Monday AM December 17th, 2007

Mayor announces plan to reorganize Finance & Administration into two new departments...BP Texas City explosion civil trial continues...Comcast and VH-1's Save the Music Foundation donate $450,000 in musical instruments to 15 HISD schools...

Mayor Bill White and retiring Finance & Administration Director Judy Gray Johnson are announcing a plan to reorganize the department into two new departments: the Finance Department and the Administration and Regulatory Affairs Department. The budget, long-range financial forecasting, public finance, accounting, internal control, deferred compensation, pension, economic development and tax increment reinvestment zone functions will be in the new Finance Department. The regulatory affairs, including franchise, taxicab, and limousine regulation, commercial permitting, strategic purchasing, central payroll, business services and City Council administrative support functions will be in the new Administration and Regulatory Affairs Department. Michelle Mitchell, who currently serves as a Deputy Director, will lead the Finance Department. Deputy Director Alfred Moran will head the Administration and Regulatory Affairs Department. The plan will be submitted to the council on January 16th.


The BP Texas City refinery explosion civil trial continues in Galveston this week. Eight plaintiffs are suing BP for physical and emotional trauma suffered in the blast that killed 15 and injured 170 others. Plaintiffs have been on the stand, describing the March 2005 explosion and fire. A process safety engineer told the jury that BP ignored the dangers of a vent stack that played a central role in the disaster. Plaintiffs allege that had the unit had a flare rather than a blowdown stack, the vapors from the overfilled tower would have burned off. BP is spending $1 billion on repairs and upgrades at the plant, including the removal of 11 blowdown stacks and installation of flares.


Comcast and VH-1's Save the Music Foundation donated $450,000 in musical instruments this weekend to 15 Houston Independent School District schools. The donations will assist in the creation of new music programs at each of the selected schools. The VH-1 Save the Music Foundation is a non-profit organization dedicated to improving the quality of education by restoring music programs and raising public awareness about the importance of music participation. This new effort brings to 33 the number of Houston-area schools benefiting.


Americans have been paying a lot more for gasoline, clothing, prescription drugs and other items—leading to the biggest jump in consumer inflation in more than two years. Prices rose by eight-tenths of one percent in November, the biggest increase since a 1.2 percent surge in September of 2005. When you leave out food and energy prices, core inflation also rose--by three-tenths of a point. Economists had expected an increase if six-tenths of a point, not the eight-tenths increase that was seen in overall inflation. With one month to go, prices are rising at an annual rate of 4.2 percent in 2007. That's far above last year's increase of 2.5 percent.


Output at the nation's factories, mines and utilities posted a modest rebound in November following a big drop in the previous month. The Federal Reserve reports that industrial production rose three-tenths of a percent last month after having fallen a sharp seven-tenths percent in October. The gain was slightly larger than expected. The November gain was partly because of an increase in output at auto plants which helped lift manufacturing activity. Output in the mining sector, which includes oil production, was up 1.1 percent while utility output fell by 1.3 percent. The nation's industrial sector operated at 81.5 percent of capacity in November, up slightly from October.


Continental Airlines says travel demand remains strong, advance bookings are ahead of last year's pace, and pricing conditions are good. The Houston-based airline said it expects flights to be just as full in the fourth quarter as they were a year ago. That's despite a capacity increase of 4.7 percent. The airline said it expects to increase capacity a more modest two to three percent next year, with U.S. capacity falling slightly. Continental said it was spending $2.48 per gallon for jet fuel. The airline made the comments in a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Continental expects fourth-quarter occupancy to be 79 to 80 percent, and 82 to 83 percent on domestic flights. The airline has added the most seats on trans-Atlantic flights, with more modest increases in the United States, the Pacific and Latin America.

Continental Airlines is considering more international destinations for future direct flights from George Bush Intercontinental Airport. Dubai, Rome, Milan and Madrid are being considered by the air carrier when 25 Boeing 787 Dreamliners arrive between 2009 and 2013. Continental begins service to London's Heathrow Airport in March from Houston and Newark, made possible because of the "open skies" agreement signed between the U.S. and the European Union earlier this year. Continental, which already flies to Beijing, will also fly to Shanghai starting in 2009.


Leaders of a pilots union say American Eagle may cut up to 250 flights if parent AMR sells or spins off the regional airline. The Air Line Pilots Association, which represents Eagle pilots, says the cuts could affect flights to and from Dallas Love Field, Kansas City and San Jose, California. The flights could be eliminated because a provision in the contract with American Airlines pilots requires that flights from certain airports be performed by carriers wholly owned by AMR. Fort Worth-based AMR owns both carriers. Executives said this month they plan to divest Eagle, but provided few details. Herb Mark of the Eagle pilots union said company officials told employees that flights might be shifted because of restrictions on flying by outside carriers. Eagle spokeswoman Andrea Huguely agreed that the contract with American pilots could affect Eagle flights.


The U.S. and Peru have signed a free trade agreement that President Bush says will help workers, ranchers, farmers and businesses in both countries. The agreement takes effect once the U.S. and Peru adjust their laws. It easily passed Congress in recent weeks under a new formula that increases emphasis on labor rights and environmental standards. Peru has one of the fastest-growing economies in the western hemisphere. Last year, its growth rate was over 7.5 percent. During a White House news conference with Peru's president, Bush joked that he wished Peru would "lend us a couple of percent.'' Bush also urged Congress to approve other free-trade agreements, including one with Peru's neighbor, Colombia.


Louis Dreyfus Highbridge Energy says it's bumping its Mont Belvieu storage capacity from four to 12 million barrels, according to the Houston Business Journal. Louis Dreyfus will build an injection facility in Harris County, west of Mont Belvieu, with pipelines connecting back to existing LDH Energy caverns by the end of 2008.


The Resource Center on Katy Road is renaming and re-branding itself as the Houston Design Center in January. The new facility logo and other plans will be unveiled on February 5th. The Houston Design Center will have more than 40 showrooms of home and commercial furnishings and accessories, featuring over 5,000 manufacturers.


Spectra Energy Partners is buying interests in Saltville Gas Storage and the P-25 Pipeline in Virginia from its Houston parent Spectra Energy in a $107 million deal. The deal includes working capacity in three natural gas storage facilities and a 72-mile, eight-inch natural gas pipeline in Virginia.


The country's economic planning agency says China is allowing foreigners to invest in its power grid sector for the first time, ending a monopoly by state-owned companies. The policy, effective December 1st, allows foreigners to invest in the construction and management of power distribution systems, the National Development and Reform Commission said in a statement on its Web site. It suggests the government is wooing foreign investment to modernize its aging network of grids to reduce the risk of blackouts. Experts describe China's power grid as extremely inefficient. China added more than 100 gigawatts of power generating capacity last year--equivalent to France's entire installed capacity—and many areas now have the potential to produce more electricity than is needed locally.


Energy Maintenance Services Group and its Mexican subsidiary have been awarded a ten-year, $400 million contract by the Mexican state oil company to provide pipeline maintenance and services, according to the Houston Business Journal. The contract begins in January and will employ about 300 workers to provide pipeline maintenance services across 1,240 miles of pipelines.


Round Rock-based Dell has signed a deal with European electronics retailer DSG International to offer computers in 12 countries. Dell will sell desktop and notebook PCs through the company's 1,300 retail outlets starting in January.


An importer of Mexican candy recalled a second treat after Texas health officials found lead at levels considered hazardous. San Antonio-based Villa-Mex Imports voluntarily recalled Tarritos, a sweet dark reddish brown paste manufactured by Productos Avila. The candy is sold in mug-shaped glass jars with a green label. The Department of State Health Services found lead levels ranging from 0.0857 to 0.125 parts per million. Federal regulators consider anything above 0.1 parts per million potentially hazardous. Earlier this month, Villa-Mex recalled another product by the same manufacturer. The sweet paste sold as "Barrilitos'' also had high lead levels. No cases of illness have been linked to either candy, but prolonged lead exposure can lead to illness and delayed mental and physical development in children.


Some marketing pros have drawn up a list of 20 irritating things about the nation's fourth largest city. They've also decided those plagues just add to Houston's charm. A Web campaign by David Thompson and Randy Twaddle that was meant to gauge reaction to their choices--prompted more than 2,000 replies. So a follow-up request for visual evidence elicited the foundation for a new coffee table book called: Houston. It's Worth It. The slogan touts the largest city in Texas as a diverse and wonderful place--after all, nearly five million metro-area residents can't all be wrong. Among the responses: "If Houston were a dog, she'd be a mutt with three legs, one bad eye, fleas the size of cornnuts, and buck teeth. Despite all that, she'd be the best dog you'd ever know;" "The smog makes the sunset amazing;'' "You never have to worry about falling off a cliff or being buried in a landslide;" and "Because it's not Dallas.''


Bio photo of Ed Mayberry

Ed Mayberry

Local Anchor, All Things Considered

Ed Mayberry has worked in radio since 1971, with many of those years spent on the rock 'n' roll disc jockey side of the business...