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Nofziger attacks Wynn's record at Barton Springs Pool

Thursday, March 20, 2003 by

Only two of the eight mayoral candidates turned out for a candidate forum held by the North Austin Civic Association on Wednesday night. Council Member Will Wynn and businessman Brad Meltzer fielded questions about the city budget, light rail and code enforcement from a crowd of about two dozen people at Lanier High School.

More stringent and more frequent code enforcement has long been a priority for NACA. Wynn told the group he considered it a “basic city service,” but added that “it would be irresponsible of me to make any promises” to boost spending or staffing of that department. Meltzer also said it would be a priority, but that efficiency would be more important than overall staffing or funding. “I want to make sure everybody is efficient, that they’re making the best use of their time,” he said.

On the budget, both candidates stressed police, fire and EMS as priorities. “I believe that public safety is very important,” Meltzer said. “Everything else is on the table with me.” Wynn added public health as a top-tier priority. “The demand on the public health side, I think, will increase,” he said. “Most people don’t realize the amount we spend on indigent health care in this community.”

Max Nofziger was not at the NACA forum, but earlier in the day he held a news conference at the Barton Springs Pool to stress his environmental credentials. Nofziger drew a line in the sand near the pool, urging true environmentalists to step over the line and support him rather than his major opponent, Wynn. “We have to take action . . . We have been content to sit and talk for years.” Nofziger said his first action to protect Austin’s water quality would be to strengthen the SOS Ordinance. He accused the Council of abandoning its ordinance-making power after winning the Texas Supreme Court case that kept the ordinance in place.

Nofziger said he would have voted against settlement agreements with developers Gary Bradley and Stratus Properties if he had been on the Council when those issues arose. “Will Wynn has been a Council Member for three years and the pool was closed on his watch,” Nofziger said, pointing to the locked gate on the pool. “Will Wynn bears direct responsibility for not doing enough to protect Barton Springs . . . we can’t afford lip-service environmentalists. Just sitting and talking at a bunch of meetings doesn’t mean that you are actually doing anything to protect the environment.”

Nofziger had no explanation for the local Sierra Club’ s endorsement of Wynn, saying, “Maybe they’re lip-service environmentalists.” Wynn, at the NACA forum, told the audience it was because of his strong support of the city’s water conservation programs, including the effort to recapture some water that would previously have been returned to the LCRA. “We’ve begun to take our treated effluent and reuse it . . . it can be used to treat your lawn, not for potable drinking water,” he said. “If you see some issues between the LCRA and the City of Austin anytime soon, it’s because we’re doing such a better job of reusing a very precious resource. I think it’s appropriate and I’ll be a champion of it. Partly because of my stance on that, I recently got the endorsement of the Sierra Club . . . an environmental group which otherwise doesn’t seem to like guys in real estate.”

McCracken leads the pack of seven candidates

When the mayoral candidates departed from Tuesday night’s construction industry forum they took about two-thirds of the audience with them. Four Place 5 candidates then tried to connect with the remainder of the group by saying they too were aware of or had experienced similar frustrations when dealing with the city’s regulations and bureaucracy.

All of the candidates agreed there need to be cuts in the budget, but only Jason Pate offered a specific plan. He said, “We need to ask the departments to justify why we need to keep them on staff. There’s too much redundancy in government. They need to tell us what exactly they do and justify their existence in government.” Steve Swanson and Carl Tepper both said working with city staff is the key to reducing red tape. Tepper, who serves on the Urban Transportation Commission, said city staff is sometimes viewed as the enemy, but that they are experts and they need to identify the wasted effort. Brewster McCracken said staff needs hard, binding deadlines and to explain why they take so long.

McCracken, a lawyer, said he supports merging departments, focusing on the basics and future planning to decrease red tape. He admitted he only became aware of red tape frustrations after someone from LifeWorks told him they were “getting creamed” by the city’s rules.

First-time candidate and residential real estate developer Pate joked that he almost left after the break between the mayoral and Council candidates. The former web developer said he wants to add new energy to the Council and “basic common sense.”

Swanson touted his work in the construction industry for the past 30 years, as well as his experience working on education improvement teams, a hospital board and small business development. The architectural engineer said he learned the benefits of common sense and compromise from those long years with the construction industry. He said government needs to get “out of the way and let the community come up with solutions.” Swanson added that the city would solve its budget problems, break down racism and get rid of red tape only when people work with each other.

Tepper, a commercial property manager, said the city needs to better support small businesses. He advocates a good faith plan for small businesses that would give them three to five years to comply with codes. Tepper blamed lawyers for all the codes and regulations that make development difficult. In addition to the city commission, Tepper serves on the Customer Satisfaction Advisory Committee for Capital Metro.

Five of seven Place 5 candidates were present or had a representative at the North Austin Civic Association’s forum Wednesday. Several of them told the group that neighborhood associations are the link to the community. They also stressed that if they had to balance the budget, they would not make any cuts to fire, police or EMS—a decision already reached by current members of the Council.

Candidate Margot Clarke told the group, “Neighborhood associations are the gems of Austin. They show that people are active and that’s what makes Austin so special.” Clarke also said the city needs to change its ideas on which services it is responsible for providing, but did not cite specific examples. Neither Scott Marks nor Robert Singleton was present at either forum.

City looking for new construction company to take over

Public Works Director Peter Rieck has set the end of May as the target date for completion of work on Barton Springs Road. The often-delayed construction project is months over deadline, causing aggravation and a loss of customers for businesses in the area. The public works director reported to the City Council at yesterday’s work session at the request of Council Member Will Wynn. “The problems that we had on this particular project are an exception. They are not the norm,” Rieck said. “Generally, the city has a successful track record on projects of this kind.”

The most recent problem came when a wastewater pipeline installed under the street failed to meet standards. “We cannot test the line for the correct placement and deficiencies until it is installed and backfill has been installed on top of it, which increases the load on the pipe,” Rieck told Council members. “There is actually a 30-day period for which the back-fill has to be in place before we test.” The pipeline failed, and subsequent attempts by contractor Ryan-O Excavating to fix it to the city’s satisfaction were unsuccessful. The city gave the contractor an opportunity to reinstall the pipe, but has since moved to terminate that contractor from the job and is working to secure another firm by next Monday. “We are aiming at completing this project one way or the other within a 60-day period after March 24th,” Rieck said. That 60-day period is not a guarantee however, since construction work could be affected by rain or other weather conditions.

The original contractor, Ryan-O, has paid a financial penalty for failing to meet the completion deadline, Rieck said. The contract included liquidated damages of $2,000 per day. At 144 days behind schedule, the contractor is out $288,000. Rieck says the city has obtained $172,000 of that amount through withholding payments to the company.

Sonleitner optimistic about county's chances of securing funds

County officials are ready to seek another $19.4 million US Fish and Wildlife Service grant toward the purchase of seven tracts in the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve (BCP).

At this point, the City of Austin and Travis County have acquired about 86 percent of the required 30,428 acres for the BCP. The BCP was designed to protect eight endangered and 27 threatened species throughout seven watersheds in western Travis County. In the face of ongoing development there, the federal government has set a deadline of 2016 to complete the purchase.

The federal/local split on the endangered species grant is 75 percent from the federal government and 25 percent from the local government. That puts Travis County’s share at $4.9 million. The Planning and Budget Office assured commissioners that the funds from the BCP Tax Increment Finance Zone, or TIF, should be enough to cover the cost of the local share.

“We’re looking at the possibility of prices fluctuating,” Environmental Project Manager Melinda Mallia said. “One of the reasons we need to go ahead and ask for the money is that we have no written contract until we have the award in hand. We need to go ahead and start the appraisal process and the surveys.”

If the county fails to secure the grant—which Commissioner Karen Sonleitner labeled as highly unlikely—the county would continue the process, but it would then go more slowly than it might have with the secured federal funding. Mallia assured commissioners that each land purchase would come back to Commissioners Court.

“We will come up with the funding on a tract by tract basis,” Mallia said. “We have a really good revenue stream from the TIF. It’s grown over the years, so it’s likely to go up, and we will be able to buy several tracts with the money.”

The city and county have secured more than $32.8 million in federal funding from Habitat Conservation Program Grants since 1997, most of it awarded to Travis County. The total, with the local required match included, has amounted to $43.7 million. Grant and TIF funding has covered the county’s entire contribution to date.

City voters approved a bond issue back in 1993 to acquire 13,000 acres of habitat, much of it at bargain-basement prices through the Resolution Trust Corp. County voters, on the other hand, rejected a similar bond issue the same year. In the meantime, the county has taken over the primary “caretaker” role for the management of the land and filed applications for most of the grants, said Environmental Officer John Kuhl.

BCP Partners has acquired 2,456 acres with grant funds. Those tracts are as large as the 942-acre Ivanhoe tract and the combined 580-acres Grandview Hills tract. Another 779 acres are currently being acquired: the 320-acre Ribelin Tract of a 742-acre ranch; 3 acres for a Vista Point parcel; a 225-acre Blizzard Tract; the 60-acre King Tract; and the 141-acre Tomen-Parke Caves Tract. Most are now under appraisal.

A 344-acre Medway Ranch Tract was approved in last year’s budget, but funding will not be sufficient to purchase the tract this year. Instead, the county has decided to make the Medway Ranch purchase a high priority for FY 2003. The asking price for the property, located in the South Lake Austin macro-site, is $11 million.

Other priority sites for the habitat in Fiscal Year 2003 include a 5-acre Stratton site, at an asking price of $975,00; a 43-acre Blake site, at an asking price of $650,000; a 31-acre Attwood site for an asking price of $475,000; and a 100-acre Nootsie site adjacent to the Jollyville Preserve Tract, at an asking price of $2.5 million.

Other sites include an 85-acre Finch site, linking Emma Long Park and the Coldwater Tract, at an asking price of $2.2 million; an 85-acre Bowman tract in the same general location for $5.5 million; and three other alternative sites.

Last-minute filings . . . Council Member Danny Thomas and his lone opponent, Wes Benedict, filed applications to be on the May 3 ballot yesterday. Benedict, 34, said he is now a full-time candidate, having sold his business, Custom Quality Marble, about a month ago. Council Member Raul Alvarez, who had no opponents yesterday morning for the Place 2 seat, will face El Concilio leader Gavino Fernandez, as well as political unknowns Steven Adams and Brian Parrett. Scott Marks joined the cast of the Place 5 show. Brewster McCracken, Margot Clarke, Carl Tepper, Robert Singleton, Steve Swanson and Jason Pate had started the play without him. McCracken is leading that race, with Tepper and Clarke making her way through the crowd.Clarke won the Sierra Club endorsement and put out her first press release yesterday, quoting Dick Kallerman, political chair of the Sierra Club’s local chapter. He said, “Margot Clarke will bring to the City Council valuable skills in building a livable city and conserving our natural resources.” There were no new candidates for Mayor, but eight candidates had already filed applications . . . County, city leaders meet . . . Mayor Gus Garcia and Council Member Daryl Slusher are scheduled to meet with members of the Travis County Commissioners Court this morning to talk about problems the two entities have encountered in trying to reconcile city and county regulations governing subdivisions. One major obstacle is that the county favors certain roads the city opposes, such as Frate Barker in the southwestern part of the county. The meeting is scheduled for 9am at the Stokes Building . . . 36 zoning cases . . . Most Council agendas have five to 10 zoning matters for members to consider. This week’s agenda has a whopping 36. A reliable informant tells In Fact Daily that at least 19 of those cases will be postponed—still leaving 17. Zoning hearings are scheduled to begin at 4pm . . . Other matters . . . The Council will look once more at a version of the ordinance governing development around liquid pipelines. Mayor Gus Garcia will announce that he is putting an item on next week’s agenda to set an April 10 public hearing for the revised anti-smoking ordinance. Garcia is also sponsoring a resolution asking the state not to cut any programs in the Health and Human Services Budget. The Save Our Springs Alliance is lobbying once again, along with some Circle C neighborhood members, against extension of Escarpment Boulevard. The city’s legal staff has told the Council they must approve the extension or be in violation of an agreement made an agreement with Circle C to extend the road when the property was annexed. SOS attorney Brad Rockwell argues that the agreement cannot require the city to build or open such an extension (see In Fact Daily March 7, 2003) . . . Kithil honored . . . The LCRA board honored former board member David Kithil at yesterday’s board meeting. Kithil served on the board from 1999 until 2002, when he was elected Burnett County Judge. General Manager Joe Beal praised Kithil for his business acumen and his leadership of the Water Operations Committee . . . Dam repair planned . . . The Board of Director’s of the LCRA will consider the $21 million repair of Tom Miller Dam in Austin at next month’s meeting. General Manager Joe Beal promised to bring specifics to the board in April.

© 2003 In Fact News, Inc.

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