Archive for the ‘Local’ Category


Water, water, everywhere!

December 30, 2011

When I travel I like to read the local newspaper.  Now, being in Houston, the local paper of choice is the Houston Chronicle.  According to its page in Wikipedia (Houston Chronicle), it enjoys the ninth largest circulation of any newspaper in the United States and managed the advent of the internet very well as their website receives over 75-millon views per month.  It is an article in today’s edition (Horswell) that brings something to mind.

In her article titled City Lost Millions to Water Leak, Cindy Horswell touches on many key factors regarding wasting a natural resource, in this case – water.  She rightly points out the cost of pumping, treating and dispersing water, only to have it wasted by a leaky supply system.  Such problems in a water system incur cost while failing to deliver revenue to offset them.  It is not a small amount of water, the article cites the city’s own data showing over 18-billion, yes that’s billion with a “b,” gallons of water lost this year.  To put that into some sort of perspective, that is around 900,000 average-sized swimming pools worth of water.

The article brings a specific problem into focus; the water system’s infrastructure is in need of major repairs.   Cost is always an issue but the story is correct to point out that past neglect leaves Houston with a much larger problem today.  If taken seriously, the water system can be fixed.   Moreover, providing funds for ongoing maintenance and repair needs to be a constant priority to prevent a second round of staggering leaks and the cost to return the system to a manageable state.  900,000 swimming pools of waste is simply unacceptable but as bad as that is, there is another problem brewing, one the city council cannot fix – waste by users.

Waste in home and commercial use has two basic forms, wasteful use of water and leaks. Wasteful use refers to things like brushing your teeth with the water running, wasting about 1.3 gallons with each brushing.  Much like the issues Houston now faces, leaks are primarily caused by not properly maintaining infrastructure.  Home and businesses owners fail to make needed repairs and face the same sort of increased repair costs in the long run.

While the amount of water wasted per home or business might be small, the overall waste for all homes and businesses is staggering.  Take the brushing example; let’s assume 40% of Houstonians leave the water running while brushing.  For the larger Houston–Sugar Land–Baytown metropolitan area and its 6-million people means that 40% would waste 3,120,000 gallons per day or 1,138,800,000 per year.  Just from something simple like brushing!

As for leaks, a 2 drip per minute leak on a single faucet wastes 69 gallons per year.  If we assume 25% of homes in the Houston area have at least one faucet that leaks, 27,577,540.5 gallons wasted annually. That’s 27-million gallons wasted over silly, simple to fix, faucet leaks.

As bad as faucet leaks are, they pale when compared to a leaky toilet.  Most toilet leaks are caused by worn-out flapper vales.  This is the big rubber flap at the bottom of the tank.  A leaky toilet wastes around 200 gallons per day.  If 10% of Houston area homes have leaking toilets, that adds up to 31,973,960 gallons per day or 11,670,495,400 gallons per year.

Of course, these are but a few of the more obvious examples of waste and leaks and only takes the 1,598,698 homes and apartments in Harris County  (U.S. Census Bureau) into account.  Commercial businesses most likely waste much more.  The point is waste is not limited to the supply system.  Business and individuals collectively have just as large a role to play in water conservation.

Many arguments are made for and against particular ways to conserve water.  Avoiding that argument, here is something we all can agree on – cost.  Using the numbers calculated above and the price per 1,000 gallons used in the newspaper article ($2.81), Houstonians spent just over $36-millon this year in wasted water; a whopping 12.8-billion gallons.  Again, that is billion with a “b.”  Add that up with waste at the water system level and Greater Houston wasted at least 30-billions gallons of water in 2011. Using the pool example, that is 1.5-million pools worth of water.

Houston faces substantial cost to repair its water supply system and it must be done.  Still, that does not end the problem as waste at the system level is only part of the problem.  There is much lower hanging fruit to be had for all of us at the individual and corporate levels saving as much, if not more water.  As the Chronicle’s article concludes:  “Our water is precious and growing scarce.  It’s not that limitless supply that we used to think.”


Horswell, Cindy. “City lost millions to water leaks.” Houston Chronicle 30 12 2011: A1, A15.

Houston Chronicle. “Houston Chronicle.” 29 12 2011. Wikipedia. 29 12 2011 <;.

U.S. Census Bureau. State & County QuickFacts, Harris County Texas. 2010. 30 12 2011 <;.


The Super Light – Can an LED Save A City?

March 19, 2010

With the economic flat tire we’re running on, we like to think our various government agencies use all the tax money they collect in responsible ways.  The daily federal arguments on spending fill the nightly news with examples that prove this wish wrong and always seem stupidly complex.  Local governments face similar problems but scaled down.  Perhaps local governments are the place to start implementing solutions, as there is even more to paying for common services, like traffic lights, than meets the eye.

Unfortunately, something as simple as traffic lights takes on complexity when viewed at a city or county-wide level.  Everything from availability of replacement bulbs to scheduling maintenance with boom-trucks comes into play.  Of course, when we add cost to the mix, the complexity grows by leaps and bounds.  In the end, cost is the part we, the citizens, are really interested in, being that money out of our pockets pays for it.

The prototypical traffic light uses three halogen light bulbs around 150 watts each, with one of the lights on at all times.  At a standard intersection, there are at least four traffic lights, one for each direction, with many intersections having a good number more.  As cost is our primary concern, let’s put some numbers to it.  In South Carolina; our average cost per kilowatt in 2009 was $0.0553 (Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration (Dec 2009)) .  That means a single 150 watt bulb running continually costs about 20 cents a day.  With each intersection having at least four, that’s 80 cents per day per intersection.  Here is a quick table showing various costs:

Lights per
Daily Monthly Yearly
4 $     0.80 $   23.89 $   290.66
8 $     1.59 $   47.78 $   581.31
12 $     2.39 $   71.67 $   871.97
16 $     3.19 $   95.56 $1,162.63

Extending the figure out for various numbers of intersections:

Number of
Daily Monthly Yearly
100 $      79.63 $    2,388.96 $     29,065.68
500 $     597.24 $  17,917.20 $   217,992.60
1000 $  1,592.64 $  47,779.20 $   581,313.60
5000 $11,944.80 $358,344.00 $4,359,852.00

This is only the cost of electricity.  The average life of a halogen bulb is just over 2,000 hours or less than 90 days meaning each light is replace three or four times a year.  Simply to provide traffic lights, city and county governments face substantial costs.  This is where the LED comes in.

LED stands for Light Emitting Diode.  We have all seen the little red lights on various types of electronic equipment.  Most are LEDs.  While the theory of their use has been around for over 100 years, true practical applications were not developed until the 1970s.  Even then, LEDs lack the intensity for use beyond indication lighting (i.e. showing a status as on or off).  Over the last thirty years, changes in LEDs allow for bright lights in every color of the spectrum.

The LED has many advantages over the incandescent, halogen, and Compact Florescent Light (CFL) style systems.  They use only a fraction of the electricity and last for years, if not decades and they do not have the mercury found in CFLs.  Cities across America are in the process of changing their traffic lights to LED based units.  To produce the same amount of light, as a 150 watt halogen traffic light, requires only 15 watts of LED powered lighting.  Using the same data above:

Lights per

Daily Monthly Yearly
4 $  0.08 $ 2.39 $ 29.07
8 $ 0.16 $ 4.78 $ 58.13
12 $ 0.24 $ 7.17 $ 87.20
16 $ 0.32 $ 9.56 $ 116.26

Again, extending the figures for number of intersections:

Number of Intersections

Daily Monthly Yearly
100 $ 7.96 $ 238.90 $ 2,906.57
500 $ 59.72 $ 1,791.72 $ 21,799.26
1000 $ 159.26 $ 4,777.92 $ 58,131.36
5000 $1,194.48 $ 35,834.40 $ 435,985.20

Producing a savings over halogen bases lighting of:

Number of Intersections

Daily Monthly Yearly
100 $      71.67 $    2,150.06 $     26,159.11
500 $     537.52 $  16,125.48 $   196,193.34
1000 $  1,433.38 $  43,001.28 $   523,182.24
5000 $10,750.32 $322,509.60 $3,923,866.80

These costs only reflect a saving in the electricity.  A halogen light costs around $5.00, for 100 intersections with six lights that works out to $12,000 a year just in bulbs.  Of course, the cost of labor to replace bulbs is saved too.

Thankfully, most cities have all ready replaced or are currently replacing their traffic lights.  The question is what other areas are there to save money.  It must be remembered, when we are talking about a city or county, it is never one light bulb, it’s thousands.  It’s not the 1 cent for a sheet of paper but the $10,000 for a million sheets that becomes an issue.

It is obvious that replacing traffic lights produces savings.  It is one of many examples where savings are found.  Others are less obvious; perhaps reducing the requirements of a procedure or even rethinking the way student report cards are sent to parents will produce savings.  Maybe they won’t, the point is we will not know until we look.  We need to examine everything to ensure the service is in tune with the times and is provided in the most cost-effective manner.

In the end, the LED will not save a city but is simply an example of the type of thinking that will save it.  Every expenditure, to serve the public good, must be questioned.  No one questions the need for traffic lights, but can and do question the cost.  By seeking a less expensive option, local governments are saving real dollars, real tax dollars we do not have to pay.


Impact Fees Part Two, A Better Way

January 21, 2010

Yesterday’s blog pointed to some of the bigger issues surrounding impact fees and their use.  Rather than simply complain, it is better to present a solution and return them to their original purpose.  The fees need to be a force to improve a community rather than  funding irresponsible practices.

Impact fees are one example of government taking the path of least resistance rather than a longer view of what is best for the future.  Unfortunately, it is too common an occurrence.  Local ordinances are often hard to comply with or are punitive in nature.  In the case of impact fees, rather than encourage responsible construction, they only extract money from process, in effect, a fine for building in the community.

What impact fees fail to take into account is the true impact of new construction.  In most cases, state legislation dictates the areas fees apply but local communities, with state approval, determine the formula for collection.  This prevents local communities the ability to address local issues.  A better method is for the state to list the areas where fees cannot be applied, and then approve the local plan.

In doing this, the process is under local control.  Of course, this assumes the process is open and only in the hands of officials voters elect.  To address specific issues (trash collection, waste treatment, etc.) the process needs to remain flexible.  For example, a community wants environmentally friendly new construction.  To do this, understanding the true cost of the building, from construction until the day it is demolished and disposed of, is calculated.  Questions like, how much of the building material can be recycled are taken into account.  The initial fee assumes none of the structure is recycled, it is reduced by the percentage that is.  If the cost of the whole building going to a landfill is $20,000, that is the impact fee.  If ninety-nine percent of the material is recyclable, the fee is reduced ninety-nine percent to $200.  This idea imposes the fee on irresponsible construction, from a community standpoint, and rewards construction that complies with the wishes of the community to recycle.

It is a complex way to impose fees, to say the least.  The current draconian method is much easier to administrate, but does little to serve the greater good.  After all, serving the greater good is the reason we accept government in the first place.  New construction should bear the cost of its impact on the community, but only its true cost.  Impact fees used to subsidize budgets or cover shortfalls only push problems down the road.  We need ordinances that encourage the type of building we want rather than one, across the board, fee that only siphons money from the public.  The budget simply cannot be balanced on the back of new construction, at some point, the use of the impact fee band-aid will fail.


Impact Fees, Damned Impact Fees!

January 20, 2010

Anyone dealing with new construction most likely knows the term “impact fee.”   On the surface, they are easy to understand but like most governmental issues, over time the waters become murky.  You need to be a lawyer with doctorates in political science, economics, and mathematics to understand the formulas and wording of these ordinances.

Impact fees first appeared in the 1970s.  Traditionally, they are collected to cover added wear and tear new construction has in the service related areas of local government, roads, parks, and libraries for example.  In that respect, they rather make sense, you pay for the impact you have on the community.  A disturbing trend, related to impact fees, is to cover projected budget gaps for improvement, repair, and upkeep of services.  This practice increases fees exponentially.  Fees vary depending of your location; the national average is around $8,000 per single family home.  That figure is open to debate as an exact number is next to impossible to nail down.

Even with the high cost of the fee, it seems only to affect the individual or business involved in a particular new construction.  That is not true, it affects every member of the community.  Local governments have the greatest influence in our daily lives, the more local, the more influence.  Think of it this way, we interact least with services at the federal level and most with services at the local level.  Allowing local governments a revenue stream outside of sales and property tax we support or oppose by voting, allows for financially irresponsible spending practices that ultimately pass to all tax payers when growth slows and fees are not collected.  Our current economic downturn is a prime example, with limited new construction, where are the counted on fees going to come from.

For the most part, local governments follow state regulations regarding impact fees.  Rather than control the process, it builds in a layer of complexity that prevents understanding of why money is collected and how it is used.  The state claims credit for controlling the practice and the local government claims they are simply following state guidelines.  The only effective controls seem to be keeping the citizens confused and misdirected.

We need to demand accountability from local government.  Impact fees and their uses live in a dark place, away from the light of the voting public.  They allow elected officials and various department heads money for projects that otherwise would not receive funding.  This commits all of us to a debt we are obligated to pay if (when) the revenue stream dries up.  When that happens, property and sales tax will increase.  It is past time to reign in local government and remove from them processes where they are not accountable to voters.

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