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ZAP tells city to follow flood plain rules

Wednesday, September 3, 2003 by

Soccer complex to be in Onion Creek flood plain

The Zoning and Platting Commission came close to vetoing a conditional-use permit on the city’s own South Austin Soccer Complex last week.

The 112-acre soccer complex is located at 5600 E. William Cannon Drive, near Pleasant Valley Drive, within the city’s 100-year flood plain. More specifically, the nine proposed soccer fields would be located within the Onion Creek watershed, an area notorious for flooding during major rainstorms.

That the city would consider such construction mystified ZAP Chair Betty Baker, whose own daughter and son-in-law were flooded out of their home for a week last year when Onion Creek overflowed its banks. Roads were impassable for days.

Consulting engineer Charles Celauro of Dannenbaum Engineering Corp. assured commissioners the soccer fields would have both alarm sirens and floodgates. Alarms would be sounded the moment any potential danger begins to build and the park would be emptied. Signs would also be posted at the park, Celauro told the commission. Gates would be locked on the incoming road during any storm event. Still, that wasn’t enough to convince a skeptical Baker.

“I appreciate your presentation, and I commend the city for adding soccer fields, but small children will play in that area, and not necessarily soccer,” Baker told Celauro. “A small child may not hear a siren, and I’m not sure they could read your signs.”

The issue before ZAP was a variance for a driveway that will cross a critical environmental feature and add to impervious cover on the site. ZAP members, however, had a difficult time getting past the location of soccer fields within a flood plain. Since he was the only person who appeared to discuss the item, Celauro was left to defend the city’s case on his own, without the support of Parks and Recreation Department staff.

Commissioners agreed that they had a problem with ZAP making an exception for the city that it would not make for any other developer. The proposal led to a bit of sarcasm from commissioners. Vice Chair Joseph Martinez asked whether the application was for soccer fields, or soccer fields and a swimming pool. Commissioner Clarke Hammond asked whether the city would have to recommend life jackets. Someone else asked about swimming lessons.

“I think the intention is honorable to build a sports complex in Southeast Austin, but . . . I’m not satisfied that the risks outweigh the admirable portion, especially since we’re the last ones to approve this and it won’t go back to City Council.” Martinez told Celauro during the discussion, despite assurances from city staff that portions of Zilker Park are also in the flood plain.

There was some irony in the fact that ZAP last week could have killed the South Austin Soccer Complex entirely. A rejection by ZAP has no appeal, and that caused commissioners some pause, especially knowing that the City Council had already approved construction for the complex in the 100-year flood plain. The Environmental Board has also given its blessing.

According to the minutes from the Environmental Board meeting, the vote to recommend the variances was unanimous. The rationale: “The findings of fact are met. The Board believes this to be the best use of area where recreational facilities are lacking and needed. An adjacent project will build water quality ponds. Additionally, water quality will be enhanced by this project.”

When discussion ended, Baker asked Celauro to bring back plans with two driveways off the site, which would allay some of the commissioners’ fears. The case will be discussed again on Sept. 9.

The full South Austin Soccer Complex project will include nine soccer fields, a pavilion and restrooms, along with the required parking, driveways and sidewalks. The site is partially within the 25-year floodplain and entirely within the 100-year floodplain.

Chamber asks county to look harder at budget

Travis County Commissioners swallowed hard and took it on the chin yesterday when the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce came to criticize the county’s budget process, but not without some rebuttal from County Auditor Susan Spataro.

County officials are looking at a three-cent tax increase this year, most of it to cover declining commercial property values. At yesterday’s Commissioners Court meeting, Robena Jackson, chair of the chamber’s Local Issues Committee, presented a four-point recommendation on how the county could avoid the tax increase.

“We are here with a very difficult position,” said Jackson, who was joined by chamber Vice President Sandy Hentges. “We are speaking before friends, asking you to take a harder look at a budget that I’m sure you’ve looked at a whole lot already.”

The county and the chamber may be friends, but they aren’t the kind of close buddies the chamber and the City of Austin leaders have become in recent years. Jackson had to admit that the chamber had not been involved in the county budget process, but outlined four points her committee wanted the county to pursue:

• Implement further reductions and process efficiencies, as well as eliminate duplicative funds and balance the budget based on anticipated revenue as other levels of government and business are doing.

• Pursue coordination and consolidation of services with the City of Austin and other jurisdictions as a cost-savings measure.

• Implement a multi-year budgeting approach incorporating estimated property value fluctuations and increased O&M costs associated with new capital projects.

• Evaluate county programs and staffing levels as compared to other urban counties in Texas.

While the City of Austin—which relies heavily on sales tax—has had to make massive budget cuts over the past two years, the county’s revenues and expenditures have been far more stable because of the county budget’s reliance on property taxes. The county will offer nominal salary increases to its employees this year, even in the light of heavy revenue losses. City employees will go a second year without a raise, with the exception of some judges.

County Judge Sam Biscoe and court members expressed an openness to hearing the chamber’s suggestions, but Commissioner Karen Sonleitner was more pointed in asking where the chamber saw duplicative services in the county. Jackson had to admit it was a fair question, one that she couldn’t answer.

Jackson said the suggestions made by the committee were preliminary, based on a cursory review of the county budget. She added that the chamber was eager to get involved earlier in the budget process, in order to make more specific suggestions.

Spataro, who followed Jackson during citizens’ communication, presented a defense for the county. She said the county had done a fairly good job of estimating its revenue. In addition, consolidation with the City of Austin was possible, but most services were complementary rather than duplicative, and county employees were often paid less than city counterparts. The county creates multi-year budgets, she noted. And while Travis County can be compared to other counties, it also faces unique challenges, such as 20 percent of its property being exempted from the tax roll, much of it because it belongs to either state government or the University of Texas.

Commissioner Gerald Daugherty pointed out that even after that 20 percent exemption, Travis County has $60 billion in property on the tax rolls. The public wants the county to be accountable for the taxes off those properties, he said. He also suggested the chamber take a harder look at the Capital Metro budget. Commissioner Margaret Gomez, who sits on the Capital Metro board, promptly invited the chamber to visit the transit agency, which is in the midst of its own budget cycle.

Biscoe said the chamber’s appearance was probably a good sign that Travis County needed to do a better job of educating the public on the budget process. He asked county staff to draft a response to the chamber’s concerns.

The Chamber’s message to the city last week was not nearly as harsh. The business group is offering support for the city’s move to the effective tax rate for next year—with a long list of conditions.

When Jackson laid out the group’s position to members of the City Council last week, the top recommendation was to find at least $38.2 million in permanent structural cuts. The Chamber is also urging the city to resist tapping Austin Energy for additional transfers into the General Fund. As for the special interest groups petitioning the Council for funding out of next year’s budget, the Chamber would like Council members to resist their pleas. The group’s fourth recommendation is that “you make funding decisions based on objective prioritization and sustainable budget revenues rather than advocacy.” The Chamber also had a specific request regarding a proposed increase in drainage fees for businesses. Instead of raising the fee 27 percent next year, the group would like that fee hike spread out over several years. The proposal in the Water and Wastewater Utility budget calls for additional fee hikes of 22.8 percent in FY 2005 and 19.4 percent in FY 2006 for commercial properties.

In her presentation to the Council, Jackson also sounded a note of alarm about the rising property tax burden on homeowners and shrinking sales tax base. “Due to the devaluation of commercial property and increased value of residential property, homeowners are being hit by a disproportionate share of the rate increase,” she said. “Austinites are moving outside of the city limits and commercial property is following. We must stop this trend or there will be no tax base to support those important services that we have all come to expect and appreciate.”

City employees to pay more for insurance

City of Austin employees will be paying nearly 10 percent more for health insurance next year. While that will have an impact on the take-home pay of city workers, officials with the Human Resources Department told the City Council that the bite would have been much bigger without a series of cost-saving initiatives.

The original projected baseline hike for next year’s premiums was 27.3 percent, said Human Resources Director Vanessa Downey-Little. However, through a series of changes to the plan, that cost hike for employees will be limited to 9.9 percent. “Last year, we made the decision to absorb the cost increase to offset the fact that city employees would not receive a pay increase,” said Downey-Little. “However, based on the magnitude of the projected premium increase and the fact that we had to use some of our reserves, we would not be able to absorb the costs for the second time.” To keep the cost increase down, the city will change the design of the plan and outsource the city’s PPO (preferred provider organization). Those changes to the plan will include an increase in the cost of the employee’s co-pay for a doctor’s office visit, an increase in the cost of the prescription co-pay and an increase in the annual deductible.

The city has also put out an RFP (Request for Proposals) for a new PPO provider. “Contracting with our proposed PPO provider has a number of advantages,” said Downey-Little. “Besides the cost savings that we’ve been talking about, a major advantage is a larger local network including all area hospitals as well as access to a nation-wide network.” The final selection of the new PPO provider—staff is recommending United Healthcare—will be made as part of the final vote on the overall budget. Staff is not recommending any changes in the city’s HMO.

Mayor Will Wynn praised the HR staff for their efforts to minimize the impact of the changes that would be passed on to rank-and-file employees. The size of the city’s civilian workforce, he noted, had not grown significantly since 1990. “Yet our total health insurance costs have grown 231 percent over those same 13 years,” he said, “just in our general fund from $8 million to $28 million.” Figures provided by the HR department show the city’s health insurance coverage and costs to be comparable to other government agencies such as Travis County, Austin ISD and the University of Texas system.

For news from last week:

Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday

, Friday.

©2003 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved

Good news on bonds . . . The three major bond rating houses issued their reports on the city’s General Obligation bonds on Tuesday. Standard & Poor’s and Fitch Investors Service both gave the city a rating of AA+, while Moody’s Investor Service gave the city a rating of Aa2. These are all unchanged from last year. “I think we were glad to see that they all affirmed our previous ratings,” said Vickie Schubert, Acting Director of the Financial and Administrative Services Department . “During an economic downturn they do take a close look at how the city is reacting. Staying the same is a positive comment on how we’re handling our budget” . . . Winstead’s new team member . . . Lara Kennedy, a veteran aide to four Republican congressmen, including majority leader Dick Armey, has joined the Winstead Consulting Group. Kennedy, a native Austinite, began her duties yesterday as governmental affairs coordinator, a new position in the firm. A journalist by training, Kennedy will look out for Winstead’s clients in various governmental venues . . . Our man in Detroit . . . Matt Curtis, executive assistant to Council Member Brewster McCracken, couldn’t go to another city without taking the opportunity to meet with local city officials. Curtis attended a wedding in Detroit this weekend and spoke with Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, as well as with officials in city planning and cultural affairs. “They’re on a different side of the spectrum from us,” he said, noting that Detroit had also suffered a serious economic decline. “It gives me a whole new perspective on how great Austin is.” He said the Detroit art community is doing “some neat things, (but) I don’t think it compares to the attention the art community gets from the City of Austin” . . . Minority contracts noted . . . The contractor for the new Austin Hilton Hotel, Faulkner USA, told the MBE/WBE Advisory Committee yesterday that at least $35 million of the Convention Center hotel’s contracts to date have been awarded to minority firms. That’s just over 37.5 percent of the total budget, a number that pleased advisory board members . . . Meetings today . . . The Code and Ordinance Committee of the Planning Commission will meet at noon today. Agenda items include discussion and possible action on amendments to site plan exemptions, raising the limit for exempt plans from 1000 square feet to 3000 square feet and revisions of the definition of a fast food restaurant and parking requirements, as well as increasing the director’s authority to grant administrative waivers for construction in a flood plain. The meeting will be in Room 240 of One Texas Center. The Environmental Board will meet at 6pm tonight. Members will hear an update on Austin’s Clean Air initiatives and discuss Austin Energy’s tree-trimming program. The Zoning and Platting Commission did not meet this week . . . Voting update . . . Slightly more than one percent of Travis County's registered voters have cast ballots in the September 13 constitutional amendment election. That's 4,141 votes as of yesterday.

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