Friday, September 5, 2014

Take the Fate of the PSB out of the Hands of City Council

[As a follow-up to yesterday's blog, I am publishing this op-ed piece written by Dr. Rick Bonart. Rick served on the PSB from 2009 until 2013 when City Council voted him off that Board. Emma Acosta led the despicable charge. David Crowder wrote an excellent piece in the El Paso Inc. regarding the ouster of someone who truly did put the "Public" back in the "Public Service Board".]


As the former citizen advocate from the Public Service Board, I want to comment on El Paso City Council's latest actions regarding the El Paso Water Utilities/Public Service Board - adding a new franchise fee and again proposing to eliminate the Public Service Board. These are horrible ideas.

It has only been a few years since former Mayor Cook convened a blue ribbon committee to review these very issues. The committee recommended that City taxes should not subsidize water rates, nor should water rates subsidize the city's taxes. Follow up studies were conducted and verified that the economic arrangement where the PSB already pays the City ten percent of its revenue is fair and comparable to other cities throughout the region. They also concluded that the PSB creates value for the City!

Ultimately, what’s in the best interest of our community is a sustainable, low cost, supply of water. Availability of water will be this region’s ultimate economic driver giving El Paso an edge in attracting new growth.  The citizens of El Paso have enjoyed low water rates and a reliable supply thanks to the policies of the PSB.
  
City Council’s meddling and undermining the PSB is bad policy. The PSB was established to set rates and policies to protect our precious water resource without political influence. The new franchise fee usurps that principle. It sets the bad precedence of City Council dictating how the PSB handles utility business.

Ironically, certain members of City Council were successful in decreasing Electric Company rates by arguing how harmful high utility rates are to the local economy.  This new fee is nothing more than a back door tax that increases a utility bill.  The franchise fee will be tacked onto water bills; but proceeds will go toward paying for city projects.  By so doing, what you pay for will be more obscure. From water projects to quality of life bonds, it's important that citizens understand the true cost of the projects they vote for. 

This new fee on business will be totally regressive in two ways. First, because it's a set fee per entity, a small mom and pop operation will pay the same fee as a huge corporate entity. Second, it's not tied to consumption. Currently as with your electric bill, consumers have control over the size of their bill by limiting consumption. Tiered water rates have been the most effective conservation measure initiated by the water utility. This new fee removes that discretion.

So why would City Council attempt such an awkward solution for such a relatively small (less than half a percent) shortfall? Surely 3 million in savings could be trimmed from an 800 million dollar budget. The answer is simple. It’s a first step. Once instituted fees and taxes never expire, rather they perpetually increase. This fee is only for non-residential customers, however it doesn’t require a crystal ball to realize residential customers will be ”fair game” and tapped to balanced the next  budget shortfall.

Unfortunately, Council’s assaults on the PSB has become an annual event. Members of City Council threaten to increase the PSB payments to the City, take over and sell off PSB land holdings, add fees, or, as with Representative Acosta’s latest suggestion, dissolve the PSB altogether.


City Council should keep water rates and city fees separate, support an independent Public Service Board, and act to repeal the franchise fee. I’d like to propose a Charter Amendment to require that the dissolution of the Public Service Board rest in the hands of the voters and not City Council. 

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Somebody Kill this Vampire Once and for All Times

It's become almost an annual or semi-annual event: an attempt to dissolve the Public Service Board and put control of the water and stormwater utilities directly under City Council control as a department of the City of El Paso. Like the living dead rising from the grave for fresh blood, this attempt has been coming up periodically. 

The most recent sighting of the Vampire came in this message from Rep. Emma Acosta's office:

"Representative Emma Acosta, District 3 authorizes the placement of the following item on the Regular Agenda for the Tuesday, September 9, 2014 City Council meeting:


"Discussion and action to review, amend, or dissolve the City of El Paso ordinance that created the Public Service Board, charged with the management and control of the water, sewer, and drainage systems of the City. To analyze, recommend, and determine the most desirable and best interest of the citizens and rate payers of the City of El Paso, in any changes, amendments, or repeal of the ordinance."

I spoke with John Balliew this morning. Although the motion has been withdrawn, there is every reason to be wary that it will re-appear sooner rather than later because the Vampire has recently drawn new blood in the form of a repugnant, unfair franchise fee which forces EPWU to collect money from non-residential customers in El Paso (read mostly Mom and Pop businesses that are already struggling in El Paso's economy.) PSB did not authorize the fee - Council did. So, as Emma must want to push the point, who needs the PSB?

Several points and please remember them:

We need the PSB as the very best way to preserve our most precious asset: water.

Take over the PSB and start selling the land to the sprawlers (what useful idiots for the sprawlers such as Emma really want) and we will soon collapse our water supply.

Balliew offered a better idea: let the EPWU assume pavement costs when mains break. Invest in newer infrastructure. Council rejected this idea because they really don't want the fee to cover an expense item in the budget - they want it as an ongoing way to raise revenue. 

This Council is NOT business-friendly. They are sprawler-friendly, Schwartz-friendly, Rubin-friendly but NOT business-friendly. They continue to plunder the wealth of businesses and homeowners to pay for the increasing costs brought on all of us because of unchecked building sprawl. Counting city taxes and the franchise fee almost 20% of the water bill paid by one of El Paso's oldest businesses and major employers goes to the City! 20 percent!  Rather than build the wage and salary base of the City in order to enlarge the amount that sales tax pays for city services rather than property taxes, Council raises your property taxes, forces your business to pay yet another fee, and allows the sprawlers to laugh and sing all the way to the bank. BTW, I believe that, in time, it will be obvious that Tommy Gonzalez is the pick of the back-room boys who like sprawl. (It wasn't unanimous you know to choose him and the Mayor really did break a tie. Happy now, former Mayor Wardy? Doug? Jerry?)

So, don't think that the Vampire has gone away. It may take an amendment to the City Charter to drive the wooden stake through its evil heart.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

El Paso Times publishes important Op-Ed on
Franklin Organ Mountains Conservation Cooperative



In case you missed it I want to make sure that all of our readers get a chance to read Janae' Reneaud Field's recently published Op-Ed on the Franklin Organ Mountains Conservation Cooperative published by the El Paso Times earlier this month on August 10. There are several easy ways you can show your support for this effort. If you are on facebook you can visit https://www.facebook.com/franklinorganmountains and like the page and or sign up for the email list. You can also make a phone call or drop a line or two in support of the effort to one or more of your elected representatives.

There are a number of important conservation efforts going on in our community at this time focused on protecting wildlife habitat. Others are posted on my website at iloveparks.com. Please become better informed and take some kind of action in support of these efforts.

Here is a copy of Janae' Reneaud Field's op-ed.


Janae' Reneaud Field: New tool helps ecology efforts

By Janae' Reneaud Field / Guest columnist


During the summer of 2012, the Frontera Land Alliance received technical assistance from the National Park Service's Rivers, Trails and Conservation Assistance Program.

In support of community-led natural resource conservation and outdoor recreation projects across the nation, a national network of conservation and recreation planning professionals partnered with community groups, state and local governments in designing trails and parks and helping to protect special places.

Shortly after the award, Frontera helped to form The Franklin and Organ Mountains Conservation Cooperative (FOMCC).

Today, FOMCC is championing a community effort to develop a conservation inventory tool that will strengthen and provide scientific data to assist in managing Plan El Paso, the Northwest Master Plan, the El Paso Sustainability Plan, the El Paso Open Space Plan, Doña Ana County Comprehensive Plan and other regional efforts that identify preserving large, connected natural areas.

This tool will not revamp, replicate or replace existing plans, but will provide GIS data to assist in making sound decisions.

The tool will take a close look at our plant life, wildlife, soil, geology, arroyos, ranches, farms, etc. and rank undeveloped lands from high to least importance in conservation value.

The land conservation inventory tool is supported by the partnership and collaboration of federal, state and local agencies, local businesses including developers, Realtors and non-profits in New Mexico and Texas.

The FOMCC will work with people and organizations that have diverse interests yet share a common place and purpose.

The FOMCC will provide an interactive GIS-based map of lands ranked by their importance for further development and conservation.

Over the years we have seen the Southwest region work to offer a better quality of life through collaboration and partnerships with developers, citizens and environmentalists as referenced in the white paper found at
http://fronteralandalliance.org/wp-content/uploads/White_Paper_March_2014.pdf or at www.facebook.com/franklinorganmountains.

These entities and organizations have laid the foundation for growth and preservation. Still, the region is facing some tough issues.

For instance, there are just 1.38 acres of park space for every 1,000 persons in El Paso. We continue to experience flood damage that may result from the filling or alteration of arroyos. There is a loss of wildlife every time we level terrain.

Responding to these and other challenges requires concerted action and collaboration from all stakeholders.

Unless we work together as one region across political boundaries, we may be overwhelmed by the dramatic shifts in demographics and changes in our environment. 


Therefore we must create a framework which will give us and our organizations greater freedom to protect and improve the green spaces which are critical to our needs.

This framework must be based on firm science.

Whether we live in the city or in rural or wilderness areas, we rely on the natural systems that support us.

The health of natural environments affects our health and happiness and gives us a sense of place, pride and identity.

If you are interested in learning more contact Frontera at 915-351-8352 or email janae@FronteraLandAlliance.org.


Janae' Reneaud Field is executive director of the Frontera Land Alliance.













Monday, August 18, 2014

City Council Postpones Kern View Estates Item for 60 Days

I just got word from Ellen Esposito that City Council has decided to postpone the item about the Kern View Estates site plan for 60 days. I suspect that the great work by Esposito and Mission Hills, Kern Place and Sierra Crest neighborhoods is having an effect. I know that elpasonaturally's post the other day has led to action. Read that post again and follow the links. There isn't any need to go to City Council tomorrow morning but certainly emailing or calling your City Rep and signing the petition still will have a big impact. 

If you want to get involved or get on Ellen's email list, email her at eldesposito@gmail.com.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Opposition to the New Kern View Estates Development Grows

Click image to enlarge. Aerial view of location of proposed Kern View Estates along with other maps can be found in the back-up material for the proposed ordinance to approve the KVE site plan on the upcoming 08/19/14 City Council agenda.
Plans to develop land on the western slope of Crazy Cat mountain have been around for several years now. One would have thought that the matter was dead in 2009 when there was an elpasonaturally post on the subject. Developers have sought buyers who might preserve the land and are still interested in that possibility. The catch is that they reportedly want $750,000 for the 16 acres in question or close to $47,000 per acre.

Just to the north of the site is an EPWU facility at the end of Piedmont. It has been a popular trailhead for hikers, mountain bikers, runners and other recreationalists who like the easy hike into open space where they can circle Crazy Cat and exit at the Palisades trailhead. 

It is not a very good location at all for a development because it is landlocked by the narrow street, O'Keefe, and further development in this location would negatively impact the intersection of O'Keefe and Stanton Street with added traffic congestion. The development would also increase stormwater runoff into the lower neighborhoods. The entire list of reasons NOT to develop is much longer than the 3 items I just mentioned.

The Fire Department has listed a number of changes that must be made for their approval. The City Plan Commission narrowly recommended the site plan by a 4-3 vote; but it is no secret that CPC has become in essence a second meeting place for  El Paso builders and developers and Five Points Business Association fellows - you know - the guys who would rather keep Central El Paso ugly rather than use more efficient planning as suggested by Plan El Paso.  

Kern Place and Mission Hills neighbors are quite vocal in their opposition. There is a petition circulating opposing the development and the number of signatures continues to grow. The Mission Hills Neighborhood Association even devoted their August newsletter entirely to opposing the site plan.

You can as a neighbor or as a citizen of El Paso who values open space and is fed up with tearing up our mountainsides with development do three things:


  1. Sign the Petition and ask others to sign it. Ellen Esposito has taken the lead and you can contact her at 915-274-2511.
  2. Email your City Rep. The MHNA August newsletter has contact info or look on the City of El Paso web site.
  3. Finally, join the crowd that will attend next Tuesday's, (August 19, 2014) City Council meeting. The matter (item 12.2) comes up quickly on the regular agenda. City Council begins at 8:00. See a map of City Hall's location. There's plenty of parking to the east of City Hall down Mills Avenue.

The best that can happen: Postpone the item. Know that Charlie Wakeem has added it to the agenda of the September 3rd Open Space Advisory Board meeting. 

I suspect that the developers really want to deal. City Council should do everyone a favor and give them that time.




Thursday, August 14, 2014

Bielek Backpedaling on State Park Entrance?

TxDOT Regional Engineer, Bob Bielek, appears to be backpedaling on his promises about a Franklin Mountains State Park entrance. A plan to connect the southern and northern sides of the park dissected by Transmountain Road was set to begin this fall. On April 11, 2014 at City Council Rep. Carl Robinson's breakfast meeting, Bielek said regarding the connectivity project: "Expect to start in Fall 2014.  Will take 3 – 4 months to complete.  Not a difficult project, because it is a short-span bridge.  Costs a bit over $1,000,000." His statement was not much different from what he indicated in November of last year to a group of park advocates prior to a public meeting in December. Bielek told the public that his discretionary funds would pay for the project.

Now Bielek is saying, as elpasonaturally has learned, that the project might begin in January and that he is looking for money for it.

The plan called for a new park entrance with a corridor under the Transmountain highway for animals, mountain bicyclists, hikers and other pedestrians. Conceptual drawings may be viewed at this post. The TxDOT page of the drawings is not loading well currently.

It seems that Bielek is backpedaling on the project which suggests that he was never serious about it before. "He often tells people what they want to hear," one observer mentioned. 

What's next? Perhaps like so many public projects the actual start date is actually much later than originally estimated. It may be prudent to wait until December to see what, if anything, happens. If nothing, then it will be obvious that once again TxDOT has been less than honest with Texas citizens they are supposed to be serving.

Monday, August 4, 2014

The Impossible Dream?

The Rio Grande in Northern New Mexico, Photo album by Rick LoBello


I have this view of the Rio Grande in northern New Mexico on my website at iloveparks.com.  Every time I look at it I ask myself this question. Why can't we bring back the Rio Grande to look something like this around El Paso? Are we not smart enough to do it or do we lack the will? I think it is about will. We have to want it.

I will never forget July 21, 1969 when Americans Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first to step onto the lunar surface. Heck if we can put a man on the moon don't you think we can restore part of the Rio Grande back to its original state?

I think it is possible, but only if the community, especially the millennials out there who have the most at stake, will get involved in supporting efforts helping to protect their environment.

I am disheartened by the number of people who are more connected to their cars and their fun activities inside buildings, who have no idea of how important our natural environment is to their quality of life now and in the future.

Join me in reaching out to younger generations. They need to know how to invest in their quality of life and their future.

On my website I have listed a number of things that people can do to get involved here in El Paso. If you have other items you want me to add let me know.