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Committee worries about BCCP staff

Monday, January 10, 2005 by

Members of the Balcones Canyonlands Conservation Plan Citizens Advisory Committee are urging preserve staff to step up their efforts to recruit and train new volunteers to help with the management of thousands of acres set aside by the City of Austin and Travis County to protect endangered species’ habitat. That move comes after committee member Mary Ruth Holder wrote to the Mayor and other top city officials expressing concerns with the overall staffing level in the BCP program.

"I was thinking about the past year, and the encounters that I've had with the BCP staff," Holder said at the most recent advisory committee meeting. "I was aware that some long-time, really excellent biologists have left the city staff, and I started getting more concerned." Holder said she was worried that the remaining staff would have difficulty accomplishing all of its tasks, given the vast amount of acreage involved in the BCP. In her letter, she described the BCP as "chronically understaffed" and characterized the city's process for hiring new employees as "glacial."

At the citizens advisory committee meeting, BCCP Secretary William Conrad conceded that the deliberate nature of the city's hiring process could sometimes be frustrating for all involved. But he also noted that the staff that had left had been replaced, and that some turnover was only natural as with any organization. "We've had some serious attrition over the last two years on our staff. We had some excellent people that we've lost. But part of my experience is that staff changes; people come and go," he said. "I feel like that we've done a good job of recruiting new staff. We've replaced all the people we've lost. That's part of life and that's part of what goes on."

Holder also received a written response from Water and Wastewater Utility Director Chris Lippe, whose department oversees the administration of the BCCP. Holder had noted that some of the staffing difficulties she encountered had arisen after the BCCP was transferred to the utility from the Parks and Recreation Department. But Lippe said the two issues were not related. "The city was experiencing the most serious fiscal crisis it has encountered in over a decade" when the transition occurred, Lippe pointed out. "Budgets and staffing for most non-public safety programs were cut. However, during that time, staffing for Wildlands was kept stable because of our priority for this program."

Part of the reason the administration of the BCCP was switched to Water and Wastewater was that department was already handling the management of the city's Water Quality Protection Lands. The similar responsibilities of the two programs should allow some shared resources and efficiencies. "We've got a five-year staffing plan that is in the draft stage right now," said BCCP Secretary William Conrad. "Our proposal is to move to a staff of about 23 people. That's our vision today. We may change that. I think it's a living document and we have to work through it," he said. "We're probably not talking about adding many new biologists…..but we're adding some other disciplines. Right now, our biologists are doing all sorts of things besides biology. So what we're trying to do is bring in some skills to share between both programs…so that biologists are doing biology, security people are doing security, facilities maintenance are doing facilities maintenance…etc."

Both Holder and BCCP Citizens Advisory Committee Chair Ted Siff urged Conrad and other BCCP staff to utilize citizen volunteers to help with as many duties as possible. "The volunteer element…there may be some elements of the management functions that could be done by the public," said Siff. "We want to be a vehicle for it." During the past year, the program has brought on board a new volunteer coordinator, and Conrad says the office is doing more to train citizen volunteers in several areas, including rules for public access to preserve lands.

Utility promises relief to homeowners

A water utility construction project in the heart of Hyde Park has some residents upset with a contractor’s choice of staging area. That prompted an Austin Water Utility (AWU) official to brief the city Environmental Board last week on steps they are taking to resolve the problem by moving the staging area to a new site.

Reynaldo Cantu with AWU said the contractor on the Upper West Waller project needed additional space for an area to store materials and equipment for the project. The project includes the construction of a new wastewater line on East 47th Street, Avenue H, and East 45th Street. In addition, a new wastewater line will be installed to collect service line flows from residences.

Cantu said the contractor made an arrangement with a landowner to use a large vacant lot on 42nd street near the construction site, but noise from the staging area upset several homeowners whose property abuts the area. “The staging area needs to be in close proximity to the project,” said Cantu. “It keeps costs down on the project and also cuts down on the distance the large vehicles travel to and from the site.”

But the activity on the lot became a nuisance, according to Linda Van Bavel, who lives next to the area with her husband and small child. “The activity over there is very loud, and it is really affecting our lives,” she said. “It’s very disturbing to see and hear a front-end loader operating just outside your kitchen window.” She also said that despite a regulation that the contractor shut down by 7pm each night, they often worked well past that and had been at it until midnight at least once.

Van Bavel was also concerned about damage to trees and native grasses on the lot. “Last spring, some time after the old house had been removed from the lot, there was an incredible stand of bluebonnets growing there,” she said. “There are also eight or ten very large pecan trees on the lot that could be damaged by the vehicles.”

Responding to her concerns, and those of several board members, Cantu outlined steps that the city requires the contractor to take. Those include protection of the trees and their root systems, and replanting the area with native grasses after the lot is vacated. Cantu said AWU has found an area near Shipe Park and northwest of the Elizabet Ney Museum that meets both the environmental conditions necessary for a staging area, and is far enough from area homes so as not to be a nuisance.

“The area is above the flood plain, so any spoils stored on site will not be washed away,” Cantu said. “We will also require thick mulch at the base of the trees, along with erosion control measures on the site. As a part of the contract, in exchange for use of the site, the contractor will professionally trim the trees in the area, and resurface the tennis court in the park.”

Cantu said the construction company plans to have all its equipment and materials out of the 42nd Street lot and transferred to the new site by the end of January, if the plan is approved by the Parks and Recreation board. There will be a public hearing on the plan at that board’s next meeting, January 25.

Cantu also added that his department is changing the process by which such staging sites are chosen in residential areas, giving residents more notice and input on the process. “We will be identifying the areas chosen for staging sites based on finding the best site that impacts the least amount of people,” he said.

©2005 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved

The other shoe . . . In case you missed it, Jeff Trigger, the lone man in the race for City Council Place 3, called it quits on Friday. That makes supporters of Gregg Knaupe happy and clears the way for him to be the only man in that race. Knaupe will make issue an official statement about Place 3 today, according to his campaign manager, Mark Littlefield. The women candidates— Margot Clarke, Mandy Dealey and J ennifer Kim—never had any doubt about wanting the spot now held by Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman. But Knaupe, who announced in November that he was running, has been closed-mouth about which seat he would try to win . . . Other candidates, including Lee Leffingwell, the heir-apparent to Daryl Slusher’s Place 1 seat, have been busy raising money. An obvious reason for Trigger’s decision was the fact that he had only raised $13,000, which he will return. That money is now likely freed up for one of the other Place 3 candidates. Campaign finance reports are due next week. They will show how much the candidates were able to raise by Dec. 31, 2004. All three of the women contenders are likely to have brought in more than Trigger. Anyone who hasn’t could make that up, of course, but it’s not that easy at $100 per contributor. So, that leaves candidates without fund-raiser prowess looking at their own bank accounts. There will be a lot of tea leaf reading over the money reported January 18. Candidates are not required to file another report of its kind until April 7, just 30 days before the election. A lot could happen in-between . . . More money for lobbyists . . . The Travis County Hospital District’s Board of Managers amended its budget last week, bumping the total for legislative services up to $80,000. The board’s original budget was $75,000. The board shifted an extra $5,000 from a budget line item for consulting. Board Chair Clark said the shift would allow the board to pay HillCo Partners “a total of $80k for the year assuming that they hire a qualified HUB subcontractor for the session.” He explained that the board is particularly interested in working with healthcare expert Marcia Jones, who will serve as the principal on the account . . . Sheriff’s Office to start outreach program . . . Pamela Mayo Clark has been named to a new position in the Travis County Sheriff's Office. She will do community outreach, although her title is Director of Social Services . . . Meetings today . . . The Board of Adjustment and Sign Review Board will meet in Room 325 of One Texas Center at 5:30pm; the Design Commission will meet in Room 523 of One Texas Center at 5:45pm. The Saltillo District Redevelopment Project Community Advisory Group will meet at the Capital Metro offices, 2910 East 5th Street, Board Room A from 12:00 – 1:30pm. . . Education roundtable announced . . . The next Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce-IBM Education Roundtable will focus on the public school finance decision and education issues before the upcoming Legislative session. David Thompson, the attorney for the 263 plaintiffs who challenged the Texas School Finance System, will address the court's decision, ramifications to the decision and other educational issues before the 79th Texas Legislature. The next Roundtable is at 7:30am Friday, Jan. 28, in the main building at St. Edward's University.. Register at www.austinchamber.org or 512-322-5623 . . . Regional water planning meeting set . . . The public is invited discuss elements of a future regional water plan that will map out how to conserve water supplies, meet future water needs and respond to future droughts in the Lower Colorado River Basin. The meeting will begin at 10am Wednesday at McKinney Roughs, 1884 Highway 71, in Bastrop. The Region K Planning Group is working to respond to comprehensive water legislation passed by the 75th Texas Legislature designed to address Texas’ vulnerability to drought and to the limits of existing water supplies Region K includes: Bastrop, Blanco, Burnet, Colorado, Fayette, Gillespie, Hays, Llano, Matagorda, Mills, San Saba, Travis, Wharton and Williamson Counties. Additional information on the project can be obtained at www.regionk.org

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