City to move forward with LDC suit appeal
City Council has voted to pursue an appeal of a recent ruling against the city about the ongoing Land Development Code rewrite. The ruling strikes the Council votes on the current draft and upholds protest rights for residents who oppose zoning changes to their property or property close to their homes. In response, Council members Alison Alter, Ann Kitchen, Leslie Pool and Kathie Tovo released a statement reiterating their opposition to moving forward with an appeal. The statement reads, in part, “It will be several months before the community is able to focus on the LDC revision. When the effort is re-initiated, we strongly urge that the Council respond collaboratively. We have long advocated for finding common ground. Especially now, we firmly believe that the true measure of this effort is how well we build consensus, foster mutual respect and listen to the community. That is how the city will be successful in achieving our adopted goals.” Doug Becker, who is the attorney representing the plaintiffs of the lawsuit, also responded to Council’s decision, calling it “unfortunate.” The majority of Council members supported the appeal, with Mayor Steve Adler expressing a desire to find a resolution to the conflict and move forward as a community.
AE expands resident relief
City Council voted unanimously Thursday to suspend utility service cutoffs, reduce some rates for water and energy service and increase funding to programs assisting residents with their utility bills. The approved ordinance waives late fees on bills due as of March 15, suspends service cutoffs until Sept. 30 and adds $10 million to payment assistance programs for Austin Energy and Austin Water to help those who have lost income due to the pandemic. The two utility companies will each receive $5 million to enhance their respective programs. The increased funding will increase the discount to Austin Energy bills to 15 percent, instead of the standard 10 percent, for eligible customers. An amendment to the ordinance presented by Council Member Jimmy Flannigan directs the city manager to work with other utility companies that serve Austin residents to define eligibility and enrollment processes for similar assistance programs. The ordinance also made several adjustments to the fee schedules for the utilities, which will be reset to normal via a request to Council by their respective executives or during the course of the next budget process when annual rates are typically established. Also on Thursday, Council approved a resolution waiving fees for unstickered extra trash, in effect until the end of the city’s stay-home order that was issued March 24.
Huffman to lead Chamber of Commerce
Laura Huffman, who leads the Texas office of the Nature Conservancy, has been named president and CEO of the Austin Chamber of Commerce. Huffman will take the reins from longtime leader Mike Rollins on April 20, according to a news release from the organization. Rollins announced his intention to retire last year. Huffman is well-known around the city for her service as an assistant city manager under City Manager Toby Futrell. During her time with the city, Huffman negotiated Austin’s 100-year water deal with the Lower Colorado River Authority and led contract negotiations with public safety unions. Acknowledging that the pandemic and resulting unemployment crisis would create extra challenges, Huffman told the Austin Monitor Thursday, “I’m just extremely excited to take this role at this moment in time. As a native Austinite and as the mother of four children, as someone who cares deeply about this community, I understand that it’s all about people and what people are experiencing within their families, with their jobs and with their companies, whatever that looks like – a restaurant, a band or a major employer in Austin. And I think we’ve got some hard work ahead of us but I know this to be a resilient community and I have great confidence in Austinites.”
Austin health clinics get $4.6 million from CARES Act
Thanks to the recently passed coronavirus relief package known as the CARES Act, Austin community health clinics will be receiving $4.6 million in funding. People’s Community Clinic will get $1,000,775 and Travis County Healthcare District (Central Health) gets $3,676,220. In an announcement about the news, Texas Rep. Lloyd Doggett, who secured the funding, said, “Today, we’re deploying resources to reinforce our frontline health centers, who care for some of our most vulnerable neighbors. This is a good start, but much more is needed to adequately combat this pandemic. Until we resolve our health care crisis, we cannot resolve our economic crisis.” The supplemental funding will enhance the health centers’ response to the crisis by expanding their ability to detect, prevent and treat Covid-19. Regina Rogoff, CEO of People’s Community Clinic, said, “We are thrilled by this news. This funding will enable our workforce to continue tele-visits and facilitate video tele-visits with our patients. We can ensure that the strong team across our clinics can take care of the health needs of our community through the end of this pandemic.” Sherri Greenberg, chairperson of Central Health’s Board of Managers, said, “We appreciate Congressman Doggett’s advocacy for health care in our community – he has always been there for us, and more importantly, for the people we serve.”
AISD closes its facilities to the public
The Stay-at-Home, Work Safe order has claimed another casualty. The Austin Independent School District announced yesterday that all district facilities and open spaces would be closed to the public, “including tennis courts, tracks, football fields, basketball courts and playfields.” Since playing contact sports of any kind is ill-advised – if not downright prohibited – during the pandemic, most people probably will not be too affected by the closures. Those who are desperate for a game of pickup basketball or a tennis match might want to explore a solo workout instead. We hear Yoga With Adriene is popular.
Austin sales tax revenues up for now
Although overall sales tax collection for Texas cities is slightly down overall, Austin and Round Rock will both receive an increased allocation this month compared to April 2019. Austin will receive more than $18.4 million, compared to about $17.8 million for the same month in 2019. Round Rock will receive more than $6.75 million, slightly more than the $6.68 million the city received last year.
On the other hand, San Antonio’s allocation for this month was more than 4 percent less than for the same month last year, according to an announcement from Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar, who announced Wednesday that overall tax collections for cities are about 0.5 percent less than they were a year ago. The allocations are based on sales made in February. Hegar warned that next month’s allocations will be lower because they will reflect sales in March, when pandemic-related shutdowns started to impact sales. His news release also said, “June allocations will likely deteriorate further.”
The comptroller also reported that sales tax payments to the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority for this month would be about $20.3 million compared to about $19.4 million for last year. Overall, Capital Metro’s sales tax collection has increased more than 10 percent for the current fiscal year. The local transit agency has received more than $92 million in sales tax this year, compared to about $84 million for the same period last year. Capital Metro has stopped collecting fares for the month of April in order to protect both its customers and its drivers during the pandemic.
Ransom Center offers remote research services
Yes, oh studious one, the libraries are all closed, but if you are engaged in critical research, there’s still hope. The Harry Ransom Center – UT’s illustrious humanities research facility – is also closed to the public, but its staffers are providing some modified research and reference services remotely through at least May 1. As the center put it in a message on its website, “Without access to collections, many reference and research queries, duplication orders and other public services are necessarily on hold. However, librarians, curator, and research and instructional support staff continue to be available to provide consultations via email, phone, or Zoom.” The Ransom Center has waived all fees during the closure. “Staff may assist with identifying and accessing online resources, and enabling provision and support in use of digital materials when available, for ongoing teaching and research.” Find helpful email addresses and information about which services the center is offering here.
State Parks extends parks passes
This week, Texas State Parks made the difficult decision to temporarily close all state parks, “until public health and safety conditions improve.” But there’s a silver lining: Because of the closure, parks pass holders can add two months to the life of their pass. The extension is automatically granted to anyone whose parks pass was active on April 7. It may take a few weeks before the additional time appears on online accounts. If the closures continue, the state parks department may consider adding even more time to the passes.
Williamson County extends stay-at-home order
Williamson County has extended its “Stay Home, Stay Safe” order through April 30 following President Donald Trump’s and Gov. Greg Abbott’s extensions of executive orders designed to keep people at home to control the spread of Covid-19. “Challenging times call for us to make hard decisions, but these have been made with the priority to keep our community as safe as possible, especially those who are part of the vulnerable population,” said Williamson County Judge Bill Gravell, who cited a recent UT Austin study that showed reducing social interactions by 90 percent could prevent area hospitals from being overwhelmed and save the lives of thousands.
Get updated at Covid-19 webinar
Have questions about the impacts of the coronavirus on our region? Who doesn’t? At a virtual community town hall conversation hosted by Austin Justice Coalition, city and county leaders and health officials will discuss the impacts of the pandemic on different systems and communities in our area. Stephanie Hayden, director of Austin Public Health; Mark Escott, medical director of Austin/Travis County; and Joya Hayes, director of Austin Human Resources, are scheduled to speak. Register here for the Zoom webinar tonight (April 8) at 6 p.m.
Sew face masks for health workers
The Austin Disaster Relief Network has kicked off a mask drive with the goal of collecting 20,000 home-sewn fabric face masks. With new evidence showing that asymptomatic people may be able to transmit Covid-19, face masks are urgently needed. The donated masks will be distributed to caregivers and essential personnel throughout Austin-Travis County and 11 other member counties of the Capital Area Trauma Regional Advisory Council. Please follow the CDC’s guidelines for sewing fabric face masks. Daniel Geraci, ADRN executive director, said in a news release, “We’ve been told by the city of Austin, CAMOC and CATRAC that the need for DIY face masks is immediate. We are mobilizing our network of churches to create task forces to recruit, equip and implement DIY face mask creation. We are also believing in faith that thousands of people will rise up to the challenges of making and donating these urgently needed homemade masks.” DIY face masks may be dropped off at ADRN headquarters, at 1122 E. 51st St., Monday-Saturday, 9 a.m.-6 p.m., at the back dock of Hope Family Thrift Store.
Central Health discusses its Covid-19 response
Travis County residents without health insurance or a medical provider may obtain Covid-19 testing and treatment through Central Health, CommUnityCare or Sendero Health Plans. Community members who have questions about Central Health’s response to the pandemic are invited to attend a community conversation touching upon the following topics:
• Covid-19 hotline
• Covid-19 drive-thru testing
• Medical appointments by phone, and tele-health
• Pharmacy delivery and curbside services
• MAP and MAP BASIC health coverage for the uninsured
• Reaching vulnerable populations during the pandemic
• Protecting clinical staff and patients
• How you can help: Donating personal protective equipment
All Together ATX raises more than $3.5M
Last week, the Austin Monitor partnered with All Together ATX to raise money for local nonprofits serving residents suffering the economic effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. We’d like to thank those who contributed and helped raise more than $3.5 million as of Monday evening. And we would like to remind those seeking assistance that applications for $25,000 rapid response grants are still open. Donations to the fund, which was launched by the Austin Community Foundation and United Way for Greater Austin, are still being accepted.
Texas WIC expands eligible foods list
The supplemental nutrition program for women, infants and children known as Texas WIC is expanding the number of food items eligible for purchase through the program, according to a news release from Texas Health and Human Services. The additional items include more milk, bread, rice, pasta and egg options. Participants can find details on the Texas WIC website. Dee Budgewater, HHS deputy executive commissioner for Health Developmental and Independence Services, said, “Grocers assure us they can meet this increased demand and have supply chains ready to respond. The Texas WIC team is working around the clock to ensure families have access to healthy food, which is one of the best ways to support mothers and growing children and help them achieve a greater sense of health and well-being.” WIC clients can also download a new version of the app MyTexasWIC (available on Apple and Android) that helps families shop by showing which items are “WIC approved” products.
KXAN and HEB raise funds for food bank
With so many people out of work and having trouble making ends meet, the resources of Central Texas Food Bank are stretched to the limit. Television station KXAN and grocery store HEB are answering the need with a fundraising and volunteer relief effort dubbed Feeding Central Texas. According to a news release, every week the food bank provides meals to nearly 50,000 Central Texans across 21 counties. For every dollar donated to Feeding Central Texas, the food bank can provide four meals for hungry families. Derrick Chubbs, president and CEO of the Central Texas Food Bank, thanked the two entities. “We’re so grateful to our friends at KXAN-TV and HEB for teaming up to help us fight hunger during this crisis. Having the support of such great community partners will make a huge difference. We’re seeing unprecedented demand for our services, so every donation helps.” Donate what you can to Feeding Central Texas here.
You bike, ‘We Bike’
Ghisallo Cycling Initiative has kicked off a campaign to get people out of their homes and onto their bikes at least once a week. Before the pandemic and the shelter-in-place orders hit, the Austin nonprofit had planned to promote biking to work every Wednesday in April as a way to warm up for Bike Month in May. Now Ghisallo has adapted the campaign into “We Bike Wednesdays,” an invitation to take yourself for a solo bike ride and connect with others on social media. Post photos of your biking experiences on Facebook or on Instagram using the tag #gciwbw. Always keep at least a 6-foot distance between yourself and other cyclists, and please, bike solo or with members of your immediate household only.
Parks close Barking Springs, golf courses
Over the weekend, Austin Parks and Recreation closed the Barking Springs spillway as well as access to all municipal golf courses. The parks department announced Friday that, due to park users’ inability to social distance at Barking Springs, the area would be closed until further notice. Starting today, golf course gates will be closed and walking, running, biking or any other use of golf courses will be prohibited. Though some parks remain open, officials remind users to keep a 6-foot distance from others, avoid team sports and let others know when you are passing them in order to help curb the transmission of Covid-19. The parks department is maintaining a list of closures for residents.
AISD to hold special meeting tonight
The Austin Independent School District will be holding a special board meeting tonight, and like most things these days, it will take place online. AISD is currently gathering public input on the agenda, which will feature discussions about the district’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic and its search for a new superintendent. Comments from the public are being recorded in advance using the following process: Those wishing to speak are asked to sign up and then call 512-414-0130 to record a 60-second remark by 3 p.m. today, April 6. Alternately, comments can be emailed to email@example.com. AISD announced Friday that classes would be moving online, with school buildings to remain closed for “an indefinite period of time.” That move to online learning, and how it will take shape, will also be addressed at tonight’s meeting.
Austin Code reaches out
In a letter to the community, José G. Roig, interim director of the Austin Code Department, writes that his department’s mission – “Building a safer and greater Austin together through code education, collaboration and enforcement” – is more relevant than ever during the coronavirus pandemic. Reminding the public of the importance of social distancing and avoiding gatherings, he explains that, “While our inspectors are out educating the community on the Stay Home-Work Safe orders, the rest of our staff are doing their work from home. Our workforce continues to ensure that communication critical to the work of serving Austin residents is easier and more responsive.” Many code department services are available online or by cell phone, he writes, adding, “Know that during this time, we continue to receive and respond to your requests for service, and the unwavering commitment of our code inspectors to respond to your needs stands strong.” Read the entire letter here.
Sanitation workers on the front lines of crisis
In an appeal to the community, Austin Resource Recovery Director Ken Snipes addresses the importance of sanitation workers, reminding the public that his workers are on the front lines working tirelessly at a job that is “critical to protect our people and communities. These workers are typically not who first come to mind when we think about the front lines, but I think they should be – not ahead of any of the other frontline service providers, but right alongside them.” In a backward glance at the devastating flu pandemic of 1918, Snipes tells us that the disease so thinned the ranks of sanitation workers nationwide that trash piled up 3 feet high in some cities. He writes, “As we fast-forward to 2020 and the Covid-19 outbreak, the question before us now is, What have we learned from the 1918 outbreak and others that we can use to protect our waste collection workers?” Staying at home is not an option for frontline workers such as sanitation staff, so as the Monitor reported last week, workers have doubled up on gloves, are using copious amounts of hand sanitizer and are disinfecting their vehicles “before, during and after each route.” Snipes asks the community to do their part by ensuring that all trash is securely bagged and tied so collections staff will not come into contact with loose garbage. He also asks customers to clean off cart handles when setting the bins out on collection day. “Let’s all do our part to protect these unsung frontline workers so that they and their families remain safe and healthy.”
And for those wondering whether their garbage and recycling will continue to be collected as usual during the pandemic, the city has launched an app to keep customers informed about curbside collections. The Austin Recycles app (available for Apple or Android) pushes reminders about pickup dates as well as alerts if there’s going to be a delay or an interruption in service. Most handy of all, perhaps, is a feature that allows customers to research items they’re uncertain about disposing. Do milk cartons go in the recycling or the trash? And who can remember what to do with those ubiquitous plastic takeout containers? Said Snipes, “We have all been impacted by big changes these last few weeks, and the launch of this app is just one small way to stay up-to-date on any impact to collection services in the future.”