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City staff outlines cuts to parks, libraries

Friday, August 15, 2003 by

Cutbacks opposed during public hearing

Austin kids will find it more difficult to get to a recreation facility next summer and may have to travel farther to get to an open branch library under the proposed budget for the Parks and Recreation and Library Departments for the upcoming fiscal year.

The parks department is reducing its budget by $3.5 million and eliminating 33 positions. Part of those savings come from reducing the number of sites offered for the Summer Playground program, which offers supervised recreation at dozens of park facilities and AISD schools for children between the ages of 8 and 12. Funding for the program is being cut by $130,000, which will reduce the number of available locations from 42 to 30. Parks and Recreation Director Jesus Olivares estimates that will reduce the number of youth participant hours by about 16,000 in the form of fewer kids taking part in the program.

The Library Department is cutting $ 2.2 million out of its budget and eliminating 34 positions. Much of the savings will come from closing various branch libraries one day per week. The proposed closure schedule, set to take effect October 1, would close ten branch libraries on Thursday of each week and another ten, plus the Austin History Center, on Fridays. The Central Library would maintain its current schedule.

The state of the existing Central Library facility was the subject of much of the discussion during Thursday’s budget presentation. “We’re way below standard, we’re not even at adequate,” said Library Director Brenda Branch. “Our Central Library has been out of space for several years,” she said. In response to questioning from Council Member Brewster McCracken, she painted a bleak picture of library operations over the next few years. “I think it’s pretty clear that we’re in big trouble. In order for our library system to provide quality service to this community, you as a Council will have to significantly increase the operating funds for the library.”

City Manager Toby Futrell pointed out that the city could instead change the service delivery model for the Library Department. While the current system of extensive branch libraries spread out across the community met the desires expressed by the community, she said, it was also expensive. “When we did the 1998 bond package, we had a very spirited debate about whether it was time to put our bond dollars into a Central Library,” she said. “The Central Library did not make it on the bond package.”

Futrell explained that both Parks and Recreation and the Library Departments would be turning to volunteers for help, while offering praise for the employees of both departments. “Parks and libraries, probably more than any department in the city, leverage community resources, volunteers, donated dollars, in a way that no other department in the city does,” she said. “They truly leverage every dollar and every hour they spend. In addition to that, this is a staff that has taken severe and on-going cuts over the last handful of years and still, I think, is one of the most collaborative and cooperative staffs that we have in the city.”

Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman, while not specifically promising to oppose cuts for parks or libraries, warned of the dangers of eliminating funding for programs for kids. “If we don’t have things for our youth to do in one place, they will be doing something elsewhere,” she said. “And that something else may be in totally different arenas . . . maybe very negative ones.”

The Council listened throughout the evening to citizens, many of whom expressed unhappiness about the proposed cuts and urged the Council to save a particular park or recreation facility. In addition, a contingent of health and human services supporters urged the Council not to cut that part of the budget either. But none of those speaking offered a solution to the city’s financial woes. Budget proposals and hearings will continue August 28, with votes scheduled the week of September 8.

Council hears many voices on Patriot Act

Testimony, Council discussion to continue September 25

After spending two hours hearing from dozens of people opposed to the USA Patriot Act, Council Member Daryl Slusher convinced his colleagues to postpone a vote on a resolution critical of the federal law enforcement measure. The Council unanimously decided to put off a vote on the resolution until September 25—the Council’s first meeting following the series of budget votes earlier in the month.

The four-page resolution sponsored by Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman and Council Members Raul Alvarez and describes the Patriot Act as one that threatens “fundamental rights granted by the United States Constitution.” The resolution would direct that signs be posted at city libraries warning patrons that a record of the books they check out could be obtained by federal authorities. It would also direct the City Manager to notify the Council if city employees or departments are asked to violate the Constitution and direct the Austin Police Department to refrain from surveillance on groups or individuals based on their political advocacy or beliefs.

Supporters of the resolution covered a broad political spectrum and filled the meeting room carrying signs reading, “I want my constitution back” and “Ignore your rights and they’ll go away.” Ann Del Llano with the ACLU told Council members there was a serious threat to individual rights being posed by overly powerful law enforcement agencies. “Liberty in the United States, many think, is having privacy,” she said. “Privacy is the right to have something that we keep from our government. I think it’s integral to democracy. We will have lost an essential ingredient to our democracy if we lose our privacy completely.”

Russell Lowe cited several U.S. Supreme Court cases to bolster his point that the USA Patriot Act was over-reaching. “A half a million men have died to protect this republic. My dad fought in World War II. I’m a survivor of ‘Nam,” he said. “I will fight to the death to protect this constitution that I swore to protect!”

Others used their three minutes before the Council to air their grievances against the Austin Police Department or to posit various conspiracy theories. Several speakers told the Council they believed the Bush administration had advance knowledge of the September 11th terrorist attacks and allowed the perpetrators to proceed, with the specific goal of introducing the Patriot Act in order systematically abolish individual rights. Other theories involved the Trilateral Commission, the United Nations, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Illuminati, the Bilderberg Group and a document called the “ Protocols of the Wise Men of Zion.”

Former City Council candidate Robert Singleton pointed to the diversity of viewpoints, ranging from far left to far right, as an indication of the broad-based opposition to the Patriot Act. “I think today’s a great example of how there can be more than two sides to an issue,” Singleton said. “I don’t want to offend anybody, but I’m not a Libertarian. I’m not an Alex Jones fan. I don’t have a locker full of semi-automatic weapons. I don’t think the Queen of England is behind the drug trade. And I think if you tried to lump together everybody who is in favor of this resolution who is in front of you today, you’d have fist-fights over who was going to be able to speak.”

Council Member Daryl Slusher told the crowd he was unprepared to vote on the proposal this week. “I know there’s a lot of interest in this and I think there could be more dialog in the community,” he said. “I think that would probably be a good thing, this being a First Amendment issue. I would rather see this come back after we get through with the budget. I really think we need to spend some time looking at that, and we can’t postpone the budget, nor should we. I don’t see any harm in putting this off.” Slusher’s support is critical if the resolution is going to pass because Mayor Will Wynn and Council Members Betty Dunkerley and Brewster McCracken are likely to either abstain or vote against it.

Thomas, who co-sponsored the resolution with Goodman, consented to the postponement with one caution. “I do have a problem if we’re going to continue to delay, to have public hearings, and then when we get down to action . . . we’re not going to pass it,” he said. Alvarez agreed, and the Council voted unanimously to take up the item again on Thursday, Sept. 25 at 6:00pm. The public hearing was left open, allowing more people to speak at that time.

ZAP proposes compromise for Southside condos

Members of the Zoning and Platting Commission Tuesday night tried to strike a compromise between developer Mario Chapa and South Austin residents. Chapa had requested a zoning change for land in the 1400 block of Parker Lane in Southeast Austin from SF-3 to MF-3 to allow for the construction of 14 condominium units on an.84-acre site.

Amelia Lopez-Phelps represented Chapa, who brought along friends, family members and the owners of various houses he has built throughout Austin. “I have known him for a number of years,” said Angie Barrientos. “He has been a contractor and a home builder in this community for over four decades. He’s known for building the highest-quality homes and developments. He has a reputation for communicating with the people in the area and doing the research prior to putting down stone one.” Other associates testified repeatedly to Chapa’s commitment and integrity.

But members of South River City Citizens told commissioners the case was not about Chapa’s reputation, but about the design of the proposed project. The plan to change the lots from single-family to multi-family was roundly criticized. “It’s a beautiful neighborhood. The map doesn’t give the realities of what this neighborhood is really about. There are so many beautiful homes, beautiful trees, good neighbors,” said Dawn Sizmar. “Multi-family zoning is not compatible with this very large beautiful neighborhood that is already there.

SRCC President Tim Mahoney pledged that the group would have a valid petition against the zoning change when it reached the City Council. “Our single-family neighborhood is being attacked on three sides,” he said, citing increased traffic and fast-food trailers on Riverside, noise from I-35 traffic, and the encroachment of MF zoning on Parker Lane. “The drainage problem in this area is something that is yet to be discovered,” he added. “A large portion of the structures to the east not only have cracked foundations but are sliding downhill.” Mahoney said the neighborhood was comfortable with SF-3 zoning, even though it would allow for duplexes to be built on the site.

Commissioner Joseph Martinez attempted to strike a balance between the desires of the developer and the neighborhood. He proposed zoning the property MF-2, but with the development restrictions found in SF-6 and a limit of 12 units. “I think the obvious statement is: Austin today is very different from what it was a year ago. It’s getting tighter and more crowded. All of us, in some way or another, are going to have to do our part,” Martinez said. “All of our neighborhoods wish they could be like what they were 20 and 30 years ago, but they’re not. We’re all going to have to do our parts, and neighborhoods are going to have to learn how to live with higher density.”

Other commissioners agreed, noting that the developer had already scaled back his original plans from 19 units to 14. “We have MF-3 across the street, we have MF-3 adjacent to this tract,” said Commissioner Keith Jackson . “I understand the neighborhood’s concern about not introducing more multi-family in the area, but I can’t in good conscience leave it SF-3, because it’s not a viable use for that property.”

The vote on the compromise proposal was 5-4, with Commissioners Clarke Hammond, John-Michael Cortez, Jay Gohil and John Philip Donisi opposed. “Please consider the recommendation this commission has made,” Commission Chair Betty Baker advised the neighborhood residents as they filed out of the room. “It may be the very best you can get, even at Council.”

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

Chief not leaving . . . City Manager Toby Futrell came to the defense of Fire Chief Gary Warren Thursday evening. Last week, Austin Association of Professional Firefighters vice president Mike Martinez used his testimony on Chief Warren’s proposed budget to tell Council members the chief was hunting for another job. “That has turned out, on investigation, to not be true,” Futrell said. “He did not apply for that position that was mentioned, nor any other position since he has been made Fire Chief. I think the community needs to know that. His recommendations did not come as he was leaving our community” . . . Appointments . . . Council Member Betty Dunkerley reappointed Mary Gay Maxwell and Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman appointed Mary Ruth Holder to the Environmental Board. During last week’s meeting Holder’s appointment was mistakenly listed as by consensus. Council Member Danny Thomas has yet to name his Environmental Board appointment. Goodman also reappointed Gordon Byram to the Electrical Board . . . Barton Springs Road ribbon cut . . . City Council Members, staff and owners of business along Barton Springs Road stood shoulder-to-shoulder on Wednesday for an official ribbon-cutting ceremony to mark the end of the long-running reconstruction project. Traffic has actually been flowing smoothly on the road since early May, when city crews wrapped up the majority of their work. City Manager Toby Futrell praised the employees of the Public Works department for their efforts to finish the project after the original contractor was dropped . . . Bus, ‘Dillo routes added . . . In response to recommendations from a citizen task force, Capital Metro is adding two new nighttime ‘Dillo routes. The agency hopes the new Starlight and Moonlight ‘Dillos will make getting around downtown more convenient for downtown visitors. This free service will run Thursday through Saturday nights from 6pm to 3am. Capital Metro is also adding new “Night Owl” service. These routes were created to link downtown with portions of North, East and Southeast Austin, early Tuesday through early Sunday. The Night Owl routes were designed to serve downtown late-shift and early-shift workers. Schedules vary, but hours of operation begin as early as midnight and run as late as 3am . . . Small business development program . . . The City of Austin’s Small Business Development Program is offering a course in basic advertising principles to help small businesses gain rudimentary skills in designing logos, understanding the audience or market, budgeting for advertising costs and promoting business news. The class begins at 11am Thursday and costs $15. For more information or to register, call 974-7806. The deadline for registering is Tuesday.

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