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Whispers

Thursday, October 18, 2018 by Elizabeth Pagano

Get out, vote

In an effort to increase voter turnout, City Council will consider a resolution today that asks employers to give their employees a break. A press release from the office of Council Member Delia Garza, who sponsored the resolution, explains: “State law requires employers in Texas to allow employees to leave work to vote on Election Day, with pay, if the employee does not have sufficient time outside working hours. Council Member Garza’s resolution encourages employers to take the lead this election season, and ensure their employees can leave work with pay to vote on Election Day or during early voting, which starts on October 22.” The press release also notes the resolution is in line with other civic efforts. Capital Metro will offer free rides on public transit on Election Day in even-numbered years. And, “Travis and Williamson Counties also use countywide voting centers, so voters can choose from any open polling place in their county, rather than taking the risk of showing up at the wrong precinct location. City of Austin employees have been allowed to take administrative leave hours to vote on Election Day, and this year, the City will begin allowing leave during early voting as well.”


Thursday, October 18, 2018 by Katy McElroy

AFD announces candidates for chief

The Austin Fire Department is getting a new chief, and the candidates have been announced:

  • Joel Baker – Served as fire chief of the Atlanta Fire Rescue Department in Atlanta, Georgia, until his retirement in February 2018.
  • Noel Horan – Assistant to the director with the San Antonio Fire Department in San Antonio, Texas.
  • Steve Landin – Fire chief and emergency management coordinator for the city of Laredo, Texas.
  • Kevin McGee – Chief for the Department of Fire and Rescue in Prince William County, Virginia.
  • Mark Rohlfing – Fire chief for the Milwaukee Fire Department in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
  • Scott Walker – Assistant chief for the Phoenix Fire Department in Phoenix, Arizona.

The AFD, with 1,151 firefighters and 106 civilian staff members, is the 16th largest in the country. The new chief will be in charge of the $200 million annual operating budget, as well as planning, directing, and coordinating the department’s activities. The department is currently led by Interim Chief Tom Dodds. The previous chief, Rhoda Mae Kerr, left the AFD in July to be the fire chief in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Panel interviews for the six chief candidates will take place next week.


Thursday, October 18, 2018 by Elizabeth Pagano

Healthier Texas coming next week

Next week, Austin will host the 2018 Healthier Texas Summit, put on by the the University of Texas System and the nonprofit It’s Time Texas. The summit aims to reduce the impact of chronic disease in Texas and build healthier communities. A press release about the event, which will take place Oct. 25-26 at the AT&T Conference Center, explains, “Presented by Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Texas and in partnership with Texas Health Improvement Network, the Summit will offer a unique opportunity for health champions from communities across the state to come together for the sole purpose of Uniting to Transform Health in Texas, and will attract Texans from multiple sectors including healthcare, education, business, government, nonprofits and community entities.” That includes the 20th U.S. surgeon general, Vice Admiral Jerome Adams, M.D., MPH, who will open the Healthier Texas Summit, and Karen DeSalvo, M.D., MPH, professor of internal medicine and population health at UT’s Dell Medical School and who most recently served as acting assistant secretary for health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services during the Obama administration, who will share her experience during her keynote lunch address on Friday, Oct. 26. For more information and registration visit www.healthiertexassummit.com.


Thursday, October 18, 2018 by Katy McElroy

Keep Austin breathing

Ozone in the outer atmosphere protects the Earth from the sun’s intense rays. But ground-level ozone is a major ingredient of smog, and the most common type of air pollution in Texas. The highest concentration of ground-level ozone is in the air from March to November. Here are some tips to help keep Austin’s air quality at healthy levels:

  • Consider biking or walking to work. Even just one day a week makes a difference. Check out the public transit options in your area as well – you might be surprised with the options.
  • Get gas in the morning or evening, and avoid “topping off” the tank. Gas is denser when it’s cooler outside, and denser gas evaporates less. When gas evaporates, it releases volatile organic compounds into the air, contributing to smog and bad air quality.
  • Park and go inside instead of idling in drive-through lanes.
  • Keep up with vehicle maintenance to get better gas mileage.
  • Remove extra weight from your car so that you can use less energy to accelerate.
  • Whenever you can, try to share your rides. Carpool to work or dinner with friends.
  • Try another way of getting around. Biking and walking give off zero emissions and can make you healthier. Riding on public transit takes cars off the road and is ultimately good for the air.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018 by Jo Clifton

Environmental hero Stuart Henry dies at 77

Stuart Henry, one of Austin’s most respected environmental lawyers, passed away on Oct. 11 at the age of 77. Henry, who served as the city of Austin’s first environmental officer and was a founder and chair of the board of the Save Our Springs Alliance, was a well-known advocate for environmental causes. His obituary notes, “Stuart practiced environmental law in Austin for 40 years, and was a force to be reckoned with. He was a champion for land, water and wildlife. His dedication and hard work laid the groundwork for water conservation and wildlife protection that inspired many young lawyers to fight the good fight on behalf of Mother Earth. … (He was) a staunch advocate and voice of the Sierra Club, and much more. He led the federal lawsuit to protect the Edwards Aquifer and won. His positive impact lives on through Texas water policy and in those he mentored and inspired.” Even though he retired from practice, he recently represented Protect Our Water of Dripping Springs. He is survived by his wife, Virginia, and two sons, Christopher and David. A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Thursday, Oct. 18, at Gethsemane Lutheran Church, 200 W. Anderson Lane, Austin. In lieu of flowers, the obituary says please consider giving to the Friends Foundation, Dripping Springs. Alternatively, plans are underway to establish a fellowship in Stuart’s name for aspiring lawyers who seek to make a real difference for environmental protection. If you are interested in contributing, please contact Myron Hess at Myron@Myronhess.com.


Wednesday, October 17, 2018 by Jessi Devenyns

This summer, energy was not only in high demand, but pricey

This past summer was Texas’ fifth-hottest on record with Austin experiencing 52 days of temperatures at or above 100 degrees. As was to be expected, people responded by cranking their air conditioners up, and causing the ERCOT grid to hit an all-time systemwide peak on July 19, followed by an all-time weekend peak on July 22. The result, said Khalil Shalabi, Austin Energy’s vice president of strategy, technology and markets, at the Oct. 15 Electric Utility Commission meeting, was “we did see the pricing we would expect with higher temps and higher load.”

However, the price prediction increases that were reflected this summer began in October 2017. On Oct. 6 last year, there was an announcement that one of the major coal plants was going to retire.  A week later, two other coal plants announced their retirement. To compound the effect of that announcement, a seasonal assessment report that was released in March showed a 6 percent reserve margin, “which is very low,” explained Shalabi. However, the energy pricing prediction following this announcement was not the reality that Austin Energy customers experienced. “Our net costs were essentially the same,” said Shalabi. Due to the increased renewable generation that came online, as well as generation facilities working to ensure that generation was happening at critical and peak times, customers “saw a lot more low costs.” Although overall costs in 2018 were $4.95 million more, Shalabi told the Austin Monitor that thanks to the utility’s ability to generate more power to sell to the ERCOT grid, “the net (price) effect is that they (customers) saw the same energy costs that they saw last year.” Still, costs are indeed going up incrementally, and the future doesn’t show things changing much. “Forwards show that we are going to be tight next summer,” said Shalabi, referring to the amount of generation that is forecast. Due to this prediction, Shalabi said he expects the trend toward higher prices to continue but noted that the market is responding and bringing more and more renewable energy online in an effort to temper pricing.


Wednesday, October 17, 2018 by Katy McElroy

City makes it easier to follow the money

A new city website provides a convenient forum for members of the public to monitor where candidate and political action committee money comes from. All people seeking office, including current officeholders, and PACs, must file campaign finance reports with the city clerk. The new site, www.austintexas.gov/cityclerk/cfdi/index.cfm, contains all the data the city has received from reports submitted from 2016 to the present. Visitors can search for reports, contributions, and expenditures by candidate/organization name. In addition, the extracted data from the reports are available on the city’s Open Data Portal, and the new site has quick access links to the following datasets:

  • Expenditures
  • Contributions
  • Loans
  • Credits
  • Transactions (all expenditure, contribution, loan, and credit data)
  • Reports

“The new features of our campaign finance filing website will make the data more easily available to the public,” said City Clerk Jannette Goodall. “We believe this brings greater transparency to City government and municipal elections.” Filing schedules and requirements are found in Chapter 2-2 of the city code and at the Texas Ethics Commission website.


Wednesday, October 17, 2018 by Jessi Devenyns

Local solar project in the works

At the Oct. 15 meeting of the Electric Utility Commission, commissioners unanimously voted to recommend a power purchase agreement that would bring online a solar generation facility with a capacity of 144 megawatts. Although the exact location of the solar farm has not been disclosed per confidentiality restrictions during the negotiation process, it is within Austin’s jurisdiction. Notwithstanding confidentiality, Commissioner Jim Boyle, who appeared to have some additional information about the project, shared that “It’s near Elgin; it’s up near that way.” The purchase agreement is estimated in the amount of $11 million per year, for a total estimated amount of $165 million. However, according to Khalil Shalabi, Austin Energy’s vice president of strategy, technology and markets, “It’s quite a competitor in price.” According to him, “this project will make Austin Energy money relative to the market.” Although there is a clause in the negotiation that would allow Austin Energy to negotiate a purchase price for the facility at the end of the contract term, Shalabi noted that for the moment it is more beneficial taxwise to simply buy the power. Although it is early in the negotiation stages, Commissioner Dave Tuttle was already inquiring how the facility would be run. “Any thoughts on if you can set it up where you can have tours?” he asked. Commissioner Karen Hadden too expressed her excitement about the project and asked, “How about a big opening celebration? … I want to come.” While Shalabi agreed that they all sounded like good ideas, he warned that it was a little early to begin planning on such a granular level. The project, he noted, still has to be completed first.


Tuesday, October 16, 2018 by Elizabeth Pagano

Great timing!

The Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer Conservation District declared a no-drought condition for their area at its Oct. 11 meeting. According to a press release that came out on a very rainy Monday, “One of the area’s two groundwater drought indicators, Barton Springs discharge, has been above the Stage II Alarm Drought threshold (10-day average of 38 cubic feet per second) since September 9, 2018. On Friday, October 5, 2018 the water level in the Lovelady Well crossed above its drought threshold (478.4 feet above mean sea level).” If both the discharge and well are above these thresholds, the district is no longer in a drought. That means water use restrictions in place since July are no longer mandatory, though groundwater users are encouraged to continue conserving water. The district also tracks drought status online, for those with an ongoing interest in such data.


Tuesday, October 16, 2018 by Elizabeth Pagano

Density bonus fees get denser

It’s official, and it’s already in effect. The city has recalibrated a handful of density bonus affordable housing fee-in-lieu rates and, according to an Oct. 10 memo from Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Director Rosie Truelove, the new rates took effect on Oct. 1. So, as of now, rates in the Justin Lane/North Lamar, Martin Luther King Jr. and Plaza Saltillo transit-oriented development districts have risen from $11 per bonus square foot to $12. Planned unit development rates have also risen a dollar, from $6 to $7.


Tuesday, October 16, 2018 by Chad Swiatecki

Austin Interfaith takes account

Central Texas Interfaith has scheduled two of a planned four accountability sessions with Austin City Council and mayoral candidates as well as county, state and federal office candidates for the surrounding areas. The Austin session will take place at 3 p.m. Sunday at University United Methodist Church, with a separate session for Hays County candidates taking place the same day. Central Texas Interfaith brings together more than 50 religious and civic organizations representing more than 15,000 voters and works to educate its members in churches, schools and in neighborhood gatherings, including 40 planned block walks leading up to the Nov. 6 election. The accountability sessions will focus on issues such as affordability, education, health care, infrastructure and immigration, which were identified as priorities through small “house meetings” with more than 5,000 residents in the areas served by the group.


Tuesday, October 16, 2018 by Elizabeth Pagano

Austin Energy Committee meeting rescheduled

Those looking forward to the Nov. 28 meeting of the Austin Energy Utility Oversight Committee will have to endure one more week of anticipation. According to a post on the City Council Message Board, that meeting is being rescheduled due to a conflict with a joint City Council/Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority board meeting. The meeting will now (probably) be held on Dec. 6.


Monday, October 15, 2018 by Chad Swiatecki

Soccer, forever

Word came down Friday afternoon from the main office of Major League Soccer that the Columbus Crew SC – the team whose possible relocation to Austin was used as a bargaining chip of sorts for the stadium deal City Council approved this summer – might not be headed for Austin after all. The matter has been thrown into question because a group of local Ohio investors appear close to a deal to buy that team from Precourt Sports Ventures and keep it there. Initial reports have it that Austin will still have a team owned by PSV playing in a new 20,000-seat stadium in 2021, but that team would be an expansion franchise rather than a relocated team. Representatives from PSV cautioned that the possible sale in Ohio is still not final, meaning there are more questions than answers concerning the move of a professional sports team to Austin, and the use of city land to make it happen.


Monday, October 15, 2018 by Katy McElroy

City collecting feedback on draft gentrification strategies

The city’s Anti-Displacement Task Force has created some recommendations on how we can best address problems of displacement and gentrification in Austin. Now, it’s time for the community to provide feedback on the draft, at a meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 23, at 6 p.m., at Widen Elementary, 5605 Nuckols Crossing Road. Following the community input, the recommendations will be sent to City Council in November. The draft is organized around four key areas:

  • Financing strategies;

  • Opportunities to increase affordable housing for homeowners;

  • Methods to increase affordable housing for renters;

  • Ways to preserve small businesses and cultural assets.

It also draws from the People’s Plan, which recommends several displacement-combating strategies, as well as some policy recommendations from a gentrification study conducted by the University of Texas Center for Sustainable Development in the School of Architecture and the Entrepreneurship and Community Development Clinic of the School of Law. View the flyers for the free discussion in English and Spanish, or email NHCD@austintexas.gov for more information.


Monday, October 15, 2018 by Katy McElroy

Study: ABIA contributes $7.6B to Austin economy

The Austin-Bergstrom International Airport’s economic impact to the area is up 212 percent from 2010, according to a new study. The study, conducted by the Austin Transportation Department, looked at airports all over Texas to examine their impact to city and state economies. In 2017, Austin’s airport contributed over $7.6 billion of economic activity in 2017 and supports over 74,000 jobs in the area. ABIA offers nonstop service to 83 destinations across North America and Europe, and passenger traffic through the airport increased 60 percent since 2010.


Friday, October 12, 2018 by Jo Clifton

A look at green groups’ endorsements

Texas Clean Water Action has joined the list of groups endorsing Mayor Steve Adler for re-election. In addition, the group has announced its endorsements in the other Council races: Vincent Harding in District 1, Susana Almanza in District 3, Ann Kitchen, who is running unopposed for re-election in District 5, Bobby Levinski in District 8 and Kathie Tovo in District 9. In addition, Clean Water Action has announced that it supports city of Austin bonds on the November 6 ballot and opposes Proposition K, which would require the city to do an audit of all departments. Supporters of Proposition K have not indicated what particular departments they are targeting, but some environmentalists have expressed concern that the audit is simply a mechanism to attempt to get the city to sell it its largest asset, Austin Energy. The Clean Water Action endorsements are similar to those of the Austin regional chapter of the Sierra Club. However, the Sierra Club did not endorse in the mayor’s race and took no position on Proposition K. Austin Environmental Democrats voted to oppose both Propositions J and K. That group also endorsed both Adler and former Council Member Laura Morrison in the mayor’s race. And in the battle between Council Member Pio Renteria and Almanza, that group also endorsed both candidates. The group could not decide between Levinski and Rich DePalma in District 8 and ended up endorsing neither. It seems likely that the District 8 contest will go to a runoff, so groups that failed to endorse this time around will have another chance.


Friday, October 12, 2018 by Jessi Devenyns

100-year Water Forward plan to go to Council

After years of discussions, the Water Forward Task Force has completed its final draft of Austin’s Integrated Water Plan. Now on its fifth draft, the plan has received the blessing of multiple bodies, the latest of which was the Water and Wastewater Commission, which recommended it unanimously at their October 10 meeting. The plan will be presented to City Council in the upcoming weeks in hopes of receiving approval. “We do plan to begin immediately upon adoption,” Teresa Lutes, a managing engineer with Austin Water, told the commission. She explained that although Austin Water is ready to take action on all the recommendations in the plan, “we plan to do that in a thoughtful, deliberate way.” Commission Chair William Moriarty, who also sits on the task force that created this plan, noted that even if the plan passes Council, it will not permanently remain in its current state. He explained that the task force will transform from a planning body into an implementation task force that will meet quarterly. Likewise, the Water Forward plan will be updated every five years to allow it to be evolutionary rather than stagnant. Commissioner Nhat Ho said that now that the high-level plan has been ironed out, it’s time to look at the recommendations from a more granular level. “There is definitely concern in the community saying, ‘How much is this going to cost me?’” he said. According to Lutes, as each recommendation prepares for implementation, equity will be taken into account and there will be plenty of opportunities for public input. Knowing that Austin Water plans to vet each portion of the plan with the community going forward as they work to provide a secure future for the city’s water, Commissioner Mickey Fishbeck Maia said, “It just gives me a sense of security to just know it’s being taken care of.”


Thursday, October 11, 2018 by Elizabeth Pagano

Happy Council Cleans Barton Springs Pool Day

Were you expecting a City Council meeting today? Well, you were right … in only the most technical sense. Today Council members (maybe a quorum!) will meet for “Council Cleans Barton Springs Pool Day,” which promises pool cleaning and updates to projects for Austin’s favorite swimming hole. According to a press release from the city, “Following remarks, Friends of Barton Springs Pool will conduct a tour of the Pool that includes the Historic Bathhouse, the Upstream Dam, a tour of invasive plants, new tree plantings, the reintroduction of aquatic plants, and the recently completed Eliza Daylighting project.” The fun starts at 9 a.m.


Thursday, October 11, 2018 by Elizabeth Pagano

What should Pan Am have?

The Pan American Neighborhood Park playground is getting new equipment, and the city would like Austin’s input. To that end, the Austin Parks and Recreation Department and Austin Parks Foundation will be holding an open house community meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 16, from 5 until 7 p.m. at the Oswald A.B. Cantu/Pan American Recreation Center (2100 E. Third St.). The playground rehabilitation project was made possible with funding from Austin City Limits Music Festival and Austin Parks Foundation.


Thursday, October 11, 2018 by Katy McElroy

Bike Austin endorses

Austin’s largest bicycle advocacy organization has weighed in on the 2018 City Council election with a list of endorsements. Bike Austin made its selections largely based on the answers the candidates gave to a questionnaire the group sent out that asked for candidate opinions on a number of bike-related issues. More information and contest-specific comments, as well as candidates responses to the questionnaires, can be found here. The group endorses the following:

  • Mayor: Steve Adler
  • District 1: Natasha Harper-Madison
  • District 3: Pio Renteria
  • District 5: Ann Kitchen
  • District 8: Rich DePalma and Bobby Levinski
  • District 9: Danielle Skidmore

“The Bike Austin Board of Directors is pleased to endorse this slate of candidates for Mayor and City Council,” said Bike Austin President Hill Abell in a press release. “Our chosen incumbents, Mayor Adler and Council Members Kitchen and Renteria, have already demonstrated their commitment to supporting the implementation of a city wide system of safe cycling facilities. The new candidates we’ve chosen have clearly stated their pledge to continue that work once they are elected to Council, and they’ve shared great ideas on how they will help us continue to create a city that supports human scaled mobility opportunities for every Austinite. Please join us in supporting these candidates with your vote on election day.”

This whisper has been changed to accurately reflect the information available on the Bike Austin website.


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