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Sonleitner responds to union

Wednesday, December 7, 2005 by

Commissioner says pay plan was budget buster

Precinct Two Commissioner Karen Sonleitner is disputing claims made by the Travis County Sheriff’s Officers Association and the Travis County Sheriff’s Law Enforcement Officers Association. During their endorsement of rival Democrat Karen Eckhardt for the party’s nomination for County Commissioner, Precinct Two, the two groups accused Sonleitner of promising her support for their pay proposals during this year’s budget talks while secretly working against that same proposal. (See In Fact Daily, Dec. 6, 2005.)

“I take great issue with their comments about lobbying other Court members to defeat their plan. I did no such thing. Their plan defeated their plan. It was a budget buster,” Sonleitner said. “I never committed to support or to oppose the associations' pay proposal,” said Sonleitner. “I grew weary of saying I was open-minded to new information up until my vote was cast. I have the emails to prove up my statements. In fact, leadership in one association was running around before the vote claiming I was AGAINST their plan and I had to assure folks that I had not committed either way.”

Sonleitner said she disapproved of the tactics used by the associations during the salary talks this summer. “The associations made it clear that the only hope of getting their political endorsements was to vote for what they wanted–regardless of whether it was affordable to taxpayers,” she said. “I refused to link my budget vote—past, present, or future—to any election process. I was not going to stop doing my job for fear of the loss of a political endorsement.”

As for the claim that the county’s public safety interests would be better served by another Precinct Two Commissioner, Sonleitner pointed to raises that both jailers and sheriff’s deputies had received since she was first elected to office. “Many of these officers have seen their salaries double over the past 10 years. I voted for each and every one of those raises and the officers deserved each and every one of those raises,” she said. “We've taken our sworn officers from admittedly low wages when I arrived on the scene in 1995 to the highest paid corrections officers in the state and the highest paid County Sheriff's deputies in the state.”

Supporters of the incumbent Commissioner will be meeting tonight at the Taverna Restaurant at Second Street and Lavaca for a reception to begin her re-election campaign. The event, which will also serve as a campaign fund-raiser, starts at 5pm.

The last weeks of the year will be a crucial time for Travis County Commissioners to prioritize the mix of revenue bonds and certificates of obligation needed to address short-term construction needs, as well as remaining projects of the 1997, 2001 and 2005 bond issues.

Discussion of the use of certificates of obligation (COs), including those to cover unexpected overruns in impending construction projects, began two weeks ago. Yesterday, commissioners tagged those projects that could be easily remedied with certificates of obligation. Thornier questions about the Blackwell-Thurman Criminal Justice Center and a General Government Campus were pushed off for two weeks.

County construction either comes down to shorter-term COs or longer-term bonds. County Judge Sam Biscoe says the mix of revenue sources is based upon a number of factors. The first priority is to get county offices out of leased space downtown. Biscoe estimates the county spends between $300,000 and $500,000 each year on space that could easily be replaced with either a general campus or permanent facilities.

Beyond that, projects are being gauged against a number of measures: those small enough to be covered with short-term CO debt; those that are ready to go to construction within six months; and those where debt can be anticipated at some future date. County leaders expect to issue about $22 million in certificates of obligation this year, up from $15 million in typical years.

Those CO projects checked immediately off the list for approval by commissioners this week were the Gardner-Betts Juvenile Justice Center renovation ($346,963); Americans with Disabilities Act improvements at the South Austin Building ($675,000); the construction of the Eastside Service Center ($1.1 million); purchase of a South Austin building ($2.1 million); and a number of expenses for the Transportation and Natural Resources Department, including hot mix ($1 million), a drainage study ($500,000), parking lot projects ($739,457) and arterials and collectors ($230,000).

Additional projects include the Flint Rock Road extension ($2.1 million); various other transportation projects ($439,750); mobile data computers for constables ($455,091); and the second phase of the improvements to the county’s building on Airport Boulevard ($1.7 million).

Biscoe pointed out that the initial design of renovations to the Post Road Building, at $100,000, also was added to the CO list. The proposed renovation to the South Austin building, once funded, will be critical to relocating a number of downtown workers, Biscoe said. Two other projects – hot mix at $1.6 million and ambulance chairs and stretchers at $518,340 – already have been paid for out of existing CO funding.

Commissioners will come back to the discussion of renovation of the Precinct 2 building, at $1.7 million, and the other assorted facilities management projects, at $2.2 million. Biscoe also has proposed temporarily pulling about $5 million from the 2005 bond issue to pay for projected cost overruns in bond projects currently being designed and bid.

Joe Gieselman, executive director of Transportation and Natural Resources, estimates the total additional need for bonds will be $4.8 million. Gieselman expects to recoup between $2 and $3 million in revenue from various bond projects that eventually can repay a portion of the overruns.

Two projects put off for a future agenda were a proposed general office campus for the county and the Blackwell-Thurman Building. The general office campus for Travis County has not been welcomed at Robert Mueller, Biscoe said, and it’s time for commissioners to consider whether the court still wants to pursue consolidated space somewhere outside of downtown, where parking and access is easier for patrons. The sale of the Stokes Building, and its adjacent garage, could be part of the mix, Biscoe said.

Long-term plans at the Blackwell-Thurman Criminal Justice Center are to move the District Attorney’s Office out of–and an additional criminal court into– the CJC. The county also wants to discuss whether to move the Sheriff’s offices out of the Gault Building to an appropriate location outside the CJC complex.

Once offices are shuffled, the Gault Building could be redeveloped as a new court tower to serve additional civil and criminal court functions within the CJC complex, say district facility planners.

Biscoe acknowledged that the criminal courts had practically outgrown the Blackwell-Thurman CJC as soon as it opened. Such problems stem from the county’s desire to contain costs rather than appear to be proposing extravagant expenses.

As County Commissioner Karen Sonleitner suggested in a recent discussion of the expansion of the medical examiner’s office, it’s no longer enough to suggest a five-year horizon on projects in a county growing as fast as Travis County; instead, it’s more prudent to suggest a 10-year horizon from the date the project opens, rather than the date the project is first suggested to county officials.

County facility planners, looking at the long-term horizon, are suggesting the next bond issue – sometime between 2007 and 2010 – should address the redevelopment of the Gault Building, the acquisition of additional land downtown for civil courts and some constructive reuse of the historic Heman Sweatt Courthouse. Ultimately, county facilities planners also would like to discuss putting a family law center on available land on South Congress next to the Gardner-Betts site.

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

Brown quitting one race . . . Andy Brown, one of three Democratic contenders hoping to fill the seat of former House District 48 Rep. Todd Baxter, has decided not to run in the special election due to eligibility questions. According to the online publication Burnt Orange Report, Brown told a group he does plan to run in the March primary but not in the January election because he will not have lived in the district for one year prior to the election, as required by the state constitution. Democrat Donna Howard continues to campaign for the position and she plans to run in the special election against Republican Ben Bentzin. Kathy Rider, who has said that she intends to run, has drawn little attention. Earlier this week there was a rumor that both Brown and Howard were dropping out to allow Kelly White a clear shot at the seat, but White declined to run. In a press release issued Tuesday, she said. “I am honored by Andy Brown and Kathy Rider’s gracious offer to step aside for me in favor of what they believe to be best for the Democratic Party. When asked by numerous community leaders in October to enter the special election, I agreed to consider it if all of the Democratic candidates supported the strategy and cleared the field – that has not happened and I refuse to participate in a divisive election against a fellow Democrat. Therefore, I will not be a candidate in the special election.” White is Howard's campaign treasurer, but it seems like Howard might be looking for another one since the relationship seems to have cooled—to say the least . . . Kim off to conference . . . Council Member Jennifer Kim is attending the National League of Cities Conference in Charlotte, N.C. this week. Kim is particularly interested in learning about the NLC’s National City Network, a fledgling network that will use modern tools to help cities communicate and address challenges common to many of them. The league has awarded Austin its silver James C. Howland award for the R obert Mueller Municipal Airport Redevelopment project. Austin has an exhibit at the conference to highlight how the project has enhanced our quality of life . . . City auditors getting ready for next year . . . The City Council Audit and Finance Committee yesterday received a draft proposal from the Office of the City Auditor for departmental audits it plans to do in the coming year. Council Member Betty Dunkerley said the plan would be refined over the next month to six weeks and probably approved around the end of January. Here are some of the questions auditors will attempt answer when doing their evaluations of various city programs: what are the risks and vulnerabilities of the city's disaster preparedness response and recovery system? What risks does the City of Austin generate by its operations that threaten environmental quality? What tools does the city use for monitoring traffic jams, adjusting patterns for emergencies and responding to equipment failures at intersections? Auditors will also seek to identify concerns arising from lack of coordination among the long term planning efforts, identify threats to the city's tax base and analyze prescription services for city employees . . . Meetings . . . The Environmental Board meets at 6pm in Council Chambers at City Hall . . . The Water and Wastewater Commission meets at 6pm in the Waller Creek Center . . . The Downtown Commission meets at 5:30pm at the Old Pecan Street Café, 310 East Sixth St. . . . The Buildings and Standards Commission meets in room 325 at One Texas Center . . . Williamson filings . . . Candidates for public office began filing with the Williamson County Republican Party this week to run in the March primaries. Two incumbents, Precinct 4 Justice of the Peace Judy Hobbs and County Court-at-Law No. 3 Judge Don Higginbotham, filed with Republican Party Chairman Bill Fairbrother. Also filing for the primaries is Valerie Covey, seeking the District Clerk’s job being vacated by Bonnie Wolbrueck, and Ron Morrison, who is among six expected to file for the Precinct 4 Commissioners Court job Frankie Limmer is leaving. No word yet on any filings from the county’s Democrats. . . Dewhurst to speak . . . Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst will address the Corporate Council of the Long Center for the Performing Arts at 8:15am today at the Driskill Hotel. Dewhurst is expected to comment on benefits of construction of the Long Center, which will be the only privately funded, community-owned performing arts center in the country when it is completed. Representatives of Fulbright & Jaworski and Humana are expected to announce corporate gifts to the Long Center capital campaign, which already has raised more than $67 million toward the $77 million total goal for the project. . . . Another late Council-watcher . . . It seems we slightly under-estimated the size of the late night-early morning crowd that hung in to the bitter end of last week’s marathon City Council meeting. Kevin Walker writes to In Fact Daily: “I felt slighted, having spent from 6pm-2:45am at City Hall . . . I was sitting right behind Charlie (Betts) and Michael (Knox) for the final two agenda items . . . one of which dealt with setting the assessment rate for the E. Sixth Street Public Improvement District.” His dedication is duly noted, with apologies to anyone else who may have endured the same wait.

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