Saturday, November 29, 2014

Rep. Mike Conaway: House Ethics Nontraining

Houston Harte once said the newspaper business is not for the chicken-hearted.  I believe he also found a way to make any story local.  This graphic is in his honor.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Frac Sand Train Derailed Five Days Before Pfluger Hearing

San Angelo Live reported:

A train pulling 100 cars of frac sand derailed at 1 a.m. this morning near Ballinger. According to Texas-Pacifico spokeswoman Elizabeth Grindstaff, the train was destined for Big Lake when it derailed near milepost 20 east of Talpa.  The event resulted in the damage of 15 of the 100 cars loaded with frac sand.

The accident occurred five days before the City of San Angelo's Zoning Board of Adjustments will take up a challenge to the automatic approval of Lee Pfluger's sand offloading facility.  Petitioners Jesse Martinez, Mark Thieman, Dennis Grafa, Chris Cornell and Winkie Wardlaw assert Planning Director Patrick Howard erred in deciding that a silica frac sand operation is permitted in a Light Manufacturing Zoning District.

Texas Pacifico is in the midst of replacing track throughout San Angelo, installing heavier rail to handle higher volumes of oil field products.

How might a recent frac sand derailment impact the Zoning Board's deliberations?   After City Councilwoman and Texas Pacifico spokeswoman Elizabeth Grindstaff refused to answer "operations" questions, City Council had to rely on a retired railroad worker to challenge regarding Lee Pfluger's representations.  Let's hope Texas Pacifico has the right person in attendance this time to answer questions

Sunday, November 23, 2014

City to Consider Endorsement

San Angelo City Council discussed an insurance product for water and sewer lines.  Council reconsidered endorsing the product for purchase by area citizens, having done so in 2012 with no action taken.  City Councilwoman Elizabeth Grindstaff asked that the item return to council's agenda.  She supports service line warranty products on the belief pricing could be more affordable for citizens.

Mayor Morrison opposed the concept, citing citizen's freedom to buy such products now and saying it's inappropriate for Council to endorse banks, car dealerships, grocery stores, and realtors.  Citizen Jim Turner said "I don't think the city should be giving an exclusive endorsement to any business doing any service like this any more than they should be giving an exclusive endorsement to Stripes or Allsup's as a convenience store"

Six of the seven council members wanted to learn more about such products, including how much revenue could become available to the city and how the city can support low income citizens with water or sewer line breaks who don't buy the insurance product.  The role of the city may change fundamentally should it choose to lend its name to various product or service offerings.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

RailPort Won't Compete with Texas Pacifico

San Angelo Chamber of Commerce Vice President Michael Looney reported on the City's efforts to recruit a national railport company to the area.  Looney recognized City Councilwoman Elizabeth Grindstaff for steering the Chamber to two suitable tracts of land.  Looney shared the railport operator does not want to be a short hauler, but wishes to operate a switching station with alot of tenants on the ground (a giant one at that).  They would not want to move in on any of Texas Pacifico's territory. 

Looney went out of his way to say the prospective railport would not compete with City Councilwoman Grindstaff's employer.  I found this interesting in light of the discussion the next day at the Development Corporation Board meeting.  They discussed conflicts of interest and how it would be inappropriate for a Board member to keep out competition for a venture in which they had an interest.  

To date there have been no packages presented or votes taken.  As this project moves forward it will be interesting to see if the city funds or subsidizes the railport in any way.  Should that occur citizens deserve information to ensure things are proceeding on an ethical track.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Railport, Engineering & Call Center

San Angelo's Development Corporation heard good news in their October meeting.  A national railport is looking for up to 500 acres and another call center company may test the waters.  Each project could bring 75 new jobs to San Angelo.  The development corporation board learned Engineering Services will shift from Planning to the new Public Works department headed by non-engineer Ricky Dickson.

It was odd hearing the talk of sustainable development, when our oil boom is its very antithesis.  San Angelo's leaders know what comes with rapid, widespread oil and gas drilling and they welcome it with open arms.  Water demands grow from drilling, which uses millions of gallons per well, and from population growth.

Rapid growth places great demands on community infrastructure.  Decades of underinvestment turned San Angelo's streets into crumbling chunks of asphalt and water pipes into giant soaker hoses.  This happened under Ricky Dickson's watch as Operations Director, where he supervised both street maintenance and water distribution.

Former Water Chief, now Public Works Executive Director Ricky Dickson scored engineering, as well.  The city doesn't have engineers to design fixes for our current infrastructure problems, much less address growth associated infrastructure demands.  It remains to be seen if Ricky's supervision solves San Angelo's deep engineering shortage.  I expect Ricky will do for Engineering what he did for San Angelo's streets and water pipes. 

It's fascinating to see Dickson follow Will Wilde's footsteps, although Will never had Executive in his title.

Bad leaders serve their interest, be it monetary, ego or power needs.  Good leaders serve others and leave things in better shape than when they started. The jury is out on San Angelo.  Something will be built.  It's likely it won't be maintained (like the water feed from Lake Spence).  We'll see how sustainable these executive arrangements are over time..

Saturday, November 08, 2014

Green's Grocery a New Venture

Green's Grocery's opening is the talk of the town.  The opening shifted from Spring to August to November, but the public jumped at the chance to check out the new store, cafe, coffee and dessert bar.  Three articles in San Angelo Live left the entrepreneurs behind the venture a mystery. Even the company's website had nothing to offer on the parties behind the venture.

Thank heaven for San Angelo's Chamber of Commerce.  Their May newsletter identified the local investors.

Some citizens may recall San Angelo Mayor Alvin New and Development Corporation Board member Randy Brooks as investors in MedHab, which received a $3.6 million economic development grant from the city.  That deal left a bad taste in many people's mouth.  Fortunately, this can be removed by ingesting fresh fruits and vegetables from Green's Grocery.  Bon appetit!

Thursday, November 06, 2014

Talk of a Partnership

San Angelo City Councilwoman challenged the draft minutes from the last council meeting.  She stated:

In the minutes concerning the discussion of light and heavy manufacturing I made no remark about talks of a partnership. 

The tape shows Councilwoman Grindstaff saying on October 21, 2014:

My company has no relationship with Mr. Pfluger other than the requirement to provide transportation services to and from his site.  There has been some talk of a partnership.  That has gone nowhere with our management. So, at this time we're, we have the obligation to Mr. Pfluger as we do to any other developer on the rail to provide transportation as we are part of the national transportation network."
It's surreal when leaders say they did not use words that exist on tape or in e-mails. 

Monday, November 03, 2014

City Retirees Should Know

Two weeks ago City Council members discussed employee/retiree benefits.  City retirees count on ex-Police Chief Russell Smith to speak their truths and he did not disappoint.

"I'd like to say two things.  One is a reminder that up until a few years ago our benefits in this area, medical and stuff, we didn't have dental, but in medical it was the same as employees.  And then a few years ago, under a different City Manager (Harold Dominguez) all that changed.  I'm just trying to remind y'all that.  We were paid 40-50 percent less and today you try to pay your employees 80% against those same cities.  Those other people retire making 40-50% more than we do in retirement.  So, y'all are already aware of this.  I'm not going to beat a dead horse. The other thing I'd like to say, a 5% increase (in dental or health insurance) is big.  Thank you."

Several council members asked questions about the number of retirees on the dental plan.  Assistant City Manager/Chief Financial Officer Michael Dane gave a hypothetical number of 400.  When pressed he said the number was surely far smaller than his example.  Not one person in the room knew the number of retirees off the top of their head.  None, in this day of instant information, had quick access to it.  That includes two Holmes Murphy consultants engaged by the city for benefits advice, Human Resources Director Lisa Marley, Dane or Finance Director Tina Bunnell.   

Saturday, November 01, 2014

Thirty Days Until Frac Sand Appeal

The City of San Angelo Zoning Board of Appeals will entertain the approval of a frac sand offloading/transfer facility in downtown San Angelo.  Lee Pfluger received approval for the facility under the site's existing zoning classification of light manufacturing.  Pfluger spoke before City Council on October 21 on his planned facility.

Mr.Pfluger referenced the Texas Commission for Environmental Quality (TCEQ) several times in his presentation.

"There's a lot of dust concerns and this is a true concern.  The dust concerns are real. It's controlled by the TCEQ.  The frac sand itself,  two different deals.  A lot of people talk about Barnhart.  Barnhart's got a water problem.  TCEQ says you've got to water the caliche.  They don't have any water in Barnhart and they're not watering the caliche.  But it makes a mess and I agree with that.  That's a difference in operation."
Did Mr. Pfluger statements reveal that TCEQ requirements are optional if the town has no water? There's been talk in the past of Barnhart buying water from San Angelo.

Lee Pfluger is a respected businessman and likely reads the Wall Street JournalWSJ ran a story on this very subject in April of last year.  It stated:

Traffic on the railroad, which had been on the verge of extinction several times in the past century, has tripled in the past five years, to more than 10,000 rail cars a year, and is on pace to double in 2013. That is because the millions of pounds of fracking sand coming into this region—and a fairly large portion of the crude oil exiting it—are now riding its rails. 

Barnhart "is the center of our petroleum universe," said Elizabeth Grindstaff, a vice president of sales at Texas Pacifico Transportation Ltd., which operates the rail line. "My bosses call it the belly button." 

The town, located on the eastern edge of the Permian oil field, is now chock-a-block with rail cars. Dozens of train hoppers were parked on new sidings off Highway 67 one recent day as their cargo of sand was being unloaded onto trucks for delivery to new oil wells
The article cited the very concerns expressed by San Angelo citizens in regard to the proposed facility.

When trains stopped to unload sand in Big Lake, they blocked emergency services from reaching houses south of downtown until a new rail siding could be built. When the wind blows from the south, unloading the tiny pebbles used in fracking can create small sandstorms that reach the few houses nearby.
The Zoning Board of Appeals meeting on December 1 should be interesting given the power players involved.  Who will show up from Texas Pacifico to address questions about rail traffic as City Councilwoman Elizabeth Grindstaff would not at City Council?  Will Lee Pfluger finally answer the retired railroad worker's questions on shipment methods, projected turnaround time and the prospect of blocking street traffic for long periods of time?

Another level of intrigue is the neighborhood composition of the group appealing Pfluger's frac sand facility.  Most live in Santa Rita, the neighborhood served by City Councilwoman Elizabeth Grindstaff, the very railroad Vice President of Sales who collaborated with Lee Pfluger on his planned operation.  While Grindstaff appears to be a solid proponent, her predecessor Winkie Wardlaw leads the opposition charge.  Stay tuned.