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Homebuilders' lobby may still try to limit city's authority

Thursday, September 19, 2002 by

Next month the City Council is expected to finalize the city’s legislative agenda for the 2003 session of the Texas Legislature. City of Austin Governmental Relations Officer John Hrncir is gearing up for the biennial marathon, which frequently pits the city against well-funded lobbyists paid by private companies. This year, he says, the state budget may present the largest problem for Austin, as well as for other cities.

“The City of Austin has more enterprises than any other city in the state,” says Hrncir. Not only does Austin own Brackenridge Hospital—a rarity in this era—but the city also owns its own electric, water and wastewater utility and airport. “These are large, expensive, heavily regulated activities, and the private sector equivalent of those lobby heavily. We need to make sure that we remain competitive if we’re going to be engaged in those activities.”

Hrncir said his department lost one employee this year, but he does not expect the number of city lobbyists to be affected. Currently, the department consists of Hrncir, Rod Ellis, Kathleen Sanez and Roger Chan. Chan is working on federal funding issues.

On the other hand, he said, “I expect that we will be spending less this session but the bottom line is that the Council will approve a legislative program and the lobby team will be hired to meet those objectives as developed by the Council.”

“The lobby team will reflect that agenda. But I can say generally the team will be a large team to look after the city’s interests. We’re a capital city. That typically is, as our capital cities around the country, affected by all sorts of legislative decisions. People who are unhappy with decisions at City Hall only have to go a few blocks to try to get actions to countermand those Council decisions. Secondly, we have a large team that reflects the whole political and demographic range of the Legislature itself.”

Hrncir said he expects some changes in the state’s nascent electric utility deregulation. “I suspect those will not be major changes, but we have to pay attention to them because they have such a big impact on the city budget.”

Water issues will continue to be very important to Austin, as well as to other cities. Not just quantity, but water quality and the city’s continuing authority to regulate in the ETJ (extra-territorial jurisdiction).

Homebuilder lobby groups sought legislation last session and were successful in getting it approved, Hrncir noted. HB 1445 eliminated the dual city-county process for subdivision applications. (See In Fact Daily March 27, 2002 .) “I think that will be examined some more,” he said. The city has already reached agreement with Travis, Bastrop and Williamson Counties, but has not reached agreement with Hays County. “Discussions are continuing,” with the county that is home to the greatest area of recharge for the Barton Springs portion of the Edwards Aquifer, he said.

“The local homebuilders are not happy with the agreement between Travis County and the city, so we’re continuing to talk” with the homebuilders, Hrncir said. The city would be interested in legislation that Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos has indicated he would like to introduce to ensure that the state’s highway builders pay attention to environmental concerns, particularly over the recharge zone.

The team two years ago was 13 outside lobbyists, all of whom are still under contract to the city. Those contracts will be expiring at the end of September, he said. Hrncir expects to hire two temporary employees to assist during the session, as he did in 2001.

Overall, the city’s general fund budget has approximately $700,000 for lobbying. In addition, Hrncir said, “ Austin Energy has a contract with Adams & Zottarelli. There’s also an amount that is split for two other lobbyists for the Water & Wastewater Department and Solid Waste Services.”

There may be an attempt to take away the authority of municipalities to collect rent for working in the rights-of-way, Hrncir said. One public interest group that tracked lobby money during the last session said telecommunications companies spent $6.9 million on their lobbyists. Right-of-way rentals bring between $10 million and $20 million into city coffers each year, making the issue worth the fight. But every department in the city will have a reason to watch the Legislature, he said. “The state can take actions that affect our entire budget. Practically the entire $1.8 billion is susceptible to legislative action.”

Hearing continued to next month

The owners of eight lots between the 3300 and 3400 blocks of West Slaughter Lane will be going into mediation with the surrounding neighborhood over their request to have the lots rezoned to LR (limited retail). Neighborhood leaders initially resisted the suggestion of mediation, saying they had voted against supporting any zoning more dense than LO (local office). The land currently has a mixture of zoning classifications, including LO, SF-2, and I-SF-2

Commissioner Diana Castañeda tried to delay hearing the case and suggested that the two sides go into mediation, but she did not initially garner enough support from fellow commissioners. “According to the association, we just want to get this done,” said Suzanne Balettie of the Palomino Park Homeowners Association, who was opposed to any delay. While Commission Chair Betty Baker urged the two sides to go through the mediation process, she eventually agreed that the commission should hear arguments in the case.

Glenn Rhoades with the Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Department told commissioners that staff was suggesting LO-MU-CO for the site because the area along West Slaughter was in transition. “The subject tract does abut a single-family neighborhood to the south,” he said, but pointed out that the north side of the tract was being developed as retail. Lauretta Dowd, representing the owners of the tracts in question, requested the more intense LR based partly on the increasing traffic along West Slaughter. “We approached the other property owners along that strip to try to come in with a cohesive, joint planned project,” Dowd said. “There are several situations around town where the roadways are improved and the single family houses that were pre-existing to that improvement are in dire straits, and we felt that the best thing for the property owners and the entire area would be to try to come in with a unified application.” Several of the property owners were long-time residents, while others have used the structures for home offices. But the heavy traffic along West Slaughter, Dowd added, was bringing new development and making the street less desirable for single-family residential. “We felt that the additional flexibility within the zoning category was required so that we could get personal services . . . and we could get uses that would capture the existing traffic and not draw traffic to the area.”

But neighbors objected to many of the possible uses in the LR category. “We as a neighborhood association, do support the LO zoning,” said Balettie. She said the group was determined to avoid an increased level of development. “Because our subdivision sits on the southeast corner of Brodie and Slaughter, we find ourselves quite frequently having to defend our rights as homeowners to say what we want to border our property.”

After the public hearing, Commission Chair Betty Baker said she was convinced that the property owners and neighbors could have reached a compromise. “I think the neighbors could have gained a lot more through mediation than by forcing us to address the issue this evening,” she said. Baker proposed granting LR-CO zoning with a list of restricted uses, while Commissioner Keith Jackson took her comments as encouragement to postpone the case. Commissioners eventually agreed to continue hearing the case on October 22, giving both sides an opportunity to go through mediation. The public hearing will remain open at that October meeting for commissioners to hear additional comments after the discussion.

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

Gone fishin’ . . . That’s the sign you’ll see on the In Fact Daily web site Friday. We will return on Monday. Have a nice weekend . . . From the Quorum report . . . Harvey Kronberg’s Quorum Report last night reported data from a mid-September Murray/Stein poll showing Republicans six to nine points ahead in races for US Senate, Governor and Lt. Governor. However, in the race for Attorney General, the same poll gave Democrat Kirk Watson 32.7 percent of the vote, compared to Republican Gregg Abbott’s 32 percent—too close to call in anyone’s book. Watson spokesperson Kristen Vassallo told In Fact Daily, “The campaign is going very well. We’re very pleased with the poll and with everything that’s going on around the state” . . . Congressman announces funding for Child, Inc . . . US Representative Lloyd Doggett announced Wednesday that Child, Incorporated has received $4.7 million in new funding for Head Start programs. That money will allow Child, Inc. to provide education, health, dental, social and nutritional services to 1,765 children. “A child’s long-term success in school is dependent upon early childhood learning. For over 30 years, the Head Start program has provided childhood development for millions of young children with great success,” said Doggett. “These funds will ensure that Central Texas children will continue to benefit from this important program” . . . Good news on the jail . . . County Commissioner Karen Sonleitner tells us that the jail population has dropped significantly, allowing 27 local inmates to be returned to Travis County from Limestone County. Two came back yesterday and the other 25 are expected to arrive this morning . . . Sign recommended for Convention Center . . . The Downtown Commission endorsed vacating a portion of the aerial right-of-way along Trinity Street to allow for the construction of the marquee for the Austin Convention Center. And the group also endorsed a suggestion from member Timothy Finley that there should be a review of the sign ordinance. Finley was concerned that the existing sign rules made it more difficult for downtown business owners to adequately publicize their businesses. . . Issues and eggs . . . Travis County is replacing its old voting system with what is termed a state-of-the-art optical scanning voting system. County Clerk Dana Debeauvoir will speak at this morning’s Issues & Eggs Breakfast Meeting at 8am at ACC’s Downtown Education Center in Room 111, 211 E. 7th Street, 1st Floor . . . Sheriff’s Office promotions . . .The Travis County Sheriff’s Office has announced the promotions of four women to top positions in the Sheriff’s Administration. The office reports that the positions were created through a combination of retirement and reorganization of the administrative staff. Captain Emily Trevino will be promoted to Major. Lieutenant Phyllis Clair, Director Patti Eacre t and Lieutenant Laura Vallejo will all become captains. The four will receive their promotions in a ceremony at 7pm Friday at Camp Mabry, #82 Audie Murphy Regional Training Institute, 2200 W. 35th Street.

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

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