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Federal funds to ease city’s cost to aid evacuees

Wednesday, September 7, 2005 by

Aid effort forces Convention Center to cancel, reschedule several events

Austin is counting on federal funds to help cover the cost of the city’s Hurricane Katrina relief efforts. City officials so far do not have an exact cost for treating and sheltering Austin’s guests from Louisiana, but say federal dollars should help minimize the impact of the shelter at the Austin Convention Center on the city’s budget.

Since the initial set-up of the emergency shelter occurred over a three-day holiday weekend, many of the city employees involved in the effort volunteered their services. “For our public safety employees, we are back-filling with overtime,” said City Manager Toby Futrell. “The federal government has assured us we are going to be reimbursed for direct shelter expenses as well as overtime.”

In addition to the work of setting up living quarters and services for approximately 4,000 people from Louisiana, the city has also been keeping close track of its expenses. “We’re functioning in three ways: donated services, donated materials, and then staff. And we’re keeping track of all of that. All direct service expenditures are going to be reimbursed. So in each area…medical, police, triage, shelter, food, getting kids into school…all of that is being tracked by the manager over that area.”

The federal reimbursement program is in the process of being streamlined, Futrell said, in order to make it easier for cities to obtain the money. For those one-time expenditures that are not reimbursed, the City Council could choose to use money in the various reserve funds, which total more than $93 million.

While city officials did not have a cost estimate on Tuesday for the relief effort so far, one area that will clearly be affected over the next few weeks will be revenue from the Austin Convention Center. The center has cancelled conventions for the next two weeks—sending most to alternate locations within the city, according to Cindy Maddox of the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Maddox said all convention planners who have booked space in the Convention Center through the end of the year have been advised of the situation. At least two conferences and one trade show planned for the next week will wait to see if they can reschedule.

Jola Dryden, whose company, International Exhibitions, Inc. (IEI), puts on the Texas Home & Garden Show for Austin as well as other cities, said she was notified on Friday that this weekend’s show had been cancelled. Dryden said she did not know when her company might be able to reschedule the show, but said she hopes to do so. The cancellation means lost income not only for the Convention Center, she said, but also for the 250 or more exhibitors who use the show as a marketing tool.

Dryden pointed out that the city would lose the money from the Convention Center rental in addition to fees from concessions and taxes paid on hotel rooms and items purchased at the trade show. She hastened to point out that her company does understand why the Convention Center is not available, adding that IEI would be assisting in the relief effort. The home and garden show in Dallas, which is scheduled for a private facility, will take place this weekend, Dryden said, and will include a relief effort. “We’re trying to help everyone,” she said.

Maddox said the Ingram Micro Tech Fair, estimated to draw 650 conventioneers, has relocated at the Downtown Hilton and the Renaissance Hotel in the Arboretum. Another convention will be going to Barton Creek Resort next week and the Association of Energy Engineers will be meeting at the Renaissance, she said.

Maddox said the estimated economic impact of conventions planned during the next two weeks is $3 million. But the ACVB does not figure in the funds generated by the city by the Convention Center fees, Maddox said. So, except for revenue generated by the Home and Garden Show, that money, will remain in the community, she said. Maddox said she did not know how much that convention would have brought the city.

Reducing the number of people staying in the Convention Center will largely be the job of the city’s Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Office (NHCD). While all of the HUD housing units in Austin are already full, NHCD Director Paul Hilgers said property owners in the private sector are stepping up to volunteer.

“We are working and have worked to identify specific families that can go to specific vacancies that we have. We’ve had a major outpouring of support from our non-profit and for-profit apartment owners to try to figure out how they can have access to some of these families,” he said. “We had a meeting with over 100 apartment managers and we’re talking about it. All of them are working right now to identify and get ready apartments, and so we’ll be working to connect those people in the next two or three days. Our objective is obviously to get them into housing that’s reasonable, that’s appropriate for what they want, and do that as fast as possible.”

Federal housing vouchers would also help speed up the process, Hilgers said, and city officials expect details of such a program to be announced this week.

Alvarez seeks $250K for SE area youth services

Council Member Raul Alvarez said Tuesday he hopes to add a $250,000 amendment to the city's budget for next year to support expanded services for Southeast Austin young people and their families. Since the police shooting of Daniel Rocha this summer, a committee of area residents and community advocates have been meeting to identify ways to improve life in Southeast Austin, Alvarez said.

His proposal, if approved by the City Council, would encourage healthy lifestyles, increase unity and provide "economic, educational and spiritual opportunities" for area youth.

Alvarez said the bulk of the proposal would be to expand mentoring services at Mendez Middle School, where the River City Youth Foundation already works. He said the city would provide an additional $35,000 for mentoring and a $100,000 challenge grant from capital funds to expand the building. That should enable the group to double the number of mentors involved in the program, he said.

If Alvarez gets his way, the city would fund a program to help build understanding and trust between members of the community, including parents, students, teachers and police officers. The Art of Living Foundation would provide a program of stress management and human values training as a pilot project for the city and the Austin Independent School District, he said.

The Art of Living Foundation is an international program already at work in other schools, Alvarez said. He added that AISD Superintendent Pat Forgione is very excited about the possibility of “the city investing in the Southeast Austin educational institutions. I tried to be sensitive to the kind of programs that would make the biggest impact. So I think the focus for Mendez would be to have the most activities that would involve the students and their families, so you’re strengthening the family with activities that have this educational component.”

Asked whether he had four votes for his proposal, Alvarez said, "The idea has been well received in terms of trying to fund additional programs to support Southeast Austin, but this is the first time I've been able to convey the true budgetary impact. So, as we get to the first budget reading, we’ll see how it fits in. But I believe there’s a lot of interest in trying to provide additional support to that community. "

There is no Council meeting this week. Budget readings are scheduled for next Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.

County Commissioners to consider landfill siting ordinance

Waste Management files for expansion permit

Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe has made good on a promise: Once one of the county landfill operators filed an expansion permit, the county would be ready to pass its landfill siting ordinance.

Biscoe must now see if the interest level is high enough to get the ordinance passed. The standing gentleman’s agreement for the past three years has been that no operator would file an expansion permit as long as the county didn’t file its own siting ordinance. In the meantime, the county has moved forward with performance-based contracting with at least one landfill operator – Browning Ferris Industries – that would give some latitude for an expansion if the landfill is capable of meeting performance standards.

Waste Management of Texas did not participate in the contracting process. Last week, attorney John Joseph hand-delivered a letter to the county, informing the court Waste Management had filed its application to amend the permit for the Austin Community Landfil l with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

“WMTX’s application to amend the ACL permit is largely necessitated by Travis County’s growing waste disposal and transportation needs,” Joseph wrote in his letter. “The long-term disposal needs of the area, as well as the realities of the length of the TCEQ permitting process, require that WMTX act now to secure additional permitted capacity.”

Given the letter, Biscoe has put the ordinance on the table. But it’s still uncertain whether Biscoe will have support to pass an ordinance. Neighbors are split, fearing that an ordinance would mean a rush to file expansion permits from existing operators. Even the Commissioners Court is uncertain how proceed, ranging from support to skepticism of what an ordinance could accomplish.

Bob Gregory of Texas Disposal Systems (TDS) presented an overview of the last actions from 2002 and suggested a performance agreement with TDS. Biscoe was inclined to separate the performance contracts from the actual ordinance. TDS presented a bound packet of information, including its assessment of the last version of the ordinance, for the court to consider in the coming weeks.

Activist Trek English did not want to grandfather existing landfill permits, pointing out that state law would give the county the ability to reject the permit before its final approval. The county attorney’s office differs from English on that interpretation of that law. The county considers the point of filing to be the point at which the operator has standing, a point that appears to have more general acceptance in the law.

Commissioner Ron Davis has supported the passage of an ordinance. Commissioner Karen Sonleitner warned that putting an agreement on paper would require the county designate not just where landfills could not go, but where they could go. She also was concerned about the ultimate height of the landfills, even for “good neighbors” like TDS. Commissioner Margaret Gomez spoke of her fear that the ordinance would cause a rush to the TCEQ for potential landfill expansion permits, serving little real purpose.

Biscoe will take another two weeks to gather comments on the ordinance, which would apply to Type I and Type IV landfills. Assistant County Attorney Tom Nuckols recommended the court file only the ordinance it intended to pass to avoid confusion and re-filing of an amended ordinance. Nuckols also needs to do a takings assessment. If all goes well, and the commissioners agree on a version of the ordinance, it could take 40 to 60 days to enact it.

Change proposed for Landmark Commission rules

Task force looks at owner opposition to Historic zoning

Betty Baker, who chairs the Historic Preservation Task Force, wants to raise the ante again on the designation of historic homes in Austin, requiring a supermajority of the Historic Landmark Commission to recommend a historic designation in any owner-opposed historic landmark case.

A year ago the task force, with Baker as its chair, worked to contain and maintain historic zoning. At that time, the group focussed on the tax abatements the city grants to owners of historic buildings. The group spent its time trying to tighten up the criteria to designate a building as historic. This time, the focus is cutting down on neighborhood associations’ over-reliance on historic zoning as a zoning tool.

What should be a balanced approach to designating those buildings that are historic – either historically or structurally – has turned into a contentious fight between owners and neighborhood associations. The two most recent cases – the Ikins-O’Connell-Messer House at 2608 McCallum and the Brown-Ledel-Silverman House at 609 West Lynn – were so contentious that something needed to be done, Baker said.

“I’m going to suggest that we consider, when a case has owner opposition, that it not leave the Landmark Commission without a three-fourths vote of the commission, and I mean the full commission and not just the members present,” Baker said. “I’m doing it, very simply, because we have had too many wars… If it’s truly historic, you can pull seven votes on the commission.”

Baker also scolded the absent Historic Landmark Commission, saying that members should make more of an effort to attend City Council meetings when a difficult case is on the agenda. As one person described it to Baker, the commission pulls the pin on the grenade, throws it over the fence and leaves Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky to catch it when he is forced to defend the case alone at Council.

David West, who serves as the Historic Landmark Commission’s ex-officio member on the task force, did defend the absence of the commissioners, saying that City Council rarely, if ever, sided with the commission’s recommendations. Still, Baker insisted it was time that Sadowsky have some company if the commission wanted to defend its decisions to designate a house as historic, especially over an owner’s wishes.

West also proposed a role as a voting member of the task force, a role that was not designated by Council and earned little sympathy from the task force members. West will have to get Council to sign off on such a request. For now, he’s a non-voting member.

The reconstituted task force — which includes current Zoning and Platting Commission members, two former Historic Landmark Commissioners and a former city attorney — did not take a vote on Baker’s recommendation. Instead, the topic was put on a future agenda, along with a host of other issues that Baker and others raised at the table, such as how moratoriums should be implemented, whether remodeling permits should be reviewed and how boundaries for districts should be constituted and dissolved.

The task force plans to meet on the Wednesday evenings when a quorum of members is available. Tonight the task force will review applications from historic districts in cities around the state. Meetings are in One Texas Center, Room 240, at 5:30 p.m.

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

On the team . . . Developers Perry Lorenz and Robert Barnstone are hoping for a smooth ride on their way to approval of a zoning change for the Spring Condominiums. To help ensure that, Lorenz and Barnstone have hired two veterans from Austin politics: Mark Nathan and Mike Blizzard. Nathan was a consultant this spring for the campaigns of Council Members Lee Leffingwell and Betty Dunkerley. He also serves as consultant to Mayor Will Wynn. Blizzard was a consultant to Council Member Raul Alvarez and has worked for the Circle C Neighborhood and Stratus Properties. . . . Today’s Meetings. . The Environmental Board meets at 6pm in Council Chambers at City Hall. On the agenda is an update on the Travis Water Treatment Plant # 4. . . . The Historic Preservation Task Force meets at 5:30 in room 240 of One Texas Center. (See above) . . . The Water and Wastewater Commission meets at 6pm in Room 104 at Waller Creek Plaza. . Commissioners will make a recommendation on Austin Water Utility's proposed $310 million operating budget for FY 2005-06. . . . Hat in the ring things . . . Another candidate is planning to run for the District 47 House seat being vacated by Terry Keel. Bill Welch, an Austin business owner and retired Air Force colonel, will announce his candidacy today at an 11:30 luncheon at the Manchaca Fire House. A Republican, Welch has served in several posts with the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, was elected to the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District Board, and remains active in the US Air Force Reserve. Keel is resigning his seat in order to run for a seat on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. . . . The race for the seat currently held by Williamson County Precinct 4 Commissioner Frankie Limmer is heating up. Limmer has not announced his political plans, but so far, three people have announced they are running for his seat. Former Round Rock City Council Member Gary Coe and Round Rock auto dealer Ron Morrison have previously announced a run for the seat. On Tuesday, Louis Repa of Granger—who opposed Limmer as a Democrat in the general election last time—announced he has switched party affiliation and will run in the GOP primary for the seat. He said he was tired of losing to Republicans, so he’s joining them. . . . One other Williamson County political announcement on Tuesday: Dan A. Gattis Sr. of Georgetown said he will run for county judge. He is the father of current State Rep. Dan A. Gattis Jr. Former Round Rock Mayor Charlie Culpepper and Walburg resident Eric Kirkland have already announced a run for the judge’s job. Incumbent John Doerfler has yet to announce if he will seek re-election . . . At the Capitol . . . Austin State Senator Gonzalo Barrientos will hold a press conference this morning to announce his plans for the future. The American-Statesman has tried hard to goad the stalwart Democrat into saying whether he plans for run for re-election but he’s kept them guessing.

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