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Firefighters to hold 'no confidence' vote

Thursday, August 14, 2003 by

Union president says cost-cutting proposals only the last straw

Firefighters angry at Chief Gary Warren say they have voted to query all 900 members of the Austin Association of Professional Firefighters on their lack of confidence in the chief. Scott Toupin, president of Local 975, said last night, “This is a very serious issue. The membership present (at Tuesday night’s meeting) voted unanimously to have a secret vote of no confidence in Chief Warren.”

Toupin said, “We’ve been trying to work with this fire chief for the last six years . . . It’s not a secret; we haven’t had a good relationship with our chief.” Toupin said that the firefighters would receive a ballot reciting a list of grievances and asking whether members of the union have confidence in Warren. He said the budget proposals released last week were just “the final straw in a long list of issues” that firefighters have with the chief. (See In Fact Daily, August 8, 2003.) If the vote shows a majority opposes the chief, Toupin said, “We are hoping it will send a clear message to the Council and to the Manager . . . (that) it’s time for a new chief.” The chief is hired by City Manager Toby Futrell.

Warren said, “I do understand why they would be uncomfortable with the changes proposed. These staffing changes are new ways of delivering services that they are not used to. It is important that we consider these new ways of delivering services, considering the economy.” The chief said he hopes that once the new smaller vehicles are in service that firefighters will find that the new system is satisfactory. He said that during tough budget times traditionally the Hyde Park Station was offered for closing. He said his predecessor had tried to close that station about 15 years ago, but that neighborhood residents successfully battled to keep it open.

Warren noted that the changes would only affect firefighters at four stations. The quints are already in service at the Anderson Mill and McCarty Lane fire stations. The two new ones are planned for Harris Ridge on Palmer Lane and Balcones Road north of Northland. The quints will have four firefighters each and are probably not causing as much concern as the squads, which will carry only two firefighters each, he said. The squads, which are mini pumper trucks “can go down the alleyways in Hyde Park and the full sized trucks cannot,” he noted. Warren did not seem worried about his job. “I’ve been in the department for thirty years. I’ve been chief for six years. If they need a way to express the uncertainty that they have (the vote) is as good as any.”

Toupin said he would be releasing a list of grievances to the media in the next four or five days and try to hold the vote within the next two weeks. The Council is scheduled to listen to more budget presentations today and on August 28. They are scheduled to vote on the budget during the week of September 8.

SH 130 hailed as first step in new road-building model

In an address at the Texas Transportation Summit in Irving yesterday, the director of the Texas Turnpike Authority called State Highway 130—a 91-mile turnpike through Central Texas—a quantum leap forward in the way the state builds toll roads. More than 1,000 transportation planners and elected officials are attending the three-day meeting.

Lone Star Infrastructure is developing State Highway 130 under an exclusive development agreement with the Texas Department of Transportation. At a session on the future of toll roads, Phillip Russell, the director of the Texas Turnpike Authority, said SH 130 is a step beyond the state’s typical design-build model and one that is only a first step in the state’s new direction on roadway construction.

The Central Texas turnpike represents a departure in a number of ways. For one thing, Lone Star Infrastructure has agreed to invest in the six-phase project. The total build-out of the project is estimated at around $1.4 billion.

“That agreement leveraged our contribution four or five to one,” Russell said. “Many of you go to Commissioners Court meetings. I doubt you would ever turn down a deal where someone tells you, ‘We’ll leverage your money four or five to one.’ The commission will snap at those deals, just as they did with the Central Texas Turnpike.”

The recently approved omnibus transportation bill, House Bill 3588, gives the Texas Department of Transportation additional tools for building roads, Russell said. The bill is so broad and so revolutionary, the staff at TxDOT has given it the acronym “MOAB,” for the “Mother of All Bills.”

House Bill 3588 breaks new ground in a number of ways, Russell said. It provides a billion dollars for the Texas Mobility Fund, which will leverage almost $3 billion in projects across the state. It empowers the Regional Mobility Authorities created last session, opening the door to more regional authorities in areas like Waco-Temple, West Texas and El Paso. On Tuesday, Bexar County voted to create its own RMA.

The omnibus bill also gives the state the authority to put more development in the hands of private developers who can partner on local projects, such as the governor’s proposed Trans-Texas Corridor. HB 3588 also invites both solicited and unsolicited proposals on other projects. Russell anticipates the highway commission will hear a proposal next month on improvements to I-35.

It also creates comprehensive development agreements. Such agreements between the state and private developers are commissioned to find a balance between the private sector’s interests and the goals of government. The goal is to build projects more efficiently and more quickly, Russell said. Over the next 30 years, the population in the state of Texas is expected to double, a potentially huge strain on infrastructure.

During the panel discussion, Jim Carroll of Fluor Daniel, a member of the Lone Star Infrastructure team, outlined the five most common hurdles on a public-private road project. Those five hurdles are part of the evaluation on any project Fluor considers:

• The project must be practical on a technical level.

• The regulations and environmental constraints cannot be too onerous.

• The project must have the economic strength to carry itself, or be carried with public support.

• The contractor must be able to get public support for the project. That piece of the puzzle is considered a new challenge to many contractors who have handled only private design-build projects.

• The contractor must be able to build a team on the project; in other words, be able to pull in jurisdictions like cities and counties to participate.

Other speakers at the session included Harris County Judge Robert Eckels, who outlined the county’s bonding support on the expansion of Interstate 10. Jerry Hiebert, the executive director of the North Texas Tollway Authority, spoke on the interoperability that NTTA and the Harris County Tollroad Authority are developing. By October, NTTA toll tags—placed on the windshield and scanned at toll booths to automatically deduct the toll from a pre-paid account—will work on Houston toll roads, and vice versa. The NTTA toll tags will also be recognized at DFW Airport to pay for parking.

Change inevitable for Mueller plan

As redevelopment plans begin to firm up at the former Mueller Airport, the advisory commission charged with protecting the site’s master plan will have to get used to some tweaking of the various components on the 700-acre site.

Two factors are currently engendering changes to the plan: the entry of Seton Healthcare System to the site and master developer Catellus’ refinement of the plan on the project. After seven years of coaxing, prodding and pushing the master plan through city channels, it’s understandable that Mueller resident Jim Walker, who chairs the Robert Mueller Municipal Airport Plan Implementation Advisory Commission, is nervous about impending changes.

Walker is worried that neighborhood input is not being considered early enough in the process to make an impact on the ultimate plans for Mueller. Walker said he did not want to end up with something like Stapleton, where the redevelopment of Denver’s former airport site brought nothing more than the usual “big box” retailers.

“The public wants to be involved earlier in the process,” Walker said. “I think the neighborhoods around Mueller are ready. We can work with them. We’re not just here to hammer ROMA for suggesting a certain thing. Personally, I get frustrated when we’re told, ‘Here’s the workable product,’ when they never ask the neighborhood early enough.”

Planner Pam Hefner assured Walker that Catellus was seeking retailers for the site that would be compatible with the Mueller master plan. The Mueller site, with its lack of freeway frontage road, would not attract the same kind of retail tenants that were attracted to the Stapleton project, Jim Knight of Catellus told Walker.

None of the changes are especially significant at this time. As Hefner told the board, retail on the Town Center is being shifted closer to Airport Boulevard to make it more attractive to potential clients. Market studies are suggesting what retailers would be willing, and not willing, to accept on the site, Hefner said. And roadways are being adjusted to accommodate both the traffic for those retailers and the new Children’s Hospital.

Due diligence will bring about changes to the plan, Hefner said. Architect Donna Carter, a member of the commission, said one way to address the problem would be to get a look at the developer’s assumptions to drive development. Walker encouraged Hefner to schedule an update with Jim Adams of ROMA—the consultant charged with maintaining the master plan—at next month’s meeting. Adams was out of town this week.

“We’re probably looking at Revision 8 or 9 to where ROMA started,” Walker said. “I just worry about it slipping away.”

Engineer Bob Moroz of the Seton Healthcare System updated commissioners on the Children’s Hospital project. Architects are in town conducting schematic design meetings this week. Seton has already made some accommodations to the master plan, shifting the hospital campus so the side that runs along the proposed Town Center will be some kind of retail or pedestrian-oriented usage.

Seton and Austin Energy are currently in negotiations to run the entire hospital campus on alternative power and thermal energy. The plan would provide greater energy efficiency and more stability in the case of a natural disaster or terrorist event, Moroz said. The goal is to make the new Children’s Hospital one of the “greenest” hospitals in the country.

Catellus is preparing the Seton portion of the site for utilities. More than $18 million will be spent to bring in an initial phase of water and wastewater lines to serve the quadrant on which the future Children’s Hospital will sit. Engineer Robert McCann of Catellus outlined the utility construction on the project, which will include extending a 16-inch water line from Cameron Road down 51st Street over to Lancaster Road. A 15-inch wastewater line will be extended up Airport Boulevard and tie into an existing wastewater line.

The construction is more conservative than proposed in the city’s initial plans. McCann said the goal was to bring in lines significant enough to serve the property yet not tax the city excessively. If all goes well, the construction contract should go to the Council at the end of February. Construction on the water lines, roadways and hospital would happen in tandem. The current goal is to start building Children’s Hospital on May 2.

Utility construction on the site will also include tearing down buildings still on the property and the construction of proper internal roads to serve the hospital. Hefner said “what works best” is surfacing as the various aspects of due diligence are completed.

Traffic circulation will be an issue for the hospital, especially along the clogged 51st Street corridor. Catellus has scheduled a community meeting on Aug. 26 to discuss the community’s traffic concerns, with a follow-up meeting scheduled for Sept. 23 with both the community and city departments.

Monday

, Tuesday, Wednesday, Tursday, Friday.

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

Tongue-lashed . . . ZAP Commissioner John-Michael Cortez’s appearance before the City Council last week to argue for historic zoning for the Greer House drew strong responses from Commission Chair Betty Baker. (See In Fact Daily, August 8, 2003.) While she called Cortez’s appearance before the Council both “appropriate” and “permissible,” she had a request. “I would also appreciate any commissioner who feels they need to go to Council and make a report . . . please do the honor of notifying the chair,” she said. “I was considerably dismayed to learn that perhaps ZAP does not have the experience and the knowledge to consider historic properties.” As Director of Heritage Marketing and Visitor Centers for the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau and possessing a lengthy resume working for historic preservation, Baker has reason to take umbrage at any suggestion that she does not have expertise in historic buildings. She went on to outline the experience of the various commission members in restoring, permitting, living in or planning around historic properties. “I cannot think of a commission that would be better suited to consider the issues of historic zoning.” Commission Vice-Chair Joseph Martinez joined Baker in defending the ZAP’s mission to review historic zoning cases. “I do not look at whether I have more experience or value than another group, because I believe that this country and this city is founded on a system of checks and balances . . . that no one group has ultimate power over another. So I welcome the opportunity to review what someone else has done” . . . News from Catellus online . . . Catellus is developing a website to profile efforts to redevelop the former Robert Mueller Airport site. The site, www.rmma.net, will go live next Friday . . . Colorado Street change postponed . . . The city is reviewing the timing for reversing lane flow on Colorado Street between W. 4th and Cesar Chavez. A press release from the city states that options for alignment of a stormwater line next to the new City Hall must be assessed first . . . . . . County fee changes . . . The Travis County Commissioners Court has scheduled a public hearing on Wednesday, August 27, 2003, at 6:00pm, in the Commissioners Court Room (Granger Building, 314 W. 11th Street, Austin). The Court would like to hear comments on all proposed county fee changes in the proposed fiscal year 2004 budget. County residents interested in the county park system are encouraged to share their views regarding preliminary plans to change most park-related permit fees. The current park permit fee structure has been in place since 1993. Travis County Parks Department staff will host two meetings prior to the public hearing to discuss in detail the proposed park fee changes and receive questions and comments on the proposal. The meetings will be held Monday, August 18, 6-8pm, at Travis County’s West Service Center, 14624 Hamilton Pool Rd., and Wednesday, August 20, 6-8pm, at Baty Elementary School Cafeteria, 2101 Faro Dr. For more information about the proposed fee changes, contact the county’s Parks and Natural Resources Division at 854-9437. Comments can also be emailed to Teresa.Arellano@co.travis.tx.us or faxed to 854-6474 . . . School supply drive . . . The public is invited to participate in a City Hall School Supply Drive benefiting area schools. A donation bin is located in front of Suite 113, Council Member Brewster McCracken’s office, through this Friday. Items to donate: construction and notebook paper, crayons, pencils, pens, folders, markers, erasers, children's scissors, pencil boxes, glue, 12'' ruler, spiral notebooks, dividers, colored pencils, etc. For questions, contact Patricia Paez at 974-2256.

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