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Mike Kanin is the Publisher of the Austin Monitor. As such, he doesn't report on much--aside from the workings of the Monitor--any more. In his previous life as a freelance journalist, Kanin has written for the Washington City Paper, the Washington Post's Express, the Boston Herald, Boston's Weekly Dig, the Austin Chronicle, and the Texas Observer.
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The big stories of 2010, Part 2
Police, Fire, and EMS Response to Budget Deficit
The city faced a $28 million deficit when it began working on the 2011 budget, and the folks who come to the rescue when citizens are in trouble also came to rescue the city budget. During negotiations in 2009, unions for local police officers and emergency medical personnel agreed to defer almost $14 million in salary adjustments. (See In Fact Daily, July 1, 2009)
City Manager Marc Ott, who said one of his first tasks after starting on the job would be to deal with contracts for public safety employees, said he was pleasantly surprised at their willingness to forego a raise until the economy improved.
“There were contracts in place when I arrived, albeit close to expiring,” Ott said. “I think part of the mission for me as a new manager, from a cost standpoint, (was) to bring in contracts that simply weren’t as costly.
“If we’re going to talk about police and fire and EMS, we have to talk about when we were in the midst of struggling with the impact of the economy and trying to figure out ways to close the budget gap. In the midst of all that, it was police, fire, and EMS that stepped up to the table and offered to forgo their adjustment a year ago. Obviously, we’ve put that back on the tail end of their contract, (but) that was very helpful.
Ott said he was very impressed by those employees’ willingness to help the city.
“I’ve been in this business 28 years, 29 years or so,” he said. “I come from Michigan and that is a serious union environment. In those years before I arrived here, and in my experience in general, the way our folks stepped up — that’s unprecedented in my experience.”
Mayor Pro Tem Mike Martinez, a former president of the Austin Firefighters Association, said that speaks well of the city’s employees.
“It’s why we’re one of the largest cities in the country that has such a good relationship with our workforce,” he said. “In other cities, you would see management absolutely opposed to giving city employees bargaining rights, opposed to collective bargaining, meet and confer. In Austin, we welcome it. We believe it only fosters better relationships with our employees. We’re able to get along better. That only fosters better communication, better relationships with your workforce, and better labor negotiations the next time you sit down at the table.”
Water Treatment Plant 4 Construction
Toward the end of 2009, the issues surrounding the city’s long and tortured plans to construct Water Treatment Plant 4 near Lake Travis seemed pretty much settled. Little did we know that it was only the eye of the hurricane.
Environmental groups such as the Save Our Springs Alliance and the Sierra Club have continued to keep pressure on the city to postpone – or even halt — building the plant, saying it’s too expensive and not needed. But another issue arose when the city announced its proposed routes for the water transmission mains that will carry treated water from the treatment plant to other parts of the city. The plans brought yet another round of criticism from environmentalists and protests from neighborhoods along the route.
And more recently, Council voted to authorize the Austin Water Utility to spend up to $300 million to fund contracts for WTP4, rather than have to come back and seek approval for each project.
In all of the debate over the project, Council remained steadfastly divided 4-3 in favor.
Council Member Randi Shade, who falls on the majority side of the divide, remains committed to completing the plant.
“I realize that we’ve had a divided Council on those votes but I still have my commitment to do whatever I can to make sure that it is built as well and as cost-effectively as possible,” she said. “I think the project is much better than it was than when it was conceived. There are a lot of engineers in that (Spicewood Springs) neighborhood … I’m very pleased we have been able to reduce truck traffic in that neighborhood by 90 percent. I think it’s important for people to realize that you can’t get the design work done until you’ve awarded the contracts to do it.”
Ott believes the city is on the right track on the project.
“We’ve certainly got the authorization now to proceed to contract for the rest of the project,” he said. “We’re pleased to be able to do that. I believe it’s the right thing to do. I can’t quantify it for you, but whenever you’re building something – particularly something as significant and as large as this – time is money. One of the things it will do is certainly save us some time in terms of not having to come back every time as we have in the past.”
Mayor Lee Leffingwell agrees.
“We had a big vote in November to consolidate all of the future construction contracts for Water Treatment Plant 4, to complete the plant and the transmission lines,” he said. “There’s still some things to go. We still have to get all our environmental approvals, but I think that will happen. I think the worst-case scenario is that we might incur some extra expense to put in some environmental protections.”
Sanders Shooting Aftermath
Controversy followed the 2009 shooting of a robbery suspect by an Austin police officer. The city’s attorneys negotiated a settlement in a civil rights lawsuit with the family of Nathaniel Sanders, who died following his encounter with APD Officer Leonardo Quintana. The family filed suit after a consultant’s report assessed blame for the shooting on Quintana, who was cleared by a grand jury of any criminal wrongdoing in the shooting.
However, following controversial statements by the Sanders family attorney regarding the settlement, Council voted to reject the settlement and take the matter to trial.
Shade said the entire episode has been tough. “I think voting on that case was one of the most difficult experiences I’ve had since I’ve been on the City Council, and I still believe that it could make sense for the city to settle,” she said. “The negotiated agreement that was presented to us was not the one to vote for. I still hold out hope. But the most important thing is for the family and the community to move forward. I’m not sure a trial will necessarily achieve that, but at the same time I didn’t think the proposed settlement agreement achieved it either.”
Council Member Laura Morrison said there are still divisions as a result of the issue.
“The Sanders case was a really significant discussion because I think it showed a pretty serious division in the city,” she said. “Clearly, we had a divided vote on Council, but in that conversation I think it really pointed to a pretty serious division in the city, which I think should be of great concern.”
Martinez said he remains comfortable with his vote on the issue. “It was another very controversial, divisive issue, and there are some that say it set the community back,” he said. “I was the first one to publicly state a position on that case. I felt that it was important to let the community know well in advance what my position was and why I was taking that position. I didn’t feel it was appropriate to wait until the morning of and vote.
“I feel completely comfortable with what I did. I did it in a way I felt was respectful, was straightforward, and well thought-out in terms of why I made that decision. Others look at it differently. Others look at me as the first one to politically pander to the police association. I can’t prevent people from believing what the want to believe. So you make your decision and you have to live with it. And I realize that there are some folks in this community who are extremely upset with the position I took. I can live with my decision. I don’t stay awake at night feeling like I did something wrong.”
Permanent Supportive Housing
In 2010, Council Members Cole, Shade, and Riley led an effort to bring permanent supportive housing units to the city’s homeless population. The resulting ordinance called for 350 such units, which will be designed to address the various issues of the city’s chronically homeless population.
Still, Cole insists that more needs to be done.
“To truly address our very low-income affordable-housing issue will take organizing, government, social services, businesses, and faith-based organizations,” she said, adding that solving the problem will continue to be an issue in 2011.
New Music Director, Sound Engineer Posts Filled
Shade added this to her list for 2010: “I am very pleased that in 2010 the city created and filled the music director position, held by Don Pitts and subsequently the sound engineer position, held by David Murray. Having these positions on our city staff has greatly improved communication between music venues and neighborhoods.”
Sustainability Officer Named
Morrison added another city hire. “I think we made strides in terms of the environment and sustainability. We have a sustainability officer now. But if you look at all the things that we’ve done in the world of sustainability together, I think they paint a pretty reasonable picture: a new water conservation plan, extended Single Stream recycling, steps toward renewable energy plan, plans to build a Materials Recycling Facility. If you take those all together, we have made major strides.
City Changes Actions, Minds on Texas Relays
Council Member Cole cited the Council’s work on the issues that surround the annual gathering for the Texas Relays.
“Last year, the failure to handle this event properly created a negative image for our flagship university and the city,” she said. “Through the work of community leaders, the city, the university, and numerous organizations, the actual arrest incidents were actually below those of the preceding weekend. I’d call that success.”
In addition to those efforts, Cole also worked on securing automatic cameras for police cars. “Hopefully, this will create more transparency in the contact between police and the community,” she said.
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