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City Council set for final arguments

Thursday, August 24, 2000 by

City Council Members met once again Wednesday to sing from different hymnals on the subject of what bond propositions to put before the voters in November. If you read Tuesday’s edition of In Fact Daily, rest assured that you missed very little by not watching Channel 6 yesterday.

Mayor Kirk Watson and Council Members Daryl Slusher, and Raul Alvarez and Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman voted in favor of Slusher’s proposal to place $13.4 million in greenspace funds on the ballot. That amount became available when the Austin Museum of Art returned the money after a highly successful private fundraising effort.

Council Members Beverly Griffith and Danny Thomas refused to sing Slusher’s songs and they couldn't stop Alvarez—the man very much in the middle of a behind-the-scenes tug of war—from humming along. But Alvarez was in trouble when Slusher asked if one of the parks bond sponsors could explain the origin of the $12 million figure for Colony Park recreational center and facilities. Alvarez said he could not, turning to Griffith for the answer. The answer never was clear. Slusher told In Fact Daily that he thinks he and his colleagues look like a daytime soap opera to the viewers of Channel 6.

Slusher also said he would find a way to fund the endangered Barton Springs Salamander’s breeding facility as scheduled—instead of waiting a year as he had suggested earlier. Slusher had suggested using the money for immediate construction of recreational amenities at Colony Park.

Slusher’s proposal, which passed with four votes on Monday and Wednesday, will come up for its third and final reading Thursday. Griffith and Thomas can–and probably will—ask fellow Council Members to vote again on the proposals they have rejected three times already. However, should two of the four—Watson, Slusher, Goodman, and Wynn—switch their votes to “yes,” the whole ballot could change. Wynn has steadfastly refused to vote for anything since the road bonds were approved because he wants more time and possibly a citizens’ committee to look at all the possible options before approving more proposals. None of the others seem likely to switch their votes either.

The city plans to complete 10 neighborhood plans for areas along suggested light rail corridors if a budget proposal of $1.2 million is approved in September and a November vote on rail is successful, according to Austan Librach, director of the Planning, Environmental & Conservation Services Department (PECSD).

The department and its Neighborhood Planning program will be up for discussion before the City Council in a budget presentation on Thursday morning.

The neighborhoods targeted for this year's budget are defined by planning areas, not neighborhood associations, and include: Wooten, North Shoal Creek, Brentwood, Allendale, Crestview, Rosedale, East Congress, West Congress and South River City. The current process for creating neighborhood plans calls for the formation of a committee that represents homeowners, businesses and other groups for each area, Librach said. A full-time city staff person then works with the committee on completing the plan.

The plans are used to define how neighborhoods want to grow and improve. Once accepted by the City Council, they can also shape specific ordinances, such as zoning, as well as transportation plans. Librach said completed plans to date include Hyde Park, North Austin Civic Association, Chestnut, East Caesar Chavez, Dawson and Old West Austin. Plans in the works include Montopolis, Central East Holly, Govalle, and Rosewood. Not yet started but approved for funding are Bouldin, North Loop and Cherrywood.

Librach says that if the light rail vote fails, city staff will still have the opportunity to decide on which areas should receive assistance, because the planning efforts for the next group of neighborhoods will not begin until spring. The budget for the program continues to be a priority for many council members, who directed staff to complete the 50 "urban core" neighborhoods within five years. After the current year, the city will attempt to complete 24 remaining plans in the next two and a half years, Librach said.

"The reaction from neighborhoods mainly has been positive," the director said. "We're seeing lots of requests from neighborhoods to be next on the list." This year's budget request for neighborhood planning will include an additional full-time planning employee, Librach added.

One of the four neighborhoods with completed plans, Chestnut, will be asking Council to approve numerous zoning changes and to permit various special uses, including small lot amnesty, which allows landowners to build on lots considered too small in other areas of the city.

Thursday’s agenda also includes budget presentations on Parks and Recreation, Libraries, Health and Human Services and a report on the cost of service of the Drainage Utility Fund. It seems clear now that whatever the Parks and Recreation Department presents to the Council today, that amount will be supplemented to get some facilities to Colony Park before you can say “next year’s bond election.”

Forget the parkland, toss out the affordable housing and step past the greenspace issues of the last week… the ink's not yet dry on November's bond ballot and one more proposal for city bonds may soon face Austin City Council–the need to expand city efforts to use reclaimed water.

The call for bonds was in its earliest stages at a special, called meeting of the Water and Wastewater Commission last night. The topic of the meeting was the department's proposed 2000-2001 operating budget, but discussion among the commissioners veered toward city efforts to expand Austin's water reclamation efforts. Those efforts are expected to expand existing service along the Austin Bergstrom International Airport corridor and to extend pipelines and pump stations to the University of Texas/State Capitol and the Mueller Redevelopment Project.

As for the water and wastewater budget itself, no significant rate hikes are expected this year. Expenditures are projected to be down by 3.2 percent this year, and revenues are expected to be up by 1.6 percent. Rate advocate Birny Birnbaum, who represents the interests of residents and small businesses, is somewhat concerned by the department's budget estimates.

Over the last several years, departmental revenue projections have been low and expenditure projections have been high, Birnbaum says. The surplus has been greater than anticipated, which is one reason the utility could afford its $27 million share of the $100 million Lower Colorado River Authority deal, Birnbaum says. In essence, the department's budget is often healthier than it looks.

"We shouldn't have the expectation that the rates should be going up," says Birnbaum. "We shouldn't ask why there is no rate increase. We should ask why there isn't a rate decrease."

The city's progress on water reclamation–and its place in the department budget–was of keen interest to vice chair Lanetta Cooper, among others. Charles Schoening, manager of the capital improvement program in the Water & Wastewater Department, estimated the full-scale implementation of the proposed water reclamation project would probably be between $20 million and $30 million, although a consultant's report on the subject is pending.

The department's current capital improvement program to expand service and replace outdated infrastructure has already reached $100 million, Schoening told the Commission. To come up with a plan to pay for the project would require careful debt management. When pressed by Cooper, city officials said reclamation bonds could be proposed on next May's ballot but would likely appear only after careful research and in conjunction with other bond proposals.

Birnbaum says he'd like to see the city allow the utility to get more aggressive on water reclamation efforts. Birnbaum told the commissioners there should be a carrot and a stick approach with developers to stimulate demand for reclaimed water. A rate structure, for instance, could be set in place to charge golf courses higher rates for using "regular" water over reclaimed water. One 18-hole golf course, says Schoening, can use one million gallons a day.

Birnbaum would also like to see the infrastructure for reclaimed water put in early. Now would be an ideal time to put the pipes for reclaimed water use in commercial buildings such as the CSC complex, City Hall and the new office tower on Lavaca. The office tower on Lavaca, Birnbaum suggested, would probably have a high demand for reclaimed water for its air conditioning system.

Not a consensus kind of week…Members of the City Council have been unable to agree on two consensus appointments to the Planning Commission, so that panel will remain the same for at least another week. Commissioners Susana Almanza and Ben Heimsath have applied for reappointment, but others have applied for those positions also. One likely candidate, Joe Martinez, withdrew his application on Wednesday…. LCRA Board gives green light to Dripping Springs water line… The LCRA Board of Directors yesterday authorized the agency’s general manager to negotiate and execute contracts with Hays County and the Dripping Springs Water Supply Corporation (DSWSC). LCRA spokesman Robert Cullick said more than 300 people in Sunset Canyon—the subdivision most urgently requesting service—had signed up for LCRA water. Each family was required to post a $500 deposit to insure the water line would serve the area. Hays County Judge Jim Powers and Chuck Sellers of the DSWSC both praised the LCRA staff for getting the project moving swiftly… Shuttle to Council meetings…The city is providing bus service from downtown ( 11th & Colorado) to the LCRA building at 9AM, 1PM and 5PM today, as well as August 31, September 7 and September 28. In addition, the bus service will stop at One Texas Center, 505 Barton Springs Road at 9:15AM, 1:15PM and 5:15PM. The shuttle will take citizens back to One Texas Center and downtown at 9:30AM, 1:30PM, 5:30PM and 10PM… Slower than a snail… The Water & Wastewater Commission’s subcommittee considering on site sewage facilities (OSSF) rules is waiting for a work plan before resuming deliberations, according to subcommittee Chair Lanetta Cooper..

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

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