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Alvarez, Thomas seek creation of revitalization zone

Tuesday, October 5, 2004 by

Council members propose tax breaks for East Austin job creation

Citing the area's high unemployment and crime rates, Council Members Raul Alvarez and Danny Thomas on Monday announced a plan to declare a major section of East Austin a Community Preservation and Revitalization Zone. They hope to attract new businesses to the least prosperous part of town—between I-35, Riverside Drive, SH 71, US 183, and Manor Road—by offering property tax rebates linked to the creation of new jobs.

"What this tool would do is help us close the gap in economic prosperity between East Austin and other areas of the city," said Alvarez. "This is a gap that has existed for many decades."

As outlined by Alvarez and Thomas, the proposal includes a sliding scale for property tax rebates of between 35 and 85 percent over a 10-year period, depending on the number of new jobs and the amount of new commercial space developed. At the low end of the scale, projects which developed at least 7,500 square feet of new commercial space and created a minimum of 25 new jobs for East Austin residents would be eligible for the 35 percent rebate on property taxes. At the upper end of the scale, projects which resulted in at least 30,000 square feet of new commercial space and more than 100 new jobs would be eligible for an 85 percent rebate.

The proposal also includes special provisions for new businesses seeking the tax rebates to contribute to a Homeowners' Assistance Fund. The goal of that fund is to help prevent gentrification in the area as more businesses move in and property values increase. Residents would be able to apply for financial assistance from the fund to go toward their utility bills. The guidelines for the property tax breaks for businesses are also designed to encourage mixed-use projects with an affordable housing component.

Both Council members stressed the need to ensure that boosting the economy in the area does not drive out existing residents. "Let's try to encourage economic growth and expand the tax base, but also try to come in and build some affordable housing around the area there so we try to mitigate the effects that development may have on the surrounding properties," said Alvarez. Since city property taxes account for less than half of the tax bill for most homeowners, State Representative Eddie Rodriguez said he would be pursuing legislation that would give other taxing jurisdictions the power to implement similar programs. "I'd like to work on maybe allowing the county to something similar to this, and I am definitely working at the state level to encourage districts like this throughout the state," he said. "I'll continue fighting for that, and using other tools at our disposal…such as community land grants and land banks."

The proposal put forth by Alvarez and Thomas falls under the guidelines of Chapter 380 of the Texas Local Government Code, which is the same chapter the city used to provide economic incentives for The Domain in Northwest Austin. They are promising a full round of public hearings over the next several months, which could be facilitated by the Office of Neighborhood Housing and Community Development. Certain East Austin residents complained about a lack of community input the last time a similar program was proposed. The City considered an application for designation as a federal "Empowerment Zone" from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in 2001 (See In Fact Daily, September 18, 2001). While the Council is scheduled to discuss the new Community Preservation and Revitalization Zone this Thursday and provide direction to the City Manager, Alvarez said a final vote on the creation of the zone would not be likely for at least three months.

Barrientos not happy with TCEQ's answers

Agency slow to respond to charge of lax enforcement

State Senator Gonzalo Barrientos (D-Austin) expressed frustration with the T exas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) during a Finance Committee meeting Monday, criticizing the agency's slowness to address a report from the State Auditor’s Office on TCEQ's enforcement policy.

According to the audit, issued last December, the agency was losing revenue because it failed to issue enforcement actions or settle enforcement cases in a timely fashion. The agency also failed to compute penalties accurately or collect fines fully. And, finally, TCEQ did not properly classify supplemental environmental projects, which also lost the state money. Those losses were estimated at about $2 million.

That lost revenue, however, was peanuts compared to the revenue that the agency could be collecting. The State Auditor's Office estimated the agency could be collecting an additional $25 million in revenue by simply eliminating the air emissions cap. By law, the commission is precluded from imposing a fee for emissions that exceed 4,000 tons per year, so the Legislature would have to change that law in order to allow the TCEQ to collect for greater emissions.

"I do not relish sitting here and asking these hard questions of state employees who live in my district and for whom I advocate," Barrientos told the trio, which included two commissioners and the agency's executive director. "You are established to regulate, and in my opinion and in the State Auditor's opinion, you haven't always done that."

Commissioner Larry Soward told Barrientos that the agency was in the middle of shifting not only its regulations and policies but also its philosophy. If the goal were to stop pollution before it started, the agency would have to be more aggressive in enforcement. The agency must be more proactive than reactive.

"We have to establish the basic proposition that it's got to be cheaper to comply with (regulations) than to violate them, and right now, it's cheaper to violate than it is to comply," Soward said.

TCEQ is moving, slowly, toward new enforcement policies. A public comment period on proposed changes just closed. Barrientos expressed frustration that TCEQ had not moved more quickly to implement the recommendations of the audit. Commission Chair Kathleen Hartnett White said the agency was in the process of reviewing fines, possibly differentiating between small and large business when it comes to the amount of penalties.

Committee Chair Sen. Steve Ogden (R-Bryan) said it shouldn't be the size of the business but the amount of the pollution that drives the fines. White agreed, saying that the fines should be tied to the genuine environmental impact.

Barrientos also wanted to know if the agency’s commissioners would raise the cap on fines for emission releases instead of offering "volume discounts." Right now, emission fines are limited. Barrientos wanted to double the cap, to 8000 tons of emissions, with the intention of generating new revenue for the agency. But the committee rejected his proposal.

White said she could take no position on the issue. Current fees are intended to cover the cost of the emissions program and they do so, White said. White said the commissioners could not take a position on the issue that the cap should stretch beyond the limits of the law. Executive Director Glenn Shankle said the agency generated $35 million through the program and also said lifting the cap would be an issue for the Legislature.

Barrientos' final question related to how TCEQ is permitting landfills. The Austin senator noted that he has two urban landfills in his district. Barrientos asked when, and if, those landfills should be limited in size.

White said the duration of current permits could not be changed. Landfills are currently permitted on the life of the site, rather than a particular time frame.

The lifespan of a landfill is a practical issue the agency should address, Soward said. Circumstances change around landfills, and that ought to be taken into consideration when landfill operators bring expansion plans to the commission. Soward suggested that landfills ought to be treated like airports, with wide buffering zones around them.

Got the political bug—or not . . . Planning Commission Chair Chris Riley has told In Fact Daily that he does not intend to run for either of the two City Council seats that longtime Council Members Jackie Goodman and Daryl Slusher are likely to vacate next spring. Riley said he’s having fun as chair of the Planning Commission and observed that the Council did not seem to be having that much fun. But there are those who apparently think otherwise. Still planning a race despite rumors to the contrary, is Margot Clarke, who currently works for the Sierra Club. Also still running is Lee Leffingwell, a retired Delta pilot who chairs the Environmental Board. Also making the rounds are Mandy Dealey, Jennifer Kim, Jeff Trigger and Gregg Knaupe. Dealey has a lengthy background of volunteer service and Kim is the owner of CM IT Solutions; Knaupe is Vice President of Public Affairs for the Texas Hospital Association and Trigger is managing director of the Driskill Hotel. Finally, Betty Baker, veteran chair of the Zoning and Platting Commission, is pondering whether to run . . . New officers for the Design Commission . . . Last night, the Design Commission selected Richard Weiss to serve as chair and Eleanor McKinney to serve as vice chair. Phil Reed will serve as parliamentarian and Holly Kincannon will continue as secretary of the commission . . . Eastside rally to support commuter rail . . . A pro-rail political action committee, ¡Adelante Metro! will kick off its campaign to convince residents of East Austin that commuter rail deserves their vote at 12:15pm today at Plaza Saltillo. The group, made up of members of the Hispanic business and community leaders, is especially interested in the role that Plaza Saltillo will play in the future of rail-oriented development for the East side. The group also plans to hold a pro-rail fundraiser Thursday night from 5:30 to 7:30pm at Nuevo Leon restaurant . . . Appointments … Last week, the City Council reappointed Andrew Clements and Chris Riley to the Downtown Commission. Robert Chapa Jr. was appointed and Toni Inglis reappointed to the Mental Health-Mental Retardation Center Board of Trustees, both by consensus. Council Member Brewster McCracken reappointed Carole Barron to the Resource Management Commission and Steven Pomikhal to the Electrical Board. Mayor Will Wynn appointed Amy Ann Kaprisin and Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman reappointed Jan Fulton to the Animal Advisory Commission, while Cathy Olive was reappointed to the same commission as the representative of Travis County Commissioners. Hannah Riddering was reappointed by consensus to the Airport Advisory Commission. Leo Anchondo won reappointment to the Commission on Immigrant Affairs and Gerardo Garza was reappointed to the Mechanical, Plumbing and Solar Board.

Copyright 2004 In Fact Daily

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