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Bill threatens SOS ordinance

Friday, April 29, 2005 by

Armbrister proposal would make TCEQ creator of all water quality standards

Senate Bill 1858, written by Sen. Ken Armbrister (D-Victoria) and presented to the Senate Natural Resources Committee yesterday, threatens to kill Austin’s SOS Ordinance by turning the creation of all water quality standards in the state over to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ).

Mayor Will Wynn was so alarmed by the possibility posed by the bill that he left Thursday’s City Council meeting to go over to the Capitol and testify against it. Wynn told the committee “one size doesn’t fit all” when it comes to water quality standards for the state, and Austin opposes the measure.

“I suggest that folks in Austin and Central Texas recognized the importance of water quality regulations to our economy and our quality of life and have taken the task of creating those standards very seriously,” Wynn told the committee. “We have been lightning rods over the last couple of decades when it comes to water quality regulations, and we’ve made some mistakes, but we’ve also made a lot of progress.”

Wynn said that fears in the business community about the effect of stricter environmental controls were unfounded.

“In 1992, many people in Austin, particularly in the business community, wrung their hands about what a relatively strict water quality ordinance would do to our economic development,” he said. “But if you look back, Austin and Central Texas had the most dramatic decade of growth between 1992 and 2002. In 1992, the taxable tax base in Austin was $16 billion; today, it’s over $50 billion.”

He said Austin’s SOS Ordinance is an example for cities across the state.

“Smaller communities see the economic growth and the population growth, but they also see a pretty remarkable quality of life protection,” Wynn said. “I’m here to respectfully suggest that in different spots in our state that local government can, in fact, deliver sound water quality regulations that can be both fair and effective”.

What makes SB 1858 interesting – and possibly dangerous — is the fact that the bill benefits local counties even as it targets municipalities that set higher standards for water quality regulations. Under the proposal, the TCEQ would create water quality standards across the state, using science and input to create higher standards for more environmentally sensitive areas. Those standards, however, are not expected to be as high as the SOS Ordinance, which alarms local environmentalists.

Geologist Lauren Ross, who represented the Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance, called the standards set by TCEQ inadequate to maintain the water quality of the aquifer. She offered scientific studies that showed increasing trends of pollution in the Edwards Aquifer and pointed out the TCEQ enforced no limits on impervious cover.

Ross, like Brad Rockwell of the SOS Alliance, pointed out that the TCEQ would be understaffed to handle any type of regulatory matters. TCEQ has three people on staff to review plans for the Southern Edwards Aquifer. Austin has a dozen people on the issue. Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos (D-Austin) questioned many of the speakers closely, stressing the benefits of local control, water quality and the lack of current enforcement.

Travis County Commissioner Gerald Daugherty was on hand at Thursday’s hearing to support SB 1858. He said the idea of a global approach to water quality, from the state level, provided a “large degree of common sense approach to the growing problem of overlapping jurisdictions.” For the first time, counties and many smaller cities would have the chance to enforce a common standard for water quality, Daugherty said.

Armbrister said SB 1858 was intended to set a common standard across the state, especially for those cities that fail to meet federal water quality standards. He insisted his bill did not prohibit Austin, or others, from going to the TCEQ to lobby to set higher standards.

“We have the high end and the low end (in compliance),” Armbrister said. “In trying to draft a bill, we were trying to force cities to be compliant and not constantly at war with TCEQ, and that’s some of the nexus behind this bill.”

Daugherty said he understood handing standard setting over to TCEQ would probably frighten a lot of people in Central Texas. Water quality is a major issue for the region.

“I do think that as long as we have the ability to go to TCEQ, and by ‘we’ I mean the people of Travis County and Austin, then I think we’ll have a spot at the table,” Daugherty said. “I think they recognize we do have special needs, and I’m confident that we’ll be able to work with them.”

Landowner lobbyist Dan Wheelus, who supports SB 1858, said the goal of the bill would be to base water quality standards on science and not politics. TCEQ would be established as the rule maker for the state, and the local jurisdictions would serve in the enforcement function. Different standards would be set for different regions. The bill was passed by the committee last night.

Stratus, Southwest Strategies group win city bids

The City Council approved contracts for two major downtown projects last night, agreeing to negotiate the sale of Block 21 to Stratus/Trammell Crow Co. and work with Seaholm Power, LLP to redevelop the dormant Seaholm Power Plant.

The city will continue to own the Seaholm Power Plant, and the possible future use of the downtown property drew the most comments from Council members. Seaholm Power, LLC, which has posted a website of its strategy at http://www.seaholm.info, was a team that included Southwest Strategies Group, Inc., Boston-based Design Collective, Inc., H.C. Beck, LTD and Centro Development.

The Stratus/Trammell Crow/ Pedernales Records team, which included Willie Nelson, had the flashiest proposal, talking about a 6,000-seat amphitheater and a home for the Texas Music Hall of Fame. The concept was an epicenter for Austin music.

John Rosato of Southwest Strategies Group said Seaholm Power, LLP’s strength was the team members’ experience in the restoration of historic buildings like the art deco Seaholm plant. Rosato said the preservation of Austin’s history was a driving force in the team’s desire to submit a proposal on the project.

“If we had our druthers, we would always be working on these historic structures,” Rosato said. “It reminds us of our heritage and of our past. With everything new that’s happening downtown, it’s important to have a way for people to recognize our older buildings and relate them to our history.”

The Seaholm project is intended to be a mixed-use project that also will serve as a transit hub for the community. Council Member Daryl Slusher stressed the need for the transit orientation. Council Member Betty Dunkerley expressed her pleasure that two major city blocks would be redeveloped and put back on the tax rolls. And Council Member Brewster McCracken revealed, with City Manager’s Toby Futrell’s help, that the city had determined the electrical substation next door could be moved to the back of the property for $17 million, a fraction of the original $70-90 million cost estimated by the city.

McCracken said the relocation of the substation to the back third of the property would create an unbroken line of development from Lamar Boulevard to Interstate 35. He said he expected that stretch of development, including the Seaholm Plant, to become Austin’s Embarcadero, anchored by a major urban space and possibly Austin City Limits or the Texas Music Hall of Fame. The Embarcadero Center is a six-block mixed-use development in downtown San Francisco built around the historic Federal Reserve Bank Building.

Stratus/Trammell Crow offered the most bang for the buck on Block 21, submitting a bid of $15 million on the block, which has been primed for redevelopment. The Stratus/Trammell Crow team, which proposed a mix of 50,000-square-feet of retail space, 100 condos, 75 apartments and 180,000 square-feet of office space, was the only team to offer more than $9 million.

Mayor Will Wynn asked for some exceptions on the Stratus plan, waiving some of the retail space to provide a larger 20,000-square-foot public plaza and the opportunity for the City Council to sign off on the actual design of the project before construction begins. Wynn also added the possibility of some opportunity for city ownership of the cultural space when that cultural space comes to fruition.

City revenues, costs going up

Futrell proposes $10.81 wage for lowest-paid employees

The economic rebound means city revenues are going up. But figures released at Thursday's City Council meeting showed that expenses are rising even faster than revenues. That message came as City Manager Toby Futrell and Chief Financial Officer John Stephens laid out the city's financial forecast, including the ever-increasing costs for public safety, health insurance for city employees, and new facilities that have the city's budget planners once again facing the difficult task of dealing with a projected revenue shortfall for the 2005-06 fiscal year.

"Without addressing strategic add-backs or service delivery needs, our projected shortfall in FY 2006 at this very preliminary stage of the game will be approximately $5 to $6 million," Futrell said. But that gap between projected revenues and expenses does not include restoring funds to areas that were cut during the previous budget cycles, something Futrell has said will be a priority. "I have also included in the forecast about $6.5 or $7 million worth of what I consider to be my key management recommendations for add-backs. These are going to be the policy choices that come in front of Council."

Futrell's priorities will be establishing a new "living wage" for city employees of $10.81 per hour, restoring library hours, hiring additional civilian employees for AFD and APD, mowing parks and city-owned right-of-way properties more frequently, hiring more building and food service inspectors, and hiring more employees in the Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Department and Historic Preservation Office. "This would bring our projected shortfall up to approximately $12.4 million," she concluded.

The cost drivers, items automatically figured into the budget before new spending is added, include $22.2 million for public safety—including the 2 percent public safety premium and maintaining 2 police officers per 1,000 population. It also includes maintenance of existing funding levels for public health and social services, maintenance of existing levels for parks programs, operations and maintenance costs for new and expanded facilities, health insurance cost increases and a 3.5 percent pay for performance raise for non public safety city employees. The gap between public safety expenditures and the amount of money brought in by sales and property taxes has been increasing for several years. Although revenues are increasing, they have not kept pace with public safety spending. Public safety expenditures were 101 percent of tax revenues for 2001-2002 and have grown to an estimated 110 percent for the current year. Those expenditures are estimated to be 113 percent of tax revenues during the next budget year.

On the revenue side, the city is forecasting a 6 percent increase in sales tax revenues over the next three years. Property tax revenues are also predicted to rise along with the overall assessed value within the city limits, said Chief Financial Officer John Stephens. “We expect the average home value to go up slightly, about three percent,” he said. “The good news for homeowners is that commercial property and other components of our assessed value are increasing faster than single family residential.” A drop in commercial property values had left residential property owners shouldering an increased percentage of the property tax burden, but Stephens said that trend should reverse itself over the next three years, redistributing the burden more evenly between commercial and residential property owners.

Aquifer board hires new GM

Geologist Kirk Holland tapped for top post

The Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District, which has been without a General Manager since last June, has tentatively hired Kirk Holland of Austin to take over the job.

BCEACD board members voted unanimously last night to offer the job to Holland, following a three-month search by the district that drew 58 applicants for the position. Board President Bob Larson said making the final decision from among the top five candidates was difficult.

“We had several very good candidates,” he said. “Each brought a different set of skills, and frankly, we could have hired several of them… but we could only hire one, and I think we have hired the best. We are very fortunate to have him.”

Holland has been the principal of HSC Consultants of Austin since 1998. Prior to that, he held a variety of management positions with Radian International of Austin, including vice president, between 1973 and 1997. He has a BS in geology from the University of Tennessee and a master’s degree in geological sciences from University of Texas. His resume lists experience in environmental project management, corporate management, environmental operations, administration, environmental technology, performance assessment, and management.

Board members contacted Holland after the vote last night, and he tentatively accepted the position, pending final negotiation of a contract. Details of the contract will not be made public until it is finalized. No start date was set, but he is expected to begin before June 1.

The BSEACD’s previous executive director, Veva McCaig, resigned on June 8 of last year after differences of opinion over how the district should have been operated surfaced between her and some board members. She had been on the district staff since 2001 and had been named acting general manager in May 2003 before being promoted. Program Manager Dana Wilson has been acting GM since McCaig’s departure.

Board Member Chuck Murphy, chair of the personnel committee, said from the initial pool of applicants, his committee chose the top 10 applicants and did preliminary interviews with them. From those interviews, the top five were chosen, and those candidates were interviewed during the past two weeks by the entire board,

“When we got down to the final ten candidates, it became a tough process,” he said. “Each candidate had their various strengths and weaknesses, and no one candidate jumped out the pack as being ‘the one’ for the job. They all brought different skills and backgrounds to the table. We certainly didn’t take this process lightly, and I think that shows in the quality of who we have hired.”

Other candidates in the top five were Bill E. Couch, Senior Project Manager with AMEC Earth and Environmental, of Austin; Randy Williams, Associate Hydrologist with Turner Collie & Braden Inc., of Austin; and Marshall E. Jennings, PE, PH, Associate Director of Hydrology for the Edwards Aquifer Research & Data Center at Texas State University, in San Marcos.

Notes from the campaign trail

Leffingwell to continue race

A somber Lee Leffingwell announced on Thursday that he will remain in the race for Place 1 on the Austin City Council. "The easiest thing for me to do right now would be to walk inside that door, pull the shades, and mourn for Mary Lou," he said to a small group of reporters gathered on the front lawn of his home. "But I know that is not what she would have wanted, and so it is not what I intend to do."

Leffingwell’s wife, Mary Lou McLain, was a retired nurse and president of the board of Family Eldercare. She took her own life at the couple's home last week. Leffingwell said he would remain true to her priorities, which included health and human services. "I will stay in the race for Austin City Council. If I'm fortunate enough to be elected by the voters, I will serve in her memory," he said.

Leffingwell might make one or two campaign appearances in the next week, according to campaign advisor Mark Nathan. But Nathan pointed out that the schedule of public appearances such as forums or neighborhood meetings was light for all candidates in the days leading up to Election Day, May 7. He said the campaign would use that time to reach out to supporters that had already been identified and to get out the vote.

©2005 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

Tennis center move likely. . . After hearing weeks of complaints from residents of the neighborhoods near the South Austin Tennis Center, the Council heard a few more during Thursday’s meeting. The problem is a planned expansion of the tennis courts that will eliminate much of an undeveloped neighborhood park. In response to comments made Thursday, Council Member Daryl Slusher said he, for one, was opposed to expansion of the tennis center at the Cumberland Street location. He said, “The problem stems from the fact that the city is trying to use neighborhood parks for large centers.” After listening to both sides, Slusher said, he thought it was a bad idea to transform neighborhood parks into facilities attracting so many users. He suggested finding an alternative site. “Me too,” chimed in Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman. Then, Council Member Brewster McCracken said he did not like the location either. Even though a fourth Council Member did not weigh in on the project, it seems unlikely that the tennis center will be built at the currently planned location . . . Voters becoming more interested . . . Campaigns have revved up their robo-call machines to let voters know they can vote early. Jennifer Kim and Margot Clarke have TV ads and mail pieces from several campaigns are hitting their targets. Yesterday, the seventh day of early voting, saw the largest turnout so far—with 1,944 voters casting ballots. That brings to 12,204 the total number so far, about 2.5 percent of those registered. The most popular location to vote yesterday was Randall’s on South MoPac, followed by Northcross Mall. Early voting continues through Tuesday for the May 7 election . . . No action on Gables project . . . The City Council postponed a hearing and action on the Gables at Westlake at the request of the property owner, St. Stephen’s Academy. Nikelle Meade, who took Sarah Crocker’s spot on the neighborhood team, which opposes multi-family zoning on the tract, said her client would not oppose the delay. An agreement is in the works, according to Meade and Steve Drenner, attorney for St. Stephen’s . . . Appointments . . . The City Council appointed Cheryl Scott-Ryan to the Water and Wastewater Commission by consensus and Council Member Raul Alvarez appointed Meichihko Proctor to the Ethics Review Commission. The following were reappointed by consensus: Brad Hughes to the Airport Advisory Commission; Elmore DuFour to the Austin Community Education Consortium; and John Mayo to the Federally Qualified Health Center Board. Council Member Danny Thomas reappointed Jeffrey Lewis to the Community Development Commission . . . Tai Chi celebration Saturday . . . World Tai Chi Day, to be celebrated world wide, is another in a series of events for Mayor Will Wynn to promote fitness and make Austin the Nation’s fittest city. Participants will gather at 9am on festival beach on Town Lake to begin learning a little bit about the martial art. At 10am those present will participate in a group movement to make Austin part of the worldwide Tai Chi wave to spread wellness from one time zone to the next. Demonstrations will follow..

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