Monday, September 24, 2012

Is It Time for a Harris County Recall Law? - Part 2

(For those who don’t already know, Harris County still elects County School Trustees who collect a countywide education property tax almost 50 years after all students in Harris County moved out of the countywide school system and into ISDs. It is the only school board in Texas elected by Party. Currently there are 5 “Republicans” and 2 Democrats on the Board. You can read more here. Also, to prevent confusion, know that Harris County’s School Trustees operate and tax under the “assumed name” – Harris County Department of Education - HCDE.)

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This is the second in a series showing how far one group of elected Republican Harris County officials has veered from the Texas Republican Platform, thus arguing the need for a county recall law.

 Part 1 gave examples of two sections of the Texas GOP Platform completely ignored by the “Republican” led Harris County School Trustees:
#1 – “… taxes established for a particular purpose shall not be used for any other purpose”  and
#2 – “… oppose paying lobbyists with tax dollars”

Now, let’s look at a few more sections of the Texas GOP Platform that have been totally ignored by these elected officials.


Because the HCDE Trustees will be holding Public Hearings on 9/27/12 and 10/9/12 to enable them to legally pass a TAX INCREASE on 10/23/12, this article will take a close look at  how well the HCDE Trustees oversee Harris County Education Dollars and how they plan to spend the added monies collected by their tax increase.

The Texas GOP Platform reads:
“We encourage all governments and agencies to live as frugally as all taxpayers do and to abhor the excessive spending on non-critical items …”

What  is “non-critical”  school spending?  Thesaurus lists synonyms for “critical” as “crucial”- “essential” -“vital”. That would mean to me that anything “non-crucial” - “non-essential” - “non-vital”  would be excessive school spending.

But you can decide for yourself.

Was it excessive school spending when the “Republican” HCDE Board President, Angie Chesnut, traveled to San Antonio to attend the Texas Association of School Board Leadership Institute, and charged Harris County taxpayers: 
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$466.66 for car rental expenses?

$203.00 per night for a room?

$99.00 for valet parking ?

$53.49  for her dinner ?

$36.40 + $45.79  for room service ?



When - in contrast -  Democrat HCDE Trustee, Debra Kerner, was able to make the same trip  charging the taxpayers only:

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$197.70 mileage (less than 1/2 of Chesnut’s)

$186.00 per night for her room ($17 less)

$25.00 to self park



No room service and $23.54 for her dinner (less than 1/2 of Chesnut’s.)


Or was it OK for the Board President to pamper herself with extras like room service, valet parking and $$$ dinners while traveling on school business because, after all, it is only taxpayer money?


Was it excessive school spending when newly elected HCDE “Republican” Trustee Marvin Morris needed training on how to be a Harris County School Trustee, and he chose to gain his knowledge by attending the National School Board Association Annual Conference in SAN FRANCISCO, CA instead of a Texas location? 

Was it excessive school spending when he was joined by his wife, the HCDE Superintendent John Sawyer and his wife, fellow HCDE Trustees Michael Wolfe and Debra Kerner, as well as an HCDE “consultant” Richard Griffin and his wife for his weekend of training trip to San Francisco?   (HCDE claims spouses paid their own airfare and meals)

Documents acquired through open records show the reason given for Harris County education funds paying for three Trustees, one administrator and a “consultant” to spend the weekend in San Francisco was: 

To network with other board members across the region and gather insight and skills to assist our organization and districts we service in these trying times.  We will learn strategies to maximize our resources and bring back innovative ideas.”
Just how did the HCDE Trustees “maximize” our Harris County education “resources” in these “trying times” while they were in San Francisco?

Grand Hyatt San Francisco Union Square, San Francisco, United States of AmericaFirst, records show no Motel 6 nights for this group. Trustee Debra Kerner chose to stay at the San Francisco Marriot Marquis for $262.33 per night while the others chose the Grand Hyatt San Francisco for only $216.12 per room per night. And no sharing of rooms like teachers have to do.  Each HCDE Trustee, administrator and “consultant” had their own room for three nights paid with Harris County education funds.
Downtown Convenience

And while in San Francisco learning “how to maximize resources,” the group ate at some pretty nice restaurants paid by Harris County taxpayers.


wine 

Receipts acquired through open records show when the HCDE group dined at the Brazilian Steakhouse, Espetus Churrascaria, the Superintendent did subtract his bottle of $42 Abadia Rituerta  wine from the $713.07 dinner tab. But no mark outs are shown on the receipt for Capote Tinta Roriz or Baileys coffee.





Do you consider a meal where just the TAX + TIP totaled $177.77 to be frugal use of taxpayer funds?







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Well, at least it was more frugal than the group’s next meal out together when they were in the mood for Italian cuisine. That night they chose The North Beach Restaurant, where their total bill came to $1,026.00.

That night TAX + TIP alone was $243.87 of Harris County  education dollars.



















And then there was the $860 PER PERSON conference registration fee, air fare, baggage fees, taxis, airport limo service, ……… all paid for with Harris County education  funds.

Remember the excuse HCDE gave to travel to San Francisco for the weekend?  --- to “bring back innovative ideas.”

So what great report did the travelers present at their next HCDE Board of Trustees meeting on 4/19/11?

The minutes read:
Other reports from Board members concerning attendance or participation in a board or HCDE-related conference, event, activity, or committee; …
  • Jim Henley reported on his attendance to the EcoBot Challenge Saturday, April16, 2011.
  • Debra Kerner reported on her attendance to the National School Board Association (NSBA) Convention in San Francisco April 8-11, 2011; the Head Start policy council meeting; and the EcoBot Challenge. She announced that she would like to dispel rumors that she is running for city council.  She confirmed that she is thinking about running for city council but has not made a definitive decision.
  • Jimmy Wynn addressed the Board regarding current legislation and state funding/budget.      

So, do you think  their weekend trip to San Francisco was “critical” - “vital” –“essential” to our schools or was it excessive spending?
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Records show that on the list of HCDE vendor payments of over $2000 from HCDE Procurement cards, HCDE Trustees approved $148,767.41 just for airlines and hotels from last September to July. 


This amount  DOES NOT include any payments or reimbursements billed through other means. 

It also does not include reimbursements made for meals, taxi and limo services, room service, mileage, or other travel expenses.

The Ritz-Carlton
Records show billing the taxpayers for room service is common practice at HCDE, especially for administrators and consultants staying at high end establishments like the Ritz-Carlton.

roomservice119  roomservice118 roomservice116 roomservice115

The following chart shows examples of other recent payments approved by the “Republican” HCDE Board of Trustees.


Were they ALL really “critical” - “vital” –“essential” to the operation of Harris County public schools?  Or were they “non-essentials” –--- items that did not increase student learning?

Date
Payee
Purpose
Amount
CAFE EXPRESS
BUSINESS MTG MEAL
$643.96
7/11/12
DR RICHARD A GRIFFIN
EXPENSES
$1756.72
7/16/12
Rotary Club of Houston
Membership Dues
$500.00
7/18/12
MELBA ANN KENT
TRVL REIMB
$2170.00
Hungry Farmer BBQ
Business Meeting
$1067.50
8/8/12
John Sawyer
(Superintendent)
Travel Reimbursement
$2244.78
8/15/12
4Imprint
16oz Spirit Tumbler
+ Pisces Pocket Tote
$965.76
8/16/12
RELIANT BUSINESS PRODUCTS, INC.
MONTHLY COFFEE / TEA ORDE
$1834.44
8/29/12
TAVISTOCK FREEBIRDS LLC
Box Lunches to Include Freshly Brewed Iced Tea
$730.28



Have these “Republican” led Trustees demonstrated to taxpayers that they follow the GOP Platform and govern so frugally that they should be entrusted with a tax increase that will raise an extra $1 million from Harris County property taxes?


Before you decide, you need to know what their plans are for the extra $1 million in new tax revenue this rate increase will collect.


hcde #18064 HCDE has developed a business plan for a new  “entrepreneurial venture” called “Texas Cloud Consortium (TCC).” They estimate they  will need $1 million to get it up and running.


It is modeled after their last “entrepreneurial venture” called Choice Facilities Partners (CFP), which HCDE recently  merged with their two purchasing co-ops to form a single entity called “Choice Partners(CP).”


Just what is the CFP part of CP?

It is a service sold by  HCDE to procure contacts for governmental entities and non-profits all across the United States. To learn more, you can read all about their procurement process here.

  Their website describes it this way:
Choice Partners Cooperative offers quality, legal procurement and contract solutions to meet government purchasing requirements. Staff at Choice Partners complete the legal, competitively bid government procurement process so YOU can act immediately to access the contract YOU need, saving time and money on the bidding process and purchase…..
Their online brochure explains their “transparent” process as well as the fact that CFP does all the legwork but the HCDE Board of Trustees actually “awards the contacts.” All this for a “No Cost Membership”  into the co-op for government and non-profit clients.

CP states that  “the cooperative wins by receiving a small percentage for their work in bidding, awarding and managing the contract.”


On the surface it appears that CP’s “NO COST MEMBERSHIP” means “NO COST TO MEMBERS”  and “small percentage” sounds “small”. So what’s the problem?


First, the Texas GOP Platform reads:
 All government contracts should be awarded by competitive bids. We call upon all levels of government to allow the awarding of contracts, requiring performance and payment bonds, be awarded to the lowest bidder.”


roomservice120Second, the  “Republican” HCDE Board of Trustees approve government contracts in their business ventures using a subjective point system.  Price is only weighted 30% in the criteria.

The vendor’s “past relationship with HCDE” is given weight.



Third, the “No Cost Membership” is not free. True, the government entity or non-profit clients do not pay HCDE directly. The clients pay the vendors for their services. Then HCDE bills the vendor a percentage of the payment received from the client as their “administrative fee.”

Documents acquired through open records show the percentage vendors pay back to HCDE from the contacts awarded through CFP range anywhere from 1% all the way to 40%.

Records show many governmental entities have used CFP only to save time when a repair is needed quickly, not for bids that are not time sensitive.

But taxpayers need to be aware that some governmental entities are using HCDE services to save themselves time and effort but not necessarily saving tax dollars. After reading through the invoices it is now obvious to me WHY the Texas GOP Platform mentions the bidding process for government contracts in the first place.

I have made a chart for quick viewing of some of the invoices for “administrative fees” HCDE has billed their vendors. I have attached a scan of the invoice on the right for those who would like to print a copy.

Some invoices look more to me like “redistribution of tax dollars” than a “small” fee for services, but you can decide for yourself. As you read the last three, remember the  beginning salary  for teachers in these districts is  $35,000 - $45,000 per year. That means one contract through HCDE may have saved the administration time and effort, but it could also cost the district a teacher.

Client
Vendor
Administrative
Fee paid to HCDE
Work Order  Total
%
Scan of Invoice
Tarrant County
College District
Tradition
Energy
$62,737.00
$190,112.12
  33
cfp135
Harris County
MUD #230
TF Harper
$50,214.08
$2,539,500.00
   2
cfp121
Nueces County
Johnson Controls
$237,229.71
$7,930,497.00
   3
cfp123
Tarrant County
College District
Tradition
Energy
$15,530.00
$103,533.33
  15
cfp139
Galveston Parks & Recreation
Johnson Controls
$73,505.96
$2,456,626.70
   3
cfp124
Crowley ISD
Tradition Energy
$17,483.00
$43,707.50
  40
cfp138
Livingston ISD
Johnson Controls
$43,968.60
$1,465,620.00
   3
cfp125
Jayton-Girard ISD
Basic IDIQ
$64,170.24
$1,622,048.00
   4
cfp126
Port Arthur ISD
GroundFORCE
$63,088.92
$2,157,143.00
   3
cfp127







































An interesting item found in the documents shows that HCDE is using CFP to bid some of its own district contracts. That doesn’t sound odd until you look at the “administrative fee” invoices.

The “Republican” HCDE Trustees are approving HCDE’s own contracts for the “work order total” and then CFP bills the vendor for their “fee,” just like they do with other clients.

That means the monies can leave HCDE as “property tax funds” and can return to HCDE as “fees”  without the restrictions placed on use of tax dollars. Sounds again to me more like  a “redistribution” system than a “lowest bidder” model. Take a look at three invoices where HCDE was the client of its own “subsidiary”:







I have two questions?

1. Why is HCDE charging ITSELF from 4% - 15% to award its own contracts?

2. Is a vendor really the best deal for taxpayers if the vendor can afford to return to HCDE between 15% to 100%  of their work orders?

cfp137 The 100% “administrative fee” didn’t just show up when HCDE was the client.

CFP invoice #1200 dated 11/9/10 shows that Tarrant County College District taxpayers paid Tradition Energy a work order total of $25,317.00 --- then HCDE billed Tradition Energy  the entire amount as their “administrative fee.”

Did the Tarrant County taxpayers really get the lowest price?

Do the Tarrant County taxpayers know that $25,317 of their tax dollars were “re-distributed” to HCDE by way of their Tradition Energy contract?


After sorting through piles of CFP “administrative fee” invoices, I think the taxpayers who should have the most questions for their own elected officials are property owners in La Marque ISD and the Lone Star College system.

cfp130




Records show that from 2010-2011, La Marque ISD paid HCDE over $150,000.00 in CFP “administrative fees” --- or  you could say, 3 teachers worth.







And during the same time period, Lone Star College  paid HCDE closer to $700,000.00 in “administrative fees.”


With Lone Star College starting salaries at $52,000 ---  that would have been 14 faculty members.




After reviewing the documents , do you think the “Republican” HCDE Trustees should raise property taxes to collect $1 million to start another “entrepreneurial venture” like CFP?

Or, should they adhere to the Texas GOP Platform, leave tax rates where they are, and learn to live within their means like the taxpayers have to do?

You can let your elected Harris County School Trustees know how you feel about raising your tax rate by attending one of the HCDE  Public Hearings at 3:30pm on 9/27/12 or 10/9/12, or you can email them about any issue at the contacts below.


HCDE Trustees who voted to hold public hearings in order to give HCDE the option of raising the property tax rate:

Angie Chesnut (R), Board President - Precinct 4    mailto:achesnut@hcde-texas.org
Roy Morales (R) - Precinct 1 rmorales@hcde-texas.org
Debra Kerner (D) - At Large dkerner@hcde-texas.org


HCDE Trustees who voted NOT to hold hearings to allow HCDE to raise the property tax rate.
Marvin Morris (R) - Precinct 2 mmorris@hcde-texas.org
Michael Wolfe  (R) -  At Large mwolfe@hcde-texas.org


HCDE Trustees who were absent for the vote.
Louis D. Evans, III (R),  Board Vice-President - Precinct 3   levans@hcde-texas.org
Jim Henley -  At Large jhenley@hcde-texas.org


……Stay Tuned for Part 3………

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