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Staff urges use of Tax Anticipation Notes

Thursday, February 7, 2002 by

The City Council is expected to vote next week on a proposal to use Tax Anticipation Notes to cover a shortfall in the current budget blamed on rising costs for homeland security and lower-than-expected sales tax revenues. The figure of $8 million still stands, but Council members heard during Wednesday’s work session that they’ll have four separate options for covering the gap. The first involves using the Tax Anticipation Notes to borrow money based on next year’s property-tax revenues. That would have the effect of increasing the property tax rate about 1.66 cents per $100 of property value.

Finance Director John Stephens told Council members they could also use a financial instrument called a “Contractual Obligation” to spread the impact over several years. Two of the options presented by staff involve tapping the Tax Anticipation Notes, Contractual Obligations and a city contingency fund in different amounts to pay for equipment and overtime for police, fire and EMS workers. Option four on the list from the staff is to take all the money from additional expense reductions from city departments. That possibility isn’t being recommended because it would likely affect city programs and could result in the laying off some city employees. If the Council does decide to issue the Tax Anticipation Notes, they would need to do so before the end of the month.

Aviation Department Executive Director Jim Smith gave Council members an update on the airport’s financial situation Wednesday. The summary of the first quarter of fiscal year 2001-02 showed a drop in the number of flights by most of the major carriers operating out of ABIA. At the same time, the federal government’s increasing security regulations raised expenses by about $1.2 million. Those numbers will likely come up in any discussion of raising the fee charged to operators of parking lots near the airport, which is posted for action on today’s agenda. Smith noted that parking accounts for 35 percent of the airport’s revenue stream. The airport operates as an “enterprise fund,” meaning it is expected to fund itself and does not receive tax dollars from the city’s general fund. Parking lot operators have been visiting with Council members this week and have also hired some heavy hitters to speak on their behalf.

Since the Council has to deal with the Brackenridge-Seton contract and the third reading of the billboard ordinance, it is entirely possible that simple fatigue could prevent the airport item from coming up for discussion. A majority of Council members have told sources they wish to postpone the parking lot question. The hospital item is scheduled for 3:30pm. Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman has been working on language she hopes will satisfy Seton but not preclude the city from offering emergency contraceptive services to those in need at the hospital-within-a-hospital.

Walnut Place neighbors happy About Tuscany Way extension

City must now approve interlocal agreement

An interlocal agreement between Travis County and the city—to be approved by both bodies this week—should put the extension of Tuscany Way in Northeast Travis County on schedule for construction this fall.

The $1.25 million extension of Tuscany Way—1,700 feet of a two-land road between Exchange Drive and Ferguson Lane—is expected to provide significant relief to the Walnut Place subdivision. Neighborhood leaders tell commissioners cut-through heavy truck traffic has been a problem for the last 15 years. Plans for an alternative route has been on the table since August 1995, said John Hutchison of the Walnut Place Neighborhood Association.

Last fall, the county agreed to put up “no truck” signs in the neighborhood and provide some enforcement to reduce cut-through traffic. That was a first for the county. Hutchison told commissioners Tuesday the signs had made his neighborhood “a much safer place.”

“The ‘no truck’ signs have done a phenomenal job,” Hutchison said. “I’d say that truck traffic is down by 75 percent. The neighborhood is in awe that this is actually working.”

These improvements, Hutchison said, in a neighborhood where homeowners on Ferguson Road sometimes could not back out of their driveways to get to work in the morning. In his document explaining the road project, TNR Executive Manager Joe Gieselman wrote that the county had installed speed limits, flashers, stop signs and rumble strips to minimize the impact of the adjacent industrial zone that has spring up along Highway 290.

The segment of Tuscany Way that passes through the neighboring industrial park is actually in the city limits, Gieselman said. The combined contributions of the project include $781,020 from the city, $721,000 from Capital Metro and $500,000 in Certificates of Obligation approved by Commissioners Court in 1999.

The agreement does present one problem to the county: Travis County will be ready to start construction before the city will release its portion of the funding. The city’s contribution is authorized for October 2003, or fiscal year 2004. Gieselman told commissioners the design should be completed and ready to bid in September 2002.

Commissioners will need to address that issue this fall, Gieselman said. He offered the county’s road and bridge fund as a stopgap-funding source for the project. The county also may have some leftover funds for Precinct 1 from the 1984 bond issue. He added that the commissioners also could agree to delay the project to await city funding. Construction on the road should take between six and eight months to complete.

“The city is absolutely committed to handing over the money,” County Judge Sam Biscoe added, clarifying Gieselman’s comments. “The only question is when they say we will have it.”

Commissioners unanimously approved the interlocal agreement, which also protects all three agencies if the project fails to progress. The City Council will consider the same interlocal agreement today. Commissioners Court already approved an interlocal agreement between the county and Capital Metro.

Judge asks for briefs on

Instant runoff voting suit

Is controversy one the court should decide ?

It is now up to a District Court judge to decide whether an advisory opinion from the Secretary of State’s Office last July derailed a local effort to put instant runoff voting on the ballot this May.

Instant run-off voting, a recommendation of the city’s 1999-2000 Charter Revision Commission, asks voters to rank their choice of candidates and eliminate the need and cost of run-off elections. An advisory opinion from then Secretary of State Henry Cuellar’s office last summer stated that instant runoff voting is illegal under Texas law. That opinion had a chilling effect on all local efforts to put instant runoff voting on the ballot, lawyer Fred Lewis of Campaigns for People told District Judge Scott Jenkins on Wednesday morning. As David Cobb of the Center for Voting in Democracy testified during yesterday’s hearing, all progress toward endorsements ended with that opinion.

Council members who had pledged their support to the ballot initiative— Will Wynn and Danny Thomas and tentatively, Beverly Griffith—backed out of their endorsements after the secretary of state’s opinion, Cobb said. Lewis asked whether Cobb continued to seek endorsements from civic groups and council members.

“We attempted to, but we couldn’t get them anymore,” Cobb said. “The buzz was, now, that this was an illegal reform. It really became an exercise in futility at that point.”

Lewis’ argument is that the Secretary of State used the wrong legal standard for determining the issue, that the city’s home rule power should prevail in a conflict with the state Election Code. As a result, Lewis claims, “the Secretary of State has chilled the Plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights to petition and to seek to have instant runoff voting placed on the May 2002 City of Austin ballot.”

Gwen Shea was appointed Secretary of State in December, after Cuellar resigned. Her office argues that the opinion was just that—an opinion—and no local election official was bound by its provision. “Plaintiffs are erroneous in their belief that the Secretary of State’s Opinions are ‘implemented’ by anyone. On the contrary, such opinions are only advisory, and the City retains the discretion to follow or not follow the advice contained in these opinions,” according to documents filed by lawyers for the state.

Assistant Attorney General Megan Hare also argued those who lobbied for the ballot initiative had not been stopped in their efforts. With only three members of Council signing on to the initiative, the group hardly had the majority to support the initiative. And nothing has stopped those who support the initiative from gathering the 20,000 signatures needed for a ballot referendum.

Lewis is scheduled to file his final brief in the case on Friday. The Secretary of State’s office will file its final brief next Tuesday. At that time, Jenkins must decide if there is justiciable issue to consider—enough evidence to show that the Secretary of State’s actions caused significant harm to the plaintiffs’ efforts.

Lewis’ goal is a new opinion from the Secretary of State’s office, but it’s not just the state that is the focus on his concern. Lewis questioned why Assistant City Attorney John Steiner went to the Secretary of State’s office for an opinion in the first place. Lewis says it was the city’s way to quash the momentum building for instant runoff voting.

“What was the city doing asking the Secretary of State whether or not it had the power to do something? Most people who want to do something—and have full power like the city—just do it,” Lewis said outside the hearing. “The city staff went out of their way to seek an opinion because, in my opinion, they wanted to undermine instant runoff voting.”

Lewis represented a loose coalition of civic groups, including Austinites for Instant Runoff Voting, the National Organization of Women- Austin Chapter and plaintiffs Jim Reed, Leslie Ramsey and Hannah Riddering.

Tuesday Wednesday, Thursday,

Friday

Not a Prada purse . . . Statesman columnist Susan Smith wrote in yesterday’s paper that “ Council Member Beverly Griffith, with her Prada purse full of money, may be the only incumbent who isn’t sweating term limits.” Not only is Griffith’s purse not of the designer variety, it was on sale for $29.99, says the Council member, laughing. But Griffith has every reason to laugh at this point in her campaign. At last night’s fundraiser, she announced that her team of signature collectors has collected nearly 19,000 of the estimated 20-21,000 needed to allow her to run for her Place 4 seat again this year. She said her workers are validating the signatures and have found that 81 percent meet the appropriate legal requirements. But Smith’s point, that beating the incumbency rule costs a lot of money and that there are nasty, unintended consequences from the citizen-initiative charter amendment, is well taken. Griffith’s husband, Baile, says most of her signatures cost $1 apiece. But he proudly points to the fact that she has raised $40,000 so far. There are rumors that attorney Brewster McCracken will run against Griffith, and he could be well-funded too. Of course, few people have heard of the Akin Gump lawyer, but he might have the money to prove the other charter amendment we gained via the referendum process, campaign finance reform, means nothing for the rich . . . What to do with Mueller . . . Keep the Land. Org wants to convince Austinites that the city should not sell the Mueller airport land to the developers. In a press release issued yesterday, the group says, “Leaseholding is a well established tool for escaping crushing land prices that drive the cost of owning a home out of most people’s reach.” The group will be hosting a meeting on the subject at 4pm Saturday at the Unitarian Church, 4700 Grover. For more information, see http://www.keeptheland.org or call 419-7000 . . . Zoning and Platting Commission cases slowed to a trickle . . . Tuesday was a slow night at the ZAP, with only two contested items being heard. The commission finished around 7:30pm, postponing a decision on a subdivision plat that seems bound to be approved next week, in spite of the fact that neighbors felt the city should enforce a restrictive covenant. Assistant City Attorney Marty Terry gave both the commission and the small audience a primer on why the city cannot enforce private agreements, beginning with the constitutional prohibition on the state expenditure of public funds for private benefit, which means that “when two private individuals . . . engage in an agreement and impose those through deed restrictions on the land, that is a private agreement. Simply because that is filed of record does not make that agreement rise to the level of the law.” So, it would be unlawful for the city to go to court to enforce a private deed restriction.

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

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