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Futrell outlines 'hold the line' budget

Friday, July 30, 2004 by

Proposed budget gives city employees a 3.5 percent raise

City Manager Toby Futrell yesterday laid out her plan to close the $19 million gap between expenses and revenues, give city employees their first raise in two years and pay for a small number of individual increases in the city's 2004-05 budget. The proposal includes a mix of spending cuts and fee increases, along with a plan to use money from the city's reserve account.

Of the $19 million shortfall, approximately $11 million will come from either fee hikes or spending cuts. "We closed 45 percent of that through revenue, and 55 percent through expenditures," Futrell said. "It was a better than expected budget because the gap was smaller than expected and revenues were higher." The city's sales tax revenues have been on a rebound after a two-year slump, which is one of the many indicators that city financial planners used when gauging the economic recovery. "I see an uptick in our future," Futrell said. "I feel good about that."

The new revenues will come from increased fees for a variety of city services, including some new fees. There will be an increase in the rates for customers of the Water Utility. Futrell proposes increasing water rates by 9.2 percent and wastewater rates by 14.7percent. For the average residential customer, that amounts to an increase of $5.16 per month. On the expense side, Futrell has already eliminated 37 positions. Of those, only 15 were currently filled. Those workers were offered other jobs within the city.

City employees are in line for a raise this year after going without for the past two budget cycles. Futrell is proposing a 3.5 percent pay hike for employees that receive favorable marks on their performance reviews.

Futrell's proposed budget calls for keeping the city at the effective tax rate. "Overall, the effective tax rate holds the community-wide tax burden level. But when commercial property is down, that means someone else is up," she said. "In our current economy, commercial and multi-family is down. That does shift to residential."

Next year's effective tax rate is 50.65 cents per $100 of property value, up slightly from this year's rate of 49.28 cents. That will mean many residents will see their tax bill go up slightly. "For the average homeowner . . . you can expect to see about a $2 dollar a month increase on the tax bill, or about $25 per year," Futrell said. That rate of 50.65 cents will be reduced once the Travis Count Hospital District is created. The city is required to reduce its tax rate to compensate for health care costs being assumed by the district. That will mean a drop of 6.18 cents, leaving the property tax rate at 44.47 cents per hundred dollars of property value.

Calculating this year's effective tax rate was made even more complicated by the dramatic increase in property values from the late 1990's into the early 2000's. That movement prompted a sharp spike in the number of homeowners protesting their valuations to the Travis Central Appraisal District. Many of those lawsuits, Futrell said, were resolved early this year in favor of the property owners. "Travis County cleared almost 50 percent of that caseload. It resulted in an abnormally high level of tax refunds in the past year, which in turn increases the calculation of the effective tax rate," she said. "And even more importantly, 70 percent of those refunds were done in the past four months. So . . . a very unusual clearing of an unprecedented amount of litigation was done in four months, and that jumped the calculation of the effective tax rate."

Despite the difficulties in preparing this year's budget, Futrell was relieved that the worst of the economic slowdown seemed to be over. Bridging the $19 million gap this year, she said, was not quite as painful as last year's $38 million gap. "This is the last year that our financial forecast shows our cost drivers outpacing our revenue. I believe this budget sets the stage for moving us forward in a sustainable budget environment," she said.

The Council has budget briefings for individual departments and public hearings scheduled for August 5, 12, 26 and September 2, before a beginning a series of budget votes on September 13. "I knew when I ran for Mayor the first couple of years would be difficult," said Mayor Will Wynn. "The City Manager has made a strong proposal, and it is clear that even as our economy improves, we still have another year of tough decisions. The Council will now begin the process of analyzing this proposal and opening up a dialogue with the community."

Council adopts UNO with 90-foot height

The City Council adopted the University Neighborhood Overlay (UNO) on second reading Thursday by a vote of 5-2. A disagreement over the height of a building at 2400 Pearl, currently the home of the House of Tutors, prevented a unanimous endorsement. Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman and Council Member Raul Alvarez voted against the plan, which Council Member Betty Dunkerley amended to allow the owners of the House of Tutors property to build to 90 feet.

City staff and the neighborhood planning team had initially agreed to recommend a 90-foot height for the tract at the corner of 24th and Pearl. However, after the public notice alerted some nearby property owners about the proposed change, those neighbors objected. Under their influence, the team agreed that the height for the tract should be limited to 75 feet—despite strenuous disagreement from the owners of the tract.

Goodman, who is an expert in zoning, was dismayed when she worked out the result of the vote, calling it “unfair.” Even though neighbors had a valid petition to stop a zoning case—entirely separate from the neighborhood overlay—there was no such petition against the overlay itself. Dunkerley’s amendment to Goodman’s motion to adopt the UNO got four votes, with Wynn joining Goodman and Alvarez in opposing the 90-foot amendment.

Greg Guernsey of the Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Department said that when the UNO comes back for third reading it can be adopted with only four votes. If the owners of the Pearl Street tract wish to create a 90-foot structure they will be able to do so without going through the zoning change process, he said, provided they comply with all the conditions set forth in the overlay. Those include design standards, setbacks, off-site improvements and an affordable housing requirement. However, the owners will not even need to get a zoning change if they comply with those guidelines.

After passage of the UNO plan, Dunkerley made a motion to postpone the second and third readings of the zoning case. The vote to allow the change from General Office-Mixed Use (GO-MU) to general commercial services with a conditional overlay on June 20 passed on a 4-3 vote. At the time, Mayor Will Wynn, Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman and Council Member Raul Alvarez voted against the change. However, a valid petition in opposition to the zoning change would prevent the final adoption unless six Council members vote in favor. If UNO goes through next week as expected, the zoning case will no longer be necessary because the overlay will allow the height and density the property owners are seeking.

The stated purpose of the West University area overlay, which covers an area from Lamar to Guadalupe and from MLK Jr. to 29th Street, is to allow increased density and promote mixed-use development. Developers who wish to develop under the overlay must comply with all of its criteria. Those who do not may develop as allowed under the rules applicable to their zoning classification just as in other areas of the city.

The City Council did not take up any of the zoning cas es proposed as a part of the West University Neighborhood Plan. Planner Mark Walters said a number of property owners have filed petitions opposing changes and others are likely to follow.

The Council also postponed second and third readings for property at 13801-14409 N. I-35 Service Road northbound. The current zoning is single-family and the change will make it available for commercial development. The owner of property at 900 Bastrop Highway and a portion of Riverside Dr. withdrew his request for a zoning change to allow single-family development under the noise overlay for Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. A number of other cases were also postponed, including a change from single-family to neighborhood commercial mixed-use for property at 100-104 E. 51st Street.

Two churches won approval on all three readings for changes on their property. The Covenant Presbyterian Church sought a change in conditions for property at 3003 Northland Drive, but did not ask for change in the general office zoning. The Council granted a change from Interim rural residential to community commercial zoning for the Mercy of God Prayer Center at 2405 E. Yager Lane.

Convention Center named after Neal Kocurek

The Austin Convention Center has a new name. The City Council voted unanimously to rename the facility the Neal Kocurek Memorial Austin Convention Center after the long-time civic leader who passed away earlier this year. (See In Fact Daily, March 30, 2004.)

Kocurek was credited with bringing various groups together during the long and contentious debate over the Convention Center. “Without him, the facility may never have been built,” said Mayor Will Wynn. Kocurek’s widow, Mary Kocurek, accepted a remembrance proclamation from the Mayor and Council in honor of her husband’s service. “The name of Neal Kocurek is synonymous with public servant. Neal Kocurek's life is defined by his servant's heart,” the Mayor said, reading from the proclamation. “From education to health care to transportation to economic development, Neal viewed his role as a catalyst for community collaboration, finding ways divergent and diverse groups could rally together for the good of the community.”

Mrs. Kocurek extended the family’s appreciation for the city’s tribute. “The Convention Center was very, very important to Neal,” she said. “Our family wished to thank the City Council and the City of Austin for honoring Neal this way. It's very meaningful to me and very special; and I thank you very much.”

The Council took some time to rename the Convention Center in Kocurek’s honor. Mayor Will Wynn said that Council members agreed that Kocurek deserved some type of public tribute, but they were unsure what form it should take. “We committed ourselves to honoring Neal and his memory and frankly, we struggled a little bit with how best to do that . . . recognizing that Neal had his hand in so many pots in this community. We hesitated, but I 'm glad that we did. We took our time.”

Council Member Raul Alvarez offered his thanks to the other members of the Kocurek family. “His dedication to the community and the public . . . a lot of times that comes at great sacrifice in terms of family and friends. I certainly want to thank you for that,” he said. “It's a small thing that we can do to honor someone who embodied the spirit of Austin in terms of his dedication to the community, and also to his ability to use his creativity to solve very pressing and important community issues. It gives us hope that we will be able to make this a better community if we have more people like Neal Kocurek. “

Martin blasts anti-toll road leader

Don Martin is mad as hell and he’s not keeping it a secret. The veteran public relations professional acts as spokesman for the pro toll road group Citizens for Mobility. After reading comments from Sal Costello, leader of the Texas Toll Party in Thursday’s In Fact Daily, Martin sent us the following email message:

“I don't know where Mr. Costello gets his numbers, but they are incredibly misleading and inaccurate. The average citizen is far smarter than he thinks and they can see right through his "creative" and disingenuous use of numbers.

“On toll miles, for example, he compares apples with oranges by saying that Austin in the future will have an outrageous 113 toll road miles to the 12 miles Houston has today, or 16 miles Dallas has today. By that logic, you should compare the current Dallas and Houston miles to Austin today, and today Austin has zero toll road miles. The fact is that both Dallas and Houston have massive plans in the works for additional toll road miles. The Dallas plan alone as presented to TxDOT is more than 37 times as large as the one just approved in Austin.

“With similar lack of reality Costello is claiming that 93 percent of Austin is against tolls—a number he gets by counting the number of emails emanating from his own web site. That's hardly a fair reading of Austin opinion.”

Costello and his group have hired Linda Curtis to head up a petition drive for the recall of Mayor Will Wynn and Council Member Brewster McCracken, both of whom voted in favor of the toll road plan at CAMPO.

Walgreen’s, Maria’s Tacos postponed . . . Attorney Steve Drenner yesterday surprised supporters of a proposed zoning change for the South Lamar property where Maria’s Tacos currently sits when he requested a two-week postponement. Drenner, who has worked with the popular taco restaurant owner to find a permanent home, said he wanted the time to counter new allegations from some members of a nearby neighborhood association, mostly relating to traffic . . . Appointments . . . Mayor Will Wynn reappointed J ay Gohil to the Zoning and Platting Commission. Wynn also reappointed Mary Ellen Galvan to the Child Care Council. Patricia Gonzales and Algie Ree Williams were both appointed by consensus to the Community Development Commission. Council Member Daryl Slusher reappointed Shudde Fath to the Electric Utility Commission. Frances McIntyre was reappointed by consensus to the Ethics Review Commission. Dawn Crane was reappointed by consensus to the MBE/WBE Advisory Committee and Stephen Cox was reappointed to the Mechanical, Plumbing and Solar Board by consensus. Alex Zwarun was reappointed by consensus to the Solid Waste Advisory Commission. Mayor Wynn reappointed Joyce Basciano to the Urban Forestry Board. Council Member Danny Thomas reappointed Roger Chan and Council Member Betty Dunkerley reappointed Leslie Pool to the Water and Wastewater Commission. Members of the new Travis County Hospital District Board of Managers were all appointed by consensus. As recommended by the Council Health Care Subcommittee, the Council chose Thomas Coopwood, Victoria Hsu, Rose Lancaster, Rosa Mendoza and Carl Richie, with Henry Narvaez selected as an alternate. Richie was chosen to be the consensus appointment by Travis County commissioners. They will have their first meeting at 9am Monday . . . Fireworks postponed . . . The City Council postponed hearing a request from Up to Me, which was denied permission to operate a second transitional housing facility on North Lamar by the Planning Commission. The neighborhood has mobilized against the project, which would have provided housing for women in transition from prison. Up to Me operates a facility for men in the same neighborhood. Council Member Betty Dunkerley said she wanted to put off hearing the matter because she had just become aware of a letter containing negative allegations about the men’s facility. Neighborhood spokesperson Lauren Bayne told the City Council that postponing the matter would not resolve the facility’s problems. Bayne said a letter from a state agency cited “abuse and neglect” at the facility, but she was unable to get details from the state . . . Action on an appeal from a man who built an illegal addition on his West 6th Street condo was postponed without protest. The City Council held a public hearing on the matter in June but took no action. Since that time, the owner has put the condo up for sale . . . Traffic study approved . . . The Council on Thursday approved spending up to $300,000 to study the possibility of switching the flow of traffic on Cesar Chavez downtown. Although two-way for much of its length, Cesar Chavez is a one-way street for five blocks through downtown. "We're asking the City Manager to determine what would be the best way to convert that five-block segment and what would be the cost," said Mayor Will Wynn.

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