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Backgrounds differ, but both stress commitment to education

Wednesday, September 4, 2002 by

Last night’s Texas Exes debate showed incumbent Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos and challenger Ben Bentzin to be more similar than dissimilar, at least when it comes to issues surrounding higher education.

Both stressed higher education as a priority for Texas. Both opposed raising taxes to meet the anticipated funding shortfall in the upcoming state budget. And regarding the disposition of federal research dollars, the two agreed that more such funding should return to higher education institutions rather than go to the state for administrative costs. The two addressed a group of about 120—with the audience fairly evenly divided between Barrientos and Bentzin supporters – at the UT Alumni Center last night. The Austin chapter of the Texas Exes hosted the event.

Barrientos, the Democrat who has served as Senator in District 14 since 1985, stressed the need to use performance reviews to cut waste, the sunset commission to review processes, and closing the loopholes that have allowed some businesses to avoid carrying “their fair share” of the tax burden. He also emphasized finding new funding sources rather than putting a greater burden on taxpayers.

Bentzin stressed the need to provide the opportunity of higher education to every person in the state. He pledged his commitment to devoting all new tax dollars to higher education and using his business experience at Dell Computer to find new efficiencies in state government. Investment in education, Bentzin said, needs to be the state’s priority because it is a “gateway to opportunity” to solve other problems.

The numbers show higher education has not been a priority of the Legislature, Bentzin said. Higher education was 46 percent of the budget 30 years ago. That number has dropped to 20 percent. The growth in the state’s contribution to funding lags behind the inflation rate.

“That doesn’t exactly strike me as a priority,” said Bentzin, alluding to Barrientos’ comments of support.

Barrientos countered that higher education has to share the stage with a host of other needs, including teacher health insurance, children’s health insurance and infrastructure needs.

Incumbent Barrientos emphasized his experience on the Senate Finance and Appropriations committees. He also talked about his ties to the University of Texas as a graduate and the father of a law school graduate. Bentzin, on the other hand, talked about how the most successful people he knew in the Senate came to the Capitol after careers in other fields. Bentzin has been a senior executive at Dell Computer, most recently in the web-based e-commerce division.

The two candidates did differ on some issues. While Barrientos supported tuition reductions and exemptions for special groups such as police and firefighters, Bentzin opposed these, saying he didn’t think the state should open the door to considering one group more worthy than another. Bentzin supported a long-range vision to create another flagship university, given the current burgeoning enrollment at the University of Texas. Barrientos wanted to keep the money at the two existing flagship institutions rather than spread it among too many campuses.

Barrientos supported the idea of having the Legislature set tuition rates, but Bentzin seemed to prefer maintaining the status quo, saying it is the Legislature’s job to set standards for the universities.

While much of the debate was a polite exchange of views, the candidates didn’t mind taking an occasional pot-shot at each other. Bentzin said he would not be an official who considered releasing half the felons from jail as a way to make budget cuts, which drew cheers from his supporters. Barrientos said his opponent obviously already was learning “the art of a little spin.”

“As someone who has been endorsed by CLEAT and the Austin Police Association and the Austin firefighters, I don’t think I’m easy on crime, folks,” Barrientos said, also drawing cheers.

The Barrientos Campaign sent out a press release Tuesday calling on Bentzin to pull radio advertising that seemed to imply that that Bentzin had the support of Travis County’s Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA). The ad featured a woman identifying herself as a CASA volunteer. Karen Cox, executive director of CASA, told Bentzin on Friday that she was concerned the ad might affect the group’s non-profit status and asked him to change it, according to the Barrientos campaign.

After the debate, Bentzin told In Fact Daily that he did not receive the complaint until 5:15 p.m. Friday and had immediately contacted the media company about changing the ad. However, Barrientos pointed out on Tuesday that the ad was still running. Bentzin said yesterday was the final day for the ad anyway.

Barrientos proclaimed his support of the Texas Tomorrow Fund. Bentzin countered that the fund only covered tuition and failed to address the more expensive cost of room and board at universities. Bentzin suggested further development of the Tomorrow Fund and the creation of college savings accounts.

Coco Douglas of KEYE-TV and Gary Susswein of the Austin American-Statesman offered questions in the hour-long debate. Associate Dean of the College of Communication Mike Quinn moderated the forum.

Developer wants to tear down structure

The Historic Landmark Commission has sided with neighbors in the Fairview Park subdivision who are seeking to preserve a 112-year-old house that developers intended to tear down.

The decision to add the historic zoning designation to 1312 Newning Street, otherwise known as the Moore-Williams House, will now go to the Zoning and Platting Commission, then on to City Council. At issue are dueling assessments of the structural integrity of the house. The Historic Landmark Commission initiated Historic zoning on the house, but the potential developer is opposed to the designation.

Built in 1890, the two-story, wood-frame, gabled house was the home of the superintendent of the School for the Deaf at the turn of the century. Subsequent owners, however, plastered the exterior with stucco and made various improvements to the property. In her recommendation, Historic Preservation Officer Barbara Stocklin supported historic zoning for the structure but raised concerns about the structural integrity of the house, given the years of severe neglect.

An assessment from Herndon, Stauch and Associates, requested by Stocklin and paid for by the developer, indicated the home was in poor condition. “It is neither structurally sound nor weather tight. . . . While the original floor plan and finishes are evident, little else suggests restoration is an economically feasible plan,” Dealy Herndon wrote.

“I will say this house is not in good condition,” said Stocklin during a slide presentation to the Historic Landmark Commission. She noted it had been a rent house, youth hostel and apartment building. “It does not appear there has been much maintenance for 50 years, and it has drainage and structural problems.”

The cost of the restoration could outweigh the benefits of preserving the house, Stocklin observed, citing the developer’s restoration estimates of $200 to $250 per square foot. Stocklin told commissioners she considered that number a bit high but could not provide more accurate figures without further study. Rental tenants currently occupy the house.

Leslie Perry, who has the option to purchase the 20,000-square-foot lot from Raymond Bier, said the age of the house was not the problem; rather, it was the current condition of the house that needed to be examined. The present owner considered remodeling when he bought the property 12 years ago but was told the house was “not worth saving.” Perry said the condition has not improved since then, that water is trapped behind the walls of the house and the stucco would be impossible to remove.

Perry pegged the cost of restoration at $575,000, which she pointed out was more than the cost of any other house in the Fairview Park neighborhood, and said she believed renovation was not economically feasible. She offered to give the house to anyone who wanted it but added that her own house mover refused to attempt moving the two-story house for fear it would collapse.

Fairview Park neighbors, led by Clarke Hammond, offered their own assessment. Pete McRay and Laurie Strauss of 1113 Architects examined the structure and said the house was in “fairly good condition.” Strauss said much of the roof, windows, doors and trim could be salvaged. The belvedere on top is in fairly good shape, she said, although it has suffered some damage.

A half-dozen neighbors, many of whom had restored their own houses in Fairview Park, took the podium to support historic zoning for the house. Hugh Lowe said the owner had deliberately set the house to rot because of his belief that 1312 Newning “was a million-dollar piece of property.” He added that trees on the property attacked by oak wilt had been deliberately left untreated.

“It’s going to cost a lot of money to fix it?” Lowe said. “It’s going to cost a lot of money because he let it go to hell.”

Hammond, president of the South River Citizens Coalition, said the demolition of the house to put 24 fake Victorian cottages in its place would “be like putting a stake in the heart” of the Fairview Park community. He believes the development would ruin the historic fabric of the neighborhood.

Commissioners did not offer much discussion. Jean Mather, the newest member of the Historic Landmark Commission, moved to zone the property historic based on its distinctive architecture, significant historic location, identification with its early owners and value to the community. She added that she found it hard to believe that someone would not step forward to buy the property and take steps to preserve the house.

The commission agreed unanimously to the historic zoning. Chair Lauretta Dowd was absent from the meeting.

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

Cisneros to address RECA today . . . Former San Antonio Mayor Henry Cisneros, chairman of American City Vista, will address the annual membership meeting of the Real Estate Council of Austin beginning at 11:30 a.m. this morning at the Four Seasons Hotel. Cisneros will talk about providing housing in today’s market . . . Mayoral reading group today . . . Mayor Gus Garcia, with Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman and Council Members Betty Dunkerley and Raul Alvarez, will discuss Rodolfo Anaya’s “Bless Me Ultima,” the first selection in the annual Mayor’s Book Club, at 11:30 a.m. today. The roundtable discussion will be at the LBJ Library Atrium. UT Humanities Institute Director Evan Carton is scheduled to lead the conversation as part of the book reading campaign. The Mayor hopes that the discussion will encourage the community to schedule lunchtime book discussions at work. It’s all part of the “What if All of Austin Reads the Same Book?” campaign . . . Working Weekend . . . Paul Saldaña, Chief of Staff to Mayor Garcia, said Tuesday that most Council members will be spending at least part of their weekend at City Hall to participate in one-on-one discussions with the City Manager’s staff about the budget. There are no formal Council meetings this week, but budget approval sessions are scheduled next week on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday . . . Divers wanted . . . The LCRA and other sponsors are inviting area certified divers and other volunteers to register early for the Eighth Annual Lake Travis Underwater Cleanup on Sunday, Sept. 29. Last year, more than 700 volunteers collected 13,000 pounds of trash including a kitchen sink and a shopping cart. Like Tom Sawyer, the sponsors promise fun and a free lunch to volunteers. For more information contact Mary Beth Miller at 397-6774.

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

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