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Jailhouse Crock

Houston city officials said hiring a troubled division of the University of Texas Medical Branch to run the health service in the city's jails would be a smooth and efficient move (see "The Fix Is In," June 9). It didn't turn out that way.

City Council had the five-year, $11 million contract on its consent agenda -- meaning approval was expected without debate -- for the June 22 meeting. The item, however, got quietly pulled at the last minute.

Perhaps the first sign of trouble came two days earlier, when Elena Marks, Mayor Bill White's health adviser, didn't make a scheduled appearance to brief council on the deal. And then UTMB officials failed to show up for a planned "final tour" of the jail, among rumors that they were backing out of the agreement.

None of which came up at the council meeting.

White's spokesman, Frank Michel, had a surprisingly casual answer June 24 as to what happened to the all-but-approved deal. UTMB "called and left a message saying they had some reservations," he said.

Called and left a message? That sounds like you're dealing with a pickup basketball game, not a controversial and expensive new way of taking care of the 118,000 inmates cycling through Houston's jails each year.

Michel said the city was on the case. "I think we just want to hear what their concerns are," he said, but there hadn't been time so far during the budget season.

It turns out the rumors were true. UTMB backed out of the deal, spokesman Marsha Canright said a few hours after Michel spoke. The organization just renewed a contract with the state prison system, she said, and decided "TDCJ was enough for us. I think that's as big a piece as we can bite."

Darn. It seemed like the beginning of a beautiful relationship. But we're sure the city is thankful you at least left a message.

Taco, Taco Man

Want to know who to blame the next time your house floods? Forget about all those developers paving over empty grassland. Blame taco trucks instead.

At least that's the view of William Harper, vice president of the Plumbing, Air Conditioning and Mechanical Contractors Association. Taco trucks "are growing like rabbits" in Houston, he says, and many of them simply dump their leftover grease into the sewer system or drainage ditches.

Dried grease becomes as hard as concrete, he says, and plugs up the pipes that are supposed to help drain floodwaters away.

Harper is so fired up about the problem he called the corporate headquarters of Chevron to tell them they shouldn't let taco trucks onto their gas station properties. "They hung up on me," he says.

Jerry Farmer, president of PAMCA, agrees that illegal taco-truck dumping is a problem. The trucks are supposed to dump their grease (and get fresh water) at a municipal facility every 24 hours, but that costs money.

"If you don't have to pay a bunch of money to get rid of your waste, well, that's money in your pocket," he says. (He also points out that taco trucks aren't the only ones illegally dumping grease.)

Kathy Barton of the city health department says there's "no way to really know" if taco trucks are complying with the law. "We have anecdotal evidence that suggests they are not…and that there may be some creative writing in their logbooks, but we also have evidence that we have good companies," she says.

Both Barton and public works spokesman Wes Johnson say illegal dumpers should be punished, but not with the enthusiasm that indicates this is a high priority.

So if you see bits of tortillas floating around the street during the next tropical storm, you know who to blame.

For Better or Worse

It seemed like a great marriage: an aging church in a regentrifying area in need of members, and a hip young pastor with a crowd of followers in need of a church.

But the big experiment between West End Baptist and Ecclesia (see "Gen-X Gospel," December 11, 2003) is, alas, no more. The church has kicked out Chris Seay and his young flock, who are now meeting back at their small facility on Taft.

West End is that nice-looking church near the corner of Shepherd and Washington; it's now down to about 15 members, almost all of them past retirement age. They thought Seay might revitalize things, so they let him use the facility for evening services.

Soon there were dark grumblings that Seay was trying to force the oldsters out. And since the church owns a full block in that hot area of town -- worth $5 million, West End's longtime property committee chair says -- the stakes were high.

"We kicked his butt out," cackles that chairman, Henry Griffin, who often tangled with Seay and who, at 60, is one of West End's youngest members. "He's pissed, too."

Sounds churchy.

Listening to Griffin, it's difficult to see how things could have worked out. Seay writes books such as The Gospel According to Tony Soprano, and Griffin and the rest of West End aren't really digging the HBO and such-like modern things.

"He packed the place at night," Griffin says of Seay, "but he played music like you'd hear at a hippie bar, like in one of those old-time -- you know -- one of those…"

An "old-time" thing used to attract young churchgoers? Maybe a "rave"?

"No, no," says Griffin. "Like one of those coffee-bar type of things."

Beatniks! Those guys probably didn't even vote for Ike!

Seay wouldn't answer calls, although the person answering the phone at Ecclesia confirmed the group no longer meets at West End Baptist.

If only Seay had used one of those newfangled barbershop quartets.

Opportunity Knocks

Energy giant BP America wants to build a $600 million terminal for liquefied natural gas on Pelican Island just off downtown Galveston. Seeing as how BP runs the Texas City refinery where 15 people were killed and 170 injured in an explosion this spring, some residents have questions.

LNG explosions can be particularly nasty -- think mile-wide fireballs -- so it doesn't seem odd that some people would be wary.

What got us, though, is Galveston's sudden boom in attracting incredibly dangerous stuff. The island recently became home to one of the nation's few level-four biohazard labs, where scientists fiddle around with things like anthrax, smallpox and the Ebola virus. The lab is not far from the proposed LNG terminal, which adds a certain frisson of danger to living on the island.

Hey, John Simsen of the Galveston County Office of Emergency Management, got enough on your plate these days?

"What the hell, we ought to close up shop and move to the mainland," he says.

Simsen says the sudden influx, both real and proposed, of potential catastrophe-makers would have been more of a problem a few years ago. Since 9/11, he says, funding for disaster training has increased, and that training has included a much wider spectrum of drills than the usual hurricane-response scenarios.

"Had 9/11 not put some pressure on lawmakers and Congress to funnel money to localities, it might have been different," he says. "It's kind of all falling together now. Now when you do an exercise it could be for anything -- biohazard, the weather, a major plane crash, anything."

So rest easy, Galvestonians. You stand a fighting chance of survival -- unless, of course, you're killed in the first seconds of an LNG fireball or an Ebola outbreak.

Who said there's no longer any gambling in Galveston?


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