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Audit says city, county still duplicating fees

Wednesday, March 3, 2004 by

Next step uncertain says county legal advisor

Travis County Commissioners were not surprised yesterday to hear that an outside auditing firm confirmed that Austin and Travis County have duplicate fees; however, the finding left commissioners wondering whether it would force the city and county into binding arbitration.

The county’s Transportation and Natural Resources Department spent almost two years negotiating with city officials to provide a single review for the subdivision platting process in Austin’s extra-territorial jurisdiction. Two years, two separate bills and one threat of arbitration later, both sides agreed they had substantially completed the process.

Still, when stakeholders from the development community complained that the two sides had not gone far enough to reduce fees, Travis County agreed to have Deloitte Consulting audit the review process. Deloitte presented its findings to Commissioners Court on Tuesday. The City Council is scheduled to hear a similar briefing on Thursday.

The bottom line is that Travis County and the City of Austin have complied with the intent of the law but not with all the facets of their interlocal agreement. According to Deloitte’s presentation, the city and county had entered into an interlocal agreement, established one office to accept plats and fees, consolidated regulations and provided a single answer to applicants.

But the two offices still do duplicative reviews. Both jurisdictions review transportation plans, each charging its own fees. Both handle flood plain and storm water management issues, each charging its own fees. Both sides even review some utilities.

“We’re certainly doing everything under the law that is explicitly required, but there is still duplication,” said Joe Gieselman, executive director of the Transportation and Natural Resources Department. He agreed that the Deloitte report was accurate. “I think there are ways to continue to pursue the elimination of the duplication of fees.”

Some discussion ensued as to whether the county was in breach of the legislation if it failed to eliminate duplicate fees for developers. Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, the developers’ advocate throughout the process, said the whole spirit of House Bills 1204 and 1445 was to provide a single process with one set of fees.

Two jurisdictions should not both be charging to provide the same service, Daugherty said, adding that he saw no ambiguity in what the legislation was intended to accomplish.

City and county staff, however, did not entirely agree with the commissioners’ decisions.

Gieselman said he understood the issue from both sides. The county, for its part, has always been in the transportation and drainage business. It’s what they do and what they staff their offices to do. And staff members, who are accountable to Commissioners Court, work to assure elected officials that the job has been done to county standards.

The city also has its vested interests, Gieselman said. The position of city staff is that many areas of the extra-territorial jurisdiction will eventually be annexed into the city. At those times, the city will be required to pick up the tab on the maintenance of infrastructure. The city thus wants to be assured that roads and drainage are done to its standards.

That leaves both sides in a stalemate. County staff would be willing to give up some of its jurisdiction if county officials agree to cede that authority to the city, with the understanding that city staff would have to be trusted to meet county standards. Those decisions need to be made, elected official to elected official, Gieselman said.

Commissioner Karen Sonleitner said she had no problem giving up authority in an area such as utility review. That’s always been the purview of the city. But Sonleitner was not so certain she wanted to give away the right to review road plans. While it made sense to give the city some rights to review plans in the near-term annexation area, there were other areas of the extra-territorial jurisdiction where roads would not be annexed for years, if ever.

Realities like utility debt service, sales tax revenue and other political realities play a major role in the city’s annexation plan, Sonleitner said, adding that if the city failed to follow through with its promises, the county would have to maintain the roads. At least with near-term annexation, she said, the county would be guaranteed the city would complete the process within three years.

Daugherty said he had heard the city was not willing to cede any of its authority or reduce any of its fees. That could provide a substantial roadblock to compliance, he said.

Sonleitner said nothing would stop the county from adjusting its own fees. She was inclined to wait on the city’s response to the audit before making any changes at the county level. County commissioners asked Gieselman to attend the Council meeting Thursday, in case city officials were interested in hearing the county perspective.

Gieselman pointed out that the subdivision platting process, even with its audited shortcomings, has been substantially improved over the last two years. Those improvements included the end of what Gieselman called the “ping pong” process of city and county approval.

County Judge Sam Biscoe asked Assistant County Attorney Tom Nuckols whether the audit findings would throw the city and county into binding arbitration, a looming threat in recent months. Nuckols said he saw two alternatives: either the interlocal agreement could be rewritten to exclude the fee issue or one side could suggest arbitration.

Slusher responds to East Austin ministers

Pledges to work with community, defends Knee, Futrell and Earle

Council Member Daryl Slusher has sent a written response to members of the Baptist Ministers’ Union, the group that demanded the resignations of City Manager Toby Futrell, Police Chief Stan Knee and District Attorney Ronnie Earle after the dismissal of the indictment of Police Officer Scott Glasgow. Glasgow was subsequently suspended from the force for 90 days. While disagreeing with many of their assertions, Slusher told the ministers, “I appreciate the effort at dialogue because dialogue is badly needed with regards to the issue of police-community relations and the related issues raised about City government.”

The ministers also called for “a complete revision to the City Charter that will guarantee equal and equitable protection to Austin citizens of African Descent under just law.”

First, Slusher addressed the fact that individuals on both sides have taken positions that make progress difficult. He wrote, “Currently productive discussion is seriously hampered because too many people are dug into entrenched positions and reacting to very serious events in a way that simply reinforces already held beliefs and conceptions. The best example of what I mean is the how the Sophia King and Jesse Owens shootings are framed as synonymous by folks who are hunkered down on two sides of an issue that is too serious and complicated to be divided by sides.

“As to the tragic King and Owens shootings, I have heard them lumped together from two different perspectives. Some label both as police misconduct. Others, including some in the APA, refuse to acknowledge that Officer Scott Glasgow made any mistakes at all.

“In my view neither version is accurate. The King and Owens cases are two entirely separate cases with entirely different circumstances.”

There have been multiple investigations of this ( Officer John Coffey) incident and every single one has cleared Coffey of any wrongdoing. In contrast to the Coffey case every investigation has found that Glasgow did not follow proper procedures and committed serious errors.

As for the demand that Futrell and Knee be fired, Slusher wrote, “One would be hard pressed to find in the whole country a trio of public officials in these positions who combine such effective leadership, accessibility, care for humanity, and a commitment to equal justice and opportunity . . . City Manager Toby Futrell is one of the most extraordinary public officials I have ever seen. Like Chief Knee she is deeply dedicated to all the citizens of Austin. She works particularly hard to make the Police Department both an effective and humane organization.

“Ms. Futrell is also one of the most accessible and on the ground managers imaginable. For example she has spent countless hours riding with police officers to see what their jobs are like and how they interact with Austin citizens. She joined me in walking the streets of East Austin on a Friday night with residents who wanted to show us the conditions of open-air drug dealing, prostitution and blasting car stereos . . . I think it would be a great tragedy for Austin if Toby Futrell resigned, and I will do everything in my power to keep her as City Manager.

“As to District Attorney Ronnie Earle, he is not a City of Austin official and is subject only to the voters. I have for many years, however, seen Mr. Earle in action and deeply admire him. He not only does his job of prosecuting crime, but he also works tirelessly to fight the root causes of crime like poverty and lack of economic opportunity. This seems to me exactly the combination of characteristics needed in a District Attorney. He is tough on crime, but does everything in his power to provide opportunity so people will not turn to crime.

About Knee, Slusher wrote, “This is a police chief who cares deeply about all sectors of Austin. He has in particular worked closely with the African American community, for example, teaching a class at Huston-Tillotson. Recently, he apologized to all African Americans on behalf of his profession, explaining that police departments were traditionally used to enforce unjust discriminatory laws against African Americans – a rather extraordinary action in the history of police-community relations anywhere.”

Slusher agreed that Austin, like other American cities, has a history of racial discrimination. Amending the city charter, however, would not solve any lingering problems. “Most fundamentally I think that the efforts and energy that would go into a charter amendment election campaign would be much better spent pursuing tangible goals aimed at reducing crime and providing opportunity. A charter amendment won’t feed a child, it won’t provide jobs, it won’t provide job training, and it won’t provide anyone an education,” he wrote.

The ministers complained about a lack of law enforcement in East Austin at the same time they were decrying police use of force. Slusher responded that “battling crime is an ongoing concern,” and encouraged “East Austin churches to increase their efforts to prevent and battle crime.

“I am concerned, however, that the complexity of wanting better police protection while at the same time reflexively condemning any use of force and the officer that commits it. When officers are asked to crack down on criminal activity we are asking them to go into dangerous situations. They will be dealing with people that are on drugs and some people that are violence prone or both. This increases the likelihood that the use of force will be necessary (keeping in mind use of force is a broad category and does not mean deadly force or unnecessary force).”

Assistant City Manager Laura Huffman said Tuesday that she believes the city is close to reaching an agreement with police negotiators in the Meet and Confer process. A briefing on any such agreement is scheduled for tomorrow’s Council agenda. There seems little doubt that the two sides can reach agreement on pay and benefits issues. But resolving issues surrounding the role of the Police Monitor’s Office and the Citizen Review Panel could prove thornier. Slusher concluded his letter to the ministers asking “that we all work together to turn this community crisis into an opportunity to build an even greater community. I consider the Civil Rights Movement the single greatest advance in the United States during my lifetime. In my life I have tried to do my small part to bring about equal opportunity and racial harmony. I realize there is still much work to do and will continue my efforts.”

Business leaders talk strategy on dealing with threats

Planned Parenthood might just be first to experience interest group attack

Local business leaders from a cross-section of industries met Tuesday morning at Guero’s restaurant on South Congress to discuss the tactics being used by abortion opponents trying to stop construction of a new Planned Parenthood facility. They’re concerned that the methods employed by Chris Danze and other abortion opponents could become the norm for special interest groups, rather than the exception.

Last year, the main contractor on a new Planned Parenthood facility, dubbed “The Choice Project,” quit the job, citing the difficulty of securing appropriate subcontractors. Planned Parenthood officials said those subcontractors had been the subject of a campaign of harassment and intimidation, including hundreds of phone calls—some threatening—to their business lines, home phones and cell phones. The family planning organization took over construction of the new building as its own general contractor and took steps to shield the identity of its subcontractors.

Former Mayor Bruce Todd, a long-time supporter of Planned Parenthood, described the home phone calls, threatening messages and warnings that subcontractors could lose business from churches as “economic terrorism.” “The effect is to take jobs and paychecks . . . and the opportunity to do business with freedom of choice away from contractors,” he said. “Businesses have a lot to be concerned about: being cost efficient, attracting good employees, being competitive. But they ought not to have to be concerned about someone coming in and interjecting an issue . . . into the economic equation. That is wrong. I think when you combine the economic aspect with the attempt to deny women the freedom of choice to basic healthcare . . . that adds up to an equation that we cannot be silent about.”

Officials from a number of companies, including several in the healthcare field, attended the meeting. But the group also included law firms, technology companies, financial institutions and telecommunications companies. Local Planned Parenthood CEO Glenda Parks said she was impressed that even though all of those companies and individuals might not support the group’s position on abortion, they were willing to take a stand on the conduct of debate on controversial issues. “People in the business community do see this as going beyond the pale of civil discourse,” she said. “It will go to other people. If Wal-Mart starts building, will there be another group that starts putting the names of construction workers on every web site to say, ‘They’re bad; don’t do business with them?’ Will they put up the home telephone numbers and pictures of people who work at Wal-Mart to say, ‘These are bad people; start targeting them?’ We’re talking about the tactic, and the tactic is one that is not good for business in any form or fashion.”

National Planned Parenthood Federation President Gloria Feldt predicted that even companies not doing business with her organization would take steps to make sure the tactics employed by Danze and other abortion opponents against the group in Austin would not spread. “As the immediate fear that this kind of boycott strike begins to dissipate, she said, I think the wind is going to go out of his sails, whereas we will continue and we will persist.”

Todd said it was in the business community’s best interests to unite against those tactics. “I think you’re going to see a plan of action coming into place involving the business community that feels supportive of the right of Planned Parenthood to build their building, and are rightfully concerned that if this tactic is successful . . . it can spill over into many other areas of involvement. You could find businesses who are targeted over a wide variety of social and personal decisions. We believe that’s inappropriate for the business community, and I think you’re going to find people over time in the business community are going to speak up in very pro-active kinds of ways.”

Baby McCracken enters the world . . . Born about 8:15pm last night, John Montford McCracken put his mother, Mindy McCracken and dad, Council Member Brewster McCracken, through a long day of labor. Matt Curtis, McCracken’s aide, said they will call the child Ford. He weighed more than 8 pounds and was 20 inches in length. All are reportedly doing well . . . New talk show host? . . . Louise Epstein, who served on the City Council from 1990 to 1993, says she is excited to be auditioning for a talk jock position at KLBJ-AM. She will have test runs from Noon to 2pm this Sunday and next. Epstein says she is anxious to hear from callers at 836-0590 . . . Airport coffee shop to change hands . . . Stacy Dukes-Rhone, who tried to sell her Airport Business Center to Starbucks, has found a local buyer for her business. ABIA Executive Director Jim Smith has notified the Council that Manny Farahani, a 1978 graduate of the University of Texas will take over the space and convert it to a coffee shop on the first floor and a sports bar on the second. The new shop will be called the FaraCafe and will offer for gourmet coffee drinks, sandwiches, salads, and snacks. Smith says FaraCafe will have a 10-year agreement with the city, guaranteeing a minimum return of $60,000 or 10 percent of gross revenues, whichever is greater. Farahani has lived in Austin since 1986, according to Smith . . . TateAustin wins Chamber of Commerce contract . . . The Greater Austin Chamber has selected local public relations firm TateAustin to develop and execute the $3.5 million Opportunity Austin communications initiative over the next four years. The agency and its partners will create a marketing theme for the five-county greater Austin region. Their goal is to convince companies that this region is the best choice for businesses seeking to relocate or expand. Tasks include an integrated advertising/public relations campaign and creation of a new website to be the first point of contact for site selectors and business executives researching possible sites. “We believe that TateAustin has an integrated approach to the project, a team in place, economic development experience and the passion to successfully execute this challenging mission,” said Chamber President Mike Rollins. Tate-Austin's strategic partners for this project include: Milkshake Media, a local creative and interactive marketing firm; Ketchum, a public relations firm with 50 offices in the US, Asia, Europe, Latin America and Africa; Dandy Idea, a local graphic design firm owned by Greg Barton; I.D. University, a national branding firm owned by Dave Wenger; and Wilson Research Strategies (WRS), a Washington D.C. based research firm. “We can’t imagine marketing a product or a place more interesting than Austin,” said TateAustin Vice President Dave Shaw“The Chamber has set clear goals for this initiative and we’re excited to help achieve them. We chose top talent to be our partners, and our team shares a passion for this region that will drive our work.” One major goal of Opportunity Austin is to create 72,000 net new jobs with an additional payroll of $2.9 billion and overall economic impact of $14 billion . . . Money and politics . . . According to reports filed with the Travis County Clerk’s Office, Celia Israel received more than $22,000 during the final month of the campaign in her race to unseat incumbent Pct. 1 Commissioner Ron Davis. Davis raised about $2,800. Kathy Bedford Smith reported raising $1,960 and Arthur Sampson brought in only $806. All are Democrats in a distinctly Democratic part of the county. The American-Statesman was evidently not impressed by Israel, endorsing Davis for the position and naming Smith as a second choice . . . Tonight. . . The Environmental Board will meet in Room 325 of One Texas Center. The Historic Preservation Task Force will also meet at One Texas Center in Room 240. The Water and Wastewater Commission is scheduled to meet at the Waller Creek Center. All of the meetings start at 6pm. Because Environmental Board Vice Chair Tim Jones quit the board a few weeks ago, the agenda includes an item to appoint one of the other members to that position . . . Voting . . . Nearly 3,000 voters cast ballots in Travis County yesterday, the most of any day so far. The total votes cast during the first nine days of early voting stands at 18,368 or 3.47 percent of registered voters.

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