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Major problems with drainage fees set for repair by City Council today

Thursday, June 8, 2000 by

Refunds will be given to nonresidential customers who were overcharged

The mishmash of problems that led to the city overcharging some of its customers for drainage fees while failing to charge others will be addressed with action by the City Council today. In Fact Daily outlined those problems June 1. All nonresidential customers pay the same rate, currently $51.12 per developed acre, but the determination of the number of developed acres has not been made consistently for all customers.

Property owners who knew of the inequity applied for and got refunds. In fact, for the year ending Sept. 30, 1999, refunds totaled $282,549, with individual refunds ranging to more than $26,000. Properties of certain governmental organizations have been exempted from the fees even though the city's drainage utility was created for the purpose of being able to remove those exemptions.

These matters were exposed primarily through the detailed criticisms raised by Scott Henson of Paper Trail Research Services, who is a former investigative reporter. City records he obtained through the Texas Public Information Act showed the city was aware of the problems as early as 1993.

Council Members Bill Spelman and Beverly Griffith sponsored items on today's council agenda to fix the problems.

• Remove fee exemptions–The council will set in motion the action necessary to remove exemptions for the State of Texas, University of Texas, Travis County, and the Austin Independent School District. Not levying fees on these governmental entities has cost the city about $1 million a year in revenue. Ironically, Spelman says the federal government already pays the fees. The exemptions will not be removed until Aug. 31, 2001, giving these four entities a full year to work the fees into their budgets.

• Reduce maintenance discount–At present properties with a well-maintained detention pond or water quality pond are given a 50 percent discount in drainage fees. A cost of service study performed by Camp Dresser & McKee in 1993 estimated the discount should be closer to 13 percent to 17 percent, based on the real cost the city avoided by not having to operate and maintain these structures, Spelman said.

• Realign fee classes–Residential structures are paying too high a portion of the drainage fee because the amount of impervious cover for these structures was originally overestimated, according to Camp Dresser & McKee's study, Spelman says. "Actual drainage is smaller," Spelman said, "so a greater burden will have to come from commercial properties."

• Refund all overcharges–Staff will be instructed to identify all nonresidential properties that have been overcharged drainage fees and refund the proper amounts. "We made systematic mistakes on some commercial customers," Spelman says. "This tells (staff) to figure out who we overcharged, find them, and give them a credit to square the books." Spelman says the staff is still trying to figure out the total cost of these refunds, but $1 million was the last estimate of highest cost to the city. He estimates the figure at $500,000 to $700,000. If the total amount is more than $1 million, Spelman said the refunds might stretch over two years, but if $500,000 to $700,000, refunds would be made entirely in a single year.

Today's council meeting will be Spelman's last but he is not half-stepping on the matter of drainage fees. "Do I want to be the guy who this happened to on his watch and he did nothing about it?" Spelman asked rhetorically.

All these actions will dovetail with a forthcoming master plan for drainage that will be accompanied by a long-term budget estimate of resources needed to fix long-standing problems and save Austin's creeks from further damage and reduce flooding. With that budget in mind, the new strategy is to reset the fees so they are equitable to all classes of ratepayers and the total amount is adequate to fund the budget.

To illustrate the possible impact of all this, Spelman said, "We could have reduced fees 20 percent in 1993 if we had eliminated exemptions, reduced discounts and fairly charged all customers–and still have raised the same amount of money."

Even after In Fact Daily's report last week, Henson drove another point home by e-mailing Council Members Spelman and Griffith to point out that, "It would have been illegal to completely base drainage fees on TCAD ( Travis Central Appraisal District records) from the beginning, because the state statute governing municipal drainage utilities states that the city must exempt 'property held and maintained in its natural state, until such time that the property is developed and all of the public infrastructure constructed has been accepted by the municipality in which the property is located for maintenance.'"

If you or ( City Manager) Jesus (Garza) claim it was our policy not to exempt undeveloped property before 1996, then that's an admission the city violated state law from 1991-96. You'd be better off admitting the discrepancy," Henson wrote.

Spelman praised Henson for exposing the problems with drainage fees. "I think Scott's done a tremendous job in bringing this to our attention," Spelman said.

Police Oversight Focus Group recommendations head to Meet and Confer

City manager directed to bring about civilian oversight of police department

Following up on the June 1 public hearing in which the overwhelming majority of people who addressed the council called for civilian oversight of the Austin Police Department (APD) (In Fact Daily June 2), the City Council today will consider a resolution ordering the matter be put into the process for incorporation into the Meet and Confer Agreement between the City of Austin and the Austin Police Association.

Council Member Bill Spelman, who with Council Member Daryl Slusher is sponsoring the resolution, said Wednesday, "I think we've got seven votes for it." The exact language of the resolution was still being resolved through the Law Department but Spelman said Police Chief Stan Knee and Mayor Kirk Watson seemed ready to support it.

The draft resolution contained three action items to direct the city manager to:

• Bring the recommendations of the Police Oversight Focus Group (POFG) before the Meet and Confer process of negotiations now underway with the Austin Police Association.

• Make civilian oversight part of the Meet and Confer Agreement.

• Complete a legal and management review of these recommendations to ensure that they will have only the intended effect of improved resolution of citizen complaints and civilian oversight. (This point addresses issues identified by APD executives and city legal staff that must be resolved.)

POFG member Ann del Llano, an attorney who co-founded the Sunshine Project for Police Accountability and is a past president of the American Civil Liberties Union of Central Texas, said of the draft resolution, "It sounds pretty good to me. The most important thing is the council take seriously its role in oversight in coming months and that the final contract is adequate in the end. I understand the council will monitor the negotiations, and that's the community's access (to the Meet and Confer process)."

Scott Henson, who co-founded the Sunshine Project and separately maintains the Austin Police Department Hall of Shame web site , noted that the legal review of the recommendations will be of paramount importance. "We should get the right to respond to false commentary on what it means," Henson says. Of the briefing made at the June 1 council meeting by Assistant City Attorney Anita Stevenson, Henson said, "They're saying things that are flat-out misrepresentations, and the ACLU put out a legal memo on all these issues." He added, "What I'm concerned about is what the council tells them to do to make it weaker on some advice we don't get to counter. I don't want them to gut it."

Detective Mike Sheffield, president of the Austin Police Association, said the resolution was acceptable as well. "When this first began, that's all we asked, that what comes out of the Focus Group findings be put into Meet and Confer," he said. "All we asked is that we be an equal part of this, and the only way to do that is to bring it to Meet and Confer."

In spite of his reservations, Henson is grateful for the progress made on police oversight. "The notion two years ago that we would get a 7-0 vote on any kind of police oversight would have been unheard of. When we first started talking to the council in the fall of 1998 we got a deafening silence. (Council Member) Spelman of his own accord up and said, 'I want to do this.' If he hadn't taken the leadership on this it would not have happened."

The POFG was established May 20, 1999, for the purpose of examining the current system by which the APD investigates and resolves citizen complaints and recommending an improved system that provides for civilian oversight of this system. The POFG met 37 times over nine months, consulted with national experts on civilian oversight and visited Bay Area cities that utilize a variety of forms of civilian oversight. POFG members reached consensus on recommendations that civilian oversight consist of a Police Monitor hired by and reporting to the city manager and a Police Review Panel appointed by the City Council. The basic report was 32 pages, not counting voluminous attachments. The report is available on the Austin City Connection web site .

Council to crack down on board of Mexican American Cultural Center

City Council will control appointments to the board

Think of it as a big MACC attack with no hamburgers. The Mexican American Cultural Center (MACC) for which voters approved bonds in November 1998 is about to get a shakeup in its management structure. The city manager is to be authorized to negotiate and execute an amendment to the agreement with the Center for Mexican American Cultural Arts Inc. (CMACA) to allow the City Council to appoint members to the CMACA board.

The current contract was approved by the council Dec. 16, 1999, for CMACA to operate and manage the MACC. An earlier agreement was approved by the council on April 1, 1998, for CMACA to operate the current site of the MACC. The CMACA board has come under fire for not living up to its mission. Allegations are flying that certain board members have run roughshod over the process and not raised money needed to eventually make the operation self-sustaining.

The council action would require the CMACA board chair to bring forward nominations the board is requesting to the City Council for review. Council would then appoint members to the CMACA board from the list of potential candidates presented. Each year, council would appoint one-third of the board, giving all board members three-year terms. The initial year, all present members and any potential members will be presented to council, at which point the council will either replace four of the current board members or install all the members who were previously on the board.

Board Member Cathy Vasquez did not return a call to comment on this story. She is a former member of the Planning Commission, appointed for three terms by Council Member Gus Garcia but often at odds with him. Vasquez is said to have been at Garcia's farewell party Tuesday–not inside celebrating but outside protesting, along with members of El Concilio. Neither Garcia nor his executive assistant, Paul Saldaña, could be reached for comment yesterday.

Tomas Salas, planning and development manager for the MACC, was on the CMACA board but he says he was removed and cut out of the decision-making process. "What's going on is some board members are meeting on their own and making decisions," he says. "Instead of seeing the city as a partner, they have taken an adversarial position."

Construction of the MACC is being handled by the city. The architects are Casabella + Del Campo & Maru Joint Venture. An item on the council's agenda today would increase funding by $245,000 for a total agreement not to exceed $985,000. The additional funds will provide for a series of community workshops, as well as environmental studies and testing, and a master plan for the 5.9 acre site showing all proposed facilities.

Salas says the board currently is composed of President Roen Salinas of Aztlan Dance Co.; Vice President Jorge Sanchez, owner of KGBS Channel 65; Secretary Cathy Vasquez, publisher of La Prensa; Treasurer Jesus Angel Gomez, an employee of the city's Water and Wastewater Department; former Arts Commissioner Valarie Menard; Sabino Renteria; Delia Perez-Mayer; Rosie Mendoza; and Melvin Wrenn.

According to Salas, some board members have hired attorneys from Vinson & Elkins to represent them with the city. One of the attorneys is David Rodriguez, Salas says. Rodriguez once ran for District 51 state representative.

The council agenda today also calls for an amendment to CMACA's budget to provide an additional $56,000. According to the backup material for the item, while the CMACA board is working with the city on the design and construction phase of the project, "the board is working on its endowment fund and benefactors to allow the center to be self-sustaining. Funds provided under this amendment will allow the board to continue to provide services in managing the current site and in transitioning into the startup operation of the center once it is built."

Save Our Springs Alliance presents Soul of the City Awards

10th Anniversary prelude to Sunday night bash

The Save Our Springs Alliance celebrated in a small but important way last night, marking the 10th anniversary of the all-night public hearing of 1990 that resulted in the City Council's unanimous rejection of the Barton Creek Planned Unit Development's application for a 4,000 acre development. The importance was in honoring all who have worked in the wake of that historic event, including passage of the Save Our Springs Ordinance and building an organization to protect the environment.

Whole Foods Market was presented the Business Visionary Award for its early support. In announcing the award, SOS Alliance Chair Mary Arnold said, "They suffered for it. They incurred the wrath of Gary Bradley. When they wanted to build a new store at 6th and Lamar, Gary Bradley spoke against them at the Planning Commission and tried to ruin their deal," Arnold said. "They put in a water quality pond at 6th and Lamar when they weren't required to, to be true to their ideals and their corporate philosophy, and have continued to support SOS."

The award was accepted for Whole Foods by James Murray and Rory Alexander. "SOS and Whole Foods have a lot in common," Murray said. "Gary Bradley can go shop at Central Market," added Alexander.

Peter Zandan, founder of Intelliquest Inc., presented a Soul of the City Award to Lee Walker, chairman of Capital Metro's board of directors. Walker said, "It was Brigid Shea and her activities that caused me to get involved 10 years ago."

"The vote in November on light rail is just as crucial to our community as SOS was 10 years ago," Walker said. "My prayer will be when we meet here in 10 years to celebrate 20 years of SOS, we will look back on our successful light-rail election, and on a system half built, and it will be just as vital to our air. I ask you to devote yourself to the battle for our air in November."

Council Member Daryl Slusher presented a Soul of the City Award to Mary Arnold, saying she had a hand in overturning the Barton Creek PUD, passing the SOS Ordinance, and buying land to protect water quality. "If you named one person who was there every step of the way it would be Mary Arnold," he said.

Arnold said, "It's a wonderful way to celebrate my retirement. I had my 65th birthday a couple of days ago. Thanks for coming to my retirement party."

"Remember the passion we expressed at the council meeting of 1990," she said. Her voice cracking with emotion, the usually unflappable Arnold said, "We've got a friendly council now but we still need to save the springs. We still need to raise money and tell the story."

Brigid Shea said she moved to Austin in 1988 and was drawn to the movement by that all-night hearing. "I had never seen such a clear expression of political will," she said. "That's when I decided to make Austin my home." Shea noted that it was in the original Threadgill's Restaurant where the hat was passed the first time for SOS. "We got $72 and that seemed like an enormous amount at the time," she said.

Shea recognized SOS Alliance General Counsel Bill Bunch as an "unbelievable mainstay." Bunch thanked the music community for "supporting our efforts beyond anyone's imagination."

Peter Zandan presented a special recognition award to the Austin Entrepreneurs Foundation, which solicits high-tech companies to give stock, "so if the company goes public or is sold, not just employees benefit." He said the foundation has gained $1 million in underwriting support. "In 10 years, this could mean hundreds of millions of dollars to Austin," he said. The award was accepted by Lynne Beaman.

Jon Beall, who emceed the evening's event, presented a special recognition award to Daryl Slusher "who as much as anybody created this movement." Slusher accepted, saying, "What I did then in a June 1st article was tap into a deep vein of discontent in the way our council managed the city and a deep vein of love for the city," Slusher said.

Beall presented the last special recognition award to Shudde Fath, a founding member of the city's Electric Utility Commission and the Save Barton Creek Association. Fath came forward to accept the longest and most sustained applause of the evening, while the music of Aaron Copland's stirring "Fanfare for the Common Man" filled the room.

SOS history…At last night's Soul of the City Awards celebration, longtime environmentalist Shudde Fath gave a brief history lesson about early supporters in the business community. She said that Jim Hill had gotten movie star Robert Redford to make a public service announcement on behalf of the effort to get people to come to the public hearing that turned into an all-night City Council meeting on the Barton Creek Planned Unit Development. When radio stations wouldn't air the message as a free service, " Whole Foods paid for the radio spot to run all day June 7," Fath said… Special shirts…Many of the people who spoke at the infamous all-night City Council meeting of June 7, 1990, were recognized at last night's Soul of the City Awards with certificates and tee-shirts. They were Scott Henson, Kirk Mitchell, Pam Thompson, Kevin Conner, Brian Hall, Johnny Barnett, Dorothy Richter, Steve Beers, Diana Castaneda, Jackie Goodman, Jenny Clark, Burgess Jackson, Meg Driscoll, Stacey Abel, Susan Walker, Ingrid Weigand, David Swann, Phyllis Brinkley, Bill Oliver, Mary Arnold, Joe Pool, Abby Green, Cathy Green, Robert Wilbourn, Ron Cook, Bill Bunch, Harriet Harris, Tim Jones, Nancy Scanlon, John Trainor, Brigid Shea, Scott Swearingen, David Swan, and Neal Tuttrup.

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