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Saturday, January 24, 2015

City Council Must Leave the PSB Alone

[This is an op-ed piece written by David Nemir who just recently left the Public Service Board. It was published in this morning's El Paso Times. Their title: "City Council must not leave El Paso PSB alone" was a huge mistake. Read David's op-ed piece and you will understand why City Council must leave the PSB alone and not try to take over its management and trusteeship of land nor must it attempt to reduce the EPWU to a department of the City of El Paso. Leave the PSB alone. If you forward any link to an elpasonaturally post, this is the one to forward.]

As an outgoing member of the Public Service Board, I have had a front row seat in observing water management in El Paso, both present and past.   This history guides El Paso’s water future.

In 1951, El Paso was out of water.   Drought, depleting wells and dwindling river allocations compelled El Paso leaders to seek bond approval to acquire needed assets and infrastructure.   When voters said no, El Paso leaders formed an independent Public Service Board and made it custodian of El Paso Water Utilities, the revenue from which could be pledged to servicing debt.   With the combination of an independent management and an independent revenue source, the PSB could raise bond money without voter approval, using bond proceeds to expand water and sewer systems. 

The model has worked well.   For much of the past 63 years, the PSB has used bond funding to leverage its asset base, addressing water needs proactively.   Indeed, strategic planning has been fundamental since the PSB’s inception.    Capital projects are planned and budgeted years in advance and are almost always completed within 5% of budget.   

The result is a water utility that is among the best in the country --- winner of awards and provider of some of the lowest cost water services in the state.   And as part of its planning, the Public Service Board has acquired significant land assets, paid for by ratepayers, that will play an important role in funding El Paso’s water future.

However, water ratepayers are falling victim to this success.   Since its inception in 1952, the PSB returns 10% of all water revenue annually back to the city as a franchise fee.    But recent City Councils have sought to modify that arrangement in order to generate new revenue for the City.  

In 2012 Council formed a blue ribbon commission to analyze the revenue share model and to benchmark it against franchise fee and payment in lieu of tax models used for water utilities in other cities throughout Texas and the U.S.   This resulted in a July 2013 report to Council that concluded that El Paso’s revenue share model is in line with other communities and is fair to both ratepayer and taxpayer.   

Unfortunately, City Council chose to ignore this report and in August of 2014, increased the revenue transfer to the City by a whopping 30%  by imposing an annual  “street rental fee” on El Paso Water Utilities, advocating that this be raised by new fees on non-residential ratepayers (eg: churches, schools and business).  

When City Council imposes a dollar of pass-through fees to the ratepayers, zero cents of that dollar go to meet water needs.  Regardless of whether a new fee is called a franchise fee, a street rental fee or an easement use fee, it is still a cost to the water ratepayer without an offsetting benefit in water services.   And it sets a dangerous precedent.   

Through 63 years of strategic planning the PSB has acquired an inventory of land and water infrastructure which it holds in trust for El Paso’s water future.   Through those same 63 years, City Councils have often had a shorter term, less strategic focus.  The PSB, its asset base and its operations should be left alone until Council can articulate a good reason for change.  City budget challenges are not a good reason.   

David Nemir

Friday, January 23, 2015

The Friday Video: The Andidote to Apathy

In 2013 just 6.97% of registered voters elected the new bunch to City Council - the bunch that promised more transparent, open government. Only a whopping 5.43% of voters participated in the run-off.

The low voter turnouts aren't because people don't care. It's because they believe that they don't count. 

In today's video Dave Meslin addresses a Toronto Canada audience. Although his examples are drawn from Canadian political culture, they easily apply to the United States and, yes, to El Paso. 

Meslin says that we live in a world that "actively discourages engagement by constantly putting bariers in our way." He names 7 barriers:

  1. City Hall
  2. Public space
  3. Media
  4. Heroes
  5. Politcal parties
  6. Charitable status
  7. Our elections

This video will only take 7 minutes of your time. Listen to it and think about El Paso: a closed, non-transparent City government, a City Manager who clamps down on "leaks", the price-tag on freedom of expression, the lack of news about how to get involved, the message that we can't act unless called upon or chosen, the lack of really bold, creative ideas, the inability of organizations such as the Franklin Mountains Wilderness Coalition or the prohibition of city employees to get involved politically - all while corporations and powers are considered people who can be involved - and the message that we just don't count.



Ask yourself this: Why do we have to ask for information via open records requests? Why aren't records just open?


Thursday, January 22, 2015

Mr. Mayor, Tear Down that Barrier to City Hall

In my last post, More Than Just One Tree, I explained that Tree-gate is more about the lack of openness and transparency in our city government and the cavalier way that many city departments disregard policies and procedures.

Have you been to the new City Hall since the 2013 elections? We supposedly elected a whole new group that was going to bring more openness and transparency to city government. If you have been to the new City Hall over the past year or so, you will know that it is not easy to visit with the Mayor, your Representative or anyone else. You must first sign-in. A guard/receptionist asks for your destination and they call to confirm that you have an appointment. You then must pass through a metal detector - something that was only required for City Council meetings in the now demolished City building. 

Not long ago I had a meeting with the Mayor at his invitation. Although I made it through gestapo-gate, I was detained downstairs and not allowed to go to the Mayor's waiting area on the 2nd floor until I was summoned. 

On another occasion I went to another city building to get something from a friend who works there. I was confronted by one of El Paso's finest (really?) and had to explain where I was going and why I came through a door supposedly for city officials only. 

None of the check-in procedures represent good customer service or openness. 

I have never been to Mayor Leeser's Hyundai dealership but something tells me that there is not the check-point with the guards that clear you before you can gain entry to see a salesperson.

Not only is the El Paso government our government - they serve us and we don't serve them - we are their customers.

Here's a modest proposal: Move the Mayor and City Representatives and the graduate of the Tricky Dick Nixon School of Government, our City Manager, to offices downstairs, each office having a large glass window. Now that would be openness and transparency. The bunch who got elected because the previous city government and staff were supposedly so secret wouldn't be able to hide behind check-points and intimidating officers. Well - at least not the ones who are accountable enough to be full-time servants available to citizens at all time.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

More Than Just One Tree

I didn't catch this but I should have. However, elpasospeak caught it in their post Naturally Secret. I quote:

"Also troubling is what the city manager wrote in an email to city council:

'Staff has proposed alternatives to me, and apparently somehow the information has made it out to the public.' [Emphasis mine]


"The very thought of a public servant serving the public is evidently an abnormal event and it sounds like he plans to investigate the leak.  Maybe they should kill the tree in executive session." 

OMG! The public found out! How horrible! We need to find the source of the leak and clamp down or punish. We also need to stop future leaks.

What happened to all that talk about transparency during the last City Council and Mayoral elections? Weren't El Pasoans fighting mad that the decision about a ballpark was all done secretly? 

Check out transparency talk in the final 2015 Strategic Plan for El Paso:

5) Promote Transparent and Consistent Communication Amongst All Members of the Community
5.1 Set a climate of respect, collaboration and team spirit among Council, city staff and the community
5.2 Leverage and expand the use of current and new technology to reduce inefficiencies and improve communications
5.3 Promote a well-balanced customer service philosophy throughout the organization
5.4 Enhance internal communication and employee engagement 
5.5 Advance two way communications of key messages to external customers

5.6 Strengthen messaging opportunities through media outlets

Really?

Even in violation of a Strategic Plan that he helped to fashion, our City Manager sends out a memo that strongly suggests that information about our San Jacinto Plaza Park's remodel and the damage done to our Holiday Christmas Tree somehow should have been kept under wraps.

The issue facing us is more than just one tree. It is the LACK of transparency in this City and the total disregard of citizen initiatives, ordinances, procedures such as the Tree Manual and all the work done by Mayor Wardy's Green Sweep Program. 

I don't know Mr. Gonzalez. I've never met him and my attempt to get a meeting with him resulted in his getting surrogates to contact me. He may be a great guy but I'm beginning to wonder whether he isn't a graduate of the Tricky Dick Nixon School of Government. (Google "Watergate" if you are too young to know the reference.)

elpasospeak says it the best: "We deserve better."

Much more later. Stay tuned. 


Monday, January 19, 2015

The Monday Links: Francis, Fracking, Foam and More

Friday (most of the time) is video day here on elpasonaturally. Daily I'm either running into interesting and informative pages or sites online or I receive links to online info and articles from many of you. So, Monday is going to become (most of the time) "Links Day" with links gathered over the past week (or so) to online "stuff" to read and sites to surf.

Please feel free to send me links to any conservation, environmental, simple living, city planning, energy and water, etc. stories that you have come across online. 

Here's the first batch:

Two stories on fracking:

Pope Francis Says No to Fracking
26 Earthquakes Later, Fracking's Smoking Gun Is in Texas


Ecology and Ecosystems:

Wetlands Ecosystem Services (cool EPA slide show in pdf form especially good for understanding why preserving and watering the Rio Bosque Wetlands Park is so critical for the El Paso region)


The Environment:

Rejoice! New York is the biggest city to ban foam packaging


Water:

What America's nutty demand for almonds is doing to California (not to mention what growing water guzzling pecan orchards and cotton in the Rio Grande valleys of El Paso is doing to us)


Add to Your Bookmarks:

YES! Magazine
On the Commons

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Disturbing new evidence that our planet's groundwater is being pumped out much faster than it can be replenished


Last fall on November 16 I watched a very disturbing episode of the CBS Sunday night program 60 Minutes about how our groundwater is being pumped out much faster than it can be replenished. I wonder how many of ElPasoNaturally readers saw this episode. It is available online at 60 Minutes November 16, 2014.

I am sure that many agree that speaking out on environmental issues is critical to our quality of life and the quality of life of those who come after us. I plan to watch this episode again and then come up with a new list of questions for those who may have some answers. We have good people working in El Paso for the El Paso Water Utilities. They need our support and feedback and I hope that more people in our community will become involved with our water concerns.

Last year Jim Tolbert launched a petition calling for saving land on both sides of the Franklin Mountains, One of the reasons why Jim believes that this effort is so important is because "preservation means conserving our scarcest resource: WATER. We have more land than water. " Can we all agree that Jim is correct? Is protecting natural open spaces before they are bought up and subdivided important to conserving water? If we agree then we need to be working with Jim now in gathering more signatures. I hope you will join me.


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