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Design, McMansion, vendor ordinances approved

Friday, September 1, 2006 by

Council made short work of the first reading on two ordinances and second reading on another during last night’s meeting, giving staff and the public a few more weeks to digest all the changes. New rules for mobile food vendors and the revamped McMansions ordinance will come back for second and third readings. The commercial design standards will have one more reading.

All three likely will be tweaked in coming weeks to address some of the lingering concerns that individual Council members want to address.

The Council has seen all three ordinances over the summer in various forms. The mobile food vendor ordinance, which has been under review by both vendors and neighborhood associations, was the first one up last night. The new provisions include the "opt in-opt out" provision for neighborhoods but also a fairly well received compromise that would allow placement of stands closer to apartment complexes than single-family homes.

Attorney Andy Martin, representing El Pastor, also got an exemption on the hours of operation for restaurants with accessory outside mobile food vendors, as long as the restaurant is more than 300 feet from a residential neighborhood.

Council Member Mike Martinez and Mayor Pro Tem Betty Dunkerley both expressed concern about the impact of the ordinance on local mobile vendors. Martinez initially wanted to pull the ordinance, but Dunkerley convinced him it was best to pass it on first reading, with directions to staff to come back with a fuller picture of the impact on business.

Clarion Associates was on hand to present the commercial design standards ordinance again, addressing some of the concerns expressed about the impact of the ordinance on small lots, the Hill Country Roadway ordinance and downtown development.

Council agreed to some additional exceptions on small lots – exceptions that are not likely to please neighborhood associations – as well as additional language on affordability requirements in vertical mixed-use units and a preference for angled-parking for vertical mixed-use building, which the Public Works Department wanted to review.

Amendments added by Council members included some exemptions from standards for businesses faced with economic hardship, proposed by Council Member Sheryl Cole, as well as an amendment by Council Member Lee Leffingwell to ensure the Hill County Roadway ordinance trumped the design guidelines on all counts.

The third ordinance, on McMansions, re-codified the ordinance passed in June, with some additional amendments. Much of the discussion at last night’s meeting was the height requirements set out under the ordinance, whether height should be measured from the natural or finished grade of the structure. The ordinance was passed on first reading with plenty of room left for discussion.

For more details, read the In Fact Daily next week.

Staff: Police agency merger could be costly

Members of the Austin City Council will further explore the possibility of merging the Parks Police, Airport Police, and City Marshals into the Austin Police Department despite a staff recommendation against that course of action. The staff’s conclusion was that such a move would cost the city nearly $5 million during the initial year of consolidation and $16 million during the first three years. But Council members said Thursday night they wanted to review some of the assumptions of that report and explore possible cost savings from lowering administrative overhead.

The merger would drive up staffing costs in several ways. The model proposed by city staff includes the assumption that officers in other departments would be transferred in to APD at an equivalent rank. Since APD officers are generally better paid than their counterparts in Parks, Aviation, or the City Marshals, that would be a significant cost increase. The merger would also create the need for new supervisory or detective positions to comply with APD policies, resulting in 19 additional positions. In the first year of the merger, staff estimated that those two factors would require an additional $4.9 million.

Other costs are related to training. APD’s training regimen differs from those of the other departments, and the report from the City Manager’s office recommends additional training time for those officers to become familiar with all APD policies and procedures.

Although the Parks, Aviation, and Marshals would be kept as distinct divisions within APD during a merger, officers in those divisions would eventually be allowed to transfer out to other APD assignments, resulting in the need to train new officers to handle their specialized duties such as airport security or lake patrol.

“After a complete assessment of the services we provide and the success we’ve had over the last several years, our recommendation is that we continue our approach to law enforcement, security, customer service, and all the non-law enforcement services using the current structure of Public Safety and Emergency Management,” said Assistant City Manager Rudy Garza, who presented the staff report.

Council members called for a public discussion and hearing on the report later this year after they had been given time to digest the information.

“Actually, none of us had access to this report until you stepped up to the podium,” Council Member Lee Leffingwell said. “So we haven’t had time to look through it. It’s hard to try to even formulate questions about it.”

While Mayor Will Wynn suggested submitting written questions to staff, and having those answers circulated in writing to the entire Council, Council Member Brewster McCracken said he would prefer a more public discussion.

“I typically don’t get nearly as much out of written questions and a prepared response as I do the opportunity for us to learn together, to ask questions and ask follow up questions,” McCracken said. “I find that a lot more useful.”

Those questions will likely focus on some of the basic assumptions within the report about the structure and procedures for any merger, including the assumptions leading to the $4.9 million cost estimate.

“As for the underlying assumption that all officers would be transferred with their present rank and tenure…I don’t know that would necessarily have to be the case,” said Leffingwell. “I’ve never seen a merger in the private sector where that kind of assumption was actually used. Nothing really jumped out at me as far as the identification of any potential cost savings through joint training departments or joint administrative support, and that’s one of the key things we’re looking for,” he said. “I endorse the concept that we’re going to continue to study the report and submit our questions.”

The Austin Police Association will also be studying the report. APA President Mike Sheffield told In Fact Daily he disagreed with the assumption that each of the 109 officers within Parks, Aviation, or City Marshals would have to transfer to APD at an equivalent rank and higher pay. “This gives us an opportunity to study the issue,” he said. “We think merging is the way to go. The fact of the matter is you have separate departments out here with their own set of guidelines. It’s really odd that you would want to run two different departments in the same city.” Sheffield also said the union could bring in its own outside expert to help formulate scenarios for the merger, much as the City Manager’s office did with The PFM Group. That consultant contributed to the manager’s report, which should be posted on the city’s web site today.

The PFM Group noted that Austin’s system of having separate departments for specialized functions was not unusual in Texas. Their report identified $500,000 in operational cost savings, but noted that additional training, staffing, and overtime costs would outweigh that benefit.

City departments offer budget increases

Council Members got one last briefing on portions of the proposed 2007 city budget Thursday. Outlining their portions of the proposed pie were the department directors for the Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Department, Watershed Protection and Development Review, Public Works, Austin Water Utility, Austin Energy, and Economic Growth and Redevelopment Services.

Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Department Director Greg Guernsey is seeking a total of $4.5 million for 2007, a 6.3 percent increase over 2006. Guernsey said his department is seeking a total of three new full-time employees (FTE), two for the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, and one transportation planner.

The NPZD improved its standing in the annual Citizens Survey, getting a 65.4 percent satisfaction rating for neighborhood planning and zoning efforts (up 1.3 percent), and 48.1 percent for review services for zoning changes, (up 2.7 percent.)

Guernsey said his department’s top goal for 2007 is to complete 10 neighborhood plans and related re-zonings out of the 13 that are currently in progress. He said his department has completed 33 out of the 57 neighborhood plans that are scheduled and plans to have all of them completed by 2009.

The city’s Watershed Protection and Development Review Department is seeking a $14.4 million budget for 2007, a 13.6 percent increase over 2006. Department Director Victoria Hsu said her department is projecting revenues of $14.8 million, a whopping 27.3 percent increase over the previous year.

Hsu is requesting 11 FTEs to handle her department’s increasing workload. Her request includes four building inspectors, three residential reviewers, two commercial plan reviewers and two persons in Right-of-Way Management.

That increased workload may have been a factor in a 3.2 percent drop in public satisfaction with review services for land development applications., though the same services for commercial building plans jumped 4.7 percent to 55.4 percent and residential building plans were up 5 percent to 53.4 percent.

A comparison with other communities in Texas and elsewhere showed Austin near the top of cities in total building inspections per 1,000 population, with 340.26 compared 187.80 for San Antonio and 189.58 for Corpus Christi. Austin also led the pack in permits issued per 1,000 population, with 106.84, compared to 81.9 for San Antonio.

The Public Works Department faces a unique challenge, according to Director Sondra Creighton. In the recent Citizens Survey, road conditions and new roads were rated the top priority of those surveyed. That same survey indicated that in almost all categories surveyed, citizens thought that the Public Works Department was not doing as good a job as in previous years. They were particularly critical of the city’s maintenance and repair of city streets, with a 42.5 percent satisfaction rating, down 8 percent.

Creighton’s proposed budget is $35.5 million, a 12 percent increase over 2006. That includes nine new FTEs, including six conversions of temporary employees to permanent. Creighton cited a rapid increase in the cost of materials such as asphalt, concrete, gypsum and steel as one reason for the increase in her budget.

She noted that while the city has a long-term goal of maintaining 10 percent of its roadways each year, it has only funded 8 percent for the past few years to save funds. That could end up costing the city in the long run, she said, as the longer repairs are put off, the more they cost in future years. An additional $5 million spent on road repairs in 2006 could end up saving the city almost $200 million in repair expenses by the year 2016, she said.

The Austin Water Utility plans a spending budget of $341.5 million against revenues of $367.6 million. The utility brings in 85 percent of its revenues from its water and wastewater service, while it spends 43 percent of its budget on operations and maintenance, and 41.2 percent on debt service.

AWU Director Chris Lippe said that his department serves more than 820,000 people in a 450-square-mile area of Travis, Williamson and Hays counties, treating approximately 55 billion gallons of potable water and 35 billion gallons of wastewater each year. He said AWU also manages, protects and maintains more than 30,000 acres of watershed and preserve lands.

The Citizens Survey showed a generally high rate of satisfaction among those polled, giving the quality of drinking water an 85.1 percent approval, water and wastewater programs an 84.7 percent approval, water pressure an 80 percent approval and water taste a 77.1 percent approval.

AWU’s five-year CIP Spending Plan includes $385.6 million for maintaining existing facilities and $537.8 million for new or additional capacity to the system.

Lippe also noted that Austin’s average monthly residential water and wastewater bill at $49.95 is in the middle range of bills throughout the state and similar other cities. Austin was slightly higher that other major cities, while it came in lower than most other cities in Central Texas. If the proposed rate increase for 2007 is approved, that average bill will climb to $54.01.

Austin Energy, now the tenth largest public power utility in the country serves more than 325,000 customers, with annual revenues of $1.122 billion and expenditures of $1.1218 billion. Austin Energy General Manager Juan Garza noted that while residential customers are 89 percent of AE’s base, the 11 percent of the commercial and industrial customers bring in 60 percent of the revenue.

Garza said the utility scored high satisfaction ratings in the survey, with an 86.9 percent rating for service reliability, an 82.3 percent rating for response to power outages, 70.4 percent for tree trimming, 79 percent for utility customer service and 83 percent for its energy conservation program. However, customers only gave a 56.6 rating for the cost of electricity.

The Economic Growth and Redevelopment Services Office is seeking a $5.7 million budget, a 1.7 percent increase over 2006. The office is managing the city’s Economic Growth Initiatives, including public-private ventures such as the Seaholm Plant, Block 21, the Mueller Redevelopment and others.

Director Sue Edwards said her office is working on new initiatives, such as Emerging Technology Industries, the Downtown Market Retail Study, the Austin Community Commercial Plan and the Development Information Resource Service.

Three days have been set aside for Council to consider and tweak the budget, beginning on Sept. 11

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Public hearings set . . . The City Council approved setting several public hearings for Sept. 28 on various items Thursday, including adding a second day labor site on East Ben White and amending the definition of medical offices. They also agreed, without comment, to hold a Chapter 26 Parks and Wildlife Code hearing on use of 45 acres of the Cortaña tract for Water Treatment Plant 4. Travis County Commissioners have said they would hold their hearing on the same matter, which involves removing those acres from the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve, after the city’s hearing. The City Council will not meet between now and Sept. 28, except on Sept. 11, 12 and possibly 13 to approve the 2006-2007 budget . . . Clarksville neighborhood queried . . . The city has sent letters to property owners in the historic Clarksville neighborhood notifying them that their area is eligible for local historic neighborhood status. If 60 percent of the property owners respond positively to the city’s request for a vote, the area would gain some protections not currently available. There have been a number of incidents of demolition of historic homes in the neighborhood, much to the chagrin of their neighbors . . . Who’s Your Daddy? . . . During a crucial moment in the police consolidation presentation, a toddler ran into the Council Chamber yelling, "Daddy! Daddy!" A number of men, including presenter Assistant City Manager Rudy Garza, turned around. The child was Ford McCracken, well known to most of the Council. City Manager Toby Futrell cracked that the child was clearly too young to be one of Garza’s children, who probably are beyond the potty training and pacifier stage. It lightened the moment in a rather serious presentation . . . Appointments . . . A number of reappointments were made to city boards and commissions, all from Mayor Will Wynn unless otherwise noted: Jodi Park to the Commission for Women; Timothy Sulak to the Ethics Review Commission; Dustin Lanier ( Brewster McCracken appointment) and Guy Manaster to the Library Commission; Philip Bellard, Joe Geraci, Chip Howe, Kathy Kasparin, Norman Keike, and Denise Sonleitner to the Mayor’s Committee for People with Disabilities; and Jay Gohi l to the Zoning and Platting Commission. In Council action, an ordinance was approved naming Sheryl Cole to replace Mayor Wynn on the Council’s Audit and Finance Committee . . . Take the bus, it’s free! . . . Capital Metro buses will be free to passengers on all routes today in conjunction with Central Texas’ 14th Ozone Action Day of the 2006 season. This year marks the 13th year Capital Metro has provided free rides to customers on Ozone Action Days, and is one component of the agency’s overall efforts to reduce emissions and improve the air throughout the region. On Ozone Action Days, Capital Metro sees an average increase in ridership by up to 8 percent . . . See you on Tuesday . . . In Fact Daily, of course, will take off Monday to celebrate Labor Day. We hope all of our readers will be able to do the same.

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