Tuesday AM October 17th, 2006

Janitors and employers negotiate raises, hours and health insurance...Houston office market still recovering, but at slower pace...Harris County Tax Office takes over property tax collections for Pasadena...

Contract negotiations between janitors and their employers began at the DoubleTree Hotel Monday afternoon, as the Service Employees International Union seeks a raise to $8.50 an hour from their current average of $5.30 an hour. The 5,300 janitors who clean high-rise buildings owned by Hines, Transwestern and PM Realty also seek more hours and health insurance. SEIU has donated money to the janitors' strike fund. The janitors recently voted to authorize a strike if contract negotiations fail.

The office market continues to recover, but at a slower pace, according to Grubb & Ellis. The vacancy rate ended the third quarter at 13.9 percent, down 70 basis points year-to-date compared with a drop of 170 basis points in the year-ago period. Absorption is down 27 percent and completions are up 74 percent. Rental rates are up by seven percent for Class A properties and 5.5 percent for Class B from a year ago.

Keep your flashlight and generator handy. Experts are warning of more stress on the power grid, which took a hit and went down in the northeast blackout of 2003. The group that oversees the grid says the system's reliability will only get worse over the next decade. That's because electricity demand is expected to grow faster than new power-generation capacity. The North American Electric Reliability Council specifically warns the power-supply cushion will drop to unhealthy levels in the next two to three years in Texas, New England, the mid-Atlantic, the Midwest and the Rocky Mountain region.

A building boom to add scores of new coal-fired power plants to the nation's power grid is causing a dilemma for politicians, environmentalists and utility companies. At issue is whether power companies should be permitted to build new plants that pollute more but are reliable and less expensive. Otherwise, should regulators push utilities toward cleaner-burning coal plants, even if it means they'll cost more and are based on newer but unproven technology? Nowhere do these competing interests play out with such force as in Texas. Here 16 new coal-fired plants are proposed--11 by Dallas-based TXU Corporation, the state's biggest power company. The scope of that five-year, $10 billion plan is considered bellwether and being closely watched by industry analysts, lawmakers, competitors and environmentalists nationwide. The company is hardly alone, however. Some 154 new coal-fired plants are on the drawing board in 42 states. Texas and Illinois are the only states where ten or more plants are planned. Energy analysts say factors driving coal's resurgence are soaring power demands, volatile natural gas prices and a favorable investment market. Coal now accounts for about 50 percent of the power generated in this country. Federal estimates say that share will increase by 2030 to 57 percent. Analysts believe the United States has the world's largest coal reserves, enough to last for the next 200 to 250 years.

The Harris County Tax Office has taken over property tax collections for the City of Pasadena. Pasadena expects to see an anticipated spending cut from $594,000 to about $356,000, or a budget reduction of about 40 percent. The Harris County Tax Office has locations on Spencer Highway and on Main Street in Pasadena.

Researchers at Baylor College of Medicine and Rice University have been named recipients of a federal grant for their research efforts into regenerate damaged brain cells and blood vessels for the treatment of stroke. The three-year, $2.9 million Quantum Grant is funded by the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering. The new brain tissue could be placed into the damaged brains of stroke patients to provide a source of neural and vascular cells that would repair the injured tissue in the process.

Arizona-based Calence, which offers Internet protocol communications networking services, is buying the Texas operations of Global Data Systems for an undisclosed amount, according to the Houston Business Journal. Global Data Systems provides data storage, IT asset management and network security. The transaction is expected to expand Calence's presence in several Texas markets, including Austin, Corpus Christi, Dallas, Houston, Laredo, McAllen, San Angelo and San Antonio.

Houston-based drilling contractor Blast Energy Services has signed a cooperative research and development agreement with the U.S. Department of Energy to test and evaluate its abrasive fluid jetting capabilities. The technology is designed to cut holes in existing well casings with the ability to view results through downhole cameras.

Houston-based oilfield tools provider Grant Prideco purchased Aberdeen, Scotland-based Anderson Group for $115.7 million. Anderson provides specialized downhole drilling tools and employs about 200 worldwide. Grant Prideco offers drilling products and services, drill bits and tubular technology and services.

A new 42-acre shopping center opens near the Woodlands on Thursday on I-45 between Research Forest and Highway 242 in the City of Shenandoah. Sam Moon Trading Company will have outlets there, and Nine West, Jones New York and Anne Klein will open in early 2007.

Sierra Vista Apartments on El Camino Del Rey near Westpark and Chimney Rock has been sold to GALP Sierra Vista Limited Partnership for an undisclosed price, according to the Houston Business Journal. The 534-unit complex is listed on tax records as valued at $11 million. An affiliate of California-based StarPoint Properties purchased the complex about four years ago as a foreclosure. After $4.5 million in renovations, occupancy grew to 97 percent from around 70 percent. Apartment occupancy has averaged 90 percent this year, according to CB Richard Ellis.

The Associated Press reports that when Caribou Coffee went public last year, sharp-eyed investors noticed some unusual promises in its prospectus. Caribou said it would never sell pork or porn. It wouldn't charge or receive interest, either. By following rules that are part of the Islamic code, Caribou is among a small but growing list of western businesses looking to make themselves as attractive as possible to Muslim investors. A Texas company issued almost $166 million in bonds to finance natural gas operations in the Gulf of Mexico. Eric Meyer runs a Connecticut-based hedge fund called Shariah Capital. Meyer says western banks and financial institutions need to have code-compliant products or risk losing market share. Moazzam Ahmed is a software engineer from Carrollton, Texas. Ahmed has no car loans. Credit-card charges go on a zero-percent card or get paid off at the end of every month. And he's got a home mortgage that is a lease-buyback arrangement, rather than an interest-bearing loan. Dow Jones has created an Islamic investing index.

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