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Battle continues over city participation in Facilities Commission study

Thursday, January 31, 2013 by Michael Kanin

The squabble over the City of Austin’s participation in a Texas Facilities Commission study returns to Council chambers this morning. There, Council Members Mike Martinez and Laura Morrison will look to defund an agreement between the agency and the city that consummates a planning deal struck by the two parties.


The action by Martinez and Morrison comes on the heels of a call from the state’s Sunset Commission for the Facilities Commission to impose a moratorium on any formal action relating to public-private partnerships until at least Sept. 3. That will be followed by a legislative vote that could dramatically limit any attempts at commercialization of the Capitol Complex – a key target of development for the Facilities Commission.


Council approved the deal between the Facilities Commission and the city at its Dec. 6 meeting. As approved, the compact allows the city to spend up to $400,000 and commit staff support in exchange for some city input for the Commission’s master planning effort.


The master plan could encompass a host of state-owned properties around the city. It’s a high stakes proposition that neighborhood groups and agreement detractors worried would land the city in bed with a state organization that may have outrun its mandate – and the hefty amount of state-level politicking that goes with the situation.


Still, the deal passed Council on a 5-2 vote. Though Martinez and Council Member Chris Riley both showed concerns about the agreement, they each eventually voted for the deal. Only Morrison and Council Member Kathie Tovo voted against it.  (See In Fact Daily, Dec. 11, 2012.)


Then, in mid-January, the Sunset Commission issued its ruling. Heated comments at the hearing from the likes of State Senators John Whitmire (D-Houston) and Dan Patrick (R-Houston) admonished the Facilities Commission for overstepping its bounds by working toward public-private partnerships.


Cue action from Martinez and Morrison. Their resolution would de-fund the fiscal portion of the recently approved deal, sending the funds back to the low-income weatherization program hosted by Austin Energy.


Martinez laid out his take at Council’s Tuesday work session. “I am fairly familiar with the action of Sunset,” he began. “My wife works for Senator Whitmire who made the motion, and his motion was explicit: That all planning of redevelopment of state facilities cease until September of this year…And then he committed, after the vote, to file legislation to remove powers from the Texas Facilities Commission to redevelop state property in the Capitol complex.”


“So there is no planning, there is no acceptance of unsolicited proposals,” Martinez continued. “Everything is on hold until at least September of this year.”


Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole continued to defend the partnership – in part by noting that Facilities Commission jurisdiction would stretch to other portions of the city.


“Collaboration with the state of Texas in an interlocal agreement to study and plan master development efforts protects our design principles and significantly increases the tax base,” she told In Fact Daily via email. “The Facilities Commission and the City of Austin will work cooperatively to study and plan property located at the Texas Capitol Complex, Bull Creek, Austin State Hospital, Camp Mabry and Hobby Office Complex – a massive endeavor where we should not sit on the sidelines.”


For his part, Sunset Advisory Commission director Ken Levine tells In Fact Daily that Sunset’s action was a bit more limited than its rhetorical portrayal. “(It was) a recommendation to the Texas Facilities Commission that they not take any other formal action…regarding the (public-private) partnerships,” he said. “Really, that’s all it was.”


Later, Levine added that the Sunset ruling “does not mean that the facilities commission should not continue to evaluate proposals in front of them.” He noted that the Commission was merely acting to allow the Speaker of the House and Lieutenant Governor to “catch-up” to what the Facilities Commission is working on.


The Sunset Commissions’ report on the Texas Facilities Commission was a scathing document, the tone of which does not exactly match the measured description offered by Levine. One of the report’s major criticisms was the Facilities Commission’s handling of public-private partnerships.


Legislative action could limit either the scope of the Facilities Commission’s mission or its ability to act on public-private partnerships, among other things. Such a vote could also render the city’s participation in master planning moot.

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