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Candidates' forum shows

Tuesday, October 8, 2002 by

Differences in positions

Moore, Daugherty decline to criticize each other

Transportation was the focal point of discussion for Travis County Precinct 3 candidates at last night’s candidate forum at Westlake High School.

While candidates from other races addressed the bread-and-butter topics of school finance, insurance reform and the ever-increasing budget deficit, incumbent Commissioner Margaret Moore and her challenger Gerald Daugherty were questioned on how Travis County would tackle the cost of road construction.

Moore, a Democrat who lives in Westlake Hills, spoke of her long history in county government, including a stint as county attorney, and her service as an interim commissioner. Moore emphasized public office as public service. Daugherty, who lives in Barton Creek, spoke of his passionate opposition to light rail and his intention to divert funding from Capital Metro to build a comprehensive road system. Daugherty, a Republican, criticized a county budget that has grown by $100 million in recent years.

As the election draws closer the message in many of the races has gotten clearer: Rep. Ann Kitchen and Senator Gonzalo Barrientos, the Democratic incumbents, have honed more focused messages, openly and more carefully addressing possible weaknesses. And challengers like Republicans Ben Bentzin and Todd Baxter have gotten more aggressive in challenging incumbent records.

Moore and Daugherty have not faced off as often as some other candidates and their exchanges were more civil. Daugherty said he had “nothing bad to say about my opponent,” and spoke only of the issues he supported. Moore would only say that she had a record and accomplishments and a challenger who wanted to “get in the business.”

Asked to outline her priority road projects, Moore listed US 290 West through Oak Hill and US 183A through Williamson County, as well as high-occupancy vehicle lanes on US 183 and MoPac. She also said improvements to Interstate 35 were critical.

Moore stressed tools such as the proposed Regional Mobility Authority as ways to both provide needed road construction and generate revenue for local infrastructure. County governments must act regionally because of the limited revenues from property taxes, Moore said.

Daugherty said the county could form any RMA it wanted, but the only “pot of gold” in the community was the funds generated by Capital Metro’s penny of sales tax. Half of that sales tax revenue, Daugherty said, should be taken away from Capital Metro and devoted to basic infrastructure needs to make sure dollars go “where the rubber meets the road.” He praised Westlake for voting itself out of Capital Metro. Cap Metro already returns one-quarter cent of its sales tax to participating municipalities.

Daugherty listed his priority projects as connecting the western portion of State Highway 45 and completing US 290 through Oak Hill. He also wanted to commit funding to creating overpasses on Loop 360 to improve access. Daugherty criticized the City of Austin for completing Austin-Bergstrom International Airport before improving the interchange at I-35 and Ben White Boulevard and failing to follow all road projects through to completion.

Daugherty also told the crowd that half the funds for the CAMPO 25-year transportation plan that Moore mentioned were to go to alternative modes of transportation and challenged the crowd to tell him just what those modes might be. He also told the group he would have supported construction of the controversial mile-and-a-half of Frate Barker, despite complaints that construction over environmentally sensitive areas would damage Barton Springs. That environmental sensitivity, Daugherty said, was one reason why South Austin is still snarled in traffic.

“As a commissioner, I would not be supportive of limiting the building of infrastructure of road systems,’ Daugherty told the crowd.

Moore provided a long list of services she felt should be provided by the county, from criminal justice to roads to indigent health care. Daugherty said only three things were mandated by the state to county government: county parks, county roads and the criminal justice system. Based on his own survey of Travis County residents, his top priorities for tax dollars were law enforcement, emergency medical services and fire protection.

He went on to tell the audience that he was as compassionate as the next person when it came to taking care of the indigent, but he didn’t intend to do it on the backs of the taxpayers in Westlake. “You may want to take care of every person, but in a lot of instances, I don’t think they are working as hard as you and I,” Daugherty told the crowd.

Barrientos offered far more specific information on cutting the state budget than he had in earlier speeches, noting specific departments and expenditures. He hit hard on the promise to make businesses pay their fair share of taxes by paying for inventory they had failed to report.

For his part, Bentzin reiterated his message of weak leadership from Barrientos, noting that Barrientos had been passed over for committee chairmanships 35 times and mentioning Texas Monthly’s designation of Barrientos on its list of Worst Legislators in 1995. And from a crowd that had probably heard a lot about school finance, Bentzin’s promise to veto a state income tax did not win the wild applause it might have earned him anywhere else.

Baxter attacks on Kitchen more pointed

Democratic Rep. Ann Kitchen and her Republican opponent Todd Baxter are both optimistic that there is a realistic chance to change the “Robin Hood” system of school finance in the next legislature.

Kitchen told the group in her introduction that one of the main issues this next session would be school finance. She said she is committed to fixing the problem, and the way to do that is with a long-term overhaul. Kitchen listed some of the recommendations she made to the Joint Select Committee, which include: • Updating the cost of education index; • Creating an automatic cost of living adjustment; • Increasing weights for the compensatory education basic allotment for the gifted and talented; and • Commissioning an independent study by national experts to review funding adequacy.

She said the state needs $2.1 billion to accomplish this.

Baxter also said an overhaul to current school financing was necessary. He said a short-term solution would be to update the cost of education index and to raise cost of living counts. But he added that the recapture from school districts needs to be frozen immediately. He said if he had been in the legislature last year he would have filed a bill to update the school finance system. He said, “No one else at this table did.”

In an effort to connect to the newly created District 48, both candidates talked about how they have worked with that community. Kitchen said she worked with the Eanes school district during the last session to pass a bill which allows school districts to buy new school buses. Baxter told the group he had already served the district as a county commissioner and referred to his campaign material, which lists endorsements from six of the seven Eanes ISD trustees.

Kitchen stressed that citizens need “smart, experienced leaders who have creative answers and experience, and a proven record of success.”

Baxter said he knows the district, the people and the issues. He closed by attacking Kitchen’s renter status by stressing that he is the only candidate in the race for District 48 who owns a house in the district. Kitchen shook her head while Baxter added, “I’m not someone who says, ‘Maybe if I’ll win, I’ll move in.’” Kitchen has previously pointed out that Baxter moved into the district only a few weeks before she did. Kitchen and her husband own a house in Barton Hills, just outside of the redrawn district lines.

Sonleitner favors using r-o-w for buses, HOV

Travis County Commissioners are expected to give their enthusiastic approval for creation of a commuter rail district at this morning’s meeting. The proposed district would link Austin, Bexar County and San Antonio, although the initial focus would be on moving freight rather than people. Following a press conference with other regional representatives yesterday, Commissioner Karen Sonleitner explained a possible additional benefit to citizens living in neighborhoods around MoPac. If Union Pacific (UP) can be convinced to vacate the right-of-way running down the middle of MoPac, Sonleitner said, the highway can be expanded without taking land or houses from neighboring areas.

“Remember the old god-awful plan that TxDOT had about adding HOV lanes?” Sonleitner described that plan as basically “bulldoze the neighborhoods, and $600 million later” the extra high occupancy and bus lanes would have space. But if the railroad moves its freight operations to the SH-130 corridor, as proposed, many options become possible. “I, personally, am going to be focused on the middle of the right-of-way for HOV and bus lanes . . . You’ve got 30,000 people from Cedar Park and Leander driving and 30,000 from Round Rock and Georgetown,” on MoPac going into Austin. Commuter rail, she said, might be the tool needed to convince some of those drivers “that there’s a better way to get into Austin than hopping in the car.” One reason why UP officials might agree this time when they have not in the past, she said, is that the new right-of-way would cost them nothing.

Sonleitner also pointed out that Congressman Lamar Smith has already secured $5 million in funds to study commuter rail, but the money can only be claimed by a rail district. Once the district is formed, she said, there would be money to study all the options. Now is the time to begin planning, Sonleitner said. “Next spring we’ll be about one year out on the federal transportation authority funds, now called TEA 21.” At that point, the district could ask for an allocation for commuter rail. A district that has already received an appropriation from the federal government for rail planning will be eligible for more funding, she said. Senators Gonzalo Barrientos and Jeff Wentworth sponsored the legislation for rail districts in 1997. The City of Austin has already given approval for the authority.

The Austin City Council has approved a zoning change at 2700 Lyons in East Austin to allow Family Eldercare to build a housing complex for low-income senior citizens. Some neighbors opposed the design of the project, which calls for three-story apartment buildings. Those opponents complain the three-story complex will not be compatible with surrounding one-story single-family homes. The lot was previously zoned CS, which would have allowed for a wide range of commercial services.

Family Eldercare had originally requested a downzoning to MF-4, but agreed to follow the recommendation of both city staff and the Planning Commission endorsing the lower zoning of MF-3. (See In Fact Daily, Aug. 29, 2002.) The project is receiving some funding from the U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the land was donated to Family Eldercare. “We have been certified as a Smart Housing project,” said Karen Langley of Family Eldercare. “We intend to be an exemplary Green Builder. We will serve people who are 65 and older and have incomes lower than the HUD requirement of 50 percent of the median income.” She stressed that the complex would not be an assisted-living facility, but one for independent lower-income seniors.

Some nearby residents told Council members they were not convinced the area was appropriate for such a facility, and questioned the safety of the design. “The opposition to the project is that it’s a three-story building in the middle of the neighborhood, and the amount of apartments in such a small area . . . 54 to be exact,” said Iris Gonzalez. “We believe this will create parking problems and heavy traffic congestion. Also, most residents will be elderly people with health problems and physical handicaps.” Gonzalez and others criticized the architect for only putting two elevators into the proposed apartment complex instead of three. But architect Tom Hatch told Council members that a third elevator could be added in the future, provided Family Eldercare obtains funding. Officials with Family Eldercare said further that the area would be well served by mass transit, adding that they did not expect parking or traffic to be a problem.

Other residents took issue with the planning process, telling Council members that designers had not heeded their input. It was that complaint that prompted Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman to seek a delay in the zoning change to see if some design changes could be made or if the two sides would agree to mediation. Hatch said he had proposed a major redesign of the project several months ago during discussions with neighbors, but was told that any three-story structure would generate opposition. Changes at this stage, according to the architect, would make it impossible for the agency to meet deadlines set out by HUD to receive the necessary federal funding. “We have documented numerous phone calls to PODER, who has been representing the residents or some of the residents along Lyons,” Hatch said. “We have requested a meeting any time, any place, and we were never responded back to.”

Council Member Daryl Slusher moved to approve the zoning change, noting that the project was in compliance with city standards and that the apartments would meet the minimum setback requirements to separate them from neighboring residential properties. “I think this is a great project, and that what’s happened here in this area is an example of how public investment in an area can really improve the neighborhood and bring areas back,” Slusher said. “I think it’s going to be a great place for folks to live.” The Council voted 6-0-1to grant the downzoning from CS to MF-3, with Council Member Raul Alvarez abstaining. Alvarez lives close to the site of the proposed apartment complex. He removed himself from the Council chambers during the discussion of the zoning case and did not participate in the vote.

Friday.

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

Council subcommittee meets tonight . . . The Austin City Council’s subcommittee on MBE/WBE is scheduled to meet at 6pm tonight at City Hall Room 304. They will discuss the city’s professional services matrix. The MBE/WBE has not finished formulating its recommendations on the matter . . . Also meeting today . . . The CAMPO Executive Committee is scheduled to meet at the Capitol at 2:30pm and the Robert Mueller advisory commission will again try to get a quorum together for a meeting at 6pm. The Community Development Commission is scheduled to meet at 6:30pm at Primrose at Shadow Creek, 1026 Clayton Lane . . . No Zoning and Platting Commission tonight . . . The ZAP is taking tonight off, but will return next week . . . Hearings on RMA . . . The Texas Department of Transportation will hold a hearing on the planned Regional Mobility Authority for Travis and Williamson Counties at 6pm tonight at 200 East Riverside Drive, Room 1.A-1. A second hearing is scheduled for 6pm Wednesday, at the Williamson County Cedar Park Annex, 350 Discovery Blvd. TxDOT will also conduct a hearing at 6pm Thursday night on frontage roads and highway access management at the agency’s main office, 125 E. 11th Street . . . Party tonight . . . Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Joe Ely will entertain at tonight’s fundraiser for Texas Attorney General candidate Kirk Watson. The event is from 7 to 9pm at the Austin Music Hall, 3rd and Nueces. For more information, call 494-0042 . . . Clean Air plans . . . Representatives from a dozen Central Texas governments will meet Wednesday to discuss entering into an Early Action Compact for clean air. Approved by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Early Action Compact allows communities to maintain local control of decisions about air quality improvement strategies while maintaining the 8-hour standard for air quality required by 2007. “We were the first in the country to sign an O3 Flex Agreement and I want Central Texas to continue being a leader in working to achieve better air quality voluntarily,” said Mike Heiligenstein, Williamson County Commissioner and Chair of the Clean Air Coalition . . . What city? . . . Former Travis County Judge Bill Aleshire has criticized Austin City Council members for what he calls “a long-standing misconception of who “the city” is and whether “the city’s” interest is represented by the Travis County Commissioners Court.” Aleshire points out that there are other cities in the metro area, but his real point was that Austin voters are “the dominant force in county-wide elections. Unlike Austin’s use of ETJ authority over citizens outside the city limits, Austin voters can hold County officials accountable.” During last week’s RMA discussion, Council Member Daryl Slusher and Mayor Gus Garcia both expressed strong concerns that the region’s largest city would not have a voice in the RMA because the legislation specifically provides for representatives appointed by the participating counties, but not the cities. (See In Fact Daily, Oct. 4, 2002.) . . . Catellus scores again . . . The company picked to redevelop Mueller Airport confirmed on Monday it has also been selected to design and construct new facilities for the Los Angeles Air Force Base in El Segundo, California, just south of Los Angeles International Airport. The new facilities—560,000 square feet of space—would consolidate the base’s operations and be known as the Systems Acquisition Management Support Complex. Morgan Stanley Real Estate Fund and Kearny Real Estate Company will be partners on the project.

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

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