Monday, September 27, 2010

Texas Top Dog - Texans vs Cowboys 2010

If the Cowboys are America's Team, consider me canadian
The Houston Texans gave the Dallas Cowboys a football scare this year, enough so as to flood I-45 with incoming traffic early Sunday morning and then late when Dallas headed back home. The northern invaders headed for the Tailgate parties at Reliant Stadium at the break of dawn. This year, the Texas I-45 champions were not who we had hoped them to be. Yes, those of us living in The Woodlands had to drive amongst those blue shirts as they fluttered their flags outside of their fluttering truck windows, with BBQ pits in back and plenty of beer in the ice chests. It was an invasion!  Not every fan liked the idea. Yep! It was time for the national championship! And if you are thinking USA national championship, you aint Texan! 

War it is! I am the 12th man! Dallas fans will soon see!!
The Texans are well known for their tailgate parties. The spirit and pride of this year's Texans accomplishments so early are at the forefront now as the season begins to move seriously ahead. So Dallas came here to check us out and participate with us in tailgating. One fellow told me he left Dallas at 3AM. Now his mission was to show off their tailgating skills. Say what? Some say these folks got kicked out of Dallas and were told never to come back if they didn't get the win. Now you can figure out the rest.
Wimps paint faces, warriors win wars

Hahahaha.... responds this Dallas fan. Say what? You're not so big as ya think. Check the map. Dallas IS part of Texas! No painted wimp lady is going scare us! When was the last time YOU were called the national football team anyway?

Ok, this young Texans fan was not exactly thrilled about this guy putting it that way, but he just laughed it off. All were jesting in a very fun filled beautiful afternoon at Reliant Stadium.
We promise - love is why we do this
Truth is, we love each other. We may bash each others faces inside the stadium, but it all boils down to love in our state. Who loves the other the most? Isn't that the true contest? What you say??? Don't nobody fool ya! When ya hear someone growling, he's about to bite, not love ya. Don't stick your fingers in his mouth or you'll bring nubs right back out.
Dallas does it this way

I want to demonstrate the way you throw a pass, Dallas style. They work hard teaching us this, so don't laugh. Plunk!

...I promise, we didn't laugh. We just asked a couple of questions: (1) Do they teach ya to throw the ball down or up? I'm sorta guessing, but don't want to offend ya until we get inside the stadium. (2) Is the beer making you do that or did they teach ya to throw only with the fingers? OK, good job.... considering. Well,we were just wondering ... didn't mean to be mean about it! After all, that Dallas guy down there said we were wimps for painting our faces, but I didn't call YOU nothing!

(An oops!) ... response: You got me wrong mister. I am Texan through and through. This is just my demo of the Dallas QB - you know, what's his name again? Seems like no one can ever remember it. ... OK sweetie, Gotcha. I'm hav'n the same problem. It just seems that almost everybody here is a Dallas fan. It was gett'n to me. You go route for our team and keep that demo going!  

Watch out behind you linebacker!

Hey look this way at me! I got a million dollar deal going here on this phone but gonna stop and tell you Texans what I think about all this. You are doomed. We got your number! Say what? ...Yeah buddy, you sure are. You must be a Dallas LINEBACKER cause there's a ball coming your way behind ya and you have no idea where it is! Glad you are using a Miller Light chiller for your beer since it says "Texans" on it.  Good advertisement for our team though. Is that the number you are talking about? I'd get back to your deal if I were you. Chances are, it will be the only good thing to happen to you today.

Let me tell you a secret
Tell ya what, since you look like such a good guy with that blue shirt on, I will tell you a little secret to save you from doing something you might regret later. We Texans paint our faces because we are warriors. It just makes our team raging mad when you make fun of 'em. Now one of your buddies is in our camp back there telling folks that those who paint their faces are wimps. I'm about to tell our front defensive line about it. They eat raw meat when they hear stories like that. Personally, I can't tell if the meat is from some wild animal or what. I'll just point you out to them when you enter the stadium if you want to insult me. Think about it.

Seriously mister, you think we will be in trouble in any way whatsoever if the game goes one way or the other? ... Sweethearts, I can certainly see your point. I think we will just move on and give that one to you! By the way, good luck (as if YOU need it). Hot!

Well I thought war paint would be a good idea - not wimpy!
So yours truly decided to get his face done up. Yep. Give me my war paint! I have to say it didn't seem to be getting started very well, a glob here and a glob there, but I ended all painted up and on scoreboard TV during the game.  I scared them out of their chairs! That's probably why they won the game! Anybody get a photo of me in war paint? I don't think I want to show it off, because I 'm afraid the other teams we face may win just seeing it! Thanks anyway Miss makeup artist!  Go Texans!! Hope to see your painted face on the TV screen next game. Come see me at the next tailgating party.

Footnote: there are several people looking for their photographs to show up here. There are more stories coming in the next few days. You will be here, even if you are a Dallas fan!

Woodlands folks - just next door to our hometown is a whole lot of weekend fun. There is just nothing to compare to a professional football experience with tailgating. I am sharing some of these experiences. All 90,000 of us cannot fit into the stadium though.

Also see related game photo articles:
Memorable faces in the crowd
Fans at the Tailgate Party

Monday, September 20, 2010

Indian Springs Firestation #8 Ground Breaking

Click on photo to see everyone participating
The customary ground breaking ceremony occurred today for The Woodlands Fire Department in Montgomery County Texas at the new location on Gosling Road. Although not the first real movement of dirt, it was nonetheless, very important to residents of Indian Springs, Panther Creek and the Village of Creekside Park. The Woodlands Development Company, Township directors, Woodlands Fire Department, Woodlands Association (past), Joiner Partnerships (design) and Teal Construction were represented to toss the first shovel of dirt. In approximately 10 months, the first response to an emergency call will be deployed from this station.
Site as viewed from Gosling

Cost for design was about $400,000 and for construction will be approximately $2.3 million. Depending on the weather, availability of materials, etc, we should see the station fully functional in July of 2011, providing emergency fire fighting and EMS services.  There will be three bays, one with a ladder truck, one with an pump truck and the other with an EMS vehicle.  This will be a conventional 24/7 operation from a location where the department will provide a 5-minute average emergency response to residents and businesses in the three closest villages - Panther Creek, Village of Creekside Village and Indian Springs Village. Currently parts of Indian Springs and Panther Creek have an 8-minute average response. Five minutes is The Woodlands standard.

Fire Chief Benson explaining the traffic light to the media
To meet that objective, the traffic light at Gosling and Flintridge is one of our challenges. It is not expected to be a problem, says Fire Chief Alan Benson. The light will be equipped with a green light emergency switch that is activated by the truck to clear the needed lanes of congestion. There are four lanes at the light for north/southbound traffic. According to the chief, that combination should clear the traffic even at peak traffic hours in the evening.

Township Director Chair Bruce Tough explaining people roles 
Traffic on Gosling in the morning underscoring the sound and congestion issues that lie ahead
An interesting consequence of building this new station is the entrance issue. The pathway joining Indian Springs, Panther Creek and Creekside has not been opened yet. Construction of the fire station will apparently preempt its opening. The pathway to the bridge over the creek on Gosling is needed for safety as soon as possible, especially for biking purposes. For noise, there is a great deal of timber left all around the station that is mostly evergreen. However in one area, when the leaves fall, the quiet of the still cold air will be interrupted by the noise of traffic and some noise from the station itself when there are emergencies. At one point in the ceremony, a diesel truck passed by, completely drowning out the speaker.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Oil Cleanup at Gulf Islands National Seashore

When in Florida a few days ago, I was privileged to visit with various personnel on the cleanup work crews, park rangers and the temporary resource adviser for the Gulf Islands National Seashore park in Florida. All had stories to tell, so I thought I would share some of them with my readers.

The first thing I noticed when I got to the beach was the lack of people. There was not one person on the beach. The park has one public beach with a lifeguard. The one thing to see beyond wildlife and the park was one work crew cleaning the beach of tar. My first thought - oh no! This IS a  disaster. No one can swim. On this day, the water was super calm and safe, so I knew it was not the water conditions keeping people away.
This lifeguard showed up shortly after we arrived. It was going to be a long day for him. He said he hoped someone would come swimming later in the day. As the day unfolded however, I doubt anyone ever showed up, because rain pelted the area late in the day. It is the perception of the public he said. They think the beach is covered in oil. Not!

I went to look closely at the beach and wade in it. I saw very small globs of tar, loosely compacted balls of brownish material about the size of a nickel or quarter. I picked a piece up in my hand and noted that is did not even leave tar on my hand. I stepped on it and it did not stick to my shoes.  So I asked myself, why would anyone not be going to the beach when the beach is so very beautiful and the presence of tar is non-threatening? I have had to clean tar off my skin before many times in South Padre. What is all this concern about anyway?
I can certainly attest to the fact that the Sandpipers were there enjoying the beach. So were the gulls! The shoreline was clean and the water left no marks on a person's skin. Conditions were near perfect.

So I went to talk to the work crew. Each crew is super cautious. I talked to the foreman who was very willing to do some PR work. He said that they were pulling tar about 18 inches under the surface. A storm had come through after tar had been first deposited on the beach. Now the tar is about 18 inches under the surface. This sand is very fine and drifts rapidly. Therefore, the storm moved a lot of it over the tar. It will take years to clean up the mess, says the crew supervisor.

In the heat of the day, workers are given very large rest periods. For each 10 minutes of manual work, the worker must rest 50 minutes. They are signaled to do so by a black flag. Yes, you heard me right. 1/6 time working, 5/6 time resting in extreme heat. So it looks like the crew is doing practically nothing. When I was there, the black flag was not blowing, meaning that the crew was to work normal breaks. I have to admit, I do not know what normal is for them.
Each team consists of a digger and an extractor. It has a bucket in which the tar is deposited. On this occasion, the day was still early and not much tar had been collected. The team was working in an area containing small amounts of tar.

There were some fairly large pieces of tar in the bucket. The supervisor told me sometimes the globs are 1 1/2 inches thick and fill the buckets quickly. Not on this day however.

The supervisor also wanted to show me the dirt moving equipment that they must use in some areas.

There is constant monitoring of the seashore and waters offshore to determine if any new oil is threatening the shoreline. Currents are ever changing and on this day were fairly strong due to an offshore tropical depression out in the gulf.

In the presence of the supervisor, I picked up another ball of tar, asking about its content and its size relative to what has been recently observed. He told me I had just picked up a ball of toxic material. Workers are very sensitive to the possibility of its toxicity. I've worked in the oil industry for 35 years and was in no way afraid to pick one of these up with my bare hands. I told him just that. Toxicity is a legal issue, not reality, but I refrained from engaging with him further on that subject.
Small fish are doing well and the gulls are feasting on them. Everything is in its rightful place. Wildlife is not suffering at all on the shore. Notice the gull's threatening eyes. I laughed when I saw this incident.  
In the background, the resource adviser is taking notes for conditions at each location in the park, looking for changes that might indicate a threat to the park's resources. Flags indicate areas that work crews can or cannot use. These mark a vehicle path for cleanup crews only. It is important to protect all the vegetation resources as well as the creatures. Oil is not the only threat to the park's resources.  At this time of the year, the Sea Oats and grasses keep the dunes in place in the windy storms that frequent the area. Conservation includes snakes, coons, trees grass and wild flowers. Life in this park is very diverse. This particular park is blessed with an amazing variety of wildlife and vegetation. I was amazed how many oaks there are on the southern side of the island- primarily due to the forestation efforts of the Spaniards.  Fort Pickens is located here in the national seashore. This is a great place to visit. Oil on the beaches? Now you know the rest of the story...      

The beach the following day ... no tar balls being washed up on that day either although the surf was high, currents strong and tide was up. Isn't it inviting? So where are the people?

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Ridley Sea Turtle and the Louisiana oil spill

The story of the Ridley never ends. I recently traveled to the beautiful beaches of Pensacola Beach, Florida to witness the newest threat to this species first hand. While the oil well disaster off the Louisiana coast is not the first threat to this sea creature, it is certainly of highest concern in this day of conservation. Man is its worse enemy.

Man drove it to near extinction by excavating its eggs from the northern and central Gulf shore sands for food without regard to the future of this turtle. Man has again done something quite stupid, risking the animal's very being. Fortunately, we have learned quite a bit over the years on how to manage the survival of this turtle. It nests in the summer in sands sufficiently away from the beach so that the eggs will not be prematurely exposed by tides or storms. The sands are soft enough on the barrier islands to easily dig. The temperature for hatching is optimum a few inches under the surface. Dogs are trained to find the eggs. One cannot tell if there is a nest simply by observation of the surface. Either one digs for them or smells them through the nostril of an animal. A hatch-ling will return to near the place they hatch and at which are first exposed to the water. The first swim determines its return location. When we first removed the turtle from along the upper Gulf coast,  Biologists did not have the means to repopulate our shores. An effort for the recovery of the turtle on our shores began to be successful when we began to treat every egg as a precious commodity. By transferring some turtles from Mexico, we began to repopulate the shores.   This was done through moving eggs to hatcheries in the USA and letting the babies run from the sands into the water where we wanted them to return. Those working on these projects would catch the turtles in nets and return them to grow in a low risk environment until they were less prone to be eaten by their enemies. Then the turtles would be released to the place where they were to return to nest. This strategy worked. Today, we are using the same method to conserve what turtles we have remaining on our beaches.

I was fortunate to find the lead resource manager of the wildlife protection initiative in the national seashore at Pensacola Beach. Miss Carol Gale a 30-year veteran of the National Park Service, although stationed in North Dakota, is working there now. Her mission as a Resource Advisor for the Gulf Islands National Seashore is to make sure the turtles and other threatened resources of the park are not harmed by this oil spill or its recovery effort.

This turtle nest is roped off to fend off any intrusion by people into this small nest zone. There are several in the seashore park.  This one happened to be very accessible by the public, just off the access road. You can see how far away the nest is from the beach. This view is away from the beach. This nest must be 50 yards or more away from the water.
This view shows the distance from the beach. The sands are elevated here.

To help prevent the cleanup crews from doing harm to the environment and to only work in designated areas, the entire park is flagged with signs.

The oil is 18 inches under the surface of the sand. As you may recall, Pensacola did have significant oil on its shores a few months ago in the form of tar. Hopefully this turtle nest is above it and not in it. Actually, I believe the tar is closer to the beach and there was no tar deposited this far away from the beach.

NOAA video on release of oiled turtles back into the Gulf

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Behind Closed Doors - story of the escape from a lifetime of abuse Part 4

A  Woodlands resident’s story of abuse continued…., part 4conclusion and advice
Later on, I discovered two things about my reality. One, my kids knew about the abuse all along, and two, they didn’t care at all about that kind of quality of life. They would have eaten peanut butter sandwiches so we could all be free of him. The glass I was looking through was contorted, telling me lies, twisting the facts in my head.
Even though I grew up in violence and knew what violence looked like, I had repeated experiences, even after years of counseling.  Most often, no one knows what goes on behind closed doors. From the outside looking in, everything looks so grand. One day while golfing with some friends at the club, the wife of our friend commented that my husband was always so sweet and kind. She asked, “Is he always in a good mood?!” I remember replying “not always”.
There were times I wanted to shout out to everyone that I needed help, but I knew they would never believe me. He was too outwardly gallant and aristocratic. Yet at the same time, I felt so ashamed that I had let this happen to me again. After crawling out from under the rock of my past, I still let it happen.
Thing is, when being abused for your whole life, there is self de-valuing that takes place psychologically. I didn’t think I deserved to be beaten, raped, molested, or assaulted, but I also didn’t believe that I was too good for it, if you know what I mean. It wasn’t like abuse, pain and suffering were surprises. I knew of them. They were familiar. I didn’t resist, but I did not invite it.
When I left my abuser, I was working for a local company making $30,000 a year. I was scared out of my mind to live on my own, but I knew I had to leave. I did not know how I was going to manage, but I knew there was no other choice.
The night I left he was on a rampage - yelling, cursing, and literally jumping up and down like the Tazmanian Devil. I remember opening the door to go upstairs to collect my kids, but being surprised to see them already sitting on the coach with their backpacks packed. All I said was, “let’s go”. Ironically, it was the week of Valentine’s Day. We stayed in a hotel for two weeks while I sorted things out. I bought big red velvet candy boxes for my kids who were then 15 and 16. I had never felt so free and so safe in all my life.
If you see yourself somewhere in this story, my message to you: there is a way out and there is life on the other side. Life won’t be without struggle, but it is your struggle not something imposed on you. There is something so empowering about getting your legs again to stand on your own. Overcoming these trials will make you stronger.
There is nothing on this earth more precious that waking up in quiet and harmonious surroundings. There is no one yelling at me. There is no one threatening me. There is no one degrading me or pulling my hair out or cursing me. To tag a well-known commercial:  Waking up in sheer peace and comfort: Priceless.
If I had stayed, he would not have killed me, but my spirit would have been a stiffened corpse. My spirit was parched of sweetness and hope. While preparing for work, I would fix my hair and let out a laborious sigh. I never even noticed that until one day.  I just realized that I was sighing like I had a stack of bricks on my chest. I remember thinking - this is crazy! Leaving that craziness would come shortly thereafter.
I have read that the same biochemical reaction occurs inside when one is both excited and frightened. I was afraid to focus on the excitement of living my life. Yet I also realized that I was surrounded by friends who wanted to help me. It was important that I allowed that to happen. They did help me. Moreover, I realized that it feels good, comforting and even a relief to accept help from friends. I was loved more than I ever realized. I am ever so grateful to myself for deciding to go with the advice of my friends.
The adage is that life is too short. Being on the other side of all that abuse, now I can say “indeed, life is too short to live it in violence”. If this is where you are, begin making your plans. Make copies of all important documents and give to a friend or family member. Stash money away so you have something of your own when you leave. Have a plan of where you will go and have a bag packed with essentials so you can leave quickly in the night if you have to. Create code words or phrases with your friends or family so they know when you need help. Mainly, find the love that you are craving inside yourself and let that love give you the confidence to live a life free of abuse and violence, pain and suffering.
You are worth the freedom from pain whether it is emotional or physical. In my opinion, verbal abuse is far worse than physical. As infinite as the brain is, we cannot muster or recreate the pain we have suffered. But a hurtful word is easy to access. Pain runs deep in the psyche of our soul.
Validation may never come from your abuser, but you will feel validated when on your own, living life on your terms, free of violence and safe from harm. Let peace validate you!
The victim of this story is of course the author. She lives right here among us in this little town we call The Woodlands. She is someone’s neighbor; now free from the abuse she has suffered from so many sources. Her story may be unique, but there are countless similar stories everywhere. This is the second story of a multi-part series on abuse behind closed doors. Let others know about this and the other articles published or to be published. Everyone deserves the right to be free from abusive behaviors and to have peace in their lives. Your feedback is appreciated by myself and the victim at or preferably as a comment on this posting. 

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Behind Closed Doors - story of the escape from a lifetime of abuse Part 3

A  Woodlands resident’s story of abuse continued…. part 3… the second husband
An opportunity to free myself from the past and the abusive behaviors of others came sometime later. I took an offer for radio broadcast syndication to a national audience, a lecture series. That I continued Monday thru Friday during drive-time radio for six years. That is when I met my husband. I really craved a loving marriage in my life.
He was wealthy and belonged to the country club. He drove a Mercedes and had all the comfortable trappings of life. Inside though, I did not feel totally comfortable around him. I wasn’t sure what it was, but I just did not feel “at one” with him. My friends thought I was crazy and told me that I should press on with him, because he was “such a great catch”. This would be his third marriage and my second.
Five years into the marriage, on Valentine’s Day, he had his first outburst. Life had been practically bliss for us, but things were to change. I remember him taking his bare hands and shredding a thick cable-knit sweater off my body. Literally a pool of yarn surrounded my feet. I picked up the yarn and put it in a plastic bag and hid it from him for two years. Every so often I would go look in the bag to remind myself that indeed, that really did happen. Yet I remained in denial.
Looking back, there had been early signs that he had abusive tendencies. There were times where he had grabbed my arm or verbally manipulated me. Once he even said he hated my name. But with all the adornments of that life and in my own “hope for love”, I decided to continue forward with our marriage. The day we were married, I became violently ill. On the way to the chapel he had to pull over many times for me. Inside I was fighting this. How in the world did I ignore all that? The hope for love, the desire to have a relationship and to be married were all so overpowering that I wore blinders to even his most obvious transgressions.
I stayed another five years and endured untold violence, although none of my neighbors knew or suspected what was going on behind our closed doors. My own children did not know. Most of the abuse was inflicted while they were at school or over at a friend’s house. My hair had been pulled out so much that even I have to wear extensions to fill in the back spaces of my head.
Through the years I tried to get help for him. I thought he was severely depressed. That might have been the case, but still there was no excuse for what he was doing to me in our home. After a year from the Valentine’s Day incident, he finally saw a psychiatrist or in reality, what I would characterize as just a pill-mill. He simply gave him drugs as “treatment”. Unfortunately, the drugs he prescribed simply worsened his mania. My home became a fiery hell.
I stayed three additional years because of finances, my children’s school, our social network and a million other excuses. When in such a situation, one’s thinking is not altogether clear. Writing everything here now seems so neat, tidy and easy to discern. I ask myself, “Who would stay in such conditions?” There are many reasons why women stay in abusive situations. If they leave, then the abuser could have weekly visitations with the children, unsupervised by the victim. Their kids would be at risk. For me, my kids were accustomed to a prosperous life. I felt like I could not afford them that kind of life. Instead, I felt shameful that I could not provide them what they needed by myself. But the range of excuses is long and riddled with emotional holes. Some women feel intense responsibility while others feel a religious commitment or the requirement to raise a child with two parents no matter what. I suppose I did feel somewhat disloyal in wanting to leave him; after all, hadn’t he given our family five years of bliss? He provided well for us all. My children lacked nothing. So when the tide turned, I felt guilty even thinking of leaving him. I felt I was abandoning him. There is no past gift, memory or relationship that can substantiate violent and abusive behavior. If no counseling is sought, then one must leave!
To be continued ….

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Behind Closed Doors - story of the escape from a lifetime of abuse Part 2

A  Woodlands resident’s story of abuse continued…., part 2the first summer
For the first summer, I went to work for an insurance company in Houston. I rented my own apartment, bought my own car and felt so incredibly independent. Most of all, I separated myself from that ever-present pain. I was free. But this was only a brief respite.
My boss, who was thirty-five, took a liking to me. I was eighteen. We began “dating”, or at least I thought that was what we were doing. He was a Michael Douglas look-a-like. I was mesmerized that someone so good looking and successful wanted to enjoy my company. I could hardly believe he was interested in me, which should have been a warning sign.
He tried to advance me at work. He registered me for an insurance class to be held at a local high school. The day I went to turn in my paperwork for registration, there was a note on the bungalow out back stating the office staff was out to lunch. I decided just to wait for their return. Three young men, not students, were walking in the back area of the campus near the bungalow where I sat perched, waiting for them to return.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw the three men approaching me. I got a very uneasy feeling. They began to taunt me, speaking in both English and Spanish. They picked at me, and then rough-handled me. That afternoon I was gang-raped in broad daylight and left catatonic and naked as the young men fled. Pain and abuse had followed me from my childhood. I found myself now thinking that I was never going to be free of them. They were following me everywhere I went!
After collecting my clothes and searching for a pay phone, I called my boss to come rescue me. He seemed legitimately upset. Hanging up the phone, I remember thinking - I am so blessed to have him. I waited for him to show up, which he did in quick order. He took me to his house where I showered while he made me some instant chicken noodle soup. I remember sitting on a bar stool, wrapped in a towel partaking of that soup, feeling warm and nurtured. He came around the bar from the kitchen, kissed me and then jerked off my towel. He raped me right there on the kitchen floor. Afterwards, he slipped on his shoes, threw down a $20 and told me he was going grocery shopping. “Be gone when I get back!”
I called a cab.
Being that pain, abuse and sheer ugliness were the norms in my life, I actually went to work the next day. I said good morning to my boss and got him his coffee. He was stupefied to see me. At lunch that day, I walked off my job to never return.
To be continued ….

Behind Closed Doors - story of the escape from a lifetime of abuse Part 1

This true story is authored by a woman with extensive experience as a victim of abuse. She lives right here among us in this little town we call The Woodlands. She is someone’s neighbor. I hope you see as I did, when I first heard her story, her profound lessons for all of us, and you too will have empathy for those around you who suffer as she did. You can learn what can be and take precautions to not let this happen to you or your loved ones. For those currently suffering from repeated abuse, she will also provide you her advice on escaping the terrible emotional consequences and the jaws of imprisonment by an abuser… Part 1 ….from childhood …    
I have a domestic violence story to tell, not graphically to raise the hairs on your head, but to share my life so others can see a beacon of hope in theirs and to enlighten whoever will listen to what criminal experiences some people face behind closed doors. This is about me but for you. Violence in the home can occur to a person of any affluence. I have learned that it can happen to an educated or uneducated person. Awareness can be beneficial to prevent loved ones from being a victim or recover from being a victim of abuse. 
I suppose what I want most to convey to you is that one is never too smart or too experienced to not be a victim of domestic violence. I also acknowledge that the person who reads this is most likely someone with their own story of violence and abuse. Perhaps my story will help serve to validate their experience or help them escape from theirs.
It started very early in my life. I grew up as the middle child in an abusive home. We were a family of five. My two sisters somehow escaped the range of violence I experienced, but none of us were left unscathed by the abuse in our home.
Our parents were hard-core alcoholics, meaning they drank until they both fought like animals and then eventually passed out. Our house was known as “that house” with “those people”. Our reputation for both violence and weekly police visits were well known in our neighborhood. 
I have come to understand that there are various types of abuse including sexual, physical, emotional, verbal, and probably others. There seems to be no limit to what one human being can inflict upon another. I believe that I have experienced the entire range of abuse. Starting at age three, my Uncle frequently molested me for three years. That is a very long time for a child. He lived in my home. When I turned sixteen, my dentist molested me. Having settled the resultant court case, my parents bought a sailboat and cases of Cutty Sark Scotch. You get the picture. I suffered but got no compensation of my own.  My parents confiscated those funds. There was no validation for me in this. In effect, the dentist bought my silence, and my parents made off with the loot.
At home, I was treated differently than my sisters. My fate was to be abused in many other ways as well.  While my sisters were treated with respectable living accommodations, I slept on an army cot until I left home after graduation. Both of my sisters had beautiful bedroom suits. I was humiliated, beaten and verbally assaulted throughout my childhood years. I grew up thinking I was a piece of trash, completely unlovable. I mean, if my own parents didn’t love me, then who could?
More often than not, I was not allowed to eat at the family dinner table. I remember many evenings eating cold Veg-All out of a can. One outlet for establishing my self-value began as a sophomore in high school.  Every evening I cleaned a 50,000 square foot office building. I was a janitor although I never told a soul. Still I felt empowered by earning my own money. So it was a double-edged sword. I loved empowerment, but the shame of what I did diminished my self-confidence. My life was consistently clouded in shame. In fact, when I made the Dean’s List in college and was gifted an academic scholarship, I actually went to the Dean’s office to give the scholarship back. I told the Dean I didn’t deserve it, even though I was working full-time to afford night school. Thank God he took the time to explain to me that my 4.0 GPA earned me the right to receive such a blessing.
I had experienced all the pain and suffering that I could stand and was looking forward to living life on my own terms. I moved out of my house three days after graduation.
To be continued ….

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The first Woodlands Township Workshop Meeting

Today, I attended the first workshop of the seven-member Woodlands Township Board of Directors. The stream-lined constituency was more visible for individual contributions, as the team was more engaged than normal. With seven members, each member must now take more responsibility in questioning and understanding the issues. Our goal is to peek into the boardroom to see how this new team seems to work together and how the new dual meeting schedule might work out.
First, we have a new chairman. That has changed the tone of the meeting considerably. I felt that, as I expected, to be fair with Robert’s Rules of Order. Bruce Tough met my expectations in fairness and order, and as usual, he was also a keen listener. It looks like the team will be in less conflict than it has been, and the members will be treated equally.That is my hope and expectation, but only time will tell.  I did notice a few body gestures that were not needed, but it was the exception rather than the rule today. Let’s hope it stays that way.       
My impression is one of a better team fraught with fewer personal issues. Some people may have been shocked by the question by the past chairperson Nelda Blair on order. In a way, I was probably different from others in my perception. I was not shocked by the lack of process, because it has been stated to me in the past that there is no process manual and no binding rules of order – all is done by verbal agreement among members of the current board. However, Robert’s Rules of Order was not a book written just because it sounded like a good idea. It was written because meetings need rules of order to make good use of time and resolve conflict of opinion. Today, the largest conflict occurred at the end of the meeting. Claude Hunter wanted to resurrect the general homestead exemption and put it on the meeting agenda for next week. Mrs. Blair challenged that request saying the motion was already passed in a prior meeting and that would violate a rule of order. The new chair stated that in Robert’s Rules of Order, it depended on how Claude voted before. If he voted for it, he can renounce his vote based on new information available. In a court of law, I believe new evidence is allowed under certain circumstances. Claude could not recall how he voted on the motion. Tom Campbell said he voted yes. In any event, there is a need to clarify rule of order. Personally, if key data changes unexpectedly, and there is an opportunity to reconsider a motion, I don’t care what it is, the motion should be reconsidered by the board if a director has a reason to reconsider it. The issue is that it is possible to disrupt the board by doing this regularly. A two million dollar windfall in the five-year plan was sufficient to change Director Hunter’s perspective and others as well. Let’s be flexible enough to manage situations, not necessarily follow rules to the demise of the taxpayer. Set politics aside. What says the homeowner? In the end, it appears that the motion is not to be put on the agenda for the evening meeting next week by discretion of the chairman. Considering the lack of clarity of order, that was appropriate. Considering the importance of the decision, I believe it should have been put back on the table. Are residents missing the window of opportunity to have a general homestead exemption next year, just because of a rule of order? Personally, I doubt $2 million of capital will make much of a difference in cash flow anyway.
This year we will have a consent agenda to help speed up the evening meetings. This consent agenda format will help the board be more efficient. It is the way that most county and cities generally work. Focusing on the more important, most likely-to-be-discussed items will create a shorter meeting next week. Discussing the consent agenda in the workshop meeting produces ideas and lends itself to establish possible battlegrounds so that the directors and residents can study them before next week’s meeting. It is believed about 1/3 of the agenda items can be passed with one vote in the next meeting, using this technique. There was some shuffling of the list this week, but the number of items on the consent list increased as the non-consent items were discussed. That was good.
Of interest in this meeting   
·       Introduction of Development Review Committee candidates. There were several very good candidates for the Township Board of Directors to consider in their appointments. Each candidate gave his background and qualifications for the position. I wonder what criteria the board is going to use to select the appropriate candidate for the job. I hope by needed team roles, not by qualifications. My observation is we have some critical needs on the DSC.
·       Effect of the number of directors on the Township Board to the CVB this year. It needs to be whittled down to three, because four would be a board quorum for making decisions and then be subject to agenda notification and other Open Meeting rules. More work apparently has to be done to make this a clear workable proposal. More information will be presented at the next board meeting.
·       With 8 audits, some of which will close the books of the associations, this year is stressful to the finance department. These activities could affect what and how much is done during the budgeting process.
·       Discussion of the results of the residents’ survey is expected to raise a number of questions and interest next week.
·       Negotiations for an international Ironman triathlon have been completed. A proposal will be formally presented next week. This will require $30,000 per year from the township. It will produce more revenue than cost to the township. I will be interested to see how this is handled financially. To me, it should be taken from an existing budget item of the CVB, not more money provided to them. Successes do not mean more money to spend. Money has to be justified on need.  I can see the argument to spend more money coming. We need to go the other way. However, there is good reason to do it. Let’s see.
·       There will be an emergency preparedness presentation next week by the fire chief. Hurricane season is here. Our community needs to know where we stand.  
·       The fire station construction contractor has been selected. The process was described. Next week, the board will vote to select that contractor. Looks like a slam dunk.
·       Pink trash bags for extra pickup needs to be increased in price from $1.50 to $2.00. The cost to the township constantly is increasing and now each bag full of trash costs the township $1.64. There may be a consideration for a discount price for buying the bags in bulk at the local grocery stores.
·       The Texas state firemen convention will be held here in The Woodlands. The fire chief negotiated that deal. 4500-5000 delegates will attend.
·        Mosquito trapping has started.
·       Starting to work on the solid waste contract. It will take a year to complete the work on this $5 million, 3-year contract extendible to 6 years. It expires in 2012.
·       Working on the parks and pathway maintenance contract which expires at the end of this year.
·       Invasive vines are being removed on Flintridge, but what about Rush Haven? Actually, the vines are not invasive species. They are generally native species but on roadsides with a lot of sun. The vines thrive better under these circumstances than in the shady forested areas, thereby strangling the trees.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

So you are Protesting Your County Property Apprasial?

My recent experience coupled to past ones with the Montgomery County Appraisal District, otherwise known as MCAD, unveils many issues in the process for The Woodlands home owners as well as everyone in Montgomery County. I suspect these thoughts are applicable to most assessment districts in Texas.
If you have been here for a long time, you also probably have noticed how your home assessment constantly rises. You would expect that in an inflationary era. If the assessment sounds reasonable, you just take it on the chin and move on. Today, we find ourselves in deflation. This puts us in a completely different set of assumptions, yet the home values here in my neighborhood increased significantly! Neighbors panicked!
There could be several reasons for increased values, so I decided to share some recent lessons learned by yours truly and neighbors.   This is the season of no-joy and frustration with the county home assessment process. For me as a taxpayer, it is also the season of anxiety about the inevitable year-end tax statement to come, which is based in part on the outcome of the assessment. During the summer, not only should we be concerned about house assessments, but the local taxing authorities budget as well! This article will not deal with the budgets - only the process of assessing the value of our property assets.
Be it known that the assessment is based on the sale of homes. If your home is like mine, you have to prove that it is not in mint condition like most homes are that are on the market. You probably also will have to prove that the comparison homes are all in mint condition. You and I know that property is not generally sold in the same condition that we use it. Some may try to sell theirs at a lower price based on condition, but soon discover that it is a competitive sales environment out there. The house that is in the best condition is generally bought at the premium. That is usually determined by the county’s assessing organization plus a little more, not by a home that appears used inside. A bargain is a bargain though, and sales are made of fixer-up houses for various reasons. Everyone seems to know to improve the home in order to sell it. Your asking price would likely be at the per-sq-foot of nearby comparable homes.  Sales comps are not limited to comps in the assessment neighborhood. 
Montgomery County Appraisal District
Let’s back up a bit. MCAD is a government entity separate from the Tax Collector. Each has its separate independent process and decision makers.  In Texas, the board members are selected by the taxing entities, not the public. That means the loyalty is not to the taxpayers but the tax entities. For example, The Woodlands Township would be represented on the board as well as the county, the school district, hospital district, water and whatever else there could be. Their job is not easy.  Also represented is the county (currently precinct 3 in Montgomery County) and the county tax assessor. So if a government entity is to influence the policy of the district, it would do so through one or more of these representatives. One can intuitively see the reason to “buddy up” politically with the tax assessor collector, county, or other political entity. In local politics, check who is invited and attends township government functions and political socials.
With this said, I can firmly say that, as some others have expressed it, the appraisal districts are not only imperfect but the “Achilles heel” of the governing system of Texas.  I am not saying that the appraisal district does not listen and consider home owner issues, because they do!  I am saying that they are not accountable to the tax payers and therefore report to taxing entities and are there to raise taxes in spite of resident concerns and issues. I find that the district is not sufficiently rational in its decisions.
The appraisal district lends itself to the needs of the taxing entities and must rely on a complex and varying means of determining value. To do this, the appraisal district collects information from builders and other pertinent sources and provides the data according to open records act of Texas through a database available online. This method is very helpful and easily enables anyone to get the appraisal information on any property in the county. The district has defined appraisal neighborhoods based on area, home vintage and likeness of construction or property. There are necessary assumptions, whether we like it or not, to make the system as fair as possible. Many properties have to be assessed each and every year. Efficiencies have to be built into the systematic evaluation process. A neighborhood can be just a few homes or a large set of homes or properties. A neighborhood is not the same as defined by a builder or other government entity. 
The off-the-shelf- software utilized by the district automatically computes the assessment. This is essentially a black box for many, including me. This is not that important unless you must trust the system.  A homeowner can protest an assessment every year. It is highly time consuming to analyze and seek the answers.  A homeowner needs instructions on how to compute his own assessment. I am not going to tackle that in this article. If a homeowner is to protest the assessment, the protest must be submitted before the end of May each year. One has the option to meet with a staff member of the district informally before the protest deadline in order to understand how the value was derived. That is recommended to save time on the part of the district and the property owner.
Once a protest is submitted, the district must notify the homeowner of a date. One has the option to reschedule but must meet the rescheduling rules of the district. In my experiences, MCAD has a good responsive service center and willingly helps homeowners to understand their assessments. On the day of the protest, the property owner (or designated representative) first meets with a district employee who reviews your protest and tries to remedy it under a strict set of rules. If the employee and the property owner cannot resolve the issue, the case proceeds on to a hearing of the board of directors immediately afterward. The board usually has three members working all day on the cases. The protest is handled like a court case with the property owner vs the district. The district presents its case and the property owner counters with his arguments. From there, the board asks questions and the property owner interacts with the board. A maximum of 15 minutes is requested by the board for the protest decision. A verbal statement by the property owner to the board is not considered sufficient without visual proof such as photos. Board members and property owners cannot have previously discussed the property outside of the boardroom.
This year, my neighborhood received assessments that were collectively 16% higher than last year. This was a total shock since the assessments in 2009 had about the same increase. Personally, last year mine was capped at 10%, because all homeowners with a homestead are protected from giant increases by state law. So here we were facing a 26+% increase in three years. This time, many homeowners protested. Seeing this to be the case, we who reacted, acted in unison to understand and deal with the nature of this year’s huge increase. One resident obtained a comp for the neighborhood, but it did not meet the date or the neighborhood criteria of a valid set of comps for the 2009 assessment. However, it did show the only sale in 2009. Therefore, we understood that the increase was driven by the sale of that single home and had documentation of the sale to show the district.
A neighbor went to the district to understand the reason for that homeowner’s assessment and found out that the comp home was sold at a different square footage than recorded in county records. The district refused however to change the square footage in their database, saying that the house had been measured and the database correct. That put me to work! I investigated the sale and talked to residents and the new homeowner. Indeed, the home had been improved with additional bedrooms, expansion of a kitchen and added patio areas. The county records showed the square footage of the original home. To prove the county wrong in their assessment, I had to obtain public records from the HOA of the change request that was approved for the addition. In that request, the current and additional internal square footage was documented. I measured the potential square footage, which computed to be much more, but I did not have sufficient time to measure the rooms or to obtain an architectural drawing to check the living area space. For general analysis purposes, I also acquired and documented the living area, 2009 and 2010 assessments, styles of homes, and determined how the new sale played a role for determining true value in the neighborhood. That exercise revealed more potential issues than I anticipated or wanted. I now have little faith in the data for the entire neighborhood.
I prepared a package of information for the board and shared that with all my neighbors. It included the (1) neighborhood assessments in a spreadsheet, sorted by style, (2) external photographs, HOA records, and other supporting statements relative to the comp, (3) cover letter containing  what I was asking from the board and why, (4) Realtor’s comps for our neighborhood.
In the session with the staff assessor, the information I provided was refuted with the same argument as before – the house had been measured and was correct - end of story. I did not accept that of course. I reiterated my conclusion that the MCAD database was wrong and strongly emphasized that the data I had acquired was correct from the HOA. The assessor went to his supervisor. It turned out that I was the second person to protest this comp as incorrect. He modified the square feet of the comp in the software and reduced the appraisal 5%. He told me that was the best he could do. I said I choose to protest to the board, so I was put on the queue. So now I had theoretically adjusted for the error in the comp, but the assessment remained 10% higher than last year.

About 30 minutes later, I was called to present my case to the board. I had already discovered the issue of required photographs inside the home, because another property owner was totally rejected when he testified about the condition of his home without photographs. I did describe my own home and the situation, but none of that mattered. The only argument the board listened to was the error introduced when only one home was the determinate in a large assessment increase. They offered me a 50% reduction because of the error possible in using only one home – “meet me in the middle”. I had no choice but to accept it, even though I continued to argue the point. I argued that the square footage increased the sale value of that home proportionally to the resultant neighborhood assessment increase of 16%. They said that was probably just a coincidence. They did not listen or care. That was it. End of story.  
This process confirmed my belief that the district is not trying to be fair to an individual, but to push their agenda of raising values the most they believe they can get away with. Was a 5% raise justified? I believe not. Just because one home sold made the value of my home rise by 5%? My home is original – no upgrades, so why would anyone want to buy my home at the same price per sq foot as the comp? The comp was not a valid comparison at all. It is totally unique. Potential buyers will not, without me investing extensively to match the quality of that home, which is modified and unique, purchase my home at the MCAD assessment. So why do I have to pay taxes on that amount? I will try again next year.           
Lessons Learned  for next time            
1.    If you want to contest the value relative to the comp(s), take detailed photographs of your own home and comps to present to the board. If you are unable to obtain photographs of the comps, present an affidavit from the sale of the quality of the interior with photographs. If that is not possible, then an affidavit that you attempted to obtain such proof and all stakeholders in the transaction would not cooperate. Therefore, you assume everything is new and pristine inside. Take photographs of the external part of the home and comps. 
2.    Make sure comps are all from the calendar year before, e.g., 1-1-09 through 12-31-09 and that they are in the assessment neighborhood (or very relative to your case – exactly the same model or construction). 
3.    I made copies of my case for all members of the board present. I did not need to do so. Next time I will take one copy and an electronic presentation. If they want to see the photos and details, put on the computer. They have screens for all to see. The staff will run the presentation for the board to see and you will describe what you are showing.
4.    I will start much earlier in the process. I waited until mid-May. I should have started much earlier.
5.    Know your comps very well, their history from public records and from the real estate agent. It would be best of neighbors would keep a vigilance on sales and get the proper information before the current resident exits and the new resident moves into the home. It may take an enormous amount of time in the future. I am already three months behind a sale and know for certain that it will be an issue for the neighborhood next year.  
6.    Know the real estate trend and bring documentation that shows their assessment relative to the trend for the size and cost of your home.
7.    Have an attitude of being fair to them but tough. Hold your ground, You have done your research, so stick to the numbers. Follow your plan to contest the high assessment. Do not allow inflation to play a role. Apply any inflation adjustment after the process. Make that visible. Make everything visible.
8.    Don’t make them do the computations for you. You have those done in advance. Take a calculator with you.  They may refute something and pull their calculators out. They do make mistakes as we have seen. You must check their work.
9.   If you are unable to meet them due to work circumstances, you do have the option to submit your protest by affidavit and it will go directly to the board. There were several  folders containing affidavits waiting to be reviewed when the flow of people stopped in the boardroom.  
All in all, the process is helpful but tedious, long and very inefficient. The system discourages homeowners from protesting their assessments. Why can't a neighborhood get a correction to the database  and homes recalculated when the district makes an error? Why does every homeowner need to dispute the error? I am looking forward to an improvement in 2012 when we can work with the district electronically. I think some behaviors may change and the convenience should encourage homeowners to stand up for their rights more. I found several homeowners with twisted perceptions of the process. We have to stand in line, wait for appointments twice, once for the staff to see us and then again to argue our case before the board. I would like to see several improvements including a way to get the data for an entire or partial neighborhood. It took me a full day to get information piece by piece from a single home computer interface. If our comp has to be derived from a sales list, why do we have to go to a real estate agent to get one? That is not logical to me. I would like to see a clear process of how to present evidence. I saw one person with a CD of photos and in the interest of time, the board decided to make him an offer instead of reviewing his evidence. maybe that is an additional suggestion - just make sure you can show a CD and see if they take your bluff?