Monday AM July 2nd, 2007

Property tax deadline arrives for delinquent accounts…Solar energy industry development could be economic boon for Texas, according to UT Austin…Two Houston companies rank in nation’s top-grossing black businesses, according to Black Enterprise magazine… Some 165,000 property taxpayers delinquent on their property tax accounts must pay their bills by the end of the day to avoid […]

Property tax deadline arrives for delinquent accounts…Solar energy industry development could be economic boon for Texas, according to UT Austin…Two Houston companies rank in nation’s top-grossing black businesses, according to Black Enterprise magazine…

Some 165,000 property taxpayers delinquent on their property tax accounts must pay their bills by the end of the day to avoid paying a much larger bill, according to the Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector’s office. Additional penalties and interest–as much as 26.6 percent–will be added starting tomorrow, hiking the total bill by as much as 41.6 percent. Tax Assessor-Collector Paul Bettencourt says that means the owner of an average value home in the Houston area could see his or her bill jump as much as $797 in just one day. Delinquent accounts will be turned over to delinquent tax attorneys for collection starting tomorrow.

Development of the solar energy industry in Texas would have a significant economic impact for consumers, the environment and workers, according to the new study by the IC2 Institute at the University of Texas at Austin. The report “Opportunity on the Horizon: Photovoltaics in Texas” finds the near-term benefits of nurturing the solar industry will stimulate the state’s economy, reduce the cost of power for consumers and minimize greenhouse gas emissions. The paper cites a University of California-Berkeley study that finds the solar industry produces seven to 11 times as many jobs on a megawatt capacity basis as coal-fired power plants, with a larger “trickle-down” effect than wind energy. The study says Texas could generate 123,000 new high-wage, technology-related, advanced manufacturing and electrical services jobs by 2020 by actively moving toward solar power. That would include large solar farms in west Texas, silicon plants along the Gulf Coast and manufacturing centers in central Texas.

Consumers spending increased in May as their incomes grew solidly. The new data from the Commerce Department provide encouraging signs that high gasoline prices haven’t killed people’s appetite to buy and inflation has moderated. The government says personal income for May increased four-tenths of a percent after dropping a revised two-tenths of a percent in April. And personal consumption expenditures increased a half percent, the same as in April. A price index for Personal Consumption Expenditures, or PCE, rose a half percent in May, compared with three-tenths of a percent in April. But the core PCE Index, excluding food and energy prices, rose just one-tenth percent for a second straight month. The Federal Reserve closely watches the core PCE Index for signs of inflation.

Consumer sentiment has slipped from a month ago, but not as much as expected. The final University of Michigan Survey of Consumer Sentiment for June moved to 85.3 from 88.3 in May. It had stood at 83.7 in the preliminary report for June. Economists surveyed by Dow Jones Newswires had expected the final index to stand at 84. The private research report also says Consumers’ Assessment of Current Conditions for June dropped to 101.9, from 105.1 in May. And the expectations index is 74.7, down from 77.6 last month.

Construction spending exceeded Wall Street’s expectations last month. The Commerce Department reports outlays jumped nine-tenths percent during May–the biggest increase since February of last year–as spending on publicly financed projects took up the slack left by the slump in housing. Analysts had been forecasting an increase of just two-tenths percent. Residential construction spending fell eight-tenths percent in May and is down 17 percent from May of last year.

Farmers have planted 19 percent more corn this year than in 2006. According to Agriculture Department figures, that’s well above the already high expectations for the crop. Back in March, USDA predicted growers would plant 90.5 million acres, which would have represented the most corn since the 1940s. The latest report shows farmers have planted an estimated 92.9 million acres. The increase is being fueled by high demand and high prices.

Black Enterprise magazine

Two Houston companies are among 19 in Texas to rank among the nation’s top-grossing black businesses, according to the June 2007 issue of Black Enterprise magazine. In the industrial/service category, CAMAC International placed at number two. The number eight slot in the asset managers section of the financial services firms category went to Smith Graham & Company Investment Advisors. The rankings include 275 businesses, with 100 industrial/service companies, 100 auto dealerships, 60 financial services firms and 15 advertising agencies. The magazine develops rankings by collecting surveys from companies and gathering information from government agencies, professional organizations, industry associations, business information services, entrepreneurs and corporations.

Nabors Industries and Seacor Holdings have signed a letter of intent to form a new company called Sea Mar Offshore to operate a fleet of 20 offshore vehicles, according to the Houston Chronicle. The support vehicles are now owned by a Nabors affiliate.

Houston-based oilfield services company Allis-Chalmers Energy has sold its capillary tubing business and related equipment to BJ Services for $16.3 million, according to the Houston Business Journal.

Houston-based WCA Waste has acquired the Fort Bend Regional Landfill and other assets from Canada-based Waste Services in a $23.7 million deal, according to the Houston Business Journal. The acquisition includes a site, a transfer station and collection routes.

Texas cities are among the fastest-growing in the nation, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Houston, San Antonio, Dallas, Austin and Fort Worth are among the top ten cities in the nation for population growth from 2005 to 2006. Houston holds on to the number four position with 2.1 million residents. Phoenix, which is now the fifth-largest city after overtaking Philadelphia, saw the largest overall population gain. New Orleans led all cities of 100,000 or more for declining population with a staggering 51 percent drop. In 1910, the largest ten cities were within 500 miles of Canada. Now, seven of the top ten most populous cities are in states that border Mexico.

Federal banking regulators have finished up work on guidelines that call on lenders to be more strict in evaluating borrowers’ ability to repay home loans. The home loan guidance issued by the Federal Reserve and the other four federal agencies comes in response to troubles in the housing market. Home prices have been falling and mortgage defaults have been rising, especially among subprime mortgages that are given to buyers with shaky credit. The standards are voluntary and apply only to federally regulated lenders, they call for verification of borrowers’ incomes in most cases. In addition, they say consumers should have clear disclosures of their mortgage terms and should have at least 60 days to refinance a loan that is about to jump up to a higher rate–without penalty.

Liberty Bank and Trust of New Orleans has acquired a Houston mortgage firm. SDI Mortgage, a private 20-person firm, will become a Liberty Bank loan production office. Terms weren’t released. Liberty Bank CEO Alden McDonald says he hopes to eventually begin offering a complete line of banking services, including checking and savings accounts, in the Houston area. Liberty was hard-hit by 2005’s Hurricane Katrina. Six of its eight New Orleans branches flooded, as did the homes of many of its customers. The acquisition marks Liberty’s first move into the fast-growing Texas market. Liberty currently has banking operations in Baton Rouge and New Orleans as well as in Jackson and Vicksburg, Mississippi.

Katy Mills will soon have ten new retail outlet stores. They include: Juicy Couture Clearance Center, Levis/Dockers Outlet by Most, New York & Co., Oakley Vault, Zumiez, Bath & Body Works Outlet, Lane Bryant Outlet, Petit Sophisticate Outlet, Lucky Brand Jeans Outlet and J. Crew Factory.

The U.S. government has issued a lease to a partnership that wants to open an abandoned oil shale mine in eastern Utah. The Interior Department issued the ten-year lease to Alabama-based Oil Shale Exploration. In December, the department leased other 160-acre parcels of federal land in northwest Colorado to three energy companies also trying to coax oil out of hard rock. Parts of Colorado, Utah and Wyoming contain enough petroleum in theory to meet U.S. energy needs for a century, but it is an expensive process to start. The companies involved in the Colorado projects are Shell Frontier Oil and Gas, Chevron USA and Midland-based EGL Resources. The White River Mine near Vernal, 130 miles east of Salt Lake City, was abandoned by oil companies in 1985 when falling crude prices made shale oil uneconomical.

South Korea and the United States have agreed on final changes to their pending free trade agreement. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade says South Korea has “decided to accept a U.S. proposal to change the agreement” to reflect new U.S. guidelines calling for stricter labor and environmental standards for free trade deals. The agreement needs to be approved by lawmakers in both countries to take effect. “Fast track” power prevents legislators from making any changes to the deal before voting on it. The Bush administration is also concluding all aspects of pending free trade deals with Peru, Colombia and Panama as well.

The Shaw Group has won a federal emergency response contract worth up to $354 million over eight years. The agreement is with the Environmental Protection Agency. Louisiana-based Shaw says the EPA deal involves emergency work and rapid response to the release of oil-based and hazardous substances. The contract applies EPA Region 6, which includes Texas, as well as Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico and Oklahoma. Containment of spills, cleanup and disposal using approved equipment and trained personnel is part of the contract, which Shaw said it was well-suited to carry out because of its major presence in the Gulf South.

A one-acre site fronting the Brownsville Ship Channel is a $2.2 million assembly of pipes, sheds and machinery. It’s the Texas entree into making Gulf of Mexico sea water suitable to drink. Plant operator Joel Del Rio is its guardian. Del Rio’s job is to check the intake pumps, the pretreatment filters, the discharge pond and the long pipes of the desalination unit. In an occasional moment of truth, he opens a small spigot at the end of a fat pipe and fills a plastic glass in hopes the finished product will taste “like regular bottled water.” The plant is a pilot project for the state’s first full-scale sea water desalination plant–slated for construction in 2010. Governor Rick Perry began pushing for Gulf of Mexico desalination in 2002. A state water plan determined hundreds of communities could face water shortages in the next 50 years. In Florida, Tampa Bay’s $158 million sea water desalination plant opened in March.

Houston-based ENGlobal Corporation says its subsidiary ENGlobal Engineering has reached 20 million man-hours worked without a lost time recordable. Twenty-million man-hours equates to about 12 years. The company’s safety manager credits employee experience, training and plant safety initiatives. ENGlobal provides engineering, automation systems, field inspection and land management and regulatory services for the petroleum refining, petrochemical, pipeline, production and process industries worldwide.

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