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City Council hears citizens' requests

Friday, August 4, 2000 by

Second hearing set for August 17

Mayor Kirk Watson: “My name is Bond, Road Bond.”

Council Member Beverly Griffith: “My name is Bond, Parks Bond.”

Council Member Raul Alvarez: "Wait! My name is Bond too…Housing Bond.”

Council Member Danny Thomas: "Let's all be Bond!"

The public got an earful of bonds Thursday night after the City Council held three public hearings to discuss possible Nov. 7 bond elections on packages for transportation improvements, parks and land acquisition, and affordable housing initiatives. The totals proposed, so far, include $150 million for roads, $100 million for parks, and $25 million for housing. Another public hearing on bond proposals will be held on Aug. 17.

The amounts would have seemed staggering ten years ago, but with a booming economy and a highly successful $334 bond initiative in 1998, council members beamed with optimism about the prospect of passing the proposals. "Everything's going to be OK…We'll do it," Griffith said after the meeting. All three proposals would accompany a $919.6 million dollar proposal from Capital Metro for light rail, although that plan would be paid for with federal funding and existing sales tax revenue.

Watson outlined his roads package by stressing that a balance of transportation options is crucial, and continued to refer to the plan as a "toolbox" to address different needs. The mayor also said the key component of his plan would be leveraging Austin bond money to get state funds. The mayor specifically designated $93 million of the proposal for matching funds to go after state projects for new roads. Some $47 million would be reserved for street and traffic improvements, and $10 million would go to pedestrian and bicycle improvements. More importantly, he dispelled the most valid criticism against his plan by explaining that the city would have total control over spending the money.

Council Member Daryl Slusher wondered if the Capital Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO) would have a say in where the money goes and have the flexibility to do something like "put an expressway over the aquifer into Hays County."

Watson said CAMPO would still set the priorities for what to fund, but the City Council would vote on whether to expend bond money for the projects. The only other criticism the mayor faced centered on the fact that the $10 million for pedestrian and bicycle improvements amounts to less than 7 percent of the total. Bike and pedestrian advocates noted that even CAMPO recommends higher percentages of funding for such projects.

And although speaker after speaker outlined the dire need for money in each area and came out in favor of each bond proposal, not everything was rosy in council land. Griffith sparred briefly with Watson, who questioned her on the details of the parks plan she proposed. The plan would earmark $35 million for park development, including a recreation center and pool in East Austin at Colony Park ($12 million), new sports fields and bike trails at a new park in South Austin ($17 million) and a recreation center and nature trail at Walnut Creek Metropolitan Park in North Austin ($6 million). The additional $65 million would be reserved for parkland acquisition, Griffith said.

Watson wondered who was going to pay for the maintenance on new parks when the city is already facing more than $60 million in deferred maintenance on existing parks. And he questioned whether condemnation of private land would be an option.

Griffith, however, countered Watson by saying the same questions could be asked of roads. She said the parks bond issue fit in perfectly with the roads package, which she supports as well. "This hearing is a three-legged stool…economy, environment and equity," she said. “Let’s keep our balance and let’s broaden the dialogue, which is why these additional subjects were placed on the agenda.”

As for "equity," Council Member Raul Alvarez was ready to jump in with his own thoughts on the need for affordable housing. "We need to create a housing toolbox," he said, which followed a continuing analogy of how different tools were needed to confront Austin's most serious challenges. "The difficulty people have is to afford to live in this great city of ours." Other than a $25 million figure, Alvarez did not have any specific proposals for expenditures and asked that the council and staff sit down for a workshop to discuss possibilities.

The lack of details on the plans didn't appear to bother any of the public speakers, who felt comfortable with the notion that good "toolboxes" for housing, the environment, and transportation are vital to our quality of life. In fact, several speakers, including Robin Stallings, Dave Dobbs and Karin Ascot–spoke in favor of the proposals at all three hearings.

Council Member Danny Thomas also said the three ideas fit nicely together, but he said dealing with the details would be a lot harder to get a grip on than the money. "We’ve heard a lot tonight…You can have a toolbox full of tools, but if you’re not utilizing them right, what’s the purpose?”

After four weeks off, Council plows through long agenda

The City of Austin will soon begin putting the final touches on its proposed $1.77 billion budget for FY 2000-2001. City Council budget workshops begin on Thursday Aug. 17, at which point the Council will look at different priority areas. Budget priorities for public safety and housing affordability will be the subject of a Council public hearing at 6 p.m. Aug. 17. Currently, the Council is scheduled to adopt a final budget on Sept. 13. Management has proposed an effective tax rate of 45.63 cents per $100–the lowest rate in a decade. However, debt service on the 1998 bond package would add another penny.

City Manager Jesus Garza told the Council Thursday that he would be suggesting several new changes to the existing proposal, including: * A living wage increase for all full-time city employees that guarantees a minimum wage of $9 per hour by April of 2001. * Elimination of the Residential Review Fee of $75, which would amount to a revenue decrease of $245,000 a year. * Fixing the Ramsey Pool, which leaks and has other mechanical problems, at a cost of $400,000. * An addition of $250,000 to neighborhood planning and other enhancement projects for a total of $400,000.

A plan to redevelop Robert Mueller Municipal Airport took another small step forward Thursday as City Council members received the final report from consultants creating a blueprint for what will be the largest single development of land in the city’s history, some 709 acres.

Jim Adams, a consultant with the ROMA Design Group, presented a plan that includes a mixture of residential, commercial and retail space with a heavy concentration on open space and pedestrian-and-bicycle friendly neighborhoods, as well as transit corridors for an eventual light rail line. An elementary school, civic buildings and other public buildings would be included. And a town center with retail, dining, a large retention lake and recreation would form the heart of the development. The plans call for phasing in the development over 20 years.

Jim Musbach, a consultant with Economic and Planning Systems, told the Council that the group recommended a “master developer” contracted after a request for proposal process from the city. “The city then would in effect serve as an executive developer,” Musbach said. “The city would retain a number of methods of control over the development process.”

Musbach also said the development would generate up to $350,000 a year more in tax revenue than costs to the city for infrastructure and utilities. After 20 years, that amount would grow to $3.2 million a year in revenue.

The Council will now consider any changes before adopting the plan and deciding whether to continue with a plan for a master developer. “This really has been a community-based process,” said Council Member Daryl Slusher, “and that’s why we’ve seen it pay off today.”

The following citizens were appointed Thursday to the Robert Mueller Municipal Airport Plan Implementation Advisory Commission: (All are listed with a note on their areas of expertise) Terry Mitchell, real estate; Suzanna Calballero, commercial finance; Eileen Saling, business representative; Donna Carter, urban design; Matt Harris, neighborhood representative; Larry McKee, adjacent neighborhood representative; Jim Walker, adjacent neighborhood representative; former Council Member Gus Garcia, at-large; and Matt Moore, at-large.

The City Council Thursday voted to draw up ballot language for the proposed Prairie Grass Golf Course, Hotel and Conference Center on Lake Walter E. Long, city parkland that would require a voter approval before the development can get the go-ahead.

The proposal includes two 18-hole golf courses, a 250-room hotel, a 65,000-square-foot conference center and several recreational amenities like tennis courts and swimming pools on the northeast side of the lake. The parkland at the700-acre site is currently vacant and barred from public access by a chain link fence. Gagne Development Company Inc. of White Plains New York would be the lead developer for the project along with Larry Beard of Austin and Mark Levy of San Francisco.

Council Member Beverly Griffith initially asked for a postponement on the item so that the Parks and Recreation Board could review the final proposal. But Mayor Kirk Watson said a vote would simply get the ballot language ready, so a delay would be unnecessary and the board could still have time for review.

Watson, however, came out in strong support of the plan. “The City Council of Austin Texas has said many times what we need to be doing is providing amenities east of IH-35. And this is one of those opportunities where we’re going to put money where are mouth is.” The mayor added that the development would be in the Desired Development Zone and would create entry-level jobs so that everyone can “participate in the economic boom.”

The resort also would contribute a projected $1.4 million in tax revenue, which Watson said could go toward parks maintenance, affordable housing, or both.

Boosting the potential for the resort’s success would be two new housing developments— Wildhorse Ranch and Heritage Crossing—each with about 4,000 planned homes.

Jay Hailey, an Austin attorney speaking on behalf of the developer, stressed that although the development would be private, it would be open at all times to the public. “This is no country club,” he said. “This would become a park-like atmosphere that would be available to everyone.”

Opponents of the resort, however, note that regardless of its benefit economically and recreationally, it’s still taking parkland adjacent to several key open space preserves. And although it would be accessible to the public, the price of golf and tennis at the resort may be out of reach of many area residents. Griffith voiced concern, as she has previously, over alienating parkland, especially lakeside property. Griffith and members of the Parks and Recreation Board have said they are concerned about the precedent that allowing a hotel on dedicated parkland would create. Golfers and representatives of the developers had earlier tried to get the item on the May ballot (See In Fact Daily Feb. 23, 28, 29, 2000).

Attorney warns that money cannot simply be distributed

The City Council Thursday voted 6-1 to authorize City Attorney Andy Martin to enter into alternative dispute resolution with representatives of the plaintiffs in the Cedar Avenue lawsuit. Council Member Daryl Slusher voted no. Council Member Danny Thomas had placed an item on the agenda directing the City Manager to disburse $182,620 to the plaintiffs in the lawsuit over police conduct at the 1995 Valentine’s Day party.

The settlement of the suit included an agreement to allow a non-profit organization to administer the funds as scholarships and for similar purposes. Plaintiffs complained that the documents they are required to complete for that organization, the First Step Corp., are too burdensome. Rev. George Clark, a member of the board of the First Step Corp., told Slusher, “We’ve had some concerns from Day One that a number of the complainants have not applied.” He said whenever an incomplete application comes in, the corporation contacts the applicant and offers assistance.

Martin told the Council and members of the public that the funds cannot simply be handed over to the plaintiffs because such a disbursement would be a violation of the Texas constitution, as well as the settlement agreement. The city admitted no fault in that agreement.

Activist Dorothy Turner, who has been ill but appeared vigorous and healthy, told the Council she resented the fact that the city had paid city funds for lawyers to negotiate the settlement agreement. She said that agreement was improper because it did not allow for direct payment to the plaintiffs. “This is nothing but a Council that is eating these people alive. You pay them. They must be paid. This is an ugly thing that is going on in this community.”

A few minutes later Turner and about 20 other eastside supporters stormed out of the Council chambers. Turner was yelling, “The fight has just begun.”

Thomas’s agenda item to rename Rosewood Avenue to Dorothy Turner Boulevard has been postponed indefinitely.

Lots of talk…Outside the LCRA/City Council chambers there was a lot of discussion about Council Member Raul Alvarez’ appointment to the Environmental Board–Phil Moncada, a former environmental inspector for the City of Austin, who was well-known for his take charge attitude. Also appointed to the Environmental Board Thursday were Matt Watson, who was Alvarez’ campaign manager, and George “Buzz” Avery. Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman reappointed Avery and Watson was a consensus choice… More talk…Rainey Street neighborhood negotiators say they've got an offer from developer Gordon Dunaway. They plan to sit down with other property owners in the downtown neighborhood sometime later this month to let them in on the proposal… Eastside improvements… Capital Metro will help fund construction of a $1.25 million project to add transit facilities, a plaza with a clock tower and other street amenities to the 11th Street corridor just east of IH-35. The project is slated to start next January, with completion by June 2001. The Austin Revitalization Authority—a body charged with redevelopment in East Austin—will oversee the project, which was designed by Urban Spaces Design Group. A federal grant will fund $1 million of the project costs, with the remaining $250,000 from Capital Metro’s Build Greater Austin Fund…Also appointed Thursday…

Electric Utility Commission: Linda Shaw, reappointment, by consensus

Electrical Board: John Kunkel, re-appointment, by Council Member Beverly Griffith

Music Commission: Teresa Sansone-Ferguson, apointment, by consensus

Mayor’s Committee for People with Disabilities: Dawn Bosely, by Mayor Kirk Watson

Urban Renewal: John Hall, reappointment, Watson; Kevin Cole, reappointment, by Watson

Austin Housing Authority: Rita Wanstrom, appointment, by Watson .

© 2000 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

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