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Firefighters to give up raise

Friday, August 29, 2003 by

Council majority will vote to restore $500,000 to social services budget

Austin firefighters sent a very public message on Thursday about what measures they are willing to take to block Chief Gary Warren’s proposal to cut $1 million from the department’s budget by deploying two new types of fire trucks called “quints” and “squads.” (See In Fact Daily, August 8, 2003) Representatives of the Austin Association of Professional Firefighters (AAPFF) said the union would be willing to forgo a pay raise next year, as long as most of the money saved was diverted back into the department’s budget.

“While we appreciate the support from Council, firefighters feel uncomfortable about accepting a pay increase while other city employees are being laid off,” said AAPFF President Scott Toupin. “Mayor Wynn and Council Member Slusher have suggested the public safety pay raise is an area where cost savings may be found. We applaud that. Firefighters will support the Austin City Council if the decision is made to eliminate the two percent pay increase in this year’s budget.”

The two percent pay hike proposed by City Manager Toby Futrell for next year totals about $1.5 million dollars. Union leaders say that money would allow city management to scrap the plan to deploy “squads” in the politically-influential Hyde Park neighborhood. “From our perspective here in the neighborhood, this isn’t a win for Hyde Park,” said Hyde Park Neighborhood Association leader Bruce Nadig. “It’s a win for the entire city.” The firefighters association is suggesting that the remaining $500,000 be used to restore funding for health and human services. That suggestion has won enthusiastic support from non-profit groups. “The Mayor has said repeatedly, ‘Don’t tell me not to cut human services; tell me where to find the money’. Well the firefighters have come to the community’s rescue once again,” said Austin Area Human Services Association President Karen Langley. “We thank them for their compromise and for including and recognizing human services as an integral part of public safety.” The $500,000 would cover nearly half of the $1.1 million proposed to be cut from the city’s social service contracts next year.

The plan appears to have the support of a majority of the City Council. Council Members Brewster McCracken, Raul Alvarez, and Jackie Goodman all attended the announcement at Fire Station #9 in Hyde Park. “Think about what Austin fire-fighters are doing today…they are turning down a pay raise,” said McCracken. “Austin’s fire-fighters are turning down money in their pockets. This is an amazing act of selflessness.” Union president Toupin also expressed the group’s thanks to Council Member Danny Thomas, who did not attend. Thomas has told In Fact Daily that he had concerns about the proposal to eliminate full-sized trucks and the four-person team of firefighters. He has also expressed his dissatisfaction with the proposal to cut social services. If four members of the Council attend any function, the function may become an inadvertent Council meeting, so only three could attend the press conference.

“We believe there’s plenty of support on the Council,” he said. “We have a clear message from the Council members that are here today that they’re in favor of it. We have talked to other Council members and we know that they are behind it also.”

With a clear majority of the Council backing the union’s plan, there may not be a great deal of debate. Austin Mayor Will Wynn and Council Member Daryl Slusher had previously gone on the record as being willing to consider keeping firefighters salaries flat as part of their overall budget-cutting efforts. However, they were likely counting on the $1.5 million as an additional savings to the chief’s proposal, not as a replacement for the money it would save.

Slusher, who lines up with Council Member Betty Dunkerley and the Mayor as the more conservative wing of the Council when it comes to spending, agreed that restoring $500,000 to the health and human services budget would have four votes when the budget comes up for a vote on September 8.

But Slusher was clearly not pleased with his colleagues’ suggestions. He said he would have put the savings “into the ending balance and rolled it over to next year. That way you save $4 million this year—so next year, our base budget is $4 million less,” he explained. The $4 million figure includes raises for both firefighters and police. “You’d save the $4 million next year, so that’s $8 million toward our gap next year.” Slusher admitted that the proposal from the firefighters and his colleagues appears to be “a reasonable compromise, just looking at it from afar. But, every time we identify some savings, if Council Members rush in to spend it, then we’ll never get out of this budget crisis. Futrell has already projected next year’s budget gap as $29 million, even with a two percent increase in sales tax revenue.

The “quints” and “squads” plan was one of several factors that drove the union to take a “no confidence” vote on Chief Warren. Balloting has ended, but the votes are still being tabulated. Toupin said the union had not taken their offer of forgoing a raise to the chief before their public announcement. “We did bring other cuts to him,” said Toupin. “We brought administrative cuts; we brought budget cuts in our recruiting division. We talked about consolidation of services within the Fire Department itself and structure, but we never brought the two percent public safety premium to him.”

The Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce also announced yesterday that its board of directors had unanimously endorsed a minimum of $38.2 million in permanent reductions in the city’s 2004 budget and “strongly recommended additional permanent cuts to avoid another tax increase in 2005.” The chamber also endorsed the City Manager’s proposal to streamline the city’s development review process.

Council approves downtown study

The City Council breezed through its morning agenda yesterday, pausing briefly to discuss a resolution directing Austin Energy to increase its focus on clean energy. The Council also discussed the particulars of a Memorandum of Understanding between the city and the Downtown Austin Alliance (DAA) for a downtown retail study.

The DAA will provide up to $160,000 and the city $50,000 for the project. The alliance responded to the city’s request to assist with funding for a study that will, among other things, produce a survey of downtown infrastructure, an inventory of retail space available, and information on where retail is and is not appropriate. The city will then be able to offer a data base to prospective developers. Sue Edwards, director of the city’s Economic Growth and Redevelopment Services Office, said “The DAA can take that material and market downtown Austin.” Edwards said the city had set aside money to the study two years and Downtown Officer Michael Knox had worked diligently to develop a plan for the study. However, when it came time to let the contract, the city found it did not have enough money to carry through with the plan. Fortunately, she said, the leaders of the downtown booster group decided at about the same time that they needed the same sort of information.

Charlie Betts, executive director of the DAA, said his organization’s board had voted unanimously to put up the $100,000 for the initial phase of the study and up to $60,000 to fund a more in-depth market analysis once the first phase is done. The DAA is supported by an additional assessment on all downtown property. “We think the results of this study will be tremendously valuable to the Second Street development, to the enhancement and development of Congress Avenue and upgrading and development of East 6th Street . . . We’re tremendously interested in this.”

Edwards added, “One of the things that the study should do is provide information on whether all new buildings downtown should be required to have first-floor retail spaces.” The current regulation requires any developer who does not wish to comply with the rule to seek a variance from the Zoning and Platting Commission. The matter has been a bone of contention between certain downtown advocates and developers who see the amount of empty retail space already dotting downtown. “We don’t want to end up having a big, black hole,” on the ground floor of a garage, she told In Fact Daily.

In other action, the Council approved a number of zoning cases, but postponed decisions on those that might have caused the most angst. Attorney Michael Whellan said his clients, the Champion sisters, are discussing traffic problems with their neighbors and need more time to talk. They asked for an indefinite postponement and the Council granted them six months on the advice of Alice Glasco, director of the Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Department.

A vote on historic zoning for two cottages at 3403 and 3407 Hampton Road was postponed until September 25th at the request of Council Member Betty Dunkerley, who wants to give the owner of the houses more time to work with the neighborhood. The Historic Landmark Commission recommended the historic designation for the cottages, but city staff did not.

Neighbors are concerned that the new owner of the property will demolish the cottages and replace them with homes or duplexes that are inappropriate for the area. They’re supporting the historic zoning over the owner’s objections. “So many of you expressed your frustration in not being able to deal with your neighborhood issues in any way other than through the use of historic zoning,” said Dunkerley. “I have a problem with that.”

Council Member Brewster McCracken indicated he was just as concerned about the future of the lots as the history of the two buildings. The agent for the developer insists any new buildings on the sites would be in full compliance with SF-3 regulations, but there is no firm site plan. “It’s going to be really important to me to see what the plan is,” said McCracken, “because my concern level is through the roof without knowing what the intended use is that will replace these cottages. I think we’re going to need something concrete to get me there. If we don’t have something concrete, I’ll probably be inclined to support historic zoning.”

Cash shortage may mean road is funded in stages

Toll road's stakeholders may be unhappy, says Tesch

The Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority’s (CTRMA) engineering consultant presented a general budget and scope of work on the proposed US 183A project Wednesday. The biggest challenge at this point for the authority’s oversight engineer, HNTB Corp., is to find a funding package for the project. Richard Ridings of HNTB presented an overview of the US 183A project, which the board approved by resolution.

At this point, CTRMA has only a $12.7 million toll equity grant from the Texas Department of Transportation to jumpstart the US 183A project. It will be HNTB’s job, and the job of its subcontractors, to evaluate the project and find the remainder of the money.

A large portion of the right-of-way has been purchased and a preliminary environmental study completed, but Ridings said the project may have to be bid out in phases, depending on toll revenue projections compiled by HNTB.

The CTRMA board has moved toward US 183A with some urgency, proclaiming that every day and dollar counts. Chair Bob Tesch told Ridings that a phased project would not be desirable to many of the future toll road’s stakeholders.

Ridings said the scope and the phasing of the toll road project is heavily dependent on its financing. CTRMA is going into the project with essentially no money set aside for construction. Ridings pointed out that toll revenue on a toll road seldom, if ever, generates enough initial income to cover the operation of the toll road. Those operational expenses cover everything from right-of-way acquisition to roadway maintenance.

In the case of State Highway 130, the Texas Department of Transportation has committed $700 million to the project. Federal TIPIA funds will cover $800 million. The balance is being funded from revenue bonds on the proposed billion-dollar project.

Getting the project as quickly as possible would certainly be the goal, Ridings said. Financing on bonds is on its way back up from an all-time low, he said. Tesch encouraged Ridings to make sure the board was aware of all funding options for the 11-mile project.

According to an overview presented to the board, HNTB intends to maintain a core staff of three on CTRMA projects, clearly defining US 183A and non-US 183A expenses. The staff will dedicate separate office space to the CTRMA.

Over the next 90 to 120 days, HNTB will complete a schematic update of the US 183A project, based on current TxDOT standards of 70 miles per hour for main lanes and 40 miles per hour for frontage roads. HNTB will also provide a toll plaza footprint for the toll plazas. HNTB will evaluate the level of service, but the traffic and revenue analysis will not be included in the initial scope of work between CTRMA and HNTB.

HNTB will assess property right-of-way needs and begin work on specific plans for financing the project, Ridings said. The CTRMA will be provided with monthly updates.

HNTB will also outline public education efforts, trying to encourage local drivers to use the toll road. Ridings said those public education efforts may dovetail with the state’s own push to promote the Trans-Texas Corridor. He added that toll tags used on the CTRMA project would be the same as those for State Highway 130. The backroom billing and collection operations would be shared between State Highway 130 and US 183A.

Barrientos party generates cash, enthusiasm

About 500 enthusiastic Democrats showed up for last night’s fundraiser for Austin Senator Gonzalo Barrientos. The guest of honor just phoned in his thanks. Barrientos, one of the Texas 11, called from Denver, not Albuquerque, where he and the other 10 Democratic Senators have been for the past month in order to avoid what they believe would be a miscarriage of democracy—a redistricting fight without the Senate’s two-thirds rule. Congressman Lloyd Doggett is one of those most likely to lose his seat under a Republican-drawn plan.

Barrientos drew cheers throughout his phone call home. “I am one of the Texas 11. I am making a stand in Albuquerque because the rules are not being followed in the Texas Senate. In our great country, our government begins with checks and balances,” Barrientos said, explaining that Republicans had used the two-thirds rule to block redistricting efforts in 2001, before the tables were turned and Republicans gained the upper hand. “And yet . . . they do not want us to use that very same rule. It is unfair, un-American, un-Texan, and I don’t give a damn if they fine me $57,000, I will not give up.” He explained that he was in Denver because “the good people of Colorado want to raise a little money so we can pay our hotel bill.”

Senator Elliott Shapleigh of El Paso, who was with Barrientos in Denver, added, “I hope you raise him a bunch of money tonight because we need it. We are still in Albuquerque because when they change the rules just to win the game, democracy loses.” The pair said they were in a labor union hall.

Rep. Elliott Naishtat, who emceed the event, joked that the Senators were smarter than their 51 Democratic counterparts in the Texas House, who went to Ardmore, Oklahoma to disrupt the quorum in the House during the regular session. The other Democratic members of the Travis County delegation, Reps. Eddie Rodriguez and Dawnna Dukes, also added their voices to the praise for Barrientos and his colleagues in New Mexico.

Since a majority of Austin’s local elected officials are Democrats, there was a good sprinkling of judges and other officials in the crowd. Longtime Democrats Willie Mae Kirk and Shudde Fath climbed onto the stage to praise Barrientos, as did Louis Malfaro, president of the AFL-CIO Central Labor Council.

An East Austin precinct chair for many years, Kirk recalled she was the first in her community to host a party for Barrientos during his first campaign. “Gonzalo has proven everything to us…He has worked hard for all our causes…and I support him all the way,” she told the crowd. It is not clear what the next move will be for either Democrats or Republicans.

©2003 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved

A day off . . . In Fact Daily will not publish on Monday. We hope you have a safe and happy Labor Day . . . Early Voting begins . . . Travis County reported last night that 1,135 voters, about .2 percent of those registered, cast ballots yesterday in the constitutional amendment election. The likeliest voters are those who feel strongly about Proposition 12, which would set a legislatively-determined $250,000 cap on non-economic damages in medical malpractice cases. Early Voting continues today and will resume after the Labor Day weekend . . . Greenspace purchase approved . . . The City Council approved a resolution directing the purchase of 330 acres in Southeast Austin for purchase of 330 acres of land along Walnut Creek to be added to the city’s park areas. That purchase will costs about $8 million. In addition, the city will be purchasing a conservation easement on 134 acres of Hays County property in the Barton Springs contributing zone. That easement is expected to cost $584,000. Voters approved purchase of the park and greenspace areas in a 1998 bond election and the Hays County land rights in 2000 . . . More for water utility to do . . . The city hopes to acquire a certificate of convenience and necessity for water and wastewater service from the TCEQ in the near future to serve property to the east of Austin’s extra-territorial jurisdiction. Yesterday the Council approved a settlement agreement with the Hornsby Bend Utility, which claims part of that property as its service area. Details of the agreement will remain confidential until after the documents are executed, according to Laurie Lentz, spokesperson for the utility. Assistant City Attorney Marty Terry explained that this settlement is the final one of 13 area utilities settling with the city East of the city’s ETJ . . . Council appointments . . . Carl Huntley was appointed and Janis Pinnelli reappointed by consensus to the Downtown Commission and Zoning and Platting Commission, respectively. Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman reappointed Cynthia Medlin to the Planning Commission and Michael Kuhn to the Resource Management Commission. Council Member Darryl Slusher reappointed Randy Walden to the Electrical Board, David Sullivan to the Planning Commission, Mark Sanders to the Solid Waste Advisory Commission and Michael Warner to the Water and Wastewater Commission.

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