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Lawmakers are ready to cut the fat from state government, and for the Texas Conservative Coalition that includes the sale of the Lower Colorado River Authority.

Friday, January 17, 2003 by

The Texas Conservative Coalition did not devote a great deal of space to the concept of the sale of the LCRA in its 137-page report. Privatization of the agency rated no more than a couple of paragraphs in the lengthy document. The TCC argues that the LCRA is a prime candidate for privatization because of its attractive assets, existing infrastructure and dominant market share. Privatization could also bring significant revenue to the state’s tax rolls, the TCC wrote in its recommendation.

As Sen. Florence Shapiro (R-Plano) told a gathering of media and colleagues yesterday, the TCC looked at the budget with an eye toward those expenditures “that fall outside the scope of government or just didn’t work.” Shapiro called the group’s cost-cutting measures “safeguards against the reckless spending” of more economically fruitful times and “conservative philosophy in action.”

Spinning off the LCRA has been suggested a number of times since Republicans initially presented the idea back in 1991. But LCRA General Manager Joe Beal points out that the agency receives no appropriations from the state and carries out the important state-appointed duty of monitoring the safety of the dams and lakes of Central Texas.

“For 68 years, LCRA has done what the Legislature chartered us to do: provide reliable energy, water and community services to help this region grow and deal with change,” Beal said. “There’s no quick money to be made from selling LCRA. And why would you? You would be killing off an organization that meets critical public needs at no cost to the state.”

In addition, the LCRA is not likely to generate a quick profit for a buyer, Beal said. Any buyer would have to carry the agency’s $1.8 billion in infrastructure debt and agree to the current terms of the LCRA’s contracts with 42 cities and cooperatives. That means no profit for at least another 13 years.

And as one LCRA insider added, it’s not exactly a seller’s market for mid-life power plants in the turbulent post-Enron era of energy generation.

One member of the Texas Conservative Coalition, who also represents an area served by the LCRA, is on the fence about the possible sale of the utility. Rep. Suzanna Gratia-Hupp (R-Lampasas) says she still hasn’t made up her mind about the LCRA recommendation. But she didn’t hesitate to add that she had received a number of complaints about the utility.

“I hear more complaints about the LCRA from my constituents than any other governmental or quasi-governmental agency, with the exception of Child Protective Services,” Hupp said, declining to elaborate on the nature of those complaints.

The full impact of the cuts recommended by the TCC could be between $3 and $4 billion, although no numbers have been crunched at the Legislative Budget Board. Shapiro told the gathering yesterday afternoon that each recommendation would stand on its own, and that individual lawmakers would be encouraged to consider the recommendations and craft appropriate bills during the session.

“ Mayor Watson never did this!” Mayor Gus Garcia said as he prepared to sing with the musical group Mariachi Tejano, on hand at the Council meeting to serenade him for his 69th birthday. “When you get to this age, they try to push you,” Garcia said. “I won’t be 69 until next Thursday!” City staff presented the Mayor with a giant birthday card with a picture of the city skyline on it and the inscription, “From Austin.” That prompted Garcia to pay tribute to the town he’s served in various capacities for the past three decades. “I came here in 1957 to go the University of Texas, never thinking that I was going to stay here,” Garcia said. “I went back home to Laredo, and found out I didn’t belong there either. So I came back and later brought my wife . . . So when it says, ‘From Austin,’ that’s where I’m from. I’m from Austin.”

Earlier Thursday, Council Member Daryl Slusher peppered city Fleet Officer Tom Wieczorek with questions about a proposal to purchase dozens of light trucks and SUVs for use by Austin Energy and several other city departments, including Public Works, Aviation, Solid Waste Services and Watershed Protection and Development Review. Slusher wanted to know if more of the vehicles could have been hybrids (gas/electric) or equipped with smaller, four-cylinder engines with lower emissions. The Council postponed a decision on the purchase until January 30th.

A zoning change for the Interport South tract near ABIA received approval on first reading from the Council on Thursday. The zoning change from DR (development reserve) to LI-CO was initiated when the tract was under consideration as a possible location for the pharmaceutical plant the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce code-named “Project Atlantis.” Chamber officials revealed last month that the project was temporarily on hold.

The Zoning and Platting Commission had recommended approving the light industrial designation for the tract, along with a lengthy list of prohibited uses, setback requirements and design guidelines. Agent Jim Wittliff is seeking to allow some of those uses the ZAP wanted to prohibit. City staff pointed out that some of the setback requirements and design guidelines outlined by the ZAP cannot be enforced through zoning. Council members indicated they would be reviewing the proposal carefully before second reading.

The Council also approved on first reading a change in zoning for St. David’s Hospital. The Planning Commission recommended against the change, as did the Environmental Board because a number of large oak trees would be lost as a result of the hospital’s planned expansion. Attorney John Joseph explained that some of the trees would be moved and others replaced, but Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman told him to talk to his clients again about expanding in another direction. The matter is expected to return to Council on Jan. 30. There is no Council meeting next week.

The Council also rejected a request to rezone property at 12008 Pollyanna Avenue from single-family-1 to single-family-3. Neighbors had a valid petition against the change. Goodman and Council Member Raul Alvarez, who voted against the new zoning on first and second readings, maintained their opposition, denying the request.

Even as Catellus and the city negotiate their master developer agreement, the plan for the former Robert Mueller airport site continues to evolve.

At this week’s advisory commission meeting, neighborhood leaders got a chance to meet Greg Weaver, who will head the Catellus team in redeveloping the 709-acre site. Weaver is in the midst of a six- to nine-month feasibility study of the property. That due diligence is only one step of many Catellus will take in the development of the property, and includes assessing the capacity of sewer, power and water lines, as well as any need for environmental remediation.

Upgrading infrastructure on the former airport site could cost $100- $140 million, Weaver said. Laying out the options on how to pay for those upgrades—whether by private or public measures—will be one of Weaver’s first tasks as project manager. As the master developer, Catellus could choose to pick up the tab on the infrastructure additions, or offer to share the cost with the city.

During these initial months, Weaver also will take another look at the ROMA Master Plan, a plan created over the last five years with the input of various Austin stakeholders. A number of elements in the Catellus presentation to the RMMA Advisory Committee may change, such as the phasing of the project and the feasibility of various amounts of space, as the developer considers more complete data provided by the city

Catellus had initially told city leaders that 5 million square feet of commercial space would be too much to build on the site. Last night, Weaver revised that statement, saying new assessments show the site could handle up to 5 million square feet, as long as it was phased in gradually.

Catellus had also suggested during its first presentation that it would put the retail in first. That, too, might change as the developer considers the wobbling Austin market. Weaver stressed last night that this new look would not be “going back to the drawing board.” It would instead be a full reassessment of the ROMA master plan, with the intention of keeping as many elements as possible in the final Catellus proposal.

“If we can do exactly what everyone has put together in the master plan, we’re going to do it,” Weaver told the small crowd. “If we can’t do it, we’re going to let you know, and let you know the reasons why that is.”

Weaver expects it will take Catellus and the city between 12 and 24 months to hammer out a general concepts master development agreement: an all-encompassing blueprint for development. A similar document for the redevelopment of Denver’s Stapleton Airport ran between 6,000 and 7,000 pages, Weaver said.

Weaver stressed the importance of participation and communication with the advisory committee. Catellus has signed up Tate Austin to create a hotline and dedicated website for the project, as well as publish a newsletter and host a community kick-off event. State Rep. Dawnna Dukes will be among the Tate Austin team members working on the project.

Neighborhood representatives raised a variety of concerns about the project. Chair Jim Walker, who represents the Mueller Neighborhood Coalition on the advisory commission, spoke of the uneasiness neighbors feel about how I-35 will impact the Mueller project, and vice versa.

“It’s in all our best interests that Interstate 35 help this site redevelop rather than hinder it from redevelopment, which I think is our concern,” Walker said.

Sue Edwards of Redevelopment Services told the group the city had been in contact with both the Texas Department of Transportation and Capital Metro on the project, and that a meeting is scheduled next week with TxDOT to discuss the situation again.

Al Dotson of the Pecan Springs/Springdale neighborhood encouraged job-training opportunities on the site. Jeffrey Skillman asked for advance notice of the construction detours during the project. Girard Kinney, from the Cherrywood neighborhood, raised the following issues: how to avoid a “disaster” like the Emergency Operations Center; what the long-term future for the Austin Film Society would be; and how the hangar and tower will be used.

Walker appointed a subcommittee to address how the commission would offer feedback to Catellus and what type of amendment to the master plan would trigger a visit to the commission. The subcommittee’s recommendation will be taken up at next month’s meeting.

Wednesday, Thursday, Friday.

© 2003 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

Oops . . . Jennifer Gale points out that she actually received $107.17 in political contributions during the past six months, not zero as previously reported erroneously . . . Appointments . . . The City Council yesterday reappointed five members of the Board of Adjustment whose terms were set to expire this month. Those members are Chair Herman Thun, vice chair Betty Edgemond and members Barbara Aybar, Laurie Virkstis and alternate Leanne Heldenfels. Alternate Leroy Vaughn was not reappointed. Terms of the other members— Frank Fuentes, and alternates Wanda Penn and Dorothy Richter—will not expire until 2004. Council Member Betty Dunkerley appointed Paul Skeith to the Electric Utility Commission . . . Chilly tree raising set for Hilton Austin . . . FaulknerUSA (previously Landmark Organization ) will be hoisting a live tree atop its 31-story hotel and 5th Street Tower this morning. Festivities start with refreshments at Carmelo’s Italian Restaurant at 10am. The tree—a live tree that will be donated to the Austin Parks and Recreation Department—will be raised to ensure good luck for the building’s residents. Then media types who don’t mind a cold wind will be given hard hats to tour the job site and eat Bar-B-Que. FaulknerUSA spokesperson Terri Dusek promises a new economic impact statement from a special report done by Angelos Angelou. She’s hoping to add some relief from those dreary numbers coming from City Hall . . . Campaign news . . . Council Member Raul Alvarez has named Frederick Lopez to be his re-election campaign manager. Alvarez says Lopez has worked in a number of other campaigns, including those of Council Member Will Wynn and Congressman Lloyd Doggett . Lopez reports that he will be moving into the campaign HQ today on East Cesar Chavez, across the street from Juan in a Million . . . Holiday . . . Monday is a federal and city holiday commemorating the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. All city offices will be closed. The Zoning and Platting Commission will not meet on Tuesday, but the Planning Commission is scheduled to meet Wednesday.

© 2003 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

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