by David Stanowski
18 April 2008
Political parties often create more problems than they solve, but the fragmented and Balkanized nature of the politics, currently practiced, in Galveston, demonstrates that a local political party could serve the function of creating, and implementing a comprehensive political vision.
The Galveston Founders Party is dedicated to, and is named after the Founding Fathers of Galveston who, by the 1870’s, had done so well, managing this City, that per capita income was among the highest in the world. In addition, after Galveston was almost destroyed, they built the Seawall, raised the grade, and re-built it to its former glory with little outside help or funding. Contrast this to a Galveston that currently is one of the poorer cities in the U.S., and lacks the leadership to find a self-reliant path towards any kind of meaningful improvement.
This City can never again be what it once was, so the GFP does not seek to re-create 19th-Century Galveston, we merely advocate learning from our mistakes, and returning to methods similar to what the Founders employed to achieve success.
In the future, the GFP may open itself to membership, hold meetings, and could even field a slate of candidates for the 2010 election, but for now the party will act as a public-policy think tank developing, and advocating positions on local issues.
Galveston has been trapped in an identity crisis for many years. It can’t decide whether it wants to be an authentic and functional city, some kind of “colony” for artists, eccentrics, panhandlers, and vagrants, or a beach town.
It has the choice to be:
1.) a place with profitable businesses and high-paying jobs, full-time residents and families, functional schools and cohesive neighborhoods;
2.) or a place where a collection of eccentrics and oddballs inhabit decaying buildings;
3.) or a large sandbar where others come to play and vacation on the beaches, and then leave their trash and go back to where they really want to live.
The GFP is not ambivalent, or confused by these choices. We want Galveston to be a real City, and not some kind of a kooky “colony”, or a boring beach town. To do this we must change our focus and priorities. The GFP advocates designating the area between 6th and 39th streets as the “City Center”. This is the same territory that our Forefathers chose to protect with the original Seawall, and we defer to their vision. The “City Center” has been neglected far too long in favor of new development on the West End, and in other locations, outside of this area.
We are not opposed to new development outside of the City Center as long as it does not lead to rampant overbuilding, or adversely impact the historical nature, and quality of life within the Center. The GFP calls on the City Council to create a Master Conservation District for the City Center that limits new in-fill development to those structures that are compatible with their historical surroundings, except in designated commercial areas, such as along Broadway. In addition, we encourage all efforts to rehabilitate existing historical structures, and support the vigorous and uniform enforcement of all building codes.
If the City Center is brought back to life, Galveston can finally take its rightful place along side New Orleans, Savannah, and Charleston, as one of only four first-class Southern port cities. In contrast, there seem to be an endless number of “colonies”, full of eccentric characters, and bland beach towns that don’t have the class, the character, the soul, or the sheer poetry of Southern port cities. This is why we are very clear on our choice.
The city manager form of government is a difficult and problematic system to use, and still make sure that it acts in the best interests of the residents. Galveston can not afford a full-time Mayor and City Council, but without strong, well-informed, and independent advocates who are "promoting the general welfare" of the City, the permanent and entrenched bureaucracy has been allowed to make policy for its own benefit. The City’s unpaid part-time Council usually can not expect to know as much about the functioning of our local government as City employees, so it’s easy for them to get snowed, and defer to the course set by the bureaucrats. This practice must end!
The best candidates for Mayor and City Council normally will come from the ranks of the private sector, because they are the people who understand what needs to be done to revive the local economy. However, with the current disorganized political process, and the long and unwieldy Council sessions, people who own local businesses see the prospect of joining the Council as an exercise in futility that will waste their time, and interfere with their efforts to run their businesses.
They do not wish to preside over Council meetings that often include an endless parade of people who recite, and repeat what usually boils down to the same two opinions on many issues. Letting everyone have their say is good theater, and appears to be a wonderful exercise in self government, but it bogs down the political process, which drives away many good candidates. We are supposed to be a republic, NOT a democracy.
Finding well-qualified people to run for Council is difficult. It is an unpaid and generally thankless job, but it should not be a position that is sought after like the House of Lords; a place to achieve a title, and some recognition, while the real decisions are being made by someone else. In our case, they are often being made by the bureaucracy, so Council members MUST begin to oversee the bureaucrats.
It is difficult for Council members, who work for other branches of government, to understand the concept that the City of Galveston should act as a partner with the local business community. The more that business prospers the more sales and property tax the City collects. Under the current adversarial relationship, between the City and business owners, the economy struggles due to the interference that the City creates, and revenues and taxes are far from their maximum levels.
The GFP calls on City Council to pass new ethics rules. It is improper for Council members who are funded or are unduly influenced by special-interest groups, or who have a financial interest in specific projects to be voting on matters before the Council that effect these groups or projects. For example, those who have an interest in a particular real estate development should not be allowed to vote on issues that affect that project, and Council members who receive contributions from public employee unions, should be forced to recuse themselves from votes on their pay and benefit packages.
Finally, City government must become far more transparent. It should make quarterly reports on the state of the local economy, as well as showing their income and expenditures, and commenting on current issues. When residents request information from the City, City employees should adopt a new attitude of helpfulness in complying with their requests. A compilation of requests for information, that were not fulfilled, should be published on a monthly basis.
State of the City:
At the risk of appearing “too negative”, we can not hope to know how to improve the City without looking at where it currently stands.
One of the most compelling pieces of evidence on Galveston’s relative economic attractiveness comes from noting migration patterns. As the population of the State of Texas grew 61%, between 1980 and 2005, Galveston lost 4,436 people; a decline of 7%. People have voted with their feet and left. No matter how much most of us love this island, the population trends tell us that many people can not make a decent living here, and leave. Source: The FHC
The number of jobs in Galveston peaked at 30,387 in 1995, and by the end of last year there were only 26,394 remaining; a decline 13%. During this same period the number of jobs in the State of Texas increased 22%. Source: BLS via Texas A&M
In 2005, the Median Household Income in the State of Texas was $42,139, in Galveston it was $30,500; 28% below the State average. Source: Texas: Census Bureau Source: Galveston: City-Data
Galveston’s retail sales per capita lag far behind those for the U.S., the State of Texas, and many local cites, too; even with up to 4 million tourists per year. In 2006, our per capita retail sales were $9,535 versus $13,159 for the State of Texas. When adjusted for inflation, local per capita retail sales peaked in 1984. Source: The FHC
Recent City Councils have focused far too much on welcoming residential real estate development, while they have ignored business development. This trend reached an extreme when TIRZs were improperly employed for luxury real estate projects rather than in blighted areas, as they were intended. This practice must be halted, and existing TIRZs should be re-examined.
A city may not designate an area as a TIF reinvestment zone unless the area is "unproductive, underdeveloped, or blighted" as required by Article VII, Section 1-g(b), Texas Constitution. Op. Tex. Att'y Gen. No. JC-152 (1999). Criteria for a reinvestment zone Sec 311.005, Texas Special Property Tax Provisions
The quality of life in residential neighborhoods, as well as commercial districts is highly dependent on some minimum level of uniform code enforcement. For many years, highly-selective code enforcement has been accepted as part of the quirkiness and “color” of Galveston. This approach to code enforcement is very counter productive.
In 2006, the Crime Index for the City of Galveston was 636, which is 97% higher than the national average of 323! Source: City-Data
GISD currently ranks number 800 out of the 1024 school districts in the State of Texas. The poorly regarded local school system has driven many middle class families off the Island, and makes it difficult to recruit new industry when their management becomes aware of the quality of our local schools. Source: Schooldigger via Texas Education Agency.
There are many people, in this City, who are concerned about “environmental issues” like the Wetlands, and Climate Change, which may or may not affect our future, but the most the most pressing environmental problem that actually does affect our lives, right now, is the lead-based paint that has contaminated many parts of the City.
City Center needs improvements to its Seawall beaches, including public restrooms.
Apparently, those who currently hold positions in City government, as well as those who have been in office over the last decade, or so, have been blissfully ignorant of the woeful state of the City Center, and have put forth few, if any, constructive ideas on how to reverse this decline. No matter how many beach houses and condos have been built, the numbers speak for themselves.
A Platform for Constructive Change:
Galveston’s Founding Fathers did not come to this Island, and start by building the grand houses that are still found in our neighborhoods. They came here to build a port, and a downtown business district to generate economic activity that made all of their residential neighborhoods possible. We must understand that the City Center will never be what we want it to be unless we first rebuild, and revitalize our local economy.
Relying on the money brought in by second-home owners, whether their homes are located in the City Center, or elsewhere, does not create the level of economic activity that we need, and these people don’t have a real stake in making this place what it can and should be. At the same time, many full-time residents are forced to get by on a mere subsistence existence, which is sapping the life and vitality from the City.
The Founders started by building the Port, and we will follow their lead. Regardless of the benefits that the cruise industry has brought to the Port, and the City, the fact remains that, in 2006, the Port of Galveston ranked number 8, in the State of Texas, in tons of cargo handled. Houston, Beaumont, Corpus Christi, Texas City, Freeport, Port Arthur and Port Lavaca all handled more cargo than our Port.
Even without considering the Port's numerical cargo ranking, it should be obvious that our facilities are under utilized, as the Port of Houston is forced to build more berthing space to handle the ships that sail past our City. The problems at the Port that have caused it to lag so badly in cargo traffic must be addressed by the City Council. Source: aapa-ports.org
In addition to the sub-standard performance in cargo traffic, the Port is not helping the City take advantage of the opportunity to do business with cruise ship passengers. Currently, when cruise ships are in port, the Port and the City have not cooperated to find a way to allow passengers, waiting to leave on cruises, easy access to the downtown area, which has inhibited any potential growth in sales from this market.
The next order of business is to remake downtown Galveston into the premiere “New Urban” shopping district in Southeast Texas. Downtown Galveston has the potential to become a Mecca for new concepts in retail, restaurants, night clubs, and residential living. This process should begin by consulting with David Feehan, the President of the International Downtown Association. The City needs to work with him to help set up a Business Improvement District.
The BID should receive startup funding from the City, and on-going revenue from the parking-meter, and parking-ticket revenues generated from the installation of the new parking meters developed by Photoviolation Technologies. Robert Gibbs should be hired to develop a retail strategy for the new BID. Part of this plan will include the construction of public restrooms in the downtown area.
The BID will be in charge of developing, and funding a marketing and advertising plan for downtown Galveston, and the City should work with the BID, and GHF to establish a visitor’s center in, as well as walking, and bus tours of downtown Galveston, and the residential neighborhoods of the City Center.
The area west of 25th street and north of Broadway should become a prime area for light-industrial development. It may even be a candidate for a TIRZ. GEDP’s primary mission should become the recruitment of new businesses for the Port, and this area north of Broadway.
The City Council should direct the Planning Department to UNIFORMLY enforce a minimum standard of City building codes.
The local crime rate can be lowered by directing GPD to start aggressively enforcing laws against petty crimes, such as prostitution, drug dealing, panhandling, and vagrancy that lower the quality of life in the City.
GISD must be directed to consider innovative approaches to improve the schools, including full privatization with a voucher system.
Testing must be done to identify all the areas of the City contaminated by lead. A program should be developed to remove the lead from contaminated areas. Every resident concerned about lead poisoning should be given a tissue mineral analysis (hair test), to test for lead levels. Those who test positive can be given the option to be put on a supplement-based lead elimination program.
Improvements to the Seawall beaches, including public restrooms, should be funded by the installation of Photoviolation Technologies parking meters.
Galveston used to be one of the entrepreneurial capitals of the world. In the 1870’s, this city was like Hong Kong. Since that time, some of the advantages of the City have been lost, and will never return. Galveston will never be the only port in the State of Texas again, but it can be a strong number 2 or 3, instead of number 8.
It will be difficult to turn the situation around when the population is dominated by government employees. They know how to tax economic activity, but they don’t know how to create it. This is why the current state of the City is so appalling. Our only hope is to turn back to the entrepreneurial vision that built this great city, and follow the example of the Founders.
The boat is taking on water; it’s time to man the pumps!
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