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CAN warned of amendment's impact on social services

Wednesday, March 22, 2006 by

Dunkerley, Leffingwell explain cost of Open Government Amendment on budget

Cuts in the city budget necessitated by implementing the Open Government charter amendment could fall squarely on the shoulders of social services agencies, according to City Council Members Betty Dunkerly and Lee Leffingwell.

The pair briefed the Community Action Network Community Council Monday night on the cost analysis of the proposed amendment done by city staff, showing that it would cost the city some $36 million in the first year of implementation, and some $11.5 million on an ongoing basis after that.

“We are very concerned about this amendment’s impact on both the city budget and social services,” said Dunkerley. “Despite what you may have heard about the cost estimates, we are absolutely sure that this is right on the button. We are all for open government, but this amendment is not a cost-effective way to accomplish it.”

According to the city’s interpretation of the charter amendment, all communications involving city business would have to be posted online in “real time.” That, Leffingwell said, presents a number of problems.

“That means that whatever it is – an email, telephone call, or meeting – it is posted online at the same time I get to read it,” he said. “It poses a serious violation of people’s privacy. It does not allow for these messages to be screen for privacy or other concerns before they are posted.”

Dunkerley outlined the possible financial impact to the budget on a chalk board, pointing out that it would be virtually impossible for the city budget to absorb a $36 million hit without making cuts in some programs.

The $36 million works out to a 3 cents per $100 valuation increase in the tax rate. However, she said, with increases planned in other areas, such as salaries, pensions and healthcare, combined with the potential affect of $614 million in bond debt that could be added to the budget, the city will have used up its limit in raising taxes.

“When we raise the effective tax rate higher than 8 percent, it triggers the possibility of a rollback election.” Dunkerley said. “So, assuming that we use all of our ability to raise the rate and not trigger a rollback, there will still be about $8 (million) or $9 million that will mostly likely have to come out of social service programs, because there’s no place else we can cut.”

Neither Council Member was critical of the intent of the Open Government amendment, or the other citizen-initiated item, the SOS amendment, but said both were written in ways that brought unintended consequences.

“The problem is, once the first signature went on a petition, nothing in the wording of the amendment could be changed,” said Leffingwell. “That effectively cut out the chance of a public airing of the issues and ways to discover the problems.”

Leffingwell also said arguments against city’s cost estimates for implementation were academic. The amendment’s sponsors have scoffed at the city’s cost figures but have not provided any of their own.

“At this point, whether they dispute it or not, it’s the number we’re going to use to set the budget, if it passes,” he said. “We have to use a written budget analysis to calculate the cost of any new ordinances or amendments, and that’s what will be used for this.”

After the Council Members’ presentation, there was discussion among the CAN council members about distributing the information in some form to its members, but others on the board were critical that the presentation had not given the SOS Alliance a chance to present its side of the issue. The members decided that SOS would be contacted and allowed to add its information to a fact sheet that would be distributed to CAN member organizations.

Planning panel pushes street connectivity

The Codes and Ordinances subcommittee of the Planning Commission has taken another run at the issue of street connectivity, proposing the possible downsizing of block lengths in order to increase pedestrian and bicycle access in new subdivisions.

The preferred proposal, or at least the one that currently has the most support, is to cut the length of blocks in half in new subdivisions in the outlying extraterritorial jurisdiction of the city, from 1,200 feet to 660 feet as a maximum length. Under the proposal, a special dispensation could be offered to developers who chose a longer block length but offered to put in pedestrian-bicycle access every 330 feet. The subcommittee also wants to explore the possible economic impact of block lengths of 800 and 900 feet.

In all cases, the street pavement would narrow from 30 feet across to 28 feet across. The subcommittee also wants to explore pedestrian access in the right-of-way on cul-de-sacs, so that traffic could possible walk or bike into adjoining neighborhoods or onto adjoining streets that might be eventually built to connect with the subdivision.

Chair David Sullivan cautioned that the options being presented – and sent on to the Austin Neighborhoods Council, Housing Works and the Real Estate Council of Austin – were simply a preliminary suggestion requiring further study. The ultimate goal, Sullivan said, is better mobility for pedestrians, cyclists and motorists.

Last night, Planner George Zapalac presented a chart of lot sizes that could be tied to the varying street lengths, noting that the same number of SF-2 and SF-3 lots could be maintained on a three-block-by-three block subdivision if a 660-foot street was used. Under the SF-4 zoning, the shorter block length would mean fewer lots. Cul-de-sacs would still be possible with the shorter block length, if only shorter in depth.

The trade-off for the shorter street lengths – and, hence, greater connectivity — would be infrastructure costs, Zapalac said. Developers and the city have yet to calculate the additional cost of pavement, curb-and-gutter, sidewalks, curb ramps and drainage under a shorter block length, numbers the subcommittee wants to consider before offering a final recommendation to the full Planning Commission.

Increases in impervious cover are expected to be slight with the use of shorter block lengths, Zapalac added. Chris Riley pointed out impervious cover would probably be a lesser concern in the subdivisions using the block lengths, since the more serious impervious cover issues existed in neighborhoods built with more limited sewer systems before the city’s comprehensive watershed ordinance was passed in 1974.

Initial talk was that the shorter block lengths should be “incentivized” for developers, but currently recommendations are to make them mandatory in future development. The subcommittee would like to hear feedback on the proposals and see them “costed out” before making a final recommendation to City Council.

Any proposal also would have to be approved by Travis County Commissioners, since the city and county now have joint regulations in Austin’s ETJ.

Notes from the campaign trail

Thomas talks about change

Mayor Pro Tem Danny Thomas outlined the “Three C’s” of his campaign during a small fundraiser at Nuevo Leon Tuesday night, using the opportunity to meet one-on-one with about 20 supporters and answer questions on his accomplishments during his two terms on the Council in Place 6.

Thomas said the focus of his campaign for the Mayor’s office will be on collaboration, clarity, and change. “Business as usual at City Hall is unacceptable,” he said. “Citizens have made it very clear there needs to be a change. There needs to be a Mayor that’s more sensitive to the needs of the entire city.”

Thomas said he could provide that sensitivity through collaboration with groups from all parts of the community. “I’m going to take time to make sure everyone’s included. That’s everybody in the community: the business community, the environmental community, public safety, all the neighborhood groups.” That input, Thomas said, would lead to better decisions from the Council. “Once we have that collaboration going on, then we’re going to have clarity.” That would result in a change in city government, which Thomas said would benefit the entire community.

Some of Thomas’ supporters asked for evidence that he would be able to make the difficult decisions necessary to change the status quo, prompting the Mayor Pro Tem to go through a series of issues dating back to his first term on the Council when he took stands that were unpopular.

One of those issues, he said, was making payments to people involved in the Cedar Avenue incident (See In Fact Daily, May 25, 2001). Thomas said that when he was informed some of the families were not receiving payment from the city, he chose to take a stand. “That was unpopular, because the previous council had set some agreements on how they were going to disperse the money. But it’s the same thing I’m saying now…there was no collaboration, so I had to stand by myself to let people know this hadn’t happened. I made sure that the funds were dispersed.”

Thomas also pointed to improvements at Connelly Park as a sign that he was able to fight for his constituents. “There’s a recreation center that’s been promised ever since 1978. With my initiatives and the rest of the Council, Connelly Park is going to receive a recreation center. The groundbreaking is going to be within the next two months.”

He also stressed his ability to deal with community concerns following some of the high-profile officer-involved shootings during the past six years. “I’ve worked hard to bridge the gap between the Austin Police Association and the community. My way of doing things is not always just in the limelight,” he said. “I’ve always done things effectively, and that is to go to the source.”

Campaign supporters will meet this weekend to map out their strategies for block-walking, which Thomas said would likely begin next weekend.

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

Kim displeased . . . Council Member Jennifer Kim, whose memo to Council regarding options for City Auditor Steve Morgan made it into the American-Statesman, has released a written statement. “The public distribution of the memo on a personnel matter is unfair to Steve, and he deserves an apology,” according to Kim’s memo. While the memo does not say who owes the apology, the culprit is most likely another Council member. Kim also says that she believes Morgan is “doing a good job,” which is not the impression left by her earlier memo on his performance . . . The US Department of Agriculture gave Texas Parks and Wildlife Department the go-ahead early yesterday to use mating disruption to address the Asian gypsy moth problem, state officials told Travis County commissioners on Tuesday morning. The one-mile area around the location where the Asian gypsy moth was found should be treated, with or without consent of local homeowners, the second week of April. That date could be sooner, given the recent cold weather . . . Council forum tonight . . . The Austin Neighborhoods Council will host a City Council candidate forum tonight at Austin Energy. Networking will begin at 6:45pm, with the program beginning at 7pm . . . Park fees discussion . . . The Codes and Ordinances subcommittee of the Planning Commission would like to put parkland dedication fees on its agenda for next month. The issue of appropriate fees for downtown development came up during the discussion of the Gables property on Sand Beach near Town Lake . . . Gay community endorses. . . Last night the Austin Lesbian Gay Political Caucus and the Stonewall Democrats decided to endorse Mayor Will Wynn for re-election, Mike Martinez for Place 2 and Council Member Brewster McCracken for re-election to Place 5. Sheryl Cole got the nod from the Stonewall Democrats and shared a endorsement with DeWayne Lofton from ALGPC . . . Pocket Parks . . . The City of Austin is known for its 8,000-plus acre park system, with everything from cozy neighborhood parks around the city to large facilities such as Zilker Park. Now, according to Parks and Recreation Director Warren Streuss, smaller is better. With a goal of parkland being available within one mile of any place in the city, Austin is looking to build more, smaller parks, known as “Pocket Parks.” Such parks may take up only a couple of home lots on a block, but will make a park available to families who may have to travel more than mile to find one. “The days of wide open spaces are over,” Streuss told the Land Use and Transportation Subcommittee on Monday. “Land for parks is getting harder to find.” He pointed out a new park in the planning stages where an abandoned Austin Electric substation on Groom Street will be turned into a pocket park on just 0.45 acre. He said it’s typical of what PARD is looking at doing in other parts of the city. . . . Meetings . . . The Council Committee for Emerging Technology and Telecommunications meets at 3:30pm in the Boards and Commissions room at City Hall . . . The Downtown Commission, Downtown Development Committee meets at 3pm at Knight Real Estate at 307 East Second St. . . . The Building and Standards Commission meets at 6:30pm at One Texas Center. . . . Gonzalo on Tejano . . . State Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos plans a news conference at 11am today in the Speaker’s Committee Room at the Capitol with members of the Austin Tejano Music coalition to discuss the lack of Tejano music on local airwaves. Last October, Austin’s last Tejano-format station, KTXZ 1530 AM, dropped its format in favor of “Mexican Oldies,” music it says appeals to a larger group of Spanish-speaking listeners in the area. . . . Housing for women . . . The Austin Commission for Women, in conjunction with Women in Housing, is sponsoring a public town hall meeting at 6pm at the Austin History Center. A panel of public and private advocates will discuss the challenges many women face in finding affordable housing in Austin . . . More kudos for Austin Electric . . . The Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy have named Austin Energy as an Energy Star 2006 Partner of the Year. The award recognizes AE’s Home Performance with Energy Star Program as one of the best in the US. More than 5,000 Austinites participated in the program last year, reducing annual energy use by 7.8 million kilowatt hours, eliminating 4.5 tons of carbon dioxide emissions and 4 tons of nitrogen oxide. AE won the same award in 2005.

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