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Council says move forward with Cortaña

Friday, August 25, 2006 by

Bull Creek site listed as back-up if Commissioners disapprove

Austin is going to build Water Treatment Plant 4, one place or the other. That was the word from City Council Thursday as it approved building the controversial project on either the 45-acre Cortaña tract, or failing that, on a 102-acre site in the Bull Creek headwaters.

That puts the ball squarely in the court of the Travis County Commissioners, which as a partner in the Balcones Canyonlands Conservation Plan (BCCP), must approve using the Cortaña tract to construct the plant. The city gave commissioners until Sept. 27 to approve building on the site, which is part of the BCCP. They are scheduled to consider the matter next week. But they may decide to wait until after the city has held a hearing on the matter.

If the commissioners do not approve Cortaña, then the city says it will forge ahead with WTP4 on the original more sensitive Bull Creek site, which has been is fully permitted, mitigated and planned.

“It is important to plan for the future,” said Council Member Lee Leffingwell. “And this plant is needed to provide for Austin’s future. By voting for the indicated motion with its conditions, we renew our commitment to the BCP and will work to increase the habitat. The matter is now strictly in the hands of the Travis County Commission.”

In approving the measure, Council members also accepted a number of conditions proposed by the BCCP Science Advisory Commission, the BCCP Citizens Advisory Commission and the city’s own Environmental Board in regards to the city’s commitment to completing the BCCP.

Those conditions include that the city:

• Recommit to completion of the BCCP;

• Lead development of a plan by March 2007 to preserve 2,000 acres of Black-Capped Vireo habitat;

• Manage five acres of BCV habitat for each taken, with a goal of two acres suitable for occupation;

• Dedicate the existing 102-acre Bull Creek site to BCCP; and

• Dedicate the Little Barton Creek tract to BCCP under dual management and maintain public access.

In addition, the city will hold a public hearing under Chapter 26 of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Code on the use of the Cortaña tract. Chapter 26 specifies that governmental entity must hold a public hearing if it proposes to use parkland for something other than a parkland purpose. The provisions of Chapter 26 apply to parks, recreation areas, and wildlife refuges, among others.

The city’s attorneys have said they do not need to hold the hearing but obviously decided to provide for the hearing after Travis County Commissioners asked the County Attorney to discuss various legal questions with city legal staff. Mayor Pro Tem Betty Dunkerley, reading from a lengthy written motion, said the Chapter 26 hearing would be held out of “an abundance of caution.” Under that law the city must hold the hearing no less than 30 days after setting the date and advertise the date three times in a newspaper of general circulation.

A group of fairly vocal opponents to both the Cortaña site and the Bull Creek site implored the Council Thursday to continue looking for other sites on which to build the plant.

“We urge you to continue to look for a viable site,” said David Anderson, chair of the Environmental Board. “This is a precedent-setting issue, and the city should do this the right way in order to get the right solution. Given the complexity of the issue, the city needs to take its time.”

Melody Lyttle, a former BCCP biologist for the city, said she believed that the search criteria for an alternative site were flawed.

“One of the sites will protect the (Jollyville) salamander, while the other site protects the Vireo,” she said. “Of all the areas that they had to search for a site, I can’t believe that the only two viable sites are both environmentally sensitive habitats. There has to be a better choice.”

Both the Travis Audubon Society and the SOS Alliance applauded the city’s intention to not build on the Bull Creek site, but grudgingly said the Cortaña site was a better choice.

“The Travis Audubon Society does not support the City's current position of requiring a choice of only between the Cortaña Tract or Bull Creek site with the short time frame that has been allowed for the evaluation of this issue,” said the Audubon Society’s Jeff Mundy. “If this is the only choice presented before the City Council decides this issue, the Travis Audubon Society definitely and strongly recommends the Cortaña Tract as the less objectionable of the two sites.”

SOS’s Colin Clark encouraged the city to keep looking. “We do believe that with additional time and investigation the city can find another site other than the Cortaña site that meets its needs and where construction of an intake pipeline can be significantly cheaper.”

In agreeing to pursue completion of the BCCP, Council members noted that the city has more than met its goal of purchasing 11,000 acres of land for the preserve. Noting that the county had had difficulty purchasing its share, partially due to the defeat of a Travis County bond issue in 1992, Mayor Will Wynn criticized the city’s environmental community.

“If the county’s bond issue would have passed, it could have purchased land for the BCP at much lower prices than they face today,” he said. “But some people in the environmental community didn’t want to see the BCP completed. Now the land is almost prohibitively expensive. That opposition will end up costing millions of extra dollars to acquire the land.” Robert Singleton, who was in the audience Thursday, admitted that he was one of those who opposed the bond election. Mary Arnold, on the other hand, supported the failed effort. Arnold has opposed using either Cortaña or the Bull Creek site.

Other tracts suggested by a number of parties, continued to be dismissed by city staff as not viable. The Lucas tract, some 340 acres near Comanche Trail west of RM 620, would only yield 30 acres of developable land, too small an area, according to city staff. (See In Fact Daily, August 24, 2006.)

Council Member Jennifer Kim remained opposed to the Cortaña site to the end, criticizing city staff and her fellow Council members for disregarding the recommendations of its own Environmental Board, and noting that the entire process had been fraught with missteps and errors.

The final vote to approve building WTP4 was 6-1, with Kim voting no.

Police OT focus of public safety budget briefing

Police, fire, and EMS departments each presented proposed budgets to the City Council on Thursday. While each of the departments has plans to restore cuts made during the economic downturn, the focus was on APD and the department’s overtime expenses.

For the past few budget cycles, the budgeted amount of money for overtime has been eclipsed by the actual amount needed to keep the department at full strength. In 2004, the department budgeted $4.7 million for overtime, while the actual amount wound up being $6.3 million. That $1.6 million gap increased to $3.6 million the next year and $4.5 million in 2006.

This year, Acting Police Chief Cathy Ellison says the budgeted number will more accurately reflect the need to pay officers overtime to keep the department at its minimum staffing level. "We’re one of the only cities that have minimum staffing for police," Ellison explained.

The proposed overtime amount for next year is $7.1 million. That’s lower than the actual amount used for overtime pay this year, which was $9.5 million. "You’re proposing that we’re going to reduce that by $2.4 million," said Council Member Mike Martinez. "I just don’t see how you’re going to do that."

Chief Ellison said the department changed the way it allocates personnel in order to keep more officers on the streets. In the past, Ellison said, the department had used separate policies for making up for vacancies in patrol positions and non-patrol positions. "We don’t have a lot of police officer positions that are not in patrol, but those never carried the vacancies and now they will," she said.

One example would be a patrol officer promoted to the rank of detective. "This last time (for promotions), if they were on patrol we mandated they stayed there," Ellison said. "In other times we would remove all those detectives and place them in their regular positions." By pulling officers from other duties the department will be able to keep more officers on patrol on the streets.

Another step to reduce the use of overtime will be the hiring of more officers.

The 111th Cadet Class just graduated 70 new officers, and the next cadet class will likely be even larger. That will account for the current vacancies plus retiring officers over the next few months. "We average a loss of three or four officers per month," said Ellison. "That’s one of the reasons this next class is so big."

Martinez requested further details in writing from the Chief. "I would like to see a specific plan on how many vacancies you plan on in patrol and making sure they stay filled," he said, "and how you came up with that $2.5 million. I just don’t see us being able to do that."

The rest of APD’s budget calls for maintaining the ratio of 2.0 officers per 1,000 residents plus converting some civilian employees from grant-funded positions to regular staff. Ellison also is requesting $479,200 for unfunded strategic adds which would be used to boost civilian staffing in the department’s forensics lab to help reduce a backlog in processing fingerprints.

Peninsula residents reject annexation

The City Council has taken the advice of the audit department and begun the annexation of land on the west bank of Lake Austin, a plan that left a few residents of the Peninsula none too pleased as they testified at the first of three annexation hearings last night.

Back in 2003, the City Auditor’s Office criticized the city for failing to move forward with the annexation of land on Lake Austin, land that went without annexation because of an antiquated rule tied to contour lines that assumed that the city would be unable to provide the full range of city services to land closest to the water.

The city did move forward with an assessment of the 21-mile shoreline and settled on the annexation of the Peninsula, a 432-acre area on the west bank of Lake Austin north of Bee Creek and south of the intersection of Westlake Drive and Trailview Mesa. Sam Chiban joked that he had moved out of the city and now the city was coming to get him.

"I should be flattered you miss me so much you came after me to annex me," Chiban said. "I love Austin, but in this case, what we have right now is not broke."

The city’s gain is fairly modest, noted to be $3.5 million over 20 years once city services are provided to the area. Because of state mandates for a three-year negotiation period on city services, the earliest the area can be annexed will be December, 2008. Thursday night, local residents were not impressed with the possibility of annexation, but some of their arguments appeared to help the city’s case.

As Danny Gillepsie, president of the West Rim Homeowners Association, noted that the Peninsula already gets Austin sewer and wastewater service, as well as other services from the county. That appeared to support the city’s argument that the cost of shared services needed to be shared among all those who benefited from them.

Robert Brooks, who owns a home on Westlake Drive, was more scathing. He said it was hard to imagine any homeowner in the Peninsula supporting a city that decided to spend $2.8 million on the Pfluger Bridge, but then spent $9.5 million; that lost $1.2 million on the Vision Village project; and that managed to go from a $34 million City Hall to a $56.6 million City Hall.

"Would you be comfortable being annexed into a city with such a poor record on responsibility and accountability, where the city tells us, on top of everything else, that it intends to provide a 9 percent increase in M&O," Brooks told the Council. "Now we’re the next ones to be placed on the hit list."

Chiban raised issues with the kinds of services that will be provided to the area. His house sits two miles from the Westlake fire station. He estimates it would take the city five times longer to get to his house in the case of an emergency, over roads that have a tendency to flood during heavy rain events.

Because the Peninsula has no MUD, Travis County will appoint a panel that will begin the three-year negotiation with the city. Those interested in serving on that committee should contact Bob Moore in Commissioner Gerald Daugherty’s office, 854-9333.

Another hearing is scheduled on the annexation: August 29, at 6:30 p.m., at Church of Good Shepherd, 3201 Windsor Road;

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No drought declaration yet . . . By the thinnest of margins, the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District has avoided having to invoke severe conservation measures on its water users. District staff told the board last night that the two drought alert mechanisms, the flow at Barton Springs and levels in the Lovelady Well, were right at the trigger levels. The trigger at Barton Springs is when the flow falls to 20 cfs for 10 straight days. It was at 21 cfs on Thursday. And the level of the Lovelady Well was sitting at 192 feet below ground level; the trigger is 192.1 feet. Without significant rain, board members said they expect to declare a Critical Stage Drought in about two weeks . . . Still at a standoff . . . Parents of children attending Escuelita del Alma, the downtown daycare next to Las Manitas Café, asked the City Council for a little help Thursday in getting the school's lease extended from its current ending date of Dec. 31 to Aug. 31, 2007. Former Council Member Raul Alvarez, whose daughter attends the daycare, was one of a number of parents asking the city to put pressure on White Lodging, which owns Marriott, not to displace La Escuelita. More people know about the struggle to keep the iconic Las Manitas on the block but the parents say they will be in a jam if the school closes too soon because of the long waiting lists for child care in Austin. Alvarez has met with White Lodging's attorney, Richard Suttle, who told In Fact Daily that he offered to extend the leases of both businesses if they would in turn agree to write a letter in favor of White Lodging's plans-including demolition of all the buildings on the block except the La Peña Building, which is designated historic. But those on the other side did not want to agree to that, he said. Council Member Brewster McCracken said he wanted to give some direction to the City Manager to ensure that Escuelita and Las Manitas will be able to stay in the Second Street area. "We don't consider it a good trade-off to replace a real kind of cultural and community asset with a chain corporate hotel," McCracken said, adding that Mayor Will Wynn is also interested in saving Tesoros Trading Company. Asked what the city could do to prevent the loss of the businesses, McCracken listed the city's tools as denial of the alley vacation, refusing to allow increased Floor to Area Ratio, "and the Council can always initiate a historic zoning case." However, he added, "All those inside City Hall are confident there is a win-win on this." He cited CBRE's decision to build around the Paggi House on South Lamar as an example of what Marriott could do if it chooses to work with the existing structure. Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky said that the block is currently within the downtown historic district so that any request for a demolition permit must go through the Historic Landmark Commission. Even though this seems like a typical small town kind of struggle, McCracken and Suttle said they had both been contacted by a reporter for the Los Angeles Times to discuss the matter . . . Libertarians join redistricted Congressional races . . . Libertarian Party of Texas Executive Director Wes Benedict announced Thursday that James Arthur Strohm would file today to run in Congressional District 21 against Congressman Lamar Smith and Barbara Cunningham would run in District 25 against Congressman Lloyd Doggett. In March, Grant Rostig filed as a Libertarian for District 25 but recently re-filed as a Republican. Benedict noted in a press release, "From time to time, Libertarians defect to another party expecting to be welcomed with open arms, and that's certainly their right. It will be interesting to see if Republicans back Rostig, who was against the War in Iraq and against the War on Drugs. At least, that was the case while he was a Libertarian candidate" . . . Budget changes . . . Travis County has made some changes in the mark-up schedule for its budget. County commissioners will convene on Sept. 6, 7 and 8 from 9am through noon. On those same days, afternoon sessions are scheduled for 2pm . . . Woman's Roundtable . . . Council Member Sheryl Cole will welcome more than 125 women to a sold out Women's Independence Roundtable and Marketplace hosted by BiGAustin today. The event, which begins at 8am at the Capitol Marriott, celebrates the contribution women make to the Central Texas economy. "I congratulate Jeanette Peten and BiGAustin for putting the Women's Independence Roundtable and Marketplace together. I am honored to be the event's honorary chair and as City Council Member, I am working to build an economy in Austin that encourages women to be business owners and provides women with the necessary tools to succeed," said Cole.

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