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UTC backs move to allow cabs to recover costs

Tuesday, September 20, 2005 by

No agreement on credit card, check payments

The Urban Transportation Commission declined to support a proposed city policy for acceptable taxi meter payments, but supported increased fuel cost recovery fees and a toll road fee payment policy at last night’s meeting.

Cab drivers opposed the meter fee, which was a fairly straightforward policy to require Austin’s three cab companies to determine a standard policy for the use of checks and credit cards. Hannah Riddering spoke on the cab drivers’ behalf at the meeting, saying that cab companies might set the policy but it was cab drivers who would bear the costs.

In the case of Yellow Cab, cab drivers are contractors who must agree to all fees set by the owners of the Yellow Cab franchise in Austin, Riddering said. Yellow Cab passes on the fees for credit card charges back to cab drivers. Those charges cannot be passed on to the customers, Riddering said. Riddering questioned those charges and possible bad check fees that cab drivers could face, although cab companies have rarely been inclined to deal with the inconvenience of checks, Riddering said.

Robert Velasquez, who spoke on behalf of Roy’s Cabs, said each credit card issuer charges a percentage of the transaction back to the cab company. The cab companies need to be able to recoup those costs.

UTC commissioners were sympathetic to the concerns of cab drivers. Some suggested a policy about what a cab company could not do – such as not set surcharge rates – but it did not win full support of the commission. In the end, the UTC recommended against the policy.

A policy to increase taxi meter rates by 10 cents a mile when gasoline hits $2.45 per gallon did win support of the group. Incremental increases would occur for each 75 cent increase in gas prices, up to $5.45 per gallon. The increase, a type of cost recovery fee, would remain in effect until the price drops to $2.10 or less. Once fuel prices drop, if ever, the recovery fee would be reduced accordingly.

The soonest the policy will get onto the Council agenda will be Oct. 20. Chair Michelle Brinkman urged city staff to try to get the policy on the agenda even sooner. While gas prices have dropped, oil prices went up $4 per barrel on Monday.

The commission also agreed to a toll policy for taxi cabs. Under the policy, a driver would offer a passenger either the tolled or non-tolled alternative. The passenger could choose to take the toll road but would be liable for the cost of the tolls.

City to close center for evacuees on Friday

Storm could hit Texas coast by Friday, bringing more evacuees to Austin

With the number of Hurricane Katrina evacuees at the city’s emergency shelter at the Austin Convention Center dwindling to just over 500, Mayor Will Wynn announced Monday the city would be closing the shelter effective this Friday. However, Tropical Storm Rita—which may become a Category 1 hurricane today—could be headed for the Texas Gulf Coast, and that could mean hundreds or even thousands more evacuees on Austin’s doorstep by this weekend.

Depending on if, where, and how hard the storm hits, the state Emergency Management Division’s Texas Coastal Advisory Team has designated Austin as one of five “hubs” that will serve as centralized shelters for coastal evacuees. McAllen, San Antonio, Bryan/College Station and Nacogdoches/Lufkin are the other key cities in the plan.

The National Hurricane Center forecast said Rita is likely to enter the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico today and could grow into a Category 3 or 4 hurricane before making landfall on Friday or Saturday. Storm trackers say the most likely path for Rita is somewhere between Houston and New Orleans, but that it could hit anywhere along the Texas coast.

On Monday, Gov. Rick Perry ordered 1,200 members of the Texas National Guard home from search and rescue duties in New Orleans to begin preparations for Rita. The Governor’s office said those troops would be staging their relief efforts from Camp Swift near Bastrop. And the Mayor of Galveston has ordered a voluntary evacuation of that island city beginning today, requesting that those evacuees head up Interstate 45 to Huntsville.

If more people do arrive in Austin because of evacuations ordered because of Rita, Mayor Wynn says the city will be ready. “Regardless of what the scenario is, the city of Austin will play its role in what is a very structured statewide plan given the size and location of any storm to hit the Texas coast,” he said.

It’s unlikely that the city would set up another emergency shelter at the Convention Center. Instead, the city’s emergency plan calls for several smaller shelters at AISD facilities across town.

"We have a lot of people who have been working with the Red Cross and have received training in how to operate an emergency shelter," said Kenneth Neafcy with the Office of Emergency Management. "That could prove to be a benefit for us if it becomes necessary to open any shelters." Since the storm's path is still uncertain, local emergency officials don't know exactly how many shelters, if any, will be needed. "At this point, it's still too early to say about the number and scope of evacuees," said Neafcy. "At this point, we're kind of in a waiting game."

As it wraps up helping Katrina evacuees, the city has identified about 625 vacant apartment units around town available for those evacuees, and officials plan to have all families placed in housing within the private sector by the end of the day on Friday.

The biggest obstacle will be finding homes or apartments for some of the larger, extended families that have been staying at the Convention Center and want to stay together. Mayor Wynn is requesting that landlords or apartment complex managers with three or four-bedroom units contact the special housing hotline set up by the city at 974-9999.

While the Mayor consistently said the shelter would be open as long as necessary, he has also said that closing the facility was an expected move as more and more hurricane evacuees find places to live within the community or elsewhere in Texas.

“As we now are shifting into the third phase of this three-phase exercise, we’re now shifting into the long-term phase,” he said. “That’s the phase where, for the next year or more, we help folks transition back to some sense of normalcy. We are seeing that it’s our non-profits, our faith community who are stepping up now with this third phase.”

The fact that so many of the evacuees have been placed in housing and found jobs within just three weeks, Wynn said, was a tribute to their perseverance and the hard work of the city staff. “I can’t speak highly enough of city employees, particularly over Labor Day weekend. Disproportionately, the people who were down here were City of Austin volunteer employees,” he said, also praising the Police, Fire, and EMS employees who went to Louisiana as part of Texas Task Force 1. “The City of Austin employees have been stellar. I’d love for the city Manager to come up with a scheme for us to reward and acknowledge what has been a remarkable effort.”

So far, the shelter operations have cost the city about $3 million, much of that for employee overtime or supplies and operations at the Convention Center. While much of that is expected to be reimbursed by the federal government, City Manager Toby Futrell said it would be harder to recoup any losses for the local hotel-motel and restaurant industry suffered because of major events at the convention that were postponed, canceled, or moved to other locations during the past three weeks.

The next major event for the Austin Convention Center is the Solid Waste Association of North America ( http://www.swana.org) convention next Monday, expected to attract up to 10,000 visitors.

Bar owners sue city over smoking ban

Nearly two dozen Austin bars and nightclubs filed suit last Friday, seeking a restraining order against the City of Austin to prohibit enforcement of its ordinance on smoking in public places. In May, city voters approved the strict new ordinance, which went into effect September 1.

The 69-page lawsuit, supported by hundreds of pages of data and affidavits, was prepared by attorneys Marc Levin and Brian Bishop. The plaintiffs include Paul Silver, owner of 219 West, Beerland owner Randall Stockton, and Elysium owner J ohn Wickham, all of whom were active in the campaign against the smoking ban earlier this year.

Many of the same plaintiffs filed a lawsuit in federal court last spring seeking to prevent the city from holding a referendum on the measure. A federal judge dismissed that suit, however, saying the issue was not “ripe” for consideration until the ordinance was in place. The new suit, filed in state district court, raises many of the same issues and expands upon the complaints.

In the suit, Levin argues the ordinance violates the state law regulating tobacco products, that it is unconstitutionally vague and will require selective enforcement, that the petitions gathered to trigger the election on the ordinance did not comply with the provisions of the City Charter, that the ordinance will infringe upon the use of incense in religious ceremonies protected under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, that it interferes with pre-existing contracts between nightclub owners and tobacco companies, and that it amounts to an improper taking of private property.

Should the city be allowed to continue enforcing the ordinance, Levin asks the court to rule that bars and nightclubs are not public places under the law and are therefore exempt.

One of the plaintiffs' exhibits is a study conducted by two University of North Texas professors about the impact of a smoking ordinance in Dallas ( http://www.gdra.org/images/smoking_20ban_20report_2010_04.pdf ). Several of the bar and nightclub owners also submitted depositions outlining how the smoking ordinance has hurt their businesses.

Paul Silver, owner of 219 West, said that his late-night business has been down by about 20 percent since the new ordinance took effect. His affidavit also states that he believes he is losing business to other clubs or bars that are not strictly enforcing the provision against smoking.

The owner of Lovejoy’s, Chip Tait, also submitted a deposition that his business has been down during the past two weeks. ”There’s a lot of faces that I used to see that I'm not seeing anymore," he said. While Tait said he had encountered some new customers who specifically mentioned the smoke-free atmosphere as an enticement, he said they had not been back, while the customers he has lost over the past two weeks were regulars who patronized his establishment four or five times a week.

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

. . . The youngest and newest member of the Austin City Council is 33 years old today . . . Meetings . . . The Zoning and Platting Commission meets at 6pm in Council Chambers at City Hall . . . The Resource Management Commission meets at 6:30 pm in room 1101 at City Hall . . . Travis County Commissioners meet at 9am in Commission Chambers at 314 W. 11th St. . . . The Williamson County Commissioners Court Meets at 9:30am at 301 S.E. Inner Loop, in Georgetown . . . Cap Metro orders rail cars . . . The Capital Metro Board of Directors has approved a $32 million contract with Stadler Bussnag, A.G., a Swiss railcar manufacturer, to purchase six rail vehicles for Capital Metro’s planned urban commuter rail service to be delivered beginning in 2007. Following the successful commuter rail referendum last November, Capital Metro will be implementing urban commuter rail in 2008. The contract includes options to purchase an additional twelve vehicles over the next five years. Each vehicle will be self-propelled by two diesel electric engines, accessible, and will be able to start and stop faster than traditional commuter rail vehicles. The vehicles each have a capacity of 215 passengers, including room for 108 seated and 117 standing passengers, as well as room for four spaces each for passengers with wheelchairs and bicycles . . . Missing Metro . . . Urban Transportation Commission members are a bit miffed they have yet to see a representative from Capital Metro at one of their meetings, even after repeated invitations. Commissioner Carl Tepper promised an October appearance from the absent transit agency. “Should I dress up for it?” quipped one of Tepper’s colleagues. . . Cultural Arts funding . . . The Cultural Arts Division of the Economic Growth and Redevelopment Services Office is currently accepting applications for two Cultural Arts Funding Programs: the Project Support II and Special Opportunities Programs. Project Support II program supports nonprofit organizations and sponsored individuals for community-based arts projects. Applications for funding up to $5,000 will be accepted through November 1. The Special Opportunities program is designed to support specific professional development activities for staff of nonprofit arts and cultural organizations and individual artists. Applications are accepted for requests up to $1,000 on an ongoing basis. Applications and instructions are now available at: http://www.cityofaustin.org/culturalcontracts. . . . Charting AISD’s future . . . Parents, faculty and community members who comprise AISD’s District Advisory Committee will convene on today to help chart the course for implementing AISD’s 2005-2010 Strategic Plan. The day-long retreat will be held at the district’s Professional Development Academy, located at 2608 Richcreek Road. Superintendent Pat Forgione is scheduled to discuss implementing the goals of the 2005-2010 AISD Strategic Plan at 11am. A copy of the Strategic Plan is available at the district’s website http://www.austinisd.org. . . . Waiting for a Rainey day . . .Robert Velasquez of Roy’s Taxi was on hand for the Urban Transportation Commission last night. It seemed as good a time as any to ask whether the Velasquez family, long a leader in the fight over Rainey Street, had cut a deal on their property. “Not yet, not yet,” Velasquez said, sighing. “I might be dead before I get that property sold.”

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