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Parking lot owners say city did

Friday, February 22, 2002 by

bait and switch

Members of the Airport Advisory Commission want off-site parking lot operators to meet again with officials from the city’s Aviation Department during the next month to see if the two sides can reach a compromise over a plan to raise their access fees to Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. The recommendation came after a meeting during which those parking lot operators and members of the commission vented their frustration over the actions of some airport staff.

The City Council had sent the proposal back to the commission for further review. (See In Fact Daily, Feb. 06, 2002.) City staff modified the plan following the commission’s initial recommendation. Officials with the Aviation Department are seeking ways to boost revenue to make up for lower-than-projected passenger traffic and higher-than-expected security expenses, both attributed to the terrorist attacks of September 11th. Since the airport operates as an “enterprise fund,” Aviation Department Director Jim Smith explained, it’s expected to pay for itself without additional help from tax revenues.

“We began looking at all potential revenue sources after September 11th,” Smith said. The fees for off-airport parking facilities to access the airport with shuttle buses or vans caught the department’s attention because they hadn’t been updated since a 1992 ordinance designed for the old Robert Mueller Airport. Recent estimates from the department show revenues for the current fiscal year about $15 million below the airport’s budget assumptions. “If you don’t generate a profit,” Smith explained, “then when the airport wants to make improvements they’d have to ask the taxpayers . . . and no airport likes to do that. Every airport in the country and around the world is struggling with that right now.”

The current fee for off-airport parking lot operators is based on the average number of spaces occupied each day. Airports routinely charge remote-parking operators a fee to pick up and drop off customers at the airport. The department proposed adding a $100 annual permit fee for each van or shuttle the lot runs to the airport, and also charging the operators of the lot 8 percent of their annual gross revenues. After the commission agreed to recommend that proposal to the City Council, staffers made an additional amendment that would have allowed for a fee of 15 cents per parking space per day, regardless of whether those spaces were occupied or not. Under those proposals, the airport would have gained between $172,000 and $184,000 in revenue per year to cover the costs of security, ground maintenance and other personnel.

Commissioner, Smith face off

The addition of the fee-per-space option after the commission had considered the original proposal didn’t sit well with Commissioner Michael Voticky, who asked the Aviation Director why the measure had not been presented to the group again. “We’re under no obligation to bring everything that we bring to Council to the board . . . the Council can tell us they’d like the board to consider it, and that’s what they did,” Smith said. The plan underwent further revision before being sent back to the committee for reconsideration. After complaints from operators of those off-site airport parking lots, Smith proposed phasing in the gross-revenues provision, beginning at a rate of 4 percent and eventually stepping up to 8 percent.

That modified plan didn’t please the operators of the parking lots near the airport, who told commissioners they were upset with both the process used by the city and the results it was generating. Attorney Michael Whellan with Graves Dougherty Hearon and Moody spoke on behalf of the owners of Austin Fast Park. He told commissioners the staff plan would still result in an unbearable financial hardship on his clients, who are still in the process of obtaining city permits for their lot designed to hold 2500 parking spaces. “We made an offer to double the current fee structure,” Whellan said, describing the current staff proposal as a “five-thousand percent increase over what we were told the fee structure was going to be when we invested millions of dollars in a parking facility.” Whellan argued that the flat-rate fee on spaces—occupied or not—would place an undue burden on the parking companies in times of slow business.

City as regulator or competitor

Michael Anderson, one of the partners in Austin Fast Park, unloaded his pent-up anger during his presentation to the commission. “We’ve worked for years on this spot . . . as late as December 21st, I was under the impression that my fees to get on this airport were $1800 per month, assuming I get to a 50 or 60 percent occupancy rate,” Anderson said. “That’s in my budget.” The new parking lot near ABIA could open within the next 90 days. Anderson told commissioners he would have liked more advance notice and wanted aviation department representatives to be willing to negotiate. “We didn’t get meetings until we kicked and screamed and dragged like we were going to death row,” Anderson said, describing the proposed fee hike as “the worst bait and switch I’ve ever seen in my life. I’ll pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxes and fees . . . and the month before I open, I get this. It’s just not acceptable.” He concluded with a request to commissioners to consider his proposal, which would increase lot operator’s fees without taking an additional percentage of their gross income. “Just in the way that I got treated, you ought to at least say ‘Doggone it, he was tricked.’ I’m asking for some equity in the doubling of the rate.”

Other parking lot operators chimed in with similar complaints, questioning whether the city was motivated by financial need or the desire to limit competition from outside parking lots near the airport. Attorney Glen Hodges with Winstead Sechrest and Minick told commissioners that his client, Parking Express, had just opened its facility near ABIA and the proposed new fees would have a disastrous impact on their operations. “We have some concern with the fairness of all of this,” Hodges said. “The Department of Aviation not only regulates us by proposing these fees, they also are a competitor. We’re extremely friendly competitors and provide complementary services, but for them to be able to impose such a huge fee increase on us puts us at a competitive disadvantage to their own operation.”

Voticky proposed a compromise plan: charging the parking-lot operators two percent of their gross income, raising the registration fee for each shuttle bus or van to $400 per year and charging a fee of one dollar per van trip. Representatives of the parking companies indicated that they would also be opposed to that plan, but said they would be willing to meet with city staff for further discussions. The commission will take up the issue at its meeting on March 19th, more than a week after the City Council is posted to discuss the matter on March 7th. Attorneys for the parking companies said they would seek a delay from the Council to allow the commission time to revisit the issue.

Several former Council members join the crowd

Some of the major movers and shakers in Austin city government, past and present, showed up to support Betty Dunkerley in her formal campaign announcement at Threadgill’s Thursday morning. Dunkerley stressed her practical experience in dealing with the budget, public safety, health care and affordable housing as she launched her bid to move from implementing city policy to setting it.

Robin Rather told the crowd of supporters that Dunkerley was uniquely suited to help the city deal with the current economic slowdown. “We have an economy that’s completely unpredictable. We have a lot of our friends who’ve lost their jobs,” Rather said. “We have a city budget that is really getting slashed by a decrease in tax revenue. This is a tough time and it’s going to take a tough person to help get us through it.” Rather also praised Dunkerley’s knowledge of the inside workings of City Hall. “She’s a guru with guts. She’s a bureaucrat with a brain. She’s a woman with wisdom and a vision for how we make Austin better. She’s a candidate with the competence to lead Austin into what I know will be a great future.”

Several former City Council members attended the campaign rally, including Charles Urdy, Ronney Reynolds, Brigid Shea, Max Nofziger, Robert Barnstone and Bob Larson. Former Council Member Betty Himmelblau is also listed as a Dunkerley supporter. Kristin Vassallo, who left City Hall to assist Kirk Watson in his run for Texas Attorney General, was also present. Several prominent members of the business community also attended, including outgoing Chamber of Commerce President Susan Dawson, Perry Lorenz and attorney Jay Hailey.

Bobbie Enriquez, who ran her own campaign for City Council in 1997, will manage it once again. Enriquez is a former aide to Mayor Gus Garcia.

Pat Hayes, President and CEO of the Seton Healthcare Network in Austin, introduced Dunkerley to the audience. The two recently worked on the renegotiation of the lease agreement between Seton and the city covering Brackenridge Hospital. “Betty knows how this city runs. Betty gets things done,” Hayes said. “We need wise local government and creative leaders . . . to maintain the prosperity that is important to the future of Austin.”

Dunkerley pointed to the agreement with Seton as just one of her many accomplishments during her 12 years in Austin’s city government. “While not a very popular solution with some people, the women who actually use the hospital will receive more services in a larger space than ever before,” she said. “And I will continue to work to improve access to care, whether it is in the primary care system or in the emergency rooms and trauma centers, and along the way I’m going to seek a solution to health care funding in this community.”

Most of Dunkerley’s speech focused on her experience in budgeting and dealing with the city’s public safety departments. “The slowing economy has played havoc with the city’s revenue . . . we’ve got to balance our investment in police, fire and roads with our investments in human needs. My knowledge of city finances and operations will help me bring balance and fairness as we make these choices.” Dunkerley also cited her involvement in finding money for the Balcones Preserve System, improving the minority and women-owned business contracting system, drafting guidelines encouraging developers to build affordable housing and the construction of the new combined 9-1-1 dispatch center. “Public safety will continue to be a high priority for me and this community,” she said. “Based on my experience and knowledge, I think I’m the right person at the right time for the Austin City Council.”

Few career city employees make the jump into the political arena, but Dunkerley says she’s been considering the switch for about a year. “The City Manager kept asking me to stay a few more months to get this project done or that project done. When I got the last project done, I said, ‘It’s time to toss my hat into this other ring.’ It will be a new arena, but I like talking to people and I think I’ve got a good message. I’m really looking forward to it.”

Dunkerley is expected to run against Council Member Beverly Griffith—unless there’s a surprise open seat.

Incumbent has gathered 25,000 signatures in petition drive

Council Member Beverly Griffith, who is likely to face more than one challenger if history is any predictor, had her own party last night. She told a group of about 25 supporters gathered at her real estate office, “Twenty-five thousand people in this town think I ought to have an opportunity to run for re-election.” She said gathering so many signatures had been among the most humbling, yet rewarding, experiences of her life. “So, whatever they throw at me, I’m ready.”

Griffith’s audience was almost entirely women, since the invitation was sent to generate support from women who might view a challenge from Betty Dunkerley with particular concern. Griffith stressed the need to protect quality of life in Austin, a popular theme. She said during times of economic downturn, women and children are always the first to suffer. “As women, we’re really going to have to stick together.” She listed job training and child care as priorities, along with protection of reproductive health services.

She reminded listeners that the next three years would be “kind of a test drive” of the newly-amended contract between Seton and Brackenridge. When the contract was signed, Griffith suggested language that directs the City Manager to analyze the city’s health care system over the next three years. (See In Fact Daily, Feb. 8, 2002.) Griffith urged those present to visit the Brackenridge oversight board and become familiar with hospital operations.

Retired police officer Billy Sifuentes has also announced that he intends to run against Griffith.

Looking south . . . Former City Attorney Andy Martin, now in private practice, is one of four finalists for San Antonio City Attorney. The city to our south is facing a battle over its portion of the Edwards Aquifer—a subject Martin has considered at length over the years, since he led several successful court battles with area developers. The PGA and Lumbermen’s Investment Corp. want to put a golf course over the recharge zone of the aquifer, and city leaders need seasoned legal representation. Odds are on acting city attorney Steve Arronge, a 28-year veteran of San Antonio’s legal department. Others said to be in the running are Jorge Vega, a former top assistant to Dan Morales and Charles Rowland, city attorney in Sherman. A decision is expected early next month . . . Environmental questions for Land Commissioner candidates tonight . . . The Texas Campaign for the Environment is hosting a fun (though short) discussion from 6:30 to 8pm tonight at the LCRA. Three of the four major party candidates, David Bernsen, Ray Madrigal and Jerry Patterson, are scheduled to attend. Texas Monthly’s Paul Burka will moderate and panelists include journalists from Fort Worth, Dallas, San Antonio and the Associated Press . . . Forum on Central East Austin Business Creation and Support . . . The goal of the forum, which is scheduled for 8am to 2pm Saturday at Huston-Tillotson College, is to define the major barriers to development in East Austin and discuss solutions. Keynote speakers will be Della Clark, president of the Enterprise Center in Philadelphia, and Professor John Sibley Butler, Chair of the UT Management Department. Among notable local officials expected to attend are Council Members Raul Alvarez and Will Wynn. Alvarez will stand in for Mayor Gus Garcia, who would have been the lead convener, but he will be out of town on Saturday. For more information or to sign up, call 867-8888 . . . Educational excellence committee begins hearings Monday . . . The Mayor’s Committee on K-12 Educational Excellence will hold its first public hearing at 6pm Monday at the La Fuente Learning Center (Cristo Rey Parish), 2215 E. 2nd Street . . . Chronicle endorsements . . . The Austin Chronicle offers some surprising endorsements for the upcoming primary elections. The Chronicle chose Commissioner Karen Sonleitner over challenger Jeff Heckler, who has received an endorsement from the Sierra Club, but few others. The Chronicle also chose rancher-environmentalist Ira Yates over pavement advocate Gerald Daugherty—no surprise—but this may be the weekly’s first endorsement of a Republican. Democrat Margaret Moore is running unopposed and currently holds the Commissioner Pct. 3 office as an appointee, so she’s probably not too concerned.

© 2002 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

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