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