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A conversation with Council Member Raul Alvarez

Monday, October 23, 2000 by

Affordable housing, digital divide get his attention

In Fact Daily: You’ve been in office about four months now. We’d like to get your perspective on how things look to you from the dais. What has been a surprise to you?

Council Member Raul Alvarez: As opposed to the previous position I was in (working for the Sierra Club), we were just advocating for the ideal thing from the community perspective. Now, we’re hearing from all sides and have to take those things into consideration. I think it’s good to have someone on the Council who brings that community perspective, to make sure that it gets appropriate weight. I think that’s a plus. I think it’s worked out real well so far.

IFD: What has been a surprise?

RA: In terms of the workload, it’s pretty much what I expected. You have to figure out how many community activities you can be involved in and how much time you can set aside for your personal life. So, that’s been a challenge. I’m surprised at how much time it takes to do some basic administrative things. You want to focus on the policy stuff. But we have to figure out why we haven’t received the software we need, or why the payroll isn’t right—that is something that I had not anticipated having to worry so much about—getting all the management systems in place so you can focus on the policy stuff. We’re getting there.

IFD: You tried to get bond money for affordable housing, but you ended up getting it from another source. Do you want to describe that process?

RA: We started that whole discussion off with proposing the issuance of general obligation bonds. We ended up with something pretty different from that, but something I thought was significant in terms of indicating a commitment to affordable housing. It’s something that doesn’t kick in this budget cycle, but next budget cycle, FY 2002. There were different reasons we did that. Part of it was that was when the bond monies would have kicked in. So if we had voted to issue bonds, that’s when that money would have been available. Now we’ll be able to plan for next year where we’re going to find that $3 million.

IFD: Let’s talk a little bit about downtown building and traffic. Have you been getting a lot of complaints about the traffic situation?

RA: Emails—most of the complaints we get are emails. People obviously are frustrated with the condition of the streets downtown. It’s certainly understandable. There is no easy solution. All you can do is try to figure out how you can better coordinate these kinds of activities in the future, whether it be construction or communication or special events.

IFD: I assume you went to some of the Fortune 500 events.

RA: Actually, I didn’t go to any.

IFD: Was that your own personal protest?

RA: It wasn’t something that was real high on my list of priorities. Dia de la Raza was October 12, the night of the Fortune 500 dinner. There were a lot of events going on all weekend. The United East Austin Coalition had their Dia de la Raza celebration, their 15th anniversary event, and there were a lot of other events going on. That’s where I put my emphasis that weekend.

IFD: Dia de la Raza is a sort of counter Columbus Day?

RA: Uh-huh. Every year United East Austin recognizes some folks in the community who are doing good work. They recognized Rudy Mendez, Ray and Gloria Ramirez (and) John Gray from Clay Works. (On Friday, he attended a reception hosted by the Mexican-American Professional Women’s Association, Hispanic Firefighters and Amigos in Azul, the Hispanic police officers association. Saturday, he attended the Billion Bubba March in South Austin, as well as the immigrants’ rights rally at the Capitol, he said.) I didn’t really try to hard to integrate the Fortune 500 into those plans.

IFD: Do you have any particular project you’re focussed on right now?

RA: I put together a report. In four months a lot has happened. In terms of future things, certainly affordable housing. MexicArte Museum hopefully will just move forward. We brought up the issue of the police, because of the recent attacks on immigrants. That’s something I want to move forward on and work with the police department. We want to see if we can’t get the word out to the community in terms of their safety. We have the money to hire a liaison to the Latino community, so I want to be real involved in what that response will look like.

IFD: What’s happening with the Mexican American Cultural Center?

RA: There was a (Council ) resolution passed right before I came on board. Under the agreement, the organization that we have a contract with to manage the operations of the facility has to produce certain kinds of planning documents and strengthen their by-laws. Then the city is going to appoint four people to the board. I’ve been interviewing some candidates. On the 26th, I think we’ll try to do the appointments, but I need to visit with all the other Council offices. That’s probably the next thing that would happen. Then we have the design process. In December, we hope to have a master plan for the Council for approval. Then, after that we can start talking about how quickly construction can began.

IFD: Have you been talking to Gordon Dunaway’s people about what they want to do in the Rainey Street Neighborhood?

RA: Yes. They came by and did a presentation. I’m trying to soak in everything that’s happening. And then Vignette may be coming in there. I think anything that happens there should all be integrated in some way to make sure it works. I think that is going to be a very important thing we take up—I’m not sure how quickly.

IFD: What else would you like to mention?

RA: The digital divide is another issue I’m real interested in. Danny Gomez has a program where they work with teenagers, teaching them about the Internet, teaching them to do web page design. We’re working with him and with Grande Communications, trying to coordinate with the Parks and Recreation Department and the Grandma Camacho Activity Center Board to allow the telecommunications company to improve what the facility has in terms of computer access. They’re bringing in broad band. We’re working with these entities to define what the relationship would be. They already have some computers, but they don’t have high-speed access and they don’t have server space. We’re trying to figure out what the city’s requirements are if we’re going to allow the company to offer that for free. There’s a lot of bureaucratic (red tape), as well as the specifications for the hardware. Once we do that in one facility, I think it will be easier for any other telecommunications company that wants to enter into a partnership and offer their services free of charge. Then we’ll have a process defined for doing that.

IFD: What do you think about the Central Booking facility move to the new county Criminal Justice building?

RA: I’ve been getting a lot more information about that particular issue so I have a better idea what some of the concerns of the residents are… and I’m still looking at how do we address some of the concerns, like the traffic impact. I haven’t made up my mind necessarily about how I’m going to vote. I think the sobriety center has a lot of merit…if you just handled some of these misdemeanor cases a little differently, you could cut down on a lot of the bookings, which is more of a long-term strategy. So, I think all of those things we ought to look at–is now the right time, or is it possible for us to take more time to think through some of these long-term issues?

IFD: Do you think there is that possibility?

RA: I really don’t know. It's something we would have to go the county and say—‘Is that something you’re willing to do, to take some time and work through these things before we move on, or not?’ Obviously, they’re an equal partner. There are some things I think we need to work through. But I don’t have a sense yet where the Council is headed. There are certainly some differences of opinion—I’m still in the data-gathering mode. Let’s not try to ignore these things, but if we make a decision, then let’s just be clear that all these issues are kind of unresolved. But I think a lot of this depends on the county’s willingness to come to the table and address some of these issues that are still outstanding.”

IFD: Have you seen Council Member Slusher’ s letter about swapping some of the Stratus property for some of Mueller to get some of the development intensity off the aquifer? I was wondering what your reaction was to that idea.

RA: I have been interested in hearing from the community about what their reaction is . . . What you have is two public processes coming together. You’d have to look at how to deal with Stratus, how (the development) fits into our goals for the environmentally sensitive area. And then see what we’ve been doing with Mueller and whether any proposal dealing with Stratus could fit into that scheme of things. One of the things that’s been discussed is the possibility of hiring a master developer to do Mueller, and this would preempt such a decision. If you are going to bring Mueller into it then you’re going to have to bring in the advisory committee that we created and see how they feel about going that route.

Williamson County offers TxDOT,

Turnpike Authority big bucks

County asking voters for $350 million for roads

Can Williamson County jump ahead of Travis County in state-backed road projects? Williamson County wants to use a $350 million bond issue in November to leverage more than $3.2 billion in proposed state road projects over the next 20 years. By comparison, Travis County will send a $28 million bond proposition to voters for roads. The City of Austin has put another $150 million in road projects on the ballot.

Williamson County's strategy is to appeal to both the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) and the Texas Turnpike Authority, say county officials.

"I think you can see that if those two packages are approved and we go with $350 million and they go with $28 million, there may be some decisions they make at TxDOT first," County Commissioner Mike Heiligenstein told the Round Rock City Council. "We'd be in the driver's seat on the future allocation of dollars."

Heiligenstein presented an overview of the bond package to his colleagues. The package focuses on the big four road projects the high-growth county has targeted to handle additional traffic: State Highway 45, the North Loop, Texas 130 and US 183-A. Sixty percent of the funding will benefit Southwest Williamson County, Heiligenstein told council members. "Round Rock is the big winner."

Publicity on the bond issue emphasizes that it will cost only $10 per month for the average homeowner in exchange for saving 10 hours a month in driving time. An estimated 835,000 people will live in Williamson County by 2025, according to county projections.

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

From our correspondents at NAWDRy . . . “ Mobility Planning Associates has calculated the average fully allocated total cost (capital + operating) of urban automobile transportation at $1.28 per passenger-mile. (The group says) the comparable fully allocated total cost (capital + operating) of Austin's proposed light rail transit system has been calculated at $0.80-0.85 per passenger-mile.” . . . Planning Commission to bite the bullet?. . . The Bradfield tract, otherwise known as MoPac at 360 Office, is scheduled for a vote once again. Commissioners will have to decide whether to grant a variance so that an innovative waste water system can be used on upland slopes above Barton Creek. The public hearing on the matter has been closed, but we still expect to see environmentalists in the audience to watch the vote. The matter is also scheduled for executive session with legal counsel. . . . On the East side . . . Residents of the area surrounding Brooke Elementary School have asked the Planning Commission to initiate a rollback of industrial zoning at 618 Tillery Street. Area residents say 18-wheelers and other truck traffic compete with children for space on the street. . . . Honoring Texas French Bread. . . The Mayor’s Committee for People with Disabilities will hold its 21st annual awards presentation Tuesday from 5:30 to 8 p.m. at the Omni Southpark, 4140 Governor’s Row. Texas French Bread will receive an award as Employer of the Year for businesses with fewer than 200 employees. Employer of the year (200+ employees) is Austaco, Inc. Employee of the year is Ellen Yeates. For more information, contact Dolores Gonzales at 499-3256.

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

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