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Futrell explains specifics of Midtown Live loan

Tuesday, March 22, 2005 by

Ferocity of complaints surprise Council, Manager

Complaints about a proposed loan to rebuild an East Austin nightclub have left some Council Members jittery and others unhappy about the outpouring of negative sentiment from some in the community.

Council Member Danny Thomas, who grew up in Austin, has faced racism in some form all of his life. “I thought we had gotten a little bit beyond where we are, but we haven’t,” he said, noting that citizens are still not beyond using “the N-word.” Thomas said, “I asked the City Manager last year how many venues we have for African-Americans.” Thomas said Midtown Live, which is now in ashes, Victory Grill and the Sahara Club were the only ones. There are so few nightclubs catering specifically to African-Americans, he said, people frequently travel to Killeen, Houston or Dallas for such entertainment. Some even venture to Atlanta, he said.

City Manager Toby Futrell has scheduled a briefing at this week’s Council meeting by demographer Ryan Robinson on the “African-American Scorecard: An Analysis of Comparative Indicators for Austin, Texas.” After the briefing, the Council will consider a resolution to address quality of life issues for African-Americans and develop strategies for dealing with such issues. They are also scheduled to vote on extension of a loan, under Chapter 380 of the Texas Local Government Code, to Midtown Live. Futrell said she and the Council had received about 50 or 60 emails on the subject as well as about 50 phone calls.

Futrell said the briefing was added because, “the context (for the Midtown Live loan) is getting muddied up; we are trying to reframe what led us here in the first place . . . Had the fire never occurred, we were working on the issue through this report. We are in a net population loss of African -Americans…We are not attracting or retaining young African- Americans in our community.”

She described the agreement as the same type that had been extended to Liberty Lunch, a loan being secured by the property and any other collateral necessary to insure repayment. The maximum loan amount, she said, would be $750,000. Like other Chapter 380 agreements, she said, the owners of Midtown Live would be expected to generate sales tax revenues and new jobs for the city. In addition, Futrell said the nightclub would make some improvements, including a new stage that would be easier to see than the old one and a kitchen. Midtown Live must provide jobs for 26 to 27 employees, she said. In the past, the club has had 20 employees.

If the club meets its yearly performance measurements, the loan payment for that year will not come due. However, if the club fails to meet those requirements, the money would be due at the rate of five percent per year for 20 years. Funds will be administered through the city’s Economic Development Office and may only be used to draw down on construction costs, Futrell said.

Notes from the campaign trail

ALGPC endorses Leffingwell, Dunkerley, Clarke and Dealey

After putting City Council candidates through a bevy of questions specific to its political and socials causes, the Austin Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus (AGLPC) voted last night to endorse candidates in all three races on the May 7 ballot.

The group endorsed Lee Leffingwell in the Place 1 race and Betty Dunkerley in the Place 4 race. No candidate in the Place 3 race was able to muster the 60 percent necessary to earn a solo endorsement, so the group voted to split the endorsement between candidates Margot Clarke and Mandy Dealey.

Council hopefuls were given two minutes to outline their positions, and then three minutes to answer questions from AGLPC members. Because of several candidate forums scheduled on the same night, candidates came and went throughout the two-hour meeting.

Instead of the usual barrage of questions about toll roads, growth and the anti-smoking referendum, candidates fielded queries on topics such as recruiting of gays and lesbians in fire, police and EMS jobs, increase sensitivity to gay and lesbian issues for APD officers, and additional city support for a counseling services for gay teens.

Place 1 candidates’ answers were mixed on whether the city should actively recruit more gays for police, fire and EMS jobs. Leffingwell said he wasn’t familiar with what the city’s current recruitment policies were, but said “I do feel strongly that the city staff should be an accurate reflection of the community it serves.” Candidate Casey Walker did not support recruitment, “but I would definitely support stronger tolerance training for other workers that may discriminate against them because they are gay or lesbian.” Walker said it should be up to individuals whether they wanted to work in those jobs. Candidate Andrew Bucknall also stopped short of endorsing a recruiting program. “I would encourage the participation in all levels of city government, including employment, contracting and even public office,” he said. “Our city staff and government should reflect the diversity of our city.”

The four candidates for Place 3 supported increased training for APD officers on issues relating to gays. “I think the police department could and should be doing more in this area,” Clarke said, adding that APD could also use help in some other areas. “Our police department has unfortunately been involved with some incidents lately that indicate the need for additional sensitivity training. I believe that several sectors of the community deserve greater sensitivity from our police force.” Dealey also expanded her answer to take in other parts of the community. “Events like that of the Midtown (Live) nightclub fire show there is still work to be done to fight discrimination in our city,” she said. “I believe we need to examine the practices of APD and work to create meaningful relationships between all parts of our community.” Candidate Jennifer Kim also agreed, saying “It appears to me that while they’ve made some progress, they could definitely do more.” Greg Knaupe said it should be a standard part of law officer training. “Both APD and the Travis County Sheriff’s Office must incorporate (gay issue) awareness into their programs, from the top commander to the officer on patrol.”

Two of the three Place 4 candidates said they would back increased funding for the OutYouth Austin program. Dunkerley said it provides a needed resource. “I know that OutYouth Austin provides peer support groups, counseling, educational programs and social activities for Austin’s gay, lesbian and transgendered community,” she said. “If the Community Action Network recommends increased funding, I would support it.” Candidate Byron Miller said that, while he was not familiar with the program, he supported its goals. “Part of the problems facing the gay and lesbian community is the fear of coming out of the closet,” he said. “I would support the proposal for increased funding.” Candidate Wes Benedict answered “no” to the question, but did not elaborate on his answer.

Also announcing endorsements at last night’s meeting was the Stonewall Democrats. They endorsed Leffingwell in Place 1, Clarke in Place 3 and did not endorse in Place 4. The group is an organization of gay and lesbian Democrats, and would only endorse candidates who held themselves out as a Democrat. The AGLPC’s endorsements were non-partisan.

Candidates deal with landfill concerns in Northeast Austin

Council candidates outlined their positions on landfills and environmental protection at a forum held by the Northeast Action Group. While the questions from the audience focused primarily on the two landfills along Giles Road, the candidates also dealt with concerns regarding a privately run landfill near Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.

Local aviation groups had previously expressed concern to the City Council about that landfill, which they said was attracting birds, could pose a hazard to planes taking off or landing at ABIA. Jay Carpenter with the Texas Aviation Association reiterated those claims at the forum, asking candidates what they would do to close both the privately owned landfill and a separate city-owned facility near the airport.

Council Member Betty Dunkerley, who had previously dealt with the issue, urged continued monitoring of the situation and strict enforcement of the existing rules. “We have our staff out there monitoring. We’re also asking them to monitor any reports that they get,” she said. “My concern is that we continue that monitoring and take action if we do see any indication of problems.” The question also played to the strengths of Place 1 candidate Lee Leffingwell, who flew commercial planes for Delta Airlines before his retirement. “Birds near airports are a very big hazard,” he agreed, graphically describing different scenarios for damage when birds collide with planes.

Place 3 candidate Gregg Knaupe said problems at both the landfills near ABIA and those in northeast Travis County could be solved by strictly enforcing environmental regulations. He identified cost savings from turning over the management of the city-owned facility to a private company as one source of funds for a stepped-up enforcement program. “What I would like to see is that money earmarked for enforcement. The city has the authority to enforce these ordinances and levy fines. What we need to do is earmark that money for enforcing these ordinances and levying fines. Shut it down if it’s not in compliance. I would like to see more enforcement out here as well,” he said, referring to the two private landfills on the northeast side.

Those two landfills, operated by BFI and Waste Management Inc. (WMI), dominated most of the discussion during the forum. “Will you oppose expansion of the northeast landfills if you’re elected on the City Council?” asked Northeast Action Group organizer Trek English, pressing the candidates for a one-word answer. All of the candidates present in the Place 1 and Place 3 races answered “yes”. But in Place 4, both Dunkerley and candidate Wes Benedict offered more nuanced explanations of their positions. “My concern is I want to make sure that we have something to do with our waste,” said Dunkerley. “My issue is the city already takes all of its residential waste out to TDS (Texas Disposal Systems). I don’t know who’s using those (the BFI and WMI landfills),” she further explained. Benedict, who also answered “maybe” to English’s question, used his time to defend Dunkerley’s position. “Maybe she knows she can’t make promises she can’t keep,” he told the audience. “She’s served on the Council and in the city for a while…I’d love to get up here and lie to everyone and say ‘we’re going to make your neighborhood perfect if I get elected,’ but it’s not realistic that everything could be made the way you want it to become,” Benedict concluded. “I do think we can look at these situations. It does make sense to reduce landfills in this area so that we will have better development and not sprawl as much.”

Although members of the Council and other elected officials could use the power of their office to have some influence over the two landfills, a final decision on expanding or closing the facilities will not be up to the City of Austin. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, a state agency, is responsible for permitting and regulating landfills.

Consensus water quality plan unveiled

The detailed work of a stakeholder committee on water quality controls in the Barton Springs zone of the Edwards Aquifer was unveiled last night at a workshop in Dripping Springs.

A stakeholder group of city, county, civic and development leaders will present the plan to the Texas Water Development Board at the end of May. The plan, driven by science and incorporating stakeholder input, is intended to maintain—and even improve—water quality in the area that straddles Southwest Travis and Northern Hays counties.

The stakeholders, even after hundreds of hours of work, still have yet to settle on a consensus on some of the plan’s specifics, such as the minimum area for stream buffers; incorporation of critical environmental features into plans; wastewater/stormwater irrigation design; and the handling of wetlands in light of federal regulations.

But there were the areas of consensus among the stakeholders, which included development and environmental interests, as well as local governments. Measures that had the general consensus of the group include comprehensive site planning and development review; limits on the location and density of development; local enforcement of construction site controls; open space conservation; and transferable development rights.

Almost two-dozen members of the stakeholder group attended last night’s workshop and a number of them addressed the group. Colin Clark of the Save Our Springs Alliance said he would prefer to check a box that said “agree with a few exceptions” rather than “don’t agree” with the regional water quality plan.

Clark—only half-joking—added that the SOS Alliance supported the proposed regional water quality plan, insomuch as it mirrored the Edwards Aquifer Protection Plan that SOS presented to the group a year ago. “We support the plan, except when it varies from that document,” said Clark, drawing some laughs. “But there is significant agreement in both of those documents.”

Clark did urge the group to pursue a strong land acquisition effort. A commitment of $100 million to $200 million to buy up targeted parcels of land in the area could make a tremendous long-term impact on the region, Clark said. That effort, more than any other measure, could have a dramatic impact on the region.

About a half-dozen stakeholders addressed the group, most of them supportive. Landowner Gene Lowenthal, who fought the Hamilton Road pipeline extension, urged the elected officials to hold fast to the concepts behind the plan because the cost was ultimately one that would benefit all land owners in the area. Hugh Winkler, who represented neighborhood interests on the committee, said the plan’s measures sometimes grated a bit on various groups but had managed to “aggravate equally.”

Raymond Slade, a non-stakeholder in the process but a geologist who has studied Barton Springs for more than 25 years, said the plan was valid, comprehensive, and thorough, with a strong grounding in science. He also said the cost might be high to implement the plan but it would be the region that ultimately benefited from the proposals.

The one critical note came from stakeholder Bryan Jordan, who pointed to the costs of the plan. Under one scenario, four acres in the contributing zone in an urban area – built to a maximum retail density — would require purchasing 24 acres elsewhere under transfer development rights. The cost of 3 acres of development would be 24 acres. Jordan, who represents economic interests, said, “You’re going to have to buy 24 acres somewhere else to develop 3 acres of property. If that’s what you want, that is what you’re getting.”

Jordan said he understood that the committee had run out of time to fully explore the economic implications of the requirements. The scenario will likely get a fuller review in the development arena.

The other major problem acknowledged by the group was the cost of enforcement. Initially, local governments will be charged with implementing the measures, even though a regional authority could handle it long term. Such an ambitious plan is likely to put serious strain on small municipalities. Where land sits in an ETJ, more than one jurisdiction will likely be required to sign off on measures. The effort may require a taxing entity be set up to pay for the capital and maintenance costs of water quality controls. The intention is that those who benefit the most from the water quality measures will bear the cost of the project.

©2005 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved

Our error . . . In Fact Daily reported yesterday on responses to a question at the Libertarian Party forum on whether the city should restrict big box development. We misheard the question, leaping to the conclusion that it related to the ordinance banning big box construction over the aquifer. Place 3 candidate Gregg Knaupe says he does support the ban. We correctly reported on what he and the other candidates said yesterday—but since we misstated the question, it gave some readers the wrong impression. Knaupe said he believes “the market is going to control what businesses locate” in which neighborhoods and acknowledged that in Austin “neighborhoods do have some control” over such matters. We apologize . . . Tonight’s meetings . . . The Planning Commission will meet at 6pm in the Council chambers . . . The Council Audit and Finance Committee is scheduled to meet at 10:30am in the Boards and Commissions Room on the first floor of City Hall . . . A meeting of the Police Review Panel that had been set for last night was cancelled . . . Design standards buffs . . . This week’s City Council hearing on design standards has been postponed to April 14, according to Karen Gross, Council Member Brewster McCracken’s assistant . . . Big bucks for a cool name . . . George Strong & Associates registered the Internet domain name political.com in August 1995. The site allowed Strong to offer political commentary focused on Houston and Texas politics. Strong is done with it now and it’s up for grabs. But they know what a gem they have. According to ADASTRO, “The sale of generic domain names has seen quite a resurgence over the past few months, with recent sales reported in the press for local.com ($700,000), commerce.com ($180,000), ged.com ($150,000), trees.com ($58,000)” etc. For more information, visit: http://www.adastro.com/political.html . . . Building trades may protest at Forgione evaluation . . . The Austin ISD board plans to meet in executive session to discuss Superintendent Pat Forgione's annual evaluation. The Austin Building Trades Council is planning a demonstration at 5pm at the school district's headquarters, 1111 W. 6th Street The argument is over Forgione’s recommendation to the board that “they adopt a prevailing wage schedule for school construction work that does not include benefit costs,” according to a Building Trades memo.

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