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County budget could allow small tax cut

Wednesday, July 12, 2006 by

Travis County’s Planning and Budget Office – still 10 days away from the release of the preliminary budget – offered an upbeat prediction on Tuesday that homeowners could see a tax decrease if the current budget goes forward without significant changes.

The county tax rate could drop 4.7 cents—to the effective rate—from 49.9 cents to 45.1 cents. Given the rise in home values, that could mean a slight – very slight – decrease in the amount paid by the average homeowner. The decrease would be seen in 10s of dollars, rather than hundreds of dollars.

Additions to the budget include a number of big-ticket items: another $2.1 million for medical costs in the Sheriff’s Department; a new criminal court, at a cost of $1 million annually; an additional $1 million for the Balcones Canyonlands preserve, for a total of $5.9 million; and increases in fuels and utilities, up $872,000. Other increases include another $510,000 for parks staff, another $1 million for constables and a $541,000 increase for the county attorney’s trial division and criminal intake team.

Planning and Budget Office Executive Director Christian Smith said he expects few appeals from the various departments, the process that usually adds more expenditures to the budget. Changes are expected to be minor, he said.

In another related item, a citizens’ advisory committee on elected officials’ salaries recommended a $6,100 raise for the Sheriff but recommended no salary increase – beyond the recommended increase for all employees – for the positions of County Treasurer, justices of the peace and constables. In fact, a salary study showed that the justices and constables were actually overpaid.

The justices of the peace, in particular, have argued that they are lawyers who handle legal issues and should be paid on the scale of other judges. The court has been split on the issue. Commissioner Gerald Daugherty has responded that the justices understood the requirements of the job and accepted the salary. Commissioner Karen Sonleitner, on the other hand, argued that the justices do handle additional duties and assignments that might not have been calculated and compared in the study.

Travis County to submit redistricting map

Travis County will be among the plaintiffs to propose new Congressional district lines in the ongoing Texas redistricting case, a case that now has been remanded from the US Supreme Court back to the US District Court in East Texas.

Commissioners approved their role in the court case after an executive session yesterday. Remedial proposals for new maps are due to the court on Friday, giving attorney Renea Hicks a scant three days to work with the plaintiff team to devise a plan. The county’s goal is to advocate for a district that represents the county’s interests best.

"The main point we wanted was a district substantially anchored in Travis County, at least along the lines, as much as possible, of Lloyd Doggett’s old district," Hicks said. "The problem the city and county had, when the lines were redrawn back in 2003, was that it eviscerated the base that Doggett had in Travis County."

But, as anyone who has followed the case knows, the focus of the Supreme Court’s concerns is not Doggett’s district, which stretches from Travis all the way down to Hidalgo County in the Valley. Instead, the focus is Henry Bonilla’s 23rd Congressional District, which split Laredo to dilute Hispanic voting power in Webb County and shore up the Republican’s support in other areas of his district, primarily among white rural Republicans in West Texas. Doggett’s newly drawn 25th Congressional District was expected to offset the loss of Hispanic voting power, an argument the Supreme Court rejected.

Different plaintiffs have different goals. The political parties want to strengthen their base in various districts. The GI Forum wants to strengthen Hispanic voting power, regardless of party. And Travis County wants to protect Travis County.

That’s not impossible to do, depending on the will of the court. Pulling all of Webb County into either Bonilla’s 23rd or Democratic Congressman Henry Cuellar’s 28th Congressional District could shift the boundary of Doggett’s district line northward. That could meet the goal of at least some of the plaintiffs, as well as Travis County.

In its motion yesterday, Commissioners’ Court – minus Republican Gerald Daugherty – reiterated its support for a remedial map that substantially anchored the 25th Congressional District in Travis County. They supported a map that was consistent with the historical representation of the county and one that did not impact more than six Congressional districts, which also was a guideline of the court.

The maps are due Friday. Responses are due the following Friday, July 21. Oral arguments will be in Austin on August 3.

Hays hears well owners’ water worries

No action taken to restrict drilling

Hays County Commissioners got an earful during their Tuesday morning meeting from residents and conservation district officials worried about the number of wells going dry in the northwest part of the county.

While commissioners discussed, and ultimately tabled, an agenda item that would have instituted a platting requirement specifying that lots served by a public water supply are prohibited from drilling individual wells, subdivision residents bemoaned the court’s inaction to date.

"It’s scary, terrifying to think of living out there with no water…to think of having to call in a water tank and think about paying for water every week," said David Busch, a resident near Dripping Springs who draws well water and says he’s watched his water pressure decline steadily. "This is the middle of July. We don’t have a lot of time to sit around and twiddle our thumbs. A moratorium on well drilling seems like a logical first step. If you had rules, then by all means follow them and stop waiving them to allow people to drill new wells."

County Judge Jim Powers said the county doesn’t have the authority to put a moratorium on residential well drilling, but he did express an interest in hiring a consultant to review water availability studies.

The flurry of public comments come as more and more wells in the western part of the county dry up. About 30 wells near Dripping Springs have gone dry in the last few weeks, area residents say. According to Wayland Clark, a resident of the Sycamore Creek subdivision, many area homeowners have had to resort to water deliveries. Clark said he pays $95 for 2,200 gallons of water.

While the Hays Trinity Groundwater Conservation District monitors the area’s water availability, the district doesn’t currently review the reports for county officials.

Some of the speakers directly accused the commissioners of ignoring the problem. Elizabeth Sumter, a Democrat running against Powers for the Hays County Judge’s seat in November, said the court has wasted time and opportunities for addressing water availability issues.

"Five years ago…two huge red flags went up that water in northern Hays County was fragile and scarce," Sumter said, referencing another influx of dry wells in the western part of the county. "This court has had opportunity to lead and manage, and that didn’t occur."

But some commissioners turned the blame to other organizations. Pct. 4 Commissioner Russ Molenaar asked Andrew Backus, board president of the Hays Trinity Groundwater Conservation District, why his district hasn’t taken the initiative to decline residential well registrations.

Backus said the conservation district doesn’t have the power to deny registrations for residential wells, although it may be able to limit the amount homeowners draw from their wells.

While commissioners didn’t take any action on the water availability issue, Powers indicated he would put an item on next week’s agenda addressing the possibility of a water study review. Commissioners also talked about requiring developers to give prospective homebuyers full disclosure of water availability risks in the area.

With the exception Pct. 2 Commissioner Susie Carter, who abstained, commissioners also approved a rebate in per lot fees for developers who implement water conservation measures. Per lot fees are currently $400, but under the new program up to $200 may be rebated if developers include conservation devices like rainwater collection facilities or construction of recharge structures.

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

New officers . . . The Planning Commission elected a new slate of officers at last night’s meeting. Chair Chris Riley noted that – to his relief – commission rules limit the chair to two one-year terms and his time was up. Members elected Commissioner David Sullivan as the new Chair. Other officers include Jay Reddy as Vice Chair, Cid Galindo as Secretary, Keith Jackson as Assistant Secretary, and Mandy Dealey was re-elected as Parliamentarian . . . Experienced applicant seeks appointment . . . The current head of the Texas Department of State Health Services is among the list of applicants for a job on the Travis County Health Care District board. Dr. Eduardo Sanchez, one of eight applicants, has announced he will step down from his state job in October. Other applicants include Carolyn Hargrove, David Halpern, Jason Earle, Kathy Rider, Richard Durbin, Phillip Dunne and Clark Watts. Former Brackenridge administrator Tom Young is expected to serve one more month on the board while the county commissioners pick his replacement . . . Oops! . . . Apologies to Congressman Lloyd Doggett, who lives in East Austin, not in McAllen, as we said Tuesday. Doggett, who represents the 25th Congressional District, has served as the representative of both Austin and McAllen since redistricting made it difficult for him to run in the redrawn 10th Congressional District . . . Affordable housing task force gears up . . . Next Monday, a new group will tackle the difficult problem of affordable housing. The Affordable Housing Incentives Taskforce will have its first meeting on Monday at 11:30am. According to Robert Levinski in Council Member Jennifer Kim’s office, the following Austinites have agreed to serve on the committee: Tom Stacy, Brett Denton, Tim Taylor, Ken Blaker, Eugene Supulveda, Walter Moreau, Cathy Echols, Frank Fernandez, Bo McCarver, Mark Rodgers, Johnny Limon, Elizabeth Mueller and Karen Paup. Charles Heimsath has been asked but had not confirmed that he would serve by Tuesday evening. . . Meetings . . . The Community Technology and Telecommunications Commission meets at 7:30pm in the Boards and Commissions Room at City Hall . . .The Solid Waste Advisory Commission meets at 6:30pm in Room 105 at the Waller Creek Center . . . Need some wheels? . . . The Williamson County Sheriff’s Department is holding an abandoned vehicle auction at 10am Saturday at the Impound Yard at the Williamson County Central Maintenance Facility, 3151 S.E. Inner Loop, in Georgetown. The auction is open to the public. Viewing begins at 9am and the auction begins at 10am. More than 30 abandoned vehicles will be auctioned, ranging from a 1974 Mercedes to 2000 Dodge Neon to a 1993 Kawasaki motorcycle.

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