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Northwest voters get Election Day break

Thursday, April 1, 2004 by

New boxes eliminate confusion, voting hassles for some

Election officials from Travis and Williamson County celebrated months of effort to unify voting locations with a ceremony Wednesday at Canyon Vista Middle School in Northwest Austin. Because of co-operation between the two counties, the City of Austin, the City of Round Rock, Austin ISD and Round Rock ISD, voters will find it more convenient to go to the polls on May 15.

“Northwest Austin residents are dedicated voters, but we ask them to go above and beyond the call of duty in having to vote in two to three voting locations,” said Austin City Council Member Brewster McCracken. Because of the multiple political subdivisions that intersect in the region where the Austin city limits extend into Williamson County, elections held by different government bodies have in the past used different polling places.

“The southern part of Williamson County and the northern part of Travis County are a jigsaw puzzle of boundary lines of a community college district, at least three school districts, multiple cities,” said Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir. “It is a complicated arrangement. This jigsaw puzzle was so complicated that in this particular exercise in democracy, not one of us could solve it alone.” She praised Austin City Clerk Shirley Brown, Williamson County Elections Administrator John Willingham and McCracken for their work on the project.

The consolidated locations will affect about 22,000 voters in Northwest Austin. Another 1,000 will still need to visit multiple locations to cast ballots in different elections. Officials hope that decreasing the hassle on Election Day will draw more people to the polls. “Hopefully this will play a small part in making folks’ lives better and help ease Election Day so we can improve voter turnout,” said McCracken.

While no Austin City Council positions are being chosen this May, voters are being asked to decide on trustees for ACC, AISD and RRISD. Travis County voters will consider the creation of a hospital district, and Austin voters will decide whether firefighters should have collective bargaining rights. The City of Round Rock will also hold an election on that date.

RMA saves money on initial project

The Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority (CTRMA) has been able to slash $700,000 from the cost of developing a Comprehensive Development Agreement. Engineering consultant Richard Ridings told the CTRMA board that he was confident the RMA would not need to spend the full $2.5 million budgeted for a Comprehensive Development Agreement on the Central Texas RMA’s first 11-mile toll project, US 183A.

“This is money that was budgeted but not spent, and we anticipate that we’ll be able to maintain that savings throughout the process,” Ridings said after the meeting. “This is the preliminary cost from the CDA.”

When completed, the project is expected to cost $281 million overall. The toll road will provide an alternative route from Georgetown to North Austin.

The Central Texas RMA will sign a Comprehensive Development Agreement this summer with one of three teams of finalist: Zachry Construction Corp. and Gilbert Texas Construction, LP, head San Gabriel River Constructors LP. Austin Bridge & Road, LP, and HBG Flatiron, Inc. head the Austin/Flatiron team. And Granite Construction Co. and J.D. Abrams LP lead the team known as Hill Country Constructors.

Ridings said the savings were due to a number of factors. HNTB, the consulting firm, was able to use documents and processes that were developed for State Highway 130 and its arterials. Projects in Minnesota and Utah also provided some guidance that saved time and money. And the Central Texas RMA board cut the number of finalists from five to three.

Toll roads always are on a faster track than roads built with tax dollars, Ridings said. A project like US 183A is typically going to move faster than a project like the long-delayed Ben White/Interstate 35 intersection, he said.

Toll road operators are eager to get the projects going, Ridings said. Operators sell bonds.; the sooner a road is completed, the sooner tolls can be collected to pay off those bonds. Roads like Ben White, on the other hand, must depend on tax dollars that “dribble in,” Ridings said. Construction gets done only when the tax dollars arrive.

The Central Texas RMA has now presented a draft contract, draft specifications and a draft technical proposal to the three finalists. Detailed proposals will be due in May. A contractor team will be recommended in September and construction could start as soon as October.

Biscoe endorses hospital district

Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe publicly endorsed the Travis County Hospital District Wednesday afternoon at a small business event.

Biscoe, City Manager Toby Futrell and Austin Independent School District Superintendent Pat Forgione were guests at an event sponsored by local chambers of commerce entitled, “Who are the CEOs Who Control Billions of Your Tax Dollars?” One of the first questions was whether Biscoe and Futrell supported the hospital district.

Biscoe called the current health care system broken and added that the county could do “a lot better.” He supported the health care district, but only on one condition. “My bottom line is: if we will spend more money on health care, then I can support a health care district,'” Biscoe said. “If we don’t plan to spend more money, then we might as well maintain status quo.”

Biscoe admitted that the legislation was not exactly what the city and county had wanted; instead, it was a modification of the current law. Biscoe agreed that Travis County must bring other counties into the health care district, but allowed that it would come with time.

When Biscoe talks to the community, however, he stresses that the regional health care challenges have become so large they deserve the attention of full-time health care professionals rather than the limited attention a City Council or County Commissioners Court can offer.

“We could operate a lot more efficiently and more effectively, but not with me at the head making the health care decisions,” Biscoe admitted. “We need a board of people who are a lot more qualified, with a lot more expertise, who can make those decisions.”

Commissioner Gerald Daugherty came out against the hospital district issue last week along with a local anti-tax group. He said the county could find a better way to address the issue than to create a new taxing entity.

Futrell opened her remarks by saying she could not, as City Manager, endorse the hospital district issue. That was limited to elected officials, although Futrell was quick to add she had strong personal opinions.She said the City of Austin is in an unusual situation where it covers 90 percent of the cost of indigent health care in a 30-county region, while county residents put in a little more than a penny for health care services.

The current healthcare system will “collapse under its own weight” if the city doesn’t find a different solution, she said.

Sager censured . . . The Republicans of Senate District 14 took the unusual step of censuring Travis County Republican Party Chair Alan Sager at their convention last Saturday. The resolution, which won approval on an unofficial vote of 401 to 91, castigates Sager for having “taken the inappropriate step of bankrolling precinct chair candidates in contested races in the 2004 primary election and, in doing so, has further spread malicious lies about and misrepresented the record of precinct chair candidates that he personally opposed. In doing so, the TCRP Chairman has failed to fulfill his responsibilities to build the TCRP and, by breaking Ronald Reagan’s 11th Commandment (viz. “Speak no evil of a fellow Republican”), has in fact caused substantial damage to the TCRP. Therefore, the TCRP, acting through its delegates to the 14th Senatorial District Convention, does hereby publicly censure the TCRP Chairman for his inappropriate and destructive behavior” . . . Council meeting . . . Today’s Council meeting will not begin until noon so that Council members may attend the funeral of Neal Kocurek . . . Billboard hearing tonight . . . The Council will consider rules proposed by Council Member Betty Dunkerley that would allow certain billboards to be removed at one location so that another could be erected at a different location. The new rules would allow the replacement sign to be the same size as the original, which would be a considerable change from the current regulations. Dunkerley is especially interested in removing signs from residential neighborhoods . . . Ozomatli on or off? . . . Although Council Member Brewster McCracken invited Ozomatli—the band that got in trouble during SXSW—to play during the April 22 Council meeting, he may be having second thoughts. McCracken’s aide, Karen Gross, said yesterday she had invited the band and the group had accepted the invitation, but she had not realized that the charges against the band members might still be pending three weeks from now. Gross said McCracken and others at City Hall thought it would be interesting to have the band play on the same night the Council considers changes to the noise ordinance. McCracken is advocating changes to the city's noise ordinance, at least during South by Southwest and the Austin City Limits Music Festival.Ozomatli attracted police attention and ire by leading a conga line out of a bar on 6th Street after 2am—in violation of the noise ordinance. Eventually, Ozomatli drummer Jiro Yamaguchi was charged with assaulting a public servant, a third-degree felony. The band’s manager was charged with interference with the duties of a public servant, a Class B misdemeanor, and a third member of the band was charged with violating the order of a police officer, a Class C misdemeanor. Gross said they had not planned to announce the group’s appearance until after the charges had been disposed of. However, Fox 7 News, learned of the plan and broadcast a story about it on Wednesday night. APA President Mike Sheffield said, “My reaction is that this was inappropriate due to the fact that the criminal charges pending have not been resolved.” Playing at a Council meeting, “is viewed as an honor, as recognition . . . with the criminal charges still pending, it can only be viewed and is viewed as an insult to the officers”

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