Friday, August 9, 2002 by

Other central Texas cities in agreement with change

The Austin City Council wants the City Manager to study a plan to keep 18-wheelers out of the left lane on I-35. A state law passed in 1997 gives cities the authority to limit big trucks to two lanes, leaving the third lane open for cars. If the measure becomes law, trucks would only be allowed to use the left lane for passing

Mayor Gus Garcia believes separating cars and large trucks on the freeway will improve safety. “This gives a lane to car drivers; it’s a lane (in which) they will not have to deal with the truckers,” he said. “Let’s face it, the car drivers are at a disadvantage.”

“In Houston, it has reduced accidents 68 percent,” Garcia said. The Houston City Council approved the left-lane truck ban in August of 2000 for a stretch of I-10. A follow-up study by the Texas Transportation Institute in the fall of 2001 showed a 68 percent decrease in accidents along the affected roadway. Automobile drivers, the study found, were responsible for a majority of the accidents between cars and 18-wheelers. Minimizing the interaction between those two types of vehicles, researchers said, would cut down on accidents ( http://tti.tamu.edu/researcher/v38n1/demonstration%5Fproject.stm).

The Council’s on Thursday directed the City Manager to begin the process of adopting an ordinance, and to work with neighboring cities in doing so. The city councils in Georgetown and Round Rock have already passed resolutions pledging to study the proposal, and Mayor Garcia hopes it will find support throughout the region. “We hope Pflugerville will pass it. I think Buda may be affected. Kyle may be affected,” he said. “We hope to get those cities on board.” The study of the proposed ordinance is expected to take several months, with Council action to adopt the rules possibly coming in January of 2003.

Won't come automatically

All county employees scheduled to receive three percent increase

This year’s pay raises for elected and appointed officials in Travis County will be much less impressive than they were a year ago. But even if they gave themselves no salary increase at all, commissioners would still be making 64 percent more than Austin City Council members. County Commissioners make $73,915, while Council members are paid $45,000. County Judge Sam Biscoe receives $88,861, while Mayor Gus Garcia’s salary is only $53,000.

Last year at this time, county commissioners had already approved healthy raises for many elected officials, on the advice of the Citizens Advisory Committee on Elected Officials Salaries. Those salaries were approved the same week the preliminary budget was presented in early August.

This year, despite the promise that the county is in fairly stable financial shape, consideration of pay increases for elected and appointed officials will be a more deliberate process. Biscoe has capped raises for officials at 3 percent—the same rate rank-and-file employees can expect to receive. A hearing on the matter is likely to be posted in local publications next week.

Meanwhile, city employees will receive no pay increase, but the city tax rate is not going up either. County commissioners are looking at a proposal to raise taxes by 2 cents per $100 valuation. For the average homeowner that translates to an extra $92 per year. (See In Fact Daily, August 7, 2002.)

In 2001, the citizens’ advisory committee had recommended raises of between 3.9 and 10.5 percent for county employees. Biscoe justified the raises, pointing out that elected officials hadn’t seen an increase in pay during the previous four years. This year, the recommended raises range from zero—the salaries of the county treasurer, court-at-law judges, probate judges and district judges will not change—to a recommended 6 percent raise for Biscoe himself. Most of the proposed pay hikes fall in the range of two to four percent.

According to the memo, the current salary for the county attorney is $121,241; the district attorney, $128,004; and the sheriff, $93,819. Other salaries range from $60,999 for constables to $135,027 for probate judges.

Mayor Garcia, who has an encyclopedic memory of City Council history, said former Council Member Bill Spelman made the motion—which he seconded—to raise Council pay from $30,000 to $45,000 in 2000, the year they both retired from Council service. Garcia said Spelman, “a master at numbers,” figured that the salaries almost matched the cost of living. The Mayor’s salary was pegged at $60,000, Garcia said, but the Council later lowered it to the current level so that it would be only about 16 percent higher than Council members’ pay. Prior to that, he said, the Council had not had a raise since the mid-1980s.

This year, of course, there will be no salary increase for anyone at the city, least of all elected officials.

At Tuesday morning’s meeting, commissioners talked a lot more about how the proposed raises would be posted than about how much of an increase in pay officials deserved. When Biscoe commented that limiting the raises to no more than 3 percent was common sense, no one disagreed with him.

If the raises get posted by the end of next week, commissioners will likely approve them on either Sept. 13 or Sept. 20. Approval of the budget is scheduled for Sept. 24. The bigger issue for court members is going to be how to squeeze $5.7 million in requested compensation increases into a budgeted $3.7 million—that, or shift expenditures from other areas of the budget to carry the full $5.7 million.

The Citizens Advisory Committee on Elected Officials Salaries uses a statistical model based on a sampling of salaries in 34 other counties to arrive at its recommendations. According to the committee’s memo, dated July 11, the average salary increase in those counties last year was almost 12 percent.

According to the memo, the committee recommended more conservative increases for Travis County officials for two reasons: First, because two years of data provided only a limited basis for comparison, and second, to more closely reflect actual economic conditions in the Austin area.

The recommendations short-circuit last year’s proposal to boost salaries in two-year cycles. Had the committee followed that plan this year, commissioners would have been receiving a 7 percent raise and the county judge a whopping 15 percent increase. Such raises, the committee wrote, are “untenable under current circumstances.”

The revised recommendation would have given commissioners a four percent raise and the county judge a six percent raise. Under Biscoe’s proposal, those too would be limited to three percent.

To limit impact of pipelines

City must take care in crafting ordinance because of federal concerns

The City Council has asked the City Manager’s Office to come up with an ordinance specifically addressing development near underground pipelines. The resolution cites the “need to establish measures to avoid exposing land uses with high on-site populations . . . (who) risk injury in the event of a pipeline failure.”

Opponents of the agreement with Stratus Properties had urged the Council to adopt an ordinance requiring buildings to be set back from pipelines, since the Longhorn Pipeline runs through one of the Stratus tracts proposed for residential development. (See In Fact Daily, July 24, 2002 and August 1, 2002.) Whatever ordinance the Council eventually adopts is unlikely to be as strict as pipeline opponents would have it—with setbacks of several hundred feet. Council Member Daryl Slusher said the city has been reviewing other municipal building ordinances related to pipelines. “Our finding is that those setbacks are not very large,” he said. For new development near the pipeline, Slusher said, “You’d probably have to have some extra protection . . . different building materials, maybe some setbacks.” The Fire Department is charged with making those decisions in the case of Stratus.

Until an ordinance is actually passed, it’s impossible to determine the impact it might have on the Stratus agreement. But Slusher said the ordinance was not being drafted specifically with Stratus in mind. “In Southwest Austin, the federal government has already required the pipeline to be double-thick, enclosed in concrete and have sensors,” Slusher said. “The bigger concerns are in East Austin, where the federal government didn’t require those measures.”

The Council asked City Manager Toby Futrell to return with a draft ordinance by September 12th. Information contained in a national report on pipeline safety published by the Transportation Research Board of the National Research Council could play a significant role in the language included in that ordinance ( http://trb.org/trb/publications/sr/sr219/SR219_00.pdf).

Friday

Appointments . . . The City Council made only two commission appointments yesterday. Mayor Gus Garcia appointed Jay Gohil to the Zoning and Platting Commission and Council Member Daryl Slusher reappointed Rosemary Castleberry to the Parks and Recreation Board. A commercial real estate broker, Gohil has lived in Austin for the past 22 years. He is vice chair of the Austin Asian-American Chamber of Commerce, treasurer of the Asian Construction Trade Association, and has degrees in chemistry and chemical engineering. Castleberry is chair of the parks board, where she has served for the past eight years There is one remaining consensus slot on the ZAP . . . Republicans gather tonight . . . Interested Republicans are invited to join party officials, including Henry Bonilla, Texas Victory chairman, for discussion on grassroots organizing from 6 to 9pm tonight at the Renaissance Austin Hotel (Arboretum). You can RSVP by phone at 302-1776, or register at www.texasgop.org/austin72 . . . So, you thought Austin was liberal? . . . The Las Vegas Review Journal reports that the Nevada Conference of Police and Sheriffs has voted to support a ballot proposition that would block the arrest or prosecution of adults in possession of up to 3 ounces of marijuana. They say police have more important things to do. The matter will be on Nevada’s ballot in November . . . Community Action Network to release education report . . . CAN will release a report Monday noting “troubling” disparities amongst school districts in our region. The study, funded in part by IBM as well as the CAN’s 14 partners, was done to increase awareness of critical education issues in the Central Texas Region . . . Sunday celebration of Barton Springs . . . The Save Our Springs Alliance and other lovers of Barton Springs will be celebrating Sunday, the 10th anniversary of voter approval of the SOS Ordinance. Swimming will be free at Barton Springs Pool. For more information, visit www.sosalliance.org or call 477-2320.

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

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