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City employees heed call to help Katrina evacuees

Tuesday, September 6, 2005 by

Hundreds of City of Austin employees pitched in over the holiday weekend to set up an emergency shelter at the Austin Convention Center for 4,000 evacuees from Louisiana. Now, city officials are working with their federal counterparts to set up services for those evacuees to help them find work and more permanent housing as they decide whether to remain in Austin, rejoin relatives in other cities, or return to Louisiana.

The decision was made on Friday to deliver up to 5,000 evacuees from New Orleans to Austin after larger Texas cities like Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio began reaching their capacity. That prompted a massive effort on behalf of the city to convert the Neal Kocurek Memorial Convention Center into a facility suitable for housing and providing medical treatment. While the Convention Center did have enough space for the evacuees, it was lacking one important component: showers. “With the hard work of the City of Austin’s Building Services Department…men and women worked 24-hours…all through the night…we constructed the showers in this facility,” said Mayor Will Wynn.

Since most of the people who were brought to Austin over the weekend were medical evacuees, the city’s police, fire, and EMS departments were called upon to do extra duty in treating and evaluating patients. “ Rudy Garza served as our point person,” said Mayor Wynn, singling out the Assistant City Manager for Public Safety for special praise on Sunday. “He was the operational command officer. Rudy slept less than any of us during the last 48 hours. I just have to tell him publicly what a spectacular job he has done coordinating a number of city departments. It’s been a stellar performance by a bunch of professionals and a bunch of volunteers.” He also praised the Public Safety Department employees, who were the first to meet the evacuees when their planes landed at ABIA.

“From the moment they landed at Bergstrom, we made sure that we welcomed them as guests. As our firefighters and paramedics walked onto the plane, it was all about ‘welcome to Austin, and we are going to take care of you. We’re honored to have you in our city.’”

Mayor Wynn personally greeted all of the evacuees as they stepped off of Capital Metro buses at the Convention Center on Saturday and Sunday, getting only one hour of sleep on Sunday morning before returning to the Convention Center. “The gratitude and relief that they shared was truly remarkable,” he said.

While the Mayor pledged that the Convention Center would remain open as an emergency shelter for as long as necessary, he noted that there were already steps underway to help the evacuees find more traditional housing in Central Texas. FEMA, he said, was working on a housing voucher program that would allow displaced Louisiana residents to pay for a down payment on a home, apartment rent, or for an extended-stay hotel. Details of that program could be announced this week. The Department of Housing and Urban Development also has programs to help, according to City Manager Toby Futrell. “Anybody that was HUD qualified in Louisiana can be placed immediately in HUD housing in Texas,” she said. The State of Texas has compiled a list of all vacant apartment units in the state, and staffers with the City’s Neighborhood Housing and Community Development officer were at the Convention Center on Monday as part of the relief effort.

Officials in New Orleans have predicted it could take up to six months to drain all the water from the flood-ravaged city, which means that some of the evacuees at the Austin Convention Center could remain there for that time. Many of the services needed by the evacuees are already being provided at the Convention Center. Those include dozens of phones, Internet access through dozens of computers, job placement assistance, psychological counseling, church services, and a hair salon. Late Monday night, the city put a hold on requests for new donations, since 20 truckloads worth of supplies had already been provided by generous Austinites. When the need does arise for more donations, the city will put out the call for specific items through its web site at

The remarkable outpouring of community support was matched only by the enthusiasm of city staff from all departments and volunteers, said Mayor Wynn. “I can’t tell you how proud I am of this city, of the region, of city employees, and the volunteers in this facility. It has been a remarkably moving experience,” he said. “I think this has been the greatest experience in the history of Austin. Now as we shift over to providing resources for our guests, our challenge is to continue to have that be the case. The key words now are endurance and sustainability.”

Task force backs 'Zero Waste' policy for city, region

Adopting a goal of “Zero Waste” to be implemented over the next 50 years, the city’s Long Range Solid Waste Planning Task Force has issued an interim report calling for a regional approach to solid waste management in Central Texas.

The task force, an ad hoc subcommittee of the Solid Waste Advisory Commission (SWAC), began meeting in April to discuss developing a long-term plan for handling waste, increasing recycling, and reducing the amount of material put in area landfills. The group, made up of about a dozen people, includes SWAC members, environmentalists, representatives of the solid waste industry and other citizens.

J.D. Porter, co-chair of the task force and member of SWAC, said that while the goal of zero waste may never be completely achieved, it is a worthwhile goal.

“We recommend researching the use of a solid waste authority or district or a lead organization as the mechanism used to implement and sustain the plan recommendations,” he said, adding that implementation will be targeted in intervals of 5 years, 10 years, 20 years, 35 years, and 50 years.

“Zero Waste” is described by the Grassroots Recycling Network as a “principle for the 21st Century that seeks to redesign the way resources and materials flow through society. Zero Waste requires eliminating subsidies for raw material extraction and waste disposal, and holding producers responsible for their products and packaging 'from cradle to cradle.' The goal is to promote clean production, prevent pollution, and create communities in which all products are designed to be cycled safely back into the economy or environment.”

The initial findings of the task force include:

• The issues of local and regional solid waste management are inextricably intertwined;

• Several and various city, county, regional, state and federal government agencies have jurisdiction and influence over matters of solid waste management—a situation that, without coordination, inhibits effective local and regional planning, management and regulatory efforts;

• The stakeholders in issues of solid waste management include the public at -large, governments, service providers and the recipients of solid waste management services, all of which may benefit from a concerted and cooperative planning effort;

• The Task Force has identified several key elements that warrant further research and discussion: baseline data, infrastructure, technology, public policy, implementation and ongoing management; and

• Further investigation requires the application of a professional facilitator and/or consultant and ongoing staff support.

Porter said the task force will produce a written solid waste management plan for the City of Austin, but with a regional focus, which will be presented to the Austin City Council, the Capital Area Council of Governments, the Travis County Commissioners Court, and other stakeholders such as neighboring counties, businesses and environmental groups.

“The plan is for the next 50 years, providing both a broad vision of where we hope to be and suggested strategies to achieve implementation of that vision.” the report states. “The plan will include consideration of residential, commercial-industrial-institutional, construction and demolition, and imported and exported solid waste.”

At a recent meeting, the task force adopted the World Environment Day Urban Environment Accords (recently signed by Mayor Will Wynn) related to waste reduction as an amendment to its goal.

Those accords seek to establish a policy to achieve zero waste to landfills and incinerators by 2040; adopt laws that reduce the use of a disposable, toxic or non-renewable product category by at least 50 percent in seven years; and implement "user friendly" recycling and composting programs with the goal of reducing by 20 percent per capita solid waste disposal to landfill and incineration in seven years.

Porter said the task force has set up a schedule of meetings on alternate Mondays, and has committed to complete its work by the end of the year.

Council names new manager for access TV channels

After more than 30 years as the manager for the city’s three public-access cable TV Channels, ACTV will be replaced by a new non-profit group, Public Community Access Television (PACT). The City Council made it official last week with a 7-0 vote in favor of awarding the management contract to the new organization.

Representatives of ACTV offered their support for the move and promised to do their best to ensure a smooth transition. That promise came after a bid protest hearing on Wednesday, in which ACTV made a final effort to retain the contract it has held for more than three decades.

Once that appeal was exhausted, said new ACTV President Don Vogler, the decision was made to withdraw ACTV’s bid and offer full cooperation to PACT. “In essence, we are exiting as gracefully as possible and doing everything we can to make this transition smooth for the new contractor and the access channels,” he said. “We have considerable business to wind down. It’s our intent to leave our books in good order.” Vogler predicts ACTV will reach the end of the contract term with a small surplus, possibly $25,000, which could be used to set up a scholarship fund.

The backers of PACT scheduled a meeting last week with the current employees of ACTV, who will likely be retained by PACT for at least 90 days once the transition occurs. PACT Board Members will also be reviewing the policies and procedures adopted by ACTV to determine which to keep and which need to be re-written.

“We hope that the transition will be smooth. Our vision is to bring more community members to use public access to be more aware of it, more community outreach,” said PACT founder Linda Litowsky. “We’d like to bring in more non-profits. But we also are very serious about raising the quality of public access television and the technical excellence.”

City staff should have the two-year contract with PACT ready for the City Manager’s signature within 30 days, just in time for the start of the new fiscal year. The agreement calls for PACT to receive $1,235,000 over the 24-month term of the contract, with two renewal options of two years each.

“I do thank you for stepping up and wanting to help, and I think this is a service to the public,” Council Member Raul Alvarez told Litowsky and her partners. “I think you’re right in terms of wanting to raise the quality. We have some good things happening but we can always improve.”

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

Brown McCarroll wins bid . . . The City Council last week approved a $150,000 legal services agreement for representation and advice related to an application by Central Texas Water Solutions. The request for a wastewater certificate of convenience and necessity is pending before the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) . . . The Council approved an ordinance that would prohibit large trucks from idling for more than five minutes beginning during the 2006 ozone season . . . Zoning problems put off . . . The Council last week postponed a hearing a decision on a zoning request for retail, mixed-use zoning at the corner of East Riverside and I-35. City staff asked that the case be put off until November 17 . . . Today’s meetings . . . The Zoning and Platting Commission will meet at 6pm in Council chambers. The panel is scheduled to consider a request from the Perry Lorenz and Diana Zuniga for a zoning change that would allow the Spring condominium project at Bowie and Third Streets to build a 36-story tower. The height they are seeking would require DMU-CURE zoning . . . Lumbermen’s Investment Corp., which is seeking DMU-CURE for its property at the corner of Lamar and West Cesar Chavez, will wait another month before the ZAP hears its request. City staff is seeking a postponement to Oct. 4 . . . . Williamson County Commissioners Court meets at 9:30am at the County Annex Building on Inner Loop Drive in Georgetown. Commissioners are scheduled to set next year’s tax rate. . . . Travis County Commissioners Court meets at 9am in Court Chambers at 314 W. 11th Street. Commissioners will consider adoption of a Travis County solid waste siting ordinance. . . Austin v. Albany . . . According to an article in today’s Business Week magazine, Austin’s main U.S. competitor for Samsung’s proposed $3.5 billion, 300 mm wafer plant is Albany, N.Y. Austin and the State of Texas is trying to keep Samsung here with a $225 million incentive package for it’s expansion, while according Business Week, Albany and New York State is offering an incentive package close to $300 million. Albany has followed Austin’s lead in developing its high-tech infrastructure, luring International Sematech to the University of Albany in 2002. New York Gov. George Pataki has also announced that he is hiring Austin-based consultant Angelo Angelou, considered a major mover and shaker in recruiting firms to Austin. Business Week adds that Samsung is also considering putting the plant in mainland China or adding capacity to its operation in Seoul, South Korea. The company has not announced a timetable to make a decision.

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