Saturday, July 30, 2011

Local Tea Party and the Federal Debt

The tea party is having an out-sized influence on the debt ceiling crisis in Washington. It's threatening to run challengers in GOP primaries next year for any Congressman who dares defy the tea party's hard line stance against raising the debt limit. The tea party threat appears to have worked (at least temporarily), as Speaker John Boehner was embarrassed by having his GOP caucus refuse to get their "ass[es] in line" behind him and vote for his plan to raise the debt ceiling. He was forced to make it even more conservative, and thus even less likely to become law, in order to get his own caucus to back it.

It's hard to over-emphasize the significance of the tea party victory over John Boehner in Washington. How influential is the tea party here in north Texas? What's it even up to? After the jump, some anecdotal answers.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Water, Water, Nowhere

It's hot. Really hot. And dry. Really dry. The last nine months are the driest in Texas history. And that includes the infamous 1950s drought and the 1930s Dust Bowl drought. On Wednesday, Dallas suffered through its 26th consecutive day of 100 degrees or higher, the third longest such streak in history. We can tie the second longest streak, 29 days, on Saturday. With all of August still ahead of us, the all-time record of 42 consecutive days, set in 1980, is not out of the question.

After the jump, a roundup of the mounting disaster.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Debt Ceiling Crisis Reaches Richardson

Last week, in reporting on Richardson's budget retreat, I warned:
"The city proudly points to its Aaa/AAA credit ratings by Moody's and S&P as a factor in keeping its debt service costs low. A dark note that was not considered during the budget retreat: Moody's says it will downgrade at least 7,000 top-rated municipal credit ratings if the U.S. loses its own AAA grade. What would be the consequences to Richardson in that case? I didn't get the impression that Richardson has contingency plans. Let's hope Washington comes to its senses and raises the federal debt ceiling before the federal government defaults."
Well, today, the Congress seems just as belligerent as ever about reaching a compromise over raising the debt ceiling. And today, we moved one step closer to that downgrade of Richardson's own debt. After the jump, the details.

Resistance to Brick Row Cracks

The Richardson City Council voted 5-2 on Monday to approve zoning changes requested by the Brick Row developer that would allow units planned as condos to be built as apartments instead. Ian McCann has the story in The Dallas Morning News.

Last October, a different council voted down a similar request 6-0. Only Steve Mitchell and Amir Omar cast "no" votes both last October and this week. Bob Townsend switched his no vote to yes. Mark Solomon, who was absent at last October's vote, voted yes this time. Gary Slagel, John Murphy and Bob Macy, who all voted no in October, are gone from the council. Their replacements voted yes this time.

New council, different result. Is this another case of the old rule that elections have consequences? Probably not. After the jump, why.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The DMN's Rick Perry Problem

Mike Hashimoto, the most conservative member of The Dallas Morning News's editorial board (at least since Rod Dreher left and arguably before), has been beating the drum for the last six weeks to get the rest of the board to encourage Rick Perry to run for President. Only Hashimoto is too cool to admit to driving the Rick Perry bandwagon. Instead, he says:
"My position, in vast oversimplification, is that while I'm not certain he would be the best GOP nominee, the race sure could use what he has to offer."
Whatever. After the jump, how is Hashimoto's drive going?

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

How Good Is Your Local School?

How good is your local school? Don't expect to find out from the Texas Education Agency's (TEA) accountability ratings, due out this week. You know, the ratings that say your kids' school is "Exemplary" or "Recognized" or "Acceptable." Why not? Thomas Ratliff, a member of the Texas State Board of Education (SBOE), explains why ... after the jump.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Elections Have Consequences

The mayor won the election. Elections have consequences. A revealing exchange of emails was published this weekend on David Chenoweth's blog that shows how this old rule is playing out in Richardson and how some don't like it.

The first email is a personal email from Richardson's new mayor Bob Townsend to City Plan Commission member Jim Henderson. The mayor informed Henderson that he will not be supporting him for reappointment to the Plan Commission. The mayor gives no reason. The short email reads like a courtesy email intended to ensure that Henderson learns of the decision directly from the mayor himself.

The second email is the response by Henderson, in which he suggests that the mayor's decision is politically motivated.

Then a former candidate for city council, Bill Denton, comments. The mayor is accused of acting in "your vendictive [sic] ways when someone crosses you."

After the jump, the emails.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Highlights from Richardson's Budget Retreat

The Richardson City Council held back-to-back budget review meetings Tuesday and Wednesday at a "retreat" at the Richardson Woman's Club. City Manager Bill Keffler presented a proposed budget for 2011-2012. The introductory handout for the retreat claims that the city's budget development process conforms to a variety of guidance features including "City Council Goals." But the City Council is still in the process of setting their 2011-2013 goals. So, I'm not sure how the City Council provided inputs on the general goals for the budget -- e.g., overall revenues and expenditures and tax rate, what areas to increase or decrease, etc.

Anyway, after the jump, the highlights of this year's proposed budget.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Lake Mendota from the Union Terrace

From 2011 0707 Madison

Is there a better place to be on a late afternoon in summer than in Madison, sitting on the Memorial Union Terrace of the University of Wisconsin? Is there a better setting at any university in the land? I admit I'm biased, but there isn't for me. These photos make my case.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Richardson Taxes in Context

It looks like one of my wishes for the 2011-2012 budget will come true. No increase in property tax rates is proposed.

After the jump, an excerpt from documents used in the Richardson City Council budget retreat July 19-20. The first table shows total property tax rates for comparison cities in north Texas. The second table shows Richardson's property tax rates from 1997 to the 2011-2012 budget.

The Cottage at Fifty

From 2011 0703 Big Lake

Fifty years ago this summer, my uncle Floyd Steger bought an old cottage on Big Lake in Shawano County, Wisconsin. The cottage became the site for many family vacations. Floyd passed away in 1990, but the tradition he started in 1961 continues. This year, over the Fourth of July weekend, 41 members of the family gathered there for a family reunion. These photos show how the cottage continues to play an important part in our family's history.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Laura Maczka, Uniter

Richardson Mayor Pro Tem Laura Maczka is already proving herself to be the best of Richardson's new City Council members at healing the divide in Richardson politics. She has drawn praise from backers of the defeated slate of candidates for attending a local tea party meeting and listening to their intense questions. In a City Council work session devoted to drawing up Goals for the 2011-2013 term, she spoke up for being proactive, not just reactive, about improving fiscal transparency and for supporting small business, both issues important to the campaigns of losing candidates. It's far from certain Maczka will be able to win over the hard-core anti-government faction in Richardson, but she's taking the right steps.

Honorable mention to Steve Mitchell, who also attended the tea party meeting and, in the work session, first expressed the desire to emphasize the goal of continuing to improve fiscal transparency.

P.S. The July 11 and July 18 work sessions are great examples of how writing vision/mission/goal statements by committee results in verbosity.

P.P.S. Advice to city council: When reviewing the near-term action items colored "done," it's embarrassing when no one can remember exactly *what* was done.

Chicago, Still Standing

From 2011 0701 Chicago

Chicago is one of the great cities of the world. How great is it, you ask? Well, great enough to tempt me to maybe plan to see the movie Transformers. Trust me, that's saying something. You see, I saw a trailer for the movie and recognized Chicago as the setting. Or perhaps I should say I recognized Chicago as the CGI city being destroyed by the Transformers. Suddenly, my less than zero interest in seeing Transformers was shifted into slightly positive territory. That's how great Chicago is. Not that I want to see Transformers. I want to see Chicago. Anyway, as you can tell from these photos, Chicago is still standing even after that bomb of a movie did its best (or worst, depending on your perspective).

Monday, July 18, 2011

My Wishes for Richardson's Budget and Goals

The May election for city council is history. Now, it's summer. It's hot. It's vacation time. Do we have to start paying attention to city government again already? I'm afraid so. The July after an election is the most critical month for Richardson's city council for the next two years. It's when the new council sets its goals for its two-year term. It's when the annual budget process begins. It's when the script for the rest of the year, the rest of the two-year council term, is written. The rest pretty much plays out as written in these dog days of summer.

After the jump, my wish list.

Quad Cities Quiz

From 2011 0630 Quad Cities

Fifty points if you can name the four cities on the upper Mississippi known as the Quad Cities without reading beyond the end of this sentence. Time's up. Davenport, Iowa, and Moline, Illinois, are the easy ones. Maybe so, too, is Rock Island, Illinois. It's the fourth one that's usually the stumper. How many people can come up with Bettendorf, Iowa? I would have also given credit for East Moline, Illinois, which Wikipedia lists as the "fifth" of the "quad" cities. Wikipedia also reveals that the area was known as the "Tri-Cities" until East Moline grew in the 1930s and became the first "fourth" city in the Quad Cities. Confusing, isn't it?

It all makes for some confusing street names, too. Going east-west, they are called avenues. Going north-south, they are called streets. And when you cross the border between Moline and Rock Island, the number system changes. So, 12th Avenue becomes 30th Avenue and one block east of 54th Street is 2nd Street. Luckily for the wayward tourist, the Mississippi River, already broad and impressive this far north, dominates all, so it's not too difficult to navigate your way around. Perhaps the biggest surprise is the discovery of the Village of East Davenport, Iowa, nestled between Davenport and Bettendorf. It just might have the most scenic block in all four five six towns.

For more photos, look here.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Iowa, Where TANSTAAFL Does Not Apply

From 2011 0629 Des Moines

The Iowa legislature adjourned June 30 after the third-longest session in state history. Legislators were at loggerheads for so long over, what else, spending and taxes. We happened to be in the Iowa Capitol in Des Moines on the last full day of the legislative session. I think I figured out a way to help Iowans balance their budget. Quit giving tourists free lunches.

The Capitol is a magnificent building with grand chambers, offices and a stunning law library. But its cafeteria? Not so great. As we were standing in line, or rather, as we were standing all by ourselves waiting to be served, as there were no other customers, I suggested that if our kids were here I would challenge them to come up with all the ways the cafeteria could be run more efficiently. Finally, we were served our hamburgers and fries and went to the checkout to pay. Or not. There was no one at the cash register. We stood there awkwardly, looking around for someone, anyone, to give our money to. No one ever came. Eventually, we decided to sit down and eat, keeping one eye open for someone to reopen the cash register. It never happened. So, Iowans, thanks much for the free lunch to cap off the free tour. Great meal, great building, great state.

Then, it was back on the road again to the Quad Cities, with a short stop along the way in West Branch. Quick, what does a small two-room house in West Branch, Iowa, have in common with a suite at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City? Answer, they were both homes to the 31st President of the United States, Herbert Hoover. The West Branch house is his birthplace, the Waldorf-Astoria suite was his home in retirement.

For more photos, look here.

TANSTAAFL: There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Kansas City, A Friendly City

From 2011 0628 Kansas City
"Gotta find a friendly city
And that's the reason why,
I'm going to Kansas City
Kansas City here I come"
-- Wilbert Harrison

Visiting Kansas City for just one night, what do you do? We had to try the barbecue at Fiorella's Jack Stack Barbecue in the Country Club Plaza. We ordered the Roundup Dinner for Two (sliced beef, pork, ham, and pork spare ribs). Sublime.

But the song says Kansas City is a friendly city, not a tasty city. Did it live up to the lyrics? In the morning, we did a walking tour of KC's art museums. We started at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, then walked past the Kansas City Art Institute and ended up at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. But it was Tuesday. Due to budget constraints, the museum is now closed Mondays *and* Tuesdays, except for groups. Oops. Not to worry. Kansas City is a friendly city, right? Telling the friendly man at the door that we were from Texas, in town only for that one day, he got out his walkie-talkie and confirmed that one of the guides inside had a little free time to give us a personal escort. We were in! A quick look at the ancient art collection, then the Impressionists and post-Impressionists, concluding by private access to the special exhibition of Monet's Water Lilies, an enormous triptych assembled and on display together for the first time in a generation. Sublime. Kansas City deserves its reputation as a friendly city, indeed.

For more photos, look here.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Joplin, Five Weeks After The Storm

From 2011 0627 Joplin

June 27, 2011: The thousands of drivers who pass by Joplin, Missouri, every day on Interstate Highway I-44 notice nothing different. The Cracker Barrel, the Steak 'n Shake, the Waffle House are all still there serving whatever it is they serve. But exit the freeway and drive north on Range Line Road and you begin to notice growing changes. Business signs not quite vertical. Blue tarps on roofs. Banners in front of boarded up store fronts advertising "Open for Business." By the time you get to 20th Street there is no missing it. Something bad, something very bad happened here. Whole city blocks, for several miles, where there should be houses and shade trees and kids playing, are now a disaster area empty of everything except for piles of rubble, uprooted or shredded trees, and isolated work crews looking like they don't know where to start to put things right again. For the 159 victims of the May 21 tornado, and the thousands of survivors, friends and relatives, things will never be right again. Even a brief visit to the city, five weeks after the storm, leaves one stunned by the enormity of the damage.

For more photos, look here.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

OTBR: On a Qatar Sand Dune (Again)

Latitude: 24.6790 N
Longitude: 51.3246 E

A child on a road trip with his family asks, "Where are we?" and the father answers, "Let's check the map. We're off the blue roads [the Interstate Highways marked in blue on the road atlas]. We're off the red roads [the US and state highways]. We're off the black roads [the county highways]. I think we're off the map altogether." It was always my dream to be off the map altogether.

After the jump, a few of the random places (and I mean random literally) that I visited vicariously last month that are "off the blue roads".

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Repeat Tweets: Mavs, CWS and a Road Trip

Repeat tweets from June, 2011:

  • 2011 06 01 - Judging by my inbox, looks like Rick Perry is lending his mailing list to Newt Gingrich. Evidence that Perry is *not* running for President?
  • 2011 06 03 - Maybe you missed it watching the Mavs celebrate at buzzer, but Dwyane Wade flopped after missing that last second shot. Down he went. Again.
  • 2011 06 03 - Scott Coulson, band director at Mesquite Poteet HS, is retiring. Great band program. Great kids. Great director. Hats off.
  • 2011 06 03 - Mavs fans, how's it feel knowing the whole country wants your team to win. Or the other team to lose. Except this guy.
  • 2011 06 03 - Toy Story 3 (2010): Looking back, I probably should have watched this with a 5-year-old. Spoiler alert: Lotso is Darth Vadar. C+
  • 2011 06 04 - Looks like Richardson has its eye on some property between Belt Line and Spring Valley, Hyde Park and Floyd. New park?
  • 2011 06 05 - Nowitzki threw the ball away on second last possession, then missed a jumper at the buzzer. But he didn't flop on either. Give me that, huh?

After the jump, more repeat tweets.