom). And according respect means according dignity; an insulted and disrespected Jacksonian is often a dangerous Jacksonian, and an enemy for life. (Extreme Jacksonians have been known to stuff and mount their grudges, passing them down to future generations. “War of Northern Aggression,” indeed.)
(Note: Meade treats Respect as a sub-point of self-reliance; I raise it to an independant point in this article, as I believe it should be. Other points have been similarly moved, to relflect their importance in the debate.)

Behind that comes the third principle: equality.

Among those members of the folk community who do pull their weight, there is an absolute equality of dignity and right. No one has a right to tell the self-reliant Jacksonian what to say, do or think. Any infringement on equality will be met with defiance and resistance. Male or female, the Jacksonian is, and insists on remaining, independent of church, state, social hierarchy, political parties and labor unions.
(Emphasis added–you need to read the “Unions Due” category for why, if you’re new here.)

The fourth principal of honor is individualism.

The Jacksonian does not just have the right to self-fulfillment–he or she has a duty to seek it. In Jacksonian America, everyone must find his or her way: each individual must choose a faith, or no faith, and code of conduct based on conscience and reason. The Jacksonian feels perfectly free to strike off in an entirely new religious direction.

Which brings us back to the fourth belief above, does it not? Meade thinks there are serious limits to the extent of such free-thinking, but I disagree, based on the traction “civil unions” and even gay marriage has gotten within supposedly conservative bastions. It’s not moderation of political and moral fiber; it’s gaining the recognition, if not support of the Jacksonians through appeal to their belief that everyone should live as they wish, within proper limits.

Although women should be more discreet, both sexes can sow wild oats before marriage. After it, to enjoy the esteem of their community a couple must be seen to put their children’s welfare ahead of personal gratification.

And there are some limits, especially for children. Jacksonian parents have the unquestioned right to set those limits for children, and woe betide anyone else who sticks their nose in to tell a them how to to it.

Corporal punishment is customary and common; Jacksonians find objections to this time-honored and (they feel) effective method of discipline outlandish and absurd.

And from there, we can move back to immigration and show why opposition to the current state of affairs (let alone any form of reward for flauting the law) runs counter to Jacksonian belief. Amnesty would be akin to rewarding a child with ice cream for throwing a temper tantrum because he was served broccoli.

Financially, Jacksonians are a mixed bag. If a set of wide parameters can be drawn around their belief structure, it the sixth belief would be in an open, loose financial policy personally, and a tight fiscal policy governmentally. In short, Jacksonians prefer that they have access to easy credit with low interest rates, allowing them to spend for luxuries far beyond the absolutely necessary, but that their government should excercise fiscal restraint, not borrowing money, nor wasting it on frivolous non-necessities. Most especially, not wasting it on supporting a permanent underclass–or “pork class” for that matter. Such funds were taken from the Jacksonian, and thus are entrusted to the government to be used as seen fit by the people from whom the funds were removed by force of law. Many Jacksonians would be happy if the government spent on nothing but national defense and enforcement of necessary laws — and what they deem necessary is usually somewhat less than what we have.

Lacking a home to call their own, and suspicious of government spending and governmental power, Jacksonian traditions get expressed in many ways and from both parties: Flat Tax; check boxes to direct funds to specific programs; cutting U.N. subsidies; and suggestions to abolish Cabinet-level offices like Energy, Education, and even Homeland Security. All of these spring from the Jacksonian thought mode.

To date, the party that has expressed a platform closest to their beliefs has been the Libertarian Party, but is has been fatally handicapped by its idealistic stands on foriegn policy and society in general. Jacksonians recognize that in today’s smaller world, simply withdrawing to our own borders is tantamount to national suicide. And worse, some limited government is a bargain with the devil, but it’s better than no government at all. “Communism requires that all men be angels for it to work; Libertarianism assumes that they are,” is how one person put it. Whether that was an original by the author who wrote me, or if he was quoting someone else, I am not sure.

So what does the future hold? Will the Jacksonian tradition find it’s own identity and political party, or will it continue to make a deal with the two devils we know? I don’t know the answer to that question, but I do know that continuing the path we Jacksonians have followed thus far will only result in more of the same. The Contract with America lies in ruins, and the constitution is tattered.

It’s time for Jacksonians to recognize themselves for whom and what they are. Only then can we advance our agenda, and it appears that a third party is a necessity for doing so, as the Republican party thinks it can continue to ignore the will of the masses, and the Democratic party has simply jumped off the deep end.

Electric Rates Again

Wednesday, April 5th, 2006

So, prompted by this article at KHOU, I was checking on the Mayor’s program to advertise electric companies at our expense, and I noticed something really weird on this page.

Note the rates for the Reliant “Price to Beat” program:

1-250 kWh: $0.122159
251 - 800: $0.164428
800 + : $0.1564136

But here are the rates that appear on my bill, and in my earlier post:
PTB
1 - 250 : $0.29441
251-800: $0.077171
801 + : $0.0489826

Secure Plan
1-500 $0.058823
500-1000 $0.08567
1000+ $0.06533

After a half hour of puzzling it out, I finally figured out that it was because the website already adds the fuel factor into each rate, but it’s the variable piece of the puzzle which could invalidate the entire comparison. The website doesn’t mention this. So what’s the point of spending taxpayer money on a worthless tool?

(And in a sideline note, I may soon upgrade this site to WP2.x and it’s wysiwyg editing. Those tables were such a damn pain, I only now realized I left out the size of the brackets in each rate plan. Grrrrrr. I’ll have to work on the formatting later.

Reliant: Another Bad Deal

Sunday, April 2nd, 2006

Well, once again, Reliant is up to its old tricks, offering a “great deal” that isn’t so great once you actually look past the hype. This time, it’s the electricity rates and their new “Secure Plan with Heat Protection.” And just like last time with the gas plan, a major part of the trick is getting the user to lock in a high fuel factor.

The plan, in case you haven’t looked too closely, is in two parts. First is to lock in the current fuel factor for 12 months, so that it doesn’t rise (or fall). Second is to offer a break on the electrical bill; any month for which the average temperature for the whole month is 2.0 degrees higher than the 10-year average, Reliant will take $50 off the bill. It sounds great, but in reality, there’s so many problems with it I’m not sure where to begin. So let’s start with the trick borrowed from their gas plan: locking the natural gas Fuel Factor.

The FF is a surcharge added onto the bill that allows Reliant to adjust its rates when fuel prices go up. We do generate a fair amount of electricity from natural gas in this area, but we also have the nuclear power power plant. Also, welcome to summer in North America. This is a time that prices for natural gas tend to decrease, not increase, because residential/commercial heating use accounts for a major part of the market. Peak demand, and therefore, peak prices, are in the winter. Anyone locking in the current fuel factor is likely doing themselves a disfavor; historically, prices are lower in the summer.

The second trick is that for the 10-year average to be exceeded by 2.0 degrees for 30 days takes a major, major heat wave that lasts for several weeks. The killer kind, like we had in 2001. Oh, conveniently for Reliant, that one counts against the average. Five of the eight hottest summers on record have been in the last decade, which sounds like a great selling point, but what it really means is that they count against the average, making it harder to qualify.

The third trick is that the rate scales are re-jiggered. While the fuel factor remains the same in either plan look at the rates being charged:

PTB SCWHP
$0.29441 $0.058823
$0.077171 $0.08567
$0.0489826 $0.06533

Note that every one of the rates is higher for the Secure Plan than for the standard Price to Beat plan! But to confuse you, they rejigger the rate brackets, making the first bracket twice as big as normal. It doesn’t do enough however. Below are the rates that would be charged based on various usages. Pull your own electrical bills out and compare.

Charges for the Price to Beat plan:

Price
to Beat

0-250
kWh

250-800
kWh

800+
kWh

Fuel
Factor

TOTAL

Rate:

0.029441

0.077171

0.048926

0.092718

250 kWh

$ 7.36

$ -

$ -

$ 23.18

$ 30.54

500

$ 7.36

$ 19.29

$ -

$ 46.36

$ 73.01

800

$ 7.36

$ 42.44

$ -

$ 74.17

$ 123.98

1000

$ 7.36

$ 57.88

$ 9.79

$ 92.72

$ 167.74

1100

$ 7.36

$ 65.60

$ 14.68

$ 101.99

$ 189.62

1200

$ 7.36

$ 73.31

$ 19.57

$ 111.26

$ 211.50

1300

$ 7.36

$ 81.03

$ 24.46

$ 120.53

$ 233.39

1400

$ 7.36

$ 88.75

$ 29.36

$ 129.81

$ 255.27

1500

$ 7.36

$ 96.46

$ 34.25

$ 139.08

$ 277.15

1600

$ 7.36

$ 104.18

$ 39.14

$ 148.35

$ 299.03

1700

$ 7.36

$ 111.90

$ 44.03

$ 157.62

$ 320.91

1800

$ 7.36

$ 119.62

$ 48.93

$ 166.89

$ 342.79

1900

$ 7.36

$ 127.33

$ 53.82

$ 176.16

$ 364.68

2000

$ 7.36

$ 135.05

$ 58.71

$ 185.44

$ 386.56

2100

$ 7.36

$ 142.77

$ 63.60

$ 194.71

$ 408.44

2200

$ 7.36

$ 150.48

$ 68.50

$ 203.98

$ 430.32

2300

$ 7.36

$ 158.20

$ 73.39

$ 213.25

$ 452.20

2400

$ 7.36

$ 165.92

$ 78.28

$ 222.52

$ 474.08



Charges for the Secure Plan, with Heat Protection:

Secure
Plan

0-500
kWh

500-1000
kWh

1000+
kWh

Fuel

Factor

Total

Rate:

0.058823

0.08567

0.06533

0.092718

250 kWh

$ 14.71

$ -

$ -

$ 23.18

$ 37.89

500

$ 29.41

$ -

$ -

$ 46.36

$ 75.77

800

$ 29.41

$ 25.70

$ -

$ 74.17

$ 129.29

1000

$ 29.41

$ 42.84

$ -

$ 92.72

$ 164.96

1100

$ 29.41

$ 51.40

$ 6.53

$ 101.99

$ 189.34

1200

$ 29.41

$ 59.97

$ 13.07

$ 111.26

$ 213.71

1300

$ 29.41

$ 68.54

$ 19.60

$ 120.53

$ 238.08

1400

$ 29.41

$ 77.10

$ 26.13

$ 129.81

$ 262.45

1500

$ 29.41

$ 85.67

$ 32.67

$ 139.08

$ 286.82

1600

$ 29.41

$ 94.24

$ 39.20

$ 148.35

$ 311.20

1700

$ 29.41

$ 102.80

$ 45.73

$ 157.62

$ 335.57

1800

$ 29.41

$ 111.37

$ 52.26

$ 166.89

$ 359.94

1900

$ 29.41

$ 119.94

$ 58.80

$ 176.16

$ 384.31

2000

$ 29.41

$ 128.51

$ 65.33

$ 185.44

$ 408.68

2100

$ 29.41

$ 137.07

$ 71.86

$ 194.71

$ 433.05

2200

$ 29.41

$ 145.64

$ 78.40

$ 203.98

$ 457.43

2300

$ 29.41

$ 154.21

$ 84.93

$ 213.25

$ 481.80

2400

$ 29.41

$ 162.77

$ 91.46

$ 222.52

$ 506.17



And finally, a head-to-head comparison of the two plans:

PTB

SP
w/HP

Higher

250 kWh

$ 30.54

$ 37.89

$ 7.35

500

$ 73.01

$ 75.77

$ 2.76

800

$ 123.98

$ 129.29

$ 5.31

1000

$ 167.74

$ 164.96

$ (2.78)

1100

$ 189.62

$ 189.34

$ (0.29)

1200

$ 211.50

$ 213.71

$ 2.20

1300

$ 233.39

$ 238.08

$ 4.69

1400

$ 255.27

$ 262.45

$ 7.18

1500

$ 277.15

$ 286.82

$ 9.67

1600

$ 299.03

$ 311.20

$ 12.16

1700

$ 320.91

$ 335.57

$ 14.65

1800

$ 342.79

$ 359.94

$ 17.15

1900

$ 364.68

$ 384.31

$ 19.64

2000

$ 386.56

$ 408.68

$ 22.13

2100

$ 408.44

$ 433.05

$ 24.62

2200

$ 430.32

$ 457.43

$ 27.11

2300

$ 452.20

$ 481.80

$ 29.60

2400

$ 474.08

$ 506.17

$ 32.09

Note that because of the way the rate breaks, there is exactly one stretch where you’re not paying more on the Secure Plan. And remember, the Heat Protection only applies to four months out of the year!

Truly, with Reliant, it is “buyer beware.”

Water Meter Failures: How Accurate Is Your Bill?

Wednesday, March 29th, 2006

Ok, as usual, the press gets it half right. For that matter, Annise Parker isn’t exactly on the money either.

The project was supposed to cost $50 million and be complete in 2003. Instead, it’s now costing approximately $75 million and won’t be complete until 2008.

“The failure rate is beyond anything that we should have experienced,” Houston City Controller Annise Parker said.

She’s right about that much. How bad is it? Bad. Very bad. Is it as bad as it’s said to be? No, not hardly.

Lets get the worst out of the way: The program was ill-conceived, poorly planned, terribly executed, over budget, and has never worked as advertised. Inasmuch as it has caused numerous problems, resulted in many bill estimations, and caused hundreds, maybe thousands of man-hours per month to be devoted to correcting bills, and resulted in a great decrease in the public’s confidence level even before the story finally broke, it should be probably regarded as the single biggest failure in city administration over the last ten years, short of outright corruption. (Which is not to speak of any specific incident, just to say that I put malfeasance in a class seperate from mere incompetence.) Well, ok, it’s in the top two, anyway.

It will be made clear that the problems stem from decisions made as far back as the Lanier administrtion, but the key mistakes were made during the Brown era, and that the managers involved have since taken their retirement pay and run for the beaches. The current team running Public Works and the section responsible for meters (Utility Customer Service) is all-new, having been shuffled in after the Pension Massacre of 2004. They have inherited a very bad hand, and are trying to play it as well as possible, after about eighteen months of learning that their hole cards are deuces. They’re dealing with the administrative issues well enough, but this is a fundamental city policy–a decison to abandon this program wouldn’t be made in Public Works, not even by Marcotte. Whether they should just fold and ask for an expensive re-deal is a matter of public policy and high-level decision-making by the Mayor and Council–something we may now see if this story becomes a major public issue.

The good news is that, while it’s bad, it’s not nearly as bad as it looks when you see “47%.” If you think it means 47% of the bills are wrong, you’d be way off. You could take that on faith or my word, but I suspect that you, as the reader, want a bit more to go on. To explain why it’s not as bad, I have to explain exactly what is failing and why. It’s not very technical and I’ll avoid jargon as much as possible. In this article, I’m addressing just the technical aspects necessary to show why the 47% figure is highly misleading. History of the decisions and the people repsonsible will have to wait for a future article. (more…)

Bogus Memos and Doublethink

Wednesday, March 15th, 2006

The Chronicle reports on the peculiar memo requesting authorization for bonuses, and Carol Alvarado’s memory lapse.

A memo dated last April from a city employee who has been fired for receiving unauthorized bonuses asked then-Mayor Pro Tem Carol Alvarado to approve $5,500 in extra pay.

A spokesman said Tuesday that Alvarado doesn’t remember such a memo. She has said she didn’t approve any of the monthly bonuses that totaled $143,000 over about a year for four employees in the Office of Mayor Pro Tem.

(snip)

If Hernandez did send the memo, it could support — at least in this instance — her contention that bonuses were properly documented, though the four employees eventually collected far more than the amount requested in the memo.

Conversely, it could fit with the conclusion of police investigators that pro tem employees enriched themselves through misconduct that included fabricating documents.

I really don’t get why the memo doesn’t match the bonuses, but let’s follow the logic out: If the bonus memo was supposed to be legitimate, then the bonuses granted should have matched. (Caveat: the next bonus granted didn’t match, but it was only two weeks later. –Edit: Uh no, it was six. – Since that’s the length of the pay period, any approval by Alvarado, even if immediate, could have been caught “between cycles” and the bonuses paid four weeks later; add F&A/Payroll processing time, and maybe six weeks would be right.)

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Raises Plus Bonuses

Thursday, February 23rd, 2006

Ok, I’ve looked at the latest Chronicle article. There’s a few things I could snark about, but in keeping with my earlier resolution, I’m just going to point out the highlights. There were raises in addition to the bonuses, but now we know the amounts of their base pay before and after the raises. And I have to say, the raises might have been merited, if not to the extent that they were given. The pay of Christopher Mays caught my eye: He is an Administrative Specialist, (i.e., mid-rank paper pusher with no supervisory duties, but important responsibilities nonetheless). This is about the rank I’d expect to find in an office that supports council members and their staff.

The problem is, before the raises he was three pay grades higher than me, but making $3k less. That’s….screwed up, even for the city. HR should never have allowed that to happen. Believe me, I’m not overpaid; my raise when I got bumped up a pay grade was less than 3%. His $26k salary was woefully inadequate, but I know what caused it: HR penalizes employees who jump too many pay grades at once. His prior job was in Public Works, I believe as a pay grade 13 or 14 (seven or six grades lower than he is now), but he had the connections to make the jump to the pro tem’s office. Only HR won’t allow anyone to recieve a huge % pay increase, even if they jump several pay grades. They give only a “small” increase. Although I don’t know his actual pay amount prior to the jump, I’d peg it in the area of $24k. So it was about a 20% pay increase. This seems large, but it may not have put him in the bottom end of the pay grade, i.e. his pay was so low it could have been less than the minimum for his position.

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Why Privatization Rarely Works

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2006

I’ve been tinkering with this column for some time now, but Sunday’s article over at Houston Strategies prompted me to pull it off the back burner and get it ready. Tony appears to be someone who gets it.

I’ve never understood why it’s bad for a company (i.e. “capital”) to abuse monopoly power to increase profits but good for labor to do the same thing.

Neither have I. But here’s where I went “OMG, he really gets it!”

As mayor, Goldsmith championed two ideas, privatization and competition. Privatization alone didn’t work, Goldsmith wrote, because private monopolies weren’t that much more efficient than public ones. So simply turning the water department over to a private company wouldn’t accomplish much. But if you could carve up the city into zones and let a number of providers (including city workers themselves) compete to haul garbage, tow abandoned cars, fix potholes and so on, wonderful and surprising things happened, Goldsmith found. Services improved, work processes were streamlined, productivity soared and costs declined dramatically.

Amazingly, city workers often turned out to be the high-quality, low-cost providers, once they were allowed to compete. “The problem,? Goldsmith wrote in his book, “is that [municipal employees] have been trapped in a system that punishes initiative, ignores efficiency and rewards big spenders.? A system … well, like San Diego city government.

Or Houston’s.

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HPD, Phone Home

Friday, February 17th, 2006

No, I haven’t overlooked this little story due to Bonusgate.

Emanuel is an inspector for Houston Police Department’s Neighborhood Protection.

“His supervisors have told me they’re conducting an inquiry,” said Lt. Robert Manzo, HPD.

11 News discovered the city is not collecting hundreds, perhaps thousands of dollars from employees who make personal calls on their city cell phones.

It’s just that there’s really not much to add. Ten years ago, if/when I made long distance calls on a city phone, I would receive a report a few months later. It was my responsibiltiy to mark off any calls that were personal business and attach a check to reimburse the City of Houston. Although city policy was and remains that you don’t make personal calls from city phones, sometimes there really isn’t any choice; you’re disputing a credit card bill and the company can only be contacted during regular business hours, or you’ve got to talk to an insurance company, but it’s not toll free, etc. Managers understand that life stubbornly refuses to be lived between the lines, and as long as our work got done and we reimbursed the city, everything was ok.

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Slicing Bread the Wrong Way

Tuesday, January 10th, 2006

Note: This article has been updated multiple times, because I made a total hash out of posting it early. This is now the finalized version. Apologies to all both my readers.

Recently, the SEIU ran a highly touted (by them, anyway) nationwide contest, soliciting great new ideas to work towards. They even set up a website for it.

Since Sliced Bread seeks ideas that are original and creative, have the best chance of practical success and would most effectively:

  • Grow the economy
  • Create good-paying jobs that allow people to raise a family, afford health insurance, pay for their children’s college education, get additional training and save for retirement
  • Encourage existing companies to expand and entrepreneurs to start new ones.

Finally, keep in mind who should benefit from the ideas — whom this contest is about.

Since Sliced Bread is also changing the way Washington works. It’s an unprecedented effort to give ordinary Americans — people who are rarely asked for ideas on how to fix the economy — the chance to offer theirs. We’re serious about wanting to change the way policy ideas emerge.

Since Sliced Bread is so serious about finding and rewarding good ideas that a panel of respected thinkers and community leaders will choose 21 finalists and public voting will determine the top three ideas.

Update: all of them are now up, with comments.

The SEIU solicited the ideas late last year, spent a month parsing 22,000 of t them down to the 21 “best” to be voted on during Round One, and posted them on the 9th of this month. The response was overwhelming — overwhelmingly negative, that is. Over three hundred comments proceeded to rip, shred, tear, and even fold, spindle, and mutilate the selections. The SEIU was stunned, and Andy Stern, SEIU bigwig wrote:

I confess — I’m a bit surprised at the hostility meeting the 21 ideas announced yesterday morning. Let’s take a minute to appreciate the work of the 21 people who are finalists - they are amazing ideas that deserve discussion and consideration. Please take time to cast your vote - and encourage other people to vote, too.

In a contest like this, you have to make some hard choices. Every single idea was reviewed at least twice - even the thousands of ideas submitted in the final hours of the contest. Not everyone can be a winner in a contest like this. There are so many good ideas, we’d like to figure out how to recognize and encourage more of them. I’ve asked the folks at SinceSlicedBread.com to put together an online chat to get your feedback about how to recognize some of the innovative ideas that did not make it to the final round. Stay tuned for details….

And the response to that hasn’t exactly been positive either. Comments below the fold:

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So What’s Wrong With City Employees Anyway?

Monday, January 2nd, 2006

A few days ago, I mentioned that I’ve been working on a post about city of Houston employees, and how we differ from the general work force. It’s been through several reworkings, as it’s one of the more difficult I have had to write. After all, this is an analysis that will probably upset many of my co-workers, not to mention I expect most readers will disagree with part or all of it. That’s actually of less concern than is the fundamental problem with the article: I am the author. I’m part of the equation; I’m a city employee trying to diagnose from the inside. For the purpose of this article, I’m trying to step outside of who and what I am, and look at the “big picture.” I’m honest enough to know I may not have succeeded. I’ve spent time in the private sector, and all my social time is spent among non-city employees — but that still doesn’t mean my observations are the gospel–but I don’t see how anyone from the outside could even begin to write this article; they can barely scratch the surface. So reader beware: this may be more insightful than an article in the local newspaper (well, that’s a given!), but it doesn’t mean I’m 100% right.

First off, let me point out that in any work force of 20,000 people, there are going to be all types. There will be gung-ho employees, average workers, people who are pure poison, outstanding employees, and people just punching the clock for a paycheck. You may have heard of the concept of “the five percenter.” That’s the people at the very top and bottom of the quality scale; they are the rudders and anchors of the business ship; when anchors run rampant and aren’t jettisoned, the whole ship gets dragged down. When the rudders don’t do their job, the ship becomes directionless, and less gets accomplished. The vast majority (90%+) of the people in any organization are average workers, or just punching the clock. The city is not really any different from a private business in that regard. The problem comes in with the forces that act to motivate and reward all three groups.
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Top 10 Worst Americans: the List

Wednesday, December 28th, 2005

Well, here is my 10 Worst Americans in History, in no particular order. To make this list, I used 3 criteria.

1. The person must have been personally influential and powerful, not merely notorious. Thus the various Mansons, Oswalds, and Jim Jones’ of history are disqualified.

2. His/her actions should have had a decisive and long-term effect on the nation, not merely be the reflection or embodiment of the times. Thus the Jane Fondas and John Kerrys are eliminated.

3. In the absence of item #2, a certain level of evil or wrongness qualifies, but it has to have a reach beyond the merely personal.

Without further ado, the list:
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