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Frasier adds 15 more deputies on the street

Wednesday, January 21, 2004 by

Sheriff cut $500,000 to meet Commissioners' challenge

On Tuesday morning, Sheriff Margo Frasier stood before Travis Commissioners Court and a slew of television cameras in what was one of her more positive appearances before county leaders in recent months.

County officials set aside an additional $500,000 in reserve funds as a challenge grant if Frasier could find $500,000 to cut from her department budget. Frasier met her goal and for her efforts will be able to send 15 additional deputies out into the unincorporated areas of Travis County. She told commissioners that the new deputies, all of them already commissioned peace officers, should be on the street by the second week of February.

“I’m very happy,” Frasier told television crews in an impromptu press conference after the vote to add the deputies. “One of the things that I have tried to do during my whole tenure is put more personnel on the street. This is a program whereby we can put 15 additional officers out there. It may not sound like much to many, but it’s eight percent of our law enforcement staffing, and it means we can respond to 911 calls and be able to get there quicker and give calls the time they deserve.”

The addition of the 15 deputies may bring some temporary relief to the east, northwest and southeast areas of the county, but it is likely to be only an interim solution to the growing pains the county is facing in lean budget times. As Frasier outlined in her memo to commissioners, she is fully aware that commissioners have no new deputies slated for the FY 2005 budget under the current fiscal climate.

“Thus, I am fully aware this proposal may well serve as an interim solution and commit that, barring an unexpected availability of funding, my office will not seek additional law enforcement staffing in FY 2005,” Frasier wrote. “However, it certainly should not be taken as an indication that there is not a need for more detectives and specialized sworn and civilian staff in the Sheriff’s office. While past budgetary rules may have not allowed for requests for additional staff, this has not diminished the need.”

Frasier’s proposal will redeploy four existing DARE Deputies to line patrol services. Youth education will be shifted to current Community Services officers. The reallocation will leave seven Community Services deputies conducting newly restructured education. In her comments to reporters, Frasier said her own daughter went through DARE and that she was a firm supporter of youth education programs.

Travis County needed to consider what would be “the most effective and efficient way to deliver a message,” Frasier said. In her evaluation, Frasier decided that the option would not be as staff-intensive as the DARE program, which dedicates an officer to each campus.

An additional seven correctional officers will be shifted from the Travis County Correctional Complex to patrol duty. Frasier attributed this move to an effort that has reduced the jail population by 600 inmates, as well as a new intercom system. The current jail population is budgeted for 2,175 inmates a day.

The court’s challenge grant will add four deputy sheriffs, at a cost of $140,235. It will also provide pay scale increases for the correction officers who are moving to the field. Safety equipment, vehicles, cameras and car maintenance will be covered by the grant. Additional grant funds to the sheriff’s department will also be used.

Recurring costs, which the county will have to pick up during the next budget cycle, will total $275,000. Frasier said she has done everything she could to minimize those costs.

Central Austin residents ask for help with traffic

18-wheelers terrifying neighborhoods near I-35

Residents of the neighborhoods surrounding I-35 in Central Austin are appealing to the city for help in dealing with an escalating problem with overflow and cut-through traffic from the freeway. Changes to the traffic flow on I-35 in the vicinity of US 290 East and 51st Street, they told members of the Planning Commission last week, are spurring more and more drivers to divert through their neighborhood streets, which were not designed for that level of traffic.

“Back in May of 2002 our neighborhood plan was approved,” said Matt Hollon, a member of the North Loop Neighborhood Association Planning Team and president of the Morningside-Ridgetop Neighborhood Association. “Our highest priority was traffic calming, because we had a long-standing problem with the frontage-road traffic on I-35 cutting through small neighborhood streets to destinations on Airport Boulevard.” Since that time, Hollon said, the situation has gotten worse. “TxDOT has massively upgraded the US 290 / I-35 interchange. They’ve closed off one of the ramps, so that effectively there’s a whole lot more traffic on the access road southbound along our neighborhood. There’s more pressure for people to bail out,” he said. “They don’t want to queue up in long lines.”

In addition to increased traffic related to new Travis County offices in the area, Hollon also complained about an upswing in the number of 18-wheelers on residential streets, despite the presence of signs prohibiting them from the area.

Christopher Burnett, also with the Morningside-Ridgetop Neighborhood, joined Hollon in pleading with Commissioners to help make traffic changes in the area a priority. “Traffic has reached the point that it threatens the survivability of these neighborhoods,” he said. “Our neighborhood is essentially an island surrounded by three rivers—I-35, Airport Boulevard, and Koenig Lane. We’re being flooded. The amount of traffic that is now coming through these streets is unsafe. It’s not a traffic-calming question. We need to have a traffic cessation on these streets.” He said 52nd, 53rd and 53 ½ Streets are residential roads with a 30-mph speed limit. “It’s not an area to be cutting through.”

Hollon proposed a partial closure of some streets connecting the neighborhoods to the freeway, allowing vehicles to exit the neighborhood to the freeway but banning cars or trucks from the freeway from coming into the residential areas. While he acknowledged that the city does not currently have funding in place for traffic-calming devices, he said the neighborhood had funds originally set aside during the neighborhood planning process that could be used for a concrete barrier or other traffic-control measure.

“It doesn’t have to be particularly pretty at this point . . . it just has to be effective,” he said. “We are asking for a sense of urgency from the city.” Commissioners were not posted to take any action on the complaint, but did express an interest in the situation. Neighborhood representatives have been meeting with city staff to discuss their options and plan to continue that process.

Commission unenthusiastic about commuter rail

Capital Metro is unlikely to win an endorsement for commuter rail from the members of the Urban Transportation Commission (UTC).

Last night, Roberto Gonzales of Capital Metro made his quarterly report to the UTC. In most cases, Gonzales provides a rather routine report of bus service changes. Last night, however, commissioners were presented with the topic of Capital Metro’s choice of commuter rail over light rail.

Capital Metro has never provided the UTC with an overview of its rail plans, or any of its long-range plans, but commissioners clearly wanted an update on the issue. Commissioners Michael Dahmus and Patrick Goetz were particularly critical of the transit agency’s switch to commuter rail.

Members of the UTC are heavy supporters and users, of public transportation and bicycle trails. Dahmus told his fellow commissioners that the commuter rail plan benefits people who live “very far out,” don’t pay Capital Metro taxes and haven’t expressed any interest in rail.

“Capital Metro is working on commuter rail to make ( House Transportation Chair) Mike Krusee happy,” Dahmus said. “He’s the guy they don’t want to tick off, and he carries more weight than the voters of Austin.”

Dahmus called commuter rail, the “ultimate boondoggle,” a transportation option better suited for the highly dense suburbs of New York than the outskirts of Austin. Goetz called for more review of the site plan for such a venture. Gonzales could offer no insight.

The Capital Metro board did discuss commuter rail options at last week’s board retreat. According to the presentation, the proposed commuter line would use Capital Metro’s existing Llano to Giddings freight rail line. According to plans, the line would start in Leander and head to the Convention Center, with stops at the Northwest Park-and-ride, the UT Pickle Campus, Gracy Farms, Highland Mall, Martin Luther King Dr. and Saltillo Plaza in East Austin before arriving near the Convention Center downtown.

After the meeting, Dahmus said commuter rail was clearly cheaper than light rail, but that it provided few benefits to Austin residents. Commissioner Dana Lockler agreed, saying that the rail line passed by his house but would be unlikely to stop nearby. He questioned the use of heavier rail and its impact on local neighborhoods.

Dahmus’ picture of how Capital Metro’s light rail might operate would be something similar to the Tri-County Commuter Rail Authority in Southern Florida, or Tri-Rail. Tri-Rail runs every hour through Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties along the Florida coast, from the Miami Airport up to West Palm Beach.

“The train serves a certain need, but it’s not frequent service,” Dahmus said. “It’s designed for the suburbs and not for commuting within the city.”

And while Cedar Park has paid in taxes to Capital Metro, others haven’t, Dahmus said.

“People who are paying taxes to the city of Austin will be within distance to use the train, but they aren’t going to be able to get on the train,” Dahmus said. “You talk about something like this; there ought to be a stop between here and downtown, which we would have gotten with either routing of the proposed light rail line.”

Chair Michelle Brinkman said she would contact Capital Metro in order to get a presentation on commuter rail, among other topics. In another discussion, Brinkman tentatively scheduled a review of the structure of the Urban Transportation Commission for March. Brinkman said she would like to discuss options on how the group should operate in the future and how the agenda process should be structured. .

What the Travis County Bar really said . . . Executive Director of the Travis County Bar Association Delaine Ward wants to set the record straight on recommendations her group gave on Municipal Court judges. She said yesterday last week’s American-Statesman story “made it sound like the City Council made its decision based on input from the Bar and internally.” However, the three judges the committee recommended not be appointed for another term “all did very well on the survey and Mitch Solomon was one of the highest rated judges.” Ward said the bar survey was sent to about 250 members of the local bar association who belong to the criminal law section. About 20 percent of those responded, she said. As to the “internal” evaluations, those were done by perhaps as few as 15 police officers and Municipal Court prosecutors, according to those in the know . . . LCRA to elect new officers . . . The Lower Colorado River Authority’s Board of Directors will select officers for 2004 this morning. The board is also scheduled to discuss and take action on a $7.8 million wastewater system for West Lake Hills. Eight firms are also on the list to contract with the LCRA for aerial mapping services for a total projected amount of $2.4 million. Two of the firms are categorized as historically underutilized businesses. Five of the remaining six companies have promised to subcontract with women and minority-owned businesses . . . New chair for Urban Transportation . . . Michelle Brinkman was elected chair of the Urban Transportation Commission last night. Long-time Chair Joneth “Jay” Wyatt resigned from the commission just before Christmas, citing a desire to spend more time with his family. Commissioner Andrew Clements was elected to take Brinkman’s place on the Downtown Commission . . . County supports clean air . . . Travis County commissioners gave their support to the county’s Clean Air Action Plan and agreed to do their part in the reduction of air pollution. As a participant in the plan, Travis County has agreed to try to reduce its commuter emissions by 10 percent. That’s the standard goal for any business in the county with more than 100 employees. With the county’s approval, the plan is now being forwarded to state and federal authorities for approval . . . Tonight’s commission meetings. . . The Environmental Board will meet at 6pm at One Texas Center. There are no development projects up for review on the agenda, but the board will hear three staff briefings and a report from Board Member Mary Ruth Holder. Eric Kaufman of the Watershed Protection and Development Review Department will talk about the possible environmental impacts of boat racing on Town Lake. Even though the Council rejected the idea of once again allowing boat races in East Austin, the promoter has not given up. He is still hoping to put the races on Town Lake near Auditorium Shores, an idea that neighbors oppose. The Downtown Commission is scheduled to meet at 5:30pm at Waller Creek Center. They will talk about the retail agreement between the city and Amli, and a number of recommended City Code amendments related to downtown enhancement. They are scheduled to review plans for the Lance Armstrong Bikeway at next month’s meeting . . . Weeks scholarship to be announced today. . . The Sheriff’s Memorial and Benevolent Society of Travis County will announce the winner of the Curtis Weeks Memorial Scholarship at the Sheriff’s Office at 1:30pm today. The $500 scholarship is for a student enrolled in a college or university studying Journalism, Public Relations or Communications. Weeks was the first spokesman for the sheriff's office, a position he created and held for 12 years. He died last March . . . Stay away from 4th Street tonight . . . The new Frost Bank Tower at 4th and Congress will celebrate its grand opening and light up the Austin skyline tomorrow, January 21. To accommodate valet parking for the invitation-only event, E. 4th Street will be closed between Brazos and Congress. The sidewalks on the north side of E. 4th Street and the East side of Congress, between E. 4th and E. 5th, will also be closed. Closures will be from 6pm until 11:30pm

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