Daddy Day Care

Bars and kids -- perfect together in Houston

Who in the world could possibly be against the idea of having a bar right next to a day-care center?

It gives Dad a chance to relax with a few shots before picking up snot-nosed Junior, who no doubt is gonna start immediately whining about how his friend Jimmy got an Xbox and why can't he have an Xbox? And it gives toddlers a next-door look at their futures of sitting in a room full of stupored adults hating their jobs.

So it's a win-win. And in Houston, it's been perfectly legal.

The state legislature passed a law in 1997 allowing cities to ban bars within 300 feet of day-care centers, but somehow Houston never got around to doing it.

So the city has no choice but to approve liquor licenses for places like La Estrella, a bar on the northwest side that sits close by a 24-hour day-care.

Tomitra Wiley, who owns a different day-care center near the bar, says things can get interesting. Three years ago, a fight broke out just as parents were dropping their kids off at 6 a.m., and it spread to her parking lot. One bar patron was killed when another ran him over.

"I had my parents coming up, and I told them, 'All the kids are okay, but we did have a homicide in the parking lot a few minutes ago,' " she says. (All other nominees for Day Care Sentence of the Year folded up their tents early that season.)

Still, Wiley has not fought to close La Estrella. And Lahoma Phillips, who runs a day-care called God's Little Angels, isn't fighting to close a sports bar called Vernell's. "We close by 6 p.m.," she says. "So I see some beer cans dumped in the parking lot, but I don't see anything going on."

So what's the problem? A few beer cans, the occasional homicide?

Unfortunately for this city's visionaries, a few carpers have complained. They tried to stop Vernell's from opening early this year, only to find there was nothing they could do about it.

The city is now going to pass an ordinance along the lines of the state law.

At least existing bars will be grandfathered in and allowed to remain open. So parents, be sure to do some solid research before choosing the day-care center that's perfect for little Junior.

Spirit of St. Louis

In case you missed it, Mayor Bill White made one of those politician bets with the mayor of St. Louis before the start of the Astros-Cards series.

If the Cards lost, White would receive chocolates and Budweiser, which sounds like something you'd bring to a date when you really wanted to impress someone from La Porte. If the Astros lost, St. Louis would get tamales and a place in Houston's annual Art Car Parade.

What kind of art car would St. Louis enter? After all, St. Louis is bland enough that it makes Houston seem cosmopolitan.

We sought the views of experts. They were equally baffled.

"The first thing that pops into my mind is a six-cylinder six-pack, but there are so many kids [at the parade], I don't know if you could do that," says Randy Sherer of the Houston Art Car Klub. "Once they get away from beer or cardinals, I'm kind of perplexed."

We'll have to wait, we guess. Whatever they send, if it's anything like their team, it'll sputter helplessly right after it goes through Houston.

To Serve and Protect

The last time we checked with Leonard Scarcella, the mayor of the sleepy Fort Bend County town of Stafford, he was preaching about how the tiny burg was a high priority for terrorist attacks. He hasn't stopped.

Scarcella is refusing to approve the county's official plan for dealing with emergencies, because the plan merely addresses things like flash floods, hurricanes and chemical spills. Terrorism is rated as "unlikely" in the plan. In a county that includes Stafford!

"This is, in my view, totally ridiculous," says Scarcella. "If this was an accurate view of what our risk and vulnerability was, then I don't think many people would be concerned about terrorism. And it certainly wouldn't be the No. 1 issue in the presidential campaign."

We must have missed that question in the debates about terrorism threats at First Colony Mall, but Scarcella is unbowed. "It seems to me they took a totally naive view in regard to terrorism," says the mayor, who also mentions he's "watched Mayor Giuliani probably 25 hours or more in his interviews."

It's not that the citizens of Stafford are completely unprotected: "As the mayor," says Scarcella, "I live close enough to City Hall…that I'll walk here or jump over cars or do whatever it takes to get here, but how many of our officers…are going to be here to work?"

If only they had the Scarcella balls, sir, Staffordians could rest easier.

And it's not like they don't have the big events in that city, either. On October 30, the grand opening of the new 84 Lumber Company was the venue for the World Baked-Bean Eating Championship.

Sure, some cynics were busy making chemical-warfare jokes. Mayor Scarcella, meanwhile, stood by, ever ready to start jumping over cars to protect citizens.

Adventures in Customer Service

So there's a Houstonian who, beguiled by the siren call of online billing, signed up to pay his gas bill electronically.

He logged on to the CenterPoint Energy Web site and used his debit card for automatic payment. He checked the site each month, where the bills were marked with the notation "paid."

But "paid" apparently doesn't mean to CenterPoint what it means to the rest of the English-speaking world. Debit cards don't work in their system. So the guy's gas was cut off, and an $80 fee was charged to reconnect it.

Which led to a great customer-service conversation, which luckily he recorded:

Customer: Why don't you guys just make it easier for the world by firstly stating that you can't use a debit card and secondly, if a payment doesn't go through, indicating it on the Web page?… Will it ever not say "paid" under "status" if I submit a payment?

Customer Rep: Mmmm, no. It will say "paid," even if it didn't go through.

C: So you guys are telling me that I can't rely on the online system to know whether I paid my bill?

CR: Not alone, no.

C: But you guys could, if you wanted to, when the payment doesn't go through, the status could say "denied."

CR:"Delayed" or "denied" or something.

C:But you have chosen not to do that for some reason.

CR: You know, I am thinking, a while back…it used to say something like "canceled" or "denied" or something.

C:But it doesn't do that anymore?

CR: It doesn't do that anymore.

The CenterPoint folks, being a monopoly and all, wouldn't waive the reconnection fee. When the guy went by to restore service, the customer told him the cancellation was due to a foul-up in the online system. "You ain't got to say no more," the worker said. "I've had so much problems with that crap."

And not just professionally, either: "My wife did the same thing," he said.

Rock the Vote

It wasn't soon after early voting began in Texas that complaints started to roll in. E-mail messages and phone calls about straight-ticket Democratic votes mysteriously being switched by the electronic machines to Republican votes. Conspiracy theories flew.

Susan Gates, executive director of the Harris County Democratic Party, doesn't think there was a conspiracy -- "If they were going to manipulate it, they would do it where it would look like you were voting correctly but you weren't," she says -- but that doesn't mean things went smoothly.

The electronic machines are "not user-friendly," she says, adding that "it is very easy to make mistakes on it, not really knowing what you are doing. People panic. They don't always ask for help," she says.

One e-mail going around: "My 88-year-old mother voted yesterday at a library in San Antonio. She entered the booth, punched the machine for Kerry and Bush's name appeared as the one she voted for. She did that three times and each time Bush's name came up."

Court Koenning, executive director of the Harris County GOP, says there's no evidence to the claims. "The Democrats are trying to set up a legal issue because they don't have the votes," he says. "That's sad, but that's in their handbook."

In case you are worried about all this, the spokesman for Harris County Clerk Beverly Kaufman says there is just nothing to it.

"I don't want to slam anyone in particular, but when individuals who are active in political parties get together and start talking, a lot of times rumors become myths and myths become a little more toward fiction, and then fiction becomes fact," says David Beirne.

So that's two of three officials saying no problem -- the head of the county GOP and the county's official vote-counter, Kaufman. Who is, well, a Republican.

So stop worrying, willya?

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