Monday, April 11, 2016

Political Influence Costs Taxpayers Millions

[Below is an op-ed piece written by Charlie Wakeem and published by the El Paso Times in yesterday's Sunday paper. It was published under the title of Wakeem: City backslides on development issues. N.B.: Charlie is a gentleman. He won't name names but I will. Brad Roe replaced David Nemir who was a stellar member of the PSB. The attorney for the PSB/EPWU at the time was Bob Andron. Fortunately he retired and was replaced by Lupe Cuellar.]

In light of the recent revelations about the dysfunction and mismanagement in City Hall, I feel it’s time for me to speak about other issues I’m aware of.
One only needs to look at the difference in city government since the 2013 municipal election and decisions City Council has made since then.  Most of the problems are already well-documented, including but not limited to issues with the city manager and Rep. Larry Romero and City Council’s lack of vision and transparency.

I have served on several city boards and committees during the past decade, the latest being the Open Space Advisory Board.  Among others, I also served on the Subdivision Ordinance Rewrite Committee, the Comprehensive Plan Advisory Committee, the PSB Selection Committee and the Capital Improvements Advisory Committee, which makes recommendations to City Council regarding impact fees.

I was formerly chairman of the Open Space Advisory Board, which advises City Council on the Open Space Master Plan.  I was term-limited from the board last summer.

OSAB accomplished a great deal in the first few years of its existence.  However, things started to change after the 2013 municipal election.  City staff began to keep board members from having a say in setting the agenda and posting items for ineffective and useless Information and Discussion only instead of Action, thereby limiting the collective voice of its citizen board members.

I can only surmise that it’s the people with political and financial influence that are behind the silencing, since OSAB is unpopular with many of those people.
The City spent several years at a cost of millions of dollars, in large part provided in grants by the federal government, for Plan El Paso, El Paso’s nationally-recognized, award-winning comprehensive plan.

It has since been shelved.  Proof of this is that it is no longer available on the city’s web site.  Once again, it seems apparent that some people with influence have convinced the City to ignore it, because Plan El Paso discourages urban sprawl.

Impact fees are strictly regulated by the state and are designed so that new growth pays for itself, instead of the taxpayers or ratepayers subsidizing the new growth.  El Paso has imposed impact fees on new growth for water and wastewater infrastructure since 2009.

Impact fees are calculated by anticipating how many new housing units will be built in new growth areas over a ten year period and the cost of infrastructure to extend water and wastewater service to those new units.  The calculation was originally roughly $2,000 per new water meter (unit) in the city’s three new growth areas when the impact fees were imposed in 2009.  City Council approved 75% of that amount in impact fees.  That left the rest of us still subsidizing new growth for about $500 per unit.

Every five years the state requires impact fees to be recalculated.  In 2014 the El Paso Water Utilities calculated about $35 million more for infrastructure to serve the East and Northeast new-growth areas with a slight increase in the West.

I had term-limited off the Capital Improvements Advisory Committee by then.  The East and Northeast new growth areas are now approximately as much as $4,000 per unit.  The Capital Improvements Advisory Committee, the majority of whose members belong to the El Paso Association of Builders, convinced City Council to withhold any increase.

You and I are now left with subsidizing new growth for water and wastewater costs at up to $2,500 per unit.

Also, in late 2014, the PSB Selection Committee, met to select the engineer position on the PSB.  The incumbent was the very highly qualified David Nemir, who had already served on the board for the previous four years and was eligible for another four year term.  One of the other applicants, who I will not name, was a land development engineer.

There is a policy that land development engineers do not qualify for membership on the PSB due to a possible conflict of interest.  I pointed this out at the meeting.  However, the attorney for the PSB/EPWU said the applicant had recently sold his engineering firm and retired.  If he sold his firm and retired, why is he still representing land development clients at the City?  I’ve personally seen him do so.

The mayor, who serves on the PSB and chairs the selection committee, was absent at this PSB selection meeting.  The selection committee proceeded to re-nominate Dr. Nemir by a wide margin. 

When the committee’s recommendation subsequently went to City Council, the land development engineer was inexplicably appointed in place of Dr. Nemir. City Council has the right to appoint anyone it wants, but we have to ask ourselves whether political influence was involved. 

The best way for citizens to make change is elections.  Let’s choose the candidates with integrity and a vision for our city, who work for us and not self-serving financial interests. 
Charlie Wakeem

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