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Staff trims drainage, street bond offering

Friday, March 24, 2006 by

Plan is to keep November bond package to $530 million

In an effort to keep the bottom line on the November Bond Election near $500 million, city staff is recommending just over $198 million to the City Council for drainage and transportation projects. Those are just two of several categories of bond funds the Council will review before it sets the ballot for the November 7 election.

City staff says it plans to keep its total recommendations for the bond package to between $500 million and $530 million, down considerably from the $615 million recommended by the city’s Bond Election Advisory Committee, and ever farther below the city’s own needs assessment of $769 million.

Council members heard a request for $95 million for drainage projects and $103 million for transportation.

Joe Pantalion, director of the Watershed Protection and Development Review Department, said his $95 million request will go towards a prioritized list of projects in the city’s various urban watersheds. The money will be targeted for flood hazard reduction, creek erosion mitigation, and water quality protection.

“We will attempt to integrate all three of those objectives in as many projects as we can,” Pantalion said. “Many of these projects lend themselves to that.”

Projects on the priority list will be used to mitigate flood hazards from both creeks and storm drains. In the case of creeks, detention ponds and flood control projects are planned. In neighborhoods, particularly older areas with aging and undersized storm drain systems, projects will include new and upgrades storm drain systems.

Other projects will include repairs and fortifications to creek channels to mitigate erosion, particularly in the eastern and southern areas of the city. Also included in the priority list will be storm water treatment and recharge enhancement facilities to improve water quality.

Pantalion told the Council that the $95 million in bond funds would be used to remove 1,300 homes from the flood plain, install more than 71,000 feet of new storm drains, reduce the flood hazard for 225 homes, removed 350 properties from erosion threats, and stabilize more than 17,500 feet of stream banks.

Sondra Creighton, director of Public Works, told the Council that her department’s request for $103.1 million would be spent to maintain the city’s street network, as well as install and maintain traffic signals, sidewalks and ramps and bikeways.

Street maintenance will get the lion’s share, $85 million, of the bond funds. According to Creighton, while 73 percent—about 5,000 miles—of the street network is considered to be in satisfactory condition, 27 percent—more than 1,800 miles—falls below standards.

“It costs considerably more to rebuild a street that has fallen into poor or failed condition than it does to maintain one still in good condition,” she said. “Our current level of funds is not allowing us to get ahead, but it is keeping us from falling behind on maintenance.”

She said the city ranks the condition of streets using a Pavement Management Information System, as well as other factors in analyzing which streets will get repairs.

Also on the list is $8 million for traffic signals, including connecting 241 existing signals into the city’s Traffic Management Center, installing 90 new traffic signals, and upgrading several existing signals. Sidewalks and ramps will get $8.1 million; $4 million is designated to repair sidewalks and ramps in 900 locations; $4.1 million will be used to replace deteriorated curbs and gutters in 600 locations.

Bikeways will get $2 million from this bond plan, which will be combined with bond funds from the 2000 election to continue to build the 621 miles of bike routes in the city’s Bike Plan.

The Council will continue to hear city staff reviews of the bond program in the next few weeks. On April 6, Council will hear Facility Renovations; April 20, Parks and Cultural Facilities and Public Health and Safety Facilities, and the Central Library; April 27, Affordable Housing and Parkland and Open Space Acquisition. Council members plan to firm up the bond election package before summer, so it does not have to work on bonds and the city budget at the same time.

Wastewater bill changes outlined

Also Thursday, the City Council voted to change the methodology used by the Austin Water Utility for its wastewater averaging program, effectively giving customers a break on their wastewater bills for 2006.

Normally, the utility measures customers’ water usage during the winter months, then calculates the amount of wastewater flowing back into the system. Those calculations are used in determining a customer’s wastewater bill for the rest of the year. But Austin Water Utility Director Chris Lippe told the Council that drought conditions over the past few months had driven up consumption for many customers, which would in turn be reflected in their wastewater bill for the rest of the year.

The solution to that problem, Lippe said, would be to change the wastewater averaging method to include data from 2005 along with data from 2006, thereby minimizing the effect of this winter’s drought. “This will provide some relief to our customers during these unusual weather conditions, where we have had higher than normal landscape watering during the year,” he concluded. “For most customers this will result in a lower wastewater bill for the next year. So this is good news. We just wanted to recognize these unusual conditions…and to give our customers a break on the wastewater average for the next year.”

If a customer’s 2006 usage is less than in 2005, the utility will use the lower of the two years for its averaging program.

Notes from the campaign trail

Neighborhoods group grills candidates

ANC challenges Council candidates on management, enforcement

The Austin Neighborhoods Council presented a decidedly edgier candidate forum than most Wednesday night, tackling Council candidate positions on Austin’s neighborhood issues.

During the forum, mayoral candidates Will Wynn and Danny Thomas were challenged on the city manager’s performance review and salary raise. Place 2 candidate Mike Martinez was asked whether he was willing to put neighborhood needs before firefighter salaries. And other candidates were questioned on their views to support employee raises, development over the aquifer and their positions on the proposed charter amendments.

An additional survey provided some revealing answers from 10 candidates on a variety of topics: city budget; the environment; city management; zoning; neighborhood planning; social equity; and social transportation.

For instance, Thomas supports the SOS charter amendment. Wynn doesn’t. Neither candidate for Mayor intends to support every valid petition in zoning cases. Council Members Brewster McCracken and Danny Thomas were opposed to bond expenditures on State Highway 130. Even Wynn’s support was conditional. Every candidate who responded to the ANC survey favored more spending on code enforcement and health and human services. Each expressed support of the affordable housing bonds.

On individual questions, Thomas stressed his long-time commitment to Austin. Wynn spoke of his urban planning background. Asked whether he was willing to seek more input into City Manager Toby Futrell’s performance review given the “secretive top-down attitude at City Hall,” Thomas said he always was open to the community. Asked a similar question about Futrell’s recent pay raise, Wynn said Futrell had taken the city through four difficult budget years and had earned, and taken, her first raise in four years.

In Place 2, Eliza May, president of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, spoke of her commitment to diversity across chambers and issues. Martinez, president of the Austin Firefighters Association, said he intended to go out and seek community input on issues rather than wait for the community to find him. Asked about her commitment to job creation, May spoke of her commitment as a Chamber leader to finding ways to give immigrants a chance to own their own companies. Asked pointedly about his union ties, Martinez said he could put together a balanced budget that considered both employee pay raises and community services. He pointed to his own leadership to forego a firefighter pay raise in recent years in order to keep two fire stations open and provide an additional $500,000 to health and human services.

In Place 5, Mark Hopkins, who did not fill out a questionnaire, said he supported the Open Government charter amendment, although he did have serious issues with it. A youthful Colin Kalmbacher spoke of his desire to stop Austin from turning into another Fort Worth, filled with miles of strip malls and cookie-cutter housing. McCracken spoke of his commitment to developing design guidelines that do what’s fair and right for neighborhoods, as well as his support of the Spring condo project in what he considered to be a higher, denser mixed-use downtown that would discourage urban sprawl and rising property values. Kedron Touvell spoke of his commitment to be accessible to the public and said he would prefer to put money into better bus service than rail service, a Capital Metro issue but not one he would have any say about as a member of the Council. Touvell also supported property tax caps for long-time residents.

In Place 6, Sheryl Cole noted her background as a former lawyer with the Texas Municipal League, focusing on economic development and land use issues. She noted she opposed building over the aquifer but that fighting Advanced Micro Devices would be a waste of time and energy, given the company’s legal rights. DeWayne Lofton supported the neighborhood planning process and also an “integrity review” suggested by ANC to make sure city staff is enforcing all codes. And Darrell Pierce noted his background as a former member of the Planning Commission and said it might be time for the city to take a second look at restrictive covenants in neighborhood plans. He also supported community policing as a way to address current police-community relations.

ANC endorsed Eliza May in Place 2—her first major endorsement. Otherwise, the neighborhood leaders chose the same candidates as most other groups which have endorsed at this point—Wynn, McCracken and Cole.

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

Going green . . . About 1,400 customers of Austin Energy won a drawing on Thursday morning for slots in the utility’s GreenChoice program. While the program to provide electricity from renewable sources such as solar or wind power has been popular since its inception, interest from customers has surpassed the amount of energy available through GreenChoice due to recent changes in the marketplace. “This is the first time that we’ve been able to find that a utility has offered clean energy in open-market competitive bidding and regular coal, gas, and nuclear energy in open-market competitive bidding, and the wind and solar package came in cheaper,” explained Council Member Brewster McCracken during a ceremony before Thursday’s Council meeting. In the past, GreenChoice customers have paid a premium over their normal electric rates for the environmentally-friendly service. But with the rising cost of power from traditional sources, GreenChoice customers are now saving money. To narrow down the list of more than 5,000 interested customers to the 1,400 spots available, the city conducted a random drawing. Council Members McCracken and Lee Leffingwell joined Austin Energy General Manager Juan Garza in drawing names from a large rotating drum . . . Mayoral kudos . . . Mayor Will Wynn was named Elected Public Official of the Year by the National Association of Social Workers Austin this week The organization said it was honoring Wynn “for the Mayor’s leadership and management during Hurricane Katrina.” . . . New BOA appointees . . . The Council added two new members to the Board of Adjustment yesterday. Neighborhood advocate Bryan King and East Austin businessman Michael Von Ohlen were appointed to fill out the newly enlarged board. Last week the Council increased the BOA to seven members . . . Fundraiser cancelled . . . The Austin Restaurant Association and the Small Business Group have cancelled a fundraiser for four City Council candidates that had been scheduled for tonight at the Broken Spoke. There was no immediate word on whether they would reschedule the event . . . McCracken kick-off . . . Council Member Brewster McCracken will kick off his re-election campaign Monday at 5:30pm at Threadgill’s on Riverside . . . Council grant fund plan . . . The City Council, like County Commissioners, will be submitting a draft action plan to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development in August in order to get and maintain a number of federal housing grants. Last night, Council heard from the public in the first of a number of hearings on the plan. Speakers supported affordable housing programs and English as a Second Language classes. Additional hearings will be held next week and in May, with a Council vote scheduled for the last meeting in July . . . Election cancelled . . . The Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District had two places up for election in May on its Board of Directors, but since only one person filed in each race, the election has been canceled. Current Place 5 Director Craig Smith has filed for re-election and Gary Franklin has filed to run for the Place 2 seat, which has been vacant for several months. The district will save “several thousand dollars” by canceling the election. The two board members will be sworn in on May 25. . . Personnel matters . . . The Council voted to give City Clerk Shirley Gentry a 3.5 percent raise on Thursday, along with a one-time payment of $1,500 for exceeding expectations. On a separate personnel matter, the Council voted to maintain the current salary and compensation package for City Auditor Stephen Morgan. However, the Council did agree to purchase employee service credits for Morgan should he be dismissed before reaching 23 years of service with the city. That would insure that Morgan would be able to obtain increased retirement benefits from the City even in the event of involuntary separation. A memo by Council Member Jennifer Kim, criticizing Morgan and suggesting his dismissal, was leaked to the news media last week. Morgan has been with the city since 1985 and was appointed City Auditor in November of 2000.

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