The biggest news out of City Hall yesterday was that the contentious fire union contract was unanimously approved by the Council in order to prevent brownouts from occurring. As I noted about a week and a half ago, the Mayor and the Firefighter’s Union reached a comprehensive agreement to avert looming brownouts caused by the HFD going over budget for the fiscal year as a result of massive overtime pay paid through a generous union contract. As Off the Kuff notes, the Firefighter’s Union has already overwhelmingly ratified this agreement, meaning it is now slated to go into effect.
Mike Morris at the Houston Chronicle has the full story on this issue, including the fact that the Firefighter’s Union approved the compromise by a nearly 2-to-1 margin. The article also has a comprehensive summation of the other major actions taken by the City Council throughout the course of the day. First and foremost, a major proposal to combat blighted buildings was tagged for another two weeks. Second, the long-awaited joint-processing-center finally received appropriations from City Hall. Third, a new development has occurred in the Uber/Lyft issue, specifically pertaining to safety records.
Morris also wrote at length about the blight ordinance on Tuesday in the Houston Chronicle. The gist of the issue is that tax breaks would be given to those developers who restore blighted buildings. To qualify as “blighted,” building in question would have to be ordered by the Building and Standards Commission. In an impoverished neighborhood, up to 90% of the property tax bill could be written off, according to the Chronicle article. In non-impoverished neighborhoods, it would be half the bill. Anyways, Morris’ article covers the bases remarkably well. I encourage you to read it all.
In the second main agenda item, the Council approved funding for a joint processing center, fulfilling many of the duties of the municipal jail. Just last year, city voters narrowly approved a proposition to dole out some money for this project. Accordingly, this is not all that surprising of an issue.
Last, but certainly not least, there is a new development in the Uber/Lyft debate. If you have read any of my previous posts, or ever picked up the Chronicle’s Letter to the Editor page, you could probably predict my thoughts on the matter (I’m skeptical, to say the least). However, now it appears that the City of Houston has begun to take a similar position as well.
Yesterday afternoon, I got an informational email from Christopher Newport, a chief regulatory spokesperson for the City of Houston. Evidently, in an attempt to monitor the dealings of Lyft –which recently began operating (in a legal grey area) throughout the City– bureaucrats from City Hall found that the cars in question associated with the ridesharing organization were not properly inspected.
“We rode in a Lyft vehicle with an expired State of Texas inspection sticker,” Newport said. “If Lyft missed something as obvious as this, what else is being missed? Unfortunately, we now have to question whether Lyft ever looked at this vehicle and others operating within their systems. We also have to doubt whether Lyft assurances regarding driver background checks are valid. Basic regulations are meant to prevent these situations, while providing for as much choice to Houstonians as possible. We are providing this information so Houstonians can make more informed decisions when choosing which transportation options to use.”
I must admit this revelation is a tad bit surprising. A couple of weeks ago, I had an extended conversation with a representative for Lyft, who detailed all the differences it had from Uber, the other high-profile ridesharing app. At issue here is whether or not the City Council should rewrite the lengthy taxi regulations to accommodate the new entrants into the market. The spokesperson for Lyft chronicled the many ways the company ostensibly ensures its cars and drivers are “all about safety and quality.” Evidently, the assurance does not have too much weight to it.
Make no mistake, this is not just a bias on my part causing me to poach isolated incidents and present them as systemic of a larger problem than exists in reality. The City of Houston broke this story, and sent it out to the press.
Perhaps why the Chronicle has not mentioned it will be the better question.
UPDATE: H/t to Evan Mintz at the Chronicle’s Editorial board, I stand corrected. The incomparable Dug Begley at the Chronicle wrote this up on The Highwayman blog last night. Full disclosure, I do not function before 8AM, so if you see an article that is published at 6AM, like this one, it means that I wrote it late the night before.