Monday, July 28, 2008

We Should All Be Government Watchdogs

By Charles O'Dell, Phd

I am often criticized by public officials for being a “self-appointed government watchdog.” It’s true. I was not elected to devote my time paying attention to our elected officials and reporting their actions, but I believe every citizen should be a self-appointed government watchdog to the extent possible. Most citizens, however, are consumed with providing for their families and lack the time and energy to ensure their elected officials are behaving in the public interest. My children are adults, I’m self employed and I choose to serve my community as a government watchdog.

HaysCAN operates on donations and an occasional grant, but my only compensation is the satisfaction of my community service and the rewards of working with many of the citizens in our community.

When Hays County media owned by or associated with elected officials refused to publish articles critical of those elected officials, the publisher of Hays County Roundup gave me and others a public voice in our community. Whether or not you agree with the messages, all citizens should welcome access to diverse views in our community. That’s truly American democracy in action.

I am also criticized by elected officials and their supporters of being a “conspiracy” nut. They may be half right, but I’ll leave that decision up to the readers of the Hays County Roundup.

Austin Public Access Television interviewed me last November as part of a series, Texas Water 101. You can watch and hear my comments at the following Internet link here.

This interview was unrehearsed and my comments were spontaneous. They reflect who I am, the origin of my values and views, and how I view my community. I hope that you will watch and listen and then let me know what you believe I got right, or where I need educating. Send me an email at Get involved. Express your own values and keep reading the Hays County Roundup.

As co-founder of Hays Community Action Network (HaysCAN) in 2003, Mr. O’Dell strives to carry out the mission of ensuring open, accessible and accountable government. He is a long time and close observer of the workings of the Hays County Commissioners Court. He earned a degree in Agricultural Education and a Masters in Ag Economics at Texas Tech, and, later, a Ph.D. at The University of Maryland while employed as a Research Economist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in Washington, D.C. Texas born and raised on a family farm, O’Dell is a Hays County Master Naturalist and a board member of the Ethical Society of Austin.

Charles O'Dell hands a check for $3,800 on behalf of HaysCAN to Dana Carmean, co-manager of the Hays Trinity Groundwater Conservation District. O'Dell explained the contribution is intended to support the district's mission to preserve groundwater resources in western Hays County.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Pedernales Members Demand Cleaner Energy, More Conservation

Press Release from pec4u

JOHNSON CITY--As the Pedernales Electric Cooperative’s five new board members took their seats at the table for their first regular board meeting on Monday, cooperative member-owners had their own message to deliver to the board. Before the meeting, members delivered over 4,500 letters and postcards to the board, demanding that the co-op get more energy from renewable sources and invest in more extensive conservation programs.

“All the new board members ran on platforms promising increased focus on conservation and renewable energy, and it’s clear that the membership supports these ideas too,” said Ric Sternberg, one of the founders of PEC4U, the co-op member group that led the push for reforms at PEC.

Clean Water Action gathered the letters in recent months for presentation to the new board. Now, a coalition of the PEC4U steering committee, Clean Water Action and Public Citizen has joined forces to encourage further improvements at PEC.

“Conservation programs help members reduce their monthly bills,” said David Foster, Program Director for Clean Water Action. “PEC increased rates twice in recent months because of rising costs related to coal and natural gas. Buying more renewable energy will help protect co-op members from rising fossil fuel costs. The City of Austin has proved that with Austin Energy’s Green Choice program.”

“LCRA, which provides the majority of PEC’s energy, has just announced plans to buy even more electricity from polluting coal, and that’s not what the members want,” said Tom “Smitty” Smith, the director of Public Citizen’s Texas Office. “It is certainly not what our environment needs either. Utilities in Texas produce more global warming pollutants than those in any other state in the U.S. And a staggering 10% of mercury emissions in the U.S. come from coal plants in Texas.”

“PEC has a real opportunity to purchase affordable solar energy by joining with Austin, San Antonio and other co-ops on a new concentrating solar plant,” said Smith. “All they need is the will to do it.”

The letters from members ask the PEC board to set the goals of purchasing at least 30% of PEC’s energy from Texas renewable energy companies by 2020, and to meet at least 20% of energy needs from efficiency and conservation by 2020. To achieve these goals the member-owned cooperative would need to establish aggressive energy efficiency and conservation programs, with substantial rebates for customers. In doing so, the board would also promote local jobs, reduce pollution and save members money.

Contact: David Foster, Program Director, Clean Water Action, 512-474-0605;
Ric Sternberg, pec4u, 830-825-0133;
Tom “Smitty” Smith, Texas Director, Public Citizen, 512-477-1155

Friday, July 18, 2008

Paradise Lost In Hays County

Editor's Note: Documents on file at the Hays County Clerk's web site show there have been 619 properties posted for public auction in the six months between March and August of this year. There are no comparative numbers on the web site for the same period last year.

By Charles O'Dell, PhD

Monthly housing foreclosures in Hays County during the past five months are averaging over 86 per month. Watts, Cox, Ortega, Jones and Rios name only a few of our neighbors who have lost their homes, their castles, and their major investments.

If predatory and unfair lending practices led to the current foreclosure crisis, why is it just happening now, and how do we keep it from happening again?

Today’s financial liquidity and home foreclosure crisis is the result of our elected U.S. Senators and Representatives dismantling in twelve years (1970 – 1982) the regulatory guidelines for financial institutions enacted over the previous fifty seven years.

These contemporary legislators responding to pressures from financial companies, their lobbyists and their election campaign contributions in the millions of dollars replaced good business practices and consumer protection with an unregulated system that encouraged bad business practices putting the banking system at risk by destroying the dreams of millions of new homeowners.

Creating a Responsible Banking System

After the financial panic of 1907, the Federal Reserve Act (1913) established the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) and included banking reforms, some of which were designed to control speculation. A year later the Federal Trade Commission Act prohibited unfair or deceptive business practices. In 1933 the Glass-Steagall Act separated “commercial banks” focusing on consumer checking and savings activities from “investment banks” that deal with speculative trading and mergers. The Truth in Lending Act of 1968 required banks to disclose loan terms and fees.

Sowing the Seeds for Today’s Foreclosure Crisis

Some provisions such as Regulation Q that allowed the Federal Reserve to regulate interest rates in savings accounts were repealed by the Depository Institutions Deregulation and Monetary Control Act of 1980. Other provisions which prohibit a bank holding company from owning other financial companies were repealed in 1999 by the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act. (Yes, the same Senator Phil Gramm who is economic advisor to presidential candidate John McCain.)

Today’s credit crisis has been caused by a sustained period of lax and inappropriate lending that could not have occurred had thoughtful banking regulations and consumer protections not been repealed in the name of competition. Already, commercial financial companies are being rescued at great cost to taxpayers, and millions of unsuspecting new homeowners are seeing their dreams evaporate in foreclosure. We will see an increasing number of our Hays County neighbors lose their homes in the coming months and perhaps years.

The lesson to be learned is this: Thoughtful rules and regulations enacted by our local, state and national governments are meant to protect individual citizens and the public health, safety and welfare. We are a society that functions by the rule of law. Public officials who fail to enforce our laws are a disgrace, and their failure to enforce our laws is a criminal act.

As co-founder of Hays Community Action Network (HaysCAN) in 2003, Mr. O’Dell strives to carry out the mission of ensuring open, accessible and accountable government.
He is a long time and close observer of the workings of the Hays County Commissioners Court. He earned a degree in Agricultural Education and a Masters in Ag Economics at Texas Tech, and, later, a Ph.D. at The University of Maryland while employed as a Research Economist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in Washington, D.C. Texas born and raised on a family farm, O’Dell is a Hays County Master Naturalist and a board member of the Ethical Society of Austin.

Texas Property Tax – The Definition of Egregious Has Not Changed

By Linda Morgan

Since the 2007 legislative session, our “politicians” in Austin have been very busy praising themselves for reducing property taxes by 30%.

For the upcoming 2009 legislative session, Rep. Patrick Rose and others are now speaking up about their “intent” to cap increases on residential appraisals at 5% instead of the current 10%.

Let’s do the math. Property tax rates were reduced by 30% in 2007. However, property appraisals throughout much of Texas routinely increased as much as 10% in 2007, 10% in 2008 (and my bet is we will see the same in 2009). So exactly where will we find ourselves in 2010? Answer: Exactly where we were in 2007. I tend to believe that is how the “fuzzy math” and “coincidence” were designed to work.

So, by the end of the next legislative session and only if such appraisal caps are adopted, all we will have gained is a slowing rate of increase in the already egregious Texas property tax system.

Texas is one of seven states that do not have a state income tax. Is it feasible to think that forty-three states have it “so wrong” and Texas is one of seven states that have it “so right”?

Obviously, real property taxes are based on property appraisals while income taxes are based on current earnings. We have all seen, heard, or even experienced the property tax “creep” that has forced homeowners out of their homes.

To illustrate, let’s map out any typical street in any typical community where property appraisals are approximately $200,000 (after homestead exemption).

Home #1: A single wage earner of $75,000/annually
Home #2: Two wage earners of $150,000/annually
Home #3: A single wage earner of $65,000/annually with two minor dependents
Home #4: Two wage earners of $200,000/annually with four minor dependents
Home #5: A recent widow whose income has been reduced by one-half – now, $55,000/annually instead of $110,000/annually.
Home #6: A wage earner has become temporarily unemployed or seriously ill with mounting medical bills. Income has been drastically reduced from $100,000/annually to $35,000/annually.

Under the current Texas property tax code/appraisal system, each of these homeowners will receive a property tax bill of approximately $3520.00 – without exception. The remedies are limited – either pay up, sell out, or risk losing your home. This situation highlights why property taxes are considered a regressive tax – meaning households who earn less pay a higher percentage of their annual income in property taxes.

A voter-approved state flat-tax or income tax would drastically lower property taxes, provide revenue to bring education up to the national average, and provide for a much fairer tax system. Furthermore, the majority of households would save money, changing the state's tax system from regressive to progressive.

If we open the income-tax door, we don’t have to worry about the income tax monster jumping out and eating us as soon as we turn our backs. The Texas Constitution guarantees that an income tax cannot be adopted without a vote of the people, and once adopted, that the tax rate cannot be raised without another vote of the people. The Constitution also requires that two-thirds of the revenue from an income tax go to cut property taxes and dedicates the other one-third to education. Plus, any Constitutional amendment could/would guarantee that property tax rates cannot go back up without a vote of the people.

Isn’t it time we faced our fears and considered a state income tax?

Linda Morgan retired from high-tech in Houston in 2002 and headed for the hills. She is a member of the Hays County Texas Master Naturalists Chapter through which she has learned a great deal about the conservation of our natural resources and the ever-increasing growth/development issues. Ms. Morgan is a big proponent of school finance reform and real property tax relief for Texans. She is a real estate agent and remains active in the real estate market.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Drought Plan for Western Hays County

Summary by Jack Hollon, for HTGCD

Drought, like any challenge or crisis, heightens awareness. A dry time such as the present is thus a good time to take stock of our water resources, look at consumption habits or patterns, and decide if changes are needed to insure adequate water for the future. When we are close to an “edge” of this sort, our senses sharpen. The question of survival improves our attention; priorities become clearer.

Our local groundwater conservation district, HTGCD, takes this opportunity to summarize the drought plan we have been working on and get it before the public. On Aug. 7, at 8:30am, the Board will hold a public hearing on the Draft Plan at Woodcreek’s City Hall, on Champions Circle.

We first note that such a plan, required by law, is always a work in progress. As our knowledge of the aquifer increases, through data gathering and research, and what we take from it tends to grow, elements of the Plan such as drought stages, with their trigger criteria and expected responses, will be modified to improve the Plan – make it better fit our unique situation.

The draft now before the Board calls for year-round conservation, with a May-through-Sept. “Conservation Period” when certain voluntary conservation measures would be publicized and encouraged. This comprises “Stage 1,” our default condition when water is relatively abundant.

In dry times when special measures are needed, the monitored parameters (rainfall patterns, stream flows, water levels at certain wells) will be used to “trigger” or initiate a drought stage commensurate with conditions. The Plan defines three possible drought stages: Moderate Drought (Stage 2), Severe Drought (Stage 3), and Extreme Drought (Stage 4). In addition, a Stage 5 “Water Emergency” is available to the Board when all or part of the District faces a condition deemed “...a state of disaster due to drought conditions or other unforeseen events that could cause imminent health or safety risks to the public.” For each of these stages, the Plan recommends or requires conservation measures to be taken.

In the beginning, we propose to use the Standardized Precipitation Index (SPI), for the past 6 or 9 months, averaged between the South Central and Edwards Plateau Regions, or the stream flow on the Blanco River (USGS gage at Wimberley) as our primary triggers.

The flow of the Blanco has been recorded over the past 80+ years, so there is a rich data base there. In addition, we note that except after large rainfalls, the flow of area streams like the Blanco is a direct discharge from the surrounding aquifers. This discharge to streams is correlated fairly well with aquifer storage and water levels, both in our area and to our west, the area that tends to supply the Trinity Aquifer with underground flows toward the southeast.

The SPI is a statistical tool that compares recent rainfall, say for the past nine months, with rainfall over similar periods in the past 100 years or so. After transforming that data, the index will indicate the number of “standard deviations” the recent period varies from “normal.” This number can then be used as a trigger to initiate the appropriate stage, using reasonable time delays.

The Board will have flexibility in choosing between these triggers, or using them both. This is recommended, since droughts vary enormously in their special characteristics and histories. Each drought follows a unique course over time. The addition of water level data as a trigger is expected to follow soon, as that data base is rapidly reaching a state of reliability that will make it useful for these purposes.

The Draft Plan can be accessed on line at “” the District’s website, or by calling the office at 512-858-9253. Comments and suggestions are welcomed, either in writing or at the hearing mentioned above. The Board is expected to adopt a revised plan that comes out of this process later in August.

In the meantime, we encourage innovation and sharing of water conservation measures for the home or business. As we are seeing in the energy transition, with its much higher fuel prices, people are finding all sorts of ways to cope and live reasonably well while using less. A drought plan, to be successful, relies on individual initiative and responsibility. Each of us can have the satisfaction of making a contribution.

Jack Holly represents Wimberley on the board of directors of the Hays Trinity Groundwater Conservation District.