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Social agencies wary of Prop 1

Tuesday, May 2, 2006 by

Basic Needs Coalition says high cost could hurt non-profits

As early voting began across the city Monday, representatives of about 30 social service organizations, known as the Basic Needs Coalitio n, announced their opposition to Proposition 1 on the ballot. While the groups are non-profit agencies that want to steer clear of electioneering, those gathered at a City Hall news conference made it clear that they personally would vote against the Open Government amendment to the city charter because of its high cost.

The group approved a resolution which says the proposed charter change would pose a "direct threat to the city’s continuing support of social services and basic needs assistance" and urged voters to "carefully consider the tradeoffs required" to implement it and any other "costly amendments."

Although proponents of Proposition 1 have disputed the city’s estimate of $36 million, saying it will cost a small fraction of that, social service advocates say they don’t want to take any chances.

Glenn Gadbois of Just Transportation Alliances, said that with thousands of needy new citizens pouring into Austin as a result of Hurricane Katrina social service agencies had to stretch their dollars even further than before. "Our hope was that with a little bit more money the city would be able to increase the amount of money we get for social service contracts. We need it desperately…. How is this $36 million or $20 million or $18 million or whatever it is, how is that going to impact the budget and social services in the community. That’s a question that has to be answered before we vote yes on this."

Dan Pruitt with Meals on Wheels and More was one of those at the gathering and along with Ellen Balthazar of Any Baby Can and Jeb Boyt of Austin Metro Trails and Greenways. He said his group serves 3,000 meals a day, mostly to seniors and children.

Boyt, a member of the city’s Parks and Recreation Board said in addition to housing parks programs, the city’s parks and recreation centers provide space for a number of social services offices. "Whether it costs $2 million or $36 million or somewhere in between, in going through our annual operating budget, what's going to be at risk is our social service programs."

He expressed fear that some programs would be cut, such as swimming programs, meals for senior citizens or for after school programs. He concluded, "There better ways to achieve what they're trying to achieve….Let’s just vote no and figure out a better way to do it."

Other groups in the Basic Needs Coalition include AIDS Services of Austin, Arc of the Capital Area, Capital Area Food Bank of TX, Austin Tenants Council, ATCMHMR, Caritas of Austin, Community Action Network, Communities In Schools, Eastside Community Connection, Catholic Charities of Central Texas, City of Austin Housing Authority, Eastside Community Connection, Family Eldercare Foundation, Communities Foundation for the Homeless, Good Shepherd Episcopal Church, Goodwill Industries of Central Texas, Inc., SafePlace, Society of St. Vincent De Paul, St. Louis Catholic Church, Sustainable Food Center, Texas Rio Grand Legal Aid, The Salvation Army, Travis Co. HHS & VS, Trinity Center and United Way Capital Area.

Council hears plea for library bond money

Police, fire, EMS facilities also needed

Another piece of the November Bond Election puzzle was put in place last week, as city staff presented proposals to the City Council for new Public Health and Safety Facilities, a new Central Library and several citizen initiated projects. This was the third of four presentations on the bond package, with the final installation set for this Thursday.

The biggest project put before the Council is the $90 million proposed new Central Library. Austin Library Director Brenda Branch said Austin’s current John Henry Faulk Central Library building is at full capacity and cannot be expanded.

"It was opened in 1979 for a city of 300,000," she said. "The current facility is maxed out. If we get a new volume, we have to remove a current volume in order to put it on the shelves. We are completely out of room."

The $90 million would construct a 250,000-square foot facility, with 170,000 sq. ft. of finished space, to be built on the site of the Green Water Treatment Plant. There are no specific plans drawn up for the building yet, but one plan being floated is a public-private partnership in which a larger building will house the library and other tenants, with revenue from the private sector to support the library’s operations.

Branch showed the Council comparisons to new Central Libraries recently built in cities like Denver, Nashville, Memphis, Seattle and Vancouver. Most of those facilities have 300,000 or more square feet compared to Austin’s modest plans for 250,000.

Other proposed new facilities included a $20 million Joint Public Safety Training facility for fire, police and EMS. The facility would give all three agencies improved access to training and classroom facilities, with significant cost savings through the use of shared resources.

Police Chief Stan Knee also requested $7 million for a new 27,000 square foot Northeast Police Substation, which would take pressure off APD current North Substation on Lamplight Village.

Knee said the North Substation, built to hold one area command and 100 personnel, houses three commands and more than 300 police employees.

Emergency Medical Services is also recommending the city spend $3.1 million to locate a new EMS facility at Fire Station No. 14 at 4305 Airport Boulevard. EMS service provided to that area by surrounding stations is stretched thin, according to EMS Director Richard Harrington, and is experiencing unacceptable response times.

Also requested is $16 million for a new Municipal Court Building. According to Presiding Judge Evelyn McKee, the current 40,000 square foot facility is more than 50 years old, and is badly overcrowded.

The request is to purchase a facility with at least 62,000 square feet that would allow the city to house prosecutors in the same building.

Another facility that is 50 years old and in need of replacement is the city’s animal shelter. The current facility has a major flooding problem and requires very high maintenance and repairs due to its condition. The city is seeking $12 for a new 41,000 square foot facility.

Several Citizen Initiatives made it into the city’s bond proposal. They include:

• Asian American Resource Center, $8 million;

• Austin Film Studios, $5 million;

• Mexican American Cultural Center, $5 million;

• North Austin Recreation Center, $8.9 million;

• Skate Park and BMX Park, $1.3 million and

• Zachary Scott Theatre Expansion, $10 million.

Thursday’s presentation brings the cumulative total of projects presented to City Council to $436.4 million of the proposed $500-$530 million for the bond package.

Council Members will hear proposals this Thursday on Affordable Housing and Land Acquisition.

House bill sidelines most appraisal caps

Local option would affect only school districts

Council Member Brewster McCracken shared a lively discussion of appraisal caps with members of the statewide House Ways and Means Committee yesterday, although the sponsor of the bill, Rep. Martha Wong (R-Houston), had already agreed to strip all jurisdictions other than school districts from her local-option bill and House joint resolution.

Committee Chair Rep. Jim Keffer (R-Eastland) joked that McCracken was "the guy who started all this" when he began his testimony before the committee. In fact, appraisal caps, while popular among conservatives in the Legislature, caused so much friction with the Local Government Ways and Means Committee’s Chair Rep. Fred Hill (R-Richardson), that the bill was moved to the statewide Ways and Means Committee, chaired by Keffer.

Wong, a long-time supporter of appraisal caps, acknowledged it would be a disappointment, but that she had bracketed her local-option bill to target school districts – rather than all taxing jurisdictions – in order to meet the narrowness of the session call. Wong said she was trying to represent the taxpayer that spent $70,000 to build a home but now lived in a home that was worth $300,000. These people, Wong said, wanted to live and die in the homes they had toiled to build.

Wong’s decision to limit her bill shifted some of the lobbyists – those representing the counties, for instance – for opposition to neutrality on the bill. Others — such as the Texas Association of Business, Texas Taxpayers and Research Association, the Texas Association of Realtors, the Texas Association of School Administrators and the Center for Public Policy Priorities – continued to oppose Wong’s bill.

McCracken stressed the "local option" aspects of the bill, saying that Austin City Manager Toby Futrell had run the numbers and that a 5 percent appraisal cap did more to protect taxpayers than a 10 percent cap or a 20 percent homestead exemption. City Council unanimously supported appraisal caps in Austin.

Rep. Mike Villarreal (D-San Antonio), however, pressed McCracken on the use of a homestead exemption, saying Austin had bypassed one available method to buy down future property taxes. McCracken stuck to his support of the appraisal cap, saying it did more to help homeowners in South Austin, who lived in more modest homes but had seen property values nearly double is six years.

Keffer was particularly concerned with McCracken’s claims that the tax cap would shift the burden to commercial property owners. Keffer noted that tax caps had led to serious problems in California, where it was documented that such limits drove business from the state. McCracken noted that the caps were tied to economic trends, so that commercial property growth helped to cover the shift in cost of city services in high-growth years, rather than depending on commercial property to carry the burden every year.

Houston Council Member Anne Clutterbuck also shared McCracken’s position. Rep. Vilma Luna (D-Corpus Christi), however, noted that the Houston City Council did not endorse the concept, and that Mayor Bill White said in his letter that Houston, in its effort, would split the roll and limit appraisal caps to residential property.

Other groups were less impressed, either with the original bill or the substitute. The Texas Association of Realtors noted its preference for simply dropping tax rates – rather than creating false market shifts – in order to address higher appraisals. TTARA noted that school districts, more than other taxing entities, relied on a balance between local and state funding, which would put a greater burden on the state. And Dick Lavine of the Center for Public Policy Priorities suggested a circuit breaker – limiting taxes for older and elderly Texans – as a solution to gentrification and property value growth.

Wong welcomed all critics to her office to craft some kind of solution to the burden of high property taxes. Wong’s bill, House Bill 65, and House Joint Resolution 24, were left pending in the House Ways and Means Committee.

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

More campaign news . . . A group which opposes Propositions 1 and 2, EDUCATE PAC, began automated phone banking yesterday. "This is former Austin Mayor Kirk Watson," says a familiar voice on the answering machine. "Please vote no on Charter amendments 1 and 2. They were poorly written in secret by a small group," says Watson. His message includes a statement about jeopardizing the privacy of citizens communicating with Council Members "and (the amendments) could cost millions—money we need for open space, parks and libraries" . . . Fundraiser . . . Place 2 candidate Eliza May will hold a fundraiser at Doña Emilia’s South American Bar & Grill, 101 San Jacinto, Wednesday from 4:30-6:30pm. Hosts include Gilberto Ocanas, Hilbert Maldonado and Howard Kells . . . Mayoral press conferences . . . Mayor Will Wynn will highlight the numerous career opportunities being offered at next week’s job fair during a press conference today. The news conference will be at 10am at City Hall . . . Miracle Month . . . Mayor Will Wynn of Austin and Mayor Nyle Maxwell of Round Rock will issue a proclamation declaring May as "Dell Children’s Miracle Month." The mayors will charge Central Texans to get involved and participate in the building of the new world-class Dell Children’s Medical Center of Central Texas through several community-wide activities during May. The new medical center is scheduled to open in the summer of 2007. The event is planned for 10:30am today on the Plaza at Austin City Hall . . . Meetings . . . The Z oning and Platting Commission meets at 6pm in Council Chambers at City Hall . . . The Travis County Commissioners Court meets at 9am in Commission Chambers at 314 W. 11th St. . . . The Williamson County Commissioners Court meets at 9:30am at the County Annex on Inner Loop Drive in Georgetown . . . Voting problems . . . A Nebraska manufacturer's inability to provide adequate software will force Williamson County, along with dozens of other counties, to not meet the state's legal requirement for electronic voting machines. More than 500 electronic voting machines from Electronic Systems and Software used for disabled voters will not be used in early voting, forcing election officials to use paper ballots. Although the problem has caused major problems for some counties, the impact was relatively small in Williamson County where machines are only used for disabled voters. It will not affect voting during the May 13 general election.

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