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Groups divided over distribution of funds to Holly neighborhood

Friday, July 15, 2011 by Kimberly Reeves

A coalition once united to oppose and close the Holly Power Plant now has divided over Austin Energy’s actions to address inequities in the area.


The divide was uncomfortably obvious at Tuesday night’s Community Development Commission meeting. On one side of the table was Commissioner Susana Almanza of People Organized in Defense of Earth and Her Resources, or PODER, praising the concessions the city had made on payouts to needy long-time Holly area residents for assorted home repairs.


On the other side of the table was Gavino Fernandez of El Concilio, expressing distrust of the city’s distribution of an annual disbursement from Austin Energy to assist homeowners in the Holly Street area. With a 2012 deadline looming to end payments, Fernandez proposed sending remaining funds off to a non-profit entity, away from the city, to disburse remaining assistance.


Fernandez warned the commission his group already had scheduled appointments with Council members, advocating the removal of the funds from the Austin Housing Finance Corp. to a non-profit entity devoted to home rebuilding or repair. Such a move, Fernandez said, would “expedite the bureaucracy.” He intends to address Council on July 28.


“You are continuing to ignore our input,” Fernandez told the Community Development Commission at Tuesday night’s meeting. “There is no equity in the pool of funds and how they are used.”


Austin Energy, under an agreement with the Holly neighborhood, provides about $550,000 a year for home repair assistance in the area. It’s compensation for what may or may not be the incidental effects of the plant’s operation on local families. Those funds, however, will run out under a designated 2012 deadline, which was intended to coincide with Holly’s expected demolition.


Almanza, in her comments, expressed praise for the progress made by the CDC’s Holly Working Group. She noted a number of expansions of entitlements, many orchestrated with the assistance of Mayor Pro Tem Mike Martinez, which expanded benefits beyond the original program parameters.

The original program was aimed at long-time residents. Now it applies to children or grandchildren that may have moved into a family member’s home. It only requires residency back to 2000. Eligibility was raised from 80 percent of median family income to 100 percent of median family income, Almanza said. And the area eligible for Austin Energy’s assistance also was expanded.


Fernandez, in his comments, objected to a 10-year lien being placed on homes with repairs up to $50,000. Chair Johnny Limon said the lien was made at Fernandez’s suggestion.


“What I said was that it could be an idea,” Fernandez protested. “That did not mean that I supported it.”


Others in the neighborhood expressed concern that Gilberto Rivera, the local representative, was not in attendance at the relevant Holly Working Group meetings. Working groups, however, are not staffed by the city and have no particular attendance parameters. Commissioner Stephanie Tsen, however, made a point of inviting Rivera to all future meetings.


During the discussion, Anthony Snipes, City Manager Marc Ott’s chief of staff, expressed confidence the city had taken a number of extra steps, with Martinez’s assistance, to meet with Fernandez and others to address various issues.


“I know a number of modifications have been made to make it better and more accessible for the community,” Snipes said. “In the end, staff won’t always agree 100 percent with every proposal that comes from the community, but it was made clear from the beginning that the priority was that those who were born in that area should be able to remain in that area, and that’s what we tried to do.”


The Community Development Commission agreed to make two recommendations to Council: to expand the area for home repairs to be a broader swath all the way to Interstate 35 and to extend the timeline for assistance to the actual demolition of the Holly Power Plant. The plant was decommissioned in 2007.

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