Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Hunting the White Tail Deer in Central Texas

Last week, I decided to pay a tribute to my late Uncle Russell Tinsley by going on a deer hunt in his neck of the woods, Mason County, Texas. For you  who did have the privilege of knowing him or of him, he was a sports writer and specialized in hunting and fishing. You can find his books for sale in the used book market, but they are no longer in print. Anyway, I have one of his guns and decided to continue his legacy in some way through his gun; figured this would be an appropriate "hats off" to my well known uncle.

Weeks earlier I bought ammunition for the gun, so I thought. I was told the gun is a 30-06, so I bought cartridges for it. On arrival to a friend's ranch in Mason County, I realized that I had not checked the gun for caliber. My friend found it on the barrel of the gun. Whoa!  It is a Winchester 244! It was too late in the day to go to town, so my friend loaned me his gun, a 270.

I figured it would be better to kill a deer for meat than wait to kill it with my uncle's gun. So my friend loaded his gun and he put a shell in the chamber, showed me how to operate the safety and that was that. (I thought).  Before I set out on the hunt, he told me to load a shell in the chamber, but I saw him put one into the chamber. My friend stayed in the hunting cabin, while I waited in a blind with his gun.

Time passed. A typical day in the woods - birds chirping and flying about. About 8 beautiful male Cardinals in excellent color were between me and the corn feeder. There were Doves, Quail, a Raccoon, and many other birds to entertain me. No deer! After three hours, dark began to set in and the sun set. It was still within the legal time but it became more difficult to see around and under the feeder. I saw something move and pointed the gun at it. Sure enough, two does were grazing next to the feeder and were slowly approaching it. I looked through the brush and knew my opportunity was coming. I had the cross hairs on the leading animal, waiting for the best shot. It came. I was going to have food in my freezer. I slowly took the gun off of safety, put the cross hairs on a quick kill. My heart started pounding as I realized that I was about to end a life. I don't take any  joy in this. Slowly I pressed down on the trigger.

The animals were calm and eating the corn under the automatic feeder which had spread some corn about an hour earlier. CLICK! What? Click? Oh no! The shell did not fire. Then it hit me.  My buddy had emptied the chamber on me for safety purposes. Panicking as the deer looked around for that clicking noise, I pumped a cartridge into the chamber and started to aim. Swish! They were gone. Both leaped forward into a full run disappearing into the brush.  It was too late now. Time to head back to the cabin. Oh well, we have three more days to get one of them.

We went to town the next day and nobody had heard of a 244 caliber. Mind you, Mason town is considered the be the capital of deer hunting in Texas.  So there I was without anything to shoot in my uncle's gun. One store keeper looked the gun up in the internet. Thank goodness! Six mm cartridges are interchangeable. I bought a box of them and went to test the gun. Yep. it worked and the scope was right on, exactly like my uncle had last set it years ago. That was great and fitting for what I was doing.

As it turned out, that was the only opportunity that either of us had to shoot a deer. So for the next three days, we went hunting and saw no deer. That first evening was misty and cold, perfect for the animals to be looking for food early, but the weather turned warmer the next day and the deer were not moving about.  I got a glimpse of a deer crossing through the brush one evening and also saw what I thought were two or three deer feeding under a feeder another day before any daylight exposed them.  But no deer between sunrise and sunset.

The monotony was broken only by the animals and me fussing at myself for not checking the firing chamber for a bullet. There was a beautiful Red Fox that came by one day about 10am.

In the mornings, I was the only hunter and walked to the blind about and hour before I could legally hunt. The night was pitch black and I was edgy about recent sightings of Cougars. I went out that first morning and heard the thumps of hoofs hitting the ground. - obviously deer on the run. But there was nothing to be seen. I did find the deer blind in the dark, but it was not easy.

One evening I might have missed any deer coming by. This sunset simply mesmerized me. That was at a different blind. True Central Texas beauty - what anyone can expect when they spend some time outdoors, about 5 hours from The Woodlands.

I love that country, where the heart and soul of my family remain.

Friday, December 4, 2009

A New Woodlands?

The Woodlands is still under development and will be for some time to come. However, the idea behind The Woodlands is getting stale and outdated. Montgomery County has been growing by leaps and bounds but not from a master plan. Conroe has identified an issue in master planning and taken the bull by the horns through a zoning regulation proposal. Hopefully, their zoning ordinance for tree preservation and livability restrictions will pass.

In a discussion about the future of the county with Judge Sadler, I came to the conclusion that he is onto something significant and in the right direction. That is, he has identified an area in west county that could be another future "Woodlands". We need to be thinking forward 25 years from now. How could such a vision be realistic? There would be many hurdles to overcome!

Let's begin answering how such a vision could unfold by defining the issue. Expansion of housing and businesses in our county has traditionally been similar to Harris County but less urban. There have been many developments in the style of country estates. Those are one to ten acre estates primarily for a horse and livestock spacious style of living. There are of course a number of  planned communities, but I have yet to see even one come up to the standards of The Woodlands. This type of expansion results in lower population areas and a different means of commercialization of the area. For example, the dominant trend has been to commercialize along major highways in any way possible. That strategy of commercialization is what occurred in Harris county, especially along FM 1960. Haphazard development has been the rule throughout Texas except in master planned communities. Housing development near FM 1960  was accomplished with small development areas, without zoning or rules to protect the environment or resources, nor through a plan of capacity for businesses for the population growth, not interconnecting pathways or any sort of master plan. This problem has not been solved on FM 1960, as one will see when going to Atascocita, which has huge traffic problems and is beginning to suffer the same problem as the western area of 1960. There is no master plan.

Coming back to Montgomery County and the areas near The Woodlands - we watch highway 105, Kuykendahl and FM 2978 develop in a "whatever domino falls, let it fall" fashion, a mix mash of "who knows how it will come out? - let the market and private enterprise drive the results" strategy, or "let the developers have at it" strategy. This is Texas style. Now let's take a step back and ask ourselves, do we really want this to happen? Our children and grandchildren may actually want to live here after we are gone! Today FM1960 west of I-45 is full of crime and ugliness. Can't we have a county we can be proud of? Not cheap strip malls, not cleared land with big signs and trash in view of the road frontage? 

The Woodlands is a shining star of Texas and has a great reputation nationally, but that will not last if it is surrounded by a random domino falling development game strategies. To quickly zoom in on the particular subject of this article, let's skip any more background and get into the discussion with the judge. He and I have a mutual interest in the future of this county and mutual admiration and respect for the tall pines and large hardwoods of the county. After all, 100 years ago 90% of the county was forest! In fact, as late as 1990, 75% of the land in Montgomery County was forested! One has to take a step at a time to reach out in order to mold some potential from our remaining lands, but we need an enabling process to occur to do much about it.  Judge Sadler believes there is an opportunity in west county to develop another community, larger than The Woodlands, that could have the same type of "livability" standards and values. That is, carve an urban area out of the remaining forest there for future generations and preserve the large trees and the roadside views of today. Is this feasible? 

I asked the judge if mobility could support this. My take on it is that the new outer toll road will provide sufficient access to the area if the amenities were the same or better than The Woodlands. His view is that the highways in that area have excellent tall tree stands lining the roads and is almost ready-made for development. I think the photo of FM 1486 above substantiates his view. The opportunity is there for a master planned community. The highways have the right-of-way for double lanes in each direction and possibly even an additional middle turning lane. FM 1486 has very few turns. FM 1486 and FM 1774 provide north/south routes into the area. FM 2819 and FM 105 provide east/west mobility routes. The area is north of the urban non-incorporated area of Dacus. I will publish a separate article on that little town and a nearby interesting place in Grimes County.

There is the potential to have another double-county master development in a similar context to The Woodlands, because there are landowners in Grimes County with large acreage of timber adjoining those timbered blocks of land in Montgomery. As Judge Sadler expressed it, the opportunity results from "old logging timberland sold by George Mitchell to about five landowners". Looking at the areal photographs, it is easy to see the patterns of planted trees for lumber production.

Since the time The Woodlands was first acquired and planned, and since the time the new development company took the job of completing the project, there has been a tremendous amount learned in developing living areas using principals of "livability" to a resource conscious world.  A new "Woodlands" would have the opportunity to leverage that knowledge and modernize a vision to fit the modern world. We are proud of what we have here in The Woodlands, but there is so much more that can be done to improve the master plan model. I'll save that for a future article.

In the Grimes area, there are hills which would provide more of an athletic challenge than does The Woodlands for running and biking. These also provide opportunities for deeper lakes. Although a long way from Houston, there is pent up demand for urban areas away from the big city, as The Woodlands  has demonstrated.

What obstacles are there? Most of the issues rests with the Texas legislature. Counties have little authority. The job of the County Judge and his Commissioners is to maintain and expand county roads to access developments, towns and cities. Incorporated areas have zoning authority. With incorporated areas only having 20% of the county population and the county governments not having any authority for zoning, nor having capability to preserve natural resources, the state has to do it. And does the state of Texas take natural resource control seriously? It does not regulate the cutting of trees. That leaves the decision of resource purely to land owners. In the past, some of them have been quite diligent in preserving the forest, but those owners are getting to be fewer and new owners are more commercially inclined.  Therefore, our trees do not stand much of a chance. They in fact will not stand but fall, just as we have observed over time. History will be repeated unless we do something about it. Texas can and should continue to be a great state, but it is decaying rapidly with uncontrolled growth, with essentially no governed presentation of structures on private property.  The state is not what it once was and holds no real promise for the future unless we do something about it.  As the judge said, "we need deep pocketed developers to come in to preserve our trees. Conroe's influence has increased the preservation of our trees by annexation and zoning regulations, but that only affects 20% of the population of the county. I have been seeking the preservation of our trees for many years."

The feasibility of such a project depends on several things, but mostly on there being a consortium of developers with sufficient financial resources and will to plan and develop a second "Woodlands". That and time are required to make this happen. Land owners will be willing to sell only in time. There has to be a commercial interest in negotiating and acquiring these lands as they become available. On a broader scale, Texas must come to terms with the issue of protecting its related resources - i.e., trees and water.  High growth areas need to be regulated.  

Sunday, November 15, 2009

To buy a car over the internet - Craigslist and EBAY

I recently encountered a scam as I set out to find a bargain on Craig's List. We all have heard that there are scams and we all hear there are bargains out there. To determine the difference, we have to research the "bargains". Generally, if it sounds too good to be true, then it is.

Here is the scam. Someone advertises a car for sale on EBAY. They have taken all measures to legitimately sell their car electronically. There are services available to do just about anything you want. One thing a seller does is to take plenty of photos. Another is to list the vin# or provide it to the potential buyer on request.

The scamer captures the photographs and the VIN# from the EBAY seller, then advertises that the car is his car to sell. He does this to see if someone is in dire need of a great bargain. The car is priced to get rid of it in a hurry to speed up the process. There is a good excuse to sell it, mostly because the person is going overseas in a few days, or it is property from a divorce. The scamer needs money from the sale quickly so she (that seems to work better for a scamer. A female is trusted more). The scamer then says that she will either use a service of EBAY where a seller can use another means of actually making a sale (Craig's List), or  she will ask for money upfront through Western Union or some other means. He will tell the buyer that the transaction is risk free, because EBAY will refund your money after 5-10 days if you do not like the automobile you have purchased. The transaction will of course look like it is official from EBAY with logos and everything, but it will not be EBAY. In fact it is probably someone from out of country. 

To be cautious and diligent, you as a consumer might go and purchase a report or several reports from a  third party such as Carfax. The report on the vin# will show excellent information including that the automobile is for sale! The scam is well thought out. The next day, you get to follow their process, which includes completing a transaction with a guarantee that you have 5-10 days to try the car and if disatisfied, you can tell the financial company that you reject the purchase and you will be refunded. Of course, after sending in the $5000 or so, there is no way to track the person, email address or anything else. Your money is gone. The car was never theirs to begin with, so you have just fallen for a crafty scam.

Fortunately I chased this for a few hours and uncovered the scam from searching on internet and my family had caught onto it as well, so I was getting advice from them. What is strange is that these people are allowed to operate. Craig's list is free and unmonitored, so you get what you pay for when using that service. People have been known to find bargains there, but perhaps as many as 2 out of 3 car transactions might very well be scams.  I knew there was something awry when the person on the other end could not or would not answer my specific questions. 

Advice? If you are compelled to use that means or EBAY, make sure you have a telephone number, not an email address. Deal directly with the person. and never buy anything from an individual without touching it. 

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Woodlands Township Moves Forward passing another major milestone. What next?

Now, as a new milestone is in the rear view mirror, The Woodlands Texas is positioned to launch its five year infrastructure plan with the construction of three fire stations, additional parks and pathways, and execute a long term financial strategy with insured fixed rate bonds. Tax payers can rest at ease for while as we enter this final era to complete the resident infrastructure of this master planned community in partnership with the development company of The Woodlands. Creekside Park will complete it's build-out and we will begin to plan ahead for maintaining our community. Our future may yield a full municipality as we consider the future government in the days ahead, but the urgency of a decision still remains on the horizon. We don't have to deal with that right now. It will be complex, full of financial and operating issues.

We will be looking forward to reaching a class "1"  ISO rating after achieving full coverage of emergency services throughout all villages. That will be another milestone we hope to achieve within the next 5 years. Along with that , the CERT teams are being formed where citizens expect to be able to respond to emergencies such as tornadoes, hurricanes and major disasters within our own neighborhoods. The support of that capability will also be associated with the emergency services of the fire department, but not dependent on the fire department. Hopefully we can reach a 4-minute average response for EMS services in The Woodlands as we get our major roads upgraded to mitigate local traffic congestion and when the additional fire stations have been constructed. Then we should be fully positioned to handle emergencies. We will have the medical facilities and the response infrastructure to care of those sick and injured within our community.

As we move forward, we must remember that there remain significant issues that have not been addressed yet. Our roads need maintenance. The county is reluctant to have a bond election in this economy so we wait, and it might be a long wait at that.

An interesting thing happened in this election. The Woodlands accounted for nearly 50% of the voters in Montgomery County.  That means we may have a chance of getting voter support for road bonds in an off-year election.  We rallied considerable more votes with the Woodlands Bond issue than we would normally expect. So there is hope that we can pull enough votes in the county to get a bond issue passed, if we support it ourselves. Otherwise, we may have to incorporate and maintain the roads ourselves. That would be a localized tax burden that we do not want, yet it may be a necessary strategy in our future. We also face significant water issues. That is a local issue and can be managed through our water districts, but this is something tax payers will be very  sensitive about in the long run. The cost of building transportation systems from Lake Conroe and delivery systems locally will be huge, and it will come from our pockets through bond funds.  Another issue facing The Woodlands Township is how to provide office space for our new government. Government office building(s) will be needed, and we will need to decide what that looks like - with water district personnel or not, one office building for all administrative personnel, whether we will have a separate police station or consolidate that with the government offices, and more.  That will likely require a bond proposal as well.

So we move forward, one step at a time towards a mature master planned community that is maintained well and where property valuations hold or increase. As we become embedded and surrounded by other small communities, we may have no place to extend our boundaries. That in itself will drive strategies for maintenance that needs attention within the next five years. We have to know how we will maintain our assets and have a clear vision of what that will cost and what income we can generate without raising taxes. In fact, we need the tax rate to be lowered after five years. Residents do not want taxes to be indexed against house inflation! Residents are tired of experiencing that phenomena.  It is time to plan holding down cash flow instead of holding down tax rates. We do that by reducing the tax rate. We have many people on fixed income, and if home inflation continues to out-pace living inflation, people will be forced to exit and move elsewhere. We do not want that in our community.

Look to May 2010 when we will be voting for additional Township leaders. Taxes and Township will be a major issue. Seniors want help and so far have not received any financial assistance. We spend money to attract businesses and build upon the attraction of our community. That puts pressure on the cost of housing by those who wish to move here, and therefore prices rise. We need to put a lid on the tax burden and distribute the load appropriately. Those considering running for election should be thinking about this now, so should residents. 

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Woodlands Bond Proposals 2009 - League of Women's Voters Debate

Tonight, a debate was conducted at the Association building on Lake Woodlands to debate the FOR and AGAINST viewpoints. This is a summary of that debate.

Adrian Heath (CountyCitizen.com) presented the opposition, while Joel Deretchin (TWA Association President) and Don Glennell (Texas Rush Soccer Club) alternately presented the FOR.

Proposition 1
FOR - We need all three fire stations as recommended by those who have studied the detailed criteria to achieve a 5 minute response  time average. Currently, certain areas of Indian Springs, Panther Creek and Cochran's Crossing have insufficient emergency response time. Indian Springs has an average of 8 minutes and Creekside Park an average of 15 minutes. In the two additional minutes after the target fire response time, a fire grows three times its size.  There is hope of saving a heart attack victim  after  four minutes, whereas all bets are off after about six minutes. Time is very critical to safety. Our emergency services are lacking and we need to improve them now. The third station is falling apart and structurally unsound. It will likely cost more to repair than rebuild it. We have put 1/2 million band-aid dollars into it already. It is time to replace it.  Additionally we seek an ISO rating of "one" here. The Savings in insurance for the residents will offset the investments. We have been told that we will achieve an ISO rating of "one" with the improvements through these bonds. Part of our community does not even meet ISO level two status currently.  This will fix that problem. Association representatives have analyzed and reached agreement to the necessity of these stations. Financial analysts have determined that the bonds are fiscally responsible and make sense in this economic climate. 

AGAINST - let's pay as you go. Make the Township fiscally responsible and squeeze existing funds. We are in an economic decline. Let's defer some projects and spent thrifty. Get our financial house in order. Wait to do these projects until we have fully elected residents on the board. Put the issue in their hands because they will be more fiscally responsible.  Maybe we could even do as we did before - have volunteer firefighters. Let's have some better cost conscious ideas. 

Proposition 2
FOR - we have an urgent need for an additional  sports field. Our children are not able to participate in some sports activities such as soccer for the lack of sufficient amenities. We need to support our children and their quality of life. A 12 year old cannot wait three years for us to start such a park project. We have favorable financial rates now and the costs of constructing our assets is low due to the current economic environment.  Some of these parks are required by contract.

AGAINST - we can cut expenses and pay for these parks out of our general fund. Prudent spending is necessary to achieve the quality we want. Again, defer these projects until the new resident elected board is in place.  We need to trim the fat. Look at who is behind the coalition who is sending the leaflets out to the residents. They have special interests and have something to gain via approval of these bonds.  Some sponsors are outside of The Woodlands. They build parks and fire stations. An example of an excess expenditure - a check was written for a domain name; it cost us over $1000. You can get a domain name for $18. There are many of these unnecessarily extravagant expenses, some in the 100's of thousands of dollars. Fix that and then start thinking about spending more. Pay as you go is the only prudent way to go.

Proposition 3   
FOR - this is just a no-nonsense way of distributing debt over 20 years. It is a very fiscally responsible proposal. It provides a means to have those living in your house after  you leave to assume some of the financial responsibility for these proposed and completed 20-30+ year assets. The bonds will not increase taxes (none of these three will). This particular proposal is only a refinancing proposal. It will save us money in the long run. For all of these propositions, when we require additional funds in a pay-as-you-go scenario, we will have to raise taxes. This proposal protects us from interest rate increases and allows to maintain our constant annual assessment rate of 32.8 cents per $100 assessment. We expect the bonds to be 4.5 to 5.5 percent loans. If we pay for this out of our annual budget, taxes will be much higher!

AGAINST - let's pay off the debt and not leave it for those after us. We pay a lot of interest. The best way to go is use the general fund. If after we have cut excessive spending and we need more money, then raise the taxes. The bonds will not solve all of our problems, whether  of safety or keeping children off the street and out of trouble. Get out of debt, put our financial house in order. Spending thousands of dollars for songs on the fountain at Waterway does nothing for me. It is for the businesses on the waterway.

For some present, the information presented was nothing new. For others, this was an opportunity to ask questions and perhaps see "two sides of the coin". Everyone wants prudent spending and most people see there are opportunities to improve financial efficiency. However, many residents also see that safety and our children are extremely important. So is the stability of our tax rates. What may seem conservative to one person may seem like just prudent spending to another. What seems like exorbitant spending to one person may seem like the norm to another. Bring those two thinking processes together and you have diversity of financial thought. Either way, the right way seems to be that which takes care of the issues while keeping a lid on taxes. These proposals are part of a five year plan (and longer) to keep our tax rate at 32.8 cents per $100 of assessment. If that is accomplished, the rest can be managed with the budget process and detailed financial thriftiness. Let's have the bonds and let's have prudent spending. Let's not get the two confused. We need progress and we need for it to be aggressively pursued, without undue strain on the resident's pocketbook.

Please vote FOR the bonds.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Bond issues - The Woodlands needs your vote!

This is a critical time for our little Texas community. Major projects completing the final build-out of The Woodlands is being put on the line for funding in the November 3rd election. In about five years, our town should be all grown up in the residential areas and have a completed infrastructure except for government offices. Sure, the community will continue to grow after these five years, as undeveloped lots continue to be developed in various locations, especially in the Town Center and some parts of Creekside park, but after five years, our town should be primarily in maintenance mode, improving what we have, replacing what is falling apart, and in general, maintaining the usefulness and presentation of our public assets. Some parts of our community are already falling apart. These bonds address some of those issues as well.

Our current economic environment presents an opportunity for this community. Interest rates are the lowest they ever will be. They can only go up, and I believe they will, probably starting sometime in 2010. We can lock into these low rates with GO bonds. The township expects to be able to sell bonds at a rate between 4 and 5 percent. Execution of the sale can not realistically be started until about June 2010. Not all projects would be included initially. These bonds would be appropriated when the projects need to be executed. If the bond issues pass, there will be several bond sales of varying terms and interest rates. If there are better financial vehicles available at the time, then the voter-approved bond vehicle would not even be utilized. What I fear is a quick rise in interest rates. That would impact all the township bank loans having a varying interest rate. Just as we seek a fixed rate loan for a home, the township seeks the security of fixed rate bonds for financing its projects. These bonds will help mitigate the risk of rising interest rates. We as taxpayers need and want a fixed predictable low rate amortized over the life of the asset and minimized for future tax relief.   

In preparing the budget for 2010, a strategy was invoked to flatten our tax rate so that residents could keep a lid on their local tax rate, similar to the county tax strategy. To do this, our financial wizards in the association and township put their heads together and formulated a plan that would accomplish everything required over the next five years, and they planned a year-by-year budget leveled at 32.8 cents per $100 evaluation. The township has successfully developed our first budget using this strategy. Subsequent years are dependent on what happens with the bond issue on November 3rd. The plan is to levy a 32.8 cent tax rate in each year of the five year plan. The bonds will not increase our tax rate. They only provide a financial vehicle to finance the projects at an optimal cost and provide a financial path to our final governance model during this final phase of building out The Woodlands.

If the three bond issues are passed:

The plan will proceed as visioned, with a projected 32.8 cents per $100 evaluation. Therefore taxes will increase or decrease with the county assessment valuation of homes, not affected by the interest rate nor variations in the township tax rate unless the community decides to add major projects within the next five years. I don't see that happening unless we feel we must take control of the local road maintenance. These three bonds have no affect on  either the county taxes, school taxes or MUD district taxes. These bonds have everything to do with the services provided to your neighborhood but not maintenance to your streets. The bonds are interconnected to the operating budget but are related only to capital expenses, either past or future.

Funding for capital projects is normally done with bonds, because bonds are a tool to spread the payment of the assets over the life of the assets. Therefore, say for a fire station, which will be in service perhaps 30+ years, the cost of building the asset is spread out for the next 20 years. That means whoever moves into your house after you leave (unless you stay forever), will share the burden of paying for the fire station. You will pay less each year and probably collectively over the years as a result. The normal residency in The Woodlands is probably on the order of five years, so perhaps the burden of that fire station is shared between the four families living in your home over that time. For a fire truck, that would be seven years and so a shorter term bond would be used or we might pay as we go on some shorter life items or projects. 

Bottom line is that the tax rate should remain at 32.8 cents per $100 evaluation for the next five years if we vote FOR all three propositions. It is not risk free but voting FOR will go a long way to manage the tax rate risk in The Woodlands.

If the bond issues are not passed:

The township must prioritize all contracts and operational requirements and safety projects ahead of other projects. First and foremost, all obligations must be honored. Repair of existing facilities might be deferred. That means that the parks for the new village would be built, because they are a contractual obligation. The two proposed new fire stations - one in Creekside Park and the other in Indian Springs would be built for safety reasons. I would think that the Central Station which is not structurally sound might be deferred, although it might be argued that is also a safety issue.

Residents would be taxed an additional one cent per 1.1 million dollars expended for capital. There is no exact scenario of what would be built and what would not if the bonds were not passed. A contingency plan does not exist, because a complete new plan would need to be created, and it would have dependencies on the economy and interest rates.

Basically, if the township had to plan the new facilities from operational funds, that would be a direct expenditure in the years incurred. Therefore, for example, if one fire station was built in 2010 and one in 2011, taxes would have to be increased by 3.7 cents for each station in the year it is built. The alternative is to finance them at a bank, probably negotiated at a low variable rate in the near future, rising to a high rate in a few years as the rates increase because of Fed intervention. Most of us know what that means with credit cards and even homes! Over time, a variable rate has only one way to go now - up! And it can go way up! I remember not too long ago, a 14.5% fixed rate on a home.That is the reason we lock in interest rates on our homes. The same goes for our township.

Another way to look at this is for us to pay the cost of the assets as we go from our own pockets -  Proposition 1 and 2 combined adds up to 28.3 million dollars. Divide that by 1.1, equating to the number of cents required in taxes from each resident to do those projects. That equals to  24.5 cents. Spread that out over four years and it equates to about 6 cents added to your tax each of those years, if the expenses are incurred evenly. So instead of 32.8 cents, count on 38.8 cents. If we finance that amount through a bank over say 10 years, assuming we can, it would be perhaps 5 percent compounded interest. It could also be 10 percent compounded interest. Residents taxes would be impacted by the interest rate. If you can figure this all out, let me know. I am not going to try, not yet anyway. Amortization schedules and various scenarios of financing are best left to the experts.

So what am I really trying to say? 

I am FOR all three bonds. We should put this tool in the hands of the competent people we have in authority and those who work for the township in finance. Let them make the decision next year on how to finance these facilities or refinance our debt. Their tactical decisions will be based on financial analysis and strategies aligned with the economic environment and interest rates at the time. Personally, I want to keep our taxes under control and not be exposed to the risks of variable rates.  Already the financial community of the world is questioning the USA for low interest rates. They want toe USA to be financially responsible. The federal government is holding to near zero rates for the near future, but economic recovery will be measured by reasonable control of inflation through controlled borrowing. Reasonable interest rates to manage inflation is considered an appropriate tool to do this. Our current opportunity  will not last forever and in fact may change before we can even take advantage of the low rates available now.

There must be hundreds of spending scenarios. Optimizing it is the job of the township's president, financial manager and analysts. Our job is to ask questions, understand the propositions, assess our position and go vote. Please vote FOR these propositions. There is a nice brochure being distributed which presents the three propositions in an easy-to-read format. It is available at the township office1. Perhaps it will be made available at additional locations soon.

Proposition I -  $17.335mm bond authorization to finance three fire stations, related equipment and payment of Emergency Service District debt. Drawing associated annual budget funds of $4.9 mm for total of $22.335mm.1

Proposition II - $12.380 mm bond authorization to finance park and pathway contracts and renovate parks and equipment needing major maintenance. Drawing associated annual budget funds of $7.8 mm for a total of $20.189mm.1

Proposition III - $20.225mm  bond authorization to refinance existing debt, mostly under variable rate contracts . This will bring our capital debt obligations into a fixed rate bond service and take advantage of the township's legal status to have non-taxed debt.1

4.  1Printable brochure in PDF format

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Mobility takes a new turn - Lake Woodlands moves up

Now we have a 40mph speed limit posted on part of Lake Woodlands. That should make a lot of people happier. The new speed limit was established after a long study on risks and traffic patterns. From West Panther Creek west to The Woodlands Parkway, the speed limit is 40. From West Panther Creek east to I-45, the speed limit remains 35 mph.  A 45 mph speed limit is too dangerous to post, so please observe the limit as posted. A former study showed 45 mph not feasible on the roadway.

Unfortunately, this means that some of our children will be crossing a 40 mph road instead of a 35 mph road now, near Shadowbend. It also means that the duck chicks at Shadowbend Park will be more at risk this coming spring.

Of additional interest are the school zones in The Woodlands. Please note that cell phone usage by drivers is not permitted in school zones. All zones should now have the related signage up and enforcement of this new Texas law is in full effect.  

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Major crimes in The Woodlands and area - apprehensions

Apparently, many of the crimes pushing us towards a larger police force are being solved here in The Woodlands Texas.  We have had arrests for bank robberies, and now arrests of members of two groups responsible for local home break-ins. The latest arrest was announced today when one person of 23 years of age was apprehended and who is a member of what is thought to be a Colombian "gang". He allegedly participated in the burglary in Indian Springs on Landsdowne.There should be more arrests in the days to come for the 1000+ robberies thought to be performed by this gang. The gang apparently targets residents of Indian descent and possibly other Asian nationalities. He was apprehended in a robbery in Harris County.

The previous arrest in September was an 18 year-old caught near a burglary he had allegedly committed in The Woodlands. There was evidence of other robberies and weapons in the automobile he had driven to the scene.

On September 30th, deputies made another arrest - Arnolus Bulli Snel, W/M 47 YOA, of Shepherd, Texas for attempted sexual assault. Deputies were dispatched to a home in The Woodlands where they learned from the 49 year old victim that Mr. Snel had come to her home around 9:30 A.M. looking for work. He was known to the victim from working at the home in the past. He had told her that he was in the area handing out business cards. The victim allowed the man into the home and when her back was turned, the man grabbed her, picked her up off the ground and tried to drag her into a bedroom. The victim screamed, resisted and fought off the assault. The victim was not injured. Fleeing from the home. the lady called the Sheriff’s Office. Deputies called the man using the phone number on his business card. The man surrendered to authorities at the Sheriff’s Office Substation in The Woodlands.  He was arrested and charged with attempted sexual assault.

As one crime gets resolved, another is committed. A bank robbery was reported on September 28th by a white male 25-30 years old,  escaping by foot from Regions bank in Montgomery County on highway 249, outside of The Woodlands. He was wearing  a black hat that had “POLICE” written on the front in white letters. 

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Gosling Median to be fixed

The Woodlands development company has agreed to plant trees in the median in the widened segment of Gosling from Flintridge to the post office. This will improve the aesthetics of the roadway and improve safety. Currently, automobiles cross the road from the post office and from their next door apartment neighbors to go south on Gosling. That creates a safety issue because of the mud that often is on the road bed and the limited visibility when using the open median spaces as a crossover. Automobiles have been rutting the median and each time it rains, mud is brought out of the median onto the roadway. Consistent with road design in The Woodlands, a paved crossover will not be pursued. There is a paved crossover designed for automobiles to change from a northerly to southerly direction, adjacent to the post office.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Coming attraction - Woodlands Bond Election

Oh no! some say. More taxes! No no no no no!!! This is a case where you pay less for more. This is a yes yes yes proposition. Please vote and do it with a "yes" in the coming election. The assumption of  32.8 cents-per-$1000 value assessment on resident properties requires a yes vote. We need to sell low interest bonds to finance big ticket items like fire stations, parks and other obligatory high cost asset expenses.  Earlier, as the township contemplated how to develop an affordable budget for operations and capital expenses, it had to look into financing options. The answer is to finance parks, pathways and fire stations through the sale of bonds. That will be a  win/win for residents, investors and the township.

There are three items to be placed on the ballot. Legally, the township must have all three. Bonds must be grouped so that voters are able to select which grouping(s) they support and which they do not support. Each grouping must have a similar  purpose. Non-similar purposes cannot be aggregated as one line item on the ballot. Assets or programs having similar purposes can be aggregated. So, legal compliance requires the placement of a minimum of three items on the ballot, each having a similar purpose:
(1) Fire stations - $17.335 mm. (a) One fire station is required for Creekside Park Village. The temporary station there now must be replaced as soon as practical. The accommodation for the fire department personnel is not practical for long term. Personnel will be using this substandard firehouse for two+ years before we can finance and construct a permanent one. Without a fire station, those residents experienced a 25-minute average emergency response time. Their backup remains slow. A full service fire house is required in this area to protect current and future residences and future businesses. (b) One fire station is also required by Indian Springs, which is experiencing a substandard response service level in parts of that village. An average response of 5 minutes is required to receive the ISO 2 rating we now enjoy, however the actual is 8 minutes in parts of Indian Springs! The Woodlands has been planning and promising this station for the last five years, long before the township was even thought of. Both facilities are necessary investments and needed now. The union contract with the firefighters must also be honored by the township. These stations have a life of 30+ years. (c) Renovation at the Central Station is also required. A study in 2003 revealed that the construction of the current station is inadequate and below standards for renovation. It has to be totally redesigned and reconstructed. The need goes beyond just replacing the 30 year old building. The Woodlands needs to have their dispatch team located there also. This facility was originally designed for a "small" woodlands fire department and today the modern technical requirements as well as the requirements of  the community must be met. The Woodlands currently pays for rental space in Shenandoah for the its dispatch team.

(2) Parks and Pathways - $12.380 mm. These facilities also have long asset lives, 30+ years. Residents are contractually obliged to pay for 50% of their development. This commitment was part of the formation of the TWA, the homeowners association for the villages not in the older WCA. Essentially, these facilities will be part of the development of Creekside Park. This is the same obligation used to finance parks and pathways in Sterling Ridge, Alden Bridge and other recently developed neighborhoods and villages. It was part of the TWA resident assessment rate. The township inherits and must honor this obligation as part of the transition agreement.

(3) Refinance existing debts - $20.225 mm. This ballot item will enable us to reduce our interest payments by refinancing our current debt, incurred primarily from building parks and pathways in recent years in TWA - part of the transition agreement. These are short term higher interest loans, to be replaced by long term low interest bonds. This helps enable low interest bonds for 20 years instead of 5 or so years, improving our cash flow and opening the door to lower taxes that we were promised and demand from our new government entity. 

All three propositions are needed for us to go forward with the lowered tax rates. Why, we ask, do we need to vote on it if it is simply a financial process and not a decision to incur the debt nor a decision to construct the assets? It is the law that in order to finance anything with general bonds, a governing entity must put the bonds out to the voter. It is a broad law and does not differentiate between bonds of choice vs bonds of election. For us it is a slam dunk. Some political circles feel bond commitments introduce additional risk for changing to a municipality in the future. I do not see this as a valid argument to vote no. There could be some hurdles in order to transfer debt to a municipality, but even if there are difficulties, our legislative representatives will deal with that if they have to, in the future. We already had one bond sale for the township, as it is. Laws are meant to be changed when a valid need arises. It might mean we will be required to have the bonds reassessed for risk to protect investors, but I would not expect any bond measure to disable the feasibility of becoming a city. Leave that as a separate issue.

There is a cost to bonds. We are expecting to pay 3.16% issuance fees. This allowance is included in the proposal which will total $49.490 mm. Timing of the sale of bonds is unfortunately more distant than one might desire.  The bond money would not be available until June 2010, so construction could not start until then.

A yes vote for the fire station bonds simply means that the schedule of constructing the fire stations will provide the relative service level in the Village of Creekside Park about July 2011 and in Indian Springs on Jan 1st, 2012. Otherwise, there is no project contingency plan that I know of yet. I would expect that we would do as the TWA - use bank loans of higher interest, likely requiring us to adopt higher taxes. It is possible that the township would defer one of the fire stations. Deferring the Creekside Park fire station could result in a lawsuit. 

A yes vote for the pathways and parks should enable us to retain the current tax rate as well. Otherwise, its financing falls to the same strategy as the fire stations - finance through a bank and use whatever funds we can until the next tax rate, then hike it as required.  Taxes are set on the obligations and needs of the community.

A yes vote for the current debt simply means that we save money through lowered interest rates and by financing for a much longer term, improving cash flow and reducing the tax rate. Otherwise, the tax rate will have to be increased to pay down the debt much earlier than if we financed through general bonds.

We expect to get AAA rating for the sale of our bonds. That will get us favorable rates. The township is anticipating that bond rates will remain low into mid-year 2010. November 3rd will be the date for the election this year. The bond election details have been submitted for inclusion onto the November ballot.

Related article
1. Development of the first budget of The Woodlands Township

Friday, September 11, 2009

Development of the first Budget of The Woodlands Township is now history

We have our first budget now. It is finished. The board listened to the concerns of vocal citizens in The Woodlands and altered the staff's proposed budget plan to bring forward the new policing plan to the beginning of 2010, instead of implementing it in two phases over two years. That impacts the budget by a whopping $2.5mm! However, the 32.8 cents per $100 of assessed home value was retained. That means some programs and projects will have to be deferred. One program to be terminated is a contract with Shenandoah and Oak Ridge for policing the boundaries of The Woodlands. That program was cut in half so that a transition could be made between the old and new policing contract with the Sheriff department. Six months of patrolling the I45 corridor will be displaced with Sheriff deputies after the transition is complete. Unfortunately, the board chose to continue to spend more money on those contracts than what I and others believe is necessary, even with the knowledge that inadequate service level information had been provided. Lack of information should have generated a "insufficient reason to retain the contracts". Our board should spend money for value, not political rationalization nor unknowns, which appears to be the case with these contracts. There are other projects where this money would produce better value. The budget process seems to be lacking  value-driven input. One can formulate numerical value to anything. Corporations do that, I would think a government could also. But this is the first budget.  

All in all, I would rate the budget as excellent, missing the very excellent grade because of a few issues,  such as  the one above. This being the first budget for the township, it appears that all the operational necessities have been accounted for and we will receive no loss of value as a result of the new government.   In fact, we gain considerable value. We will have lowered annual costs through operating efficiency, derived  from the sales taxes, which we pay through local business purchases. We also continue to build valued assets. Although I believe the 2010 budget continues to retain some fat, having some discretionary money will not hurt for the first year. The township will have to prioritize what they spend, not just spend what they have budgeted. Already, the board is planning to tap financial reserves where they should be planning to create reserves at this stage of budget planning. Tapping the reserves was the solution to not raising the tax rate to 33.5 cents. There are various projects being deferred in order to accommodate the police acceleration plan. Deferring some other items was also considered, but the board voted to keep everything still remaining in the budget. There were several proposals to balance the budget but in the end, they all failed to get a majority vote.

The budget reducing process apparently is new to the board. Generally, it is more acceptable to cut across the board (usually consistently across organizations) and not to differentiate capital project spending. There is no means that I can see to balance project deferrals among the Town Center and the villages or whatever other competing projects that  may exist (e.g., between villages). There was a clear statement by some of the board members that projects in Town Center seemed to be prioritized over village projects since village projects were deferred and there was not a clear rational reason some of the Town Center projects could not be deferred.  That appeared to be the case, but perhaps some were cut from the Town Center that I am unaware.  Other board members believed those concerns were unfounded and not taking the entire economic picture into account, favoring the villages, a "dangerous" view. It was late in the process, and it really does seem to me that the process was lacking. This conflict will be a challenge going forward. The Township Finance organization might be able to help in the future with an agreed process for cutting the budget. That should have been established long in advance, but with the complexity of just getting the budget together, it probably was not feasible. The debate on what should and should not have been deferred was avoidable, and hopefully, contingency measures can be facilitated by such a predetermined process in the future, facilitated by the township staff.

The adopted tax rate of 32.8 cents was a bit high in my opinion. It should have been capped at 32 cents, but that is not far from the adopted rate. I am hopeful that the township will attempt to drop it to 32 cents next year, seeking ways to lower the tax burden on the residents in subsequent years. Visioning a fixed rate of 32.8 over many years does not seem appropriate to me. The tax rate needs to be driven by community requirements, not by a continuing target strategy. The target strategy should seek a cap but promote minimizing the cost to the community. I will have more to say about the budget in a separate article on the bond election. The board did squeeze the budget twice and made significant improvements as a result, aligning the budget to the wishes of the residents.  I do not know how many unemployed residents exist in The Woodlands, but there is likely a higher number than usual who will have difficulty paying their taxes this year, as the result of economic stress in this recession. Every penny helps. After the next election, hopefully the board will be even more sensitive to resident issues about the tax rate. Some members of the board expressed the thought that we have a low rate and should not be tightening our belt so much, but when you look at the remaining fat, one wonders.

It is clear that The Woodlands must remain The Woodlands. We should not take away amenities nor service levels, unless of course their existence no longer makes any sense for us to remain a highly respected community, where we pride ourselves to live and have the services we need. Service levels are already generally minimized in order to keep the values of our community in place. It is debatable whether some of the contracts can be negotiated down and I have to assume that will be done as discussed earlier. We need excellent metrics from the Township in order to understand what the amenities are and how they are perceived to affect our lives. As we move forward, we likely need to change the way we measure amenities relative to our needs, measure  services relative to cost and benefit, and measure our government's role as it affects the community.

Hats off to board members for asking questions and exposing some of the issues in the budget. Hats off to the staff for their hard work and pursuit of excellence in building the budget.  I am pleased that we have a plan now to get on with the new policing organizations. This will help the community to be more unified and know that police staffing is aligned with normal police staff levels and with expected service levels. I was also pleased that the new fire station for Indian Springs has been accelerated and the dependency constraint on waiting for the Creekside Village fire station has been removed. Indian Springs' residents have to wait an additional year than previously planned, but the project is now on the books to be operational January 2012, only one year later than we had previously hoped. Now we have to move on to a budget dependency - the bond election. Without that, this entire exercise must be altered.  

1.  Township Budget Meeting Videos 

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Water Restriction lifted in The Woodlands Texas

In the WCA association meeting last night, it was announced that the mandatory watering restriction has been lifted. We remain on an advisory to refrain from using more than one inch per week on the lawn and to continue to voluntarily use the assigned days by even and odd house numbers. Our water supply is being drawn down, only partially replenished, so we must use it wisely! The subsurface water level is dropping.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Woodlands resident and national congressman Kevin Brady speaks out on the Health Care Bill in Conroe Townhall Meeting

Last night, congressman Kevin Brady presented the proposed national health care plan to approximately 900 constituents at the Crighton Theatre in Conroe Texas. With a capacity of 500 occupants, those arriving early were the only ones initially able to participate. About 100 people left when turned away; the remaining 300 stayed, determined to have a say in the matter.

As Mr. Brady was speaking inside, many were outside in the heat talking and at times arguing. It was apparent that the story here was going to be outside. A representative came to speak to the crowd who was clamoring to get inside. Dressed in a suit, he stirred a reaction as you can see in these photographs. He is yelling to an attendee behind the crowd. 

There were liberals and conservatives attending this meeting. All wanted to speak out, of course some were against the message Mr. Brady was bringing to the meeting (otherwise known as  the ice cream social). This young man was shouting over the crowd to the Brady representative.

Mrs. Michelle Duffy pictured here waiting outside, wife of a medical doctor, near neighbors to Mr Brady, spoke out for the people as she brought her cost consciousness to the forefront.
Mr and Mrs Chris Lumpkin of Porter are "squarely opposed" to the bill.  "Quickness causes ill conceived results. Slow it down! We don't buy a house in one day." We have three children and are concerned about their future."  

Isabella Smith told her story. Her brother was in Brazil. He was diagnosed with a back problem, so he came here for treatment. One Cortisone shot cost $15,000. In Brazil, four shots using the same procedure costs $10,000. That is a six fold difference in cost. We need reform.

Betty Brown of Conroe wanted to be heard. Her mother died of Ovarian cancer. The hospital took everything she had. On her deathbed, they said "You owe us $80,000." Is that what you want to hear as you are leaving this world?

The police were challenged to enforce the fire code here as enthusiastic citizens were anxious to join the crowd inside. However, the crowd was behaved and their behavior met all the normal rules of orderly conduct.  
Finally, about 2/3 way through the first session, a representative came outside and told the crowd that the congressman had decided, with the permission of the owner of Crighton Theatre to conduct a second session for the remaining crowd. Everyone was asked to form a line as seen here. In less than 30 minutes after the theater emptied, we entered to have our turn with Mr. Brady.

As people left the theater, I took a quick random poll from about 20-30 people, young and old, men and women. About 95% said they were happy with what Mr. Brady said. one person said he was lying like all politicans do. One person said he was unhappy with what occurred.

Inside the theater, as the crowd was being seated, we were shown the matrix of organizations and interrelationships on an overhead projector (first photograph at top of this article). This was of course to show the complexity of the plan and how much beaurocracy would be entailed.
Some of Mr Brady's statements below reflect his views of the bill and what he would like to do about it. 
  • After this bill is passed, we will have 39 states with taxes greater than 1/2 of a person's income. That is the "Tipping point". Government gets more from the paycheck than the taxpayer himself. We must not let that happen.
  • This bill (holding a huge paper document) will increase health care costs. It It will not make health care affordable. We cannot afford this plan. There will be a $240 billion deficit in year one. That is just the start of this 1.3 trillion dollar bill. This will be liked an adjustable home loan rate – low at the beginning and affordable and then later very high and not affordable. A trap.
  • Medicare will be insolvent in 5 years. It is broken. This just piles costs on top of it. The Democrats are telling us that small businesses have had it too easy all these years. Now it's their turn to anti up. We actually need to lower small business taxes and enable them to employ people. That is at the heart of our economy.
  • Dean Heller amendment was voted down. That stated that if this bill is so great, then the congress should use that as well. Congress said “congress needs choices”.
  • What I say is that we need to fix medicare first and then when the government has proven it can manage the medical industry, then lets have a government run health care system. That is what I think.
  • No illegals, no college students, no person over $80000 income per year. They should pay their own way. Focus on the hard working middle/low income Americans. Provide jobs, don’t take them away. Small businesses with less than 10 employees, let them have the same discounts as corporate America.
  • I favor the backpack health plan where an employee chooses out of a list of available packages, carries it with him from job to job.
  • "“For the first time we have a chance to stop this bill. Send it back. We need to go back to the drawing board."
  • “I don’t believe a government run health care system is good for America.”
  • With this bill, “we will end up rationing care”, destroying the excellence we have enjoyed in medical care in the USA. 

Not all was so serious as we all got a good laugh when Michelle Duffy tried to take the microphone. Mrs Duffy wants health care reform and she is concerned about her child's financial future and health care.  Her son attends school with the congressman's child.

Can we just do what WE want to do? (referring to cessation from the union). Brady answered with -I don't know about cessation. We are working hard on this for America.

"The issue is our freedom and our rights! We don't appreciate your last minute stand on this issue. You are not allowed to make friends with the enemy"

This World War II Navy veteran was concerned about the behavior of Congress and the future of health care. "Divided we will fall." Get rid of the polarized bickering in Washington and fix the system.

Another gentleman said "Congressmen tell us what to do with our lives." We say "honor the constitution."

This lady brought a full copy of the legislation with her. She not only read it, she and some of her colleagues have analyzed it. She wanted Mr Brady to know that we can and are interested in every detail. Her two sided copy was not nearly as bulky as Mr Brady's. She handed him a copy of a page she was commenting about.

This author now says this about that. We are one nation under God with inherent rights to choose how we provide for ourselves.  No, the constitution does not say we must have health insurance, nor does it say we have the right to it. However, we know the shortcomings of government bureaucracies.  This bill has all flavors in it. Perhaps Mr Brady took a stand a bit late. I can't vouch for that, but starting right now, we all need to have a grasp on this legislation. Our congressman is recommending that we stand up and fight for our rights, not by email, but by physical presence at townhalls such as this.  Write your congressman and call for him to speak out and share with you the pluses and negatives. We cannot afford for congressmen to sit in glass houses thinking they have the solution for us unless we can tell them, "thank you for a job well done". Right now, the job has not been done. Never accept an incomplete project nor one with many fallacies.  What you see is what you will get. Don't expect Congress to come back and fix what they destroy. Any such bill must have checks and balances with taxpayer feedback and audits. It must have clear and measurable objectives with full accountability. Those responsible must put their money where their mouth is - they must be  takers of the new bureaucratic process and know for themselves and through their families without special privilege that they have done the right thing.

If I have offended anyone by quoting them incorrectly, I will be glad to correct  it. That inevitably happens, like water flowing downhill.

Click here to see all presentable photographs taken at the townhall meeting.    

Videos of other Townhall meetings elsewhere.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Our work is recognized by Texas Parks and Wildlife

Be sure to read the Texas Parks and Wildlife Magazine this month. In the front section, there is an article on the Sweetgum Tree. Yours truly was interviewed for that article because of the work done on this website and quoted. Many people do not sufficiently appreciate this native tree. I do! I hope you see more value in it after reading the article.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Special Evening Budget Meeting for The Woodlands Township scheduled for Tuesday, August 18, 2009

To include as many stakeholders as possible, the Woodlands Township has scheduled an additional meeting where the public can have input in this pivotal first year of taxation. On Tuesday, August 18, 2009, at 6 p.m. at The Woodlands Emergency Training Center, located on I-45, just north of The Woodlands, a presentation by Don Norrell will be given to set the stage for resident comments. The meeting will be preceded by displays of public safety vehicles from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. and give the public a chance to meet and greet public safety officials in whose hands we have given the responsibility to protect The Woodlands.

Township President Don Norrell will present an overview of the key issues to be considered for the first year of the consolidation of The Woodlands Township and the services previously provided by the Community Associations of The Woodlands. The Township board is expected to adopt the 2010 budget and set the ad valorem property tax rate at the end of the month.

This is a perfect opportunity to let your opinions or concerns be known. If you are happy with the budget proposal, you can state that. Those people who have been working hard to keep taxes low and service levels high would be grateful. If not, your concerns will be heard and considered. They will be equally grateful because their goal is to serve the community with what it deserves - excellence.

Public safety team members who will have vehicles and personnel on site include the The Woodlands Fire Department, Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office, Montgomery County Constable Precinct 3, Alpha and Omega Mounted Patrol, Montgomery County Hospital District and EMS.

To reach The Woodlands Emergency Training Center, take exit 79 off of I45 north. If you are already on the feeder, take the I-45 feeder road north past the intersection with highway 242, north of Harper’s Landing. Turn right at the training center sign and follow the road to the end. Watch carefully because the road to the training center is easy to miss.

Click here for the Google map

Additional resources
1Budget 2010 Police Proposal
2 Township Budget and Overview
3Woodlands Townhall meeting on the 2010 budget
42010 Township proposed budget
5Bonds for capital budget 2010-2015
6Woodlands Taxes and Budget 2010 - thoughts
7Woodlands Township Budget official webpage

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Expansion of The Woodlands Parkway

Finally, work has begun on the expansion of The Woodlands Parkway to six lanes from Kuykendahl to east Panther Creek. This activity is in the hands of two contractors. Hassell Construction will be constructing both sides of the portion from East Panther Creek to Gosling, and South Coast will construct both sides of the western segment from Gosling to Kuykendahl. Both segments of the road are being constructed simultaneously. That way, the overall project will end sooner and the inconveniences will be gone sooner. A separate project is defined to enhance the bridge over Lake Woodlands to make a continuous parkway of six regular lanes from I45 to Kuykendahl. The status of that project is currently unknown. However, it is speculated that it would probably cost $100+ million and the county cannot help us, so we would have to pass a bond to finance it. I have been told that the bridge is wide enough to be re-stripped for six lanes. We shall see how it works out.

The current expansion project is scheduled to be completed in the first half of 2010. Depending on weather and circumstances, the work could go into the third quarter of 2010, or be completed ahead of mid year. This is funded partially by The Woodlands Road Utility District (RUD) and partially by the county. As you can now observe, some trees have to be removed to clear the entire right-of-way needed to build the new lane on each side. The first phase is to prepare the right-to-way. Next, the roadbed infrastructure will be constructed. There is already evidence of that phase progressing rapidly on the western end near Kuykendahl, heading east. Then the third phase will be the pouring of concrete and the final phase will be the alterations by the county on the intersections. We can expect the concrete to be in place for a long time before we will be able to use it. There appears to be preparations already underway at some intersections for the work at the intersections, but I don;t believe that work will occur early in the project.

The road bed material will be straight concrete. Apparently, there are no plans to lessen the surface noise with a different surface. That is disappointing. Residents don't have a lot to say in these projects. In fact, I don't think they get to say anything. We have association representatives and a township director assigned to the Chamber of Commerce meetings where mobility is discussed. There is little or no report outs. Resident representatives have told me they do not recall any meetings discussing these plans. The development company collects the money, makes the plans, lets the contracts and runs the projects. They have been kind enough to provide me with much of this information so that I could share it with you. The county partially funds most of our mobility projects. On this one, they have the intersections to configure, and they configure the traffic control system.

There will be no safety shoulders on the parkway on the eastern side of Kuykendahl after this project is completed. It will be the same as the segment from I45 to the Lake Woodlands bridge. As the project progresses, there will be an attempt to keep four lanes open during rush hours, but the roads will only have one open lane while much of it is being constructed. So you might want to find an alternative for some commutes, especially after school starts.

At some intersections, we will see additional turn lanes and and a change in pedestrian walkways. I am hopeful that there will be a change at West Panther Creek and at Gosling, to deploy the new smart crosswalk lights. This would enable a safer walk or bike ride and hopefully full use of the lights when pedestrians cross the parkway. It is evident that a better crosswalk is needed when you see elderly people in wheelchairs or little cars crossing when the lights are red, because they have to wait so long to cross. In fact, the wait can be so long now that almost anyone crossing the parkway has to do it by anticipating traffic and crossing while the pedestrian light is red.

The intersection at Gosling is expected to have additional turn lanes and hopefully longer turn lanes to enable full use of the three lanes on either side of the parkway. Currently, one lane is often blocked by traffic waiting to turn left, especially when traveling west in the evening. I see a work crew today working at the intersection of Cooper, but am unsure if it is related to the project.

Be careful driving along the parkway, especially in the evenings when there is a dramatic dropoff on the edge of the concrete. The development company's website has a short article on this project in the resident pages:
Development Company Resident Pages

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Bank Robberies - what residents should know

It seems when I talk to people about crime, that bank robberies are the primary discussion point with home robberies coming a close second. I have come to understand the concerns of many people, so I thought I would write this little article to share my own thoughts on the subject. After discussing the issues with a few store owners, bank managers and various other people directly or indirectly involved who were willing to contribute their thoughts, I came to my own conclusions on the matter based on their stories and some of my own past experiences.

How many bank robberies have we had? Nine as of this moment, so nine times someone or some persons have entered a bank and told the tellers to give them all of their money. The average bank robbery takes about 75 seconds. Response from alerts are in the neighborhood of 2-5 minutes, even less sometimes. Typically a robber is in a bank barely over one minute. What do they want? The money, of course. What do they get? The money. There is a rise in bank robberies here in this general area as well as the Houston area. The problem is certainly not limited to The Woodlands. Most of the robberies are by one person, apparently a professional robber, using disguises. OK, now let's talk safety. Do they want to hurt someone? Not usually. No one has been injured. In fact and in general, they prefer that no customers be around.

How much are you at risk if you go into a bank? To know that, we need to know how many banks we have here. I can only guess. There is no point trying to count them. Let's say there are 20 stand-a-lone banks and another 20 in-store banks. The in-store banks are not as much of a target, because criminals do not want many witnesses and do not want to manage a bunch of people around them. They want the money and want to leave quickly.

You have the choice of going to one of these 40 banks to do business. Probably you will do business with only one bank company, so that limits your options. Now let's look at the amount of time you have to go into a bank and how long you would be there. Let's say a typical transaction takes 1 minute of your time and you are in line for 2 minutes. Add 2 more minutes to get into the bank and 2 minutes to leave. You may be on the premises for 7 minutes. Let's say you do this once a week. A standalone bank may be open for maybe 50 hours a week. That is 3000 minutes. So, if your bank is robbed once a week, in simplistic odds, you would have a 7 in 3000 chance each week of being there at the same time the robbers are there. There is another variable to this as well. Criminals like to pick times when the bank is not busy. So the chance of you being there is greatly diminished by that variable unless you never walk into the bank when there are other customers there. If the bank has not been robbed, then statistically, there is no risk. So you see where I am going with this. If I worked out a statistical equation with all the known variables, the risk of you being hurt is so minute, it would be incredible. In fact, we would have to use a statistic nationally to create any chance at all. Each variable would produce at least a factorial function in the equation to calculate your chance of being hurt. If you say you don't want to go to the bank because there are robberies, it is the same as saying you do not want to fly because there have been airplane crashes, with one exception. No one has been hurt in any of the incidents here, and rarely does it happen in a bank robbery. So as I noted, statistically, you almost cannot be hurt.

What do you do if you happen to be in a bank or present at any robbery? You simply avoid confrontation. Let the bandits do what they need to do to get their money. Be passive. The bank staff knows what to do. They are well trained. Follow their lead. If you get the chance, you may want to lie on the floor if you see a gun. People carry guns and some people will confront a robber, even though they should not risk your safety. If you have a license to carry, I advise not taking into a bank. You risk the health of others. Those who carry could be your worst enemy in such a situation. If the police arrive, you should be on the ground to help them, not being an obstruction or present yourself as a distraction, but exercise caution and do not move quickly or suddenly in the presence of the criminals. They will be very nervous. Not having an armed guard in a bank is for your safety. You may be less safe in a place with an armed guard. Anyway, the chance of you being hurt is very very very small.

The bottom line is that no matter where you are, you should always be aware of your surroundings and be mentally prepared for various situations, avoiding dangerous places. Park in lighted areas where there are non-suspicious people, lock you car, lock your house, set the alarms if you any, carry your keys in your hand as a weapon, or have some other measure you can exercise if physically threatened. Your cell phone can be a huge distraction. Use it appropriately. Don't be going around in parking lots or in stores without awareness of your surroundings and people about you. Texting on a cell phone in the parking lot? You may be the target of a criminal. These precautions are not singling us out here in The Woodlands. This is plain common sense you should use wherever you live and wherever you go. Some residents have relaxed their guard and provide opportunities for theft. Those who do are much more likely to be a victim of crime. We are not a place of high crime, but we are an urban area. Crime does and will exist here. We do not live in the country. Most of us do not live behind gates. We are no different than other urban areas, except we may know out neighbors better and have hometown relationships. Neighborhood Watch is a methodical way to establish a hometown relationship to prevent crime. It is advised that residents utilize that method to improve their neighborhood's vigilance.

It is not difficult to follow these guidelines. If you think you need more advice, maybe it would be good for you to research personal and property protection measures. Your safety is your responsibility. If you need police assistance with it, call the appropriate number - 911 for emergency, imminent danger or assistance required, or in The Woodlands, for non-emergency situations: 936-760-5800. Program these numbers into your cell and your home phone. Although you must use the emergency number sparingly, you will know when to use it and don't hesitate to do so when you know it is needed. If you question whether you should use it, generally you should not. At least that formula works well for me. Personally nothing has happened here to change the quality of my life. Be safe folks, but enjoy this place. It is one of the best places to live in the USA! Don't let fear rule your life. You be in control. Headlines are not alarms. They are simply what the news media think will generate the most sales in their newspapers.

Edited 08-17-09 to include information provided by Sgt Jenkins, Sheriff Dept.