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Travis' public safety needs shrink surplus

Monday, July 11, 2005 by

Anticipated increases to Travis County’s public safety budget have eroded the county’s anticipated budget surplus in the coming year, dominating both new positions and the use of excess revenue that was predicted in mid-year estimates.

Numbers are still rough, Christian Smith, the Planning and Budget Office’s executive manager, told Commissioners Court in a work session last week. He said the draft budget will be released on July 28, only after the county gets its third revenue estimate the previous week. In the meantime, county budget officials are ready to lay out the budget in broad terms.

First, the budget is tight. Commissioners asked Smith to produce a budget based on the effective tax rate, plus 2 percent. Mid-year, that produced numbers that showed the county had enough wiggle room for some additional spending. By this spring, however, the county jail population had climbed and excess revenue had succumbed to the need to provide housing for new inmates.

Smith reported that previously, department chiefs had requested 231 new full-time employees. At this point, the county budget provides 60 new positions. All but two or three of those positions will be related to public safety: 43 new department employees to handle jail overcrowding, five new positions in the District Attorney’s Office to speed up processing of inmates, five new positions for the county’s new civil court and five new positions in juvenile probation to provide for positions previously financed by grants.

Smith attributes $6.7 million of the budget increases to public safety costs, which also includes health care, fuel costs and utility increases for the Sheriff’s Department. The total property tax revenue is estimated at about $344 million.

The increases in the Sheriff Department’s budget are based on a daily inmate count of 2,695. That level of inmates would mean extra in-house employees, as well as funds to transport some inmates to Frio and Limestone counties.

Early property tax roll estimates show values in Travis County should have increased from $61 billion to $63.5 billion, Smith said. That increase includes $1.9 billion from new construction. The average homestead value has increased from $197,874 to $203,306.

Given those values, the proposed tax rate would be increased from 48.72 cents to 48.85 cents. That’s a total increase of $23 in taxes to the homeowner with a home of average value. The new rate would generate an additional $6 million of which $4.1 million will go to the Sheriff’s Department.

Courthouse restoration contract OK'd

Over the strenuous objections of Precinct 1 Commissioner Lisa Birkman, Williamson County Commissioners Court voted 4-1 last week to award a contract to Browning Construction of San Antonio to restore the county courthouse.

During the commissioner’s weekly meeting on Tuesday, Birkman said she wanted more time to study the matter, saying, “I’m not ready to do this today.” But Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom McDaniel said the project was already behind schedule, and pushed the rest of the court for a vote to award the contract. McDaniel said any further delay would increase the cost of the project, already estimated at $7 million.

Birkman’s primary concern was Browning’s lack of experience in restoring courthouses. The firm has only done one similar project, restoring the Atascosa County Courthouse.

However, under questioning from Birkman, company president James Browning said his firm has done a number of other restorations of historic buildings, including Jefferson High School in San Antonio, the San Antonio Museum of Art, the Navy Building Arsenal Complex in San Antonio, the San Antonio Convention Center, First Presbyterian Church in San Antonio, St. David's Episcopal Church in Austin and the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas in Austin.

Browning showed slides of the dozens of historic reconstruction and restoration projects in which the firm has been involved. He added that in one case— Kendall County—a new courthouse was constructed to match the specification of an historic building.

"We built the Kendall County courthouse and made it look old, using the same techniques and materials that would be used to restore an old courthouse," Browning said.

Browning told the court that within 45 days he will provide an estimate of the project's total cost, saying that he hoped the restoration work could begin no later than October and take about 16 months, allowing the county to return to the courthouse in early 2007.

Browning’s initial estimate is $7 million, more than county’s original estimate of $6 million, but less than some others which have run as much as $8.5 million. Browning's management of the project will be "at risk,” meaning his company will provide the county with a maximum guaranteed cost.

The county will pay for the project with general revenue funds and a $4 million grant from the Texas Historical Commission.

Board supports historic zoning for East Austin home

The Planning Commission has voted to support historic zoning for a house at 1409 E. 2nd Street in the East Cesar Chavez neighborhood over the objections of the owner, who is facing an order to demolish the property. However, a local attorney is offering to buy the home, move it, and restore it.

The house in question, built in 1902. was the home of Lyman and Cordelia Bailey. Mr. Bailey was the probation officer for Austin and Travis County between 1915 and 1935. He founded the first Boy Scout troop in Austin in 1911 and was named the city’s “ Most Worthy Citizen” in 1926. He also founded an organization known as the Young Men’s Christian Society, which was similar to the YMCA.

The home itself is classified as an excellent example of Folk Victorian architecture. Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky told commissioners that the original portion of the home was salvageable, although there are several more modern additions such as enclosed porches that were in extremely poor condition. “It’s long been neglected,” he said of the house, which has been used as a rental property since 1961. “Here we have a person who is willing to restore it, which is a rare find.”

That person is attorney Terrence Thompson, who is attempting to purchase a lot in the Swede Hill neighborhood. “I am the crazy person who’s willing to move this house to another location and put a lot of money into restoring it,” he said. “The main part of the house is substantial, and is in very salvageable condition. The house is worth saving. It’s not at all a wreck in the main part of the house. It’s in fine shape to move for a reasonable amount.”

However, Thompson said he had not yet reached a deal with the home’s current owner, Dan Day, in part because of difficulties with the lot he was attempting to purchase in Swede Hill. There is some confusion over whether the property is actually a legal lot, but Sadowsky predicted that issue could be resolved by the time the historic zoning case goes before the City Council at the end of July.

The current owner of the home asked commissioners not to recommend historic zoning, and instead to wait until the house was moved to a new location before endorsing the historic designation. “I’d be willing to make an agreement with him, let him do it, but don’t put the historic zoning on the property. Give me a break,” he said. “Let me make a deal with him and give him so many days in which to perform. If he has a way to do it, great, but don’t put the historic zoning on the property while I own it.”

Day argued that restoring the home in its current deteriorated condition would be economically impossible. “The house is just falling in. Ultimately, if you pass historic zoning and Mr. Thompson and I cannot make a deal and it stays where it is, I can’t do anything with it,” he said. “I’d have to board it up.” Day also told commissioners he had taken steps to avoid purchasing an historic property that would require preservation, since it was his intent to build a new home and a garage apartment on the lot. “I have bought houses in other older neighborhoods before. Before I even went into this neighborhood, I made sure it was not in a National Register District, because I knew what kind of opposition I would get. I looked at the neighborhood plan…when they went through and identified all the properties in their neighborhood, this was not identified as a contributing structure,” he said. “Right after I bought the property I got a letter saying the property was unsafe and I got an order to demolish it within 30 days. We made application for demolition and that’s when all of this started happening.”

Commissioner Matthew Moore pointed out that the lot where the home currently sits had recently been subdivided, potentially allowing for three new homes on that property. He urged Day to consider leaving the home at its current location. “I wish we could move the house on to one of those three lots and find someone to restore it there with the right to build an additional unit in the back. That’s where the house is supposed to be. Otherwise it just becomes some old house in another neighborhood and it loses a significant part of its history,” he said.

Commissioner John Michael Cortez argued that the best way to preserve the home, whether in the East Cesar Chavez neighborhood or in Swede Hill, would be to approve historic zoning. “If this house were to be zoned historic, you couldn’t move it without a certificate of appropriateness. So, by zoning it historic, we’re saying the house has to stay here. Somebody’s going to have to restore it right there. So, in effect, by approving this zoning we are ensuring that is the default option,” he said. “They can come to a deal and they can convince Council that it could be moved…but right now, we’re saying it should stay there. Given what the Council has done on the past several historic cases, they’re probably going to allow it to be moved.” The Council has recently heard two similar cases involving homes in the Clarksville neighborhood where the Clarksville Community Development Corporation has agreed to take homes and relocate them within the neighborhood for restoration and use as affordable housing.

The commission voted 6-1 to recommend the historic designation, with only Commissioner Cid Galindo opposed. “I actually had doubts about it given the other number of houses in the immediate area that appear to share similar characteristics,” said Commission Chair Chris Riley. “When I went down the street, this house did not jump out as being distinct. But I’ve read over the materials that have been provided. I had been completely unaware of this man, who in 1926 was selected as Austin’s Most Worthy Citizen. Mayor (Alexander P.) Wooldridge was the first recipient. That was a big thing.” The case is scheduled to go to the Council on July 28, giving Thompson and Day time to work out an agreement on moving the home.

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

Returning to City Hall . . . Kristen Vassallo, director of public information for the city, is slated to be back in her office today after three months on maternity leave. Vassallo will be there to welcome a new hand in the department, Tina Bui. Bui, who previously worked as executive assistant to Daryl Slusher, will join the department as public information manager . . . Mayor to help public radio, TV . . . Mayor Will Wynn will hold a press conference this morning with KLRU CEO Bill Stotesbery and KUT General Manager Stewart Vanderwilt to announce the creation of ‘ Mayors for Public Broadcasting’. Wynn, along with the Mayors Martin O’Malley of Baltimore, Manny Diaz of Miami, Laura Miller of Dallas, John Cook of El Paso and Phil Hardberger of San Antonio, have launched and are asking other city leaders to sign a resolution supporting funding for public broadcasting. Although the US House of Representatives finally voted to restore most proposed funding, supporters of public broadcasting say they still face an uphill battle in the Senate. Wynn says, “If these funds are eliminated, the funding burden will shift entirely to individual stations and communities, and cherished educational programming will be put at risk” . . . More complaints about ACTV . . . Stefan Wray, a producer on public access television and active opponent of the current management of ACTV, has asked County Attorney David Escamilla to investigate actions by the board of Austin Community Access Center, Inc., which manages the city’s public access facility, ACTV. According to research presented by Wray, the board has violated its own bylaws regulating the number of directors required to meet and take action. If Wray is correct, most of the board’s actions since last fall, when the number of board members fell below the minimum requirement, could be considered void. The city is currently looking for a new contractor to take over running its public access stations. The City Auditor and Austin Police Department have also been investigating alleged misuse of funds at ACTV . . . Meetings . . . The Board of Adjustment/Sign Review Board is meeting at 5:30pm in Room 325 of One Texas Center . . . The Affordable House Subcommittee of the Bond Election Advisory Committee is meeting at 3pm in the Boards and Commissions Room at City Hall . . . The Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization’s Transportation Policy Board meets at 6pm at the T hompson Center Auditorium at UT. The agenda would seem to promise little in the way of fireworks, but CAMPO debates often contain an element of spontaneous combustion. Two major items are consideration of an interlocal agreement with CAPCOG to develop baseline statistics on population, employment, and median household income for the five county area for future forecasts, and a status update and review of proposed improvements to the “ Y” area in O ak Hill . . . Trimble stepping down . . . Travis County Criminal Justice Coordinator Mike Trimble has submitted his letter of resignation. At last week’s Commissioners Court meeting, County Judge Sam Biscoe said the court would attempt to move quickly to post the opening. . . Programs to highlight health needs . . . The Community Action Network (CAN) has partnered with Travis County TV, cable channel 17, to produce a series of 10-minute programs that focus on the critical health and human service areas on which CAN is focused. The first three programs will air in July: 7:30pm tonight – Basic Needs; 7:30pm, July 18 – Addressing the Demand for Utility Assistance; and 7:30pm, July 25 – Children’s Mental Health. Each show will be repeated several times throughout the month. More information about the Community Action network can be located at . . . . ASO ticket sales up . . . Jim Reagan, executive director of the Austin Symphony Orchestra reported a dramatic increase in ticket sales for its 2004/05 season at last month’s meeting of the ASO Board of Directors. Ticket sales totaled over $1.1 million with the most dramatic increase being in single ticket sales for the classical concerts, which rose 43 percent over the previous season. "We had an outstanding season with tremendous guest artists and a combination of familiar symphonic works along with introducing some new music,” Reagan said. “We actually witnessed some ticket scalping at our Beethoven’s 9th concert. That is quite flattering." . . . A heartfelt goodbye . . . When someone is leaving, who shows up to say goodbye can indicate just how much the departee will be missed. In the case of retiring Environmental Board Chair Mary Ruth Holder, her well-wishers came straight from the top: Mayor Will Wynn, former Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman, and former Environmental Board Chair and recently elected Council Member Lee Leffingwell all attended last week’s board meeting to give Holder a Distinguished Service Award from the city. “Your service to the city has been legendary,” said Mayor Wynn. “We hope to continue to hear from you between your Celtic music gigs.” Goodman said Holder’s role in setting up the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve was crucial. ”They can never take away the contributions you have made to the community. “ Holder and her husband are moving to Oregon to concentrate on Irish music and dance . . . New officers . . . David Anderson will take over as Chair of the Environmental Board. He was elected by fellow members last week during the board’s annual officer elections. Karin Ascot was re-elected Vice Chair and Phil Moncada was named Secretary.

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