Sections

About Us

 
Make a Donation
Fully-Local • Non-Partisan • Public-Service Journalism
 

Nofziger, Wynn, Katz, Meltzer all say they can do a better job

Wednesday, April 2, 2003 by

During a news conference at Auditorium Shores Tuesday, mayoral candidate Max Nofziger focused his criticism on Smart Growth and City Council Member Will Wynn. Nofziger blamed the program originally designed to steer growth away from suburban areas and toward downtown for skyrocketing real estate values and said it had dealt a near-lethal blow to the Austin music scene. And while Wynn wasn’t on the Council when the program was crafted during Mayor Kirk Watson’s first term, Nofziger described the current Council member as “the link that’s continuing” Smart Growth. “I will cut the Smart Growth incentives, which I think have been disastrous for the city,” promised Nofziger, a former member of the City Council.

Nofziger pointed to the unfinished Intel building, the under-populated CSC building and the possibility of a Borders Books and Music store at Sixth and Lamar as three indicators that Smart Growth has been a failure. “That CSC building is right over the site of the legendary Liberty Lunch, which I as a City Council member helped to keep open each year. I think that we need to—and I certainly will if I’m elected Mayor—review the contract with CSC and make sure they’re living up to their end of it,” he said. Nofziger admitted there was little the city could do if the company was abiding by the terms of the deal.

The much-maligned Intel building also drew Nofziger’s attention. “That’s another Smart Growth project,” he said “To me, that represents most strikingly and most visibly the failures of Smart Growth. The city didn’t even sign the contract . . . How could that be? That needs to be looked into.” And Nofziger also criticized the city’s dealings with developer Brad Schlosser and the 6th+Lamar project. “That project is the beneficiary of the city’s Smart Growth incentives. Because of those incentives, we are now seeing the spectacle of the threat of a major corporate chain coming in at that location, which is right across the street from another Austin music icon, Waterloo Records,” he said. “To me, that is a major corruption of city government, when our local government is essentially bringing in corporate chains to compete with the local ‘mom and pop’ shops.”

The Smart Growth incentives, in the form of fee waivers, would not go directly to Borders Books and Music or other prospective tenants such as Whole Foods. Instead, they go to the developer. Schlosser’s company is still requesting additional Smart Growth incentives, but the Council has not yet approved them. Since last summer, such requests for fee waivers and other incentives have received increased scrutiny from Austin officials because of the city’s budget situation. (See In Fact Daily, June 6th, 2002.)

Nofziger also pointed to several city public works projects that were over budget or behind schedule as signs that the current leadership at City Hall was doing an inadequate job. He included the new City Hall building, the proposed Waller Creek Tunnel project and the Pfluger Pedestrian Bridge as examples. “All of these projects taken together . . . does that inspire confidence in city government? Do these projects with their enormous cost over-runs, their backroom deals, does that inspire confidence in city government? I don’t think so,” he said.

The final straw, said Nofziger, has been the closing of the Barton Springs Pool following concerns raised in an article in the Austin American-Statesman. “It’s the first time in the city’s history that the springs has been closed for this duration and for these reasons,” he said. “To me, that clearly indicates that the City Council was not doing enough to protect and preserve a treasure of the city.” Part of the blame for that closure, Nofziger said, lies with the current Council membership. “I have to mention that my prime opponent in this race, Will Wynn, was asleep at the switch apparently.” he said. “ The pool closed on his watch, and I think that indicates that he clearly had not done enough to protect and preserve the soul of the city.”

Experts quoted by the Statesman have pointed to the possibility of a decades-old coal gasification plant as one source of contaminants found in sediment at the pool, while city experts contend a much more likely source is a popular and legal asphalt sealant. State health experts have said recently that swimming in the pool does not pose a danger to public health and have explained that the newspaper is using misapplying scientific standards for determining toxicity.(see In Fact Daily, March 28th, 2003; April 1, 2003.).The City Manager is awaiting additional test results before reopening the pool.

Will Wynn

Last week, Council Member Will Wynn sent out a statement clarifying his position on the city’s development review and inspection process. He did so in response to questions generated by his statements at a construction and building managers’ forum earlier in the month. (See In Fact Daily, March 19, 2003.) At that time he told a receptive audience, “The City of Austin should get out of the Development Review and Inspection business.” Since the city is facing a budget crisis and would be required to lay off employees, he said, he would “strongly suggest to (his) colleagues and the City Manager that disproportionately those cuts should be in our Development Review and Inspection Department.” The department is known as Watershed Protection and Development Review (WPDR).

In an email sent to supporters, Wynn noted that the city could face “a revenue shortfall of as much as $80 million, meaning that the Council faces some very difficult decisions this summer and fall. Clearly, the City of Austin is going to have to reinvent the way it does business.” He then explained that he did not want to cut back on funding for public health and safety—which may be the only thing city fathers will agree on when budget time comes. But the entire Council has apparently agreed—if only tacitly—that police and emergency services cannot be cut. Those two areas account for more than half of the General Fund budget. Wynn said he would not want to cut from the health services budget either, given the state’s apparent intention to cut its funding in that area. Neither would he want to “balance the city’s books on the back of Austin’s parks and libraries system, funding for which comprises a significant percentage of the remaining general fund budget.”

However, Wynn added that the city should not give up protecting the environment. He did not give any specifics on how to manage that without the development review and inspection staff. Members of the WPDR Department staff were noticeably upset after reading Wynn’s comments in In Fact Daily. (See In Fact Daily, March 11, 2003.) He concluded his email with the following observation, “The City is going to have to completely reinvent the way it accomplishes these objectives, and will to have to do it in the context of very severe budgetary constraints . . . Even if the City didn’t face the budget problems it does, I would still be an advocate for reinventing Austin’s development review and inspection process to ensure that the City is helping local businesses succeed, not standing in their way.”

Marc Katz

Marc Katz, Wynn’s best-known opponent, has not singled out any department he wishes to reorganize, but he has said that the city should fire its entire lobby team. In a statement released last week, the loquacious restaurateur said, “At a time when Austin faces a huge budget crisis it just doesn’t make sense to pay a group of lobbyists over a million dollars a year to represent our city before the Texas Legislature,” Katz said. He suggested that the Mayor and Council “take their concerns directly to legislators and state officials.

“Instead of paying dozens of lobbyists hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to talk to legislators on behalf of the Mayor and City Council, perhaps the taxpayers would be better served by having the Mayor and City Council speak for themselves,” Katz said.

He indicated that “it should be easy for Austin’s elected officials to represent the city’s interests” at the Legislature. “If I am elected Mayor, I plan to be at the State Capitol letting our State Legislators know that I will work closely with them to insure that Austin’s interests are well known and acted favorably upon,” said Katz.

The other restaurant owner candidate for Mayor, Brad Meltzer, has not called for firing anyone in particular, but has expressed doubts about the veracity of the city management team. He released this statement after last week’s attacks by the American-Statesman on the city and state scientists’ investigation into claims concerning toxic chemicals in Barton Springs Pool. His statement said, “Recent newspaper reports seem to suggest deception and dishonesty or, at a minimum, incomplete information by city hall staff regarding toxic contamination of Barton Springs Pool. If true, then serious disciplinary action must be taken against those responsible because no one’s job is more important than the lives and health of the thousands of Austinites who use the pool. I call on the City Council to stand up to its responsibility and take charge of yet another Austin City Hall bureaucratic snafu.”

In Fact Daily asked if Meltzer had any comment based on the supposition that much of the Statesman’s reports were untrue or misleading—as has been indicated by scientists speaking at last week’s Barton Springs forum and reported here. Ron Dusek, Meltzer’s press secretary, declined to comment on that possibility.

Proposals carry much greater substance than anticipated

Travis County commissioners have enthusiastically anticipated legislation to correct problems with the Regional Mobility Authorities, but after looking over Rep. Mike Krusee’ s recent revisions, the court was left with too many questions to offer an endorsement of his efforts.

Krusee (R-Round Rock), who chairs the House Transportation Committee, filed an initial two bills the first week of the session to correct some of the oversights in the initial legislation on Regional Mobility Authorities. If approved, those bills would add bond issuance and eminent domain to the powers of the RMA. Yesterday the committee approved HB 157, which would give RMAs the same authority as the Department of Transportation to raise funds for turnpikes, including issuance of revenue bonds and imposition of tolls.

Krusee also filed Joint House Resolution 80, a proposed constitutional amendment to give counties the right to issue bonds for out-of-county projects. Such an approach is crucial for regional planning, Krusee told the committee. Later in the session, Krusee filed bills giving RMAs the right to negotiate exclusive development agreements (HB 2311); use fuel taxes as a way to shore up RMA funding (HB 2312); and expanding the ability of counties to pay for public improvement bonds—essentially giving them the right to incur debt on behalf of RMAs (HB 2313).

County commissioners knew part of the Central Texas RMA’s success hinged on correcting last session’s legislation. But commissioners, faced with an omnibus bill of RMA changes that Krusee filed last month, had too many new questions about House Bill 2459 to give its wholehearted support. Commissioners did not exactly express concern; instead, County Judge Sam Biscoe characterized their reaction as “a temporary state of bewilderment.”

“I just think that there is a whole lot more substance in these bills than we anticipated before the session,” Biscoe said. “We may be in agreement, but we have not had sufficient time to review the bills. We need an audience . . . in order to determine our position.”

Krusee laid out three RMA bills and a House Joint Resolution on Tuesday, explaining that passing the omnibus bill, HB 2459 was his goal. If he fails to pass the omnibus bill, Krusee said, he is prepared to break it into individual bills for consideration. Consultant Mike Weaver of Prime Strategies, who advises the Central Texas RMA, was on hand to testify in favor of the bill and said the omnibus version was a recommendation of the Texas Department of Transportation and the Legislative Council.

“This combines everything and adds a new chapter in the Transportation Code in regards to RMAs,” said Weaver, outside the hearing. “It’s very much like the code for Regional Transportation Authorities like the North Texas Toll Road Authorities. In fact, the abilities for both are almost identical.”

Krusee’s bills earned universal support from those connected to the CTRMA, including Weaver and CTRMA Chair Bob Tesch of Williamson County. Weaver said some initially feared that HB 2459 would be a hostile takeover of existing transit authorities, similar to the North Texas RMA proposal filed by Rep. Steve Wolens (D-Dallas) and Sen. Kim Brimer (R-Arlington). Their bills would fold all existing transportation authorities in North Texas into one organization, which Weaver said is not the intention of Krusee’s bills.

House Bill 2459 provides flexibility for RMAs beyond even current legislation. Currently, RMAs can only build toll roads. HB 2459 would give the RMAs the right to develop toll roads, passenger or freight rail facilities, certain free roads, airports, border crossing inspection stations, public utility infrastructure and mass transit facilities. RMAs are also given the right to develop outside their geographic boundaries, if asked to do so by another government.

The Commissioners Court intends to request a meeting with either Krusee or someone on his staff, possibly for Monday afternoon. County commissioners intend to make their recommendations at the Commissioners Court meeting next Tuesday.

Weaver said the Central Texas RMA is continuing on schedule. Attorney Brian Cassidy said the CTRMA board authorized staff to go out for competing proposals for pre-construction-related services on the first $200 million segment of US 183-A this month. The segment, which stretches from North of FM 620 down to the San Gabriel River, was considered the most promising initial toll project because it has already received environmental clearance.

Parsons Brinckerhoff Consultants offered an unsolicited bid for pre-construction services. That bid will be published in the Texas Register. Cassidy said the board has requested competing proposals. The board could choose the PB Consultants proposal, a competing proposal or no proposal at all, Cassidy said.

One fight is over when grandfathering would begin

The proposed hazardous pipeline ordinance comes back to the City Council for a work session discussion today. At a stakeholders meeting last week, it became clear that there are two issues separating developers from safety activists.

The first is at what point in the development process projects near the pipeline would be grandfathered, exempting them from the tougher safety and setback requirements the new rules would impose. Developers have argued for an earlier point in the process rather than later. They note that late-stage revisions to comply with the new regulations would prove costly, especially on projects designed as affordable housing. Safety advocates are pushing to have the new rules apply to projects in the later stages of development, arguing that the people living in or visiting those homes or buildings deserve just as much protection from a possible pipeline rupture or explosion.

The other issue is the distance that certain “mobility impaired” populations should be kept from a pipeline carrying hazardous materials such as gasoline. “The definition relates to populations which are in facilities that are difficult to evacuate, such as hospitals, detention facilities, day cares or elementary schools,” said Assistant City Manager Lisa Gordon.

Developers say that instead of a hard-and-fast rule prohibiting those types of facilities within 500 feet of a hazardous-materials pipeline, there should be a variance process which takes into account construction techniques, the topography of the land and other factors which could provide additional safety for residents in the event of a pipeline accident. They would like to see the minimum setback distance reduced to 200 feet if certain criteria are met.

City staff will brief Council members today on any progress in resolving those issues. The pipeline ordinance is posted for second and third readings on tomorrow’s Council agenda.

Clean Air focus . . . Williamson County Commissioner Mike Heiligenstein will hold a press conference at 3pm today at the Zilker Club House to talk about air quality. Joining him will be other members of the Clean Air Force Board of Directors, who want to remind the public that ozone season is upon us . . . Democratic forum . . . West Austin Democrats will hold their City Council candidate forum this evening at 7 pm at the Howson Branch Library, 2500 Exposition . . . The Environmental Board and the Water & Wastewater Commission are also meeting tonight to deal with their respective issues . . . Mayor Garcia kicks butts . . . Mayor Gus Garcia, who hopes to establish a citywide ban on smoking in public places, will meet today with teen girls who have pledged to avoid tobacco for life. He will present a proclamation to the group, which calls itself “oriGENal voice” at 3:30pm today at City Hall, Room 304. The anti-smoking ordinance is scheduled for a public hearing at the April 10 Council meeting . . . Saying good-bye . . . Longtime spokesman for the Travis County Sheriff’s Office Curtis Weeks passed away this past Sunday. A memorial service is planned for Saturday at 2pm at St. Theresa’s Catholic Church, 4311 Small Drive. He retired in February 2000. In lieu of donations or flowers the family is requesting that any donation be made to the Sheriff’s Memorial & Benevolent Society (SMBS). Those may be mailed to: Sheriff’s Memorial & Benevolent Society of Travis County, 8819 Leo Street, Austin, Texas 78445. The society has established a scholarship in Weeks’ name . . . First Thursday on the Avenue . . . South Congress Avenue shops stay open late the first Thursday of the month. This Thursday, there will be some additional festivities. The SOS Alliance is having a bake sale—its first—from 6 to 9:30pm in front of Terra Toys. Council Member Will Wynn will be there campaigning for Mayor.

Join Your Friends and Neighbors

We're a nonprofit news organization, and we put our service to you above all else. That will never change. But public-service journalism requires community support from readers like you. Will you join your friends and neighbors to support our work and mission?

Back to Top