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Group forming to oppose firefighter proposal
Blodgett, Jackson say collective bargaining unfair to other city employeesAs Austin firefighters begin their final push to win a referendum allowing them to force the city into collective bargaining, a group is forming to urge voters to reject Proposition One on the May 15 ballot. Terrell Blodgett, a Professor Emeritus of UT’s LBJ School of Public Affairs, said Tuesday that he and Robena Jackson of Group Solutions RJW would file necessary documents to form a political action committee to oppose the collective bargaining proposal. Blodgett, who has addressed past City Councils on taxpayer issues, told In Fact Daily Tuesday the group would be called Taxpayers for Equity. “It’s a matter of equity and fairness. The firefighters are the best paid of any city in the state of Texas. They also have a generous pension system. We feel it would be unfair to other city employees and to taxpayers,” he said.The group will be called Taxpayers for Equity. Public safety—police, fire and emergency services—already eats up the entirety of property and sales tax collections in Austin. Employees in other departments, such as solid waste services, water, parks, streets and libraries would suffer if demands from the firefighters consumed any more of the city’s budget, Blodgett said. “They’ve already been on the short end of the pay raises and this would jeopardize the pay raise,” that they have been promised this year, he warned. There’s a rumor, Blodgett said, that the firefighters want to push through a plan to ensure that there will always be four firefighters per truck instead of three, which would cost $3 to $5 million,” in addition to what is already being spent. The city already spends the entirety of property tax and sales tax collections on public safety—police, fire and emergency services. It’s no rumor that firefighters want each truck to have a team of four, said Mike Martinez, president of the firefighters union. They have been trying to get a commitment from the city on a timeline for achieving that goal—a standard set by the National Fire Protection Association, Martinez said. Although there was a verbal commitment to achieve that goal in 1992 after a study showed that the four-person team is more efficient and safer than smaller teams, the city has not set a timeframe for reaching it, he said. Martinez estimated that the city would have to hire an estimated 85-95 new firefighters in order to reach the desired staffing level, but said firefighters are not insisting that the hiring be done all in one year. Blodgett said he had also heard a rumor that the firefighters want to “push for a separate health insurance program for their members. That is unfair,” to other city employees, he added. Martinez confirmed that health insurance is a topic firefighters would like to discuss with city management. He opined that all city employees would probably like to talk to management about the rising costs of health care insurance. It should be available for discussion, Martinez said, but under the current Meet and Confer process, the city’s representatives can refuse to discuss the subject if they choose to do so. Martinez listed the following reasons for the firefighters’ insistence on collective bargaining. First, he said, the collective bargaining process would take place in public, unlike Meet and Confer. Although the city management has already said they would try to hold future Meet and Confer negotiations with both firefighters and police in public, there is no guarantee that will happen. In addition, the city has promised to set some timeframes for those meetings. That is something collective bargaining guarantees, he said. Finally, the decision of an arbitrator would be final. “ “Collective bargaining says you put your good faith effort on the table and if you cannot agree, then appeal to an arbitrator,” Martinez said. “That’s the biggest sticking point. If the city doesn’t do their job, we will appeal to a third party hearing examiner.” Martinez said he had heard arguments that an arbitrator might have no idea what the city budget is like. The arbitrator’s decision “could handcuff the City Council . . . but the only way that happens if the city does not make a good faith effort. What we’re asking for is reasonable, fair and just.”. Circle C residents complain about toll roads TxDOT engineer says RMA must work fast to get state funds An Oak Hill Association of Neighborhoods met last night to discuss proposed local toll projects, drawing a couple of hundred Circle C residents to Kiker Elementary School. A yellow flyer distributed to attendees asserted that the William Cannon overpass over South MoPac was paid for before the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority’ s toll project plan was released and that local residents shouldn’t need to pay for a major transportation project twice. It pointed out that the average Circle C family could pay between $500 and $800 per year in tolls. That could be bad for home values and lead to more toll options. It added that tax dollars from the William Cannon toll road would be spent outside Southwest Austin. Texas Department of Transportation District Engineer Bob Daigh, who fielded most of the questions at last night’s meeting, told Circle C residents that the appearance of construction on the William Cannon overpass was not the complete story. While TxDOT could afford to pay for the first phase of the project, the transit agency could not afford to pay for the continuing maintenance of the road project, Daigh said. Residents balked at the idea that Austin might one day be a “Turnpike Town,” but Daigh assured them that the transportation funding crisis was real. In order to leverage a potential additional $1.6 billion in transportation funding, the Central Texas RMA would need to move quickly to take advantage of Texas Mobility Fund monies and savings generated by the Central Texas Turnpike Project, otherwise known as State Highway 130. Daigh said he wished we could go back to the 1950s when the nation’s interstate system was being built. At that time, funding was unlimited and the roads were empty. Today, he said, the reality is that funding is tight and local officials must move quickly to take advantage of funding options. If Austin does not move quickly, then the Dallas and Houston transit authorities will move quickly to try to take advantage of the state’s “carrot,” which is to offer regions additional transportation funding if those regions agree to take care of themselves. The roads will have non-tolled alternatives. Daigh stressed that some projects, like the direct connect on-ramps onto Loop 1 near US 290. Loop 1, from US 290 to William Cannon, and the two direct connect ramps are expected to cost $30 million. The entire Central Texas RMA’s toll road system would cost a total of $2.2 billion. The subtext of the meeting was what host Commissioner Gerald Daugherty did not say. While residents expressed some frustration at paying for a toll road, Daugherty took the argument one step further. He said he’d like to recapture a half-cent of Capital Metro’ s sales tax and use the money to pay for much-needed road projects. A half-cent sales tax would generate $60 million per year in potential road revenues. Capital Metro authorities have said that the actual operating budget is no more than 65 percent of the sales tax funding. Critics of the Daugherty proposal say that Daugherty’s plan, even if it did work, would take between two and four years to put in place. That timeframe, however, would not allow the Central Texas RMA to leverage the current added funding. The overall Central Texas RMA mobility plan will be the subject of a public hearing in front of the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Authority’s Transportation Policy Board on Monday night. CAMPO’s 2030 Transportation Plan will have to be amended to incorporate the various projects suggested by the Central Texas RMA. Vision for Central Texas unveiled Developers, environmentalists and elected officials gathered on the 10th floor of the Carr-America office building on 6th Street downtown Tuesday for the official unveiling of the “Vision for Central Texas.” Envision Central Texas produced the event. The document, which should soon be available online at www.envisioncentraltexas.org, is the result of more than three years of work and combines the input of more than 12,000 surveys returned as part of the regional planning process. “There’s been a tremendous amount of work that’s gone into this project and so to see it come to fruition through the issuance of our Vision for Central Texas is quite gratifying,” said Envision Central Texas Board Member Mark Hazelwood. While the group announced last fall which of four scenarios had been selected by voters in the five-county region, the final document includes more detail. “What we tried to do was amalgamate all of that input in an insightful and thoughtful way, recognizing that we had people with different preferences and we wanted to accommodate those . . . so that we could preserve the great things about our region and yet at the same time accommodate growth,” Hazelwood said. The ECT Board dedicated the unveiling of the document to the late Neal Kocurek, who served as Board Chairman until his death last month. “Neal Kocurek was a man with a vision. He was a man that cared about the community, and he cared about individuals. If you look around at the people represented, you realize how great this man was,” said Bastrop County Judge Ronnie McDonald, who’s serving as Interim Board Chair. “I didn’t realize his greatness until I began to work with all these individuals . . . I’m not saying they’re bad people, but we had a lot of unique personalities.” The brochure outlining the vision and priorities of ECT also included a message from Kocurek. “Where in the past we have been smaller communities separated by miles of open lands, today we must recognize that we are an interconnected and interdependent region that can benefit from a renewed sense of community—a regional community,” he wrote. “For this, Envision Central Texas was created. We have done much good work as an honest broker already, but this work has just begun. Please join us in this grand journey into tomorrow.” McDonald reminded the crowd that the document that was drafted would only have an impact on the region if the members of ECT remained active. “This vision is not a mandate. It’s not a plan that was developed by a small interest group,” he said. “It is a process of bringing people together from different backgrounds and coming up with ideas about where we want this area to go.” It has been a goal of ECT members to maintain some level of involvement with local government leaders and developers to make sure the document is not shelved and forgotten. “What we hope to do is work with elected officials and other stakeholder groups in the region on a project basis to understand how all these things connect with each other, and by doing that we ought to able to shape our future in a very intentional way rather than just letting it occur,” Hazelwood told In Fact Daily. “When we started this, one of the things we recognized we needed to do differently was to have some continuity of implementation.” However, the passing of Neal Kocurek and the decision by ECT Executive Director Beverly Silas to attend the LBJ School of Public Affairs at UT will leave a large leadership void to fill. But Hazelwood is optimistic that bringing new people into the organization will also bring a new level of commitment and enthusiasm. “There will be a blend of new people that bring expertise and experience as well as people that have been involved in this from the very beginning,” he said, “So we should have the continuity and the energy and the expertise to be a very good asset to the rest of the region.”. Doing business the Buda way The Buda City Council was in a hurry Tuesday night to create and appoint a new Local Government Corporation (LGC) to handle issues related to the arrival of sporting goods superstore Cabela’s. The Council christened the new entity the DuPre LGC. The corporation will issue debt related to construction and operation of the Nebraska-based retail store. The corporation, which will be a permanent body, will also be the first to consider and ratify the definitive agreement between the city, county, and Cabela’s. A notice was posted on the door at city hall last Thursday requesting volunteers to serve on the board but no newspaper notice was published. Councilmembers wanted to narrow down a list of 25 volunteers. Mayor John Trube asked members to each write five names down on scratch paper and turn them in to City Administrator Bob Mathis. “We’re going to take five,” Trube said, announcing a break. “We might get lucky.” When the council resumed business, Mathis read off the vote totals. “This is a preliminary process,” Mathis said. Five candidates garnered more than one vote each: Buda Economic Development Corporation Executive Director Warren Ketteman, Buda Mayor John Trube, Buda resident Keith Handerick, area businessman Eric Cromwell, and Buda Transportation Committee member Betsy Urban are the lucky five. Councilmember Jeff Coffee moved to adopt the five names selected by the impromptu process. Councilmember Bobby Lane seconded the motion. The appointees were approved on a vote of four to one, with Councilmember Hutch White casting the lone dissent. White said he objected to the Ketteman serving on both boards.White said Ketteman was “too close to the process.” Money for health care vote PAC . . . Supporters of the proposed Travis County Healthcare District have amassed a serious war chest in the days leading up to the election. Citizens for Central Texas Health, a political action committee, filed reports with Travis County showing it has collected more than $215,000. Those donations ranged from $10 to $10,000. In contrast, the leading group opposing the measure, Save Our Taxpayers, has just a fraction of that amount. Records of the Texas Ethics Commission show the group’s parent organization, the Republican Liberty Caucus of Texas, has raised just over $6,000. But that financial advantage does not guarantee victory for hospital district supporters. Supporters of light rail raised and spent considerably more money than their opponents in 2000, but the measure went down in defeat . . . Stick to address RECA today . . . The Real Estate Council of Austin will host an anticipated crowd of 500 at a sold out luncheon address by State Rep. Jack Stick, who is expected to outline his proposal for a regional teaching hospital in Central Texas. The meeting is today from 12–1pm at the Four Seasons Hotel Grand Ballroom . . . ZAP news . . . With only five members of the Zoning and Platting Commission present for last night’s meeting, Commissioners passed most of the items on their agenda on consent and postponed any disputed cases until their next meeting on May 18. After a brief executive session, the commission endorsed a zoning change for Escarpment Village on Slaughter Lane to allow the construction of a grocery store on a site originally intended by Stratus Properties for multi-family development. (See In Fact Daily, April 30, 2004.) Neighborhood groups, including residents of the New Villages of Western Oaks, support the change. Commissioners also received a brief staff presentation on proposed changes to the development agreement between the city and Stratus, but took no action on that item . . . Aquifer board meets tonight . . . The Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District board will meet at 6pm tonight. That way their meeting will not conflict with the LCRA’s Thursday night meeting on the proposed water line to Hamilton Pool Road . . . Meeting moved. . . The LCRA meeting on extending a water line to the Hamilton Pool Road area will be held from 6 to 9pm Thursday at the Dripping Springs High School gymnasium, 111 Tiger Lane. The meeting had been scheduled for the Dripping Springs Primary School, but the school's parking and meeting facilities may not be large enough to accommodate the number of people who have expressed an interest in attending. The area has one set of landowners requesting the line and another group requesting that the LCRA take no action until the regional planning process has been completed. The LCRA Board of Directors is currently scheduled to vote on the matter at its May 19 meeting, which will be held at the LCRA’s Canyon of the Eagles Nature Park in Burnet County. The meeting will be open to the public, but the board will not take further public testimony on this issue . . . Tonight . . . The Environmental Board will meet at 6pm at One Texas Center to discuss and possibly take a position on the annexation of Robinson Ranch. The matter was the topic of last week’s special meeting. The Water and Wastewater Commission will meet at Waller Creek Center at 6pm . . . SAD meeting also . . . South Austin Democrats will meet at Rosie’s Tamales on South Congress to consider an endorsement in the Place 6 race for the ACC board. The group has already endorsed Rafael Quintanilla for place 5 and Jeffrey Richard for place 4. No candidate got the required 51 percent for the Place 6 contest, so they will hold a runoff between Guadalupe Sosa, who received 50 percent of the votes, and Rodney Ahart, who got about 31 percent. There will also be a presentation on the Central American Free Trade Agreement..
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