Spec-s coming to HTX after all

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It looks like Spec’s Liquor Store is coming to Huntsville — and without a handout from Huntsville taxpayers.

Word of this was in your local newspaper September 24-26. Not on the front page where there ain’t no more news, but back in the Classifieds section under the Legals. According to the legal notices, Spec’s Family Partners, Ltd. has filed an application for an off-premise retail liquor store to be located between Target and Wal-Mart.

That’s good news for everyone who was driving to the Spec’s in Conroe to buy alcohol, and bad news — maybe — for Huntsville’s locally owned liquor stores, who might struggle to compete with the retail giant.

But it’s an “I told you so” for those of us who argued last July against giving the developer of a strip center to include Spec’s about $350,000 in tax breaks over five years through a Chapter 380 agreement.

Dallas developer Jeff Brand told Huntsville City Council on July 15 that he couldn’t come without the 380 deal — it costs as much to build here as it does in Big D, but rents are too low here to make a profit. And he needed compensation for the site prep he would have to do to fix Huntsville’s lousy, retail-hating soil.

Council was sure as hell going to give it to him, too, even after Dave Mulligan of Lone Star Liquor and Draft Bar owner and local developer Tarek Maalouf spoke out against it. They urged council not to use tax dollars to give out-of-town retailers an advantage over the homegrown businesses that had invested in Huntsville without the help of public funds.

Council may not have been moved by their pleas, but the developer was. Or maybe Brand was scared off by a full-page ad in the Item, taken out by Voters for Lower Taxes, with a nasty cartoon of councilmen Keith Olson and Don Johnson serving up Huntsville’s Mom and Pop businesses to economic cannibals. (Did you see that cartoon? Didn’t anybody catch that Johnson had “Johnson” over his johnson?) Brand pulled his request from the council agenda before the August 5 second reading of the agreement.

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Haven’t we been telling you that retailers will come without tax giveaways if they think they can make it here? So why is council so eager to write checks with your money?

Maybe, as some rumors suggest, they’re recruiting retailers, trying to stuff money in their pockets that these retailers didn’t ask for and don’t even need. Maybe a big pot of money marked for retail incentives is the driving force behind the accumulation of a $20 million surplus they’re sitting on right now.

Who would benefit from that? Retailers, of course. But also local landowners, contractors, investors, and City Councilmen who want to keep their seats on the dais. If they try to tell you you’re going to benefit, too, now you know better. It must have really pissed off Olson and Johnson, both running for re-election in November, when Brand walked away from our free money.

Even after Spec’s opens here, I’ll keep buying the vodka and kahlúa for my White Russians at Lone Star Liquor Store. But I’m glad Spec’s is coming to Huntsville. Because I love saying I told you so.

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WCAD letter gets Russell banned from Item

press puppetYou can’t read it in the Huntsville Item, but you can read it here: George Russell fights back against the Walker County Appraisal District, which he accuses of jacking up his property values as punishment for decades of speaking truth to power.  

But why was this letter, with more facts and less personalized snark, the last straw? The Big Mashugana says the Item rejected it (and all future letters) under pressure of the Movers and Shakers, some of whom — like City Councilman Don Johnson — have already been influential in pulling thousands of dollars of advertising from the Item when an editorial decision did not go their way. (Remember the banner headline article on the arrest of HMH marketing director and “Baby CEO” Calli Dretke on felony charges of intoxicated assault of a police officer?)

You also remember that under Publisher Rex Maynor and Editor Jay Ermis many citizens who held views in opposition to the Establishment had their letters shit-canned or hopelessly mangled when finally printed on the Item’s “Opinion” Page.

Things got more First Amendment-like under Dennis Garrison and Amy Lee, with Lisa Trow as editor, but the Item’s parent company sent both publishers packing, rumor has it, when Item revenue was not up to snuff.

Current Publisher Rita Haldeman, the third in four years, at first agreed to keep running George’s letters, but only after they had been sanitized of nastiness and ranting that were, maybe in the Item’s view, beside George’s central point. Never mind that his letters met the paper’s policy guidelines, which, under Rita and new editor Tom Waddill, have become scrambled and capriciously enforced. Rita may have either taken a page out of Rex’s book — we’ll see what happens to letters by more temperate opposition writers — or she’s come to the conclusion that George is just bad for business as well as her career. In any case, if what George is saying is true, the WCAD plays a slippery but integral role in an unethical scheme to keep The Powers That Be in power in HTX.

— Fractal Bob


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12 September 2014
To: Editor, Huntsville ITEM

HAS THE CAD GONE BERSERK?

County Auditor Patricia Allen is quoted in the 8 September 2014 ITEM as stating: “Even though the tax rate has gone down, we will collect more revenue this year.”

This is part of the smoke and mirrors game played by local officials who are under the gun for promoting specious projects and wasteful spending causing significant tax increases over the last few years.

There have recently been more than one ITEM story that would make the average citizen believe that the city and county are holding the line on or even lowering property taxes when in fact by artificially increasing property values well beyond reality, many citizens’ taxes are rising astronomically.

I recently returned from a CAD protest hearing to ask that the millionaires and billionaires be taxed at the same rate as the poor and middle class for the same kinds of land in the same neighborhoods.

Of course my request was met with deaf ears and the unanimous vote of the board was to keep the insane increases of up to 300% in one year the same and to continue to allow even more valuable properties owned by the ultra wealthy to be taxed at a much lower rate per acre or per square foot.

It wasn’t the increases that I was protesting but the lack of fairness and equality. I told the board that if the uber-rich would be assessed at the same rate as me, then there would not have been any protest from me at all.

My dear friend Rich Heiland asserts that investing in property in Elkins Lake is a sound investment because it holds its value, yet Elkins lots over the years have featured prominently in tax sales, and now an effort is underfoot to give some 38 lots away for free, even though they are allegedly worth between $2,000 and $4,000 each.

Back some years ago Rich lived in the Russellville “slums” in a former whorehouse at 1509 19th Street. Last year the CAD appraised the tiny hillside lot at $10,000, and we just received notice that it is now being taxed at a value of $20,000 compared to the CAD appraisal of Heiland’s Elkins Lake lot at $3,000.

I am not hereby attempting to make fun of Heiland’s assertions about property values holding their own at Elkins because they cannot possibly go much lower in value. My main focus is on the very real fact that the CAD has gone totally berserk in violating the very essence of Title 1 of the Texas Property Tax Code and seems to be targeting some of us who are obviously on some kind of “black list.”

We received notices that 12 of our rent house lots in “Russellville” suddenly increased in value from $142,000 or $11,833 each in 2013 to $277,000 or $23,083 each in 2014.

Our postage stamp sized lot at 1822 Avenue O suddenly skyrocketed from its 2013 CAD evaluation of $6,500 or 58 cents a square foot or $25,508 an acre which is about right to $20,000 or $1.75 a square foot or $76,420 an acre.

Mayor Mac’s lovely lot adjacent to the Raven’s Nest Golf Course was appraised at only fifty cents a foot or $17,030 an acre and the entire commercial city block surrounded by Avenue O, Avenue P and 14th and 15th Streets owned by another family member is being taxed based on a valuation of $26,666 an acre.

One of the most valuable undeveloped commercial acreages in Huntsville borders Normal Park on the west and three of our deed restricted rent houses on the east.

The tax-exempt TRA lot that was sold off from this same tract is fairly valued at $2.00 per square foot, whereas the remainder of the tract is valued at between $6,417 and $21,776 per acre depending on whether one chooses to believe that the large tract is only 4.18 acres or actually 14.18 acres.

Appraisals are supposed to be fair and not discriminate against unpopular citizens while rewarding popular citizens with appropriate appraisals. Last year we purchased an abandoned building on University Avenue. We had a terrible time locating any tenant at all due to its obsolescence as a former bank drive-through, and suddenly the CAD decided that it was worth far more than we had paid for it bidding in a nationwide auction and more than it was appraised at as a drive-through of the multi-billion dollar Bank of America.

It remained empty for several months while we searched for a tenant, but it was no longer considered viable as a bank, and so we finally found some nice people, who rented it for a karate studio, that can pay around $1,000 per month while the property taxes are $9,524!!! When we proved the actual value of the building to the CAD, the true facts were totally ignored, and we have had to resort to suing the CAD at considerable personal expense.

The Gibbs Shopping Center that borders our building we finally leased to a karate studio is assessed based on $32.38 per square foot for the buildings and $2.00 a square foot for the land, whereas our building is assessed for taxes based on $69.11 per square foot and the land at $2.50 a square foot.

Of course, we are not the only citizens whose taxes have skyrocketed for no legitimate reason other than the apparent fact that our city has so many millions of dollars in debt that to pay the debts off, taxes have been outrageously increased in an unfair arbitrary and capricious manner in egregious violation of the professional code of ethics that appraisers are supposed to be bound by.

And to add insult to injury, the School Board is once again attempting to concoct a scheme to pass a bond issue that will cause even more escalations in our property taxes.

Enough is enough, especially considering the fact that there is no such thing as private property ownership in America. When you have paid your mortgage off after 30 years of scrimping and saving, you still have to pay rent to the government for the right to live in your own home, or they will auction it off on the courthouse steps. Is this America or some Third World Communist Country where the State owns all property?

GEORGE H. RUSSELL

 

The Education of Keith Olson

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Dad and I sat in front of the TV upstairs on Sept. 16, Budget-Passing Day, to watch the Huntsville City Council take up a surprise agenda item on the council’s travel budget by none other than Keith Olson.

“This should be good,” my father said. “I can’t wait to see how this moron justifies flying his private plane to aviation conventions on the taxpayer’s dime.”

I sipped my single malt Scotch. Wait for it.

“What did you say about Keith?” my mother yelled from downstairs.

“That he can’t wait to see what a fool he makes of himself tonight,” I yelled back.

“Well, you’re in for a surprise then,” she yelled back. “They have proof that Dalene Zender was all wrong.”

“Whatever,” my father muttered, but I was nervous because no matter how well researched Zender’s Sept. 9 guest column was, these assholes are not above manufacturing and spinning the “evidence.”

“Don’t worry, Bob,” Dad said. “It’s Olson. He’ll fuck it up like he always does. Remember the last meeting?”

“Yeah, he proved he wasn’t smarter than a fifth grader,” I said.

My mother was at the foot of the stairs again. “If I’d asked you last week what 16.67 percent of 12 was, could you tell me off the top of your head?”

“I’m not the council finance committee chairman running for re-election,” I yelled back. “Plus you don’t play J. Edgar Hoover with a citizen unless you have your facts straight.”

“Well, Karl Davidson deserved it,” my mother yelled. “He was using a public hearing to campaign against Don Johnson.”

“Why don’t you stop yelling and come up here,” my father yelled. “You’re killing our buzz.”

“Keith Olson is about to do that,” she yelled back. “You don’t need me.”

Then Olson opened his can of whup ass on Dalene Zender and all the citizens and fellow council members who called into question his taxpayer-funded trips to luxury hotels in the pursuit of an education. The big reveal was a chart showing council travel budgets vs. actual travel spending from 2005 to 2014.

“Mom,” I yelled, “Olson’s chart showing that Dalene was wrong is jacked up. It shows her council reduced spending like she said and that Olson’s travel put them over budget for three out of the past four years.”

“It does not,” my mother yelled. “Olson would have noticed that before the meeting.”

“He must have missed it. But luckily some nice citizen spectators shouted it out to him.”

“Shit,” I heard my mom say.

Then Olson, Mayor Mac and Tish Humphrey argued passionately about the need for Olson to go to conventions to get fresh ideas and to make him more like Don Johnson. In return, he said, he’d come back with $30 million in TxDOT funding.

“Don’t you wish Olson knew how state funding works?” said my dad. “Take it from me. It doesn’t come from some  circle jerk with state officials in a hotel hospitality suite.”

Then Joe Rodriquez very politely but not without urgency suggested that Olson stop using the council dais as a campaign bully pulpit in violation of the city’s charter and council’s own rules.

“When has Olson ever cared about what the charter and the rules say?” I said. “Yep, here he goes again.”

The camera pulled back to show a miserable Joe Emmett who never said a word.

“Look at poor Joe. I want to buy him a Teddy bear,” my dad said.

Then the Honey Badger went to work on Keith Olson until he was gaveled down by Mayor Mac.

“What’s so funny?” my mother yelled.

“Ronnie Allen just compared himself to a character in ‘Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.’ Olson is playing the Governor,” I yelled.

“As well as one of the whores,” Dad yelled.

We could hear Mom’s tsk-tsk all the way upstairs.

“Face it, Mom, our hillbilly councilman is funnier than yours,” I yelled.

Then Olson passed the political football to gal pal Tish, who made the fuck-you play of the year—a motion to increase council’s budget to cover Olson’s overspending and to show all the citizens who’d questioned it who’s boss.

“Did Tish’s motion pass?” Mom yelled.

“Six to three,” I said.

“Good for her!” Mom yelled.

“Bad for us,” Dad said. Because in raising the council’s travel, the city now had a deficit budget in violation of the city’s charter. To fix that, the city used Monopoly money to raise the sales tax estimate to cover the difference.

“That’s OK,” my mom yelled. “A budget is all just theoretical anyway.”

“But a tax rate isn’t and neither are Olson’s travel receipts,” Dad yelled.

“Dad, pour yourself another Scotch,” I said.

We came downstairs after it was over.

“The meeting ended in tears,” I said. “Tish.”

“You’re not going to be a jerk about that, are you?” my mother said.

“Of course not,” I said. “Poor Tish. She’s in so far over her head.”

“The good news is, Andy Brauninger and Joe Rodriquez got us a 1 cent tax rollback,” Dad said, “working with Matt Benoit.”

“And everyone voted for it, right?” Mom said, eyes ablaze with triumph. “See, this council is perfectly willing to work together. There’s no need to make a change in November.”

Then Mom rushed off to answer the phone and when she came back, she was glum, her face ashen. “[Mrs. Mover and Shaker] is going to vote for Kendall Scudder.”

“Wow, you’re kidding,” my father said. “This might be just like the HISD bond election of 2012. People are gonna smile and lie their way to the ballot box and vote against Keith ‘Bird Brain’ Olson and Don ‘the Smirk’ Johnson? Yee haw!”

Mom glared at me. “Why do you always come back here during election season? Just like a bad penny.”

I pulled out a kitchen chair for her and Dad poured her a drink.

“But voting for Kendall Scudder is the smart choice, the pragmatic one, the one Olson is too dumb to see and Johnson much too arrogant,” I said. “It’s the choice that gets you exactly what you want if what you want is to move on from the petty feuds and into the land of high cotton while singing ‘Kumbaya.’ It’s the choice that puts me and people like me virtually out of business.”

“You have lost your damn mind, Bob,” my mother said. “How do you figure that?”

“Three simple reasons,” I said.

One: Olson does and says a lot of incredibly stupid things and his supporters can no longer get by with trying to offset Olson’s dumb-assery with specious demagoguery about Kendall’s age and political ambitions.

In fact, Olson is so dumb that he tipped off his opposition to a damaging little piece of information that they had no fucking clue about.

In the article in the Item on August 19 reporting that Scudder had switched from the race against Johnson to Olson’s race, Scudder called Olson “expensive.”  Scudder may have been talking about his votes on previous tax increases and give-aways. But, as per usual, Olson couldn’t keep his mouth shut.

“When (Scudder) says most expensive, he may have been griping about going to convention, the difference between expensive and education.”

No, apparently Scudder and his supporters hadn’t thought to pull your public travel records, but thanks for the tip.

Olson has been making a fool of himself for the past four years and in the process bringing even national shame to Huntsville’s City Council.

“Remember Twittergate when Olson tried to fight some fake political Twitter accounts with a grand jury and a Texas Rangers’ investigation? It made national news!” I said.

Two: Olson will continue to be a lightning rod because he won’t stop talking or doing stupid things, some of them undoubtedly beyond the cameras on Tuesday meeting nights.

“Ask yourself why Lydia Montgomery, Mac Woodward and Joe Emmett can vote the same way Olson and Johnson do, sometimes even passionately echoing their arguments, but are all rarely if ever the targets that Olson and Johnson are?” I said, and my mother cast her eyes to the floor. “Mom, I think you know.”

Olson’s on his way up, too, enabled by people like you, I told my mother.

“He’s proud of how far he’s gotten and he wants to keep climbing the political ladder. He needs to be stopped now unless you want eight more years of shenanigans and in fighting.”

Three: “The Movers and Shakers will not lose anything but factional in fighting with Olson and Johnson gone,” I said.

Brauninger and Rodriquez, the architects of the 1 cent tax rollback, have begun to build a partnership with City Manager Matt Benoit whose responsible management is what these two credit for most of the city’s $20 million surplus. Kendall has shown he also can build bridges and work with others, too.

“What about Academy and Kroger,” my mother said. “I’ve got you now, Bob. Kendall Scudder is a shill for George Russell and all those clowns who’d rather drive to Conroe than bring in more sales tax.”

“Bullshit,” I said. “You won’t forfeit any legitimate new retail. Plus, the TIRZ is in place, and not only can Olson and Johnson not take credit for it, a council that includes Kendall and Karl will be forced at this point to help fill it up.”

“You might have more people voting against 380 tax incentives, but those are unfair to taxpayers and existing local businesses,” Dad said.

“It doesn’t matter,” I said. “Because Olson and Johnson have become lightning rods for the opposition, people are going to fight any tax giveaway scheme they’re for and scare off developers.”

My mother still had a little fight left in her. “If they’re lightning rods, it’s because you made them that way,” she said bitterly. “You and your friends in the tinfoil hat crowd.”

“I think they did it to themselves. But if you think Olson and Johnson were outsmarted by a ragtag bunch of outsiders, awesome!” I said. “Then there’s still hope for democracy in Huntsville, Texas.”