Friday, March 20, 2009

Riding the Frisco Line - For REAL!

Does anybody remember last summer? The Olympics? Oba-mania? Four-dollar-a-gallon gas prices?

It’s hard to forget the last one. I clearly remember that it took me over an hour to fill up my tank; 5 minutes to pump and then an hour to stop sobbing. Every time I pulled into a gas station, I saw my kids’ college prospects dwindling. But hey, Collin County Community College is a nice facility!

During that “crisis” I expended a lot of effort trying to find a way to cut my daily commuting expense. I looked into bus service, car pooling and even considered riding my bike (what’s a little man-sweat amongst co-workers, right?). The one thing I didn’t consider was taking DART. From here, it takes me just as long to drive to the Parker Road station in Plano to get on the train as it does to drive to my office.

I was encouraged, then, when I attended the Frisco Town Hall meeting a few weeks ago and caught the presentation by Tom Shelton, from the North Central Texas Council of Governments (NCTCOG). Mr. Shelton outlined something called “Rail North Texas:” a plan to bring rail service to North Central Texas. I couldn’t help but grin when I saw a little red line on the proposed map labeled “Frisco Line.” While the proposed service didn’t connect anywhere near my office, it would get me to DFW airport; a trip I also make on a regular basis.

The plan’s focus is on building and operating a passenger rail system, but it also allows for the development of supporting infrastructure, such as road improvements and bus service. Critics of rail service point out that unless you live or work near a station, you’re not likely to take the train. But with proper supporting infrastructure, a greater number of people can take advantage of the system. Plus, even if you don’t take the train, several hundred of your former road-mates will, rather than jockeying with you for that open slot in the left lane! NCTCOG’s presentation, however, was less about the planned service than it was about how to pay for it. There is no shortage of ideas for building a rail service in Frisco. The challenge is finding the money. And our friends at NCTCOG have an idea for that as well. State Senator John Carona has filed SB 855 proposing the Texas Local Option Transportation Act or TLOTA. A companion bill (HB 9 has been filed in the House by Representative Vicky Truitt and others.

The act is designed to find ways for North Texans to directly fund the investments needed to create a more robust transit system in our area, without having it imposed from Austin or, worse yet, seeing those funds siphoned off to pay for some road in Houston. Funding can come from a number of sources including general sales and gas tax, vehicle registration fees and some property taxes, to name a few. But the underlying feature is that the choice of funding mechanisms is left to the local county voters.

Sadly, the one consistent word in each of those funding methods is: TAX. Given the current economic conditions, most of us aren’t eager to see a bump in the chunk of change we send to the government. But that, too, is a benefit of this bill. If now is not the time, then the local electorate can decline to implement any new taxes at all. That may be a shame, if you’re like me and look forward to the day we can all ride the Frisco Line, for real. But at least the decision is in local hands.

Whether you support bringing rail to Frisco or not, you should take a hard look at the TLOTA bill. For years, our transportation issues have been at the mercy of Austin and Washington. Residents who sat waiting from El Dorado to get funded by the state understand the frustration all too wall. If this measure brings control over our transit system a little closer to home, we should all benefit.

By the way, if you’re interested in tracking our state legislature in action – and really, who isn’t? – check out their website ( Use the Bill Lookup feature to find out the status of any bill currently under consideration. You can even sign up for an alert service to keep up with your favorite pet project as it winds its way through the legislative process. A must-see for any C-SPAN geek!

Friday, March 6, 2009

Reining in the HOAs

On the hierarchy of human needs, shelter ranks pretty high. Depending upon your situation, it’s likely right up there with food, water and watching football. Sadly, it’s this need that is most imperiled by today’s economic downturn. Foreclosures are at an all-time high, as homeowners struggle to meet their mortgage payments.

Consider, then, the case of homeowners who have met their mortgage obligation, yet still face foreclosure. You see, Texas is one of the few states that allows Home Owners Associations to initiate foreclosure for non-payment of fees. Granted, HOA dues are a contractual obligation that buyers know about before they sign on the dotted line. But unpaid fees can be made up of more than just dues. Penalties. Fines. Special assessments. All can add up – and in some cases, compound – until a homeowner is facing a hefty sum.

The scary part this is that, unlike most other governing bodies, HOAs are not subject to the same rules that apply to city or county governments, or even school districts. HOAs are guided only by their by-laws and declarations, which may vary widely from group to group, and may not even be publicly disclosed. They’re often controlled by people with little or no experience in public policy. This has led to cases where homeowners have racked up serious fees, often for minor “offenses” having nothing to do with dues. Push comes to shove and the next thing you know, they’re facing the loss of the roof over their heads.

At least two Texas legislators have had enough. Burt Solomons (R-Carrolton) has filed House Bill 1976 to try and curb some of the power HOAs wield in Texas. State Senator Royce West has filed a similar bill (SB429) in the Senate. Solomon’s bill seeks to curtail HOAs in several areas, but the most significant is that it removes their ability to foreclose on a homeowner’s mortgage due to unpaid fines. They can still file a lien against the property, but in most cases they’ll have to wait until the property is sold to collect.

Taking the fight one step further, Solomons’ bill would change how HOAs do business. First of all, it requires that HOAs follow the same Open Meeting guidelines as every other government entity. No more closed door sessions and behind the scenes machinations. Everything out in the open, folks.

Some of the bill’s restrictions seem to be a direct response to events right here in Frisco. No longer would an HOA be able to restrict what kind of car you park in your driveway. And boards could not restrict any member from running for office, unless he or she is a convicted felon.

Many will argue that Solomons’ bill eliminates the ability of HOAs to do what they’re supposed to do: keep the neighborhood amenities repaired and help protect property values. Certainly, taking away the foreclosure option removes one of the big sticks that HOAs use to compel people to pay their dues.

Another provision of the bill eliminates HOAs from entering your property to enforce rules. So if your neighbor’s grass is 2 feet high, you can’t just go over there and mow it. Then again, given Texas’ Castle Laws, that’s probably not a good idea in the first place.

Nobody is suggesting that HOAs are inherently evil. The vast majority are well run by civic-minded individuals just trying to keep the neighborhood looking neat. For these organizations, the changes being discussed may make their job a bit more challenging. A few more forms to fill out. Perhaps not as much money in the kitty for the big block party.

It’s not clear how far HB1976 will go. There will certainly be organizations throwing lobbying money around to get it killed. Some tweaks will surely be found to (hopefully) improve it. I’m usually one of those that holds his breath whenever the Texas Legislature meets, hoping they just stay out of the way. But in this case, I’m happy to see them rein in a group that has become an un-regulated government entity. The home they save may be your own.