Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Governance in a nutshell

Updated on October 29th with current information.

What are the important aspects of this election that we need to know? The list below is how I currently understand the situation. I plan to maintain this as we go along, because my understanding grows and things change. This is a living document.

Items of High Significance Check Spelling

a. An interim governing body is required to get us to a mutual agreement with Houston. Despite arguments to the contrary, 2014 is the year for which we must wait to incorporate. Technically we can file anytime. Practically, we must be politically sensitive to Houston and support the agreement made by Senator Williams with Mayor White.

b. TCID is the only option for self-governance until the next legislative session. The last legislative session granted TCID the temporary authority to expand its authority to the rest of The Woodlands for establishing self-governance. Our vote yes on the ballot gives TCID the authority to govern all villages and Town Center. Jurisdiction does not cover some locations east of Hwy 242. TCID will change from an 11-member board, which was appointed and elected, to a 7 member fully elected board with a phase out of existing members as each member's term expires.

c. Voting YES in the election is equivalent to electing each member of the TCID board for his or her remaining tenure in office. I prepared a separate blog article on their qualifications and bios.

d. If either of the first two ballot proposals fails, both fail, and Conroe will begin annexation of Mud 39 of The Woodlands. The third proposal for ad-valorem tax is optional.

e. The basics of governance jurisdiction and intent has been published in a memorandum of understanding (MOU). This is a document between The Woodlands Association and TCID to define the intended relationships, transfers of assets and authorities. This document is required to set intended boundaries, responsibilities and schedule of change in responsibilities. It cannot be executed until after the elections. This document was created to show due diligence by The Woodlands Association and TCID to demonstrate a workable plan and no loss of resident services in the process.

f. Ad-valorem tax would be a means for residents to report their association dues legally to IRS. It has no other intended use but it could be used in the future as a tool to obtain needed revenues (just like any other governing body). The tax rate would be .304 in 2009, slowly declining in subsequent years. The MOU sets 2010 as the beginning date for this tax, and even then it is optional. But passage signifies that the residents want the tax write off and provides a tool for TCID to tax if they should need to in order to balance income with budget (not expected to be used for this purpose).

g. A 2% sales tax would be levied throughout The Woodlands per jurisdictional boundaries. All of the excess would used to defray some of the association dues. The excess was calculated based on current Township budget and the association's budget. An analysis indicated a 31% savings on dues for each residence in 2009. Currently an estimated 70+% of all shoppers in Town Center are from outside of The Woodlands. Infusion of money from the outside is expected to grow. The flow of money from non-residents will help may the bills.

h. Associations’ operations will continue to operate, initially as they do today, but changing over time according to the memorandum of understanding until the transition is completed in 2012. Deed restrictions will continue to be enforced and in 2010, the Township will assume responsibility for enforcement of those covenants. Covenants will remain the same unless changed by the prescribed method of requiring 2/3 of the votes in an election designed to change the covenants.

i. Services will continue to be provided as they are today and are protected by the memorandum of understanding . These will basically remain the same by contracts with the county, contractors, and association. A restructure of the Fire Department to report to the new governing body will occur as soon as possible, with a transfer of assets. Operations will be funded by the additional sales taxes, thereby reducing association fees because the TCID will fund the fire department through the sales taxes.

j. Budgeting process is not defined, but there is a vision. Capital expenses and operating expenses have been brought forward into the financial analysis from the current plan. All fits together just fine. The memorandum of understanding designates "develop appropriate oversight for program and budgetary development processes ...". This will be done based on funding responsibilities and "institutional experience and knowledge". For example, the budget of the fire department will be handled by the Fire department board and overseen by TCID. At the beginning, each association will have budgeting responsibilities connected to their need to fund the services they provide. This will change according to the schedule until 2011.

k. Voting participation in The Woodlands has been historically atrocious for local positions. We need everyone to participate in this election. Each voter must be a registered voter, just like any other county election (this is going to be administered by the county). October 9th was the deadline to register if are not a registered voter in Montgomery county!

l. There will be no ordinance capability under the existing structure and authority of TCID. Our lawmakers are willing to seek this capability for TCID in the next legislative session, should we ask them to do it. In the interim, our laws will remain under the umbrella of county and state only. The MUD districts under the umbrella of the Joint Powers Agency will remain as they are with their elected officials to manage MUD taxes and water operations. Police services will remain contracted. We will not be a municipality in the beginning but a special service district, a legal entity under state law. Influence of the development company remains basically the same within the associations and TCID.

m. As today, we will have no zoning ordinances. The development company will continue to build out under the constraints of the covenants and standards. However, we will continue to have lot use designations. There are some undeveloped lots designated for mixed use, etc etc. It is up to us as individuals with our village associations to challenge or moderate the specific uses of land. These designations are part of our covenants and part of the master plan of our community. This election should not be a contest between the power/influence of the development company and the residents. It is instead a decision on selecting a road to self governance, if any road at all.

n. Costs of incorporation will likely be higher than the Township. Although some residents have expressed incorporation as their intent, there is much work ahead to define related costs and decide on incorporation as the final solution to our government. If and when we would select incorporation as the final solution, we can expect government costs to rise, and there would probably be more pressure on our police to issue paying citations. Additional pressures to fund related services such as street maintenance would also be an issue. Check the city of Houston for tax issues. They have the same sales and use tax we will have; they have an ad-valorem tax but higher than we would have; they would take our money and use it for funding Houston projects and operations which would of course include us if annexed. They are able to lower their cost by volume and size. We have efficiencies as well, with our consolidated area and master plan. Incorporation would not bring any additional leverage externally for our community. For example, regional transportation will continue to be an issue, and our interests must be represented by the Township government. Incorporation is not a necessity to ward off annexation by the city of Houston. It is a convenience to control all services within the jurisdiction of those who govern it. Municipalities tend to have high water costs, because they often attach funding of other services to their water service operation. Our water bills will be unaffected by the passage of these proposals.

o) Socio-economic representation - the at-large positions on the TCID Board will tend to reflect the governing preferences and economic decisions of the general voting population of The Woodlands. However, there seems to be no practical way to develop a meaningful representation for the lower income population. The idea originally envisioned by George Mitchell was a total community of various incomes throughout all the villages. Low income housing now is primarily in Grogan Mills and Panther Creek villages.

p) Seven at-large positions - the rationale for seven is not known. The number seems to be reasonable when considering small cities and the number of people elected to their councils. Conroe and Shenandoah have a similar setup with only at large positions.

q) Taxation without representation - this is a divisive phrase intended to sway the vote against the propositions. I have yet to find substance supporting this view. There will be no major decisions before the five (probably six) new at-large positions are filled by the voters in May 2008. When those positions are filled, we will have a majority of elected officials on the board (those five or six coupled with some others). See MEET THE TCID BOARD in this blog for specific qualifications and elected terms. Some incumbents were elected, not at large, but certainly for the positions they currently hold or were appointed to, via the organization from which they were elected. I find all of the incumbents capable of representing and appropriately managing villagers' taxes. Every position is accountable to the voters. After May 2008, they will certainly be a majority elected board. There will NOT be taxation without representation even in the transition period!

r) The development company and its influence on the residents - Deed restrictions will continue in effect. There is no plan to change. The development company will have only one but elected employee on the TCID board after May 2008. This means the development company would have less of a role in the governing of our community. In 2010, the development company has no representatives after the election of that year. Some people make a big thing out of a person having worked for the development company or having been a builder. Check out their credentials and make your own assessment.

s) In the transfer of assets, The Woodlands Association will gradually lose its assets and power until the organization is no longer needed. The role of the village associations will be to act on behalf of its residents to help develop the capital budget, resolve local issues and conduct local events. The village associations will continue to exist and have elected officials. They will continue to function as a liaison with the association and in the future with TCID.

t) Houston completed the legal wording of the regional agreement. Although we do not have a copy of the appendix which defines the projects and their priorities, we now have a legally binding agreement to read and understand. If we fault on payments, we could fault on the agreement as well. It will be important to make payments per the agreement. Other wise, the substance of the agreement is what was expected. Houston will be the project manager and drive the projects to completion. The projects will be a cooperative mix where the northern outlying areas of Houston will benefit from the improvements. An example is commuting via the Hardy toll road. It will be extended to downtown, improving commute time for The Woodlands residents.

Resources

1.http://www.thewoodlandsassociations.org/site/home/default.aspx - for a tutorial to the elections
2.
http://www.town-center.com/ - for boundaries, polling locations, financial analysis
3.http://www.thewoodlandsvoicepac.com/ - for independent support group perspective
4.http://woodlandsknow.com/ - for an independent counter-support perspective

5.http://www.TalkofTheWoodlands.com
6.http://www.thewoodlandsassociations.org/files/MOU.pdf
- for text of the Memorandum of Understanding
7.
Financial Presentation - describing the sales tax and ad valorem tax as they pertain to the expansion of TCID.

Ask questions and I will try to answer or get an answer for those that I do not know. I can be reached by email at indianspringsguy@sbcglobal.net.

Governance - September Forum

The following is not meant to be a report on this meeting but my view of it and what I personally heard. These notes are from my notes but also include some my thoughts during the session. Just for the record, I am FOR self governance and am willing to establish an interim governing body to reach that goal, as long as I have say in the decisions through appropriate representation. A public panel forum was conducted by the TCID (Town Center Improvement District) on September 26th, 2007 at the Conference Center in The Woodlands. Our Texas state senator, Tommy Williams, and our state representative, Rob Eissler, presented their perspectives of the opportunity for The Woodlands to self govern to the TCID board and attending residents. Residents followed with one question each and a followup question. Each ressident was allowed multiple questions but had to rotate through the queue. The board stayed until all questions had been presented and answered. Senator Williams has been a strong advocate and supporter of self governance in The Woodlands, and Representative Eichler has also strongly supported the initiative. Senator Williams said "we had to play the hand we were dealt." We played the hand and came out a winner. What we have now in chips is the draft agreement with Houston, an agreement with Conroe, TCID coming forward to play the role of an interim legal governing entity, two enabling bills passed in the Texas legislature, and the three propositions on the ballot for November. "Our solution is to take something that exists and do something with it". The Woodlands is fortunate to be able to establish a 2% sale tax and not be limited in its use such as are municipalities. Municipalities must use 1% for operations and the other 1% for improvements. The Woodlands via TCID can utilize the entire 2% for operations. Basically, from a practical political point of view, the ballot in November is about annexation. If the first two propositions fail, Conroe will annex their part, and we will be at the starting gate again with Houston for the rest of The Woodlands. In Austin, we did what we could with the cards wehich were dealt to us. It would have been essentially impossible to realistically achieve a local municipality without this effort in Austin. Houston would not have gone with us without the steps we are proposing. The Houston agreement is interlinked to the process we are using which applies state wide. The probability of annexation by Houston will be high if the first two measures do not pass. Representative Eichler said that he always believed annexation should be a marriage, not a a kidnapping, but history has proven the latter. The bill in the House expires after the election if the first two measures do not pass. If the first two measures on the ballot are not approved, residents will not get another chance. We will be at square one again, facing annexation by Houston. We could file for annexation, but we will have the same destiny as Clearlake and other past failures. The ballot will have two measures that interrelate. One cannot pass and the other fail. If one fails, the other one fails. The third measure for ad valorum tax is optional. It is there to enable residents to legally file "association dues" in their income tax return. Currently, TCID has the temporary power to conduct an election. If the measures passes, their jurisdiction powers will be made permament and they can annex the rest of The Woodlands. The TCID board will change from 11 to 7 members elected at large. It was not thought necessary to have village representation, because all villages are nominally the same. Financially, the picture looks good. Usually the planning for the use of sales tax takes into account swings in the economy. Therefore, TCID plans with a forecast surplus. 70% of the sales tax for TCID comes from zip codes outside of The Woodlands. These results have just come in from a survey and analysis. It is forecast that sales taxes will fund the fire department for the entire community if that is the way residents would like to distribute the sales taxes. Whatever accounting process is elected for funding our services, the sales taxes will help residents substantially to lower their association dues. The earliest we would see the 31% reduction is 2009 due to the way taxes are levied and paid in Texas. In 2009, the financial analysis forecasts 31% reduction in association (ad valorum) fees with no reduction in services and using the association's budget forecast model. We see a .304 ad valorum tax rate for 2009 to receive the other 79% of association fees as an ad valorum tax. Bonds will be utilized to finance regional projects per the agreement with Houston. We have had experience in successfully using bonds to fund large projects in the past. A MOU (Memorandum of Understanding) will be completed in October, to give residents an understanding of the direction and intent of TCID on certain issues. The draft document is being reviewed and changed. It will help clarify what to expect from TCID over the next few months and years. For example, the covenants will remain in effect. There is currently a FAQ document on some of the basics, but the MOU will dive into more of the critical details. The MOU is essential for understanding what form of governance will take place. The regional agreement with Houston should be signed in October before the elections. There seems to be no more major obstacles left. The method of dissolution of TCID is being reviewed and changed to remove some risk associated with the current wording. It is expected that people who run for TCID office will be challenged with future governance issues on their platform, especially in regard to becoming a municipality. Since the agreement with Houston will be tied to 2014, there are some additional measures which may take place beforehand. The 7-elected TCID board will be at its fully elected voting strength of 7 in 2010 when the last current TCID board member leaves. The earliest year of incorporation will be 2014. I will probably be discussing the additional measures with Senator Williams within the next few weeks or months to setup a platform to address in the next legislative session. It may be feasible to obtain the ordinance capability for TCID and tranfer those to the ultimate governing body, e.g., city government in this effort. I expect to bow out and turn the effort over to TCID once we get the rationale for such a platform clarified. People want see more details which will be published in the memorandum of understanding soon. The Houston Chronicle published an article this morning covering this meeting. It is accurate. http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/nb/woodlands/news/5165872.html

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Street Honeycomb

One reason to live in The Woodlands is the difficulty in understanding how to navigate among the honeycomb of streets in the tall pines. It actually creates a type of safety net because most casual visitors have a difficult time finding anything here. The design not only emphasizes our forest but mandates its maintenance as part of the East Texas piney woods. The next time we get lost on one of our streets, remember that we have designed it his way for a reason. The design of the streets with the unique naming of each one to denote something of the wildlife or forest, is truly a desirable trait of this place. One can enjoy the forest right on our neighborhood streets. Whether it is driving about or it walking or bike riding along the numerous hiking trails, the forest is at our fingertips and we are surrounded by it. Here we stop not to smell the flowers but to gaze at the awesome forest preserved about us. However not all residents and visitors see it the same. Some cannot appreciate where they are and must rush at high speeds on our streets, honk horns, or play loud music in their automobiles. Some do not even see the children going to school. Some people are apparently here to work and not play. In the beginning, The Woodlands was a place to live and commute to the big city. Now it is becoming a city of its own, and many of the residents live like they are in a big city. That is sad. Those who read this blog, I would hope, will join me in promoting the simpler lifestyle which emphasizes the forest and distances itself from the hustle and bustle of the city. We do need to govern ourselves so we can strategize those values which are dear to our hearts.