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Suburban strength worries Council

Tuesday, April 8, 2003 by

The City of Austin is losing its clout in the planning of roadways—a matter vital to both economic and environmental interests. One clear sign of that can be found by looking at the recently-formed Regional Mobility Authority. Travis and Williamson Counties—not the city—chose the board of directors. Now the City Council is wondering whether it can stop the erosion of its power at CAMPO (Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization). For that reason, the Council last week postponed approval of a revision of the CAMPO Joint Powers Agreement, the document that governs the organization’s membership and operating rules.

Mayor Gus Garcia introduced the item by noting that the city had in the past asked members of the CAMPO Policy Advisory Committee (PAC) to give the city more consideration when voting on questions regarding roads within the City of Austin. Garcia said, “We had requested early on that for issues on roadways in the Austin Metropolitan Roadway Plan that the MPO give the city weighted voting. Under weighted voting, instead of having twenty percent like we do right now—actually it’s less than 20 percent—that we would move that percentage to 40 percent. CAMPO has not been willing to go along with that.” Delaying agreement and asking for a meeting with the other signers of the agreement is one way to “we can encourage them to do that,” said the Mayor. The other signers are Travis, Williamson and Hays Counties, TxDOT and Capital Metro.

CAMPO is seeking five changes to the agreement, two of them substantive, explained Austan Librach, director of the city’s Transportation Planning & Sustainability Department. The group is seeking to add a member from either the San Marcos City Council or Hays County’s legislative delegation. Secondly, “they want to make it clear that cities that attain 50,000 would get a representative,” on the committee, he said. As that happens, of course, Austin’s voting strength would be further diluted. Librach added that CAMPO PAC members would also like to add one non-voting affiliate representative each from Caldwell and Bastrop Counties. In order to do those things, plus some housekeeping measures, all signers of the joint agreement must agree. If any one fails to agree, those changes cannot occur.

Even though more than 50 percent of the area’s citizens are Austinites, the city has only four representatives—about 17 percent—on the 23-member PAC: Garcia and Council Members Daryl Slusher, Danny Thomas and Will Wynn. Travis County, including Austin, is home to more than 70 percent of CAMPO’s population. Less than 22 percent of the area’s population lives in Williamson County. But every member of the legislative delegation from Travis and Williamson—except Sen. Jeff Wentworth—is on the PAC, along with County Judge Sam Biscoe and Commissioners Karen Sonleitner and Gerald Daugherty. Hays County, with 8.4 percent of the area population, currently has only one member, Commissioner Bill Burnett, but that would change under the new plan. Mayor Dwight Thompson of Westlake Hills, representing the Alliance of (small) Cities, John Treviño of Capital Metro and Bill Garbade, district engineer for TxDOT, are at-large members.

Librach told the Council, “My sense of what is happening with the RMA (Regional Mobility Authority) and the other issues with regard to ETJ (extra-territorial jurisdiction) authority is that the city is losing, slowly but surely, some of its power . . . As the RMA gains more power and other regional authorities come into being, it is even more important for the City of Austin to have that weighted voting.”

Michael Aulick, Executive Director of CAMPO, said Monday that in his previous job at the San Diego Metropolitan Planning Organization, the city of San Diego had 40 of 100 votes. The Council of Governments for the Washington DC area, where Librach once worked, also has weighted voting, he said.

Council Member Daryl Slusher, who made the motion to postpone action and seek a meeting with other CAMPO members, told In Fact Daily Monday, “Austin is the economic and cultural engine of the region and represents by far the most people in the region, so I think it’s appropriate to have representation that’s proportional within our region. That’s why we’re trying to do the weighted voting. You can look at what happened to other cities around the nation since World War II, sprawl and decay of the central cities. Austin hasn’t experienced that and it is important that Austin has voting strength to continue to protect the health of the city.”

CAMPO is almost entirely federally funded, and a federal law requires that a metropolitan planning organization be designated for every urban area with a population of 50,000 or more. CAMPO has a contract with the City of Austin under which the organization’s employees are housed with city workers and receive city-issued paychecks. However, they do not answer to the City Council, but to Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, the chair of the Policy Action Council.

Only Wynn defends promotion of downtown through program

Members of the Downtown Austin Neighborhood Association turned the focus in the mayoral race on the legacy of Smart Growth at their candidates’ forum last night, questioning the four major candidates about their thoughts on the Watson-era policy and any proposed alternatives. The issue is revealing a clear split among the candidates, with Max Nofziger, Brad Meltzer and Marc Katz decrying the incentives to steer growth away from environmentally sensitive areas during the boom years and current Council Member Will Wynn emerging as a cautious defender of the policy.

“Smart Growth was created in 1998 by a previous Council as an environmental policy . . . it was about directing growth where we wanted it and away from where we didn’t want it,” Wynn told the crowd of about 50 people gathered in a meeting room at The Nokonah. “The decision to figure out how to steer CSC away from the recharge zone and into downtown was a good one . . . it was sound policy,” Wynn said, listing the economic benefits to the city of encouraging development in areas with existing infrastructure.

And while Wynn admitted that the Intel building had not turned out as planned, he characterized the CSC project as a success. “CSC came down with zero tax abatements and put 80 million dollars in private tax base on city-owned property that had been generating negative tax base,” he said. “They built two attractive buildings and are paying property taxes.” He described both Intel and CSC as boosting property values in an economically depressed corner of downtown. That city-owned property was not only failing to generate tax revenue, but actively lowering the value of the surrounding land, he noted. “As bad as the Intel decision now looks in hindsight,” he said, “Intel is paying more property taxes today on that shell than what the city received on what had been an asbestos-laden, lead paint-filled, abandoned car dealership.”

Instead of scrapping Smart Growth, Wynn is in favor of refining the program from one that is environmentally based to one that is economically based. “Let’s look at no longer having up-front costs from the city, but instead having performance measures. As people deliver the tax base—the employment—then we talk about how to share that additional property tax that they bring in,” he said.

This puts him in the opposite camp from the other three major candidates, none of whom are fans of Smart Growth policy. Katz, a downtown resident and business owner, offered the harshest criticism of Smart Growth, calling it “dumb shrinkage.” He characterized the Intel building skeleton as a financial disaster and an environmental eyesore. He also noted that local favorites such as Book People, Waterloo Records and his own restaurant “didn’t get incentives from the city.” He said the incentives should be given to Austin residents in the form of lower taxes. Downtown residents, he added, are not a diverse group. “We have to make downtown accessible to everyone, with more middle-income people living in downtown Austin. We cannot have an elitist downtown.”

Meltzer agrees that downtown is prohibitively expensive for most residents, but argued that Austin does have plenty of affordable housing. So much, he said, that some apartment complexes are being foreclosed or are offering extreme move-in specials. He added that some areas of the city are even being over-run by prostitutes and crime, which drives potential residents away. As for Smart Growth policy, Meltzer said he was not a supporter. “I don’t know what’s smart about it,” he said. He did not have a specific program to replace it, but concurred with Katz’s complaint about the property tax rate. “Smart growth would be to lower taxes,” he said.

Nofziger said as long as the city government did its job well, such as keeping downtown safe and keeping Austin affordable, people and businesses will want to move to Austin without incentives. He said Smart Growth contributed to Austin’s skyrocketing cost of living, drove up property values and obliterated Austin’s unique culture. He added that Smart Growth has resulted in higher rents, making it difficult for musicians, artists and middle-income people to live in Austin. “We cannot let the city of Austin become an enclave for the wealthy,” he said..

Thursday, Friday.

More candidate forums this week . . . The Real Estate Council of Austin will hold its candidate forum at the

Four Seasons at noon today. The Northeast Action Group has also scheduled a forum at 7pm this evening at the

Barr Mansion . . . The Metropolitan Breakfast Club will host a candidate forum at the UT Club at 7am Wednesday, while the Austin Neighborhoods Council’s forum is at 6:30pm Wednesday at Town Lake Center, 721 Barton Springs Road. Early Voting begins April 16 . . . Smoking ban discussion . . . Mayor Gus Garcia feels very strongly about smoking and will participate in a news conference with the Tobacco-Free Austin Coalition at 6pm Wednesday at the B-Side, inside the Bitter End Bistro & Brewery, 311 Colorado. A public hearing on the Mayor’s proposal to ban smoking in most public places is scheduled for 6pm Thursday. The current gossip is that each side will be allotted one hour, but a vote will be postponed until May 8—just a few days after the Council election . . . Design Commission news . . . The Design Commission has done some minor shuffling of subcommittees for the upcoming year. The following chairs have been named: John Patterson will chair the Annual Report and City Hall Plaza subcommittees; Phillip Reed will chair Guidelines Editing; Juan Cotera chairs Commission Strategy and Charettes Position Paper; and Girard Kinney will handle Corridor Projects. Eleanor McKinney will handle Civic Art; Joan Hyde will take up Urban Open space; Richard Weiss will handle Urban Core Housing; McKinney will be in charge of by-laws; and the commission’s newest member, Holly Kincannon, will chair a subcommittee on Parking. Kinney and McKinney will handle the new Council member orientation.

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