Sunday, July 24, 2011

Next generation government for The Woodlands Texas - Focus groups for Gap Analysis

The first step of resident input has been completed in a newly established project to determine the next form of government for The Woodlands Texas. As early as 2014, we are legally able to change to a city form of government.This phase of the project was to get feedback from residents for a gap analysis being conducted by the project consultant. Two goals of this phase are in the project plan - (1) See what residents don't know or understand, and (2) determine what are the perceived issues and future needs for effectively governing the community. To do this, residents were divided into two knowledge groups and attendees chosen at random to attend a number of focus groups moderated by the project leader. Focus groups were kept small in size so as to encourage interaction and contribution. The data collected will be sorted out, analyzed, characterized , and then presented back to the community in January to the next focus group workshops and apparently a town hall meeting. You will find a number of issues below related to governing and what seems to be a laundry list of problems as the primary concern on people's minds as we move forward. I may not agree with some of these, but I do believe as many ideas as I can remember should be included. I missed some I am sure, but the idea is to get these out in the open for continued development and thought by residents.  

To get an idea of what has been brought forward in these focus group discussions, here are some of the thoughts from one group.

What is right about our government
There was not much discussion in this area.
(1) Parks and pathways are excellent amenities and are kept clean.
(2) Government looks after the expense of our pools but there are perhaps too many of them and some tax dollars support their use.
(3) We are not part of Houston or Conroe (implied,not stated explicitly)
(4) Inclusion of residents in Parks department and policing strategies by government staff
(5) The Fire Dept is a fire class service.
(6) The policing force has improved and is now one of the best around.
(7) Excellent delivery of information to residents, beyond that required by the Open Records law of Texas 

(1) Residents cannot influence decisions about land use. This is no longer a community of large land blocks to be developed except in the Village of Creekside Park. In the other villages, development is typically near and around existing residences or businesses. Residents have been demanding input for years, but go unheard and then with empty promises of inclusion into the process. As the remaining development properties within the villages are sold, residents do not want to have surprises and new establishments that seem to alter the master plan, with lack of controls such as noise, presentation and  privacy expectations that affect the quality of life by taxpayers. 
(2)  Local taxes for the benefit of local needs are managed by separate entities, some of which reach outside of the territorial jurisdiction of The Woodlands, with even differing strategies of management. Lack of centralized control of tax dollars is a gap, especially for county wide taxation based on property values. The county commissioners conduct their meetings on local issues in Conroe, and those decisions are integrated with other county areas. Management for a town of 90,000 should be from within the community and integrated with this community's priorities and needs, not managed by an external entity. This tax domain primarily consists of road maintenance, law making, courts, policing and jail. Governing must be equal and apply to all parts of the county equally due to the legal restraints on spending of taxpayer money.
(3)  There are no controls for noise pollution other than county laws which are designed for rural areas. County rules, regulations and guidelines are applied to stop signs, speed limits, signs, traffic noise, dogs barking, and other very common municipal issues within the territory of The Woodlands. The lack of ordinance power prevents The Woodlands from controlling its quality of life. It forces the community to accept rural conditions within the bounds of large densely populated area. 
(4) There is not an effective way to interact with the Board of Directors as a whole. That is prevented by the current structure and method of government. There is no area representation on the Board of Directors and there is only a one way communication in meetings. Every taxpayer should be provided equal amenities and quality of community life. The village representation at meetings has failed to accomplish the original intent of Village liaisons. It is too weak a link to the board of directors. However, the Village Associations themselves need to be preserved and provide the social aspect of our community in the way they have traditionally served.  All taxpayers are not represented by members of the board in the current government/political environment.
(5)  Our local government has no control over the roads and streets. County and state regulations control and their funds maintain them. The placing or removal of a stop sign, the timing of lights, speed limits, design, and all related matters are in the hands of the county and state where a resident has much less influence. In contrast, our local government maintains the paths which must cross those streets and the master plan which includes easy, flowing pedestrian is sometimes impeded by actions on these roads. Noise on the roads impact the quality of life for several blocks adjoining the main roads. Some residents are thinking that we should re-evaluate the widening of the roads. Governing this issue is ineffective.
(6) Our parks for the most part are clean, but some are not. Trash is brought in and left in the parks and sometimes in the water of some of our parks apparently by outside visitors. This situation needs to be governed, perhaps by control of use.
(7) Residents do not participate in government elections sufficiently. There is a knowledge and interest gap. It appears we continue to have an educational issue or more probably are still plagued by government complexity. It takes years to get educated to a comfort level on local issues, while many people move in and out of the community. Before this government was established, all residents had a say in politics and community decisions. Additionally, demographics have been changing dramatically. We now have entire blocks where many residents have no ability to vote, because of the citizenship voting law. This problem did not exist before this new government, because all residents had a say in their government. No board member represents these people and they have no say who governs them.
(8) Managing and encouraging homes to be purchased instead of rented as a business plagues the community. Residents prefer to have resident owners as neighbors instead of renters who rarely participate in government or have an interest in the local systems. They become users and part of the problem while no one represents the home at the polls. This is apparently a growing problem and not governed in any way.
(6) There is no governing of imposed tax dollars. Instead, taxes are governed by percentage of home value. Although the economy continues to have low inflation, some home owners have huge tax increases and therefore significant inflation. Salary does not keep up with home inflation. This affects long term residents the most. It is assumed that the value of a house should be the taxed by a cap on percentage of value instead of tax dollars. This gives the government more money. Residents are more than concerned about this, but it is not governed. 
(7) The DSC is a critical part of the fabric of the community, yet members on this committee are appointed by the Board of Directors. There remains representation by the development company. The RDRC boards of each village are elected to position, but the DSC sometimes overrides the decisions by those boards. This creates a gap in governing. Perhaps a solution would be to place this function in the hands of the people and let there be an elected association to manage restrictions.
(8)  This government has evolved into a business-centric group of directors who are imposing past and present decisions of the development company and the prior Town Center government officials who were appointed, on the residents. There is a hesitancy to consider candidates who have other ideas for various reasons. Incumbents are the preferred choice of the very few voters who go to the polls. This seems to be the cause of the continued frivolous spending of tax dollars and lack of home owner buy-in to the business community role in the spending of tax dollars. Governing Town Center activities, plans and role in the community remains with the development company. 90,000 residents need to have a say in the development of the entire Woodlands now. These people live here and many of them work here. Governing the use of land is a huge gap as we move forward. There continues to be negative neighborhood impact by development decisions. One such recent example is a cemetery in close proximity to a residential neighborhood. When are we ever going to get a master community plan to manage? The gap is that the local government does not have land use controls.    

Future Challenges
(1) Peripheral development of business and housing. ExxonMobil brings a larger number of people to the area in a relatively short time. Development along the new parkway and other peripheral areas will bring considerable competition for tax dollars and housing. Rental properties could increase in our community as older homes sell. Traffic could rise and the quality of life decrease if not governed. Development to our north will bring Houston closer to us. New development will outclass technology here in The Woodlands, especially "green technology". So there is a perceived related threat to home value and taxation demands by our government.
( 2) Traffic in general will rise as our roads continue to absorb traffic passing through The Woodlands, as a conduit between new development to the west and south from I45. Governing the use of roads and related noise/vibration  is a considerable challenge. The quality of life here needs to be protected.
(3) Managed affordable taxation for the residents
(4) Resident participation as volunteers. There is less opportunity than in the past to participate in government. Growing replacement or new volunteers is an issue. There is less opportunity than in the past to learn how the governing processes work, how issues are addressed and how decisions on the budget are made.
(5) Developing transparency of the development company as a governing body. It makes decisions for residents and has the master plan that is not visible. Residents want transparency now. The master plan appears to change whenever the development company wants it to. It is time to stop that behavior, or it is time to open it up so that residents buy into it and have confidence in decisions and not feel constantly threatened.
(6) Getting resident buy-in/influence in decision making. This could be related to just getting the vote out. Current government makes decisions based on the ideas and thought processes of a very few. There seems to be little conferring with residents on the issues.  

Need to protect      
(1) Unique feel of The Woodlands
(2) High quality of our schools
(3) Forest including trees, undergrowth and wildlife. Seems to be a gap in protecting our wildlife.
(4) Parks and pathways
(5) Residential standards
(6) Managed traffic flow (a county service)
(7) Volunteer system - inclusion of residents

Missing items
I can think of a couple of additional things not mentioned but very relevant to the future governance model. One is water. We are taxed based on bonds for wells. Newer MUD districts have a much larger debt than the older ones in general. I see a financial issue associated with consolidating all the MUD districts together now but we may want to do that in 10-15 years. We face significant issues with water in the future, and there are issues with the governance model related to these issues.

On the positive side, we have excellent senior staff in government, most which transferred from the associations. This was not discussed in our focus group. 

In our current governing model, we cannot annex peripheral areas. This was mentioned, but I don't believe it ever made it to the gap analysis data. To be able to manage our current territory domain, we need to be able to have the sales tax income generated by nearby businesses. There needs to be flexibility to annex areas, especially to our west.

Our fire department is certainly a very good one, but we do not need to be top of the class in firefighting capability. We need better leverage surrounding departments. Our goals should not be to be the best in every class of service but to be as good or better in some of them, with a manageable and affordable budget. Budget must be governed better than it is. 

The exercise itself did not ask for feedback but did ask for questions. That bothered me a bit. When I asked a few of the people leaving what they thought of it, I got some good feedback that should have been gathered in the meeting itself. However, I believe this was very worthwhile and am anxious to see the results from other focus groups. I wish they too would be published, but I do not yet have my hands on any documentation. I understand someone else has done some documentation though. The project manager seemed a little anxious about that, because I believe he wants it all to be presented as a processed presentation rather than delivering the sound bytes that were collected.