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Austin sees tax revenues

Thursday, October 10, 2002 by

Falling with stock market

News is disappointing, not surprising, Futrell says

The bad news: The City of Austin’ s sales tax revenues were down close to 10 percent for the month of August compared to August of last year. The $9 million dollars collected for the month containing tax free holidays was about 6 percent lower than budget writers’ conservative estimates, said City Budget Officer Rudy Garza. The good news: Because tax revenues for the month of June were slightly higher than projected, the city is still on target for the FY 2003 budget approved by the City Council last month.

Garza explained that $642,000 more than expected was collected in June, offsetting the $615,000 deficit from August. That leaves a cushion of about $27,000 above what Garza’s office used in writing the current city budget.

City Manager Toby Futrell told In Fact Daily, “It’s obviously very disappointing and it’s also 9.7 percent worse than it was the year before. All of us were looking at the news, hoping things were going to start moving forward. I just think it means the economy’s not going to recover as quickly as we were hoping. There’s nothing we can do about that.” However, Futrell said she wanted to issue a “call to all citizens: Tell everybody to shop inside the city limits.” She added, “I’m doing my part. You can ask my husband.”

Garza laid out the figures comparing August collections for the past four years. In 1999, he said, the city collected $8.4 million. In both 2000 and 2001, the city received $9.9 million in August tax dollars. Budget writers were expecting a drop in revenues this year, but not as large a drop as was experienced, Garza said. Instead of the $9.6 million projected, Austin received about $9 million, or six percent below the projection.

“Sales taxes are really hard to project. Our general approach has been . . . to look at it on an annual basis. During the boom years, we were going crazy . . . It’s always been difficult to look on a month-to-month basis.” Budget analysts start by making projections on an annual basis, Garza explained. Then, based on monthly historical tax revenues, accountants try to project what each month’s receipts will be.

Last September, of course, sales plummeted and tax revenues were down 12.7 percent from September 2000. Garza said he expects tax figures from last month to be flat. That number will be reported in November. “Part of the reason is because last September’s payment was severely impacted by events of Sept. 11 and the events after that. We do not believe at this point that we would lose even more than that in 2002. However, based on the trends that we’re seeing, we do not believe we will see an increase over last year’s number,” he said.

Ten of the last 11 months have been negative, Garza said. “For the first 11 months we are at 6.72% negative; we are projecting that we will end the year at about 6.1 percent negative . . . We believe we’ll collect $115.6 million in sales tax revenue, based on current data. And that’s what’s included in our current budget.”

Council Member Betty Dunkerley, who has many years of budget experience on the other side of the dais, said she was not surprised that the tax revenues were down, based on the uncertainty Americans have been feeling. The falling stock market and talk of war, she said, have shaken consumer confidence, which has a direct impact on spending habits. Dunkerley said even though she is hopeful that things will improve, “it’s anybody’s guess” what will happen next. That uncertainty, she said, made her inclined to recommend more belt-tightening for the city.

City needs to plan ahead for possible bond

City Council members reacted positively to a proposal to double the contribution to the Art in Public Places program at yesterday’s work session.

The Arts Commission has not been without controversy lately, but a presentation to increase the budget for public art was met with approval by the Council members who spoke on the issue. No date has been set at the Council to consider the resolution to increase AIPP funding.

Commissioner Mel Ziegler, Chair Jill Bedgood and Administrator Martha Peters made the presentation to increase contributions from 1 percent to 2 percent of the budget on Capital Improvement Projects. The trio also recommended two other changes: to lift the $200,000 cap on contributions to public art; and to include infrastructure such as streetscapes, street improvements and bridges to the list of eligible projects. The increased funding would be used to both create and maintain current artwork.

The point that resonated most with Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman was the need to pay artists a living wage. The trio made the point that artists often were paid in the range of $20,000 for what could have been up to two years of work. The city, Goodman said, had “taken the definition of struggling artist to a new level,” despite the rich talent that brought the city artwork everyone could enjoy.

Council Member Will Wynn was struck by the need to maintain the city’s current collection of artwork, which is now more than 100 pieces and valued at more than $3.5 million. Wynn brought up the Philosopher’s Rock at Barton Springs Pool, a brass piece that was donated by private funds. As special as it is, Wynn said, the Parks & Recreation Department shouldn’t have to be burdened with maintenance of the piece if the city could find some way to put funds aside for the conservation and maintenance of artwork.

Council Member Betty Dunkerley expressed her support for folding more funds for public art into the next bond issue, and rolling any cost savings on future bond projects into future art initiatives. For that to happen, though, the city must do major planning on new bonds.

The Council also discussed funding caps. Ziegler pointed out that the City of San Jose spent $5 million on public art in its new city hall design, while Austin was capped at $200,000. Houston used $4.8 million in public funds for artwork at its new airport terminal. Austin lifted its cap to provide $371,000 worth of artwork. And San Antonio spent $1 million on art for its Convention Center expansion, while Austin again spent only $200,000.

City Manager Toby Futrell noted that the city had paid for artistic elements within the new city hall design, including $1 million for a 3-story waterfall. That item was counted as an architectural rather than artistic expense. And while she expressed support for increasing arts funding, she also pointed out that 2 percent on infrastructure could become a heavy price tag. The city has hundreds of millions in scheduled water and wastewater upgrades alone over the next five years.

Just looking at the current outstanding bond projects, Futrell calculated that the city would spend an extra $2 million for arts funding under the proposal. The public works projects add another $2 million, Futrell told the Council. The increase in funding would not be small.

Mayor Gus Garcia, who spoke of public art as a way to enrich the quality of life in Austin, asked whether additional public funds could leverage more private or corporate donations. Would there be more opportunities for private sector initiatives to underwrite public art projects? Garcia asked.

Peters mentioned how the Junior League stepped forward with a $480,000 contribution once the city had paid $28,000 to an artistic team to design Town Lake Children’s Park. Futrell added that she had recently met with corporate leaders who had expressed some interest in a payroll deduction for employees who wanted to make contributions to the arts.

Professionals support sobriety centers

A task force formed to study the possibility of opening up a sobriety center reports that the experts they queried give the idea a resounding endorsement, but it urges further study and a survey of the general public before any action by the City Council. The sobriety center, now being referred to as a “sobering-up station,” would provide treatment for individuals arrested for public intoxication.

Currently, people arrested by police for public intoxication are taken to the Travis County Jail. If they’re so incapacitated that they are turned away by the jail, they are taken to the emergency room at Brackenridge Hospital. But doctors prefer to reserve any available space for treatment of critically injured patients. Other cities have had some success with a separate treatment facility for repeat public intoxication offenders. “The idea behind it is more prevention and recovery . . . to actually try to break the cycle and get people off their dependency,” said Chief of Staff Michael McDonald.

The Council requested a feasibility study earlier this year (see In Fact Daily, Jan. 31, 2002 ) after the idea was discussed in conjunction with the relocation of the county’s Central Booking facility. “The feasibility study asked the question, ‘Do you think that a sobering-up station should be added to the array of services in Austin?’ And 54 people answered—these were key experts in the Austin community—and a resounding 87 percent said ‘yes,’” remarked Dr. Debbie Webb, who presented the task force report to the Council. “The Austinites who participated in this study said they do not want a punitive model; they want a medical and social model instead.” She pointed to a program in Denver, which has been in operation for 40 years, as a model that Austin could emulate should the Council choose to create the sobering-up station. “We’re going to have to take a closer look at the decriminalization aspect of this,” said McDonald, “because the question comes to mind: Can a person that’s intoxicated actually give consent to be diverted to a different site? We have some concerns about that.” The city has previously supported efforts to make state laws tougher on repeat public intoxication offenders.

The task force suggested an additional questionnaire for the general public to determine community support for the sobering-up station, with specific questions about the willingness of taxpayers to fund the facility. Should the Council decide to proceed, the group also recommends visiting Phoenix, Denver or Portland to study their facilities.

Deviation from approved site plan angers board

Last week the Environmental Board voted unanimously against recommending a variance that would allow a Lake Austin resident to keep, as is, the enclosed recreation room he built above his boat dock.

Despite consultant Sarah Crocker’s presentation on behalf of Edward Thomas, who lives along the shores of Lake Austin at 2315 Island Wood Rd., the board determined that the addition to his home was not in alignment with what the city had approved.

Chair Lee Leffingwell said the addition to the Thomas home is a “flagrant corruption of the Land Development Code (LDC).”

Crocker said her client’s house was built in 1981, along with the boat dock and deck. In 1998, he submitted a site plan—which was approved—to build an enclosed room above the boat dock, she said. “Mr. Thomas came in with an application. He wanted to build a recreation room for his grandkids. That’s all.”

She said he was told he could build a screened-in porch above the dock and no variance was needed. He got permission from the city for the modification, proceeded with the project and in October of 1999, she said, it passed inspection. But a year later the addition was red-tagged after a neighbor complained that he had built an attached apartment instead of a screened in porch. But, Crocker said, “This boat dock . . . was always attached to the house.” Moreover, she said, the original footprint of the site plan was never modified.

John McDonald, with the Watershed Protection Development and Review Department, told the Board the project did not meet the findings of fact. He said it was an example of excessive development in a Critical Water Quality Zone (CWQZ). His department could not approve a variance because “staff doesn’t feel like it meets the overall intent of the LDC.”

City documents state that the original site plan, approved in January 1999, called for “an open second-story structure with no connectivity to the single-family residence. A building permit was issued for a second-story addition to the boat dock on October 18, 1999, which referenced the original site plan showing a screened-in enclosure.”

The addition Thomas built is attached to the house and has glass windows, which prompted Leffingwell to ask McDonald for verification. “In other words, the final construction was not what was approved in the site plan? The plan that was built was not the one that was approved?”

McDonald said that was true, only a screened-in porch had been approved.

Vice Chair Tim Jones said he sees plenty of enclosed structures built above the water along Lake Austin. “What’s the environmental harm in making that change?” he asked. “What I see is incremental steps,” he said, to widen what’s acceptable for development. “It seems to me that opens the door.”

Yes, McDonald said, “They continually try to push the envelope.”

Leffingwell said his criteria for making a decision on such variance requests for structures already existing was influenced by one question. “If this did not exist, would you be voting for it? Ask yourself that question.”

He made a motion for disapproval, noting that the board agrees with staff in that the findings of fact are not met. “Granting the variance adversely affects the water supply of Austin,” he said.

The vote was 4-0, with Secretary Karin Ascot and Board Members Matt Watson and Susana Almanza absent.

Wednesday, Thursday,

Friday.

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

Air coalition seeks federal help . . . Members of the Clean Air Coalition passed a resolution Wednesday urging the federal government to consider additional funding for areas like Austin that haven't officially been declared in violation of the 8-hour ozone standard. Currently, most federal financial help goes to areas that have already been declared in violation by the EPA. Austin and the surrounding counties are attempting to avoid that designation by entering into a voluntary plan to clean up the air in Central Texas. Clean Air Force staff members told the coalition that they should be able to benefit from some of the research done in Dallas and Houston, both of which are striving to improve their air quality . . . Regional planning conference . . . Austin City Council Member Daryl Slusher and Hays County Judge Jim Powers announced yesterday that they would sponsor a regional conference on protection of the Barton Springs Zone of the Edwards Aquifer. Members of the public and elected representatives will be invited to participate in the Dec. 6 forum. The site has yet to be named . . . Airport makes the grade . . . Austin-Bergstrom International Airport ranked “among the world’s highest” in overall scores in a survey of customer satisfaction done by J.D. Power and Associates. ABIA is the only airport in the small category ranked by the survey, which found Singapore and Hong Kong to be the highest rated among mid-size and large airports, respectively. The surveyors cited ABIA’s “unique touches, such as live music and locally themed shops and restaurants” as reasons for the airport’s popularity . . . Council meets in South Austin today . . . Today’s City Council meeting will be at the South Austin Senior Activity Center, 3911 Manchaca, beginning at 1:30pm. This is part of the Council’s effort to make meetings more accessible to different parts of the community. There will not be a meeting on October 17 . . . Commissioner candidates face RECA today . . . Travis County Commissioner candidates for all races are expected to square off at a forum sponsored by the Real Estate Council of Austin at noon today. The gathering and luncheon is at the Four Seasons Hotel . . . Wynn to lead delegation . . . Council Member Will Wynn will be leaving on Friday for a week-long trip to sister city Kwangmyong, Korea. A delegation of 18 people, primarily from the Austin business community, will take the trip. Wynn told his colleagues yesterday that Samsung and KIA Motors would be a special focus of the trip . . . AARO looking for leadership candidates . . . The Austin Area Research Organization will be holding sessions designed to teach political skills to persons interested in running campaigns or seeking public office in Central Texas. The Leadership Academy, sponsored by AARO and Leadership Austin, will hold sessions Oct. 30, Nov. 6 and Nov. 13. For more information, call Lee Thomson, Executive Director of Leadership Austin at 322-5679 . . . Transit company picks self-insurance . . . Capital Metro will move to a self-insured health plan in the coming year, with claims administered by the Texas Municipal League . Staff members think self-insurance, along with a wellness program and profit-sharing incentives for employees, could cut health care costs at the transit agency. In the meantime, the transit agency will set aside $9 million to underwrite the “worst-case scenario” in the coming year . . . New auditor . . . Caroline Beyer’ s first task as Capital Metro’s Internal Audit Director will be to complete a risk management assessment of the transit agency. Beyer will present that assessment to the planning and finance subcommittee in three weeks. Beyer, who came to Capital Metro from IBM, is filling a vacant position and will report directly to both General Manager Fred Gilliam and the Capital Metro Board of Directors.

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

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