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City employees plead their case

Friday, August 26, 2005 by

The union representing the city’s non-civil service employees called on the City Council Thursday evening to grant a significant raise to the rank-and-file workers who went for two years without a pay hike during the economic slowdown. Employees of Austin Water and Wastewater Utility and the Solid Waste Services Department requested a seven percent raise to help them deal with the rising cost of living, including increased gasoline prices.

Pointed to the raises given to police, fire, and EMS employees in recent years, non-civil service employees said they too deserved a salary boost for the work they have done for the citizens of Austin. “We honor them. Their work is very honorable,” said Water and Wastewater Utility employee Keith Webber of the employees in those public safety departments. “We don’t want to take anything away from them, they deserve that. But so do we.”

Facing a room full of city employees, many of them wearing green shirts with the American Federation of State County & Municipal Employees (AFSCME) logo, City Manager Toby Futrell attempted to allay some of the workers’ concerns by outlining her proposal for employee compensation and benefits in next year’s budget. “For pay for performance, we have three and half percent in base,” she said. “The amount we have budgeted is $11.4 million citywide for a 3.5 percent average pay for performance increase to base. And then for this year, we are beginning an additional two percent lump sum for all non-civil service employees not eligible for the public safety premium.” Futrell also outlined the city’s contributions on employee health care coverage and plans to boost the city’s contribution to the retirement system for non-civil service employees.

But her assurances failed to satisfy many members of the crowd, who took turns at the microphone describing the difficulties of going two years without a raise. “The two percent lump sum that is proposed is not enough. We went two years without a raise. It was hard,” said Solid Waste Services employee Jeffrey Thornton. “We are respected by the public, but our Council members seem not to respect us with the two percent they want to give us. All I’m asking for is respect. Show us that we are a priority to the city.” He invited each of the Council members to spend the day riding with him on a waste disposal truck. ”Then, if you can look every single employee in the eye and tell them that two percent is great, then something is definitely wrong with our system.”

Other employees said the possibility of a 3.5 percent raise based on performance, combined with a 2 percent increase, would still not bring them up to par with workers performing similar duties in the private sector or for other government agencies. “Hard work can be its own reward, but one out of every five years I’ve been working for the city for over 22 years it’s been my only reward,” said Water and Wastewater Utility employee Joseph Fleming. “Seven percent can make a big difference in people’s lives.”

The Council also heard from AFSCME attorney Craig Deats, who urged them to consider allowing those non-civil service workers the right to consultation on salary and benefit issues. “It does not violate the state prohibition against collective bargaining for public employees,” he said. “There is a distinction between consultation, which is what the union is requesting, and collective bargaining that has existed in Texas case law for at least 20 years.

But the city’s legal department apparently has a different interpretation of the law in that area, and several Council members said they would likely be guided by their legal experts, not AFSCME’s. Regarding the request for a higher pay raise, most Council members were polite but took care not to make any overt promises. “We really do need to work together as a city, and we really appreciate you and we’re going to need your help to make sure we’re all pulling together as a team,” said Council Member Brewster McCracken. “If we can work together we can get on a good long-term track.” Council Member Jennifer Kim offered a similar assessment of the situation facing the Council as they attempt to balance competing needs in the upcoming budget. “I believe in investing in the workforce,” she said. “We’ll do what we can, but as Council Member McCracken pointed out there are a number of cost drivers that are beyond our control.”

Planning, redevelopment budgets explained

Assistant City Manager Laura Huffman and four department heads presented the proposed budgets for four departments on Thursday, proposing a 9.3 percent increase in budgets and the addition of 31 new staff members across those four areas.

The additions restore some of the cuts made in prior budgets during bleak economic times. During her presentation Huffman said a more favorable economy and an upturn in development made the additional expenditures essential for city services, especially in the area of the One-Stop Shop, which was hit hard by budget cuts.

Alice Glasco, director of The Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Department, explained how she would use a $400,000 increase to her budget, for a total of $4.2 million. That increase would fund four new positions, including a second position in the historic preservation office. Revenue from the department this year is projected to be $212,732. The proposed capital budget will include $400,000 for Great Streets and $1.5 million for the Guadalupe Streetscape Improvements between 21st and 24th streets.

Department expenditures are broken up into comprehensive planning ($1.6 million), current planning ($1.2 million), urban design ($563,389), CAMPO ($836,280), One-Stop Shop ($54,533) and support services ($706,873). Strategic “add backs,” for a total of $275,751, would include two principal planners for neighborhood planning, a senior planner for historic preservation and a landscape architect for urban design.

The senior planner for historic preservation is intended to implement the city’s plans for at least three historic districts this year. City Manager Toby Futrell compared each plan to the work necessary for a neighborhood plan. Other goals this year include nine neighborhood plans, six rail station area designs, neighborhood plan updates, zoning code updates, commercial design standards implementation, local historic districts and the coordination of efforts to address the State Highway 130 corridor.

The Economic Growth and Redevelopment Services Office, headed by Director Sue Edwards, is proposing only one new full-time employee, bringing the total number of staff to 37. That person will be the receptionist in the One-Stop Shop, which has been filled by a temporary employee. The total budget, just a hair under $6 million, is divided into economic growth ($2.6 million), small business development ($1.4 million), cultural arts ($1.2 million) and the support services for those areas, which is just over $200,000.

Redevelopment projects in the department in the upcoming year include the Seaholm Power Plant Redevelopment; Block 21; Second Street Retail; and Mueller. Mueller milestones in the coming year will include the final closure of environmental remediation, the takedown/purchase of a number of properties, construction of a number of elements on the site and the opening of a visitors center.

Other projects in progress, or likely to come to fruition in either 2006 or 2007 include, the demolition of the Intel structure on the federal courthouse site; AMLI’s development on Block 22; the first phase of construction on Robertson Hill in East Austin; growing occupancy of the residential units at The Triangle; and the major infrastructure at The Domain.

Departmental work will include the launch of community tax centers for lower-income Austinites; support of the World Congress on Information Technology conference next year; completion of a second phase of a downtown retail study; finalization of the city’s cultural arts policies; implementation of a downtown art plan; increases in the Art in Public Places collection; and the launch of First Night on New Year’s Eve.

In Fact Daily will report on the budgets for the Watershed Protection and Development Review Department and Public Works.

TTC orders tolls for US290 East

The Texas Transportation Commission (TTC) approved a minute order for tolling on existing US 290 East between US 183 and State Highway 130 on Tuesday, making the 5.6-mile segment the second toll road to be completed by the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority (CTRMA).

The segment is one of five projects in the second phase of the CTRMA’s central Texas toll road plan. While the estimated $250 million project will be funded in the same manner as US 183A – through a combination of tolls, loans and bonds – it will be somewhat different from the US 183A project. The Texas Department of Transportation will continue to own the land under US 290E and pay for the additional right-of-way required for its expansion, while the CTRMA signs a license agreement to design, build and operate the toll lanes that will be developed down the existing median of the roadway.

At yesterday’s TTC meeting, two commissioners expressed concerns about the drafting of the first-of-its-kind agreement. Commissioner Ted Houghton said it was important to provide a careful review of the CTRMA’s work, given the fact the state maintained a vested interest in the project. And Commissioner John Johnson wanted assurance that existing businesses would not be harmed. The licensing agreement gives the CTRMA to right to sign contracts to add new businesses in the right-of-way – an unlikely event in the case of this particular project – but Johnson wanted to know that new competition would not be knocking existing businesses off the map.

US 183A was ready for construction almost immediately, with an opening slated for early 2007. That won’t be the case this time around. CTRMA Executive Director Mike Heiligenstein estimates contract negotiations between TxDOT and the CTRMA should take about a year, with right-of-way acquisition, design and construction completed by 2009. In most places, the project should expand frontage roads from two to three lanes. The median will be used for electronic express lanes in each direction, which would provide a straight shot between the freeways. Heiligenstein estimates the cost of the project, minus the new land, should be around $250 million.

Heiligenstein calls this the kind of project that Livable City and other groups following the toll projects should like. Growth is putting tremendous pressure on road building in the region. This is a spoke that can provide a pressure valve, but it’s the kind of relief that will be provided through a user fee.

“That a kind of equity,” Heiligenstein said. “Current taxpayers who have already paid their share won’t be paying for these roads. You can’t expect the taxpayer to pay for all the roads we need. Those days are gone, and groups like Livable City should be promoting these types of roads. If we know they’re going to be needed – and we know that there has been an explosion in growth around Manor – then the payment on those roads should come from the people who are using them.”

The CTRMA would like to build the US 290E toll road past SH 130 to Manor. Heiligenstein says it makes sense to bring Manor into the toll road system, given the growth in the area. Then the road has as much usefulness inbound as it has outbound. Those are details that will be discussed and coordinated with the community over the next year, Heiligenstein said.

Council Member Brewster McCracken was neither surprised nor worried by the Texas Transportation Commission’s decision. The upcoming toll road study, he said, will look at the right mix for funding road expansions, not avoiding new roads.

“Could this road be built where the highway lanes are a mixture of free lanes and toll lanes–so on 290 East that would be a more likely outcome than simply free because there is no funding in the pipeline for 290 East?” McCracken posed. “That road is in a different position than (Highway) 71 to the airport or (US) 290 West at Oak Hill, which are both fully funded.”

McCracken says a regional gas tax of 1.6 cents per gallon would be enough to fund the area’s toll roads as free roads. He noted that so far the Legislature has favored toll roads over adding to the gasoline tax..

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

New voter born . . . Mark and Jennifer Littlefield are the proud parents of their first child, Grace Lynn. She was born Tuesday, weighing in at exactly 8 pounds. Both are reportedly doing well. For those who don’t know them, Littlefield is a political consultant who managed the campaigns of Council Member Brewster McCracken, State Rep. Patrick Rose, and Gregg Knaupe . . . Eminent domain ban round one . . . The Council yesterday approved an ordinance prohibiting the city from taking private property to give to another private entity for economic development purposes only. The ordinance won unanimous approval but must come back next week for another vote . . . Appointments . . . The Council appointed engineer Amer Gilani on the recommendation of Council Member Jennifer Kim and reappointed psychologist Mary Gay Maxwell on the recommendation of Council Member Betty Dunkerley to the Environmental Board. Isidoro Lopez, representing the Latin arts community, was appointed by consensus to the Mexican American Cultural Center Advisory Board . . . Gables finally finished . . . All the parties involved with zoning changes to allow Gables Residential to build a mixed-use development, including apartments on Capital of Texas Highway breathed a sigh of relief yesterday after winning final Council approval. The Council approved changes to a restrictive covenant that has been the subject of many months of negotiations between attorneys for Gables and the Bunny Run Neighborhood Association. Steve Drenner represented Gables and Nikelle Mead and Terry Irion represented the neighbors . . . The Council postponed action on the zoning cases that might have generated the most controversy, including a proposed car wash on West Slaughter Lane and a commercial development in North Austin. The Council also postponed hearing an argument over zoning of two properties on West 6th Street near the entrance ramp to MoPac on the request of the property owner’s attorney . . . South Congress Café case set for today . . . The owner of the South Congress Café, who was charged with failing to obtain a permit to build a deck for the restaurant, is set to go to trial this morning. Attorney Richard Suttle said Thursday he was anticipating a settlement . . . Howard plans for State Representative . . . Democrat Donna Howard yesterday confirmed that she is planning to run against State Rep Todd Baxter for the House District 48 seat. Howard is a co-founder of the parent organization Advocates for Eanes Schools and has been a health education instruction at UT. She said she would formally announce her campaign next month . . . It’s Nightlife Month . . . Mayor Will Wynn yesterday proclaimed September as Support Austin’s Nightlife Month. Austin is the ‘live music capital of the world’ and home to more than 1,000 nightspots and 150 music venues, according to the Mayor. Former adversaries in the smoking referendum Randall Stockton of Beerland and Rodney Ahart of the American Cancer Society received the proclamation together. The smoking ban goes into effect on September 1 . . . Charity golf takes off . . . The City of Austin is hosting three separate golf tournaments with all proceeds to benefit the City of Austin combined charities campaign. On September 10 the Parks and Recreation Department will sponsor Fairways For Charities at the Roy Kizer Golf Course, 5400 Jimmy Clay Dr. Golfers will ante $65 to play in this tournament. Contact Candy.Moreno@ci.Austin.tx.us by September 2 . . . The Aviation Department and CA One Inc will present the 5 th Annual ABIA Tournament at Cedars of Bergstrom Golf Course for $65 per golfer. The date for this one is September 16 and the deadline is September 10. Contact brenda.helgren@ci.Austin.tx.us . . . Austin Energy is sponsoring the final tournament, the 16th Annual Tommy Cardenas Charity Golf Tournament on October 6. For $60 you can enter this tournament at the Black Hawk Golf Club 2714 Kelly Lane. For more information, contact Ashley.harrison@austinenergy.com.

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