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District 48 hopefuls stick to the script

Thursday, January 12, 2006 by

Austin Chamber forum queries candidates on tolls, education funds, tax breaks

Four candidates in the race to fill the unexpired term of former State Rep. Todd Baxter provided a carefully scripted hour of answers to questions from the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce last night.

While vouchers may be one of the hotter issues in the race for House District 48 – which elicited a protest against candidate Ben Bentzin last night from Education Austin – it was not addressed in lthe forum.

The questions, which were presented to the candidates beforehand, covered some basic ground the chamber has trod in recent sessions: Would the candidates support tolling of Central Texas roads? Would a 1-cent sales tax be a deal breaker on a school finance bill? How about a commitment to say ‘no’ to the school finance bill in the special session if it failed to contain funding for the Austin Independent School District’s contribution to Social Security? And would the candidates support tax breaks for big employers over small employers?

The forum focused heavily on education, not surprising given the fact that the winning candidate’s main job will be represent portions of Central Texas in the upcoming special session. Participants included Republican Bentzin, Democrats Donna Howard and Kathy Rider and Libertarian Ben Easton. The forum, which the chamber agreed not to broadcast live, will be shown on on-demand cable before the election. A second candidate forum is scheduled at Westlake High School tonight. It, too, will be available on cable after the fact.

The debate lasted only an hour. The candidates agreed they didn’t liked toll roads much, although Bentzin was the most open to the concept if the tolling was limited to additional capacity rather than tolling of existing capacity and private property rights were protected. None of the candidates, with the exception of Easton, considered the state’s school system to be funded fully enough to provide an exemplary education. Easton, as a Libertarian, preferred a slow but complete privatization of the school system.

The candidates agreed the update on weights in the school finance formula was important – with the exception of pro-privatization Easton – but Howard noted that the upcoming special session was limited to tax issues and Bentzin said he understood the funding concerns but was willing to vote for a good compromise in the House. Rider, a former Austin school board member, said she would not vote for a school funding bill that did not address the Social Security issue for the Austin school district.

The 1-cent sales tax issue yielded a mixed bag of answers. Rider considered the sales-tax increase regressive but was willing to vote for taxes on tobacco and alcohol products. Howard said a 1-cent proposal was unlikely but would consider the likely recommendation of the Texas Tax Reform Commission, which she said would be either a one-quarter or one-half cent increase on the sales tax rate. Bentzin said the 1-cent sales tax increase was not a risk and stressed collaboration. And Easton said he, as a Libertarian, clearly would not support any kind of additional tax.

For those who are looking for a cheat sheet, the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce already has taken positions on these issues: The chamber does support tolling for roadways for new capacity. The membership supports looking at a sales tax increase, even up to 1 cent. Both Rep. Terry Keel (R-Austin) and Baxter (R-Austin) had committed to a ‘no’ on the school finance bill if it failed to contain adjustments for Social Security contributions and an update to the cost of education index. And the chamber prefers tax breaks for primary employers – those generating new income for the region – rather than tax breaks for companies that simply may be promising new jobs.

Before the debate got underway, members of Education Austin held a news conference in the AISD courtyard to announce their endorsement of Howard. Louis Malfaro, president of the union representing AISD teachers union, spent most of his speech attacking Bentzin for his 2002 State Senate campaign and attempting to link Bentzin to both Congressman Tom DeLay and Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff. “We call on Ben Bentzin…to acknowledge that his campaign coordinated with the Texas Business Association, which produced illegal corporate-financed mailers on his behalf,” he said. “Education Austin is calling on Ben Bentzin to step down in House District 48.”

Malfaro was surrounded by supporters carrying Howard campaign signs, with another group of Bentzin supporters behind them carrying signs with the name of their candidate. As Malfaro neared the end of his speech, the Bentzin supporters began shouting “We need Ben!” drowning out Malfaro. The Howard supporters began shouting “Withdraw!” and “Bentzin out!” in an attempt to counter them, until Malfaro was forced to stop and step away from the podium.

Bentzin had no answer to the Education Austin allegations after the forum – his campaign manager Ted Delisi said to contact the campaign office for comment on Thursday – and he dodged questions about whether he, in particular, had refused to agree to a debate on live television, saying only that all the campaigns had reviewed “a variety of issues” with the chamber before agreeing to appear at the event.

Austin City Limits may move to Block 21

Negotiations underway with developer to add KLRU studio to project

Although KLRU once planned to move its Austin City Limits studios to the site of old Seaholm Power Plant on Cesar Chavez, the public station now hopes to move to Block 21, across from City Hall.

Word around City Hall is that the Seaholm building does not provide an easy venue, and KLRU would like the Block 21 space—on Second Street between Lavaca and Guadalupe. Developer Stratus Properties/Trammell Crow, which won the bid on that block, would be happy to have the popular music program as part of its development but the city still wants to put the Austin Children's Museum at that location.

No problem, says Council Member Brewster McCracken, who told In Fact Daily yesterday the move of both the music program and the kids’ museum to Block 21 is “almost certainly going to happen. There was some discussion of whether Children's would want to move to Seaholm,” but museum representatives declined unequivocally, he said. “They want to be in Block 21 and that’s where they’re going to be.”

Kirk Watson, who is negotiating the sale on the city’s behalf, said the parties are working “to make all the pieces fit” for both Block 21 and the old power plant. More than nine months has passed since the city agreed to sell Block 21 and to redevelop Seaholm with Seaholm Power, LLC. (See In Fact Daily, April 21, 2005)

Neither of the two deals has moved beyond backstage negotiations, and the parties are becoming restless. The private players in the Seaholm development include Southwest Strategies Group, Inc., Design Collective, Inc., H.C. Beck, LTD and Centro Development.

McCracken said if both the museum and ACL are on Block 21 there will be less need for retail although it was not clear whether the presence of both would reduce the amount of retail. “The advantage of having KLRU and Children's is they both have the function of an anchor retail. They draw a lot of people. One of the functions of having an anchor is if you have retail, you need to have a certain amount of it to create a critical mass. But a shortcut to that critical mass is something else that draws a lot of people.”

Regardless, there will definitely be a hefty quantity of retail on Block 21, he said, particularly on the Second Street side and on the Guadalupe side. He added, “We’re working out some configuration issues . . . It’s going to be a great project.”

Stratus/Trammell Crow agreed to pay the city $15 million for the property with one cultural attraction, not two. McCracken said the city would be able to insist on that figure because the developer wants to bring in KLRU. The Council is scheduled to hold an executive session on the status of negotiations at today’s meeting.

County seeks citizens for accountability panels

Travis County Commissioners have agreed to appoint two separate citizens’ accountability committees – one for bond projects and one for the jail expansion – to provide some oversight of bond projects in the coming year.

Travis County voters approved $150 million in bonds last November, including $23.5 million for an expansion of the Travis County Correctional Complex. On-site improvements at the Del Valle facility will include additional beds, the replacement of the chiller and the remodeling of a number of areas.

County Judge Sam Biscoe hopes to have names of possible candidates for the committees in two weeks. Biscoe and his colleagues would like to see someone with jail expertise on the jail project committee, as long as that person does not intend to bid or do business with the county on the project.

“We want another set of eyes looking at what we’re doing so there’s some accountability,” said Biscoe, outlining his priorities for the citizens’ committee. “The fact is we want projects to finish on time and on budget.”

During a two-hour work session last week, Roger El Khoury and his team in facilities management discussed the county’s approach to the construction of the expansion. Instead of a typical design-bid-build project that would use the lowest bidder, Travis County intends to use the design-build method. Under design-build, the county will hire a program manager who will guide the project from design to completion, hiring and overseeing various subcontractors.

Hiring a manager, who will then hire a team, will give the county the ability to weigh the quality of the contractor more heavily. The contract bears greater rewards but he also bears greater risk, taking responsibility for the performance of the subcontractors he hires on the job.

One of the last questions during the work session last week was about the creation of a citizens’ accountability committee. This week’s discussion was not so much whether the county would have a committee but how it would be structured.

Commissioner Karen Sonleitner floated the idea of an accountability committee with a jail project subcommittee, but after some discussion, that idea was rejected. First, commissioners were greatly impressed with the testimony of jail expert Steve Martin, who spoke before the county commissioners on a number of occasions about the needs of a jail project. He convinced commissioners that they needed to put one, or possibly two, people with some jail experience on an oversight committee.

Transportation and Natural Resources Executive Director Joe Gieselman made the second point. Any public-private partnership road project – and a number of candidate projects for that designation were named in the bond issue – must be closed by the end of the year. Otherwise, the project goes away, Gieselman said. That gave county commissioners additional incentive to separate the committees.

The first members of the committee likely will come from the original citizens’ advisory committee for the bond issue, commissioners agreed. Commissioners are still mulling how the committee members will be interacting with county staff and the future project manager on the various projects.

©2006 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

Faux pas . . . Austin environmentalist Shudde Fath celebrated her 90th birthday last night with more than 100 friends who gathered at the Zilker Club House. Among the invited guests was Sarah Eckhardt, who is running in the Democratic primary against incumbent Travis County Commissioner Karen Sonleitner. Eckhardt and Sonleitner both attended the party for a short time. Later, when it was time for her to address the crowd, Fath announced that she was supporting Eckhardt and that Sonleitner had crashed her party. That set her friends-who are pretty much all Democrats – abuzz. Fath explained that while she did not intend for the event to be a political one she felt it was necessary to set the record straight lest some of her guests think that she was supporting the incumbent. Sonleitner, who learned about Fath's comments from an aide, was clearly upset to learn that she had crashed an invitation only event. The incumbent said she had been urged to attend and only wanted "pay my respects to a treasure of this community." She said she would never have gone to the party if she had realized that her presence was unwanted . . . Watson getting more help . . . American-Statesman reporter Steve Scheibal is betting that former Mayor Kirk Watson will be Austin's next State Senator. With no primary opponent and no GOP opposition in the fall, Watson said Scheibal would be working on policy matters and doing research, preparing his boss to take office next January . . . On the agenda . . . Following an extended holiday break, City Council comes back today to a full agenda. In addition to several contested zoning cases, expect a barrage of criticism during Citizens Communications from several prominent members of the environmental community over the city handling (or lack thereof) of AMD's plans to build over the aquifer. Zoning cases to watch include 1706-1708 W Sixth St. and 5717 Balcones Dr., both of which have neighborhood opposition. Two major projects, Gables Park Plaza and The Crescent, will be postponed until February 9 at the request of Council Member Lee Leffingwell so that all related cases can be heard together . . . Water treatment plant plans . . . Austin Water Utility Director Chris Lippe says his agency is ready to talk with City Council members – in executive session – about possible new sites for the Green Water Treatment Plant. Lippe told members of the Water and Wastewater Commission last night that he is also ready to talk about alternate sites for the Water Treatment Plant #4, planned near RR 620 and RM 2222, although he said that the Green project will take precedence. It may be a while before he can brief Council members on his department's findings. He said due to a heavy schedule, he has been bumped from today's Council agenda and will come back at a later date, possibly in early February . . . New RRISD Superintendent. . . The Round Rock ISD Board of Trustees has officially voted to hire Dr. Jesus H. Chavez as the district's superintendent. His contract will run through June, 2009, with an annual salary of $204,600. Chavez previously worked in the RRISD for 11 years, leaving in 1995 to become superintendent of Harlingen CISD, and going on in 2001 to become superintendent of Corpus Christi ISD . . . City employees give big . . . City employees donated more than $752,000 through the City of Austin Combined Charities Campaign in 2005, a 20 percent increase over contributions in 2004. The campaign allows employees to support one or more charities from among 495. More than 90 percent of the donations came from payroll giving, which allows employees spread funding throughout the year. The city's campaign has raised about $7 million since 1993 . . . Getting it straight . . . In a story in Monday's edition, we erred in describing a recommendation by Travis County Transportation and Natural Resources Director Joe Gieselman. He suggested that the structure of the county's proposed SH 130 subcommittee be based on the Clean Air Coalition, not the Clean Air Force. The coalition is made up of elected officials from area jurisdictions that signed an Early Action Compact to implement air pollution emission reduction strategies.

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