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Wynn says city should consider closing facilities

Thursday, August 28, 2003 by

Three Council Members say they oppose Fire Department staffing changes

Mayor Will Wynn yesterday revealed his plan to cure budget woes for the current year as well as next year, while three Council members announced that they would be having a press conference this morning to reject City Manager Toby Futrell’s planned cuts and changes in the Fire Department.

Council Members Brewster McCracken and Raul Alvarez and Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman intend to appear with Austin Firefighters Association President Scott Toupin at the Hyde Park Fire Station this morning. The four will announce that firefighters have agreed to forego a two-percent raise they might have received in contract negotiations, which will free up $1.5 million. Of that amount, $1 million would be restored to the Fire Department budget. The money would allow all stations to be equipped with full-size engines, as they are now, and the squad and quint plan outlined by Chief Gary Warren would be abandoned. The remaining money would be put back into the health and human services budget.

McCracken said when the budget was presented the Council was asked to come up with an alternative to the staffing changes if they did not agree with the proposals. “The firefighters selflessly came forward and said, ‘Don’t give us a raise,’” he said. Firefighters believe “the public safety is best protected when we’re looking out for their social needs as well as their safety needs . . . There aren’t a whole lot of heroes left in society, and I think they’ve demonstrated again why they are our heroes. They want to protect neighborhoods, our safety and the most vulnerable in our society. That’s an amazing act of selflessness.”

Asked whether he had a fourth vote for the plan, McCracken said, “at least.”

At the same time, Wynn has asked City Manager Toby Futrell to give him a list of all the city’s General Fund facilities—fire stations, libraries, police substations, health clinics, recreation centers and multi-purpose centers. He also asked for those to be shown in geographic proximity to one another, usage, cost per use and operating cost as a percentage of capital investment.

Wynn said Futrell had already identified all the administrative ways she could cut costs. “It seems to me now that the Council has to act. We have to identify the political savings. The obvious place to go is facilities.” Austin, he notes, is “facility rich and cash poor.”

“We are in a General Funding crisis right now—and it’s going to be worse next year. I believe we have been mistaking buildings for services. And so I’m not suggesting that we cut services—although we may have to—I’m suggesting we start cutting buildings . . . I would suggest that by cutting buildings we would have a fighting chance to deliver more on the service side.”

A perfect example, Wynn said, is Austin’s library system. “We already have more branch libraries per capita than any Texas city. It seems perfectly predictable to me that whatever city would have the most libraries is always going to have the skinniest book budget per capita.” The library operating and maintenance budget, he said, has been eaten up by maintaining bricks and mortar—air conditioning, light bulbs, toilet paper, etc. “So, sure enough, Austin has the skinniest book budget per capita.”

“Because the number of library buildings have increased by 170 percent in the past 10 years,” he said, the budget for services has not been able to keep up.“ I’m suggesting that we’re going to have to re-evaluate the whole philosophy that got our Library Department in the O&M bind that we’re in right now. We’re not going to get out of it any time soon. If we’re going to grow our book budget,” he said, other parts of the library budget would have to be cut.

He said he has not made any decisions about which facilities could be closed since he has not seen the list. But he said, “I’ve tried to identify the next $29 million in cuts—and they’re debilitating. They’re all directed at services. Human services could just be annihilated, and library hours, and parks. The sooner we can have some structural savings that we can carry over to next year’s budget, the less devastation there will be to services next year.”

Finally, the Mayor admitted, “Of course, it’s not going to be easy politically.”

ZAP approves zoning for Cottage Community

Neighbors still fighting affordable housing project

An affordable housing development in Northeast Austin that was squelched two years ago by stiff neighborhood opposition is moving through the city’s development process again, this time with changes designed to win neighborhood support. But despite the modifications made by Cottage Community Inc., neighborhood opposition has not waned.

The original proposal in the fall of 2001 called for 30 cottage-style homes clustered on a lot at 10,300 Dessau Road. That project would have also contained a daycare center and management offices for the complex, which prompted the affordable housing group to seek a zoning change from SF-2 to LO-MU. Neighbors blasted the plan, citing concerns about increased traffic on Dessau and its possible impact on property values in the area. The new zoning change request is from SF-2 to SF-6. That would allow for the 30 cottages, but not the office or daycare. The developers are also proposing a different location for the homes on the property. Attorney Richard Suttle, representing the applicant, said they would eventually like to have a daycare center at the site but that it would require a conditional-use permit.

Although the daycare is no longer part of the proposal, neighbors are still concerned about traffic on both Dessau and Claywood. “The situation will result in traffic jams on a residential streets that I believe could result in traffic accidents,” said Pamela Bradley. “I would strongly suggest that it be left at SF-2.”

The Zoning and Platting Commission voted 8-0 Tuesday night to endorse the request for SF-6, with Commissioner Keith Jackson absent. “This case is really about the development for housing,” said Commissioner John Michael-Cortez. “It’s going to have some challenges there . . . but I don’t see any really compelling reason to deny the zoning.” The item is on the City Council agenda today.

Some changes planned for city development rules

City staff members are in the process of further streamlining the City Code, with an eye toward setting a public hearing on those changes next month.

Two areas of the code will be addressed at the public hearing. A third area of changes, proposed by the Downtown Commission and approved by the Codes and Ordinance subcommittee of the Planning Commission, will go back for interdepartmental review before it returns to the Codes and Ordinances subcommittee and then the full Planning Commission.

Only the Planning Commission and City Council can initiate changes to the City Code.

City staff recommended the first set of changes, which pertain to signs. Changes to sign regulations are intended to clarify certain language and incorporate new regulation of political signs passed under House Bill 212 during the last session, said Planner Cora Wright of the Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Department.

The goal is to make sure the language of the ordinance is clear to the average citizen, Wright said. It’s “cleaning up the code,” Wright said.

Changes clarify some of the language in the code, specifically the rules on signs that can be seen from the street. The changes also provide more regulation of political signs. Under House Bill 212, political signs can be no larger than 36 square feet and no more than 8 feet tall. The bill also places specific limitations on the illumination of the sign, Wright said.

The second area is an assortment of changes recommended by the Board of Adjustment (BOA) and Sign Review Board. Luci Gallahan of the Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Department said the changes cover a number of areas that were pinpointed as repeated variances by the BOA. Amending the code will decrease the number of variances the BOA is required to consider.

One of those changes is the possibility of taller steeples for churches. The BOA also wants to make more exceptions for on-site sign height when a freeway has obstructed buildings. And current code requires a variance for lighting any logo on a sign. That means, for example, that wording on a gas station sign can be lighted, but its tiger logo requires a variance.

Code amendments are not unusual. The City Council will consider some code amendments today to clarify standing in various cases. The language will clarify who has standing and who has the right to appeal cases. The Hyde Park Baptist Church recently won a court case that had been appealed to the City Council. Part of the church’s argument over whether it should be allowed to build a new parking garage hinged on the fact that the neighborhood’s right to appeal was not spelled out in the City Code.

The Downtown Commission has asked the Planning Commission to consider two additional code amendments. The Downtown Commission would like to be given the right to review proposed vacation of downtown rights-of-way. The commission would also like interested parties to have the right to appeal the waiver of parking provisions in the Central Business District and the Downtown Mixed Use zoning categories.

The code amendments were approved in a new way at last night’s Planning Commission meeting. Upon the advice of Assistant City Attorney Martha Terry, the Planning Commission must now vote to initiate a review of code amendments. In the past, the commission assumed that the vote on the code amendments was an initiation of the code amendment process.

©2003 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved

Wal-Mart dealing with more problems . . . Rumors circulating this week have big, bad Wal-Mart and its partner in crime, Endeavor Real Estate, forcing people living in mobile homes at Slaughter and I-35 to seek shelter elsewhere. The story got started because the owners of the property wish to record a plat to prepare the property for sale. They had been told that in order to do so, the Austin Energy easement would need to be abandoned and electric service terminated. However, Austin Energy says the property can continue to have electricity after the easement is abandoned. Wal-Mart’s consultants in Austin, Richard Suttle and Don Martin, were alarmed when they learned that the Austin Chronicle was working on a story that would feature the giant retailer making people homeless. Martin said yesterday, “Nobody’s going to throw these people out in the street” . . . Police, city, suspend negotiations . . . The Austin Police Association and the City of Austin yesterday suspended their contract negotiations, according to APA President Mike Sheffield. Sheffield is quoted on the association’s web site saying, “Recent events have caused both sides to withdraw from negotiations, at least temporarily.” The report on the site says that “a confidential Internal Affairs memo was quoted in an Austin Chronicle article released last Thursday . . .(that) the release of the . . . memo raises concerns about the integrity of the Austin Police Department’ s internal complaint process.” The APA and the city manager’s office are in negotiations about next year’s contract. The current contract expires on September 26, Sheffield said. He said he did not want to discuss items that are appropriately the subject of the Meet and Confer process used to reach agreement on the contract, but he said he thought the City Manager and Council had already made it clear that police should not expect a two-percent pay raise. Some observers speculate that the police might be happy to give up the raise if they could at the same time eliminate the Police Monitor’s Office . . . ANC approves anti-big box resolution . . . The Austin Neighborhoods Council last night approved a resolution putting the group in the camp of neighborhoods in Southwest Austin and Sunset Valley—no surprise. The resolution states that ANC is opposed to construction of any big box type retail over the recharge zone of the aquifer . . . Barrientos’ party tonight . . . Family and friends of Senator Gonzalo Barrientos will gather at La Zona Rosa from 5:30-7:30pm tonight for a fundraiser to defray costs of the Senator’s extended stay in Albuquerque . . . Education to continue . . . The city’s Neighborhood Academy will likely disappear in the upcoming budget cycle, but city staff still intends to continue the city’s public education efforts. The Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Department will, for example, meet with the Old West Austin Neighborhood Association to discuss code enforcement. Meetings with other neighborhood groups have also been scheduled. Public education will continue, but it will be more decentralized than the city might have wanted, said Planner Cora Wright, the former director of the Neighborhood Academy . . . Early voting begins today . . . Voting on 22 amendments to the Texas Constitution will begin today. “While voters are becoming aware of the upcoming September 13 election, many still think a November election also will take place,” said County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir. “We want to make sure that everyone understands that this election will be the last one for Travis County this year.” DeBeauvoir said that 18 permanent locations provide voters the option to vote every day of the week. Hours of operation at these sites extend from 7am through 7pm, although hours at three locations— Highland Mall, Northcross Mall and the Vistas at Canyon Creek—run later in the day. Permanent early voting sites maintain the same location and hours each day. In addition, three or more mobile sites operate daily. All voting locations will be closed this weekend and Monday in observance of the Labor Day Holiday.

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