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Commissioners warn staff:

Wednesday, October 3, 2001 by

Get ready for tighter budgets

Defer new programs, leave vacancies open

Travis County Commissioners Court yesterday approved a letter asking department heads and appointed officials to anticipate tighter budgetary times ahead.

The request comes in the wake of the Sept. 11th tragedy, which has sharply cut into dividends on the county’s stock market investments. County Judge Sam Biscoe suggested a wait-and-see attitude, at least for the next quarter, in anticipation of a tighter budget in fiscal year 2003. The two-page letter should be mailed today.

“The message is to consider the impact of FY 2003 as we go through the execution of FY 2002,” said Christian Smith, executive manager of Planning and Budget, who added that the national and global events were likely “to seep into this courtroom in ways that we still do not probably understand.”

Biscoe termed the letter’s rhetoric as suggestions, rather than mandates, from the commissioners’ court. Some of the steps included delaying implementation of new programs, holding vacant non-essential positions open, deferral of filling new slots and reducing travel expenditures and other controllable expenses. The suggestions are made with the understanding that any new expenditure approved this budget year will have to be met during a much tighter FY 2003, Smith said.

“We see the clouds and we need to be prepared in case it rains,” Smith said.

Commissioner Margaret Gomez, in particular, did not want to take a tack that would scare departments off fulfilling essential services to the county. The goal was not to be alarmist. She added, however, that the county needed to be prepared as events unfold. Gomez was concerned that unanticipated budget shortfalls would mean the neglect of essential services, like road and bridge repairs.

Commissioner Ron Davis wanted feedback from department heads on just how a cut in the budget would impact their departments. Commissioner Todd Baxter wanted department heads to take a hard look at how programs are being implemented, taking into consideration the fiscal impact they might have on the next year’s budget. He called the approach “optimistic but careful.”

The letter states, “The General Fund has grown by $106 million in the past four years, and we have great confidence in the creative leadership of our elected and appointed officials to control expenditures.” It also asks department heads to curtail earmarking the court’s allocated reserve funds except under emergency circumstances. The individual department heads would define what constitutes an emergency.

Other suggestions from Smith and his department included aggressively pursuing the collection of revenues, creative partnerships to decrease costs and new ways to increase productivity. The consensus among the staff and court members was that it was much better to create strategies in advance to deal with a potential serious downturn, rather than react to new economic realities in crisis mode. The letter also solicits new cost-saving ideas from commissioners and their staffs.

Smith also suggested that not all impacts of the attack would be bad for the county—the lowest interest rates in 40 years will allow the county to issue certificates of obligation at much more economical costs. Biscoe will be putting consideration of certifications of obligation on the agenda for next week.

The court unanimously approved the letter with Commissioner Karen Sonleitner absent from the meeting. Commissioners agreed they would revisit expenditure issues by either late December or early January.

Design Commission offers

Opinion of new parking garage

Architects appalled by Long Center garage

City officials wouldn’t bring the architectural plans to the Design Commission, but the Design Commission plans to take its opinion to them: the Long Center Parking Garage across from Auditorium Shores is an eyesore.

Wording of a draft letter the commissioners began editing Monday night was restrained. Commissioners only go so far as to say the garage “may have benefited from active participation in the review process” and that the City of Austin “should lead by example and strive to create buildings (including parking garages) that engage the current and future needs of the City and its inhabitants.” Commissioners were still tinkering with those words as the meeting ended, agreeing to edit the letter through the week and send it on to the City Council on Monday.

Commissioner Girard Kinney was more blunt in his comments, telling his colleagues the commission ought to put together a simpler and more direct “My God, look what you’ve done!” letter to city leaders.

“You have really made a mistake,” Kinney offered in his own spontaneous draft of a letter. “You’ve got a Design Commission here that you could have used, that could have helped you . . . Instead of that long letter, we could say, ‘Shame on you. We could have helped you.’”

The Design Commission does have some jurisdiction over design along Barton Springs, as it does in all major corridors that lead into downtown. The Downtown Design Guidelines document offers directives for the South Congress/Barton Springs corridor that stress a need to keep Barton Springs Road “pedestrian-friendly” rather than “car-oriented.”

But the Design Commission never saw the architectural plans for the Long Center garage. Now it’s too late to make any impact on the process, given the advanced stage of construction, admits Chair Juan Cotera. Cotera said the commission had requested a presentation for months, but the commission had been rebuffed. Finally, the commissioners took it into their own hands to draft a letter.

The letter lists a number of concerns, first among them that the parking garage “deadens the block” from Bouldin to First Street. “While it would have been difficult to preserve the view of downtown across Town Lake, the Long Center Garage blocks the view of downtown and the view of the new Arts Complex, leaving Barton Springs pedestrians with an entire city block of Parking Garage,” commissioners wrote in the early draft of the letter.

The mantra of the downtown design guidelines is pedestrian-friendly parking garages with first floor retail. Commissioners have cut Smart Growth points from many a project that could not meet that goal. As Kinney told his colleagues, “There is a (review) process. It does exist, and they could have benefited from it.”

Commissioner Joan Hyde told colleagues she didn’t want to give the impression that the city never comes to the Design Commission with projects. The Design Commission has critiqued both the Seaholm Master Plan and City Hall. However, the city is not consistent, Hyde said. “The problem is, they sometimes do bring projects and they sometimes don’t,” Hyde said.

The theme of the city leading by example was echoed by a number of commissioners. A couple suggested that all city projects such as fire stations and libraries, even those outside the downtown core, should be brought to the Design Commission to make sure designs meet the city’s own standards. City projects, commissioners agreed, should be held to an even higher standard than private development.

County approves new

Regulations for sludge

No treatment sites in or near flood plains

The county has added one more stop for those seeking a permit for a waste management facility should that facility be located on or near a county floodplain.

County Commissioners quickly ratified an ordinance yesterday that would stop waste management facilities from locating in or within 500 feet of a floodplain. The new ordinance cites “considerable public health and safety risks” for such facilities.

The language goes on to say that approval often relies on “flawless engineering, design and operation of the facility by the operator and intensive review, evaluation, inspection, monitoring, enforcement and other forms of oversight that can rarely be effectively implemented given the already strained resources of TNRCC and local government.”

In the past, the county could only consider the inherent suitability and soundness of the plans, which is roughly the same procedure used by the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission (TNRCC). Prior to this ordinance, the policy of the county was limited to looking at the engineering of the facility or the containment devices used in the project.

“Now we can look at them and say, ‘Based on the type of activity they are engaged in—and the fact it’s a solid waste operation—it just can’t be located there,” Nuckols said.

The runoff near those sites was also a concern, Assistant County Attorney Tom Nuckols told commissioners, since it could carry contaminants into the floodplain. And floodplain maps, the ordinance added, are often inaccurate, imprecise or outdated.

In another action, Travis County commissioners also agreed to challenge the Captex Inc. sludge application, asking TNRCC to reverse its decision on the permit. Captex, a septic tank installation and service company, applied for a permit to use a 100-acre site that would make beneficial use of sludge and sewage. The location, opposed by its neighbors, is off Skog Road near the Travis-Williamson county line.

The ordinance will only apply to new facilities. Those that already have permits would be grandfathered. Exceptions would still be made for extreme hardship. Nuckols said the rationale was that “there was plenty of land outside the floodplains, away from floodplains that are near these sites and all the problems associated with floodplains.”

In other words, it’s just easier to have them located somewhere else, Nuckols said. The intention is to add one more hurdle for applicants; however, Commissioner Margaret Gomez pointed out it was no more hardship than the requirements for a single-family residence.

Joe Gieselman, Executive Director of Transportation and Natural Resources, expressed some concern that the ordinance language is so broad that it would catch homes with garbage cans. Nuckols assured him that the language does limit it to commercial development.

The new ordinance would give TNRCC another reason to stop a permit, Nuckols said. He said, “this provides the justification” for TNRCC to deny a permit. Variances would be considered and reviewed on a case-by-case basis by the Transportation and Natural Resources Department before they are brought before commissioners.

Nuckols was optimistic the new ordinance would force applicants to consider both the county and TNRCC in the approval of its application.

“They’re going to know, ‘I might as well deal with Travis County at the same time as TNRCC on variances,” Nuckols said. “It will have a practical effect.”

Commissioner Ron Davis said he would prefer the permit process to be “proactive instead of reactive.” Environmental officer John Kuhl said it would be difficult to force TNRCC to make procedural changes in protested cases.

2001 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

Mayor honored once more . . . Mayor Kirk Watson this week was named winner of the International Downtown Association’s award for individual achievement for his leadership in making downtown Austin more vibrant and creative. Watson was nominated for the award by the Downtown Austin Alliance . . . Speaking of the Mayor . . . Watson will be out of the city on Thursday so a number of items may be postponed from this week’s Council agenda. Michael McGinnis, the owner of the post office in the Hyde Park Neighborhood, has already requested a postponement because city staff has not yet produced an ordinance detailing McGinnis’ agreement with the neighborhood. It is in the neighborhood’s best interest to agree to any postponement at this point, since Watson is likely to vote for the proposals of the Hyde Park Baptist Church. Representatives of the church and a few neighborhood leaders are continuing to meet but have made little progress towards settling their longstanding dispute . . . Oops! . . We said yoga in the park would start yesterday, but it’s really today and every Wednesday at 7 a.m. throughout the fall It’s free . . . Lawyer questions charter amendment . . . The City Council is scheduled to get a briefing on the proposed Campaign Finance Charter Amendment on Thursday. Supporters of the measure gathered more than the number of signatures needed to get it on the ballot. (See In Fact Daily, Sept. 12, 2001.) But an analysis by City Attorney Sedora Jefferson finds several flaws in the way the charter amendment was written. Those include possible confusion over sources of money the city would be required to supply to candidates and who would have control over those funds. In addition, Jefferson notes that “campaign finance is . . . a controversial and unsettled area of the law,” and predicts “it would be reasonable to anticipate litigation costs” over the charter amendment’s provisions on contribution limits, out-of-city donors and restrictions on spending by non-candidates.

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