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Anti-toll road group plans to participate in Council races

Wednesday, April 26, 2006 by

Candidates in next month’s Austin City Council election have, to one degree or another, stated their opposition to tolling of existing roads, but only a few won the endorsement of the anti-toll group People for Efficient Transportation (PET PAC). Those include Place 5 candidate Kedron Touvell, Place 6 candidate Sheryl Cole and two candidates for Place 2 Wes Benedict and Mike Martinez. The group has also endorsed Proposition 1, known as the Open Government Charter Amendment.

Sal Costello of PET PAC said Tuesday that the group intends to actively participate in the May 13 election even though they have not filed a notice of their intention to participate with the City Clerk. General Purpose PACs, such as PET PAC, are required to file the notice at least 60 days before an election in which they choose to participate.

PACs may spend up to $2,500 without giving notice to the city. These General Purpose Committees have filed documents that would allow them to participate in the May 13 election although they may not choose to do so: Austin Fire Fighters PAC; Austin Police Association PAC; Austin Supports Health; Citizens for Voter Choice; Creek House Candidate PAC; Home Builders Association of Greater Austin HOME PAC; RECA Good Government PAC Small Business PAC.

Costello seemed to be unaware of this regulation, saying that the group’s treasurer, Judy Hatton, knows the rules and would comply with them. Costello said, “We have a couple of surprises, but if I told you they wouldn’t be surprises.” He said he would be willing to discuss a planned mail piece “as soon as it hits the mailbox.” The most likely target of such a piece is incumbent Council Member Brewster McCracken. He has three opponents, none of whom has generated enough money or enthusiasm to expect a victory.

As a General Purpose Committee, PET PAC files contribution and expenditure reports with the Texas Ethics Commission. Those show that PET PAC spent nearly $21,000 between January 27 and the first of April.

Another committee, the Progressive Action PAC filed its first document, the notice of appointment of a campaign treasurer, on February. 3, 2006. Four days later, the Progressive Action PAC contributed $6,000 to PET PAC. Friends of Carole Keeton Strayhorn also contributed $5,000 to PET PAC.

PET PAC endorsed several candidates but their big winner was Sarah Eckhardt, who won the Democratic primary against Travis County Pct. 2 Commissioner Karen Sonleitner on March 7. The anti-toll group paid for newspaper ads and mail pieces calling Sonleitner the “toll road queen,” among other things, spending about $16,000 between February 16 and March 6.

TEC reports show PET PAC had only $2,101.47 as of April 1. However, that means little when one PAC can give any amount to another. The point of the city ordinance requiring notice of intent to participate is to put candidates and the public on notice when a General Purpose Committee, such as PET PAC, decides to participate in city elections. There is no enforcement mechanism, however, except the threat of a $500 fine imposed by Municipal Court once a violation has been proven.

Auditor warns county on appraisal caps

Spataro tells commissioners measure before Legislature could hurt revenues

County Auditor Susan Spataro warned Travis County Commissioners yesterday that an appraisal cap would shift taxes from one taxpayer to another, rather than ratcheting down tax rates.

Spataro is a frequent Capitol observer and was on hand for this week’s presentation to the Senate Finance Committee by Sen. Kyle Janek (R-Houston). Janek, in tandem with Rep. Dwayne Bohac (R-Houston), has filed legislation this special session that would cut property value appraisal caps in half, from 10 percent to 5 percent, and take the issue to the voters as a Constitutional amendment. The bills filed by the two Houston-area lawmakers are House Bill 15, House Joint Resolution 13 and Senate Joint Resolution 8.

The fact that Austin is actively supporting a local-option appraisal cap – a reversal of its prior position – was enough to convince Spataro she needed to reiterate the downside to appraisal and revenue caps when it comes to Travis County. Approximately half of the City of Austin’s budget relies on property taxes, compared to 98 percent for the county. Capping values – or revenues – could have a serious impact on the county, Spataro said.

Saying that an appraisal cap addresses, or controls, inflation is an incorrect presumption, Spataro said. Such claims give a false picture of the real results of caps, she said.

Spataro presented an illustration of the impact of appraisal caps on property tax rates when the effective tax rate was calculated for each of four properties. Under Spataro’s scenario, those properties that saw no gain in property value, average gain in property value and drops in property value saw tax increases, while the property that would have seen big gains in property value – but was capped – saw a drop in its effective tax rate.

An effective tax rate is the tax rate that is required to raise the same amount of revenue in the current year as was generated in the prior year. So when property values go up, the effective tax rate goes down. Once property values are capped, however, the same amount of revenue must still be calculated under the effective tax rate. That means that some property owners must pay more to cover the drop in someone else’s tax bill. Otherwise, the same amount of revenue will not be raised each year.

Spataro also noted that revenue caps are rarely beneficial in capping county services. Many of the services the state requires the county to provide – jail space, for instance – are not based on a proposed level of service, but on current usage.

Travis County does not decide it will send out StarFlight for 20 flights a month, and no more, or turn away police departments at the jail’s doors because of a lack of beds or decide that a capital murder trial will not be tried because the county has reached its quota. The county serves all that come, and the number that must be served is rarely based on the consumer price index.

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

Dunkerley fined . . . Council Member Betty Dunkerley has agreed to pay a $500 fine to the Texas Ethics Commission as a result of errors in her 2005 re-election reports. Libertarian Wes Benedict filed the complaint, which alleged that some campaign expenditures were reported as reimbursements to staff. The commission determined that Dunkerley did report all of her expenditures but that some were mislabeled. Her campaign consultant, Mark Nathan had his own complaint: "We filed reports last year that showed several reimbursements to campaign staff for things like cell phone bills, office supplies, printing, and stamps, which had been made at the same time as staff salary payments, so we reported them as one expenditure to accurately reflect how our checks had been written. When we learned that a complaint had been filed with the Texas Ethics Commission saying that we should have reported the reimbursement expenditures as separate line items from the salary expenditures, we filed an amended report that did that. Apparently, though, even the revised report didn't satisfy the complaint because we reported the reimbursements as expenditures made to individual staff rather than reporting them as expenditures made to the original payee, even though we detailed exactly what the reimbursements were for. If I had only read Ethics Advisory Opinion No. 450, I would have seen the error of my ways. Some days it's hard not to feel like you are living in a Kafka novel." Benedict ran against Dunkerley last year and is currently running for the Place 2 seat to replace Council Member Raul Alvarez . . . More information . . . City Clerk Shirley Gentry has added a page to the city web site showing which PACs have filed a designation of campaign treasurer with the city. The addition makes it easier to find out which groups are attempting to comply with city campaign finance regulations-some of them, anyway. That's at . . . Burn ban off . . . County commissioners have agreed to lift the burn ban in Travis County. Chiefs of the fire departments in the county have agreed that recent rains, and impending future rain, should be enough to lift precautions on outdoor burning in the county . . . CTRMA budget . . . Commissioner Ron Davis was hesitant to sign off on the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority's annual report at Tuesday's Travis County Commissioners Court meeting. Davis had to be assured that his approval of the annual report was not approval of the US 290 East toll project. The CTRMA is considering a second phase for the project, at a cost of $300 million, which would extend the project from SH 130 past Manor. Davis has been meeting with school and city officials to discuss concerns of the possible route for the project . . . An alternative view . . . The Saltillo Rail District Community Advisory Group has prepared a counter-proposal to the official version of the Master Plan for a vacant 11-acre tract owned by Capital Metro that stretches from I-35 to Comal Street between East 4th and 5th streets. The official version written by the Roma Design Group, consultants who were hired to develop the master plan, will be presented to Council this week, and to an Open House at Martin Middle School on Saturday. Frustrated with getting their ideas into the Roma plan, the CAG has written its own proposal, which it will present at both meetings . . . Meetings . . . The Council Committee for Emerging Technology and Telecommunications meets at 3:30pm in the Boards and Commission room at City Hall. . . . The Building and Standards Commission meets at 6:30pm at One Texas Center . . . The Environmental Board meets at 6pm in Room 104 at Waller Creek Plaza. They will hear about the Green Water Treatment Plant's relocation. One question they may want to ask is what ever happened to the study of the impact conservation might have on the city's water needs? Alan Plummer and Associates was hired by the city to investigate the question and report on it. Bill Bunch of SOS, for one, has asked why the city is moving ahead with replacing Green Water Treatment Plant so quickly when the Council has yet to hear the results of the study . . . The Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority Board of Directors meets at 9:30am at Pat Bryson Municipal Hall, 201 North Brushy Street in Leander . . . Doggett passes water bill . . The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill authored by local Congressman Lloyd Doggett to help open up federal funds to support Austin's wastewater reclamation efforts. By 2050, it is projected that Austin's water rights and contracts will be short by up to 51,000 acre-feet annually. The City of Austin hopes to meet half of this projected shortfall through conservation efforts and the other half through wastewater reclamation. To do so, it will need to greatly expand its current reclamation capabilities, a very expensive process. This bill will allow the federal government to contribute up to 25 percent of the costs of the design, planning, and construction of the water reclamation system.

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