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Watson, Slusher stress need to

Wednesday, February 7, 2001 by

Protect utility from deregulation

But Austin Energy must be competitive

Mayor Kirk Watson made it clear Tuesday that he is in no hurry for Austin Energy to enter competition. “My personal opinion is Austin should wait and see how deregulation works in Texas before opting in,” he said.

Council Member Daryl Slusher, who joined Watson for a press conference at Austin Energy, said, “Austin Energy is a public utility. That means we control our own destiny to a much larger extent than people in cities served by private utilities.”

Slusher recalled when he joined the City Council in 1996. At that time, certain members of the Council were eager to sell the city’s utility. However, a majority of the Council—including Slusher—decided that the utility should concentrate on streamlining and reducing operating costs. Austin Energy has done so and has reduced its debt at the same time, Slusher said.

Even though Watson does not expect Austin Energy to enter into competition in the near future, he said, “In reality, every electric utility in the state of Texas is going to have to be competitive whether they opt in or not. If the city says it’s not going to opt in, we still must be in a competitive position because if we’re not, customers are going to demand the choice.”

Watson praised the 1996 City Council’s decisions to improve service and cut costs and delineated the benefits the city receives from Austin Energy’s continued contributions to the General Fund.

The rebate of profits via the transfer to the General Fund provides money for transportation improvements, fire protection, health care, libraries, playgrounds, and environmental protection, Watson said.

The portion of electric profits that would go to stockholders if Austin Energy were an investor-owned utility is $66 million per year, or 15 percent of the city’s General Fund, Watson noted. Replacing that transfer would require a 16 percent increase in property tax, he said.

The mayor stressed the need to protect the utility from would-be competitors, indicating his support for an item on this week’s City Council agenda to protect competitive information from outside scrutiny. When the Legislature approved Senate Bill 7, the law included a provision allowing public utilities to restrict access to certain information from competitors and the public. According to information provided by Austin Energy, that provision was enacted in order to “‘level the playing field’ with privately-owned electric utilities and other entities with which the municipally-owned utilities must compete.”

The Council will also consider a resolution approved Monday by the Electric Utility Commission. That resolution sets forth some minimum goals to be met before Austin considers deregulation.

“We must ensure the ability to compete through new product development and we must continue to focus on new product development and superior customer service. All in all Austin Energy is a very successful utility,” Watson said. “We find ourselves today in excellent financial health, due to reduced costs, less new debt and strong cash reserves.” There has been a 23 percent cost decrease and a decrease in debt.

The utility has teamed with Enron to build the new Sand Hill Energy Center peaking units, which are expected to come on line in May. “Base rates have not increased since 1994, residential rates are among the lowest of major Texas cities and residential rates for the first 500 kWh are the lowest in Texas,” he said.

Austin Energy owns sufficient generation to provide for the needs of Austin, he said. The total generation of 2,690 MW exceeds the projected peak for this coming summer and allows the city adequate reserves.

Watson also praised the utility’s efforts in conservation. “We offer the most comprehensive energy conservation programs of any utility” in the state, he said, adding, “the Green Building program is the largest of its kind in the nation.”

In the meantime, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported Tuesday that the failure to build new plants in the Metroplex area could lead to trouble when deregulation hits. Pat Wood, chairman of the Public Utility Commission, said the Dallas-Fort Worth area “consumes about 25 percent of the state's electricity on any given day,” he said. “The infrastructure needs to be beefed up substantially to make sure that we have sufficient supply. It's a tough juggling act.”

Planning Commission wants

To protect South Austin trees

Condo project put on hold

Anyone who heard the plans for 1800 Evergreen at last night's Planning Commission meeting would have had to agree that the eclectic spirit of South Austin is still alive and well.

Architect Richard de Vargas asked that zoning on the pecan-lined acre be upgraded from SF-3 to Commercial Services-Mixed Use with a Conditional Overlay, or CS-MU-CO. The lot, behind an auto repair shop, is slated to be developed for residential and commercial use, de Vargas told the commission.

The development, supported by the Zilker Neighborhood Association, would create a small condominium project that would also double as workspace for an artist, an architect and a personal trainer.

“What I would like to do is to have a condominium project that would give a place to both live and work in one building,” de Vargas told commissioners. “We would live there and work there.”

To meet the requirements of the project, city planner Adam Smith asked that the property be zoned both CS and MU to combine both retail and residential purposes. The Conditional Overlay would limit the property’s use to both the general arts & crafts category and personal improvement services. It permits neighborhood commercial uses and limits the site traffic to no more than 2,000 trips per day.

That should be far more trips than the project will need. DeVargas’ wife and another partner are the artists who will use the studio. Still another partner in the project would like to open a small fitness facility.

Bertram Robinson, who lives next door to the lot, said his family had watched Evergreen go from homes to businesses over the last 50 years. He asked commissioners to protect the new drainage line and limit traffic on the street. Because the property backs up to piece of land that fronts Lamar and frontage on West Mary is limited, traffic for the condominiums will have to use Evergreen Street. Robinson also asked that liquor sales be banned from the site since his elderly mother is Baptist.

Those were the practical reasons. Commissioner Robin Cravey, on the other hand, waxed poetic about the trees on the site, telling his colleagues of a time when he would sit in Flap Jack Canyon staring out the window at Evergreen Street and write poetry. That drew a chuckle from the commissioners and a request for a sonnet when the next vote on the project comes before the commission.

Commissioners did appear to want to grant the zoning change, but the pecan trees on the site got in the way. Commissioner Sterling Lands praised the site plan as creative and interesting, “and it does offer some surprising benefits to the neighborhood.” Cravey called it a good addition to Zilker. But Chair Betty Baker and Commissioner Jean Mather were not going to let the vote get by without some consideration of preserving the trees on the property.

Mather was ready to preserve all trees that qualified under the city’s tree preservation ordinance. Baker, however, asked that the site be surveyed for the placement, type and diameter of the trees so that the majority can be preserved. De Vargas assured commissioners that he did care about protecting the large pecans and that most of those trees were located near the curb on the property, where it would be easy to preserve them.

“It's beneficial to my project if it is nice,” said de Vargas, referring to the trees.

The only snag ahead for de Vargas appears to be parking. Each use on his site will require a certain number of spaces, which added close to 50 parking stalls. Commissioners limited impervious cover on the property to 70 percent, while Commissioner Ben Heimsath predicted de Vargas would soon be before the Board of Adjustment seeking an exception to the parking requirements.

SOSA, Griffith do poll

On state of city, growth

Griffith says poll unrelated to possible mayoral bid

The Save Our Springs Alliance and Council Member Beverly Griffith have done a poll concerning the popularity of some council members, attitudes toward growth and Austin’s quality of life. Mike Blizzard of Blizzard Fawal & Associates, a political consultant and member of the SOS PAC Board of Directors, said he helped write some of the questions, while Opinion Analysts conducted the survey.

Blizzard said the poll was not related to a rumored run for mayor by Griffith. He said, “The whole process was started well before the rumors” that Mayor Kirk Watson would resign from office this spring to begin a race for Texas Attorney General. Blizzard pointed out that the names of Robin Rather and other possible mayoral candidates did not appear on the poll. He also confirmed that the poll asked no questions about Council Members Danny Thomas, Raul Alvarez and Will Wynn, the Council's newer members.Griffith said the poll related to “how people feel about the city—how things are going.” According to the Council Member, the results were “all positive, and hopeful.”

©2001 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

Garage fight postponed . . . The battle over the Hyde Park Baptist Church’s proposed parking garage expansion has been postponed to March 1. The fight before the City Council will evidently take place in East Austin. At the urging of Council Member Danny Thomas, the March 1 Council meeting is at the Conley-Guerrero Recreation Center. . . Status Committee? . . The three-member Planning Commission committee on the proposed agreement with Stratus Properties met Tuesday and got a report from City Attorney Andy Martin. Martin said there has been no progress since a majority of the City Council indicated in December that they could not support the proposal. Martin said their respective commissions have not chosen all of the members of the “ Uber Commission”. (Uber Commission is a term that has caught on in city parlance, but is not the panel’s official name.) That committee would bring together 18 citizens from six city commissions plus three more to be designated by the Council. Of course, the lawsuit between the city and Stratus has been settled. The Water and Wastewater Commission is scheduled to designate three of its members to serve at tonight’s meeting. The Environmental Board selected Tim Jones, Debra Williams and Joyce Conner to serve on the “Uber Commission.”

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