January 2016

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City joining 9-1-1 District

Meridiana announces 288 flyover

City promotes improved communication with citizens

Staffing and pay debated

Council hears development advice

City honored with budget award

 

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City joining 9-1-1 District

January 6, 2016

 

The City of Manvel has joined numerous other cities in eight regional counties in a cooperative 9-1-1 Gulf Coast emergency communications district.  The system will provide 23 public safety answering points, some 224 emergency service providers, and numerous telephone companies.  The Houston-Galveston Area Council (H-GAC) is the voluntary association of local governments that helps coordinate and support their activities.  H-GAC does not actually take 9-1-1 calls or dispatch emergency help but rather serves to help the 9-1-1 system in the participating eight counties function efficiently and effectively by providing “call-taker training, public education, equipment and network monitoring, database management, and administrative services like accounts payable – all in an effort to better serve the citizens of the region.”

 

Manvel has been part of the H-GAC 9-1-1- program since 1987 which was carried on under a contract with the state 9-1-1 commission.  9-1-1 activities are financed by a 50 cent fee attached to phone bills.  Those fees are all sent to the state comptroller’s office which then funnels a portion of the money to the legislature which in turn appropriates a portion of that amount to the state 9-1-1 commission to carry out their activities.  A good portion of the collected fees are never actually used for their intended purpose, namely 9-1-1 activities, but are instead used at the state legislatures discretion.  The recent legislative session produced a bill changing the manner in which the fees can be distributed and allows areas like that served by the H-GAC to form their own 9-1-1 districts.  The benefit is that the entire collected 50 cent fee on each phone bill will be sent from the telephone providers directly to the corresponding 9-1-1- district, thereby disallowing the state from siphoning off some percentage and granting the district greater control and direction of their system.  It also allows more strategic planning for future needs through better anticipation of funding that is not subject to the vagaries of the legislature in any given two-year cycle. 

 

Manvel city council was initially hesitant to the arrangement as concerns were expressed about a lack of adequate representation on an operating board of directors comprised of representatives from each of the participating eight counties.  Overall supervision of the communication district will come from the 35-member H-GAC Board.  No cities will have representation on the board which created the unease among some on council.  Manvel’s city attorney, Bobby Gervais, raised the question of what options would be available to the city should it become dissatisfied with the service.  An H-GAC spokesman explained that there is not a provision for a participant to opt out of the district but if they so choose, their 9-1-1 service would revert to the state 9-1-1- commission as is currently in place.  Action on the resolution was previously tabled twice last September and October before its acceptance at the lone December council meeting.  Concerns were mostly allayed due to the perceived overall benefit of being part of the district and due to the active involvement of the city’s mayor, Delores Martin, in numerous H-GAC affairs.  Martin has served as president of the H-GAC board in prior years and continues a strong involvement in the organization.  Nevertheless, some trepidation remained among council in spite of the unanimous approval of the resolution to become part of the district.

 

No practical changes in the current operation of the regional 9-1-1 system will change as a result of joining the new district.  Most emergency calls will continue to be answered by the Alvin and Brazoria County (Lake Jackson) answering points though at some time it is likely Manvel will require their own 9-1-1- emergency capability as the city increases its population.  As part of the newly formed district, the city will have the option of creating their own answering point.  Under the previous arrangement approval would have been required by the state 9-1-1 commission at their discretion. 

 

H-GAC is committed to working with various stakeholders in promoting a consistent educational message and materials related to the 9-1-1 network; informing residents in the district about the purpose and the proper use of the 9-1-1 emergency phone number and the differences between the various telephones (landline, wireless, VoIP, etc.).  Until just a few years ago, a landline phone was the only one way to dial 9-1-1.  But ever evolving technologies provide users with many options for phone service and each of the new technologies brings additional challenges to the 9-1-1 system.  Seventy percent of emergency calls today are received by cell phones.  Two common myths are that 9-1-1 operators can receive text messages and video or pictures from a cell phone or other device.  The fact is that neither capability currently exists, though H-GAC is “working with vendors and industry leaders to have texting capabilities sooner than later.”  H-GAC claims to “continually evaluate and improve our technologies and our training methods to stay up-to-date with 9-1-1 advancements.”

 

The national 9-1-1 system took root in 1968.  In 1973 a statement of support for the system was issued from Washington which motivated its development.  The percent of the national population with 9-1-1 service has seen steady increases with 1979 seeing approximately 26 percent of the population having 9-1-1 service, 1987 approximately 50 percent, 1995 approximately 70 percent, and 2010 estimated at over 80% of the US population benefiting from 9-1-1 service.

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Meridiana announces 288 flyover

January 6, 2016

 

Developers of the Meridiana project announced the beginning of construction of a dedicated interchange on SH 288 at CR 56 which will add considerable convenience to getting in and out of the community.  Construction is expected to be complete in late 2016.  The 2,700 acre master-planned community will include property in both Iowa Colony and Manvel and reportedly will see more than 5,500 single family homes upon its completion.  The announced price range of the homes is $200’s to $800’s.  The primary road through the development will be named Meridiana Parkway.  It will work its way east through Iowa Colony to CR 786 and then meander in a northeasterly direction through Manvel eventually terminating at SH 6 where it meets McCoy Road across from Manvel High School.  Plans call for a bridge on McCoy that will cross over the railroad track that runs parallel to SH 6.

 

The project was recently named a finalist in the Houston Business Journal’s Residential Real Estate Deals of the Year Awards which recognizes projects that make a significant impact in the Houston region.  Phase 1 construction is underway with 12 model homes expected to be complete and ready for viewing early this year.  The community is sponsoring a PR event on Saturday, January 9, where it will offer “premium champagne tasting, sweet treats, and a Dom Perignon gift basket give away.”  Times for the event are 3PM to 6PM and will be at the temporary welcome Center located at the main entrance at CR 56 and SH 288.

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City promotes improved communication with citizens

January 13, 2016

 

In an effort to facilitate better communication and promote government transparency with citizens, an option is available from the city’s website that will notify the recipient of city news, events, and meetings.  Manvel residents, and other interested parties, can elect to receive messages by email or text on a variety of topics, including general notifications on emergency matters and alerts, a mayor’s page, job postings, news flashes, a calendar of meetings, and even an agenda for those meetings if desired.

 

From the city’s homepage (www.cityofmanvel.com) click the Notify Me link from the top menu.  Clear directions and prompts will guide the user to select the desired options.

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Staffing and pay debated

January 6, 2016

 

Manvel city manager Kyle Jung updated council members on staffing issues at this week’s city council meeting.  City department heads have been asked by Jung to look at what they would see their staffing needs likely to be five years down the road.  Jung also is looking at departments currently non-existent but likely to be required in coming years as the city and its population grow.  A Parks and Recreation Department is one example cited.  A Director of Development is another need Jung says is needed now but was left unfunded by council in the current year’s budget.

 

Jung also explained that an examination of current pay rates for city employees is necessary.  He directed the city controller to develop an analysis based on an annual survey put together by the Houston-Galveston Area Council that compiles data from regional communities on their pay rates and benefit packages offered their employees.  The compensation of city employees was compared to the cities around Manvel of similar population and/or which the city has lost employees to or could lose employees to.  The analysis excludes cities of larger population, such as Pearland and Houston, which Jung admitted Manvel would never be able to compete with.  A population range of 5,000 to 35,000 was used for the analysis which established a high, low, and median salary for comparable positions.  City pay was compared to the median, which is the middle of the range.  Jung claimed that the findings show the city generally underpaying its employees and asked council members to consider “not getting to the median but getting half way to the median.”  While conceding there the city is unable to afford raising the entire staff to the median level given current budget limitations, he suggested the city work to get to the median level “over a certain number of years.”  His intention is to constantly bring back the salary survey and the medians to the council each year as they work to set the annual budget, which sees a fiscal year running from October 1 to September 30.

 

City Controller Wes Vela has looked at the cost of getting current employees half way between their current rate and the surveyed median.  Using April 1 as a beginning date, which represents half a fiscal year, his estimates anticipate a cost in the range of $78,000 in salary, benefits, and associated taxes.  Jung explained to council that the money could likely be found by utilizing remaining fund balance resulting from one-time non-recurring expenses.  The current budget contains approximately $198,000 of such expenses which Jung said if not used would essentially become available to boost compensation levels.

 

While all on council appeared supportive of equitable pay for city employees, some disagreement was voiced on the methodology used for the analysis.  Using a city population of 35,000 raised some angst with the mayor saying the number seemed high for a comparison to Manvel with a current population of under 10,000.  Jung justified the analysis explaining the reason for using the median for comparison purposes helps to balance the high where Manvel is expected to be in the not too distant future with the reality of its size today.  But some on council were not convinced that the analysis is meaningful using the higher population cities.  Member Adrian Gaspar expressed his feeling that meaningful comparisons with cities such as Friendswood are not valid as their citizens are burdened with a higher tax rate and city revenues are far greater than what is realized in Manvel.  Member John Cox strongly stated his feeling that comparisons with cities in the population range of 35,000 is too high and feels the comparison should be limited to populations less than 15,000, saying, “We need to compare our wages with cities our size and pay what a city our size can afford to do.”  Jung responded that many of the larger cities are not looking at the growth that is expected in Manvel.  Cox was not receptive saying “growth is not here.  We keep hearing about this growth, we keep hearing about this shopping center, we keep hearing all of this, I haven’t seen nothing yet.  Until the rooftops are here let’s get real and focus on 10,000.”

 

Member Lew Shuffler recalled the city doing an extensive survey before and remembered an “upgrade to everybody to bring them in line with surrounding areas.”  He expressed some surprise that the city remained “so behind the median” as shown in the salary survey and considered the city as being “proactive on these salaries.”  In fact, the 2014 budget did provide for salary increases for most all city employees, the percentage of which depended on their position.  Phyllis Herbst was the controller at the time and told council then that “the biggest change in this year’s budget are pretty much the basic services for every department.  For years (city) staff has gone without raises, either no raise at all or very small.  And they are hired on at a very low pay. We are starting to have turnover. We are starting to have employees needing to go somewhere else in this economy.  We have a good staff and to see them walk, and the turnover, is just amazing to see some good people leave.”  City employees have enjoyed cost of living raises in subsequent years.

 

Mayor Delores Martin acknowledged the city’s budgetary constraints while suggesting employee salaries are a critical need that requires a yearly review and that council should “do what we can because we have all these hands out and you have to find a balance.”  It is likely the discussion on city pay will be a key discussion point for the next budget year as council works to meet an ever increasing demand for limited city revenues.

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Council hears development advice

January 27, 2016

 

The City of Manvel would be well served to adopt a more flexible approach to its development goals, suggested Christof Spieler, a noted urban planner.  Emphasizing that lot sizes alone should not be the driving force for planning, Spieler advocated a development plan that attempts a balance with the city’s desires and the developer’s needs.

 

Members were asked by Spieler to list some examples of the types of development they envision for Manvel in the coming years.  Responses included a variety of ideas, among them being retail, upscale restaurants, shopping boutiques, upscale anchor stores, business that bring character and charm, commercial development, a friendly business community, schools, open space, warm and friendly development, arts district, community center, music venue, recreation center, downtown districts or a main street walking district, walkable areas, acreage lots, strict HOA rules, subdivisions that offer schools, parks, green space, and a diversity of lots.  Spieler pointed out some disagreement among council and used the dichotomy of a variety of lots versus large lots as an example.  Explaining that the “core decisions result in there always being tradeoffs,” he went on to describe desired retail as depending on the” number of people who live close to it.  So there is an inverse relationship between the amount of retail you get and lot sizes.  The larger your lots are the fewer people you have and the fewer businesses they will support.  Generally you can get one or the other but you can’t get both.”

 

Progressing on the same argument he described arts and music as being “very much based on population and what kinds of public services the city can provide.”  He continued, saying that ultimately tax revenue is related to commercial activity and it too is related to lot size.  “As lots get larger the tax collected per acre tends to go down which means the public revenues do not support these (arts and music).  Once again it is a tradeoff.”  Going on, he said “walkability and density are totally related.  Ultimately a human being will walk a quarter to half a mile.  How much you can get to in that distance is based on how densely built you are and generally walkable neighborhoods require smaller lots.  Maintaining a walkable environment with large lots doesn’t work well together,” he declared.

 

Member Melody Hanson took some issue with the notion of a diversity of lot sizes claiming there is no diversity now: “It is very heavy handed toward smaller sized lots.”  She said the primary amount under development now is well over 50% and feels the larger “estate sized” lots are grossly under represented.  Spieler explained that “most general development produce lots in the suburban 50 to 70 foot pattern.”  He said the bigger lots tend to come toward the back end of development, once the retail base is built out in response to the residents acquiring the “more typical sized lots.”   That retail development is what draws those desiring the larger lots and the acreage homes.

 

Spieler emphasized the importance of the city being able to sustain itself in the longer term.  A less dense community will likely struggle to maintain its ability to provide basic services.  “Often times, decisions that look really good in the short term turn out to be really bad in the long term.  You end up building too much infrastructure to support.”  He cited an analysis of a single street in a suburban town that the city was looking at repaving.  Explaining a paved street offers about thirty years of life, the analysis of the tax revenue collected from the houses on that particular street returned a collection period of sixty years in order to pay for the street repaving.  “And that is assuming you don’t have to pay for anything else.  Sometimes it turns out a city will have infrastructure it can’t support.  The reality is that most cities use commercial development to pay for residential; that your typical suburban subdivision does not actually make enough tax revenue to support itself.  Which is why a strong commercial tax base is so important.  If you are a purely residential city it is pretty hard to make the numbers add up.”

 

Spieler explained with examples that lot size “actually has little relationship to what a neighborhood is like.”  He showed pictures as examples of how a higher density of development can be made to actually feel more warm and inviting.  Simple landscaping, setbacks, street patterns, open space, and building forms can all create a more appealing neighborhood.  “Landscaping is a relatively cheap thing and is something that gets more valuable as time goes on.”  He advocated a flexible approach to development and an attitude that encourages a variety of neighborhoods types.  He described Manvel’s current zoning maps providing for basically two levels of residential.  “You could do that to a much greater level of detail,” he said.  “More variety allows more options that can really shape the feel of a neighborhood.”

 

Spieler went on to emphasize the importance of striking a balance in negotiations with developers.  He said it should not be just about lot sizes but about all the other things that are available and how they relate to each other.  As Mayor Martin summed up, “you should have some give and take.”  He continued, saying the city can ask a lot more of developers, some of which is entirely free to them, such as how the houses relate to the lot, or where on the lot the house is located.  “If you are open to these kinds of discussions you can get a lot more unique and interesting things than your typical suburban house.”  Spieler advocates negotiating from a position of what is wanted rather than emphatically stating what is not.  Efforts to get what the city wants while exhibiting consideration of what the developer requires will likely return far better results than merely focusing on lot sizes.  He acknowledged lot sizes as being part of the equation but “using that as the only determinant for what quality is probably is not enough.”

 

Pointing out to council that in every direction from Manvel resides unincorporated land, Spieler made the point that there is nobody who has to build in Manvel.  “There is a certain amount of new development that will happen every year, every decade in this region.  And whether it lands in the city limits or not is largely your decision.  Because your decisions set the economic feasibility of that development.  You can imagine a place where all of that development goes around you or you can imagine a place where that development happens within your city limits.  In a lot of ways it is the most fundamental decision you will make.  Do you want development or don’t you?  Ultimately the people who will decide are those developers and those property owners who are going to look at what you put out there and say we are going to do this or we are not.”  Ultimately there are two parties involved, the city and the developers, and both demand mutual consideration, he intimated.  “It is much more useful in making the city a desirable place that will grow to actually have a positive vision, to say this is what we want to be and getting a developer excited about being a part of that.  And be open to their answers to how to meet those goals.” 

 

Spieler holds a master’s degree in structural engineering from Rice University and has earned multiple awards for his work.  He serves as the Director of Technology and Innovation for Morris Architects, serves as a Director for the Houston Metropolitan Transit Authority (Metro), and has spoken extensively on urban planning and transportation issues.  How Spielers advice will be received and acted upon remains to be seen.  Member Lorraine Hehn suggested council schedule a workshop away from the council chamber and the pressure of time and public to hash out common ground that can perhaps form a basis for a unified and consistent vision from which to work.  No meeting was set upon the close of the discussion.

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City honored with budget award

January 27, 2016

 

The City of Manvel received a Distinguished Budget Presentation Award from the Government Finance Officers Association of the US and Canada (GFOA).  The award represents a significant achievement in that it recognizes the highest principles of governmental budgeting.  Nationally recognized guidelines must be satisfied to earn the award which are designed to assess how well an entity’s budget serves as a policy document, a financial plan, an operations guide, and a communications device.  Along with the city being recognized, the award is also presented to the individual being designated as responsible for having achieved the award.  Wes Vela has been the city’s Finance Director for nearly a year and has earned high regard from city staff and council for his professional and committed approach to his responsibilities.  The GFOA award just earned well validates his value to the city and its taxpayers.

 

The GFOA is a professional association that services the needs of more than 18,000 finance practitioners and appointed and elected officials at every level of government.  Its purpose is to enhance the skills and performance of those responsible for government finance policy and management.

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