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Council gives final blessing to budget After Monday’s bickering, the City Council struck a more harmonious note on Tuesday as Council members put the finishing touches on the budget for the 2003-4 fiscal year. The Council passed the $1.9 billion budget second and third readings in a brief session, eliminating the need for a meeting today. Next year’s property tax rate will be 49.28 cents per $100 of property value.

Wednesday, September 10, 2003 by

Mayor Will Wynn started off the 30-minute meeting with a note of thanks to city employees for their part in helping to bring the budget into balance. “The critical services that are still funded in this budget, I think disproportionately come from our city’s workforce. By having a two-year hiring freeze, the attrition that has been brought to this budget as well as layoffs have meant millions of dollars of funding availability for programs,” he said. “And no cost of living increase and additional health premiums by our city employees represent over $10 million in available funding.” He also sent his sympathies out to Austin homeowners. “The simple fact of the matter is that the average homeowner is charged, if you will, $804 for the right to own that average home here in Austin. That is substantially higher than what the average homeowner in any other Texas city is asked to pay.” But the Mayor noted that he would be voting for the move to the effective tax rate, an increase of 7.2 percent. “I am for it because, as Council Member (Betty) Dunkerley has pointed out, it’s critical to the long-term financial standing for this city. I want there to be effectiveness in our predictable, long-term revenue stream where we deliver critical services to our citizens.” Council Member Brewster McCracken pointed to the Austin homeowners and businesses who would not be facing a bigger tax bill because of declining property values. “Eighty-two percent of businesses will pay less in taxes . . . 44 percent of homeowners will pay less in taxes under this budget,” he said. “The size of city government is being reduced. The cost of city government is less for the average resident of Austin and it has continued to go down for a period of ten years. In other words, we are taking less out of each taxpayer’s dollar of income than we did ten years ago.” After the tense exchanges of Monday’s debate over the future of the Austin Music Network and pay for firefighters, Tuesday’s meeting seemed serene. Council members pronounced the budget a success during harsh economic times. “I do commend the Council,” said Council Member Danny Thomas. “We all worked together. I think that’s something we should continue to do. We’re in this together…and we have the City of Austin that we have to serve.” Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman concurred. “In the end, I didn’t see any fist fights or anything like that. And I think we all know that we are in this together,” she said. “As Council Member Thomas says, it actually could be a very positive and productive year…that’s my plan to use it that way and I know you all will as well.”

Zap creates task force on I-35 Wal-Mart After hearing about an hour of testimony criticizing Wal-Mart, which wants to build a new superstore at I-35 and Slaughter, the Zoning and Platting Commission voted last night to create a task force to examine the issues raised and make a recommendation to the commission. The retailer is asking for GR (community commercial) zoning for the store. Wal-Mart hopes to combine 10 differently-zoned tracts at the busy intersection.

Opponents of the retailer, which also has proposed a store on MoPac over the Edwards Aquifer, packed into a meeting room at Town Lake Center. The City Council had reserved ZAP’s usual meeting room for budget deliberations. At the beginning of the hearing, Commission Chair Betty Baker warned the crowd, “This is not a Wal-Mart case; this is a land-use case. We would appreciate it if your remarks were confined to the land use.” Aron Wisneski of the nearby Park Ridge Homeowners Association told the commission, “The citizens of South Austin know what will happen under this kind of plan. I trust the collective wisdom of the citizens and business owners that live in South Austin more than the limited analysis and questionable promises of one land developer. We are not against all growth. We are for smart growth. The phenomenon of big box development is a new one, and in a way our current zoning rules don’t really have a means of dealing with them.” But Daphne Moore, Wal-Mart’s community affairs director, told reporters, “This is a location that is at I-35 and is very appropriate for commercial use. The city staff has recommended approval of this rezoning request. There have been several meetings with residents in the vicinity of the proposed store and we are working to address concerns and answer questions.” She did not address the commission directly. In addition to the relatively small number of Park Ridge residents, about 50 Wal-Mart opponents from other neighborhoods, including Circle C, Hyde Park and Kinney Avenue, asked the commission to recommend against the zoning change. Robin Rather, who was not representing any particular group, commented, “The traffic implications here have already been described as a failure, as they are now. I don’t understand . . . how you can say it’s already failing, (and) adding 10 or 20 thousand more trips a day doesn’t matter. I don’t think that makes sense.” At Baker’s suggestion, the commission voted to have a task force consider the issues raised, including increased traffic and possible conditions to be placed on any new zoning granted.

Members of the task force will include Commissioners Janis Pinnelli, Jay Gohil and Joseph Martinez. Commissioner John Donisi will serve as chair. In addition to the commissioners, the task force will include two representatives from the Park Ridge Homeowners Association and one from Wal-Mart. The commission talked about setting a November hearing, but Richard Suttle, Wal-Mart’s attorney, complained about the lengthy delay. The return date was then moved to October 14. However, the commission later decided to put the matter on the September 23 agenda. If the task force has completed its work by that time, ZAP will hear the case. However, if no resolution is reached, the matter will return in mid-October.

Suttle said he did not yet know who would represent the retailer on the task force. A second Wal-Mart case, for a new store at Ben White and I-35, was postponed for two weeks.

County wants expert to look at development rules On the day the Austin City Council finished painful budget deliberations, Travis County commissioners said they wanted the city to match their $100,000 expenditure for an outside consultant to audit the joint city/county land development review process. The joint review process of subdivision plats in the city’s extra-territorial jurisdiction is required under House Bill 1445, passed during the 2001 legislative session. City and county staff have struggled for more than two years to create a “one-stop” shop for subdivision platting, often hitting impasses over issues such as road plans and water quality.

After hammering out a compromise, staff members now are in the process of creating a single land development code for subdivisions in the ETJ. To smooth the transition to “one size fits all,” Travis County Transportation and Natural Resources Executive Director Joe Gieselman suggested that an outside consultant with no vested interest be hired to make sure the two jurisdictions do not duplicate services or fees.

The law does not require an audit, Gieselman told the court. Instead, the interlocal agreement between the city and county requires that the two sides get together “to talk about fees.” Gieselman considered the audit to be the fairest way to review fees. Gieselman said an outside audit also would provide a “new set of eyes” for the two sides’ work. He added that an audit could help Austin and Travis County get past any remaining issues.

County commissioners made it clear they didn’t want to be, as Commissioner Gerald Daugherty put it, “the only ones bellying up to the bar.” Commissioner Karen Sonleitner said the county was ready to commit its half—with the operative word being “half.” Gieselman intends to draft a letter to City Manager Toby Futrell to ask the city to share equally in the cost of the audit.

County Judge Sam Biscoe asked Gieselman to draft that letter and report back to Commissioners Court by Sept. 29. The county expects the cost of the audit to be covered by the savings accrued by combining services.

©2003 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved

New McCracken on the way . . . Council Member Brewster McCracken has something extra to celebrate these days. He and his wife, Mindy, are expecting their first child in early March . . . Heavy vote in Travis County . . . More than 7,000 Travis County citizens cast ballots yesterday, the final day to vote early in the Constitutional Amendment Election set for Saturday. That brings the county total to 25,565, or nearly five percent of those registered . . . Cofer being honored today . . . George Cofer, who has long been active in numerous environmental organizations and currently serves as executive director of the Hill Country Conservancy, will be honored at a luncheon today by the Nature Conservancy of Texas. The majority of the City Council is expected to attend the event, which begins at 11:30am at the Hyatt Regency . . . Tonight’s meetings . . . The Planning Commission meets at 6pm at Town Lake Center. They will be considering a number of proposed amendments to the City’s Capitalized Land Development Code. The Water and Wastewater Commission meets at its usual place, Waller Creek Center, at 6pm and the Ethics Review Commission will meet at the same time in Room 16.117 of Two Commodore Plaza. Since the Council finished budget voting yesterday they will not meet again until September 25th . . . Nominations sought . . . The Mayor’s Committee for People with Disabilities is seeking nominations of individuals, organizations and businesses who have provided service to the disabled within the past year. The program helps promote public awareness of the talents and abilities of those who are disabled. For more information, contact Chip Howe at 443-1360 or Delores Gonzalez at 974-3256.

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