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Police agree to six more months of contract talks Sheffield hopeful Council will bank pay raise On Friday, negotiators for the Austin Police Association told representatives of the city they would be willing to continue the current contract for a period of six months, provided negotiations continue in good faith, according to APA President Mike Sheffield. Sheffield said the association is satisfied, at least for now, that city management is taking appropriate steps to investigate a matter that is of deep concern to police officers—the release of an internal disciplinary document to the Austin Chronicle. (See In Fact Daily, September 5, 2003.) Sheffield said police could decide to withdraw from negotiations after 30 days, or at any point on a 30-day basis, but no new agreement will have to be signed so long as the parties believe they are making progress and working in good faith. He did express concern about what might happen this week when the City Council approves the budget for FY 2004.

Monday, September 8, 2003 by

The police representative will be in the audience at today’s City Council meeting, scheduled to begin at 10am at One Texas Center. “We’ll be over there watching with bated breath . . . and then everything gets a lot clearer—maybe,” Sheffield said. “I think we’ve gone to great lengths to try to be responsible and do the right thing in this process. They cut our budget and we didn’t hold any press conferences. We tried to work within the system and maintain a good working relationship with the City Manager’s Office . . . and look forward to continuing that.” City Manager Toby Futrell has said she believes the city cannot afford a two-percent pay hike already promised to the police and firefighters as part of their contracts. No Council member has indicated disagreement. The debate, if there is one, will be over what to do with those funds. At this point, a majority of the Council appears to agree with Sheffield that the money should be put in the bank.

“We would hope that since we have no idea how those negotiations are going to go that everything’s still on the table in some form or fashion,” he said. “We’re hoping that we have something there to negotiate for,” he said. Council Members Danny Thomas and Daryl Slusher have both said it is very important to continue provisions won by city management in the current agreement. Those provisions include increased flexibility for management in hiring and promotion, the Police Monitor’s Office and the civilian review panel. The review panel is privy to internal disciplinary files, which are generally closed to civilians.

The police have been cautious about pointing fingers on the file leak, but have been adamant about the need for both a civil and criminal investigation. Sheffield said an administrative investigation is already in progress and the District Attorney’s Office is looking into the matter.

Slusher said he thought it was important to save the funds and he is hoping they can stay in reserve until next year. At any rate, he said, it is better to negotiate with the police outside of the budget arena. Sheffield said the parties would not return to the table until next week, after the budget is done.

Environmental board rejects flood plain changes The Environmental Board Wednesday night took a dim view of a proposal to expand the authority the Director of the Watershed Protection and Development Review department to grant waivers and allow construction in the 25- and 100-year flood plains. By a vote of 7-0-1, the board recommended against allowing that change.

The proposal came out of the Mayor’s Task Force on the Economy. Currently, building in the flood plain in most cases requires City Council approval. It is rarely granted, primarily in instances where an existing building is being renovated. Other possible scenarios include those in which a building was modified or expanded without the proper permits, and a waiver is required to allow the structure to remain standing. The Director of WPDR can grant an administrative waiver from the rules covering the 25-year flood plain if certain criteria are met in the Central Business District. Allowing the director to grant a waiver in other cases, said Susan Scallon of WPDR, could save “mom and pop” businesses about 60 days and considerable expense.

In order for the director to grant a waiver, the project would have to meet a lengthy list of conditions. “They have to be able to demonstrate they’re not obstructing flow, they’re not increasing flooding on other properties . . . they have access from their property to an area beyond the 100-year flood plain,” said WPDR staff member David Walker. If the waiver is denied, the applicant could still appeal to the City Council and eventually to District Court.

But board members were concerned about the possible impact of development in the flood plain without public oversight. “I do have some heartburn that the process may be less open to the public,” said Board Member David Anderson. Board Member Tim Jones was more vehement. “We keep having things happen to us that we don’t know about. To a certain extent, process on these kinds of variances should be more open and more public,” he said. “It’s the public information and the public process that to me is dear.” Board Chair Lee Leffingwell turned over the chair to Jones to move that the board recommend disapproval of the new policy. “Construction in the 25-year flood plain should be given careful consideration . . . by elected officials. They’re ultimately responsible. This is a unique situation, and I think they should be required to weigh in on these variances,” he said. “There should be some public venue . . . so that the decision is made with other people who might be affected having a chance to weigh in.” Seven members of the board agreed with Leffingwell’s motion, with new member William Curra abstaining. The proposal goes to the Planning Commission this week for their consideration.

Three business groups applaud DRID changes Home builder's rep criticizes fee changes Three of Austin’s biggest business groups have chimed in their support for proposed changes in the city’s Development Review and Inspection Department. The proposed city budget for next year calls for combining the functions of several different agencies within Watershed Protection and Development Review that are involved in issuing permits for land development, streamlining the process for customers and eliminating some city positions.

Representatives of the Chamber of Commerce, the Real Estate Council of Austin and the Home Builders Association all used a recent City Council meeting to lay out their position on the changes. “We are in support of the intent of this process and the model of one-stop shopping for the land development process here in Austin,” said Greg Hartman, representing the Chamber’s Small Business Task Force. “We think the recommendations to streamline and change the culture . . . are critical. You first have to get the culture and the structure and process correct.” RECA President Tim Taylor joined him in praising the structural changes for the department and a renewed emphasis on customer service. “We all know that customer service is where the focus should be, not delay and hindrance,” he said. “We think the improvements to the development review process will help spur economic development. That’s our number one goal: to get the jobs going, to get our economy rolling again.” Harry Savio executive officer of the Homebuilders Association of Greater Austin also supported some of the changes planned for WPDR, but called for some changes to the proposed budget for next year. “The HBA supports the goals of the proposed changes in the service delivery model at WPDR. Reducing the average cycle times helps out members with affordable issues in all price ranges,” he said. But Savio claimed plans for increasing revenues in another area would hurt the homebuilding industry and Austin homebuyers. Noting that fees for land development inspections would go up under the proposed budget, he cautioned that homebuilders would inevitably pass those costs on to their customers. “Normally, for every dollar that a builder has to pay in increased cost, the homebuyer ends up paying an average extra of five dollars,” he said.

He also criticized the proposed fee hikes as an unfair tax on builders. “Normally in government, when you reduce costs . . . and those costs were already a profit center . . . you do not increase the fees to the consumer,” he said. “The case law, we think, is clear . . . that if the fees were excessive that they would be a tax, and all taxes must be specifically authorized by the legislature.” Several fees and fines in other city departments would also go up as part of the proposed budget, including the fine for overdue library books and the fee for admission to city swimming pools. In addition, the Council earlier this year approved an increase in the amount downtown drivers must pay at city-operated parking meters.

©2003 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved

Voted . . . More than 15,000 Travis County voters, 3.82 percent of those registered, have cast ballots in the constitutional amendment election set for next Saturday. Early Voting ends Tuesday . . . Goodman has a plan for music network . . . Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman will likely ask that about $150,000 in city arts money be channeled into the Austin Music Network, which might otherwise be forced to close its studios at the end of October . . . Board of Adjustment meets tonight. . . The Board will be asked to reconsider whether a property owner on Kinney Avenue will be allowed to place storage units on his property . . . City wins energy efficiency award . . . The City of Austin has been selected to receive the highest honor given by the national Alliance to Save Energy, the Charles H. Percy Award for Public Service. The honor is in recognition of the city’s aggressive efforts to promote energy efficiency. In partnership with its municipal utility, Austin Energy, the city has provided businesses with products to track energy use and savings, while launching aggressive information campaigns to help residents save on their electric bills. Austin Energy’s energy-efficiency programs, which began in 1982, now save enough electricity to account for the annual output of a 500-megawatt power plant.

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