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Commissioners consider raises for elected officials

Wednesday, August 18, 2004 by

Employees' raises likely to be 5.75 percent

The most telling sign of Travis County's economic upswing is the Commissioner Court's willingness to look at higher pay for elected officials.

Like their city counterparts, rank-and-file employees in Travis County have gone without a raise for two years. But with a recovering economy, commissioners are now considering a 5.75 percent increase for the rank-and-file, an amount that will be matched for elected officials if all goes as planned.

Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, who turned down his own raise for the second year in a row, asked for another week to consider some of the salary increases. Two major adjustments are being requested this year: matching the County Clerk's salary to that of the County Tax Assessor-Collector and bumping up the salaries of Justices of the Peace who also are attorneys. Most of the Justices of the Peace in Travis County are members of the bar.

County Judge Sam Biscoe promised that raises for elected officials would track those of non-elected employees. While the two categories of pay are not tied, Biscoe promised the pay raise for elected officials would be no more than that for rank-and-file, regardless of amount. If the raise for the rank-and-file is less, so would be the raise for elected officials.

District Judges would be the one exception. The judges are in the second year of a two-year phase in for $10,000 raises.

According to a memo from Christian Smith, executive manager in the Planning and Budget Office, the total amount included in the budget for elected officials’ salaries is $433, 976. Of that amount, $265,330 represents increases for District, Probate and County Court-at-Law judges. Another $57,856 goes to associate judges, whose salaries are tied to district judges. The balance of $110,790 goes to other elected officials.

Commissioners Karen Sonleitner and Margaret Gomez brought forward the proposal for a raise for County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir. DeBeauvoir current makes about $10,000 less than Tax Assessor-Collector Nelda Spears, who was paid $89,888 this year.

In a presentation to the court, DeBeauvoir argued that she had taken on additional duties, including those that are not required of her job title. She also serves as elections administrator, a role often filled by a second person in other urban counties. DeBeauvoir also argued that she had brought in an additional $156,000 in elections-related revenue through her negotiations with the City of Austin for joint elections.

In a separate motion, Sonleitner and Gomez also asked the court to consider additional pay for those Justices of the Peace who also hold the title of attorney. Pct. 2 JP Barbara Bembry, who addressed the issue to commissioners, said the state's unwillingness to add District Courts meant that local justices of the peace were handing more cases, both civil and criminal, than ever before. That may increase if the limits on small claims court are bumped from $5,000 to $10,000 as is suggested almost every legislative session, Bembry said.

Sonleitner came up with three options for pay, from low to high. She based the salary on the salaries of associate judges. She suggested creating the job category of Justice of the Peace/Attorney and raising pay from $69,444 to $85,844. The difference required in the budget would be a total of $72,950 this year.

Daugherty turned down his own raise because he is both conservative and has a philosophical problem with voting his own raise. He asked for an extra week to consider the other pay increases, which means the chart for elected officials’ pay would not be published until next week. August 27 would be the last day the published notice of proposed elected officials salaries could appear before commissioners vote on them.

Johnston Terrace neighbors fighting new subdivision

The newly organized neighbors in Johnston Terrace met last night with representatives from the city at the Parque Zaragoza Recreation Center to discuss their concerns about a new subdivision planned for the intersection of Perry Road and Bolm Road.

After a problem with notifying the affected property owners, the city’s Planning Commission vacated its previous approval of the preliminary plan for the Edward Joseph subdivision. The subdivision, which would fall under the Smart Housing category, would put just under one hundred homes on a 14.88-acre site in the largely Hispanic neighborhood between Airport Blvd. and U.S. 183.

Neighbors complained that the proposed development would increase density in the neighborhood by 50 percent and promised to file written requests to delay the commission’s planned reconsideration on August 24. Also at issue is waiver of a setback for the property’s retention pond. One affected property owner has already said he would seek the advice of counsel. People at the meeting insisted that the recently approved neighborhood plan did not anticipate such a high-density development. Many also emphasized that the homes would not be affordable, although the developer has committed to selling 40 percent of them to people with 80 percent of Austin’s median income. Neighbors will meet with the owner, Evan Williams, in a session mediated by city officials on Thursday night, 6:30 p.m. at Allen Elementary.

For planners, there’s still no unity on Rainey Street

Selling the residents of Rainey Street on a single vision for the future has never been easy, and last night's meeting at the Palm Center proved no exception.

About 50 Rainey Street property owners and renters attended the meeting, which Council Member Raul Alvarez hosted so city planners could lay out the latest in a long line of proposals for the neighborhood.

The latest plan – which would overlay the neighborhood with CS zoning and create a historic enclave for the National Historic Register District – is in the process of being presented to a half-dozen commissions, with a timeline that puts the proposal before the Council in October.

"I've been on the City Council for four years now, and Rainey Street keeps coming back and never gets resolved," Alvarez told the group in his introduction. "The Downtown Commission has made recommendations for the Rainey Street redevelopment, and the City Council is going to look at the potential redevelopment again."

A lot will depend on whether the Rainey Street residents, led by Bobby Velasquez of Roy's Taxi, can throw their support behind the plan. But as Maria Luna Medina pointed out, property owners, developers and renters all have different issues and see the proposal to redevelop Rainey Street in a different light.

Some clearly want to sell out and move on. Planner George Adams had barely launched into a discussion of zoning before John Umphress, husband of former Council Member Brigid Shea, complained angrily that the staff should have taken the Downtown Commission's recommendation to zone all of the land Central Business District, or CBD. Under the current proposal, CS could be rezoned CBD if the developer agrees to guidelines set by the city, such as participation in Great Streets, affordable housing and green building.

"I'm against this hybrid of CS to CBD for the reason you said," Umphress told the city planners. "It makes it more complicated to aggregate. Why raise the specter of compatibility standards? There's a big spread between CS and CBD. Why did you choose to start out at CS and then make a leap to CBD?"

Greg Guernsey of the Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Department said CS was an intensive zoning category, one compatible with commercial development around a major intersection. He added that he did not see uses significantly limited by the zoning category, with the exception of height. Guernsey added that under the Vignette deal, floor-to-area ratio had been negotiated to 10-to-1, a ratio that suited Umphreys just fine but didn't meet the approval of neighbor Janet Gilles.

Gilles, a resident of the Villas on Town Lake, said too much of the Rainey Street plan focused on the neighbors who wanted to sell and not those who would be left behind. Gilles said the real concern ought to be the people who wanted to live in the neighborhood. They would be left behind to face the congestion, noise and crime created by a new bar district if the Rainey Street area is redeveloped, she said.

"Why don't you ask us what we want? " Gilles asked the planners, saying Rainey Street desperately needs neighborhood retail like a grocery store and a dry cleaner within walking distance of the residential properties. "We know what it takes to make it a successful urban neighborhood, and it's not by trying to turn it into a bar district."

Some residents, like Craig Nasso, simply want to stay. And Georgia Leggett, who owns two houses in Rainey Street, said her one desire was simply to leave the neighborhood with her historic house. She'd rather see her well-kept property on a piece of rural farmland than a historic urban enclave.

And then there are the side issues, such as when might the Texas Department of Transportation widen I-35, possibly impacting peripheral properties. Adams said he knew the project likely would begin in another five years but had no information on just how much land the state highway department might want for the project.

Guernsey encouraged the residents to attend any of the upcoming commission meetings to offer input for the plan. According to the current calendar, the Rainey Street plan will before the Historic Landmark Commission and the Downtown Commission next week, Zoning and Platting on Sept. 7 and the Planning Commission on Sept. 14. The zoning proposal is tentatively scheduled for Council on Oct. 7.

School bond battle continues . . . The Save Barton Creek Association decided against taking a position on the controversial school bond proposals this week after hearing from supporters and opponents of Propositions 1 and 5. Jeff Jack, who is running what appears to be a one-man campaign against the bonds, argued against proposition 1 because money from it would be used, in part, to build at least one elementary school in the southwest part of AISD. Proposition 5 includes funding for a new middle school in the same area, which is over the Barton Springs zone of the aquifer. Jack predicted that those who are asking for the new middle school now would be back in five years to ask for a high school in the same area. AISD trustees Robert Schneider and John Fitzpatrick said the schools are overcrowded in that area and that the middle school would not be a magnet for more growth. Both propositions are intended to provide new schools throughout the district. SBCA board member Marguerite Jones told the group that land set aside for the elementary school on land owned by Stratus Properties would be developed for some other purpose—such as an apartment complex—if the school is not built. She indicated her support for the bonds . . . This morning . . . The open space committee of the Design Commission will meet from 7:30-9am at Schlotzky’s Deli, 218 South Lamar. They will continue discussion of design guidelines with respect to open space around downtown buildings . . . One meeting tonight. . . The Mexican American Cultural Center Advisory Board will meet at 6pm at the Parks and Recreation Department, 200 South Lamar. One topic on their agenda is to make recommendations on the city’s proposals for redevelopment of the Rainey Street area . . . All quiet at City Hall . . . With no Council meeting this week, there seems to be a lot less activity on the first floor of City Hall. A number of Council offices are dark for at least a few hours each day. That doesn’t mean the occupants aren’t studying the budget somewhere else, but it makes collecting gossip more difficult . . . Rails-with-Trails meeting tomorrow . . . Austin Metro Trails & Greenways is hosting a community meeting to consider the bicycle and pedestrian trail proposed as part of Capital Metro's Commuter Rail Urban Service. The meeting is scheduled for 6pm Thursday, at Nuevo Leon Restaurant, 1501 E. 6th. Nuevo Leon overlooks Plaza Saltillo and the future Lance Armstrong Bikeway. For more information, contact Jeb Boyt at 680-1644. . . Accessible technology press conference . . . Knowability, Inc. will hold a press conference at 2pm today in the Speaker’s Committee Room (CAP2W.6) to announce their seventh annual challenge to the tech sector. This year’s challenge involves learning to design for so-called convergent media, such as cell phones and wireless devices, to meet the needs of tech users with disabilities. The nationally recognized AIR ( Accessibility Internet Rally) program offers training in accessible design techniques for web design. AIR partners include Dell, IBM, Grande Communications, the City of Austin’s Grant for Technology Opportunities, Usablenet, the University of Texas and the Texas Council on Development Disabilities. For more information, contact Sharron Rush at 305-0310.

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