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City sets agenda for legislative session

Tuesday, December 19, 2006 by

A number of key issues likely to be up for debate in the upcoming 80th Texas Legislature could affect Austin. With that in mind, City Council members last week approved a legislative program for the upcoming session beginning in January.

Every two years, the Council takes a position on issues and legislation that “enhances the city’s ability to solve problems and improve the quality of life for its citizens,” and opposes legislation that reduces the city’s authority or increases the it’s costs.

The legislative program acts as an agenda for Government Relations Director John Hrncir, who oversees a staff of in-house specialists and contract lobbyists to represent Austin’s interests.

The majority of items the Council is supporting are in the area of health care and the environment. However, one major issue that came up was a possible change in the city’s relationship with Capital Metro.

“Approximately 92 percent of the ridership of Capital Metro is Austinites; yet the City of Austin has only two representatives on the Capital Metro Board,” said Council Member Lee Leffingwell. “I just feel like – and I know others feel the same way – it certainly should be more than it is right now.”

Leffingwell said he will work with the local delegation to try to get more seats for the city on the transportation agency’s board “Right now, we have representation on the board that’s the same as Lago Vista and Leander,” he said.

Another item emphasized by Mayor Will Wynn was support for an item requiring new coal plants to use improved technology rather than coal crushing technology, as requested by Austin Energy.

“The Council passed a resolution last June expressing its opposition to the coal crushing technology as opposed to the latest available coal technology, and for various reasons we have not gone beyond that point,” said Wynn. “I think it's very important to Austin's future status as far as air pollution and the impacts that come from that to try to do the best we can to try to get these coal plants to use the latest technology.”

Council Member Mike Martinez also backs supporting legislation that would amend the tax code to allow the city to implement a homestead exemption based on a fixed amount as opposed to a percentage. The city does not have a homestead exemption. The county offers an exemption based on a percentage of the assessed value of property, which means those with more expensive homes get a bigger break in dollar terms than homeowners with more modest homes.

The city has agreed to support budget and funding items related to retaining, restoring or increasing funds for primary healthcare, including Medicaid, CHIP and similar programs. Other healthcare related items included support for:

• Funding for Healthcare Incubator Grants, bringing more funds into the state and offsetting state and local expenses;

• Restoring state human service agencies’ budgets to prior funding levels;

• Increased funding for state mental health services delivered locally

• Initiatives that would address the shortage of medical providers across the state; and

• Family planning in a primary healthcare setting.

In the environmental area, the Council supports legislation:

• Promoting energy efficiency, conservation and the prevention of greenhouse gases

• Providing stricter regulation of quarries and stone crushers that pose a threat to water quality;

• Continuing the seniority of in-basin water rights; and

• Instituting California emissions standards for new cars and trucks.

Other areas the Council will be supporting include legislation:

• Supporting state incentives for the film and television industry to make Texas more competitive;

• Funding the Emerging Technology Fund and State Enterprise Fund;

• Strengthening affordable housing tools and homestead preservation districts;

The Council voted to specifically oppose legislation:

• Lowering the tax rollback rate or imposing revenue caps;

• Creating new unfunded mandates for cities;

• Reducing cities’ authority to protect the environment;

• Reducing cities’ existing zoning authority or reducing municipal annexation or ETJ authority;

• Prohibiting automated enforcement of traffic lights; and

• Reducing Austin’s water rights or future water resource options.

Not taking a stand, the Council ordered its legislative staff to monitor the city’s interests in legislation:

• Related to the electric utility industry;

• Concerning elections and records management for unfunded mandates;

• Changing patient privacy regulations that would complicate the city’s compliance with the HIPPA act.

The Legislature convenes for 140 days starting on January 9.

Landmark panel OKs moving Rainey Street homes

The Historic Landmark Commission cleared the way last night to move three houses off Rainey Street to Star Hill Ranch in Bee Cave to be preserved, with Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky confirming that there would probably never be any type of enclave of historic houses near the Mexican-American Cultural Center.

After years of wrangling over the issue, Rainey Street now is home to two things – some of the oldest and most historic houses in the city and some of the most intense zoning in Austin. When those two collide, the houses lose, at least in their current location.

Under the motion approved last night, the final location of three Rainey Street houses – the Hubert Thetreau House at 70 Rainey Street, the Fortunat Weigl House at 72 Rainey Street and the unnamed house at 76 Rainey Street – will be the Star Hill Ranch.

The centerpiece of the ranch is a historic restored 1899 country church with a working bell tower. The bride’s house is a restored 1910-era farmhouse, and the old Bee Cave Post Office and Store serves as the groom’s quarters. Adam Woolley of the Star Hill Ranch told the Historic Landmark Commission he would take similar care to restore the Rainey Street homes, which are seriously deteriorated.

Sadowsky noted that the houses would be out of context wherever they were moved. In fact, the Weigl house had been moved from a location across the city to its current site on Rainey Street. The Star Hill Ranch, Sadowsky said, would appear to be the best compromise for the houses, which were home to men who were involved with the stone and ironwork at the Texas Capitol and other sites around the city.

Commissioner Jean Mather, however, wondered aloud about past plans for Rainey Street, which were to move the most prominent historic houses to grounds of the Mexican-American Cultural Center, not unlike Sam Houston Park in downtown Houston. Sadowsky said the rezoning eventually made those plans prohibitive.

Asked by Mather whether Rainey Street was gone, Sadowksy said it was.

“It does look like it, unless we can find owners to want to preserve these houses,” Sadowsky said. “In this case, we don’t have that, so we’re going to look at other options. We need people who will take these homes on as a preservation project, and that’s something that we just don’t have right now.”

Agent Mike McHone, representing the owner of the three lots on Rainey Street, thanked the commission for its consideration and Sadowsky’s work to locate a suitable site for the houses. An initial proposal of potential lots by the owner was rejected. Star Hill Ranch was considered more suitable, given the homes’ history.

Some of the history of the homes will be preserved. Woolley said the Weigl family would take the remaining ironwork off the Weigl house for an eventual exhibit at the Austin History Center. A local ironworks expert will recreate the ironwork for the house. Sadowsky also noted – since the homes were going to Bee Cave – that it might be appropriate to sign a covenant with Woolley on the care and preservation of the houses since those houses would soon no longer be in the city limits.

Fuel charge decrease to lower most utility bills

Beginning on Jan 1, most Austin Energy customers will see an 8 percent decrease in the fuel portion of their utility bills.

Austin Energy General Manager Juan Garza informed the Mayor and Council via memo that the fuel charge—which is based on estimates of fuel charges, primarily natural gas, would drop from 3.634 cents/kWh to 3.343 cents/kWh beginning next month. For a person using about 1000 kWh per month, the savings would amount to about $3 per month.

Garza pointed out in his memo that fuel is a separate charge on each customer’s bill, passed through on a dollar-for-dollar basis. The utility does not make a profit on fuel charges. “AE’s goal is to minimize any under or over recovery of fuel costs. The impact on our customers and financial health of the utility are key criteria considered in decisions regarding this fuel charge,” Garza wrote in his memo.

Customers of the City’s Green Choice Program will not be affected by the change in the fuel charge because they pay a fixed price for renewable energy.

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

Money-making opportunity. . . The Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority is launching a program to allow local community groups to raise money through the sale of TxTag transponders. Under the program community groups will earn a commission of $2.00 for each TxTag transponder registered on their behalf between Jan. 1 and June 30. The promotion will be offered to community groups located near the 183A toll road corridor in Cedar Park, Leander and Liberty Hill. The Mobility Authority is encouraging schools, faith-based groups, sports leagues, scouting organizations and service clubs to take advantage of the fundraising opportunity. Interested groups can contact the Mobility Authority at 996-9778 for more information . . . Proposed anti-chain law . . . City of Austin staff members are expected to give recommendations on the proposed dog chaining ban to the Austin Animal Advisory Commission at 6:30pm tonight at the Town Lake Animal Center. After consideration by the Animal Advisory Commission, supporters of the chaining ban plan to formally present the draft ordinance to the Austin City Council in January of 2007. Eleven communities have enacted bans on dog chaining, including Tucson, Arizona and two cities in Texas (Big Spring and Electra). Hays County, Texas is also currently considering a dog chaining ban. For more information on the draft ordinance or the proposed Fencing Assistance Fund for low-income families, please visit http://www.chainfreeaustin.org. . . Meetings. . . . The Zoning and Platting Commission meets at 6pm in Council Chambers at City Hall . . . The Parks and Recreation Board meets at 6pm in the Boards and Commissions Room . . . The Travis County Commissioners Court meets at 9am in 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 . . . County delays BFI agreement . . . Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe has informed all interested parties that the memorandum of agreement with Browning-Ferris Industries is off the county's agenda today. The county has been negotiating with BFI over the proposed expansion of its landfill in Northeast Austin. Biscoe offered no explanation in an e-mail sent out yesterday. Delays on the agreement, at this point, mean it will be new Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt, and not Karen Sonleitner, who will have to field the vote at an upcoming court meeting . . . Naranjo named to fill out term. . . Effective Monday, Governor Perry has appointed Judge Orlinda Naranjo to begin her service as judge of the 419th District Court, a new court. Naranjo, who was elected to the post on Nov. 7, has spent the last 12 years as the Judge of County Court at Law #2. Eric Sheppard, who was elected to that post in November, will likely be appointed to serve out the rest of that term until Jan.1 . . . ECT elects new officers. . . Frederick R. Steiner will serve a second term as chairman of Envision Central Texas in 2007. Fritz is dean of the School of Architecture and the Henry M. Rockwell Chair in Architecture at the University of Texas at Austin. Other ECT officers elected for 2007 include Chair- Elect Jim Walker, director of the Central Texas Sustainability Indicators Project; Immediate Past Chair Bill McLellan, vice chairman, Treaty Oaks Bank; Secretary Betty Voights, executive director, Capital Area Council of Governments; and, Treasurer Cid Galindo, principal, The Galindo Group. The ECT Board recently elected eight new directors for a three-year term. They include William Cryer, Samsung Austin Semiconductor; Wendy Foster, Winstead; Steve Groseclose, AMD; Dan Gattis, Sr., Williamson County Judge; Elizabeth Sumter, Hays County Judge; Ann Stafford, Spansion; Dale Thornton, Homebuilders Association of Greater Austin; and Dr. Gregory Vincent, University of Texas at Austin. Directors re-elected for a second three-year term were Dave Newberge r, Save Our Springs Alliance; Robin Rather, Liveable City; Jim Skaggs, Austin Area Citizens for Mobility Excellence; Craig Smith, Barton Springs-Edwards Aquifer Conservation District; Channy Soeur, Texas Federation of Asian American Chambers; Robin Stallings, Texas Bicycle Coalition and Jim Walker, Central Texas Sustainability Indicators Project . . . Pops concert set . . . The Austin Symphony opens a new season of Sarah & Ernest Butler Pops concerts with Holiday Pops, Dec. 30 and 31 at the Palmer Events Center. This year's Holiday Pops features legendary pop artists The Association. Tickets can be purchased online at http://www.austinsymphony.org, at the Symphony Box Office, 11th and Red River or call 476-6064 or 1-888-MAESTRO (toll-free).

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