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County Commissioners vote for

Wednesday, August 8, 2001 by

Pay raise for themselves, others

Only Baxter votes no on salary proposal

The first presentation of the preliminary Travis County budget was made Tuesday morning, and the first amendment, made only minutes later, was a pay raise for the county’s elected employees.

Discussion of both the budget and the pay raise was relatively brief. Later this week, county departments will begin their presentations on the budget. Raises recommended by the Citizens Advisory Committee on Elected Officials’ Salaries—chaired by former Council Member Gus Garcia—recommended raises for elected positions sometimes double those the county will pay to rank-and-file employees.

After the vote, County Judge Sam Biscoe said he considered the raises to be reasonable and noted they were the first elected officials have seen in the last four years. The committee recommended that the raises be phased in over two years, so that commissioners and the county judge would get one-half of the increase in 2002 and one-half in 2003.

Over the last four or five years, the county has completed market surveys on various county positions. This year—and the number of grievances filed last year may have played a part—it was the turn of the county’s elected officials.

“The Committee believes that its recommended adjustments are politically feasible and establish an equitable level of pay for each position relative to their respective duties,” Gus Garcia wrote in his letter to the Commissioners Court dated June 27. “If recommissioned, the Committee also proposes to establish a model salary-setting procedure for use in future years.”

Commissioners approved the salary recommendations unanimously, with the exception of Commissioner Todd Baxter. Baxter wanted to vote on the county judge and county commissioners’ salaries in a separate motion, but his motion failed for a lack of a second. Hoping to head off what she called the political implications of the vote, Commissioner Karen Sonleitner recommended that the salaries be adopted as a ceiling, and that any elected official who wanted to take any less could negotiate a lesser salary with the county auditor.

The vote promises County Judge Sam Biscoe a salary of $93,295, which would be a 10.5 percent raise over this year’s salary. County Commissioners would each make $73,915, which is slightly more than a 7 percent raise. Other officials’ salaries and raises are $121,241 (3.9 percent) for the county attorney, $93,819 (3.9 percent) for the sheriff and $77,079 (8.2 percent) for the district clerk. The county clerk, who is currently paid the same amount as the district clerk, would earn only slight more at $77,255.

Constables and justices of the peace would also see raises. Four constables would earn $60,999, with the constable in Precinct 5—who has a heavier workload—earning $64,120 for the year. Justices of the peace would earn $68,082. Judges—county courts-at-law, probate judges and district judges—would be maintained at $111,027.

The preliminary $284.3 million budget, if adopted, would mean a drop in property taxes of 2.5 cents, down to 44.25 cents per hundred-dollar valuation. The budget is based on tax base growth of $49.7 billion to $57 billion for Travis County. Because of property valuation increases, the decreased tax rate means that the owner of a median-priced home ($172,757) would be paying an additional $24 this year with the 10 percent valuation cap. Budget hearings start Thursday, when individual departments will present their plans.

Other highlights of the budget include:

• A total of 49 additional full-time employees are added to the budget, 23 of them to support the opening of the new Travis County Correctional Complex Phase II facility. That facility will open in December. Another 11 positions will be added to address the county’s revenue collection efforts.

• The budget includes an additional $9.5 million dedicated to the county’s workforce. That total includes an additional $2 million for health benefits and $6.9 million in raises.

• The county expects to issue $18.2 million in five-year Certificates of Obligation this year to cover expenses such as the 911 center, Precinct 4 building construction and telecommunication needs.

• $2.5 million has been set aside in the event of an economic downturn in the county. Baxter urged planning and budget officials to set priorities for using this money before the budget is finalized.

Planning Commission votes for

Montopolis zoning changes

Neighborhood overlay now moves on to City Council

Dozens of zoning changes associated with the Montopolis Neighborhood Plan received approval from the Planning Commission Tuesday evening, putting an end to the commission’s role in the long, drawn-out debate over the eastside neighborhood.

The goal of the zoning changes is to promote Smart Growth infill options such as secondary apartments, cottage lots and neighborhood mixed-use buildings. To that end, nineteen tracts were recommended for a “Mixed Use Building” overlay. In addition, more than 70 other tracts in the neighborhood were recommended for changes in their base district zoning. In most of those cases, the zoning change would be from SF-3 (family residence) or CS (commercial services) to GR-NP (community-commercial neighborhood plan).

Two of the lots proposed for rezoning dominated the commission’s discussion. One of those was the lot at 904 Vargas. The building there was formerly the site of a bakery and is being converted to a catering facility. The site’s new owner had believed the lot had the CS zoning necessary for his business, and even provided documentation to that effect. But the business owner, Charles Wells, had difficulty obtaining a permit from the TABC because that agency showed the property had a zoning of SF-3. City staff told commissioners the lot could not be exempted from the zoning changes at this stage, but promised to convey a recommendation to the City Council that the lot be given special consideration.

The other lot in question was at 500 Bastrop Highway, which is zoned SF-2 and SF-3 but currently houses a dog kennel, along with some housing (see In Fact Daily, Aug. 2, 2001). The property backs up to Allison Elementary School. Staff recommended upzoning the property to CS-NP and W/LO to allow the kennel, which has been in operation for approximately 30 years, to continue as a conforming use. “You’ve got that high-voltage wire running across part of the property that is going to preclude any development for single family purposes,” said Wilfred Navarro, who represented the property owner. He also tried to reassure commissioners that the upzoning would not lead to further development on the lot and increased traffic in the area. “We think there would be a problem building any significant operation under that power line. We just want to bring the kennel into conformance with current code.”

But the possibility of a new commercial use on the site prompted objections from neighborhood activist Susana Almanza. “We do not want this tract, which is currently zoned single family, to go to warehouse or commercial,” she told commissioners. “We do not feel that this is a compatible zoning with a school.”

Almanza found support from Commissioner Sterling Lands. “We’ve heard numerous concerns regarding Tillery St., and concerns that the neighborhood believes the school kids there are in jeopardy because of the constant truck traffic,” he said. Almanza has staged several protests over commercial truck traffic near Govalle Elementary School in East Austin. “We would potentially repeat that scenario if we allowed the W/LO zoning under this set of circumstances.” Commissioner Robin Cravey suggested deleting the zoning change for the tract, leaving it as SF-3, but that request did not pass.

Lands argued against passing the zoning changes with the inclusion of the kennel site. “I think that it’s bordering on insensitive to the community’s cries for help as it relates to the children in that area,” he said.

Commission Chair Betty Baker noted Lands’ veiled criticism with a friendly response. “Mister Lands, I don’t think I’ve ever been told in a more polite way that I’m insensitive,” she said. “And I’m not offended.” The exchange drew laughter from other members of the commission. “I think you’re one of the most sensitive people I’ve met in my life, and it’s such a pleasure to know you,” Lands replied.

Although the two remained on good terms, they were on opposite sides of the vote. The zoning changes as recommended by staff won approval by a vote of 7-2, with Commissioners Lands and Jean Mather opposed. The zoning changes still must be approved by City Council.

Protesters want court to take

Action against county officials

Commissioners have no authority over judges, prosecutors

Some might say Travis County Commissioners earned their pay raise on Tuesday morning dealing with the long list of complaints brought by a stream of speakers on hand to support activist Mike Hanson.

Hanson is the cameraman of government critic Alex Jones and a critic of the Travis County justice system. He, along with more than a dozen others, addressed Travis County Commissioners on a litany of complaints ranging from charges of a lack of food and water in the jails to the failure of due process for property liens to accusations of improper conduct by sitting judges. Along for the ride was Leslie Cochrane—dressed in heels, net skirt, a thong and a white wedding veil—who added his own complaints about the destruction of his signs and rope by Austin police.

Hanson is no stranger to the court. In fact, some have dubbed him and his group the “black helicopter people, and Tuesday’s discussion was not without its references to “tyrannical government,” “constitutional rights violated” and “Gestapo tactics” by the county’s law enforcement agency.

Before it was all over, at least one speaker had called for the resignation of Sheriff Margo Frasier, saying the jail had refused to provide his pregnant fiancé with food and water during her eight-day incarceration. Hanson, however, was clearly the focus of the group’s attention and chastised the court for allowing County Attorney Ken Oden to spend $200,000 and three years to prosecute his misdemeanor case.

Three years ago, Hanson was leaving a video store when the buzzers at the door indicated he or someone near him had left the store without paying for an item. Instead of yielding to officers, Hanson locked himself in his truck and was eventually charged with Class A misdemeanors for resisting and evading arrest. Hanson said the county had tied him up in court for three years on his misdemeanor charges, interfering with his business and making his family suffer, all over a $200 fine. (The maximum penalty for the lowest misdemeanor—Class C, is $500. The penalty for Class A misdemeanors may be up to 1 year in jail and a $4,000 fine.)

“We want liberty and we want justice for all,” Hanson told the commissioners. “I get 20 to 40 calls a day for police and court abuse. When can we get an agenda item on this issue?”

Hanson did get Commissioner Margaret Gomez to agree to sponsor his discussion of the county court system on the agenda, sparking wild applause from the audience. When another member of the audience questioned commissioners on the subject, however, County Judge Sam Biscoe stated there was little he could do about the conduct of either the courts or county law enforcement.

The job of the court is to put a budget in place once a year. That is the only carrot the court holds over elected officials, Biscoe said. Elected officials such as County Attorney Ken Oden, Biscoe said, answer directly to the voters. Travis County judges are accountable to the voters and the state judicial committee, not the Travis County Commissioners Court.

“I can write an e-mail or make a phone call—and I’ve done that several times for Mr. Hanson,” Biscoe told the audience. “But the county attorney has thousands of cases, and we don’t tell him how to work those cases, and he doesn’t ask us. I can approach him from a friend and colleague perspective—and I’ve made every suggestion imaginable—but I can’t tell the county attorney what is supposed to happen in his office that day.”

Commissioner Karen Sonleitner pointed out that the county commissioner’s court had already lost a case for interfering too often in a county official’s business. Hanson called on Biscoe and the court to cut Oden’s budget in half, forcing him to chase real criminal charges rather than “trumped-up charges” like his.

“Cut his budget in half and see if he can operate on half of what he has right now, and I bet he can,” Hanson said. “If he’s got prosecutor after prosecutor after prosecutor to go after me, then he’s got too many people in his office.”

After the meeting, Biscoe said it was unlikely the court would ever cut department budgets on a political whim. He also added that he had no idea where Hanson had come up with $200,000 as a figure for the prosecution of his case. He guessed that it likely was a line item in the budget covering the prosecution of all cases in a year that were similar to Hanson’s.

One speaker’s comment did raise the interest of the court. Gomez said she did want to study and address the overrepresentation of black and brown defendants in the juvenile justice system.

Slusher memo explains

Error made on US 290

S. Lamar and S. 1st hearings later in month

Council Member Daryl Slusher sent out a lengthy memo this week on changes to the city’s roadway plan, explaining the need to correct an error in the plan for US 290 and revising plans to widen S. Lamar and S. 1st Street.

Here is a portion of what he wrote about US 290 West:

“The CAMPO plan calls for U.S. 290 West to be a six-lane freeway out to FM 1826. That project was approved by the voters in 1984 and considerable parts of it are finished or under construction. The Council approved this part of the plan.

“The CAMPO plan calls for the six-lane freeway to extend well beyond 1826, much further out onto the Edwards Aquifer/Barton Springs Zone. The Council did not support this expansion. The Council’s intent that day was to retain 290 as a four-lane roadway beyond 1826 to the CAMPO boundary.

“The CAMPO plan divides the portion of 290 beyond 1826 into segments, before and after Fitzhugh Lane. At one point in the council discussion Fitzhugh was stated as the boundary. This was repeated and then recorded as such. So the vote was inadvertently recorded as keeping the four lanes of 290 as they currently exist between 1826 and Fitzhugh, but expanding 290 into a six-lane freeway between Fitzhugh and the CAMPO boundary. In other words, a six-lane freeway would become four lanes non-freeway, then a six-lane freeway again. This obviously was not the intent of the Council and this item is to clarify that. (The transcript is available upon request.)”

Slusher also wanted to revise the city’s plans to expand S. 1st and S. Lamar, which were done only to comply with the CAMPO plan and insure that the city would not lose federal funds. However, those items will require a public hearing, which will be set for later in the month.

2001 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

ANC pow-wow this weekend . . . The Austin Neighborhoods Council is holding a strategy session on “the entire neighborhood planning situation” Saturday from 10:30 a.m–noon, at the Carver Library. City staff is not invited to the session . . . Parking Protest, Part 2 . . . Members of the Original City Neighborhood Association plan another protest this morning against a requested zoning change for property at 803–807 W. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. The change would allow the property to be turned into a parking garage so the historic mansion across the street can be used more easily as an office building. Neighbors say construction of the garage would increase traffic and safety problems and lead to deterioration of the small residential neighborhood. The protest is scheduled for 8 a.m. at 15th Street and West Avenue. The City Council, which approved the zoning request on first reading, is set to vote on second and third readings Thursday. It appears that several Council Members have changed their minds since the first vote, leaving the resolution of this controversy very much in doubt . . . Rumor de jour . . . Yesterday’s hot item has Mayor Kirk Watson announcing for Attorney General on Aug. 16 and former Council Member Gus Garcia announcing for Mayor the following day. We didn’t call them because we didn’t think either would confirm even if it were true . . . Central East Austin Plan postponed. . . The Planning Commission last night postponed hearing the neighborhood plan for Central East Austin since some who oppose the plan made the request. Those who did appear said they were in favor of the plan and wished they could go ahead. However, given the option of only a partial hearing and no chance to rebut in the future, those who favor the plan decided to opt for postponement also. The new date for the commission to hear that plan is August 28—the final meeting of the current commission. When the new Planning Commission begins next month, it will have a full schedule of neighborhood plans to hear, since so many have been postponed. Commissioner Ben Heimsath, who expects to be appointed to the new Planning Commission, said that group will probably be meeting on Wednesdays, perhaps alternating with the Environmental Board . . . Still talking turkey . . . Owners of the proposed Jockey Club Racetrack property in Montopolis say they are willing to sell a portion of their land to the city for housing—if the price is right. Talks are continuing, but it seems unlikely that the City Council will be able to take action on the item this week, even though it is on the agenda.

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