Wednesday November 30th, 2005

Houston janitors vote to form union...Houston receiving $3.7 million more from FEMA for hurricane reimbursement...Texas oil and gas production declines despite higher fuel prices...

Thousands of low-wage janitors who clean more than 60 percent of Houston's offices are forming a union with the Service Employees International Union. The decision has been certified by the independent American Arbitration Association. More than 4,700 janitors would be able to bargain for health care, wages and working conditions. Most Houston janitors do not receive health insurance and nearly half of the work force is part-time. The janitors voting to join SEIU work for ABM, OneSource, GCA and Sanitors. They plan to begin bargaining in the coming weeks over one area-wide "master" contract.


Houston is getting $3.7 million more in reimbursement for taking care of Hurricane Katrina evacuees. The funding was announced by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Katrina in late August slammed parts of the Gulf Coast and swamped New Orleans, sending numerous Louisiana evacuees to Texas. The latest money is earmarked for costs associated with extra security and patrols related to sheltering evacuees from August 28th--through September. The funding follows nearly $141 million in reimbursements for Houston for sheltering, interim housing and other Katrina-related expenses. Meanwhile, FEMA also reports it's provided more than $537.1 million in assistance to about 306,000 individuals affected by Hurricane Rita. Rita made landfall September 24th near Sabine Pass.

FEMA says about 68,000 hurricane evacuees moved from hotels to more permanent housing in the past week. But FEMA today also said an estimated 34,000 displaced people remain in hotels across Texas. FEMA originally said it would stop paying the hotel bills for Hurricane Katrina and Rita evacuees as of tomorrow--December 1st. But Texas leaders and others objected--saying displaced people weren't given enough notice. The agency extended the deadline to December 15th for evacuees nationwide. FEMA also said Texas, Alabama, Arkansas, California, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada and Tennessee could apply for extensions lasting until January 7th. An aide to Governor Rick Perry says the request will be filed this week.


The mortgage industry giant Fannie Mae and the Harris County Housing Authority will provide rent-free single-family homes to public servants from the Gulf coast displaced by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, according to the Houston Business Journal. That includes firefighters, police officers, nurses, emergency medical technicians and teachers. They will be offered 68 Houston-area homes and condominiums provided by Fannie Mae. After a year of a one-year rent-free lease, residents will be given the opportunity to purchase their homes at affordable housing rates. Thirty-eight homes are in Houston, 13 in Katy, six in Spring, four in Humble, two in Baytown and one each in Pasadena, Seabrook, The Woodlands, Tomball and Webster.

Verizon Wireless is working with the Federal Communications commission to provide wireless telecommunications relief to qualified evacuees displaced by hurricane Katrina. Eligible customers will receive a prepaid GPS-enabled handset with battery charger and 300 minutes of prepaid service usable for 120 days or until the minutes are exhausted.


Oil and gas production declined in Texas during the first nine months of the year--despite some higher fuel prices. Details come from the Texas Railroad Commission. Production of crude oil dipped nearly five percent--from 263.6 million barrels in the first nine months of 2004, to 250.9 million barrels in the same period this year. Natural gas production fell nearly four percent--from 3.8 trillion cubic feet in the first nine months of last year, to 3.66 trillion cubic feet this year. Production in Texas has been sliding for about three decades. An exception to the decline has been the Barnett Shale, a gas field north and west of Fort Worth. Gas production in the area rose 19 percent. More recent figures show an increase in finishing wells and planning to drill new ones.


TXU's electricity-selling division is cutting 20 percent of its staff--or about 65 jobs. A spokesman for the Dallas-based utility says workers at TXU Energy were told about the cuts today. The move will include layoffs and elimination of vacant positions. Most of the jobs are marketing and administrative posts. TXU Energy is cutting jobs because the electricity-retailing unit lost money in the third quarter and is expected to post another loss in the fourth quarter. The parent company--TXU Corporation--has remained profitable. The Texas Public Utility Commission recently approved a 24 percent rate hike for TXU Energy. Half of the increase took effect in November. The other half begins in January.


A researcher says Vioxx raises the risk of heart attacks because it blocks production of a substance that keeps blood from clotting. Doctor Benedict Lucchesi from the University of Michigan took the stand today in Houston in a suit brought by a widow against Merck. The lawsuit blames the painkiller for a 2001 heart attack that killed a 53-year-old Florida man. Merck says heart disease, not Vioxx, led to the death of Richard "Dicky'' Irvin of St. Augustine. But under cross examination, Lucchesi conceded that he never looked at the slides of Irvin's blocked artery. The researcher also acknowledged the debate in the scientific community about whether an imbalance of certain substances leads to heart attacks. It's the first federal trial targeting Merck over Vioxx, which the company took off the market last year.


The Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau honored Houston's taxi drivers today at the George R. Brown Convention Center as ambassadors for the city. Drivers received a variety of marketing materials, including menus, maps and restaurant and attractions support materials. Information on the upcoming Big 12 Championship Football Game and NBA All-Star-Game was provided. The bureau says taxi drivers are the front lines of Houston's hospitality business for leisure and business travelers, and need to be able to keep visitors informed.


Houston-based ConocoPhillips expects to increase its planned 2006 capital expenditures by about $1.4 billion to provide for the acquisition of a refinery in Wilhelmshaven, Germany. That includes expenditures towards a deep conversion project that allows the refinery to transform into a high complexity refinery, according to ConocoPhillips executive vice president Jim Nokes.


CB&I has been awarded a $45 million contract to supply a natural gas processing plant in Malvinas, Peru, according to the Houston Business Journal. Woodlands-based CB&I will provide engineering, procurement and modular fabrication.


The new AT&T begins trading under the symbol "T" ticker symbol beginning tomorrow on the New York Stock Exchange. The "T" symbol was used by AT&T before its acquisition by SBC Communications. SBC changed its name to AT&T after the transaction closed November 18th. At the time of their creation, single-letter ticker symbols were assigned to the stocks that were most widely traded.


Arizona-based SNRG has acquired Houston-based Pan American Oil in exchange for five million shares of SNRG stock, according to the Houston Business Journal. SNRG was formerly known as Texen Oil and Gas, relocating its headquarters from Houston to Scottsdale, Arizona last summer.


Houston-based software provider Insite Objects is acquiring Pennsylvania-based professional services and training firm Quartet Solutions America, according to the Houston Business Journal. The combined firm will have 66 employees, including the 40 who are currently employees of Insite. Quartet also has offices in the United Kingdom and France, which will remain open.


A regional quarterly magazine for state and local government and education officials in Texas has been launched by West Coast publisher eRepublic. Texas Technology is being published in collaboration with the Texas Department of Information Resources, which coordinates IT projects for state agencies. The magazine will soon be available electronically to subscribers on the Texas DIR Web site.


A California cheese company plans to build a production plant in Dalhart. Amarillo is backing the effort by Hilmar Cheese with an economic development grant of up to $5 million. Amarillo's contribution is part of an incentive package that includes financial support from the Texas Enterprise Fund, Texas Capital Fund, the City of Dalhart and Dallam County. Hilmar also would benefit from tax abatements and state-funded infrastructure improvements. Backers say the factory's operation would result in more than 4,000 permanent jobs in the region, including in the dairy industry. The factory is expected to produce about a million pounds of cheese per day and employ more than 350 workers. Dalhart is about 65 miles northeast of Amarillo.


Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder has managed to win three seats on the Six Flags board of directors. The Oklahoma City-based theme parks chain confirms that shareholders voted in Snyder himself, plus two others hand-picked by Snyder. He wants to be named chairman of the board, but it's unclear when that might happen. Snyder has been critical of the running of Six Flags, which owns parks in Arlington and San Antonio, and recently sold the Houston park.


PNM Resources' acquisition of TNP Enterprises will be less costly. Albuquerque, New Mexico-based PNM has reached a settlement with the previous owners of the Fort Worth-based utility that reduces the price tag. PNM announced yesterday that the settlement ends a lawsuit filed by those owners that disputed the proposed purchase price. The settlement involved the cash portion of the deal. PNM says the reduction is based on capital adjustments from second-quarter financial statements and stranded cost recovery payments. The final stock and cash purchase price has been reduced $27.3 million from the original agreement of $189.1 million. TNP is the parent company of Texas-New Mexico Power Company.


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