Wednesday, December 9, 2009

How important are volunteers in The Woodlands?

Volunteers have historically been the key to a successful community here in The Woodlands Texas. All governing functions have originated from these residents, some of whom have been elected and others as ad hoc volunteers. With the advent of a taxing authority, we will now be governed by a single volunteer board of elected directors to The Woodlands Township. This only replaces the governing constituents of the associations. There remains the necessity to operate our covenant standards enforcement with resident elected volunteers. There is also the continued need to have village associations with elected residents.

This month, the associations put together a "final" annual celebration for volunteers. Each year, the progress of the community is celebrated in a Christmas party as a "thank you" from the community for the work of volunteers. This is an event always appreciated by the volunteers and has in itself created an atmosphere of willingness to serve in our community. This year we had a live band but normally we have a DJ to play music. Those who I have talked to prefer the DJ over the live band due to of the variety of music and lack of dead time when the live entertainment takes a break. Many people decided to leave when the band took its break this year. Also the the service company staff always comes to this meeting and dance, and they enjoy the evening alongside the volunteers. Since we all work together throughout the year, this is a perfect event to cap off the year.

So I ask, is this the last of this type of celebration? Have we matured into something less hometown? I hope not. The community derives a great deal of benefit by the teamwork demonstrated in every meeting and event through the year. Maybe the Township can find this type of event useful to keep costs down and encourage continued resident participation in hometown activities beyond the village events. This tradition will be sorely missed by those who have grown to appreciate the contributions of fellow volunteers. We have tradition. I hope this was not the last of these year-end celebrations.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Montgomery Population Changes - Redistribution of Districts in 2010

Every ten years, the U.S. census is taken, and from that census, county districts are redrawn based on population. New numbers have arrived prior to the 2010 census;these are predictions of the census results based on data collected by the U.S Census Bureau and the state. As many people here know, Montgomery County is a hot spot for growth, ranking high  in job and population growth. The county has been exploding this decade  (2000-2008). CNN Money Magazine stated in 2007 that the jobs have grown 38.3% from 2000 to 2007, ranking Montgomery County at 16th in the nation. The county is predicted to grow in population by a whopping 82% in this decade! This is significant and is a driving factor for planning action in this county. The country is taking notice of this.

Our County Judge, Alan Sadler, has assessed the distribution of this growth and believes there will be only one precinct that will be expanded to balance population growth in 2010. That will be a  minor change. Precinct 3 should not be affected! Based on predictions released today, precinct 3 should remain status quo in area coverage in 2010. The reason for minimal change is that the population increases have been uniform throughout most of the county in this decade. The judge is getting a jump start on planning for next year when any redistribution must occur. He pointed out that our county growth in the 70's and 80's had significant impact on district boundaries but in 2000, there was not much change and in 2010, we can expect even less change. This is a booming county overall. No longer is it just a booming south county.

Newly available data is also exposing demographic change in our  county. Of special note, our Hispanic population has been far below that of Harris County. Now the Montgomery County population boom is notably drawing on an increased influx of Hispanics, probably in all economic sectors. The Anglo population percentage is noted to have grown about 51%, where the Hispanic community will have grown by 128% over the past decade!  As a comparison, the Harris County growth of Hispanics from 2000 to 2008 was  about a 19% increase.  Demographic statistics will show Anglos at 77% of the population and the Hispanics at 18% of the population in Montgomery County. Other ethnic/racial groups are a much lower percentage of the overall population. By comparison, Harris County will have roughly about 36% Anglo and 39% Hispanic (based on 2008 population estimates). Statewide, Hispanics make up some 36% of  the population, putting us below the average. All of these statistics are based on the assumption that the 2000 Census is fully correct and that the data from births and immigration in subsequent years represent the population changes.

So what does all of this mean? Let's just take it in its simplicity. First, Montgomery County is growing at a tremendous rate. That translates to schools, roads, home development, commercial development, jobs, and other infrastructure expansions required to sustain the growth if current residents are not to be crowded out. Fortunately we are seeing a rise in employment even in this downturn of the economy. The numbers also show us that Spanish as a first language is on the rise in our county. That has significant implications in study programs in our schools, labeling of products and signage in commercial areas. It is an important factor in considering the future of our county.

From everything I have seen, I doubt if we will know how many of the Hispanics are eligible to vote. Assuming everyone is legal, the number of Hispanic voters may be different  since Resident Visas do not give a person the right to vote. Voting influence of the community may not be as high as the commercial influence the Hispanics will have on  our economy.

Although the current economy has slowed home and commercial sales,  it has not stopped our growth. That growth also affects inflation by normal laws of supply and demand. The county remains a desirable place to live, work and play, and the commercial community is playing that up by attracting more and more businesses to the area. With all of that factored into the vision of the future, we can't help but feel there is no stopping this momentum. Our county judges are being challenged with this day after day. We will have more to say about this in coming days in the Commentary.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Woodlands Election Dates Announced

The Woodlands election ballots will be composed of the village Resident Design Review Committee (RDRC) positions and village associations' positions. Each village has a separate ballot; only the positions open in that village appears on the ballot.  Generally, about half of the positions come up for election each year in each village to encourage smooth transitions from year to year. These elections will be held annually according to the by-laws of those organizations.

Section 9.06 of the "WCA Covenants, Restrictions, Easements, Charges and Liens of  The Woodlands" designates that 'Each RDRC shall hold regular meetings at least monthly and be "open" to all "Members".' This makes these meetings open to residents of the community. These elected residents act on behalf of the village to review violations and requests by residents. Requests first go through a quick process and if there are planned violations, the RDRC must get  involved. Residents are afforded a second review on appeal if they think the Design Review Committee (DSC) will or should grant their requested plan, where the RDRC has denied it. Most issues are resolved by the RDRC, but the DSC has the last word. One RDRC will consist of about 5 residents. Often it is difficult to get sufficient residents to apply for these positions, so please try to participate if you can.    

Village associations typically have a president, vice-president, secretary, and treasurer as officers. Additionally, there are generally representative positions to create neighborhood diversity on the elected board. So one village association will consist of 9 or 10 elected residents.
The Township has consolidated the Woodlands Election into one week, where we had two weeks in the past to vote.  The election schedule this year will be:
  • Application for candidates - Dec 31, 2009 - Jan 21, 2010. One person may apply for more than one position. A resident can serve on both the village association and the RDRC concurrently. Application details will be found on the association's website which will be changing in the near future as final transitions are completed for the Township.  
  • Early voting - there is no distinction this year between early voting and "election day". It is all at the same location, and the process is exactly the same - Feb 15-20 at the Community Associations building (across from the Methodist Church) at 2201 Lake Woodlands Drive. Just come vote one of those days. The hours will be announced later. 
It is important for residents to understand the difference between the "Woodlands Election" and the "Township election".

The Woodlands election requires only proof of residency. If a voter is over 18 and lives in the village, that person is eligible to vote in that village election. Home ownership lays no role and neither does citizenship status or voter registration.

The Township election requires full voter registration and residence. It is conducted on official government election dates at county voting locations. In May, 2010, we will be going to the polls again to elect Township directors for the remaining open positions.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Community Elections coming up soon

It wont be long before we need to show up at the polls again.

This time it will be for village associations and the village RDRCs. Both are important. Those elected to serve in the village associations will be engaged in more than social activities. They are often acting as an organization for resident concerns and maintaining a vigilant watch for improving the community. This coming year, they will take on a new role - one of a liaison to represent the concerns and issues of its residents to the Township board. The reverse will be true as well. They will be receiving information and guidance from the Township on village activities and issues on behalf of the residents.

Those elected to serve on RDRCs will be tasked with resident conformation to property  standards. They enforce the covenants, hopefully in a way the community approves. This is the neighbor link to enforcement of standards. All meetings of the RDRC are "open", meaning that the members cannot conduct business except by prior notification of an agenda to the public and conduct their meetings strictly according to the agenda. Residents are invited to attend each and every RDRC meeting.

Please consider participating in one of these organizations and volunteer to be elected to one of the positions available in your village. More information will be made available when January rolls around. Look for how to participate and then go to the polls when the elections are held. 

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Election 2009 November 3rd

An election is coming up on November 4th or earlier if you wish to participate in early voting.  At this link, you can review the ballot2

Woodlands Propositions
 There are three proposition for The Woodlands. All three are bond proposals. As stated elsewhere on this website, I endorse all three "FOR". These are very important for our community, enabling the township to issue bonds to borrow for payment of the specific constructed assets over the lifetime of the assets being constructed.  Please refer to the articles under "References and Resources" for additional information and/or access to the township website. Page 2, second column.3 4 5

Texas Constitutional Amendments
Woodlands residents will also vote on state constitutional amendments below. These are my tentative conclusions that I am sharing with all readers. However, I encourage everyone to read the resources provided and whatever else they can find that is "legitimate"  and "trusted"  to reach their own conclusions. 

Proposition 1 :"FOR".  Enabling a municipality or county to acquire land adjacent to military property, using bonds. Of course an election for each bond proposal would be required. The legislature would have to draw up the appropriate language.
Proposition 2: "FOR". Valuation of homestead residence solely on residence value, not potential commercial value. This is the fair way of property valuation. It has been a weakness in our valuation system for years. Although it will affect some  government coiffures, I believe it is about time we protect homeowners against commercial valuations, which ultimately can drive them out of their homes.
Proposition 3: "AGAINST". Uniform standards and procedures for the appraisal of property for ad valorem tax purposes statewide. I do not think this is needed.  Leave valuation up the counties. There are processes for contesting valuations in our county and it should be the same for all counties. .
Proposition 4:  "FOR".  Establishing the national research university fund to enable emerging research universities in this state to achieve national prominence as major research universities and transferring the balance of the higher education fund to the national research university fund. This would enable additional universities in Texas to participate in major research and become on even par with the traditional large universities - A and M, and UT. Our state has grown well beyond being a two major university state and we should move to the 21st century with the funding of other major institutions. There will be no additional taxation. In our area alone, we expect the University of Houston to graduate to a tier one school if this amendment passes.
Proposition 5:  "FOR". Authorizing the legislature to authorize a single board of equalization for two or more adjoining appraisal entities that elect to provide for consolidated equalizations. This applies to The Woodlands. We have two appraisal entities - Harris County and Montgomery County. We may want to consolidate the two for The Woodlands for consistency of valuations. It makes sense when two adjoining entities fall under the same taxation umbrella.
Proposition 6:  "FOR". Authorizing the Veterans’ Land Board to issue general obligation bonds in amounts equal to or less than amounts previously authorized. I see no reason not to do this. 
Proposition 7:  "FOR".  Allow an officer or enlisted member of the Texas State Guard or other state militia or military force to hold other civil offices.This is just an oversight when Texas started the guard. There is no reason to exclude any member of the guard from other civil positions.
Proposition 8: "FOR". Authorizing the state to contribute money, property, and other resources for the establishment, maintenance, and operation of veterans hospitals in this state. Many veterans have to travel many miles to get hospital care because of the size of our state and the distribution of veteran hospitals. This enable the state to assist the federal government by contributing resources to the Veterans agency.
Proposition 9: "FOR". to protect the right of the public, individually and collectively, to access and use the public beaches bordering the seaward shore of the Gulf of Mexico. The shore should be open and public. This enables that to happen. Encroachment of water from erosion and has recently caused the loss of public beach access. Beachfront homeowners wish to protect their privacy and keep the public off of what used to be "their" land. This proposition is contested based on "squatter's rights". The open beach act should prevail.
Proposition 10: "AGAINST". Elected members of the governing boards of emergency services districts may serve terms not to exceed four years. Due to the nature of the services, I cannot endorse pushing someone out of control on the basis of number of years. Let that be determined by the election or appointment processes.
Proposition 11: "FOR". prohibit the taking, damaging, or destroying of private property for public use unless the action is for the ownership, use, and enjoyment of the property by the State ... Please refer to the reference on this proposition for the full text of the proposition.1 See the opposition arguments in the reference.

Voting Information

In Texas, early voting can take place for any county-registered voter at any voting location in that county. For example, if you live in Montgomery County and are registered in Montgomery County, you can vote at any of the Montgomery County designated locations in early voting. On the day of election, each registered voter may vote only at their designated precinct location.

Early voting will take place from Monday, October 19, 2009 through Friday, October 30, 2009. Early voting will not take place on the weekends unless specified otherwise. From October 19, 2009 through October 24, 2009, early voting locations will be open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.; from October 26, 2009 through October 28, 2009, polls will be open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.; and October 29, 2009 through October 30, 2009, polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. 

Montgomery County early voting locations are:

Montgomery County Administration Annex
(Building with County Attorney & District Attorney Offices)
207 West Phillips – Conroe, Texas 77301

Malcolm Purvis Library
510 Melton Street – Magnolia, Texas 77354

South County Community Building
2235 Lake Robbins Drive – The Woodlands, Texas 77380

North Montgomery County Community Center
600 Gerald Street – Willis, Texas 77378

East County Courthouse Annex
21130 U.S. Highway 59 South – New Caney, Texas 77357

West Montgomery County Annex
19380 Hwy 105 West – Montgomery, Texas 77356

The Harris County early voting polling location will be open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The Harris County early voting location is:

134 W. Crystal Canyon Circle – The Woodlands, Texas 77389

On Election Day, there will be nine consolidated Montgomery County polling locations in The Woodlands Township and one location in Harris County for the Village of Creekside Park. The polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. The polling places are:

Precincts 69, 76, 81 - Mitchell Intermediate, 6800 Alden Bridge Drive

Precincts 58, 59, 70 - Bear Branch Recreation Center, 5310 Research Forest Drive

Precincts 56, 75  - Windsor Hills Clubhouse, One Windsor Hills Circle

Precincts 71, 78 - Buckalew Elementary, 4904 W. Alden Bridge Drive

Precincts 3, 61 - The Woodlands High School Ninth Grade Campus, 10010 Branch Crossing Drive

Precincts 31, 62 - Collins Intermediate, 6020 Shadowbend Place

Precincts 4, 48, 49 - Copperwood Apartments, 4407 S. Panther Creek Drive

Precincts 33, 67, 84 - Lamar Elementary, 1300 Many Pines Road

Precincts 32, 45, 79 - Wilkerson Intermediate, 12312 Sawmill Road

Harris County - Creekside Forest Elementary School, 5949 Creekside Forest

References and Resources

1 Analysis of Proposed Constitutional Amendments by the Texas Legislative Council
2 Example Ballot
3Township Bond Election Brochure
4 Woodlands Commentary Bond Update
5 Woodlands Commentary Bond Endorsement 
6Texas Online Voting Central - Texas Registration database 
7Tommy Willams Guide to Constitutional Amendments

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Woodlands Township 2010 Budget Public Hearings

As we take each step towards the first budget for the township, more residents are waking up to the opportunity to influence the outcome. Last night, the public hearing at The Woodlands Emergency Center proved to be a more informed, more aware, less emotional group than the previous town hall meeting on the same subject. Assimilation of the budget by more residents is producing more interest by people without political agendas, such as incorporation. To some people incorporation is the solution to all issues, but ask those who live in cities and see what they say. When the time is appropriate, we will consider incorporation, bringing to the table the pros and cons of following that path. One person at the meeting last night even volunteered to go to the City of Houston and renegotiate the agreement with that city to incorporate The Woodlands before 2014. This is supposed to fix our "policing problem".

In all reality, we do not have such a problem. The Woodlands is a safe place, but it is now an urban community that will have crime regardless if it is a city or not.

So putting the political aspect aside and just looking at the issues of the budget, many of the residents and board members are taking a fresh look at it. Don Norrell presented a fresh view of the same budget but this time had an alternative financial proposal that was discussed with the Sheriff's office. It is doable and in my opinion, the preferred alternative. I believe The Woodlands as a whole welcomes the redistricting proposal and wishes to act independently from the county which has significant budget issues this year and probably next year as well, limiting what we can do. That is, I believe we want to get on with it and fund what is required so that we have our own district with supplemental contracted deputies in 2010, not wait until 2011 and not have a phased approach to reach that vision. One of the suggestions in Mr. Norrell's alternative is to discontinue the patrol contracts with Shenandoah and Oak Ridge. Instead, use those ($0.5mm) funds for the extra $1.5mm dollars required to implement the project at the beginning of 2010. It was suggested that the remaining funds come from other undetermined projects that would be deferred by one year.

The trend of thought seems to cap the budget as it has been proposed, at 32.8 cents per $100 evaluation. It appears that the board asked to keep it there. That is a reasonable approach to me but we should be conscious of the public view of the budget and make adjustments to mitigate their (our) concerns.

The other project which needs adjustment is the Indian Springs fire station. Indian Springs is a mature village, now completed for quite some time. Many of the homes in the village were built in the 1990's. For five years, the plan has been to build a fire station for the village in 2010. That seemed like eternity as residents watched the service continuously decay as the traffic increased on Gosling and The Woodlands Parkway. The eastern side is served by station #2 at Research Forest and Gosling, so the trucks must deal with the congestion to reach the village. The response averages about 8 minutes. The maximum average of most fire fighting units is 5 minutes, that recommended by the insurance standards board (ISO). The current ISV level is not acceptable. In the proposed budget, the station is scheduled to be built in 2011. That means the village station remains in the long range plan. Another way to look at it is: the station has been delayed in favor of one in a developing village. Since the budget item has been scheduled by the WCA for years, the transition agreement has faulted on a critical service level. Therefore, we see this as a problem related to the 2010 transition to a new government. We would likely have a fire station in 2010 since the WCA and TWA acted independently on their projects. Last night, I was there to represent the concerns of Rush Haven residents. There were also residents from Trace Creek subdivision who have a similar service response. They also are concerned along with the entire ISV village board.

Personally, I was pleased to at least see the township board receiving and considering resident concerns. More than that, I was pleased to see the president of the Township working the residents' issues. That gives us all some hope and tells us that it is worthwhile to attend and provide our opinions and input to the board. I thank the chair person, Mrs Nelda Blair for being very patient with everyone. A great deal of passion was expressed, whether just perception or real, about the service levels of policing and the priorities in the budget.

Hopefully the board will realign budget priorities to meet the expressed needs of the community.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Budget Police Proposal 2010

The new policing plan proposal of the Township will provide consolidated service for the entire community. It appears to be a cost effective program and accomplishes the goal to merge all resources into one package. Let me start by saying I endorse the proposal, because while reading this article, one might think otherwise. I do question if the proposed operating unit is sized properly. My focus is on the metrics and doing the right thing for the right goal. This proposal adds 0.9 cents to the budget. What is a $200,000 homeowner asked to pay for this service? I choose to use a $200,000 assessment because it is easily scalable - only $18 per year or $1.50 per month. I can see some political or psychological value of the proposal and logical value to the community, but am not convinced that we actually need the number of deputies in the proposal. People respond, “Can’t you see all the crime here?” I do not take a position because of the media, nor out of reaction to a short-term problem. Managing a business has been a long-term task for me. I’ve been here many years and talked to many people about the police manpower in this community. Personally, I do not like to invest in intangibles unless there is measurable value to them. Why would anyone do so when they can invest in tangibles, which have cumulative and long lasting value? So I will outline the plan, as I understand it, and outline what little portion of it that bothers me. Basically, I am concerned about the derivation of the proposal.

The proposed plan is to reorganize the Montgomery County law enforcement districts such that The Woodlands becomes its own district. Currently it is part of the large district 2. Having our own district, limits the trips outside of our area, except in dire situations. It makes the reporting easier and customization of services easier. What is more important is that it provides a captain over the Township, commanding the force – a single point contact accountable for costs, services and processes used for enforcement, directly reporting to the Sheriff and the Township, managing the personnel issues, and performing the reporting and administrative functions. District 2 is funded by the county and provides proportional police service to us because of our percentage of population in the county. In this plan, the workforce assigned to us from District 2 would be merged into the current Woodlands deputy force funded by the Township, forming one operational entity. We have known for some time that the merger has an opportunity to consolidate the resident patrols with the Town Center patrols. So we put all of this into one pot and call it The Woodlands District. This will enable an organization that essentially performs like a police force for a municipality. It conforms to the processes of the county, but it is flexible enough to tend to the needs of the community. Additionally, we pay for the cooperative policing in the I45 corridor with Shenandoah and Oak Ridge. That is an additional and debatable cost being phased out in the plan over the next two years. In the new plan, we would grow our contracted deputy staff by 27%. I have not yet seen all the details of the proposed Woodlands District plan, but the million-dollar price tag is staggering, and therefore my concern for metrics behind the proposal. I am certainly not alone in this, as I have had a few people express their similar concerns. It is still early in the budget process. I hope to hear from more of you on this and other issues.

Since we cannot execute the full plan in 2010 due to the county being under economic constraints, funds to hire the additional deputies to execute this plan are not available. In the first part of the two-year plan, 2010 would be a transition year, adding a patrol for the village centers. So you see, this will be part of the long term solution as well. Part of our taxes will go to commercial use, guarding businesses (and shoppers) in the village centers and their immediate surrounding area, perhaps snagging a bank robber or two near or in the centers. I see recent robberies playing a role here, even though the banks have elected to have insurance policies instead of guards. Currently, normal resident deputies serve the centers. So theoretically they would be more available to respond to resident calls or traffic issues, and the new deputies would provide a specialized service to all the commercial centers outside of Town Center. The cost for this part of the plan is $360,000, or 1/3 of the total. Commercial patrols would be divided into two zones. The north would serve Alden Bridge, Cochran's Crossing, Windvale and College Park. The south zone would serve Grogan's Mill, Panther Creek, Indian Springs, Walmart/2978, and Sterling Ridge. Coverage would be 80 hours per week by one officer in each zone.1

Emotions are running high with some people in The Woodlands as a result of the number of bank robberies and other crimes, but we need just plain common sense to prevail. What alternatives were rejected in this proposal? It seems no one yet is presenting how we got here. This budget project proposal sounds good on the surface, but the details and history will tell the full story. I have not seen any metrics yet that drive the proposal nor have I seen metrics that tell us how many deputies we should have for the size of community we have and based on the workload of this force. For example, we need quick response when we call 911 and fairly quick response sometimes even when we call the non-emergency number. One stated goal of the project is to improve response. What is the current response? What do we need it to be? What can we expect different with the service level in the new plan? Those numbers are not (yet) published. What is the number of officers we have out on the streets on an average? I would think we should know the equivalent people on the streets for each given hour. (FTE patrolling). Accountability to operational metrics might also include a diversity of street presence. Instead, I see the metrics of the criminals. How many robberies, how many thefts, etc etc. Maybe one can staff based on the number of reported crimes, but that is not really a good way to staff, is it? The criminals, not the police force, determine that metric. That makes the criminals the drivers of our taxes. One can argue that the number of cars present will deter crime. I am betting that it would make little difference. One can call the number of crime incidents “the workload”, and it is just that to some extent, but it is certainly not clear that we have a handle on the number of officers needed for our community. Maybe the plan has too few, maybe too many. Metrics should be able to guide us through decisions that can be measured for effectiveness.

I know this could be considered a controversial article. It is intended to bring some resident issues to the table to stimulate thought. I know there are other residents here who have the same value system as I do, although they may have bigger pocket books than I. All good big capital project managers have value-driven metrics. Operational managers too will tell you they need meaningful metrics to make meaningful decisions. So when someone wants to spend our money on additional police, I have to ask, what will that money do for us and how was that number derived? Someone might say it buys you protection. I don’t think so. Read everything you can about policing and find out where the police have actually protected someone in neighborhoods. They are not guards, as we employ them. They are responders to help people when called. Then and only then do they normally provide something of measurable value.

We asked for additional law enforcement a few years back because we had serious issues on our streets. Several residents were killed in car accidents. Who is responsible for improving accidental death statistics on the roads? Injuries still occur. Maybe the additional staffing has had no effect, and we have just been lucky. We remain with many drivers doing crazy things on our roads. If we are going to throw dollars at the problem, let's do it cautiously with measurable results. Perhaps the biggest impact is to go door to door and get people to seek change in the community - to lock their doors. The Sheriff's office has told us over and again the same story - residents are contributing heavily to the crime problem.

We don’t have local ordinances to enforce. Local ordinances generate additional work. Our police work is standard for the laws of the county and state. Having higher police visibility is also a goal of this project program. I am not sure how to measure that and am wondering if it should even be a goal. Police presence in a neighborhood is negative to some people. In my opinion, the best deterrent in not presence but reputation. If our police force has a reputation of being johnny-on-the-spot and likely to apprehend anyone committing a crime here, that will deter criminals. If residents have a front line of defense and are known to not be easy picking, then that will deter criminals as well. I see those as two focus points for effectiveness. Newspapers advertise our crime. Maybe we should counter advertise with our successes.

I am sort of questioning the necessity of this project based on what not has been presented. The goals and metrics are not well defined publicly. I have been questioning it for the past year. It seems to me that we need to look at efficiency. This may only be a communication issue, but no metrics have been presented. How many deputies are in the office vs. on the street? How spread out are the deputies in the community? Do they have sufficient backup? What is their response time to emergency calls or those that that need immediate attention? How many false alarms are they servicing or missing? How long are they at a crime site? Metrics have not been used to present the case for the project. How many deputies are enough? What can we do to free the deputies up? Doing an efficiency and work process study could save us millions over the next five years. I don't think we have done that over the past 3 years, since we switched to the Sheriff's services. We continue to use the original study. Since then, our experience with policing this community has grown in size and complexity. If we take my neighborhood as an example, my neighbors can testify to their current level of service. But how about system-wide? My neighborhood has generally received acceptable police response to emergencies and non-emergencies. In contrast, our fire response has not been acceptable, yet our service level will probably remain the same until 2012 in this budget plan. That is measured and published. True, we are not having major fires here (yet) to raise our level of concern like the crime incidents that we read about in the newspaper.

What can we do to help reduce the number of police required and make our force more cost effective? There are several views to this. The statistics that people use now to show the crime rate has a mixture of what I call “forced crime” where the criminal breaks the law no matter the obstructions or difficulties and “accommodated crime” where the criminal breaks the law with no obstructions, or basically where the community or homeowner allows the crime to easily occur. We are told that the bulk of our crime is the latter case, committed by young people, who live here or in nearby communities, seeking easy fast targets so they are not detected. Their goal is to move quickly and get what they can as fast as they can and perhaps even use a stolen car (probably not locked) so that their identity is unknown. So the way I see it, if we are indeed driven by the number of incidents for staffing our police force, we who take precautions are paying for someone else’s negligence. Residents and businesses and the community have an obligation to protect their assets with alarms and locks. I do. Why can’t others? Some people say we need more presence on the streets. I say that would help just a little. Apprehension is the key to success, but if you look at when residents typically report an incident, it is too late to apprehend the criminal. A swarm of police at the time of the incident helps the apprehension process significantly. Otherwise, the incident becomes a report, not an engagement and an unlikely apprehension. The first line of defense is not the police but the resident, the storekeeper and store owner, and the community. They are the first responders; they are the eyes of the community. That will be the case no matter how many officers we have on contract (or employed for that matter, if that was an option). If they are not reporting the incident while it is happening, it is often too late to do much about it.

Why don’t we advocate conservative approaches in our governing body as it transitions to a consolidated entity? Maybe the first year we could have another look at the concepts behind our policing strategies. We need to lower our taxes if we can, but more importantly, we need to be right sized in police force and we need service levels based on the right measurements. If we have to, and it can be rightly justified, then we have to reorganize and deploy more officers on the streets. I just do not see yet that we have to fund this size of a police force. Is it too large or too small or just right? If we don't know that, we don't know the budget. Given the appropriate numbers to drive staffing levels, we could be convinced we need this exact number of deputies and administrative staff, but establishing a tax levy for this is simply does not seem right, given the current information available and economic climate. Maybe all of this has already been considered. I asked if efficiencies were considered and board member took notes, but maybe a better question would have been “what were the rejected alternatives to this proposal?”

Asking a few residents in our neighborhood how they feel about this, the response has been positive but conditional. One person responded: "There has been a lot of money wasted in the associations and it just continues. This would be more important than some of those expenses." Another said, "I would not mind paying the additional cost as long as it produces notable results." Asked if police response to recent calls has been satisfactory, the reply has been overwhelmingly "yes" from those who have needed and used the service with one exception. A resident noted that the response was good, the apprehension occurred, but the law breaker was released. "If the law is not enforced, why should I pay for law enforcement?"

In general, I am for right-sizing tax assessments to fit the needs of the community. Expectations are different among residents. Some have a 30-cent mentality, others a 32-cent expectation and still others a 34-cent expectation. Many people would like to drive down the cost of living here. Almost everyone I talk to wants to be taxed on need, not want or false perception. The desire for responsible and transparent spending is the trend of thought from about everyone I speak to. Personally, I want to see excellence here and live in a safe place. I do not believe it is possible to keep crooks out. It is possible to protect ourselves and get excellent response from law enforcement officials when we need it. Maybe we already have sufficient response. Perhaps an education program and resident participation program should be part of the budget. Yes, we have the awareness program, but it needs a tune-up. I believe it is a weak program needing a complete overhaul.

As you are probably aware, this program is one of four that raises the tax rate from an operational base of 25.3 to 32.8 cents per $100. The policing project costs $2mm over two years or 0.9 cents per $100. The table below from the presentation in the town hall meeting demonstrates the major add-on costs in the budget best. I have added tax payer dollars to it.


in cents/$100 assessment

Tax for $200,000 home
Base Operations and debt - current service level 23.5 $470
New Police program 0.9 $18
Existing major capital projects on books (ISV fire station , Creekside station) plus replace Central Station 3.1 $62
Other capital projects - New parks and pathways - Village of Creekside Park and new developments 3.5 $70
Total 32.8 $756

1 Public Security Plan by Vice President of Operations & Public Safety - Steve Sumner
2Township Budget Initiatives, page 2

Friday, July 31, 2009

Woodlands Township Budget Scope and Overview

The Proposed 2010 Budget includes the funding of The Woodlands Township and the Community Associations of The Woodlands’ services and staff, along with funding for The Woodlands Fire Department, The Woodlands Convention and Visitors Bureau, and includes an enhanced community-policing plan, as well as continued infrastructure development.

Its scope includes long and short term needs of the community. The idea is basically to maintain the current level of quality services and to enhance selected services. A process has been established through a strategic plan to ensure the efforts are directed towards long term strategic objectives. These include replacing aging facilities, maintaining a very large number of assets, and creating a flexible financial environment in which to succeed.

The budget includes the combined services of the Community Associations and The Woodlands Township. The Woodlands Fire Department will continue as a separate not-for-profit corporation and will be funded entirely by the Township Board of Directors. The Community Associations’ assessments will be replaced with a Township property tax levy. All responsibilities and obligations of the Community Associations will be assumed by The Township on January 1, 2010.

“These are historic times for The Woodlands,” said The Woodlands Township Chairman of the Board Nelda Blair. “This budget will reflect the needs of the combined organizations of The Woodlands Township and the Community Associations of The Woodlands, including combining the staffs, centralizing responsibilities and improving efficiencies. Quality of services will remain the same or be enhanced as the two organizations combine as of January 1, 2010.”

Basic services provided in the Proposed 2010 Budget include:

  • Covenants Administration assumed from the Community Associations’ responsibilities
  • Parks and Pathways - 110 parks and 180 miles of pathways
  • Aquatics - 13 swimming pools, 50% funded by revenues and 50% by fees
  • Waterway maintenance - pathway, fountains and park
  • Fire and EMS - 6 fire stations with related trucks and equipment and 110 firefighters
  • Enhanced Law enforcement - 54 deputies with proposed reorganization and delivery of services
  • Neighborhood Services - from existing services by the associations
  • Security services - in Town Center
  • Convention and Visitor Bureau - special events
  • Economic Development - partnerships
  • Refuse collection and recycling
  • Streetlights
  • Roadway and entry maintenance
  • Capital projects - replacement of aging or non-serviceable equipment
  • Capital projects - new parks, pathways, fire stations
  • Debt service - existing debt refinance and financing new projects
The Woodlands Township has four primary funding sources1:
  1. Property tax of $37.9 million - will replace Community Associations’ assessments
  2. Sales and Use Tax of $30.1 million – general operating fund plus Houston, Conroe agreements
  3. Hotel Occupancy Tax of $3.5 million - sole use is for the convention center
  4. Other Revenues of $5.6 million
  5. Bonds or loans for large capital projects
The property tax levy will replace the Community Associations’ assessments, which fund these services:
  • Community policing
  • Covenant enforcement
  • Parks and pathways maintenance
  • Aquatics
  • Neighborhood services
  • Garbage collection/recycling
  • Community maintenance
  • Administrative services
  • Capital asset replacements
  • Capital asset additions
  • Operating reserves
  • Debt service
  • Community relations
The Woodlands Fire Department costs were previously funded by the Community Associations’ assessments and will now be funded through Township Economic Development Zone (EDZ) fund which is sourced by sales taxes.

The sales tax is expected to generate approximately $30 million annually. Approximately $15 million of the annual sales tax collections will be used to fund the cost of The Woodlands Fire Department previously funded by Community Associations’ assessments. The remaining funding from the sales tax collections (approximately $15 million) will be used to fund (1) Regional Participation Agreement funding to Houston and Conroe, (2) debt service and annual expenses including:

  • Economic Development Zone debt service
  • Town Center security
  • Convention and Visitors Bureau
  • Community event promotion
  • Economic development promotion
Service enhancements included:
  • Expansion of existing community policing program (over a two-year period)
  • Initiation of a group sales operation - use existing personnel
  • Initiation of a centralized purchasing operation - use existing personnel
  • Program for capital reserve funding
  • Program for economic development reserve funding
  • Funding for assumption of water taxi service
Provision for three reserve accounts are proposed in the event of potential downturns in sales tax and hotel occupancy tax collections.
  • Operating reserve – 20% of operating expenditures
  • Capital Asset replacement reserve
  • Economic Development reserve
1 Township 2010 Budget webpage

Woodlands town hall meeting August 2009

The second town hall meeting, since the Township was formed, was directed at the 2010 budget. Residents did participate in comments after the budget proposal prepared by the township and association staff was presented. Like usual, some were ultra critical and others who had special concerns. The Township continues to have a few people totally submerged in their quest for a city government. Most residents don't really care, so long as their quality of life is maintained or improved and they don't have to spend their hard earned money for something they can get otherwise. There remain issues in the community as we regularly discuss here on this website, but where is there any place without issues? So what said the people in this meeting? The responses are cataloged, but I can't say that I captured all of the concerns expressed.
  1. Swimming pools are not open at convenient times for working residents who want to enjoy the amenity with their families. Suggestion - open later, close later (8pm). I suspect Parks and Recreation will be looking into this suggestion. People do use the pools early in the summer, but the need to be open later is probably a valid point for some pools, maybe not all.
  2. Seniors need help with the rising cost of living here. We need a senior tax exemption. The Township has been working on this issue. Tom Campbell has been a very big proponent. I too hope for relief!
  3. We have a problem with crime here. Let's have a surge in law enforcement, similar to the Iraqi surge. Get it fixed now! This was in response to the two year plan in the budget. I will write an article specifically on this subject soon. It is much more complicated than this, and we need to have a detailed plan to deal with the recent and future issues.
  4. Stolen car in driveway. "I moved away from a place that had crime and came here to get away from it. I bought a new car, and it was stolen out of my driveway here. I thought this was a safe place." This is of course a valid concern, and we all are on board in concert with this gentleman; however again, the issue is complicated and needs discussion and planning. Residents have a role in this too. It is not just a problem for policing or for the Township.
  5. Another concern about policing budget. We don't want to overspend on the issue. Shouldn't we be looking at efficiencies of our current deputies first? There may be improvements that would not require so many deputies. For example, reporting using our park WIFI installation, or working to reduce false home alarm calls, or working to have our citizens take on some responsibility themselves for the rash of crimes such as locking their home and cars. I will address policing issues in a coming article.
  6. Unnecessary Spending - playground equipment was recently changed in Capstone Park. New equipment is not as durable as the old equipment, and the old equipment did not need replacement. This appears to be a waste of money. We don't need to replace equipment just to replace it. Make it last for its lifetime.... I have been a bit concerned about this also. However, as Claude Hunter responded, equipment is often changed out for safety or regulatory reasons. The reason for this particular instance was unknown.
  7. Another concern stated for lack of tax exemptions for the elderly. We have lived here a long time and want to stay but there is no tax exemption for those of us over 65 (over 70).
  8. Museum and cultural amenities. the Township is lacking in its effort to bring a museum here. Can't we have funds allocated to that effort? A teacher and long time resident brought this issue to the table. There were several women who seemed to come together to express their concern at this meeting. Nelda Blair asked them to return to the podium to discuss it further; another lady did that later. A clothing store is going to occupy the place in the mall where the museum is currently located. The Houston Museum of Fine Arts will cease operation at that location in September. The Woodlands will no longer have a museum. There is no plan to find a place for it. Nelda responded that the mall operates separately and the Township has no influence on its business. "We cannot get to Houston to visit the museum there. We need a museum here." For sure, in my opinion, there is a need to have a satellite museum north of Houston, more accessible to residents here. Something more may come of this during the budget process.
  9. Understanding of bonds. You are proposing a 32 cent tax and a bond of $45mm. That is a huge tax! This was just a misunderstanding of the purpose of a bond election proposal. The statement may help the Township to sell the bonds to the public. Bonds are used to finance the investment over a long period of time, keeping taxes low. The items in the bond are mostly what would have happened if we had remained as associations instead of a taxing government. The difference is that these projects would have been financed through loans, or taken out of accumulated treasuries. The Township has to follow government regulations and must seek the least cost solutions for capital projects so that taxes can be kept flat. The bonds will allow us to pay the debt over about 20 years instead of 4 or 5. An assumption that the bonds will pass is included in the 32 cent tax rate. There will be no added tax for the bonds.
  10. Not a municipality. If we were a municipality, we probably would not be having these problems. Why are we reinventing the wheel? Let's be a city!!! Renegotiate the agreement with Houston! Well, there is a plan to study and formulate a proposal for a long term governing body. What will be done will be for the benefit of the community, not blindly do something because everyone else does it. We have a schedule and have appropriated funds in the budget for the study. 2014 is the earliest in the agreement when we can be incorporated. Personally, I do not see this gentleman's point. let's go forward and not backward. Everyone is on-board to look at this issue, and everyone knows there are pros and cons. Are we not a community of intelligent people? Let's move forward with our plan. Everyone understands the issues with policing. We will probably not have lower taxes when we become a city, more likely higher taxes. The Township has made great progress and now we have a proposal to reduce taxes with more policing. I don't know what more to ask for that being a city would solve.
  11. Not sufficient financial reserves. We need to raise the tax one cent to obtain sufficient financial reserves. I have been in city governments and seen much better reserve plans. We have significant assets here and must be able to protect and replace them. Personally, I hope the plan is sufficient. I do not want higher taxes. This will no doubt be discussed in future budget meetings.
  12. Ice Rink. We had two views. (1) Lessen the priority. It is not required. Let's instead promote private enterprise to take on the challenge. It has not been a profitable venture in the past. (2) Keep the priority. We could do a great deal to promote the sport of ice hockey in the area. Make the rink full size capable for sports competition. Rinks are a premium in the Houston area. We have to travel across the city for one. Area sports clubs will want to use it. It can be profitable. Personally, I can see both views. Before the township sets out on this, the project has to be properly sized and framed so that we don't end up with a problem. We should stay out of business ventures ourselves and find private money for them. It could be considered just another park amenity. We do need such facilities for our children. We don't need to be the recreational facility for North Houston. Why can't there be other places in North Houston with a rink? Is this really something the Township should invest in? It would be a draw for business in Town Center and would produce sales tax money though. Should residents be footing the bill? This is controversial, so make an excellent business plan for a well thought-out project, and I would support it.
  13. Law enforcement - We have a serious crime problem here. Consider immediate measures to fix the problem. No additional comment from me. I will address seperately.
  14. Veterans Park - we have taken this issue to the associations several times before. This is an opportunity for the Township. We do not have a place to go here to honor our veterans. Please plan a park in the budget for us to have a veterans park! Don't you think this is a reasonable request? I do.
  15. Can't we finance the assets longer than 20 years, more along the line of the life of the asset, say 30 years? Don Norrell responded, "yes but investors need more security at the General bond rates. We would have to pay more interest for a higher risk bond."
The comments above came from residents in almost every village. I was happy to see so many people participate. It sounded like the voice of the community, and as one resident put it afterward, "we speak out and all ideas are respected and considered even though some of us disagree on some issues." This is the way it should be. Where there is one nugget, there is likely others. A I stated in a prior article, this presentation revealed a great deal of work and thought. Everything I see is logical. There is tweaking to do, and I for one, hope to see a few things changed but nothing dramatic.

1Proposed Annual Budget Fiscal Year 2010 presented by Norrell
22010 Budget proposal from Commentary viewpoint

Thursday, July 30, 2009

2010 proposed budget

The Woodlands Texas residents have passed yet another milestone. At the town hall meeting last night, the first budget proposal of the complete township was presented by Don Norrell. I will give you my take on it.

First and foremost, the staff of the Township and the Woodlands Service Company has put together an excellent summary! The five-year plan is as Don Norrell stated, “never totally accurate but has the known requirements in it at the time of publication. Things always change over the course of even one year.” Timing of projects is partially driven by the need to keep the tax rate consistent and predictable. When a financial plan is developed, one must predict the income and the cost of providing services.

Bottom line is that the proposed tax rate is 32.8 cents per $100 county property assessment. There will be no exemption for disabled veterans, or over-65 residents, or for homesteads. In perspective and comparison, the county is proposing a tax rate on the identical property assessments of 48.38 cents. For a $200,000 home the township tax would be $656 and the county $967 for a total of $1,623. This would be the bulk of your tax bill for 2010. For a complete picture, you will have to also add the school tax and the community college tax to it. Put the township tax in a historical context: in 2007, the association rate was 45.5 cents for TWA, 42 for WCA and 39 for WCOA. So TWA will save 13.5 cents ($270 for $200,000 home), WCA 9.2 ($184), and WCOA 6.2 ($124 on $200,000 assessment).

The base operating requirement has been established at 23.5 cents. That is, to keep the same amenities, not build anything, just keep things as they are, and pay off debt, it would cost the taxpayer 23.5 cents on every $100 assessed. So that means for the $200,0000 homeowner, a tax of 7.5 ($150 per year) per year pays for the following over the next five years:

  • Expansion and reorganization of police services
  • Two additional fire stations and the replacement of the central fire station
  • New parks, renovated parks, ponds and recreational improvements.
  • Firefighting and policing equipment
  • Computers, hardware, software
  • Accumulating financial reserves
  • Emergency fund
  • Trolley expansion
  • Waterway taxi operations
  • Probably more that I have not captured
  • Study for government office construction

We continue to be a community being developed, so we continue to build parks and amenities to make The Woodlands, “The Woodlands”. Unfortunately, the Township inherits a 50/50 partnership with the developer to fund the construction of parks and pathways in new neighborhoods. The TWA debt obligations, because of that agreement, must also be paid by all of us. That debt would have been paid off by TWA association assessments over the next four years, had we not consolidated and formed a new government. We also inherit the capital investments of several new parks and pathways as a result of the development of Creekside Park Village and other new neighborhoods.

Operationally, we will be hit by a very large operational increase in the fire department. For the township as a whole, salaries and benefits go up a whopping 7.4%! Township employees will receive improved benefits from the merger by assuming some of the benefits from the Woodlands Service Company. Combined, this 7.4% equates to $1.7 million. Contracted services will also go up by 4.1% equating to $1.0 million. This primarily provides additional police protection. These two expenditure types comprise 62% of the operating budget. Elsewhere in the budget, it is difficult to see the changes simply by numbers, because of the capital spending in the last two years of the WCA when projects were accelerated. There are also some savings from consolidation and redistribution of duties among staff.

By the number to note: Policing program $1.1mm, Savings by consolidation $1.24mm, 2010 capital for construction & renovation & improvements $11.0mm, 2010 total revenues $77.7mm, 2010 total expenses $77.6mm, Debt service $7.65mm, Paths and walkways Town Center $1.8mm.

Can we expect some tuning to this initial budget proposal? I think so, but the rate will not likely go down much if any. I would like to see it capped here though and not allow it to rise above 33. Preferably, the board can add value by lowering the rate to 32 (where I really want it capped long term). It is expensive to live in The Woodlands. We face water bonds added to all of this. Much work has gotten us to this point. Refinement and fine-tuning is needed. We are, after all, in a recession. The county cut back 5% to accommodate some of the stress on everyone. It would be better to start the township lower if we can, and consider the plight of those who are under budget stress.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Potable Water in The Woodlands, Texas - declining reserves explained

Over the past few years, we have been able to watch our rapid growing county gradually become water-deprived. That has happened for a number of reasons - high consumption per capita, rapid growth of population, and drought. We are dependent on subsurface reservoirs that are being depleted and not sufficiently recharged. Although the available amount of water is stressed, we are theoretically not short of water, ..... YET. The county is predicted to double in population in just a little over 10 years. That will cause huge problems for us. Therefore, our water utility districts are planning a major project to obtain, transport and replace our MUD wells (which are not even paid for yet) with surface water from Lake Conroe. This will occur only in the five major population areas of the county. Those living outside of those areas will keep their water wells and continue to utilize existing underground supplies.

The primary issue as has been described to me by James Stinson, General Manager of Joint Powers Agency, is the waste. He has publicly stated this several times. Residents are putting millions of gallons of our limited underground water on the street, in gutters. They are also utilizing much more than actually needed to water their lawns. Some lawns are watered even when it is raining. I have neighbors who do that. They are away and have their sprinklers programmed to regularly water the lawn on certain days. Of course they reprogrammed their system for the nighttime to conform to restrictions, but if it rains (which it has not), their water system does the same as when it is dry. Now if that is not waste, I don't know what is. This can be avoided by acquiring a rain monitor device that will shut off the automatic watering system when it rains. The JPA will even help you purchase one by rebating 50% of the cost up to $150. Most residents from what I have been told, measure what they put on the lawn; they simply water it until the ground is soggy. Usually ground is never soggy with proper watering techniques, because one inch delivered evenly will not cause soggy soil unless the soil is composed totally of a soft non-compacted dirt. It usually has plenty of sand and clay making it moderately soft even when moderately wet. I have never seen it "soggy" except when using soft dirt on the surface. So the GM says we waste 40% of our water and I can certainly believe that number! Please measure the water you deliver to your yard and restrict it to about one inch per week.

I measure mine with little tins from cat and dog food. I put a ruler into the water after watering and adjust my watering technique to make it about one inch everywhere in the sunny part of the yard and a little less in the shady spots.

What happens to the underground reservoirs when we deplete them faster than we recharge them? Down in the depths of the ground, there are producing water zones. These are composed of rock, usually limestone or sand, with a lattice structure to permit the retention and movement of water within them. The rock structure essentially is composed of billions of little cavities held together by lattice rock structures. Water moves into these zones from the surface when it rains, gradually seeping deeper and deeper into the soil until it reaches these underground "homes" for water. It forms an underground water network pulled by gravity. The water acts as a cushioning mechanism, keeping the lattice structure from collapsing. There is tremendous overburden pressure caused by the combination of gravity and the weight of the rocks and soil and everything else above it. When you take the water out of the structure at a faster rate than it is put into it, the water level drops, just like a river. The upper part of the structure then collapses or shrinks until it reaches a pressure equilibrium with the tensile strength of the rock lattices. When the structure collapses, it is gone forever. The space that once existed to hold water is gone. This causes subsidence and lowered capacity of the producing reservoir, just ask people in Harris County what happened in prior decades because of their depletion of the reservoirs! Also when structures collapse, there is no more underground water at that depth, requiring some people and some utility production wells to be deepened in the reservoir to reach the water supply. Thus the vicious cycle continues.

Here in The Woodlands, we have an opportunity to decrease the rate of this self destruct mechanism by not blatantly wasting our water. We utilize more than the rest of the county. We are upstream from Harris County and they produce from what we don't. We are in their recharge zone, which without much rain, has been a very limited or non-existent process in some areas lately, so what we do affects them. Water is a very precious and limited resource. We must invest in tools and time to conserve it. Every human being upon this earth has the responsibility, as custodians, to care for it.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Water - political hotspot

Here in The Woodlands, we are considering a systematic lawn-watering schedule, similar to what we have now in this drought, but not activated by drought conditions. We do need good water management. Who is the target of this possible new action and why? I see responsible people every day acquiescing to the current regulations for good reason – the drought, to conserve water by observing the current restrictions to water only two times a week (one inch). But let's get to some form of reality. Personally, I have been considering this from the moment it was instituted this year. Right now, I have to use more water for the lawn than I did before, to technically comply with the restriction. I have made it known to some of the authorities that this situation exists and why. Although there is no official accommodation in these restrictions for temperature, for soil conditions, nor for work schedules or home direction orientation, there is a means to get an exception. An example of need: Most of my lawn can go six days without water if I give it one inch and supplement the watering in a couple of small places. There are a few places facing west that cannot survive a week without water. Now it would seem that I have to water twice a week to comply with the drought restrictions. Technically yes, but actually no. There is good news, the Joint Powers Authority can and will accommodate case-by-case situations. It is recommended by the same authority to water once a week with a one-inch application. That is possible in my yard at a 95-degree maximum ambient temperature. It is impossible at 101. Our current restrictions are not inflexible. All that the Joint Powers Agency (JPA) actually asks us to do is to not waste water and help them keep the pressure up for fire safety. The current restrictions are good to help us to do that, but they need to be regarded as somewhat flexible. Try to follow them if practical. Neighbor-to-neighbor, no one wants to be seen breaking the rules. If there is an issue and you can minimize waste in some other way, tell the authority and get an exception. Then tell your neighbors why it is better for you, if watering in a different manner than prescribed embarrasses you. It might even help neighborly relations by being outside talking to your neighbor on watering days.

To accommodate my situation, I have to call the JPA and seek an exception. That I have not yet done, but when it is in place, I may be watering some days that are not mandated for my address. I seek to minimize my water usage on my lawn. That is my objective and that is the authority’s objective. The authority understands that goal and certainly supports it.

So look at the possibility of a “permanent” schedule. A schedule is not a permanent restriction; it is a model of usage. It should be thought of as a predictive model where everyone falls into a pattern of use, under a guideline of watering a maximum of twice a week, in all seasons. Then the water district should not face huge aberrations in consumption or water availability. The JPA should be able to manage the water and sewage systems much more efficiently and effectively. This does make sense!

The proposal is to establish a pattern of usage that distributes consumption as it does right now in this drought. That will probably require a model, similar to what we have now, but not necessarily confine us to that model. All that is needed is that we are consistent and water our lawns judiciously and to do it evenly across the community. Lifestyles may be different among households and homes a bit different, so a household is essentially asked to establish a predictive routine and stay with it. Don’t deviate from the model unless there is good reason to however. Exceptions cost administrative overhead.

There is more to this. 40% of our water in the summer is wasted, according to studies. It flows into gutters and into the sewage system. 80% of our consumption right now is estimated to be in irrigating our yards. A huge amount of our precious resource is wasted every day. Unfortunately, there are just a few residents who waste it in large amounts. There is waste in every household, but the bottom line volume consumption rests with a fairly small percentage of homeowners. I know I have some waste. I would say that perhaps 1% of the water applied goes down the street. If we were truly required to save every gallon, I would need to have my automatic system redesigned or just abandon using the system. I trigger it manually when my day comes around, so I can have two back-2-back cycles and get maximum penetration from the application. Managing the edges to zero runoff would be a serious challenge but may be a next step down the road, should water become so scarce that we have to regulate it by the gallon instead of by the tens of gallons.

Managing a drought is different than managing annual consumption, but what we learn in a drought can be applied to the management of the area resources in all seasons.

Isn't part of the problem the St Augustine grass that we use throughout the state? Where is A&M's solution to this problem? I do not support having a program at the spigot if we don’t have a long-range plan to deal with the root of the problem. There are two roots to the problem - people and landscape material or devices.

People are wasteful. Those who significantly overuse water should be interviewed and ways found to lessen their use of water. How do we know they are out of line in usage? There is a way to measure it. Abnormalities could be identified through an index method, which I will describe later. Maybe there is also a technology gap. I don’t assume that rain controllers, mulch and St Augustine are the solutions, and perhaps the technology used is not what is available now for the problems we have. For example, is there a better way to water the edges of the lawn to deliver water but not waste any water? Or can we use native or native-modified grasses, instead of St Augustine? For some families’ style of life, such an index may not be seem practical, but everyone can treat the limited water resource in a judicious manner. Where there is serious concern, there is always a practical solution. It is well known that misuse of water by some residents is the probable cause of our current issue, but must everyone suffer on their behalf? If it is true that 40% of our water is wasted, then why not find that 40% and find workable remedies to that problem? To me, this is a different issue than distributing the use of the water over days of the week.

St Augustine grass has always demanded considerable water to survive, although it will take a beating and usually grow back when the water is more available. Nonetheless it is susceptible to disease and drought. Is it time we change? This is a problem for Texas A&M. It is an issue all along the Gulf Coast. Grass helps to control flooding and is very useful, not just an aesthetic component of landscape. As water becomes more and more precious by short supply, shouldn't we begin to abandon our love for St Augustine and replace our grass with something requiring less water? . I am told “no’ by the GM of JPA. 1Maybe Texas A&M could research a better St Augustine that survives drought better. Drought is a Texas normality. St Augustine is not a water-inefficient grass. As I stated in another article, there are issues with the other grasses but at the same time, there are alternatives and opportunities.

Our wells are not producing what they once did. We have to drill deeper into the reservoirs sometimes to make them produce at the required rates. I have never heard of any water wells in this general area that have maintained production without intervention. Population growth here has been tremendous, but we have not had an apparent water pressure issue, mostly because of drought interventions in the summer. I have witnessed serious urban water pressure issues elsewhere and that was not pretty! It was downright annoying, frustrating and dangerous. If we have to regulate the water, then let's regulate the volume of water used. That is the real issue here, not whether we are watering on given days of the week, but nonetheless, it is good to have a systematic scheduled watering schedule just to eliminate or reduce the threat of lowered water pressure.

So is it such a bad thing to ask residents to have the same water schedule we currently have throughout the year? That seems a bit of an over-kill to me. Austin2 has a set schedule every year from May 1st through September 30th. Maybe we should have it from June 1st to October 30th. I am concerned about watering at night during October however. That will cause fungus. Maybe we can end at the end of September also. Face it any time outside of that window has no watering issues, at least from my meandering around The Woodlands.

Why not regulate growth? This would certainly be a politically explosive strategy. New housing could take on more of the issue, instead of existing residents. If we don’t have enough water, why do we grow? But the point is, we have enough. It is just being wasted.

Personally, I like using educational means to get people to judiciously consume water and when that doesn’t work, slap those who are causing the problem on the wrist. So here is a suggestion – since we know the volume of water used in every household and business, and we know the appraised square feet of each home and the lot size, would it be better to start using a meaningful measure to identify those misusing our resources? If I use 1000 gallons and a huge multi-million home uses 100,000 gallons, which one is over using water? Both have to maintain their homes and their landscape. You use a normalization technique. Say my home site is 3000 sq feet and the big home is on 20000 sq feet. Now who is using more than their share of water? Then I use 3000/8000 or .35 gallons per sq foot per month while the other homeowner is using 5 gallons per square foot. So is the large home wasting water? Not necessarily. However, what is reasonable and not reasonable can be determined from looking at the population of homes in the community and this usage index. I would say that anyone having more than twice the median index of the total population might be overusing water (just a shot in the dark). This may not be very close to an answer, but something like this is what we need to be doing.

Performance indices are one of my favorite subjects. The JPA has not publicized any yet and probably do not have one in the works. It would be worthwhile to contract an effort to assess a better way to manage this precious resource in our community. I know this can be done and it should not cost us an arm and a leg. Then metaphorically we could slap those who abuse the resource on the wrist and even break an arm if it comes to that.

This article was rewritten and published on July 22nd.

1 Joint Powers Agency - Mr. James Stintson, P.E., General Manager
2 Austin water regulations

Friday, July 17, 2009

County Bonds - Not going to happen. What a dilemma!

Earlier this week, the Montgomery County commissioners drew up a bond proposal to consider for the coming budget process. $300+ million is needed to finance a fairly long slate of needed county road major projects. Here in The Woodlands, it would involve the replacement or resurfacing of Grogan’s Mill, West Panther Creek, Woodlands Parkway, and possibly others. Although we need some work on all of these, and with the extent of traffic volume on Woodlands Parkway, the price is just too high to issue such a bond right now. The county judge says, “it isn’t going to happen.”

We do have some advantage of doing this now. Construction bids are coming in about 30% down from last year. However, now is simply not a good time to do it. It is a risky proposal, given the state of our economy and the related voter apprehension. We cannot afford a failed bond issue at the polls. Increasing taxes by 7-9 cents (or 17%) would be exceptional, especially in this soft economy, which has not yet recovered from a near disaster. “There is at least one respected financial analyst predicting that the economy will almost totally fail, that the disaster has not been averted, and that that we are still headed for a depression.” noted County Judge Alan Sadler.1. He went on to say “This bond will not happen”, meaning that the county will not go forward with such a bond. The judge is concerned that there is just too much risk of the bond failing. We need to find alternatives and find some means to fix our roads. “For example, the asphalt-constructed Walden Rd is having significant problems and needs to be replaced with a concrete construction. Yet when we first built this road according to state specifications, the state funded 80% of it. Now, we have to pay for the entire replacement road without that subsidy. This is a big dilemma for all of us.”

We are between a rock and a hard place. What happened in Austin in this legislature has hurt our county. How is it that we had federal bailout money injected into expansion projects and we are now sitting in this position to maintain our existing roads?

Today, there is no pass-through money available from the State of Texas for our bonds. TxDOT has absolutely nothing for us this time. That means we will have to finance all of it ourselves without any subsidies. We get no help. When we originally constructed Walden Road, we got 80% of it financed by the state. If existing residents have to pay for the county’s growth, something is wrong. Just imagine. A resident moves here and is asked to fund road maintenance at a high tax rate. The payments should be spread out over 20 or more years of tax base. Interest rates are low. High routine maintenance costs also drive taxes up, so we have to invest in quality projects. We need durable quiet roads. Contractors and their equipment burden some of the roads, causing wear and tear that residents eventually must pay. Roads decline because of subsurface material and they simply fail because we use them so heavily. Who rightfully pays? The county would construct a class “B” concrete road to replace the asphalt Walden Rd, which lies on top of clay. That would have one layer of iron rods, not two as in Class “A”, but strong enough to hold together on top of a clay roadbed.

What to do? Go to the hard place or go to the rock; either way it seems to me that we are in the middle and squashed.

Maybe we could get the commissioners out together on each proposed road with a budget cap of $160mm and come up with a “now” proposal with a limited budget? That would probably be well worth the effort. I think that might fly. Face it, the current proposal will not fly and the commissioner's court sees that. Maybe there are even alternatives to repairing some roads. Then after all the economic issues subside in three years, try again. Keep the property tax below $.049! Isn’t it a good idea to have very stringent criteria for inclusion of projects and a budget cap for the bonds. It isn’t so much that we have some repair to do, but it is the extent of it. We have people here on fixed incomes. We have people here worried about keeping their jobs. It is definitely a time to be conservative! Maybe not everyone is equal. Some people can afford it and some cannot. Homes continue to increase in value. Each taxpayer is paying more to the county even without an increase in the tax rate. Tough choices are coming in the county budget meetings.

Yep, truly a dilemma! We all are in this together. Hopefully, there will be some middle-of-the-road compromise. And yes, pun intended!

1 Judge Alan B Sadler’s profile

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Financing Woodlands Township Capital 2010-2014 Bonds

The Woodlands Township Executive Committee voted today to send a bond proposal strategy for a long-term debt management plan to the Woodlands Township Board, for consideration at the July 22nd meeting.

The Township five-year plan will include a number of projects requiring long-term financing. The proposed construction of a new office facility for The Woodlands Township operations is purposely not included in this list, but does not indicate that the project will be neglected in the plan. The project planning and review of facility options and alternatives is still underway and financing options will be considered at a later date.The plan is to reduce the cost of financing Township projects in this time of low cost money, and does not address the 21 million debt of the Economic Development Zones (EDZ) 1-3, which funded the construction of Town Green Park and partially funded the construction of Market Street, among others. These debts are addressed in separate funding programs.

Construction projects in the plan and the refinancing of existing debt include:

Bond Proposal for financing major capital projects in five year plan


Total estimated Capital Budget 2010-2014

Refinance TWA and WFD debts 8.0
Refinance WFD Station #6 and Fire Training Facility debts 11.6
Construct Creekside Fire Station 3.4
Construct Indian Springs Fire Station 3.7
Reconstruct Grogans Mill Central Fire Station 6.4
Purchase fire trucks and equipment for new stations 2.5
Construct new parks and pathways in five year plan (Creekside and Town Center) 12.0
The most viable financing option requiring long-term financing, with voter approval, is the issuance of General Obligation bonds (“GO bonds”). GO bonds are backed by the issuing party and carry an irrevocable commitment - the authorizing body (Township) will levy a property tax sufficient to fund the annual debt service requirements for the life of the issued bonds. This enables large projects to be carried for many years, committing but reducing the immediate tax impact of the projects.

GO bonds are typically tax-exempt bonds issued for a period of 20 years or less. They are rated by national rating agencies and are eligible for municipal bond insurance. Considering the Township’s large property tax base and the relatively low outstanding debt, The Woodlands Township should receive a favorable rating and qualify for municipal bond insurance.

Projects and refinancing will be discussed as part of the 2010 budget and five year plan. The first 2010 Budget Workshop is scheduled for 9 a.m. Wednesday, July 29, 2009, and the plan will be presented at the Town Hall Meeting on July 29, 2009. The final decision on the debt management plan will be considered by the Board in late August.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Woodlands Township Townhall Meeting July 29, 2009

Today, the township announced a township meeting at The Woodlands Waterway Marriott Hotel and Convention Center in Town Center. The meeting will be open to the public. Residents and businesses are encouraged to attend. Of particular interest will be the budget. A Presentation of the 2010 Budget will allow residents and businesses of The Woodlands Township the opportunity to hear a presentation of the proposed 2010 Operating Budget and provide feedback to The Woodlands Township Board of Directors.

“The transition into one government called The Woodlands Township is well underway,” said Chairman of the Board Nelda Blair. “The process is complicated and intricate, and involves uncharted territory in Texas history. This is the first budget in this process that provides a significant opportunity for our 90,000 residents and 2,000 employers to determine their future form of governance.”

Residents have been patiently (and some nervously) anticipating this for some time. Although the economy here has been flourishing even in the depressed national economy, a number of residents remain in a more cost conscious state than in the past. It is the time to step to the plate to make opinions and needs known, if residents want to be heard by the Board of Directors. This will be an evening meeting, especially timed for daytime working residents interested in contributing to their future here, starting at 7PM.

Parking is available at the Town Center Garage at The Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion. The fourth floor of the garage is connected via skywalk to The Woodlands Waterway Marriott Hotel and Convention Center. The meeting will begin promptly at 7 p.m. and will conclude by 9 p.m.

Related articles
1. Woodlands Budget Considerations
2. Newly developed Strategic Plan