Thursday AM April 24th, 2008

City’s paperless payroll system to save $1 million annually. Zogby poll reveals feelings about American dream of home ownership. Tellepsen awarded contracts for three expansion projects at Rice University.

The paperless payroll system now used by the City of Houston is saving up to $1 million annually, according to City Controller Annise Parker. Savings are in personnel, printing and paper costs. The city’s 21,000 employees previously received printed records of the payroll information every two weeks. Parker said it took two employees an entire day to print the documents and another four hours to fold them with each payroll cycle. The documents were picked up by department representatives and distributed manually. But now payroll information is accessed by computer, saving about 600,000 sheets of paper annually. Some 422 employees are refusing direct deposit, so they now receive a debit card each pay period valued in the amount of the net pay.

According to a survey from AOL Real Estate and Zogby International, more than half of us believe the dream to own a home is still attainable for most Americans. Some 43 percent say they spend more than 30 percent of their household budget on housing. The Department of Housing and Urban Development says that means they are “cost burdened.” The survey says the Internet is an essential resource and the first choice for buyers, sellers and renters seeking information. The poll says 22 percent would lose their house or apartment with an unexpected short-term job loss, and 30 percent are working paycheck to paycheck to cover housing costs.

Reliant Energy is selling its Bighorn Generating Station to a Nevada Power subsidiary in a $500 million deal, according to the Houston Business Journal. Sierra Pacific Resources owns the 598-megawatt, natural gas-fired, combined-cycle power plant, commissioner in 2004.

Houston builder Tellepsen has been awarded more than $50 million in construction and pre-design contracts for three expansion projects at Rice University. Ground has been broken on a $41 million two-story, multi-use Recreational & Wellness Center. The Rice Continuing Studies Building and Conference Center projects are in pre-design phase.

Norway’s Seadrill, which has a Houston office, is not intent on a hostile takeover of Pride International. But Seadrill’s Web site says the company has requested a meeting to discuss potential strategic benefits of a transaction between the two companies. Seadrill owns 200,000 Pride International common shares and forward agreements to buy 16.3 million. Pride this week lowered the threshold of ownership for Seadrill that triggers its shareholder rights plan from 15 to ten percent after Seadrill revealed it had bought 9.9 percent of Pride shares on the open market.

The National Institutes of Health has awarded Agenniz of Houston a $3 million grant for study of an immune system protein that might be used to treat a severe bacterial infection that can cause internal organs to fail. Agennix is in the middle of a trial of the talactoferrin alfa protein in lung cancer patients.

Freeways may soon be a misnomer for interstates in a growing number of states. State governments are considering tolls on interstates as ways of raising cash. Pennsylvania is weighing tolls on I-80. Virginia is considering fees on Interstate 81. And trucks could be tolled on Missouri’s Interstate 70. In New Jersey, lawmakers are discussing tolls for a pair of busy interstates. The idea is being raised as an alternative to an unpopular proposal to increase fares at several existing toll sites in the state. While some residents are already objecting to the proposal, supporters claim the new revenue could help wean governments off gasoline and other taxes to finance transportation improvements. One state lawmaker says America’s reliance on gasoline taxes conflicts with efforts toward energy independence and fuel-efficient cars.

Texas and New York are tied for third place in registrations for new hybrid vehicles, according to R.L. Polk. California remained the top state for hybrid registrations last year, with 26 percent of the market share. Texas has 4.9 percent. Total U.S hybrid sales in 2007 were up 38 percent to more than 350,000 vehicles. The Toyota Prius remains the highest-selling hybrid, with 51 percent of the market.

A new study finds that efforts to help troubled borrowers with subprime mortgages are falling short. The State Foreclosure Prevention Working Group says 70 percent of borrowers who are two months behind on their payments still are not getting help. Of those actually getting help, only one in three completed a workout within 45 days. Slow assistance is partly why the number of homeowners facing foreclosure increased 16 percent. The report is critical of the work of the Hope Now Alliance–a coalition of mortgage lenders and servicers backed by the Bush administration. The group issuing the report includes 11 state attorneys generals, two state banking departments and the conference of state bank supervisors.

Iraq could take in as much as $70 billion in oil revenues this year. A special U.S. auditor for Iraq, Stuart Bowen, tells the Associated Press that “Iraq is enjoying a record windfall” in a boom that has been fueled by record oil prices, record production and record exports. Bowen’s previously undisclosed information is likely to increase the call among U.S. lawmakers for the Iraqis to shoulder more of the costs of rebuilding their nation. The Senate Armed Services Committee chairman, Michigan Democrat Carl Levin, says he favors legislation that would block U.S. money from being spent on Iraq reconstruction and possibly other war-related costs. Some Senate Republicans have proposed a separate bill that calls for Iraq or its neighbors to pay more for reconstruction.

Sam’s Club, the membership warehouse division of Wal-Mart, is limiting how much rice customers can buy because of what it calls “recent supply and demand trends.” The broader chain of Wal-Mart stores has no plans to limit food purchases, however. Sam’s Club says it will limit customers to four bags at a time of jasmine, basmati and long grain white rice. Rice prices have been hitting record highs recently on worries about tight supplies. Sam’s Club’s restriction is effective immediately at all locations where quantity restrictions are allowed by law. It does not apply to other staples such as flour or oil.

Schlumberger and British Telecommunications have launched wireless broadband service for offshore and remote oil and gas drilling rigs and production platforms. The service has been operational on the Byford Dolphin rig in the North Sea for a three-month trial. Wireless connectivity is provided over the rig’s main satellite link, allowing around a hundred workers to use wirelessly enabled laptops and PDAs. Users can buy vouchers onboard or can subscribe to the service online.

The American Federation of Television and Radio Artists says it will delay the start of its contract talks with studios for a week to give the ongoing Screen Actors Guild negotiations a chance to succeed. The announcement, which puts off the start of talks from April 28th to May 5th, came on Wednesday. The federation says in a statement that it delayed talks at the request of the major studios. It says its members’ interests would be better served by giving the larger Screen Actors Guild more time to work out a deal.

An appeals court panel of three judges appeared split on federal regulators’ persistent effort to halt Whole Foods Market’s takeover of a rival. The Federal Trade Commission tried to block Whole Foods’ acquisition of Wild Oats last year, arguing that it would stifle competition and harm consumers. But a Federal District Court judge rejected the agency’s request in August and the two stores closed the deal later that month. The FTC’s appeal of that ruling is unusual because antitrust regulators usually throw in the towel after the courts clear a transaction. Judge David Tatel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit expressed some sympathy for the FTC’s arguments that the District Court had applied an incorrect legal standard when it greenlighted the deal. But Judge Brett Kavanaugh appeared to accept that the District Court applied the proper legal standard.

A case that could make it easier for employees to win health and disability benefit payments was argued before the Supreme Court. The proceeding is being closely watched by insurance companies and business groups. At issue is a lawsuit filed by a 55-year-old Ohio woman against Metlife over disability payments. Wanda Glenn left her job at Sears in 2000 due to a heart condition. She received disability payments from Metlife for two years, but the company stopped them in 2002, saying her condition had improved. Glenn’s lawyers argue Metlife had a conflict of interest because it both decided whether employees should receive benefits under Sears’ disability plan and it paid the benefits. They say that gives Metlife a financial incentive to deny her claim. Metlife says it’s confident it’s “right on the law.” The Bush administration has weighed in on the case–on Glenn’s side.

A former Texas prisons director and a Canadian businessman have been acquitted of bribery in a two-hour federal trial relating to a prison system food contract. The case involves Vitapro, a soy-based meat substitute considered for state inmate meals. The verdicts in Houston are the second time U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes has acquitted former Texas prisons director James “Andy” Collins and Canadian businessman Yank Barry. The two were first indicted in 1998 on bribery, money-laundering and conspiracy charges by a federal grand jury. A trial jury accepted prosecutors’ contention that Collins accepted two $10,000 bribes from Barry for pushing a no-bid contract worth millions with Vitapro. But three years passed without Collins and Barry being sentenced. The trial transcript was found to have so many gaps and errors that Hughes ordered them reconstructed. But the effort didn’t succeed and the court reporter was jailed for contempt. By 2005, Hughes granted a new trial. The government appealed and the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed Hughes’ decision.

Lawyers for dozens of residents of a polluted Rhode Island neighborhood say an energy company has agreed to pay their clients and clean up the area where toxins turned the soil blue. Tests revealed the ground was contaminated with arsenic, cyanide, lead and other toxins. Terms of the settlement with Houston-based Southern Union are sealed and lawyers would not discuss details Wednesday. But plaintiff’s attorneys Robert McConnell and Mark Reynolds tell the Associated Press they have a tentative deal. Reynolds says the settlement involves payouts to the property owners and a pledge to clean up the contaminated properties. A spokesman for Southern Union did not immediately return a message.

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