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Austin fire chief hanging up helmet

Thursday, October 28, 2004 by

After seven years at the helm of the Austin Fire Department, C hief Gary Warren is calling it quits. Warren informed City Manager Toby Futrell by memo that he intends to find another job, writing, " I have been blessed without measure for the last 31 years by being allowed the privilege to work and serve in the greatest Fire Department in the nation—the Austin Fire Department.”

Although Warren has received the support of both the manager and the Council during his seven-year tenure as chief, rank-and-file firefighters have been less than appreciative of his efforts to streamline the department.

Last year, the president of the Austin Association of Professional Firefighters called for Warren’s removal as chief after the union held a vote of “no confidence.” According to the union, 88 percent of those firefighters who voted indicated dissatisfaction with the chief's performance and more than two-thirds said he should go. (See In Fact Daily, September 16, 2003.) At that time, Futrell issued a written statement that “the no-confidence vote against Fire Chief Gary Warren will in no way sway my management decision to support Chief Warren.”

Last night, however, union president Mike Martinez was respectful of Warren. “I think it’s a good opportunity for us to look at other leaders around the country,” Martinez said. “He’s served for 31 years here and done his job to the best of his ability.” He added, “I think we should do a nationwide search. We consistently say we’re the best fire department in the country, so we should have the best leader.”

The chief’s letter did not give a timeline for his departure. However, in her subsequent memo to the Council, Futrell said, “We are working out a transition plan to take place during the next six months.”

Last night, Futrell said she especially appreciated the fact that Warren let her know of his decision prior to taking another job. As for doing a nationwide search, Futrell said she was inclined to do that but hasn't made a decision. The city manager stressed added that Warren “has been part of building one of the best Fire Departments in the country.” That department, she said, is very stable, with a number of “long-tenured strong folks who can serve as interim and acting” chief if Warren finds the perfect position in less than six months. Futrell said Warren is looking for “something that will absolutely fit,” after working in “a very tough environment here.”

Hill Country wins US183-A contract

Hill Country Constructors won tentative approval yesterday from the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority to complete the $178.3 million US 183-A toll road, making a construction start date by early next year all but guaranteed.

The new turnpike will extend a new six-lane section of US 183 from 3 miles north of Leander to RM 620/SH 45 and back over to US 183, creating a parallel bypass of Leander and Cedar Park for Williamson County commuters. If construction begins by the end of the year, as anticipated, the road should be open for commuter use in 2007.

Consulting Engineer Richard Ridings said the culmination of US 183-A was the work of more than 75 people, from both the public and private sectors. Before construction begins, CTRMA must secure final approval of the Texas Transportation Commission and the Federal Highway Administration. According to Ridings' progress report, the development of a quality assurance program, detailed scheduling of the project and minor construction tasks should begin as soon as the contract is signed.

Not meeting the assigned schedule will carry heavy penalties. According to an outline of the Comprehensive Development Agreement with Hill Country Constructors, the contractor must pay a $20,000-per-day fine for failure to deliver the project on time. The CDA requires substantial completion of the project within 730 days of the agreed start date.

Bonds for the project will go to market in January. Yesterday, the CTRMA board approved the draft policies for the toll revenues to pay for those bonds. The toll policies outlined procedures on toll collection, toll violators and toll tag accounts. Those policies are up for approval in December, with the anticipation of presenting them to the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization's Transportation Policy Committee on Dec. 13.

The Federal Highway Administration requires a quality assurance program on US 183-A, which will be an "over-the-shoulder review" of the progress on design/engineering. The oversight program is intended to make sure Hill Country Constructors uses appropriate personnel to build a good project, with an eye on minimizing maintenance costs.

Oversight costs are typically about eight percent of the total cost of the project, Ridings said. The oversight on US 183-A, which closely mirrors standards set on SH 130 and SH 45, will cost $14.1 million, or 7.95 percent of the overall contract.

Prompted by Chair Bob Tesch to explain how the costs of the oversight contract will be covered, Ridings said the cost of oversight should be covered by existing funds. Executive Director Mike Heiligenstein asked that the oversight costs be disbursed quarterly, or $1.7 million per quarter, over the life of the contract.

The CTRMA also amended its contract with Williamson County. To date, both Travis County and Williamson County have committed a combined $1.1 million to the day-to-day operations of the RMA. The last $300,000 contribution from Williamson County, however, was contributed from bond revenues, which did not allow the agency to use the funds for operations. Those bond funds were returned, and general revenue funds have now replaced them so that the CTRMA can use the funding for operations. – Kimberly Reeves.

Commuter rail fans rally in Leander

The Right Track Political Action Committee has raised and spent about $300,000 to push for the passage of the commuter rail proposal at the polls next Tuesday.

On Tuesday night, the Right Track PAC brought the message and a train car from the Hill County Flyer to Leander, where Mayor John Cowman offered an enthusiastic endorsement of the commuter rail proposal. Cowman, who ran for office on a pro-development platform, says the combination of commuter rail and US 183-A toll road will put Leander on the map.

Capital Metro Chair Lee Walker, Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority Bob Tesch and Rep. Mike Krusee (R-Taylor) joined Cowman at the rally. New Cedar Park Mayor Bob Antle also was on hand to lend moral support for the effort, even though Cedar Park has opted out of Capital Metro.

Walker, clearly exhausted from his dueling duties as Capital Metro Chair and President of the Lance Armstrong Foundation, told the crowd that polling indicated the vote would be a close one and urged the crowd to encourage people to come out to the polls to vote. Walker would not elaborate on the polling after his speech but said that the vote would be a good indicator as to how effectively Capital Metro had listened to feedback on the rail issue.

Supreme Court declines to undo PAC order

As expected, the Texas Supreme Court yesterday rejected a plea from attorneys for two Democratic House candidates to reconsider the court's decision to overturn Democratic Judge Paul Davis’ temporary restraining order preventing the Republican political action committee from collecting and spending corporate money.

Pat Robbins of the Associated Republicans of Texas (ART PAC) said she did not expect candidates Bob Glaze of Gilmer and David Liebowitz of San Antonio to pursue their lawsuit. Robbins, who believes the Democrats filed their suit on the first day of early voting just to make voters think badly of their opponents, Republican State Reps. Bryan Hughes of Mineola and Ken Mercer of San Antonio, said she could think of no reason why the case would go on.

But Cris Feldman, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said the hearing would go forward next Thursday—one day later than originally scheduled. “The only thing that happened with the Supreme Court is that they lifted the TRO,” he said. The high court specifically declined to rule on the merits of the case—which could have widespread impact if Judge Davis confirms his initial ruling. In his decision to grant the TRO, Davis agreed that ART PAC—and by extension other political action committees not attached to corporate groups—cannot take or spend money from corporations.

Robbins said she thought her committee might be looking at records for all political action committees on file at the Texas Ethics Commission to see which ones were taking corporate money.

First the fun stuff . . . Kooks Against Rail, a.k.a KAR, which describes itself as “less a group than a collection of individuals who don't seem to agree on much besides their shared anti-rail fanaticism” plans a news conference at 10:30am today at the Commissioners' Court, 11th and Guadalupe streets. Actually, anti-rail activists will be having a press conference at the aforementioned location. But unnamed pro-rail humorists have sent out a press release dismissing the collective arguments of Max Nofziger, James Skaggs, Skip Cameron, Steve Ravert, Don Zimmerman, and Steve Scherer.. . . Travis County voting in record numbers . . . When early voting stations closed yesterday, nearly 28 percent of Travis County's registered voters had cast ballots in this unprecedented showing of voter enthusiasm. Yesterday saw the highest number of voters so far, with 21,396 ballots cast on Wednesday. Since the polls opened for business on October 18, 162,836 voters have cast ballots. Travis County Clerk Dana de Beauvoir said that normally the highest numbers of voters appear during the final two days of the early voting period. She said she is expecting that to be true this year, as well. Nearly 15,000 voters have cast ballots at Northcross Mall alone, more than 11,000 have voted at the Randall's on Research Blvd. and nearly 10,400 have cast ballots at the University of Texas. Those numbers far outstrip the totals for 2000, when 23.7 percent of the county's registered voters voted early . . . Report from Hays County . . . Like voters throughout the state, Hays County residents are casting early ballots in record numbers. According to Sue Basham, assistant elections administrator, more than 14,628 voters had cast early ballots as of the end of the day on Tuesday. That’s about 18 percent of the county’s nearly 81,000 registered voters. "That's a huge turnout, " Basham said . . . RMA is audit city . . . Executive Director Mike Heiligenstein reported that the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority was doing its best to be cooperative with auditors from Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn's office. Strayhorn is auditing the transit authority’s expenses at the request of Council Member Brewster McCracken and Rep. Terry Keel (R-Austin). Board Member Lowell Lebermann joked that this audit, the third for the CTRMA in recent months, made the CTRMA an agency that has seen more audits than any other in its first 18 months. The Comptroller's Office says the results of the audit are still at least a month away. Heiligenstein says the CTRMA is open to any recommendations Strayhorn might make…. Quiet day expected at Council . . . It’s unwise to predict there will be no controversy at a City Council meeting, but this week’s agenda offers few likely items . . . Bad news for news hounds . . . Yesterday was a dark day at both the Dallas Morning News and Houston Chronicle. The two newspapers cut a combined 300 jobs from their payrolls, most from the Houston Chronicle. The Dallas Morning News cuts come after Belo Corp. admitted it had reported inaccurate circulation figures and was forced to refund money to advertisers. In an Associated Press story, the Chronicle said most of its cuts came from the ranks of contractors and unfilled positions. But some Morning News reporters were likely affected. The Capitol bureaus appear to be unaffected . . . Living in the past . . . In Fact Daily has been known to wax nostalgic, but we are more concerned with accuracy. It seems our description of the boundaries of Congressional District 31 in yesterday’s column referred to the current, pre-redistricting version. The boundaries of the new District 31 go from Williamson County in the south to Falls County on the east and up to Erath County in North Central Texas. Until a judge says otherwise.

Copyright 2004 In Fact Daily

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