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Austin gets good news about sales tax

Thursday, November 13, 2003 by

Tax revenue on the upswing throughout the state

Austin’s sales tax numbers are finally on the rebound. Acting Assistant City Manager John Stephens said yesterday that figures from the State Comptroller’s Office show the city’s sales tax payment for the month of September will be 4.1 percent higher than it was a year ago.

“This is the first month we’ve had an increase in comparison to the same month in the prior year,” he said. “We are delighted with the fact that it appears to have turned around,” he added, while cautioning that this good news is no guarantee that the months to come will remain in positive territory. But for the 2003 calendar year through September—the latest information available—Austin’s sales tax revenues are still down 5 percent.

“I’m thrilled,” said City Manager Toby Futrell. “The other good news is that all the Texas cities showed positive,” she said, meaning that Texas has joined a national trend that has drawn so much media attention in recent weeks. The change, she said, added to the very small uptick for the month of July, means the city will finish the past fiscal year, which ended in September, down 4.5 percent instead of the expected 5.5 percent. The city has gone 29 consecutive months in negative territory, except for one month that was slightly up. The news on Austin’s sales tax revenues has been almost uniformly bad since mid-2001.

Futrell compared the sales tax reports to a defibrillator, with the economy starting, stopping and fluttering. She said it is important to remember that this year’s budget was based on the assumption that the city would have 2-percent growth over the fiscal year, which started in October. If sales tax numbers confirm that assumption, the city will still be facing a $29 million shortfall for the 2005 Fiscal year, she said. “We’ve got a long way to go; but I don’t want to downplay it,” she said. “It’s the first sign.”

The picture is much rosier in Round Rock, which brought in 5.5 percent more in sales tax this September than last year. Round Rock, of course, has a special relationship with Dell Computer, which accounts for about 40 percent of Round Rock’s sales tax income. When companies start buying computers and other tech equipment, Round Rock prospers. For the year through September, Round Rock will collect about 16 percent more than it did in 2002.

Looking at Hays County, San Marcos has reason to be happy about the month of September. This year, San Marcos has brought in nearly 11 percent more than last year in September. Overall, the city has experienced 3.7 percent sales tax growth over the first nine months of 2002.

Other large cities in Texas showed a pattern more like Austin’s, with Dallas and Fort Worth each showing about 4 percent higher figures than a year ago. Houston’s sales tax grew by 9 percent, while San Antonio saw only a two-percent increase.

Proposed change in landfill regulations sparks opposition

County landfill opponents lodged their opposition yesterday to a proposed change to the rules set by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) on municipal solid waste landfills.

Wednesday’s hearing, which was to consider eliminating and amending requirements for Site Operating Plans (SOPs) on municipal solid waste landfills, was so obscure that only attorneys and the most diehard opponents of landfills were aware the change was even being considered. That guaranteed a small crowd, although it included Trek English and others who have taken a public stand against the landfills in Northeast Travis County. SOPs are the plans submitted by the landfill that cover how the operation handles day-to-day tasks, such as wind-blown trash collection.

English told commissioners that consideration of any rule changes on municipal landfills is shocking, especially if it weakens current enforcement. Landfill operators are already given tremendous latitude, English said.

“They are still writing their own Site Operating Plans. They do their own monitoring. They write their own reports and they have the luxury of approving their own fines,” English told the panel. “So why do you want to give them one more concession in the SOP?”

Anyone can submit proposed rule changes to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. In this case, two sets of landfill owners submitted petitions to overturn the TCEQ requirements on Site Operating Plans. A ruling by the Third Court of Appeals in the case of BFI Waste Systems of North America, Inc. v Martinez Environmental Group put the code into play. The court’s ruling struck down the SOP on the Tessman Road Landfill expansion. The landfill industry and those opposed to landfills clearly interpreted the ruling in two opposing directions. Landfill operators see it as a way to eliminate plans, while landfill opponents understand the decision to mean that current SOPs are so vague as to be practically useless.

According to a brief submitted by attorney John Riley of Vinson & Elkins on behalf of Waste Management, the language of the current code should be struck. He wrote that conflicting priorities in the code “create(s) significant confusion in the regulated community regarding the level of site-specific detail in site operating plans that TCEQ will require for current and future MSW (municipal solid waste) applicants.”

Other representatives of the landfill industry argued that the end result should be the measure of the landfill’s effectiveness. Attorney Brent Ryan, who represents Regional Land Management Services and Public Waste Services, said that operating standards for municipal landfills are already set out clearly in the code. Those are the standards that landfills must meet to be compliant with the requirements of the state.

“These amendments would allow the Commission the same types of information and the same level of specificity that was required in the past,” Ryan said. We believe these proposed amendments are consistent with performance-based measures, and with the intent of the performance-based provisions, permitted in the chapter.”

Opponents to landfills considered the court’s ruling to be one that encouraged more, not less, specificity in SOPs. Attorney Richard Lowerre, who represented a loose coalition of landfill opponents such as Public Citizen, the Save Our Springs Alliance and the Sierra Club, said that the court struck down the BFI SOP because it was vague rather than in conflict with other parts of the existing code set out by the TCEQ.

For example, the level of detail a landfill operator typically filed in an SOP has been along the lines of “will control wind-blown waste,” without any indication of what measures the operator intends to take if wind-blown waste becomes a problem, Lowerre said. Landfill operators have proposed self-regulation as the measure of a SOP. Lowerre said the court could clearly intend more detail in submitted plans.

In her testimony, English compared SOPs to those first months driving a car. Most young drivers need a list of instructions to remember how to correctly drive a car. Once a driver has driven for a while, however, it becomes automatic, but that’s not the case when the driver first sits behind the wheel, English said. The same could be said for the SOPs of landfill operators, English stressed.

In his list of objections, Lowerre outlined a number of comments on the proposed rule change, objecting to language that stated, “Overly specific operational language reduced the flexibility of the commission and permittees to protect public health and the environment.” The “TCEQ has no evidence to support any aspects of that position, in part, because TCEQ has never attempted to draft provisions for SOPs that satisfy the current rules,” Lowerre wrote. He added that the TCEQ has no evidence that requiring specifics on SOPs would limit the flexibility of landfill operators or affect the enforceability of plans.

All comments on the proposed rule changes must be submitted to the TCEQ by Nov. 17. The agency has 60 days to act on any proposed rule changes. Those who have questions can contact the Policy and Regulations Division at 239-4850.

Overbey challenges Sager for Republican Party Chair

A member of the Travis County Republican Party(TCRP) is challenging Alan Sager for the position of Chairman of the local GOP organization. Kirk Overbey, who has been active in the Republican Party for the past 15 years, says Sager has mismanaged the local organization and disregarded the contributions of local volunteers.

“In the past four years, I’ve watched much of the organization that we worked so hard to build go by the wayside,” said Overbey. “The incumbent has reduced the TCRP operation to that of one man relying on a few close volunteers. Hundreds of volunteers and activists have been shut out, excluded and even intimidated.”

Overbey accused Sager of consolidating power in a small inner circle, bypassing the Executive Committee, straining relations with the state organization and of dissuading volunteers by his personal conduct. “He has verbally said things in the presence of a group of people that have been very intimidating . . . particularly to women,” Overbey said. “There’s been individual intimidation. I can give you an example of a precinct chairman who came up and said, ‘I became a precinct chairman because I wanted to help the party.’ And our incumbent just rolled his eyes and walked away,” he said. “That kind of thing hurts people. If you treat people like that, they’re not going to want to come forward and try to help you.”

Overbey also criticized Sager’s fundraising ability and his record at motivating voters to join the Republican Party. While he noted that members of the GOP held 10 of the approximately 50 locally elected offices ranging from County Commissioner to District Judge to State Representative, he predicted that that number could grow still further given the proper campaign strategies.

“The Republican Party of Travis County is at an important milestone. Gone are the days when we could all meet in a phone booth,” he said. The GOP, he predicted, could become the majority party with the right message and right candidates. “We have already won a lot of the easier seats. There are some opportunities on the county level.” He cited the positions of District Attorney, Sheriff and several judicial positions as ripe for takeover by Republican candidates running on a strong law and order platform. When incumbent Alan Sager ran for the position, he also stressed the desire to elect more Republicans to local office, including County Judge, District Judge and Justice of the Peace.

Sager, a lecturer in the Department of Government at UT and a business owner, is in his second term as local party chair. The position will be one of those up for election on the March 9 party primary ballot.

©2003 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved

Slusher wins attorneys’ fees battle . . . Last year, when Kirk Mitchell was trying to win a victory in court that he could not win at the polls, he sued Council Member Daryl Slusher to keep the incumbent’s name off the ballot. Mitchell alleged in that lawsuit that Slusher had accepted illegal campaign contributions in the form of signatures gathered by former Mayor Bruce Todd on Slusher’s behalf. Covington ruled at the time that Mitchell did not have standing to bring the suit and commented that the signatures did not constitute a campaign contribution. (See In Fact Daily March 27, 2002, April 3, 2002.) Yesterday, Covington granted Slusher’s lawyers, Buck Wood and Don Ray, more than $16,000 in attorney’s fees, which Mitchell is obliged to pay. The ruling also means that Slusher will not have to pay the money out of his own pocket or raise that amount of money when he is free to do fundraising again. A city ordinance prevents Council members and candidates from seeking or accepting contributions except during the six months immediately prior to an election . . . No City Council meeting today . . . The remaining Council meetings this year will be next Thursday, December 4 and December 11 . . . Toyota introduces new Prius . . . Loyal Toyota customers and some of the region’s top elected officials and business leaders got an advance look at the next Toyota Prius on Wednesday, as the company brought several of the low-polluting hybrid vehicles to town to show off improvements in the 2004 model. Round Rock Mayor Nyle Maxwell, Lockhart Mayor Ray Sanders, San Marcos Mayor Robert Habingreither and Austin Mayor Will Wynn were all invited to the event. Wynn said the company chose Austin as a stop on its product rollout tour because of its reputation as a leader in the field of clean energy. That reputation could be good for business, he said, especially with a new Toyota facility being built in San Antonio. “Central Texas is already landing a few second- and third-tier traditional Toyota suppliers,” he said. “We’re already developing an economic association with Toyota . . . Now, perhaps we have the ability to expand that into the environmental technology and R&D work that’s going on.”

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