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County commissioners Tuesday gave a green light to explore the consolidation of the Road and Bridge satellite offices in Precincts 1 and 4 as a cost-savings measure.
The proposed Eastside Service Center would be located on a 123-acre tract near the intersection of FM 973 and FM 969. The land, a former turkey farm acquired during the 1984 bond issue, once was intended to be a Travis County park. In the intervening years, however, other parcels have been developed for regional park facilities.The savings will not come without a cost. Most of the $3.9 million budget for the facility, however, would be recovered from consolidating services, Road and Bridge Services Division Director Don Wheeler said. A number of factors make the consolidation attractive. The county naturally splits into halves, with similar geology on either side of Intestate 35. The number of miles on either side of the freeway also is roughly equivalent. And the consolidation of road and bridge fleet, from five locations to two, would allow the county to put off equipment purchases. County officials already have moved to consolidate west-side road and bridge services in the last two years, pre-empting potential concerns that poorer east-side county residents were being asked to bear cuts not placed on their wealthier neighbors to the west. Transportation and Natural Resources Executive Manager Joe Gieselman said the consolidation gained the county "some economy of scale and more efficiency, eliminating duplication." The concept of consolidation did not raise serious objections from the commissioners, with the caveat that area neighborhoods would not be neglected from lack of road service. Wheeler said the location would be equidistant from both Precinct 1 and Precinct 4 locations. What could potentially derail the project, however, is the future development surrounding it. This piece of land, once no more than a turkey farm, will sit only a block off of the proposed State Highway 130 as it runs through Manor. While that location will provide good regional access for the county, it might prove to be a tempting locale for developers. In the last couple of months, county officials have approved a new policy for assessing and disposing of excess county property, and this property appears to be one that would require further consideration. Commissioner Karen Sonleitner, in particular, wanted to cover all options for the property. And if the property ended up being a regional facility, Sonleitner would still be open to carving off the most marketable piece for sale. Gieselman previously recommended that the two Road and Bridge satellite offices, as well as the Smith Road fleet and sign fabricating shops, be consolidated into one Eastside Service Center near the intersection of FM 973 and FM 969. The satellite office in Precinct 1 on Johnny Morris Road is cramped and serves roadway operations for three precincts. The satellite office in Precinct 4 is located almost entirely in the 100-year flood plain—a real problem for providing service during flood events. Both locations have minimal space for stockpiling materials and equipment. Under the rough budget provided by Transportation and Natural Resources, the new East Service Center would cost $3.9 million, with areas for administration, employee training and vehicle maintenance, as well as a covered fuel pump facility and bulk material storage area. The projected savings to cover the cost of the facility will come from $1 million diverted from fleet replacements and a projected $2.3 million from the sale of existing facilities. The county also proposes to save $300,000 by completing site work and site design in-house with existing county staff. County Judge Sam Biscoe said commissioners clearly had different questions and ideas in mind concerning the project. He asked Gieselman and Wheeler to return with a more comprehensive report next week, including any projected savings for the county and impact on the community. Mobile food vendors and their representatives will be invited to participate in a stakeholders process along with neighborhood groups as the staff of the Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Department works on a new ordinance to regulate those mobile vendors. Staff members have already come up with several suggestions that are being reviewed by the city’s legal department. They could be presented for discussion as part of a formal stakeholders process this summer, with specific invitations sent out to neighborhood and business groups. The proposed new ordinance could include provisions that limit a mobile vendor’s hours of operation and prohibit vendors from certain areas. "At the end of this process, we hope that we would have an ordinance that would be clearer about the regulations and standards for vending, including mobile food vending . . . and that it would be enforceable," NPZD Assistant Director Cora Wright told members of the Zoning and Platting Commission Tuesday night. "Before we even get there, we believe that we’ll have the ability to issue citations for vendors who are setting up on commercial properties or residential properties who are acting like a limited restaurant, but have not gone through the process and who are vending illegally." The goal is to have civilian employees of the city empowered to write citations to mobile vendors that are operating improperly. City staff members are already authorized to write citations for violations of the city’s sign ordinance. But before that change is made, Wright said, the city will need to stop some of the practices that may be providing mobile vendors with the false sense that they are operating within the law. In many cases, vendors receive permits from the Austin Travis County Health and Human Services Department. But Wright said those permits only certify that the vendors are qualified to handle and prepare food; they are not a license to operate at any location. "We may be adding confusion to the entire process from a permitting standpoint," Wright said. "The Health Department does issue mobile food permits. We have gotten agreement from the department to change that permit so that it reflects something along the lines of a public health permit . . . but it will not mislead a vendor into thinking they can set up on commercial property." ZAP Members encouraged Wright to continue her efforts to address the problems that mobile vendors can bring to neighborhoods, such as late-night noise and additional traffic. "I’ve got four—at least in my neighborhood—and three that have popped up on Congress Avenue," said Commissioner Clarke Hammond. "It’s just real frustrating." Commissioner Joseph Martinez cautioned against new regulations that are too restrictive, since a vendor that may be considered a nuisance in one neighborhood could be considered to be a valuable service in another. "As the public sector attempts to put into place mechanisms that will protect us, I just want to bring up that it represents a change," he said. "All of us want to have a better, safer, cleaner Austin . . . but there may be unintended consequences as we try to clean up our streets. I went jogging this weekend . . . and I’ve gotten used to the fact that I’ve got vendors on the jogging path in East Austin." Assistant City Manager Joe Canales has promised to more carefully monitor city contracts under $5,000 in order to increase minority- and women-owned business participation. Carol Hadnot of the Austin Black Contractors Association raised concerns about smaller city contracts at the MBE/WBE Advisory Committee in February. As Hadnot told the advisory committee last night, that small niche of the under $5,000 contracts can easily build capacity among smaller minority contractors trying to gain a toehold in the market. She noted that former Mayor Lee Cooksey raised the issue as a priority for the city back in 1986. The MBE/WBE Advisory Committee told staff that no contract was too small to consider for minority participation. Last night, Urcha Dunbar-Crespo of the Purchasing Department said Canales was committed to raising the level of commitment to more diverse participation in the city’s array of contracts under $5,000. While the contracts might be small, the combined totals are large. In 2002, the city distributed 22,289 contracts under $5,000, for a total of $14.3 million. In 2003, a total of 20,012 contracts under $5,000 were available, for a total of $12.2 million. More than half of those contracts are available in the commodity area, followed by non-professional services. The city has no requirement concerning advertisement contracts under $5,000. Commissioner Cheryse Phillips, who represents the Capital City Chamber of Commerce on the advisory committee, said the lack of a formal process for the solicitation of those smaller contracts is a problem. In her work with the chamber, it was clear to Phillips that those who awarded contracts typically went with people they knew. "The people getting the information out typically deal with the people they are most comfortable with, and they stick with those people," Phillips said. "I didn’t feel everyone was getting a fair opportunity to bid on these contracts. Some people have had the same contracts for years." Commissioner Adrian Neely, who represents the Austin Black Contractors Association, agreed. He said ABCA members would participate in more contracts if they were informed of the possibilities. Hadnot pointed out that the University of Texas at Austin and Capital Metro both had more defined policies on increasing minority participation on smaller contracts. In a brief overview of the city’s procedures on smaller contracts, Dunbar-Crespo said that the city had a six-month demonstration project that was intended to increase minority- and women-owned participation on contracts under $5,000. The goals—ten percent minority- and five percent women-owned—mirrored the goals on larger contracts. At the time, the city devoted four temporary employees to monitor the compliance of city departments. That project, however, only lasted six months, Dunbar-Crespo said. Once the temporary staffing was gone, employees within each department were appointed to serve as liaisons to the MBE/WBE community. Even with the best of intentions, the city appears to have lost track of how widespread participation has been on smaller contracts. Dunbar-Crespo promised that Canales intended to speak to city department heads and come up with better strategies to contact the MBE/WBE community. The MBE/WBE Advisory Committee, however, pushed harder, asking that a possible policy or procedure be put into place in order to provide a firmer commitment to contacting the MBE/WBE vendors. City staff will provide an update on progress at next month’s MBE/WBE Advisory Committee meeting. County postpones discussing Hospital District . . . County commissioners delayed discussion of the issues surrounding the Travis County Hospital District for another week. They’ll take up the issue again on June 8 . . . Reduced fee schedule to continue . . . County commissioners will continue the reduced fee mitigation schedule for the Balcones Canyonlands Conservation Plan. Since the fees were lowered in 1998, public participation has generated $8.8 million in Participation Certificates and US Fish and Wildlife Services alternate determinations. Savings are roughly half of the suggested fee schedule. More than 3,500 acres remain to be acquired to complete the BCCP . . . New land for BCCP . . . County commissioners have agreed to purchase 237 acres from the Bull Creek Warbler Owners Association. The tract is located off Spicewood Springs Road, west of Loop 360. A developer set aside the land in 1994. Under the agreement, the Bull Creek Warbler Owners Association would transfer the land to Travis County and fund five years of payments to offset the county’s management of the tract. The tract is already included in the Balcones Canyonlands Conservation Plan. The transfer would signal a willingness to use the county’s ecological monitoring and educational outreach to preserve the property . . . ZAP vote delayed . . . After some confusion, the Zoning And Platting Commission chose to delay a vote on the Planned Unit Development on the Ribelin Ranch property off RM 2222. Documentation on the property, as well as coordination of action among city staff, needed further study. The item will be back on the ZAP agenda next week . . . DAA luncheon topics . . . The Downtown Austin Alliance will focus on the "Changing Demographics of Downtown" at its luncheon today at the Capitol Marriott. Featured speakers will be Betsy Jackson, president of The Urban Agenda; and Jim Peters, president of the Responsible Hospitality Institute. They will talk about the issues facing downtown’s growing residential population. . . .Central Texans gear up for Folklife Festival in San Antonio. . . San Antonio-Travis County residents in the Csardas Folk Hungarian Dancers will be performing traditional dance and music from Hungary at the Texas Folklife Festival June 10-13 at the Institute of Texan Cultures in downtown San Antonio. Other local entertainment includes Jon Napier, who will entertain visitors with original folk and blues music, and Vicki Fowler and Friends, who will perform blues, jazz and Gospel music. Toni Silver, Rod Johnson and Cruz Rendon, also Travis County residents, will be demonstrating the frontier craft of woodcarving. Visitors of all ages also can enjoy 150 authentic dishes prepared by 40 ethnic groups and shopping at the Texas Crafts Market. The Festival runs 5-11 p.m., Thursday, June 10, and Friday, June 11; noon-11 p.m., Saturday, June 12; and noon-9 p.m., Sunday, June 13. Adult tickets are $8, children's tickets are $4, a four-day wristband is $25, and food coupons may be purchased online at www.texasfolklifefestival.org or by calling 210-458-2259. (Discounted children, military, senior and group tickets also available) . . . All Systems Go! . . . Capital Metro will hold two more Open Houses this week to showcase All Systems Go!, the authority's process for getting input on rail and rapid bus systems in the region. Open Houses include Leander today, 6:30 – 8:30 p.m. at Leander City Hall, 200 West Willis Street. and an East Austin on Thursday, 6:30 – 8:30 p.m., ACC Eastview, 3401 Webberville Road. For more information, call 474-1200 or see www.capmetro.org . . . Meow Kitty Kitty . . . Animal shelters are filled to the rafters with cats and kittens right now, making it an ideal time to adopt. To encourage adoption, Town Lake Animal Center is joining with the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animal (ASPCA) to proclaim June as Adopt A Shelter Cat Month. During the month of June, Town Lake Animal Center will reduce the regular adoption fee for cats from $75 to just $20, in hopes that more will be adopted into caring families. "This time of year we can receive 50 or more cats and kittens in a single day," reports Shelter Director Dorinda Pulliam. "We hope that by reducing our fees and really pushing cat adoptions, we'll be able to send more of these wonderful pets home with caring people." To learn more, visit the Town Lake Animal Center at 1156 W. Cesar Chavez St., see www.petfinder.com, or call 972-6080
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