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Commissioners reject AHF bond request

Wednesday, November 19, 2003 by

County taxing authorities may still lose revenue

Commissioner Karen Sonleitner was the only commissioner ready to approve the financing of low interest bonds for the Amarillo-based American Housing Foundation yesterday.

The non-profit American Housing Foundation approached the Travis County Finance Corporation to back $96 million in low interest bonds for the purchase of five affordable apartment projects in Travis County. Opponents argued the purchase would take $55 million in property off the tax rolls, with a loss of $1.2 million annually from local jurisdictions.

Commissioners had different reasons for opposing the bonds. Commissioners Ron Davis and Margaret Gomez were alarmed by complaints from residents of Fairway Village off Montopolis Drive, which is also owned by American Housing Foundation. Davis said he was a long-time supporter of affordable housing but not the AHF deal. Gomez said she wanted AHF to deal with problems at Fairway Village before purchasing more properties.

Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, on the other hand, called the bonds “a bad precedent.” He voted against them because he opposes taking any property off the tax rolls, especially given the county’s dependence on ad valorem taxes. Daugherty said he understood a business owner who wanted a good deal, but he also knew the deal could be done without the county’s help. County Judge Sam Biscoe abstained.

After the vote, Sonleitner said she did not make the decision lightly “with a vote and a smile.” Instead, Sonleitner supported the AHF financing because she wanted the county to receive the ever-increasing incentives AHF was willing to put on the table each week. With or without the county’s help, AHF is likely to complete its financing deal and apply to the Travis County Appraisal District to take the five apartment complexes off the tax rolls.

“It’s our fiduciary responsibility to mitigate as much as possible,” Sonleitner said. “Damage is being done here, but faced with something versus nothing, I’ll take something.”

The tax-exempt status of AHF apartment complexes is allowed under state law because AHF is recognized by the state as a non-profit community housing organization. So while the deal may not be tax-exempt because of its financing, the properties still can be taken off the tax rolls, denying local jurisdictions tax dollars.

Taking the property off the tax rolls was never contingent on the action of the county, and the county cannot stop it, Sonleitner said. The only option the county had on Tuesday was to agree to finance the purchase and get the incentives being offered by AHF, she said. Those incentives, when tallied, would have equaled up to $7 million over the next 10 years in tax rebates, apartment upgrades and resident scholarships.

County gathers testimony for Justice Department

Former Mayor Gus Garcia led off the list of residents who testified against the current redistricting map before Travis County Commissioners Tuesday morning, focusing primarily on the dilution of minority representation.

Travis County has filed a motion to intervene in the federal redistricting case. This week, commissioners took recorded testimony from those opposed to the map. The issue will be back on the county’s agenda next week for further consideration.

A number of long-time residents, Garcia among them, told commissioners that decades of work would be lost when Travis County is split among three Congressional districts. Garcia, who lives in Northeast Austin, will remain in Congressional District 10, but it is a CD 10 he doesn’t recognize. This is a district that stretches down to Houston, with no clear community of interest, Garcia said.

“They took me out of the area where I’ve always worked,” Garcia said. “I don’t have any record of service in this area. For the last 30 years, I’ve worked to make this community stronger, and now I’m in a district I don’t know. It’s not that I want to run for office, but what I think is that we have worked together and come together and this rips the fabric of that coalition.”

According to figures presented by Garcia, the new Congressional District 10 will be two-thirds Anglo, with 27,000 African-Americans and 64,000 Hispanics. In the new Congressional District 21, three-quarters of the district is Anglo, with 8,000 African-Americans and 40,000 Hispanics. And the lone majority-minority district is Congressional District 25, with 44,000 African-Americans and 125,000 Hispanics. That district, which stretches from East Austin to the Valley, is two-thirds Hispanic. Congressman Lloyd Doggett, who has represented Austin in Congress since 1995, has announced that he will run in CD 25 if the map passes constitutional muster.

Ora Houston, another long-time East Austin resident, said she was now in CD 25. Houston spoke to the fragmentation of representation when it comes to seeking federal funds for transportation, the disabled and the elderly. The district is stacked with people outside Austin.

“No matter how much we work, no matter how hard we try, there is no way we can redirect the flow of the political waves that will happen to us,” Houston told commissioners.

Former Council Member Willie Lewis made the same argument. Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, the lone Republican on the court, did make the argument that 39 percent may not be the majority of the district, but it would be enough to get an elected official’s attention. Daugherty told him it was hard to believe that an elected official wouldn’t find 39 percent of the district significant.

Clint Smith, the co-convener of the Texas Gray Panthers chapter, worked in Washington during the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts.

“The big difference now is that we’re trying to retain that access in the face of those who would close off access under the guise of the Voting Rights Act,” Smith said. “The Voting Rights Act is being used as a cover for a racially gerrymandered quota system.”

Retired Municipal Court Presiding Judge Harriet Murphy spoke of the historic disenfranchisement of African-American voters. First it was a poll tax in Texas, as late as 1966. Then it was the all-white Democratic primary. Now the gains of the last three decades are being eroded, Murphy said.

Sunset Valley homeowner Melissa Gonzales said the residents of Marfa shot at her father because they considered him “an uppity Hispanic lawyer.” All of a sudden—with the blink of an eye and the passage of a map—Gonzales said she has returned to a place where people are cutting her out of the process because of the color of her skin. She said it is time to protect Doggett because he does represent the minority the Republicans are targeting—white male Democrats over 40.

Commissioners discussed the Department of Justice submission during an executive session yesterday afternoon. When they returned, County Judge Sam Biscoe reset the item for next week.

City trying to address grand jury's concerns

Police Chief Stan Knee, City Manager Toby Futrell, Police Monitor Ashton Cumberbatch, Mayor Will Wynn and five members of the City Council addressed the media yesterday on concerns raised by last week’s grand jury report accusing the Austin Police Department of using a double standard—one for white citizens and another for black citizens.

Last month the same grand jury indicted Officer Scott Glasgow in the death of Jessie Lee Owens. Grand jurors accused the city of “placing the officers with the fewest skills and least experience in situations they have not been prepared for. This is not fair to these officers or to our community.”

Futrell and Knee both outlined steps the city has taken to develop more understanding on the part of officers, including increased training, recruitment and promotion of minorities and creation of the Police Monitor’s Office. Knee said he believes that the relationship between the African-American community and APD can be improved and said he and the manager had worked on a plan over the weekend to try to remedy the situation. First, he said, he had asked Cumberbatch to help with assessing what the department needs to improve officer training. Knee said additional training would help improve APD’s relationship with the African-American community.

In addition, he said, “We have to find ways where our officers have the opportunity not to run from call to call to call,” he said. “Officers are so busy responding to calls, they have no time to talk to people in the community.” He noted that in England and Canada there is a goal that officers will have 50-60 percent unobligated time. “That time can be used for problem solving and getting to know the community,” he said

Cumberbatch said, “This is my second day on the job. I can’t say I have a lot of information to give you. I can tell you some of my observations as a member of the civilian review panel. The grand jury’s concerns and considerations did not come as a surprise to me or to a number of citizens,” who have expressed similar opinions. “My hat is off to (the grand jury),” he said. “I agree with them that the issues . . . are systemic and are not going to go away without consistent and thorough collaborative work.”

While commending both Knee and Futrell, Council Member Danny Thomas, who served on the police force for 21 years, said he believes that some of the Police Academy’s curriculum should be cut and other things added to bridge the gap. Following the press conference, Thomas told In Fact Daily that it is important for the Austin Police Association (APA) to cooperate with the Police Monitor’s Office. He added that the previous monitor, Iris Jones, did not have cooperation from the Internal Affairs Division. “APA has to be very sensitive,” he said. “We’ve given this association the best.” Thomas was referring to the fact that the police continued to get increased funding even in tight budget times—until this year. He said he hopes that current contract negotiations between the city and APA will result in changes that would allow release of such reports as the one regarding the shooting death of Sophia King last year. All indications are that the report cleared the officer involved of any wrongdoing, but everyone expressed frustration when the contract prevented the city from divulging the contents of the report.

Thomas also said he wants officers to meet with representatives of the American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP and hear their concerns. APA President Mike Sheffield said, “We would welcome a chance to sit down and have a dialogue with those groups.”

Asked how the department could implement the idea of having officers get to know members of the community when they work the night shift, Thomas said the department can devise a plan to pay those officers for a few hours on their days off to visit with the East Austin community and get involved in beneficial projects.

©2003 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved

Sunset Valley to file amicus brief . . Late last night, the Sunset Valley City Council voted unanimously to file a friend of the court brief on the plaintiffs’ side in the redistricting suit. “Sunset Valley is a responsible member of this regional community and a unified congressional district is critical to this region,” said Sunset Valley Mayor Terry Cowan. The suit is set to go to trial in Austin on December 11 . . . Tonight . . . City staff involved in evaluating the Lowe’s proposal will have a chance to run from one meeting to another tonight. Fortunately, both the Environmental Board and the Planning Commission meet at One Texas Center. Both meetings begin at 6pm, but the matter is first on the Environmental Board agenda. The Planning Commission has another matter to consider . . . Travis County approves purchase. . . County commissioners approved the purchase of approximately 140 acres of land critical to the Balcones Conservation Plan yesterday. The county will pay a little more than $4 million for the land, which Commissioner Karen Sonleitner said is a lynchpin in the BCP project. The acreage from Tomen-Parke Associates is “a giant step toward the completion of the BCP,” Sonleitner said. It includes some of the most environmentally sensitive caves . . . Audit planning continues . . . The county’s Transportation and Natural Resources has met with Deloitte and Touche to discuss a planned audit of the fees for subdivision plats in the city’s extra-territorial jurisdiction. County staff intends to meet with the city this week and present a plan next week. The county has committed $100,000 to audit any duplication of services and fees between the city and county on subdivision plats . . . Gone but not soon forgotten . . . One of Austin’s most decorated police officers, retired Senior Patrol Officer Robert Martinez, Sr. passed away yesterday. Funeral arrangements were pending Tuesday. Martinez’ son, Robert Martinez, Jr., was also an officer. The younger man was killed in a car accident while going to answer a disturbance call and a street was named for him . . . Legal leader to be honored . . . The 2nd Annual Texas Appleseed Good Apple Dinner is scheduled for Thursday night at the Four Seasons Hotel. This year the group is honoring Harry Reasoner of Vinson & Elkins. The award is for “notable leadership efforts" to provide service to those under-served in the legal process. During his tenure as managing partner, Reasoner formalized a Pro Bono Committee at Vinson & Elkins and provided for associates to receive full billing credit for handling pro bono matters. He also established strong diversity and women's initiatives, which have received national recognition. For more information, contact Amy Loar, project director, at 804-1634 ext. 102 or email . . . Hearing schedueled for road closing. . .County commissioners have set Nov. 25 for a public hearing on the closure of McKinney Falls Parkway next month. The closure, from Dec. 3 through Dec. 19, would accommodate the filming of a movie. McKinney Falls Parkway would be closed from the entrance station to Parks and Wildlife Road . . . Suit filed . . . Real estate investor Brian Rodgers filed suit against the City of Austin and Endeavor Real Estate yesterday, alleging that the deal that gives Endeavor’s Domain project $25 million in tax breaks is illegal. Rodgers claims that the agreement violates state law governing economic development programs, as well as several sections of the Texas Constitution. He is asking a state district judge to declare the agreement invalid and to enjoin the city from complying with the agreement .

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