It’s time for some thoughtful reflection on our recent City Council elections. I believe the election results revealed that our Mayor and recent Council members had lost the trust of both residents and local businesses while following the lead of the City Manager. That a majority of Bellaire citizens feel it’s time for fiscal discipline and time for their concerns to be addressed. We don’t need more divisive and contentious issues or flashy projects, we need calm, thoughtful leadership.
Various proposals – logos, pathways, sidewalks, bond issues, debt and tax increases, to name a few – drew Bellaire residents to Council meetings in the past 4 years. Two of the most controversial and costly are still in work – the Siemens contract and the beautification of Spruce and Fifth streets.
By 2016, about 2 years after he was hired as city manager, Paul Hofmann was working on a $12.8 million deal with Siemens for expensive water meters we didn’t really need and wastewater plant repairs that could have been made over time. At that point our bonded debt was $77 million dollars.
Siemens made their presentation, knowledgeable residents commented, objected, made suggestions for alternative choices. But all Council members except retired engineer Pat McLaughlan approved the contract. (Neil Verma was not yet on council for that vote, we can thank Roman Reed instead.) To be paid with bond funds that were promoted for infrastructure upgrades to streets, drainage, and our water and wastewater systems.
In 2017, after voters approved the $54 million dollar bond issue, the replacement of every water meter in the City began – and for the first time in my 60+ years in Bellaire leaks were popping up at meters throughout the City. We were wasting water, not saving it. A City crew repaired a line across the street about a month ago, the third leak on this block.
The $8 million upgrade at the wastewater plant is overdue for completion, the handover has been delayed since this past June. I hope they get this right, because one day maintenance and repairs will become the responsibility of the City.
The Siemens project was promoted as self-funded – eventually. In about 10 years, and based on complicated formulae to be computed by Siemens. But it carries ongoing costs, included in the Siemens presentation as part of a Cashflow Proforma.
There are estimated annual costs for Project Asset Management and Performance Assurance, AMI Infrastructure Maintenance, Meter Software Hosting, and for the Customer Portal, and most will be ongoing as long as we have those meters. (See the Cashflow Proforma chart below this post.)
In response to a Request for Public Information the City could not supply the information for those costs. Apparently no one maintains a list of the vendors and associated costs for these services. This was the City’s response this past November:
“It is my understanding that we do not have the cost information in the format that you have requested. Several of the vendors that provided services under the Siemens contract provide other services to the City. The Public Works Department has been and will continue to go through the data to cull out the invoices that relate specifically to the Siemens project.”
How are we to know if the Siemens contract is actually revenue neutral, paying for itself, if we have no idea of even these annual costs? Aren’t Bellaire taxpayers entitled to an accounting from the City? With our computerized systems it should not be difficult to track and list those vendors and expenses. Just how are our City and our finances managed?
About 3 years into his hire, in 2017, Mr. Hofmann was promoting the Spruce and Fifth Street beautification project – at the rear of a grocery store.
In the summer of 2018 I attended the first meeting about Spruce and Fifth and listened to the reasoned arguments by longtime business owners, managers, and property owners. They only opposed the exorbitant plans and angled parking that would narrow the streets for large delivery trucks and block access to their businesses.
I heard James Andrews (our contracted City engineer) declare that the parking design could be removed from the plan, while the City Manager hovered in the background. Council members visited the site later in the summer, some commiserated with the businesses. But the original design remained, including the angled parking, and nothing more was heard from Mr. Andrews.
Numerous residents spoke to the plans at Council meetings, some in favor but most opposed. The business owners explained their concerns over the loss of parking, loss of access to their business, and loss of revenue. And finally in January of 2019, Jax owner Paul Miller showed a presentation of the problems businesses would encounter if the plan was approved as designed.
The result? On February 18, 2019, Council members Verma, Pollard, Pappas, Fife, Montague, and Mayor Friedberg voted in favor, approving $2.5 million for construction alone. Voted to support an unnecessary, wasteful plan presented by the Public Works director and the City Manager, neither of whom live in the City. Funded with City bonds, more debt. Only Pat McLaughlan voted against. So much for loyalty to local businesses.
The contract for this project calls for completion in 300 calendar days – around the end of February 2020. Take a drive along Fifth and Spruce, by H-E-B, to see the result of 8 months of construction. Inspect the careless treatment of the assisted living facility in the 5200 block of Spruce (at left). Some of the businesses are already gone. Can this get much worse? Can it be stopped? Just straighten up the mess and rebuild the streets?
My hope for 2020 is that we will have representatives on City Council who will use common sense, examine the consequences of their actions, research unfamiliar proposals before acting on them, and don’t feel they have to ‘go along to get along’. Remember who’s truly in charge. And resist the urge to spend every last dollar and then borrow more! Here’s looking forward to a happy, hopeful New Year.
Find more information on the Spruce/Fifth project under Spotlight at the upper right of this page and in a recent post about lack of references for the contractor.
Bellaire’s Debt is $123.8 million at the end of FY2019
Not including the interest. The estimate FY2020 is over $126 million.
Email the Mayor and City Council via our City Clerk, Tracy Dutton, at email@example.com and request that your email be forwarded.