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Eastside crowd unreceptive

Tuesday, September 18, 2001 by

To Empowerment Zone idea

Organizers say last week's events hindered notification

East Austin residents gave a frosty reception last night to Assistant City Manager Roger Chan and other community leaders at a town hall meeting called to discuss a planned application for a community Empowerment Zone.

Five Texas cities—San Antonio, Dallas, Houston, Waco and El Paso—have federal Empowerment Zones, which are designated by the government and afforded both financial and tax incentives to spur redevelopment in blighted urban areas. Local chambers considered East Austin a natural candidate for the program. But the city has only 10 days left to submit the 75-page application.

For almost an hour, a panel that included Rev. Joseph Parker of David Chapel Missionary Baptist Church, Darrell Pierce of the Capital City African-American Chamber of Commerce, Elizabeth Gonzales of the Greater Austin Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and Susan Dawson of the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce heard speaker after speaker complain they had not been included in the process, even though that process started only three weeks ago and is racing to meet a tight deadline.

Susana Almanza of PODER kicked off the criticism, which also included comments from community leaders such as former Council Member Willie Lewis, Gavino Fernandez of El Concilio and Gus Pena. Almanza said city and state Empowerment Zones had rarely trickled down to the community and were often used to subsidize billion-dollar corporations. She questioned how a city with so many millionaires could possibly qualify for such incentives.

The goals of the application, according to Chan, would be to use federal incentives for workforce development, preservation of historic neighborhoods and the creation of affordable housing, as well as the creation of economic opportunities. Almanza scoffed at the promises, which Chan admitted were no “silver bullet.”

“How many times have we been here crying about the need for housing?” Almanza asked the panel. “You think an Empowerment Zone is going to be the answer for everything?”

Fernandez was equally skeptical. He called the process “déjà vu” and expressed his frustration over the promises of Smart Growth and neighborhood planning. Neither process had done much to remove the blight in East Austin, he said. Others questioned whether community block grants and an enterprise zone in the neighborhood had done much to make a difference either.

“Every morning I wake up and I wake up in a different zone,” Fernandez told the panel, drawing laughter from the audience. “Let’s address some real issues.”

Fernandez proposed that the city put more neighborhood plans in place before submitting the application. He said there is no reason to rush through the process.

No process, protesters say

But the real issue for many of the leaders was notification. No matter how many ways Chan discussed the rush, neighborhood leaders continued to express their displeasure. Pena complained about a lack of notification in Spanish. Lewis pointedly asked why he—in the second largest neighborhood in the zone—had not been notified. Chan said the notification had been up to those community groups pushing the zone application, not the city, and that notification had been a volunteer effort.

Afterwards, those working to publicize the event said last week’s terrorist activity had erased their modest publicity efforts. None of the three meetings were hidden from the public, said one supporter. Instead, those meetings were used to organize material to present to the public at the town hall meeting last night. Supporters hoped information already collected from neighborhood plans and the Equity Commission’ s report could give the city a head start on a process that typically takes six to eight months.

“If it was an ideal world, it would have allowed us to follow a process,” acknowledged Chan, who took much of the heat. “We have not had a lot of time to do it.”

If Austin did land an Empowerment Zone, the federal government would grant employment tax credits for businesses that hire employees living there. Other incentives include environmental clean-up cost deductions for developers, special allowances for bonds to build schools or business facilities and a special status for non-profit agencies in the Zone that apply for federal grants.

Community leader Melvin Wrenn interrupted the speeches to tell Chan he knew their coming to East Austin to explain the Empowerment Zone would be a suicide mission. Wrenn participated in the failed attempt to secure an Empowerment Zone in 1994. Wrenn told Chan his presentation was top down rather than bottom up, and that to sell East Austin they needed to show people what such zones had done in other cities and explain how it would help the community reach its own goals. People just didn’t understand it, he said.

The Empowerment Zone application, Chan told Almanza, had been released to cities at the end of July. In the intervening weeks, the three chambers—Greater Austin, Greater Austin Hispanic and Capital City African-American—had approached the city to submit the grant application. Volunteers from those organizations had been in charge of a phone bank to try and reach various neighborhoods in the proposed zone. Boundaries of the zone would be Manor Road on the north, Ben White on the south, I-35 on the west and Ed Bluestein on the east.

After the meeting, chamber leaders said they were somewhat surprised by the vehement response of local residents, but that they still intend to pursue the application, which is due on Sept. 28.

Cap Metro Board hears

Report on budget cuts

Cutting operating budget would mean cutting service

Reducing Capital Metro’s operating budget for 2002 by postponing planned improvements in next year’s service would cut operating costs by less than one percent, according to figures presented by the agency’s financial analysts Monday. In response to last week’s request from the Cap Metro Board of Directors, staff members Pam Lang and Rob Smith presented the figures at yesterday’s work session.

The proposed operating budget for 2002 is $99.425 million, an increase of 9 percent over the current budget. General Manager Karen Rae, with help from Lang and Smith, showed the effects of postponing upgrades planned for February and August 2002. The service improvements for North and Northwest Austin and Southeast Austin could be postponed until August and the changes scheduled for August 2002 could be put off for six months also, reducing the budget by only six-tenths of one percent. Postponing all changes for one year would reduce the budget by seven-tenths of one percent. The budget has a 5.9 percent increase in fixed-route service levels and a 4 percent wage increase for employees.

One of the directors asked what would happen if next year’s increase were cut to seven percent. Smith said, “You would have to reduce overall service levels to get there.” Board Chair Lee Walker said, “What helped me a lot was to see if we were to not do all the things we want to do, it would have a minimal impact. There’s no question, any way you slice it, we’re in an investment year.”

There can be some cost savings in postponing certain parts of the 2002 capital budget, as opposed to the operating budget, Rae said. Walker said, “It would seem to me that we’ve got to find some way, at least internally, to think about our capital expenditures . . . (which) have to be in the right relationship to our growth.” Not doing that, he said, would “undermine our ability to fund other things.” Walker said, however, that the public would not want bus service cut because there is a slowdown in the economy.

Rae said her staff is working with accounting firm KPMG to provide a better framework for talking about Capital Metro’s five-year plan. From last week’s discussion, she said she believed the consensus was to postpone some of next year’s expenditures. Rae proposes postponing land acquisition for some facilities, including the following: South Loop 1 park and ride, Oak Hill park and ride and the Northwest, Southwest and South Travis County park and ride lots. She suggested continuing with the purchase of land for the Northwest Austin park and ride, the South ‘Dillo park and ride and the North I-35 park and ride, as scheduled. She said the agency can save $9 million by putting off those projects, and the board can always come back and amend the budget next year if revenues are higher than projected.

Cap Metro is projecting a sales tax growth rate of 2 percent for the coming year, as is the City of Austin. This year there was no growth in those revenues through August. The new fiscal year begins on Oct. 1. The board is scheduled to vote on the budget next Monday.

2001 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

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