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County approves tax break for The Domain

Wednesday, August 20, 2003 by

Maximum amounts to $9.3 million over 20-year period

Developers of The Domain secured property tax breaks from Travis County Commissioners on Tuesday to help move their urban village concept toward reality. Commissioners also approved an overall policy regarding similar economic development proposals to guide their decisions in the future.

Similar to the incentives package approved by the City of Austin, Travis County’s contribution will require developer Endeavor Real Estate to meet certain conditions to be eligible for the tax breaks. Those include the creation of a minimum of 750 jobs at The Domain. Endeavor will also have to add more than $100 million in improvements to the property over the life of the project. The housing component of the mixed-use development will have to contain a minimum of 300 units. In exchange, the county will agree to forgo 50 percent of its property tax revenues over a period of 20 years. That could translate into a maximum amount of $5 million in today’s dollars or $9.3 million over a 20-year period.

Local businessman Brian Rodgers criticized the deal facing commissioners, saying they were giving up too much and getting too little. He also criticized the very premise that The Domain would bring new jobs and new sales tax revenue to the county. “Using property taxes to subsidize chain retail stores is unfair to the independent retail stores in Austin,” he said. “I question why the developer should get credit for new jobs when they simply move a clothing store from one location to another.”

County Judge Sam Biscoe defended the proposal for The Domain and the accompanying policy as good for the county and the economy. “From my vantage point, the question is: is there an economic advantage for Travis County residents? And I look at what we receive from the property right now . . . 25 to 30 million dollars . . . and what we will receive from that same property when it’s completed,” he said. “If it were completed today, at that value, it would be ten to twelve times that amount immediately.”

Commissioner Karen Sonleitner joined Biscoe in supporting the proposal. “I’ve read over and over . . . the City of Austin is horribly losing its sales tax base,” she said. “Everywhere else, the numbers are going up. People from Austin are going elsewhere to shop. The City of Austin is trying to rebuild sales tax base here.” She predicted an overall growth in population would help counter the potential that The Domain would draw customers and businesses from other parts of the county. “We have to do things to build infrastructure as this community continues to grow, and I think this is going to be a part of it.”

The vote in favor of The Domain agreement was 4-1, with Commissioner Gerald Daugherty opposed. Endeavor representatives say the project could break ground as early as mid-2004. If they are able to build the project all in one phase, construction would take about 18 months.

Commissioners also approved a policy outlining their criteria for future incentive requests. While it is aimed primarily at large-scale development along the lines of The Domain, Commissioner Ron Davis said it would also encourage development of smaller projects in economically depressed areas. “This is something that will hopefully encourage development to locate in those areas throughout Travis County and address the concerns incentive-wise for those small businesses . . . while not knocking out those larger investments,” he said. “There’s a big outcry for a lot of economic development—I know—in my precinct. The way this has been drafted, it does address the concerns that I was trying to bring over the past two or three weeks.” The vote on that policy was also 4-1, with Daugherty opposed.

Board of Adjustment defers to IRS ruling

Neighbor disputes claim that meditation center is a religious assembly

The Board of Adjustment chose to defer to the federal government’s wisdom Monday night in deciding whether or not a university-area yoga center qualifies as a church. The director of the Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Department had ruled that the Austin Meditation Center at 2307 Rio Grande qualifies as a “religious assembly,” but a neighboring landowner appealed that decision to the board. The board voted 4-1 to deny the appeal and uphold the staff’s decision.

Attorney Jeff Howard represented Starlight LP, operators of the Hardin House private women’s dormitory at 2206 Rio Grande. He argued that the meditation center was quite clearly a business and had been operating as one for years. In addition to creating some parking problems in the surrounding neighborhood, Howard argued that allowing the center to operate in violation of their zoning would set an undesirable precedent. “If you look at the Yellow Pages ads, the Austin Meditation Center is located under ‘Yoga Instruction.’ It’s not listed under ‘Church,’” he said. “It’s the Austin Meditation Center that chooses where it spends its advertising dollars and it chose to put itself under ‘Yoga Instruction.’” As an active business, the center had been previously classified as a personal improvement service by city inspectors. That use is not allowed under the GO zoning for the tract. Continuing the use would require a zoning change to GR. Howard also pointed to statements previously displayed on the center’s web site to bolster his case. “From the web site, prior to July 14th: ‘Bhakti yoga is not a religion.’ That’s their own words. Yoga and meditation are spiritual practices,” he concluded. “They’re not religions.”

But the leader of the Austin Meditation Center argued that the particular type of yoga they teach, Bhakti yoga, actually is a religion. While other forms of yoga, such as Hatha yoga, may be taught strictly as exercise, Richard Davis told board members that Bhakti yoga is “entirely religious in nature.” The statement to the contrary had been removed from the web site, he said, because it was unclear. “We’re dealing here with semantics. We use the word religion differently than maybe the government does,” he said. “In our information, we do say that you don’t have to be a member of any religion. Yoga is about having union with God.”

The IRS has recognized the non-profit group which operates the center as a religion, which Davis said requires extensive scrutiny. “The authority to determine whether an organization is a church or not resides with the federal government. The IRS, after five years, has decided that our application is acceptable,” he said. “I don’t think the Board of Adjustment wants to sit in determination of who is a church and who is not a church.” Greg Guernsey with the Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Department said that IRS ruling, and a subsequent designation by the Travis Central Appraisal District, had played a major role in the city’s finding. “Our code recognizes the property tax exemption as prima facia evidence . . . that this is a religious assembly,” he said. And while other yoga studios might advertise themselves as a business, Davis told the board, “Yoga can be interpreted in different ways. Every yoga studio in Austin is not a church . . . except the Austin Meditation Center. We’re not the same. Our interpretation of yoga is different.”

The board held a brief executive session to hear from Assistant City Attorney Marty Terry about related legal precedents before taking a vote. “To me, the federal government is the deciding factor,” said Board Member Betty Edgemond. “They say it’s a church . . . It’s a church.” Board Chair Herman Thun noted that while the center offered some courses not specifically related to the pursuit of Bhakti yoga, more commonly recognized religious groups frequently used their facilities for community gatherings or to host classes or workshops. “I relate it to services that I’ve gone to and religious organizations I belong to and I see very similar kinds of activities,” he said. “In fact, I can remember vividly . . . and I’m a Presbyterian . . . our church having yoga classes in Peoria, Illinois.”

The vote to deny the appeal and uphold the city’s ruling was 4-1. Commissioners Herman Thun, Laurie Virkstis, Leane Heldenfels and Betty Edgemond voted in favor of the motion to deny and Commissioner Barbara Aybar was opposed.

District judges finally get a raise

Judges have not seen salary increase in 8 years

A recent court settlement will allow Travis County Commissioners to give district judges a pay raise this year, making them the only county employees to see a raise in the last two years.

Auditor Susan Spataro knew she was giving commissioners a hot potato with the offer to raise the pay of district judges, but she pointed out that the judges have not had a raise in eight years. It was only with recent legislation sponsored by Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos (D-Austin) and Rep. Jack Stick (R-Austin) that the county contribution cap could even be raised on the judges’ salaries.

District judges’ salaries come from a mix of state and local funding. The state provides $101,700. The county currently provides a supplement of $9,300. The $111,000 salary, which has not been adjusted since 1995, lags behind other comparable officials, Spataro argued. The Austin City Attorney makes $134,555. The Travis County District Attorney makes $129,537. Spataro called it a significant parity issue for the county.

An advertisement for the proposed county officials’ salaries will run in the Austin Chronicle this week. According to the advertisement, County Judge Sam Biscoe will make $88,861 next year, County Commissioners Karen Sonleitner, Ron Davis and Margaret Gomez, $73,915. Commissioner Gerald Daugherty declined a portion of his salary last year, giving him an annual salary of $66,523.

Other county officials make from $62,829 for constables to $96,634 for Sheriff Margo Frasier. Judges and attorneys make anywhere from $102,726 to $130,564.

County Judge Sam Biscoe recently received notification from the County Judges and Commissioners Association that a class action suit challenging the constitutionality of various fees had been settled in favor of the county. That freed up almost $500,000 in accumulated filing fees that had been held in escrow by the county for the last two years.

Spataro recommended that a $20,000 raise for judges to be phased in over two years, according to her letter to county commissioners. Christian Smith, executive manager of the Planning and Budget Office, estimated the two-year cycle would cost the county $600,000.

Travis County will have $746,505 available from the filing fees, which would include an anticipated $225,000 to be collected in the upcoming year. Upon questioning from Commissioner Davis, Spataro admitted the amount would only cover the cost of the upcoming two years, although she pointed out that judges were entitled to salary increases out of the general revenue the same as other employees. were.

By the time 2005 rolls around, the county may be in a much better position to provide raises to all county employees, including judges, Spataro told the court. The judges would not support a pay raise for themselves if it meant a property tax hike or cutting programs, Spataro said.

Sonleitner proposed a one-year phase-in for the raise—half of which would be paid in October, the rest in April. Sonleitner considered the raise only fair, given that the judges had long been denied one. She said the fees would “right an incredible wrong.”

Judge Biscoe, however, put the brakes on the full raise, saying he could not support the entire $20,000 this year. The fees could be used on any number of projects, as long as they have the purpose of supporting the legal system. Nothing was a given to Biscoe. “My vote next year must be earned,” Biscoe told Spataro.

District Judge John Dietz, who attended yesterday’s Commissioners Court meeting, said he appreciated Sonleitner’s efforts but concurred with Biscoe, saying that such a raise for judges could not be justified when support staff would not be seeing more money.

The pay raise will be contingent upon an opinion from Attorney General Greg Abbott. Travis County wants to be assured that additional supplementation by the county will not mean the state will cut its share of judges’ salaries. The judges’ pay raises will be held in escrow until the Attorney General issues an opinion on the matter. If the opinion is not favorable, the county will roll its portion of funding back to $9,300.

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

Wal-Mart opponents launch web site . . . Environmentalists and Southwest Austin neighbors fighting the proposed Wal-Mart at Slaughter Lane and MoPac have launched a new website they hope will get the company’s attention: http://www.saveaustin.com. The site features links to ongoing Wal-Mart development battles across the country and an archive of news stories about community opposition to the company. The site also features a “Community Invaders” game, a take off on the 70’s video game Space Invaders. Neighbors in Southwest Austin have hired Mark Nathan and Christian Archer to help them organize, while consultant Mike Blizzard is working with local environmental groups . . . Budget crunch hits Public Information Office (PIO) . . . The person responsible for compiling and sending out lists of public meetings, such as board and commissions and the subcommittees of the commissions, has lost his job as a result of the budget crisis. Although many commission meetings are listed on the city’s website, some inevitably fall through the cracks. The person who compiled the list for the PIO managed to find out about all the meetings, making it available by fax or email to anyone requesting the information. Now the only way to be sure that you haven’t overlooked an important meeting is to check the bulletin board at City Hall . . . ‘Dillo party tonight . . . The Downtown Austin Alliance and the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau are having a kickoff party, 5:30pm-7pm, for the new Moonlight and Starlight ‘Dillo routes. The party will take off from Threadgill’s on Riverside Drive, with partygoers aboard the maiden trips of each of the routes. Mayor Will Wynn will be on hand to introduce the new routes . . . Tonight’s meetings . . . The Downtown Commission meets at 5:30pm at Waller Creek Center; the Environmental Board meets at One Texas Center, Room 325 at 6pm; and the Codes and Ordinances Committee of the Planning Commission starts at 5pm at One Texas Center in Room 240 . . . Meetings on the city’s new development process . . . Environmental Board, tonight at 6pm; Austin Contractors and Engineers Association, 10am, Friday, CFX, 2700 Via Fortuna, Suite 200; Zoning and Platting Commission, 6pm, Aug. 26, One Texas Center; Planning Commission, 6pm, Aug. 27, One Texas Center; Austin Neighborhoods Council, 7pm, Aug. 27, Town Lake Center; City Council Public Hearing, 6pm, Aug. 28, LCRA . . . Green Building Workshop . . . Austin Energy presents “Green by Design,” a workshop for those interested in building or remodeling a home that offers lower energy and water bills and one that is kinder to the environment. Space is still available at this Saturday’s workshop, which runs from 9am to 4pm at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. Call 505-3700 to register . . . Retiring . . . County officials Tuesday recognized Betty Robertson, who is retiring after 28 years with the county as a County Extension Agent. Robertson, who coordinated the Travis County 4-H Program, raised more than $100,000 toward 4-H scholarships. County Judge Sam Biscoe pledged to name the scholarship fund after her. Commissioner Karen Sonleitner offered to write a donation in Robertson’s name to the scholarship fund . . . Travis County, Hollywood style. . . Travis County has agreed to the use of the county logo in the upcoming Tommy Lee Jones’ film, currently dubbed “Cheer Up.” In the film, Jones is an undercover Texas Ranger protecting five University of Texas cheerleaders who witness a mob-style murder. Sonleitner said she could only agree if she got her photograph made with Jones. Biscoe wanted a bit role in the film.

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