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Williamson County sued by anti-tax group

Friday, June 3, 2005 by

Plaintiffs say association used counties' money to lobby

Members of the conservative group Americans For Prosperity (AFP) have filed a lawsuit against Williamson County, saying the county’s dues to the Texas Association of Counties (TAC) were illegally used to lobby lawmakers at the Capitol this session.

The lawsuit was filed in Williamson County court on Thursday afternoon. Assistant County Attorney Dale Rye confirmed the county had received the lawsuit but said that county officials do not comment on pending litigation.

”That’s particularly true in this case because the bulk of the lawsuit is aimed at actions by the Texas Associations of Counties and not at actions by Williamson County itself,” Rye said. “Now, obviously, we’re a member of TAC, and we pay dues. The question is whether TAC has engaged in some prohibited form of lobbying, and we’re not in a position – roughly two hours after receiving the lawsuit – to answer that question.”

AFP Director Peggy Venable, who filed the lawsuit along with members Janice Brauner and Judy Morris—all residents of Williamson County—said taxpayer dollars should not be used for lobbying efforts. She said it was time to give local officials a wake-up call about what is appropriate and inappropriate use of taxpayer dollars during the session.

“Taxpayers should not be forced to finance lobbying activities for taxpayer-funded groups who are going to lobby for more of our tax dollars,” Venable said. “It’s a vicious cycle, and it’s fiscally, morally and ethically wrong.”

Venable said she is not opposed to groups that provide objective information to lawmakers. She is opposed to lobbying, however, and says that the elected officials of the county should be the only ones in a position to speak in favor or against issues because they answer to the taxpayers. Venable pointed out that state employees are required to keep a neutral position on issues, a position she thinks TAC should follow.

AFP has particular problems with TAC’s efforts to stop the “truth in taxation” efforts during the last session. County associations lobbied heavily against both appraisal and revenue caps, which they considered to be a danger to local county budgets. Venable noted that local government code is written to say that counties can join associations, as long as the association does not attempt to influence the outcome of legislation.

Brauner spoke passionately about losing her home to rising property taxes, yet finding out her county was doing nothing to protect her or her interests. “They’re using my money to take money from me,” Brauner said.

The Texas Legal Foundation, which includes former Supreme Court Justice Steven Wayne Smith, will represent the AFP members in their lawsuit, which attempts to block Williamson County from paying TAC dues. Venable estimates that millions of taxpayer dollars have been spent to lobby local lawmakers in recent sessions, including $500,000 from Williamson County taxpayers in the last decade.

Elna Christopher, director of media relations for the TAC, told the Q uorum Report yesterday that the plaintiffs were in fact the ones being fiscally irresponsible. "I find it ironic that a taxpayers group that says it wants to not pay taxes is costing a county more money by filing a lawsuit," Christopher said. "I think this is harassment of local officials and county organizations." Christopher argued that the TAC had merely provided information, as allowed by law, and had not engaged in lobbying.

Utility wants stricter rules on sewer lines

New rule would allow fine of $5,000 per day

Austin homeowners may or may not know just what a private lateral is, but if theirs isn’t working properly, a proposed change in the City Code will allow the City of Austin to insist that they repair it—or else. Just how much time homeowners will have to make those repairs was the topic of much discussion last night by the city Water and Wastewater Commission.

The commission was considering a proposed change in the code that would give the Water and Wastewater Department (WWW) stricter enforcement authority when a private home’s connection to the city sewer system—a.k.a. the private lateral—is malfunctioning. But some commissioners were concerned that the proposed change would make the city’s policy too heavy-handed.

Previously, staff told the commission, the city did not have the ability to enforce the code regarding the sewer connection. Included in the proposed new ordinance is language that allows the city to demand that the homeowner repair the connection within 30 days, or fines of up to $5,000 per day could be charged.

“Tell me I’m crazy if you disagree, but that seems to be awfully harsh,” said Commissioner Karen Friese. “It seems like we are going from being fairly lax about dealing with this to really bringing the hammer down. Isn’t there some middle ground?” Friese suggested that giving the homeowner 30 days to respond to a notice and 60 days to comply seemed more reasonable.

Tied in with the proposed change in the city code is a new program under which the city would begin “smoke testing” sewer lines to determine if there are cracks or breaks that could be allowing sewage into the city’s groundwater. A second part of the program is the availability of city-backed low interest loans, to provide homeowners with between $1,000 and $3,000 to finance repairs to their private laterals.

Reynaldo Cantu with the WWW said the city was concerned that if homeowners were given more time there would be a higher rate of noncompliance. “Plus, state law requires that we clean up a ‘public nuisance’ within 48 hours, and effect repairs in 30 days,” he said. “That’s what we are required to do when we discover sewage on the ground. “

But Commissioner Laura Raun pointed out that there was a difference between an emergency situation—legally, a public nuisance—and a problem discovered by the city’s smoke tests.

“I think that we can differentiate between a situation that needs immediate attention, such as sewage on the ground, and a line that is simply not in compliance,” she said. “We (WWW) never need bad P.R., but right now we really don’t need it, and I’m afraid this will be perceived as just another onerous regulation on landowners.”

Commissioner Glen Coleman agreed, saying there were significant differences in the two scenarios. “If the city is going to go out and blow smoke up their sewer pipes to find problems, I think we need to show a little more compassion in helping them solve the problem,” he said. “It’s a different ballgame when there’s an emergency situation.”

City staff assured commissioners that they had no intention of immediately dragging a homeowner into court on the 31st day after a notice, but as long as the party was making a good-faith effort to repair the problem, they would work with him.

“They why can’t we just put that policy in the code?” asked Friese.

After conferring with the City Attorney’s office, Cantu said that they could allow 30 days to respond to a notice with 60 days to complete the work, as long as the situation did not reach the “public nuisance” stage, which would invoke the state’s 30-day regulation.

Friese agreed, and moved recommend to the City Council that the proposed new wording reflect that policy. The commission voted 7-0-1 to approve the recommendation, with Commissioner Reynaldo Gonzalez Jr. abstaining. Commissioner Leslie Pool was absent from the meeting. The City Council is expected to take up the proposed change before the end of June.

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

Music Partners has good news . . . It looks like the road may turn smoother now for the Austin Music Network. After many months of negotiations, Connie Wodlinger of Austin Music Partners notified the City Council yesterday that the agreement between her group and Time Warner Cable "has now been executed by all parties." Last week, Wodlinger told Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman and Council Member Raul Alvarez that she had reached agreement with Time Warner but the contract had not yet been signed. She said AMP would be able to take over programming in August or September. The station will remain at ACTV until then . . . Unfounded . . . State Senator Gonzalo Barrientos (D-Austin) is NOT making an endorsement in the City Council race. Barrientos laughed when told of the rumor that he would be endorsing one of the Place 3 candidates. He said he had met with one of the candidates and planned to meet with the other but that he would only make endorsements for races for higher offices . . . Crocker finally wins variance recommendation . . . We erred yesterday in reporting a vote by the Environmental Board as final. Although the board twice failed to come to a resolution on a rare cut and fill variance on the driveway to a single-family lot in the Rob Roy subdivision, the panel finally recommended it–after some changes were made . The home is the last to be built in the subdivision, right across from the Wild Basin Preserve. The architect, who also designed the home of Gianni Versace in Florida, built a house which neighbors consider to be overpowering. Construction has been on hold for six months. Environmental Officer Pat Murphy said the case was rare – not because violations didn’t happen but because the city had failed to consistently enforce cut and fill restrictions in the Davenport PUD. Consultant Sarah Crocker said issues such as the 40-foot slope on the property in question are usually caught at the preliminary platting stage for the subdivision. “It just got missed,” said Crocker, who said the driveway had been redesigned in a tighter, better way on the site. The Environmental Board initially declined to endorse the variance, with Chair Mary Ruth Holder arguing that the location of the house was unique and the design of the house did not minimize damage to the Hill Country character. After the board split on a 4-4 vote, with Commissioner Phil Moncada absent from the meeting, Crocker consulted with Murphy about how she might improve the plan. Then, the board voted 6-2 to recommend the variance to the Zoning and Platting Commission—which must make the final decision . . . Also in error . . . Thurman Blackburn is not a former president of the Real Estate Council of Austin . . . Place 3 early voting . . . With 87 mail ballots arriving and 1,319 persons visiting early voting locations, Thursday’s total of votes cast still failed to match the enthusiasm shown during voting for the May 7 election. The total of votes cast thus far is 8,533 or 2.09 percent of the total number of City of Austin voters. Those wishing to do so may vote early through Tuesday for the June 11 runoff election . . . Planning a party . . . Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman is happily planning her farewell party. It will be on June 16, a Thursday with no City Council meeting, at the Zilker Clubhouse. The final meeting on the dais for Goodman and Council Member Daryl Slusher will be next Thursday . . . CSI training for kids . . . DNA fingerprinting, forensics and genetics join rocketry and physics for 4th graders this summer at the Austin Community College Math & Science Academy. Approximately 25 fourth-graders, nominated by principals of six AISD elementary schools located in East Austin, will attend the academy, designed to make science and math interesting and engaging for elementary school students. The academy is scheduled to run June 6-17, at the College’s Eastview Campus. The academy curriculum includes specialized classes, labs and hands-on activities. Those activities range from testing creek water to learning environmental science and experiencing physics through dance and rocketry to solving a crime through DNA testing and learning about household chemicals by making soap and lotion. Mathematical concepts will be integrated throughout all courses. ACC plans to follow students who participate in the academy as part of the college’s focus on long-range recruitment and retention of students typically underrepresented in education at all levels, especially at the post-high school level . . . Deep Eddy celebration . . . Friends of Deep Eddy Pool will celebrate the completion of the pool house roof with a party and fundraiser beginning at 5pm Saturday at Deep Eddy. The group promises live music and food plus additional entertainment. For more information, visit www.deepeddy.org. . . Beach monitoring . . . A new website allows the public to view real-time water quality data about their favorite Texas beaches. The website was created by the Texas General Land Office and will show when an advisory is recommended for any of the 58 beaches under the program. An advisory is recommended when bacteria levels exceed EPA recommended criteria. The Texas Beach Watch Program has 162 monitoring stations in Jefferson, Galveston, Brazoria, Matagorda, Nueces, Cameron and Aransas counties. Further information on the Texas Beach Watch Program may be obtained by visiting the GLO's Texas Beach Watch Web page at www.TexasBeachWatch.com or by calling 1-800-998-4GLO (1-800-998-4456)

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