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Reporter’s Notebook: Au revoir, RDCC

Monday, May 11, 2015 by Austin Monitor

That’s one set of appointments no one has to worry about … Last Thursday, City Council dissolved the Residential Design and Compatibility Commission. The RDCC initiated the process, passing a resolution to dissolve itself in February due to the decreased number of cases coming before the commission. “They felt the need not to exist,” explained Planning and Zoning Director Greg Guernsey. Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo summarized an email from RDCC member Mary Ingle, who saw the dissolution as evidence of the “McMansion” ordinance’s success, given the declining requests for waivers from the ordinance over the years. “I think it’s a great example and a testament to the staff and the volunteers that served on that commission that there is no longer a need for it. The McMansion ordinance is working, and the commission itself has served out its purpose,” said Tovo. Cases that would have gone to the RDCC in the past will now go to the Board of Adjustment for variances. Perhaps coincidentally, and most certainly ironically, that same day AURA called on Council to rethink the McMansion ordinance. The group says that it makes it difficult to build duplexes and is unfriendly to families. AURA’s statement, which asks Council to rework or recall the ordinance, is available here. Council approved the dissolution in a vote of 9-0-1, with Council Member Ora Houston abstaining and Council Member Ann Kitchen absent.

Spare the trees? … Austin Independent School District board members were reluctant to give up the sometimes 100-page binders they get at every meeting. At their last Dialogue meeting, trustees considered “going paperless” to cut costs and follow the lead of many other governmental entities, but they could not manage to see the forest for the trees. Several members said they found it necessary to doodle and take notes on documents associated with agenda items. In addition, while AISD posts most agenda item documentation on Board Docs — its online, publicly accessible agenda program — sticky notes cannot be used on the program, according to Board Member Kendall Pace. “What is the cost of having a less-educated board group?” she added, vehemently advocating for her binder. Board President Gina Hinojosa had another take: “You see, Kendall, after two years after just being inundated with paper, like, I’m about to get a divorce because we don’t have any space in our house anymore.” Board Member Amber Elenz suggested that maybe getting more training in Board Docs was needed to see if her highlighting habits could be reconciled online somehow. “But what training on Board Docs do we need? Basically, you just click on (the linked file) and download it. That’s all you do,” said Board Member Paul Saldaña. In addition, while staff suggested that iPads and updated computer purchases could provide the interactive technology trustees needed to feel comfortable leaving the pen and paper at home, others pointed out that teachers have not even figured out how to utilize the pricy technology, and that the solution seemed like overkill. Board Member Edmond Gordon suggested switching to a program other than Board Docs, like Board Book. However, another AISD board changed from Board Book to Board Docs five years ago because it found that program inadequate. “I’m just saying if you guys want to go paperless, what’s stopping you?” Pace joked. “Put your money where your mouth is!” AISD trustees did agree to stop printing so many calendars — which are often out-of-date — and some duplicate consent agenda items.

Mueller low-income housing project moves forward … As the last item on Thursday’s City Council agenda, members approved a resolution stating that the city has no objection to a new mixed-income multifamily rental project to be built with private activity bonds, Low Income Housing Tax Credits and affordable housing general obligation bond funds in the Robert Mueller Municipal Airport Redevelopment. Council approved the item on all three readings over the objections of Council Member Don Zimmerman, who generally objects to all government-financed low-income housing projects. Otherwise, the project got eight votes, with Council Member Ellen Troxclair abstaining without comment and Council Member Delia Garza having left the dais. The city must present a resolution of no objection to the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs. Zimmerman noted that a state representative had previously filed a bill that would have prevented such a project from moving forward if any Council member objected, but that legislation failed to pass. He did not mention that state Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels) filed SB1719 at his urging this year. That bill would have made it much more difficult for any such project to move forward. The bill went to committee, but has made no progress from there and seems unlikely to pass. According to a memo from Betsy Spencer, director of the Neighborhood Housing and Community Affairs Department, the project’s name would be Aldrich 51 Apartments. As part of the deal, the Austin Housing Finance Corporation will take title to the land. In exchange for “a 100 percent tax exemption, the development will be able to provide residential units that are affordable to individuals and families with incomes that are considered very low and extremely low,” Spencer said. Although Council approved moving forward with the project by its vote of no objection, the project will have to go through some more hoops because of increased construction costs. Spencer’s memo says that the $20 million of private activity bonds previously approved by the housing board will not be sufficient to cover the cost of development, which is now $37,675,975. The new bond cost will go back to the housing board June 18 with an anticipated public hearing Aug. 6. The developer is an affiliate of Diana McIver & Associates.

It’s all about the money, money … With a potentially long budget process looming, at the last City Council meeting, Council Member Delia Garza indicated her frustration with the ongoing skepticism dedicated toward city contracts and purchases and the time spent picking apart those contracts. “I see us kind of like the board of directors for a big corporation, and I don’t think the board of directors for Microsoft goes and scrutinizes every single, little, tiny expenditure that Microsoft makes. I guess I just want to say that we really need to trust that our staff is making these decisions. I know some of us don’t have that trust, and I understand that too, but our staff is making these decisions, we’ve hired good people, they’re looking out for our interests, they’re just not frivolously getting us involved in contracts,” said Garza, who then expressed a hope to move on to bigger policy issues. “I feel like that is what we were elected to do.”

This week’s Reporter’s Notebook items come from the notebooks of Jo Clifton, Courtney Griffin, and Elizabeth Pagano.

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