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Austin in a hurry for approval of Mueller TIRZ

Monday, December 13, 2004 by

Travis County approves creation of tax district

Travis County Commissioners waived the 60-day notice for a public hearing and approved a tax-increment reinvestment zone ( TIRZ) for the Mueller redevelopment project last week. A TIRZ is a special district created by the city to attract new investment to an area. TIRZs help finance the cost of redeveloping areas like Mueller that might not otherwise attract market development as quickly as the city would like. Taxes attributable to new improvements are set aside in a fund to finance public improvements in the zone.

City leaders are under the gun to create the Mueller TIRZ before the end of the year if the city intends to collect any benefits from the TIRZ in next year’s tax collections. Deputy Chief Financial Officer Vicki Schubert explained to the commissioners last week that the 1,000-page Mueller master developer agreement ( MDA) was not completed until the beginning of November, making the TIRZ creation imminent. The City Council approved the MDA on December 2. “Because of the complexity of the agreement, we were not comfortable moving forward with the financing plan and the TIRZ until the agreement was finalized,” Schubert said

Commissioner Karen Sonleitner, however, would not let the moment pass without raising the issue of the county’s participation in Mueller, both materially and financially. It was only during last week’s hearings that the county learned that the City Council would be given veto power over the participation of any other governmental agency in Mueller.

“I’m having a hard time understanding, because at one point not so very long ago, Travis County was one of many entities that was being actively talked to about whether we are interested in being a part of the airport redevelopment project,” said Sonleitner, noting that the topic was mentioned as early as the selection of Catellus as the developer. “Now it seems like that is not what’s being talked about. It’s like that will have to be an exception as opposed to that there was some sense that there would be inclusion from the beginning.”

Sonleitner said it was a bit disturbing that Austin would be able to veto Travis County’s participation, as well as Austin Community College and Capital Metro. She said the inclusion of the policy in the final Mueller MDA gave the appearance of “rewriting history.” The Mueller TIRZ goes to Council on Thursday night.

“It seemed to feel like a veto when, at some point, we were all being told that this is an amazing project,” Sonleitner said. “Some of the largest local employers out there are going to be treated differently than other potential employers out there.”

Christian Smith, executive director of the Planning and Budget Office, told the Commissioners he had talked to Mueller Project Manager Greg Weaver as recently as the prior day. The two had agreed that it would be beneficial for county leaders and Catellus, the project developer, to sit down for a discussion of Travis County’s participation in Mueller. That discussion could occur at a workshop session as early as January.

“I think what one must do is go into this with good faith. And that’s my intent. And I think that that would come from both parties,” Smith said. “The county brings some interesting characteristics to the table from a straight financial standpoint. I recognize that the county will not be paying taxes (to the city) and, therefore, there is some issue.”

Still, the issue of whether Travis County will be at Catellus should stand apart from the TIRZ creation, Smith said. While all the taxing entities will sign off on the TIRZ, only the city’s property tax revenues will be pulled for the funding of infrastructure.

“I suggested to Mr. Weaver that this request for a 60-day exception has much less to do with Catellus and much more to do with the City of Austin,” Smith said. “It is a fact that the MDA is signed, and the MDA does have this clause.”

Commissioners agreed to call the question on the TIRZ. They approved the creation unanimously, with Commissioner Margaret Gomez absent from the meeting. The court also approved the appointment of Smith to the Mueller TIRZ board of directors.

Other taxing entities that are will be asked to waive the 60-day notice include ACC, the Travis County Hospital District, and the Austin Independent School District. The ACC Board of Trustees is set to consider the matter at its meeting tonight. The Hospital District Board of Managers approved the waiver last week. The item was posted for the AISD board to consider last week. In addition to waiving the notice requirement on the public hearing, the city was also asking AISD to relinquish its potential seat on the governing board of the TIRZ. Several board members had questions about that part of the proposal, and directed their staff to provide more information and to place the item back on tonight's AISD board agenda. The board could vote simply to waive the notice requirement on the public hearing, leaving any decision on representation on the TIRZ for a future date.

During Tuesday’s meeting, county commissioners also approved the interlocal agreements with Austin for StarFlight and EMS ground services. The two services were separated to provide more transparency. County Judge Sam Biscoe asked for more details about the role and goals of the advisory board, which has dealt with quality assurance issues in the past but may take a broader role in recommending policy issues in the future.

ZAP OKs plan for Kinney Ave. lawyer's office

The Zoning and Platting Commission rejected a staff recommendation Tuesday night, voicing approval of a zoning change that would allow an attorney to set up an office in a residence on Kinney Avenue near South Lamar. Attorney Clarence Jacobsen, who lives in the neighborhood, petitioned to have the property rezoned from Single Family district 3 (SF3) to Neighborhood Office (NO) in order to have a place to work closer to his home. The matter will now go to the City Council.

Planner Tom Bolt told commissioners that the staff was recommending disapproval of the change because the property in question was situated between two residential properties and would not be compatible with the neighborhood. Consultant Sarah Crocker, representing the owner, said his use of the property as a law office would have very little impact on the neighborhood, and his plans for the property would actually be an improvement over its current condition. “We plan to re-vegetate the front yard of the property, which is currently covered with gravel,” Crocker said. “He will only have one employee, and estimates that the property will only see 75 trips a day.”

Commissioners seemed sensitive to any changes in the Kinney Avenue area due to some high profile, controversial zoning cases in the Sough Lamar corridor in recent months, including the Maria’s Taco Xpress/Walgreens case and a planned condominium complex at 1209 Kinney Ave. Both issues brought out organized opposition from the Zilker Neighborhood Association and others. The Zilker group had expressed some opposition to the zoning change for the attorney’s office, but no one representing the group came to speak at the ZAP meeting.

Crocker told Commissioners that even though he was asking for NO designation, the owner would agree to limit the property to SF3 development regulations in addition to other specified limits. “We know that there is concern about ‘commercial creep’ in this neighborhood,” she said. “The average depth of commercial development off of South Lamar (in this area) is 410 feet into the neighborhood. This property would only extend the commercial development on Kinney to 235 feet from 210 feet to start with.”

In addition, the owner has agreed to prohibit other uses for the property, including bed and breakfast, safety services, counseling services, communication service facilities, family home, and all conditional uses listed in the NO zoning district.

Commissioner Keith Jackson asked if the owner would also prohibit operation of a child care facility and delete the Special Uses-Historical designation. Crocker said that would be acceptable.

The change to neighborhood office zoning won a positive recommendation on a 6-to-2 vote, with Vice Chair Joseph Martinez and Commissioner John Donisi voting “no.”

Protestors take ballot complaints to Capitol

Skeptics of electronic voting machines like those used in some of the largest counties in Texas rallied at the State Capitol on Sunday to call for a recount of the November 2 Presidential Election results and for new laws mandating a return to paper voting systems. The rally, repeated in 49 other state capitols and in Washington DC as part of the “You Stole My Vote 51 Capital March,” was scheduled to precede today’s meeting of state electors, who actually select the President and Vice President under the Electoral College system. A crowd of about 100, many of them carrying signs with messages like "Ban the Machines" or "Count the Votes," gathered on the south steps of the Capitol to hear from speakers who said the election had been hijacked. "It's like with presidential candidate Howard Dean, who was actually winning on machines that weren't Diebold," said radio talk-show host Alex Jones, referring to the company that makes a widely-used brand of electronic voting machine. "But Kerry got a higher percentage on those magic Diebold machines so they could get Bush's cousin in there as a ringer to lay down to steal your Democratic Party from you. It's time for you to face up to that…they're cousins," he said of President George W. Bush and John Kerry. "They're Skull and Bones; they're almost identical other than the rhetoric."

The machines manufactured by Diebold and the political leanings of that company's officers have been the chief target of those opposed to the electronic voting systems so far. However, Jones also unleashed his rhetoric on Austin-based Hart InterCivic, which makes the E-Slate machines used by Travis County. Jones alleged that the company's ownership was biased in favor of the Bush administration.

Organizers of the rally circulated a petition through the crowd, which called for a recount of the election results and a ban on electronic voting machines. The lack of a receipt is the source of consternation for many electronic voting opponents, such as former Texas Supreme Court candidate David Van Os. "When you go to a bank to deposit your paycheck, would you even dream that a bank teller would tell you that you can't get a receipt for your deposit? No, you wouldn't even listen to it. But for your precious right to vote, you're expected to trust the inside of a machine even without a receipt," he said. "Americans everywhere ought to be storming the streets. It is incredible to believe that we let them steal a presidential election in 2000, and then we talked about it and griped about it for four years, and then in 2004, we let them do it again."

Election officials have repeatedly tackled the issue of providing paper items similar to receipts for voters, pointing out that even under the paper ballot systems used previously, voters were not issued a slip of paper showing which candidates they chose.

The rally ended with a march down Congress Avenue and a call to support legislation filed in the Texas House of Representatives for the upcoming legislative session. State Rep. Aaron Pena (D-Edinburg) has filed a bill that would require a "paper audit trail" for electronic voting systems, which would list both the contests on the ballot and a voter's choices in those contests. Under House Bill 166, electronic voting machines would also have to create an "auditable paper record…that allows a voter to confirm the choice the voter made through both a visual and non-visual method, before the voter casts the ballot."

Knaupe kicking off campaign. . . Gregg Knaupe has sent a letter inviting folks to his campaign kickoff Wednesday night. His letter reflects at least two of Austinites’ typical concerns–developing a strategy for addressing growth and improving Austin's relationship with "other levels of government.” Knaupe is a lobbyist for the Texas Hospital Association, a job that gives him access to Congress and the Texas Legislature. As reflected in his letter, Knaupe is still trying to determine whether it is better to run against Lee Leffingwell, the favorite for Place 1, or to join the pack of candidates vying for Place 3, currently occupied by Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman. Leffingwell has a running start to take C ouncil Member Daryl Slusher’s seat for numerous reasons, including his service as chair of the Environmental Board for five years and relationships with environmental leaders and labor. There is not yet a clear favorite in Place 3, but Margot Clarke has the edge in name identification and environmental credentials. Many people consider Place 3 to be a "woman's seat " and no woman has announced for Place 1. Other candidates running for Place 3 include Mandy Dealey, Jennifer Kim and Jeff Trigger. Knaupe’s party is at Little Mexico, 2304 S. 1st Street from 5:30 to 7:30pm Wednesday. . . Happening tonight . . . CAMPO Transportation Policy Board holds a public hearing tonight on proposed changes to the 2025 Transportation Plan, including adding the Capital Metro commuter rail line approved by voters this fall. The Board will also get a briefing from the CTRMA on toll road policies and policies for managed lanes, which could include toll lanes or HOV lanes. The meeting begins at 6pm in the LBJ Auditorium, 2313 Red River. . . The Board of Adjustment /Sign Review Board meets at 5:30pm in Room 325 of One Texas Center. One item on the BOA agenda . . . First scars . . . Skateboarders have been taking advantage of the ramps and stairways at the new City Hall and have left behind their mark on the building's limestone exterior. "We don't think there was any malicious intent," said Assistant City Manager Rudy Garza, "but we've experienced some significant damage to our brand new home." That includes chips and cracks in the limestone and wheel marks on the sidewalks. To address the issue, the Council will vote on Thursday on amending the city's existing skateboarding ordinance to add the new City Hall to the list of places where skateboarding is prohibited. In the meantime, police will ask skaters to stay away from the property and will be authorized to issue criminal trespass warnings to those who don't leave voluntarily . . . APD loses two of its own . . The Austin Police Department is mourning the loss of two long-time officers over the weekend. Commander Shauna Jacobson and her husband, retired Detective Kurt Jacobson, were killed in a traffic accident on SH 71 in Travis County.

Copyright 2004 In Fact Daily

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