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All seem to agree process too flawed to continue

Wednesday, September 18, 2002 by

Some of the artists and umbrella organizations affected by cuts to the city’s budget for such groups held a meeting Tuesday to begin seeking solutions to their funding problems. Latifah Taormina, executive director of the Austin Circle of Theaters and Jason Neulander, artistic director of Salvage Vanguard Theater, organized the meeting. Taormina sent an email to the invitees saying, “This meeting is not about reciting our sad tales. It’s about finding solutions!”

However, after the meeting Taormina and Neulander expressed frustration over the City Council’s decision to ignore recommendations from the Arts Commission and reduce funds equally for all organizations. (See In Fact Daily, Sept. 10, 2002.)

Neulander said, “I’m mad at all the Council members,” for voting for the budget changes. I’m mad at the process that didn’t allow our voices to be heard on this before a decision was made. Clearly, obviously . . . Council acted in what they thought was the best interest of the community. Unfortunately, from the rumor mill that I have heard . . . they heard from a select circle of voices that did not represent the interests of the entire arts community. More organizations were hurt by this decision than were helped by this decision.” His theater group was cut from $30,000 to $21,000, he said.

Taormina said she was sure the Council did not make decisions based on personal opinions of the people involved in the organizations, explaining that she worked for the election of three current Council members. But still, she said, it is going to be very difficult for her group, which is an incubator for start-up theater companies, to make up the difference. Last year the group had a $55,000 grant and this year it is about $35,000, she said.

Arts Commissioner Bruce Willenzik had a different take on the matter. The commission, which took heavy fire during the Council budget discussions on September 9 and 10, is to blame. He said, “Council has been trying to get a positive action out of the commission for quite a while.” When the commission disqualified the well-known Sharir dance company last year, he said, “Council requested the commission to take action and we dug in our heels and became obstinate. When the mixed arts panel ran into so many problems last year, Council was not amused. When ( Mayor Pro Tem) Jackie Goodman asked to see the guidelines in November, they (Council) got them in January—and only the corrections, not a draft,” of the recommendations, he said. And the Council only had one day to approve those guidelines. In addition, he said, the commission allowed organizations to be disqualified from consideration for reasons Willenzik considers petty, increasing the Council’s concern that the commission was not doing its job. Goodman went to a number of commission meetings in an effort to understand what the commission was doing. She was the first Council member to take the commission to task—at least this year.

This year, Willenzik said, the commission failed to look at the money realistically. Although it was obvious to city staff and other commissions that revenues would be down this year, he said, the Arts Commission failed to discuss the matter or take that into consideration. Arts grants are funded from the city’s hotel-motel bed tax, which suffered greatly as a result of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Willenzik is the producer of the Armadillo Christmas Bazaar.

Neulander was especially angry that the Council chose to override a decision to refuse funding to organizations that failed to get applications in on time. “The ultimate objective rule is the deadline. There’s no subjectivity there at all—–at 5 o’clock on X day if you don’t turn in your application, you’re out. As soon as you bend that rule, then all the other rules, which are more subjective, are game for bending as well. And then the funding … . . . becomes not about quality of the work (but about) who is the best lobbyist, who is the loudest complainer,” he said.

All seem to agree on Willenzik’s assessment that this year’s system needs to be revamped. “The system is broken. Think of it as a computer with the operating system broken. You can put in a good program and good data and get bad results.” He said the Council recognizes that cities that boost the power of creative talent will reap vast rewards in economic development. “This is so important…This is whether or not people are willing to invest in our city. The arts . . . can bring in tens of millions of dollars.”

In the meantime, Neulander and Taormina said they are working with other arts groups to begin private fundraising to help make up the difference. They are planning on a concert to raise funds for the arts community as a whole in the near future. Beyond that, they are thinking about how to best represent the arts community as a whole when it comes to talking to the City Council.

Overtime must be within department's budget

Travis County commissioners have approved tighter controls over the budget process to prevent mid-year budget surprises from county department heads.

The Planning and Budget Office (PBO), with the help of the County Auditor, reviews budget rules each year after the county budget is approved. This year, the PBO pointed out three major areas where county leaders wanted to see changes. Christian Smith, executive manager of the PBO, presented those changes to Commissioners Court yesterday.

The new rules, approved unanimously by the court, clearly draw the line on deficit spending. Smith said it is no longer the county’s intention to fund retroactively. The county was forced to bail out departments twice last year.

“This is a direct reaction to our experience this last year,” Smith told commissioners. “It’s to say, ‘Manage wisely and if you see a problem, you’re in change.’”

To which Commissioners Margaret Gomez and Margaret Moore said, “Amen.” Commissioner Karen Sonleitner added that she wanted to make sure mandated services provided by the county should be given highest priority in each budget.

The new rule on deficit spending pulls no punches. According to the new language in the budget rules, “Expenditures and contractual obligations in excess of the amount authorized in a budget are prohibited. If a department or office incurs an expenditure for which they do not have a valid budget, they will be expected to reallocate funds internally to fund the shortfall. This may require actions as extreme as reducing staff.”

The county is also drawing the line on overtime, under a recommendation from County Auditor Susan Spataro. All overtime must fall within a department’s budgeted parameters, unless the department head or elected official declares an emergency. All emergency overtime must be reported within five days to the County Auditor, PBO and the Commissioners Court. An overtime report will be presented to the court each month.

Spataro said the guidelines are allowed under local government code and encourage people to “manage the resources we have.”

Sonleitner had some tough words on the overtime out of Sheriff Margo Frasier’s office. The commissioner said she was shocked to see that some sheriff department employees had worked in excess of 1,000 hours of overtime, making more than $20,000 in overtime pay. That many hours on the clock, Sonleitner said, begins to raise the issue of county liability and whether employees are getting enough downtime and vacation time.

A form to track overtime will be developed and provided to commissioners on a monthly basis, Spataro said. The goal is to raise the visibility of overtime and address problems sooner. Department heads also will have access to the information.

A third change to the rules will allow department heads to reallocate savings of less than $15,000 to needed capital projects as an automatic budget transfer rather than a motion requiring court approval. The goal is to give department heads an incentive to save money and use that money on other needs of the department, Smith said.

“We want to foster that kind of thinking and that kind of management, and to manage those projects so that you can create such savings,” Smith said.

For example, if a department heads brings in four projects under budget and wants to take that accumulated savings and spend it on other capital projects, he could do so as long as that savings was no more than $15,000, Smith said. That transfer would not require the approval of the court and would be a routine budget transfer item.

Other minor changes also were made to the budget process. The county auditor will disburse advances on travel under some strict guidelines. The mileage reimbursement also has been bumped 2 cents to 36.5 cents a mile to mirror IRS guideline changes.

Some argue developing in the suburbs is easier

Downtown developers continued to express strong opposition to the codification of recommended Downtown Design Guidelines at a meeting of two commission subcommittees Tuesday.

The meeting was the third of three downtown stakeholder meetings designed to gather specific input on the 13 proposed design guidelines. Two subcommittees—the guidelines editing committee of the Design Commission and the codes and ordinance committee of the Planning Commission—sponsored the meetings.

The session was intended to address the final five proposed amendments to the Downtown Design Guidelines: windows at street and second level of downtown buildings; maximum building setbacks; adding Wooldridge Square to the downtown park overlay; orientation of entrances toward squares; and clarifying the city’s current “clear and lightly tinted” window requirements.

The Downtown Austin Alliance is supportive of the design guidelines, Executive Director Charlie Betts told commissioners that the guidelines reflected better design.

“However, we think codification is a bad idea,” Betts said. “We think proper incentives, where appropriate, is the appropriate way to go.”

But developers consider such guidelines to be another reason to take their business to the suburbs, where the city has fewer rules. Planner George Adams agreed that suburban projects are almost always limited to site development standards. But suburban areas have their own set of problems, such as impervious cover standards and water regulations.

“I do understand and agree with your point, but there are imbalances in the regulations across the board,” Adams told commissioners, adding that each type of development has pros and cons.

Developers expressed the following concerns: Cutting down window tint is not always a good idea in Austin’s hot climate. Glass doesn’t always make sense on the second story of some buildings, especially when a business requires privacy. And orienting entrances onto a square may not make sense when the major entrance is more appropriately placed on a perpendicular street.

The cost of such requirements may push development out of downtown, attendees told commissioners. Planning Commissioner Cynthia Medlin said she considered the competing pressure of downtown versus suburban development to be a legitimate concern with the downtown guidelines.

Developers also consider the guidelines stifling. John Horton said he feared a “cookie cutter” approach to downtown development. Austin is Austin, he said, not Santa Fe. “Not everything needs to be adobe,” he told commissioners. Common sense and market forces ought to prevail in the development process, Horton said.

Travis County is the first-floor tenant in one of Horton’s Fifth Street buildings. Most people in the building, whether by preference or nature of their work, prefer to keep the mini-blinds shut.

“Practicality ought to prevail here,” Horton said.

The use of glass is intended to be an “eyes on the street” approach to development, Design Commissioner Girard Kinney told the other members of the joint committee. He added that the ideal situation was to combine the glass with awnings and trees. The intent was not to limit flexibility.

Design guidelines can drive better design, Developer Jeff Pace of Carr America told the group. External pressures from commissions and neighbors can also drive design. But Commissioner Chris Riley pointed out that some developers were completely sidestepping commission approval. Developers can choose to take their project through the process with exceptions and without Smart Growth incentives.

Some developers have backed off Smart Growth incentives because they have heard funding development incentives is no longer politically palatable, Commissioner Perry Lorenz told his colleagues. Lorenz is the developer of The Nokonah lofts on the edge of downtown. Many perceive that the pool for funding incentives has dried up, Lorenz said. Hence, it’s now a lot harder to get the developer to initiate the Smart Growth process.

Design guidelines do not always tie the hands of designers, Medlin said. Medlin, a landscape architect herself, said she considered guidelines to be something that challenges the developer to be a more creative designer. The rules push the developer “to step up and do your best work,” she said.

Downtown Design Guidelines will go to the Planning Commission, then on to the City Council. The Council adopted a resolution in 2000, directing staff to develop a plan to integrate the guidelines into the city’s overall project review process.

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

Subdivision matter postponed . . . Sarah Crocker, representing a couple trying to reach agreement with Stratus Properties on an access easement to their land, asked the Zoning and Platting Commission last night for a six-month postponement of consideration of a requested variance on the case. Since the commission does not have its schedule for next year, the case was postponed until December. Crocker told In Fact Daily that her clients would be exploring all their options between now and then . . . EUC Commissioner steps down . . . Teresa Reel, who has served on the Electric Utility Commission for the past nine years, has resigned. Reel has been a leader on the commission, serving as chair until this summer when she handed the reins to Commissioner Barry Sarma. Reel recently became a city employee, working on the new the 911 Call Center . . . Jail crowding experiment . . . In an effort to bring down the numbers in Central Booking, Travis County will try 24-hour magistration during the last two weeks of October. Judges are not normally available during late night and early morning hours except in an emergency. Katie Broderick, manager of Criminal Justice, Research and Planning, says the two-week pilot will use current court staff and cost about $14,000. Broderick expects to bring back a cost-benefit analysis in November and a full program to the court in December if the program proves effective . . . No action at UTC . . . The Urban Transportation Commission postponed action on the bicycle ordinances. City staff only received their information last Thursday and didn’t have a presentation for the commissioners. Commissioners also wanted to have attorneys present to compare city laws on the topic with state laws. Capital Metro pushed back its quarterly presentation to the commission until December . . . Reporter on the job . . . The civil-service hearing for former Austin Police Officer Timothy Enlow got underway on Tuesday with writer Shelly Wilkison in the audience. Wilkison is the editor of The Police Line, the official publication of the Austin Police Association. She had been issued a subpoena to testify in the hearing because of an interview she conducted with Enlow. That normally would have prevented her from covering the hearing, but the hearing examiner agreed to relax “the rule” which prevents potential witnesses from hearing testimony by other witnesses in the case. Enlow was terminated from the department last year after he was accused of engaging in racial profiling. But those allegations are not expected to play a major role in the hearing, which is scheduled to take up to seven days.

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

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