Saturday, December 1, 2012

Of trash and trees

I know you're sick of this topic, but the points I'm making are important, and if you suffer through this intro, I've got a brand new piece of perspective to follow in this post - I promise.

First of all, I wanted to launch off Heber Taylor's morning editorial in GCDN in which he essentially encouraged League City to get off its collective duff and resolve two outstanding issues before the end of the year, one of which is the trash contract. 

I second that notion, but I qualify it thusly:  Resolve it but don't rush it, because it's important - it's a lot of money.  To put that money in perspective, the trash contract as it currently stands is within about 10% of the cost of the new Public Safety Building which I believe the Mayor recently cited as THE single biggest infrastructure investment that League City has ever made in its history (I'm too pressed for time to track down the URL and with GCDN going behind the paywall in a few days, I'm not sure it the link would remain live anyway). 

To re-emphasize my position on that contract, I've got a few more polyethylene poster children to show you this morning.  Today is the second weekly collection day for my informal "study area", and just in case you thought the previous measured participation rate of 56% was an abberation, what my dog and I measured this morning was an even 60% participation rate (n = 75 homes, normalized for 73 occupancies; 44 participants). 

I even put my own trash out even though it didn't need to go out, just to ensure that I wouldn't be skewing the results even a little bit. 

This is noteworthy because we are currently in the most trash-intensive period of the year.  People are shopping like mad and cleaning their houses in preparation for the holidays.  Packages are getting delivered.  Junk mail is arriving in successive vomitous waves. 

And yet once again, this is a lot of what's out there:
I wanted to ensure that all trash bag ethnicities were equally represented. 
If you squashed down those Mickey D's boxes, it might amount to one cubic foot.
There's an Andy Warhol moment in there somewhere. 
Tiny bags of almost nothingness.  If Ameriwaste had failed to materialize this morning, fire ants could have carried this off wholesale. 
OK, now for a little additional perspective on all this.

I made an error in a recent blog post and one of League City's fine employees pointed this out to me.  When I announced that League City had finally gotten around to maintaining the trees around the municipal complex, I was viewing those trees while stopped at the intersection of SH-3 and West Walker WB.  From that angle, it did indeed look like work had been done on the trees.  But city arborist Heather McKnight clarified it for me thusly in an email:

"Our goal is to have all of the oaks surrounding the municipal complex looking good; however, right now we just trimmed the trees near the library for traffic signal visibility and safety. We hope to expand our tree trimming program in the future."

Upon closer examination from a different angle, I could see that she was correct:
They are still a tangled nasty mess of suckers and deadwood, but have, indeed, been hacked back off the adjacent utilities.  Looking north from EB West Walker at SH-3, library in the background. 

This represents a major missed opportunity, as I will explain. 
Here's what this has to do with trash:  It speaks to bang-for-buck and creative leverage of tax dollars.  Most of the trees surrounding the muni complex currently look like crap.  They aren't being properly maintained.  Trimming a tree is analogous to giving a room a new paint job - it's a tiny investment that can make a major, disproportionate positive impact on the resulting esthetics and perception of value. 

Well all know that the greater Houston area is not known for its natural beauty.  For the most part, it's flat and featureless.  But it does have some features that can be easily played to significant advantage, and live oaks are one of them. 
This is what properly-maintained live oaks look like - compare with the library tree picture above.  People go out of their way to take a tour around Rice University and surrounding neighborhoods to view these spectacular trees. As Houston Chronicle said a few years ago,
"Quality of life is worth occasional pruning."
Pic screengrabbed from this Rice site.
Suspected translation on "hope to expand our tree trimming in the future" = they don't have the budget for it.  Otherwise, it would have been done long before now; it's such an obvious maintenance task. 

And the obvious rebuttal to where I'm headed with this would be, "You can't take dollars saved on a trash contract and apply them to city beautification". 

Well, maybe not directly and immediately, dime for dime, without first making provisions for the re-application of those funds or their equivalent.  But you can work toward that type of financial turnaround and you can certainly run a ship more tightly than what is being cumulatively represented here. 

We're willing to waste taxpayers' money on (and in fact, increase the amount we pay for) an over-provision of trash services that we arguably don't use and don't need, and yet at the same time, we can't manage to accomplish the most basic maintenance for some of the very assets that define League City as a city.  I think there's something fundamentally and terribly wrong with that, and I look forward to the day when we get someone in a position of municipal authority who can bring to bear enough creativity to improve upon the likes of it.

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