A Plan to End VIA’s Pauper Status

As most of you know, VIA Metropolitan Transit is embarrassingly underfunded.

For riders, that means a lot of waiting around for too few buses and too many transfers. Thousands of their hours are wasted every day at VIA’s 7,193 bus stops.

That’s because VIA gets a sliver of the sales-tax dollars that public transit agencies in other major Texas cities receive – one-half cent for every $100 compared to a full cent in Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth, and Houston.VIA

Here’s how the tax works: the state of Texas imposes a sales tax of 6.25 percent; on top of that, cities, counties, transit authorities, and special-purpose districts are allowed to tack on another 2 percent.

Unfortunately, we are maxed out. The city of San Antonio receives 1 percent of the sales tax, VIA gets 0.5 percent, and the remaining 0.5 percent is split between aquifer protection and linear parks (0.125 percent), pre-kindergarten education (0.125 percent), and the Advanced Transportation District (0.25 percent) – for a grand total of 2 percent. The ATD sends half of its tax revenue to VIA, which is better than nothing, but not by a huge amount.

To raise VIA’s funding to where it should be, we’d need to let the other voter-approved uses expire and ask voters to OK giving VIA the combined 0.5 percent.

Which won’t happen because it would be a real pain in the ass. Pre-K, the ATD, and aquifer protection have ardent supporters who would raise hell. Besides, voters approved each of these initiatives. And I’m pretty sure zero is the number of officials willing to stand up and say, “Pre-K for SA is great, but mass transit is actually closer to a core function of local government.”

By the way, don’t even think about touching the city of San Antonio’s 1-percent slice.

But, look, we’re not about hard choices at SanAntoniomizer. We want you to be happy, your brow unclouded. So we’ve come up with a work-around.

Here’s what we’re proposing: Disguise VIA as something that we really care about and in which we are willing to invest significant public dollars.

The following are the steps VIA’s board of trustees need to take:

  1. Hire an expensive brand consultant to come up with a new name that totally obscures what the bus agency does. Maybe something like VeloCity or, even better, VeloCity Human. By making the name incomprehensible, you’ll give people the impression that this is a company on the move, with big, undefined changes afoot. Who knows? Maybe it’ll even move its headquarters.
  2. Work out a deal with developers to build a breathtaking new office building at the Pearl, preferably a structure so green the walls will actually be fashioned out of native grasses. Think about it. How many millions of public dollars, through incentives and bond financing, have flowed into the Broadway corridor over the Decade of Downtown so far? It’s VeloCity Human’s turn to scoop up some of that beautiful money with a Pearl HQ.
  3. This is probably the most crucial step: VeloCity Human’s trustees must convince one of the suburban cities in which the company operates – say, Elmendorf – to put together a relocation package for its headquarters, which is currently located on San Pedro Avenue. Suddenly it’s a competition! What are you going to offer, San Antonio and Bexar County peeps? After all, you surely don’t want to be the ones accused of “losing” VeloCity Human to Elmendorf. It’s true that such a move would have no impact on the regional economy. Economics aren’t that parochial. But good news for VeloCity Human – relocation politics are.
  4. Work out a hefty package of giveaways to secure your move to the Pearl. This will be tricky. Because VeloCity Human is a public-owned entity, it doesn’t pay property taxes. So no tax abatements or tax rebates. Instead, the company will have to negotiate a bunch of big grants and zero-interest loans.
  5. Once the deal is done, and VeloCity Human has settled into its new home at the Pearl, trustees will be in an excellent position to go to the city and county, and say: “As you know, what we do is very important to the community. It must be because we’re headquartered at the Pearl, and you spent millions of taxpayers’ dollars to help us get there. Also, as our new name hints, we’re changing our business model. Just consider these nine words: Technology platform, multi-modal things, disruption, millennials, and driverless stuff. We’ll leave these duffel bags on your desk. Please pack them with tax revenue, and we’ll drop by tomorrow to pick them up. Thank you.”

There’s no reason to think this scheme won’t work. It’s certainly more compelling than blathering on about making life better for people who have to take buses to get to work, school, or the doctor.

Campaigns Suck. Don’t Work on Them.

[WARNING: The Self-Indulgence Rating on the following post is 9.2 on the 10-point scale. That effectively means only the writer’s parents would be interested in reading this piece. Unfortunately, both of his parents are dead… Make that a rating of 9.4.]

TheCoolerMy favorite William Macy movie is The Cooler. He plays Bernie Lootz, a slouchy middle-age man who works in a Las Vegas casino. Bernie’s job is to stop the hot streaks of high-rollers just by walking among them and making small talk. He is a black hole for luck. Loss and heartbreak follow him everywhere.

I’m thinking about starting a political consulting firm based on that business model. Hire me to “volunteer” for your opponent’s campaign, and I’ll take it from there. Interested? Here are my references: Mayor Ivy Taylor and former State Rep. Mike Villarreal.

I was Villarreal’s communications director when he ran for mayor in 2015, and served as the spokesman for Taylor’s re-election campaign until last Saturday. You get the idea.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not taking the full blame for both losses — that would make me a narcissist in a way. No, the defeat of every campaign that started with a good chance to win a mayor’s race is multifaceted, with dense clusters of small misreadings and misallocations, missed opportunities, petty animosities, and plain bad luck.

By the way, I am an inveterate gossip and not obnoxiously scrupulous. Nevertheless, I will not dish on either campaign. No, you’d have to pay for it. Joking. Unless you’re willing to pay for it. Let me know.

Anyway, my point is that while every defeat has a bunch of parents, I was at the inception of two of the biggest campaign fails in San Antonio over the last two years. From that I conclude that maybe I’m not the greatest campaign spokesman in the world.

Hence this post’s title: “Campaigns Suck. Don’t Work on Them.” “I Suck at Campaigns” would make more sense, but screw that. I wasn’t that bad.

I obviously got tired of The Cooler thing. But I still love the movie.

Anyway, I left the San Antonio Express-News, where I was the business editor and a weekly columnist, to scratch a politics itch in late 2014. Villarreal had called me out of the blue asking me to handle communications for his mayoral campaign. I said yes in an embarrassingly short amount of time. In my head, I was going to become a dinner operative.

A dinner operative is a consultant like either of the two Christians (Archer or Anderson), Colin Strother, or Kelton Morgan. Imagine you’re a politician. You’d meet your dinner operative for drinks and a meal at, say, Southerleigh to plot your next campaign, talk poll results, trade gossip and political intelligence, or figure out how to work your colleagues on City Council or Commissioners Court or whatever. The two of you would look spectacular and powerful, and everyone in the dining room would want to know what you’re talking about.

Turns out, only the two Christians, Strother, Morgan, and maybe one or two others get to be dinner operatives. And from what I’ve heard, it’s not exactly House of Cards-grade  material they’re working with. Not by a long shot.

Most people who manage to eek out a living from campaign politics are at best lunch operatives, and their venues are usually a convenient Jim’s Restaurant or Mexican Manhattan or some place like that. Coffee operatives are closer to the norm.

They also spend a shocking amount of time eating Cheezits and drinking burnt coffee at campaign headquarters, which just a few weeks before had been a store where one could score great deals on off-brand cellular service. And the work? Trying to find a fresh approach to the 36th email in which you’re trying to wheedle supporters out of another $25.

Uh oh.

I sound like a spouse in a run-of-the-mill divorce. I start out wanting to acknowledge my failings and my culpability, only to discover as I’m talking that it was your fault all along.

Time to just end this.

So I stand in the dingy hallway outside the courtroom. I seethe as I look campaigns in the eye for the last time, and I say, “Fuck you, campaigns. Fuck you very much.”