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Thomas foresees unanimous vote for imperfect contract

Wednesday, March 24, 2004 by

Council member says Statesman implications are "way off"

Council Member Danny Thomas said yesterday that he expects the Council to approve a new contract with the police union by unanimous vote this week. “Right now, I don’t see anybody voting against it,” he said, but added, “I think there ought to be some concerns because the article we read in the paper Sunday . . . was just as off as it could be. The APA ( Austin Police Association) has a strong PAC,” he said, “but they don’t control this Council member.” Thomas said he does not think the association or its political action committee control other members of the Council either, but that was the impression left by Sunday’s front-page story in the American-Statesman.

After the votes were counted last night, members of the APA had approved the contract with 56 percent in favor and 44 percent opposed.

Thomas expressed frustration with the newspaper’s timing and implications: on the eve of the vote on a contract he—as well as others—believe muzzles members of the civilian panel overseeing the complaint process while strengthening the position of officers accused of misconduct. People who have been calling his office, Thomas said, “were really totally upset. I know you’ve got to sell papers, but they got the community riled up again.

Thomas said he believes some critics of the police, including representatives of the American Civil Liberties Union, have misinterpreted a section of the contract which allows an officer to see a citizen’s complaint 48 hours before making a statement to the Internal Affairs Division. “It’s not evidence,” he said. “It’s just a complaint form.” However, Thomas is still not pleased with another section of the contract, which he believes is aimed squarely at Rev. Sterling Lands, an outspoken member of the civilian review panel. Lands attended a press conference held by the family of a man slain by police, although he said nothing during the meeting with the media. “To me it’s like they’re muzzled,” he said.

The contract says if a member of the panel violates the rules or makes a prohibited statement on three occasions, he or she would lose their position on the board. “That is where I have a problem,” Thomas said. However, the former police officer says he is still most concerned about “how we get the healing process started. How do we get everybody to the table? I feel that we can do it,” he said. Thomas said he had been in contact with various police and community organizations to try to get them to begin meeting.

Although the agenda indicates that the Council will discuss the Meet and Confer contract at 2:30pm, the matter will be postponed until 6pm for a public discussion.

County making final subdivision offer to city

Transportation and drainage fees still claimed by both jurisdictions

Travis County Commissioners will fax a letter to City Council members this afternoon with what could be their final offer on sharing jurisdiction over subdivision platting within the extraterritorial jurisdiction of Austin.

“Ultimatum” may be too strong a word for the terms in the missive, but the letter clearly states that county officials see few alternatives to resolve the lingering issues around platting jurisdiction after almost two years of negotiations. Under House Bill 1204, those jurisdictional issues must be resolved or be sent to binding arbitration.

In the final line of the letter, county officials write, “We look forward to high level and substantive discussions with the City to resolve the duplication of efforts, but we are legally bound to submit to binding arbitration should our efforts fail.” All four commissioners and County Judge Sam Biscoe intend to sign the letter.

Deloitte & Touche was hired by Travis County to note duplication of services and review whether the jurisdictions had met requirements of the law. The county’s recommendations are a reaction to the findings in that audit, which noted a number of areas where the city and county both claim jurisdiction and fees, such as transportation projects and drainage plans.

County officials have divided subdivisions into “near-term annexation areas” and “non-near-term annexation areas.” In those areas that are facing imminent annexation, city officials would be in charge of the completeness review, substantive review and field inspections for compliance with the joint subdivision standards under the new Chapter 30. The City would collect all fees within the near-term annexation areas, and the County would collect no fees.

In the non-near-term annexation areas, Travis County proposes that county staff be exclusively responsible for all reviews and inspections under the joint standards for transportation and drainage. Travis County would collect all fees. City officials would be responsible for the review, fees and inspection for all those elements outside transportation and drainage, such as utilities, airport, storm water quality and environmental inspections. All fees in those areas would go to the city.

The logic is that in non-near-annexation areas, the county should be responsible for inspecting the infrastructure it will eventually manage and maintain.

Commissioner Gerald Daugherty wanted to be assured that ceding authority to the city in near-term annexation areas would not compromise the addition of roads. Transportation and Natural Resources Executive Director Joe Gieselman assured Daugherty the city and county continued to share the same code and the same standards, no matter who took the directive to approve plats or claim fees.

Homebuilder lobbyist Harry Savio, one of the prime stakeholders in the joint subdivision platting process, offered no objection to the letter as it was presented. Savio said it made sense that the entity that had responsibility for ongoing maintenance and ownership of the facilities would have the oversight and responsibility of subdivision platting.

In other work requested by the Commissioners Court, Gieselman presented an overview of other major city-county agreements in the state. Gieselman’s review showed that 9 out of 10 counties had executed agreements. In most cases, those agreements ceded the counties’ subdivision review and inspection to the larger cities or served a secondary role to the cities.

None of the nine with agreements opted to divvy up the various areas between the city and county. And none, like Austin and Travis County, had agreed to create a single office.

Commissioners approve Clean Air Plan

Travis County Commissioners signed off on the final draft of the Clean Air Action Plan for the Early Action Compact on Tuesday morning, leaving the Round Rock and Austin city councils as the two final stakeholders needed to approve the regional pact.

Local officials are racing to meet a March 31 deadline for consideration by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the Environmental Protection Agency. Both Round Rock and Austin will consider the series of Clean Air resolutions on Thursday.

The action plan for the Austin/Round Rock area includes a number of major of initiatives for the region, all intended to cut ozone and avoid putting the area into permanent non-attainment status. That non-attainment status, designated by the EPA, could subject the region to the tougher State Implementation Plan process. The Houston and Dallas areas already are under the more stringent federal standards.

The most controversial component of the program is an Inspection and Maintenance program, requiring cars two years old or older to participate in annual emissions inspections. Inspections could cost up to $20 apiece. Other measures will include cutting back the use of asphalt, managing the future growth of point source polluters and dry cleaning solvent emissions and reducing the emissions of local power plants.

Regional leaders also will apply for incentives grants from the Texas Emission Reduction Program. TERP grants typically are used to encourage businesses to find low-emission alternatives to their current high-emission equipment or trucks.

The Early Action compact has been fairly well received by local governments. Caldwell, Bastrop, Williamson and Hays Counties have approved the plan, as well as Bastrop, Elgin, Lockhart and Luling. In late January, San Marcos declined to join the plan, making it impossible to implement the program in Hays County.

Planner Scheleen Walker, however, told commissioners that the loss of Hays County would not put the regional reductions in jeopardy. The San Marcos City Council has agreed to come up with some alternative forms of emission reduction, Walker said.

The only commissioner with serious concerns about the program was Gerald Daugherty. Like some of the speakers before the Commissioners Court, Daugherty considered the measure "too much money for too little benefit." He opposed paying to test so many cars, 1999 and newer, that would likely pass the emissions test.

The handful of speakers who criticized the inspection and maintenance program cited false readings from equipment, the minimal impact the inspections would have on the overall decrease of emissions and the need to punish big polluters rather than vehicle owners. The final vote was 4-1, with Daugherty voting against the plan.

Walker told commissioners the Inspection and Maintenance method was EPA's preferred method to address vehicle emissions. Commissioners could agree to narrow the range of cars tested, but that would mean a costlier test for the remaining cars. The cost of the test is intended to cover the cost of emissions measuring equipment.

If both the TCEQ and the EPA approve the draft plan, the Inspection and Maintenance Program would be implemented in Travis County between April 1 and Dec. 31 next year. TCEQ would review the program after two years. The county could petition TCEQ to terminate the program after four years, but only if the county could prove the program did not achieve the desired emission reduction impacts.

The county also agreed to authorize a low-income vehicle repair program for those Travis County residents who fail the test and meet poverty guidelines. The program would cover up to $1,000 in necessary repairs.

The plan is the result of more than 1,000 surveys collected from a five-county area, as well as the comments of local associations and business groups.

Garza urges business support for hospital district

Members of the Real Estate Council of Austin heard a pitch from Brackenridge Hospital President and CEO Jesus Garza on Tuesday about the merits of a health care district. The former City Manager urged members of the influential business group to go the polls on May 15 to vote for the creation of the district while addressing concerns from the audience about the taxing ability and financial responsibility of the proposed governmental body.

Garza presented the benefits of the district in terms designed to appeal to the business leaders and real estate executives attending the luncheon at the Four Seasons Hotel. “In order for you to have workforce that is productive and can contribute, you have to have an adequate health care system. Businesses are not likely to either grow or relocate to our region if our health care system fails to respond to the needs of the community.” He pointed out that the rising cost of health care, was affecting the rates for health insurance paid by all businesses in Central Texas. “The annual cost per employee for Austin is about $6,956,” he said. Other Texas cities had much lower rates, Garza said, offering up data for San Antonio ($4,700), Dallas ($4,400), and Houston ($4200). “So as you try to be competitive in the marketplace, this is a drag on our system. It discourages employers from locating here or growing their business they way they ought to.” However Garza did say that the creation of a health care district would not automatically mean lower health insurance premiums. “I think what probably will happen is you’ll increase them less than you would otherwise,” he predicted.

The Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce has already endorsed the proposed district, although the chamber’s statement did note that it was unusual for the business group to support a proposal that would lead to a new taxing entity. Taxes were also the concern of several audience members at the RECA event. “With any tax rate, whether it’s the county of the city, the way you insure that there’s not an inching up is you remain active in public affairs,” Garza said, encouraging the business leaders to keep a close eye on the district’s finances if it is approved. “You elect public officials that are prudent with tax dollars, and insure the dollars that are raised is because there’s a necessity in the community to deal with the need.”

Travis County Commissioner Gerald Daugherty asked Garza for possible remedies if the district is plagued by mismanagement or spends money recklessly. “The board gets appointed by the Commissioners and the City Council,” Garza said. “If that is done well, you won’t need to have a recall or say we’ve raised the taxes too high. I have the confidence in both the Commissioners Court and the City Council that that’s what they will do.” Daugherty’s comments sparked a reply from State Senator Gonzalo Barrientos, who worked on the legislation authorizing the health care district. “Down the line, I’m going to be with you, Commissioner,” he said, indicating he would be paying close attention to the district’s financial management. “In the meantime, if someone’s opposed to this, I suggest they come up with a solution.”

Garza’s presentation is one of several that will be made to community, neighborhood, and civic groups in the weeks leading up to the election. The Austin City Council is set to take up a resolution in support of the district at Thursday’s meeting.

Historic changes expected . . . The Historic Preservation Task Force is scheduled for to meet tonight and may have an additional meeting before signing off on their report to the City Council. Members of the staff have prepared a draft version of the report for the panel to consider. That’s expected to include recommendations on changes to tax abatements as well as the makeup of the Historic Landmark Commission. . . More land for Balcones . . . Travis County Commissioners will make offers to purchase two additional tracts of land for the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve. After yesterday's executive session, the commissioners agreed to offer $450,000 for 39 acres owned by Kenneth Blake and Scott Little and $365,000 for 31 acres owned by Gregory Attwood. . . Telecomm Committee meets today . . . The City Council Committee for Telecommunications Infrastructure is scheduled to meet at 3:30pm today in Room 304 of City Hall. Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman will lead a discussion on city policies encouraging development of the wireless industry. Goodman is interested in creating a center for wireless activities in Austin. The committee will also hear from Louis Meyers, manager of the Austin Music Network, and Pete Collins on implementation of the 311 non-emergency phone system . . . Just hang up, says Abbott. . . Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott will hold a press conference at 1pm today to highlight the dangers posed by telephone scam artists. Joining Abbott at the Sun City Texas retirement community activity center will be a Central Texas woman who was cheated out of more than $80,000 and a retired Army officer who was the target of numerous calls from a con man posing as a U.S. customs official. Abbott will announce his new campaign to encourage Texas seniors to “Just Hang Up” on unsolicited telemarketing calls, as a defense against scams and schemes that are costing Texans millions of dollars . . . Firefighters gearing up for “fill the boot” campaign. . . Austin firefighters will join firefighters from around the nation in the fight against Muscular Dystrophy. On Thursday, Friday and Saturday, they will be at intersections throughout the city collecting donations to fight the disease. All of the money will be donated to the Central Texas Chapter of MDA. Today they will honor David Peppler, a firefighter who died of ALS (Lou Gehrig Disease) last summer at 10am at Fire Station 35 at 5500 Burnet Road . . . Speaking next week . . . The Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce is hosting a Small Business Issues Forum March 31, presenting, “the men and women who control some of the biggest budgets in the region.” Invited speakers include Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe, Austin City Manager Toby Futrell and Austin Independent School District Superintendent Pat Forgione. The topic is “Who Are the CEOs Who Control Billions of Your Tax Dollars?” The forum will be at the Hyatt Regency Austin next Wednesday from 4:30 to 6:30pm.

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