Tax Cuts for Some

Government entities in the Houston area traditionally hype how little they've raised tax rates with each new budget. Of course, they get huge increases in tax revenue without having to lift a finger.

As all homeowners know, the assessed taxable value of their houses has grown exponentially in the past five or ten years. That house you bought for $120,000 a while back, say, is now being taxed at a value of $170,000 or so. Who needs to hike the tax rate when you can instead point the blame at those nasty appraisers?

It turns out, however, that not everyone is suffering from such rising tax bills. Take the movers and shakers who own the big downtown office buildings.

For instance, the Wedge International Tower, home of Mayor Bill White's former firm. Three years ago it was on the books as being worth $38 million. The preliminary 2004 estimate is $28 million, a 26 percent decrease. During the same period, the assessed value of the Bank of America's building fell 15 percent, to $138 million. And the Chevron Tower? That fell 31 percent.

So homeowners stuck with bigger property-tax bills shouldn't feel too bad. At least someone in town is getting a break. And who better than giant corporations?

Jim Robinson, chief appraiser for the Harris County Appraisal District, says his office is bound by law to determine value as investors would. Enron's fall and the sputtering economy have made it tough for skyscrapers to lease out space.

"We have to look at what the projected vacancy is, what the projected income to the property is and the expenses and then estimate" the worth, he says.

And just to demonstrate the "We're All in This Together" feeling of a can-do city like Houston, the office developers are…lining up to protest that even with the massive cuts, their bills are still too high.

Homeowners can protest too, of course. And it's easy and convenient as can be! If you have property-tax lawyers and specialists on retainer.

Kerry -- For That Not-So-Fresh Feeling

World-changing political movements can spring from anywhere -- Rosa Parks sits in the front of the bus. Russian sailors on the battleship Potemkin rise up against their czarist officers.

And in College Station, an Aggie decides to announce his simple, yet profound, philosophy. And thus was born a new Web site:

And up to 1,000 people a day are taking notice. He's received more than 3,000 e-mails in the past two months.

Alan Blevins, a 21-year-old computer science major at A&M, says he didn't aim to start a movement. "I have surprisingly little background in activism, I guess," he says. "It's not something that's really been inherent with me or my family or anything like that."

But the approaching election of 2004 inspired him. Well, "inspired" might be too strong a word.

"It was kind of towards the end of the Democratic primaries and I was, you know, profoundly frustrated that it was, you know -- John Kerry could come out on top…There were several people who would've made a better choice and made it, you know, a much easier election year to get through, I think," says Blevins, a Wesley Clark supporter.

And what sophisticated scientific matrix was used to determine the designation "douche bag"?

"Uh, it's a term that's slightly stronger than 'doodoo face' and slightly less condemning than 'fuckwad,' " he says. "It just seemed to have the right ring to it."

He's been answering e-mail in five-hour chunks; hits grow exponentially whenever some political blog links to the site. Supportive e-mails outweigh detractors by ten to one, he says.

But there are critics. Some people, he says, "are like, 'You're the biggest asshole on the Internet' kind of thing."

Assholes, douche bags -- who says we can't have elevated political debates these days?

Credibility Gap

That was quite the love letter the Houston Chronicle printed June 12 about former Enron flack Mark Palmer, now working for an Austin lobbying and marketing firm.

"Spokesman's Credibility Survives It All at Enron," the headline read. "He has wholesome Midwestern good looks," reporter Bill Murphy wrote. "During countless calls over the years, he has wooed and swayed reporters with a winning bass voice that's all tom-tom drum, no snare, and helps lend authority to his views."

(Nothing hurts a man's authority more than a snare drum, we guess.)

The story took pains to criticize a Forbes magazine item that called Palmer "Houston's Baghdad Bob"; it went on to note his grief over the suicide of Enron exec Cliff Baxter. "When Associated Press reporter Kristen Hays called him seeking information [on Baxter], they cried together, he said."  

So we were a little surprised to read the Chron's corrections column four days later. "Hays said she did not cry," it noted.

"Kristen called me the morning the Chronicle story ran and said, 'Mark, I wasn't crying that day,' " says Palmer. (Hays herself wouldn't comment.) "I said, 'I wouldn't have said it if I didn't think you had, but if I was wrong I stand corrected.' "

Was that a snare drum we just heard?

Astrology: Two for Two

We're not saying there's anything to this astrology stuff, but after suffering through Cubs fans waving brooms at the last of a four-game sweep at Minute Maid Park June 17, we think a little Astros optimism is necessary.

In April, you might remember, Hair Balls analyzed the upcoming baseball season with astrologist Lilly Roddy. Checking the charts, she said the team would go through a bad slump in May and June, but recover. She also noted that unlike many of his elderly teammates, Roger Clemens "actually could have a really knockout year."

Don't get your hopes up too high, though -- she also said closer Octavio Dotel would collapse in September and October, and owner Drayton McLane would play a bigger role in the team after this season.

The Tow-Me State

Who knew that tow trucks would be the compelling story of Mayor Bill White's first six months? You've had a council revolt, you've had dire physical threats against the mayor (in the rhetorical sense, as it turns out) and now you have the state legislature getting involved.

White is trying to change the demolition derby free-for-all that happens these days whenever a dozen tow trucks scramble to make some cash off a Katy Freeway fender-bender. Careening through traffic, jumping over medians, ignoring every speed limit in their noble effort to help a stranded motorist, these guys make ambulance drivers seem like old ladies signaling the eternal left turn in the fast lane.

White's plan would limit tow trucks' jurisdiction to specified zones and charge them higher operating fees, and that has tow companies up in arms. They've got some city councilmembers on their side.

And now they're getting the state legislature.

Ever mindful that potential campaign donors are in need of services, local legislators have warned the city that rules concerning freeway towing should come out of Austin, not City Hall.

State Senator Mario Gallegos told City Council he's "all for mobility, but not [for] putting someone out of a job who has a job."

Why the sudden concern for a proposal that's been kicking around for months? "We've been in special session, and a few of us have been in exile in New Mexico," he said.

But the lure of new donors -- sorry, we mean the Opportunity to Help Constituents -- is so strong it's even reforging alliances bitterly split asunder by the earlier legislative holdout over redistricting, which ended when Senator John Whitmire betrayed his Democratic colleagues.

"I got an earful on this same subject from Senator Whitmire last night," Councilmember Michael Berry told council. Proving, we guess, that even if Democratic legislators can differ on whether to help a nefarious GOP power grab, they can still come together on the important stuff.

Puke & Ride

Metro, which as the world knows has had problems with attention-impaired people plowing into their trains, apparently believes part of the solution involves increasing the number of opportunities those trains have to deal with drunken drivers.

The agency proudly announced this month that on Fridays and Saturdays, it is extending operating hours for light rail. Previously, the last train left downtown at 12:47 a.m. on Friday and 1:03 a.m. Saturday; now it will leave at 2:15 -- giving revelers 15 minutes to stagger to the station after the bars close.

Seeing as the majority of light rail users don't live directly on the rail line, it's likely that after they get off the train they'll be getting into cars. Would Metro post police officers outside the Park & Ride lot at the end of the line? Installing a drunk-driver trap isn't the best way to boost stay-till-the-last-drop business.

Spokesman Ken Connaughton says that lot is always staffed by security anyway. "We hope [the new hours] will be an alternative to, rather than an encouragement of" driving drunk, he says.

The new hours also mean the train will be traveling down Main Street just as all the non-rail users are heading home from the bars. That seven-mile trip is bound to be interesting.

Unless Houston drivers have suddenly, miraculously improved their train-related driving skills.

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