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Impending retirements drive changes at city

Thursday, November 18, 2004 by

Futrell frets about city's future managers

City Manager Toby Futrell has assigned Kristen Vassallo to head up two departments previously managed by assistant city managers. Vassallo, whose title is Director of Communications and Public Information, will be in charge of Government Relations and the Human Resources Department. In addition, Acting Assistant City Manager Mike McDonald will take on oversight of the Solid Waste Services Department, which includes code enforcement. Futrell also has talked the city’s retired Chief Financial Officer, John Stephens, into staying with the city for a few more years.

Yesterday, Stephens joked about his on-again off-again retirement, saying, " It's such a great place to work, it's hard to stay away.” Stephens tried to retire but Futrell asked him to stay on until she could find a new chief financial officer. Stephens said that he has been officially “unretired” since October 1. Futrell said she was able to talk her CFO into continuing his service by providing him with interesting work. In addition, she has lightened his additional load—he was an Acting Assistant City Manager for some time. Although Stephens is still overseeing the Aviation Department and the Convention Center Department, he said that would change when the city hires a new Assistant City Manager. He has made no secret of the fact that he does not enjoy managing departments outside of the Financial and Administrative Services Department.

Although she no longer faces the immediate problem of finding a new chief for financial matters, Futrell said she is still quite concerned about the city’s ability to find and hire management level staff. One of the big problems is money, she said. ““We’re really in a crisis mode here and I’m not exaggerating. I've been trying to send this message: literally a third or more (of the city’s managers) is retiring or discussing or planning retirement.” Those who stay beyond the date when they can retire with full benefits do so for very little pay, she said. But the bigger problem is that Austin’s salaries are so far behind what other cities, as well as the private sector, are willing to pay. Although the city did a market study in the late 1990s for the majority of city jobs, Futrell said, no study of executive salaries has been done in the past 15 years, leaving Austin’s management salaries below par.

By way of example—not complaint, she said, “My salary is below the salary of the man who runs Lubbock. People are in Austin for other reasons. We made choices not to go other places.” But Futrell said the city cannot count on that being the case for a new generation of managers.

“Our salaries are so far below market,” she said, “We went out three times on the CFO,” Stephens agreed to stay for a few more years. Now the city is advertising for a new Budget Officer and a new Deputy CFO. Rudy Garza, who has been promoted to Acting Assistant City Manager, is still doing the budget work. Deputy Chief Financial Officer Vicky Schubert plans to retire next spring and Deputy City Manager Joe Canales will be retiring in seven months. Canales’ planned departure is one of the reasons why she is redistributing the departmental workload, Futrell said.

In a memo to the Mayor and Council, Futrell said that McDonald will "be the lead corporate representative for the evaluation of code enforcement. This role will enable him also to better oversee the project and ensure implementation of any changes in the upcoming year.” The city is evaluating its code enforcement, which was consolidated with Solid Waste Services on the first of October. "This consolidation allows the city to be more responsive to our customers, who are increasingly concerned about code violations that affect quality of life and neighborhood vitality," Futrell wrote.

Vassallo served under Mayor Kirk Watson as chief of staff and then left the city to become his campaign manager when Watson ran for Attorney General, before coming back to the city to take her current job. “Kristen’s background in policy, government and state politics will prove beneficial not only in our upcoming legislative session, but also in our Human Resources Department,” according to Futrell.

Demolition denied, fate of historic house in limbo

A second call to demolish the house at 609 West Lynn passed under the radar at Monday night’s Historic Landmark Commission (HLC) meeting.so quietly that even the Old West Austin Neighborhood Association (OWANA) came close to missing a vote for historic designation, The two properties on West Lynn – one at 609 West Lynn and the other at 611 West Lynn – were the subject of a neighborhood uprising in October 2003. A developer had offered the owners, the Dildy family, $1.2 million for the land in order to build an upscale apartment complex. OWANA members gathered more than 400 signatures to stop the demolition of the two houses.

When the Historic Landmark Commission saw the neighborhood’s concern and the significance of the two homes, it immediately initiated historic zoning on the two turn-of-the-century properties. Shortly thereafter, the Dildy family, split over the sale, withdrew the demolition permit requests on the properties.

The property at 609 West Lynn anchors the Old West Austin community in terms of significance and history. It was built in 1893 and much of its original façade remains intact. HLC members noted the two-story Queen Anne-style home, owned by the early principal of the Pease School and the aunt of Gov. Daniel Moody, meets 7 of the 13 criteria set out in the current historic preservation ordinance.

The Dildy family is still split over the sale, but owner William Dildy returned to the Historic Landmark Commission on Monday night with a second demolition request, citing the serious deterioration of the property and an inability to repair the structure. Sarah Crocker, who was acting on behalf of Dildy, told the HLC she had hired a structural engineer with strong preservation leanings to evaluate the house.

Engineer Jerry Garcia wrote, and Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky concurred, that the house had deteriorated to the point that it was almost beyond repair. Crocker presented pictures that showed that the house was leaning on its foundation and had water pooling underneath because of the lack of a gutter system. The home also has a gas leak and a bathroom that is no longer operable. The Dildy family would like to say good-bye to the tenant and begin the process of selling the property as soon as possible, Crocker said.

“We’re very reluctantly asking for the approval of the demolition permit because of the condition of the house,” said Crocker, who did not deny the historic significance of the building. “The current condition of the house is very unfortunate because it’s a wonderful house with a wonderful history and ties to both history and its place on West Lynn Street.”

Dildy told the HLC that he needed to sell the house to provide for his mother’s care. Care for both his parents had cost the family more than $500,000, and with no possibility of restoring the house or deriving an income from it, Dildy said he wanted to seriously entertain an offer to sell the property to a buyer. The buyer was a professional football player who wanted to move back to Austin with his family. Dildy said he gave the offer serious consideration because of the buyer’s willingness to put a single-family home on the property rather than an apartment complex.

Steve Culburn of OWANA addressed the HLC and asked for a postponement for further review by the group. The niece of Dildy, who’s mother has right of first refusal, also asked for a delay. But Crocker did not agree to a delay, making it imperative for the HLC to either recommend historic preservation status or release the demolition permit. The ordinance is so vague, said HLC Chair Lisa Laky,that she could not guarantee that a delay would not lead to a release of the demolition permit.

Commissioner Patti Hansen did ask Dildy whether he had ever considered putting the property on the market, as is. Dildy said he would have been open to such a proposal but that the engineering report had convinced him he could not renovate the property.

Sadowsky did read a portion of the code that allowed the HLC to consider the condition of the house when considering a demolition permit. Hansen said that the evidence for historic preservation, however, was overwhelming. She moved to recommend historic designation for the house, which was seconded by Jean Mather. The vote was unanimous.

The recommendation will now move on to the Planning Commission and then Council.

PUC rate case favors LCRA, says board VP

The board of directors of the Lower Colorado River Authority heard a positive preliminary report Wednesday on a yearlong rate case before the Texas Public Utility Commission (PUC). The hearing involved a challenge to the rates charged by the LCRA’s Transmission Services Corporation (TSC) subsidiary. The LCRA board merely switches hats to become the board for the TSC.

Board Vice President Heather Bailey told her colleagues that the PUC report comes squarely down on the side of the LCRA.

“It’s one of the better reports I’ve ever read,” Bailey said. “The judges focused on the facts in the case, both in terms of rates and policy impact. The comments in the report are worth a lot to us in future rate formulation. It contains significant policy statements.”

She said the case initially challenged a proposed rate of $3.08 per MW, but the initial ruling puts the final rate between $2.57 and $2.62. “We will have to refund a portion of the interim rate,” she said. “But because we held back a portion of the revenue, it will not affect our operations.”

But she said there were other obstacles to overcome.

“In the process, the structure of the Transmission Service Corporation itself was challenged,” she said. “There were charges that we were not independent enough from the LCRA, that nobody was looking out for the taxpayers. But in the ruling, the hearing judge found that all of our structure is appropriate.”

Bailey said the rates set by the PUC will serve the TSC for some time, and the staff is currently assessing when it will be necessary to file for a new rate. The PUC will take comments on the preliminary ruling until Dec. 6, and a final order is scheduled on Jan 13.

Some protest rural water rates

In other business, the board voted to amend the Hill Country and West Travis County Regional Systems rate schedules. The amendment will increase water use rates in several small water districts served by the LCRA, adding the areas of Tow Village on Lake Buchanan and Eagle Bluff on Lake LBJ to the group. The change will result in an average increase of between $5 and $12 a month per customer.

Two people addressed the board regarding the amendment.

Lois Pilgrim, a resident of Sandy Harbor, near Jonestown, complained that setting a 3,000-gallon minimum was not fair to 40 percent of the homeowners who do not live in the area on a regular basis. “The original proposal would have set the minimum at 1,500 gallons, but that proposal was changed,” she said. “It’s rare if we use more than 500 gallons a month but we are going to have to pay more for the higher amount.” LCRA staff said the 3,000-gallon minimum was needed to maintain enough revenue to pay for the system.

Pat Stinnett, president of the Lake Pointe Homeowners Association acknowledged the need for the rate increase for her area, but wanted to make certain that the extra revenue would go to fix some problems with the local water system. “We have a significant odor problem in our area,” she said. “There are about 950 homes in the Lake Pointe subdivision, and at one time or another, 90 to 95 percent of them can smell the wastewater system. We have had 145 complaints registered between May 15 and Nov. 5.”

She said the water treatment plant at the center of the subdivision is the primary problem. Stinnett added that the system had been built by the original developer and bought by the LCRA at a later date. “We have made a good faith effort to work with your staff,” she said. Members of the staff told board members that they are planning a series of major maintenance improvements to the system over the next 12 to 14 months.

City Council meeting today . . . The Council is scheduled to conduct a public hearing and consider enacting a new ordinance relating to historic landmarks. They will also consider dwelling unit occupancy limits on two-family residential uses and secondary apartment special uses. Both hearings are scheduled for 6pm . . . New possible candidate . . . Yesterday, In Fact Daily reported on the first candidate forum of the season. As time for filing grows near, there will no doubt be more candidates eyeing Place 1 and Place 3 in particular. One name that has surfaced this week won’t be entirely unfamiliar to those who follow city politics. Brad Meltzer, who ran for Mayor last year, is considering his options. According to Ron Dusek, who took notes at the Truluck’s forum, says Meltzer “is receiving considerable encouragement from his friends and supporters, but wants some additional time to make the decision.” Candidate Mandy Dealey missed Tuesday’s forum due to a family emergency . . . Literacy Austin celebrates . . . Literacy Austin, the only Central Texas agency assisting adults who read below the 5th grade level, is celebrating its 20th anniversary today. The event is open to the public, beginning at 5:30pm at 2222 Rosewood Avenue. For more information, call 478-7323 . . . Sales tax numbers still good . . . John Stephens, CFO for the City of Austin, reports that the city’s sales tax revenues were up 6.1 percent above November 2003. “When Council was deliberating the budget we expected we would end FY04 with $117,860,149 in sales tax revenue. This number was the base we projected from for FY05, with an estimated 5 percent growth.” The city received about $135,000 less in October than anticipated, but Stephens says, “We should be OK in FY 05 though, having grown 6.6 percent in 2004” . . . Congratulations in order . . . Fox7 News reporter Jack Hirschfield has been named Communications Director for newly elected Congressman Michael McCaul. He will begin that job as of January 4, 2005. Until then he will continue his reporting duties . . . Boating ban . . . No one should be surprised to learn that flooding means no boating is allowed on Barton Creek, Town Lake, Lake Austin from Mansfield Dam to Commons Ford and from Walsh Landing to Tom Miller Dam. Boating is also banned on the Colorado River below Longhorn Dam. Anyone with property in the ban area should contact the Park Police from 8am to 5pm for permission to secure property in the designated areas.

Copyright 2004 In Fact Daily

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