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County rejects Linebarger contract

Wednesday, May 24, 2006 by

Commissioners vote to study tax collections

Travis County Commissioners all but dismissed a proposed contract to retain Linebarger Goggan Blair & Sampson for delinquent tax collections yesterday, ending the most contentious and bitter fight in the county in recent memory, one that many agree played a key role in the fund-raising efforts to defeat incumbent Commissioner Karen Sonleitner.

County Attorney Ken Oden left his county job in early 2003 to take a job with Linebarger as its ethics managers in the wake of a federal bribery scandal involving some members of the firm in Bexar County. When Oden left, he made no secret of the fact he intended to lobby the county for its delinquent tax collection contract, despite the fact that the county has a collection rate of almost 99 percent.

In trying to win the contract, Linebarger produced a study that accused the county of unfairly targeting poorer East Austin residents, leading to excessive foreclosures for many of Austin’s most vulnerable residents. County Auditor Susan Spataro’s own study, by contrast, contradicted that and noted that the use of an outside law firm would do little to improve collection rates. The results appeared unclear. By the time it was over, Oden was at odds with current county employees, including his former protégée County Attorney David Escamilla, and plenty of feelings were bruised.

Tuesday, finally, county commissioners made a choice on the delinquent tax collection issue and it appeared to be a pass on Linebarger, at least for now.

Bill Aleshire, both former county judge and former tax collector-assessor, gave an impassioned speech to the court that spoke of the quality of the county’s collection rate, the high integrity of the current tax assessor-collector and the cost that an outside firm would slap on tax bills to collect what the county already is collecting effectively.

Aleshire told the court it should not just say no, but "Hell, no," to a contract with an outside firm to collect delinquent taxes. He scoffed that a vote on the issue was delayed – possibly until after the Democratic primary – and now suddenly appeared back on the agenda. The implication was that Sonleitner, the only real opponent to the Linebarger contract, was hung out to dry during the primary as principals of the Linebarger firm actively raised money for a political action committee that railed against Sonleitner. Sonleitner, of course, lost in the Democratic primary to Sarah Eckhardt.

County Judge Sam Biscoe wasted no time in getting to his proposal yesterday, one he said he crafted over lunch with Escamilla. Biscoe told the court he wanted to rescind the request for proposals for a tax collection firm and begin the process of a full analysis of tax collections with an impartial five-member citizen committee. The committee’s charge, which will be firmed up over the next two weeks, would be to address two concerns: whether the county has areas of tax collections it can perform better and whether there are equity issues in the lawsuits filed.

Biscoe made a point of saying that the panel’s work should be completed in the next four to six months, noting to Sonleitner that it would still be "two months before your retirement," the euphemism Biscoe used for Sonleitner’s loss. For her part, Sonleitner abstained on the final vote on the charge, along with Commissioner Ron Davis. The balance of the commissioners’ court voted in favor of the proposal.

Oden addressed the court after Aleshire’s speech and after Biscoe laid out his proposal. Oden said if the court really believed Aleshire’s rhetoric, then it should not move forward with any outside contract..

Oden said he would not take the bait to question "other people’s motivations." Biscoe agreed, saying that no good would come from discussing "personal stuff." Instead, Biscoe said he intended to refine the charge for the committee over the next two weeks and bring it back for the approval of commissioners’ court. Biscoe said he was willing to live with the committee’s recommendations, whatever they might be.

Commissioner Margaret Gomez said she had gotten e-mails from people claiming to be her constituents with names she didn’t recognize. For his part, Daugherty said he had no ulterior motive and hoped that if any cost savings could be found, they would be found. Davis said he was interested in whatever might come out of a study of the issue.

Commissioners OK Sweetwater plans over protests

Travis County Commissioner Gerald Daugherty signed up for plenty of grief when he created what became known as the Southwest County Dialog, and that was reinforced yesterday when the communities he intended to help showed up to protest a new subdivision.

Daugherty, most likely, did not expect to be praised to the heavens for his work bringing stakeholders together in Southwest Travis County. What Daugherty learned from months of the Dialog was that most stakeholders hold the same vision of the Hill Country character they would like to preserve, but the amount of compromise people were willing to make appeared to be directly proportional to how much land they owned in the area.

The conversations did lead to interim regulations on development and especially how water quality should be maintained as construction runoff drains into streams. A month ago, with those guidelines in place, county commissioners did choose to approve the phasing agreement and preliminary plan on the first phase of Sweetwater Ranch, off SH 71 and Bee Creek Road. Yesterday, the developer brought a revised phasing agreement and the final plat for the development in Southwest Travis County. http://www.forestcity.net/projects_detail_landgroup.asp?id=583

Local residents were far from happy that the development was back before the county so soon. Daugherty appeared especially sensitive to the criticism from the Hill Country Alliance. Christy Muse, speaking on behalf of the group, said it was clear to her that the developer of Sweetwater had "gamed the system" and residents never had a chance at winning any concessions.

Daugherty bristled at the suggestion, saying he would not stand for Muse to accuse him of knowingly allowing the developer to manipulate the system.

"I have not done that, and I will not sit here and listen to those kind of accusations," Daugherty told Muse before getting up and stalking out of the room. Daugherty later returned when other residents began their comments.

After Daugherty left, Muse apologized, saying her comments were not aimed at a particular commissioner but at the county in general, noting her concern that the developer had failed to meet county deadlines to avoid the interim regulations. When pressed about which interim regulations were important, Brad Rockwell of the Save Our Springs Alliance said SOS had never approved of the interim standards but that the setbacks were especially important to the environmental group.

Rockwell called Sweetwater’s application "a confusing mess" that was intended to "game the system and figure out ways to evade simply complying with current Travis County regulations." Rockwell noted that the master development agreement and the phasing agreement conflicted, leaving in question the legal effect of the documents. He also questioned the county’s choice to ignore the wastewater service issue, which has yet to be resolved, since local residents are protesting the permit. Muse said her discussions with the Lower Colorado River Authority indicated that the developer’s alternative to a new wastewater treatment plant – using the existing plant – was impractical since the existing plant was close to capacity.

Rockwell was critical that the interim regulations were not passed sooner, which drew the ire of Commissioner Karen Sonleitner. Sonleitner said Rockwell had called her at home, and she still had the answering machine message from him, begging her to delay the vote on the interim regulations because the Legislature was still in session and Austin could still be a target of a bill. Sonleitner said Rockwell couldn’t have it both ways. Rockwell said he had no memory of calling Sonleitner at her home with such a request.

The new phasing agreement and final plat include a number of concessions requested by local residents: no pump-and-haul on the site; no occupancy of homes until the wastewater utilities are connected with the proper Texas Commission on Environmental Quality permit; no occupancy until the Texas Department of Transportation completes a dedicated center turn lane on SH 71; and traffic control measures during construction that will require vehicles to circle back and make a u-turn at Bee Creek Road to enter the property without crossing traffic.

The agreement also adds an additional $500,000 toward Balcones Canyonlands Preserve land, which local residents labeled a bribe from the developer since it would not save land in the area of the development. Sonleitner, however, called the sum "not insignificant." The $500,000 is on top of the $1 million the developer must provide in BCP credits.

At one point, in frustration, Daugherty accused the local residents of wanting no development at all, no matter how many compromises the developer made. But he also told the developer he wanted construction shut down immediately if a situation such as the West Cypress Hill subdivision pollution of Lick Creek occurred.

And Sonleitner, in voting for the Sweetwater Ranch plan, said she could find no way to oppose it. The plan was not perfection, but the developer had met, and addressed, every objection raised by the community. And, Sonleitner added, plans were redrawn to both cut out a mile of roadway from the impervious cover and preserve a grove of trees. The plans were clearly an improvement over the prior plan approved by the court.

While her vote might be unpopular, being an elected official was not a popularity contest, Sonleitner told the members of the audience who stayed for the vote.

County Judge Sam Biscoe noted that the actual plans for Sweetwater Ranch, while filed, would roll out over an 8- to 10-year period, giving the county time to deal with developing issues. Biscoe noted the agreement included a number of safeguards to protect local residents, as they had requested.

The phasing and plat passed 3-1, with Commissioner Ron Davis opposed to the plans and Margaret Gomez off the dais.

Board says yes to variances on Slaughter

The developers of a planned four-story apartment complex on Slaughter Lane won the endorsement of the Environmental Board for a variance allowing them to re-construct the driveway leading to the 30-acre tract. The site is currently occupied by a single-family home and horse stables, and the driveway providing access to Slaughter would not accommodate the level of traffic associated with a multi-family development.

The site had been rezoned within the past few years to MF-4, said attorney Michael Whellan, who represented the owner. "The desire was to put a multi-family on the tract," Whellan said. "He's moving farther out with his horses, and he wanted to sell the property. They're ready to move out."

The owners are not claiming any grandfathering rights on the tract, and so will fully comply with the Save Our Springs Ordinance. "This will be the first fully-compliant SOS multi-family project in the city," said Whellan. "By actually complying rather than grandfathering, you can see how much of this land is actually left without any impervious cover on it." The developers will be limited to a maximum of 15 percent impervious cover since the site is within the Barton Springs recharge zone of the Edwards Aquifer. The project is called Fairfield Residential at Woodland Park.

The plans for the project call for part of the parking for the complex to be below ground. "I'm surprised that staff had no comments on the issue of an underground parking garage in the recharge zone," said Board Member Karin Ascot. "It seems like a bad idea." Environmental Officer Pat Murphy confirmed that it was an issue that had received staff scrutiny, but that the developers would be required to stop work if any caves or voids are discovered.

"We hired a geotechnical firm to go out and drill various borings across the area of construction for the building," said engineer Danny Miller, who also represented the applicant. "None of those indicated anything that would resemble a void or cave or anything that would be a recharge feature."

The Environmental Board did vote unanimously to grant the requested variance to the city's rules on construction in a Water Quality Transition Zone, which is necessary to move and expand the driveway onto the site. As a condition for that variance, the board required the developers to hire an independent third-party observer to monitor for the discovery of any caves or recharge features.

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

End of term activity. . . Council Member Raul Alvarez has supported Latino music throughout his six-year career on the City Council. This week, at his next to last meeting, he will oversee the naming of five local landmarks after Tejano music legends. The agenda notes the following proposed names: the " Johnny Degollado Pavilion at Fiesta Gardens;" the " Manuel 'Cowboy' Donley Meeting Hall at Fiesta Gardens;" the Mexican American Cultural Center central plaza, which will be at 600 River Street, as the " Perez-Ramos Plaza;" and Town Lake Scenic Overlook, located near the intersection of Canterbury Street and Pleasant Valley Road, as the " Roy Montelongo Scenic Overlook." The Council will also likely name the Medina Street Plaza, located between East 5th and East 6th Street, as the " Roy and Matias Velasquez Plaza" for the founder of Roy’s Taxi and his brother, the leader of a 50s era band. The city’s Parks and Recreation Board recommended all five, but there remains some question about why the MACC is not being named after the Perez-Ramos family—instead of just the plaza. The Austin Latino Music Association requested that the MACC be named after the family, which includes Ruben and Alfonso Ramos, but the MACC Board voted to name the center simply the Mexican American Cultural Center. That item is not on the agenda this week. Members of the Perez-Ramos family are expected to attend Thursday’s meeting to ask the Council to name the center after their loved ones . . . Another naming . . . Alvarez is proposing that land adjacent to the Holly Power Plant be dedicated as parkland, waiving the rules for naming the park and possibly naming the park after the late Robert Donley, an East Austin activist . . . Kudos to Heidrick . . . Leadership Austin gave Clarke Heidrick, Class of ’82, its Polly Scallorn Community Trustee Award last night for his long record of community service, most recently leading the ballot initiative to create the Travis County Healthcare District and serving as the district’s first board chair. Heidrick is an attorney at Graves Dougherty Hearon & Moody. Also, Cindy Kozmetsky was named the 2006 Honorary LA Alumna for her work across 15 different non-profit organizations in the city, including the People’s Community Clinic and Children’s Medical Center Foundation of Central Texas . . . Meetings . . . The Council Committee for Emerging Technology and Telecommunications meets at 3:30pm in the Boards and Commission Room at City Hall . . . The Joint City/County Subcommittee meets at 1:30pm in the Boards and Commission Room at City Hall . . . The SOS Ordinance Subcommittee of the Environmental Board meets at 9:30am in Room 240 of One Texas Center .

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